HC Deb 22 December 1938 vol 342 cc3206-22

4.6 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Henderson

I would like to draw the attention of the House to a question which affects our own country, namely, the question of the provision or the non-provision of bomb-proof shelters. I make no apology for raising this matter this afternoon, because I think that any person who watches the international horizon at the present time must realise the vital importance of providing for the defence of the civilian population of our own country if, unhappily, this country of ours is ever attacked. This is no new question. I find that as far back as 1st March, 1937, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, in reply to a question addressed to him with regard to the provision of public shelters, replied: The question of the provision of refuges for persons caught in the street when a raid is imminent is under consideration."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1937; col. 36, Vol. 321.] So far as I can gather, the question of public shelters remained under consideration until our country was faced with the crisis in September last, and then, as the House well knows, trenches were dug in different parts of the country in a last-minute attempt to provide a measure of protection for the civilian population in the eventuality of war taking place. Yesterday, the Lord Privy Seal in the course of his statement, again referred to public shelters, and said that for persons caught in the streets when an air raid comes, communal shelters will be provided, either in trenches or other forms of communal shelter to be provided by the local authorities. Twelve months ago to-day the Air-Raid Precautions Act came into force, and that Act imposed an obligation on local authorities to provide protection for persons and property in the event of air raids. This morning the Lord Privy Seal, in reply to a question, stated that, so far as he was aware, not a single public shelter which could be called truly bomb-proof had been erected in any part of the country.

I hope that what I have to say will not be taken in any way as a criticism of the Lord Privy Seal himself. He has just taken over what I think is perhaps to-day the most responsible Department of State, and I am sure that most hon. Members will only regret that he was not appointed 12 months ago. I do not think the same can be said with regard to his predecessors in relation to air-raid precautions. I believe that I am not guilty of any exaggeration when I say that their responsibility constitutes a serious reflection upon them, because of their inertia and the inertia of the Government in relation to this vital problem.

What is the position? Under the 1937 Act the obligation was placed upon the local authorities to provide shelters or whatever form of air-raid protection they thought was desirable. That is an impossible obligation for the local authorities. Experts have put forward various estimates as to the amount that would be required to cover the cost of providing a nation-wide system of aerial defence. I have seen figures rising to £500,000,000 or £600,000,000. If that be so, I should have thought that, even though the Chancellor of the Exchequer were prepared to find three-quarters of the expenditure of local authorities on air-raid precautions, it is a liability which the nation should face. We are spending roughly £2,000,000,000 on the Navy, the Air Force and the Army, and most people will agree that the defence of the civilian population constitutes our fourth line of defence.

Therefore, it is an expenditure which may have to be faced by the community. It is an impossible burden to place on the local authorities. The system of grants-in-aid is inadequate for the purpose. In Westminster a penny rate produces £40,000, but in Bermondsey, Poplar or any of the East End boroughs it produces only £3,000 or£4,000. How can it be expected that a local authority such as Poplar or Bermondsey can provide a sufficient system of defence against air attack if it has to pay for it out of rates? The Government must be responsible financially and otherwise for providing shelters which shall be proof against bomb attack. By all means let the local authorities be used as the executive agents of the Government. As to the need for bomb-proof shelters, I should have thought that the experience of other countries had put it beyond any dispute that they are necessary for the defence of the civilian population. Protection against direct hits should be provided for all persons who are compelled in war-time to live in highly dangerous areas—dock areas, the East End of London, and wherever large aggregations of population exist. That provision, of course, would be side by side with the evacuation of those persons who are not essential to the defence of the country.

I suggest that what has been done in Barcelona affords a very good illustration, on a lesser scale, of what we shall have to do. I read the other day a remarkable address by Mr. Helsby to the Institute of Structural Engineers in which he dealt with the problem of defence against bombing attacks. He said that in Barcelona less than a year ago the number of deaths arising from air raids was never less than several hundreds per raid, but that now, although raids have increased in severity, it took half a ton of high explosives to kill one person. Between 5th December and 10th December casualties were reduced to approximately two killed and ten injured, and he said that in the view of the authorities in Barcelona the credit for this drastic reduction was due to the air-raid precautions arrangements. We are often told that cellars may provide a good defence against bombing attacks. In Barcelona the authorities apparently do not now regard cellars as sufficient to safeguard the civilian population from high explosive bombs, and after many persons had been buried for days under the debris cellars were forbidden as shelters.

