Order for Second Reading read.

Orders of the Day — Civil Defence (Electricity Undertakings) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th February 1954.

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7.53 p.m.

Photo of Hon. Lancelot Joynson-Hicks Hon. Lancelot Joynson-Hicks , Chichester

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This rather small Bill must, I confess, be considered as having unsimple phraseology, but its objects are quite clear and perfectly simple. Briefly, the objects of the Bill are to enable my right hon. Friend, as Minister of Fuel and Power, to make regulations to require and to assist the electricity industry to take measures to ensure its due functioning in the event of hostility, or in times of emergency. The expression "due functioning" is well understood by the House, because it was first used in the Civil Defence Act, 1939. It really means that the object we are seeking to achieve is to ensure that the industry is able to maintain its services, so far as is reasonably practicable, despite the results of hostile attack.

The House will want to know why we have to introduce a Bill for this purpose, because hon. Members will remember there have been Civil Defence Acts in the past. A rather curious situation arose as a result of the history of the electricity industry. The 1939 Act contained a specific provision very largely covering the requirements which we now need to enable the electricity industry to function duly. But after the 1939 Act we had the nationalisation of the industry, and, during the course of the Electricity Act, 1947, which nationalised the industry, it necessarily followed that the Central Electricity Board and the Electricity Commissioners were done away with. Possibly by mistake, in the course of doing away with those two bodies in the 1947 Act, the provisions in the 1939 Civil Defence Act which gave a grant to the industry were repealed. We are now seeking to make good that inadvertent repeal.

The effect of this Bill is therefore to reintroduce into the 1939 Civil Defence Act the electricity industry which was removed from it during the course of the Nationalisation Act. We propose to do it by amending Section 39 of the 1939 Act so as to delete the exception, which was the electricity undertaking, from that Section. That is the sum and substance of the Bill. Hon. Gentlemen will probably agree that, although the method may on the face of it appear to be slightly tortuous, it is the best, because it has the effect of bringing this industry, and the methods and machinery of its due functioning, into line with the other industries.

As I have said, this is entirely an enabling Bill to enable my right hon. Friend, as the Minister designated for the purpose by Order in Council, to make Regulations to revive the grant provisions, and to cover the purposes, of the 1939 Act so far as they apply to due functioning for the electricity industry. The Bill does not set out to refer to, or to deal with, any specific works, grants or anything of that sort. Indeed, I think I would be ruled out of order were I to refer to them. Those are matters which in the event of the Bill passing into law, will come before the House as subject for an affirmative Resolution. This is purely an enabling Measure and one which I think the whole House will probably agree is desirable. Certainly it is wanted by the industry, and it is needed to ensure that the industry has not only the obligation but the opportunity to take these due functioning measures.

If the House desires any further or more elaborate explanation I shall be very happy to try to reply to any questions at the conclusion of the debate, if I am permitted to speak again, but possibly what I have so far said will be sufficient to introduce the subject.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. James MacColI:

The Parliamentary Secretary's introduction of this Bill was able enough, but he seemed to be walking delicately over some rather dangerous ground. The substance of this Bill was one of the matters commented upon by the Select Committee on Estimates as an example of the apparent inefficiency with which the Civil Defence services were being administered. As I was a Member of the Estimates Committee, and of the particular sub-Committee which was charged with this inquiry, I feel that I should not lose the opportunity of drawing the attention of the House to the substance of the complaint made by the Estimates Committee about the procedure which led up to the introduction of this Bill.

I want to make it clear that I shall not attempt to make any party political points. It would be a deplorable thing if the function of this House as a vigilant and dispassionate watch-dog over the safeguarding of public money—the kind of function which is the duty of the Select Committee on Estimates and of the Public Accounts Committee—became a matter of party criticism. I am not apportioning blame as between any of the responsible Ministers at the time when these proceedings were taking place. My right hon. Friend will know to what extent these difficulties arose in his time, and the Parliamentary Secretary will know to what extent they arose in his time.

