HL Deb 06 February 1985 vol 459 cc1086-95

4.25 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and also to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for introducing this debate and for doing so in such a thoughtful and unideological manner. Over past years, in this country, the subject of Civil Defence has attracted a wholly inappropriate amount of political controversy to itself. At the beginning, the blame was on the Government. Civil Defence, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, showed us, is basically a humanitarian concept aimed at reducing suffering over a wide range of possible catastrophes. But, when the Government made their start, after coming to office, and decided rightly to increase Civil Defence capacity, they made the mistake of linking Civil Defence with their defence policy, even arguing that Civil Defence would increase the credibility of the independent nuclear deterrent and stressing that Civil Defence could make a contribution to saving life even in a nuclear holocaust.

Predictably, the reaction of CND and elements of the Labour Party was equally divisive and equally polarised. We had a situation typical of our confrontation politics. On the one hand, on the Left, we had non-co-operation, obstruction, rhetoric and hysteria, and on the Right, frustration, anger and attempts at coercion. Today, we heard from the noble Lords, Lord Renton and Lord Mishcon, a wholly different tone of voice and a wholly different substance in their speeches. I have no doubt that when the noble Lord, Lord Elton, replies he will say a great deal that will be generally acceptable on both sides of the House. If only Ministers had spoken in that tone and in that language from the beginning, Civil Defence might now enjoy solid and non-partisan support throughout the country which, by its very nature, it particularly needs and particularly deserves.

However, I must agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that there is nothing very non-partisan about the attitude to Civil Defence of the GLC, of Manchester, of Sheffield and of some other socialist councils, which was not fully explained by the Labour spokesman, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. Those of us who are citizens of London live today in a nuclear-free zone as, during the war, did the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No doubt, there are Londoners who feel safer and who feel grateful to Mr. Livingstone and his fellow defence experts at County Hall.

On these Benches, we share the scepticism of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, about the antics of some of these extreme Left councils. However, I am bound to say, on behalf of my noble friends and myself, that we question the right of the noble Lord the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Renton, to complain about the antics of these councils. After all, it is they and their party who are responsible for them being there. It is they who have insisted on local authorities being elected by a system that enables them to be taken over by these small groups of crackpot Marxists. No other electoral system in the world could have produced councils against which noble Lords opposite so often flail. Of course, they will defend themselves. They will claim in extenuation that the same system enables their party to get a very large number of parliamentary seats with a very small vote. That will be their defence and a very strong argument from their point of view. But they must learn to take the rough with the smooth. An electoral system which produces twisted results in favour of the Right will also produce twisted results in favour of the Left, and they must take their medicine a little better than they have done so far.

My noble friends and I certainly deplore the attitude of certain councils to Civil Defence. Their indiscriminate attacks on anything to do with nuclear deterrence leads them to undermine essential elements of Civil Defence. I should like to quote to noble Lords a rather symbolic illustration of this point, reported in the Guardian yesterday. It is headed: CND men set fire to wrong radio mast". It says: Three peace campaigners were yesterday gaoled for starting a fire at what they believed to be part of the Fylingdales nuclear early warning centre. The former military radio mast was in fact an important communications link for the civil emergency services across two counties. The night attack on the installation … succeeded in knocking out eight radio channels used by fire and police forces and caused over £228,000 worth of damage. The secretary of the Pocklington branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament … was gaoled for three years". I think this picturesque tale illustrates quite well some of the characteristics of CND: blind fanaticism, disregard for law and order, and breathtaking incompetence.

However, it would be a mistake to think that opposition to Civil Defence from the extreme Left arises only from opposition to nuclear weapons. There are deeper reasons, too. For example, in the current journal of CND, called Sanity, there is an appeal to members to campaign against the latest Civil Defence exercise, called Wintex. It is in these terms: The systems which already exist for use in a 'civil emergency' were developed during the 1970s in response to industrial disputes; the Regional Emergency Committees … were first set up during the `winter of discontent' in 1978 to deal with the road haulage strike. The most recent example is the development of Police Support Units … at the moment being used in the miners' strike". There is no mention at all anywhere in this article, this appeal for campaigning, of nuclear questions. Opposition to nuclear deterrence is one reason for CND's obstruction of Civil Defence, but support for strikes is another reason, as one would expect in an organisation which is so vulnerable to manipulation by the hard Left.

