HC Deb 28 January 1954 vol 522 cc272-8W
102. Mr. Ian Harvey

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will now make a statement on the criticism contained in the report of the Select Committee on Estimates of Civil Defence on the policy and administration of Her Majesty's Government.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

Yes. After consultation with, and on behalf of, all the Ministers concerned with Civil Defence, I have sent to the Select Committee a memorandum dealing with the recommendations which come within their specific terms of reference and are consistent with the policy implied in the Estimates relating to Civil Defence.

Apart from such matters, the Select Committee in their Report have made certain criticisms of the policy of Her Majesty's Government. These criticisms are largely based on a misapprehension of the policy governing Civil Defence preparations which has been pursued both by Her Majesty's Government and by the previous Administration, and it is therefore necessary for me to restate that policy, even though it has frequently been explained in the annual statements on defence and in speeches by Ministers.

The policy of Her Majesty's Government, which is in all respects the same as that of the last Administration, has been and is directed to the prevention of war and not to preparations for a war considered to be imminent or even inevitable. This policy has of necessity dictated the general programme of priorities in the field of defence preparations. Apart from the fact that the Armed Forces have, and Civil Defence has not, specific and inescapable commitments arising out of the "cold war" and other demands on our military resources, it has followed from this policy that preparations likely to deter a would-be aggressor from attacks upon this country must have the first claim on our resources; it is not suggested that Civil Defence has no part to play in a policy of this kind, but only that its part is a secondary one. Accordingly, the object of Civil Defence planning has been to build up the nucleus of an organisation with a view to its subsequent expansion if necessary.

The policy of Her Majesty's Government has been to prepare a carefully considered programme of priorities and to select—generally speaking—those measures which are best calculated to assist the military effort without making demands upon our resources to an extent which would be inconsistent with the maintenance of a peace-time economy. If it had been decided that Civil Defence should develop pari passu with the Armed Forces, not only would the planned expenditure have been multiplied several fold, but the tempo of its progress would have been sharply quickened.

The Select Committee suggest that over-estimating over a period of years by the Civil Defence departments indicates that there has been a lack of leadership and direction. There is no general explanation of the causes of overestimating which would apply without qualification to all departments, but there is no doubt that (apart from those causes which spring from decisions of policy) the following have been the main causes of over-estimating:

  1. (i) The services with which these Estimates are concerned are new services brought into being in pursuance of the Civil Defence Act, 1948,and it will be some little time before it is possible to achieve an accuracy of estimating comparable with that which is achieved in the case of long established services.
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  3. (ii) The period covered by the Estimates has been one of frequently changing conditions; not only has the international situation been difficult to interpret and predict, but economic and financial conditions have not been constant throughout the period and indeed the position is not yet so certain as to make long-term forecasting easy or even possible.
  4. (iii) A large proportion of the expenditure (about £35 million out of £73 million in the case of estimates and about £24 million out of about £40 million in the case of actual expenditure) has been concerned with the production of equipment; it is the common experience of all defence production programmes that they are slow to develop and that there is always a tendency, particularly in the early years, to over-estimate the possible rate of progress. The various Civil Defence production programmes have proved to be no exception to this rule.
  5. (iv) So far as regards those measures for which initial responsibility rested upon local authorities or other non-governmental organisations, the departments have not been in a position to make exact estimates, and for the local authorities themselves the work of estimating has been perhaps even more difficult than for the departments.

The margin between estimates and expenditure has, however, been progressively reduced. In the case of the current financial year 1953–54, the actual expenditure by all departments is expected to amount to approximately 85 per cent. of their estimates as compared with 67 per cent. in 1952–53 and 33 per cent. in the previous year. To take a single example, in the case of the Home Office, which is responsible for about 50 per cent. of the total expenditure in respect of Civil Defence in its accepted sense (i.e. as distinct from the preparations of civil Departments on defence expenditure), the ratio of expenditure to estimates during the current year is estimated to be of the order of 87 per cent.

The Committee suggest that too much effort is being devoted to the local or static Civil Defence organisation and not enough to the mobile organisation. Their conclusion is partly based on the views formed by the Committee of the alleged extravagance and inefficiency of the Civil Defence Corps which Her Majesty's Government do not accept. In the opinion of Her Majesty's Government the progress which has been made in the enrolment, organisation and training of the Civil Defence Corps reflects great credit, not only on the men and women who have volunteered for this patriotic duty, but on the local authorities and other organisations concerned, and Her Majesty's Government regret that any suggestion to the contrary should have appeared in the report of the Select Committee.

The whole purpose of the Civil Defence Corps is to assist the local authorities in the performance of their statutory duties; the main object of establishing the Corps by warrant of the Secretary of State on a national basis was to foster the development of esprit de corps and no good reason is seen for altering this arrangement or for making any major change in the organisation of the Corps. Subject to these reservations, there appears to be no fundamental difference between the views of Her Majesty's Government and those of the Committee.

