HC Deb 27 January 1987 vol 109 cc165-7
1. Mr. Roy Hughes

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will now publish the findings of the board of inquiry into the accident in Wiltshire on Saturday 10 January involving a Royal Air Force vehicle; and if he will make a statement.

13. Mr. Cohen

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to change emergency procedures, following the accident to the military convoy in Wiltshire on 10 January; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Stanley)

For details of the accident I refer the hon. Members to the reply that I gave to the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) on 19 January. The report of the board of inquiry has not yet been submitted to Ministers, but I understand that it is classified and will not therefore be published. The requirement for changes in procedures will be assessed in the light of careful consideration of the board's findings.

Mr. Hughes

Does this incident not illustrate the paradox that the very existence of weapons which it is claimed will never be used, yet are for the defence of Britain, places the population in jeopardy?

Mr. Stanley

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, I cannot comment on the particular consignment involved in this convoy. However, I can assure him and the House that there was never any hazard to the public from the accident at any time. With regard to the wider defence paradox to which he referred, it has been the policy of successive Governments, until now adopted by the official Opposition, that it is in the interests of our defence and security that we have nuclear weapons which are there to deter, and are there not to be used.

Mr. Cohen

Can the Minister confirm that this juggernaut, which lay on its side for 18 hours, was carrying nuclear depth-charges? What was the risk of an explosion or nuclear leak? Did not the accident put at risk not just soldiers but the civilian population? Is it not time for a thorough review of the emergency procedures, involving the civilian authorities? In the meantime, should not the Government issue new guidelines covering the width of roads that such vehicles should use and the weather conditions in which they should be allowed to travel?

Mr. Stanley

All the earlier parts of the hon. Gentleman's question were answered when I replied to the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), who asked the first question. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall study very carefully the findings of the board of inquiry which has been set up following the accident. If there is a need to make changes in procedures or practices, we will consider that most carefully.

Mr. Key

Will my right hon. Friend accept that while it is perfectly clear that a mistake was made with regard to the accident, my constituents and I would rather that he took his time over the board of inquiry and came to correct conclusions, which would include consideration of the emergency procedures to be adopted in those circumstances? Will he also accept that a far greater danger to my constituents comes from the antics of members of CND and Cruisewatch, who can get close to the vehicles, cut brake pipes and attack the people and vehicles, and those vehicle convoys should be far better protected from such activists?

Mr. Stanley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I assure him that we will give a considered response to the board of inquiry report. I fully endorse his latter point and I join him in deploring the irresponsibility of those who seek to obstruct the proper movement of military vehicles on the public highway.

Mr. Adley

Would my right hon. Friend care to speculate on what might happen in the Soviet Union if Soviet citizens decided to behave in this way? Does he believe that the authorities there would view with equanimity people behaving in such a way that could only give comfort to the nation's enemies? Does he think that the mythical hon. Member for Vladivostok, North-West would be able to stand up in the Kremlin, or wherever, and defend the actions of his constituents?

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend makes an entirely pertinent point. The freedoms which, happily, we in Britain enjoy are certainly not enjoyed in the East. The rationale of our defence policy is that we continue to enjoy those fundamental freedoms. The Opposition are happy to take advantage of those freedoms, but are not prepared to devote sufficient resources to their defence policy to ensure that they are maintained.

Mr. Cartwright

While it clearly makes sense not to reveal details about the essential character of nuclear warheads in Britain, why does the Ministry of Defence not follow the example of the civil nuclear industry and be much more open about its safety procedures? Does the Minister accept that that sort of frankness would do much more to allay public anxiety than these continued bland assurances that nothing can go wrong?

Mr. Stanley

I think that the hon. Gentleman is somewhat mistaken, because, as we have made clear in previous parliamentary answers, detailed precautions are taken. The precautions that we take over military nuclear materials are at least as stringent as the precautions applied in the movement of civil nuclear materials, and those were set out in full in the Official Report of 25 July 1983, at column 1291.

Mr. Couchman

Can my right hon. Friend say whether this is the sort of vehicle which would be used to transport nuclear waste from Devonport to Gillingham, if present reports are correct that my right hon. Friend plans such a movement of nuclear waste to the former naval dockyard in my constituency?

Mr. Stanley

I regret that I cannot comment on the method of transporting nuclear materials of this sort.

Mr. McNamara

Will the Minister confirm that one of the freedoms which our American allies happily enjoy, but which we do not, is the Freedom of Information Act? As a result of that, a report was published in 1984 informing United States citizens, but not the citizens of the United Kingdom, of exercises Sharp Foil Senator and Franchise, which were joint exercises between the United States and British military forces on the safe transporting of nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom and in Europe. Will he confirm that the nuclear accident response units in Britain and in Europe were described in that report as lagging behind the national capability of the United States? Can he also confirm that at least we are on that level in trying to deal with these terrible accidents?

Mr. Stanley

It is no secret that we regularly practise the safety aspects of the movement of nuclear materials. It is right for us to do so, and that has been done by successive Governments. When the hon. Gentleman draws a parallel with the United States, I must remind him that the United States takes exactly the same position as successive British Governments have taken. The United States' position is the same as our own. We neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons, and we do not comment on their method of transportation.

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