I now turn to the question as to whether the scale of the Government's proposals is sufficient. We shall listen carefully to what the noble Lord the Minister has to say, but, if I can make a prediction, it will be this. He will list a very large number of possible contingencies which he wishes Civil Defence to try to meet. He will list a very large, wide scale of duties imposed upon Civil Defence; and when he comes to the amount of money the Government are going to produce for these the amount that he names will bear no relation whatever to the tasks he has laid upon Civil Defence. I make this prediction. I do not know what the noble Lord the Minister is going to say, but he had better alter his speech quickly if he is not to make a very poor impression on the House for under-budgeting the tasks he is going to lay down for Civil Defence.

Of course, the Government must be given credit for increasing the scale of Civil Defence since they took over. From 1974 to 1978 the Labour Government actually halved, in real terms, the amount of resources devoted to Civil Defence in this country. When the present Government came in, of course they were right to see that a major increase was necessary. I agree entirely that it is difficult to estimate how much is needed in the way of resources. It is very true about Civil Defence that it is impossible to do nothing, and it is impossible to do as much as is necessary. That is the truth, unfortunately, about Civil Defence, but my judgment is that the £80 million or so we are going to have talked about by the Minister will be nothing like enough for the tasks which he sets himself.

Finally, I think I must pick up one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. Frankly, while we wholly endorse the broad approach of the noble Lord, Lord Renton—the broad approach which says there is a large range of civil emergencies which we must be prepared to try to cope with; and also conventional war—I think my noble friends and myself would like it to be made clear that there is also a need to look at the nuclear side of Civil Defence. Obviously, in the case of a nuclear holocaust the effectiveness of Civil Defence will be vastly limited; nobody can doubt that at all.

But—I put this point to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in particular—suppose, much less improbably, we had a single nuclear bomb fall on this country, either by accident or by demonstration. Then an effective Civil Defence organisation could be immensely important in terms of limiting suffering: it must be so. I am sure that in those circumstances many people in areas which had not been hit would want to do everything they could to reduce the suffering of those on the fringe areas and to take the advice of Civil Defence organisations. I am sure that is so. What is more, I am sure that among those people who would want to help would be many members of CND and of the Labour Party—I am almost sure of that. But of course the tragedy is that nothing they did then could make up for the damage they would have done to Civil Defence before the emergency arose.

Civil Defence is essentially a humanitarian concept and it can be conscientiously supported by those who oppose as well as those who support the Government's defence policy. In my view, it is time the Conservative and Labour Parties took this point fully aboard and gave CD the unreserved, all-party support which it needs and deserves.

4.37 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, we are indeed all very grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton for introducing this very important subject in which he has himself such stature for debate in your Lordships' House. When he tabled his Motion, I was already committed later this evening to an engagement which in conscience I could not break. I felt, nevertheless, that I should take this opportunity of explaining in this House the Government's Civil Defence policy. I hope your Lordships will understand my difficulty. I assure your Lordships that I shall study with the greatest care all that is said in as much of the later stages of this debate as circumstances may compel me, regretfully, to miss.

The first thing that needs to be established in this debate, and to be understood without a shadow of doubt, is that Civil Defence is something which this country does need and must have. People put up a lot of clever and sophisticated arguments to try to prove the opposite. I do not expect your Lordships to be convinced by them because your Lordships will see through them to the stark and simple facts as they are; but there are others whom they seek to persuade, and they, too, should know the facts.

We do not in any way think a war is probable, let alone imminent, but the first fact is that no government—not this Government, not a government made up by the Labour Party, not a government made up by an alliance or two separate splinters of the Social and Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, not even a national government made up of all the parties—can guarantee that this country will never be at war. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has asked me to be honest with the British people, and the honest facts are these. You can guarantee not to attack other people, but even a child knows that that does not guarantee that others will never attack us.

This is not a military debate. I shall not talk about our military defences, except to say this. We trust in a balance of deterrence in Europe to keep the peace, and so far it has worked. But no matter what system you trust in, even if it is unilateral disarmament or total pacifism—whatever your system—the honest fact is that you cannot be certain that it will always work. There are various ways of fighting wars these days, though basically all of them fall into either the conventional or the nuclear class. But let me assure your Lordships again that, whatever clever and sophisticated people may argue to the contrary, we cannot control—no British Government could control—which sort of war a hostile government might choose to fight in Europe.

Next, there are some people who honestly believe that even if the system broke down and a European war did break out, we have only to say that we would take no part in it to make us absolutely safe. We are sitting on an island of unique strategic importance; but these people believe that the world would respect our neutrality.

