HL Deb 04 June 1986 vol 475 cc1057-65

8.23 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill was introduced in another place and piloted through another place with great ability by my honourable friend Sir Nicholas Bonsor, MP for Upminster. I am glad to say that it had the support of all parties, and that is not surprising, surely, for its limited purpose is necessarily one which commends itself to everyone who wishes to improve the protection of the British people against peacetime disasters of all kinds.

It is a short and simple Bill which enables those local authorities who are required by law to carry out functions under the Civil Defence Act 1948—and, I should add, the regulations made under that Act—to use for peacetime purposes the resources that are available to them for civil defence. Those resources include personnel, premises, equipment, services, facilities and, I dare say, finance; and when I say "personnel" I include not only local authority staffs but volunteers as well. The Bill is designed to encourage but not to enforce the use of civil defence personnel and other resources when making plans and preparations to deal with peacetime disasters, and, of course, to deal with them when they occur.

May we consider briefly the nature of peacetime disasters which arise in our modern complex industrial society? We have had some pretty nasty ones in our time. Of course, some of them are climatic and we have had floods, blizzards and even hurricanes here. Sheffield has suffered twice in the last 30 years from hurricanes—it is most extraordinary that it should have done so, but it did—causing great damage. Other peacetime disasters have been due to man-made conditions; for example, Aberfan, the massive oil pollution that we have had several times in the estuaries around the coasts, and major industrial disasters like the terrible chemical explosion at Flixborough.

It so happens that on each of the most serious occasions when those various disasters have occurred the local authorities have used our civil defence organisations, with their communication systems and their volunteers, to deal with those peacetime disasters, and it has been of tremendous help and consequence that that should have been so. But, curiously enough, the legality of their doing so has been in doubt. Perhaps if they had been challenged they could always have asked, "What better kind of training exercise for civil defence could you have than having to deal with a peacetime disaster?" But under this Bill the matter can be removed beyond doubt.

Some of us have been drawing attention for some years—and I refer particularly to those of us among your Lordships and in another place who are supporters of the National Council for Civil Defence—to the need for local authorities to be prepared to protect their people from the risk of peacetime nuclear hazards, even those arising on the Continent of Europe. Most local authorities have acknowledged their responsibility for trying to do something about this within their limited powers. But, of course, some local authorities did not bother at all. They just declared themselves nuclear free zones and left it at that.

But now that we have had Chernobyl, which has been such a terrible tragedy for so many people in Russia, surely we should be alerted to the need for doing more and for every local authority to do more—not just some of them. Although the radioactive fall-out from Chernobyl drifted over a very large area, none of it on this occasion came over here to any dangerous extent—mercifully.

However, if the Chernobyl disaster, or something like it, had happened in the United Kingdom or on the continental coast of the Channel, or in any not very far distant part of the Continent from us, our civil protection capability would have been ineffective. Thousands of casualties would have been caused unnecessarily through lack of adequate preparations. There are scores of nuclear power stations on the Continent. Some European countries have gone in for nuclear power even more than we have done. Various types of station have been used, although, so far as I know, none of them of the vulnerable type that was at Chernobyl. Although there has so far been no accident involving radiation or fallout on anything like the scale of Chernobyl, either in the United Kingdom or on the Continent near to us, it is surely vital that our local authorities should now be prepared.

This Bill will enable them to be prepared merely by using the civil defence resources which they are obliged to have, and using them for peace-time purposes. If they do not make civil defence preparations as they are required to do by law they will not be able to take advantage of this enabling Bill. That is plain. I hope that I have established sufficiently the case for this simple non-controversial, useful, Bill.

I am glad to see that my noble friend Lord Davidson is to speak for the Government. Like Sir Nicholas Bonsor, I should like to acknowledge the part played by the Home Office in advising on this Bill. I must stress that this is Bonsor's Bill. It will go down in history—informally, not in the official records—as Bonsor's Bill, and will be remembered as such.

In conclusion, I should like to ask my noble friend Lord Davidson two simple but important questions. First, what conclusions for this country do the Government draw from the Russian experience at Chernobyl? Secondly, to what extent are local authorities now complying with the responsibilities under the civil defence regulations of 1983? We need to know the answer to that second question because upon that answer depends the extent to which the enabling powers given by this Bill can be used effectively. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Renton.)

8.32 p.m.

