HC Deb 07 August 1980 vol 990 cc790-804
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

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

On taking office last year, the Government decided to accord high priority to the defence of the nation; and a review of civil preparedness for home defence was set in train so that this important element of our defence strategy could be considered as part of the improvement of our general defence effort. The review has been wide-ranging, embracing the responsibilities of many of my right hon. Friends as well as my own. As a result, I am now able to announce certain immediate steps which the Government judge to be necessary. These will extend as appropriate to Scotland, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be responsible for them there. I will also refer to parts of the review which are still continuing.

I begin by emphasising that, despite the difficulties of the present international situation, the Government do not regard armed conflict with the Warsaw Pact countries as probable, let alone inevitable or imminent, provided that we maintain, as we intend, a firm commitment to peace, while ensuring that our defence forces remain balanced and effective. We believe that to be seen to be prepared at home, as well as capable of military deterrence and defence, will make war less likely. Nevertheless, I remind the House of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said in paragraph 110 of his statement on the defence Estimates 1980. He said that Soviet strategists hold that any war in Europe is likely to escalate into a nuclear exchange, though it might start with conventional warfare, and that the warning time we might receive could be very little. This period of warning might, we believe, be measured in days rather than weeks.

Against this background, the Government consider that an expanded civil defence programme is both prudent and necessary to achieve an appropriate balance in our defence capability. To this end, we propose to take the following immediate steps.

First, the United Kingdom warning and monitoring organisation, which exists to give the public warning of air attack and, in the event of a nuclear attack, to give warning of the approach of radioactive fallout and subsequently to monitor the intensity of fallout radiation, will now modernise its communications, replace certain obsolete equipment and improve the allowances paid to the volunteers of the Royal Observer Corps, who play a vital part in maintaining the warning and monitoring systems. There will also be additional expenditure on the completion of the organisation's administrative headquarters and the sub-regional headquarters for decentralised government. Extra expenditure will be incurred on the associated communications network and on improvements to the arrangements for the wartime broadcasting service, which, if the need ever arose, would be established to ensure the continuation of public broadcasting facilities even after large-scale attack.

A great deal of civil defence work must be done at local level, and the Government propose to double the money available for this purpose. We shall consult the local authority associations about the allocation of additional resources for local planning and training, and the adaptation of premises by district councils to complete the pattern of local authority war time administrative headquarters and communications. Effective civil defence arrangements depend upon co-operation between central Government and local government. I know that concern has been expressed about variations in civil defence arrangements in different parts of the country. I am satisfied that the Government have adequate powers to ensure that proper standards of protection are provided throughout the country, and it will naturally be our aim, with the local authorities, to see that that is done.

We recognise that many county and regional councils at present lack the resources to plan for community involvement in civil defence below district level. The Government are ready to make more money available to meet this need and will discuss with the associations the most effective ways of doing so. We are anxious in particular to enable local emergency planners to maximise the contribution made by the large number of citizens both individuals and members of organisations, who wish to add their efforts to civil defence planning on a voluntary basis. Many individual volunteers are already active in the civil defence field, and certain voluntary organisations are keen to play a fuller aprt. The harnessing of volunteer effort will be an important feature of our plans, and I intend to make a special appointment of a person of high standing for this purpose. There will be a separate appointment in Scotland.

At the same time, there will be greater involvement in civil defence planning and training on the part of central Government Departments, the emergency services, the Post Office and the National Health Service. There will be an increase in central training facilities for the senior staff at local and other authorities, including an expansion of the Home Defence college at Easingwold. There will also be improvements in the arrangements for the operation of emergency port facilities. The stock of emergency fire appliances is being refurbished this year.

Mr. Heffer

The right hon. Gentleman must be joking.

Mr. Whitelaw

The total additional cost of these immediate measures over the next three years will be about £45 million, and by 1983–84 expenditure on civil defence will have risen from £27 million a year before the review to £45 million a year, an increase of over 60 per cent. The additional costs will be covered by a reallocation of resources within existing programmes and without adding to the total of public expenditure.

I turn now to certain general policy matters and further studies that are still in progress.

