R.a.F., Neatishead (Radar Station Fire)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th August 1966.

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The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

Photo of Mr Bertie Hazell Mr Bertie Hazell , North Norfolk

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will now make a statement about the fire at Neatishead radar station.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question No. 84.

On 21st February, 1966, my predecessor made a statement in the House about a fire which had broken out five days earlier in the underground operations block of the radar station at Royal Air Force, Neatishead, in which three civilian firemen lost their lives. My hon. Friend told the House that a Royal Air Force Board of Inquiry had been convened and would carry out a full investigation.

I have now considered the Report of the Board of Inquiry. This Report confirms that the fire was deliberately started by Leading Aircraftman John Cheesman, who was subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment by a civilian court.

The investigation of this fire has disclosed that certain improvements can be made to reduce the fire risks in buildings of this kind. An examination of all R.A.F. underground and block-house buildings is being carried out with the object of recommending practical improvements which will reduce fire risks. Liaison between the R.A.F. and local fire authorities at all such buildings is being strengthened in various ways, including more frequent familiarisation visits and on-site exercises under realistic conditions at least twice a year.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has accepted a recommendation of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council for England and Wales that a small committee under the chairmanship of the Chief Inspector of Fire Services should be set up to review fire fighting operations in underground premises of this kind. The lessons of the Neatishead fire will be studied by this committee.

The Ministry of Defence has received from the National Association of Fire Officers a request for an ex-gratia award to the dependants of Divisional Officer Dix, as well as representations on behalf of the dependants of the other firemen who also tragically lost their lives in the fire. Since then the representatives of the dependants in all three cases have applied to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for compensation arising from the criminal action of L.A.C. Cheesman.

I think, therefore, that it would be proper for me to defer my consideration of the possibility of any ex-gratia payment by the Ministry of Defence until the Board has made its decision on the claims before it.

Photo of Mr Bertie Hazell Mr Bertie Hazell , North Norfolk

While thanking my hon. Friend for his statement, may I ask, first, whether, in view of the lapse of time since the fire, he can inform the House when the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board will reach a decision, and, secondly, whether the basis of compensation from the Ministry of Defence differs from that of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I understand that in the present case applications on behalf of the three dependants are currently being considered by the Board. The Board is not, however, the responsibility of my right hon. Friend. I understand that a decision will be made as soon as possible.

I understand that in each case the amount of compensation will be based upon the principles laid down in the Fatal Accidents Acts, 1846 to 1959. As any compensation which my Department or the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board might make is based upon exactly the same legislation, I think it proper that we should await the report of the Board.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

May I, first, thank the hon. Gentleman for the help and courtesy which he has shown in this case? Is he aware that the chief fire officers of local government fire brigades have been under a grave disadvantage in not being able to make prior inspection of premises in Ministry of Defence ownership before having to fight a fire? Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that these premises should be on all fours with any other public buildings so that fire officers can familiarise themselves with fire risks?

If, in the view of the hon. Gentleman, the Compensation Board does not make an adequate settlement to the three persons involved, will he, none the less, be prepared to reconsider the matter at that stage?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Once the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board has considered the matter we will, of course, look at it again.

I understood that fire officers have had access to this type of premises, but, certainly, I equally understand that from now on everybody who might have to fight fires in such hazardous circumstances will have access to these premises.

Photo of Mr Victor Goodhew Mr Victor Goodhew , St Albans

The House is grateful for the hon. Gentleman's assurance about a reduction in fire risks, but can he tell us what security measures he is taking to ensure that further acts of sabotage of this type do not take place in vital radar installations?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

When, as in this instance, a serving airman, deliberately and for reasons which are difficult to assess, sets fire by piling together paper, and so on, it is extremely difficult to guard against this sort of thing. I can, however, give the assurance that everything possible that can be done, given a difficulty of this kind, is being done.