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Saddleworth Moor and Tameside: Ongoing Fire

Volume 644: debated on Monday 2 July 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Office if it will make a statement regarding the ongoing fire on the Saddleworth and Tameside moors.

The moorland fires on Saddleworth moor near Manchester and across the border in Lancashire at Winter Hill near Bolton and into Derbyshire remain major incidents. The numbers of fire appliances and firefighters on the scene fluctuates each day according to the immediate need. However, the Manchester fire and rescue service has around 30 fire appliances currently deployed, and 29 appliances have been deployed to the Lancashire fire. In addition, two high-volume pumps are in use, and a variety of specialist equipment and teams. Support is also being provided from other fire and rescue services across the north of England and as far afield as the west midlands, and a team of specialist wildfire firefighters from Wales has also attended the Winter Hill site.

This wider support is being co-ordinated by a team in the Merseyside fire and rescue service, directly funded by the Home Office, which provides specialist support in major emergencies such as this. Furthermore, 100 military personnel have been providing support on Saddleworth moor since Thursday, and the initial three-day deployment has been extended to tomorrow, with a request now received for the soldiers to continue their support to the Manchester fire and rescue service through until Friday. The response currently also includes one helicopter from the local water company, and support from the National Police Air Service. We remain in regular contact with the fire and rescue services responding to the incident, and I have spoken about the fires with the chiefs of the Manchester and Lancashire fire and rescue services. The Home Secretary has also spoken to the Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham.

I place on the record my appreciation, which will be shared across the House, of the incredible work of the firefighters, the military and the other partner agencies in responding to the wildfires. The current hot, dry weather means that the fires are likely to persist for some time. The Government continue to liaise with the responders on the ground who are tackling the fires, and we are ready to provide further support when it is needed.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this question on the behalf of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). Words alone cannot adequately describe the scale of the challenge that the fire has posed to my constituents and to the emergency services in Greater Manchester. I express my gratitude to the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, which has worked tirelessly in the most extreme conditions, and to the police, the Army and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council for their exemplary work over the past week.

Are the Government fully engaged in doing all that they can to support those services? Given that we now have two major incidents just 25 miles apart, including a threat to critical communications infrastructure at Winter Hill, many colleagues and I were surprised that no Cobra meeting was convened over the weekend. Will the Minister say why that was? Will the Minister confirm that the magnificent support from Army personnel, who are literally beating the fire back with paddles, will remain in place for as long as we need it? If things get worse and more support is needed, will more support be made available? Will he say whether there is any truth in the rumour that military helicopters cannot be used to fight the fires because they no longer possess the correct firefighting equipment?

Will the Minister assure me that cost is not an issue? A fire such as this, which burns down into the peat, needs to be put out entirely because conditions can cause it to flare up again, so we must provide whatever the Greater Manchester and Lancashire fire services tell us they need. Crucially, will the Minister assure me that the cost of the military support will be met out of national contingency budgets, not local fire budgets which are already under severe strain?

Looking to the future, eventually the rain will always fall on Manchester, but that might now bring other risks. Our flooding plans are predicated on the moors being able to absorb significant rainfall. That capacity will obviously have been affected. Will the Minister therefore direct all relevant national agencies to help us prepare for that? Finally, will the Minister join me in praising my constituents, particularly the people of Calico Crescent in Carrbrook who were evacuated, for their stoic response in this most challenging of times?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his approach and for the gratitude that he articulated, which will be shared across the House, for the extraordinary work done not just by the firefighters, but by volunteers, the military and all the agencies involved in this heroic task. I send my commiserations to his constituents who have been directly affected and displaced. Their fortitude and patience have drawn wide admiration from across the country.

Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s central concerns, the Government are fully engaged, as he would expect during an incident of this size. As I said in my opening answer, I have spoken to both fire chiefs, and the Home Secretary has spoken to the Mayor. Our message has been simple: “Have you got what you need? If you haven’t, ask and we will provide.” That has been the case so far and will be the approach going forward. I share the hon. Gentleman’s hope that normal service will be resumed in terms of the weather over Manchester, but we will provide all the support and resources that the effort will require, because it looks like it will have to continue for some time. The teams will have the support that they need.

