HC Deb 03 July 1951 vol 489 cc2240-8

8.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas)

I beg to move, That the Draft Civil Defence Corps (Scun thorpe) Regulations, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th May, he approved. Both the Civil Defence Corps Regulations, 1949 and the Civil Defence (Public Protection) Regulations, 1949, confer certain functions on county councils. county boroughs and five specified non-county boroughs. Referring to this last group of authorities, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department said in July. 1949 in the House: It will he seen that there is a small group of large non-county boroughs which have been given a special position… Then he mentioned them by name and he described them in these words: …which are large urban populations surrounded by a very considerable tract of country which has no urban characteristics at all. I think they stand in a special category. It may be possible to add a few other county districts to that number."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 26th July, 1949; Vol. 467, c. 2399–2400.] The purpose of this draft Regulation is to add the borough of Scunthorpe to these specified non-county borough authorities. There have been several applications from local authorities to be scheduled in this way. We have given most careful consideration to these applications on their merits, but only in the case of Scunthorpe has it been considered that the needs of the county district could not be met by a delegation of authority from the County Council.

In the case of Scunthorpe, the Parts of Lindsey County Council felt that since they had so wide an area to administer, and since the borough of Scunthorpe constituted an entirely different Civil Defence problem, it was desirable that Scunthorpe should be scheduled. The County Council accordingly supported the application of the borough council.

In no other case was there this agreement between a county district council applying for scheduling and the county council concerned. The factors that influenced us in coming to the decision to ask the House to add Scunthorpe to this list were that it was a populous authority, its importance as a steel manufacturing town, and the general agreement that its needs could not be met by delegation.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd (Birmingham, King's Norton)

We do not disagree with what the Under-Secretary of State has said. We wondered why the problem of Scunthorpe did not arise earlier and was not dealt with earlier, but from what the hon. Gentleman said I take it that the consultations with the County Council and with the local authority itself took some time. Undoubtedly, that is the reason. We see no reason to oppose this Motion.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Draft Civil Defence Corps (Scunthorpe) Regulations, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th May, be approved.

Resolved: That the Draft Civil Defence (Public Protection) (Scunthorpe) Regulations, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th May, be approved.—[Mr. de Freitas.]

8.17 p.m.

Mr. de Freitas

I beg to move, That the Draft Civil Defence (Public Protection) (Warnings) Regulations, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved. I must detain the House for a few minutes on these Regulations because they are an important step in our preparations in Civil Defence. We have now reached the stage in the re-establishment of the air raid warning system when we must begin making some local arrangements. Hon. Members who follow Civil Defence affairs closely in the House will know the Parliamentary history. It has been taken in stages. I will refer to the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Air mentioned it last October. The Home Secretary mentioned it last November, and in January the Prime Minister used these words: We shall, however, press on with Civil Defence planning; and we shall accelerate those Civil Defence measures which directly support the efficiency of the Armed Forces—in particular, communications, the control network and the warning system."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th January, 1951; Vol. 483, c. 583.] At this point, in January" the warning system was quite clearly regarded as, and stated to be, part of our immediate defence programme. Again, in March, in answering a Question in the House, it was shown that we were working closely with the Departments in this matter, and a great deal of progress has been made.

We are now at the point at which I am presenting these regulations under which local authorities can take a practical step towards re-establishing the warning system. I want to emphasise that the Government are according to the re-establishment of the warning system a priority equal to that given to the active air defence of this country.

8.19 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

I am glad that we have had that explanation from the Under-Secretary of State, because it must be clear that the warning system is one of the most important of the first things we must do in re-establishing the Civil Defence organisation. We all regret its necessity very much, but as far as we can see, even if the international situation improves, as long as a potential aggressor has a big air force and particularly if it possesses also the atomic weapons, Civil Defence must in a way be regarded, at any rate up to a certain level of preparation, as one of the basic defence services of the country. In any case, we must go on with the re-establishment of the warning system.

Rather serious problems will arise as a result. I do not want to go into details but, broadly speaking, I think it is true to say that bombers are now at least twice as fast as they were during the last war. That means, of course, that there would be only half the time in which to give the warnings. That lays great stress upon the need for a thoroughly efficient warning system and communications system. It also lays great stress upon the need for what I might call primary sources of warning beyond the shores of this country.

