HL Deb 22 January 1985 vol 459 cc104-7

2.41 p.m.

Lord Renton

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many local authorities in England and Wales respectively have so far refused to carry out their statutory duties with regard to emergency planning under the civil defence regulations, and what steps the Government intend to take to ensure that all local authorities carry out those duties.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, no authorities are refusing to carry out these duties but, though a number of them have made good progress, which my honourable friend the Minister of State has welcomed in another place, he also urged those who have much still to do to get on with the job. As a first step, all local authorities were asked to complete the required plans by the end of December. He undertook to provide central guidance on the development of programmes of planned action and to monitor further progress. Formal directions and default powers will, in the meantime, be held in reserve.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very full reply. May I ask him whether he is satisfied that mere non-refusal to carry out their statutory obligations by those local authorities who have nonsensically declared their areas to be nuclear-free zones is likely to lead to effective civil defence in the event of conventional attack or nuclear fall-out?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the declaration of a nuclear-free zone no more absolves one from the need for protection against nuclear attack than the declaration of a rain-free zone absolves one from carrying an umbrella. The Government therefore believe that these authorities must discharge their function. But we also believe that at present the best course is to proceed by persuasion and by sustained general pressure on local authorities to improve standards, and they have until the end of this year to do it.

The Earl of Kimberley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that certain members of our society seem to disapprove of civil defence? Does he also agree that civil defence is almost as vital in peacetime as in wartime against natural or unnatural disasters which may befall our country?

Lord Elton,

My Lords, I think the Boy Scouts have the right motto—"Be prepared."

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, has the Minister taken fully into account the devastating report of the British Medical Association? That report stated that the Government's civil defence plans are hopelessly unrealistic and that the very idea of planning for the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe is false. Why are the Government persisting in harrying local authorities to spend money in this way when they are being denied proper resources to spend money on housing the homeless and adequately looking after the elderly?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I think the noble Lord's intervention is slightly out of perspective. It is true that there is argument about what will follow from a nuclear attack, not least because nobody knows from what direction it may come or how many missiles may arrive in this country. But I am sure that neither the noble Lord nor the medical profession would wish the survivors of such an attack, of which undoubtedly there would be many, to try to continue to live in this country without the assistance which civil defence can provide.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the attitude of a number of local authorities to civil defence is deplorable? Would he not also agree that the Government have been at fault in presenting their civil defence proposals in terms of a nuclear holocaust, where civil defence would admittedly be of limited value, instead of in terms of natural disasters, a nuclear accident or the dropping of a single nuclear bomb, which are more probable or at least less improbable and where civil defence could have a very important role to play?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I agree with the first leg of the noble Lord's proposition. As to the second, I would say that, of course, civil defence embraces preparation for conventional attack as well as for other disasters, and this is equally useful and important.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that the views of the British Medical Association on matters of defence are altogether irrelevant?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I would agree that on the whole I go to my doctor for matters of health and to soldiers for matters of defence, and not the other way round.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that local authorities would have to try to provide some protection for the civil population and that this would involve medical services? If the medical services say that they would be faced with an impossibility, is that not a matter that local authorities are entitled to take into account? Would the noble Lord not recognise that the best service that local authorities could perform to their ratepayers would be the accumulation of suicide pills so that in the event of a nuclear attack of the size envisaged by the Minister's department the remainder of the population left behind would be enabled to depart this life more peacefully than would otherwise be the case? Would this therefore not constitute a proper form of planning?

Lord Elton

My Lords, local authorities must of course take into consideration anything they think relevant, but they must also take into account and not leave out of it the statutory requirements, which are matters of law. They are required to carry out planning for a nuclear attack, and it is the failure of their discharge of this duty, which my noble friend fears may take place, with which we are concerned. As to the rest of the noble Lord's supplementary question, it was so macabre that I think I will leave it to stand on its own.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, while I recognise that my noble friend is perhaps right to use persuasion rather than anything more forceful, could he give us an indication of when he thinks local authorities will have achieved levels of the sort which he would consider acceptable in preparation for civil defence?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as I think I have made clear, my honourable friend has set a deadline at the end of this year for the completion of local authority wartime plans, as required by the 1983 regulations. The circular letter requiring them so to do was issued yesterday.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, while carrying an umbrella in a rain-free zone may be deemed to be duly pessimistic, would the noble Lord the Minister not agree that parts of the Government's propaganda with regard to civil defence and nuclear war are too optimistic for people to swallow? With regard to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, would he not also agree that if the Government did convince local authorities that they had a useful part to play in civil defence with regard to both conventional warfare and other disasters that might occur he would get more co-operation? Lastly, what is happening with the Director of Civil Defence? Is he co-ordinating? Is there anything to report as to his activities?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I think the noble Lord asked me three supplementary questions, and I shall try to answer them all. I shall first tell him that there is indeed a useful service which local authorities can perform for their electorates in the event of war, and that is by preparing for it; and, secondly, if there has been propaganda, it has been on the side of those who have tried to dissuade local authorities from carrying out this statutory duty. As to the civil defence adviser, I can confirm that his experience has already been useful in analysing and evaluating the data in the responses to the questionnaire to which I earlier referred.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, can the noble Lord say to what extent were civil defence methods or the civil defence organisation used in the recent rather terrible gas explosion at Putney?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the emergency services were prominently in evidence. As to whether any element of civil defence planning went into their co-operation, I very much doubt it, but I shall write to the noble Lord.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend this question? In view of the peacetime anxieties of people about various things such as the recent snow, did the local authorities call out some of their members to clear away the snow and generally help in this emergency, especially in the south-west of England?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am not aware that civil defence volunteers were engaged in that work in that capacity, though they may have been in others.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, would the Minister agree with me that too much talk about this question is likely to cause panic among the civil population? I put this question not as a pacifist but as a twice-decorated company sergeant-major in the first world war.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I bow to the seniority and experience of the noble Lord. As to the question whether we have talked about this matter enough this afternoon, I would probably agree with him.