HC Deb 23 February 1989 vol 147 cc759-60W
Mr. Conway

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the findings of the board of inquiry into the fire at Central Ordnance depot, Donnington, on 25 April 1988 and the action which he is taking on them.

Mr. Neubert

I have now considered the findings of the Army board of inquiry which was set up to investigate the major fire at the central ordanance depot, Donnington on 25 April 1988 and to make recommendations on the action to be taken to prevent a recurrence. I have placed in the Library of the House a summary of the board of inquiry's report, with its findings and recommendations set out in full.

The board of inquiry concluded that the fire must have been caused deliberately, but was unable to establish who was responsible. The fire destroyed two-thirds of one large storage building (B1) and its contents. Those stocks were due to be transferred in September 1988 to a new fully fire-protected building at Donnington which it was decided to build following the fire at the depot in 1983. The board found that the recommendations of the board of inquiry into that fire had, with minor exceptions, been implemented. It observed, however, that stocks in the B1 building lacked effective fire-protection during the period when the new building to which they were to be transferred was being built.

The board found no evidence of a significant pollution hazard during or after the fire, although the contents and fabric of the B1 building represented a potential hazard. It took the view that insufficient information was given to the public to allay concern about possible health hazards. It also found some weaknesses in emergency procedures and occupational health arrangements for those employed at the depot and considered that, while the arrangements for ensuring its security were generally satisfactory, they did not cater sufficiently for the high risk of building B1.

Subject to two qualifications, the Ministry of Defence accepts the board's findings. The Ministry considers that the board's observation on the lack of protection for the stocks in building B1, pending their transfer to the new building, does not take sufficient account of the steps which were taken after the 1983 fire to reduce the level of stocks in the building and to improve the fire protection arrangements. The Ministry also considers that the board's view that insufficient information was given to allay public concern about possible health hazards disregards both the assurances given in public statements at the time of the fire and its aftermath and the steps taken to keep the local authorities informed.

The board of inquiry made 25 recommendations to deal with these aspects. They cover changes in policy and practice for the control of hazardous stores, handling of emergencies, public information, health and safety responsibilities, security and training. Its main recommendation is that funds should be made available as a matter of urgency to provide storage buildings with the proper level of fire-protection appropriate to the risk and that there should be an examination of the most practical way of protecting stocks while this work is being carried out.

In general the Ministry of Defence accepts the board's recommendations and is taking the necessary follow-up action. Some of the recommendations have already been or are being put into effect. Others require further consideration before final conclusions can be reached about how they should be implemented and this is proceeding as quickly as possible. As regards the board's main recommendation, all storage buildings need to be surveyed in order to assess what fire-protection measures are needed and to determine priorities. In view of the large number of buildings and the scale of work involved, the whole programme will need to be phased over several years, but the aim will be to complete it as soon as practical. Ways of providing protection against fire during this period are being considered.

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