Of course, a number of constituencies are affected by this horrifying series of fires, including the constituency of Chorley, and the House and the people of Chorley will be pleased to know that the right hon. Member for Chorley (Sir Lindsay Hoyle), the Chairman of Ways and Means, is in the Chamber to listen to this exchange.

I pay tribute to the firefighters from Ribble Valley and from Chorley who are fighting those fires on the moors. I also pay tribute to those from the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry)—

And Pendle. The list is endless. We pay tribute to the firefighters’ courage and dedication, particularly given the heat they are also having to endure.

As the Minister knows, there are many summer festivals at this time, and people release lanterns that use candles to make them rise. Clearly, such things are a fire hazard in themselves, so will he look to ban them? Will he also make it absolutely clear that people flying drones over the area could well jeopardise the operation of those fighting the fires?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referencing the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on the Front Bench, and I am sure that the Minister is pleased as well.

I join you, Mr Speaker, in recognising the presence of Mr Deputy Speaker, to whom I spoke on the phone yesterday. He is concerned, as ever, for his constituents, and I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) in saluting the work of firefighters from across the country who have stepped into this heroic, protracted task.

On the use of drones, there is no clearer message than that issued by the Lancashire fire brigade: don’t. If people are considering going to take some photographs of the fire, don’t. Just get out of the way and let the fire service do its job. Do not get in the fire service’s way.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds).

The emergency responders have done an excellent job in tackling the fire. Their courageous work, day and night, for over a week in extremely hot conditions goes to show their passionate commitment to public service. The dedicated work of the fire service, with support from the Army, has prevented the fire from spreading to surrounding populated areas, and lives and properties are now not at risk.

I could spend my whole contribution talking about my admiration for the emergency services yet, while this Government wax lyrical about their appreciation for the fire service, they have presided over eight years of scathing cuts to fire authority budgets and firefighter numbers. The typical Government response is to point to fire authority reserves. However, given the progressive funding squeeze since 2010, alongside the required earmarking of most of the reserves, there are serious questions to be asked about the level of funding the Government have allocated for fire authorities to deliver a fully resourced service.

Will the Minister provide more financial support to local authorities in the area to mitigate the impact of the fire? I understand the exceptional circumstances of this fire, but the fire and emergency services must be staffed, resourced and paid adequately to ensure they are sufficiently prepared for any emergency. They should not be expected to react on a shoestring budget.

The effect on staffing levels of budgetary cuts over the past eight years is clear. Since 2010, Greater Manchester and Lancashire between them have had around 1,000 firefighters cut. Will the Minister acknowledge the failure of austerity and take a lead from Labour’s commitment to recruit 3,000 new firefighters and to scrap the pay cap?

The only bit of the hon. Lady’s question with which I agree is her admiration for the emergency services, which is shared on both sides of the House. The rest was badly misjudged, because this is not the day to try to make political points. What the country wants to hear is cross-party support and admiration for the emergency services, and it wants to hear whether the Government are prepared to commit the resources to support this effort for as long as it lasts, which is what I have done.

The hon. Lady talks about resources for the fire service, and I will let the numbers speak for themselves. Core spending power has risen this year by 1.2%. As a country, we are spending more than £2.3 billion on our fire service. The fire service has £650 million of reserves, which have grown by 88% since 2011. We are conducting a demand review to inform the next comprehensive spending review. This Government are determined to make sure our emergency services have the resources they need.

Because of the extreme drought and dryness in these magnificent and very important areas, will the Minister work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see whether there is a case for a comprehensive review of the trigger points on the fire severity index to develop a better framework for managing such situations? In addition to his rightful praise for our superb firefighters and the Army, will he also congratulate local farmers, gamekeepers and many others who live and work on the moors whose knowledge, equipment and expertise have greatly assisted the professional help?

I certainly join my right hon. Friend in joining all those people who have contributed, particularly if they have that kind of long, historical expertise of the moors. I certainly also undertake to work closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make sure that the lessons from this are learned to the full. I can give him some assurance that the National Fire Chiefs Council is driving work nationally to further improve the UK’s approach to wildfire preparedness, prevention and intervention, and this has included a wildfire prevention toolkit, which provides information and a range of tools to help fire and rescue agencies and partner agencies to prevent and reduce the impact of wildfires. He will understand the point: when a major incident such as this is over and has been managed properly, we have, alongside the congratulations and admiration, to learn the lessons from it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on securing this urgent question. I will keep my comments short so that hon. Members with constituencies in the vicinity have adequate time to ask questions. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I would like to join in the congratulations to those in the fire and rescue services from Greater Manchester and beyond who are fighting this fire in terrible circumstances and to the soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who, I am proud to say, are there assisting. In the light of the terrible conditions that the firefighters are working in, will the Minister confirm that the Government will step in to make sure they have all the resources they need? There were some reports at the weekend of firefighters appealing for sun cream and socks—rather basic provisions that they should have. Will he also tell us what steps the Government will take to support families affected by the fire who live in the vicinity?

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her support for the performance of the emergency services. I hope I can give her assurance on both her points. On the support for the firefighters up on the moors, there is a challenge. As the fire chiefs explained to me, they want to try to keep the firefighters up there as long as possible to keep up the momentum, but that presents logistical challenges in providing some basic needs. However, that is being managed by agencies, not least by a superb voluntary response as well from the community, which they have been extremely touched by. On support for families, of course that is a high priority and it is kept under constant review by the agencies involved in managing this situation.

Unmanaged moorland will often have heather growing to waist height. In circumstances such as this, that makes a tinder box of the moors. When I was at DEFRA, I was in receipt of a lot of appeals from the Moorland Association and others saying, “The wetter the better for moorland.” They want to block up grips and to see our moorland getting wetter. Good management of upland areas is vital, so will my right hon. Friend reject the absurd article in The Guardian that seemingly suggests that good moorland management, both for shooting and for agriculture, has in some way been complicit in causing this?

I defer to my right hon. Friend’s personal knowledge and his experience as a highly distinguished DEFRA Minister. I am certainly no expert in moorland management and I think we should listen to the experts on this. That comes back to the point I was making earlier about the need to learn lessons from incidents such as this.

My constituency is immediately adjacent to the fires on Saddleworth moor, and I wish to extend my thanks to Derbyshire fire service, the police, the Army, national park rangers, countryside rangers, Glossop mountain rescue, gamekeepers and farmers, who are all helping to tackle this fire. Will the Minister please assure me that the non-full-time firefighting staff involved in tackling the fire have been given the proper protective equipment, as we have seen disturbing pictures on social media of Army staff without protective fire equipment being drafted in to put out the fires?

I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. The primary responsibility of those managing and leading in this situation is the personal protection and safety of their people, and I have heard nothing to the contrary on that. I will seek further reassurances, but my understanding is that the work is being led with the kind of responsibility that she would expect. On her wider point, which she made well, the coalition of community support agencies, civil society and the state agencies coming together under extremely difficult and demanding circumstances has been heroic and deserves the House’s admiration.

Will the Minister join me in thanking the on-call firefighters of Alsager community fire station, whom I met yesterday and who, together with fire officers from across Cheshire, are travelling some distance to help with the work at Saddleworth moor? At the same time, fire officers are protecting communities where the heat means that there is risk of fire, as happened at the weekend at Mow Cop in my constituency. Firefighters are spending long hours protecting us, as well as going to Saddleworth moor.

I am sure that the whole House wants to put on record our admiration for not just the response to these particular major incidents and the way that firefighters have come from throughout the country to support that work, but for the work that they do back in their communities. They are one of the most trusted public services in this country, for very good reason. Day after day, dedicated firefighters get up without knowing what they are going to work towards on our behalf and for our public safety.

Sadly, because of global warming, we are likely to see more fires on this scale, so what extra resources is the Minister planning to allocate to emergency services and fire services to enable them to deal better with increased incidents of moorland fires?

On funding for the emergency services, I stated earlier that the core spending power of fire services increased this year, even though, as the hon. Lady knows, the number of fire incidents has fallen by 50% over the past decade. On the management of risk going forward, I am leading an exercise and speaking to every fire authority to understand their perception of future demand and risk, to inform decisions in the next spending round.

Will the Minister join me in thanking Staffordshire fire and rescue service for the incredible work it has been doing at Thorncliffe in the constituency of my parliamentary neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley)?

I am delighted to show appreciation for and thank, on the Government’s behalf, all the fire services that are involved in the support operation for these major incidents, as well as to thank my hon. Friend’s local service for the work that it does back in Staffordshire.

