HC Deb 24 March 1983 vol 39 cc1083-99 8.28 pm
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

I am delighted that the important subject of civil defence is being debated so early in the evening. I am particularly pleased to open the debate, as I have recently become chairman of the National Council for Civil Defence.

Until recent times there was a general belief that civil defence was above dispute. In fact, it was considered as necessary as the essential elements that make it effective—the fire service, the St. John ambulance service, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and the police. Quite wrongly, either through ignorance or mischievously, the matter has now been linked to the cruise and Trident issues.

Our allies in Europe pay much greater attention to the need for civil defence. The neutral countries of Switzerland and Sweden have extremely sophisticated civil defence systems. One might be forgiven for expecting that those who believe in complete disarmament, unilateral or otherwise, would be in the forefront of the demand for us to emulate the neutral countries and protect children and old people. Their only counter argument seems to be that the preparation of civil defence is an impossible task against such fearful odds and that they would rather put their heads in the sand and accept death.

Those who support nuclear disarmament are convinced that the only type of war that we can ever expect is an all-out nuclear holocaust. They completely ignore the fact that there have been dozens of wars since the second world war and that none of them has been nuclear. Even the population of the Falklands would have been safer if they had been in possession of the necessary skills available to every sensible civil defence volunteer.

We desperately need new civil defence legislation. The Civil Defence Act 1948, on which we rely with amendment by regulation, is out of date and should be redrafted to include specific provision for peacetime emergencies. There have been numerous occasions since 1945 when we have had occasion to be thankful to emergency planning teams. The floods at Canvey island, the floods in the west country and the Flixborough disaster are three of the more easily remembered. Heaven forbid that we should ever have an aircraft crash on a densely built-up area. If we did, and if no planning team existed in that area, those in political control could expect to be lynched if they had not made adequate provision for the relief of the families suffering the worse effects.

I am pleased that The Times has chosen today to publish a letter written by Lord Renton as president of the National Council for Civil Defence, supported by Lord Mottistone, my vice-chairman, and by hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House, including the Labour Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Ford), the Liberal Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) and myself. The letter says: Hostile attacks for which we should be prepared, include:

  1. 1. A conventional attack in which no nuclear bombs are dropped.
  2. 2. One or two nuclear bombs dropped on us as 'blackmail' to bring a conventional war to an end.
  3. 3. An 'all-out' nuclear holocaust, or even 'germ' or chemical warfare on a large scale."
It continues: Some people wrongly assume that this third possibility is the only one which is conceivable, arguing that there would be no survivors and that all civil defence preparations are a waste of time even to protect people on the periphery and in remote areas from fall-out. Their argument is then falsely extended to the denial of civil defence in all circumstances. In the past 30 years all the great powers have been involved in conventional wars and no nuclear weapons have been used. The greatest danger is therefore that of a conventional attack, especially after the recent massive increase in Soviet conventional arms. Even the possibility of one or two bombs being dropped is also much more realistic than an 'all-out' attack. If conventional weapons only are used, or if there is only a limited use of nuclear missiles, adequate civil defence preparations made well in advance could save millions of lives. Although beyond the present statutory scope of civil defence, there is also the need to protect people from the effects of peacetime nuclear disasters and of fall-out drifting over this country from a nuclear attack elsewhere. The same preparations are then required as for dealing with a limited nuclear attack here. Those who declare 'nuclear-free zones' and refuse to have anything to do with civil defence are either victims of ignorance or prejudice, or are content to give an enemy a tremendous advantage. Failure to co-operate in providing civil defence is irresponsible and callous. Unfortunately, that sums up the attitude of a growing sector of the population. Therefore, the Government and the House have a major role to play in ensuring that the message is taken aboard by people throughout the country. I am sorry that Opposition Members are absent tonight, because I believe that they have a contribution to make, even if it is only to criticise what is proposed in this debate. It is vital that we retain all-party support if we are to provide the best possible service to the community in this essential service.

One of the most vital and controversial questions about civil defence is protecting the civil population from nuclear attack by means of deep shelters. Other nations, such as Sweden and Switzerland, which I have already mentioned, do that successfully, so why can we not do so? The answer must be that the cost of providing that on a full scale would be economically impracticable with our existing defence commitments, which are not shared to the same extent by the countries that I have mentioned as they are outside NATO. Yet there is a strong case for examining the feasibility of such a project on a long-term basis. That could start with provision for the construction of underground communal shelters in new buildings. It would probably be necessary to give 100 per cent. industrial building allowances for that work and to allow for full rate relief on approved schemes, which could he used in peacetime for storage or some other purpose without incurring any rate penalty.

Much public criticism of civil defence arose over the issue by the Home Office of a publication called "Protect and Survive". That booklet was subject to considerable misrepresentation and derision and clearly was not an appropriate document for peacetime information. It was originally intended to be issued to supplement a massive media campaign to give people advice in a crisis. A new publication is now proposed which will examine the whole spectrum of the threat, our civil defence arrangements in peacetime, how they will be implemented in war and better advice on self-protection, including more up-to-date advice on food, water and medical aid. I sincerely hope that that document will be available to the public before the end of the year. I also hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will take the opportunity to consult the National Council for Civil Defence and other interested organisations about its content before it is published, because grass-roots criticism could have saved the embarrassment that arose out of the issue of the "Protect and Survive" pamphlet.

