HL Deb 21 April 1964 vol 257 cc742-4

6.45 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the purpose of this Bill is to ensure that powers are available to deal with a wider range of civil emergencies. The Emergency Powers Act, 1920, which this Bill will amend, already provides appropriate powers, but the circumstances in which those powers can be exercised are limited. They are available at present only in the event of a grave emergency resulting from labour troubles. At the time that Act was passed industrial unrest was the principal threat to essential supplies and services and seemed likely to constitute the main cause of such emergencies in the future. Experience hitherto has shown that this view was largely correct. However, there is no obvious reason why the Government should be able to exercise emergency powers only when essential supplies and services are threatened by industrial disputes.

The threat may come from quite other causes: from natural disasters, from major breakdowns of plant, from interference abroad with our essential supplies, such as oil, or by a combination of any of these circumstances. The increasing technical development of this country renders our economy ever more sensitive to threats of this kind, and my right honourable friend has accordingly come to the conclusion that the time has come to make provision for dealing with any type of grave emergency which may threaten the essentials of life in the future. This is the main object of the Bill. At the same time he is taking the opportunity of making permanent the Defence Regulation which authorises the use of Servicemen on agricultural work and other urgent work of national importance.

Clause 1 of the Bill amends subsection (1) of Section 1 of the Emergency Powers Act 1920. That subsection empowers Her Majesty to make a Proclamation of Emergency if at any time it appears that action has been taken or is immediately threatened by any person or body of persons of such a nature and on so extensive a scale as to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community or any substantial portion of the community of the essentials of life, I should like to call attention to the fact that, before the powers under the Act can be exercised, there must have been, or be about to be, interference with essential supplies and services. Fortunately, emergencies on this scale have very seldom occurred.

The Act gives power to make regulations for securing the essentials of life to the public. At the same time the Act imposes a number of stringent controls, which my right honourable friend has already described in another place. The Amendment of the Act which will be effected by this Bill is simply to make these powers available to deal with any kind of emergency. The sort of contingencies against which the powers under the Bill would provide insurance are natural calamities, mechanical breakdowns, interference with essential supplies from abroad, such as oil, or any combination of these or of one or more of these with industrial action.

The fact that it has not been necessary to take emergency powers to deal with such contingencies in the past does not mean that the emergency powers now proposed are needless, or that fears that grave emergencies of this kind may arise are fanciful. These safeguards are really, in the first place, against the unforeseen. My Lords, there is another reason for the introduction of the Bill at this time. I have already explained that Clause 1 would enable emergency powers to be exercised in the event of a stoppage of oil supplies from abroad. At present emergency powers conferred by the Defence Regulations are available to deal with such a situation. These powers will continue in force by the Emergency Powers (Repeal) Act until the end of this year. It is therefore necessary to take steps before the end of the year to substitute permanent provisions for these emergency powers.

I do not know whether there are any other matters which any of your Lordships would like me to explain. I think the matter is quite straightforward. In introducing the Bill in another place, my right honourable friend described the measure as a wise exercise in foresight. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Derwent.)

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.