HC Deb 05 December 1962 vol 668 cc1457-68

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

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

At 6 p.m. on Saturday, 27th October, two of the Home Secretary's constituents decided to find out what the public could and should do in order to protect themselves against any nuclear attack. The first step they took was to consult the telephone directory, and they telephoned the Lambeth Civil Defence Division, from which they received advice to telephone another number. They telephoned the second number, and got no reply. They then telephoned Willesden Civil Defence; there was no reply. Their fourth call went to the London Civil Defence headquarters, from which there was no reply. They then telephoned the Home Office, where the night watchman suggested that perhaps they should telephone the police. At the Hampstead police station they were told to telephone the Hampstead Town Hall. They telephoned the Hampstead Town Hall; there was no reply. They then telephoned Hampstead Civil Defence, and from that office, too, there was no reply.

When I questioned the Home Secretary in this House on 15th November, the right hon. Gentleman told me that …civil defence measures can be put into operation at short notice, in case of necessity." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th November, 1962; Vol. 667, c. 540.] It is, I think, difficult to conceive of a graver emergency, short of actual war, than the one we experienced at the time of the Cuba crisis, and other members of the Government certainly seem to have thought that we were within measurable distance of such a disaster.

It is also difficult to conceive the effect of the Home Secretary's apathy on the morale of the civil defence workers. I had a letter from a civil defence worker in North London, in which he said: We have all been trained to expect a period of tension prior to hostilities. In this period we have been told that we must inform and advise the public, set up posts and chains of communication and control, and do countless other tasks to give us even a fighting chance to save life and restore some order should attack come.… After 'Cuba', many of us are asking who is bluffing who? I feel that someone at the top took the gamble of a lifetime. Should there be a next time, another gamble may not come off. I have had letters from many parts of the country—from Lancashire, Devonshire, Essex—and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. George Craddock) showed me a letter from a civil defence worker in which this passage occurred: We give our time and money on many occasions in what some of us believe, perhaps now misguidedly"… and I emphasise those three words: is a worth while cause, so that we might be able to help the public in case of nuclear attack. Let us look at the danger with which we are faced. Peace News, in a most valuable report to the nation on "H-bomb War" which was compiled from responsible and authoritative sources, has said that our civil defence policy is based on the premise that a ten-megaton bomb would be dropped. That would produce a blast circle 16 miles across, and a fire circle 45 miles across. But 100 megaton bombs are now a practical proposition, meaning 10 miles the power of the biggest bomb envisaged in our civil defence plans; a bomb producing a blast circle 34 miles across, and a fire circle with a diameter of 140 miles.

Peace News has given the effects of a 100-megaton bomb. I can paraphrase it by saying that there would be a fire ball 8 miles across, that brick houses would be destroyed within a circle of 34 miles, that fires would be started, and the skin blistered, as far away as Oxford and Cambridge—if the bomb burst over London—that radiation from the explosion would cause death or serious sickness within a circle of 14 miles across, and that the fall-out over at least 1,000 square miles would be so bad that anyone unprotected for as long as an hour would die from the radioactivity. And the Government expect to get four minutes' warning of such a disaster once the Fylingdales early warning station is completed. They estimate that it will take them 20 seconds to transmit the warning throughout the country, leaving 3 minutes 40 seconds in which the public will have to take precautions.

The position is still more alarming when we realise that Russia, for example, now claims to have a missile with a 12,000-mile range, which can fly round the world and come in behind the expensive early warning system which the Americans and ourselves have got. In the circumstances it is not surprising that a year ago London County Council faced the reality and admitted: There is no practical means of providing Londoners with effective defence against thermo-nuclear war. With that conclusion I agree, and I deplore the way which the Government deceive the public by pretending that adequate defence is available.

To say that is in no way to disparage the work of devoted civil defence volunteers who, in my view, will always have an important task to discharge in areas on the fringe of explosions. But they will be able to do that only if the Home Secretary shows himself more aware of the gravity of the situation and of the need for urgent action than seems likely at the moment. Not the slightest progress has been made with the Government's plan for evacuating 12 million people. No headway has been made with the provision of deep shelters. According to the Home Office there are only seven deep shelters in London allegedly safe from radiation, and all of them are underground railway stations. According to Sanity, the journal of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, one of the 500 scheduled shelters in London is a men's lavatory in the middle of Fleet Street.

