HL Deb 01 February 1983 vol 438 cc677-9

2.42 p.m.

Lord Gainford

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 how many local authorities have established so-called nuclear-free zones.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy (The Earl of Avon)

My Lords, the Government have received representations on this from about 70 local authorities.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Has he any information that some councils are declaring their areas nuclear-free on the assumption that defence against nuclear arms is useless anyway and therefore they can economise on the expense of civil defence?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think that the reason why local authorities do this is unnecessary, because of course the Government are elected with a responsibility for maintaining national security. So far as civil defence is concerned, the Government indeed appreciate the work done in civil defence and give all encouragement to the excellent work that it does for the civil population in any emergency.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is rapidly growing concern among many people on matters of nuclear warfare? He might ponder on whether listening to a few million voices on the topic would be more productive than would be lecturing through a million pounds worth of propaganda.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, indeed the Government are aware of, and share, the disgust at nuclear weapons, but as the noble Lord is equally aware, we do not take the path of unilateral disarmament, but rather that of multilateral disarmament. So far as the last part of the noble Lord's question is concerned, I would refer him to the responses yesterday of my noble friend Lord Belstead.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, can the noble Earl the Minister say whether an up-to-date list of these local authorities is being conveyed to the Soviet leadership, so that they can take full account of it in their targeting?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, an up-to-date list of those who have informed the Government is kept at the Ministry of Defence. Its circulation I am not aware of.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell us whether the CND has arranged with its sponsors that the nuclear-powered Sputnik that is about to descend upon the earth will not arrive in one of the so-called nuclear-free areas? Secondly, if it were to arrive in a part of the United Kingdom, perhaps it should land in Devon, where we at least have a certain body of volunteers—much criticised and attacked by the CND—who are trained to monitor such arrangements.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to tell the noble Lord that the sea seems to cover more of the earth's surface than does the land, and fortunately these objects have a habit of falling into the sea. I should like to pay tribute to the civil defence in the noble Lord's area and to wish it all good fortune.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, if I heard correctly, the Minister said that 70 authorities had reported to the Government. Is he aware that the actual number is 138? Will he confirm that they represent four-fifths of the population of Britain, including not only Greater London, but the whole of Wales, and is not that fact significant in terms of the opinion of the people of this country?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the actual number which have informed the Government is, I believe, 73. I know that there is press speculation on the total, varying between 138 and 140, who have portrayed this to the press. The noble Lord exaggerated when he suggested that the figure represented four-fifths of the population. Normally local authorities are elected by less than half of the population of their areas, and these particular edicts represent the views of only a percentage of those who have voted. The noble Lord might like to look at some recent opinion polls which show that the unilateralist cause has slightly subsided.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that it is extremely sad that so many people should be so deluded into thinking that this declaration of a nuclear-free zone can have any benefit for them or anybody else?

The Earl of Avon

Indeed, my Lords; my noble friend has a very good point there.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I understand that in the area of the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, the Devon County Council, under Conservative control, is banning the CND from using accommodation? Does he think that that is one way of answering some of the genuine fears that people have?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, this is a free country, and if that is the county council's wish, it should do so.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the statistics to which reference has just been made are not representative of any view on this specific issue?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as I said in my opening remarks, the Government are elected with a responsibility for maintaining national security, and it is upon them that responsibility rests.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that the Government are elected by only a minority of the population, and equally is it not very undesirable for central Government to seek to force their views on elected local authorities? Is it not particularly undesirable for a non-elected House to seek to enforce its views on elected members of local authorities?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, central Government have for a long time had responsibility for defence. That has applied not only to the present Government but to previous Governments, and I should like to remind the House that a previous Government supported an independent deterrent, as do we.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that local authorities are normally elected by a minority of the electorate?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I tried to bring out that point in an earlier reply.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, as the noble Earl has just told us that this is a free country—

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Young)

My Lords, I should like to suggest that we hear the question of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, and then, in view of the fact that we have had quite a long run on this Question, move on to the next one.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, I just want to follow what the noble Earl, Lord Avon, said. He said that this is a free country, so what I want to ask is, if this is a free country, can we all pick our nuclear-free zones—every one of us?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, we all indeed can. We respect it, but will the enemy?

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