HC Deb 23 March 1965 vol 709 cc467-75

10.39 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)

I beg to move, That the Civil Defence (Shelter) (Maintenance) (Amendment) Regulations, 1965, a draft of which was laid before this House on 3rd March, be approved. These Regulations are required because of the coming into force on 1st April of the London Government Act, 1963. They have been prepared at the request of the Greater London Council and the London boroughs. The purpose of the Regulations is to confer on the Greater London Council the functions of maintaining existing civil defence shelters for occupants of blocks of flats formerly owned by the London County Council. By reason of Section 23(1) of the London Government Act, those blocks of flats vest in the Greater London Council on 1st April, 1965. Under Section 49(1) of the London Government Act, 1963, responsibility for civil defence functions generally is placed on the London borough councils. If, therefore, these Regulations were not made, responsibility for maintenance of the shelters formerly the concern of the London County Council would pass on 1st April to the appropriate London boroughs.

The Greater London Council and the new London borough councils consider, however, that it would be desirable and convenient that the work should continue to be done, as it was done by the L.C.C., as part of the normal maintenance of the estates. The draft Regulations are intended to give effect to this wish.

The opportunity has also been taken to omit the reference to Luton from the Schedule to the Civil Defence (Shelter) (Maintenance) Regulations, 1956, which lists certain county districts having the same functions under the Regulations as county boroughs. The reason is that the reference has become redundant in consequence of Luton becoming a county borough.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State on having in the Vote Office tonight copies of the Regulations which these Amend- ment Regulations are designed to amend. We had a little trouble over this the other night, and I am glad, if I may say so with respect, that it taught him a lesson.

Mr. George Thomas

I have learned it.

Mr. Page

The hon. Gentleman had better not speak too soon.

The hon. Gentleman told the House that these Regulations are made at the request of both the Greater London Council and the London borough councils. This is important because, as he will realise, they are contrary to the main provisions of the London Government Act. If I understand the position correctly, the Civil Defence Act, 1948, by Section 2, gave the designated Minister power to make regulations for local authorities to carry out certain civil defence functions. At that time the designated Minister was the Minister of Health, and I am not quite sure how the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in the form of the hon. Gentleman, turns up as the designated Minister tonight; but, no doubt, the functions were transferred at some stage.

The Home Secretary made Regulations relating to the maintenance of shelters in 1956, the ones which it is now proposed to amend. In those Regulations in 1956, as regards London, the Metropolitan boroughs were to maintain the public civil defence shelters and the residential civil defence shelters except that, in the case of London County Council flats, it was left to the London County Council to maintain them.

The present Regulations follow that, merely substituting the Greater London Council for the London County Council, but, in so doing, they ignore the provisions of the London Government Act, Section 49 of which provides, paraphrasing it, that the functions conferred by the Civil Defence Acts on local authorities shall in certain cases, apart from those referred to in paragraphs (a) and (b) which do not concern us, be exercisable by the London boroughs or the Common Council of the City of London. Clearly, by that part of the Section the civil defence duties for maintaining shelters were transferred to the London boroughs and not to the Greater London Council.

I am aware that a later subsection gives the Minister power to vary or revoke Regulations, for it includes power to amend earlier subsections of Section 49. I imagine that that is the power he is exercising under these Regulations at the moment. But it is a power to amend a Statute by regulation and, rightly, this comes before us as a draft Order to start with because it is amending a Statute. When using that power, the Minister has a strong obligation to justify it and I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman justified it in what he has just said.

It looks rather as if the G.L.C., encouraged by the Government, is desperately clinging to such of the L.C.C. functions as it can get its claws on, even little things like maintaining and looking after shelters. What is involved in this? How many shelters are being taken away from the London boroughs and being given to the G.L.C.? What will be the cost of maintenance? How will they be maintained by the remote G.L.C.?

Just because they are shelters in blocks of flats belonging to the G.L.C. is not, in itself, surely, justification for depriving the London boroughs of taking them into their general scheme of civil defence. Such a general scheme was what was envisaged by the 1963 Act and the hon. Gentleman should have given much better justification for altering that provision and for retaining the maintenance and care of these shelters under the G.L.C. instead of the London boroughs taking them into their general scheme of civil defence.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. John Homer (Oldbury and Halesowen)

The House is being asked to carry over functions which are designated in the 1956 Regulations, which stem from the Civil Defence Act, 1937. As I read the Regulations, I understand that we are being asked to provide the new authorities of the G.L.C. and the London boroughs with powers designed to perpetuate in existence the shelters which were built or scheduled under the 1937 Act.

