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16 Oct 2002 : Column 117WH—continued

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Army Ranges (Essex)

12.30 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): On a point of order, Mr. Beard. I should appreciate your guidance on whether it is in accordance with the customs and practices of the House of Commons for the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) to raise a debate on the testing and demolition of ordnance at Shoeburyness and on Foulness island, both of which are entirely in my constituency, without having notified me in any way. I wrote to him on 14 October to express my concern about that.

In a similar situation on 27 March 1995, Madam Speaker gave clear and specific guidance—first, that she deprecated any such practice and, secondly, that it was contrary to the customs and practice of the House of Commons. In view of the importance of the ranges to my constituency and to the nation's security, Mr. Beard, I would appreciate your views.

Mr. Nigel Beard (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. Madam Speaker's ruling on 27 March 1995 applies to such circumstances. It states:

I endorse those sentiments, but they refer to good custom and practice and do not invalidate the debate.

12.31 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter of considerable concern to my constituents and those of other hon. Members. I had not intended to comment on the background to the debate, Mr. Beard, but in the light of your comments I should make it absolutely plain for the record. I and several other Members of Parliament, properly representing their constituents, have expressed concerns over these issues for a long time, and a number of us have sought to secure an hour and half's debate in this Chamber. At the end of the last Session, frustrated at having failed to secure a longer debate, I applied for a half-hour debate, and learned only last Friday that I had been successful. I understand—although I have not had the opportunity to check—that my office notified not only the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), but all the other Members concerned.

Sir Teddy Taylor : Absolute rubbish. Totally untrue.

Mr. Gale : My understanding is that my office notified not only the hon. Gentleman but all the other Members, in writing, that the debate was to take place. I told the hon. Gentleman—and he accepted it before he raised his point of order with you, Mr. Beard—that I would check that. Only this morning, I received his letter dated 14 October. I replied immediately, and that reply is on the board. In my letter, I said that I understood that he had been notified and that if he had not been I offered my

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apology. Because he requested time to intervene in the debate, I pointed out to him that several colleagues who knew that it was taking place, having been clearly notified, had expressed a wish to intervene. I have said that I am perfectly happy for any hon. Member with a constituency interest in the subject to intervene in so far as time permits. Moreover, I spoke to the Minister when he entered the Chamber this morning—the first opportunity that I had had—to verify with him that as far as I was concerned, and as long as it was in order with you, Mr. Beard, it would be in order for the hon. Gentleman to speak briefly when I had concluded my remarks. I cannot be fairer than that, and I am sorry that we have wasted three minutes on the matter.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise an issue that is of considerable concern to many of my constituents living along the north-east Kent coast between Herne Bay and North Foreland—that is, the testing of ordnance and demolition of time-expired munitions on behalf of the Ministry of Defence at Shoeburyness and Foulness island and on Maplin sands in the Thames estuary—which is the source of most of the problem, and which I believe is not technically in any Member of Parliament's constituency.

I am aware that this is a subject of interest for my hon. Friends the Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), and that they have made representations on behalf of their constituents. Constituents represented by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) have also expressed concerns, as have several local authorities, including Tendring, Colchester, Maldon, Thanet and Canterbury district and city councils. Tendring and Canterbury have passed formal resolutions to

They call for

Those are their words, not mine. The parish councils of Herne in Kent and St. Osyth in Essex have expressed similar sentiments.

Shoeburyness is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, and it is only right for me to say immediately that he has not endorsed the views that I shall express. I wrote those words before this morning's intervention, and I stand by them. I mean him no discourtesy in saying that it is the constituencies that bear the force of the shock waves emanating from Shoeburyness, rather than the site from which they are generated, that give rise to this brief debate. It is a peculiar fact that it is the areas to either side of the Thames estuary, along which the sound waves and shock waves rebound and reverberate, that suffer now, and have for many years.