In other words, it means that the radar system, from which our warning system derives its information, should, if possible, be extended to the Continent of Europe. Anyone can see that it might therefore be possible to recoup some of the time which we are losing by reason of the great, increased speed of aircraft by getting our warnings from further away. It is also necessary that the speed of communications within the warning system here should be brought to the highest level of efficiency.

I should like to ask whether consideration has been given to warnings relating not merely to aircraft but to guided missiles. It will be within the recollection of some hon. Members that towards the conclusion of the last war there was a system by which a certain warning could be given even of guided missiles. It was true that the time factor was very, very narrow, because the sources of launching were relatively near to these islands. If the sources of launching were further away, it might be possible to get a warning which would have a practical result and be really useful in this country. The hon. Gentleman may not be able to answer that this evening, but perhaps he would give consideration to it.

Hon. Members may remember the way in which, when we heard the first warning in the last war. On the very first day, when the sirens went we all trooped downstairs to a rather improvised shelter. In general, people did take shelter when the sirens first went in the early part of the war. Then, when they got used to the sirens, I think it will be agreed that people came to regard them as more in the nature of an alert than a final warning, and said to themselves, "That means they are coming along," and they were inclined to wait and listen until the planes were getting near before they took shelter.

I rather doubt whether we should be wise to do anything like that in the event of an atomic event. Flashburn, as the Under-Secretary has explained to us previously, is instantaneous, and very dangerous, but dangerous only to those people actually exposed to it at the moment of the flash. If people can get indoors, or even if they can cover themselves up, they can get almost complete protection. But that does mean that they must actually be in shelter, or at any rate away from the open air at the moment that the bomb is dropped.

8.23 p.m.

Mr. de Freitas

The possibility of atomic attack in no way changes the organisation of the warning system. The object of the warning system must be to give the longest possible warning of any attack, whether atomic or "conventional," but because it is of greater effect in the event of an atomic attack it makes it even more important to have an effective warning system. It is not for us to discuss now what sort of advice we would give to people about what they should do when a warning or alert is sounded. These Regulations concern only the system of warning.

Because of the increased speed of aircraft and the possibility of guided missiles, we must admit that we face a very grave problem. Fortunately, it is not a problem which the Home Office is trying to tackle alone. We have the best brains of the Post Office working on the technical side to try to speed up the dissemination of a warning; and, secondly, we have the Royal Air Force, which has the heavy task of defence. They are working desperately hard on an early warning system, so that with our scientific and operational Allies on the land and in the air I feel that we may well be able to solve this problem, and I am confident that we shall do so. These Regulations are a small but important part in setting up the warning system.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)

I have not been able to forbear from intruding into this debate after hearing the speech of the right hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd). I think that he has been thoroughly mischievous in the way in which he referred to the permament character—as he suggested —of the system of warning and of the Civil Defence preparations which he regards now being almost in the first priority of our defence arrangements.

He assumes that even an improvement in the situation abroad will not relieve us from considering this issue in the way in which we have been considering it tonight. I am perfectly certain that a vast number of people in this country will not accept that view, however attractively it may have been presented this evening. The view that is being taken by the people I know in a constituency close to London is that if all these things happen as the result of high speed missiles and the use of atomic and hydrogen bombs the City of London will be a hopeless place in which to live, whether there are warnings or no warnings.

If there is any hope that out of the changing situation that we are now watching with interest abroad a new and better attitude will be adopted towards us by other countries, I hope that the Government—and I got up merely to say this and not to leave it to one or two on the Front Bench to say it—despite all the encouragement which at present they are receiving from the opposite side, will regard it as their first duty to avoid Civil Defence arrangements, which, I believe, if put to the test, will be found to be largely futile for the purpose suggested.

I hope that we shall try to get ourselves into the state of mind that if we can improve the feelings between ourselves and Russia and the other countries behind the Iron Curtain, that is a reason for getting away both from re-armament in a large measure and the particular arrangements that we are discussing this evening. I felt that it was necessary to voice that note of protest.