In dealing with the Bill which we are now discussing and the Order in relation to the gas industry, which we are going to discuss in a moment, the House should be reminded that in paragraph 33 of the Report of the Estimates Committee of this Session these words appear: Your Committee were perturbed to discover that difficulties had arisen over the grant regulations which have to be made before the industries can be reimbursed. The undertakings are reluctant to incur very substantial capital expenditure until they are assured that they can be reimbursed and Your Committee find it incomprehensible that in the five years since the passing of the Act, the Department concerned have not been able to find a solution to the legal difficulties. Some comments on this Report have suggested that the Members of the Committee were a little hasty in some of their conclusions, and that they indulged in unduly strong language. That is not the view which I should take, and it is certainly not a point that can be made in regard to the use of the word "incomprehensible."

It is interesting to notice that in their reply, as set out on page 13 of the Second Special Report of the Select Committee, the Government say: 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. It is common ground that there were delays and that those delays have held up progress in equipping these industries for protection against any possible enemy attack.

It is only fair to say that that is not the whole story. The fact that there have appeared, for two years, estimates of expenditure which have not been spent at all, is not due only to the administrative hold-up; it is also due to a shortage of materials. The Committee was told in evidence that in 1952–53 the problem was one of availability of plant. The difficulty lay in being able to do the actual work, in physical terms. Even then we were told, and I am now quoting from Answer No. 1537: For that which was delivered we are not able to do anything about it because we have not got yet our grant regulations which are necessary before we can make actual payments. I have made it sufficiently clear that there has been some administrative hold up in the presentation of this Bill, which has handicapped the equipping of these industries, and the Government should have given us a little more explanation how this happened and what was the trouble. As far as the Select Committee was able to discover, as early as 1949 the requirements for due functioning were known to the Department. It appears that the technical officers of the Department knew by then what was required for the purposes of carrying out those functions. There was then a delay of about 2½ years, until the spring of 1952. Exactly why that delay occurred was never made quite clear. In the spring of 1952 proposals for the due functioning expenditure were approved. That was two years ago.

Before that time there had apparently been some discussion about the legal position and on the question whether these grants could be made under the Civil Defence Act, as it then was—for the reasons mentioned by the Parliamentary Secretary—but in 1951 the legal advisers of the Ministry of Fuel and Power and of the Home Office were agreed that it was best to do it under the existing legislation. In 1951—about three years ago—the Treasury appeared to have formulated their grant proposals, so there was no hold-up on the financial side.

When we received evidence from the Department—which was in April, 1953, very nearly a year ago—we were told, however, that there were these legal hitches, and that the matter was still being argued out and would have to go before the Law Officers. If the draft had already been submitted in April, 1953—as we were told it had—and the technical and financial side of the matter had been settled, and for six or nine months there had been consideration of the method of getting over these legal problems, it is not unreasonable to ask why it has taken from April, 1953, until February, 1954—all that time of somewhat portentious travail—to produce this rather ridiculous mouse. Here we are presented with what is virtually a one-Clause Bill, which merely brings into Section 39 of the Act provisions which had been inadvertently repealed by the nationalisation Act.

I am not an expert Parliamentary draftsman, but it would seem pretty easy to concoct a Bill of any size on this subject, and get it through the House without any really serious criticism—because everyone agrees on its desirability. Putting it at its most charitable, it is a matter for comment that it has taken since April, 1953—when we heard evidence—until now to produce this Bill. In fact, it has taken very much longer, because, when we were hearing evidence on the subject, it was already pretty old history. It had been going on for at least six or nine months.

This is a particularly good illustration of some of the problems that caused the Estimates Committee to indulge in some rather strong language, and I think the House will agree that they did so with a good deal of justification. We have the admission of the Government that they have been playing about with different methods of securing a perfectly straightforward result, about which everybody was agreed, whether the argument was that it could be done without legislation or that a one-Clause Bill was needed. The evidence we had before the Select Committee showed that this delay was holding up the physical requirements of the electrical industry. I really can do no more tonight than remind the House of this Report of the Select Committee that was charged with responsibility for looking into these matters.

I conclude with two questions. What is to be tine nature of the grant and what are to be the terms of the grant? Will it be similar to or different from the grant under the gas industry Order? It is not quite clear.

8.11 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Palmer Mr Arthur Palmer , Cleveland

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), I do not quarrel about the introduction of this Bill and I do not think the House will quarrel about it, but I am certainly of the opinion that the Bill should have been brought in previously. It is a very necessary Bill, and it is a great pity that we have not had it before tonight. My hon. Friend, with his usual clarity and ability, brought before us the remarks of the Select Committee on Estimates about the delay there has been, because of these technical legal difficulties about making the grants, in getting something done about Civil Defence protection for electricity supplies. That is a somewhat serious matter which should not be dismissed too lightly.

