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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What are the implications for grazing animals in the areas in which the plume descends? Can I take it that milk production in those areas will cease?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I cannot give him an effective answer about whether milk production will cease. We will have to make proper assessments and judgments on what the damage due to the fall-out from the plume might be. Of course, people are worried that as we successfully begin to defeat the fire and put it out, the thermal draughts that send the plume so high will be removed and thus the effects of the plume will come much closer to home. We are carefully monitoring the situation to find out what is happening and we are making assessments. However, I cannot say what action will be taken until we properly know what the threat is.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I pass on my condolences and those of my constituents to the people of Hemel Hempstead, which is a constituency that borders my own. I know that they will be as pleased as I am that support from Bedfordshire's fire and rescue service, police services and local authorities was so readily forthcoming. However, my constituents have expressed concern about the delay in putting out the fire, at the request of the Environment Agency, although I am sure that we all understand the reasons for that because we would not want our water supplies to be contaminated. Will the Deputy Prime Minister examine that matter so that when such fires happen in the future, they can be put out as quickly as possible to minimise the damage to the environment?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point. I think that more than 14 fire authorities sent fire vehicles and firefighters to assist. Indeed, I think that they do so automatically under the procedures that we have set up. When there is such an incident, there is no question about timing or assistance because people all act together, even if they are not called upon to appear at the site.

On the environmental costs, it is true that the Environment Agency was concerned—as, indeed, were the fire authorities—about the effect on the national water supply of applying foam and water on such a scale. It was not satisfied that there would not have been consequential damage, so there was a little delay. However, the delay certainly did not occur only because of the environmental advice. Given the heat, the chief fire officer had to make difficult decisions about when to apply foam and the mix of the water and the foam, which is concentrated. The combination of those two matters meant that the fire services did not immediately go into the fire. The other factor that would have delayed entry is that some tanks that had not exploded then exploded later. I heard one go up when I was there. It was one of the last two. It is difficult for firemen to deal with a fire when they do not know whether the tank that they are trying to keep cool will explode. All those factors may have added to the delay, but that delay was necessary for safety and for proper treatment in response to the situation.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I join my hon. Friends and the Deputy Prime Minister
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in their praise for the emergency services and for the work that they are doing in the neighbouring constituency to mine, Hemel Hempstead. I acknowledge my constituency water company, Three Valleys Water, which has been working with the Environment Agency and the emergency services to ensure that every effort is made to assist the fire service in limiting damage to the environment. However, I am very concerned about the longer-term impact on the environment, and especially the potential pollution of ground water supplies.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that Three Valleys Water loses about one water source a year due to pollution, and I would like his assurance that a comprehensive clean-up operation will continue to be a high priority for the Government in the longer term.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I can assure the hon. Lady that there is concern about undertaking a comprehensive review and a proper check of what is occurring. I am assured by the Environment Agency that it does not think that there will be an effect on the water supply. It undertook rigorous testing on that basis.

The hon. Lady may know that one of the requirements of many of these plants is to build a trench around them so that any spillages go into the trench areas. Those spillages can then be pumped out and put into reservoirs. The Environment Agency had to ensure that that provision was secure. We will continue to monitor the situation and I will be ready to pass on to the House any information that we receive.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): May I also pay tribute to the emergency services, whose courage and professionalism have impressed us all? I pay tribute in particular to the Bovingdon fire crew from my constituency, which was one of the first crews on the scene on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, Bovingdon fire station is due to close next year because of cuts in fire services as a result of additional responsibilities that have been placed on the service in Hertfordshire, but without any additional funding. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure us that future reorganisations of the fire service will not mean cuts to front-line services, which unfortunately Hertfordshire faces over the next few months?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware, particularly given the tone of his remarks, that such decisions are made by the local fire authority, which had to find a balance. Account is now taken of the regional implications of changes, and we are pleased that that brought in the necessary fire pumps. There are adjustments and changes, but no area will suffer from a lack of proper safety cover. That is the responsibility of the local authority area, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of that.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): May I join with the Deputy Prime Minister and with hon. Friends in paying tribute to the emergency services, including, of course, the firefighters of the Hertfordshire fire service, which includes firefighters in Radlett in my constituency, who have been playing a full supporting role since early yesterday? They have demonstrated once again the vital role that they play.
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I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for the role that he has played so far. However, in the aftermath, I urge him, together with my colleagues, to do what he can to ensure that the burden of this event does not fall disproportionately upon Hertfordshire.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I join in paying tribute to the fire services and the other emergency services that are involved in the incident. Once the issues in this immediate incident have been resolved, I hope satisfactorily, will any of the lessons that will undoubtedly be learned from the incident be shared throughout the United Kingdom to prevent any recurring incident?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I can assure him that, as in all these incidents, there are lessons to be learned, and they will be shared throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Last week, we heard about the crash of a C-130J aircraft in Afghanistan. One factor that contributed to the crash was the lack of a fuel tank inerting system. Does the Deputy Prime Minister know whether there was an inerting system in the fuel tanks at the depot, and is it something that will be included in the investigation to see whether the introduction of such systems would valuable?

The Deputy Prime Minister: To be honest, I do not know. I will try to find a proper answer for the right hon. Gentleman, and write to him.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I wish to be associated with the Deputy Prime Minister's remarks
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about the emergency services. In the past few years, the number of whole-time professional firefighters in the United Kingdom has fallen. As a result of the incident and the review, will the Deputy Prime Minister undertake to look at that and see whether we should reverse that trend by starting to increase the number of whole-time firefighters in the UK?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House will know of the recent Bain report on manpower in the fire services and the demands that we make of them. Considerable changes are under way, but a combination of full-time and part-time firefighters is used, depending on the circumstances. I am quite satisfied at this stage that we have sufficient manpower to be able to deal with all the risks and assessments, and to meet the changes that are necessary.

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