HC Deb 22 February 1968 vol 759 cc799-810

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

11.5 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles (Winchester)

I am glad to have the opportunity to draw attention to a subject which affects every home and family in the country. An Englishman's home is his castle and civil defence organisation is the last ditch defence of every Englishman's hearth and home. It is the moat of every Englishman's castle.

Broadly speaking, since the end of the war every citizen has known in the back of his mind that, whenever disaster of any sort should occur in peace or war, there was civil defence organisation of some sort which would come to the rescue quickly and efficiently. In 1966 and 1967, the Government cut the civil defence estimates but an adequate skeleton force still existed to reassure the population and—very important—to help to make our nuclear deterrent power credible.

On 2nd February, 1966, there was an important statement of policy by the then Home Secretary: I am now able to state … 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1966; Vol. 723, c. 1089.] In March, 1967, there was a Ministerial statement in another place by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, who said: … no one can say that all danger of a nuclear attack has disappeared, and … no Government worthy of the name could leave its people helpless in the aftermath of such a disaster."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords,22nd March, 1967; Vol. 281, c. 784.] Last summer, the then Home Secretary addressed the General Council of the W.R.V.S. in the same sense.

That was the situation until, out of the blue, on 16th January this year we had this statement by the Prime Minister: We have decided to reduce Home Defence—Civil Defence—to a care and maintenance basis, with a saving of about £14 million in 1968–69 and £20 million in 1969–70 and in subsequent years. This will involve the abandonment of the Civil Defence Corps, the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve Category III."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th January, 1968; Vol. 756, c. 1588.] At one stroke, the Prime Minister of Great Britain achieved several things. First, he cast away the last line of defence of every home in the land; secondly, he tore up all the pledges and reassurances of his Ministers on this subject; thirdly, he cut the throat of a very valuable part of the Territorial Army; fourthly, he poured scorn on the enthusiasm and patriotism of all the volunteers of the Civil Defence, the Auxiliary Fire Service, the T. & A.V.R. III and, in effect, upon all the various voluntary bodies and associations who work with them—such as the W.R.V.S., the Red Cross, St. John, the Industrial Civil Defence Service, the Auxiliary Nursing Services, the National Hospital Service Reserve, arid so on, and also that dedicated band of Civil Defence officers who train the Civil Defence Corps.

The Prime Minister has, in effect, with one stroke of the pen done something which Hitler entirely failed to do with all his bombs and horror weapons throughout the war. He has really wounded the morale of thousands of volunteers who give their time for their country.

Even now, more than a month after the announcement of this new policy by the Prime Minister, no explanation of any sort has reached the working level of the civil defence organisation as to what is meant by "care and maintenance" arid how this incredible policy is to be implemented.

Perhaps the first question I should ask the Minister tonight is—why not? Why have the Government not had the common courtesy to inform the people who work for them what this policy means? The first word that has appeared about it appeared in today's Defence White Paper. This says So far as is practicable, existing physical assets will be preserved. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether this means that the telephones will not actually be torn out by the roots but will be left until they are choked up with cobwebs? Another phrase in the White Paper was … training and planning will continue at the minimum level … to enable more active preparations to be resumed, if necessary, without too much loss of ground. Perhaps the Minister will say how this will be done without the volunteers, and also what is the meaning of this rather sinister phrase "without too much loss of ground."

Last week I asked the Under-Secretary what factors were taken into account when the decision was taken to reduce civil defence to a care and maintenance basis. His reply was The current level of civil defence expenditure, our financial circumstances, and the risk of a nuclear attack." [OFFICIAL. REPORT, 15th February, 1968; Vol. 747, c. 1552.] As to the current level of expenditure, can he tell the House how this compares with the civil defence expenditure of other countries in the N.A.T.O. alliance, or even neutral countries such as Sweden, Switzerland. And what about the Russians—what do they spend on it?

I can give him the answer about the Russians. Every Russian student over the age of 16 has to take compulsory evening training in civil defence, and it is obligatory for every new building in Russia to contain beneath it an air raid shelter. This is the point of view they take about it.

Perhaps the Minister could also tell the House how much is being spent by the British Government in N.A.T.O. on the N.A.T.O. early warning system, and explain what is the point of this early warning system if there is no civil defence organisation for it to hand its warning on to.