8.28 p.m.

Mr. Logan (Liverpool, Scotland Division)

I cannot for the life of me understand the viewpoint which has just been put by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson). I can understand the pacifist idea, but to think that we should not take preparations appears to me to suggest that we are living in a world of disillusionment. Everyone knows that after the havoc created by the last war it is absolutely essential for the welfare of the nation that its people should have a timely warning and as scientific a warning as it is possible to get.

It may be all right to come to an understanding, but today we have no reliance on that, and, what is more, we cannot get action from those who ought to be pacifist and who can end war tomorrow if they feel so inclined. We must make every preparation, and it is essential to the welfare of our people that the Government should be supported and that we should feel that we have the people to put the job into operation.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Draft Civil Defence (Public Protection) (Warnings) Regulations, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.

8.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Frederick Willey)

I beg to move, That the Draft Civil Defence (Emergency Feeding) Regulations, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th May, be approved. These Regulations will place on local authorities the responsibility for emergency feeding arrangements. The authorities concerned are the same authorities as deal with the rest centres. We have fully consulted the local authorities and we have also consulted the catering industry. I am happy to say that we have the full support of the catering industry for the steps we are taking.

8.31 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd

I was interested to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary that his Department have consulted with the local authorities, because my inquiries have not led me to find much evidence of those consultations. When the Home Office undertake a job, for example, like that dealt with in the previous Regulations, there is ample consultation, but I have not seen much evidence of it for emergency feeding. I am glad that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson), who made such a passionate speech just now, is endeavouring to assist in the emergency feeding arrangements by getting the Parliamentary Secretary a little information on the subject.

I feel that the Ministry of Food have been rather slow with this work. My information is that the Food Defence Plans Department of the Ministry of Food was set up very soon after the Civil Defence Act was passed, under which these Regulations which we are now discussing arise. If that Department has been in existence all that time, it seems to me that two and a half years is rather an excessive period to pass before these Regulations come before the House. From what I have been able to discover, only about 2½ months would be needed to do what has been achieved so far. I hope this Department and other Government Departments will give the Home Office better co-operation than we feel has been given in this case to get on with the job which it is the duty of the Home Office to co-ordinate.

The hon. Gentleman would agree that our experience of emergency feeding in the last war, particularly towards the end when the raids unfortunately were so heavy—Plymouth is rather a good example of what I am saying—suggests that it is not wise to concentrate the emergency feeding arrangements either in the centre or to a great extent within the area of the local authority or in the town. It was found that it was very important for emergency feeding centres to be dispersed beforehand around the perimeter and outside of what we must call the target area. If that is the case, the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that in the unfortunate event of an atomic attack, the area affected will be much larger than was the area affected by a raid in the last war.

So it is even more important that plans should be made, on the one hand for effective dispersal of feeding arrangements, and on the other for some reliance on a mobile form of centre, such as the Queen's Messenger Convoys. Hon. Members will recall that these Convoys were mobile feeding units. They were lorries with special equipment, completely mobile, and able to deal with feeding at very short notice, proceeding at once to the site of an incident. I am wondering if that scheme is going to be considered again. If the hon. Gentleman would give us some information on that, I should be grateful.

8.34 p.m.

Mr. Willey

I can only speak again with the leave of the House. Perhaps I ought to amplify one or two of the points made by the right hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd) on the subject of consultations with local authorities. It is quite clear that the inquiries which he made must have been very superficial.

In fact, we have discussed these Regulations with the Association of Education Committees, the County Councils Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Welsh Joint Education Committee, the London County Council, the Rural District Councils Association, the Metropolitan Boroughs Joint Standing Committee, the Urban District Councils Association, the Association of County Councils in Scotland, the Convention of Royal Burghs, the Association of Counties and Cities in Scotland, as well as Government Departments. The inquiries of the right hon. Gentleman did not reveal any of those consultations, so we must regard it as a fact that his inquiries have been remarkably superficial. The other points that the right hon. Gentleman made will be borne in mind.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Draft Civil Defence (Emergency Feeding) Regulations, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th May, be approved.