The experiences which the population of Barcelona have recently undergone have led to the view being formed that bomb-proof shelters are essential to the safety of the population, and they are being provided by the authorities. As I understand it, they are constructed under the streets, and close together, so that no one need be more than 200 yards away from the entrance to one of them. The method most favoured is the deeptunnelling system. Tunnels are constructed at a depth of 45 feet, and are connected together by long galleries. In the open spaces, the parks and squares are refuges provided for people caught in the streets. These are, of course, much shallower and are constructed with many layers of reinforced concrete sufficient to give protection against heavy bombs. These shelters apparently have accommodation for from 700 to 7,000 persons; and I gather that shelters have been constructed for at least half the population of Barcelona. By these methods, supplemented by evacuation, the problem of defending London and our other centres of population could be solved.

As I said before, I make no apology for raising this question to-day in view of the international situation. We must realise that Greater London, with its population of more than 8,000,000 people, and other cities in this small island of ours, are within easy range of bombing attacks, and I suggest that the provision of defence is an urgently vital problem which the Government must tackle. It has been under consideration for more than two years, and I hope the Government will realise that if it is left to the local authorities then in three months from now we shall be very much where we are to-day. It is an impossible financial burden. It is a problem that is national in scope and should be national in its responsibility. It is unfair to ask the various local authorities throughout the country to incur a financial burden which may run up to £100,000,000 or £200,000,000, and for the county area of London itself, even with financial assistance from the Government as provided under the Act of 1937, may amount to as much as £50,000,000. It is now generally accepted that the main object of an air attack is to cause panic and to demoralise the civilian population. By giving adequate protection to the civilian population I believe that the sting can be taken out of air attack.

This is a matter of extreme urgency. In the nature of things a national system of shelters will take a considerable time to build. Admittedly nothing has been done during the last 12 months. The Lord Privy Seal said that no bomb-proof shelters have been constructed up to date. That means that those which are in existence are private and in an emergency might have notices put on them saying "strictly private." That will not be a very happy state of affairs if we are involved in war. I hope that the Government, through the able and energetic Minister who is now responsible, will tackle the problem immediately. At the same time, I do not accept the inevitability of war, but I suggest that peace cannot be made permanent through fear of war and its consequences. The world has to construct a peace system based upon law and justice. To-day the world is faced again with the threat and challenge of force. If this country is to maintain its freedom and accept its responsibility, the one consideration of paramount importance is that we should ensure our fourth line of defence, namely, that the fullest possible protection should be given to our men, women and children from that most terrible of modern instruments of warfare, the bombing aeroplane.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give the House and the country some information additional to the statement which he made yesterday as to what he contemplates possible and practicable in the organisation of our air defences for the purpose of protecting our civilian population, not merely by the strengthening of basements and cellars of private houses but in regard to those problems that confront the East End of London. There, I believe, only a tunnelling system will be able to cope with the problem of providing places of refuge for the hundreds of thousands, or millions, of men and women who will be out in the streets about their ordinary business. These things will have to be done, unless we are to accept the view that in the event of war the dangers of aerial attack will be so great that our industrial life will be brought to a standstill because it will be impossible to provide sufficient security. I hope that the Minister will be able to throw a little more light upon the statement which he made yesterday.

4.24 p.m.

Viscount Wolmer

I am glad that the hon. Member has, by raising this subject, given us the opportunity of discussing one or two statements made by the Lord Privy Seal yesterday and of bringing out some points which should be ventilated at the earliest opportunity. I want to say at once to my right hon. Friend and to the House that I am connected with the cement industry, and so my views in regard to the respective merits of concrete and steel in A.R.P. work may perhaps be regarded as prejudiced. Nevertheless I think it desirable to raise a point which is somewhat on the lines of that which the hon. Member has raised. I do not think anyone would deny that, if your intention is to prop up ceilings, steel sheets are a very suitable material, but surely the Lord Privy Seal is aware that that was tried at Barcelona two years ago, and was abandoned because the casualties were so enormous. Now, as the hon. Member has told the House, the city of Barcelona has gone in entirely for the system of real underground shelters made of reinforced concrete. My information is that sufficient accommodation has been so provided for 30 per cent. of the population of Barcelona, and that within a few months' time they hope to have accommodation for 100 per cent. If the little city of Barcelona can do this, surely the great city of London can do the same, and ought to do the same.