As regards his point about our financial situation, could the Minister say what additional bad news there is, not yet revealed, which makes it necessary to abandon our last line of defence in war? If we cannot afford 7s. per year—that is three halfpence per week—per head of the population, which is what civil defence costs, is there any financial bad news not yet given to the House?

Mr. Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Blackley)

I thank the hon. and gallant Member for giving way. I have listened with great interest to what he has to say. He keeps referring to this last line of defence. Could he tell me in what conceivable circumstances, in the event of a hydrogen bomb war, there would be any efficacy in this defence if the people involved would themselves be swallowed up in the conflagration?

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles

I can certainly give the hon. Member a quotation from the Home Secretary on this. He said: 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1966; Vol. 723, c. 1092.] To come to the nuclear point. As regards the likelihood of nuclear attack, what new information have the Government received which reduced the risk of nuclear attack to vanishing point? That is the logic of their new policy. A major nuclear war is very unlikely, but we shall not be sure for perhaps 50 years that it will never, in any circumstances, occur. What new or different appreciation have the Government made on this, and have our Allies reached the same conclusion as us? I hope that the Minister will not quote the non-proliferation treaty, because early in February a deputation visited the Home Secretary to inquire what change in the international situation permitted the new policy.

The Home Secretary, I am told, replied "the non-proliferation treaty". This is a treaty which has not yet been signed and with which in any case, two major nuclear powers, France and China, have said they will have nothing to do. Will the Minister tell the House about this and confirm or deny that this was the Home Secretary's answer to the deputation?

I have a final point about peace time, not a post-nuclear period. Does the Minister appreciate the value of having an organised, disciplined body of people with some transport and communications, who are used to working with one another and know their own districts, in order to deal with peace-time disasters? The headlines in recent times include the Hither Green disaster in the which the A.F.S. was so useful, the "Torrey Canyon" incident, when the T.A. helped out, the recent gales in Scotland, the foot-and-mouth epidemic, the constant risk of flooding in the Thames at certain times of the year, the Aberfan disaster, and so on.

It is worth remembering that even before there is any question of a nuclear war, but in times of strained international relations, one could get a situation like that which arose in the United States over the broadcasts when Martians were supposed to have landed. This was an Orson Welles programme, and apparently the populations of several large cities rose and began to stream out to the countryside in conditions of great difficulty. This is the sort of thing that one can visualise, and the sort of thing that no prudent Government, no Government worth their name, could afford to ignore. The noble Lord Lord Stonham in his statement in another place said, and this sums up the situation very well: … an efficient Civil Defence Service is a vital necessity under present conditions. That is to say, under peace-time conditions. He went on to say: … I may say that I would not be standing at this Box and would not be a Minister if I did not believe that the task of Civil Defence … was not viable and credible."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords,22nd March, 1967; Vol. 281, c. 783.] He added that it was not only there that he would say that. Will the Minister be man enough to say the same thing?

11.20 p.m.

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

The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) has expressed himself strongly on this issue, as he often does. His case has been weakened by overstatement, but nevertheless I welcome the opportunity of this debate in order to say a little more about the Government's decision, announced by the Prime Minister on 16th January, 1968, to reduce Britain's home defence to a care and maintenance basis.

As the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, he put a Question to me, asking if I would summarise the reasons for the Government's decision in one sentence. I said that the Government took three considerations into account—the current level of civil defence expenditure, our financial circumstances, and the risk of a nuclear war. It may be helpful to elaborate a little on what I meant by those three points. Expenditure on civil defence may be compared with expenditure on an insurance policy and spending money in this way, the Government is insuring against an unlikely contingency. The consequences of nuclear war are now so terrible that it is difficult to believe that any country would willingly provoke such a conflict; but, until nuclear weapons can be brought under effective control, the possibility remains, however unlikely it seems, that they might one day be used against this country.

So long as that possibility remains, the Government have a responsibility to assess the risk, but it also has a duty to consider the size of the premium, both in relation to the risk involved and the capacity of the nation to pay. The Government have decided that, in our current economic difficulties, we cannot afford the premium needed to insure on the present scale. The previous programme of public expenditure would have cost between £25 million and £27 million a year, and the revised programme will save about £13 million in 1968–69 and about £20 million in subsequent years.

