HC Deb 20 March 1956 vol 550 cc1195-8

1.27 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I beg to move, That the Draft Civil Defence (Fire Services) (Water) Regulations, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th February, be approved. These Regulations are not self-explanatory, and, despite the lateness of the hour, I think that the House will expect me to say a few words about them. Perhaps I might start by saying something about the background.

The House may recall that during the last war a number of emergency water tanks were built throughout the country, and in addition borehole pumps were installed on bridges over the River Thames and an underground system of unfiltered water mains was laid in London. Most of the emergency water tanks were demolished soon after the sites on which they were constructed were derequisitioned. A few remain—there are about 600 such tanks in London.

During the Berlin crisis of 1948, local authorities were asked to preserve as many as possible of the existing tanks. The Government think that it is still necessary that they should be kept, and it was agreed to contribute from Exchequer funds 75 per cent. of the expenditure incurred by fire authorities on cleaning and maintaining the tanks. Among other things, these Regulations will provide the statutory cover for these payments. The amount of money involved is not great. The initial cost of cleaning the tanks will be about £15,000 and the subsequent annual cost will run at about £5,000. In effect, the purpose of these Regulations is to give statutory authority for the payment of Civil Defence grant at the rate of 75 per cent. to fire authorities for carrying out the functions referred to in the Regulations.

The Regulations themselves fall into two parts. Part I, which is on the first page, specifies these functions for every fire authority—first, to make plans for the taking of all reasonable measures to ensure that an adequate supply of water will be available for Civil Defence firefighting purposes. This is already a function of fire authorities under Regulation 2 (c) of the Civil Defence (Fire Service) Regulations, 1949. That Regulation is revoked by Draft Regulation 4, and the inclusion of this particular provision in the Regulations is a little consolidation.

The second function is to maintain the existing installations for the supply of water which were constructed for civil defence fire-fighting or other purposes and are in danger of being demolished; the third is to secure ready access to supplies of water which are from time to time available for civil defence fire-fighting purposes; and the fourth, to secure that works which, with minor alterations or modifications, would be capable of being readily adapted to hold water for civil defence fire-fighting purposes, can be so adapted. Incidentally, regulation 3 provides that in carrying out these functions the local authority shall comply with any direction given by the Secretary of State.

Part II of the Regulations revives and amends Section 58 of the Civil Defence Act, 1939. I will elaborate that point if any hon. Member wishes. Otherwise I will leave it at that.

I hope that, with that brief explanation, the House may agree to the desirability of these Draft Regulations, and will be willing to give them a fair wind.

1.32 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

It is, I think, a sad reflection on the Government's lack of progress in providing us with an adequate Civil Defence system that tonight we should be discussing a Regulation about the maintenance of static water tanks in London and other parts of the country.

It has been established that 25,000 firemen, which is 5,000 more than the total full-time strength of local authority fire brigades, will be needed to deal with the fire danger from one hydrogen bomb in a heavily built-up area. Against that background the best that the Government can do is to legalise boreholes on bridges and to help local authorities to maintain static water tanks surviving from a war sixteen years ago. I understand from the Under-Secretary that the Home Office has been contributing 75 per cent. of the cost of minor repairs and maintenance of these static water tanks and other water containers, and I think it is right to say that that has been done without statutory authoriy. That, I think, is a matter for legitimate criticism of the way in which the Home Office has looked after this matter.

I would draw the Under-Secretary's attention to the need for fulfilling a promise which was made some time ago to local authorities. In March, 1953, the local authority associations of England and Scotland accepted the Government's proposals for Civil Defence grants which were subsequently embodied in the Civil Defence Grant Regulations. At that time it was agreed that at the first convenient opportunity legislation would be introduced to provide for the reimbursement by the Exchequer of any amount by which expenditure of capital works exceeded a level at which the local authorities' share, allowing for the grant, was above the product of a 2d. rate, and in Scotland a rate of 1 8/5d.

In the spring of last year the Association of Municipal Corporations inquired from the Home Office whether steps were being taken to introduce such legislation, and they were told on 29th March that it was not possible to say when legislation would be introduced. I do not think we can expect local authorities to take a full part in the Civil Defence machinery unless they have adequate Civil Defence Regulations which are wholly acceptable to themselves. Yet, even as recently as yesterday, the Association of Municipal Corporations still had no information as to the intentions of the Government in this respect.

I urge the Joint Under-Secretary to try to impress on the Home Office the need for greater urgency in dealing with this problem so that we can have as effective Civil Defence machinery as it is possible to provide.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Draft Civil Defence (Fire Services) (Water) Regulations, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th February, be approved.

1.36 a.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Draft Civil Defence (Fire Services) (Water) (Scotland) Regulations, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th February, be approved. The draft Regulations in the name of the Secretary of State make the same provision for Scotland as the Regulations just approved do in respect of England and Wales. They have been agreed to by the Scottish local authorities. I do not think that the House desires me to say anything further, and I therefore commend them with confidence.

Question put and agreed to.