The Parliamentary Secretary said that the purpose of the Bill was to ensure the due functioning of the electricity undertakings, as far as that could be ensured, in the event, which we all hope will never happen, of hostilities occurring again. Just how far is this money likely to go? It is estimated that in the coming year just over £1 million will be spent. Since that is roughly 50 per cent, of what will be spent altogether in the coming year it seems we are likely to spend just over £2 million, that is to say, if the plant and equipment are available to make the spending of the money realistic. Towards ensuring the due functioning of electricity undertakings in the event of attack that amount of money will obviously not go very far. I should like the views of the Parliamentary Secretary on that point.

This money is not to be devoted to training. That is a matter for the Home Office. I know that that is the case. Were we talking about training we could say that the electricity industry already has a fairly high proportion of trained people in Civil Defence. The money is mainly for the provision of spare plant, extra transformers, switch gear and so on, easily replaceable if standing plant should be destroyed or damaged.

We are still very much in the dark, because there is so much general secrecy about it, as to what effect another war will have, should it come, and what effect it will have on the functioning of public utility undertakings. I am wondering if the Government are looking to the effective functioning of the electricity undertakings in this connection. For instance, I suppose that with atomic warfare it will be necessary to design very special types of emergency power stations, some, perhaps, deep underground, to provide a minimum electricity supply should the normal over ground power stations be destroyed or put out of action. I should like to hear the Parliamentary Secretary's views on that.

I have had some experience of this matter. I was engaged in electricity supply in London during the war. I have been in large power stations during and soon after an attack. A surprising feature was how a large power station could swallow up bombs fairly easily without being put out of action. That was contrary to previous speculation. Everything depended on where the bomb fell; not upon the area of the damage it could do, but often whether by luck it hit a particularly vital part of the plant.

It is no longer a secret, and I may recall what from the enemy's point of view was a very lucky raid—although unfortunate for us—when a small bomb penetrated the centre of Battersea Power Station and put the control room out of action one misty September afternoon in 1940. Because it was the control room the great power station was out of action for a day or so, but also because it was the control room alone it was possible for emergency connections to be made and the station put into action again in a reasonably short period.

I do not want to weary the House with tales of that kind. The experience of another war, should it come, may be very different. I am wondering, therefore, looking at the trivial nature of this present suggested financial grant, if the matter is really being studied seriously, because if it is a job to be done at all it certainly should be well done. I should like some guidance from the Parliamentary Secretary about how far the precautions to be taken are likely to be effective in the event of another war under the new circumstances of atomic bomb attack.

8.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Philip Noel-Baker Mr Philip Noel-Baker , Derby South

The Parliamentary Secretary has given us a clear explanation of why the Bill is required, and there is nothing in what he said that I wish to contest, and, of course, we shall not vote against the Bill. My hon. Friends have asked him some questions arising out of the Report of the Select Committee, and I would emphasise their requests to him to say whatever he can in answer to their observations. I shall not say more on that point because I think, and I certainly hope, that in the near future we may have another opportunity of debating that most important and very carefully documented Report.

I should like an explanation of the very curious percentage of grant which is to be made to the British Electricity Authority—52¾ per cent. I think I used to understand the history of that percentage once upon a time. Perhaps I could repeat it now, but I am not sure. I think it will be quite useful to have a clear official explanation of this figure placed on the records of the House, so that everybody can know why the British Electricity Authority will get 52¾per cent, grant only while the other boards and authorities will get much more.

I do not want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say anything which, on security grounds, he might wish to avoid saying, but if he could say something about the probable efficacy of the measures Which the Government hope to take through this £1,200,000 which they intend to spend at once, that would be worth while. We probably all have varying opinions about the general efficacy of any measure of Civil Defence in a future war. We may hold—some no doubt do—that nothing would be much good against a large-scale attack by atomic bombs if the bombs were dropped near their target. It is airways possible, however, that there may be another war conducted by conventional weapons with atomic bombs in existence but never used, just as we and Hitler had poison gas in the last war but refrained from dropping it on each other's country.

I have no doubt 'that Hitler refrained only because we made it extremely clear to him what would happen to Germany if he started. It may be that we could stop a future aggressor by that means. Personally, I do not think it very likely.

