HC Deb 09 March 1961 vol 636 cc843-54

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

11.31 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am very glad to have this opportunity to put forward some views on Civil Defence. It was with regret that I noticed that during the debate on the White Paper on Defence no mention was made of Civil Defence, because I consider it a very important subject. Paragraph 40 of that White Paper, Cmd. 1288, says that the Government intend to increase expenditure to a total of 18.6 million.

I should like to put forward two points, because I consider that now we need a really definite policy for the future of Civil Defence. I understand that the policy of Civil Defence is to ensure that the maximum number survive a nuclear attack and to enable those who do—and there may perhaps be millions of them—to face the very grim conditions in which they will have to live. The present volunteers, to whom I think we should all express our thanks, would like to know what status they will have in case of war. If they undertake training now, will they be treated as being in a reserved occupation or will they be taken away for a totally different form of National Service? As far as I understand Government policy, there are twelve reserved categories. These are set out by the Home Office as not being eligible for Civil Defence. Others enrol and engage to serve in time of war "to the best of their ability."

In peace it is, I think, very difficult to get real enthusiasm for Civil Defence, and I understand that the total number of volunteers is so low that even if it were trebled the required national minimum strength would not be reached. I gather that the average rate of enrolment is approximately 40,000 a year, but the wastage is considerable.

I refer to Sweden, which really seems to have one of the most adequate forms of civil defence. Since 1944 all citizens aged between 16 and 65 have been liable to service in the civil defence service, and they have two special duties. They have to undertake preventive measures such as black-out, shelters, sirens, warden's duties, and so on; and they have to undertake relief activities, such as rescue work, care of the homeless, and so on.

I should like to see the name of Civil Defence in this country changed to that of National Emergency Service. I think that it would encourage people to join, and furthermore, it would be beneficial, I think, in helping the country in peacetime emergencies. Quite recently we have had a considerable number of floods and other disasters. I think that in some instances the Civil Defence has been called upon to help. I think that a National Emergency Service which would not only be required to help in time of war but would be called upon in time of peace would not only be useful, but would attract people to join it and to train. That would be of benefit to the nation.

In order to educate the public I hope that the Government will produce in the not-too-distant future a householders' handbook, because the public are entitled to know what may be expected in war, and what they may be expected to do, and how they could help and be helped to prepare themselves for it. A scheme of first-aid and nursing should be set up, bringing in such things as understanding of radiation sickness, combined with the programme that we wish to have dealing with further home accidents, and this will teach persons nursing of the wounded. Every household should have a member trained in first-aid, home nursing and how to deal with emergencies in time of war. I hope that there will be a more vigorous drive to get this practical knowledge into the smaller households of the country.

I pay tribute to the work done by the Women's Voluntary Services in this connection. They are doing excellent work with their "one-in-five" scheme. At present the total welfare section, I understand, is 135,650, and out of this number the W.V.S. contributes a total of 55,302. There appear to be about twenty-two food flying squads manned at present by 936 members of the W.V.S. I wonder whether twenty-two food flying squads would really be adequate.

I understand that the training for evacuation, care of the homeless and emergency work takes about thirty hours. I understand that it would be advisable to have a shortened course. It is not considered necessary to take thirty hours to learn how to deal with these emergencies. A shorter course would be welcomed.

I wish to put a specific question to my hon. and learned Friend, and I should be grateful if he would give me an answer. Has the senior man in Civil Defence been given high enough status? In other words, has he full access to the Chief of Staff and the Ministry of Defence? Also, how is the co-ordination working between Civil Defence and the Services? We notice that the only time we get a report on Civil Defence and the amount of money being spent on it is in the White Paper on Defence. I should like to know how good the co-ordination is between the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office in this matter.

Has the Home Office got a real evacuation plan? Is evacuation in the circumstances that may exist considered to be really practicable? If it is, I hope that the plan may be given or that we may be given an indication that there will be a plan. If it is not, let us say so and let people know how they stand.