May I put on record my thanks to all the firefighters and those from the armed forces for supporting our fire service during these moorland fires? Many volunteer groups, such as mountain rescue services, have also been working to support the fire service. What plans does the Department have to support those volunteers who, like many others, are working in such challenging conditions?

The ho. Lady makes an extremely good point about the importance of the highly valued contribution of the voluntary sector and civil society in these types of situations, in which the combination of the state and civil society working together is so effective. I know from the fire officers how much that voluntary work has been appreciated. The Government do a lot to support the voluntary sector in this country. As we look forward and try to learn from these lessons, we need to think harder about the role of civil society and how it is supported in these situations.

Arson—the deliberate starting of a fire—is an appalling crime. Will the Minister make sure that anyone caught and found guilty of such an offence in respect of these moorland fires feels the full force of the law, with exemplary sentences to act as a deterrent to anyone else?

The whole House would agree with the abhorrence that my hon. Friend expresses about arson, which is the most terrible crime. He may be aware that one arrest has been made in the context of these fires. Of course, the criminal justice process must reach its conclusion on that, but I expect the full weight of the law to be applied.

May I associate myself and my party with all those who have made expressions of support and encouragement to those who are currently engaged in fighting this fire? The countryside that we currently see ablaze is very special, but it is not unique. We see that sort of area the length and breadth of the country and it supports communities involved in hill farming and crofting. [Interruption.] I am pleased that the House is so keen to express its support for hill farmers and crofters. These people make a marginal living at best, so can the Minister tell us what work is being done in Government to ensure that, God forbid, should this becomes a pattern this summer, support will be given to protect the livelihoods of the people in those areas?

I wholly endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said about the value of hill farming communities and the beauty of the particular locations of these terrible incidents. I come back to what I said before to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) about the need, once this situation is under control, to work closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and others to think about how these risks are managed more effectively in the future.

I too pay tribute to the emergency services and to the members of the local communities for their work in fighting this fire. I travelled through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) yesterday, and the impact on the air quality in particular is something of which nobody in Greater Manchester and around can be unaware. In considering the lessons learned, what attention will the Minister be able to give to a programme of public education, particularly for young people, in relation to fire safety on the moors?

There is a great deal of information out there on fire safety, not least from organisations such as the Forestry Commission. Again, in the light of these types of incidents, we need to look again at what is out there to see whether it is fit for purpose. The hon. Lady raised the issue of air quality, which I know is an issue of concern for many constituents. Public Health England is issuing health advice to residents and to those travelling in the areas affected by smoke and ash. I urge residents and constituents to keep referring to that.

May I note for the record that I hire my constituency office space from Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, and I am very proud to do so watching its heroic efforts this weekend? The scale of the problem is demonstrated by the fact that people can smell the burning moors all across my south Manchester constituency. May I just press the Minister on a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) asked about the military capacity to deal with this problem? There is a worry that we do not have the kit to do the job; that the military helicopters are not equipped with the technical capacity to put out fires. Can he clarify whether that is the case?

I do not believe that that is the case. A military helicopter was requested and deployed, but not actually used. Helicopters that are being used in this context have been supplied by the water company, but an RAF helicopter was requested and was deployed.

I join colleagues in thanking our incredibly brave firefighters, including those from West Yorkshire, and I do hope that the Minister will reassess their funding situation. Will he join Kirklees Council in the advice that it has given to people in the light of the extremely hot weather at the moment? I am talking about its advice on disposable barbeques, which is that people should not use them, or that if they do use them, they should ensure that they dispose of them safely?

Yes, I wholly understand and support what the hon. Lady says. Coming back to an earlier point, this is a time when people have to exercise some common sense. We know what the conditions are like and we know the risks associated with these products. Public bodies are putting out plenty of good sensible common sense advice about how to manage and reduce the risk in these circumstances and we should follow it.

We all salute the fantastic work of the firefighters. Has the Minister yet discussed with DEFRA the need to look after the moorlands, because the impact on wildlife will obviously be devastating?

The environmental damage associated with these fires is terrible. The hon. Lady will understand that my priority at the moment is to support the emergency services in managing the short-term situation and in getting it under control. On the longer-term issues, including the one that she is talking about, and the conversations that need to take place between the Home Office and other Departments, including DEFRA, those will happen.