I think that if a man in the 20th century, after his experience of the last war, is resolved to start a war; if he has atomic bombs and if he understands what devastation he might reap by a surprise attack, that attack is very likely to be made. He will be a maniac, and if he is a maniac, why should he refrain from using the most devastating weapon at his command?

I do not think it very likely that we shall have that kind of war, with atomic bombs in existence but not used while conventional weapons do what they did last time, and I confess that I think the new development of atomic artillery does not increase the chance. Personally, I regard that with grave misgivings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Palmer) told us a little about his experiences in London. I wish he had told us a lot more, because they were very interesting and valuable as a guide to future efforts. Having to deal with a larger scale of bombing that we ever had to endure, the Germans proved—and we proved this up to a certain point—that measures of Civil Defence against high explosives can provide a remarkable result, and that life can go on when it might seem that it is impossible for any normal production or activity to take place.

Even against this atomic bombardment, I think measures could be devised which would produce a real effect, but I think it likely that they would be extremely expensive, far beyond our present power to provide. If we must choose, I am afraid it is likely that our best defence against the dangers of the future is to put more money into active military defence and less into passive Civil Defence. That is a grim thought, but I am afraid it is true.

As Sir John Anderson, now Lord Waverley, said in the first debate on Civil Defence in this House after the war, we must try to find some middle way between doing nothing and attempting the impossible. I should like to know whether the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us what are the sort of measures which he intends to take, some of them no doubt designed to deal with the effects of attack by conventional weapons and some, I hope, designed to deal with the possibility of atomic bombs. Let me point out that under the second of those types of attack, the danger to power stations is very great.

Attached to the evidence given to the Select Committee, there is an Annex No. 1 called "Civil Defence and Atomic Attack." It describes the four different kinds of danger which an atomic bomb produces—blast, heat-flash, gamma radiation and residual radioactivity. The Committee has written this Annex in terms of what it calls a "nominal" bomb—of 20 kilotin size—which is about the same, it says, as that which was dropped on Nagasaki.

We ought to bear in mind that atomic bombs exist today which are 10 times as powerful as that which was dropped on Nagasaki, and I believe it is a conservative estimate that a hydrogen bomb would be 100 times as powerful. Let us, however, consider the matter in the terms of the "nominal"20 kilotin bomb. Blast will cause severe devastation up to three-quarters of a mile and considerable devastation up to two miles from the point at which the bomb falls.

Heat-flash will cause burns to those who are not protected up to one-and-three quarter miles. One bomb would probably start 1200 fires in an area where all the roads were blocked by rubble. Gamma radiation will cover a very wide area, with grave danger to those who are not protected, perhaps up to one-and-three-quarter or two miles.

But by far the greatest danger to the power stations is the residual radio activity, because an atomic bomb dropped in water produces a terrible effect and our power stations, by their nature, must be close by water. Many of them are on the coast, including some of our new stations and our best stations. Some are in the estuaries of great rivers. Some of them are on the Thames very near to here. I do not think we could get the kind of effect produced at Bikini from the River Thames, but it is the same kind of effect which we must bear in mind.

This is what Annex I has to say: It is in the case of surface, or below surface, bursts"— particularly in water— that the dangers of residual radioactivity assume greater proportions. Our knowledge is incomplete, but from published information about the American atomic test at Bikini it can be calculated that if a burst of this type occurred inshore and the radioactive mist and spray drifted on to the land, an area of several square miles would be so heavily contaminated that the chance of survival of people in that area would be very small indeed. A water-burst of this kind in or adjacent to a port with an onshore wind might therefore produce casualties on a scale comparable with those from an air-burst. This type of attack on ports cannot be ruled out"— any more than it can on power stations— and it is a major Civil Defence task to study how to deal with such a situation. Any general decontamination of the area is out of the question and indeed the free use of the area by personnel might not be possible for weeks or even months. I believe it is a fact that ships which the Americans used at Bikini could not be decontaminated and after 18 months were sunk. That is the kind of danger which might confront us in trying to protect our power stations. Whatever else the Parliamentary Secretary may be able to do, I hope he will do his utmost to provide some underground shelter for the personnel and for the controls which will give them what security there can be and which will leave the personnel some route of possible escape from this contaminated area. It will not be very easy and it will be very expensive, but I think it ought to be attempted.

