HC Deb 27 June 1963 vol 679 cc1834-44

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

12 m.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucester, West)

I am sorry that I have to delay the servants of the House at this late hour, and I want to make clear in the first instance that in raising this matter I do not want in any way to create a feeling of despondency in the minds of the people. Nor have I any intention of jeopardising security. At some stage, however, it is necessary to have a clear and frank discussion, even though it be a short one of this kind, with the Government concerning the provision of deep air raid shelters for the people.

This debate arises from Questions that I put to the Prime Minister after disclosures had been made in the "Spies for Peace" document and the Prime Minister's apparent reluctance to give an answer about the provision of deep air raid shelters. That merely continued the policy of the Government, because previously I had submitted a whole series of Questions on civil defence, including the provision of deep air raid shelters, and the spokesman for the Home Department denied the existence of any types of shelter.

The Prime Minister, when he replied to the Questions that were submitted to him, said that the regional seats of government were not deep air raid shelters at all but that in some instances they had deep air raid shelters attached to them. In practice, however, as far as I can ascertain, the whole of the R.S.G.s throughout the country have deep shelters attached to them, and a moment's reflection shows that this is essential if the intention of the Prime Minister is to be carried out.

The Prime Minister said that the R.S.Cs were not secret. I complained that the Government had got to the point of secrecy going mad, but the Prime Minister said that they were regional seats of government deliberately designed to meet a given situation. It is logical on the part of any Government that provision of this kind should be made.

The fact is that attached to the R.S.G.s is some form of deep air raid protection for the personnel who will be in the organisation of government in these circumstances. In fact, the whole of the administrative services are represented in the plans for this type of arrangement. There are fully-equipped deep air raid shelters for all the personnel who have been allocated places in the R.S.G.s. There is the provision of water, air and food, and places have been allocated. In other words, the whole of the arrangements have already been made in this narrow sector of the necessary organisational medium for the continuance of government.

The principle that has been accepted is that if government is to continue, deep air raid shelters must be provided for the people who are to continue that government in the event of a nuclear attack. I pause there for a moment, because I should like to know what the Joint Undersecretary of State for the Home Department thinks about the position. It is a little fantastic when we get—I shall not disclose anything—a whole list of people who have already had places allocated. Whether the next-of-kin will be taken I do not know. Let us assume that these men go to the place and their wives refuse to stay at home. By what method will the people who have not already been allocated places, maybe the wives and children of the people allocated places, be kept out of the deep air raid shelters? Will they be shot?

Whatever the circumstances are, if there is a nuclear attack the Government have accepted the principle of deep air raid shelters for the continuance of government. If that is so, what about those who are going to be governed? I argue that it is just as essential to have the same form of protection for the people who are to be governed as it is for those who are going to govern. If it is right to make provision for those who have been designated—not elected—to be the future Government in the event of war taking place, it surely must be right to accept precisely the same principles for the people of the country.

It does not follow by any means that deep air raid shelters are necessary only for nuclear war. Indeed, it may be—we hope not—that this country will be involved in war of a conventional type. As a result of our experience in the last war, we know that vast numbers of people can be destroyed by air raids. We know that by the aerial bombing of the R.A.F. whole areas of Germany were laid waste and enormous numbers of people killed. To take the latest evidence that we have in connection with Dresden, there was a situation in which it is now accepted that about 350,000 people were killed as a result of the combined night and day raids that took place in the latter part of the war.

If this is a possibility, I should have thought it essential that the Government should have at least taken the precaution to see that our people were protected. I do not think that our people are not adult enough to be able to face up to the full implications of future possibilities. They are sufficiently intelligent and adult to have the facts presented to them and to act in the way they always have done—with courage and forbearance.

To consider nuclear war, we know that with the present weapons that we have in the world if this country is attacked there is a grave likelihood of an enormous number of people being destroyed, just as there is a great likelihood that people in countries opposed to us will equally be destroyed. But our problem is to look after our own people. Even if we take the 10-megaton bomb, we know—as I think is accepted, by implication, at least, in the documents that the Government produce—that there would be complete devastation for at least three miles around the point of impact of the bomb. Almost 75 per cent. of the people would either be killed or suffer severe injuries within a circle of seven miles and there would be further destruction to a circle of 10 miles. We know that the Soviet Union has already exploded what appears to have been a bomb of about 60 megatons.

It is a terrific problem to see what we can do to ensure that there is the greatest degree of protection for our people if we are involved in war, which none of us wants. We have some guidance as to what would be likely to take place. We know that under the most favourable conditions—the longest possible warning and a civil defence organisation as good as it could be—there is grave danger that about 15 million people would be killed if the attack were on a large scale.

