HL Deb 19 December 1967 vol 287 cc1371-8

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Civil Defence (Public Protection) (Warnings) (Revocation) Regulations, 1967, a draft of which was laid before this House on November 28, be approved. I have two Civil Defence Orders to submit to your Lordships this afternoon, and I hope it will meet your Lordships' convenience if I deal with them in one speech and then deal, again in one go, with any questions or comments your Lordships may wish to make. The purpose of the first Order is to revoke the Civil Defence (Public Protection) (Warnings) Regulations, 1951. The 1951 Regulations conferred on police authorities in London and on certain local authorities elsewhere in England and Wales, principally county councils and county borough councils, functions in connection with local arrangements for the provision of a system of warning the public by siren of hostile attack, and for operating that system in the event of war.

The warning system contemplated by the 1951 Regulations was virtually a continuation of the system used in the Second World War which had been a local authority function. The threat of attack has changed and the responsibility for giving additional warnings of a kind not contemplated when the 1951 Regulations were drafted, that of warning the public of the approach of radioactive fallout, is now one of the principal tasks of the warning system, for which the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation is responsible. Technical advances in the system of relaying messages have enabled an attack warning to be distributed from one centre to the whole country within a matter of half a minute. We have recognised that with the development of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation the exercise of local authority discretion in the provision of a warning system is no longer appropriate. Accordingly the responsibility for providing a public warning system in England and Wales has been assumed by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary under Section 1 of the Civil Defence Act 1948.

The Regulations we are now considering revoke the functions previously conferred on police and local authorities which are no longer applicable, though the police authorities continue to carry out certain functions for the testing, care and maintenance of sirens and their control equipment on an agency basis. Expenditure incurred by the police authorities on an agency basis is fully reimbursed.

My Lords, the second Order that I submit for your approval is the Civil Defence (Grant) (Amendment) Regulations 1967. In these Regulations the substantial amendment is contained in Regulation 1(b), and with your Lordships' permission, I should like to deal with this first. My noble friend Lord Bowles made a Statement to the House on December 14 last year about local authority Civil Defence, and he referred to the decision to reorganise the Civil Defence Corps. This reorganisation has been going forward during the past months. The main task of the reorganised Corps in an emergency will be to help to man local authority controls, which are an integral part of the Government control system. The purpose of the control system, initially, is to direct life-saving operations, and subsequently to provide a framework of civil administration to marshal and coordinate the use of available resources to the best advantage of the community.

Before the reorganisation, the Corps was divided into five specialist sections—Headquarters, Warden, Rescue, Welfare, Ambulance and First Aid—and each section had its own training. In the reorganised Corps, with the emphasis on control and co-ordination, specialist sections have been abolished. Much of the training is now common to all members, but those who have completed the recruit stage of training will be concerned with two or more specialised activities so as to provide for flexibility in their use in an emergency, whether they are on either the active or reserve strengths. These changes in training arrangements raise problems about claims by local authorities for grant on training expenditure.

Under the Grant Regulations of 1953, relating to England and Wales, expenditure on training is completely reimbursed for those Civil Defence preparations mentioned in the Schedule to these Regulations. All other training expenditure (and this is the greater part) is grant-aided at the rate of 75 per cent. To take one example of the activities mentioned in the Schedule, expenses on training in connection with the preparations for billeting, care of the homeless and emergency feeding is completely reimbursed. This training has been undertaken hitherto by the Welfare section of the Corps, and local authorities had no difficulty in identifying and isolating this expenditure for the purpose of their claims.

The new training arrangements and the abolition of sections, however, make it impracticable for local authorities to isolate expenditure on the training of the individual member for particular activities. We have therefore decided, in consultation with the local authority associations, that all expenditure incurred in training members of the Corps should be treated alike for grant purposes and grant-aided at the rate of 75 per cent.

Regulation 1(b) of the Draft Regulations makes provision for this. Paragraph 6 of the Schedule to the 1953 Regulations prescribes certain expenses that will not qualify for complete reimbursement, but for grant of 75 per cent. Regulation 1(b) of the present Draft Regulations adds expenses for training members of the Corps to paragraph 6 of the Schedule. Regulation 1(a) is a drafting Amendment relating to the first Order which I mentioned this afternoon and have already explained. It means that paragraph 3 of the Schedule to the 1953 Grant Regulations no longer apply. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Civil Defence (Public Protection) (Warnings) (Revocation) Regulations. 1967, laid before the House on 28th November, be approved.—(Lord Stonham.)

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for his exposition of these two Orders. I am sure the House will welcome the news of these developments, particularly that of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation which, as we have heard, permits of this warning to be relayed rapidly throughout the whole Kingdom in 30 seconds. In this connection, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether Scotland is covered; and, if so, how. He mentioned that the Order that is being amended referred to the police in London and the local authorities in England and Wales, but as its title is the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation, obviously Scotland also is involved. Perhaps he could tell us whether other Regulations are to be laid or whether, for some reason which is not quite clear to me, Scotland does not need to have her Regulation amended.

The second point on which I think we need assurance is the bringing into force of this centralised system of warnings and I am sure we all agree that this is necessary for the sort of threats that we now face which still permits local warnings to be issued as well. We cannot envisage exactly the situations that we shall have to face and we ought to have flexibility. Thirdly, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he could now say—and that I think we ought to have this before we give our approval to this Order—how he envisages that the public will be attuned to the warnings that this system is going to issue. As I understand it, the "Red" warning is a siren, the one with which we are all familiar. But if we hear a siren now, we assume that an ambulance is on its way or that a fire brigade is being activated. But if we heard a maroon, which is the "Black" warning, I do not think many people would know what it meant or what they ought to do about it.

