HC Deb 03 June 1954 vol 528 cc1457-62

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department (1) whether he will make a statement on the Civil Defence exercise held in Coventry on 30th May;

(2) whether the commentary read by a member of the Civil Defence Corps on the occasion of the Civil Defence exercise in Coventry on 30th May, was made with his approval;

(3) what steps he takes to prevent Civil Defence organisers engaging in public political controversy with local authority councillors, whose areas they visit.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department to what extent he was consulted before the recent Civil Defence exercise at Coventry.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement on the recent Civil Defence exercise in Coventry.

At the end of Questions

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I will, with permission, answer Questions Nos. 57, 58, 59, 62 and 63 together.

At the request of the Coventry City Council, arrangements were made to hold a Civil Defence exercise at Coventry on Sunday, 30th May. The plan was for the Home Office Civil Defence experimental mobile column to visit Coventry and to carry out the exercise in collaboration with the local division of the Civil Defence Corps.

On 7th April the Town Clerk informed me by letter that the Coventry Council intended to disband the Civil Defence Committee and I am still in communication with the council on the matter. The council did not ask for the postponement of the exercise, but on 7th May intimated that the Coventry division of the Civil Defence Corps would take no part in it. That did not seem to be a sufficient justification for abandoning the exercise. which was duly held.

The commentary was not submitted for my personal approval, and indeed I could not undertake to consider all the details of the various Civil Defence exercises which are held from time to time throughout the country. I have, however, now had an opportunity of reading the commentary prepared by the Home Office principal officer of the Midland Region.

I gather that the passage to which exception was taken by certain members of the Coventry City Council was to the effect that, in the event of an attack, unless Coventry was prepared with local Civil Defence forces it would be a long time before the help of the mobile columns arrived and the sufferers were assisted. I can only say that I entirely agree with this appreciation of the effect of the absence of local Civil Defence services.

I also agree that Civil Defence ought to be kept outside the realm of party politics. Further it would have been better and more in accordance with the traditions of the Civil Service if comments on any action taken by Coventry had been made by a Minister of the Crown. It is no part of the duty of civil servants to enter into public controversy with local authorities, and I am assured that the object of the principal officer was to emphasise the importance of Civil Defence and to secure the success of the exercise. I am satisfied that no further action is called for on my part in this connection.

I can find no justification for the conduct of those who saw fit to attempt to wreck a Civil Defence exercise whose sole purpose was to foster interest in Civil Defence, to demonstrate the need for measures to deal with the after effects of attacks from the air on the civil population, and to emphasise the interdependence of neighbouring units of the Civil Defence Corps and of the Civil Defence mobile columns which are an essential part of the Government's plans.

Mr. Edelman

Is it not the case that Mr. Collyer's conduct has been consistently provocative and foolish, and was what originated all the pandemonium that took place on the occasion of the exercise? While agreeing that Civil Defence should be kept out of politics, may I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he will now instruct his officers henceforward not to take part in political controversy with public corporations or even with individuals? In order to introduce a better atmosphere into the present totally unsatisfactory situation, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman now consent to receive a deputation from Coventry City Council to discuss Civil Defence?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

As to the first part of the supplementary question, I prefer to avoid using adjectives at this Box. I have made a statement that, I think, conveys quite clearly the views that I hold and quite clearly the course of conduct that I want to see pursued. With regard to the other part of the supplementary question, I am still awaiting a communication from Coventry City Council, which will receive my most careful consideration when I have it.

Mr. Braine

While respecting the right of the individual to criticise or even to stand aloof from Civil Defence, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to give an assurance that those who hold such views shall not be permitted to sabotage the efforts of public-spirited men and women who engage in Civil Defence, and prevent them from making an effective contribution to Civil Defence in their regions?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I stated, weighing my words carefully, my view on that matter in the last part of my answer. I would put it this way. What I want is that they should change their views and co-operate with us in helping forward Civil Defence.

Mr. H. Morrison

I would ask a question as one who does not accept the policy being adumbrated by the Coventry Corporation. I had these arguments before the last world war, and am familiar with them, and I do not agree with them.