This is something at which the mind boggles if one tries to think of what one can do to meet such a situation. Quite apart from the millions of dead, there would be the aftermath, in which millions more people, seriously injured, would require medical aid. There would be chaos and blockages in the bombed areas and far beyond them.

Any Government who refuse to examine clearly what steps should be taken now would be guilty of almost criminal negligence. There is no point in spending vast sums on building up a war machine if, at the same time, we refuse to protect our home front. The only possible way that the nation could ensure some degree of safety for our people would be to begin now, late in the day though it might well prove to be, to examine the possibilities in the way the creation of the R.S.G.s was examined—creating in every civil defence area, in every large city and town, deep air raid shelters, astronomical though the cost might well be.

I urge the Government to meet the situation in the way they are meeting the possibility of government in these conditions. There is no point in having R.S.G.s if the people outside are to be blasted to Kingdom come. The only way we can tackle the problem is to set our sights higher and proceed to organise plans for the safety of the people, in the same way as the Government have planned for future government in the event of catastrophe—by basing our plans on the fact that we must have a greater degree of shelter for this type of warfare than we have at present.

12.15 a.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for having given me the opportunity to speak about deep shelters, and I say that with all sincerity because this is a vitally important subject. Indeed, civil defence is a subject which I think we should discuss more often in this House and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I certainly do not accuse him of spreading despondency or infringing any kind of security regulation in touching upon this matter.

Indeed, I am prepared to go a good deal further tonight in setting out the facts than perhaps has previously been done in the past, and I welcome the opportunity to dispose once and for all of any suspicions or misapprehensions about deep shelters. I have studied the many Questions which the hon. Gentleman has put on this subject and the Answers which he has been given in which he has been told, in fact, in effect, that there are no deep shelters, attached to R.S.G.S or otherwise. I hope to convince him that not only are there none, but—subject to a very limited qualification to which I will return later—also why there are none.

There are different definitions of what is meant by a "deep shelter", but let us assume that it is something that gives protection—as we must assume—from blast and heat. What we mean by a "deep shelter" in that significance would be first a place constructed primarily for the protection of the occupants, as distinct from a place of work which might have some protection which would enable work to continue and secondly, a place constructed wholly underground at considerable depth and not a construction placed partially underground like the basement of a house.

The reason why the Government have made no attempt to provide such shelters as defined for anyone follows from the assessment of nuclear weapons. They are different in size and character, but to take the worst, which I think the hon. Gentleman had in mind, we have to assume that the average radius over which every house and building would be totally destroyed by a ground-burst nuclear weapon varies from one-and-a-half miles for a 1-megaton to three-and-a-half miles for a 10-megaton weapon. Inside that area, no shelter which it would be practicable to build on any scale at all would give complete protection. As some indication of the problem, I can tell the House that even a tunnel dug in 1,500 ft. of rock would fall in as a result of earth tremors from the explosion, at ground level, of a megaton nuclear weapon—that is, if the burst was immediately above it. Outside that area—and, of course, we do not know anything about where an explosion might come—less elaborate shelters might give some protection against blast, although a more widespread danger would be from fall-out.

That would be a major danger outside the area of actual devastation. Fall-out, briefly, is material stirred up and irradiated by a nuclear explosion; that is, material which has become radioactive and blown into the air. It comes down by degrees and loses its radioactivity by degrees; at first quite fast, and then more slowly. Protection depends on the weight of the material and the distance between the person and the source of radiation. Therefore, any shielding material between a human being and such material is of some value, and since the cumulative dose is what matters, the chances of survival can be increased quite considerably by taking immediate cover before the fallout comes down, and staying there, if necessary for days.

It is perfectly possible for an ordinary householder to construct for himself with very simple means the protection that would shelter him from fall-out, and the best means of doing so have been set out in a training handbook popularly known as the "Householder's Handbook" which is now generally available.

The point I want to make is, of course, that to achieve this degree of protection there is no need for a deep shelter. I will not elaborate on the details which are in the handbook. I want to stress two essential points—that in the area of total devastation there can be no protection at all, and outside it quite simple measures of protection, available to the ordinary person on his own in his own home, can give a considerable prospect of survival. Put simply, that is why there are no deep air raid shelters.

The qualifications which I have to make are these. First, we are now considering possible ways of providing communal deep shelters against fall-out for people who might be caught away from their homes, or might be living in homes too flimsy to give any significant degree of protection. A pilot survey is to be undertaken to examine what of this kind could be made available. The survey will cover things that are already available, though they make only a marginal addition to our resources.

