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Queen’s recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52 (1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.


Mr. Speaker: With permission, I shall put together motions 6 to 12.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),



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Scientific Research

Cinemas and Films

Northern Ireland

Question agreed to.


Sunderland Hospitals

10.29 pm

Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North) (Lab): It gives me great pleasure to present this petition, as it gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to my constituent Mr. John Potter, who went to considerable trouble to obtain almost 5,000 signatures from people in my constituency and surrounding areas who use the Sunderland hospitals.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Fireworks Depot, Ringmer

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn .—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

10.31 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): You will understand, Mr. Speaker, that although I am usually keen on Adjournment debates, I would rather not have to speak about this subject. I am sure that those sentiments are shared by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), whose constituency has also been touched by this tragedy.

The terrible events of nine days ago led to an awful fire at the Ringmer depot. I was at a carol concert in the village and saw the fire engines go past, but I never dreamed that the consequences of the fire would be so desperate. Eventually, two firefighters—Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge—lost their lives, and nine other firefighters, one police officer and two members of the public were injured. The fire was the worst tragedy of its kind in living memory in east Sussex, and I think that I am right in saying that it was the first time this year that firefighters anywhere in England have been killed carrying out their duties.

This debate is at least an opportunity to put on record my deepest sympathies, on behalf of the local community in my constituency, for the firefighters’ families and friends. I also want to pay tribute to firefighters nationally, as they form a family across the nation. Many firefighters a long way from Ringmer have felt the loss very deeply, just as people in the area have.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Brian Wembridge and Geoff Wicker were both constituents of mine. Does he agree that, essentially, they were doing what firefighters do every day—putting their lives at risk to protect the public and our interests? Will he pay great tribute to the incredible bravery that the two men showed? They thought not of themselves in those moments, but of the wider community.

Norman Baker: I am very happy to share that sentiment with the hon. Gentleman. Firefighters and members of the emergency services in general put their lives on the line for us. We take that for granted on many occasions and it is very sad that those men paid the ultimate price for their service to the public.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. People in my community suffered something similar almost exactly a year ago, and on their behalf I should like to send my commiserations to the families and loved ones of the two firefighters who died. I also wish a speedy recovery to the other people who were injured.

I used to be a fireman myself, and I notice that the Minister for Consumer Affairs and Competition Policy, who used to have ministerial responsibility for the fire service, is present for the debate. The disaster at Ringmer will affect the whole fire service community in this country. Firemen have wonderful bravado, and they are there for us when push comes to shove. Our thoughts and prayers today are with the community represented by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker).

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Norman Baker: I am very grateful for that intervention. In making his comments, the hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House.

I hope that it is some comfort to the friends and families of the men who died that the public have shown so much concern and sympathy in this matter. People locally have contributed to memorial funds and have signed their names in the books of condolence available at stations in Lewes, Brighton, Hove and Portslade. Most fire services privately held two minutes’ silence on Sunday, at the time of the blast a week earlier. Fire officers collected memorial funds from the generous crowd at Brighton and Hove Albion’s Saturday evening match. At least it is some comfort, I hope, that the community feels strongly and deeply about the matter.

An inquiry is under way. I am happy to say that, as far as I can tell, the police, the Health and Safety Executive and the fire and rescue service are all co-operating in that inquiry and are determined to get to the bottom of what happened. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), will agree that it is important that the inquiry be thorough and open, and that, if problems are identified, they are honestly revealed so that we can learn lessons from them for the future. It is, of course, too early to give details of what has been discovered and I would not expect her to do that in her reply, but there are points that need to be raised. I raise them neutrally, just to ensure that they are covered by the inquiry. Obviously, we will find out in due course whether they are the basis for concern.

It is worth remarking that the business in question, Festival Fireworks—formerly, Sussex Fireworks—has been long established. It is 57 years old. It has had many high-profile customers, including the Prince’s Trust, Coca-Cola and Glyndebourne opera house, which is not far away. It organises displays anywhere in the world. It is a well established company.

There have been licences for three storage buildings on site. According to the Sussex Express, our local paper, which has excelled itself in its sensitive and thorough reporting of the matter, one building was allowed to store 20 tonnes of explosives, the second 600 kg and the third 100 kg. I am also told that the building had been subject to an HSE inspection two months before. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm that and say something generally about the inspection regimes that apply to those sorts of facilities. I am keen to learn, for example, what involvement the local authority and the fire and rescue service have in inspecting such premises, and whether the licensing regime and the approval regime for this sort of activity are sufficient, or whether there need to be changes to the licensing regime.

