HC Deb 26 February 1959 vol 600 cc1452-8

Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.28 p.m.

Captain Richard Pilkington (Poole)

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, for keeping you and the House, and indeed myself, here at this late hour. The subject I wish to raise is that of explosions on Canford Heath, a very fine heath in the northern part of the county and borough of Poole. On 20th and 21st June last year there were two explosions from ammunition which had come originally from this heath, and thereby five boys were injured. They were Hugh and John Brearley, Michael and Terence Banks and David King. The council, the police, the local newspaper, the Poole Herald, the Member of Parliament and the Royal Ordnance Corps all took action in their respective spheres to discover why these accidents had occurred and to see what they could do to prevent them from happening again.

The town clerk of Poole had already had correspondence with the War Department land agent at Weymouth, and, through him, with Southern Command headquarters and the War Office, about other incidents that had occurred in 1954 and 1956. On this occasion, he pointed out that though there had been sweepings of part of the heath in the past, they had obviously not been effective, and the heath was still not safe. The borough of Poole wants to make it safe, and I am sure that the War Office has the same wish. It has shown sympathy over what has occurred. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the interview that I had with him recently, but what we want is action, and effective action.

The heath comprises some 2,500 acres. Before it was derequisitioned from being a range and training area during the war it was searched visually. In 1956, because of the incidents that had then occurred, some 442 acres were searched mechanically—about one-fifth of the whole area. As a result of these recent accidents, Poole asked the War Office that the areas to the east and west of the area that had been mechanically searched in the past should also be searched mechanically. The area concerned is about 626 acres in extent.

In making this application, the local authority added that the remainder of the heath to the north—some 727 acres— might also be dangerous. However, they appreciated the difficulties of the War Office and, I think very reasonably, asked only that the more frequented area to the east and west of the area that had previously been swept mechanically should be dealt with similarly.

As my hon. Friend knows, I had considerable correspondence with his predecessor, and I saw the Secretary of State for War after the accidents. On 2nd July last, I put down a Question, and in his Answer the Minister said that: … about 150 acres in the vicinity will again be combed by troops."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd July, 1958; Vol. 590, c. 88.] On 1st August, the Minister's predecessor wrote to me, after the search had taken place, and said that no live ammunition had been found but only burnt-out mortar smoke bombs, which were harmless. He added the noteworthy remark: The command say that vague reports reach them, even from the police, of ammunition being seen on the heath. I would only add to that that the police are rarely vague about such things as this, and the Poole police are certainly not vague.

In his reply on 2nd July, the Minister said that about 150 acres would be searched again, but, according to a letter of 9th October received by the town clerk from the War Department land agent, it appears that only 132 acres were searched afresh by the Army—not the 626 acres mentioned by the Poole Council, and not even the 150 acres that I had been told would be searched. It is stretching the word "about "rather far to suggest that 132 acres is the proper figure when the figure mentioned was 150 acres.

After that, further correspondence and the interview to which I have referred took place, but we were unable to make further progress and it is for that reason that I have raised the matter this evening.

I hope that my hon. Friend has not come here tonight with a closed mind. I know that he is sympathetic about what has happened, and sympathetic to what the people in Poole want to have done— to have the heath made safe. We are dealing with possible danger to life and limb, especially to children, who like to play in this very fine heath. It is a very beautiful place, and Poole is fortunate to have such an area within its boundaries. We do not want to have to wait for further accidents before further action is taken. We already have the evidence that there is danger on the heath. We had it in 1954, in 1956, and now in 1958.

I know that the War Office feels that what is asked for is a big undertaking. It has told me that to search the whole 2,500 acres of the heath mechanically would take one section of a battle area clearance unit seven years. I think that one can reply to that that it would take seven sections, presumably, only one year. What the War Office has already done to about 442 acres we want done to the remaining 626 about which we have asked.

We appreciate some of the difficulties of the War Office—shortage of men, other areas which have to be considered, and so on—but we have taken those matters into account in the request we have made. We have not asked for the whole of the heath to be mechanically scoured. We are not asking for the 727 acres to the north to be dealt with; we ask only that the 626 acres to the east and west, the most dangerous areas, should be cleared. We are not satisfied even with the 150 acres which the Minister mentioned in his answer, and still less are we satisfied with the 132 acres which were visually combed after the protest was originally made. The borough has gone a long way to meet the War Office in this matter, and I ask the Minister now to come some way to meet us.

I have had a letter from the father of one of the boys in which he tells me that now, about eight months after the accident, the two fingers and thumb of the boy's hand are still useless. That boy had hoped to become a carpenter. What is the position about compensation in a case like that? I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell me.

It is to stop things like this happening again—perhaps much more serious next time—that I ask my hon. Friend to take really effective action now and not wait for any further incidents.

11.43 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Poole (Capt. Pilkington) for raising this important issue this evening. Before coming to the special problems he raised, I want to deal with the matter from a national point of view, because it is only in that way that we can have the whole subject in proper perspective.

During the war, nearly 7 million acres of land in this country were used for field firing operations. Six and half million of those 7 million acres which could have been or were contaminated by unexploded bombs, shells and other dangerous missiles have been handed back to the public, and we are now in the process of clearing a large part of a further 100,000 acres of training land which we intend to hand back as soon as possible. I should like to explain the process to my hon. and gallant Friend.