I want to ask the Government whether it is really wise to adopt a system which has been discarded in actual practice in Spain, and which has not been adopted by either France or Germany, or, so far as I am aware, by any of the other great European countries, which have all gone in for deep underground shelters built with reinforced concrete. When my right hon. Friend speaks about the steel lean-to's that are going to be erected alongside the poorest type of houses, surely that is going to give no sort of adequate protection against the blast of a high-explosive bomb. I am not asking for protection against a direct hit. I think that possibly the Lord Privy Seal is right in saying that the time it would take to give full protection against a direct hit renders that course inadvisable at the present moment; he wants to do something in a hurry. But these steel lean-to shelters, sunk two feet in the earth, with the displaced earth built around them, would, I am informed, give no protection against the blast of a bomb that fell within 50 or 60 yards.

The Lord Privy Seal (Sir John Anderson)

I do not want to interrupt my Noble Friend, but his description "lean-to" is wholly inappropriate.

Viscount Wolmer

They are adjacent to—

Sir J. Anderson

They are not lean-to's.

Viscount Wolmer

They are only sunk two feet in the earth, as I understood my right hon. Friend—he will correct me if I am wrong—and the displaced earth is built around them. Is that correct?

Sir J. Anderson

I said they would be sunk as deep as might be thought advisable, but the engineers who have been consulted have in fact represented that they should be sunk about two feet.

Viscount Wolmer

I hope that my right hon. Friend has consulted engineers who were conversant with what has happened in Barcelona and Madrid, and other cities that have experienced aerial bombardment on an extensive scale. There is also another point of public importance, and that is with regard to the question of speed. I understand that these steel sheets cannot be provided in less than several weeks time; they have to be manufactured; whereas there are unlimited quantities of sand, ballast and cement available, which would enable reinforced concrete work to be got on with immediately, without any delay at all. I would point out, also, that reinforced concrete uses a great deal of steel as well as of these other commodities. If my right hon. Friend's object is to help the unemployment problem in the steel industry, I would point out that there is also unemployment in the cement and other industries. I am not in the least arguing against using steel when it is suitable, but I hope he will not regard himself as wedded to one particular material, especially when all other countries are using reinforced concrete. The Government ought to make use of all available material to get this protection done as soon as possible. Surely we must regard this A.R.P. business in future as a permanent feature of our national life. Supposing this particular menace of to-day, the particular dictators we are thinking about, were removed, the menace of air raids will continue; and nowadays, for the rest of the twentieth century, houses must be built and towns provided with the means of defence against aerial attack, which may occur at very short notice. Therefore, we have to treat this as a permanent problem, and that ought to be borne in mind. Concrete is the most permanent material known to science, and it requires no maintenance, as steel does.

I do not know whether the Government will consider another suggestion I have to make as a possible contribution towards the problem. I hope the Lord Privy Seal will not regard his Department entirely as a watertight compartment, because it seems to me that he might possibly be able to help solve two great problems at the same time. The provision of great underground tunnels in London might be a contribution towards the solution of the traffic problem. If we had great arterial roadways running under London, East and West, and others running North and South, we should be providing wonderful air-raid shelters all along the whole of those routes and at the same time achieving what I believe, is the only possible solution of the London traffic problem. I have heard it stated by an expert whose opinion is entitled to attention that the delays in London traffic are costing the public between £10,000,000 and £20,000,000 a year. While the cost of constructing these underground roads would be very great, we should at once get the advantage in peace time and be able to get a good dividend on that capital expenditure. Therefore, I hope very much that the Lord Privy Seal, after he has considered the immediate problem, will give attention to the question of whether underground roadways in London could not be of combined assistance both to the solution of the A.R.P. problem and the solution of the traffic problem.

