HC Deb 19 October 1939 vol 352 cc1023-35
63. Mr. Rhys Davies

asked the Home Secretary whether he has now been able to satisfy himself that persons following other occupations have been appointed to air-raid precautions and other civil defence posts and thereby drawing two incomes at the same time; and whether he intends taking any action to abolish this practice?

Sir J. Anderson

As I stated in reply to the hon. Member's question on 5th October, persons are not ineligible for whole-time paid service in the air-raid precautions service merely because they are in receipt of an income from other sources, but they must be in a position to give whole-time service at such times and for such hours of duty as are required of them and to take the necessary training for their service. Inquiries into the cases which the hon. Member has brought to my notice are being made locally in order to make sure that these conditions are being observed, and as soon as they are completed I will communicate with him.

Mr. Davies

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that a person employed during the day and earning an income in respect of that employment is really available for the whole of the night for this A.R.P. work? How is it that the right hon. Gentleman is accepting that as a matter of course?

Sir J. Anderson

I am not accepting anything as a matter of course. I am always prepared to look into anything that may be represented as verging on the unseemly, but I really cannot undertake to concern myself as a general rule with other sources of income that volunteers may enjoy or the financial condition of their household.

67. Brigadier-General Sir Ernest Makins

asked the Home Secretary whether, in view of the fact that they are paid with public money, he will issue instructions that all local authorities should compile lists of all their paid air-raid precautions workers and that these lists should be available for public inspection?

Sir J. Anderson

I would refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I gave on 5th October to a similar question by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Chatham Division of Rochester (Captain Plugge).

Brigadier-General Sir Henry Croft

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear in any further declarations which may be necessary that there is no reflection by this House on the patriotic services of these people, who for two years have been training to fit themselves, but that it is purely and simply a question of economy?

Sir J. Anderson

I am making a statement on the subject at the end of questions.

68. Mr. Davidson

asked the Home Secretary whether he is now able to state the total number of voluntary air-raid precautions workers and the total number of paid air-raid precautions workers in Glasgow; and the total amount expended up to date on air-raid precautions salaries, wages and expenses?

Sir J. Anderson

According to the returns furnished by the Glasgow Corporation there were, on an average, 5,077 paid whole-time volunteers employed in the air-raid precautions and fire services in September, their pay in that month amounting to £48,842. Up to date information as to the number of unpaid volunteers is not available.

Mr. Davidson

Referring to the last part of the Minister's reply, can he say if and when he will be able to get information as to the number of voluntary A.R.P. workers?

Sir J. Anderson

A return has been called for, and I hope it will be available very soon.

71. Sir W. Brass

asked the Home Secretary whether he contemplates putting the whole of the air-raid precautions personnel in the country into uniform; what would be the total number of persons involved; and the approximate cost per person?

Sir J. Anderson

Yes, Sir, and I am sending my hon. Friend a copy of the answer which I gave to the right hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) on 10th July last. I cannot in present circumstances give the total number of persons involved, but the estimated average cost per person is IIs.

Sir W. Brass

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is a scandalous waste of money and that more than 1,000,000 people are involved? The Army cannot get material for uniforms and we ought not to give these uniforms to those in the A.R.P. services?

Sir J. Anderson

I am afraid that I cannot accept any of the statements just made by my hon. and gallant Friend. This is not a luxury uniform. It is a utility garment in the nature of an overall which will serve for the protection of the wearer's ordinary clothes, and the vast majority of the recipients will be unpaid part-time volunteers.

Sir W. Brass

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, according to a report from Leeds, the crest of the local authority is to be embroidered on these uniforms?

Mr. H. Morrison

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that women ambulance drivers, for example, have to climb on and off all kinds of vehicles and are suffering very great inconvenience and dirtying their clothes as a result of this simple and inexpensive uniform not being available?

Sir J. Anderson

That was one of the main reasons for the decision taken in July, after many representations had been made and after the fullest consideration, to supply this uniform.