Charles Hendry: I support the way in which the hon. Gentleman is conducting the debate. Does he agree that it is one thing to have a licence for a fireworks factory, but that one also has to look at what is in the buildings and premises that are adjacent to it? The nature of this explosion was totally different from that of fires in fireworks factories in the past—as a result of the juxtaposition of the factory and some highly explosive gases.

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Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman neatly leads me on to my next point. As the Minister will be aware by now, there was a steel fabrication plant next door. As far as I can tell from reports so far, it contained acetylene gas cylinders. Having such cylinders in close proximity to fireworks is not a helpful or sensible idea. The presence of those cylinders may well not have been known about. The inspection and licensing regime may simply have dealt with the fireworks depot and failed—naturally perhaps—to take into account what might be in the building next door. If that is the case—I do not know whether it is—that clearly needs to be resolved when it comes to future consideration of licences. That is borne out to some degree by the thrust of the Manufacture and Storage of Explosives Regulations 2005, which have just come in. They refer to separation distances. There is obviously recognition that there needs to be some sort of exclusion zone around the explosives. I certainly agree with that concept. I wonder whether that was taken into account in considering what was stored in the steel fabrication plant next door.

Were the requirements on the depot sufficient? If they were sufficient, were they adhered to? When were the premises last inspected by the HSE? Was it two months ago? There is also the question of when they were inspected by the fire service and the local authority—if they do inspect the premises. Was there knowledge of the steel fabrication plant next door and its contents? Most obviously, what caused the fire? We still do not know that, and I imagine that we will not until there has been a proper investigation.

The Minister might be aware that Sussex police said in a formal statement that during the initial stages of the attendance of the fire and rescue service and the police,

The consequence of that was that people were in the close-by Wok Inn restaurant when windows were shattered and chunks of plaster fell from the ceiling. I am led to believe by the Sussex Express that a nine-month-old girl narrowly escaped serious injury owing to that problem in the restaurant. Should the evacuation and cordoning arrangements have been different? Was the situation entirely unforeseen and unpredictable, meaning that nothing could have been done about it? Alternatively, in retrospect, should different arrangements be in place for the evacuation and cordoning off of such depots and plants when an incident occurs? In a sense, what level of activity is triggered by an incident somewhere such as a fireworks depot, which obviously contains explosives, and what automatic responses occur? Is evacuation one of those responses—if not, perhaps it should be? Perhaps most obviously, were firefighters sent into a situation into which they really should not have been sent, with the tragic consequences about which we know?

A nearby resident has written to tell me that he wrote to the explosives division of the HSE in November 2005 to express his concern about the huge quantities of fireworks stored at Festival Fireworks. He feels that his letter was not responded to properly. Is there a question of whether there should be a maximum limit on the amount of explosives stored at any one site? This point perhaps relates to Buncefield as well. Should
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we spread the risk, in a sense, or is it better for strategic and safety reasons to concentrate it in one area where it can be properly looked after? I do not know the answer to that question, but it should be considered as part of the investigation.

I make a further small point, which I almost hesitate to raise. Roads have been closed all around the area. Local businesses are frankly unable to trade and people cannot move around as they would normally. All those businesses, including a charity, and the local residents understand the importance of the investigation and want that to come first, but if a way could be found to ease the situation for local residents, without in any way endangering or upsetting the investigation, it would be very welcome.

I am grateful to the Minister for her personal interest in the matter. I am also grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have expressed their sympathies to me and asked me to pass those sympathies on to my constituents. It has comforted the whole community to know that this is not simply a local matter and that people throughout the country have been concerned. We need a thorough and open inquiry, and we need to make sure that lessons are learned so that this sort of tragedy never happens again.

10.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I thank the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and all hon. Members who have spoken for the way in which the debate has been conducted. None of us would wish to be having the debate. We all have difficulty coming to terms with what happened during the tragic incident that took place at the Festival Fireworks depot in the hon. Gentleman’s Lewes constituency on Sunday 3 December.

My thoughts and those of the House are especially with the families of Geoff Wicker and Brian Wembridge, the two members of East Sussex fire and rescue service who died as a consequence of the incident, and with those who were injured. I extend my personal condolences and those of the House to their families, colleagues and friends.

The written statement that I made to the House on 7 December gave a brief outline of the events leading to the deaths of Mr. Wicker and Mr. Wembridge and the injuries to 12 other people, including nine firefighters, a police officer and two members of the public. East Sussex fire and rescue service received the initial call reporting an incident at the Festival Fireworks depot at 1.49 pm. That initial call was followed by 24 further calls from members of the public. The first crews in attendance arrived at the site at 1.59 pm and were faced with a rapidly developing fire in the depot, which was igniting fireworks. They made a request for further fire appliances to attend the scene on their arrival.

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