In the face of an attack, dispersal is not a practicable policy, and in any event no part of the country could be regarded as safe from direct and indirect effects of nuclear weapons. A study is being made of domestic or family shelters, and advice will be available to the public later this year on a range of structures that would provide improved protection at relatively low cost. This guidance will consist of design outlines for five different types of shelter and the degree of protection provided by each. We propose that, additionally, a survey of existing structures suitable for communal shelter purposes should be conducted, and we shall discuss with the local authority associations how best to do this.

We have also decided that it is right for information about civil defence and the likely effects of a future war involving the United Kingdom to be made generally available in peace time. The public has a right to knowledge of these matters. We have already published "Protect and Survive", and we shall be examining ways of making more information available.

The Government will also be studying the role and closer involvement of industry in defence planning.

Finally, the review has emphasised the need to promote effective co-ordination at all levels and between all those with responsibility for civil defence. Ministers will be attending some of the conferences already planned in various parts of the country for this purpose.

The measures that I have announced today are an important contribution to improving our civil preparedness. They are positive and cost-effective. The Government are confident that they will be widely supported in this House and in the country.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the Home Secretary aware that the general proposition at the beginning of the statement, that the Government do not regard armed conflict with the Warsaw Pact countries as probable, let alone inevitable or imminent, is important and puts the proposals in perspective? Does he recall the words of Lord Carver, in another place recently, when he said that: in the event of a thermo-nuclear attack … designed to knock this country out, no civil defence organisation … could really achieve much, if anything, worthwhile"?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 March 1980; Vol. 406, c. 308.] We are concerned today with damage arising from a smaller nuclear or conventional attack, if that is possible, given the chain effect that would follow. It is only in that context that it is sensible to talk about civil defence.

How are the public expenditure figures broken down? The right hon. Gentleman talks about the modernisation of the United Kingdom monitoring and warning organisation, and doubling money at local level. Doubling from what? He talks about refurbishing the "green goddesses", which is a procedure that goes on anyway. What part of the Government budget is losing expenditure if there is to be no overall increase in public expenditure? How does the new expenditure compare in real terms with that in 1968, when civil defence was essentially put on a care-and-maintenance basis? The expenditure then was three times more than it is now. It is all very well to talk of increases, but what do they add up to at the end of the day?

The right hon. Gentleman talks of voluntary effort, but is he not aware that the keys to voluntary effort are the police, the fire service and the home-based Army? What are the certain voluntary organisations to which the Home Secretary referred and what type of person is to be approached to co-ordinate voluntary activities?

We note that there is to be no policy of dispersal, because no part of the country is safe. It is my view that that would be true, whatever our defence role. Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that when he talks of various types of shelter—to use the words of the past, the Morrison type, the Anderson type, and so on—there is a danger that he could mislead people about their efficiency? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is impossible to provide nuclear shelters for the entire population? To say that those who can afford small shelters can have them and that the rest will have no shelters is the wrong approach.

Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the only way through the frightful problem of nuclear war or updated conventional war, which would be far worse than the horrors that parts of Europe underwent in the last war, is for us to work for the disarmament of the great Powers? We have to convince the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans. To convince ourselves is not enough.

Mr. Whitelaw

I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that if we are to make war less likely it must be sensible to have military deterrents and to make preparations at home. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should suggest otherwise. I believe that it is an essential feature of making war less likely.

The right hon. Gentleman said that all voluntary effort should be done through the police and the fire service. I cannot accept that. The following organisations have indicated that they are extremely anxious to take part in the voluntary effort: the WRVS, the Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance Brigade, the Royal Observer Corps and, in various parts of the country, including Devon and Wiltshire, voluntary organisations. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman, of all people, should decry voluntary effort in this country. That is exactly what he did. A great many people want to take part voluntarily, and it is a pity to decry their efforts.

Many people are asking what sort of nuclear shelters they should have. There are many shelters on the market. Some are undoubtedly good, but some are not. It is important that proper instruction should be given to those who wish to have shelters, as many do.

It is clear from what I have said that the Government, having taken over civil defence on a care-and-maintenance basis, are providing for a substantial increase in expenditure to improve our preparedness.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am prepared to allow 20 minutes on questions on the Home Secretary's statement. The length of questions will decide the number of hon. Members called.

