HC Deb 26 April 1988 vol 132 cc203-8 3.30 pm
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) (by private notice)

To ask the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the central ordnance depot fire in Donnington.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman)

The central ordnance depot at Donnington, near Telford in Shropshire, is one of the Army's two major storage depots. It has an area of over 300 acres with about 270,000 sq m of covered storage. There are nine major storage buildings on the site, with one under construction. The depot has a mixed military-civilian work force.

Yesterday, at about 11.30 hours, a small, smouldering fire was discovered in building B1, one of the six larger buildings on the site. The building was evacuated and the fire extinguished. The Ministry of Defence police were called to investigate and after a full inspection of the building the work force was readmitted at 13.30 hours. At 15.30 hours, while MOD police were still present taking statements, a second fire started in the upper part of a corner of the building, and quickly took hold. This second fire occurred on the opposite side of the building to the first.

The Army fire brigade attended, followed immediately by the local authority brigades. A maximum of 21 fire appliances were in attendance. Most of the building was destroyed. The fire is now under control and is being damped down. One fireman was slightly injured. There were no other casualties.

There was some asbestos element in the smoke because of the asbestos content of the roofing material. This was dispersed some five miles to the west of the fire. Wrekin district council staff are dealing with this, and I am advised that the danger to the public is slight.

The West Mercia police, assisted by the Ministry of Defence police, are carrying out their normal inquiries into the circumstances of the fire. The Army authorities will also be convening a board of inquiry to examine the cause of the fire and to consider what action needs to be taken. The board will include an outside expert from Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services.

I should like to apologise through you, Mr. Speaker, to those members of the public living in the vicinity of the depot for the inconvenience and disturbance caused by this unfortunate event.

Mr. Grocott

Will the Minister join me in again thanking all those involved in the emergency services for their tremendous efforts and the staff of Wrekin district council who responded so rapidly to deal with the consequences of the fire? Does he agree that for a fire of this magnitude to happen once in a constituency, as it did in my constituency in 1983, is disastrous; for it to happen twice in five years is without precedent and unbelievable?

Is the Minister aware that this fire is of massive concern, not only to my constituents who work in the Ministry of Defence buildings, but to everyone living in the surrounding area? Will he tell the House what reassurance, in addition to what he has said already, he can give my constituents about their safety? In particular, will he say what dangers are associated with the dust and debris which have spread over much of the northern part of Telford?

Will the Minister confirm that many of the safety recommendations made by the Ministry of Defence inquiry following the first fire, particularly regarding the construction of fire barriers in the buildings, have not been carried out? Is he aware that many people will find totally unacceptable the excuse given by one of his officials that the reason why the safety measures were not carried out was because there have been factors against us such as time and money. Will the Minister announce that there will be a full independent public inquiry into the fire? An internal Ministry of Defence inquiry would be totally unacceptable to this House and certainly to my constituents. Will he see that the inquiry addresses the following questions?

First, why was the remedial work not carried out in full following the first fire? Secondly, what was the cause of the fire and, in particular, were the same factors at work as was the case with the previous fire? Thirdly, what are the hazards from asbestos in the buildings, not only for the people who work in them but for people living in the area? The Minister will be aware that this issue has been of active concern to trade unions at the depot for many years. Fourthly, what remedial work is necessary, particularly in relation to removal of asbestos and to making the depot safe?

Will the Minister undertake to implement immediately and in full any safety recommendations that are made by the inquiry? Will he also ensure that full compensation is paid to anyone suffering direct or indirect consequences of the fire? Will he see that the local authorities, especially the Wrekin district council, which have responded so magnificently to this fire, are fully funded for the costs involved?

Any hon. Member would feel profoundly concerned if a fire of this magnitude occurred once in a lifetime in his constituency. In my constituency, it has happened twice in five years. My constituents are entitled not just to answers from the Minister but to action—and they are entitled to it now.

Mr. Freeman

I thank the hon. Member for what he said, and I join him wholeheartedly in congratulating and thanking the local authorities, the fire service and the police service. He was right to say what he did.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about safety and danger to the public. That is primarily a matter for the Wrekin district council, but I understand that it will be calling a press conference at 4 o'clock. I am advised indirectly from the Health and Safety Executive, by a senior factory inspector, that there is no significant danger to the public. The advice that The Wrekin district council will offer to local residents clearly should be heeded.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the 1983 report. That report made 12 recommendations, all of which were agreed. It might be for the convenience of the House if I gave to the hon. Gentleman, and placed in the Library of the House this afternoon, a summary of that inquiry, which was given to trades unions at the time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and others might find it helpful to read the report.

