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Civil Defence

Volume 979: debated on Wednesday 20 February 1980

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

11.42 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise again that profoundly important part of our national defence, namely, civil defence for the home protection of our people.

I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for his interest in this subject. He has undertaken to see what improvements can be made, and I hope, therefore, that this debate will be helpful in its advice and that the search for improvements will lead to a fundamental change from the policy inherited from the Labour Government.

The wisdom of such a change and the desire to reactivate civil defence is, I believe, being expressed in the House. In 1968 civil defence was put into "care and maintenance" and the Civil Defence Corps was disbanded by the then Labour Government.

The world we live in today is very different—I regret to say—from the world situation 12 years ago. In the sixties we were able to rely on the tripwire strategy of a superior nuclear deterrent. Since that time the Soviet Union has substantially increased, and is continuing to increase at a higher rate than NATO, its military forces.

I remind the House of the cuts in our defence expenditure by the previous Labour Government and the dangers that they have brought. There is now an imbalance in conventional and theatre nuclear strength in favour of Warsaw Pact forces, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has recognised and expressed concern about this situation.

Civil defence is part of a country's total defence. It is relevant to note the reports that Russia has a sophisticated civil defence organisation and shelter programme. I have here a book which is an English translation of the Russian handbook. Russian military expansion is now seen on an international scale, and unless it is matched by a NATO counterbalance of forces it will be used with further destabilising effects, bringing consequent risks to peace.

In essence, the present United Kingdom policy carried forward since the sixties provides a system for warning and monitoring nuclear fall-out with plans for an administrative governmental organisation run from 24 sub-regional headquarters. In the run-up to the attack phase, Cabinet Ministers would leave London and move to those headquarters.

Under this policy the public will be advised on what rudimentary steps to take for their own protection in their own homes and what stocks of food and materials to lay in for a two-week period. This advice will be promulgated by blanket coverage on television and radio and in the press, and the booklet "Protect and Survive" will be distributed to as many homes as possible. If the decision is taken in time, present plans allow 72 hours for all this to happen. I leave it to hon. Members to imagine the sort of picture that such mobilisation would create.

I do not believe that it is a viable option to expect families and old people to remain in high-rise blocks of flats in the East End, the centre of Leeds or anywhere else when they are in a nuclear alert phase. "Protect and Survive" has to rely on the simple expedient of advising its readers to live under the kitchen table or something similar, suitably protected by mattresses and anything else to hand.

There have been reports that the document may be released from the secrecy which has protected it from the public eye. I hope that that does not happen, because I believe that the demand is for a more realistic approach and for advice to be published on how people can make adequate protection now for themselves at home or at least have the necessary materials at hand to do to. Action is needed quickly. I see no reason why a charge should not be made for such a booklet. Greater attention would be paid to the booklet if a charge were made. It should be on sale in post offices, libraries and other places.

There is an urgent need to advise companies to site computer and communications equipment in basements or as far below ground as possible, and to explain how such areas can be adapted to staff shelters. Such advise should be self-financing.

The booklet "Nuclear Weapons", published in 1956 by the Home Office, is extremely good at presenting the effects of nuclear weapons and describing the protective factors of buildings. However, it is more a technical journal for the expert than for the general public.

The time has come for a new commitment to civil defence and to a shelter policy. I have no doubt that the Government will not be faint-hearted in that commitment. It is essential that the public have a clear idea of what is involved and advice on what they can do. To implement a new policy, we need to know what underground structures already exist and how they can be adapted to provide shelter from both nuclear and conventional attacks. Local authorities should therefore undertake surveys in their areas directed by their emergency offices. That will, of course, require per- sonnel, organisation and some finance. Manpower for the survey should be drawn from young, unemployed people, preferably under the aegis of the Manpower Services Commission. That would provide valuable and worthwhile experience for those young people.

Organisation and training could be strengthened with the help of volunteers. Some additional finance would inevitably fall on the 1980–81 budget. While the survey should be undertaken in stages, updating of communications and headquarters should preferably be undertaken as the areas are surveyed. Some of the costs could be met by increasing rentals for oil pipelines and storage facilities which are at present included in the present civil defence budget.

