Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 409)



Patrick Mercer

  400. They are important men in this process, I take it?
  (Brigadier Houghton) They are from the perspective of the military. I go back to the policy framework within which we operate which is that there is no element of the forces which are under their command who are in any way resourced or dedicated to this task. Therefore it would be wholly misleading within this consultation process at the moment for the armed forces or, the Ministry of Defence, to pretend to local authorities and emergency planning officers, that there is a great quantity of military capability stood by and dedicated to come to their assistance in their hour of need, that simply is not the case. The only thing that can be promised is on any given day there will have been a rolling assessment made by the local Brigadier in liaison with his other Service colleagues. They will be aware that they can bring this amount of capability to the party to help out and they will go through a process of pre-planning and contingency planning to see what can be done on the day.

  401. Thank you for that very pragmatic and clear answer. It does lead me on to the fact that an understanding that a regional brigade covers a large area with a small quantity of both regulars and territorials. This is further complicated for some would argue good reasons, some would argue bad reasons by the removal of two of these figures, namely the commanders of two 52 brigades from this particular equation to form two 52 infantry brigades. How are those two brigadiers now going to be replaced inside this planning process?
  (Brigadier Houghton) Within Scotland in 52 brigade there is a natural, as it were, synergy between a single brigadier and the devolved government in Edinburgh. Therefore that process of co-ordination will be carried on throughout Scotland as a whole through that one brigadier. Within 2 brigade, again my understanding, this is detailed land command business is, that, he continues with his residual ICP tasks and he hands them off to his deputy, which is his stay behind infrastructure party, in the event of him being committed outside his area.

  Chairman: I am sure we will come back to this in our next session. We will move on now to assistance to health authorities, Frank Roy.

Mr Roy

  402. Gentlemen, we know that the health authorities are able to ask for military assistance under the MACC arrangements. Have any of those arrangements changed since September 11th?
  (Brigadier Houghton) No, they have not. Again, it is not MACC that would be MAGD, it would be Military Assistance to another government department. There are some standing operations by which the military can be called upon to produce additional ward capability and emergency ambulance cover. There has been no change to that. I think you have to see that in the context of what the armed forces have in respect of medical capability. The armed forces medical capability is optimised for deployment and is relatively small. The most significant elements of it are within the territorial army in terms of what the Armed Forces can mobilise for large scale effort and large scale warfare and most of that is bedded out within the National Health Service as it is. As it were, you would be robbing Peter to pay Paul if you were asking the National Health Service to call on the military, the majority of whose capability is actually within the National Health Service. The other thing, I think that ten or 15 years ago there were not frequent but a number of occasions upon which army capability was called upon—there might have been other services involved as well—to man ambulances. I remember my own band, the Green Howard band who were trained up as medical assistants as well, going to man ambulances during an industrial dispute. The qualities of clinical governance that now exist and have grown within the National Health Service and medical practice are not ones to which routine combat medical training now reaches. Clearly you will understand that our deployable military capability is one which is optimised to provide battlefield first aid and evacuation back to areas and hospitals where that level of clinical governance is met. We do not hold within our frontline units medical capability of the sort that would be required in the civil sector to meet routine peacetime requirements of the civilian medical service.

  403. Could I ask for clarity on that. In this post devolution time, are the agreed arrangements the same, for example, in Scotland which has health as a devolved issue? Is it the same, for example, as England?
  (Brigadier Houghton) Correct because the MAGD procedures would be authorised from the Ministry of Defence here, not through a devolved thing to Edinburgh.

  404. Could I ask you, obviously these attendants need training exercises, how often are the training exercises carried out?
  (Brigadier Houghton) We are not talking about medical now, or are we? We are talking about exercises in the round?

