HC Deb 18 April 1946 vol 421 cc2963-9

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Snadden (Perth and Kinross, Western)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker. I would now like to pass from one form of explosion to another. I have no intention of keeping the House long, but I want to draw the attention of the Minister to the danger arising from the continuous presence of vast quantities of ammunition and explosives in many parts of the country, particularly in the counties of Perth and Stirling. As the House knows, on 6th April a devastating explosion took place in my constituency near the village of Doune, when 57,000 sticks of gelignite blew up. I happened to be very near at the time and was practically an eyewitness of this event. When I arrived on the scene, I found six craters, all of them as large as the smokingroom of this honourable House. Many farms were devastated and two villages were severely damaged. There were, admittedly, few deaths, but that was due to the fact that the explosion took place at a point off the public road where very few people happened to be at the time.

I also want to draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that Perthshire and the Northern part of Stirlingshire are at present one vast ammunition dump. I am credibly informed that there are 100,000 tons of ammunition and high explosives in that part of the country, that there are quantities of gelignite, T.N.T., and gunpowder and, in addition, 8,000 tons of gas. It is almost unnecessary to point out that at this time of year the danger of fires is very great. We are approaching the holiday season, and, as the House knows, this part of Scotland contains a very beautiful locality known as the Trossachs—a veritable Mecca of holiday makers. Cycling clubs from cities go there, and often they are in a care-free mood. They are liable to light fires, and violent explosions may take place at any time.

We have also to take into account the fact that in moorland country sparks from trains can cause serious fires. I am informed that last week a very serious moor fire occurred, and was stopped only within feet of 300 tons of ammunition. It is necessary to point out, too, that people in Perthshire and other parts of Scotland feel they are living on the edge of a volcano. During the war, they cheerfully accepted the risks involved, realising that they were particularly fortunate not to have to suffer bombing. But I think that they have now reached the stage where it is unreasonable to ask them to put up with these risks any longer. I think the Minister might relieve their anxiety today by telling us what he intends to do, by telling us when he expects to clear this vast area of ammunition. I imagine that thi; ammunition is stored in from 200 to 300 square miles of land, yet I am informed that there are only 12 military police to patrol the entire area. I happen to live in that part of that country myself, where there are sheds on my own property, and I cannot recall having seen a guard at any time since those sheds were erected.

The Minister may say that there are notices on the roadside, but I believe they are entirely useless because, as I have said, hikers and campers who go to that part of the country do so in care-free mood. I know of a case where the tarpaulin was taken off a shed, and where the campers made tea inside the shed, almost sitting on boxes of ammunition. The only solution is to remove this deadly menace lock, stock and barrel. That is the only thing which will satisfy the people in Perthshire and in other parts of Scotland. This is not a constituency problem; it is one covering vast areas of our country. I ask the Minister to see that the utmost vigilance is exercised by the military authorities pending the complete removal of this ammunition, and to give the widest publicity to this matter through the B.B.C. so that hikers and campers are fully warned of the danger.

There are other points I could make, but my time is limited, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Perthshire (Colonel Gomme-Duncan) wishes to say something. I stress again, however, that a serious situation exists, and that the Government, particularly the War Office, must remove the anxiety which is felt by many people by taking away this dangerous ammunition, particularly the chemical munitions, which is stored on the moors. A little time ago, I asked the Minister if he could tell my why 100 cattle died in a particular part of the country. I am unable to say whether those cattle died as a result of breathing gas stored on a moor near the village of Kippen, in Stirlingshire, but I have good evidence to show that that particular form of chemical is somehow or other finding its way on to the moors in parts of Stirlingshire. I hope the Minister will not put me off by saying that so many tons of ammunition have been removed during the past week or two, or that the guards have been increased. The only solution is the complete removal, from the main trunk roads and other places, of these vast quantities of ammunition.

3.49 P.m.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

I would like to associate myself, with all the earnestness at my command, with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for West Perthshire (Mr. Snadden). I do not wish to suggest that Perthshire is the only part of the United Kingdom which is affected, but it is affected out of all proportion to many other areas. I would like particularly to emphasise that this potential danger is not so much from ammunition and explosives as from chemicals or gas, in whatever form they may be. Leakage is beginning, and may increase as the containers are affected by the weather and other things, and the potential danger of cattle becoming infected on the hoof, and going over pasture lands, opens up a most alarming prospect. I hope the Minister will give some assurance about what is to be done with these deadly things which are lying about the County of Perthshire, and in other parts of the Kingdom, in such great quantities.

3.50 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Bellenger)

I am sure the House would wish me, on behalf of the War Office and on my own behalf, to say how sorry we are that this accident occurred and how much we sympathise with the constituents of the hon. Member for West Perth and Kinross (Mr. Snadden). I can well understand, as there is a great deal of ammunition in my own constituency, the apprehension that may exist among large numbers of people who live in the vicinity of these ammunition dumps. I understand that one civilian was killed and one injured in the explosion which recently occurred. Any loss of life among civilians, or danger to civilians, is to be regretted. I would like the House to believe that the War Office, which, after all, are only the agents of the Ministry of Supply in disposing of surplus ammunition, are doing their best, as quickly as they can, to remove whatever danger exists to human beings and to cattle.

