HC Deb 16 February 1984 vol 54 cc364-5
1. Mr. Neil Thorne

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how he proposes to monitor performance of local authorities in meeting their obligations under the new civil defence regulations.

3. Mr. Terlezki

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he is satisfied with the relative division of expenditure on civil defence between local authorities and other civil defence agencies.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

Performance under the Civil Defence (General Local Authority Functions) Regulations 1983 will be monitored by requiring reports from local authorities. On finance, while the Government are satisfied with the allocation between local authorities and other civil defence agencies, the former have not so far spent up to planned levels. This is one of the matters that we can follow up as a result of our monitoring.

Mr. Thorne

In view of my right hon. Friend's acknowledged concern for civil defence, will he agree to follow the lead set by the Secretary of State for Social Services in setting up an inspectorate to ensure that a uniform standard is established and maintained throughout the country for this very important service?

Mr. Hurd

We have not got as far as that, but we are determined that the new regulations which Parliament approved just before Christmas should be followed through. The first step to be taken will be to send a questionnaire to local authorities asking them to report progress in doing so.

Mr. Terlezki

Will my right hon. Friend consider doubling the grant-aid to local authorities for civil defence?

Mr. Hurd

No, Sir. I do not think that that is required under our present policy. Civil defence is a partnership between local and central Government, and we signal that fact by making grants of either 75 per cent. or, in an increasing number of cases, 100 per cent. for local authority expenditure on civil defence.

Mr. Meadowcroft

If the view of the locally elected local authority is that civil defence is false security, why would the Minister seek to override that local view?

Mr. Hurd

Because we are satisfied, and Parliament has agreed, that it is a national and commonsense policy which should be carried through by central and local government for commonsense humanitarian reasons.

Mr. Hunter

Will my right hon. Friend accept that political sensitivity is one of the reasons why seven counties and 63 districts have not yet set up emergency centres? Is there not some strength in the argument that there should be more direct and general Home Office intervention in the provision of civil defence?

Mr. Hurd

We take the lead in this matter, arid national institutions such as the Civil Defence college at Easingwold help us to do so. In the end, however, the resources are to a large extent in the hands of the local authorities, and that is why Parliament put the responsibility upon them in December.

Mr. Nellist

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at 6.20 am last Wednesday a police officer in the main police station in Coventry telephoned the speaking clock and set off the nuclear war alert system for Coventry and Warwickshire? Does he agree that as only hundreds of people were woken by those nuclear alarms, the 86p per head per year that is spent on civil defence, as compared with the £16 per week per family that is spent on bombs, shows that the Government believe that there is no defence to a nuclear war?

Mr. Hurd

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's conclusions follow in the least from his premise.

Mr. Churchill

Will my right hon. Friend explain to Opposition Members and local authorities which refuse to co-operate or which drag their heels in regard to civil defence that if a similarly irresponsible attitude had been taken in the 1930s hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who are alive and well today would be dead? Will he take steps to consider the possibility of identifying public and commercial buildings which have basements and underground car parks which might be suitable for use as nuclear or conventional bomb shelters?

Mr. Hurd

That is part of the new regulations which Parliament approved last December. My hon. Friend's first point is absolutely right. It is as true now as it was then that civil defence must deal with a wide range of possible forms of attack on these islands and that across that range the lives of millions of people might depend on the planning and training which civil defence involves.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does the Minister accept that Labour-controlled local authorities are just as concerned as any others for the welfare of citizens in their areas, but that they cannot fulfil their obligations under these regulations unless they know the Government's assumptions about the likely targets of attacks, the likely consequences, and the scale and nature of the problem in their areas? Unless the Government are prepared to share those assumptions, local authorities cannot meet their obligations. Therefore, will the Minister give those planning assumptions to local authorities and, in doing so, contribute to the debate on nuclear disarmament?

Mr. Hurd

We shall include in our forthcoming civil defence circular a statement of the assumptions on which local authority plans should be based. It is no good the hon. Gentleman expecting us to be specific about the form that an enemy attack might take, when we are not privy to the plans of a potential enemy.