HC Deb 06 December 1977 vol 940 cc1099-102
2. Mr. van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Defence to what extent the Armed Forces are being trained to undertake civilian jobs in the event of industrial disputes.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Dr. John Gilbert)

Before I answer this Questtion, Mr. Speaker, I should like to convey to the House the regret of my right hon. Friend that he is unable to be present because he is attending an important NATO ministerial meeting. Apart from the elementary training which they have recently received in fire fighting, the Armed Forces are receiving no specific training to undertake civilian jobs in the event of industrial disputes, although the nature of Service training is such as to provide a number of Service men with useful skills of more general application.

Mr. van Straubenzee

In the light of that reply, is not the professional skill at present being shown by young Service men in the unaccustomed duty of fire fighting of the most praiseworthy, and is the Minster prepared so to say, particularly as it involves, as he knows, to the sadness of the whole House, loss of life? Will he, as a defence Minister, now press relentlessly the argument that these young men should have access to the most sophisticated equipment for their job—equipment which is at present lying unused because of strike action?

Dr. Gilbert

I am very much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his first remarks, and of course I endorse them totally. In fact, on a recent visit that I paid to a "green goddess" operation in Essex a senior fire officer told me that he was so impressed with the skill of the troops that he would be happy for them to go out unsupervised on certain types of fire. I think that that is a great tribute to them.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, it would be helpful if I cleared up a general misapprehension. Even before the strike we considered the possibility of training troops in the use of special breathing apparatus. We received repeated advice from senior fire officers that to do this would be extremely dangerous. First, it would give a man a false sense of confidence in the use of the apparatus. It takes some time to train a man in its use. But, more dangerous still, if one uses it and goes into a smoke-filled room, however one may be trained in using the apparatus, it takes many months of experience before one can tell whether a ceiling is likely to collapse, or, if one scales a ladder, whether a factory wall is likely to collapse. It is for reasons of that sort that we have deliberately not used this sort of apparatus when the troops are working.

Mr. Flannery

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is axiomatic throughout the Labour movement that troops should never be trained to be used as strike breakers?

Mr. Cormack


Mr. Flannery

Does my hon. Friend accept that the Conservative Party would not understand that? Is it not a fact, however, that only in the most exceptional circumstances would troops be used?

Dr. Gilbert

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend said. These troops are not being employed as strike breakers; they are merely being used to save life and protect property.

Mr. Wiggin

Will the Minister say whether he would now consider calling out the TAVR and other reserve forces to help the fire-fighting troops, with particular reference to weekends? The troops are already stretched—some of them are a little tired—and the TA would be willing, to a man, to help out.

Dr. Gilbert

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. I would certainly want to pay tribute to the help that the TAVR has already given to the Services, particularly in the provision of accommodation and all sorts of recreational offers that it has made to the troops. At the moment, we do not think that we need any more reinforcements.

Mr. Ogden

Will my hon. Friend say whether he intends to use these opportunities on Questions Nos. 2 or 3 or on later Questions, Nos. 17, 18 and 26, to make a clear statement about the loss of life of soldiers on fire-fighting duties in the North today?

Dr. Gilbert

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for asking that. I had intended to make a statement at the appropriate moment, if he will let me leave it until then.

Sir Ian Gilmour

Will the Minister say whether the report in the Daily Telegraph yesterday that the training of Service fire fighters at RAF Manston has been banned is a true report? If so, how does he justify this hazarding of Service men's and other people's lives?

Dr. Gilbert

I am not aware of any banning of training in any establishment, but I shall look into the matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman. At the moment, however, we have an adequate number of troops being trained, already in place, and also for relief purposes.

3. Mr. Channon

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will define the criteria upon which Her Majesty's Government will use troops for special duties during industrial disputes.

Dr. Gilbert

Her Majesty's Government would consider using Service men for special duties during an industrial dispute only when it threatened the cessation of an essential public service.

Mr. Channon

Does the Minister agree that the service being provided by the Armed Forces now is something for which the whole country is deeply indebted? Does not that impose two obligations on the Government—first, to make sure that the Armed Forces themselves are paid properly and, secondly, to ensure—as I do not think is the case at present—that those undertaking these special duties should be properly trained and allowed to use the most up-to-date equipment?

Dr. Gilbert

With respect to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I endorse again what he said by way of tribute to all the Services—the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Royal Air Force and the Army—for what they are doing in this dispute. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the question of the review of the pay of the forces will come up under the normal operations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Board.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I thought that I had given an adequate answer in reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee).

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