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Flooding: Military Deployment

Volume 753: debated on Monday 24 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the military deployment during the recent floods.

My Lords, our people lent invaluable support to the relief efforts, with a peak of 5,000 personnel from all three services and the reserves. They were available to provide everything from sandbagging to aerial reconnaissance, as well as highly visible reassurance to the public. Now, in the recovery phase, we still have 223 people in the field. Once the operation is complete, we will make a detailed assessment of our contribution to civil resilience within the overall national response.

I thank my noble friend for his response. As we saw with the recent flooding and with the Olympic and Paralympic Games, when we deploy our military in the appropriate civil circumstances the results are always excellent. What further plans do the Government have to review the use of our military in other potential appropriate civil circumstances?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend—the work of the Armed Forces is always excellent. The lessons learnt will provide a valuable opportunity to look at how the contribution of our Armed Forces to civil resilience can be enhanced and accelerated in future emergencies. We are working with the Treasury to consider whether there is potential for improvement to the funding processes. We routinely support civil authorities on a wide range of resilience activities, such as support in the event of industrial action by fuel tanker drivers and firefighters.

My Lords, on 12 February the Prime Minister told Parliament that money would be no object in the response to the floods and that local authorities had only to request military assistance, yet the flooding started in late December in the West Country. Why did it take not far short of two months to make that statement on money being no object, and why was it so long before the military was called in? Why was no action taken by the Government in the first week of flooding to consider and determine the potential role that the military could play? Was it because the Government were not prepared to find the funding to enable cash-strapped local authorities to call in the military until weeks later, or was it because the Government just did not get round to doing it?

My Lords, the department received its first request for assistance on 29 January and had deployed the requested support by the following morning. As the weather continued to deteriorate, defence became increasingly involved in providing support to local authorities.

Can the Minister confirm that the contribution made by reservists to flood relief was in this case substantial?

Yes, I can assure my noble friend that that is the case. The average number of reservists employed in mid-February, at the peak of the crisis, was around 80 per day. In most cases reservists were employed on man training days—the payment method used for routine reservist activity—although there were a small number of formal mobilisations, namely of signallers and engineers. I managed to visit some of the reservists who helped with the flood work, both infantry and engineers, who told me that they were very well received by the public for the work that they did.

My Lords, would the Minister like to say a little more about the issue of funding? We are aware that when the military is called out in support of the civil power, if it is to reduce the threat to life there is no charge, but very quickly the charging becomes extremely high. That could well have been the reason why local authorities were concerned about calling the military out. That would seem to be counterproductive when trained bodies of people are available to help in civil situations. Can the Minister say what the Government are thinking of doing about that?

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a good question. Certainly the perceived risk of a substantial full-costs bill at the end of an operation can be a concern to local authorities. We would like to do more to support the civil authorities, but we must ensure that the defence budget is not disadvantaged, nor indeed gains any inappropriate benefit, from so doing. The Secretary of State is currently in discussions with the Treasury, exploring the possibility of a full marginal costing recovery scheme, which would make the costing situation much clearer to all parties in advance.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that numbers themselves have a real strength? In our push to try to reduce the number of people in the military to get maximum efficiency, we are losing that. France in its White Paper, for example, saw the use of the military in various départements as a very important part of the whole structure. Have we really looked at this in detail? I believe that we have reduced numbers to a level at which they cannot assist the civil power where they should be able to do so, because they are formed bodies which are very often self-supporting.

My Lords, as I said in my initial Answer, we are looking at this whole process to see how to improve it in future. This is one area that we will certainly look at closely.

Can my noble friend confirm that the deployment to which the Question and his Answer relate had no effect on routine operations?

My Lords, the personnel allocated to assist with flooding were selected in such a way that their participation would have no impact on military units’ preparedness for future operations. That includes contingency operations should assistance be requested in the event of future flooding or other severe weather.

My Lords, as the flood water recedes and people begin to reoccupy their homes, can the Minister say whether he anticipates that the armed services will be needed for a similar role next winter?

My Lords, I cannot say that I am very good at forecasting the weather, but if the Armed Forces are called on I am sure that they will do as good a job as they did this year.

My Lords, military assistance to the emergency services in the Environment Agency was very welcome. I well recall an even more acute situation in the foot and mouth disease outbreak. However, had that outbreak occurred a few months later, the military would all have been in Iraq. It is, therefore, important to recognise that military priorities change and we need to invest in the emergency services. I have just been given information that there is to be a huge cut in West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service of about £2.5 million this year and another £1.5 million next year. We depend utterly on those emergency services; help from the Army is good, but we need to continue to fund them.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point, but the Armed Forces are always ready to do what they can to help the civil authorities.