One of the most thorough surveys of our lack of preparedness and the fantastic state of muddle and sloth in the Home Office was published in the magazine Topic for 10th November, under the title "Where you go if the bomb drops". It is prefaced with the words: The article printed below is not a Goon Show script or a 'Private Eye' satire. It is the result of a serious investigation into the most serious question of the day: 'If there is a nuclear attack on Britain, what can we do?' No attempt was made at encouraging officials into making frivolous statements, and TOPIC has no reason to think they were joking. What emerges is a picture of unbelievable muddle and incredible fatuity in Britain's arrangements for civil defence—at a price of no less than £23,000,000 a year. It tells how at the height of the Cuban crisis an official in a London civil defence district decided there was no need to spoil the weekend of the men and women in his corps by calling on civil defence personnel to stand by. He explained his action in these words: Well, I read the papers pretty thoroughly that morning and thought things were not bad enough to keep a lot of people sitting around their telephones. It turned out I was right. I hope that the Home Office intelligence system will inspire more confidence in future.

After spending a week of investigation in the Home Office and at civil defence headquarters throughout the country, Topic said that it had found what it called a series of contradictions about public warnings, an almost criminal lack of information, and an arrogance among certain officials… There was, for example, virtually no way of telling people of imminent nuclear attack. When the Home Office was asked how the public would be informed, it took three days to get an answer from it. The answer was The public would be informed. A second attempt elicited the answer: The Press, radio and television services would be used. A third question got the reply: The TIM talking clock is linked with the Fylingdales early warning system, and in the event of an alert sirens would be sounded. No cognizance was taken of the fact that Fylingdales will not operate until the spring, or that in many parts of the country sirens are used to call firemen to fires.

One civil defence spokesman took the view that maroons would be used in the event of radioactive fall-out. Another complained that nobody had ever said when the maroons would be used. Another said that maroons would constitute the first warning—before the sirens.

Fortunately Mr. X of the Home Office came to the rescue. I do not want to pillory him for the fatuity of Home Office policy and it is only fair to refer to him as Mr. X. He announced that a warbling note on the sirens would give warning of imminent attack. Danger of fall-out would be announced by another siren accompanied by church bells and other noises. Imminent fall-out would be signified by maroons sounding the letter D in the Morse code—"bang, pause, bang, bang". The article in Topic says that Mr. X added reassuringly that, until maroons were manufactured, we should have to improvise by banging the letter D on dust-bin lids and so forth.

This is really too absurd even for the Home Office. If the Government are not hoodwinking the public and are not guilty of a giant and cruel confidence trick, what progress has been made, for instance, in the training of personnel, the preparation of shelters, the completion of evacuation plans, the manufacture of maroons and sirens, and, above all, in telling the public what is expected of them?

The rich advice of the City of London civil defence service was given in Topic as follows: It would be a good idea to whitewash your windows against radiation heat. And, if you have time, pull up the floorboards in your front room and dig a trench. It makes good cover". What I hope are the more serious proposals of the Home Office are contained in a 31-page booklet, "The Hydrogen Bomb". When the Hampstead Borough Council decided to obtain copies, it announced that they could not be sold to anyone who wanted a copy to keep. The town clerk and borough civil defence controller made this comment: We have been told by the Home Office that we cannot sell the booklets or give them away. We understand that the Government do not want to get people worried about the H-bomb in peace time". The Council is keeping the booklets on the shelves of the public library so that people may go and consult them.

It is not surprising that Mr. X, who, after all, is simply carrying out the right hon. Gentleman's inept, absurd and fumbling policy, should have replied, when asked what we should have suffered if the Cuba crisis had produced nuclear war, "I suppose that we should all of us have been wiped out".

It is a shocking story of muddle, fatuity, indifference and incompetence. It is time that the Home Office told the public the truth.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood) has been courteous enough to leave a few minutes before the time when it is appro- priate for my hon. Friend to reply because there may be one or two hon. Members who would like to make a brief contribution. On such a foggy night, I should have preferred, in other circumstances, to go home as soon as I could, but, on reading of what the hon. Member proposed to raise tonight, I suspected—and I find that I was right—that we should hear from him a long series of ingenuous extracts from various rather dubious sources, all put together to make what would appear to be a crushing indictment of the whole civil defence outfit.

In spite of certain specious words in the middle of his speech, the hon. Gentleman's remarks were designed to cause dismay and spread alarm and despondency among the gallant people working in civil defence. I am glad, therefore, that there are a few moments in which someone from the back benches on this side of the House—and on the opposite side too, I hope—may add some comments in a different sense.