I am afraid that even among the authorities that believe in civil defence there is at present a reluctance to incur expenditure, because although the Government pay 75 per cent. of the normal establishment costs, the remaining 25 per cent. is chargeable to the rates and is still likely to incur grant aid penalties, except for minor items such as police training and maintenance of air raid warning systems, which are 100 per cent. reimbursed.

Therefore, the Home Office should consider giving 100 per cent. grant aid by making appropriate rate support grant reductions, if necessary, to provide for uniformity throughout the country in protecting citizens. It is far too important an issue to leave to local political gerrymandering. The Home Office at the moment has a department, F6, which deals with civil defence matters to the best of its ability within its manpower establishment. If the Home Office were to take a much greater part in civil defence, this department could be enlarged. I should very much like to see a more direct relationship between the officials of this department and those who are professionally serving in civil defence.

I should therefore like local authorities to be empowered to act as agents for the Home Office in civil defence, in the same way as the Department of Transport authorises local authorities to act as its agents in building roads. The necessary input from the local authorities could then be provided for and the Home Office would have overall control and ensure that things were run properly.

There is a great need for research into all aspects of civil defence. We spend enormous sums of money on military research and development, but have not done nearly enough in civil defence. This will become much more important if the recently announced experiments are successful in producing some kind of laser ray which will be able to control an atomic explosion. Those who at the moment are putting their heads in the sand will then have no possible excuse for not playing a full part in civil defence.

Civil defence has a positive contribution to make in saving lives, and if it is possible to devise an antidote that is sufficient to neutralise the majority of these horrible weapons, civil defence will have an even more important role. It will then be much easier for all citizens to appreciate how much good can be done.

One of the reasons why I feel that the Civil Defence Act 1948 should be revised is its emphasis on wartime effort. The major part of the contribution made by civil defence since 1945 has been in coping with the disasters that take place in peacetime and there is much to be done in enlarging and supporting this role.

One of the most important needs of civil defence at the moment is to have the new regulations announced. I hope that when he replies to the debate my hon. and learned Friend will give us some encouraging information. He will recall that he told the House that he expected to be able to make a statement on this matter in the very near future. I hope that he will be able to give us an undertaking that he can fulfil his promise before Easter so that the people who are working professionally in civil defence can get on with the job that they are supposed to do, confident in the knowledge that they are fully supported in their task by the Government.

It is not only the major local authorities which have a major part to play. There is also much to be done in the community. It is vital that we get this message across. I ask my hon. and learned Friend to consider bringing out some kind of publication that can be issued to the population as a whole, specifying the sort of thing that is required and what civil defence sets out to do. I realise that this would be much more attractive if he were able to couple with it the civil emergency role, but even so there is a lot that could be explained in a pamphlet. I do not envisage a very large publication but something of the size of this leaflet that I have here. Something produced efficiently and expertly and, I hope, in the near future, would be extremely welcome and would make a major contribution.

A good deal of personal effort is being made in this area. I have today received a parish emergency plan. I do not know whether many of my hon. Friends or hon. Members generally have seen such a document. It shows how conscientiously members of the community are taking the need to make provision for emergencies. It deals with the problems that might be expected within a parish. For example, it shows precisely the manpower available, it gives guidelines to the parish council and it provides notes on the use of a modern emergency plan. It goes into considerable detail about what steps need to be taken, who should be involved, their roles and how they can fulfil them, where to set up rest centres, reception centres, medical stores, first-aid posts, sick bays, fuel stores, food stores, building material stores and helicopter landing areas. Those are important issues.

The Home Office could do much to encourage people who, at their own expense, are producing such documents. The document gives instructions for the chairman and various members of the council. It sets out clearly what needs to be done, how records and medical notes should be kept and the responsibilities and powers within existing legislation. We must encourage communities in that work. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will do everything possible to further their efforts.

Certain statements have been made recently by learned bodies about the impossibility of coping with a nuclear holocaust. Many of the remarks have been hints rather than established facts. The statements need to be considered with great care and the criticisms of our existing system must be examined carefully. Many of the statistics bandied about are quite outside the understanding of the private individual. The Home Office has a major task in distinguishing fact from fiction.

The boundary between science fiction and fact in nuclear matters is very fine. The Home Office must be the arbiter of what is fact and what is fiction. When learned bodies make statements, the Home Office must be quite clear about their accuracy. That would be a significant contribution and would fend off any irresponsible interpretation. There are people who, for whatever motive, appear to delight in making a meal of the issue, without any real justification. It is vital that the Home Office takes up the reins of the information cycle properly to equip the population to consider the issues in a balanced way.

There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that we have an irrefutable case for the expansion of the civil defence system and the mobilisation, effective instruction, training and exercising of the volunteers to show them how they fit into the plan.

In the last regulation that came out, which was in 1981, I believe it was thought that as little as 48 hours' notice could be expected of some emergency. I assume that we were talking there in terms of conventional war, but if we had a civil emergency it could be even less than that. With the flood barrier safely in place we are less likely to have a flooding problem in the London area, but there are other possible emergencies. I mentioned earlier the possibility of an aircraft crashing in a populated area, where there would be no previous notification at all. Immediately the emergency services would be required to swing into action.