The hon. Gentleman has asked for an independent public inquiry. We shall follow the procedures followed by all Governments in setting up a military inquiry. It will incude independent experts. I have already said that a member of Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services will serve on that inquiry. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when the inquiry has reached its conclusions they will be communicated promptly, fairly and accurately, not only to the hon. Gentleman and to the House but to all those who are concerned and affected.

I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance about claims. The claims of those who have been adversely affected and can show that their financial losses are directly due to this unfortunate incident will be considered.

The hon. Gentleman asked the board of inquiry to consider a number of points. I have noted very carefully what he said and I undertake to draw them to the attention of the military board of inquiry.

Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)

I join the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) and my hon. Friend the Minister in congratulating the local authority, the police and the fire services on the way they reacted to this disaster. Will the Army board of inquiry be able to consider whether there is any indication whatsoever that arson may have been the cause of this disaster, and will any findings on that point be made available to the public?

Mr. Freeman

I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. We have certainly not ruled out arson as the cause of this latest fire. I have told the House that there were two separate incidents in yesterday's fire. Certainly the investigations of the West Mercia police in addition to those of the Ministry of Defence police will concentrate on the point mentioned by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I join right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to the emergency services and the local authority. The Minister said that he would, helpfully, put a summary of the findings of the previous enquiry in the Library, but he avoided a question which the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) asked: what recommendations of that inquiry have not been implemented, and why not?

Mr. Freeman

All the recommendations of that inquiry were accepted in full.

Mr. Wallace

Were they implemented?

Mr. Freeman

The hon. Gentleman should perhaps read the summary, which I will place in the Library this afternoon, and he will find that the report makes certain recommendations. Clearly the measures needed in the short term, such as dualling the location of certain strategic army stocks, have been implemented. The reason why the fire at Donnington yesterday has not affected the operational readiness of the Army is that the strategic items were located in two separate places. Also, the water supply system at Donnington was improved immediately following the report.

A start was made immediately on the longer-term measures, and if the hon. Gentleman cares to visit Donnington he will find that, as the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) will know, the building destroyed in the 1983 fire has been replaced by a modern building in which the stocks are compartmentalised. The other buildings will take time to replace. It is interesting to note that the building where the fire occurred yesterday was the next building shortly to be cleared of all stock arid modernised.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents in Shrewsbury and Atcham work at the central ordnance depot at Donnington? Is it not the case that relations between the garrison and the local authority and the fire and police services are excellent? I join the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) in paying tribute particularly to the fire service for its very quick response.

The House should appreciate that many thousands of crucial jobs are involved in this depot, which is very important for the economy of Shropshire. In particular, the Minister's assurance this afternoon on the subject of asbestos is very welcome. It will help to calm the people, particularly to the west of Donnington, in my constituency who may feel threatened as a result of the fire.

Mr. Freeman

I thank my hon. Friend. Some 1,800 civilians are employed at Donnington, and some 400 military personnel, so it is a sizeable and important NATO logistics base. I join him in paying tribute to the work force. As I said to the hon. Member for The Wrekin, the constituency involved, we will communicate fully to the trade unions the results of this inquiry and discuss with them the recommendations that it makes.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Minister accept that many people in The Wrekin and other areas are concerned that he does not seem keen on having a public inquiry into this disaster? Will he reflect again on the need for a public inquiry that will include consideration of the reports made in the past and the need to remove all asbestos from the Donnington depot. which has been a source of concern for many years?

Secondly, will the Minister consider the need for long-term health checks throughout the Telford area arid that part of Shropshire where asbestos leaked out in 1983 and again this week for health damage that may be caused to people because of the asbestos that has landed in their gardens and on their homes and farmland in the district?