In fact, we are being asked to ensure that the new authorities are saddled with responsibility for maintaining shelters which were used in the last war, by and large. I ask my hon. Friend what purpose these Regulations are designed to serve. These shelters were, of course, valuable in the last war. The underground stations and the basements of scheduled buildings and the deep shelter at Clapham Common served a very useful purpose.

Those of us who worked in civil defence or the fire service during the war know that, even so, sheltering in such places carried with it certain risks —risk of flooding and risk of collapse of the building of which the shelter formed the basement—and that there were tragic incidents which many of us carry in our memories to this day. But they did serve to provide shelter against everything except perhaps a direct hit by a major bomb of the period. The Greater London Council is now being asked to ensure that these existing shelters should be maintained. I want to ask my right hon. Friend what earthly purpose these shelters can perform?

The House is being asked by these Regulations to bless a transaction which is as pointless as it is absurd. The House is being asked to adopt Regulations which have no possible relevancy at this present moment. The Government would have been better advised to allow this whole dreary farce to have come to an end rather than saddle the new authorities with this continuing liability. By approving these Regulations tonight I feel that we may be concealing from ourselves and from the people whom we represent the real facts of the circumstances against which these shelters are designed to provide protection.

I submit that these Regulations, stemming from the 1937 Civil Defence Act, are an echo from a world which no longer exists. It disappeared on 6th August, 1945, at Hiroshima. The Regulations are totally irrelevant. We are not now dealing with 500-pound bombs, we are dealing with 10-millionton bombs, and it is against the former which the very shelters which these Regulations are expected to maintain are supposed to provide protection.

I will not detain the House at this time of night except to say that if a nominal bomb were to be used and exploded at a height of a mile or so above ground, then over the whole of the Greater London Council area, indeed farther than that, from Slough to Tilbury, from Harlow to Barking, the area would be totally involved in what is known as the fire storm.

Fire storms are phenomena with which we became acquainted in the last war. We created them in Hamburg, Tokio and Dresden, and these storms arose from a mass of incendiary bombs dropped in their thousands. The fires which then resulted combined very quickly to create a holocaust, and the displacement of the hot air caused winds of typhoon strength to rush towards the centre of the burning area.

The people in the shelters were cooked. The air they breathed in Hamburg was calculated to reach a temperature of 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly the temperature of molten glass. In Hamburg the fire storm covered a mere 12 square miles, and firemen were able to penetrate 100 or 200 yards into that 12-square mile area. But to send fire-fighting teams against a storm of hundreds of square miles, with winds of hurricane force and with radioactive dust swirling around, is totally out of the question.

But inside that storm, as I see it, these Regulations presume that there will be people sheltering in 1937-type shelters. Even if they survived they would emerge into an area of total destruction, of roads covered yards thick in debris cut off from the outside world, areas of the most intensive radiation, unable to move out and with rescue parties unable to move in. Sir, they would die.

The L.C.C., in its last pronouncement on this question—and I quote from the agenda paper for March 1960—said in relation to this obligation of maintaining the then existing shelters, an obligation which the new Regulations will perpetuate: …a programme of shelter construction has never formed part of Government policy, although it is plain that little or nothing could be done in the short period of warning before a sudden emergency.… it must be admitted that many considerations are involved; for example, on a rough estimate made in 1955 the cost of providing shelter for, say, 2,000,000 people… would be of the order of £60 million, or more than twice the annual expenditure on housing of the Council and the Metropolitan Borough Councils. Those are now merged in the new London boroughs. It goes on: Such a programme, even if spread over ten years, would clearly mean a substantial diversion of building labour and capital from current production. The increase in the potential scale of attack over the last ten years is common knowledge. It is, therefore, more than possible that this vast expenditure, if undertaken, might be largely ineffective by the time the work was completed. That work was never started and these Regulations only carry over to an unknown number of shelters of unknown locations.

We are asked tonight to continue what, I fear, is the mockery of asking these new authorities to maintain as far as is practicable these shelters which were out of date before the last war ended and which, if another war were to fall upon us and these shelters were to be used, would be nothing but tombs.

10.57 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

I should like to add a short postscript to what my hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner) has said. The London County Council, which still has this duty for a few days until it devolves upon the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan borough councils, decided that there was no defence for Londoners in the event of thermonuclear war and, in pursuance of that view, the L.C.C. did not attempt to argue with the Government when the Government took the view that the construction of new shelters was out of the question.