The Ministry of Defence owns the site at Shoeburyness and QinetiQ—formerly the Defence Evaluation and Research Establishment—now operates

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part of it under licence. As the Minister said in a response to my constituent Mr. Woollett of Beltinge, Herne Bay, in a letter of 21 August, Shoeburyness has been operating for about 150 years. The Minister will forgive me, however, if I say that his assertion in the same letter, referring to a lack of

was less accurate. I could take up the whole of my remaining time with a litany of reported cases of cracked walls, fallen ceilings, rattling windows, shattered conservatories, broken ornaments and eventual compensation paid to claimants against the MOD—presumably not for no good reason.

It is really since the late 1980s that the size of ordnance tested and volume of munitions disposed of on the mud flats of Foulness island have escalated to the point at which they have become intolerable for residents along the Thames estuary.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): In endorsing the time scale that my hon. Friend has just mentioned, I suggest that it is surely no accident that that was precisely the time at which the disposal of old explosives was moved to the site. While many of us recognise the vital testing work done at the site, we nevertheless ask why the destruction of old explosives cannot be carried out somewhere else.

Mr. Gale : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall come to that point in due course.

I have before me a letter written by my noble Friend the Earl of Arran, dated 19 March 1990, in response to letters sent by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East on 15 January 1989, 9 January 1990 and 16 January 1990. Those letters referred to

Lord Arran wrote:

He added:

My representations on behalf of my constituents living in Herne Bay, Birchington, Westgate on Sea and Margate have led me to visit Shoeburyness on several occasions, once as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the MOD in the company of the Minister's predecessor, the noble Lord, Viscount Cranborne, and on other occasions with parties of constituents. I have been out on the mud flats to watch controlled explosions, I have been given assurances of new incinerators that would smoke out and burn explosives, obviating the need for detonation and I have seen trials using water beds to deaden the sound of shock waves—all to no practical avail.

In 1995, my parliamentary colleague Roger Freeman, now Lord Freeman, then the Minister for Defence Procurement, wrote to me stating that

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However, with his customary honesty he then let the cat out of the bag, saying:

In all my dealings with Shoeburyness, Sir John Chisholm, chief executive of DERA and subsequently of QinetiQ, his staff at Shoeburyness—in particular, Peter Honey and John Denyer—and most Ministers, including the present one, have been the soul of courtesy.

However, the problem has become worse and worse. In January 2000, the Herne Bay Times reported:

A local chartered civil engineer commented:

On that occasion, the DERA spokesman said:

So uncharacteristic that on 1 March 2001 the Herne Bay Gazette reported:

Understandably, Ralph Mitchell vented his anger on behalf of his late wife, describing the complaints phone line as

Throughout that period, my hon. Friends and I pressed the case with the then Minister of State, Baroness Symons. We were again told that part of the problem stemmed from the MOD's Yantlett establishment on the Isle of Grain. The MOD personnel at Yantlett vehemently denied that suggestion. The MOD commissioned a firm, Vibrock, to carry out a monitoring exercise. Unsurprisingly, after months of delay and, no doubt, much expense, the consultants concluded that the vibrations and shock waves experienced by so many of our constituents did not exist.

An attempt to offer early warning of explosions through local media led to headlines such as "Get your earplugs out for tomorrow", "Gunfire Warning", "More Gun and Blast Testing" and "Explosive Weekend", and prompted Baroness Symons to write to me saying:

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Notwithstanding the unwelcome publicity, the then Minister, in another letter, said:

I am not entirely certain how many complaints she felt were necessary to demonstrate a link between cause and effect, but correspondence and signatures on a petition now run into hundreds on my own files alone. In that context, I should thank my constituent Tony Wilkinson and his friends for the many hours that they have spent helping me to ensure that those living in Whitstable, Tankerton, Chestfield, Herne Bay, Minnis Bay, Birchington, Westgate on Sea, Westbrook, Margate and Cliftonville have been kept informed of ministerial observations.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): Like my hon. Friend, literally hundreds of constituents have approached me about the disturbance caused to them by the activities at Shoeburyness. According to figures that I obtained from the Minister, the number of official complaints received is running at just below 1,000 each year. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is only a small fraction of the actual number of complaints? I have often had reports of people who have been unable to get through on the complaints telephone number—and it is not very widely publicised. Furthermore, 10 times that number will not be aware that there is an official line on which they can register a complaint.

