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Civil Defence (Suspension Of Powers) Bill

Volume 415: debated on Monday 5 November 1945

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Order for Second Reading read.

4.17 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

As its Title indicates, the purpose of this Bill is to suspend certain operative provisions of the Civil Defence Acts, and I imagine that very little detailed explanation is necessary to show the necessity for the Bill. In 1937 it became necessary to pass the Air Raid Precautions Act, the first of its kind which dealt with the powers and duties of local authorities in relation to the protection of persons and property from injury or damage in the event of hostile attack from the air. As the then Secretary of State (Sir Samuel Hoare, new Lord Templewood) observed in communicating the text of the Act to the local authorities who were called upon to shoulder the burden,
"Although everyone must profoundly deplore the need for the measures contemplated, the Secretary of State is confident that local authorities will proceed with energy and determination to carry out the vitally important duties with which they are charged."
That was on 28th January, 1938. The ramifications of those duties appear from the regulations made shortly afterwards to define the matters for which provision was to be made. There were no less than 17 headings of subjects for inclusion in the schemes, which included the giving of instructions and advice to the public; the arrangements for the dissemination of air raid warnings; for the collection and distribution of information and reports of air raid casualties and damage; the organisation of the various civil defence services, air raid wardens, first-aid parties, first-aid posts, casualty clearing stations, ambulance services; arrangements for the clearance of debris; for the detection of poison gas; for decontamination; for the repair of highways, streets, public places and sewers; and so on. They cover practically the whole range of the local government services.

The regulations were made on' 10th March, 1.938. Within a year the international situation had gone from bad to worse. The Government of the day realised that although local authorities had applied themselves with vigour to the task, there was much to do to perfect air raid precautions. Accordingly, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson) on 23rd March, 1939, introduced a Measure which some 15 weeks later became law as the Civil Defence Act, 1939. It was an omnibus Measure, the general scope of which is described in the schedule to the Measure now before the House. As the right hon. Gentleman said in his Second Reading speech:
"There is nothing in the Bill with which any sponsor could find grounds of satisfaction. Every Clause, almost every line of it, reflects the anxious times in which we live."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th April, 1939; Vol. 345. c. 2633.]
One of the main objects of the Measure was to extend the provision of shelter against air attack. Whereas the earlier Act had affected local authorities' duties to provide shelters and train employees in first aid, anti-gas measures and fire fighting were now placed on industry and commerce. A general duty was also laid on factories, mines and public utility, undertakings in regard to the obscuration of lights and the camouflage of premises. The two Acts provided the working basis for the protection of life and property against the effects of enemy attack.

The new provisions could barely begin to operate before war broke out. The A.R.P. Department of the Home Office, and the Ministry of Home Security which succeeded it on the outbreak of war, provided the local authorities and industry with guidance and technical information. All concerned—local authorities, industry, trade unions, the general public—co-operated throughout the years of war to produce that fine organisation which by general consent stood up well to all the tests imposed upon it. I am quite sure the House would wish to recognise this afternoon the great value of the work that was done by a very wide range of citizens, many of whom were not available for active service overseas, who gave up days and nights to training themselves for this service, and, when the call came in circumstances of very great danger, proved adequate to the responsibilities that they assumed, many of them voluntarily. Very happily for all of us who remained in this country, these tests, heavy as they were—and nothing I say this afternoon must be taken as belittlingthem—inflicting heavy casualties and great damage, were much less severe than the gruelling ordeal to which the enemy was subjected by the Allied air forces. Our air forces first took heavy toll of the Luftwaffe. The enemy then developed the V.1 and V.2 weapons. In our turn we developed new weapons of attack, including saturation raids, and culminating in the atomic bomb used against Japan.

As a result of all that has happened since 1939, it is probably true to say that in many respects the technique of civil defence, highly developed as it has been in this country, is now out of date. What we now need is time to bring it up to date, and that is the reason for this Bill. If we have to carry on with civil defence we do not want to be engaged in the task of trying to win the last war in less time than it actually took. We do desire to have a service that is designed to deal with what we shall probably have to meet in the future. Those who drafted the Civil Defence Acts had to think in terms of a war that was to come. Naturally, the Acts contained no provision for the automatic termination, when hostilities ceased, of the obligations which had to be imposed on the community at large when war seemed imminent. As a consequence, the duties and obligations to prepare air raid precautions schemes, to provide shelters, to train workpeople and others, are continuing liabilities still in force and technically enforceable. Having regard to the state of our technical knowledge, it would be foolish and unprofitable to go on applying the Acts without taking account of the changed circumstances. Not only would there be a waste of money and labour, but a great strain would be put on local authorities who have not only to wind up the existing wartime organisation of civil defence, but have immense responsibilities to provide housing and bring about a restoration of normal life.