Sir William Davison

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the complaint that the uniforms and overcoats supplied to the ambulance drivers referred to are made of cotton, and will he make it clear that they are for the purpose of protecting clothing and are not meant really as warm wraps?

Sir W. Brass

Owing to the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall raise this matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. H. Morrison

(by Private Notice) asked the Home Secretary whether he has any statement to make about the organisation of Civil Defence personnel.

Sir J. Anderson

Yes, Sir. I am glad to have this opportunity of saying something to the House on this matter. In view of the importance of the subject and of the interest which it has aroused, I hope I shall be pardoned if my reply is given at some length.

Before the outbreak of hostilities no one could foretell the form or extent of the emergency which we might be called upon to face. Our preparations were based, and were necessarily based, on the assumption that the Civil Defence organisation would be called into action at the beginning of hostilities to meet intensive, and perhaps continuous, aerial attack. If we had based our organisation and our plans on any other assumption we should have been grievously at fault, and hon. Members will, I am sure, agree that I should have failed, and failed lamentably, in my duty, if I had not done all that was possible to ensure that we could counter successfully what is so commonly referred to as the "knockout" blow.

Having planned our organisation on that assumption, we had, at the outset, to mobilise our volunteers, the whole body of them that was available, both whole-time and part-time, and I can confidently say that the way in which that mobilisation was carried out—something entirely new in this country's experience —afforded clear and convincing evidence of the spirit of our people and reflected the greatest credit on local organisation throughout the country.

Mr. Maxton

On a point of Order. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is answering a question which was put to him by the right hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) as to the future reorganisation of Civil Defence. I am ready at any time to listen to a Minister making a defence of the past operations of his Department, but is it proper that that should be done in reply to a question dealing with the future?

Mr. Speaker

It seems to be quite all right. It is a matter of a statement being made on the part of the Minister of the Crown.

Sir J. Anderson

In setting so big a machine in motion there have naturally been some mistakes and some abuses, but no more, I suggest, than were inevitable in so widespread an undertaking. Do not let us magnify them to a degree which distorts the whole perspective in which our Civil Defence should be viewed. So far, I think, I shall carry the House with me; but the course which events have taken is not that which was expected and against which we were bound to prepare. There have been a few alarms, but there has been no attack from the air on our civilian population. In these circumstances it has been suggested that it is wasteful, both in money and man-power, to keep standing by whole-time a considerable number of men and women who, up to the present, in the absence of actual attack, have not been called into action. I do not dissent from the view that, now that we have mobilised, our organisation calls for some reconsideration. This is a matter to which I have been giving close attention, and in a moment or two I will indicate to the House the lines on which I am asking local authorities to proceed; but before I do so there are one or two general considerations which I feel I should place before hon. Members, and one or two misapprehensions which I should like, if possible, to clear away.

In the first place, I wish to say quite definitely that there can be no question at present of any wholesale demobilisation of our whole time Civil Defence personnel. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said only the other day the fact that we have not yet experienced the ordeal of aerial bombardment affords no reason whatever for any over-hasty or wholesale dispersal of our Home Defence forces. So far as Civil Defence is involved, the battle has not yet been joined, but the mentality which so early has been saying "turn on your lights and turn off your volunteers" is not the mentality which is going to win the war. Who can say whether or when the attack may not be launched in earnest. The fact that up till now the war has so largely been what our gallant Allies call a "guerre d'attente"—a war of waiting—must not lull us into any false sense of security. The lines of Civil Defence must be kept manned and ready for action. just as much as our anti-aircraft and ground defences must be kept continuously manned. This will necessitate the employment of a substantial nucleus of whole-time volunteers who are paid for their whole-time services.

