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Civil Defence

Volume 929: debated on Thursday 7 April 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3 p.m.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the important subject of the state of civil defence in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom civil defence policy seems to have suffered from a polarisation of public opinion as to its value and worth.

On the one hand, many regard civil defence as a farce—a Dad's Army of elderly, often overweight gentlemen who seek to extinguish nuclear bombs with stirrup pumps and buckets. On the other hand, there is the cataclysmic view of those who believe that it is the preeminent duty of Government to protect citizens, and that civil defence requirements must play a dominant rôle in Government policy. The problem lies in balancing these cries of "Wolf" against the claims of those with legitimate arguments. I believe that there is room for this middle way.

There is evidence that the United Kingdom civil defence establishment and the policies followed are run down and out of date, and that for the Home Office as regards civil defence a policy of "out of sight" has largely meant "out of mind".

Over this whole subject there has drifted a fog of officialdom. Correspondence is littered with phrases such as "not in the public interest to say", "restricted circulation", and so on. This is emphasised by the structure of civil defence organisation—to which I shall return later—which is split between national and local government and among varying major Departments of State at national level. This means that it is almost impossible to pin ultimate responsibility for anything on anybody.

I hope that when she replies the Minister will not pull an official blanket over her head but will give as much information as she can on this subject, which is of such legitimate public concern.

My personal concern about the state of the United Kingdom civil defence organisation has been heightened as a result of answers that have been given to recent Questions tabled to the Minister on this subject. Perhaps I may put these answers under three main heads: manpower, money, and training and policy.

Let me take the subject of money first. At present we appear to be spending about £20 million a year on civil defence. That sum has remained largely unchanged in the past three years. As a yardstick, that represents about 50p per head of population, or, indeed, a little less than that sum. I do not pretend that 50p is necessarily a useful yardstick, nor does it necessarily call for increased Government expenditure, nor, indeed, would the spending of more money be certain to lead to better performance in this sphere. But by any standard £20 million is not a tremendous amount to pay to defend the entire civilian population. More important, we have not been able to discover the figure of planned spending in the current year.

I am glad to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) present for this debate because he has tabled Questions asking for information on the Government's plans for civil defence spending in the current year. Unfortunately, no clear, definitive response has been forthcoming. I hope that today the Minister will give the House some idea of the intended spending by the Home Office in the current year.

Secondly, I turn to the subject of manpower. I wish to sub-divide this matter into Civil Service establishment and voluntary workers. I understand that about 400 civil servants are now employed, mainly on civil defence. I emphasise the word "mainly", because this could cover a multitude of sins. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will tell the House what the word "mainly" means. Will she say what percentage of time these personnel spend on alternative duties? At the same time, will she say whether the total includes those on the civil defence establishment employed in building up and maintaining the communications network that is so vital to the defence of the realm? Furthermore, will she say whether the figure includes those who are employed in the maintenance of the food supplies and bulk stores that, I under- stand, have been set up by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

I turn to the subject of voluntary workers. There are two main arms—the Royal Auxiliary Corps and the Auxiliary Fire Service. I was depressed to find that at 31st December last the Royal Observer Corps had an establishment of only 9,964 against an authorised establishment of 11,904—a deficit of nearly 20 per cent. That surely is cause for concern. I was even more depressed to learn that the Auxiliary Fire Service was disbanded completely in 1968. That begs the question whether the Government believe that there will be no fires in the next war.

I do not suggest that a mere increase in manpower will necessarily lead to an improvement in the situation, but, taken with the low budgetary spending, the small amount of manpower available indicates a low-key approach to civil defence policy.

I turn to the subject of training and policy in respect of civil defence forces. To take training first, I understand that the Home Office maintains only one college of civil defence training, at Easingwold, near York. I understand that in 1976 a total of only 2,187 people attended the college. That is a small number of people undergoing official training in one year when compared with the nation's population, amounting to 56 million.

More important is the question of the policies followed. When I asked the Minister about the state of affairs, I was informed that the last comprehensive policy study was carried out in 1971. I was also told that the information was available in Hansard of 5th August 1971, in volume 822, at columns 699–70. For those hon. Members who wish to rush to Hansard to see what was said on that occasion, I do not suggest that they hold their breath, because those two columns are short and bland to the point of invisibility. More important, since 1971 technology has moved on and many new ideas, devices and theories have been aired and discussed.

The weaknesses that I have described in money, manpower, training and policy individually may not be significant, but taken as a whole show that there is a considerable lack of urgency and drive in this important area.