For two reasons neutrality offers us no defence at all. I ask your Lordships which European country has the longest and most honourable tradition of unbroken neutrality stretching back through two world wars and beyond?—Switzerland. And which European country has the most elaborate and effective system of Civil Defence? Switzerland. And I could say very much the same things of Sweden. Switzerland and Sweden know that neutrality is no defence. It is a desperately uncertain and unsafe defence in conventional war. In a nuclear war it would be no defence whatever. You do not have to be under a bomb to be at risk; you have to be only down wind of it. It would not take even an accidental strike on this country to put us at risk; it would take only a change in the weather.

Therefore, one thing cannot, and must not, escape us. The risk is there. It is, thank God, remote, but it will not go away. We must insure against it. My noble friend is right: it is an insurance that we are talking about. Investing in Civil Defence policy does not make it more likely that there will be a war, any more than investing in a fire insurance policy makes it more likely that your house will burn down.

If we do not provide elementary precautions for the British people—and I am being honest with them—we take an astoundingly foolish gamble at the expense of every future generation. These precautions depend largely upon local agencies, local planning and local organisation. That is why Parliament has placed upon local authorities the duty of providing them. That duty is no less than the duty of taking simple precautionary steps to save the lives of the people who elect those authorities to power.

The nature of the precautions is of course determined by the nature of the threat, and your Lordships must at once recognise that it can take a very wide variety of forms. Some people say that we can predict it. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, thinks that we claim that we can predict it—I put together with his earlier intervention the Question that he asked me last week. We certainly do no such thing. The paper to which the noble Lord then referred was, as I then said and as I now repeat, not a document for planning policy; it was a document to illustrate a possibility. It was an example, not a criterion. I hope that the noble Lord will not seek to dilute the attention of this House further into what is, in fact, an illusion.

As I say, the nature of the precautions is determined by the nature of the threat. We do not predict, but some people say that they can predict that it will be on a scale which, even if it does not involve this country, will extinguish all human life in it. Unlike them, we do not have superhuman powers. We cannot predict the future. All we know is that we do not intend to be the attackers, and that therefore it would not be for us to choose what form an attack should take.

Certainly we acknowledge what is generally called the "nuclear winter theory". This is one of a series of theories that has come forward over the years, and your Lordships can be sure that we are paying close attention to the evaluation that is now being made of it. Scientific opinion is at present honestly divided on it. We shall take a view when more is known, and particularly when we have the opinion of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment of the International Council of Scientific Unions.

The future for which we must prepare presents us with many alternatives. There is, first of all, the whole range of emergencies that can arise from conventional war, and with most of them we are familiar. Those of us in middle age and above have actually had to face many of them in the past. Beyond those trials are the emergencies that could arise as a result of a nuclear war. In neither case can we know exactly what would happen. We would not choose what sort of weapons were used against us. Nobody would ask us how big they should be or how many targets they should be aimed at; nor can we even be sure that their owners, having chosen targets, would succeed in hitting them and would not accidentally hit something else altogether.

Therefore, the area affected by single nuclear weapons can now be so large and the unknown variable factors are so large that it is no longer possible to say that this or that part of the country will be safe, and move into it people from other areas that are thought to be less safe. We keep these matters under continous review. But as things stand at present, it is clear that no satisfactory system of mass evacuation is possible.

But other precautions are possible and are effective—not only in conventional attack, but under nuclear attack as well. The life of the country depends upon a complex network of essential supplies and services which would have to be repaired at the points at which they were broken; and before that, even, in a nuclear attack, very many lives would depend upon simple actions and arrangements that can be rendered infinitely more effective by planning them in advance.

That planning has to be flexible because, as I keep on saying, it has to prepare for what is not yet known. As your Lordships know—and as my noble friend Lord Renton has pointed out—Civil Defence provision is at present limited to provision against wartime emergencies. I shall return in a moment to what we are doing and what we intend to do in that regard.

But before I do may I take up my noble friend's extremely important point about peacetime emergencies. We have nothing but the highest praise for the regular emergency services, which we have recently seen so effectively at work. Having on the television screen seen their work so efficiently, so courageously and so compassionately carried out, your Lordships will readily agree that what we already have deals remarkably well with even pretty large and horrible emergencies. I readily acknowledge the efforts of the Devonshire Volunteers, to whom my noble friend, referred. Indeed, 1 must register our great admiration for, and real gratitude to, all the voluntary organisations, including the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, the St. John's Ambulance service and the Red Cross, which are forever on call. I do not suggest, nor does my noble friend, that the problems which local authorities have in planning to deal with peacetime emergencies are of exactly the same nature as those involved in planning to alleviate the effects of war.