The establishments of personnel, both whole-time and part-time, for each area, which were communicated to local authorities early this year, were determined after most careful consideration of the various factors involved—the size, character and possible vulnerability of the area. Some critics still talk as though the same scale of preparations had been urged on all parts of the country alike. I can only say that this betrays a complete ignorance of the organisation they are calling in question. Incidentally, may I make it clear that the suggestion, so often put forward, that my Department has insisted that local authorities should engage a certain number or proportion of whole-time personnel is entirely erroneous? Our scheme of Civil Defence has always assumed that, so far as possible, we should rely, and rely in the main, on part-time volunteers; but we have always recognised that in many, if not the majority, of areas some element, varying from area to area. of whole-time service would be necessary if we were to secure the continuous manning of key posts. Our so-called establishments of whole-time personnel have indicated, not the numbers up to which local authorities should necessarily or automatically enrol, but the numbers up to which, if need be, the Exchequer is prepared to carry the cost.

It is also a mistake to suppose that, except in one or two isolated cases, more whole-time volunteers have been engaged than was contemplated by our emergency plan. Still more is it a mistake to imagine that the larger proportion of out Civil Defence personnel consists of those employed on a whole-time paid basis. I greatly deplore that the vast volume of purely voluntary service now being rendered is not more generally and generously recognised. In our A.R.P. services as a whole it may be estimated that only one in eight is a whole-time paid volunteer. Indeed, it is true to say that in many areas the numbers of whole-time personnel at present enrolled in particular services—I have in mind such vital services as rescue and first-aid parties—arc considerably less than we have contemplated as requisite to meet a period of extreme and intense emergency, and in certain cases, if we are to maintain a reasonable margin of security, some increases will actually prove necessary.

In planning our Civil Defence organisation, both the Department and the local authorities were in a sense planning "in the air." There was no previous experience in this country to guide them; our Civil Defence is a new creation.

It is one thing to plan on paper and quite another to see the plan in actual working, to see your troops, not as figures on a schedule, but actually on the ground. We have now seen our organisation in working, and naturally, as we look along the lines, we see that certain adjustments are called for. In some parts we have perhaps some surplus strength and there reductions will be possible; in others, the line is too thinly manned and more volunteers will be needed, both part-time and whole-time. It is now possible, for the first time, for the local authorities and the Department to review their dispositions in the light of actual working experience. What, therefore, we are endeavouring to do at this moment is to arrive at the whole-time nucleus for each service in each area which, bearing in mind the varying requirements of the services and the varying conditions of the areas, may be regarded as appropriate in the present circumstances, but we must always keep in mind the possible need for rapid expansion should those circumstances change.

Perhaps the problem of readjustment may be summed up in the word "flexibility." We have to devise a system whereby we can maintain our Civil Defence organisation, manned with the minimum of whole-time personnel necessary to secure that it should always be ready for action and ready to meet the first attack, but at the same time capable of rapid expansion to deal with repeated and intensive attack. It is on these lines that I communicated over a week ago with all fire authorities throughout England and Wales with regard to the Auxiliary Fire Service, and I am now communicating with scheme-making authorities as regards the A.R.P. and casualty services, in a circular framed after much consideration and close con- sultation with those best acquainted with conditions in various parts of the country.

Let me illustrate the principles we have in mind from the Auxiliary Fire Service. We shall maintain in each area a suitable number of first-line units in constant readiness. These will generally require a substantial number of men available full-time except in so far as arrangements can be made for other volunteers to be available for duty at very short call. Behind these first-line units we shall have the second line, which will come into action only after an interval, for which only a very small nucleus of whole-time men would be employed, primarily for purposes of maintenance and to bring the appliances into action. The crews of the second line will depend in the main on part-time personnel who will answer the call as soon as possible, when required.

The conditions of the various services of Air Raid Precautions and of the casualty services vary. Some will be required to come into action more speedily than others, but subject to this we are asking local authorities to apply the same criteria and to arrange for a nucleus standby force which can be readily supplemented by part-time volunteers, and other volunteers who are able to leave their employment and temporarily to undertake full-time service. In reviewing these services I am taking full advantage of the local knowledge which the regional commissioners possess of the organisations in their several regions. Their advice and assistance are most valuable.

There are two points arising from the action I am taking which I feel it is very necessary to emphasise. In the first place, by reducing our standby forces in this way we must realise that inevitably we run certain risks. It is possible that the attack launched on some given place might be so heavy that our first line might prove insufficient to meet the needs of Civil Defence; but risks are inseparable from war and reasonable risks we must be prepared to carry.