I turn to future policies for civil defence, on which I hope the Minister will comment. Let me deal first with the question of the strategy adopted by the Home Office. The scenario that the Government believe will prevail is that the next war will follow a period of build-up of tension over several months. I understand that the tripwire doctrine is dead. During this period the Government's main task will be to allay the fears of citizens. I understand that only in the 72 hours before an impending attack will the public be told that war is imminant and in that period of time material on film, radio, television and in pamphlets will be thrown at the public. One way in which the Home Office has described this operation is by the use of the word "blitz"—a somewhat unfortunate word in the circumstances.

Will the Minister say why she is so confident that this will be the shape of events to come? If she has been misadvised, and there is not a long period of build-up in which to bring ourselves to the ready, the country and the population will pay dearly.

Will the Minister comment on the future rôle of the civil defence scientific teams? I understand that these teams have a world-wide reputation and engage in creative and original thinking on civil defence problems. Will she also say whether these teams are being run down, as part of Government expenditure cuts? Is it not arguable that they should be maintained? Is it not true that these teams, which are composed of highly skilled and professional men, could make a vital contribution to the future defence of the realm?

Even if the Minister is right and there is the slow build-up, culminating in the final period of 72 hours, it would appear to me that the strategy has major faults. First of all, I looked to see what was the Government's shelter policy. I discovered that there was none. Apparently, the Government do not intend to provide appropriate shelters for the population.

Secondly, I examined the matter of evacuation. Again, there is no evacuation policy. The Government intend to recommend the population to stay at home while bombs drop. I submit that that is totally unrealistic. If we ask people to stay at home and we cannot give them shelters, they will just disobey the instructions and literally head for the hills. The consequence of this combination of no shelters and no evacuation must be to cause the maximum possible civil disorder.

I come next to the contents of the booklet "Protect and Survive", which the Minister's Department proposes to issue during the 72-hour period. I leave aside the question whether 30 pages of fairly technical information will be absorbed in that period by all members of the population, by people of all ages and all levels of sophistication. I direct attention to the suggestion on page 13, under the heading "Food":
"Stock enough food for 14 days. Choose foods which can be eaten cold, which keep fresh, and which are tinned or well wrapped. Keep your stocks in a closed cabinet or cupboard. Provide variety. Stock sugar, jams or other sweet foods, cereals, biscuits, meats, vegetables, fruit and fruit juices."
Terrible though it may be, let us for a moment imagine the situation 72 hours before the outbreak of another war. We can all remember what happened at the time of the sugar shortage—a shortage of one inconsiderable item in the household budget. In shops and stores throughout the country, housewives literally fought over the remaining supplies. The Government's suggestion that people should go out and try to stock up food in the two days before the outbreak of war, in conditions of extreme tension, must lead literally to riots in every store and supermarket throughout the country. Ought not the Government to encourage people to stock modest amounts of food now so that such a terrible situation could be avoided?

Next, the organisation seems to be no less faulty, since it entails divided responsibilities. Within the national Government, responsibilities are divided between the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. At local level, it is left to the good sense of local authorities to build up their civil defence organisation in accordance with the requirements of the Civil Defence Act 1948.

This hotch-potch of controls and requirements seems quite unsatisfactory. Is there not a case for putting everything under the Ministry of Defence, with an Inspector-General of Civil Defence, who would be a serving officer of the Crown, with responsibility to ensure, first, that national plans are kept up to date and, second, that local authorities fulfil the requirements that they are bound to meet under the Act?

There is considerable public concern that those requirements are currently being evaded at local authority level. I hope that in order to allay these fears the Minister will tell us how many local authorities have to date implemented and set up the full number of planning teams for their areas under civil defence emergency plans.

I conclude with two specific technical questions. First, in respect of emergency food supplies, may we know how many tons of food are stored, and will the Minister confirm that the reserves are being run down as part of the Government's expenditure cuts? Also, will she comment on the prevalent rumour that because the stocks of food are not being turned over frequently enough a great deal is found to be rotten and unfit for human consumption? Further, does her Department have any plans for moving the food from central storage points to the people in the streets who will need it?

Second, on the question of sirens and alarm systems, I understand that the Department has carried out a review of the system during the past 12 months. Is it true that many sirens were found to be located in positions that they occupied at the end of the Second World War? Is it true, also, that shifts of population since the end of the Second World War have meant that people are now living well away from and out of hearing of the siren system? Can the hon. Lady give details of the result of the siren survey and tell us what proportion of our population now live within hearing distance of the system?

I hope that I have demonstrated that there are legitimate grounds for concern about our civil defence arrangements. In an article on civil defence, The Times quoted George Santayana, the Spanish poet and philosopher, and said that these words provided a suitable motto for civil defence:
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
I am grateful for the opportunity to jog the memory of the Home Office this afternoon.

3.14 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) on raising this vital subject, in comparison with which all the other items on the Order Paper today pale into insignificance.