  405. Yes.
  (Brigadier Houghton) If I could speak particularly about counter-terrorist capabilities, which are the ones which clearly need exercises, there are three levels of exercise. At the top there is the AGLOW series of exercise, the second level is the REMOUNT series of exercise, the bottom level is the New Salesman. There are about 14 to 15 NEW SALESMEN level exercises a year, four REMOUNT exercises and one AGLOW level exercise. Just to give you a little bit of detail on that. The AGLOW level, that would involve ministers making decisions within COBR and from an MoD perspective would involve the full run out of the panoply of our counter-terrorist capability whether or not that is Special Forces, CBRN, EOD related, that is the AGLOW level. The REMOUNT level, of which there are four excersises a year, go to the level of exercising the police gold level of command and the ministerial and other levels are then simulated by what we would call a higher control in military parlance. Then the NEW SALESMEN level, of which there are 14 to 15 a year, are really one day desk top exercises, scenario planning on table top models, study day type things. That is the annual cycle of exercise.

  406. Can I ask you also more specifically, in the event of a chemical or biological terrorist attack, is there any direct assistance which could be given to the NHS?
  (Brigadier Houghton) Not into the NHS. We could cover that a bit in closed session. Dare I say it, it is a wholly different skill set. The capabilities and training of paramedics in the London ambulance service is far and away in excess of what we would bring to such an incident

  407. You would not advise?
  (Brigadier Houghton) No.
  (Mr Davenport) No, the military effort in that sort of situation would be geared very much to dealing with the incident. If it was a suspect CBRN device the first thing would be to try and ensure the device was not activated and if it was, to minimise the results.

  Chairman: Thank you. The last set of questions from Rachel Squire.

Rachel Squire

  408. I think we would all agree that what is absolutely crucial in dealing with either a potential threat or actually responding to a terrorist incident is clearly communication. The success of any operation depends on it. We have heard that the Ministry of Defence and the emergency services appear to have separate communication systems. Can I ask you what problems that does create or could create in co-ordinating information about possible threats and also responding to actual incidents?
  (Brigadier Houghton) You highlight an area of concern. Again, this is highlighted in the SDR new chapter work. It is identified anyway in the forward programme for the purchase of communications equipment to enhance the land regional chain of command. At the moment our deployable communications systems are not compatible, nor are they necessarily yet compatible within the blue light services themselves. The blue light services are going over to a system called BT Airwave. It is the intention that we would equip those forces which are likely to be employed on MACA operations, particularly the MACP with this system. I cannot, as of today, guarantee it will happen. It is a fight for resourcing priority, so as I say I cannot guarantee it as of today. Clearly this will be an enhancement to our counter-terrorist procedures. Hitherto, working on discreet nets, meeting up with liaison points, using mobile phones, fixed installations, it has been workable but it has been identified as an area where we need an enhancement.

  Rachel Squire: Thank you, Brigadier. You have effectively answered my second question which was that improvements to the communications systems, the procurement of the future home defence radio systems should ensure that inter-operability and capability and compatibility. Given you are not yet sure there is an absolute guarantee that will occur I would say, Chairman, it is clearly an area that we need to make clear our view as a Committee is essential.

  Chairman: Thank you. You will be most envious when I tell you that when we were meeting Mr Richard's assistant when we said to him "All this will cost a lot of money" he shrugged his shoulders and said—

  Mr Hancock: We are a rich country.

  Chairman: Yes. Some of the problems we have identified which we are addressing in the very early stages of our inquiry are going to cost a lot of money and we have been vigilant for a long time. I do not think this Committee nor yourselves will allow the lack of any assistance from allowing any decision makers to feel that the worst is over and therefore we can get away with a bit of incrementalism, of which the British are renowned. The good news is we will let you go. The bad news is we would like you to come back please.

Mr Hancock

  409. Would it be possible just to ask you to write to us and clarify the position where you would expect there would be the ability of the military to be able to talk to the blue light services.
  (Brigadier Houghton) When there will?

  Mr Hancock: When that will be achieved, that there was absolutely a coherent communication network which enabled each to speak to each other across the nation.

  Chairman: Thank you. You will drop us a note. Thank you very much.

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