It is essential, therefore, that we get the message over to the population generally that there is a real necessity to plan for the future. It is necessary to consider seriously the thousand and one occasions when an emergency planning team is likely to be called upon other than in a nuclear attack and to convince people that they have to practise and prepare for such an eventuality.

I must ask my hon. and learned Friend the Minister to look carefully into whether it is necessary to finance a publicity campaign with this in mind. As in all such matters, there is undoubtedly a hearts and minds operation, and unless my hon. and learned Friend can inform people properly we are likely to lose this argument by default. There is only so much that the private individual can do and can be expected to pay for out of his own pocket. As I have already explained, there are people who have already spent quite a substantial sum of money on producing things such as the parish emergency plan. This is being done up and down the country and caters for perhaps tens of thousands of people, but completely leaves out those in the urban and built-up areas. We must get the message through to them also and make sure that they are involved in this process. I fear that the only way that we can do that is with the help of the Home Office, spending money on informing people and bringing out a proper publicity campaign to show precisely what can be done and what can be achieved if we set about it properly.

I know that if we were to suffer a major setback of whatever sort before we were properly prepared the criticism would fall upon politicians at every level in society and particularly on those in the House. That criticism would be enormous and, instead of having a debate at which a relatively small number of hon. Members were present, the House would be packed—as it was during the Falklands campaign—to hear what the Government were going to do and to demand immediate action.

I feel that we have to deal with this matter most seriously and most carefully and I hope, therefore, that my hon. and learned Friend will do everything he possibly can to pursue this issue satisfactorily, for the protection of the community and to give the country the protection that it deserves.

8.54 pm
Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

It is an enormous pleasure for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) in what has proved to be a most useful and important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the skilled and persuasive way in which he deployed the argument for generating within the United Kingdom a comprehensive civil defence plan for the benefit of the people of this country. It is most fortunate that he should have succeeded to the chairmanship of the National Council for Civil Defence. The House will recognise that in my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South that body will have a most capable and formidable leader who, I am sure, will devote his talents and energy to the cause of civil defence.

My hon. Friend rightly points to the role of the Home Office in England and Wales and its sister Departments in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The Home Office must be involved in explaining and encouraging the purpose and worth of a civil defence strategy. That cannot be clone by private individuals or associations, however determined. It requires the stamp and energy of Goverment if it is to be successful.

My hon. Friend made a valuable point about research there is little doubt that research into civil defence measures and tactics is vital. When my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State replies I shall be interested to know whether the excellent resources of the Home Office research unit can be deployed or whether the Home Office will be able to commission research from outside the Department. I am sure that the House would like to know the plans and the timetable for the research programme and when we are likely to learn of its results.

My hon. Friend gave an excellent description of the parish plan. If any illustration were required of what people can do for themselves in the neighbourhood community, the parish plan is one. It surely gives the lie to those who say that civil defence is worthless. I assume that the proposals of the parish plan, designed for a rural area, would be equally applicable to urban mews, streets and mansion blocks in the great cities of the United Kingdom. I can see no reason why that plan should not be modified and adapted to the urban environment. I am sure that the House extends its goodwill to those who devised that plan with such energy on behalf of their community.

The prospect of a nuclear attack is horrific. The policy of deterrence adopted by Britain and its NATO allies has to date proved supremely successful in preventing such an attack. Western Europe has been fortunate to avoid war since 1945, in stark contrast to the misfortunes in so many other parts of the world. Nevertheless, the sheer horror of such a nuclear attack is insufficient reason for ignoring it. Any responsible Government must take realistic steps to mitigate its effect on the population. Indeed, unless a Government take such steps it can be argued that the credibility of their deterrence policy would be greatly reduced.

I am worried that local authorities might not he taking sufficiently seriously their responsibilities to protect the population in the event of a nuclear attack. At present the Government are making some £45 million per annum available to local authorities to fund 75 per cent of their local defence expenditure. Part of the problem is that several Labour local authorities are refusing to co-operate. I am sorry that the Labour party and the Liberal and Social Democratic parties are not represented here. It is remarkable that when we are talking about the survival of the British people only one party should trouble itself to take part in the debate.

The Labour authorities prefer to put their heads in the sand, thinking that if they refuse to contemplate a threat it will just go away. Recently, Mr. Kenneth Livingstone, the leader of the Greater London council, declared London a nuclear-free zone. Presumably, those of us who live in Greater London can now sleep soundly.

Unfortunately, the fact that a nuclear attack is horrific does not mean that it is impossible, and if it is possible, the House must consider steps to mitigate its effects.

In the first instance, there would be virtually no civil defence against the initial blast, heat and radiation. However, that is likely to be confined to a comparatively small area. The threat to the millions of people not in the immediate vicinity of the explosion comes from the radioactive fallout. That is the tiny particles of ash and dust that can be blown by the wind hundreds of miles from the explosion, and whose radioactivity makes them lethal. It is against this fallout that there is scope for protection at a comparatively low cost for millions of people through the construction of shelters. By avoiding contact with the dust for about a month, its radioactive destructiveness is greatly reduced and millions of lives can be saved.