I intervene briefly because I am proud that one of my constituents, Captain Feakins, is this year's Chairman of the NATO Civil Defence Committee. The Minister knows—I have told her on other occasions as well as in correspondence or at Question Time—that the NATO Committee is worried about the state of civil defence throughout NATO. Moreover, so far as the Chairman, my constituent, is concerned, Great Britain seems to be, if I may so put it, the "tail-end Charlie" in the whole exercise.

The NATO officials are only too well aware—I hope that the Minister is, too—of precisely what is going on behind the Iron Curtain in this matter. The Soviet Union has elevated its civil defence to a separate service of its Armed Forces, under a person of the rank of Deputy Defence Minister with no fewer than 600,000 personnel at his disposal. Every man, woman and child in the Soviet Union must do 20 hours of compulsory civil defence training. Moreover, the Soviet Union has a massive programme for the dispersal of industry from the cities, and the amount that it spent on civil defence in the past decade has been four times the total spent by the United States.

Knowledge of that kind should make us pause and think. One of the recommendations made by the committee under my constituent's chairmanship was that each NATO country should persuade its Minister of Defence to allocate 1 per cent. of the defence budget in order to get civil defence off the ground and really operating.

When I have tried to raise these matters in the House, when putting Questions to the Ministry of Defence I have been told that they are the responsibility of the Home Office, and in the same way I have been told by the Home Office that they are the concern of the Ministry of Defence. I have not been able to get anywhere, and I therefore wholly support what my hon. Friend has said about the need for Government co-ordination.

When I put a Question to the Minister herself, she told me that she relies on the good sense of local authorities properly to discharge their civil defence functions. Frankly, that is just not good enough. They will not do it. They do not understand what is required. They have lots of other things to do, and, as my hon. Friend said, they are probably living in the stirrup-pump-and-bucket-of-sand era. The local authorities will give this subject the importance that it deserves only if the drive and initiative come from the central Government themselves. I hope that we shall have an encouraging reply this afternoon.

3.17 p.m.

I know that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) for raising this important topic. The fact that two hon. Members have spoken and another would have been glad to do so is an indication of its importance and of the interest of hon. Members. I know that the hon. Member for Walsall, North has put down a series of Questions demonstrating his concern. In the time available, I cannot deal with all the points that he raised, but, if he wishes, I shall willingly arrange for him to discuss them with the officials concerned.

At the outset, I should make clear that successive Governments, of both parties, have over recent years pursued a remarkably consistent policy in civil defence. [Interruption.] I am sure that the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), who was at the Home Office himself, will know that. This Government do not see any scope for significant changes of policy or in the annual level of investment that successive Governments have maintained.

As far as I am aware, although I do not think that it is mentioned in "The Right Approach", the policy of the official Opposition is no different from that of the present Government. Moreover, so far as I am aware, the views expressed by hon. Members today are their personal views, and I do not recall their having been advanced by any of their Front Bench spokesmen. Certainly, some of the suggestions made today would involve many millions of pounds of additional public expenditure, the very thing that the Conservative Party is constantly decrying. It is just not possible to do what so many Opposition Members want without a vast increase in expenditure.

As for the immediate future, the economics that have been made in this field have been relatively minor and they have had no adverse impact on the operational efficiency of our essential public services in war. The hon. Member for Walsall, North asked me about expenditure in 1977–78. Perhaps he will look at the Written Answer that was given to a Question for Oral Answer put by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Sir J. Hall) on 3rd March.

Next, I should make two general points. The first concerns the alerting or informing of the general public about what would be expected of them if a major war affecting the United Kingdom should ever break out. It has been suggested that the responsibility should be given to the Ministry of Defence, but I hope that the hon. Member who suggested the transfer will appreciate that we are dealing with the civilian population in this matter.

Another point concerns the information and guidance that is available to those authorities and individuals who need it. Successive Governments—and this one is no exception—have taken the view that the general public do not wish to be informed about the action that they might, and would be expected to, take in a future war, until they and the Government of the day regard that threat as more imminent than we all do today. However, any Government must be ready to inform the people at short notice. We are ready. All our basic material has been prepared and could be launched through television, radio and the Press at short notice. I can assure the House that it is in a readily comprehensible form.

The material is not suitable for regular use, unless and until there is a real and imminent threat. However, for the minority who want to take precautions now or to inform themselves now about what they may do, there is a booklet called "Nuclear Weapons", on sale at the Stationery Office, about the various and terrifying effects of these weapons. I expect to make available later this year advice on the construction of a concrete garden shelter. But I see no prospect of financing any major construction programme of public shelters. The home remains the best place to afford protection against the subsequent radiological dangers, if one has survived the initial blast, heat and fire.