Despite what I said at the beginning, there are a small-scale number of deep shelters, for instance, the deep tube shelters in London which were constructed during the war and about 100 caves and tunnels prepared in the last war. These are nothing more than a marginal addition on which it is impossible to place any great reliance and there is no question of allocation of them or places in them.

The major qualification I want to make is that what many people have in mind when they talk of deep shelters are premises earmarked as civil defence controls, or for use by the Royal Observer Corps for its task of reporting fall-out all over the country. These are not deep in the sense I have defined, but in some cases they are partially sunk underground and, of course, where existing underground works are available, we have taken advantage of them.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member and those who argue that the public is entitled to know what is being done for it and to be indignant if anything practicable has been neglected. I am also confident, and I know that the hon. Member would agree, that the public does not seek to know every detail on which it is necessary and prudent to impose a measure of security, although I am always ready to consider arguments that we draw the line of security too tightly and should relax it, as I am about to do. I entirely disagree, on the other hand, with those who argue that to make any preparations at all is tantamount to plotting nuclear war on our own account. I do not think that we need to waste time arguing that one. I am perfectly willing to refer explicitly to some of the headquarters controls I have mentioned, subject to that proviso about security and subject to the point that none of them is a deep shelter.

Mr. Loughlin

I do not want any confusion on this. I have argued that deep shelters are attached to the centres. I deliberately tried not to make remarks which were liable to be misconstrued in certain places, but the point is that it is accepted that deep shelters are attached to the centres.

Mr. Woodhouse

I entirely understood what the hon. Member was saying. I want to make it clear that he is mistaken even as he now puts it. There are no such things either as part of or attached to R.S.G.s. I think that he will see the point a little more clearly if I go on to the catalogue which I was about to give him.

There are the Royal Observer Corps headquarters, of which no secret is made. There are 29 R.O.C. group headquarters planned in the country, of which 26 are complete, and there are over 1,500, nearly 1,600, Royal Observer Corps reporting posts planned, of which over 1,300 are now complete. They are at intervals of 5 to 10 miles all over the country, and there are several in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, which I have no doubt he has observed.

There are civil defence headquarters constructed by local authorities, which are undoubtedly fairly well-known locally, and there is no reason why they should not be.

There are other headquarters higher up in the control chain including R.S.G.S which are widely known to the people who take part in exercises, and these people run into thousands. This is why we had trouble recently with the "Spies for Peace." Some of these headquarters were included in the "Spies for Peace" pamphlet, but fortunately it is not necessary to assume that all their information was uniformly accurate, and I do not think that it is necessary for me to supplement it with fuller details.

What I think is necessary is to repudiate the notion that some of these are deep shelters designated for occupation either by military governors or by people judged specially worthy of survival. The facts are exactly as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stated them on 23rd April in answer to questions. These places have the primary purpose not of protecting occupants, but of enabling succour and relief to be brought to the public after an attack to be carried out to the best advantage and to marshal services and supplies essential for survival. They do not give the occupants any more chance of survival—this is a melancholy fact but it must be faced—if they happened to be in the area of total devastation than anybody else in the area would have. The occupants would, of course, be selected not for their intrinsic merit as judged by some anonymous Government official, but for the help they could give to others as a result of their training.

There are 11 of these R.S.G.S in the United Kingdom, nine in England and Wales, one in Scotland, and one in Northern Ireland. The staff establishments of them would be between 400 and 500 people under the control of a regional commissioner who would be appointed in a constitutional way which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister described in answer to a Question from the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) on 2nd May, to which I refer the hon. Gentleman for further details.

Among those in the R.S.G. there would of course be some military staff, because the local forces would come under the control of the regional commissioner if communications were severed with the central Government. If the hon. Gentleman ever found himself in one of these places and observed men in uniform, they perhaps would be about 10 per cent, of the total staff he would see there, and more than half of them would be other ranks of the Territorial Army engaged on common services such as communications, and so on.

I have only a minute or two in which to conclude, and it has not been possible for me to answer every point made by the hon. Gentleman, though there are some on which I shall communicate with him afterwards.

In conclusion, I say that we are accustomed to hearing criticisms of civil defence plans on two grounds: either that they are inadequate and ineffective, or that they ought to be abandoned because they are in the nature of things a useless waste of money. As regards the first point, we are always ready to listen to constructive criticisms from hon. Members and from people outside. I think that the second argument is one which could be accepted only if one were absolutely satisfied either that there were no danger whatever of nuclear attack, or that there was no possibility of survivors from a nuclear attack. I think it is obvious that neither of these assumptions could possibly be justified.

The third ground of criticism which the hon. Gentleman has by implication introduced tonight is that civil defence is a device—

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

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Twelve o'clock