HC Deb 04 November 2002 vol 392 cc16-8
13. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

How many service personnel have been trained for firefighting duties. [76705]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

This deployment involves more than 19,000 service personnel from all three services. About 3,000 Royal Navy personnel, 7,700 Army personnel and 2,300 RAF personnel have been trained. A further 6,500 personnel will be engaged in administrative, security, command-and-control and other duties, drawing on normal armed forces skills and training.

Mr. Swire

Given the uncertain situation in Northern Ireland and the need to prepare for possible action in Iraq, as evidenced by the desertisation of two tank brigades in Germany, has the Minister assessed the loss of real training time caused by the need for firefighting training? How and when will that critical training be made up?

Mr. Ingram

That is an impossible question because we do not know whether there will be a strike. I understand that a decision is pending, but talks continue, and we all hope that they will lead to a resolution of the dispute. All efforts should be made towards that. As to the numbers that we have deployed in anticipation of a dispute over the next few months, there must be a knock-on effect for the training regime, and the longer the strike runs, the greater the effect will be. We must constantly review the situation; over time it will create problems for effective delivery and for other missions in which we may be called on to participate.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

Will my right hon. Friend ignore Opposition calls for firefighters in the services to cross the Fire Brigades Union picket lines, and does he agree that if they did so it would only inflame an already serious situation?

Mr. Ingram

At this stage, that is a wise judgment. As we move, hopefully, towards a negotiated settlement, it is better to try to keep down the temperature of the dispute. Again, however, the question is impossible because we do not know the shape, format and length of the dispute and, therefore, the nature of our response.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

We can all understand that while negotiations continue between the Government and the union, it is tactful not to give service personnel access to the latest firefighting equipment available in the fire stations. Does the Minister accept, however, that in the interests of public safety there will come a point at which service personnel must be given access to the best equipment?

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman makes an important recognition in saying that the decision is tactful, but, more than that, it is sensible. This is both a logistics issue and a training issue. I know that there is a debate about how long it takes to train people, but we have committed large numbers of service personnel to the Green Goddess delivery system because of the short training required. If we decide to use sophisticated equipment for which longer training is needed, where will we get the personnel from? If we use the same pool of people, they will have to be taken out of service to be trained, so the logistics make it impractical to use that equipment. All these matters have to be kept under review, but there are no plans to do as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

Putting the fire dispute to one side, does the Minister agree that it would be in the national interest if one or two regiments of the British Army were trained to use the sophisticated modern fire appliances to create a reservoir of trained personnel for firefighting and other emergency duties in a national emergency?

Mr. Ingram

No, I do not take the view that that is sensible because we do not want to appear as though we are always prepared, rather than forced, to participate. There is also the problem of skill fade. A sizeable number could be trained for an eventuality, but it is 25 years since the Green Goddesses were last called out. [Interruption.] I appreciate that we had to deploy them in regional strikes.

We would have to consider where the regiments would be based. It would also be unfair on the personnel who were trained as permanent firefighters because that is not why they joined the armed forces, irrespective of which branch they represent. Nevertheless, in terms of emergency support for the community, we always stand ready to meet that immediate demand if and when it arises.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

The Minister will be aware that aid to the civil power role played by service personnel in areas with a large military presence, such as my own, is significant. What assessment has been made of the impact of firefighting duties on the operational role at bases including RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth? What assessment has the Ministry of Defence made of what would happen if the defence fire service is privatised should a similar problem or industrial action arise?

Mr. Ingram

As my right hon. Friend muttered to me, "Or if Scotland becomes independent." Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should explore his policy on the armed forces—out of NATO, out of the United Kingdom and out of many international coalitions. In those circumstances, defence personnel may have more time to participate in that activity in Scotland, but they are not there to do that; they are there to defend the realm.

There is an impact on operational capability as a consequence of firefighting duties. I have answered a number of parliamentary questions on that, including in response to the matter raised by the hon. Member for (Mr. Swire). I said that there is also an impact on training. There is no point in hiding that reality, which we contrinue to assess as the situation develops.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Minister aware that I agree with him about not inflaming the industrial situation while negotiations continue? The Tories say that we should allow someone else to use the appliances, but the strike is not continuous. The firefighters will want to use the same appliances, which will be impossible after their eight days have concluded. Not only would the Tory approach inflame the situation: it would be practical nonsense as well.

Mr. Ingram

I tried to explain some of the practical difficulties that would arise from that approach. Hopefully my hon. Friend agrees with my assessment of that. I certainly tend to agree with his presentation of the problem.