My noble friend produced a number of very relevant examples and I agree that, for instance, those of Bhopal, Seveso, the west country blizzards and even the east coast floods in this country in 1953 all suggested that the two things have many aspects in common. That is why we put into our election manifesto a commitment to introduce legislation to make resources available for Civil Defence purposes to local authorities to safeguard against peacetime emergencies.

The expertise of the emergency planning teams and the industrial emergency services officers, the emergency plans for such things as emergency feeding and housing and other forms of care, the county and district emergency centres with their widespread communications links, the well-established liaison arrangements with the police, fire and ambulance services, and the involvement of volunteers already trained to act in grave emergencies, ought also to be available in time of peace, and we remain absolutely committed to legislation. I shall not follow my noble friend into the route by which we achieve it, but we are committed.

We first took office in 1979, 11 years after the old Civil Defence Corps had been stood down and Civil Defence generally was put on a care and maintenance basis. One of our first priorities was to see what needed to be done in order to make effective plans for the country's protection. Following our review, we made more money available for Civil Defence for both central and local government. At that stage, in 1980, we intended expenditure to rise by 60 per cent. over four years, but in fact it has now risen by 100 per cent. in real terms. Today we are spending twice as much in real terms as we spent in 1980—some £77 million. In 1984–85 the amount of grant that we have made available to local authorities has risen to £12.8 million, compared with £10 million in 1983–84.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, is looking at me with an expression which will shortly become smug as he realises that I have to some extent fulfilled his prediction. But I can tell him that even this money is not all being taken up. I assure the House that we intend to maintain the planned provision for Civil Defence over the next three years. The Government look to local authorities to take full advantage of these available resources.

As my noble friend has said, additional expenditure on Civil Defence will be disregarded for the purposes of grant abatement. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, might have gone further in what was generally and overall a restrained speech for one sitting on his Bench. He could well have recognised not only that but the range of Civil Defence provision that does now rate for 100 per cent. grant as well. If he did, I give him credit for it, and I have used the opportunity to put it on the record again.

When we took over, things were at a low ebb. This growth of expenditure marks a considerable advance. We would make swifter progress if the money we have made available was all being used. But in spite of our encouragement the response has been less than wholehearted and local authorities have often been slow to pick up the funds lying waiting for them on the table.

The Civil Defence regulations require local authorities to make plans for the protection of the civilian population in the event of war. Last May in order to find out how much effective planning had been done and what remained to be done, we issued a questionnaire to the authorities. It asked for detailed information on the state of their planning. A report by the Home Office Civil Defence Adviser analysing the returns to these questionnaires is in the Library of your Lordships' House. It shows that there are wide differences in what has been done by the authorities both in planning and in providing resources. Some authorities have full plans and have done much to implement them by providing emergency headquar ters, by setting up the necessary communications and other equipment and by training volunteers. Others have made varying degrees of effort but their arrangements cannot be described as satisfactory.

As the next step we have therefore written to each local authority requiring it to have completed its plans by the end of the year. The Civil Defence Adviser will visit individual authorities to discuss their planning with them, and we shall monitor progress extremely closely. When we see what is being done we shall consider carefully whether any further action is needed from central government to increase the pace.

As my noble friend has pointed out, an essential duty required of local authorities is that of organising, training and exercising Civil Defence volunteers. The role of volunteers is crucial. It is also traditional in Civil Defence. Indeed, it is traditional in this country. I mentioned some of those traditions a moment ago. It is vital that in Civil Defence the volunteers should be well-informed, properly trained and fully effective.

As a first step we have set up a Home Office Working Party which includes experienced county emergency planning officers. It has developed a training syllabus for volunteers and we shall issue it to local authorities shortly. It is now going on to work up in the next year or so a complete set of training material for the instruction of volunteers. Not only will the resources of the Civil Defence College remain available for developing volunteer training, but also by combining the post of Co-ordinator of Volunteer Effort in Civil Defence with that of Principal of the college we plan to give a new impetus to volunteer work.

