HC Deb 20 April 1953 vol 514 cc771-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Kaberry.]

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Ian Harvey (Harrow, East)

When I realised that this subject was to be debated at the conclusion of this important day, I felt that it might be an anticlimax, but after listening to the speech of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), I have taken a great deal of courage.

This is one of the first occasions during this Session when Civil Defence has been debated in this House, and it is perhaps not without significance that there was no reference during the course of the defence debate to Civil Defence and that in the White Paper on defence the subject merely appeared as a rather apologetic postcript. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary in his wisdom has appointed a Committee to consider publicity and recruiting for Civil Defence and he has increased that wisdom by appointing as a member of that Committee the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), who is here tonight and who has had considerable experience of this subject. I hope it might be possible for him to intervene during our discussion tonight.

One of the main recommendations of the Mabane Committee was that Civil Defence should be regarded as a fourth arm of defence. I believe there are many hon. Members who are in wholehearted agreement with that recommendation. The Mabane Committee have further indicated that they believe that if the incentive of fear of war is removed, some alternative incentive to recruitment is required. A crisis cannot go on for ever; either the crisis ends in the disaster which is anticipated occurring, or the crisis turns into a continuous state of stagnation which fails to have any impact upon the public. There is considerable danger that Civil Defence will suffer today from that situation, and we all applaud the decision of Her Majesty's Government to ensure that Civil Defence should not be regarded as a crisis force, and that the fear of war, which we all fervently hope is receding, should cease to be the main incentive for people to join the Civil Defence services.

It is imperative, therefore, that if that definite incentive or fear is removed, alternative incentives should be established. We believe that Her Majesty's Government have to establish those incentives. That can be done in two ways. The first is by convincing people that Civil Defence is a permanent service which has a permanent role in our society, whether or not there is an immediate threat of war in being. That can be done by paying attention to two very definite aspects of Civil Defence. The first is the question of organisation, because this idea that Civil Defence is the fourth arm of defence can only mean something if in its organisation and status it really holds that position.

We think that there should be an operational head of Civil Defence, to give purpose and direction to the whole Service, and above all—Members of this House will appreciate this point—to hold its own with the other Services of which it is supposed to be the fourth arm. Secondly, we think that Civil Defence should, as I have already mentioned, have a permanent place in our social structure, that the Civil Defence corps in particular should have a home with every local authority, and that it should be regarded as the police and the fire service are regarded today. That will mean some re-assessment of duties.

Recently we have had the tragic events of the Harrow disaster, close to my constituency, and the floods, close to the constituency of the hon. Member for Lincoln. The Civil Defence services played a very important part in both those events, but I do not believe that they were expected to do so as of right. That is a situation which requires attention.

There is some indication that Civil Defence in industry, which is a vitally important service, because the defence of industries by themselves must play a great part in any future hostilities which may unfortunately occur, is becoming too much of a private army, and many of us think that a greater co-ordination between the existing Civil Defence and the local authorities and Civil Defence in industry is to be desired.

The Home Secretary—and it is a very great honour for me to feel that my right hon. and learned Friend has come here at this late hour— has played a great part in the establishing of a prototype mobile column. We are all watching it with the greatest of interest. Some of us believe that the experience of the mobile column will show that it has vast implications for the future defence of this country, far greater than just a mobile column of Civil Defence. We think the right hon. and learned Gentleman may well find he will have to consider a permanent system with Civil Defence as a regular central corps. Some of us feel it may be necessary in the forthcoming National Service Bill to introduce some provision for men being called up and drafted into Civil Defence, the fourth arm, as into the other three arms.

The question of morale is equally important and it is vitally tied up with organisation. We believe the time has come for badges of rank to be granted for the Civil Defence Corps. We think there should be greater recognition of Civil Defence on public occasions. When the other three Services are present and operating, it ought to be a matter of course that Civil Defence is present as the fourth arm. It is no use paying lip-service to the idea of a fourth arm if, when on public occasions the other three arms are represented, as a possible last-minute concession Civil Defence is found tagging along behind. That is no way to build up a fourth arm.

We are glad it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to discard the idea that the threat of war should be the main incentive to recruiting facilities. We are certain, however, that unless something is done to replace that incentive, to make Civil Defence a permanent part of our social structure, the whole organisation will be in serious danger of failing to attract the support we all desire.

