HC Deb 02 February 1966 vol 723 cc1089-96
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on home defence.

I am now able to state in general terms the outcome of the Government's review of home defence. We have concluded that, despite the reduction in the risk of a nuclear conflict, we cannot discontinue civil defence preparations. There is always the possibility of war arising from misunderstanding or miscalculation; and we cannot be certain about the future spread of nuclear weapons.

Our studies confirm that, in the event —fortunately unlikely—of a nuclear conflict, sensible civil defence preparations could do much to save lives, to relieve suffering and to help the nation to survive as an organised entity. But there is a limit to what we can afford by way of insurance against this risk.

We have accordingly decided to restrict our preparations to those which would be likely to make a significant contribution to national survival. As a consequence, it should be possible to achieve appreciable savings. We estimate that expenditure in 1966–67 will amount to £19.7 million as against £22.7 million in 1965–66, and £24.1 million in 1964–65.

Further consultations with the local authorities and others concerned are required before we can settle the detailed application of our general conclusion. The Secretary of State for Scotland and I are undertaking these consultations forthwith. They will cover, in particular, the functions and size of the Civil Defence Corps, to see how with substantially reduced numbers the Corps might best be organised to carry out essential tasks. Concentration of the available resources on a highly trained nucleus of volunteers seems the right approach. Subsequently we shall consult representatives of industry on the implications for the Industrial Civil Defence Service. We shall also be consulting the local authority associations on proposals for shelter and dispersal.

We are adjusting the emergency system of control to provide more flexibility and a greater measure of decentralisation at the regional level. We shall maintain and continue to improve the efficiency of the Warning and Monitoring Organisation, including the Royal Observer Corps. We shall support the emergency preparations of the police and fire services, including the Auxiliary Fire Service, and the National Hospital Service Reserve. Some adjustments will be made to plans for stockpiling and the due functioning of essential utilities and services, including broadcasting.

We have also decided to establish a military Home Defence Force on which my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for the Army will be giving the House further information later this afternoon. This force would provide the police with valuable support in the maintenance of law and order in an emergency.

Mr. Thorneycroft

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that local authorities and civil defence officers will welcome this statement so far as it goes, for they have been clamouring for information, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) has been pressing for it since July?

Secondly, would he join me in paying a tribute to the stalwarts of civil defence who have carried on the work against a background of very great uncertainty? Would he say how his statement, in his view, affects the position of volunteers in civil defence? Are they wanted or not?

Finally, what was wrong with the support that he was getting from the Territorial Army? From a civil defence point of view, are there any arguments for the right hon. Gentleman changing to another body doing the same job; and on whose Vote will that body be carried?

Mr. Jenkins

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that he welcomes the approach and thinks that the local authorities will do so, too. We wanted to make this statement as early as possible, but it was also important to review the matter thoroughly and to be able to make a reasonably clear statement.

I am delighted to join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the devoted work which the volunteers have done. We certainly do not wish volunteers to withdraw from the service.

The Territorial Army question is primarily for the Minister of Defence for the Army. The main purpose was that we did not feel that it was giving adequate value for money.

Mr. Zilliacus

Does my right hon. Friend recall that at the end of the last defence debate in March last year the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) said that there would be no survivors of a nuclear war? This was endorsed by the Defence Minister, who said that within three days of the outbreak of a nuclear war human life on this island would be extinct. That being so, what is the purpose of this £20 million charade about civil defence and reviving the Territorial Army with the same job under a different name?

Mr. Jenkins

Certainly, nothing in what I said or in the preparation for civil defence means that this is a substitute for avoiding nuclear war. Of course it is not.

Mr. Zilliacus

A substitute for extinction.

Mr. Jenkins

Perhaps my hon. Friend will listen for a moment. Careful studies show that should the almost unthinkable, almost unbelievable, happen we could do something to relieve suffering and maintain a national framework by sensible and economical preparation. One must take account of that and do one's duty in this respect.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

On a point of order. In view of the schizophrenic attitude of the Government Front Bench to home defence, would it not be an advantage if we heard the statement on the Territorial Army—or what is left of it—so that we might have some idea of how the matter stood as a whole?

Mr. Speaker

It would be rather confusing if we took two statements together.

Mr. Brooke

As much the greatest material risk after a nuclear attack would be uncontrolled spread of fire, could the right hon. Gentleman explain, under his new scheme, from where he will get the additional trained fire-fighting personnel who will be needed over and above the peace-time fire services?

Mr. Jenkins

The numbers in the Territorial Army, if that is what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to, who were trained in fire service work were very limited. We have the National Fire Service and the Auxiliary Fire Service, and I do not think that independently of what might be done by the Home Defence Force we shall have any significant reduction in the numbers of men available for fire fighting.

Mr. Heffer

Could my right hon. Friend give us a little more clarification on the point which he made that the new force will in no way overlap the responsibilities of the Minister of Defence for the Army? He said that its purpose would be the establishment of law and order in the event of an emergency. Would he say precisely what sort of emergency he has in mind?

Mr. Jenkins

We are thinking of the Home Defence Force in this capacity for use essentially should this desperately unfortunate event occur in what is called the survival period after a nuclear strike. It would come into use later than the Civil Defence Corps. We are not thinking of its use in this capacity in any other circumstances.