Other Governments have taken seriously the potential savings to life offered by such shelters. Nine out of 10 people in Switzerland, for example, already have access to their own purpose-built shelters, and fallout shelters are an integral feature of all Swiss housing designs by law. I wonder whether such a proposal is not beyond the bounds of possibility in this country.

The Swedish Government have taken similar measures. Three out of four Swedes are already sheltered, and by the end of the century the whole of Sweden's population of about 8 million will have protection facilities. Furthermore, I understand that substantial resources are being allocated to civil defence both in the Soviet Union and in China.

In the light of that evidence, I urge the Government to take seriously the enormous potential of civil defence, and, especially, the will of the British people to participate in a civil defence programme if they can see its purpose and if they are guided by the Government as to why they should participate in it.

Early steps must be taken to examine the role of the local authorities in the provision of these measures. It is not good enough to say, "We are declaring a particular city a nuclear-free zone," and then to forget about the subject. Nor is it good enough to say, "But it will cost money and the ratepayers or the taxpayers will not want to find it." That is not the case. The Government must take a real initiative to examine what can be done to develop real civil defence programmes throughout the country.

The provision of well-designed literature by the Home Office, explaining the issue and what can be done, would be invaluable. The Home Department has already shown itself more than capable of producing excellent literature in connection with its crime prevention campaigns. I am sure that a similar range of literature could be designed to promote the concept of civil defence. At present, those who merely seek one-sided disarmament or who feel that there is no point in trying to provide any civil defence are getting the best of the argument. Now is the time to promote a real campaign. In raising this subject for debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South has rendered us a great service. I trust that he will continue in the course of his chairmanship to promote these issues with the support of the Government. I am sure that he will receive a great response from the British people, who feel just as deeply about these matters as we do.

9.4 pm

Mr. John Loveridge (Upminster)

I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) on his initiative in giving us the opportunity to debate a subject that is of such contingent importance for the lives of millions of our fellow citizens. He is chairman of the National Council for Civil Defence and I am proud to be associated with him as a vice-president.

My hon. Friend cited a letter in today's edition of The Times that had been written by Lord Renton and others. People are indeed becoming more concerned about their safety. They feel that there is a possible threat of war or accident—not necessarily nuclear—from which they would like themselves, their wives and, of course, their children to be protected. In addition, they are worried by the great increase in nuclear weaponry and in the means of chemical, biological or germ warfare which may lead to the possibility—I put it no higher than that—of an accident that endangers life. If it endangers life, it will probably do so on a substantial scale.

Therefore, we need some form of service to provide protection in emergencies. Human decency alone should be a sufficient motive to make the Government feel that they must give the closest attention to this issue. The letter that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South quoted contained a phrase that spoke of the dangers of fall-out drifting over the country following a nuclear attack elsewhere. People feel that there may be some danger. I defy anyone to say that that feeling is not real.

The Central Office of Information published a pamphlet for the Home Office entitled "Civil Defence—why we need it." It contains a message from the Home Secretary. It asks: How would people know what to do if war threatened? The answer is given: A wartime broadcast service would be brought into operation to transmit public information virtually non-stop. The advice would be—`tune in and listen.' Another publication states: events may overtake this plan. For example, a single nuclear explosion detonated high over Western Europe would create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would destroy the power and electronic communication systems throughout an area that would encompass the United Kingdom. This means no electricity, no telephones and no radio or television. Before any bombs exploded on this country we might therefore not even be able to hear our Government's advice. So much for the Home Office pamphlet. However, that pamphlet also asks: But surely there is no real protection against a nuclear attack". With all the official authority of the Home Office, the pamphlet replies: Millions of lives could be saved". Later, the pamphlet states: The risk of war is at present considered so slight that the enormous expense of providing shelters to every family in the land could not be justified". The pamphlet states that, as it is, about £45 million a year is due to be spent in 1983–84. That is less than £1 a year per head of the population. That is under £1 a year for the insurance of a child's life for civil defence. Is that enough?

We should examine the costs. It has been said time and again that we cannot afford this insurance to safeguard our families. However, this country believes in looking after people. After all, in 1983–84 the social service payments are—according to Cmnd. 8789—likely to amount to £34,394 million. Health Service patient payments are likely to amount to another £14,608 million. Thus, more than £49,000 million will be spent just on those two services alone in one year. That would amount over 10 years to more than £490,000 million or nearly £500 billion at present prices. That money would, very properly, be spent on safeguarding our people against illness, unemployment and old age.

What of our people's security against nuclear or chemical threats or germs and disease from accident or warfare? Should not the Government study that again? Admiral Lord Lewin warned us some time ago that it was possible to envisage war at sea in which land forces were not involved. It is possible, and it might well lead to vast nuclear fallout being carried from the oceans across our country and people. It might be a war in which the United Kingdom was not involved. Our people deserve adequate insurance against that risk, however remote.