There are in various parts of the country very fine men and women working in the civil defence organisation, people who, be it in limited or in total war, will have a very considerable part to play in reducing the ghastly hurt, harm and damage done by modern warfare to the civil population. In the recruitment, training and preparation of those people, no good whatever is done by the kind of speech to which the House has just had to listen. Those who make up the civil defence force are contributing long hours of their time and doing fine preparatory work in training themselves to help in the reduction of harm and hurt.

I believe that, when he reads what he has said tonight, the hon. Gentleman will not feel that it was a very honourable contribution to our debates. On behalf of a large number of persons, in whom I have the greatest personal interest and for whom I have the deepest regard, I express considerable resentment from the back benches at what the hon. Member has said.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

May I put a very short question to the Under-Secretary and ask him if he can answer it when he replies to the debate? In answer to a Question at Question Time the Home Secretary admitted for the first time that there will be protected regional headquarters for key personnel. Can the Under-Secretary say whether this means special underground shelters? Can the hon. Gentleman assure the House that V.I.P.s and others unconnected with civil defence will be provided with these facilities? If so, who are the gentlemen concerned and can the hon. Gentleman give us a little more information, because I am sure that if there is something in this, as some of us suspect, it will cause tremendous resentment among the whole population?

10.51 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. C. M. Woodhouse)

I was slightly surprised at the solicitousness of the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood) for civil defence, but I hope in the limited time available to me that I shall be able to give him satisfaction on the points he has raised. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking-ham (Mr. van Straubenzee) for his intervention which I thought very helpful in putting the matter in perspective.

I wish to begin by replying quite simply and categorically to the question asked by the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun), if the hon. Member for Rossendale will forgive me for putting him at the back of the queue. As I understood the hon. Gentleman's question, I think there is no difficulty in giving him a perfectly categorical assurance in the sense he desired. The fact is that the Government plans which have been made clear in a number of White Papers involve controls sited wherever possible in existing premises in different parts of the country. These plans naturally provide for key personnel to be posted in those controls if an emergency should arise, but only those key personnel. I hope that with that reply I can go on to the main points raised.

I think that the hon. Member for Rossendale, both in his original Question to my right hon. Friend and in his speech tonight, was under a misapprehension or in a state of confusion about the difference between the state of readiness required of the Armed Forces and their contribution to our deterrent policy and the state of readiness which would be required of our civil defence services, which is quite a different matter.

We keep our deterrent forces at a high state of readiness the whole time because that is inherent in their concept and essential to the deterrent policy. But entirely different considerations apply to home defence preparations. They cover a very wide range of measures which would, if put into effect, touch the ordinary life of the people of this country at very many points as successive White Papers have shown, particularly those in the last few years.

These measures would include the life saving forces, the civil defence services, the emergency police, fire and ambulance services which would work with the regular peace-time services in those categories and, additionally, with the available manpowers of the Armed Forces which could be spared. There is on top of this an extensive organisation to give warning of attack and information about points of attack and the area of fall-out if this catastrophe came.

In addition, our home defence preparations comprise a great many measures for securing that central and local administration could continue to operate, such as the hon. Member for Salford, East mentioned, for preserving law and order and for restoring the conditions and marshalling the necessary supplies for continuing the life of the country in the event of the catastrophe which we are all determined to prevent.

To put this very wide range of measures into a state of immediate readiness, and to keep them thus, would interfere with normal peacetime life and would involve a vast diversion of manpower and resources. For this reason, we say that it is quite impracticable and would be quite intolerable to try to keep home defence preparations in a state of constant, or even continuing, readiness for any period of time. But the measures could be put into effect at short notice once the Government judged that the situation justified the upheaval in ordinary life, which would be entailed. Some of these measures, including the monitoring and warning system, can be put into operation in a matter of a few hours.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

But surely this was one of those situations. The British Prime Minister had assured the President of the United States that we were fully behind him, and the President of the United States had made it perfectly clear that they were prepared, if necessary, to attack Cuba. Everybody assumed an attack was to come because the Russian missiles were based in Cuba, and that there might be a nuclear war. This was one of those emergencies, surely?

Mr. Woodhouse

I, too, followed the course of events over that period, and I am coming on to just the point the hon. Member has raised.

As I have said, these measures could he put into operation, some of them in a few hours, some in a few days. The Government have the responsibility of deciding, on their assessment of the situation at any given time, at what stage to bring our preparations into a state of immediate readiness.

The Home Secretary has already explained that the Government decided—and this was a deliberate, specific decision of the Cabinet—that no such steps should be taken in the circumstances in October. The hon. Gentleman may have taken a different decision; other hon. Gentlemen may have taken a different decision. I am simply telling the House that this was the decision which the Government took, and I am bound to say that it appeared to me from the course of events that the decision was justified by the way the course of events worked out.