Mr. Hogg

Since the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Zilliacus) was good enough to refer to a speech of mine, would the right hon. Gentleman accept it from me that nothing in that speech was designed to deter recruitment for home defence, which is one of the factors which makes a nuclear war less likely?

Mr. Jenkins

I will certainly take note of what the right. hon. and learned Gentleman says and will assume that I need not now read the speech.

Mr. Driberg

Besides keeping in touch with the Secretary of State for Scotland, the remoter parts of which might escape total destruction, would my right hon. Friend also keep in touch with the noble Lord who is Minister for Disarmament, so that the balance of probabilities can be continuously reassessed?

Mr. Jenkins

Of course, I will be glad to be in touch with my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State for Disarmament. It would, however, be most unfortunate for any hon. Member or for the House to assume that my statement in any way means that we regard nuclear risk as acceptable—it is not; but we must, of course, take precautions against the likelihood of something going wrong.

Mr. Hooson

Can the Home Secretary tell the House what proportion of this money has been spent on research into precautions that are likely to make a significant contribution to national survival?

Mr. Jenkins

I cannot say exactly without notice, but this is one of the matters covered, although it is not a principal item, in the £19 million.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Could the Minister tell us whether there are any plans for evacuating the civil population? What has become of the previous Government's plans for evacuating 4 million of the civilian population? In the event of an atomic bomb dropping on Glasgow, and destroying everything within a three-mile limit, where will the population of Scotland be evacuated to?

Mr. Jenkins

We consider it desirable to continue with plans for the dispersal of at least certain priority classes. Our view as a whole is that the period of notice which might be available is shorter than that which was assumed in the 1962 plans and that the area of dispersal might, therefore, need to be smaller. But we will endeavour to disperse the priority classes within an area of about 50 miles.

Sir D. Renton

Bearing in mind that the Home Secretary's statement appears to me to suggest that we shall spend £3 million less next year, a saving of 15 per cent., on civil defence compared with last year, will the right hon. Gentleman state on exactly which items the axe will fall?

Secondly, will he give an undertaking that there will not be any attempt to do away with the very important communications system which was being built up within the civil defence structure?

Thirdly, will he say exactly how the task for which the Territorial Army was designed will be performed in future?

Mr. Jenkins

The last part of the question could better be directed to my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for the Army after he has made his statement on the Home Defence Force. The savings have been fairly widely spread over the whole field, but I can let the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the House have further details if a Question can be put down. Our intention is certainly to devote a high priority to maintaining and improving the communications.

Mr. W. Baxter

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will bring no satisfaction to the people of central Scotland, in view of the fact that within a very short distance from the centre of Glasgow the whole nuclear potentiality of this Britain is sited and the dangers to central Scotland are evident for all to see? Will my right hon. Friend take immediate action with his colleagues to see that those instalments are moved to the south of England?

Mr. Jenkins

I would need to consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland before making such a move. My statement, by its nature, is not intended to be, and cannot be, a statement which will give great satisfaction to any body of the population. This is a statement to show that we are taking certain measures to deal with a particularly dangerous situation should it, against our calculations, occur.

Of course, I take into account the position in Scotland, but I do not think that for that reason it is necessarily a more menacing situation than that which might, in the unlikely event of nuclear conflict, face the Metropolis or other areas.

Lady Tweedsmuir

Will the Home Secretary give the corresponding financial figures for Scotland? What will be the effect on the total number of people who are asked to come forward as volunteers in comparison with the present figure?

Mr. Jenkins

I would rather the hon. Lady put down detailed Questions about Scotland to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. There has been some substantial decline in the numbers of the Civil Defence Corps over past years. We think that this corps can probably best serve its purpose by concentrating upon a corps of highly trained volunteers. I do not think that this will involve people who are already in the corps being asked to leave.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

While we all welcome the fact that the Home Secretary is giving serious study to the problem of civil defence, which has been urgently required for a long time, may I ask whether he will publish a White Paper giving a full account for the House and the public of the kind of attack which may be expected, the kind of results which would happen in this country if an attack occurred and the principles upon which the money for civil defence is to be allocated and spent?

Mr. Jenkins

I will certainly consider my right hon. Friend's suggestion. Civil defence will, of course, be dealt with in the White Paper which will be published on defence generally, but I think that my right hon. Friend has something more detailed in view. We would, in any event, intend in due course to publish a new edition of the training publications, which will deal with at least some of the detailed points which my right hon. Friend has in mind. I will, however, consider his wider suggestion.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Reynolds, statement.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

On a point of order. As the Home Secretary's statement covers civil defence in Wales, Mr. Speaker, would it be possible for me to ask him for the figures for Wales?

Mr. Speaker

I have tried to distribute my favours impartially, but the hon. Member may put his question on Wales.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. In view of the fact that the Home Secretary is responsible personally for civil defence in Wales, can he give the figures concerning Wales?

Mr. Jenkins

No, Sir. The figures which I have given cover the whole area for which I am responsible. If the hon. Member puts down a Question, I will gladly give him a breakdown as far as that is possible.