Earl Grey

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome this short but important Bill, especially in the light of what has recently occurred at Chernobyl. That disaster brought home the consequences, and the precautions that have to be taken. I accept that our nuclear power stations are of a different design, but that is no guarantee. That kind of disaster is only one illustration of what is covered by this Bill. I understand that there are only 9,000 volunteers serving in the civil defence reserves, of whom 2,000 are in my home county of Devon. I have witnessed the good works and exercises that take place in Devon in conjunction with the WRVS and St. John Ambulance Brigade and would welcome the same effort and support being given nationwide. I should like to ask the noble Viscount the Minister what steps are being taken to advertise and promote the need for people to volunteer.

I reinforce a concern that my honourable friend Mr. Stephen Ross raised in another place regarding the grant of 75 per cent. to local authorities. Because of the need for civil protection in this country should not the full cost of local staffing be borne by the Government? In another place the Minister answered by saying that the grant was being reviewed. I ask the noble Viscount what is the result of that review, or shall we know in the near future?

With reference to the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, that authority is concerned that it is not included in Section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972 and it wishes to be included. We wish this Bill a speedy passage.

8.35 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for introducing this Bill into your Lordships' House after its successful passage in another place. We are all aware of the extreme concern which the noble Lord has shown in the past about the need for adequate provision for civil protection both in war time and in peace time. On 6th February last year we had a long and wide-ranging debate on this very subject during which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, cited many instances of disasters which had tragically occurred. Indeed, he has outlined some of them today. He has also reminded us of the terrible Chernobyl disaster, which has brought home to us in the worst possible way the dangers inherent in nuclear power. The point has therefore been made very clear by him that we live in dangerous times and that it is increasingly important that the Government provide the resources necessary for local authorities to be able to cope with peacetime emergencies.

In the Conservative manifesto of 1983, published over three years ago, it was said: We propose to amend the Civil Defence Act 1948 to enable civil defence funds to be used in safeguarding against peacetime emergencies as well as against hostile attacks". Perhaps the noble Viscount, Lord Davidson, when commenting on behalf of the Government, can explain why that commitment has taken so long to be fulfilled.

As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, this Bill is small and its purpose is self evidently very good. The Labour Party recognises that planning for major accidents and natural disasters in peacetime is a proper and legitimate local authority function.

In another place it was said from the Opposition Benches: We must welcome anything that tries to concentrate resources on the peacetime use of civil defence rather than on preparation for hypothetical war use". [Official Report, Commons, 21/2/86; col. 614.] I fully support this comment. However, I think that I must say that I also support the previous comment of the same speaker in the House of Commons when he said that he had: the severest doubts about the value of civil defence or civil protection preparation for a nuclear war". [Official Report, Commons, 21/2/86; col. 613]. Therefore what is so good about the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is that it enables a framework set up for a doubtful role in war to fulfil a positive and certain one in peace. It is for that reason that I am sure we are deeply grateful to him.

I support the principle of the Bill but I should like to make clear my position on the value of civil defence and on the present situation with respect to this Government's provision for peacetime civil protection. I realise that this is not a Government Bill and that the noble Viscount, Lord Davidson, representing the Government, is not answering for the Government with respect to the content of the Bill. Nevertheless I should like to take the opportunity to address a few comments to him. The funding for the emergency provisions comes in part from the powers of the local authorities to incur expenditure under Section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972, and the Scottish Act of 1973. However—a point that the noble Earl, Lord Grey, has touched upon—as a result of the abolition of the metropolitan authorities, the fire and civil defence authorities that replace them are not entitled to such powers or funding. This may be a misunderstanding, but it is a good opportunity for the Minister to clear up the concern once and for all. The chairman of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, in a letter that he wrote to me this morning, explains the problem that he faces. Briefly, this is what he says: Fire and civil defence authorities already have specialised staff trained to make contingency plans and the facilities to co-ordinate remedial actions during civil emergencies; unlike their counterparts in the shire counties, they no longer have the means to utilise their skills and resources. This appears to be an illogical and inconsistent approach. He goes on to say: The lack of civil emergency planning powers has potentially serious implications for London. The Section 138 powers in the capital are vested in the 32 London Boroughs and the City of London Corporation, with each having the power to prepare its own plan. It would, however, be pointless to regard a major emergency or disaster (such as … the Thames flooding, a major escape of toxic material or a passenger aircraft crash) as an individual borough matter. Such an incident would need co-operation and coordination between any number of London boroughs. Surely it would be more appropriate for London's Fire and Civil Defence Authority (which is, after all, made up of representatives from each borough) to co-ordinate London-wide planning for civil emergencies. In another place, as the noble Earl, Lord Grey, said, the Minister was asked whether he would consider this question. In response to the request, the Minister said: I take the hon. Gentleman's point that if there are to be effective plans for civil defence by the local fire and civil defence authorities through the implementation of the 1983 regulations we shall have to ensure that resources are available that will enable them effectively to be made. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House what steps are being taken to ensure that civil protection for peacetime emergencies will be adequately funded.

