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Civil Defence: Home Office Circular

Volume 416: debated on Tuesday 13 January 1981

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2.49 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when the Home Office circular will be issued giving details of the further responsibilities for civil defence to be assumed by local authorities for the financial year 1981–82.

My Lords, we expect the first circular to be issued shortly, after due consultation with the local authority associations.

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for that reply, and in expressing the hope that he has resumed responsibility in the Home Office for civil defence since the desertion of Mr. Leon Brittan to the Treasury, may I ask him whether he is satisfied that those local authorities which have already formulated their budgets for next year without making adequate provision for civil defence will be persuaded to do so, especially bearing in mind the fact that some of them will use the delay in presenting the circulars as an excuse for doing nothing?

My Lords, when I say to my noble friend that, subject to consultation with the local authorities, it is the intention that the circular will give county councils and the GLC freedom to recruit up to double their present emergency planning team complements, I hope my noble friend will see that as being a real and practical encouragement to local authorities to do just that. With regard to the first part of my noble friend's supplementary question, the responsibility for civil defence under the Home Secretary will be in the safe hands of the new Minister of State at the Home Office.

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend one question concerned with finance, which is whether, before they issue this circular, they will review the fact that at present 70 per cent, only of the cost of civil defence is met by central Government even though much of that expenditure is not of a local sort and that in consequence some local authorities are holding back? Further, will he confirm, when he talks of the team being doubled, that in most counties it is six or less? Finally, will he not agree that the Question by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, and the supplementary questions and answers which followed it, all underline the need for great speed in the issuing of this circular and the further development of our civil defence?

My Lords, I take my noble friend's last point. Consultations are going on at the present time, and, when I said to my noble friend Lord Renton that the circular would be issued shortly, I meant just that. My noble friend Lord Inglewood is not entirely accurate in claiming that 70 per cent, is paid by central Government for approved civil defence expenditure; it is in fact 75 per cent, of approved expenditure, and I join with my noble friend in hoping that this will mean that, once the circular has been agreed, local authorities will recruit up to the levels which are, we hope, going to be recommended in that circular. If authorities wish to recruit beyond that, it would—such is our intention—still be possible for them to do that, too.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister and the Government always bear in mind that the credibility of our deterrent forces is greatly affected by the visible adequacy of our civil defence preparations?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for making that point, and it was with this very much in mind that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, in his Statement to the House of Commons on 7th August last year, made the point that some £45 million extra will be spent on civil defence in the next three years.

My Lords, does the noble Lord not feel that the whole of this expense ought to be borne by the central Government as part of our national defence undertakings? And would he not agree that in places like London, Essex, Surrey and other thickly-populated parts an elaborate system of civil defence has to be set up, with part of the cost borne by the local ratepayers, whereas in distant, in thinly-populated parts of the country, they need to do hardly anything at all?

My Lords, I think that is a very large assumption, and it is one with which I would not agree, but perhaps we could discuss that on another occasion. I should have thought that the noble Lord, with his record in local government, would have been the first to agree that local authorities very properly have the primary responsibility laid on them under the civil defence planning regulations for discharging these emergency functions in the event of war. I think that the right way to go about facing the formidable expense is, as the Government have already announced, to continue for the moment at any rate the specific 75 per cent, grant which the central Government pay.

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree, taking a rather different line from that taken by the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, that the agricultural aspect in the less thickly-populated parts of the country is extremely important, since starvation must follow if all the cattle are dead?

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend, and this was a matter (I think I remember rightly) which was referred to in my right honourable friend's Statement on 7th August of last year.

My Lords, can the noble Lord give any indication as to whether the voluntary organisations are likely to get any financial help towards the additional training of the public that they are going to be asked to undertake?

My Lords, the Government announced on 15th December the special appointment of Air Marshal Sir Leslie Mavor to co-ordinate volunteer effort in civil defence, and I think we must await a definitive circular on the role of volunteers, including any consideration as to the financing of volunteers, when Sir Leslie has firmly taken into his hands the reins of this particular office. Sir Leslie in fact took up his functions on 1st January.