Even if the country could afford a network of public underground shelters—which it cannot—successive Governments have decided that that should not be done. There are other difficulties. For instance, I am told that in Sweden there are shelter places for 5 million people out of a population of 8 million. That sort of thing just would not be possible in the United Kingdom, mainly on grounds of cost and the large numbers of people involved—quite apart from the shortage of suitable sites sufficiently close to major centres of population.

The point is sometimes made that insufficient attention is paid to the posibility of a major attack on the United Kingdom using conventional high explosives and avoiding the use of any nuclear weapons. Others suggest that chemical or even biological weapons might be used on a large scale. Generally speaking, successive Governments have largely discounted these possibilities in the past 20 years. The United Nations has achieved success in getting a convention banning biological weapons. My expert advice is that the prospect of a large-scale attack on the civil population using chemical weapons or nerve gases is not likely.

As for so-called conventional attacks, no method has yet been devised of differentiating, until the attack is over, between the nuclear warhead and ordinary high explosive. A massive conventional attack could thus trigger off a nuclear retaliation.

In all these matters, the Home Office is in consultation with the Ministry of Defence. I refer again to the question whether the whole responsibility should be given to the Ministry of Defence. I remind the House that we are here dealing with civilians and not the military. However, this matter is constantly taken into consideration. Extra money for civil defence would have to be divided between the different Departments—Environment, Health, Energy, Agriculture and the Home Office. Although the Ministry of Defence could take on the responsibility of co-ordination it could not take on the responsibility of actually spending money, because that is being spent by many different civil departments.

The Prime Minister recently indicated that he has no proposals for changes in the departmental and ministerial responsibility for civil defence. As to the extent and quality of local authority planning, I accept that in all those matters in respect of which Parliament imposes a function on local authorities, some councils are better than others. But, as I have said recently in reply to Questions from the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire and the hon. Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant), the Home Secretary has no powers of inspection and report. Government officials can proceed only by persuasion—because we are dealing with civilians—and by quoting the example of the better authorities. We should not like to increase public expenditure by recruiting more civil servants to harry a few local authorities.

If the Department of Education and Science can impose comprehensive schools, cannot the Home Office impose a decent civil defence establishment on local authorities?

I really do not see the comparison between legislation passed by Parliament, on the one hand, and, on the other, asking people, in a civilian capacity, to take precautions in the event of a war that is not present with us. Local authorities are democratically elected bodies, and I have—as I hope the hon. Member has—confidence in the good sense of most local authorities to do what they can in this matter.

I should like to assure the hon. Member that the absence of a policy statement since 1971 does not imply that matters are not kept under constant review both in NATO and in London. I am sure that the hon. Member is aware of this, because of his constituent's connection. The nature of the current threat and any technological advances are carefully examined by the appropriate authority. If the hon. Member had anything specific in mind he could certainly discuss it with my officials. I shall also try, if possible, to let him have answers to his questions on food supplies and the alarm system.

As long as there are large nuclear arsenals in the world, civil defence must be mainly, if not solely, concerned with the possibility of a nuclear war. We and some of our NATO allies have nuclear weapons to deter aggression and for no other purpose. Our civil defence planning must also be directed towards deterrence. It must be sufficient to persuade any potential aggressor that, in defence of our freedom, we shall not give in to nuclear blackmail. It must not be so operationally advanced as to lead anyone to believe that war will break out tomorrow. It must have a capability to be activated at short notice to a greater state of readiness. Our warning and monitoring organisation, which is probably the best in Europe, has that capability. I have personally visited two training camps of this organisation and I was extremely impressed.

Civil defence must, if the time comes, involve the nation as a whole and every essential service. Now in 1977, as we have been doing for several years past, it must direct the attention of all those in positions of authority—in local government, in the police and in the essential services—to the importance of plans that are already prepared, that are intended to put their organisations on to a war footing and that can be implemented, when so required, by the Government of the day.

This has been the important task of Ministries and Departments in recent years. To get up to date the guidance on those matters to those who are in positions of authority has been the top priority in work. Most of that material, in the form of circulars, is available in the Library for those who are interested. The Home Defence College, near York, has helped enormously in studies and seminars to bring these people together to discuss their problems, to share knowledge and experience, and to assist them in devising solutions suitable for their own local authorities.

Given the nature of nuclear war, there is no possibility of perfection in civil defence, but I shall certainly take careful note of the criticisms that have been made. I am sure that the Opposition, in their determination to reduce public expenditure, realise that a more rapid rate of improvement must await improvements in our overall economic position. Only then will the Government be able to devote additional funds to those parts of our civil defence arrangements that require new equipment and only then may we look at possible economic concessions to those who, for example, equip their own homes or erect any buildings with suitable basement shelters.

Civil defence is in a better state now than when the Conservative Party was last in office. Restraints on expenditure make it impossible for us to increase further the annual amount being spent.