HC Deb 20 April 1939 vol 346 cc471-6
65. Mr. Graham White

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he is in a position to make any further statement with regard to the policy of His Majesty's Government in relation to deep air-raid shelters?

70. Mr. Noel-Baker

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he can now make a statement concerning the policy he proposes to adopt for providing deep shelter for the population of vulnerable areas?

Sir J. Anderson

The Government are now in a position to announce their policy in regard to the provision of heavily protected shelters against air attack; but, before stating the conclusions arrived at, I should like to summarise the various stages in the development of the Government's shelter policy so that the matter may be viewed as a whole and in proper perspective.

The House may recollect that on 3rd November last my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary indicated that it would be the policy of the Government to provide protection against splinter, blast and the fall of debris for all in vulnerable areas who could not fairly be expected to provide it for themselves. A fortnight later, after certain preliminary work had been carried out Departmentally, I called to my aid in settling the details of this policy three engineers of great eminence recommended for this purpose at my request by the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. These engineers, working in conjunction with the technical advisers of my Department, presented their report on 20th December; and before the House rose for the Christmas Recess I made a detailed statement of the means by which effect was to be given to that policy and of the special Exchequer assistance to be made available.

It will be recalled that the policy involved the adoption of a variety of expedients according to the varying conditions under which protection had to be provided. As the House knows, the first item in that policy comprised the distribution on a very large scale of a simple type of portable steel shelter suitable for erection in the gardens or yards of two-storey dwelling-houses. The distribution of these shelters began on the 20th February and has proceeded at a rate substantially in excess of the estimates originally made by the engineers. Already over 300,000 unit shelters capable of sheltering up to 1,500,000 people have been distributed; and distribution will for the future proceed at an accelerated rate.

The next item consisted in the strengthening of suitable basements. It had been hoped that the execution of this part of the policy would proceed with equal expedition: but it soon became clear that grave doubts were entertained in certain quarters—doubts based partly on an interpretation or misinterpretation of experience in Spain and partly on considerations of a more technical character —whether basements could in fact, be made reasonably safe by the methods proposed. I felt, therefore, that before proceeding to action on a large scale it was essential that these doubts should be cleared up by further investigation and practical tests. The necessary experiments were at once taken in hand under the guidance of the three engineers already referred to. They have necessarily taken time, as the results of each test had to be studied and interpreted before the next could be arranged. The last test was completed only a fortnight ago. The result has been to demonstrate the soundness of the strengthening device proposed.

Accordingly, steps were taken on 4th April to place the first orders for material; which had necessarily been held in abeyance pending the results of these tests, and simultaneously, with the collaboration of the professional institutions and of the trades concerned in building and civil engineering work, an organisation has been created to assist the local authorities in carrying out as speedily as possible the surveys and subsequent structural work, not only for the strutting of suitable basements but for the execution of the various alternative courses recommended in the engineer's report in cases in which neither the portable shelter nor the strutted basement could provide a satisfactory solution. There remained the question of the deep or heavily protected shelter, which as I have explained to the House on previous occasions—would be in addition to, and not in substitution for, any part of the policy of lighter protection on which the Government have already determined.

When my Department came to grips with that problem it speedily became clear that both technical and non-technical considerations of great complexity were involved and that, while certain broad conclusions could be formulated at once, further technical investigations of a fundamental character would be essential before a final judgment could be put forward with any confidence as the basis of a practical policy. For example, the data available in this country or from sources abroad were markedly deficient in regard to such matters as the physical characteristics of what is known as blast and its physiological effects and the effect of concussion on structures buried or partly buried in the earth. The resources of an enlarged and strengthened research department were brought to bear on these problems, and at the same time various projects which had been submitted for my consideration, including what is known as the Finsbury scheme, and certain proposals for car park shelters, were submitted for examination and advice to independent experts of the highest standing. Taking advantage of the time which these investigations would inevitably occupy I thought it desirable to convene a special conference to assist me by bringing under independent review all the considerations, non-technical as well as technical, which bear upon the problem.

