HL Deb 19 January 1988 vol 492 cc76-8

2.43 p.m.

Viscount Mersey

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 whether the Civil Defence Act 1948 still serves its original purpose of covering all aspects of what is now known as civil protection.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the Civil Defence Act 1948 makes provisions only in relation to hostile attack by a foreign power. The resources which are provided under that Act may also be used for peacetime emergencies, under the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986.

Viscount Mersey

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Nevertheless, I am sure he will agree that there is a good spirit of glasnost around nowadays. In view of that, will he consider renaming the Civil Defence Act the Civil Protection Act, which would have as its main aim ordinary disasters such as the Bradford City Football Club fire or the terrible fire at King's Cross Underground station?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not think that there would be great merit in changing the name of the Act, because the function remains an important one—that we should be able to have protection in the event of a hostile act. The fact is that arrangements now enable that Act to be used for peacetime purposes.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case, however, in support of what the Minister's noble friend has said, that the purpose of the Civil Defence Act is entirely different from that which it originally had? The original purpose was to offer some degree of protection to the population, for example, in nuclear war. That purpose has been admitted since then to be entirely fallacious, and is impossible. As the Act therefore is not the Act that it pretended to be in the first instance, would it not be a good idea to bring it back, possibly refashion it, and rename it as well?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, there are plenty of protections available in the event of nuclear war, but that has nothing to do with civil protection in peacetime. The noble Lord will agree that the precautions being taken against troubles which might occur in international war can be used for civil purposes. I do not see that there is much point in altering that position.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I cordially welcome the appointment of my noble friend as Minister of State at the Home Office. Is he aware that the Home Office now has a policy, and has had for several years, of coping with all emergencies in peace and war, shortly called the all-hazards approach, and that the Home Office has used the expression "civil protection" rather than "civil defence" to describe all those risks? Would it not be better, therefore, to bring the statute law into line?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his kind remarks. I also congratulate him on the fact that he was responsible for the introduction of the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986. That Act has been in operation for just over 12 months. It would be a little premature now to rehash that as well. I shall certainly bear in mind what my noble friend and others have said.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, did I hear the noble Earl aright when he said that there were plenty of defences available for nuclear war? Surely that is one of the most astonishing observations ever heard in this House.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps I should have used my words a little more carefully and should have said that there are plenty of preparations for defence in times of war.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, would not the noble Earl agree that there is no possible protection for the population in the event of nuclear bombardment? Is it not absurd to imagine that there ever could be?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, that is no reason whatsoever for taking no protection measures against nuclear war.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, in dealing with matters that are not covered by nuclear war or the threat of it, is the noble Earl satisfied that sufficient resources are being placed at the disposal of local authorities so that they can deal with the type of emergency that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, was speaking of?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am perfectly satisfied that there are sufficient powers for local authorities to make use of such protection as they require for these emergencies.