HL Deb 06 February 1985 vol 459 cc1068-76

3.14 p.m.

Lord Renton rose to call attention to the duty of central Government and of local authorities to deal with peacetime emergencies, and to provide Civil Defence in case of conventional, biological, chemical or nuclear attack; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper. Your Lordships will realise from the light which is shed upon our proceedings this afternoon that it is a stroke of good fortune that this debate takes place so soon after the introduction of the noble Lord, Lord Chapple, who has himself shed so much light on industrial relations in this country.

This is our first full debate on Civil Defence for five years, although there have been others. It is a matter which is vital to all our people, and it is therefore gratifying that so many of your Lordships have indicated an intention to take part, including four noble Baronesses. It is a big subject, and all that I can hope to do is to outline it in a relatively short speech; but a number of noble Lords have told me of their intention to deal with particular parts of the subject.

There are, I suggest, three reasons why peacetime emergencies should be in the forefront of a debate on Civil Defence. The first of these reasons is that peacetime disasters occur in this world with increasing severity in our modern industrial society, and we want to know what is going to be done about it. Secondly, those who have to cope with peacetime emergencies are also responsible for Civil Defence in wartime. Thirdly, I say that if people are properly trained, equipped and organised to deal with peacetime emergencies they will be well on the way to preparing for wartime if by some mischance it should come.

Let us consider first the peacetime risks. Of course, most of the ordinary ones are familiar to us—fire, floods, blizzards, railway accidents, pile-ups on motorways and aircraft crashes. But some of these are on a pretty big scale so that our splendid fire, ambulance and police services which have to deal with them are sometimes very hard pressed and need help from well organised volunteers. May I give an example? Three or four years ago there were the most appalling blizzards in the West Country and the South-West of England. In Devonshire there were 2,000 Devon emergency volunteers, and they had members in every village. Nearly all the villages were cut off, but those volunteers were trained and organised for Civil Defence and were therefore there to help with first-aid, rescue, the care of the sick and the elderly, and so on.

Mercifully, we have so far escaped massive industrial disasters in this country, but one must bear in mind that they have taken place. In Bhopal recently, where 2,000 people died and 100,000 people became ill, thousands were made homeless and had to leave their homes, all through the escape of a lethal gas from one chamber in what appeared to be a well-run chemical works.

Then there was an occurrence at Mississauga in Canada, a town of 240,000 people. There was a railway accident in which railway tankers carrying chlorine were turned over and burst open, and a huge cloud of chlorine gas hung over the town. The place had to be evacuated, and within 24 hours 218,000 people were moved out, including all the people in the hospitals and nursing homes in that city. Then your Lordships will remember Seveso, in Italy—a most deplorable affair, where dioxin gas escaped from a chemical plant, causing lung trouble to many people who will suffer increasingly from lung cancer as the years go on. In that particular case crops and animals were also badly affected.

In the United States there was the Three Mile Island case—a serious threat of nuclear radiation which was prevented from becoming a major catastrophe affecting millions of people with only a few minutes to spare. We have had less serious peacetime nuclear accidents here; and there is quite natural anxiety about the transport and disposal of nuclear waste. Our worst industrial accident so far was at Flixborough chemical works in Lincolnshire, where a lot of damage was done but where, mercifully, it was contained without affecting very many human beings.

On occasions like that, and with all the natural peacetime disasters on a big scale, we need the massive support of trained volunteers. We have altogether, in those counties which have gone about it, 17,000 volunteers. That sounds a lot, but if one really thinks it out, in order to cover England and Wales satisfactorily we need not 17,000 but 200,000—and I shall come to more of that anon. With science and industry groping their way continually into the unknown, to say that disasters like those I have mentioned will not happen here because of our industrial safety legislation, which is pretty elaborate, would literally be courting disaster and, if we had a disaster on the scale of Bhopal or Seveso, our present emergency services would be swamped, even with the valuable help of the WRVS, the Red Cross and the St. John's Ambulance.

