HC Deb 06 December 1977 vol 940 cc1113-7
17. Mr. Brotherton

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is satisfied with the fire-fighting capabilities of Her Majesty's Forces.

18. Miss Fookes

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the participation of the Armed Services in fire fighting during the firemen's strike.

26. Mr. Aitken

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the use of troops during the firemen's strike.

Dr. Gilbert

Men from all three Services who are providing emergency fire cover, supported by the specialist firefighting teams from the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force, are performing these duties with conspicuous skill and courage and have succeeded in preventing much loss of life and damage to property throughout the country. They have done all that, indeed more than, could reasonably have been expected or asked of them.

I am sure that the House will have heard with deep regret of the death of two young soldiers of the 1st Royal Irish early today, one a single man, the other married with two children, and will wish to join me in expressing deep sympathy to their next of kin and to other members of their families.

Mr. Brotherton

I should like to associate myself with the Minister's remarks about the way in which Armed Forces have conducted themselves in fire fighting and in his sympathy for the two members of the Service who were killed today. Will he tell the House how much longer he expects the Government to be bailed out by the Armed Forces, particularly as they are paid considerably less than the striking firemen? Will he tell the House when the Government expect to implement the hope expressed by his right hon. Friend in the House two weeks ago that it is the Government's aim to restore parity of Service pay as quickly as possible?

Dr. Gilbert

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks.

It would be a rash man who made predictions about the duration of the strike. I am sure that the Services will continue, for as long as is necessary, to do their duty as they have done. There is nothing that I can add to what my right hon. Friend said about the restoration of comparability of military pay.

Miss Fookes

Is the Minister satisfied that the living and working conditions of the troops have been improved, in view of the horrific stories that we have heard?

Dr. Gilbert

I am obliged to the hon. Lady. I and many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have visited troops' accommodation throughout the country since the strike began. By and large, the troops' morale is extremely good. There have been cases of sub-standard accommodation, which was inevitable in an emergency operation of this sort. Some of the cases reported in the Press have been grossly exaggerated. I spoke to the commanding officer of what was supposed to be the "Cockroach Hilton". He was extremely indignant about the story and said that there was not a cockroach in the place. The BBC sent a "Nationwide" team which spent an hour there trying to find a cockroach to film, but went away unsuccessful.

Mr. Aitken

As the firemen's strike could well last a long time, will the Minister reconsider the Government's policy not to allow troops to have access to sophisticated fire-fighting equipment? Is he aware that the argument that only men who are suitably trained can have access to that sophisticated equipment gets less and less valid as the strike lasts longer and longer, becaue it is obvious that in the time that has so far passed the troops could have been taught to use that good equipment?

Dr. Gilbert

This is the third time today that I have been invited to answer that question. The answer remains exactly the same. The best advice—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman who said that is wrong. The advice that we continue to get from senior and experienced fire officers is that it would be unsafe for men just to be trained in the use of breathing apparatus because it needs months of experience, when one goes into a smoke filled room. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about ladders?"] It is precisely the same with ladders, as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had been here earlier. That is the advice of senior experienced fire officers, who know a lot more about these matters than he does. They tell us that it would be very unsafe to send Service men up high-rise ladders when they do not have the skill and experience to know, for example, when a factory wall might fall out, with great danger to themselves.

Mr. Flannery

Does my hon. Friend agree that an increasingly large section of the British public is satisfied with the fire-fighting capabilities of the firemen and wish that the Government would come to an accommodation with them in order not to have to employ soldiers at all?

Dr. Gilbert

I think that everybody would endorse my hon. Friend's view.

Sir Ian Gilmour

In view of the hon. Gentleman's excessively complacent remarks about the accommodation of the troops who are fire fighting, can he assure the House that they are no longer living in the conditions that my right hon. Friend and I saw a fortnight ago in the Honourable Artillery Company's headquarters?

Dr. Gilbert

We have been at pains to investigate any allegations of substandard accommodation where the troops are complaining about the quality of their accommodation. It has been difficult to find more than one or two examples throughout the country. When the troops have been in what is admittedly substandard accommodation they have been reluctant to move out because they have made themselves comfortable and prefer to be where they started. The hon. Gentleman should know enough about these matters not to go stirring up trouble where he knows none exists.

Mr. Ogden

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks about the tragic loss of life in the North-West today. Many hon. Members will think that an award for gallantry would be appropriate in the circumstances. Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to see the leaders of the Fire Brigades Union again to try to persuade them that they can return to their normal duties with honour, not for their sakes but to prevent the loss of any more Service men who are trying to do the job in respect of which others have more skill, more knowledge and more experience?

Dr. Gilbert

I am sure that my right hon. Friends will have taken note of my hon. Friend's remarks.

Sir Ian Gilmour

It is no good the hon. Gentleman saying, whenever we criticise him, that we are stirring up trouble. It is the policies, or non-policies, of the Government that have stirred up trouble. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and I saw troops living in disgraceful conditions in the HAC headquarters. Will the hon. Gentleman now answer my question whether they are still living in those conditions?

Dr. Gilbert

I have already said that we have had virtually no complaints from the troops. We have invited them to say whether they want to be moved, and in a few cases they have been moved. By and large, they are content with their accommodation. That is so in many establishments throughout the country—far more than the right hon. Gentleman has visited. Instructions have been sent out to all commands that if anything extra can be done for the troops by way of Christmas benefits they have only to let us know and we shall see what we can do to help them.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

As the whole House is keen to ensure that the strike comes to an end and believes that the troops do not need to participate in this highly dangerous activity, is it not time to consider again a solution within the 10 per cent. limit? That would mean the 10 per cent., plus the rent allowance that is payable to the police, plus a look at the question of minimum hours, which is negotiable.

Dr. Gilbert

I can only tell the hon. Lady that I hope as much as she does that negotiations will be resumed.

Mr. Wiggin

Will the Minister say how many Service men are doing the jobs of how many firemen?

Dr. Gilbert

A total of over 18,000 Service men are involved in all capacities.