I do not deny that there was a crisis. I do not deny—indeed, the Prime Minister himself said—that we were very near the edge, but how near the edge is a matter of judgment, and the degree of proximity which would justify the mobilisation of this vast effort is also a matter of judgment, and there is no doubt that in this case the Government's judgment was right.

If the opposite decision had been taken then certainly the hon. Gentleman's friends who rang up all those different places trying to get information would not have received a negative response. They would have found all the posts manned. The manning of Government and local government offices round the clock is obviously something which cannot be done the whole time unless a state of emergency warrants putting the preparations into what I have called a state of immediate readiness. To put it into a state of immediate readiness is one of the measures which would have been taken immediately, if our home defence plans were put into operation. It is, indeed, one of the simpler measures to put into operation and could have been done, as I have said, in a matter of hours.

I should like to turn secondly to the point which the hon. Gentleman made about the Government deceiving the country on the nature of this catastrophe if it were to occur. I wish to say with all emphasis that the Government have never sought to conceal that a nuclear war would cause millions of casualties, and suffering and damage on a scale which runs to the extreme limit of human imagination. This cannot be denied. There have been many calculations of the effects, but all are speculative, and, however serious the effects were, it is impossible for any responsible Government to refuse to admit the possibility that there would be survivors, perhaps millions of survivors. This is borne out by all the scientific appreciations in this country and other countries and the numerous exercises which have been carried out with our Allies.

Civil defence could not prevent millions of casualties, but it could help many men, women and children to survive, and reduce their suffering. As it is impossible to say in what part of the country there would be, in the event of this terrible catastrophe, the greatest number of survivors and the greatest need for civil defence, it is obvious that our measures have to be carried out throughout the country. I do not think it necessary for me to argue this point further because this seems to me to be something which any responsible Government would have to recognise—even a Government of nuclear disarmers; because in the present state of the world, and till there is international control of nuclear weapons, it is impossible to say that such nuclear attack upon us is inconceivable.

What the hon. Member has also asked me is why we do not do more to inform the public about the possibilities of this kind of catastrophe. However much we did, it would always be possible to ask why we did not do more. A great deal is done by Government and other forms of publication. The Peace News article to which the hon. Member referred—I have studied it carefully—was compiled entirely from published information, much of it information published by the Government. We have put into circulation in recent years a number of manuals and pamphlets, to some of which the hon. Member referred. Some are given away free and those which are not given away free, because they are training pamphlets for the use of civil defence personnel in training, are all on sale to the public.

I do not say that they are on sale through borough libraries—no doubt that is not the function of borough libraries—but they are on sale to the public through bookshops if anyone wants to obtain them. I have with me "The Hydrogen Bomb", "Home Defence and the Farmer", "Nuclear Weapons", and two recruiting pamphlets published in the last two years.

Since reference has been made to it in public recently, I should like to tell the House that we have also decided to issue in the New Year a further handbook for training purposes, another in the series of civil defence manuals, under the title, "The Householder's Handbook". It will go to all members of the police, fire and civil defence services, including the industrial civil defence service and the National Hospital Service Reserve. In accordance with the practice which we have followed with all these pamphlets, it will also be put on sale so that anyone else who wants to study it can do so. The reason we are not circulating it on a vast scale free is that we are not asking any member of the public to take any action on the basis of this handbook.

This is a training manual for civil defence to teach the civil defence corps the kind of instruction which they will have to pass on, possibly at short notice, to the public in the event of an imminent emergency. The text deals with the risks as we now see them and the advice which would be given to householders if the Government decided that the time had come for them to take physical precautions against these risks. But we are not asking anybody to take these precautions now, and it would hopelessly dislocate their lives if they attempted to do so.

On the article in Topic to which the hon. Member referred, I ask him in all honesty to believe me when I say that this article was from beginning to end a travesty of the facts and of the conversation which the author of the article had with officials of the Home Office.

In conclusion, although it is our primary aim to prevent such a disastrous war from ever breaking out, it is impossible for any Government to rule out of consideration entirely the sort of dangers about which we have been talking tonight, although we hope that they will never come about. Civil defence is an insurance policy against them, and to say that such an insurance policy tends to promote the very dangers against which it is directed is similar to saying that a ship is more likely to be steered on to the rocks because it is carrying lifeboats. No responsible Government could accept such nonsense.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Eleven o'clock.