It would be difficult to argue that the risk of a nuclear war between the major power blocs has completely evaporated, but few people would argue that it has not diminished in recent years. The world is less and less divided into two great monolithic blocs. It is true that there has been no outstanding developments in the field of disarmament since the end of 1966 when civil defence was last reorganised and expenditure on the Civil Defence Corps was reduced, although the prospects of a non-proliferation treaty have certainly improved.

At the same time, our financial circumstances have changed and it is this fact which has forced the Government to take many hard and difficult decisions, of which the decision to reduce home defence was only one. It has, I am sorry to say, been typical of the party opposite that they have been demanding a reduction in public expenditure while opposing almost every decision taken by the Government in that direction. I emphasise that the Government do not dispute the general desirability of civil defence measures, but it is a question of the scale which we can afford, having regard to the whole situation. We have reduced our premium, and we recognise that the cover has also been reduced.

A great deal of publicity has, quite rightly, been given to the decision to disband the three volunteer services, the Civil Defence Corps, the Auxiliary Fire Service, and the T. & A.V.R. 3. I have great admiration and respect for the public spirit and devotion of those volunteers who have so willingly given their time to the public service in the past, and I fully understand that the disbandment decision must have come as a shock and a disappointment to many thousands of such people up and down the country. Yet this decision was inevitable once the Government had decided that substantial economies were necessary, because the total cost of the volunteer services amounted to almost half of all civil defence expenditure. As the Prime Minister has said, our present financial circumstances have forced us to take many hard and difficult decisions, and these decisions are hard and difficult precisely because they involve the sacrifice of much that all of us recognise as desirable. If we are to make the economies which are imperative in present circumstances, we must give up many desirable things and, after considering all factors, including the present international situation, we decided that we could no longer maintain civil defence preparations on their present level.

Unfortunately, the Government's decision has been interpreted by some hon. Members, and by people outside this House, as a decision to abandon all civil defence preparations, but this is simply not the case. What we have done is to stop further development of our civil defence preparations, while taking steps to preserve our physical assets of operational value in such a way as to allow more active preparations to be resumed at some future date if the situation should demand it. So far as practicable, operational buildings and equipment are being preserved, along with the knowledge and expertise that will be necessary to enable us to raise the level of civil defence preparations, rapidly if necessary, at some future date.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles

Can the hon. Gentleman give some idea of the sort of time scale about which he is talking for reactivating the organisation?

Mr. Ennals

It depends. No doubt it would take some months to bring together all the volunteers and organise the force again, but the nucleus of the control and communications systems is there and will be reactivated immediately. To bring together the volunteers would take a longer period of time. If the international situation worsened and fears were to increase, one would expect that to be the sort of situation which would lead any Government to recognise that a number of matters needed attention to deal with it.

We are retaining and maintaining the structure of the control system which is designed to provide for an effective emergency system of decentralised control from the level of regional government right down to the individual local authority. The premises will be preserved, and the communications kept in working order.

Parallel with and complementary to the emergency system of control, we have the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation, which includes the Royal Observer Corps. The purpose of this organisation is to provide public warning of an actual attack, and afterwards to provide information about the location and power of the nuclear weapons exploded, and the distribution and level of radioactive fall-out. It is a vital part of our preparations, and it is complete. It can be brought to operational readiness very quickly.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles

What is to happen to the Radiac instruments previously issued to the civil defence organisation?

Mr. Ennals

I should like to have notice of that question. No doubt that is a point which might be taken up on Thursday, when, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows, we shall have a full day to discuss civil defence.

In any nuclear disaster, we should expect to have the assistance not only of regular members of the Armed Forces stationed in this country but also of the regular police and fire services, who will continue to be involved in civil defence planning and for whom training will be provided at a level sufficient to maintain existing knowledge and techniques.

The overall scale of training in civil defence matters has been drastically reduced to secure the necessary economies. But training has not been abandoned. Emergency training for the fire service will continue to be provided centrally at the Fire Service Technical College at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, but on a smaller scale than hitherto, and it is likely that some general emergency instruction will also be included in normal peace time courses. For civil defence training, other than in fire fighting, as I told the House at Question Time last week, we shall retain the Home Office school at Easingwold, Yorkshire.