4.34 P.m.

Sir J. Anderson

The matters which have been raised in the two preceding speeches arrange themselves naturally under two heads. In the first place, the possibility of carrying out the work which is necessary through the agency of local authorities has been challenged. In the second place, both speakers have devoted a substantial part of their speeches to a consideration of the merits of the kind of shelters that were described in my statement yesterday as compared with the merits of what are called bomb-proof shelters.

I propose to deal first with the question of local authorities. Let me say at once that if I have to be criticised in this House, as I know I shall be, I do not wish for anyone to criticise in terms more courteous and considerate than those employed by the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson). Let me try in the short lime available to correct what I think is a prevalent misapprehension in regard to the financial relationship established between local authorities and the Central Government under the Air-Raid Precautions Act. It is often suggested that under that financial arrangement there is placed upon local authorities a burden which is much too onerous for them to bear. I agree at once that the scope, magnitude and urgency of a complete shelter policy would present local authorities in general, if they were left unaided or not aided beyond the limits of the contribution automatically provided under the Statute, with a task which might well have appalled the most stouthearted of them. One of the satisfactory features of the scheme which I had the honour of announcing to the House yesterday was that it does relieve local authorities of a very substantial portion of that burden, not only of expense but of responsibility.

What of the responsibilities that remain upon the shoulders of the local authorities in connection with the provision of shelters? It is part of the law of the land that local authorities should include in their air-raid precautions schemes arrangements for the provision of shelter for the protection of the public as far as may be necessary; and I am bound to say that I have not in contemplation any substantial change in the provisions of the law in that respect, subject to what I said yesterday as to the transference to the Government of the entire responsibility for the provision of splinter- and blast-proof shelters for the poorer section of the population, as far as they have to be protected, in or near their own homes. That arrangement leaves on the shoulders of the local authorities the responsibility that has rested on them since the Act was passed for providing what I may call communal shelters. In the discharge of that responsibility the Government have undertaken to provide local authorities not only with expert assistance, but with the greatest possible guidance—and, may I say parenthetically, I fully realise that the assistance to be afforded to local authorities in that respect will have to be greatly extended, and we hope to enlist in aid of our efforts in this direction the services of the professional organisations to which the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) referred yesterday.

As regards financial contribution, the normal grant which is paid automatically to local authorities in respect of approved schemes ranges from 60 to 75 per cent. according to the grading of the local authority, and they are graded according to their financial resources. But the Act further provides that, if the expenditure falling upon local rates, after allowing for Government grant, exceeds the product of a penny rate, a penny rate representing the new expenditure falling on the funds of the local authorities, the excess expenditure over the product of a penny rate attracts a higher rate of grant, so that in the case of the poorer authorities the rate of grant can be as high as 85 per cent. That is about the most liberal rate of grant that you can find anywhere in our system of local government.

The hon. Member for Kingswinford made one false assumption when he talked about the utter impossibility of local authorities facing the expenditure involved. He compared the scale of expenditure which might be required with the estimated product of a penny rate, and said that it was self-evident that they could not possibly meet such a burden. It is not the fact that the local authorities' share of the expenditure on the provision of shelters has to be met out of revenue. The Exchequer contribution is provided in a lump sum immediately but, so far as the local authorities' share is concerned, there is no reason why they should not raise the necessary funds by borrowing, and so spread the burden over a term of years. That is a matter for their consideration. Moreover, Section 10 of the Act provides that before the expiration of three years from the passing of the Act a review of the financial working of the Act is to be made, in consultation with associations of local authorities. I do not at present consider that there is any reason why local authorities, if provided with the requisite assistance and guidance, and with the technical services and advice that can be made available by calling upon the reserves of good will of the great professional associations of the country, should not be able to attack this problem efficiently.

In this matter a question of principle is involved, a very far-reaching question of principle. If it were accepted that because these arrangements come under the heading of Defence, they must be regarded as the responsibility of the State, and of the State alone, that would carry us very far indeed, and I doubt whether the acceptance of that principle would operate in the public interest. It is not only local authorities that are concerned; there are the public utilities, the great businesses and industries, and there is the responsibility of the private person. That subject was raised this afternoon in a supplementary question. What about the provision for domestic servants? If you accepted the principle that because this is Defence the whole cost must fall upon the general taxpayer, and that the employers must be relieved, where is it to end? The principle carries us further than that. I hope the hon. Member will not think that I am adopting a purely contentious attitude.