Mr. Gale : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know from general parliamentary experience that most people do not complain. However, walk down the high street in any of the towns along the north Kent coast that I have mentioned—I am sure that the same is true in Essex—and people will ask, "Did you hear the bang?" My own home is nine miles inland from the coast. On a good day—or a bad day, depending on how one cares to think about it—we can hear the explosions, and they shake our house.

So what can be done? My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex is the shadow Secretary of State for Defence; my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford is on the board of visitors of the military corrective training centre at Colchester; my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has had a distinguished career with the Territorial Army and I am a postgraduate of the Parliament and armed forces scheme. I have also served as parliamentary private secretary to two Ministers of State for the Armed Forces. I hope that we may claim that, collectively, we are reasonably well informed.

We recognise that at all times and never more than at present our armed forces need the best support and facilities available, that ordnance must be tested and that munitions must sometimes be disposed of. However, we are not satisfied that the densely populated Thames estuary is the best or most suitable site for the location of what is clearly a necessary facility. Having discussed the matter some months ago with the Minister, who received me most courteously, I am not even sure that he believes that Shoeburyness is any longer the right location.

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It is claimed that Shoeburyness is in some way unique. Sir John Chisholm in a letter to me dated 5 December 2001 stated:

That is nonsense. It is a myth that must be laid to rest. Are we seriously saying that teams of military beachcombers armed with metal detectors paddle around in the mud of the Thames estuary picking up shells that are probably already deep in silt? I shall not embarrass the Minister by asking him to tell us how many shells have been recovered during each of the past five years because both he and I know that the answer could probably be provided without greatly taxing the fingers of both hands.

Next, let us touch upon security. This is a sensitive subject, but it is no great secret that, given the much-vaunted shallow water referred to by Sir John Chisholm, explosives for disposal arrive not by sea but by rail. Those trains, inevitably, must travel through densely populated areas of east London. I do not want unduly to alarm the good souls living along that line, but we live in uncertain times. Should a terrorist get his hands on the right wagons, I have a feeling that the earth might move more than a little in one or two of those towns. Surely, we should seek a remote coastal site where the necessary explosives can arrive by sea and be guarded immediately in secure berths.

Then there is the question of cost, which I have always believed is the sticking point. Until now, the thought has been that we have a location at Shoeburyness which, although by no means ideally suited to the military needs of the 21st century, is at least there. The acquisition of an alternative, assuming that the MOD does not already own one, and the equipping of it with the necessary storage bunkers, firing ranges and incinerators, and perhaps with dedicated port facilities, might cost millions of pounds that the Chancellor is not persuaded should be spent. He might think differently if an Essex town were flattened by an exploding train, but, that aside, a parliamentary answer from the Minister stated:

I hope that the Minister will not consider me frivolous or unduly mischievous if I suggest that if the Chancellor can find that sort of money to pay consultants, finding a few million more to secure a state-of-the-art munitions testing and demolition facility for our armed forces might not prove too difficult.

We have a real and unacceptable problem and I believe that the Minister accepts that. We have a military need that must certainly be provided for and we all accept that. We have an opportunity. The Government have embarked on a review of all their defence estates to determine value for money and to establish whether there are ranges and sites that could be better used militarily or returned to public use for development or recreation.

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On behalf of my colleagues and our constituents, I ask the Minister simply to give an undertaking. Will he take the window of opportunity afforded by the review to consider an alternative location that will allow QinetiQ, owned by the Government, the Carlyle group or whichever preferred bidder finally takes on the job, to provide for the vital needs of our armed forces while at the same time removing from both banks of the Thames estuary an unacceptable environmental intrusion that has persisted for far too long?

12.49 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has left 11 minutes for the Minister and Back Benchers to express their opinions on the subject.

Mr. Nigel Beard (in the Chair): Does the hon. Gentleman have permission to intervene?