Easingwold will serve the whole of England, Wales and Scotland, and it will have an important part to play in keeping our civil defence preparations up to date. It will provide courses for the national Warning and Monitoring organisation; background and general planning courses for those having continuing responsibilities in planning and central Government and essential industries; courses of a more specialised nature for persons with special responsibilities like senior police officers or medical officers of health; and courses designed to maintain within the local authority sphere a small nucleus of civil defence instructors who can maintain a knowledge of techniques, procedures and skills and upon whom any reactivation of local authority training can initially be based. In addition, Easingwold will provide a venue for studies and conferences on civil defence matters.

The Government's intention is that emergency planning both in central and local government should continue at the minimum level needed to allow more active preparations to be resumed without too much loss of ground.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman asked about consultation. Active consultation is proceeding with the local authority associations about many of the details, and there may be points which can be brought out during the debate which we are to have on Thursday. A circular was sent to local authorities almost immediately after the Prime Minister's statement, and many of the uncertainties will be filled in as a result of the consultations which are taking place with the local authority associations.

I hope that I have said enough to convince the House that the Government's decision to reduce expenditure on civil defence does not mean that we have abandoned all civil defence preparations. The hon. and gallant Gentleman made suggestions that, for instance, we were leaving the country defenceless and we were in breach of pledges which he quoted from statements made by my right hon. Friend now the Chancellor of the Exchequer and from my noble Friend the Minister of State at the Home Office. In fact, civil defence continues but it continues at a much reduced rate.

Various proposals have been made that the volunteer services should be allowed to continue in one form or another. Members of the Civil Defence Corps and the Auxiliary Fire Service individually and in local units have offered to serve without bounty or other direct payment. We appreciate the spirit in which these offers are made. They show the enthusiasm which the volunteers have for the work they have been doing. But, unfortunately, it is general administration costs and expenses resulting from the use of premises and equipment rather than direct payments to volunteers which account for most of the cost. Payments to volunteers account for little more than 8 per cent. of the total expenditure. Suggestions of this kind, therefore, could not produce the sort of savings which we require.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles

The hon. Gentleman said that the premises and equipment would be retained anyway.

Mr. Ennals

Yes, but if we provided new equipment and if we were, for instance, to maintain some of the premises which have been established by local authorities for training purposes, the training purposes which are not now to continue, this would be expenditure making up an important part of the cost. The payments to volunteers and bounties account for only about 8½ per cent. of our total expenditure. Therefore, to sacrifice that and maintain the rest of the expenditure at current levels would mean very little saving. It just would not work.

It is more difficult to decide what should be done about suggestions that individual units or groups of members of both services, the Civil Defence Corps and the A.F.S., should continue on an informal basis. Some have suggested that they could be self-supporting from members' subscriptions. Practical training costs money; it would be beyond such voluntary resources. They could not from their own resources maintain the sort of expertise required. If practical skills cannot be kept up to date, the volunteers might become a danger to the public as well as to themselves. I am thinking particularly of fire fighting and dealing with dangerous structures.

Nevertheless, the Government do not want to discourage the volunteer spirit, if some ready and reliable means of retaining voluntary activity, without cost, can be found. It will be interesting to see what happens to some of the local ideas and experiments which are being proposed.

On a number of occasions, auxiliary members of the fire brigades have, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman said, given valuable help in support of their regular colleagues in peacetime disasters of one sort or other. The hon. and gallant Gentleman gave some examples. Both the Government and the local authorities greatly appreciate that work. But one cannot justify maintaining voluntary bodies organised and trained for service in war for the sole purpose of the incidental benefits which result from their existence in peace.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is, no doubt, concerned about the position of some of the local authority staff who have been involved. There are about 2,500 local authority staff at present engaged in civil defence duties in Great Britain—civil defence officers, their deputies, instructors and general supporting staff. Their salaries and administrative expenses form much the largest item in local authority civil defence expenditure. Most of them, I am afraid, will have to leave their posts.

We fully recognise that local authorities are under heavy pressure to reduce their staffs generally, but we know that they will be as sympathetic as possible about offering alternative employment to as many of their former civil defence employees as they can reasonably absorb. We are taking steps to provide compensation for those who do lose their jobs or suffer a reduction in pay in consequence of the Government's decision.

It is not the Government's view either that civil defence as a whole is useless or that the particular activities we have suspended were without value. It is rather a question of the level at which we can maintain our activities at the present time, bearing in mind both the financial situation and the risk of war involving an attack upon our territory. We believe that, in all the circumstances, we have struck the right balance for our present situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to Twelve o'clock.