Mr. A. Henderson

I take it the right hon. Gentleman is referring to public shelters.

Sir J. Anderson

I am talking now of public shelters. The provision of private shelters in the case of people who cannot reasonably be expected to make provision for themselves will be undertaken at the cost of the State. Now I come to deal with the more limited, and more manageable, problem of the provision of public shelters, what I call communal shelters. That responsibility rests with the local authority, and that is where it should rest. This is a matter in which you wish to engage not only local interest but local responsibility. The arrangements that will have to be made must be adapted to the particular requirements of the locality, and those who know the locality and are in touch with the people of the locality ought to be taken into active partnership—partnership to carry out the work, and a financial partnership also.

If we are to do what is best for the country as a whole, we must distinguish between area and area. We must have some rough and ready system of grading areas according to their degree of vulnerability. What would be the position if the whole burden were taken by the Exchequer? There is no area which one can say is absolutely immune from attack from the air. If local authorities were only interested in pressing, as they would press, for the maximum provision in their own locality, and were not subjected at all to the restraining influence of having to meet a portion of the cost—although that influence is greatly diluted by the financial arrangements that I have described—would not the position be this? The Government would be pressed on every hand to provide 100 per cent. protection for everybody all over the country, whereas what we want to do is to provide as quickly as possible the maximum degree of protection for those areas which require it most. We suggest that that is a consideration which ought to be given due weight.

May I turn to the other question which has been raised in this Debate? A good deal has been said about the merits of deep bomb-proof shelters, as contrasted with the type of shelter which I described in my statement of yesterday. Reference has been made to the experience of Barcelona. I should like to add just one word of caution there. What Barcelona has suffered by air raids is quite trivial by comparison with what might happen in this country if we were ever, unfortunately, engaged in a major war. I say frankly I do not know how far the protection provided in Barcelona can fairly be described as actually protection against direct hits by heavy high-explosive bombs. I think it was the hon. Member for Kingswinford who referred to shelter being provided—not I think the deepest shelter; by tunnels 40 feet deep—for numbers of people ranging from 700 to 7,000. Those are very large numbers. If such shelters are provided on that scale, those who have to go into them must be drawn from quite a considerable area, even in the most congested districts. If air-raid warning is short, and the intensity of the attack is great, the danger of casualties on an enormous scale being inflicted while they are streaming through the streets to get to those shelters, must not be underestimated; and if in fact these shelters are not, as has been suggested, fully bomb-proof, the exploding of a bomb in one of them would create horrible casualties.

Though what I was describing to the House yesterday was only a short-term policy, the best that we think can be provided, and though I tried to make it clear in reply to a question by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker) that I had not excluded, and I do not by any means exclude, further consideration of a long-term policy in this matter, I say that we have quite deliberately gone in for a policy of giving protection to the people of the congested districts in small shelters. I will say further, on the question of deep-bomb proof shelters, that I do not want to be taken as expressing a final view on the matter. There are certain further considerations, quite apart from expense, which is admitted, and delay, which is also admitted, which will have to be kept in view. One is the considerable difficulty of providing really adequate approaches and exits from these shelters, approaches and exits that would be adequate in conditions, not of the sort of bombardments suffered in Barcelona, but of intense bomb-attack.

There is the further consideration—although I do not want to exaggerate it—that, in so far as stress has been laid on the importance of providing deep bomb-proof shelters for the inhabitants of the most vulnerable areas—the docks have been cited—in view of the fact that the attack might be concentrated, at any rate, initially on those areas, it might prove that the only effective solution was evacuation of the people from those areas. In that case, the deep bomb-proof shelters would go out of use straight away, and all the time and effort and all the hopes that had rested on that particular form of protection would go to waste. The smaller and more modest type of shelter which the Government have decided to provide, under the scheme that I announced yesterday, would have two advantages in that connection. The first is that it would be movable, and the second is that, having once been placed in position—and I want to make it clear that as soon as it is placed in position it does, in the opinion of the engineers who have been consulted, provide a very substantial degree of protection—it could rapidly be further strengthened, not merely by the piling of earth on it, but it could be encased in cement—a word which may perhaps bring comfort to my Noble Friend the Member for Aldershot (Viscount Wolmer). That type of shelter has those two advantages, and many other advantages, although I have not time to go fully into them now.