The whole defence picture which, whether or not there is an immediate threat of war must always be before us, has been transformed by various scientific developments, many of which have been recently discussed in this House. New ideas on the whole subject of defence are forthcoming. We in London know very well that total defence involves Civil Defence. It is because I and my hon. Friends realise that change that we are most anxious that the excellent (recommendations before my right hon. and learned Friend should be put into effect and that Civil Defence shall be indeed and not merely in phrase the fourth arm of defence.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Ian Harvey) for allowing me a few minutes of his time. I intervene to stress the fact that Civil Defence is regarded by hon. Members on this side of the House, as by hon. Members opposite, as a united national matter and not in any way as a question for the party division which has arisen in some other aspects of non-regular defence.

The hon. Member for Harrow, East referred to the mobile column. I hope that the experience gained will be reported to the House from time to time so that we may all be educated in this. We do not all know at present what it means, although I had the advantage of seeing the first beginnings of it. We do not know what it will lead to. Like the hon. Member, I look forward to the time when Civil Defence may be considered equally with the other three Services.

No Government has even contemplated a system of Civil Defence which is other than civilian. It must be worked with the military, but it is a civilian organisation of neighbours coming together to defend one another. Although it works closely with the fire service, the police and other arms of defence, it is a civilian service controlled by the local civil authorities. We cannot envisage a system of peace-time control as rigid as one I read of in America where a policeman went into a house during an exercise and said, "There is a black-out on." Some people replied, "There is no danger," but the policeman said, "There is," and he drew his revolver and shot them to show there was. We cannot envisage anything like that because with us it is essentially a civilian service.

One of the problems is esteem. Of course, we cannot expect the Civil Defence services to be held in the same esteem as the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Farce or whatever regiment we may have in mind. I have in mind the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment. We cannot expect that, but the Home Secretary and the Home Office generally can go some way to help the Civil Defence services to be recognised on public occasions so that we may gradually build up an honourable status not only for the corps but for all those associated with it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the work done during the floods. I know of the great work done by the Civil Defence corps in constituencies near my own. This work was done in peace time and it shows that, although on figures it sometimes seems that the corps is failing, there really is a structure which can be used in emergency. There is a great deal to be done and we must all thank the hon. Member for Harrow, East for raising the matter, and I thank him for allowing me the opportunity of identifying myself and my party with the Civil Defence corps and Civil Defence generally.

10.16 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Ian Harvey) for raising this subject and to him and the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) for the manner in which they have dealt with the matter, and for allowing me a good half of the available time in which to cover a very large field.

We all welcome every opportunity to increase interest in this subject. It is most important that the public and hon. Members should be conversant with the problem. The House may be interested if I start by saying that the latest figures for recruitment are more satisfactory than they have been. The total recruited in England and Wales to the end of March is 263,270. Recruits during March were 9,330 compared with the average for the previous six months of 8,260 and, for the corresponding six months one year before that, of something under 6,000. There has been a marked improvement. We should all be pleased about that, though there is still room for further improvement.

The purpose of Civil Defence is not aggressive. Indeed it is the very converse of aggression. Nor is it pacifist. For that reason, it rather tends to fall between two emotional appeals. I think that we all feel that there is, as my hon. Friend suggested, some temptation to try to import emotion on an alarmist basis by making an alarmist appeal. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has always avoided doing that, as have all hon. Members in all parts of the House. I am sure that is the right attitude. I agree, however, that Civil Defence is an essential part of our defences. As such we cannot relax our determination to ensure that it is fully effective until the time comes, if it ever does, when we can relax all our defences generally.

The policy of Her Majesty's Government, as of the last Government, is to concentrate our available resources on those parts of our defences which are most effective deterrents to an enemy by reason of being able to take the offensive. Hon. Members in all parts of the House have agreed that that is right, but that does not mean for one moment that the position of Civil Defence is anything but an essential part of our defences as a whole. I can assure the two hon. Members that that is fully recognised, not only by Her Majesty's Government, but also by the Fighting Services, and that is important.

May I, quite briefly, give some evidence in support of that statement? In the first place, the Fighting Services have shown the greatest readiness to take part in Civil Defence exercises, land, conversely, they themselves have been very willing to organise exercises with a Civil Defence aspect. In the second place, the Military and Civil Defence Staff Colleges have been in the closest touch with one another. They have exchanged ideas, and, on occasion, even personnel. In the third place, the Army and the Royal Air Force have shown their practical help by being willing to loan men for the manning of the experimental mobile column.

May I say a word about the mobile columns which would be set up in time of emergency? It is intended that they should include all sections of Civil Defence and that their members should be whole-time. They would be an essential feature of the general Civil Defence organisation. The mobile column which has been constituted at Epsom is, of course, an experimental mobile column, as both my hon. Friends will appreciate. I should say, though, that it is experimental, not in the sense that we are trying it out to see whether mobile columns are worth while, because we are quite satisfied that mobile columns are essential, but it is experimental in the sense that we wish to find out how it should be constituted and how it should work. We want to study the organisation and the question of what is the best establishment, and also to study the tactical questions which must arise in the use of such an organisation.

I should tell the House that, as it will readily understand, it would be exceedingly unsatisfactory and wasteful to try to maintain a number of mobile columns —a mobile army—in peace time, for obvious reasons, and I do not think it is likely, therefore, that it will be possible or necessary to set it up in time of peace. But perhaps the House will be interested to know that the Home Secretary himself is visiting the mobile column at Epsom on the 27th of this month, and if any hon. Member is interested in this matter and wishes to go, he will there see the actual work of the column and how far the experiment has progressed.

May I now say a word on industrial Civil Defence? My hon. Friend suggested last week that there was a tendency for industrial Civil Defence to drift away from the main body of Civil Defence. I go this far with him—that I agree that to seek to put the two branches of Civil Defence into watertight compartments would be entirely bad, and that, in the nature of things, there must have been some tendency for that to occur. On the other hand, that is appreciated, and the lesson has been learned, so that the tendency is now in the opposite direction. I can assure the House that there is a tendency for the two limbs of Civil Defence not to go further apart but to get closer together. The recommendation made in the Mabane Report in this connection has been accepted in principle by the Government.

In fact, there is to be a meeting this week with representatives of both sides of industry, and that will be followed as soon as may be, assuming it is successful—and I have no reason to believe it will be otherwise—by a meeting of representative organisations of local authorities, and I hope and I shall expect that it will be possible at no very distant date to issue detailed guidance to those concerned.

As regards the question of rank and badges of rank, I quite appreciate that there is a need for an early pronouncement. I believe everybody feels that, and, indeed, it is obvious that it is so. But there are some very difficult questions raised. I am sure that the hon. Member for Lincoln will appreciate these questions, having had some experience of them.

To give a brief example. Canterbury, on the one hand, and Liverpool, on the other, each have a chief warden. The functions and responsibilities of those two individuals must, in the nature of things, be different. I think the House will appreciate that there might be difficulties about insisting that they should hold different ranks, or that they should hold the same rank. How are we to have some easily denned scale suitable for the corps as a whole? I say that to indicate the kind of difficulties involved.

Consultations have been taking place with the local authorities, and I think I can say that they are almost on the point of completion. Again, I hope it may be possible to make a pronouncement on this subject in the near future. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Lincoln has said about the need for recognising the Civil Defence forces in a tangible form. It is not only a matter of paying them lip service on platforms and in this House, but of showing them in a practical way on ceremonial occasions that we regard them as important.

Since the Civil Defence Corps was formed at the end of 1949, a representative contingent has always taken part in the Remembrance Day parade at the Cenotaph. The House will remember that a contingent of the corps marched in the funeral procession of the late King George VI. It is intended that a contingent of the corps shall take part in the lining of the route for the Coronation, and, therefore, they will be fully represented on that ceremonial occasion.

I can say that on all such occasions it is the intention of the Government that the corps should be seen to play their proper ceremonial part, thus indicating that the Government and the country genuinely regard them as my hon. Friend has said, as the fourth arm of defence.

I have necessarily had to deal somewhat perfunctorily with the many questions that have been raised, and I have tried to deal with them as best I can. In some cases, I think I have indicated that we are reaching a point where definite action can be taken, and I hope the House will appreciate that we will certainly do what we can to give effect to the desires of both hon. Gentlemen on either side of the House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'clock.