The other source of civil defence funding is the civil defence grant, which is discretionary. It became clear in the debate in another place that funding through this channel for peacetime emergencies would not be possible unless that funding went towards projects that would also have a wartime application. Can the noble Lord say what facilities and resources are available to the local authorities for specific planning for peacetime emergencies?

In his speech at the beginning of the debate in February last year, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said that there were a number of reasons why peacetime emergency planning should be at the forefront of a debate on civil defence. The first of these was: 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".—[Official Report, 6/2/85; col. 1068.] While very much welcoming the Bill, given the present circumstances, I should like to end by reiterating the noble Lord, Lord Renton's, question with respect to peacetime emergencies and by asking the Government whether they feel that the Bill will be sufficient or that it will be right to do something further at some stage.

8.44 p.m.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the first thing that I have to say this evening is that this Bill has the full support of the Government. It is both constructive and helpful. Secondly, I should like to emphasise that, as was clearly demonstrated during its progress through another place, it derives support from all the political parties. No doubt there are different views about the practical effectiveness and the broader implications of planning against the horror of wartime attack. The main purpose of this Bill, however, is that it willl enable civil defence legislation to be used to prepare and protect the public against the probability and possibility of peacetime disasters. It seeks to ensure that there is no legal hindrance to a flexible use of civil defence resources.

If we look at the resources that should be available to local authorities in meeting their civil defence obligations, possible peacetime uses are readily apparent. County authorities should have trained and experienced emergency planning staff; emergency centres, designed and equipped for use in coordinating activity; communications equipment, to ensure that the authorities and services involved can be kept in touch; and informed and enthusiastic volunteers in the community. The authority should also have prepared a prescribed range of civil defence plans covering topics such as emergency feeding arrangements and temporary accommodation for those made homeless. These plans, with obvious modifications, can often form the basis of responses to peacetime emergencies. The Bill would give specific authority for account to be taken of those modifications in the civil defence planning process.

The Bill is clearly consistent with the all-hazards approach to emergency planning, which the Government encourage and which has found widespread support. There are clear benefits from a unified approach to planning, where the expertise built up in making preparations to cope with one form of emergency can flow through to inform thinking about another. The all-hazards approach does not require any facile equation of peacetime disasters and war: nobody would claim that they are the same. The horror and devastation of a nuclear war would of course be of a different order from the most severe and extensive emergency in peacetime. But even in the very worst circumstances there would be some survivors to whom some help could be given if proper preparations had been made beforehand.

The terrible accident at Chernobyl is of course in the front of all our minds. Although the physical effects on this country have thankfully been slight, the incident has given further weight to the all-hazards approach, as we have contemplated radioactive fallout from a non-military source. My noble friend Lord Renton asked what conclusions we had drawn from the accident. The Government will be reviewing contingency arrangements in the light of experience following this incident. There will undoubtedly be many lessons to be learnt, but it is readily apparent that civil defence resources could have a role to play in these sorts of circumstances. Had Chernobyl, for instance, been closer at hand people would have had to have been evacuated, housed and fed. This is the sharp end of all emergency planning and embodies its basic humanitarian motives. The Bill seeks to ensure that the mechanisms developed to help alleviate suffering in wartime can be deployed whenever and wherever it may be appropriate in peacetime.

My noble friend, Lord Renton asked to what extent local authorities are now complying with their responsibilities under the 1983 regulations. This is indeed relevant to this Bill since those authorities that are reluctant to comply are unlikely to have in place the resources to which the Bill relates. The Government are currently compiling a full assessment of the state of civil defence preparedness in local authorities on the basis of the plans they have prepared and the results of visits to individual authorities by the Home Office's civil defence adviser. It is too soon to draw final conclusions, but it is clear that the pattern is uneven and that there is much still to be done in many areas. The Government are preparing a planned programme for full implementation of the regulations, setting out priorities and target dates for progress over a number of years. That programme will be available later this year and will, I hope, do much to encourage co-ordination and consistency in preparedness across the country. I hope that those two answers will satisfy my noble friend.

The noble Earl, Lord Grey, asked me about volunteers. There are about 13,000 local authority community volunteers in total, including volunteers' scientific advisers. There are in addition some 11,000 volunteers attached to the United Kingdom warning and monitoring organisation. Advertising for volunteers is in the hands of the local authorities, and I am sure that the noble Lord's county of Devon can show him how to run a successful advertising campaign.