Mr. Freeman

I have said that we shall follow the normal procedures and shall not be holding a public inquiry. We shall be holding the normal military inquiry. With regard to communicating the substance of the inquiry and the recommendations to the House, I have said that we will make sure that the results are properly, fairly and promptly communicated.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the removal of asbestos. I have said that the building that was destroyed was the next in line to be modernised and the asbestos removed. The building that replaces the building that was destroyed in 1983 is a fine modern building in which the stock is compartmentalised, and it does not have asbestos in the roof. I can confirm that if members of the public are concerned about their health as a result of this incident they should contact the military authorities, and, if necessary, we will arrange for the necessary health checks.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

I thank my hon. Friend for coming Io the House and answering this private notice question on this very important issue, in stark contrast to the absence of statements in the House after the fire in June 1983. May I ask my hon. Friend to read the correspondence between my constituent, Commander J. R. S. Engledue RN, Retired, me and his Department between 1983 and 1985 on the subject of the £174 million of uninsured loss following the last fire?

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Defence made scant comment about the previous fire which resulted in a vast loss to the taxpayer? Therefore, will he continue his admirable example of today and keep the House fully informed at each stage?

Mr. Freeman

I assure my hon. Friend that I will read the correspondence between himself, his constituent and the Ministry of Defence. Preliminary indications are that the loss of stock is relatively modest in comparison with the disaster of 1983.

Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Minister will understand that there was concern along the Welsh border and in mid-Wales about the incident in view of the prevailing winds. We are relieved to know that the damage was limited. Although it was limited, clearly the Minister needs to consider the other storage areas which may be similarly constructed. Can he tell the House how many storage facilities are of an age which may mean that they still contain asbestos covering, and how he is dealing with those?

Mr. Freeman

The report of 1983, of which I have said that I will place a summary in the Library, covered all ordnance depots of the British Army. Therefore, it related not just to Donnington but to the others, including Bicester. We were not dealing just with the problems of Donnington but were concerned about the Armywide implications.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

It gives me no great pleasure to say to the hon. Gentleman that he has not been as frank with the House as he should have been. He has said that he will place in the Library the recommendations of the internal board of inquiry following the last fire. He has said that they relate to other depots and departments. How many of the recommendations have been carried out, and how many have not been carried out? Surely he can tell the House, in view of the second fire, what recommendations have not been carried out.

May I press the hon. Gentleman on the question of a public inquiry? He said that the normal practice was to have an internal inquiry. We understand that. But this was not a normal fire. It was a fire which apparently will cost the Ministry of Defence a lot of money. Will he reconsider having a public inquiry in view of the fact that not only the Ministry of Defence and its employees are involved, but people living in the area, other services and the district council? Surely there is a case for a public inquiry.

Mr. Freeman

The right hon. Gentleman has made two key points. I rebut his charge that I have not been frank with the House. As I have already said, 12 recommenda-tions were made. I have only just received the report on yesterday's incident. I have said that I will place a copy of it in the Library. When the right hon. Gentleman has a chance to read it, he will see that all the recommendations were accepted because of the nature—[HON. MEMBERS: "They have not been implemented."] If hon. Gentlemen would allow me to complete what I was saying, they would hear that there were specific recommendations about modernisation or rebuilding. I have intimated that we cannot wave a magic wand to replace buildings of the size and scale of those at Donnington. It takes years to do that. We started boldly at Donnington. If hon. Gentlemen have had a chance to visit Donnington, they will have seen the scale and expense of the rebuilding programme.

As regards a public inquiry, I have stated what our position is. I find unacceptable the implication of the right hon. Gentleman's comment that the Army has something to hide or that it does not wish to consult the various bodies which I am sure have much to offer, including the police, the fire service and a representative of Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate. I am convinced that this is the correct way to proceed.

I am sure that the hon. Member for the Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) will help allay the fears of his constituents because we are following the standard practice in military inquiries. I will co-operate with him to ensure that the trade unions at the site and his constituents are properly informed about the conclusions of the inquiry.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

If there is any evidence of contamination of agricultural areas on the Welsh border and in mid-Wales, bearing in mind the very unhappy experience following Chernobyl and the fact that the movement of animals on some farms is still restricted, will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the National Farmers Union and the Farmers Union of Wales to consider such evidence and compensation arrange-ments?

Mr. Freeman

I can give the hon. and learned Gentleman that assurance. There is absolutely no evidence that the smoke from the fire has fallen other than within the immediate vicinity of the ordnance depot.