That conference—which met under the chairmanship of Lord Hailey and included the Hon. Member for East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks), for whose ready collaboration I am very grateful—has now submitted a most comprehensive and valuable report. This has been laid before Parliament, and copies will be available in the Vote Office this afternoon. Hon. Members will find in the report itself a full statement of the considerations which the conference took into account, and I need only state the decisions which the Government have reached after considering the report and the results so far available of the various technical investigations to which I have referred. These are as follow: First, no grounds are shown for departing from the policy of blast and splinter proof protection already announced and summarised earlier in this statement, and the Government will accordingly make every effort to assure its being carried out as speedily as possible in vulnerable areas. Second, an attempt to provide bomb-proof shelters on any general scale would prove impossible in practice, and would be a mistaken policy. Third, there is a case for providing heavily protected shelter for certain key points and certain vital services. Fourth, technical advice will be afforded as speedily as possible to industrialists and others as to the form or forms which such shelters might take. These are the governing decisions which have been taken in this matter. Broadly, the Government have accepted the principles of the report of the Hailey Conference, though there remain a number of points on which further consideration is required. In particular, it will rest with the Government to indicate, through the appropriate Departments, in what cases more heavily protected shelter is considered desirable in the interests of all concerned. This will present a difficult problem of selection, but it is hoped that by proceeding first with the most obvious and urgent cases a solution representing a fair balance of considerations will be worked out. In the meantime, the Government earnestly hope that all concerned will proceed as rapidly as possible, with the provision of shelter proof against blast, splinter and the fall of debris, for all people in areas exposed to risk whether at their work, in their homes or in the streets.

Mr. White

May I ask whether the powers proposed in the Bill at present under consideration will be sufficient to enable this policy to be carried out?

Sir J. Anderson

Yes, Sir. Everything I have described in the statement will be within the terms either of the Air-Raid Precautions Act, 1937, or of the Bill now before the House.

Mr. Shinwell

As the right hon. Gentleman has now decided to rely on protection against blasts and splinters, will be tell the House when he proposes to expedite the completion of trenches in the public parks? May I ask whether he recalls a statement which he made in this House several weeks ago that this work was in progress, and can he explain why the work still remains unfinished? When is he going to get a move on?

Sir J. Anderson

These questions are rather outside the scope of the statement I have made. As to the first point, I think I shall carry the House with me when I say that I have at all times been most careful to avoid holding out any expectation that the ultimate decision would be other than that which I have announced.

Mr. Shinwell

Will the right hon. Gentleman now say whether he proposes to expedite the work in relation to trenches? What is his view now?

Sir J. Anderson

There was a question on the Paper which I was quite prepared to answer in regard to trenches, and I will circulate the answer in the OFFICIAL REPORT if. it is so desired.

Mr. Shinwell

This is a most important matter, and, in view of the statement made many weeks ago by the right hon. Gentleman that this work was in progress, and that he now says he has decided to abandon the long-term policy, may I ask what protection is being afforded in the public parks?

Sir J. Anderson

I have not said anything in the statement bearing on the question of trenches. I have said that such delays as have occurred in the completion of trenches were, to a very large extent, due to causes outside the control of the Department. Perhaps hon. Members will await the statement.

Mr. H. G. Williams

May I ask whether in connection with the more heavily protected shelters there will be an increased rate of Government grant to local authorities and to employers?

Sir J. Anderson

No, Sir. The approved expenditure in this case will rank for grant on the terms laid down in the Air-Raid Precautions Act, 1937, in the case of local governments, and as proposed in the Civil Defence Bill in the case of employers.

Sir William Davison

May I ask when the pamphlet which my right hon. Friend promised to publish after Easter giving advice to large householders who propose to provide basement protection at their own expense, will be issued?

Sir J. Anderson

I hope at the beginning of next week.

Sir Percy Harris

Are we to gather from the statement that at certain special points deep shelters are to be provided that it means that local authorities will be encouraged to provide them, or are they to be ruled out altogether?

Sir J. Anderson

What I said towards the end of the statement, the third decision, is that there is a case for providing heavily protected shelter for certain key points and certain vital services.

Mr. Herbert Morrison

If there is a case for providing heavily protected deep shelters for key points, is there not an equal case for providing them for the civilian population? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement will cause considerable apprehension? Is it intended that facilities will be given f or a Debate on this subject?

Sir J. Anderson

The statement I have made is intended to be read with the report which is being made this afternoon, and which will be available to hon. Members at once.

Mr. Sandys

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the very balanced policy which he has announced of providing varying degrees of protection according to the varying degrees of danger in different areas, will meet with widespread approval?

Sir Archibald Sinclair

Is that a correct description of the policy? Has not the right hon. Gentleman told us that it was not in accordance with the degree of danger to which the civil population is exposed that shelters are to be provided, but in accordance with the importance of the service which has to be safeguarded?

Sir J. Anderson

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to wait for the White Paper.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Are there special reasons for excluding the civil population in vulnerable areas from having the heavily protected shelters which he proposes to provide for key services? Is it merely a question of finance?

Sir J. Anderson

It is certainly not a question of finance, as the hon. Member will see from the report.