The noble Earl and the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, asked about funding and the level of grant. The majority of local authorities' civil defence expenditure attracts grant aid at 75 per cent. Some categories of expenditure—principally communications equipment, training and the expenses of volunteers—attract a 100 per cent. grant. The Government are currently considering proposals to extend the categories of expenditure eligible for 100 per cent. grant, particularly to cover staff costs.

The noble Earl and the noble Baroness mentioned the subject of fire and civil defence authorities, particularly in London. County and district councils have a general power under Section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972 to incur expenditure in responding to peacetime emergencies. That does not apply to the joint fire and civil defence authorities in London and the metropolitan counties because of their more limited responsibilities and resources. The Bill will however ensure that a joint authority will have power to do everything of which it is capable in responding to a peace-time emergency. Its fire brigade would be involved in any case, and the Bill will provide that its civil defence resources may also be brought into play.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, asked why it has taken so long to fulfil our manifesto commitment. All I can say is that the Government have always been determined that that commitment should be fulfilled; but your Lordships know perfectly well the pressures on the time of both Houses, and we are all aware of that. That is why we are extremely grateful to my honourable friend Sir Nicholas Bonsor and my noble friend Lord Renton for bringing forward this Private Member's Bill.

A number of local authorities have already used their civil defence resources in responding to emergencies such as major floods, blizzards, and the leakage of dangerous chemicals. However, as matters stand, there is no firm statutory basis for doing so, and the Government believe that that is wrong. The Civil Defence Act 1948 is couched entirely in terms of hostile attack by a foreign power, and civil defence grant can only be paid in support of expenditure in connection with emergencies.

The Bill does not seek to amend the basis of the 1948 Act. Its aim is more modest and simple. It takes the 1948 Act and local authorities' activity under it as they stand as a starting point. It then seeks to ensure that that considerable human and financial investment in contingency planning can be used more flexibly. The Bill's purpose is to recognise the practical basis of the all-hazards approach to emergency planning, by providing for more efficient essential use of resources and thereby achieving the best possible value for money from the country's investment in civil defence contingency planning. I believe we can all agree about the desirability of that aim.

Finally, I congratulate my honourable friend Sir Nicholas Bonsor for introducing this useful Bill and for steering it so capably through its consideration in another place. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Renton has now taken it on and has brought it to your Lordships' House. In the hand of such a knowledgeable and effective advocate, I am confident that the Bill will continue to make speedy progress towards the statute book.

8.53 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I thank those noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I am sure all those who have heard it will agree with me that although it was short, it was important and very encouraging. I find it encouraging for two main reasons. First, because of the firm agreement on both sides of your Lordships' House, and among different parties, on the need for improving the protection of our people in peacetime. Secondly, because of the acknowledgement that much still needs to be done.

I also find it encouraging that my noble friend Lord Davidson, in replying to the various points made in the debate, was able to give fairly positive answers. To some extent, they are answers that are of immediate application, but my noble friend also held out some hope of further action to be taken by the Government in what I have regarded as a reasonably-paced evolution in the past few years in improving our protection.

The review that is taking place of the implementation of the civil defence regulations has been going on for some time. When my noble friend says that the outcome will be made known later this year, I hope to goodness that we will not be disappointed in that respect. Although we would not have expected an immediate reply at this moment, I also take note of what the Government are doing about considering the effects upon this country of the lessons to be learnt from Chernobyl. There again, I hope that we shall not have to wait too long.

Every speaker except myself has mentioned the fire and civil defence authorities. I too have received representations, and I read what was said in another place about the doubts that have been expressed, especially by the London fire and civil defence authority. But having taken a closer look at the various powers that they have, I do not believe that any amendment to the Bill, to the extent that one would be in order, would add very much to the powers that they have.

So far as concerns some of the amendments that the authorities have in mind, they would be beyond the scope of the Bill and could not be discussed in your Lordships' House any more than they were in another place. I hope therefore that we can dispel the anxieties that have existed, rightly or wrongly, on the part of those newly-created fire and civil defence authorities. I do not believe that they will find themselves limited. But under this Bill, as my noble friend Lord Davidson made abundantly clear, they will have opportunities, just as the ordinary civil defence authorities will have opportunities.

I must pay tribute to the, Devon Emergency Volunteers, who have set an example to the rest of the country. I am very glad that the noble Earl, Lord Grey, mentioned them. With the encouraging short debate that we have had, I too hope that we will get this Bill quickly onto the statute book.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.