It will be interesting to hear from my noble friend Lord Elton whether the Government and the local authorities would be able to deal with very large-scale peacetime disasters. It will also help to know what they intend to do to encourage the recruitment and training of many more volunteers. Thousands of people would surely welcome the chance to become emergency volunteers, and (dare I say it?) especially would many young unemployed people welcome that opportunity.

In the Conservative manifesto at the last general election we promised to amend the Civil Defence Act 1948 to enable Civil Defence funds to be used for peacetime emergencies as well as for warlike preparations. No such legislation has yet been introduced. The Government want it to be done by a Private Member's Bill in one House or another; but we all know the hazards of getting Private Members' Bills through both Houses, even those which are relatively non-controversial, and I therefore hope that the Government will think again about that. It really is leaving too much to chance in an important matter. Again, if I may make so bold, I think there is some legislation—some very lengthy, somewhat controversial legislation—which is being introduced and which is less important than that which I have mentioned.

So much for peacetime disaster: let us now consider the wartime risks. There are some misguided people who suggest that a nuclear holocaust is the only wartime risk that we need contemplate. They then say, "No lives could then be saved; Civil Defence would be completely ineffective". I suppose that the most extreme attitude on that matter is the one expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, who I am so glad is to take part in this debate even though it rather looks from the list of speakers as if he may be a lone ranger.

We are accustomed to the noble Lord's quaint and somewhat endearing eccentricities, but I think that he excelled himself the other day when he swept away all thought of saving any lives if ever there were a nuclear attack and said that we should simply issue millions of suicide pills. Obviously, if there were a complete honeycomb attack covering the whole of the British Isles there would not be many survivors. I grant him that. But I say to him, and to those who think like him, that that is the least likely of the possible risks for which we should be providing. Consider the facts—

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I shall of course deal later on with the point that he is making, but there is one thing that ought to be said now, in view of what he has just said. The Government's own assumption of the major risk is that there will be a major nuclear attack. It is not my assumption that he is attacking: it is his own Front Bench's assumption. I shall oppose him on that later.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I very much doubt whether the noble Lord's interpretation of the Government's views is correct, but we shall no doubt hear from my noble friend about that. I say that the right approach in assessing the wartime risks is the "all-hazards" approach. We should consider every possibility. There are some risks which are obviously less likely than others, and, to my mind, the least likely risk of all is that the deterrent will fail to deter.

Let us just consider what has happened in the last 40 years, since the end of World War II. Believe it or not, my Lords, during those 40 years there have been at least 30 major wars or civil wars in various parts of the world, and they have all been fought with conventional weapons. About 10 million people have died in those 30 wars and civil wars, mostly civilians. For example, in Vietnam 150,000 military deaths took place, but 3 million civilians died. Although the great powers, including ourselves, have been involved in some of those conflicts in the last 40 years—for example, we were involved in the Falklands—there has been no direct confrontation between the United States and Russia, no war in Europe, no World War III, and not one nuclear weapon has been used, though goodness knows!, there have been plenty about. I say that we should bear in mind that all those wars have been fought with conventional weapons, and so, surely, the most probable warlike risk for which we should prepare in this dangerous world is the risk of conventional attack.

Other countries have taken this matter very seriously, and perhaps it is significant that it is the neutral countries, like Switzerland, Sweden and so on, who are not likely to be any more involved in warlike activities in the future than they ever were in the past, who have taken the need for Civil Defence most seriously of all. Of course, we all hope that there will never be another war. We should like to, "Ring out the thousand wars of old. Ring in the thousand years of peace." But to say that there could never be another war in which we were involved would be the triumph of hope over experience.

So much for the wartime risks. We need not dwell on them any more. I hope, for the moment, but what should we do about them? Surely it is prudent for us to insure against the consequences of being involved, to pay a modest insurance premium by having an effective nationwide Civil Defence, as we had until 1968. If we had that, lives could be saved if we were attacked by conventional, biological or chemical weapons, or even, if it were not too massive an attack, a nuclear weapon.