A policy to encourage people to keep higher levels of foodstocks in the home would reduce the needs and costs of national foodstocks. Could not some of the surplus EEC foodstocks, for instance, be brought here to offset our national stocks? At the same time, the EEC should be persuaded to adopt a civil defence strategy and a grant system. Machinery for co-ordinating the police, fire services, the military and the Departments at local government level should be reviewed. It would be a considerable advantage to appoint a civil defence commissioner in overall charge.

I have omitted much else that I should have liked to say. However, I know that some of my hon. Friends want to contribute to the debate. I have made suggestions which I hope will be regarded in the positive spirit in which they were made. I am most grateful to the Minister for coming to answer the debate. I am sure that he will be as anxious as I to ensure that we take the right action in time to save the millions of lives who will otherwise be at terrible risk.

11.50 pm

The likelihood of there being a nuclear war increases each year. We know that the Soviet Union dominates the world. Recent experience in Afghanistan proves that. It is prepared to exploit any weakness that it may find. The future of Yugoslavia is in question, which brings the problems nearer to home.

The advantage held by the Soviet Union is that it is on the attack while we are on the defensive. In a democracy it is harder to prepare for war. There is no doubt in my mind that the Soviet Union will use military means when it believes that that will achieve its aims at acceptable cost.

Britain is almost totally dependent on our nuclear deterrent. Unfortunately, our conventional forces are insignificant in comparison with the vast conventional forces of the Soviet bloc. Nuclear weapons will deter only if this country is prepared to use them. If the Soviet Union feels that we are not prepared to use them, the invasion of Britain may come into the category of an acceptable loss.

I believe that the Soviet Union is entitled to take the view that, as we have no civil defence worth speaking of, at the same time we have no wish to use our nuclear weapons and virtually no will to resist. Civil defence must be part of our overall defence strategy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) has mentioned, it is part of the overall defence strategy of the Soviet Union.

A country that is prepared to protect its people from nuclear attack is more prepared to risk nuclear war. With civil defence increased dramatically in Britain, we would be immeasurably better defended.

11.52 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) on drawing attention to his pertinent subject. It is one of the most important subjects to be considered by the country at the present time. I wish to draw the attention of the House to early-day motion No. 377, which has been signed by 101 of my right hon. and hon. Friends. That is an indication of the keen desire on the part of the Conservative Party to restore the position of civil defence to what it was prior to its abolition by a Labour Government. I am especially keen that attention should be paid to the restoration of civil defence. The motion calls upon the Government to reconstitute the civil defence or some such similar corps.

In the event of conflict, an organisation such as that can contribute a great deal both in morale and in the work that it can perform. For example, there is the decontamination of the water supplies. We have heard much, especially in an earlier Adjournment debate, about the threat of chemical warfare. Many people are not aware of what is required to decontaminate water supplies.

Equally, the guidance and support that can be given by a professionally trained corps, either in a voluntary capacity or controlled through local government or Whitehall, which is able to cope with the problems faced following a conflict would play a valuable part. It has done so in the past and it will do so in the future.

Whether that group of people comes under the Home Office budget or the Ministry of Defence budget is a matter that should be discussed further. As someone especially interested in defence, I think that it should come under the area of home defence, in the way that the defence of Britain should be considered by two Departments. Whether my hon. and learned Friend believes that it should be passed to the Ministry of Defence, or whether he believes that it can be coped with under his own Department, is a matter for discussion.

I find it especially worrying that the document presently in the hand of my hon. and learned Friend is not available to a wider public because a mere 5,000 copies were printed. It ought to be more widely available. I find it more than slightly frightening that Switzerland, whose representatives recently visited Britain, indicated tht its civil defence procedures were infinitely better than our own. They are masters of the neutral position. Defence of that country is dependent largely on the protection that it offers its citizens. It can stand up in a free world and maintain its neutrality.

Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate on drawing this problem to the attention of the House. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will give us an interesting and helpful reply which will give us faith in the defence of this realm through civil defence.

11.55 pm

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) for raising this important matter and for stating his views with characteristic clarity. The House will also be grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton) and for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) for their contributions to the debate. I, too, am very glad to be given this opportunity to tell the House where the Government stand on this subject.

There can be no doubt whatsoever of the public interest in and concern about civil defence which has become apparent in the last few months. Hon. Members will be well aware of this concern from their own constituency correspondence. During the past seven weeks the Home Office has received over 200 letters from the general public on this subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell pointed out, events in Afghanistan and Iran, among other places, have made it natural, and indeed inevitable, that concern about this matter should revive.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has responded to this concern by speeding up the review of home defence arrangements—a review which he set in train before the current wave of concern and shortly after the Government took office. The outcome of that review will be made public in due course.