In the second place, the adjustments which we are proposing authorities should make will increase the already vital importance of the services of large and larger numbers of part-time volunteers. Greater responsibility than ever will now rest on citizens to give their part-time services so as to ensure that we can readily reinforce the whole-time nucleus if and when the call for action comes. I am confident that we can rely on the realisation by the citizen body that participation in Civil Defence is a national obligation. It has, indeed, been suggested that it is one which every citizen might not unfairly be asked to undertake. There is an attraction about this suggestion, but it is beset by very serious practical difficulties. We could not undertake to extend our training on so vast a scale as would be required, nor could we undertake to equip so vast a part-time army. There is in this country a general and an ardent desire to serve, and our Civil Defence organisation offers that opportunity for service which so many are seeking. There are some areas—a few—which have the proud record that their services are continuously manned by part-time volunteers, but, in general, and particularly in our big centres of population and production, which demand a high degree of protection, where the great mass of the people are in employment, it is not possible, solely on a basis of part-time service, to secure the continuous manning of key posts and essential services, throughout the 24 hours.

Large numbers of part-time volunteers may be available, but they tend to be available all at the same times. The extent to which the necessary whole-time nucleus can be limited must depend on the numbers of part-time volunteers who are in a position and are willing to undertake terms of duty at any time throughout the day, and on the rapidity with which volunteers otherwise employed could at time of raids leave their work and proceed to duty.

I should have liked to have been able to give, here and now some estimate of what the expected reductions will amount to. I cannot, however, give a definite figure at present until local authorities have completed the reviews which I am asking them to make and until their proposals have been collected and collated a complete picture of our revised dispositions cannot be obtained. I can, however, say this, that on the basis which we are now adopting it is not proposed that the first-line units to be maintained—which require to be manned in most areas by a substantial number of whole-time volunteers —should, for the time being at any rate, amount to more than some 50 per cent. of the total strength of such units which has previously been contemplated as necessary to meet continuous and intensive attack. This, of course, assumes that arrangements can and will be made for securing that our second line can be brought into action within a reasonable period of time. In some services, and particularly in cases where personnel can be readily assembled, a lower percentage may be kept as the first stand-by line.

The application of the principles I have described will be that in a number of areas, often those which are probably less vulnerable but where volunteers had enrolled and had been engaged almost up to full war strength, not inconsiderable reductions may become possible. I must, however, in fairness to the House and in fairness to my responsibilities as Minister of Home Security, make it quite clear that it is equally true that in a number of areas, often those which are among our major centres, no reductions may be made except in so far as it is found possible to arrange for the necessary continuous duties to be carried out by part-time volunteers. As I have said, I anticipate that in some cases some further engagement of whole-time personnel will be found necessary. What we shall effect is the removal of inconsistencies, the ironing out of inequalities, while at the same time we shall, wherever possible, reduce the number of posts to be kept continuously manned and build on the system which it was always envisaged should be the system of our Civil Defence—a number of key posts and a nucleus of whole-time workers who could be reinforced and brought up to fighting strength at short notice by the second-line party who could be relied upon to turn out and to turn to in times of emergency.

Before concluding, may I be permitted to say one word about the volunteers themselves, the men and women who have undertaken to serve their country in this way? Some thoughtless sentiments have, I think, been expressed about them. They have been accused sometimes of having secured a soft and well-paid job. I cannot help thinking that we should not have heard accusations of this kind had the emergency and the risks which volunteers have shown themselves ready to face actually matured.

