HL Deb 11 April 1984 vol 450 cc1165-8

4.6 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, with the leave of the House. I shall now repeat the Answer which has been given to a Private Notice Question in another place about the tragic fire at the King Edward Memorial Hospital, Port Stanley.

"As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in another place yesterday, the Government were shocked, and greatly saddened, to learn of the tragic fire at the King Edward Memorial Hospital early yesterday morning. She has sent a message to the Falkland Islands Government expressing our deepest sympathy at the loss of life and injury sustained in the fire. My right honourable and learned friend has also sent a message of sympathy to the Civil Commissioner, in which I and my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development joined.

"The fire started in part of the old wing of the hospital, which was a wooden structure built in 1914. The cause has not yet been established. We are providing experts to assist in the inquiry announced by the Civil Commissioner, which will report to the Falkland Islands Government on the causes and other aspects of the disaster. A member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Fire Services will fly to the islands next week. The timing of the arrival of the civilian fire-fighting equipment from the town and military equipment from the airport will also be fully investigated.

"The question of hospital services on the islands has been the subject of consideration on a number of occasions since late 1982. This has included a study of reports which referred to fire hazards and precautions in the hospital buildings. The extent to which the recommendations in these reports were carried out will of course be a priority issue for the inquiry.

"Looking ahead, we stand ready to help the Falkland Islands Government in the urgent task of building a new hospital as soon as possible. A hospital architect will travel to the Falkland Islands within a few days. We shall provide the Falkland Islands Government with financial and other assistance in the construction of a new hospital.

"In the meantime, the temporary hospital set up in Port Stanley town hall includes the resources of an Army field surgical unit. The Ministry of Defence are also providing, via the airbridge, blood transfusion equipment and other reinforcement for the emergency stores that are already in place on the islands."

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, the House will thank the noble Baroness for repeating the response to the PNQ. We express our sympathy with the bereaved and, indeed, with the people of the Falkland Islands. The death of eight people in Port Stanley—which is a community of only 800 in number and is about the daily attendance of Members of both Houses of Parliament—is a tragedy which will cause deep sorrow both there and, indeed, among those who have a personal knowledge of the Falkland Islands. The concern we express, of course, would be expressed equally for any other community suffering such a tragedy.

As the 70 year-old hospital is used for civil purposes, with military co-operation, can the noble Baroness say what study of the hospital's needs has been taken and what has been planned with regard not only to health but to safety? Is this really a shortcoming of the Overseas Development Ministry's priorities?

Will the noble Baroness say what defence facilities are now available to augment the civilian services in Port Stanley? I think that she will know, as I do from having been there, that the town hall is really no safer a structure than the hospital was. I notice that in the latest copy of the Falkland Islands Focus, a digest compiled by the Falkland Islands Government's London Office, among the projects being currently discussed there is no mention of the hospital, but apparently that has been taken care of. Does the tragedy not emphasise what has often been stressed by Her Majesty's Opposition, that there is a danger of spending substantial sums on providing considerable resources for the defence role—a role which, I may say, we accept—while the civil population, whom the forces are there to defend, have access only to much more limited resources? Finally, will Her Majesty's Government review with the Falkland Islands Government the civil aspects and priorities as well as the defensive ones?

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, on these Benches we too are obliged to the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer given to the Private Notice Question and would like to associate ourselves with the expressions of sympathy to the victims of this disaster, to their relations and to everybody else concerned on the islands. I am sure that there is very little point in trying to track down who, if anybody, was responsible for this unfortunate fire. I do not think that anything will be gained by doing so.

What is important now is for the Government to decide what will take the place of the hospital that has been partially destroyed. For instance, is it the Government's intention that the new hospital should provide only for the needs of the population of the Falkland Islands, amounting to only 1,600 or 1,700 people, or for the needs of the entire garrison of 3,000 in addition? If it is their intention to maintain a garrison of 3,000 indefinitely (which I believe is now their intention), presumably the hospital will have to be much larger than if they contemplated the reduction or abolition of the garrison in the compara-tively near future?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I thank both the noble Lords, Lord Bishopston and Lord Gladwyn, for their sympathy which they have expressed over this tragic event. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, I think that all the questions of the study of the hospital and the internal arrangements will be the subject of the inquiry. It would be wise to wait until we had that inquiry before commenting further. I appreciate the point made by Lord Bishopston about the arrange-ments now being made for an emergency hospital in the town hall, as I myself have visited not only the hospital but also the town hall.

It is such a short time since the tragedy of the burning down of the hospital that I cannot add anything to what has been said in the Statement. We are glad that there is an Army field surgical unit in place and that there is provision for the blood transfusion equipment. I take the noble Lord's point. I assure him that we shall do what we can to see that the islanders are helped. On his last point about priorities and expenditure, of course the expenditure of £31 million development money has been discussed with the Falkland Islands Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, again, I was pleased to see. looked very much to the future. That is the important thing. As the Statement makes plain, a new hospital will be built. I think that it is too early at this stage to say any more than that.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, having had the opportunity to see this hospital during my visit to the Falkland Islands, I should like to praise all those who have worked there together in the past, military and civil, in the care of the patients. Our one regret is that the old people were still there. It had been hoped that there would be an Abbeyfield organisation or something similar to which they could turn. Perhaps now that the hospital has had this unfortunate accident, we shall make progress there. May I also say that the trustees of the Falkland Islands Appeal have already sent a telex to the Civil Commissioner offering help in any way he desires? We hope that in the future another happy hospital will be built up. as this one has been in the past. It has done extremely good work and carried out major operations. More modern equipment will be very useful.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House would want to echo what my noble friend Lady Vickers has said about the work done by the doctors and nurses, both civil and military, in the hospital, and the work which has been done by both civil and military personnel in co-operative effort in the hospital itself. I take her point about the old people who were still in the hospital. I understand that it was a matter of discussion in the Falkland Islands Government about a purpose-built home being developed. I am very glad to hear what she said about the trustees of the Falkland Islands Appeal offering help. I am sure that this will be very welcome.