HC Deb 26 November 1953 vol 521 cc604-15

7.45 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Draft Civil Defence (Grant) Regulations, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th November, be approved. The House has always shown complete unity where matters of Civil Defence are concerned and these Regulations, so far as I am aware, contain no controversial issue. On the contrary, the work which led to them was started by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) when he was Home Secretary. My right hon. and learned Friend had no hesitation at all in taking up the work at the very point at which the right hon. Member set it down.

The Regulations are concerned purely with financial matters. They constitute a complete code governing the respective share of financial responsibility for Civil Defence expenditure to be borne henceforward by the central Government on the one hand and local authorities, police authorities and water authorities on the other.

Section (1) of the Civil Defence Act, 1948, laid on what is called the designated Minister responsibility for taking such steps as appear to him…to be necessary…for Civil Defence purposes. Different Ministers have been designated for different functions under the Act. The Home Secretary is the designated Minister if no other Minister is designated and he is the designated Minister for the purpose of making these Regulations. The Regulations apply to financial matters in connection with all Departments to which they relate. It is, however, convenient to have one single code dealing with the whole matter.

Section 2 of the Civil Defence Act requires local authorities to perform the functions laid upon them by Regulations to be made under the Act and Section 3 allows Regulations to be made for the purpose of paying grants to local authorities carrying out those functions. That is what these Regulations are.

When the Civil Defence Bill was debated in 1948, several hon. Members argued that the whole cost of Civil Defence should be the responsibility of the central Government. That was rejected at the time, I think with the concurrence of the then Home Secretary, and the present Home Secretary, and Section 3 of the Act provides that there shall be full reimbursement in those cases that may be prescribed and that the grant towards the other expenses shall not exceed 75 per cent.

The right hon. Member for South Shields gave two undertakings at the time. The first was that the lower rate would be 75 per cent. unless the Minister concerned was not satisfied with the way in which a particular local authority was carrying out its duties. The second was that the associations representing local authorities would be fully consulted before these Regulations were made.

There has been about five years' delay from the passing of the Act to the present time, and I would not suggest for one moment that the local authorities are in any way responsible for that delay. The questions which have been raised have been difficult, complicated questions of an important character, and it has taken a great deal of time to reach agreement.

On the Second Reading of the Civil Defence Act, the right hon. Member for South Shields told the House of a broad basis for the division between the 100 per cent. reimbursement cases and the 75 per cent. reimbursement cases which he had already discussed with the local authorities. However, when that broad basis came to be examined in detail after the passing of the Act—the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) will correct me if I am wrong, because I am speaking of the time when he was in my present office—it was found that there was difficulty about carrying out the basis which had been put forward by the then Home Secretary, and indeed all parties were agreed that it would be unsatisfactory to attempt to do so.

By October, 1.951, however, a fairly substantial measure of agreement had been reached by the previous Government, and the discussions have been continued and final agreement has been reached. I should tell the House that it is genuine agreement; it has been freely accepted by all parties concerned as a fair and reasonable basis.

I should inform the House that my right hon. and learned Friend has made two promises in this connection. The first is that these Regulations will be open to review after two years, and that the associations will then be free to revive, if they wish, any alternative proposals made during the negotiations. The second is that the associations have been told that the Government will introduce at the first convenient opportunity legislation providing for the reimbursement by the Exchequer of any amount by which expenditure on capital works in any year in a particular rating area exceeds a level at which the share of the local authority on the basis of 75 per cent. grant exceeds the product of a two penny rate; in other words, the expenditure of local authorities on capital works in any year will be limited to the product of a two penny rate.

There are two more general matters outside the Regulations which I must mention. In the first place, the local authorities will not suffer financially because of the delay which has occurred in making the Regulations. Since 1949, grants of 75 per cent. have been paid to the authorities concerned on all Civil Defence expenditure. If these Regulations are approved, my right hon. and learned Friend and the other Ministers concerned will arrange to pay a further 25 per cent. on all expenditure that would have qualified for 100 per cent. reimbursement if these Regulations had been made before.

Secondly, these Regulations are intended to apply only to expenditure incurred in peacetime. Financial arrangements appropriate for wartime would have to be considered by the Government of the day, and I do not think it possible to consider this evening what they might do.

I turn to the Regulations themselves, and I think it would be best if I described their effect only in broad terms. If any hon. Members have questions upon them I will try to answer them later in the debate. The Schedule contains the list of expenses which are to be completely reimbursed. By Regulation 2 these must be fully reimbursed, and the others, that is to say anything not covered by the Schedule, will receive a 75 per cent. grant. By Regulation 3 grants are payable only on reasonable expenses approved by the designated Minister. This Regulation is common form, as are the other Regulations to which I shall refer.