I gather, according to paragraph 41 of the White Paper, that good progress has been made in regard to the development of the warning and monitoring system, but I gather, too, that there is no warning system for fall-out. By that I mean that if a bomb were to drop in Bristol and the wind was in the direction of Plymouth, there is no siren note yet which could give the people of the areas outside Bristol any indication that it was a nuclear bomb with a fall-out which might be dangerous, in order that they could take cover.

The wardens posts are, I consider, the linchpins of the whole service. I gather that it is impossible to equip more than a small proportion at present and that the total number of wardens is very small. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will consider it practicable to allocate more wardens' posts and ensure that they are adequately serviced with telephones.

Furthermore, it is necessary to have more earmarking of essential buildings. I imagine that the essential Civil Defence services will be worked from towns. Therefore, they must have buildings outside the towns in what will be known as fairly safe areas which should be earmarked now and known so that they can be taken over in time of emergency. It will not be possible, I suggest, to do any structural alterations, but I hope that all such things as telephone cables and communications will be put in order at once. This is worrying a number of those who are now trying to organise our Civil Defence in the regions.

I should like to make a point about industrial concerns. I understand that it is said that industrial concerns with more than 200 men "should" have a Civil Defence scheme, I should like it to be said that all industrial firms with over 60 per cent. of its employees male workers "must" have a scheme. I am not suggesting that it is practicable to have a scheme in a factory where all the employees are women, because a large percentage of them probably would have to be evacuated with their families. Most big factories send men to be trained as instructors but when those men return to their firms they have little to do because there is no scheme that they can organise for the workers in that firm.

Will there be a real policy on shelters? Will the big garage that is to be built under Hyde Park be made sufficiently strong to be used as a shelter in time of war? Are those responsible for the new hotels and big offices which are being built nowadays being instructed to provide some bomb-proof rooms in the basements? I should have thought that was very advisable in connection with all the new building that is going on, particularly in London, at the present time. The Home Secretary has said: We do not want Civil Defence only for the practical value it may be, but we want to educate the public on its value in relation to our defence programme. He added: I am conivinced that, if we maintain our Civil Defence, nuclear war will not be an unmitigated disaster. I should like to know from my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary to the Home Department whether we are doing enough at present and whether we are really prepared.

Last time we learned our civil defence during the war. We do not want that to happen again. When we are holding so many discussions about the defence of the country and spending considerable sums of money, it is only fair that the civil population, which will probably have to bear the great brunt of war in future, should know what preparations are being made for their safety and how they can co-operate in helping themselves.

It was for these reasons that I was anxious to have this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to put forward these points so that my hon. and learned Friend can give us some definite information about Government policy. Sweden has one of the most comprehensive civil defence schemes in the world and if there was an opportunity, with my hon. and learned Friend's agreement we might be able to send some hon. Members over there to examine the scheme and learn how to put its lessons into practical operation here.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) has asked me to describe and define the Government's Civil Defence policy and has asked me at least a dozen specific questions about it. In order to accomplish that task adequately I should require very much more than the seventeen minutes that are available, but I will speak fast and do my best.

It is fitting that my hon. Friend whose interest in Civil Defence is well known should have raised this subject, and I should like to begin by saying how much I welcome this opportunity of stressing the importance which the Government attach to Civil Defence and our great appreciation of the work done by local authorities and other bodies whose participation in this work is so vital, and especially our thanks to those thousands of volunteers in Civil Defence Corps and other organisations, including the W.V.S. who have done magnificent work in helping to educate the public through the "one-in-five" scheme.

It is important that I should reply first to my hon. Friend's main question about the Government's plans for Civil Defence. She has already mentioned that in our recently published White Paper on Civil Defence we have indicated our proposals for developing and extending our home defence preparations on which we shall spend about £3¼ millions more in the coming financial year than in the present one. This is an increase of just about 20 per cent., and I hope that it may be taken as a token of the Government's desire to give a fresh impetus to our Civil Defence preparations.