In fairness I must say this. The Government have already done a good deal to improve Civil Defence since our debate five years ago. But there is still a good deal more to be done, as the Government themselves acknowledge. Spending on Civil Defence, which one might say is the amount of the insurance premium that we pay, during those five years has risen in real terms from £22 million a year to £70 million a year—these figures, by the way, exclude the cost of central administration in the Home Office and other departments—and the Government have already planned to increase the annual premium beyond £70 million during the next three years.

We have the best early warning system in the world, and in 1983 the Government asked Parliament to approve the new Civil Defence regulations—they were new then, anyway—which require local authorities to make effective Civil Defence plans and preparations. But some local authorities, instead of doing so, simply declared their areas to be nuclear-free zones. That, no doubt, caused a big laugh in the Kremlin, but it was not so funny for the people in those areas, for it meant that their elected councillors were in breach of their statutory duties. It meant also that they were ignoring their humanitarian duty to reduce casualties, even in a conventional conflict. Also, incidentally, it meant that they were missing the chance to recruit volunteers who could be of such great help with peacetime emergencies.

I am sorry to have to mention that the nuclear-free zones include the Greater London area, Wales, and metropolitan counties with socialist majorities. The GLC has so neglected its duties as to turn the war-time control room into a museum, and its unwillingness to prepare to help the citizens of this great city is, I find, deplorable. The joint authority proposed by the Government to deal with fire services and Civil Defence in the place of present arrangements when the GLC is finally abolished would, I think, be an improvement—it must be an improvement—on the present situation, which is a non-situation.

We were told recently by my noble friend Lord Elton—if I may have his attention—that no local authority had actually refused to carry out duties under the Civil Defence regulations, but it is clear that many local authorities have simply not carried out their duties; indeed, those to which I am referring have scarcely even paid lip service to doing so. Lack of finance is no excuse for local authorities because the Government are paying on average 85 per cent. of local authorities' costs of all Civil Defence expenditure. In addition, that expenditure will be exempt from rate capping and from cash penalties.

The recruitment and training of volunteers is, of course, vital to success in rebuilding Civil Defence. Already there are, as I say, 17,000 volunteers—2,000 in Devon, 2,500 in Wiltshire, 800 in Surrey, and about 600 in Cambridgeshire—but some large councils have none, because their Left-wing councillors do not want them. There is a generous grant for the training and equipping of them and so there is no financial excuse for not getting on with it.

When we last had a good Civil Defence organisation industrial Civil Defence played an important part; and I hope that it will do so again because industry can do so much to help with rescue services, transport, canteens and in many other ways. I trust that the Government will take full advantage of the skills and equipment that industry can provide. But some incentive is needed and so if firms spend money on Civil Defence preparations, it should be tax deductible, as it used to be. In addition, the Industrial Advisory Panel, representing both sides of industry, should be revived.

In conclusion, my Lords, I hope that I have said enough to convince you of the actual risks we face in peace and war and of what needs to be done to provide reasonable protecton for our people if, by mischance, the risks should materialise. The "all hazards" approach is the only safe and sensible one. Some people say, strangely enough, that even to take precautions would frighten people; but the British are not easily frightened and they would rather be reasonably prepared for the worst, while hoping for the best. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the House, possibly the nation, will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for bringing before us this afternoon the question of Civil Defence—a matter upon which there has been much debate, much discussion, and considerable misunderstanding. Let me say at the outset that any Government, any responsible Opposition, who do not take to themselves the need to protect their citizens and to do so reasonably and sensibly are not worthy of the name of either the Government of this country or the Opposition in this country. I say that especially in regard to the first two elements of this Motion.