The review takes the present arrangements as its starting point. Under these arrangements the money available each year—some £22 million—is mainly concentrated in three areas: first, on maintaining the United Kingdom warning and monitoring organisation at a high level of efficiency and readiness; second, on maintaining a food stockpile; and, third, on grants to local authorities to help pay the cost of the emergency planning teams which are maintained by the county councils and the GLC to produce, in consultation with the district councils and other public bodies, the detailed plans required under the Civil Defence (Planning) Regulations 1974 in such important areas as emergency feeding and the care of the homeless. There is also expenditure on emergency communications networks and on small planning teams in certain Government Departments.

Starting with these arrangements, the review by this Government embraces the whole spectrum of home defence and involves virtually all Whitehall Departments. It starts by considering the threat and the assumptions we must make of probability of attack, the nature of this attack, and the likely warning period. It will cover the important question of information to the public, including arrangements for a wartime broadcasting service. It will cover the activities of the United Kingdom warning and monitoring organisation, as well as the machinery of government in time of war. It will cover the roles of the police, the fire service and the ambulance service. It will deal with the arrangements for maintaining essential food and water supplies. It will cover hospital services, essential industrial production, and coal, gas, oil and electricity supplies. It will cover inland transport and the use of shipping and aircraft for carrying essential supplies. It will cover the policy for providing shelter and the controversial question of encouraging people to stay put in the face of a threat of attack, and the alternative policies of evacuation and dispersal and the associated billeting and feeding arrangements.

Finally, and perhaps most important, it will cover the vital role I have already mentioned played by local authorities in planning and in co-ordinating local arrangements, including the identification of solid buildings suitable for use as public shelter and the use of volunteers in this context. I have listed all these matters, because I think it is necessary to give the House an idea of the ground that the review will cover and of the large range of interrelated subjects to which any discussion of home defence must address itself.

I confirm that the review takes account of the likelihood of conventional war—that is, the use of aircraft and missiles armed with non-nuclear devices against selected targets in this country—as well as the likelihood of all-out nuclear war.

It is important to consider the relationship between civil defence and military defence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell pointed out. Our central military strategy is to deter attack by an aggressor, and civil defence contributes to deterrence. Indeed, it is essential that our civil preparedness should be adequate if the credibility of our deterrent strategy is to be maintained. Our military preparedness and our civil preparedness are therefore closely related, and we must make sure that the balance between the two is sensible and realistic.

But, of course, civil preparedness costs money, just as much as military preparedness. In recent years, the civil part of home defence expenditure has been running at the level of about £22 million a year. Up to 1968 the level in real terms was three times as high. In our review we ask the fundamental question of what is the right level of expenditure, both in absolute terms and in terms of what the country can afford now. That is a question which must be answered by anyone who advocates that more attention be paid to civil defence. Let there be no doubt about it—any significant enhancement of the state of our preparedness will cost money. The debate on this subject is not so much about what extra preparedness is needed as about whether the money can be found and, if so, at the expense of what other area of expenditure it is to be found.

I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate on the substantial contribution which he and our former colleague Robin Hodgson made to the debate on these matters by the pamphlet called "Britain's Home Defence Gamble", which they produced in 1978. I was not then so concerned in these matters as I am now, and it fell to others to respond to that pamphlet. I have recently re-read it with interest, and I find myself in agreement with a good deal of it. One of its declared objects was to pierce the fog of ministerially imposed secrecy which the authors said had drifted over the subject. I am not, I hope, by nature particularly fog-bound, and I shall comment in a moment about dispersing the mist, if not actually lifting the veil.

The pamphlet talked of a lack of commitment to home defence, a lack of co-ordination between Government Departments and local organisations, a lack of achievement at district level, and a lack of equipment. Those are all matters to which we are paying attention in the review. The pamphlet also says that the Home Office has just under 400 civil servants engaged on home defence matters. The actual total is about 125, of whom 70 are at the Home Defence College, and 40 are in the United Kingdom warning and monitoring organisation.