No one would be more pleased than the Government if, instead of suspending the operative provisions of the Civil Defence Acts as this Bill proposes to do, it were possible to repeal those Acts. It would mean that the Government were satisfied that the risk of air attack on this country had passed for all time. Unhappily, the Government cannot yet take that view. While for the reasons indicated the temporary suspension of the operative provisions of the Civil Defence Acts is desirable, it is important that the enactment of the Measure should not give rise to an impression that civil defence and the part which the local authorities have played in it are of historical interest only, or that civil defence is not still an essential part of the social life and obligations of the country. So long as this country is liable to attack, the Government regard it as essential a duty to make adequate arrangements for the protection and rescue of the civil population, for the mitigation of the effects of air attack and for the restoration of industries and services after attack, as it is that the fighting services should be maintained for the active defence of the country. Holding these views, the Government have directed that a careful study should be made of the effects of the most recent forms of air attack, and that the civil defence organisation as hitherto known should be reviewed to sec what adaptations and modifications are needed to meet the requirements of the country, should the country unhappily again be attacked from the air. Missions have been sent to Germany to study the effects of saturation raids of all kinds, the structural provision there for the protection of the population and the way in which the German services functioned. Scientists are now in Japan investigating the effects of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima raids. We shall in due course know a great deal more about civil defence requirements, the standard of shelter that ought to be provided and the type of organisation best fitted to deal with air attack.

While these investigations are proceeding, local authorities will, among their many pre-occupations, continue to give their invaluable assistance in the orderly winding up of the great civil defence organisation created during the war. The authorities are rightly conscious of the great part which they have played, and the Government are sure that when local government is again called upon to take its share in national defence, if it should unfortunately again be called upon, it will not be found wanting. Until a new start is made spontaneous movements will probably develop amongst the ex-members of the civil defence organisation in many parts of the country to form their own social clubs. I have already received from various parts of the country information that men and women who had banded together in this great organisation during wartime desire to keep together, and when I last visited my own constituency I was approached by some of the men there who are anxious to from a club in which they will not only be able to talk over the past but receive some knowledge of what possible requirements in the future might be.

This is all to the good, and no doubt local authorities will look favourably upon these ventures, with a view to their developing later on into Civil Defence centres at which lectures and training in new methods can be given to meet any future requirements. By such methods, the advantages of past operational experience in raids, and of continuity, will not be lost. When plans for a new organisation can be drawn up and a time comes to recruit and train volunteers for the new services, there will be a nucleus of potential officers, non-commissioned officers and instructors at hand. I do make a very earnest appeal this afternoon to the people that took such an outstanding part in the defence of the country during the war years, to keep together, especially the keenest of them, so that they may be there, should they again be required, as a very effective nucleus on which the future service can be built.

Clause 1 of the Bill provides for the suspension of the obligation imposed on certain local authorities to prepare and submit A.R.P. schemes, and for the termination of the suspension by Order in Council if it should become necessary. It is quite evident that to attempt at the present time to enforce these various requirements might seriously retard many measures of reconstruction and recovery. I doubt whether, if we took action in the courts or elsewhere, any penalties would be inflicted, in present circumstances. Therefore we propose that this suspension should take place.

Clause 2 provides for the suspension of the provisions of the Civil Defence Act, 1939, to the extent specified in the Schedule, and again for their revival by Order in Council. Clause 3 provides that Orders in Council made under the Bill should be laid before Parliament, and for the application of the Negative Resolution Procedure to them. The Schedule, which in this case is really the most important and informative part of the Measure, describes the provisions of the 1939 Act which are to be suspended. We have purposely framed it in general words. The Bill, in general, leaves operative those provisions which have a present or continuing importance; for example, for safeguarding persons in respect of acts done, and for maintaining the machinery for undoing arrangements made during the war. There are others which, even if not fully up to date in their wording, do not require immediate action to be taken by anyone and accordingly can be left for consideration when decisions have been taken as to future policy.

It is proposed not to suspend Part VII of the Act of 1939, at the express request of the Minister of Health, who requires it for the continued operation of the Emergency Medical Service. The House will probably wish to know the reasons why the Government propose that, when the time comes to revive the suspended provisions, the procedure proposed is by way of Orders in Council instead of by substantive legislation. The explanation is that it is not contemplated that the revival of the suspended provisions shall be dependent upon the international situation or upon domestic politics. As and when the existing organisation in all its ramifications is reviewed and it is possible to prescribe a new technique, in the light of the experience of the hostilities now ended and of intelligence as to any new form of attack that seems possible, it is intended that the process of rebuilding Civil Defence within the framework of legislation now sanctioned, shall begin again in a quiet and orderly fashion.

For that reason, for example, it is proposed in the Bill that an Order under Clause 3 may be made generally or in relation to any area, and either in relation to all provisions of the Civil Defence Act, 1939, or in relation to any particular provisions. It seems to the Government that it would be better to proceed piecemeal and gradually, than to wait until guidance can be given upon every aspect. It would be wrong to take up the time of the House by introducing a Bill every time a particular aspect of Civil Defence had been surveyed and the Government were satisfied that the relevant provision of the Civil Defence Acts could be brought into operation. Hence the adoption of the Order in Council Procedure.

Naturally, if any radical alteration in the whole system of Civil Defence were found to be necessary or advisable, the Government would not attempt to proceed by way of Orders in Council, but would come to Parliament with new proposals in the ordinary way. Representative associations of local authorities have been told in general terms of the proposals which are now before the House, and the proposals seem to command general support in that quarter. I ask the House to give a Second Reading to the Bill to suspend the powers that are enumerated in it and that were granted to the Home Office, the Ministry of Home Security and the local authorities under the two Acts which I have cited.