During the 10 years about which I have spoken, £500 billion will be spent on health and social services. If we spent 2 per cent. only of that sum, itself only a part of Government spending, on defence against these serious accidents which might kill millions and maim millions of others it would be a cheap insurance. I appreciate that even 2 per cent. of that sum is a great deal of money. The figures cannot be more than estimates but it has been said that such expenditure might well increase the survival rate in these islands from a low threshold of nuclear attack, with one, two or more bombs, from 15 million to 30 million survivors. Those lives are worth an insurance premium. It is said that we cannot afford such safety insurance. How can Switzerland and Sweden afford it? My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) said that three quarters of the Swedish people are covered already. As we know, new homes in Switzerland must be provided with adequate shelters.

America and Russia are both looking not just to nuclear deterrence but to defence with laser weapons also against incoming missiles. We are to have Trident missiles for the defence of the United Kingdom and to deter any threat of attack against our kingdom, but will people across the world believe in them if we do not provide the most elementary and minimal safeguards for our population and cities which are unprepared and undefended?

This matter is of diplomatic importance too. We should surely try to help the "doves" in Moscow; there are doves in Moscow. Our weakness in having the Trident missile without some security for the civil population can only egg on the hawks in Moscow to take risks that otherwise their colleagues might not allow them to take. These risks will probably be at their greatest in the mid-1980s when it seems likely that Russia's military strength will be at a peak compared to that of the Western allies. It is likely to fall proportionately thereafter. We must encourage the doves and not the hawks.

We have plans to send the territorial army abroad in time of war. Our homes would be left an easy prey, open to invasion or other attack. The Government have a duty to examine the volunteer and reserve system. It is cheap. About 2 per cent. only of our defence budget goes on the reserves. They could be expanded vastly at minimal cost. Our people can be trusted to have weapons at home to have the necessary equipment for self-defence, just as the Swiss are trusted. Switzerland is a key example for us to consider. New houses are required by law to have shelters built into them. Two months' food and water is to be stored at home. Three years' food is to be stacked away in tunnels under the mountains. Perhaps just as important, seeds are kept safe for replanting the earth which might be damaged by radioactivity and which might not be capable of being replanted for as long as three years. I hope that the Government can give hon. Members some assurance that we have seeds kept safe that could re-seed our fields should it ever be necessary.

It is not only in our towns and our fields that we need civil security and safety. Many of our supplies arrive by sea. According to The Daily Telegraph of 17 March, one third of our merchant ships that were to reinforce allied forces in Germany in the recent contingency, month-long exercise named Wintex were deemed to be sunk within 24 hours of the exercise beginning. It is allegedly not thought practical to have a convoy system in present conditions. If that exercise bears any relation to possible reality, the Government have a clear obligation to ensure that large numbers of our merchant ships are equipped with lightweight Sea Wolf or similar self-defence systems. These are now available to be purchased in packaged systems and could be placed quickly and easily on many merchant ships and the crews, under the control of the captain as part of the Royal Navy Reserve trained in their use.

That would be civil defence at sea for the merchant crews and civil defence for our people at home who need what the ships can carry. If there is objection to putting such equipment on ships in times of peace, the ships could at least be equipped to carry them and have the packaged systems fitted quickly should it become necessary.

It is not enough to have local government officials at home in charge of great emergencies that might cause massive loss of life, whether this arises from a hostile act or by accident from radiation or from chemical or other cause. There is a strong need for a special protective service to be appointed under the Government, not a service just for civil defence but a service for emergencies of every kind in a world that is increasingly dangerous. There are not only the dangers of man's deliberate actions or accidents of the kind that we have discussed. We have seen the death of the elms and the cypress trees. We have seen damage to fir trees across Europe. Types of wheat have been invented in the green revolution that have doubled output per acre.

Every invention of new crops brings in its train the likelihood of disease. We cannot always rely, through generations, on the researchers providing ever new crops to replace the old as they become susceptible to disease. I do not believe that it is likely. I believe that the researchers are well ahead. It is, however, possible to envisage damage to wheat or damage to earthworms, either of which would be disastrous emergencies. These thoughts should not be regarded as far-fetched. We have seen too much of it on a limited scale not to think that it is possible on a larger scale. I should like to see not merely a civil defence organisation, but an organisation that we might call the service for emergency help. That is what it would be. It would be better if, in due course, it became the royal service for emergency help to encourage volunteers to join.

The Government should consider the following measures. First, they should educate the public in measures for self- and mutual support in emergencies. Secondly, they should form a voluntary and a civil defence corps along the lines of the service for emergency help that I outlined. Thirdly, they should provide a new and completely professional command structure. Fourthly, they should train medical services for emergencies. Fifthly, they should plan to meet the dangers of disease from chemicals, gas and radioactive fallout. Sixthly, they should ensure the safety of our water supplies and our reserves of untainted water. Seventhly, they should safeguard strategic food and materials, stores and seeds. Eighthly, they should design protective equipment and shelters and make the necessary changes in building regulations. Ninthly, they should secure the protection of our ports. Tenthly, they should secure the protection of our transport by sea, air and land.

If such steps were taken, the United Kingdom could approach and encourage the United States and Russia to get together to form a world emergency help service. Threats are worldwide. We should consider the famine in Ethiopia today. It is a pity not to encourage the two superpowers to work with Britain and our allies. Russian children are also children and deserve safety and protection.