Mr. Buck

Is my right hon. Friend aware that responsible citizens throughout the land will welcome what he has had to say, because it enhances the credibility of our defence posture? Does he agree that it will bring our policies more in line with those of other "warlike" countries, such as Switzerland, Sweden and even Finland? It is wholly defensible and wholly responsible that my right hon. Friend should have made the statement that he has made.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. We are seeking sensible precautions which will make war less likely in the long run but which will prepare our people at home for the dangers that could ensue.

Mr. Dobson

Does the Home Secretary agree that the best deterrent against nuclear war would be for the Government's contingency plans to allow for them and the joint chiefs of staff to walk out into Parliament Square after they have taken the decision to use our independent deterrent and to stand above ground? Will the Government try to arrange in any multinational talks that take place that the power elites in the rest of the world come to the surface in the event of nuclear war rather than hiding under it while letting the populations be destroyed?

Mr. Whitelaw

Snide and sarcastic comments are totally out of place on an important matter for the people of our country.

Mr. Banks

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement today has moved a mountain of neglect and indifference which has existed for more than 15 years on the subject of civil defence, and that he deserves to be warmly congratulated for the excellence of his statement?

Will my right hon. Friend say whether he will consider appointing a commissioner for civil defence whose task would be to co-ordinate the work of the various Departments and to administer an inspectorate to ensure that local authorities meet the standards that are asked of them? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend give advice in the booklet that he will offer for sale to the public to show that lives can be saved if the correct measures are taken?

Mr. Whitlaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been foremost in advocating preparedness in civil defence and who introduced an important document on the subject, which I believe made many people think very carefully.

As to the question of how we should organise at the centre, I believe that it is right that the co-ordination should be done inside the Home Office. My Minister of State will be specifically responsible to me in that area. I have announced the appointment of a person of high standing for England and Wales and a separate appointment for Scotland for the harnessing of voluntary effort. The administrative work must be my responsibility.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Is the Home Secretary aware that we welcome his decision to improve monitoring, co-ordination and training in civil defence matters? Does he agree with the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) that in the event of a direct nuclear attack there is no protection that can be afforded? No shelter can give adequate protection. Will the person of high standing have funds directly available to him from the Home Secretary in order to deal with voluntary bodies, or will he have to work through the local authorities?

Mr. Whitelaw

The person of high standing will work directly through me. Therefore, I shall have to find the funds for his co-ordination work from the budget of the Home Office. I cannot believe that when other countries think it right to take measures to prepare their people and to ensure that as much life as possible should continue we should not do the same. That is what we are doing, and I should have thought that it would be regarded as sensible.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his statement will be welcomed by the people of this country, who have been concerned for some time about the dilapidated state of our home defence? As a first step, this is extremely progressive, particularly bearing in mind that we have certain constraints on public expenditure at the moment. Does my right hon. Friend also accept that in countries such as Switzerland and Sweden great advances have been made through planning regulations to equip many of the population with shelters? Has he given consideration to that?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have to accept that comparisons with other countries are difficult because conditions are different in various countries. If we can learn from what others have done through planning procedures, we shall certainly do so.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Quite apart from the transparent futility or civil defence against nuclear weapons and nuclear fallout, is there not a more questionable and dangerous aspect? Are not the Govern- ment extending civil defence deliberately to condition people mentally to accept a war as unavoidable and to involve them in preparing for it?

Mr. Whitelaw

I know the hon. Gentleman's view and I totally disagree with it. He is entitled to it, but I do not happen to agree with it. I made clear in my statement that the Government do not regard war as inevitable or imminent. We believe that by arranging more preparedness we are making it more likely that we shall preserve peace. The hon. Gentleman knows that I feel that his belief in just giving up makes war far more likely than anything else.

Mr. Neil Thorne

In view of the large number of reservists who are obliged to retire as early as 45, and since they have skills that would be useful in civil defence, does my right hon. Friend have any plans to make use of their abilities?

Mr. Whitelaw

I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that for the time being home defence planning must continue on the basis that in a period of tension and of conventional war the Services, including the Territorial Army, will be fully engaged in the performance of purely military tasks. That is the basis on which I have had to plan.

Mr. Thomas Cox

Can the Home Secretary say what consideration he has given to the question of people who live in high-rise accommodation in many of our large cities? What protection will be offered to them in the event of an attack?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have announced that a survey is to take place, particularly in our big cities, of premises which could be used for communal shelters. We shall see what can be provided in that way.

