HL Deb 28 January 1980 vol 404 cc602-6

2.45 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 co-operation they have had from local authorities in their consultations with them over civil defence.


My Lords, we are pressing on with our examination of home defence arrangements, in which we have had a great deal of assistance from local authorities. We shall be looking closely at possible improvements in the level of local preparedness.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that reply, which is encouraging, may I ask whether the Government have thought of contacting the Red Cross, St. John and the WRVS, all of which took a very prominent part in civil defence in the last war and who, I am certain, are prepared to play their part again; and may I ask the Government to follow that up as they have done with the Territorials?


My Lords, I acknowledge the value of voluntary work performed in aid of civil defence plans both in the past and at the present time, but the Government's present policy is to leave it to local authorities to liaise with voluntary bodies and judge how best together they can make suitable civil defence plans for their areas.


My Lords, the House will be grateful for the indication the Minister has given about the study. Will he accept that, while it would be quite wrong to be alarmist, common prudence dictates that the events of the last few weeks suggest that this is a matter which should be treated with rather greater urgency than perhaps any of us has treated it before? Can he say when his examination of the study, to which he referred today and to which he also referred on 6th December, when we last considered this matter, will be completed; and whether, when that is complete, the Government will be publishing their views?


My Lords, I certainly would not dissent from the opening words of the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, that events in the world have caused all of us to concentrate with a good deal more urgency on this matter than perhaps we thought might have been necessary. However, this was the first review of its kind to be undertaken for some time. It has been thorough, it involved many agencies, central and local government as well as representatives of many other authorities, and I can only tell the noble Lord that we are pressing on with the examination of the review as urgently as we can. Certainly my honourable friend in another place and representatives of the Government in your Lordships' House will always be ready to keep both Houses informed as soon as the review is completed.


My Lords, when my noble friend publishes the review, will he consider publishing a list of the measures which other European countries have taken in civil defence? Is he aware that the Soviet Union have been working on this matter with great energy for some time and that they reckon they will reduce the number of casualties at their essential targets in Moscow and other places by 75 per cent. as a result of civil defence measures? Is that not a worthwhile tribute, and if the Soviet Union are doing it should not the free nations also pay attention to this matter with a great sense of urgency, as has been suggested from the Benches opposite?


Again, my Lords, I would not dissent from what my noble friend said. Incidentally, I did not say in my remarks that we would be publishing the review; I used different words which made it clear that of course we would keep both Houses fully informed. All I would add to what my noble friend said—I must add it because any Government would have to do so and I most certainly must do so—is that the level of expenditure on civil defence must of course always be part of the considerations which have to be taken into account in these matters.


My Lords, will the noble Lord agree to publish some of the results of the recent Easingwold Conference, to let us know what progress is being made apropos the Question, and its direction? Further, does he agree that in counties such as Hampshire, Wiltshire and Devon substantial progress has been made? Is he aware that the organisation of which I am chairman, which has over 800 members in the County of Devon, will have completed the first stage of home defence advisers' training by the end of this year?


My Lords, I should like to make it clear that the Government think that there is most certainly a case for providing more information in what I might call peacetime, the policy always having been that, in order to have its greatest impact, information should wait until this country is under threat of attack. I repeat that the Government certainly accept that there is a case for providing more information in peacetime, and this is something that we are seriously considering. I should like to repeat what I have already said: the Government certainly recognise the value of the voluntary effort in this field, which is to be found particularly in certain local authority areas.


My Lords, is the noble Minister aware that years ago, just after the last war, the famous scientist who was then a member of Her Majesty's Government, the late Lord Cherwell, made the statement that, whereas there was no defence against the destruction and shock, so far as the direct radiation was concerned, a sheet of brown paper was all that was needed? Is the noble Lord also aware that in the United States some years back there was appointed a special minister to look into the whole question of civil defence and his view was that, if there was an all out attack, whatever defence there was, half the population of the United States would be destroyed?


No, my Lords; I am not aware of either of the two statements which the noble Lord has put to me, but certainly we shall take them seriously into account in the review which is proceeding at the present time.


My Lords, is the Minister aware of the logic of what has been said this afternoon, arising from the fact that the Soviet Union, with great sense of urgency, is devoting massive resources to civil defence, whereas we are doing very little?—the logic being of course that the Soviet Union expects the nuclear attack, whereas we do not.


My Lords, logic and the Soviet Union do not go hand in hand.


My Lords, will the noble Lord arrange for some kind of television documentary on how to prepare a safe quarter in the house? That would get round much more quickly than pamphlets.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is on to a good point here and I assure him that this, too, is something we are looking at carefully. I should like to link this to what I have already said. The noble Lord is on to the point of how much information should be issued at a time when one feels attack is not immediately apparent, and this is a matter which perhaps we have to look at again. Incidentally, this was a point raised, when we last had a Question on this matter, by the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, who is not, I think, in the House today, and on that occasion I sought to reply to the noble Lord in very much the same way.


My Lords, will the noble Lord and the Government take steps to see that, whatever information they distribute on this matter, they do not create unnecessary panic among the population?


Yes, my Lords.