There remain one or two points that were made in the speech of my Noble Friend the Member for Aldershot. He rather complained that we had gone, if I may so put it, all out for steel, and had concerned ourselves with the problem of unemployment in the steel industry, and that we had ignored cement. My Noble Friend says that there is plenty of cement, and that there is also unemployment in connection with the production of cement. I would point out that one cannot just take bags of cement, wave a wand over them, and produce shelters. If one is to make shelters out of cement, with reinforced concrete, one has to make surveys, one has to ensure that the sites of those shelters are the most suitable, and then one has to proceed to bring them into existence. All that must take a long time, even though the supplies of cement may be ample. Having decided on what one thinks is the best site for a concrete shelter, one is finally committed. If one comes to the conclusion that one would like more complete information—and we are constantly getting information which leads us to change our conception of the scope and magnitude of the problem—one cannot shift the shelter and quickly put it up somewhere else, as one can with a steel shelter.

But I do not wish for one moment to give the House the impression that con- crete shelters are ruled out. I said in my statement yesterday that there was no single solution of this problem, and when the report of the engineers, which I promised yesterday, is available, I think the Noble Lord will obtain considerable comfort from what it contains. It classifies the different kinds of shelters that should be provided, it stresses the importance of employing to the fullest extent all the resources available in the provision of shelters; and the Noble Lord will see that a certain type of concrete shelter is given, not the highest priority, but fairly high priority in the final conclusions of the engineers.

A word was said, I think by the Noble Lord, about the experience of Barcelona in regard to the use of steel for the protection of cellars. The Noble Lord suggested that experience showed that no sort of protection was found to be given by that method and that the use of steel, as a material for the protection of cellars, had been abandoned in Barcelona. I do not know how far the abandonment of steel for that purpose in Barcelona may have been due to the fact that steel in sufficient quantities ceased, at an early stage, to be available. I have before me a book which, I know, has been widely read and on which, I believe, hon. Members have to some extent based their views in regard to the merits of different types of protection against bomb attack. In that book I find this passage: Nevertheless in practice such cellars have saved thousands of lives in Spain. In the few minutes that remain, may I refer to the observations of the Noble Lord in the concluding part of his speech? He said he hoped that my Department had come to regard air-raid precautions as a permanent feature of our national life. I am rather sorry to say that that is, in fact, the position of my Department in this matter. We are proceeding on the footing that this is not a merely ephemeral activity. I had a conference with the local authorities the other day at the Home Office and I then endeavoured to emphasise the fact that, although their duties in respect of air-raid precautions had been superimposed, by an Act which might have been regarded as an emergency Act, upon their normal duties, it was quite wrong to regard those duties as something extraneous, to be adequately provided for by some kind of emergency organisation. I ventured to urge them to make adequate provision in their organisation for their various responsibilities in connection with air-raid precautions, to make it a normal part of their organisational equipment.

Then, my Noble Friend said he hoped that I did not regard myself as working in a watertight compartment. I think I have said to the House before that my position in regard to civil Defence is, if not anomalous, at any rate somewhat novel. While I have under my direct control a department of the Home Office and a considerable staff, I am also responsible for many matters which have to be dealt with by other Departments which have their own Ministers. I hope I have been able to establish proper relations with those other Departments con- cerned in civil Defence, which will ensure harmonious and co-ordinated working. I would refer in one sentence to a particular point of my Noble Friend in his closing observations, namely, the possible influence on traffic problems of considerations of civil Defence. May I say that I had, more than three weeks ago, a conversation with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport in which I emphasised the very point which my hon. Friend has raised.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordinly at One Minute before Five of the Clock until Tuesday, 31st January, 1939, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.