Mr. Gale : I said in my opening remarks that I was perfectly happy for the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) to intervene, and the Minister has conceded that as well.

Sir Teddy Taylor : I hope that the Minister will appeal to my hon. Friend to disengage from what I regard as an irresponsible, irrational and damaging campaign. Of course we know that there is noise from Shoeburyness—I live a mile from there myself. Of course I know that my house shakes. I know that we undertake dangerous work there, but let us get across some of the facts.

First, how valid are all the complaints that we hear from the hon. Gentleman? The Government have spent a lot of money on two surveys, as he well knows, and there is a third survey about to come because of all the complaints. What did the surveys, which were by independent people, actually find? They found that some 80 per cent. of the complaints received about noise and vibration, were not related to Shoeburyness in any way. Only one in five of them was related to Shoeburyness. It seems that some were associated with explosions at the Ministry of Defence range at north Yantlet in north Kent, and others were from sources that could not be identified.

Secondly, what about the number of complaints? Are people marching in the street? There are about 2.5 million people in the area. A tiny number, about 10 people, have sent in 256 complaints. The total is less than 1,000. As regards the volume of noise, we should bear in mind that the monitored levels give readings for Shoebury of about 1.5 mm per second or less, and a maximum of 1.7 mm. By comparison, a quarry is allowed 12 mm. Although I appreciate the real complaint, of which I am well aware, the idea that it is something extraordinary is ridiculous. The plain fact is that most of the complaints have nothing to do with Shoeburyness at all.

Shoeburyness is a desperately important facility. It is one of the world's leading test stations that serves the MOD and other allied defence organisations in vital testing and security. It is also used for the decommissioning of dangerous explosives, which otherwise could kill or maim civilians. It is the custodian of 8,000 acres of beautiful land, and manages its site of scientific interest standards at the highest level. It also

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contributes to the local economy, with 380 people working there. The unique facility has shallow water that allows us to fire munitions into the water when the tide is in, and to recover them when the tide is out. We cannot run away from that, and I hope that the Minister will confirm it. It allows us to test the strength of the design of the munitions and ensures that they will be safe and effective for our armed forces.

The environmental test centre is also based there, in which live munitions are environmentally tested and safely disposed of. All munitions have to undergo environmental testing before they can be accepted into service. Because of the huge area, the range offers the opportunity for the Army to carry out explosive ordnance demolition training, and that helps to prepare the forces for dealing with unexploded bombs. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is irrelevant, we should remember that one vital task carried out in Shoebury related to work on the Rolls-Royce Olympus engines following the tragic Paris airport crash of Concorde. Shoebury was involved in the testing of those engines, and the aircraft are now flying again.

I am well aware that we often get complaints from constituents about many things. I am aware of the complaints about the noise from Shoebury, because I live about a mile away, and I know what the position is. The situation honestly reminds me of those who call me on my mobile and say, "Will you do something about these telecom masts, Mr. Taylor? It's an outrage." We have to face up to our responsibilities. Shoebury provides unique facilities, and many tests have taken place.

I am sure that the Minister will announce today that there will be another test, but does he accept the fact that the tests already carried out by independent people showed that most of the complaints were a load of codswallop and had nothing to do with Shoeburyness at all? It is very disappointing that we should have such irresponsible action on a matter of importance and national security. The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the complaints I made to him about comments in the local press about what happened in Foulness. It was appalling—

Mr. Nigel Beard (in the Chair): Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman of the need to leave time for the Minister to respond?

Sir Teddy Taylor : I shall, therefore, sit down and allow the Minister to respond. I hope that he will say what I have said: the complaints are ones that we should not take as seriously as presented.

12.54 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie) : I shall do my best to reply to the points raised in the relatively limited time left to me. I recognise that this is an important issue for hon. Members' constituents, however difficult it may be objectively to fit them into what takes place at Shoeburyness. I recognise that were I to set out to build a new test and evaluation range, I probably would not build it at the mouth of the Thames. However, we have been using that range for 150 years, and there are several reasons why QinetiQ and the MOD feel that they have no option but to carry on using it.