I think that we on this side of the House appreciate that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has indicated that it is not part of the duty of a civil servant to enter into political controversy. I hope that if there is anything to be said to the Coventry City Council the Home Secretary himself will say it, because it is better that he should, as he is responsible to this House. It was unfortunate that a civil servant should have been involved in, so to speak, a public, open-air wrangle with the Coventry City Council.

Instead of this long distance wrangle going on, would it not be better if the right hon. and learned Gentleman were to ask representatives of the Coventry City Council to come to London to see him, and if he were squarely to argue the matter out with them? In the light of such discussions he could consider what course to take. Is it not time that he had a heart to heart talk with the representatives of Coventry? I say this as one who was quickly on the spot in Coventry after the terrible raid made on that city in the last war.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I am very grateful for the helpful tone of the question of the right hon. Gentleman, as I was indeed most grateful, as I publicly said, for the statement that he made soon after this unfortunate matter began. As I said in answer to the first supplementary question, I am awaiting a letter from Coventry City Council. I promised the House that when I receive it I shall lake into most sympathetic consideration what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. H. Nicholls

Will my right hon. and learned Friend keep in mind that while local authorities would support his expression of view that civil servants should not enter into controversy, surrounding local authorities expect the bigger, city authorities to recognise that they have a special contribution to make to regional defence, and that they should not allow their perhaps sincerely held but narrow political views to interfere with the wider responsibilities they have to their neighbours?

Mr. Beswick

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman also bear in mind that it is not a question at all of narrow political views, and that the matter goes far beyond Coventry City Council? There are many interested, intelligent and patriotic people in this country who do not think that the rescues which that organisation purported to effect at Coventry fitted in with the physical facts of the modern situation. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman see that this matter is discussed with the people of this country as a whole, and not only with a deputation that may be coming to see him?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I am very glad to do that. I take every opportunity of meeting local authorities all over the country on this matter. I do hope that what will go out from the House today is the wish that local authorities, whatever may be their label or whatever may be their size, will try to co-operate with me. I assure them that I shall do my utmost to co-operate with them.

Miss Burton

As one of the representatives of Coventry, may I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he will agree—and will ask those Members not in sympathy with what has been done in Coventry to believe—that Coventry City Council really and truly does believe that the Civil Defence arrangements today are quite inadequate for dealing with the hydrogen bomb? That is the very sincerely held view there. Knowing Coventry, I would suggest that it would be a great service to us all if the Home Secretary would see a deputation and would convince them, as, I would also suggest, it is his duty to do, that they have taken the wrong step, if he can so convince them.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I take the point of the question. I will take serious note of that.

Mr. I. O. Thomas

Would the Home Secretary say whether at present there is any consultative machinery for the exchange of views, information and ideas between his Department, himself and the local authorities, whereby matters which come to a head in this fashion—as in Coventry and possibly other places— may be thoroughly thrashed out, differences exchanged and possibly all causes of bad feeling removed?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I can only say that I cannot think of any example over the last five years—none which I know from the Department—where the regional organisation has shown strain in this way. In the ordinary way, consultation goes on all the time, and with the happiest results. We are always prepared to consider whether any improvements can be made.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Is the Home Secretary aware that the Memorandum put to the Select Committee by the Home Office when the Committee studied civil defence before Christmas was based on what is called the normal atomic bomb —the atom bomb dropped at Hiroshima? Is he aware that modern bombs have very much greater power than that but that journalists are still being encouraged to write about the subject in terms of the Hiroshima bomb? Will he institute a new appreciation of Civil Defence in the light of modern developments?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I appreciate that point. I instituted a study for a new appreciation, I think three months ago. I am in constant touch with those who are doing it. Certain problems will require lengthy consideration and, as the right hon. Gentleman appreciates, consultation with the Chiefs of Staff and, of course, with scientific advisers, but I can assure him that the study is being pressed forward.

Mr. Albu

Does not the Home Secretary think that this situation might not have arisen had he not taken so complacently the unanimous Report of the Select Committee on Estimates on the administration of Civil Defence, and had his Department given some considered reply to the criticisms which were then made?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

That is a matter of argument. I did not intend to be complacent. As I told the hon. Member before, I am not a person who resents public criticism at all. I have tried to develop, and will continue to develop, one of the matters to which the Select Committee attached most importance— that is, mobile columns. I can only repeat to the hon. Member that, if he has any suggestions, I am always ready to hear them and to meet him.