Mr. Wilkinson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I think that he is right to emphasise that nowhere in the United Kingdom will be safe in the event of a nuclear exchange, but does he agree that certain prime targets are readily identifiable? Would it not be prudent to initiate a programme of public shelter construction at least in such vicinities?

Mr. Whitelaw

I cannot go that far. The provision of public shelters through the Government would be enormously costly and something which we could not contemplate.

Mr. Heffer

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his friendly, bland, shaggy-dog manner will not convince anyone who really knows about these matters? Is it not clear that, because there is a genuine concern amongst our people about the possibility of nuclear war, he is trying to pretend that the Government really are doing something when they are not doing anything? Does he agree that there is nothing that one can do in relation to nuclear weapons except to do something about nuclear disarmament? May I advise the Government that it would be far better if they concentrated on working for a nuclear-free zone throughout Europe than on the nonsense that we have heard this afternoon?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman's personal remarks about me do not add up to much in relation to the importance of seeking to prepare our people sensibly for civil defence. The hon. Gentleman says that we are not doing anything. An increase of over 60 per cent. in expenditure in the period that I have mentioned is something. What we are planning is a considerable change in the idea of a care-and-maintenance policy only. It is important that it should be so.

As I said to the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), I do not accept the view that we should make no preparations for the dangers of nuclear war, either in defence generally or in home defence. Such a view is surprising because it does not seem to be that of many other countries.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I support his statement? In his review and renewal of civil defence services, will he give thought to creating a national disaster service, which has long been needed in Britain, to meet local disaster problems? My right hon. Friend referred to approved designs of nuclear fallout shelters. He seemed to suggest that some on the market were not able to do the job for which they are intended. Does he intend to designate one of the five designs the "Whitelaw" shelter?

Mr. Whitelaw

I would not propose that. If I gave a misleading impression about the shelters I should like to correct it by saying that there is a wide variety of proposals. It is right that people with particular knowledge should study the different proposals, decide which are likely to be the most effective and tell our people accordingly. The question of a disaster corps is a different matter.

Mr. William Hamilton

As the right hon. Gentleman says that dispersal is not a practical policy, will the Government encourage the individual householder to buy his own shelter, class 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5? If so, what guidance will the Government give to the would-be purchaser as to the relative safety of the shelters? If people prefer not to buy a shelter but to stay indoors, will the Government give advice about the quality of whitewash put on windows to prevent radiation flash, which I understand to be one of the guidelines in the Government's White Paper?

Mr. Whitelaw

A scientific assessment of the various shelters will be made and people will have to make up their own minds about what they wish to do. That is the sensible way to proceed. Although the hon. Gentleman enjoys being somewhat cynical, many people want such guidance, ask for it and expect it. I think that they should have it.

Mr. John Browne

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations? Does he accept that the broard measures that he is taking, including the development of voluntary services, will benefit the country not only in the event of a nuclear attack, which the Opposition dispute, but in the event of a conventional attack or of other mishaps or acts of God? Does he accept that an important fabric of society is being revived? Do the present plants take an adequate view of the provision of food and water, particularly in view of the acceptance of non-dispersal? Does my right hon. Friend believe that more should be done in that respect?

Mr. Whitelaw

I thank my hon. Friend. Of course there is always the possibility of a conventional war. That must be guarded against and it is one of the purposes of the proposals. Many of the voluntary organisations to which I have referred have a role in relation to other disasters and acts of God. Today I am referring specifically to civil defence. We shall examine further the plans for the provision of food and water to ensure that they are adequate.

Mr. Faulds

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider taking back the document, because it really is ludicrously inadequate? Does he not realise that full civil defence can be provided on the range and scale that it is provided in Sweden and Switzerland, but only at that cost, if citizens' lives are to be saved across the country? Will he and his colleagues understand that the only real civil defence is to work towards nuclear disarmament—which his Government are not doing?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not accept that the Government's defence policies are doing anything other than working with our allies towards preserving the peace. I have made it clear, and I may as well say it again, that the people who advocate unilateral disarmament are the people who are most likely to provoke the war which they desperately and genuinely believe they seek to avoid. I just do not accept their view. Some preparedness is important. I do not believe that in our position we can contemplate preparations of the kind operating in Sweden and Switzerland. What I have proposed is a sensible basis on which to make some reasonable preparation for our people.