How much easier it is likely to be for us all if we work together to meet future accidents and the threat of other nations that, for religious or other motives, might acquire atomic weapons and threaten humanity with them. How much easier it would be to control and safeguard the world against that if the great powers worked together. If each country took proper steps to protect its own civilian population, diplomatic measures should prove easier to arrange.

There is just one point that I should like to leave in the Government's mind. Just £1 or £2 per head a year for civil defence is not enough insurance to save a child's life in Britain. The Government have the duty at least to institute a wide-ranging and fully public inquiry in which the peoples of our islands can participate to see whether they want to be protected and are prepared to spend the money. After all, the Government are spending their money. It is not sufficient to provide deep shelters for officialdom and the military. The people who need protection are the people and the children of these islands.

It is possible to provide millions of people with a measure of safety. The necessary funds are within our reach. That is to say nothing of the immense increase in demand for jobs that would arise from such a programme. I pray that the Government will consider emergency safeguards with a fresh eye, thinking not what they may save but whom they may save.

9.24 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) on his initiative in choosing this subject for debate and on his recent appointment as chairman of the National Council for Civil Defence. Since his appointment, I have learnt of the great value that he and his council can be, and will be, to the Home Office, especially to the Minister with responsibility for civil defence. For as long as I hold that post I shall look forward with great pleasure to working with him, because I know that it will redound to the great advantage of this country.

It is also pleasant to acknowledge that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Loveridge) is the vice-president of that organisation.

It is extremely important to have frequent opportunities to discuss civil defence. The subject should attract the support of all hon. Members, whatever their views about world alignments or nuclear deterrence. Everyone should acknowledge that, since we cannot guarantee that there will never in any circumstances be an attack upon this country, it is our humanitarian duty to provide appropriate protection for our people. All the Government's efforts in defence and in foreign policy are bent to avoiding any risk of attack and to doing our best to avoid a breach of the peace in western Europe that has been maintained for the past 38 years. But none of us can guarantee that such a horrific event will not occur, and it is against that possibility—a low risk at present—that we must provide appropriate civil defence.

It is fair to say that civil defence had been a Cinderella subject for successive Governments for more than a decade, until this Government came to office in May 1979. It is only just to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to acknowledge that, under his administration, civil defence has been rescued from that status. Much more attention has been paid to it, and the amount of money devoted to it from public funds has been increased by 60 per cent. following a review, the results of which he announced in August 1980. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South rightly paid tribute to the emergency planning officers, the volunteers in the warning and monitoring organisations and the Royal Observer Corps, to name just a few. All those organisations recognise the recent revival of civil defence.

I accept that we would all wish to do much more, but I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster that it is not a complete picture, when discussing the protection of our children, to say that it is limited to £1 per head a year, based on the annual expenditure on civil defence. My hon. Friend mentioned neutral countries such as Sweden and Switzerland, but they make no contribution to preserving the peace by being part of NATO. We put our money there. Our total defence programme will cost between £14 billion and £15 billion this year. It is better to put one's money into preventing a war than to restrict one's activities to trying to provide for the population all possible protection against the risks of a war that one has done nothing to help to prevent. That is another ingredient to put into the equation when we try to see what lessons we can learn from neutral countries.

It is extremely important to note that, although those countries are neutral, they see the virtue of civil defence. That must be an answer to those who say that countries with civil defence programmes help to increase the risk of war. I believe not only that civil defence is a humanitarian duty but that those who say that civil defence has a part to play in the other considerations that have been mentioned in this debate are right. I shall deal with some of the points that have been made tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South began by saying that until recently the need for civil defence had been common ground across the political board. I agree, and I lament the fact that that has ceased to be the case.

We must look at the arguments of those who attack civil defence and say that in some way it brings war nearer. I cannot see how it can seriously be contended that to provide measures of civil defence of the kind that we have been discussing in this short debate can seriously increase the risk of attack on this country. The sad truth, as I confirmed at a conference of the Nuclear-Free councils in Manchester in November, which I attended as an invited speaker, is that their overriding objective is to secure that this country becomes neutral and non-aligned. Therefore, they have to persuade the British people to change their minds, because people know very well that being neutral did not save Belgium, Holland, Norway or Sweden in the last war. Nor, in recent times, did it save Afghanistan.

These people know that to change British public opinion they have to satisfy the people that in any conceivable war, in any conceivable circumstances, nobody will be left alive. That is what leads them to say that civil defence is a fraud. When I put that to the representatives of the Nuclear-Free councils, they did not deny it. The CND had opted for a neutral Britain a few weeks before. Therefore, it is right that, while giving a fair examination to the arguments about civil defence on the other side, one should look at the motivation of those who attack civil defence as a fraud.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South asked whether we could give 100 per cent. grant aid. He acknowledged that at the moment the Government reimburse up to 75 per cent. of civil defence expenditure by local authorities. He will have noted that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that in three not unimportant sectors of expenditure he intends, by regulations on which he is at present consulting, to increase that reimbursement to 100 per cent. It would be nice if we could go further, but my hon. Friend will acknowledge that it is important that local authorities should retain discretion and autonomy over what is essentially a local matter. However, progress has been made.