The revised programme outlined in the White Paper is an indication of the manysidedness of Civil Defence. The Civil Defence Corps is only a part of it, although a very important part. Others include the nation-wide warning and monitoring system, provision for the operation of the police and fire services in an emergency, communications, whether by line or by wireless, the emergency supply of food, water and fuel, the maintenance of port and transport facilities, emergency medical services and—most important—the co-operation with the armed Services, which has been referred to in some detail in previous White Papers.

My hon. Friend referred to recruiting. The present strength of the Corps and of the other Civil Defence services is about 600,000 people. The Corps itself has 323,000 volunteer members. Recruits to the Corps are continuing to come in at the rate of nearly 40,000 a year, and many of them, I am glad to say, are young people anxious to take full advantage of the training offered.

The number of recruits, as my hon. Friend has suggested, is not sufficient to maintain the existing strength, and many more are needed, especially potential leaders and controllers. It would be wrong to suggest that there is an easy answer to this. It would be unrealistic to suppose that we could ever expect the full numbers we require except in a period of tension. We are faced with the task, however, of keeping going for a long haul, and for this purpose we feel it best to concentrate on providing a trained nucleus, around which rapid expansion could be organised if need arose. As we know from experience, thousands would answer the call. With so many activities to be covered, it is essential that we should have a coherent and well-balanced programme. It must be flexible, to enable essential services to be maintained or restarted in a wide variety of situations, and it must be realistic so as to command the support of the local authorities, of public utilities, or industry, of voluntary organisations, and of the public, on whose help the Government so largely rely in making these preparations.

I make it clear that a great deal has already been done. When one gets down to detailed consideration of all the effort which has been put in, one finds there has been very much more done than sometimes appears on the surface, and certainly very much more than appears from some of the unconstructive criticisms sometimes delivered.

Good progress has been made in developing the warning and monitoring system—and I will say more about that later—in providing up-to-date equipment, in the stockpiling of radiac instruments, and in research. There has been a complete review of Civil Defence planning to take account of developments in nuclear weapons, and a new system of operational control has been introduced which provides for the establishment of chains of command from regional headquarters down to wardens' posts.

We shall now concentrate on making progress with schemes which could not be accelerated quickly and easily if a rapid expansion of effort were to be quickly called for. One of the main items is the speeding up of the provision of premises and communications for the operational chain of command. This was one of the points mentioned by my hon. Friend.

We shall also be spending rather more than we have done hitherto on measures for protecting supplies of drinking water —a most important factor. We are making increased provision for oil storage and for its emergency distribution, and are proposing to spend more on emergency medical supplies. We are going on with plans for safeguarding supplies of food, and with emergency provisions for the functioning of ports, shipping and railways. We shall continue to stockpile radiac equipment, not only for Civil Defence but also for police, fire, and other essential services. We are going to stockpile more firefighting equipment and to provide further operational and training equipment for the Civil Defence Corps and the emergency fire service.

I am glad to say that excellent progress has been made in the point I mentioned just now of settling the operational command from regional headquarters downwards. We now propose to turn our attention to securing more of the control premises which would be necessary to ensure effective operation under nuclear attack.

With the large number of controls from regional headquarters downwards, it will necessarily be some time before we can expect to complete this part of our preparations, but we must ensure that progress is made, and we are going to make it. In building up our stockpiles of operational equipment we have so far been concentrating on the provision of radiac instruments and the requirements of the warning and monitoring system. I do not think that anyone could question the wisdom of this, since these are the essential basis of the whole of our Civil Defence operations, and they must continue to receive priority.

We propose, however, to pay increasing attention to the provision of emergency communications, including wireless equipment in sufficient quantity to meet the needs not only of the emergency control organisation, but also of the Civil Defence services engaged in operations.

As my hon. Friend appreciates, there are points with which, as I told her before this debate, I shall not be able to deal fully, but I will write to her about them. But I should not like to go further without endorsing her tribute to the public spirit of all those volunteers who have been mentioned. In the face of some apathy and even of misunderstanding, their enthusiasm and support are all the more important and praiseworthy. They know that they are preparing for eventualities which we hope and pray will never arise but in which their training would enable them to save lives and help their fellow-countrymen to survive. They are taking part in an essentially humanitarian service which should command the support of every one of Her Majesty's subjects. So much for general matters.