The House may be interested to know that, long before the war ended, in 1944, plans were evolved at the War Office to deal with the possible dangers which we foresaw at that time. We have been clearing immense amounts with the limited facilities which we have at our disposal. One of the governing factors is the safety of those who are dealing with the removal of this ammunition. On the Continent, where a great deal of disposal of ammunition dumps has been going on, there has, unfortunately, been very serious loss of life. These operations have resulted in something like 700 deaths, and much material damage to railways and docks. The War Office must take into account the safety of the soldiers who are given the job of clearing the ammunition. In this respect we are fortunate in this country in that, so far, there has been very little loss of life in clearing ammunition by our own troops. The largest safety factor is the dispersal of ammunition. The accidents that have occurred have been confined in nearly all instances to the initial stack or group of stacks. We have a limited supply of manpower. Some of the ammunition has to be taken to the sea and dumped there. The Army is running down. Some of the personnel who have to deal with these things have to be skilled personnel. We have not always had the numbers necessary for clearing these dumps, but we are making great inroads into them. It may interest the hon. Member to know that not ail of these stocks are as dangerous as he led the House to believe. Actually, 70 per cent. of the ammunition stored in any one depôt in this country is not dangerous, for various reasons. Some of it has been made non-dangerous. Indeed, in some cases it would not matter if civilians sat on the ammunition, as I have done in the past, when I was in the Royal Artillery. Nothing would happen.

Mr. Snadden

Surely, the Financial Secretary is not suggesting that civilian, should sit on some of this ammunition?

Mr. Bellenģer

I am referring to 70 per cent. of it. What I am trying to do is to rebut the suggestion in the hon. Member's speech that there are stocks of ammunition all over this country which are of great danger to those who live in the vicinity of the dumps. It would have a very unfortunate effect on the minds of civilians if it were allowed to go forth that, wherever there are dumps, they are extremely dangerous. Seventy per cent. of the stock in any one depot is not dangerous. Of course, it is not with the 70 per cent. that we are mainly concerned. We are concerned with the 30 per cent. that is dangerous. Possibly the areas which should be given priority are those which are most densely populated. Although we are doing our best in the hon. Gentleman's own constituency, the fact remains that we have had to give priority to certain areas like Surrey. Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, which are much more closely populated. We are clearing these areas a little more quickly than other areas where there is a bigger expanse of land, because of reasons which I have just given.

The hon. Gentleman asked me what we hoped to do in the future. We expect to dispose of 400,000 tons in 1946. I am told that 900,000 tons of ammunition are stored in sub-depots all over the country. Only approximately 65,000 tons of it is of what we regard as a dangerous nature. The hon. Member will realise that we have to tackle the very dangerous substances first of all. A certain proportion of those supplies will be taken into stock for our reserve. It will be put under cry close guard. Some of it is under guard, as far as we can possibly supply guards for it. I regret to say that we cannot possibly find all the guards that we require. Therefore, we do the next best thing, namely, exhibit notices where ammunition is stored, warning the public of the danger of being too careless or negligent. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the B.B.C. should broadcast a warning, I must say that that is not entirely within my province. It is a very good suggestion, and I will see that it is brought to the attention of the appropriate quarters.

Commander Galbraith

I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) that he has had information showing that there arc only 12 guards in the whole of an area of 300 square miles. During the ensuing months, when hikers and campers may be all over that territory every weekend, surely there should be more guards on duty?

Mr. Bellenģer

It does not follow that we should guard the whole of such a wide area very closely and it would be impossible to do so if we are to carry out our demobilisation plan without deferring the release of troops in order to keep them to guard those areas as closely as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is not necessary to guard all those areas in such a detailed way, because, as I have said, 70 per cent. of the ammunition in each area is not dangerous. Three of the five central ammunition depots have fenced perimeters. We are trying, with the limited amount of manpower at our disposal, to have cyclist patrols, who are supposed to be constantly patrolling their area to keep the public as far away as possible.

All I can say, in conclusion, is that I have every sympathy with the point of view of the hon. Gentleman. There are ammunition dumps in my own constituency, some of them in very beautiful country. Often, as I motor through, I feel a little perturbation lest some spark from the car might set it off, but really there is no need to feel it, because the ammunition is not all as dangerous as that. We are doing our best. Within the next year this danger will be considerably diminished. I hope that we shall have no more explosions such as occurred in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. After what I have said, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the general public will be reassured that the War Office are doing all they can to clear these dumps away as quickly as possible.

Mr. Snadden

May I ask one question before the hon. Gentleman finishes, because I think it is important for the people in my part of the country? Can he say whether 70 per cent. of the ammunition in the County of Perth is not dangerous? Does the figure he gave apply to that area? Can he also deny, or otherwise, the statement that ammunition is to be left in that area until the year 1949?

Mr. Bellenģer

No, Sir, we hope to deal with it before 1949, but I am not able without notice to say how much of the total stores of ammunition in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is dangerous. All I do know is that he mentioned a figure of 100,000 tons in his constituency, and I told him that there was a total of approximately 900,000 tons of ammunition in the country, of which 65,000 tons is of a dangerous nature; it therefore follows that all the ammunition in his constituency cannot be of a dangerous nature.

Mr. James Stuart (Moray and Nairn)

Would the right hon. Gentleman con-cider, in particular, dealing with dangerous ammunition which is stored on heath land, of which much of my hon. Friend's area is composed, because I believe that the fire risk is so much greater there at this time of the year than in other parts?

Mr. Bellenģer

I will certainly have that particular area closely looked into. As a matter of fact, I should imagine that, in view of the recent accident, the authorities at the War Office have gone into the matter very carefully, but I will give it my particular attention.