However, the Regulations make it clear that many shelters remain and that there has to be a transfer of responsibility to the G.L.C. and the Metropolitan boroughs, and, to a smaller extent, to the City Corporation, because someone has to be responsible for maintaining these places. We all know that they are of no value in the event of war, but the responsibility has to be transferred and hence the Regulations.

What is worth pointing out is that this does not mean that because this responsibility is being transferred we are saying that we believe that it is possible for London to carry out any sort of effective defence against thermonuclear war. I rather suspect, although it is not appropriate tonight to say so, that it is time that we went a little further, and I hope that it will not be too long before we begin to decide to relieve the G.L.C. and other councils of the responsibility of performing a function which they and we know to be no more than a ritual farce.

The L.C.C."s view of the matter has been made abundantly clear. Advice has been given in a Government pamphlet on how to improvise shelter in homes and other premises. There is, however, no plan for any provision of public shelter in anticipation of war, although at the request of the Home office local authorities … have surveyed their areas and have reported to the Home Office such premises as might be suitable for adaptation if need arose". It goes on to say that the Government have made it clear that they have no intention of contemplating further expenditure on the provision of shelters which might, conceivably, be adequate to carry out some defence in the event of thermonuclear war, although there is ground for believing that whatever might be done in a country like Sweden or, conceivably, Switzerland, any adequate defence in the event of a full-scale thermonuclear war is quite out of the question for this country.

The point that one wishes to make is simply this. We have the Regulations and we are under the necessity of passing on this responsibility. In doing so, let us not pretend that we are passing on a responsibility which is effective in the sense of protecting the people of London against thermonuclear war. There is no such protection, and it is high time that the Government took an early opportunity to say categorically that the function of civil defence in the thermonuclear age is a different function. We ought to think in terms of renaming the function of civil defence, perhaps calling it the civil emergency service and giving the service a function which it can carry out rather than functions which it cannot carry out.

11.1 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas

I will try to reply to the questions that have been raised. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) seemed to be anxious lest the Greater London Council was seeking to take to itself as many powers as it could in connection with civil defence. The hon. Member will, I am sure, be relieved to learn that the Council is giving up some of the powers which the London County Council enjoyed and that there has been agreement between the boroughs of London and the Greater London area on this question.

The position in London has always been the subject of special arrangements. Until 1st April, 1965, the London County Council is responsible for the rescue, ambulance and first-aid sections of the corps, the Metropolitan boroughs being responsible for the headquarters, warden and welfare sections. In addition, the London County Council has such important functions as emergency feeding and the care of the homeless and such minor responsibilities as the maintenance of the shelters. From 1st April next, the Greater London Council will, of the civil defence functions of the London County Council, retain only responsibility for the ambulance and first-aid sections of the corps and responsibility for the maintenance of these shelters if the Regulations are affirmed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner) has played a distinguished and responsible part in the country"s fire service. I know that he speaks from great authority. He is a man who speaks out of experience to this House and I pay great heed to anything that he says on this difficult question. The question of defence in nuclear war is one that has agitated this House often in the past and, no doubt, will do so again. The task of civil defence is, while acknowledging the horror of megaton bomb attacks, to realise that there may be people outside the immediate area whose lives could be saved if we took the necessary action.

In their Statement on the Defence Estimates 1965, the Government have pointed out in paragraph 200 that The form of our civil defence preparations in the years ahead is being reviewed in the light of the general reconsideration of defence. I would indicate to my hon. Friend that the Government reserve their position until that review has taken place.

We were asked how many of these shelters there are on L.C.C. estates. The answer is 450. The cost of maintenance is £1,300 a year. We were further asked what use they would be in future wars. No shelter is of any avail in the area of complete destruction, but it is thought wise, for the time being, to hold on to these shelters. I think that my hon. Friend suggested that they are now so out of date that they ought to be demolished. Even if this view were accepted these Regulations would be required, because somebody would have to provide the maintenance until demolition became possible, and therefore my hon. Friend"s complaint is not against the Regulations which are before the House now.

I do not propose, and I hope the House will understand, to enter into a great discussion on the Civil Defence policy of the Government, and the problems of nuclear war. These Regulations are concerned with 450 communal shelters on L.C.C. estates. It is a matter of practical administration which has been arranged between the local authorities, and I trust that the House will agree to the arrangement which has been made and affirm the Regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Civil Defence (Shelter) (Maintenance) (Amendment) Regulations, 1965, a draft of which was laid before this House on 3rd March, be approved.