A central feature of the public debate so far has been the attitude of the Government in making available to the public material about the protective measures which might be taken in the event of an attack. In particular, attention has been focused on the decision of the Home Office not to publish, in advance of an imminent attack, the pamphlet entitled "Protect and Survive". This is not a secret pamphlet, and there is no mystery about it. It has been available to all local authorities and chief police and fire officers and to those who have attended courses at the Home Defence College at Easingwold. It has been shown to interrested Members of Parliament and to journalists. It has not been published, for the simple reason that it was produced for distribution at a time of grave international crisis when war seemed imminent, and it was calculated that it would have the greatest impact if distributed then. Only just over 2,000 copies were printed, and most of these have been distributed as I have indicated. Only a few copies remain. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate said, the pamphlet needs to be updated and revised in some respects. I shall take careful note of what my hon. Friend has said in this respect. Once this has been done, we propose to publish the pamphlet by placing it on sale at about the time when we announce the outcome of our review. We do not propose, for the reasons I have indicated, to distribute it automatically and across the board to every household, but it will be readily available on sale.

I have already mentioned the Home Defence College at Easingwold and I should like to pay tribute here to the work of the college, and in particular of its principal, Air Marshal Sir Leslie Mayor. It is he, perhaps more than any other, who has sought to ensure over the years that all those with civil defence responsibilities who wish to study the implications of these responsibilities can do so with proper detachment, with effective tutorial support, and without sensationalism. I know that my hon. Friend has personal knowledge of the college, and I feel sure he would wish to be associated with my tribute to the dedicated staff there. The Government's interest in and commitment to the work of the college has been shown by the visit late last year of my noble Friend Lord Belstead, the Under-Secretary.

I have also mentioned the key role of local authorities in planning and co- ordination on the ground. Since 1972 particularly, the Home Office has issued a series of circulars, in the emergency services series, embodying guidance to local authorities both on its own behalf for matters in the Home Office field and on behalf of other Government Departments. Copies of these circulars, as many Members know, are in the Library of the House. Here I should like to pay tribute also to the work of the emergency planning teams which have been set up by the Greater London Council and by county councils, with the task of co-ordinating the preparation and testing of comprehensive plans drawn up in conjunction with the emergency services—the police, fire and ambulance services and other public authorities. Many county emergency planning teams also make use of local volunteers, in some cases down to parish level. The Government accept that this is a field where more encouragement can and should be given.

Our review will pay particular attention to the scope for encouraging the greater use of volunteer effort at local level within the framework of district and county council planning. I know that some hon. Members favour the resurrection of the Civil Defence Corps or some such similar national body. The Government are not persuaded that this is necessarily the best way in which to harness volunteer effort. It would be expensive, it would involve a large administrative and bureaucratic organisation and we are not convinced that it would be an improvement on locally organised effort. But we believe that voluntary effort needs to be harnessed at the grass roots to make the maximum use of existing local voluntary groups.

We shall naturally want to consult local authorities and those concerned about their particular contribution in this field when the review has determined the overall policy and strategy, and we undertake to engage in such consultations.

I hope my hon. Friend and the House will feel that I have responded constructively to the points he and my other hon. Friends have made and the arguments that have been advanced. The subject is of the utmost importance, and the Government are treating it with the seriousness it deserves. We are proceeding with the review as rapidly as possible, and we shall need to consider its conclusions in the light of its public expenditure implications.

I am sure that the House welcomes the news that a fundamental far-reaching review is to be undertaken. Will my hon. and learned Friend give an indication as to how long he expects that review to take?

That is the point that I was about to come to. My right hon. Friend hopes to announce the outcome soon after the House resumes after the Easter Recess.

The Minister said at an early stage in his speech that he was reviewing the controversial stay-put strategy. Before he concludes his speech, will he give an indication as to whether the Administration are endorsing the stay-put strategy? We have read the document that he refers to, and we must accept that it refers entirely to protection against radiation and that there is little protection that could conceivably be given to urban populations against blast and fireball. The corollary of the stay-put strategy is that the population has no conceivable protection, however much the civil defence force is expanded.

These are all matters that are being considered in the review. It is neither possible nor desirable to attempt to answer the hon. Gentleman's fundamental points now, even if we were able to. When the review is completed, we shall be in a position to do so. As I said, my right hon. Friend hopes to announce the outcome soon after the Easter Recess. I therefore hope that the House will appreciate that I shall take on board the points made so clearly by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Gentleman. I assure the House that all these points will be taken fully into account in the remaining stages of the review.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.