Government policy since 1948 has been that Civil Defence forces should comprise both a local force of men and women (mainly part-timers) organised for purposes of local self-help and also sufficient mobile columns, organised on a whole time basis, to reinforce the local forces. The war-time establishment of the local forces has been provisionally estimated at 1,500,000 and the peace-time establishment at 500,000, and it is considered that these are irreducible minimum figures. The number and size of mobile columns, in war, depends mainly upon the availability of manpower.

The extent to which preparations can be made in peace for the establishment of mobile columns depends, in part, upon considerations of finance, in part, upon judgment of the right time at which to begin. One factor affecting the latter is the need for preliminary research and experiment for the purpose of designing a prototype for the organisation of future columns. One year has so far been spent upon research of this kind with very fruitful results, and it is proposed that the Experimental Mobile Column which was established last year shall be continued for a further year for the purpose of completing this work. The necessary experimental period is, however, coming to an end, and the possibility of making further progress in developing mobile columns is engaging the immediate attention of Her Majesty's Government.

As regards administration, the Select Committee make a number of detailed criticisms, but it is proposed to comment only on the more important of them.

So far as concerns the criticism directed against the delay in making regulations governing the payment of Exchequer grant to local authorities, the principle of paying such a grant was decided by Parliament by Section 3 of the Civil Defence Act, 1948, and the question remaining for consideration (and for ultimate submission to Parliament) was to determine which items should qualify for 75 per cent. grant and which for complete reimbursement. This was a complicated matter affecting not only a number of Government Departments but some 10 associations of local authorities in England and Scotland, and it is not surprising that (as in the case of the similar negotiations before the war) the discussions were protracted, especially as the local authority associations were occupied with a great many other problems at the same time.

It would no doubt have been more satisfactory if these questions could have been resolved sooner, but this could have been done only if it had been thought fit, either by the present administration or by the preceding administration, to concede the whole of the demands made by the local authorities, or alternatively to impose an arbitrary settlement upon the local authorities. In the result, complete agreement was reached between the Government and the local authorities, and the consequential delay has not resulted in the slightest hold-up in the progress of the measures for which the local authorities are responsible. The Regulations were in fact made on 3rd December, 1953, and are now in force.

As regards the delay in making progress with the Civil Defence plans of the railways and the electricity and gas industries, it is acknowledged that the delay in settling the financial arrangements for these industries has slowed up progress. Agreement has, however, since been reached with all concerned with these arrangements and, within the limited scope of the resources available, progress is now being made.

The Committee also state that they were disturbed to discover that legal technicalities under the Requisition of Land and War Works Act, 1945, were delaying the acquisition of the deep shelters which already exist in London though the power of requisition will come to an end in 1955. It was, however, explained to the Committee that the Ministry of Works had every hope of completing the acquisition of these shelters before the power comes to an end and that, even if, in any case, this does not prove to be possible, it is most unlikely that they would be put to any other use in peace-time which would prevent them being taken over again in war for use as shelters. Her Majesty's Government have no reason to believe that this hope will not be fulfilled.

The Committee criticise the delay in proceeding with the scheme for extending bulk-heads in open shelter deck ships. This is a voluntary scheme and a start could not be made on it until the General Council of Shipping had accepted it on behalf of ship-owners generally. The Council, although they dislike tie taxation arrangements proposed and reserve their position in this respect, have now commended the scheme to shipowners and the way is open for the work to go ahead.

The Committee comment upon the difference between the expenditure upon equipment, such as uniform and sandbags, and expenditure upon operational equipment, and they remark that the evidence they have received demonstrates the need for a clearer formulation of priorities in the provision of Civil Defence equipment. Her Majesty's Government of course recognise that expenditure on such items as uniform and sandbags must not be allowed to-distract attention from the need to produce more essential equipment. It may, however, be mentioned incidentally that the substantial stocks of sandbags which were held in Civil Defence stores proved to be an exceedingly valuable reserve at the time of last year's disastrous floods on the East Coast.

As regards alleged delays in placing orders for equipment, it was not until 1951 that authority was given for the programme of £20 million for fire appliances; this programme has not, as stated by the Committee, been "cut" to £9 million, but like other production programmes it has, on financial grounds, been spread over a longer period, and it was mainly for that reason that the orders placed by the Home Office with the Ministry of Works had to be adjusted. In fact, the actual expenditure on the Fire Services under sub-head B of the Vote in 1952–53 was approximately £3,330,000, and it is expected that the corresponding expenditure in the current year will be not much less than £6 million.

As regards respirators, there has been no avoidable delay in production and their design was given high priority. The production programme took account of the fact that large stocks of usable respirators remain from the last war. There has likewise been no avoidable delay in the production of radio-active measuring equipment, and there is no foundation for the suggestion that the "scientists' search for progress and perfection" may have delayed production.

Finally, Her Majesty's Government do not accept the Committee's conclusion about the absence of leadership, direction and guidance, and they regret that the Select Committee should have seen fit to criticise officials for matters for which Her Majesty's Government are solely responsible. As regards the machinery of Government, Her Majesty's Government are satisfied that the policy of assigning Civil Defence responsibilities to the departments with whose normal functions they are most closely related is right and that the existing organisation for the co-ordination of departmental measures of Civil Defence which follows an accepted and well tried pattern is appropriate for dealing with the position at any rate in the present stage of development.