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I am familiar with the Defence NBC school at Winterbourne Gunner where I have trained with my own trusty respirator, which was, of course, made at the excellent Avon Rubber in Melksham. The EH20 escape hood was developed jointly by Winterbourne Gunner and Avon Rubber. Subsequently, at the time of its relocation to Ryton, the Police National CBRN Centre appeared to change its mind on that piece of kit, which it had jointly brought to life with Avon Rubber. Such dither on something so important is cause for great concern, and I hope the Minister will comment on that.
The tender was accepted by the Treasury and was subsequently reneged on by the Home Office, and yet the Scottish police and the English ambulance service have proceeded with it in full. Either they have got it right or the English police have got it right; they cannot both have got it right. At a time when we are supposed to be looking at a co-ordinated response to the threats we face, it strikes me as somewhat odd that we should be adopting such a mosaic response to threats of this kindso much for a joined-up approach to homeland security.
The EH20 escape hood is designed for escaping safely from a hazardous environment, and it is good for about 20 minutes. It was developed following the Tokyo subway disaster of 1995. The Minister will remember that the wash-up from that incident seemed to suggest that the emergency services responses were somewhat lacking, and that the toll from the incident might possibly have been due in part to the failure to plan adequately for such eventualities. Such threats still stand, but where is the means of protecting escapees
and first responders? The Minister needs to understand that there will be first responders at such scenes who will wish to go in and render assistance.
What message does the Minister think his indecision and delay send to partners in the UK defence industry? Our defence and security industries are meant to be in some kind of partnership with Ministers as we face the various novel threats of today, yet here we have the Government establishing themselves as a somewhat unreliable customer who reneges on deals. That seems to be a strange way of approaching a partnership. We can be sure that the industry will have noted the way Avon Rubber has been treated by the Government, and that it will wish to amend any tenders that it makes for this kind of Government work accordingly.
In the absence of a dedicated homeland security Minister, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing is responsible for this matter, as he is responsible for preparedness. I have to say that this sorry episode makes me wonder what he is up to.
The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Tony McNulty): I shall address the concerns expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), but I shall ignore the contribution of the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), as he has failed to show the common courtesy of the House by not asking me whether he could take part in the debate. I do not know whether he asked the Chair.
As is customary on these occasions, I would like to congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes on securing the debate. As he said, I am familiar with the matters that he has raised, having met him on 16 April 2007 to discuss the EH20 escape hood, and having corresponded with him on several occasions since then. He will perhaps not be surprised to hear me say that I can add nothing new to those exchanges.
As I have previously indicated to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, although I agree that the situation that has arisen is regrettable, it is not one in which the Government have a direct role. The Government have always worked in close partnership and co-operation with the police to ensure that they have the necessary resources, training and equipment to perform their various roles. However, chief constables retain ultimate discretion over tactical decisions and operational requirements and procedures. They make the day-to-day decisions about priorities for their forces, the deployment of their staff and the use of the funding available to them to deliver their objectives.
The Home Office has, of course, worked particularly closely with police forces over the years to tackle the threat of terrorism, including the possible use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials or weapons against this country. As part of that, the Home Office has centrally funded the development and procurement of police personal protective equipmentthe so-called CR1 ensemblewhich enables police officers to operate in hazardous environments. However, it is not the case that the Home Office centrally supplies all police equipment; nor does it supply all equipment used for counter-terrorism purposes. Central funding and procurement arrangements apply to a limited and agreed set of equipment.
Forces are themselves generally responsible for the training and equipping of their officers, as appropriate to their duties. The costs of doing so are met from the annual police grant paid to each force. It is entirely a matter for each force to decide on its individual needs and priorities for day-to-day policing in its area, and to determine whether to acquire additional quantities of centrally supplied equipment or to supplement it with alternative kit. I would far rather rely on the judgment of each and every one of those chief constables in assessing the equipment and resources that they need, rather than on the judgment, however impassioned, of Back-Bench Members of this House. That is the role of the chief constables. I slightly resent the aspersions cast on the integrity of every one of those chief constables and the decisions that they make in real and serious circumstances for the protection and welfare of their local communities.
In 2003, the Association of Chief Police Officers identified a potential risk to police officers who might be exposed to hazardous environments without notice and would therefore be unprotected from the effects of dangerous materials. In its resulting report, ACPO recommended a range of measures including raising staff awareness of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents and promulgating guidance on what to do following a CBRN attack. ACPO also identified a need for portable safety equipment for officers who are not normally expected to deal with CBRN incidents. On the latter point, a scrutiny of the marketplace at the time failed to identify an available, suitable product that could be issued to front-line officers for use, should they find themselves caught up in such an event. A decision was therefore reached to seek to develop a bespoke product.
A multi-agency steering group led from the police national CBRN centre at Winterbourne Gunner was convened to mount a procurement process. After competitive tendering, that resulted in the award of a contract to Avon Protection UK for the EH20 escape hood.
A framework contract was put in place by the Office of Government Commerce enabling not only police forces but other public sector bodies to purchase quantities of the hood. I am informed that to date orders to the value of £2.9 million have been placed by the police, the ambulance service and the Ministry of Defence, equating to around 50,000 hoods.
The establishment of the police national CBRN centre at Ryton has had no bearing on decisions on the EH20 hoods. The contract was already in place at the time and decisions on procurement, as always, rest with the individual forces. The right hon. and learned Gentleman states that the contract is misleading in that it stipulated that at least some 170,000 units would be purchased. Although the contract does indeed provide estimated sales volumes and overall value, it also makes it clear that there can be no guarantees of the actual number of units purchased. That is entirely the norm in a framework contractual agreement. Given that the requirement for the EH20 was derived from a police health and safety assessment and that individual chief constables are responsible for the health and safety of their staff, it is right that forces should be responsible
for purchasing the products according to their respective needs and their professional assessment and judgment.
The police national CBRN co-ordinator has taken steps to ensure that all forces are aware of the existence of the EH20 hood and of the framework contract arrangements. He had carried that out before I met the right hon. and learned Gentleman and, at my behest, has done it again since. Although I agree that greater clarity and precision during the procurement process would have been desirable, it is unlikely that such a situation could occur again given the more rigorous approach now being adopted for any centralised police procurement processes for CBRN equipment.
As I stated at the outset, the operational responsibility for day-to-day policing rests with chief constables, as does the decision on appropriate equipment and procedures for their staff. Decisions on whether to purchase the EH20 hood are therefore solely a matter for individual forces. It would not be appropriate for the Government to seek to interfere with that operational independence or in the commercial arrangements entered into by Avon Rubber by way of the framework contract.
That the draft Cheshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 31st January, be approved.