My hon. Friend asked whether we could enlarge the F6 department of the Home Office, which deals with local authorities and civil defence, and perhaps tighten the relationship that it has with local authorities. There is close liaison between local authorities and the Home Department, and a great deal is done. I do not hear complaints from emergency planning officers that the Home Office is too remote.

My hon. Friend suggested that local authorities should act as agents for the Home Office, but that is not as good as civil defence being a clear local authority function. All Government levels are involved in civil defence. The Government have special responsibilities, as do local authorities. It is right that local authorities should continue to act, certainly to some extent, as the agents of Government policy, but they should retain discretion over a wide aspect of the application of civil defence policy to their own areas.

It is an unfortunate fact that in recent years a number of Socialist local authorities, in particular, have declared their hostility to the idea of civil defence. It is therefore right that the Government should announce their intention to tighten up the regulations that impose duties on local authorities in this respect. At present they are limited to planning, and local authorities have previously been content to do a good deal more than simply to plan. Now, because of the political divisions that have arisen, some local authorities are doing only the minimum for which an inadequate law provides. That is why my right hon. Friend has announced his review of the regulations, and it is the Government's intention to introduce these new regulations, on which consultation has taken place, at an early date.

I have consulted the local authority associations and the GLC, which, I am happy to say, assured me that it does not intend to break the law. As the consultation period has taken rather longer than was first envisaged, these regulations will be brought forward after Easter, not before. It is our intention that the regulations will be in force towards the end of the summer, if Parliament agrees, and they will greatly strengthen the protection that the law can provide for people in this country.

My hon. Friend asked about research, the amount of research that the Home Office carries out, and the funds that are allocated. We have 12 scientists working on civil defence, and their activities include much detailed research on weapon effects, casualties, shelter policies, and the effect of chemical attack. Scientific advisers also help in other matters, including training. It would be nice to have more staff and more funds, but I must point out to my hon. Friend, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Upminister, that every Government Department has to look at the resources that it can afford to devote to a great many desirable objectives, always bearing in mind that if we as a Government spend or borrow too much of the public's money for the economic health of the nation we shall end up by being able to afford less and less, for reasons that I know all my hon. Friends will understand and agree with.

Mr. Loveridge

Although we greatly respect and support the Government's wise sense of economy and the reduction of overseas debt during the past four years, is it not true none the less that this nation is nearly twice as well off overall as it was 30 or 40 years ago, and twice as well off as it was during the last war, when we had several million men under arms? I know that we had lease-lend, but that was only a small sum in comparison with the doubling of the national wealth, which the late Lord Butler forecast for the nation, and which came about. A nation that is nearly twice as wealthy as it was 40 years ago should be able to afford to provide more civil defence for its citizens than we do at present. Will the Government please do that?

Mr. Mayhew

It all depends on what one means by twice as wealthy or twice as well off. The great distinction between Britain 30 or 40 years ago and Britain today, is that 30 or 40 years ago we were pretty well at the top of the league in economic competitiveness. Now we are sadly down that league, although we are improving our position, and, as my hon. Friend acknowledges, we are improving our position because of the economic policies that we are following. If we were to reverse those policies by spending and borrowing more, that improved trend would be reversed. So, although I sympathise with my hon. Friend's desire, I hope that he does not suppose that I hold these responsibilities in a spirit of complacency and satisfaction that we are allowed to spend only £60 million on civil defence during the course of this year.

I know that my hon. Friend does not believe that, but I do not wish to be thought to be disloyal to the policies of the Government. We must all the time remember that we are putting our protective money on the membership of NATO and the maintenance of our deterrent. Of course it is proper to spend money also upon civil defence. As I have said, we have increased by 60 per cent. the money being spent this year in comparison with what was spent annually before we took office.

I must reply to some more of the important points that have been raised. One of the virtues of this type of debate is that one can take time to answer points. I was asked whether the Home Office could provide more publicity for civil defence and show people what they can do to help themselves. We can undertake to issue civil defence leaflets of the type represented by "Civil Defence—why we need it". My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster was a little harsh about that. The publication was well received when it was published a year and a half or two years ago. We need leaflets and pamphlets of the same simple but clear and forthright type.

I doubt whether detailed handbooks would have more than a minority appeal. Advantage lies in local publications. Local authorities ought to be encouraged to issue civil defence pamphlets bearing upon local problems and geared to local circumstances. The Home Office will reimburse through the grant the expenditure that they incur. I am at one with my hon. Friend on that matter. I listened with great care to what he said about the parish plan; I agree entirely with the compliments that he paid to it.

My hon. Friend asked about the use of volunteers. I remind him what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in his civil defence statement in August 1980: We are anxious in particular to enable local emergency planners to maximise the contribution made by the large numbers 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 part. The harnessing of volunteer effort will be an important feature of our plans. Air Marshal Sir Leslie Mayor was appointed in January 1981 to co-ordinate volunteer effort in civil defence in England and Wales and is actively engaged on these matters. His opposite number in Scotland is Mr. Armstrong. The progress made to date by individual counties in harnessing voluntary effort broadly reflects the progress made in civil defence planning itself. In general, rather more is being achieved than might have been expected in the face of negative attitudes towards civil defence. In effect, where a local authority is limp in its approach to civil defence planning, little or nothing is being achieved in the harnessing of voluntary effort other than at best seeking the co-operation of the main national voluntary organisations in coping with major accidents or other peacetime emergencies.

