HC Deb 21 February 1966 vol 725 cc31-3

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

84. Mr. HAZELL

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, whether he will make a statement on the fire at Neatishead radar station in North Norfolk involving loss of life.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Bruce Millan)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 84.

Soon after mid-day on Wednesday last, 16th February, a fire was detected in the underground operations block of the radar station at Royal Air Force, Neatishead. An unsuccessful effort was made by the station fire services to quell the outbreak and simultaneously the alarm was given to the local fire services in accordance with established procedures. The staff on duty were safely evacuated.

On behalf of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and Home Affairs I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the gallant efforts of the civilian fire brigades to bring the fire under control. Three firemen lost their lives during the operations, and several other firemen required hospital treatment, of whom three were detained. By Wednesday evening, when it became clear there was no hope of saving the two firemen who were then missing, flooding of the underground block was started, and this has since succeeded in putting out the fire.

A Royal Air Force board of inquiry has been convened and will carry out a full investigation.

I am sure that the House will join my right hon. Friends and myself in expressing our deep sympathy with the bereaved.

Mr. Hazell

In thanking my hon. Friend for that statement, I wish to associate myself with his expression of sympathy to the dependants and relatives of the firemen who gave their lives in the course of public duty, and to express admiration and praise for the firemen from the Norwich and Norfolk brigades who put in such magnificent work under extreme difficulties.

Will the inquiry that is to be undertaken be held in public? Is it correct that the Norfolk County firemen had no breathing apparatus and that this had to be obtained from the Norwich City Brigade, with consequential delay in getting the equipment to Neatishead? Will my hon. Friend contact his right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance to ensure that there is the minimum of fuss and delay in securing pensions and other allowances that may be due to the dependants?

Mr. Millan

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his expression of sympathy. In regard to the last point, I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to what my hon. Friend has said, and I am sure that things will be done as quickly as possible. The question of firemen's breathing apparatus for the civilian firemen is really a question for the Home Secretary rather than for me. The inquiry will be a private R.A.F. inquiry, as is normally the case in these circumstances, but after the inquiry has completed its investigations it certainly ought to be possible for a further statement to be made.

Sir J. Eden

Would the hon. Gentleman associate all of us on this side with his expression of sympathy? Has he any comment to make at this stage on the adequacy of the fire precautions facilities in the building itself? Is he aware of any lack of a sufficiency of precautionary measures there? Further, would he assure the House that in regard to the operations of the radar station no gap is created as a result of this fire?

Mr. Millan

The adequacy of the fire precautions is something on which, I think, the board of inquiry will be reporting. As to the hon. Gentleman's other question, the station at Neatishead was under periodic maintenance when the fire broke out so that temporarily its operational tasks had already been transferred to other similar stations. This position will, of course, continue, so that there should be no gap in the operational tasks that are being carried out at the moment.

Mr. Prior

On behalf of those of my hon. Friends from Norfolk and Suffolk, I should like to express our condolences with the families and widows of the firemen who lost their lives; and I should particularly like to do so on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) in whose constituency two of the firemen lived.

Mr. Millan

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.