Regulation 4 in effect empowers the designated Minister to recover income or other payments attributable to property acquired by a local authority with the aid of an Exchequer grant. If, for example, property acquired by means of an Exchequer grant is a means of earning income by letting, possibly even by selling off a piece, then that adventitious sum coming in to the local authority will have to be accounted for by it to the central Government, who have provided the money.

Regulation 5 enables the designated Minister to make deductions if a local authority is to blame for avoidable expense or loss. Regulation 6 enables the designated Minister to withhold grants if a local authority does not carry out its responsibilities satisfactorily.

I commend these Regulations to the House as representing justice between the taxpayer on the one hand and the ratepayer on the other. They are proof, if proof be needed, that the Government regard the responsibilities for Civil Defence as enduring, and that the Government and this House appreciate the importance of Civil Defence and are prepared to give a really solid measure of help to see that the duties are properly carried out.

7.59 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

I welcome this Motion, and I welcome this agreement which has been reached between the local authorities and the Home Office as laying yet another stone as a basis for sound Civil Defence. The Joint Under-Secretary of State referred to the discussions and debates which have taken place over the last few years between the local authorities and the Home Office as to the apportionment of the cost. I remember the negotiations in 1950 and 1951, and, as he pointed out, there were difficulties then. There always will be difficulties in these matters. Now we are told that there is genuine agreement and I notice that there have been certain changes.

I am pleased to see, for instance, that there has been an abandonment of the basis of discussion at that time regarding equipment, excluding uniform. I learn of the abandonment of the complicated definition and distinction between major and minor expenditure and note that it will be on free loan or on reimbursement. Secondly, there is the important point, which the Under-Secretary of State mentioned, about the complication at that time of making reimbursement on a scale of cost of work being more than £2,500 or the product of a halfpenny rate, whichever was the less. Now it is to be 75 per cent. with the promise of legislation to make reimbursable the excess above the figure of the amount which would come in from a 2d. rate. I think that a sound and sensible arrangement. I notice that under other reimbursable services included in the Schedule is the provision for emergency feeding services.

I think it right that the Under Secretary of State should emphasise, as I will emphasise, that the whole basis of our system of Civil Defencelies in co-operation between the central Government and local authorities. Our method of organising Civil Defence is such that it shall be essentially a neighbourhood scheme, so that men and women may come together to protect their neighbours and themselves in the event of war. These Regulations may be entirely financial and exceedingly technical; but they are all part of the scheme of Civil Defence. I welcome them, and I hope the whole House will do the same.

8.2 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I regret that I cannot agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas). I do not believe that these Regulations are as fair and as equitable as they ought to be. When the Bill was debated on Second Reading, almost five years ago today, many hon. Members opposite referred to the difficulties confronting certain local authorities regarding the cost of these necessary Civil Defence expenditures. It was pointed out then that quite a number of local councils would find themselves in difficulty about the suggested formula which the then Home Secretary put forward, concerning the 75 per cent. grant in certain instances and the full 100 per cent. Exchequer reimbursement.

I well remember raising this question then and receiving from the then Home Secretary a statement that there would be full reimbursement for what might be termed, any expenditure on major capital works…"—[Official Report, 23rd November. 1948; Vol. 458, c. 1095.] On page 6 of the Schedule, we find a number of these necessary expenses and items which would qualify for the 100 per cent. grant. I am amazed to learn, from an urgent message which I received from the town clerk this afternoon, that my own local authority of West Ham has been refused reimbursement for the construction of a report and control centre.

I suggest to the Under-Secretary of State that if he feels it necessary fully to reimburse local authorities for such items as air-raid shelters and for billeting and transferring the population—I agree that is necessary, in fact I subscribe to all the items mentioned on page 6 of the Schedule—then most certainly there should be reimbursement for a report and control centre which is necessary in any Civil Defence scheme.

I do not see how it can be argued that such a centre is not a major capital outlay. My local authority has approximately £14,700 to spend on building its control centre, excluding furnishings and equipment. I appreciate that the Undersecretary may say that the furnishings and equipment generally can be reckoned for 75 per cent, grant, but I ask him to give me an answer in regard to what is in this instance a local point, because I am speaking only for my own authority, although it may equally well apply, and probably does, to many other areas which may wish to set up a similar centre.

I wish to express the strong feeling of the Civil Defence committee in West Ham, and my own feeling, that here is an exclusion from the 100 per cent. grant of something which should be included in the Schedule. Local authorities generally were encouraged to believe that they would receive the 100 per cent. grant. I have quoted my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) who, when he was Home Secretary, said that such major requirements would receive a 100 per cent. grant.

