HC Deb 20 March 1956 vol 550 cc1199-203

1.37 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 (Shelter) (Maintenance) Regulations, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th February, be approved. These Regulations, unlike the previous ones the approval of which I moved, are fairly simple in form, and I do not think they require a lengthy explanation. Certain questions may arise on them, however, and I propose to try to anticipate those questions.

The Regulations confer on local authorities the function of maintaining air-raid shelters provided by them in the last war for the public at large and for people in or near their own homes. The House may recall that after the last war the demolition of shelters went ahead very quickly, and in areas where labour was freely available a great deal was done. The work went more slowly elsewhere until 1948 when, in the light of the international situation, the Government of the day decided that demolition should stop. Since then our policy has been to retain as many as possible of remaining shelters, and local authorities have been carrying out the necessary maintenance work.

Presenting these Regulations about maintenance at this time is not prompted, I wish to make clear to the House, by any desire to change existing policy or practice. The only purpose is to give statutory cover for the payment of grant on expenditure incurred by local authorities for maintenance work. There has in fact been no such cover since the Civil Defence (Grant) Regulations, 1953—to which the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) referred in the earlier debate tonight—came into force, but the necessary maintenance work has gone on, and a grant on an extra-statutory basis has been given to local authorities. It is to put that on a proper statutory basis that these Regulations are proposed.

Local authorities will not for the time being be asked to make any change in existing practice, which is to restrict work to maintenance which is essential to make sure that shelters are not in a dangerous condition. The cost will be small. These Regulations have a limited purpose and significance in the field of Civil Defence. They do not represent any new development in shelter policy and are concerned only with shelters which, rather fortuitously, remain over from the war.

It will be appreciated that these shelters are of a different type and design and were constructed for a form of attack quite different from that which we now contemplate; we recognise that. Most of them are far from being ideally suited to the new situation, but we believe that they have a potential value and that it is wise to keep them. There are various types, some in caves or tunnels, which would provide shelter from the new threat of radioactive fall-out. Most of the shelters are domestic surface shelters in gardens or back yards and larger communal surface or trench shelters which can take up to 50 or more people. There are about 100,000 domestic shelters and 10,000 communal shelters.

We accept the fact that full protection by these shelters within a few miles of the burst of a megaton bomb is out of the question, but, outside that range, the shelters would give protection from blast and heat, depending on the distance from the burst. They would also give some protection against radiation, and that could be improved by thickening the walls and roofs. None can say where any such bombs might fall, and it therefore follows that shelters of this kind, wherever they might be, have a potential value.

I must say that I fully realise that these shelters are unsightly, inconveniently placed, and that many householders and others would be very glad to get rid of them. Indeed, I have some sympathy with that point of view, and I think that there may be regret at the need to retain them at all. Bearing in mind the problems created by their existence in time of peace and their admitted limitations in the face of any new threat, it might be argued that they are not worth keeping at all.

We have considered that, but for the reasons which I have given we have come to the conclusion that the balance of advantage lies in keeping them. It is a matter of the balance of advantage. When an exceptionally good case can be made out for the removal of a shelter that, of course, can be done. Demolition at public expense has been and will continue to be authorised when considered essential on grounds of health or when a shelter stands in the way of approved building development. But in the absence of compelling grounds of removal, we think that they should remain, and these Regulations are provided to ensure the maintenance necessary in retaining them.

Perhaps I may anticipate a point raised by the hon. Gentleman about earlier Regulations, namely, about consultations with local authorities regarding our policy in this field. I am sorry if the local authorities consider that they have not had the consultations which they expected on all the aspects of Civil Defence. It is fair to say that in the last twelve months, particularly in this field of shelter policy, the Government have been engaged in assessing the implications of the latest weapon developments and home defence plans. Planning has only recently reached a stage when it is possible to give an up-to-date picture of the matter to local authorities as a basis for discussion.

I think it is debatable at what stage such reflections should be shared. There are obvious drawbacks to thinking aloud prematurely. Equally there may be drawbacks in presenting the local authorities with a fait accompli. I hope it will be proved that we have the balance about right. Incidentally, we have planned a meeting for an early date—it is simply a matter of the convenience of the local authorities as to when they can gather—and on that occasion we shall be discussing the contents of these Regulations and much wider subjects.

1.44 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

I have never heard a Minister commend Regulations to the House less enthusiastically or more apologetically than we have heard the Joint Under-Secretary do tonight. That, perhaps, is not surprising when we realise that these Regulations are being laid under an Act which is eight years old, and that the Regulations are designed to maintain air-raid shelters erected sixteen or seventeen years ago. The slightly apologetic air of the Joint Under-Secretary was, I think, fully justified in those circumstances.

Last year, the Labour Party appointed a committee on Civil Defence which reported on 29th March, 1955. I think that perhaps a copy of its Report could with advantage be sent to the Home Secretary. The Report lists three courses that can be adopted in the case of aerial attack—to die, to dig or to disperse. It seems quite clear that the Government are not prepared, at any rate at this stage, to dig, but they are preparing now merely to shore up diggings sixteen or seventeen years old.

In the Report which the Labour Party published there are two paragraphs which should like to bring to the attention of the Under-Secretary. It said: The surface type shelters were not meant to stand up to direct hits from high explosive bombs, but they did provide reasonable protection from even comparatively near misses. We are convinced that such shelters will be completely inadequate within several thousand yards of ground zero in the event of a hydrogen bomb explosion. There is also the fact that parsons remaining alive in, say, a Morrison type table shelter where a house has collapsed on top of it, might have to wait several days or even longer, before they could be rescued. During all this time they would be exposed to heavy radiation. People in deep shelters probably would not survive an almost direct hit, but even if they did, or if their shelter was a mile or two from ground zero, would they be able to get out? We do not know, but the Government, with the mass of expert advice available to it, must give an answer. We are still waiting today for the answer from the Home Secretary, and the public are beginning to ask what is the Government policy for Civil Defence. what plans they have for deep shelters, what proposals they have for the strengthening of basements in new buildings, and what plans they have for the provision of air filtration plants which will give protection against radio-active dust particles.

The hon. Gentleman has said that proposals are in train for discussions with the local authority organisations, but I have before me a letter from the Association of Municipal Corporations, dated 19th March, which says: The Association feels, however, that even though it has been shown the draft of these Regulations, nevertheless it has not been taken into the confidence of the Government with regard to future shelter policy. The Association has for a long time pressed the Government to explain to representatives of local authorities what the Government's policy is with regard to shelters. I think that that is a legitimate demand on the part of local authorities. I am happy to hear tonight that the Home Office is at last considering taking the local authority organisations into their confidence, and I hope they will lose no time in getting into touch with the various associations and telling them that consultation is to take place.

Question put and agreed to.

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

1.49 a.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Draft Civil Defence (Shelters) (Maintenance) (Scotland) Regulations, 1956, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th February, be approved. Here again the draft Regulations make the same provisions in Scotland as do the Regulations just approved for England and Wales, and they have been accepted by the Scottish local authority associations, who have been consulted. I should add that in Scotland there are about 15,000 shelters, of which 9,500 are in Glasgow, 3,000 in Aberdeen and a few in Edinburgh. Six thousand of these are domestic shelters and about 9,000 communal domestic shelters. We do not know of any underground shelters in Scotland. The cost of maintaining the shelters which the Regulations will now allow to rank for 75 per cent. grant on a proper statutory basis is extremely small, being only about £600 a year in Scotland.

Question put and agreed to.