Before land is handed back to the public, it has all been searched for un-exploded missiles. This search takes two forms—a visual search by troops moving in close formation, and a mechanical search in special target areas by means of mine detectors. Special target areas are those areas where we have reason to believe that a high concentration of ammunition has fallen in the past. Neither of these methods can be 100 per cent, successful: some small hazard must inevitably remain. Visual searches can be handicapped by the nature of the terrain, and mine detectors are effective only to a depth of about 18 inches.

It follows, therefore, that after an area has been handed back to the public it is possible that minor earth movements over the years or deep ploughing or shifts in vegetation may throw up dangerous objects. Accordingly, the War Office has to be prepared to carry out re-searches when evidence of dangerous objects is produced to the local police or to the local authorities.

My hon. and gallant Friend spoke of waiting for further accidents. The point is that what we have to wait for before we carry out a re-search in his area is not further accidents but further evidence of the existence of these dangerous missiles. Indeed, on an average, we have to carry out every year about 25 re-searches of land which has been handed back to the public. It is only fair to say that compared with the situation in North-Western Europe, where shells are still being unearthed from the 1914 war, our national hazard is a comparatively minor one.

It is important to get this hazard into proportion. First, there is the extreme rarity of discovery after land has been handed back. Secondly, unless these missiles are very roughly handled, they are most unlikely to explode. The War Office continues to draw attention to the general danger by warning notices and through the police. In addition, there have been frequent programmes on radio and television pointing out the danger of handling unidentified objects.

Such accidents as do occur are nearly always the result of people, especially young people, fooling about with unexploded missiles. Indeed, in the four or five cases on the files of the War Office which I have investigated, accidents have occurred through the abandonment of the most elementary prudence. I am not, of course, referring to cases which may be sub judice.

This does not mean that we at the War Office do not attempt to make all possible allowances for such events or that we do not hold ourselves responsible for compensation. As soon as the War Office is informed, usually by the police, of any discovery of what might be an unexploded missile in an area which has been handed back, a survey is made by the nearest ordnance inspecting officer. If the object discovered proves to be an unexploded missile, a full investigation is made. If, as a result it appears necessary, visual or mechanical: searches are instituted, as were instituted in my hon. and gallant Friend's constituency in 1956.

Concerning indemnity for those suffering injury or damage, we abide by the statement made in the House of Commons in April 1945 If an accident should be caused by the presence of explosives used during training and not removed from the ground before its relinquishment by the War Department, an ex gratia payment of compensation will be made in respect of damage to property and personal injury provided that the victim has not contributed to the damage or injury by his own negligence"—[OFFICIAL REPORT. April, 1945; Vol. 410, c. 8.] I have described broadly the functions which have to be performed by our Battle Area Clearance Unit and our Pioneer companies. Inevitable marginal risks appear over these wide areas of land, and action has to be taken when the evidence shows it to be necessary. The task, therefore, is a heavy one, and we cannot lightly engage on re-searches of areas unless there is definite evidence of dangerous unexploded missiles.

I will now turn to the specific question of the clearance of Canford Heath, which is in the constituency of my hon. and gallant Friend. This area, as he knows, was derequisitioned in 1950 after a visual search had been made of the whole 2,500 acres and a mechanical search of a smaller target area. In 1956, after a police report of the definite discovery of dangerous missiles, a further mechanical search of the centre part of the southern portion of the area was instituted. This covered some 442 acres.

In 1958, two accidents occurred, on 20th and 21st June. In one instance two boys threw an unexploded two-inch mortar bomb on to a bonfire, and on the following day three boys dug up an unidentified missile on the heath and threw stones at it until it exploded.

Following these unfortunate events, a further visual search of approximately 800 yards by 800 yards was instituted, and, to show how difficult the certainty of recovery is, I must point out that the accident which occasioned this further search occurred in an area which had been subjected to a mechanical search in 1956.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked for a further search to be carried out and, with the local council, pressed for a research of some 626 acres of the area. Frankly, we are unable to undertake such a further search in view of our other commitments, and, above all, in view of the fact that, although there have been several reports of suspicious objects on the heath, no evidence has been produced to justify further action. What have been turned up are parts of four now harmless exploded mortar bombs. As regards compensation for those injured, no claims have as yet been received.

My hon. and gallant Friend mentioned the housing project which will cover 40 or 50 acres of the heath. We will, of course, have an officer available from Southern Command to investigate immediately any objects which are turned up in the course of construction and preparation of the site.

While regretting that I am unable to meet the request my hon. and gallant Friend has made, I welcome the opportunity which has been given to the War Office to state our attitude over this very wide problem which affects so many areas. The Army will continue to do its utmost to help, but I must point out that eventual safety in these matters must depend on each one of us, and perhaps especially on parents and school teachers inculcating a proper sense of awareness and responsibility.

Captain Pilkington

My hon. Friend did not comment on the fact that the War Office said that it was proposed to search 150 acres whereas in fact only 132 acres were searched. The War Office has been less good than its word.

Mr. Fraser

The Secretary of State said on 2nd July, 1958, that as a precaution after the recent explosion about 150 acres in the vicinity will again be combed by troops."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd July, 1959; Vol. 590, c. 88.] The actual area was about 800 yards by 800 yards, which works out to about 132 acres. My right hon. Friend used the expression "about 150 acres", but the detailed decision has to be made by the officer in charge on the spot. The area had already been searched by mechanical means some two years previously and it was quite properly decided that the search of 800 yards by 800 yards was adequate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.