I would remind the Under-Secretary that as comparatively recently as January, 1949, his Department issued a circular. It was Circular No. 2 of 1949 and it was issued on 19th January. I appre- ciate that the hon. Gentleman was not ire office, but he has agreed that in matters of Civil Defence there is no question of politics, and therefore it makes no difference what Government were in office at that time. The Circular stated: At the conference with representatives of the Local Authority Associations held on the 8th November, 1948…it was agreed that proposals to be laid before Parliament for Exchequer assistance to local authorities in respect of expenditure on Civil Defence preparations should be based on the following principles: Any expenditure on major capital works required at the direction of the appropriate Minister for the Government's general plan of Civil Defence would be reimbursed. The control centre for my authority will cost £14,700. That means that the local authority, the ratepayers, will have to find about £3,675. That may not appear to be large for some areas, but when it is appreciated that, because of the blitz, West Ham lost over one-third of its rateable income and that it has to cut down on necessary undertakings and day-to-day administration because it cannot afford to spend more, it will be agreed that it is grossly unfair to expect the ratepayers to find £3,675 to set up a Civil Defence centre. I emphasise this because, without a control centre, what is the good of having a full grant for billeting, air-raid shelters and other matters which are secondary to the major consideration, which is obviously the provision of headquarters?

I ask the Under-Secretary to review the matter. He may say that the Local Authority Associations have agreed to this provision. I am not interested in that. I am concerned with the fact that he said that it is possible to review these items. If the Under-Secretary cannot do it now, I ask him to introduce an amended provision in the review to state specifically that the erection of a Civil Defence report and control centre will rank for 100 per cent. grant.

It may be argued by the Home Office that the amount proposed to be spent is excessive. The Home Office would be entitled to argue about whether there is a waste of money. That would be reasonable, but I am arguing on the principle of the 100 per cent. as against the 75 per cent. grant. I ask the Undersecretary to give deep consideration to the problem. I have spoken to his office today. He has full information about the matter. I hope that he will deal with it on a general basis, because it must affect many other local authorities.

8.13 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Halesowen)

Before I put questions to the Under-Secretary, I should like to say that basically I support these Regulations because the Government have come down definitely on the side of retaining the civic character of this defence force. The Under-Secretary will recall that I had some misgiving whether the Government would decide in this way, because I was aware of some of the views expressed by people in high places who wanted to make it a military defence and not a Civil Defence force, and a kind of fourth arm to the Armed Forces. Therefore, I wish to add my support to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas).

I wish to ask the Under-Secretary about the definition of the words "local authority." May I take it that the local authorities in question are the county council and the county borough authorities, and that if any borough council or urban district council incurs any Civil Defence expenditure reimbursement will go through the county council? If not, will it go direct to the other authority concerned?

I appreciate what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Lewis). I should like to put the matter in what may be a more specific way. I have looked at the Schedule, and I realise that one must make a rough calculation of exactly what expenditure will rank for the 75 per cent. as against the 100 per cent. grant specified there. I have in mind two main considerations. One is the payment of wages and salaries to Civil Defence personnel, and the other is the provision of uniforms.

I wish to ask whether the payment of wages and salaries and the provision of uniforms will rank for 100 per cent. or 75 per cent. grant. I hope that it will be the former, because the incidence of air warfare is not even over the country. If the item of wages and salaries is to rank for only 75 per cent. grant, and 25 per cent. must be borne by the ratepayers, that might be an easy burden in certain parts of Wales, but it could be a heavy item of expenditure for those local authorities which are likely to be in the front line of air attack. That item should rank for 100 per cent. grant.

Those were the questions I wished to put to the Under-Secretary purely for the sake of clarification. I do not know whether I am in order in doing so, but I should like to ask whether I may take it that the method of determining wages and salaries for Civil Defence personnel will be decided by a central body and administered by the local authorities, as was the case during the last war and before.

8.20 p.m.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The Regulations have been generally welcomed, and I should like to thank the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) for what he said. I should like to give an answer to the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr, Lewis). Unfortunately, I had no notice that he intended to raise this question. I appreciate that he communicated with the Home Office. He could not have known that I should be engaged on each of these Motions today.