If this country ever was to come under attack a warning of that attack, even if it was very short, could make a very considerable difference indeed to the number of survivors. It is for that reason that we have the United Kingdom Early Warning and Monitoring Organisation. It is largely volunteers who man that organisation through the Royal Observer Corps and the warning teams—over 11,000 people in all. They are a dedicated and efficient force, and I congratulate them and those full-timers who are responsible for organising the system.

The organisation exists to give public warning of an attack and in the event of a nuclear attack they would also give warning of the approach of radioactive fallout and subsequently monitor the intensity of fall-out radiation. I am glad to be able to tell the House that we are well on our way to completion of our programme of improvements to the organisation, and I welcome my noble friend's recognition of the strides in this direction. It is now probably at a better state of readiness than that of any other NATO country, and we are now considering how it could be adapted to give warning of conventional and chemical attacks as well.

If this country did suffer a nuclear attack on any scale, then disruption to communications would be very considerable. Just when we needed the most effective direction of co-ordination of effort they would be at their weakest. For a time it would therefore be either difficult or impossible to sustain central control of essential functions. Plans for the wartime decentralisation of the Government are therefore a necessary part of our policy. We have recently overhauled and improved them. We are therefore also improving the wartime broadcasting service which would be established to ensure the continuation of public broacasting facilities even after large-scale attack.

Beyond the emergency services themselves it involves arrangements for fuel and emergency supplies, housing and other environmental matters, health care, food supplies, and agriculture and so on. Virtually every major Government department therefore has an interest. In the past things have tended to develop piecemeal with emergency plannng representing merely part of what each department does. We have taken two important initiatives here. At the centre we have recently decided to develop a fully co-ordinated central plan embracing all government departments. The first step towards this will be the co-ordination of the Civil Defence expenditure of all government departments, and this will fall to the Home Office. Your Lordships will wish to hear that we shall put these arrangements into effect for the financial year beginning 1986.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, rightly pointed out that overlap is wasteful and gaps in provision are dangerous. Our second initiative is therefore at the regional level, and a pilot study in the North-West Region over the next 18 months or two years will explore the scope for improving regional coordination of Civil Defence planning.

A debate like this is useful because it informs your Lordships what is going on. But that is not enough. It is essential that full information is much more widely available. We have now therefore consolidated all the existing guidance on emergency planning to local authorities and will issue it shortly. It will be kept up to date as knowledge and experience develop.

In addition to this consolidated guidance, we intend to put out a number of other documents. These will include general information about Civil Defence, information about weapon effects, information and guidance about protective measures. This series of documents will be backed up by a film on which we are now working. The aim of the film will be to explain just what goes into planning for wartime emergencies, the professional and voluntary effort and skills involved, and the purpose behind them. The information process is a two-way one, and it is essential to involve, as we are doing, the emergency planning officers and the chief executives of local authorities who would have an important function in wartime. Only with their views will ours be complete.

I referred earlier to the 1983 Civil Defence Regulations. Parliament has now required local authorities to make effective defence plans and the Government have recently issued revised guidance. I have sought to show what should need no explanation, that Civil Defence consists simply of planning to save lives and assist survivors. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, accurately pointed that out, and that is only if in spite of the best efforts of this Government and any future government a war should break out.

Therefore, those who opt out of it are opting out of a humanitarian cause directed at helping British men and women and children. Those who do so because they do not like nuclear weapons are like people opting out of wearing safety belts because they do not like motor-cars. If the population of a borough which has preened itself on doing the minimum gets projected through the windscreen, who will then congratulate the councillors of the day for declaring a nuclear-free zone? It is one thing to play politics with the rules. It is another thing altogether to play politics with lives.

So I conclude that they would have achieved a terrible responsibility by declaring a nuclear-free zone and offering no protection to their citizens whatever. Let me make it clear that. whatever the attitude of individual local authorities, the Government are determined that those responsibilities which have been laid by Parliament on local authorities for emergency planning and provision of resources to protect and care for their people shall be carried out.

As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said in an address on 28th November to the annual general meeting of the Society of Industrial Emergency Services Officers—a body of which my noble friend Lord Renton is so appropriately the president— We seek no angry arguments or confrontations. We shall set about our task in an orderly, measured way. But we cannot accept that any of our cities or counties should be without the plans and the trained staff which would be necessary for their protection in time of war. That is our policy and I urge your Lordships to support it.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the Minister courteously informed the House that he might not be available for the rest of the debate. May I, I hope with equal courtesy, say that I have a long-standing appointment at seven o'clock which means that I shall have to leave the House at that time? I apologise to your Lordships in advance and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington.