HC Deb 13 February 1991 vol 185 cc851-4 3.30 pm
Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a statement about the announcement that B52s would dump bombs in the Bristol channel in an emergency.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) for raising this issue, and hope that I can allay his concern and that of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The House will recall that we agreed last month that the United States could operate B52s from RAF Fairford as part of an allied effort in the Gulf conflict. The United States air force requested that an area should be provided for jettisoning bombs in the very unlikely event of an emergency occurring shortly after take-off.

Notices to airmen were issued on 8 and 9 February and to mariners on 12 February advising them of the establishment of an emergency jettison area for B52 aircraft off Hartland point, seaward of the Bristol channel. Thousands of notices to airmen are issued every year, covering a variety of planned and possible events. The emergency area selected is a permanently designated military danger area, covering 1,000 square miles, normally active during daylight hours from Monday to Friday, which is notified to all airmen and mariners. It covers an air gunnery range used daily by the RAF for activities including live firing. The purpose in issuing the recent notices to airmen and mariners was to activate the area full time. That would not prohibit the use of the area by shipping.

The likelihood of the area being used by B52s in emergency is extremely remote. In such an event the bombs being jettisoned would not be armed, and the B52 aircrew would use all means available—including visual checks and radar—to ensure that the area below them was clear of aircraft and shipping. In addition, as much notice as possible of any emergency would be given to all shipping through the normal international frequencies.

The issue of the notices to airmen and mariners is therefore a sensible precaution, designed to deal with a very remote contingency in the safest way possible.

Mr. Speller

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and explanation, and propose to ask him four specific questions.

First, presumably by definition the aircraft will be in some distress, otherwise an emergency would not arise. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the bombs will not be armed, whether the planes are going to, or coming back from, the Gulf? Is my hon. Friend aware that the coastguard at Ilfracombe was not aware of the points that he has made today and the fishermen and those involved in coastal shipping ask how they are supposed to get out of the way if large chunks descend on them—[Laughter.] My constituents do not find this matter nearly as funny as hon. Members. How are fishermen supposed to be notified to get out of the way should a problem arise if they do not have a radio?

Mr. Hamilton

An aircraft is much more likely to be in distress shortly after take-off than when returning, when it is very unlikely. If that were the case, one would expect the aircraft to jettison bombs much further out to sea. I emphasise what I said in my opening remarks: we would rely on the B52s to use radar to make absolutely certain that no shipping was below them. I am told that that is reliable. They would not be flying at great altitudes and the radar would work effectively. In those circumstances, the danger to shipping below them would be minimal.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does the Minister accept that we all recognise that this is a remote possibility and that it is better that there are contingency plans than that there are not? Does he further recognise that the designated area is nearly 100 miles from the point of take-off of the aircraft, that along the flight path on either side of the channel live 1.5 million people, and that the aircraft weighs 220 tonnes and carries 30 tonnes of munitions? Will the Minister confirm that, in the event of an aircraft having to jettison its bombs, 108 500 lb bombs, which normally fall in a pattern one mile long and half a mile wide, would fall? What reassurance can he give the constituents of the many hon. Members who represent areas on both sides of the channel who are concerned about an aircraft which may be in trouble and even unable to reach the designated area?

Mr. Hamilton

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that this is a remote possibility, as of course it is. We are drawing up a contingency measure for a remote possibility. I remind him that the bombs are not armed, so there is no question of them exploding. I cannot comment on the amount of armament that the B52 carries, but, as I have already emphasised, every precaution will be taken to ensure that there is no damage to the area.

Sir Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

Has my hon. Friend published any guidelines, and, if not, does he intend to do so, on damage which may be done to fishing tackle that could be hit by an undetonated bomb? Does he accept that, although many of my constituents recognise that it is an outside possibility that that would ever happen, there is anxiety? Will he make sure that there is clear guidance about a hotline to the Ministry of Defence, possibly via the local authority, to deal with any queries or anxieties that arise?

Mr. Hamilton

Yes, I am more than happy that we should answer any questions that arise. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend could give the number of my private office to anybody who wishes to ring, and we shall certainly deal with any question that may cause concern. It is important that we get this into perspective. We are talking about an outside possibility of an aircraft which has taken off from RAF Fairford being in trouble. That possibility is extremely remote. If any question of damage to fishing vessels or to nets or fishing gear arises, I remind my hon. Friend that we have always paid compensation in the past, and I am sure that we would do so in future.

Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

Does the Minister accept that his explanation to the House is simply not good enough? Whether or not this is an outside chance, communities along the Bristol channel and shipping in it are in danger. Will he tell the House what measures he intends to take to ensure that coastguards are notified so that shipping is cleared from the area and, at all costs, that bombs are dropped not over the Bristol channel but only in the designated areas?

Mr. Hamilton

I do not understand what the hon. Lady is on about. By prescribing this designated area we are ensuring that any bombs will be dropped in that area. That is precisely what we are doing in this whole procedure. If we did not have a designated area, clearly the aircraft would drop the bombs wherever it was convenient to them and we would have no control whatever. It is part of the procedure to alert coastguards, and everything would be done in the time available to alert people in the area to what was happening. Messages would be put out on the radio into which fishermen are tuned.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

As the Member in whose constituency is Fairford, may I thank my hon. Friend for arranging for me to visit the splendid airmen and their aircraft? May I say how appreciative the majority of the population are that the Americans have stationed their forces here in order to protect our troops who are at risk in the Gulf by bombing Iraqi military targets?

Mr. Hamilton

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is right to say that the B52s are playing a critical role. It is a mark of the responsibility of the United States air force that it has asked us to make contingency plans to cover a very remote possibility.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

Have the arrangements that the Minister has just described ever been made in any circumstances before?

Mr. Hamilton

We have issued a number of other notifications, to both mariners and airmen. As I said, we issue thousands of them every year covering a whole mass of different contingencies and warnings to people in various areas. There has been a large number of other notifications, but I doubt whether there have been any for armed B52s.

Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North)

I appreciate that what my hon. Friend has described is absolutely necessary in the circumstances. I am sure that it comes as no surprise that such arrangements should be made at this time. Can my hon. Friend tell me the exact location of the designated area, and also its proximity to the capital city of Wales and the south Wales coast?

Mr. Hamilton

Yes. The centre of the danger area is some 20 miles off Hartland point. The boundary of the area lies not closer than five miles to Hartland point, and it extends for some 30 miles from the Devon coast. The area is fan shaped, rotating from north of Hartland point towards the south-west.

Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

What consultation was there prior to the Minister's announcement with fishing and environmental interests along the Bristol channel? Will he carefully explain to the House what precise arrangements for consultation with shipping and with civilian populations on both sides of the Bristol channel would take place in an emergency?

Mr. Hamilton

Obviously, in an emergency, we would have very little time to consult anybody. On the question of consultation with the fishing industry, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is very well aware of that area, and has been for a long time. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my opening remarks, he would have heard me say that the area is constantly used for live firing. All that we are doing is making it a 24-hour danger area. The notification is in addition to what already happens.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the B52s are flying in support of our troops and other allied troops who are trying to enforce United Nations resolutions? Is he aware that the people of Bristol would prefer B52s to drop their bombs in extremis in the Bristol channel rather than that, in years to come, Saddam Hussein should drop a nuclear bomb in Bristol?

Mr. Hamilton

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The B52s are playing a very valuable role in the Gulf conflict. It is nothing other than responsible and sensible for the USAF to make such contingency provision against the outside possibility that something might go wrong.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

The Opposition welcome the Government's response. There has been a great deal of disquiet about the lack of information, and I am not sure whether the Minister's statement will allay that disquiet. Will he assure us that the decision will be constantly under review?

Mr. Hamilton

It is not a decision that should be under review because it is a sensible precaution against the outside possibility of something going wrong. The time for review will be when the B52s cease to operate out of RAF Fairford—when, presumably, the conflict will be over and therefore the contingency arrangement will no longer be necessary.

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