Mr. Lewis

I appreciated that and therefore I went to the trouble of informing the hon. Gentleman's Parliamentary Private Secretary and his office, and the Home Secretary's private secretary. I tried to get hold of him personally, but he was otherwise engaged. I assure him that I did everything possible to contact him to ensure that he should be briefed about the matter I wished to raise.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I entirely acquit the hon. Gentleman of any discourtesy. I think this is the seventh time that I have spoken today on rather technical matters, and that is the explanation. All I can say is that I will consider what he said and I will write to him. I have ascertained that his local authority did receive a circular, to which he has referred, and I have seen a copy of the circular which referred to the broad basis of agreement which I mentioned in my opening speech as the one indicated by the then Home Secretary at the time of the passing of the Civil Defence Act.

The circular refers to principles. It says that it was agreed that proposals to be laid before Parliament for Exchequer assistance to local authorities in respect of expenditure on Civil Defence preparations should be based on certain principles. I think that statement gave some warning that there was not yet any firm arrangement. Indeed, I believe that the council of West Ham is a member of the Association of Municipal Corporations, and I think it must have known that discussions were going forward on these matters. I have no doubt that it thought everything was all right, but it must have appreciated that there was nothing at all in the way of a firm promise and that there was every possibility that there might be a change.

Mr. Lewis

May I thank the Undersecretary sincerely for his kind offer to have the matter looked at in the usual way through office channels? I appreciate that, but I would say that West Ham, while appreciating that this original circular might obviously have had to be altered in some minor form later, felt that the question of major outlay on capital plant and on actual buildings—particularly such a thing as the main Civil Defence control centre—would qualify for 100 per cent, grant, in addition to some of these other items which are not half so essential as the main control centre.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Perhaps I could say something further which might help to mollify the hon. Gentleman. As I have said, the Government have undertaken to introduce legislation that will limit a local authority's expenditure on capital works in any year to the product of a two penny rate. That is a firm promise. This, of course, may help such authorities as West Ham. In addition to that, the expenditure on Civil Defence that does fall on the rates will count for the purpose of the equalisation of grant under the Local Government Act, 1948.

In this way the rate of grants which may be actually paid in a particular case—I cannot say whether it will be paid in this case; I have not yet had a chance of considering the matter—directlyand indirectly, by the means that I have suggested, on a control centre such as that indicated by the hon. Gentleman, might reach as high as 90 per cent. I think the hon. Gentleman need not fear that all is lost, and that West Ham will have to bear 25 per cent. I appreciate that there is disappointment. When there is a change, someone is bound to be disappointed, but I rather think that where the loss has fallen it will probably have to lie. However, I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Lewis

I appreciate that we cannot continue this matter, but as it is rather important, I should like to know whether, if the council concerned so desired, the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to meet the town clerk and the members of the council to discuss the matter. I personally cannot agree that, even if the grant were 90 per cent., the council should have to find even 10 per cent. I feel that the Exchequer should find the whole amount. Perhaps he would meet the town clerk and the council and discuss the matter.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The hon. Gentleman is arguing a different case. It is one which was decided as long ago as the time of the passing of the Civil Defence Act. I appreciate that his local authority may have been disappointed, but only disappointed in the way that everyone is disappointed when things do not turn out exactly as one hopes they will.

The hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) raised a number of points. He asked about local authorities qualifying for grant. All authorities on whom functions are conferred by Regulations under Section 2 of the Act—that is to say, generally speaking, county councils and county boroughs—will qualify for grant. Some district councils will receive the grant direct, but there is an exception where a district exercises the function of agent of the county; in that case the grant will be paid to the county and passed on. That is the position. I think that answers the hon. Member's point. The hon. Gentleman also asked what was included in the 75 per cent. grant.

Mr. Moyle

No. I asked whether wages, salaries and the cost of uniforms were to rank only for the 75 per cent. grant, and I expressed the hope that it would be the 100 per cent. grant.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The position is that what is in the Schedule will receive the 100 per cent. grant—full reimbursement. Anything that is not mentioned in the Schedule will rank only for the 75 per cent. grant. Local authorities do employ paid people for Civil Defence purposes, although, of course, the great majority of the members of the Civil Defence Corps are volunteers and are unpaid. But where wages are paid—for example, to instructors and Civil Defence officers—they will rank for 75 per cent. only and not 100 per cent. I think I have answered the points raised, and I hope the House will now give this Motion unanimous approval.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Draft Civil Defence (Grant) Regulations, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th November, be approved.

8.28 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Henderson Stewart)

I beg to move. That the Draft Civil Defence (Grant) (Scotland) Regulations, 1953, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th November, be approved. These Regulations are identical in purpose to those which we have just approved, and I think it will be sufficient if I formally move the Motion.

Mr. de Freitas

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) is not here at the moment, but I know that he would ask my hon. Friends to support this Motion.

Question put, and agreed to.