Civil Defence is not a soft job; it is true that it has not yet been put to the test, but even in these first days of war the life of the volunteers has not always been so easy as supposed. Long hours were put in at the outset and are still being put in, often under conditions of great discomfort, and much valuable work was accomplished in the final preparation of posts and the keying up of the whole organisation. The unremitting efforts of the officers of local authorities also deserves our greatest gratitude. Since then we have taken steps to settle down to collective training, and this period of freedom from raids has been of the greatest value to us in bringing our organisation on to an active service basis. I think we may all feel heartened by the response which the people of this country made to the call for volunteers and I regard it as most unfortunate that they should be subject to any disparagement or discouragement. No one says of a sentry keeping guard that he is just doing nothing. No one suggests that our ground defences standing by are a waste of money or of men. In the same way our Civil Defence volunteers are keeping watch, standing ready to go to the assistance of their fellow citizens wherever the call of danger and of duty may come. These men and women are not slackers; they are not parasites. They have answered a call to service and the country is, I believe, grateful to them. Perhaps, sooner than we expect, we may have occasion for greater gratitude and cause for greater pride.

Mr. Attlee

May I ask the Prime Minister whether the statement which we have just heard is considered to be comparable in its scope to the statements which we have had from those responsible for the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, and, if so, why was no notification given to the House through the usual channels that we were to have this lengthy, argumentative and eloquent statement? We would all like an opportunity of paying a tribute to these workers, but it is rather a disadvantage to have this sort of statement without notice.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

I am somewhat at a disadvantage because I did not know myself that my right hon. Friend's answer would be so prolonged. In the circumstances, it must not be taken to be comparable with statements that have been made on previous occasions, but perhaps it would be desirable when answers of such length are contemplated in future that they should be made more by way of statements than as answers to questions.

Mr. Maxton

Mr. Speaker, may I now, in the light of your experience, put to you the point of order which I mentioned earlier, as to whether a statement of that kind, reviewing the past and the future, is an appropriate subject for an answer to a question?

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid I must agree with what the Prime Minister has said.

Mr. Duncan

In connection with the recruitment of part-time volunteers, may I ask my right hon. Friend that he will consider employing these part-time volunteers nearer where they live, and not choosing people who live in Hampstead to work in Battersea and people who live in Fulham to work, say, in Clapham? It would be very much easier if they were employed nearer their homes; it would be far more satisfactory and it would save an enormous amount of work.

Sir J. Anderson

That was the basis of the organisation.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

The Minister has told us about this vast organisation which is working all over the country. Will he tell the House what is the value of this vast and expensive machine when some officer outside his Department altogether may prevent any warning reaching the population or his own workers, as in the case of the Firth of Forth raid? Will he give an assurance now that never again will a dangerous and extensive raid of that kind take place without timely and full warning to the population?

Mr. Garro Jones

May I ask who is the Minister responsible, and when will his decision be announced, in regard to the principle of governing the area over which an air-raid warning will be given corresponding to the magnitude of direction of a particular attack; and has the Minister responsible for making that decision obtained from the Air Ministry particulars of the continuous threats of raids which might keep the whole country in a perpetual state of air-raid warning?

Sir J. Anderson

I think these are matters which had better be reserved for a separate statement.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

On the Order Paper to-day there are questions by several hon. Members including myself containing the very point which I have raised. One was addressed to my right hon. Friend and was transferred to someone else. It is not fair to the House if no one is to make a statement on this most urgent matter.

Mr. McEntee

As the House is not meeting on Monday, could the right hon. Gentleman come along on Monday and make a further statement?

Mr. Garro Jones

If we are to have a further statement like the one we had to-day in answer to my question, I will put it down for a written answer.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

Surely we should not go into this subject without ascertaining from the Leader of the House who is the Minister responsible whom we can criticise for failing to issue air-raid warnings in time, or, as an hon. Member stated, for issuing too many.

The Prime Minister

I am not sure if the right hon. Gentleman was present when I answered that point. I said the High Command was responsible for the issue of warnings, and, therefore, the Air Minister is responsible in this connection.

Sir W. Brass

In view of the 20 minutes' statement which has been made and the threat of another 20 minutes' statement at an early date, I would like to know if it is possible to debate the question later on.

Sir J. Nall

Is the Minister taking into account that a large number of people are prepared to give whole-time service without pay?

Sir J. Anderson

I think I did make reference to that point.

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