I now have time to deal with some further matters of detail, and I want to deal first with the anxiety which my hon. Friend expressed about the fall-out warning arrangements.

Since the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, announced in Parliament in June, 1955, that fall-out warnings would be the responsibility of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation, and that the Royal Observer Corps would take over the function of monitoring, this system has been given a high degree of priority and as a result it is now near to completion. The necessary monitoring equipment for the Royal Observer Corps should be produced within a very few months from now—I hope by midsummer—and the bulk of the Royal Observer Corps building programme should be completed by the end of next year.

The maroons and hand-operated sirens, required as additional warning instruments, are going into production this year. Installation of the carrier equipment required to distribute warnings, as was announced in the House in February, 1960, will begin this year. Consultations have been held with local authority associations, and circulars to local authorities in regard to the installation of the carrier equipment and warning point arrangements will be going out in the next few weeks.

If my hon. Friend is particularly interested in the position in Devon, in which her constituency lies, I can tell her that the Home Office Sector there is equipped and sufficient trained staff to operate it is available. The protected Royal Observer Corps Group Headquarters at Exeter, from which warnings would also be initiated, is expected to be completed in June this year. Out of 51 Royal Observer Corps posts in Devon 36 are either built or building, and sites for a further 14 posts have been agreed.

My hon. Friend mentioned a matter which I should specially deal with because she had some specific suggestions to make about it. That was with regard to industrial civil defence. She is anxious for an element of compulsion to be introduced there. The possibility of obliging managements to make Civil Defence arrangements has been examined from time to time since the original agreement between the Home Office and representatives of both sides of industry and commerce that industrial Civil Defence should be introduced as a voluntary service in their premises.

In general, the response to the Government's invitation has not been as widespread as we would naturally have wished, but the fact remains that under the voluntary arrangements about 200,000 volunteers have been trained or are under training in industrial civil defence units. That is a strength which makes a noticeable contribution to the country's defence forces. It has been suggested by my hon. Friend that an obligation to make Civil Defence arrangements should be placed upon management. I think she had in mind something comparable to the obligations placed on employers by the Factories Acts, but that is not necessarily an analogy.

I must point out that if such an obligation were placed on managements it would be necessary to provide for penalties to be imposed in the event of non-compliance, and that would be extremely controversial. Indeed, we feel that it would be impossible for managements to comply with such an obligation unless their workpeople were willing to undergo the necessary training, and a requirement of that kind could be evaded if a lack of volunteers showed that it was impossible for managements to comply. The result might, therefore, be some form of compulsion of workpeople to take part in the Civil Defence arrangements which their employers were required by law to make. That would clearly be a very difficult position, and in the present climate of public opinion, and seeing that our Civil Defence services are voluntary in character, any suggestion of this kind would be unthinkable, even if the principle could be accepted, which we say it could not.

My hon. Friend asked me a question about those volunteers who, if war came, would be doing some kind of essential service at home. She asked whether they would be in reserved occupations and therefore waste their Civil Defence training. We have provided for that contingency in this way: we say that unless they are given a specific part in Civil Defence members of certain public services should not be in the Civil Defence Corps, and should not, therefore, volunteer. The police and the fire services, and so on, are not eligible to join the Civil Defence Corps as volunteers. That deals with that type of person, but I am sure my hon. Friend has in mind a wide variety of other people whose ordinary work would be essential if we had an emergency. I would ask her to bear in mind that even such people, having to carry out their normal work, might find it possible to give up quite a good deal of their spare time—if they had some—to Civil Defence, and by way of analogy I would mention those who did fire watching, even though they were very busy public servants, at various times during the last war. This is not quite so difficult a matter as my hon. Friend has suggested.

She asked whether what she called the senior Civil Defence man at the Home Office had been given adequate status in his relationship with the Chiefs of Staffs. I can assure her without hesitation that that is so, and that he attends the meetings of the Chiefs of Staff when matters of common interest are being discussed.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Twelve o'clock.