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Police Escape Masks

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the procurement—or, as the case may be, not the procurement—of police escape masks from Avon Rubber. The matter affects the well-being of the company and that of my constituents who work in it, but it is also a matter of principle in relation to the moral obligation of Government to those to whom they look to provide them with the equipment that they need.

Avon Rubber is a famous manufacturing company situated just outside Melksham in my constituency. It currently employs a significant number of my constituents, as well as constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who, I know, hopes to speak in this short debate as well. It manufactures specialised equipment, often for Government and Government agencies, which is how the current circumstances arose.

In 2005, through the police national chemical biological radiological and nuclear centre at Winterbourne Gunner, ACPO (TAM)—the Association of Chief Police Officers terrorism and allied matters committee—identified the need for a design for a protective hood to be used by police officers in the event of a CBRN attack. It asked Avon Rubber, which has been the supplier to the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence and security services for nearly a century, to help it to draft a specification. Once the specification had been approved by the team at Winterbourne Gunner under the direction of Inspector Allan Sneller, the Winterbourne CBRN escape hood, as it had become known, was handed over to for an international tender.

The tender specified a requirement for a basic form of respiratory personal equipment to prevent harm to emergency responders so that they were better able to escape safely from a CBRN attack, regroup, re-equip and then redeploy. That, the tender stated, would preserve our limited human resources and enable responders to take the necessary actions to ensure the safety of both the public and themselves, and is the first stage in the response of a CBRN incident. The tender specified a range of required numbers between 170,000 and 350,000.

Avon Rubber won the tender on 24 August 2006. The official acceptance letter read as follows.

“On behalf of the Treasury”

—I stress those words—

“I accept your tender dated 23rd September 2005 for the supply and delivery of the CBRN escape hoods as amended by the enclosed emails dated 27th June 2006 and 18th July 2006. The contract will commence on 24th July 2006 for a 2 year period with a possible extension for a further 2 years.”

The cost of the hoods stated in the e-mails referred to in that letter was based on a volume commitment of 170,000—140,000 for the police and 30,000 for the national health service ambulance service. As required by the contract, Avon Rubber then invested £2.2 million in establishing a production line, together with sufficient manpower to run two shifts. Thus the minimum number of units contracted in the first two years was to be 170,000.

Soon after the award of the contract, the police national CBRN centre at Winterbourne Gunner was reorganised and most of its responsibilities transferred to the police national CBRN centre at Ryton, near Coventry. That, apparently and inexplicably, led to a change of attitude towards the escape hood. It now seems that the procurement and the contract were a sham, and that there has never been an agreement between the various police forces on a common strategy for rolling out the hoods. Indeed, the national co-ordinator for CBRN policing, Assistant Chief Constable Richard Stowe—who has since left the post after little more than a year—has told Avon Rubber that he sees no need for the numbers committed to in the contract.

After 20 months, the number of hoods ordered by the police amounts to 21,000 against the 140,000 promised, which would have equipped every officer in the country. There is now no pattern as to who has hoods and who does not. For example, the Scottish constabulary have ordered enough to equip every officer on duty. The Metropolitan police, having originally said no, have recently changed their minds and funded an order for 10,000. The ambulance service has bought its 30,000 so that every ambulance is now equipped. The Ministry of Defence has also taken 4,500 for its civilian contractors in Iraq. However, as a result of the change of policy with regard to the police order and the massively reduced take-up, the manufacturing line has had to be closed down and the work force reallocated or made redundant.

I and my hon. Friend are anxious to see this company, which employs our constituents, prosper. We feel that there has been a breach of good faith on the part of the Government, which is why I am raising this matter on the Floor of the House tonight. The principle to which I referred at the outset of my remarks is that where companies make investments because they have been asked to do so by Governments or their agencies, that must create at least a moral obligation on the Government to see, either directly or through its agencies, that the agreements upon which the request are based are subsequently fulfilled.

I have been to see the Minister in this regard and although he listened with courtesy, he later in effect washed his and the Government’s hands of all responsibility. I say to him in all sincerity tonight that he cannot wash his hands. The tender that led to this contract was accepted “on behalf of the Treasury”, which is an integral part of the Administration to which he, as a Minister, owes collective responsibility.

The Minister must see, as I do, that the shambles over this procurement could have far-reaching consequences. Why should Avon Rubber ever trust the police or the Home Office again? Why should it put any effort into supporting the design and manufacture of a vital product if in the end it is treated in such a cavalier fashion?

This goes wider, however. Increasingly, Government look to the private sector to provide for their specialist requirements. If they are to continue to do so, they must build a strong sense of trust with the private sector to ensure continuity of supply. In this case, that trust has blatantly been breached. As things stand, the message to other suppliers and manufacturers is that Government assurances upon which they are asked to make significant investment decisions cannot be trusted. That is a bad message to give.

There is another aspect. We live at a time of heightened security. I know, as does the Minister, that we can be anything but certain that there will not be further successful terrorist incidents. We might not know the nature of such incidents, but the possibility must be that they could well involve explosives, radiological material or chemicals or gas, or a combination of them. What would happen if, heaven forbid, there was such a serious incident? The ambulance crews would be protected by the hood—which, incidentally, has now been re-designated as an “emergency” hood. That would provide them with short-term protection at the scene of the incident while they helped victims, as well as the protection to escape. Astonishingly, they might have no immediate police back-up to support them because the police had no such hoods.

The Government owe it to the people to ensure that the services of law and order and the rescue services are all properly equipped to respond in a co-ordinated manner to such situations. Failure to do so could be culpable. I hope that the Minister will bang heads together in the national interest to reactivate the order. If he does not, he might have to accept responsibility for the consequences. What is certain is that he can no longer wash his hands of this.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) for allowing me a couple of minutes to make a few supporting remarks.

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 kind—so 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.

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 equipment—the so-called CR1 ensemble—which 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.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eight o’clock.