HL Deb 06 December 1979 vol 403 cc861-4

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps, if any, are being taken to bring our civil defence up to date, in view of the threatening attitude of certain countries towards nuclear warfare.


My Lords, we are taking a careful look at home defence arrangements to determine what improvements it may be possible to make.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for his slightly encouraging reply. Will he agree that there is a certain urgency in this matter? In view of the steps that are now being taken as regards the Territorial Army, will he not agree that it would be as well to start on the civilian side?


My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. For that reason a study at the Home Defence College in Yorkshire took place between 19th and 23rd November and was attended by representatives of both central and local government and representatives of other authorities. The results of that study will be taken into account as urgently as possible.


My Lords, will the Government not agree that in the event of general nuclear war the damage done would be completely irreparable, that most of us would be in the next world, and that therefore it is surely impossible to guard against this? On the other hand, is there not a considerable case for trying to organise some kind of defence—a home guard, if you like—against the possible use of paratroopers in a conventional war in this country?


My Lords, I do not agree with the suggestion made by the noble Lord at the beginning of his question. For instance, most houses offer a reasonable degree of protection against fall-out. This can be improved by a variety of do-it-yourself measures. That is the fact. It was something that I had not realised. The Government have plans, as indeed did the previous Government, to make the general populace aware of what can be done, but it is a question of timing as to exactly when one lets people know what they can do in an emergency.


My Lords, speaking as chairman of an organisation called the Devon Emergency Volunteers, may I ask whether it is not a fact that our experience is being sought in consultations by the noble Lord's department with regard to the plans that are going ahead at present for producing a better civil defence organisation? In considering the plans that are to be brought forward, will the Government bear in mind that this organisation should not be overloaded with bureaucracy. Finally, would it not be a good idea if civil defence, especially finance-wise and modern equipment-wise—that is, dosimeters, for example—were transferred from the Home Office to the Ministry of Defence?


My Lords, the organisation which the noble Lord was mentioning, which of course has been doing valuable work in this field, has been able to talk to both my right honourable friends' departments, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. We shall certainly take into account what the noble Lord has said about the question of making sure that any arrangements for civil defence are not too top heavy from a bureaucratic point of view.


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord is not going to be too casual about this. Here we are talking about the defence of the civil population. This is a most important matter. I hope the noble Lord realises that what he has said reflects a measure of complacency.


My Lords, I thought that I had said to the House that a study had taken place at the Home Defence College representing all the people involved in civil defence. That is six months after this Government came into office. I am not aware that any similar study was undertaken by the previous Government.


My Lords, does the noble Lord realise the importance of this question? Is he aware that recently there was a television programme portraying what the USSR are doing in this matter? Their precautions are remarkable. The most remarkable thing of all is that they are not secretive about it. The authorities in the Soviet Union are informing the public of their intentions and of how they are prepared for any emergency. Is it not important that the general public in this country, apart from certain security matters, should be as fully informed as is possible?


My Lords, I agree absolutely with what the noble Lord has said. I think a strong case can be made out that we have been unnecessarily secretive about what is being done in the civil defence field in this country. I assure the noble Lord, and indeed your Lordships, that this particular aspect, as well as others, was seriously taken into account in the study which has just taken place at the Civil Defence College.


My Lords, the noble Lord referred to plans which this Government and their predecessor had for making the public aware of many of the factors which have to be taken into account in the case of nuclear attack. Can he tell us why nothing has yet been done to make the general public aware of what their thinking is, and what they are doing about it? Is he further aware that I doubt whether there are six noble Lords in this Chamber now who have any idea of the thinking at Easingwold, or what sort of emergency plans the county councils and other are supposed to be preparing?—and time is not on our side.


My Lords, if I may reply to my noble friend Lord Inglewood, I hope that he will not have the impression himself, or give the House the impression, which I would suggest to him is mistaken, that representatives or organisations who are involved in the civil defence field, particularly the representatives of the local authorities, have not had the opportunity to know what is going on at the Civil Defence College, where courses are held end-on. So far as I know, there is literally not a day during the year when a course is not being held at the Civil Defence College. As to the part of my noble friend's question—the follow-up to what the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, said —about why the thinking of the Government is not made more widely known to the general public, I would point out that it is a question of timing. If Government are trying to give advice to members of the general public about what they should do in an emergency, surely it is important to know exactly when to give that advice. This, again, we are looking at as a matter of urgency.


My Lords, may I ask whether Her Majesty's Government are bearing in mind the agricultural aspect —the effect of contamination on grass, cattle, and crops?


Yes, my Lords.