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Shoeburyness is one of the world's leading test sites and delivers services that make a vital contribution to national security. We are all agreed that our armed forces must have safe, effective and reliable weapons and equipment to do their job. The comprehensive testing regime to which all munitions entering, or already in, UK service are subjected is designed to ensure that they are as safe as possible. Some of that testing, particularly on the larger calibre weapons, can be done only at Shoeburyness because it is the only site in the UK that is big enough to conduct those activities.

The primary role of Shoeburyness is the testing and demolition of ordnance and explosives. Testing comprises accident simulation and environmental attacks on weapons to assess their safety and suitability for services, and proof firing of munitions to prove by sampling that they meet the specification that we require. Trials work is undertaken to determine weapon effects on structures and equipment and equipment vulnerability to various weapons. The weapons tested may be manufactured for UK or other NATO services. Shoeburyness also undertakes work to ensure that protection of national assets remains viable against attack by an aggressor using ever more sophisticated weapons. Occasionally, testing is conducted on the types of weapons that potential aggressors or terrorist organisations might use.

Disposal by detonation is undertaken on obsolete items if it is unsafe or otherwise inappropriate to break them down for disposal in any other way. I have no doubt that hon. Members have seen the kilns that we use for that. We try to conduct that part of our work with little noise pollution.

I shall now address the cost of the activity in Shoeburyness in environmental terms, in particular noise and vibration. QinetiQ is not exempt from noise legislation as some local residents believe, nor is it flouting the law with the scale or the number of detonations. Health and safety legislation sets a maximum acceptable level of noise pollution at 130 decibels, weighted for the audible range of the human ear. The decibel scale is logarithmic, which, as hon. Members know, means that roughly every increase of 3 decibels is a doubling in power. QinetiQ has a self-imposed noise limit of 125 decibels at the range boundary, which is well within the law.

The noise level limit is managed through the use of meteorologically based computer prediction equipment and through six monitors that provide real-time measurements from selected sites in north Kent and Essex. There is also a single monitor on site. If predictions show that activity is likely to exceed the limit, it is prevented from going ahead. However, a few safety tests are undertaken during the year that are lengthy and once started cannot safely be stopped. If unpredicted changes occur to the weather conditions, thus affecting noise propagation through the atmosphere, the resulting impact on local communities may marginally exceed the limit. Similarly, there have been a very few occasions on which, for national security reasons, a trial has been undertaken regardless of the QinetiQ imposed noise limit.

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During the past year, some 35,000 individual explosive and gunfire events have taken place at Shoeburyness. The total number of complaints of noise nuisance and alleged damage to property during the most recently measured 12-month period was 919. Of those, 326 were from Essex, 103 were from the immediate vicinity of the site and 484 were from north Kent. Of the 919 complaints, 253 came from 10 individuals. It being reasonable that a single significant event is liable to generate several complaints, it is a fact that well over 97 per cent. of Shoeburyness demolition and explosive test activities generate no complaints at all. Furthermore, during one study period, there were regular recordings of complaints that related to sound and vibration levels at times when the site was either shut down for the weekend or closed for the evening. That may be difficult for hon. Members to accept, but it is true.

The MOD recognises that there can be implications from trials activities and the facilities management contract, placed upon QinetiQ as the site operator, expects it to manage activities in a manner that reduces the impact of generated noise. QinetiQ conducts its detonation activities within the statutory and site imposed limits and there has been no significant increase in either scale or frequency of such detonations during the past few months. The site manager has arranged for residents to visit, which has proved popular and useful. Many visitors have consequently declared a better understanding of what is going on.

Independent reports are being conducted to determine whether there is any correlation between the site's activities and the ground shock being experienced by residents in Essex and Kent. There is no clearly demonstrable link, but a more comprehensive study will be carried out to try to prove conclusively what effects our activities have.

In conclusion, I recognise people's concerns. I say in mitigation that Shoeburyness performs a valuable function, and, where we can, we try to move the noisiest activities to areas where they will cause residents fewer problems.

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