There is a process of attuning the public to these warnings in advance which must be completed before this system will become operative. What, for instance, would be done if we found ourselves in the sort of situation the Americans faced during the Cuba emergency? What preliminary steps will bring all this up to a high degree of readiness?—for we are not going to get a declaration of war. These are the points which occur to me as perhaps needing a little further explanation before we give our approval to these Orders, which otherwise I am sure we all welcome.

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think that this is a generalised discussion on Civil Defence, but I hope that your Lordships will excuse me if I put this point. Is it possible to place more emphasis on Civil Defence in rural areas which are unlikely to come under direct attack and to have more arrangements for the reception of refugees in these areas? Should such a thing happen in the area where I live, we are likely to be flooded with refugees, and I do not think there are many arrangements for dealing with them or doing anything about them at present.


My Lords, I am most grateful for the welcome given to these Orders and for the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. On the question of Scotland, as might have been expected, the case is somewhat different, not in relation to the warnings but in relation to the legislative position. In Scotland separate warning regulations were not made in 1951; therefore, in effect, we do not have to "unmake" them. When arrangements for public warnings were changed in 1961 responsibility for providing a public warning system in Scotland was then assumed by the Secretary of State for Scotland, as it was assumed in 1961 in England and Wales by the Secretary of State for the Home Office. But where in Scotland they are a little ahead of us is that the Civil Defence Public Protection (Scotland) Regulations of 1949 were revoked by the Civil Defence Public Protection (Scotland) Regulations 1967. My Lords, it is obvious that Scotland stands where she did; and may she ever do so!

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, asked me two other questions, one about flexibility. There are two warnings. One is the so-called four-minute warning, which is a siren—the intermittent kind of siren with which we are all familiar. The difference, as compared with the last war, is that it will be operated centrally and communicated almost instantly—I said within 30 seconds—to 24,000 different warning points throughout the country. That is one form of noise. The second form of warning will be communicated from 22,000 different points. They are comprised in the 24,000 that I mentioned. The additional number in the first category include those at industrial establishments which are so large that they need more than one siren so that everybody shall hear the warning. The second form of warning is for radioactive fallout which, of course, can come only after an attack.

In answer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, I would say that the great strength of this warning system is its flexibility after an attack. The fall-out warnings can be ejected (if I may use that expression) by the national authority into 250 carrier control points installed in major police stations throughout the country; and from each carrier control point warning messages can be distributed simultaneously to warning points in the carrier area. There are, approximately, 22,000 of these established at Royal Observer Corps posts, police, fire and coastguard stations and, where necessary, in certain private and industrial premises.

Each warning point is equipped with a radiac survey meter and the event of a breakdown in the communication system the warning point operator would sound a warning when fall-out registered on the survey meter reached 0.3 rõntgens per hour; and warning of the actual fallout would be sounded by maroon. First deliveries of these have now been taken and distribution is beginning early next year. They will be set off literally by pressing a button. In addition, fall-out warnings will be given by the B.B.C.'s war-time broadcasting system, and we expect these may be picked up by transistor radios.

I do not think there is any question whatever that this is the best system would could be devised. It will be virtually instantaneous; it will be nationwide and it will be effective, providing—and this brings me to the noble Lord's second question—that the public understands what it means. Obviously, if the warnings were sounded in the next five minutes the public certainly would not know what was meant.

The noble Lord asked how I envisaged that the public would be tuned to the warnings which will be issued. My Lords, if there is anywhere in the world a "Doctor Strangelove" character who could "poop off" a nuclear attack without any kind of warning whatever, there is no kind of warning which would be effective against it. Under present conditions we are not contemplating, that more dangers are likely to arise in the foreseeable future; nevertheless, we agree that they could arise, and that is what we are preparing for. It is envisaged that if this danger were likely to come about there would be a period of international tension, during which the Government of the day would decide at some point that an emergency situation had arisen; and they would then declare a state of emergency.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, instanced the United States/Cuba crisis. It is the case that the British Government then had to take a decision whether or not they would declare a state of emergency, and they decided not to do so. If, on the other hand, circumstances arose whereby it appeared to the Government of the day that this danger might occur within the space of a few days, and they then decided to declare a state of emergency, all the organs for conveying information to the public, constant broadcasts, leaflet distribution and films (which of course are all ready; all these things are ready) would be used.

It might be asked, "Why do you not do it, now?" I think the reasons are obvious. Why create panic now when there is no need at all for panic? What I can say to your Lordships is that if this dire emergency should arise, we are ready to give the answer. I can only hope that this nation will always be ready to give the answer and to maintain a constant state of preparedness.

Only one other question was asked me, by the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven. He referred to the position in rural areas. My Lords, we have to stop thinking about A.R.P. in 1938, or we shall be in a hopeless position to meet the emergencies of the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s if they come. It would be the intention of Her Majesty's Government to provide the Government of the day with an option to evacuate priority classes—mothers and children—but it is not intended that evacution would be for long distances, because that would be wholly impracticable, but for shorter distances of 20 to 30 miles from the great centres of population. Of course we should have to make some call on the assistance which could be given by the less populous areas, including rural areas, and preparations of that kind have been and are being made. All the considerations that the noble Lord put forward are being taken into consideration.


My Lords, could the noble Lord say whether all these warnings take place at immediate notice?


We have 1,560 Royal Observer Corps posts in the country and they could be manned within a lime varying from half on hour to a few hours.


My Lords, I thought that it was four minutes' notice.


The time I gave is after the declaration of emergency is made by the Government. The noble and gallant Lord must differentiate between that position and the four-minute warning, which is the four minutes' notice that the whole nation would have of the fact that nuclear bombs were actually on the way.

On Question, Motion agreed to.