No-one would be more happy than myself to find that it was never necessary again to proceed in this matter of preparing for Civil Defence. We have seen the destruction of our towns and cities, and death coming down upon our villages, in a way that has never happened before in the history of this country. None of us desires to see it again. What we hope is that the organisations now being prepared to deal with the future peace of the world may be effective; but, after all, they may involve us in playing our part and the possibility of being involved in some future struggle. While we hope and pray that may not be so, I am sure that every Member of the House will feel that it will be necessary for us, for some time to come at least, to watch very carefully and to see that we are fully prepared to meet anything that may come upon us.

4.38 p.m.

We are much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for the clear exposition he has given us of the effect of the Bill. My hon. Friends have been scolded, if not mildly chastised, in some quarters of the Press over the weekend for not presenting a more vigorous opposition to Measures introduced by His Majesty's Government, but with the best will in the world, I am afraid that I can find nothing in the Bill which I can oppose. Glancing at the Clauses we see that Clause I provides that no air raid precautions scheme shall be prepared or submitted during the currency of the Bill. Clause II, which is expounded in detail in the Schedule, says that such things as power to construct or provide air raid shelters shall be suspended and that no requirement which relates to the obscuration of lights and to camouflage shall apply during the said period. It is impossible for His Majesty's Opposition to take any exception to provisions of that character.

I should, however, like to associate myself with the tribute which the right hon. Gentleman paid to the Civil Defence Services as a whole and on this occasion I think it is appropriate that I should pay my tribute, as the right hon. Gentleman did himself, to the great administrative genius of my right hon. Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson). From 1938 until the beginning of the blitz in 1940, he devoted all hours of the day and the night to building up this great organisation, which, when the struggle came in September, 1940, met all the calls made upon it. I also welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said in relation to the continuation of study and research on this matter of Civil Defence. It is, obviously, very important. We all hope, as he does, that we shall not be again engaged in war, but it is obviously vitally important that this country should have up-to-date research in Civil Defence methods.

I should also like to say how much I agree with the provisions in the Bill for resuming Civil Defence Measures by Order in Council, if such resumption becomes necessary. This is the fourth arm of modern warfare and it is vitally important that all parties in this country should be agreed as to the necessity for the maintenance of all our forces, whether they be situated on sea, or land, or in the air. Therefore, on this occasion, I am afraid I must disappoint our critics in the Press and say that there is nothing in the Bill to which I can take any exception at all.

May I ask the Minister if he will explain the reference in Clause 3 to forty days as the period during which Orders may be made the subject of a Prayer?

The forty days to which my hon. Friend refers is the common form in which the provision is made that an Order must be laid before both Houses of Parliament for that period. I know of no exception to that rule. It becomes operative from the day on which the Order is made.

4.42 p.m.

I think we shall all agree that it is unfortunate that we are able to suspend the operation of only part of the Civil Defence law, at this stage. Of more interest than what is contained in the Bill is the statement of my right hon. Friend with regard to the future. I am sure that the majority of local authorities will be glad to have some guidance, as soon as they can possibly get it, of the future requirements of Civil Defence. They now have an organisation which is in a state of suspended animation. In many cases people have grown up with Civil Defence, and have developed organising ability in connection with the population. Much of this ability is in danger of being dispersed, so we hope that the Government will come to some interim decision as soon as possible.

One point, not mentioned in the Bill, is that of the continuation or organisation of Civil Defence clubs in order to provide a nucleus for a Civil Defence organisation, whatever form this may have to take. This nucleus should be self-supporting as far as possible, but I think the Government should make some provision for such clubs, where people are willing to form them and have buildings or funds available. The Government ought to assist to some extent in the initial formation of clubs and in the expense incurred, as well as in obtaining people to give lectures. In some districts suitable buildings will be available and in other places they will not because the buildings will be wanted for other purposes. I hope the Government will regard this as an interim measure in Civil Defence and will encourage these clubs to function so that, although the clubs may be subject to certain rules, the nucleus to which I referred will, in fact, be there.

4.45 p.m.

The House will agree generally with my hon. Friend's suggestion that local authorities would like to know, at the earliest possible date, what the Civil Defence of the future is likely to be. I have no doubt that most of us would like to know if we are to have Civil Defence at all, or whether it might be abolished, but it would be futile at this stage to speculate. The matter is under consideration. The next few months will be of vital importance, and the subsequent policy of the Government must be determined by the research and inquiries which are now taking place. Immediately information one way or the other can be imparted, it will be. As to social clubs, before any steps can be taken with regard to Government support it will be necessary to ascertain what measure of local support there would be for such clubs. At this stage it would be impossible to say that any financial assistance could be given.

Will the hon. Gentleman give the whole House the advantage of hearing what he is saying?

I am sorry. It will be necessary to find out to what degree the social club idea would be popular among Civil Defence workers. Until we know, it will be impossible to formulate any policy.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for Thursday.—[ Mr. Pearson.]