I listened with great care to what the noble Lord had to say about the question of peacetime emergencies and to the way in which he developed his theme with regard to some of the disasters that have befallen countries other than ours—obviously, we have the greatest sympathy for those people who are affected by them—and, indeed, some of the, thank heavens, comparatively minor disasters which have occurred in the United Kingdom. I thought it right that we should be reminded of those matters. I thought that the noble Lord was going to say—certainly with regard to this country—how in relation to each of those disasters we had such reason to be proud of our police force, our fire brigades, our hospitals, our nurses and the Red Cross, who went in and who assisted so valuably. I say that because this has indeed been one of the great strengths with which we have managed to face such disasters. Obviously any sensible person would say that there is room here for volunteers, too. Any invitation that was accorded, and any extension of those who are already gallantly serving as volunteers, must be welcomed by every Member of your Lordships' House and by all the citizens of this country. There can be no difference between us with regard to that.

Past Governments of whatever complexion have had to face the difficulties of conventional warfare—this is a phrase that has come into use after the dreadful inventions which have taken place and which mean that we now talk in terms of nuclear war and conventional war. Before the last great war, we knew of only one type of war—although we equally feared the gas and the germ warfare that was mentioned but which, by the grace of God, did not occur in the last war.

Again, in regard to conventional war, one realises that there should be and must be some kind of organisation to deal with threats of that nature. In my view, there is no need for a long speech from me on this occasion in dealing with this Motion because, except for a certain portion of his speech, I found myself in agreement with most of what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said.

Two questions arise. First, who are the proper people to deal with the threat of conventional war by way of Civil Defence? Secondly—and one cannot separate the organisation—who is to deal with the threat of a nuclear war? I found nothing in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, dealing with a national duty—except one, presumably, to bring forward public legislation instead of private legislation—other than concerning the supply of money.

It happens to be the case (and this is a little germane to our contemporary political scene in regard to local government) that generally speaking—and with only a few exceptions which I shall readily read out but I want to abbreviate my speech—there is a 75 per cent. subsidy to local government for Civil Defence purposes. Local government of whatever political hue must face the expenditure represented by that 25 per cent. of total expenditure, in the main, at a time when the Government have cut into the powers of local government in a way that has never been done before by any other Government of whatever complexion. The Government have done that at the expense of the care in peacetime—here and now—of old people, of children in schools, of the disabled, and of others who need help.

I am not debating this point on behalf of any particular local authority; but is it not extraordinary that in these times, with rate capping and all the rest, local authorities throughout the kingdom are being told, "You ought to spend money of quite a substantial nature on Civil Defence, when you cannot adequately and properly deal with the needs of your citizens, and the existing needs of your citizens. You have to set those considerations aside"—and I am not speaking here of emergencies—"because of the hypothetical and dreadful question of the possibility of war"?

I go on from the question of expenditure to the question of good organisation. The noble Lord—

Lord Renton

My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves the subject of expenditure, I had hoped that I would make it clear—and I hope to be forgiven for not doing so—that expenditure on Civil Defence is exempt from rate capping and exempt from cash penalties.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I had appreciated that point, as the noble Lord would have expected me to; I spoke of an era of rate capping. I was not speaking in terms of this expenditure being counted for rate-capping purposes. I am talking about the whole atmosphere in which this expenditure has to be envisaged.

I do not limit my case to expenditure but now go on to organisation. As the noble Lord has said very fairly, there are certain authorities who rightly or wrongly—and I am not arguing the case for that—regard their responsibilities here as being either beyond their capability or that they are responsibilities which local authorities should not be called upon to undertake. It is one of the two; whatever may be the reasons, they do not want to undertake those responsibilities.

If one views that situation nationally, it means that there are authorities which are taking very seriously their tasks in respect of Civil Defence in the event of conventional war or nuclear war; there are those which are acting moderately seriously, and there are those which are doing nothing al all, in spite of the mandatory nature of the 1983 regulations. Is that good organisation? Is the alternative that of sending in a commissioner at the Government's instance and representing the Government to look after the region concerned? Is the Director of Civil Defence at the present moment seeing to it that local authorities are not overlapping in their work; and that there is proper planning as between neighbouring local authorities, quite apart from a local authority carrying out its organisational responsibilities in respect of civil defence? Or is he not?