Mr. Jessel

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the need for fallout shelters is as great on the outskirts of London as anywhere because of the particular risk which could arise from a nuclear explosition 10 or 15 miles away? Will he say when, during the next few months, he expects to be able to give further information about the different types of fallout shelter?

Mr. Whitelaw

I hope to be able to give that information by the end of the year.

Mr. Soley

How long does the Home Secretary think that radioactive fallout will remain at danger levels in the event, first, of an air-burst nuclear strike on an area of mass population, and, secondly, a ground-burst nuclear strike on a military target? Does he agree that the food and water supplies will be contaminated for a longer period? Is not that information essential if the public are not to be lulled into a false sense of security?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not believe that anyone could answer those questions. So much depends on many variables and many different problems, such as the size of the explosion, the weather, and other matters that no one can foretell. It would be misleading to try to answer.

Mr. Pollock

I thank the Government for their commitment to improve civil defence preparations. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that special attention will be paid to sensitive areas—such as my constituency of Moray and Nairn—which have major RAF bases? Will he say a little more about the nature of the Scottish overlord? Will he be charged with the key job of liaison between central Government, local authorities and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force?

Mr. Whitelaw

My hon. Friend's questions fall within the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Discussions with local authorities must take account of local matters. My hon. Friend mentioned the co-ordinator for the voluntary effort in Scotland. He will work with the Secretary of State, who will be responsible in Scotland, as I will be in England, for liaison with local authorities.

Mr. Cryer

Does not the reopening of the regional seats of government mean that the Government are providing bolt-holes for a few appointed bureaucrats in the event of a nuclear war so that they can administer the radioactive cinder heat during the last dying days of civilisation? Is it not true that the only defence is to get rid of nuclear weapons? Is not the right hon. Gentleman ashamed to announce an increase of many millions of pounds expenditure on a cosmetic indoctrination of the population when people have demonstrated in the House today about the loss of jobs created by the Government through lack of proper expenditure?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman should realise that the previous Labour Government sought to establish regional centres. We are seeking to make them effective and to improve their communications. That is a thoroughly sensible objective. The previous Labour Government thought that right, and we now need to ensure that they are effective and that their communications are improved. It appears to be a sensible idea.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I do not agree with him on his other point. He does not agree with me. I am never likely to agree with him, and I do not want to.

Mr. Lawrence

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reassuring initiative. Is he aware that many people in Britain want him to go further with civil defence as soon as the economic circumstances allow? Will he consider the possibility of giving tax concessions to those who build shelters in their homes? Will he reassure everybody that in the event of a nuclear attack the organisation of defence in the regions will not be in the hands of local government officers?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the question of extra expenditure, I have announced a sensible start, and a reasonable preparation, at this time. It would be wrong for me to give any projections. My hon. Friend will be the first to realise that matters concerning tax are predominantly not for me in any circumstances. However, I shall ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer appreciates what my hon. Friend said. I hope that what we have sought to do will provide some reassurance, and that is its purpose.

Dr. Summerskill

The Home Secretary stated that the measures would cost an additional £45 million over the next three years. He then said that that would be covered by a reallocation of resources within existing programmes without adding to the total of public expenditure. Will he say which programmes will have money taken away in order to make the necessary provision? Is it not a cosmetic additional cost if he subtracts from one to add to another?

Mr. Heffer

There will be cuts in law and order.

Mr. Whitelaw

Naturally I am responsible for the allocation of expenditure in the Home Office. I believe that it is vitally important to make this preparedness. I have undertaken to ensure that I provide the money from my budget. I am working out exactly how I shall do that. Because I shall find it from the Home Office budget, other matters on which I am spending money will have to bear some part of the cost. I am entitled to work out exactly which provisions will be affected. That is sensible.

Mr. Kilfedder

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The statement made by the Home Secretary covered civil defence measures in Scotland as well as in England and Wales—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is developing the habit, when he is not called, of raising a point of order that is not a point of order. I consider that to be an abuse of the rules of the House.