At the other end of the scale, many county authorities—I mention, without giving an exclusive list by any means, Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Hereford, Worcester, Hertfordshire, the Isle of Wight, Kent, Norfolk, Somerset, Surrey, east Sussex, Wiltshire, north Yorkshire and a number within the greater London area, including the city of Westminster—are doing extremely well. They have taken their community planning to an advanced stage and have made notable progress towards creating within communities the capacity to react spontaneously to an emergency rather than to wait governmental response. They are mustering and training bodies of volunteers for civil defence tasks within the communities and they have embarked on joint exercises and reciprocal training programmes with voluntary organisations. There is ground for encouragement there, although there is plenty of room for improvement.

Mr. Neil Thorne

Will my hon. and learned Friend comment on a matter that I raised with him some months ago about the role that might be played by lords lieutenant? Those people were very much involved in the early days of civil defence recruiting. I know that we do not want to go back to the old days of the civil defence corps, but in the first world war the lords lieutenant played a positive role. Has my hon. and learned Friend given any more thought to what they could do now to help to fill any gaps that remain as a result of negative attitudes by some local authorities?

Mr. Mayhew

The lords lieutenant and the high sheriffs are appropriate office holders to take a part in the organisation of voluntary effort. Many of them do so. Many of them find time among their other efforts in voluntary services to play a part in and make a contribution to civil defence. I do not believe that they should be embodied in a special structure in which the lords lieutenant played an ex officio role, but, by virtue of their wide contacts and the high respect in which they are held, they can make an important contribution. Those responsible for organisation would do very well to take their potential into account.

Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

My hon. and learned Friend has spoken about the effort involved in getting the co-operation of volunteers. At the opposite end of the scale, many local authorities are seeking powers for their employees to be volunteers and wish to have a conscience clause that would enable them not to have to carry out their duties in the way that the public would expect of them. Will my hon. and learned Friend comment on that, as I believe that someone who takes a job in a local authority knowing that it involves those responsibilities should carry them out in the way that the public expect?

Mr. Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who made the right distinction between local authority employees whose job is involved in civil defence and other local authority employees who are not so engaged. He will know that in the draft regulations upon which my right hon. Friend is consulting there is provision for local authority employees to be required to take part in emergency and civil defence work. Those are matters that we must consider. For my part I find if difficult to understand the conscience that would lead someone to say, "No, I cannot bring myself to help my fellow citizens," in the sort of emergency that we are discussing. None the less, I have to acknowledge that many local authority associations have told us that they see a difficulty in that aspect of the draft regulations.

The regulations that will be laid before the House will have regard to, and bear upon, the need for local authorities to provide opportunities for those from the community who want to be taken into a volunteer structure. We have that very much in mind. That represents a change from the present inadequate regulations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) is much involved in civil defence matters and has played a substantial part in promoting civil defence in his part of London and the awareness of the need for civil defence that is so important. I agree with him that the parish plan that was mentioned tonight gives the lie to those who say that civil defence is worthless. The sooner the volunteer organisations in the communities, parishes, parish councils and so on get down to the task of working out, in circumstances of which they alone are the best judge in their own localities, how people can be trained simply to do useful jobs in the event of an emergency, the better.

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend had to say about NATO and deterrent policies that have prevented attack on this country over the last 30 years or so. I agree, too, that local authorities have not in some cases taken civil defence seriously enough, though I have to correct him on one point. It is £13 million that the local authorities will be spending this year and not, unhappily, £45 million.

Many of my hon. Friends have asked why we cannot provide shelters on the same scale as in Sweden and Switzerland. They have fairly acknowledged the cost. Speaking from memory, I believe that if a new house were required to have shelter accommodation built into it the overall cost would rise by about 25 per cent. The risk of war at the present time, as long as we remain members of NATO, is so low as not to justify that additional expense for those why buy new houses. It is the old story, that if one does not contribute to NATO or spend the sums that we spend on our armed forces, with very good reason, there is more money available for that sort of protection. However, one is then limited to trying to protect one's people from a war that one has done nothing to prevent.

I agree with what my hon. Friend had to say about the importance of a literature campaign. We will certainly do our best to improve our performance in that regard. I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington said about the will of the British people. Once they understand the need, and once they see how much can be done, they will, I believe, reject the arguments of those who support the so-called nuclear-free zones and those who contend that civil defence is a fraud.

I have detained the House too long perhaps, but so interesting and important have been the points raised in the debate that I particularly wanted to deal with them. There are some that have not yet been dealt with. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster will excuse me if I do not deal with each of the points that he dictated as being necessary, but I undertake to draw the attention of, amongst others, my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, into whose spheres of responsibility he ventured to what he said in the course of his interesting and important speech.

I am delighted that we have had the time to discuss this important subject tonight and I renew my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity. To the extent that I have not dealt with the points that he raised in his speech, I undertake to write to him. Meanwhile, I hope that the debate that his initiative has afforded us tonight will play a part in widening the understanding in this country of the need for civil defence and, above all, of its essential character, which is a humanitarian duty.