The answer is this—and I say this with all due respect. The Government are evading their responsibility by carrying on this debate—which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has opened so adequately this afternoon—and are putting all the burden and blame onto local authorities. In this kind of atmosphere it is the Government who should take the responsibility for Civil Defence, and they should do that regionally. If that is thought to be an eccentric proposition, then I have this to say to the noble Lords, Lord Renton and the Minister.

We in this Chamber have heard debates about the abolition of local authorities. That has not yet been carried out by the will of Parliament but it has been debated in Parliament. The Government are content that fire brigades should go to regional authorities, as I understand it—

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, I must put the record straight. There is no such intention. The areas proposed for the fire brigades are no larger than those which now exist.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am not talking about their size; I am talking about whether or not they will be democratically controlled by local authorities as they are at the moment. I shall give way immediately if the noble Lord the Minister will announce to the House and the nation that fire brigades will now be controlled throughout the kingdom—and that it is the planning of his Government—by democratically-elected representatives. I give way to enable the Minister to make that statement.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the people who control the fire brigades will be democratically-elected representatives of the people. However, the noble Lord is referring to the organisation by which this will be done. That falls so wide of the Order Paper that I ask him not to stray in that direction but to restrict his attack to the Government's Civil Defence policy.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister makes his interventions with such courtesy that sometimes the subtlety of them is not appreciated by the House. The subtlety of that intervention is that the fire brigades will of course be indirectly controlled by people who are democratically elected—but not democratically elected to look after them.

This point is not wide of the Order Paper, and I am making it because the logical action to take if there is a problem with local authorities—but I would make the point even if there were not—is to ask this question. If the metropolitan authorities are to be abolished and there are regional authorities of the same size (covering the same territory, if one likes) to be put in their place, and they are going to look after emergency services, then what in heaven's name is the logical answer as to why they should not at the same time look after Civil Defence?

I now deal with the final point I intend to raise this afternoon. If I did not deal with it I should be shirking my responsibility. Indeed, I should not be open with the House, as I hope I always am. I refer to nuclear war. There is no doubt about it, there are some local authorities who say, "The Government have given us no plan upon which we can really work by way of estimates of the size of the problem, where in our area the danger is going to be, where we ought to have our buildings, and we say to the Government, perfectly frankly, 'We see no answer to the saving of life—and we wish we did—in the event of nuclear war' ".

There is a danger in this matter. The noble Lord paid tribute—it was right that he should do so and my noble friends and I do not differ from him in the slightest—to the courage of the British people. I should like to add to that tribute. You will not only find them courageous but you will find them answering to every challenge provided you are honest with them. That is the point. The fact is—and this is the danger—that the Government in their propaganda, differing from the BMA and other scientists, are letting it get abroad that there are answers to massive nuclear attack so that people, more than just the miserable few, could be saved.

In my concluding words I will tell your Lordships why that is dangerous. It is usually reckless to refer to the speeches that one has previously made in your Lordships' House, but I venture to do so on this occasion because I had the privilege of representing these Benches in the debate on the 1983 regulations. If I may be permitted this indulgence, I quote from what I said in this connection at cols. 528–529 of the Official Report for 1st November 1983: If the nations of the world realise, and if the peoples of the world realise, that not only in a nuclear war can there be no victory but there can be no survival except for the very few who may even suffer more than those who have been killed, the whole argument about the retention of nuclear weapons falls to the ground. We are not going to be part, as the Opposition, of pretending to the British people that regulations have come into existence, with duties cast upon local authorities, under which provision will in fact be made to deal in any practical form with a nuclear holocaust. My Lords, I abide by those words as I sit down.

Lord Boothby

My Lords, may I ask one question? Does the noble Lord not agree that the relentless march of modern technology is going to make differentiation between so-called conventional weapons and nuclear weapons almost impossible, and finally quite impossible?

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I hope that that observation will mean that war at last will be abolished from the earth.

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