Every time we introduce any new measure to deal with Civil Defence against a future war, I think we must remember that the only defence is not to have the war and that the only certain way not to have the war is to work for all-round international disarmament under international control. There are, of course, other ways of preventing war. Two nights ago, the Government refused to increase their contribution to the Technical Assistance Programme of the United Nations. The sum which will be used for power stations under this Bill is double that contribution. I hope that it may produce as great a result.

8.30 p.m.

Photo of Hon. Lancelot Joynson-Hicks Hon. Lancelot Joynson-Hicks , Chichester

I think that I should say, if the House will allow me to reply to the debate and speak a second time, that we have had an exceedingly interesting although, perhaps, a slightly unexpected debate on this rather small Measure. I should like very much indeed to follow the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker), in the exceedingly knowledgeable and well-informed information which he has been giving us, on the question of the principles, possibilities and anxieties of atomic warfare. I should hesitate to do so, however, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, not only because it is a subject with which I am nothing like so conversant as the right hon. Gentleman, but also because it might lead me into trouble with you, if you were to regard the limitations of the debate with that degree of strictness for which we respect your Rulings.

I should like to remind the right hon. Gentleman and also the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Palmer), who raised the same questions in a different form, that the points to which they have drawn attention are very well within the knowledge and scope of those who are responsible for the Civil Defence of the industry. I would say that anyone who has attended, as I have, the Civil Defence exercise at the British Electricity Authority's place at Horsley Towers could not fail to be struck by the exceedingly realistic and practical way in which we are endeavouring to learn how to tackle this problem. This evening we are primarily dealing with the question of physical defence on the generating side of the industry. That is the business for which this Bill is being introduced.

It is, as the right hon. Gentleman said, very largely a question of striking the right balance between doing nothing or attempting the impossible. One can, as he intimated, go exceedingly far in the direction of attempting the impossible, and then very likely it would not prove successful, even if an emergency occurred. What, therefore, is intended to be done by virtue of these powers is to try to ensure that the most vulnerable points are either protected or duplicated so that if there is some part of the system eliminated or temporarily put out of action, something else will be able to be switched in to take its place, or that there will be repairs or alternative supplies immediately available.

That brings me to a point of considerable difficulty. I appreciate very much, if I may say so, the welcome which the right hon. Gentleman gave to this Bill in his approach to the subject and the very helpful way in which he made his speech. I want to reciprocate and to be helpful, but he particularly asked me to explain how we arrived at the figure of 52¾ per cent. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that that figure is not referred to in the Bill. I wonder if he is going to be here for a few minutes longer, because this subject might be very well discussed on the next Order, and possibly we can cover the point then.

So far as the question of the hon. Member for Cleveland is concerned, as to how far the money will go, there we are on safer ground, because I think that he was referring to the Financial Memorandum to the Bill. The answer to that is that the estimate is not going very far this year, but it is a figure which we believe the industry will be bard pushed to spend during the course of the financial year. Obviously, it is not a once for all payment. Protection will have to be continued as the industry develops.

That very largely brings me to the speech of the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl). I appreciate very much what he said and I am delighted that we have a member of the Select Committee in the House to assist us and help discuss these matters and to explain personally the anxieties and fears which that Committee very fully set out in its Report and to which we have given due attention and careful study. The hon. Member asked what were to be the terms of the grant. He will appreciate that no grant is specifically referred to in the Bill. It is an enabling Bill, to enable the Minister to make regulations which will deal with the grant and fix its rate. The regulations will be debatable by reason of the necessity for them to be subject to an affirmative Resolution.

On the question of timing and delay, it is quite clear—I hope the right hon. Gentleman will accept his share of responsibility in this—that there has been considerable delay in arriving at the decision, not only as to what the powers should be, but that they should be taken and put into operation. But I do not think anything has been lost by it. It is true that after the question of the rate of grant, which was the first thing to be decided, had been discussed and agreed between the industry and the Government, the next question was how to put it into operation.

I ask the House to bear in mind, however, that during all that period, to which the hon. Member referred, the industry was stretched to its absolute limit in order to provide additional generating capacity. As a very great deal of the due functioning expenditure must necessarily be incurred in stockpiling, especially of essential and vulnerable parts, it may well have been more advantageous to the country, in the circumstances which have happened, that those particular parts were brought straight into practical use in order to increase the generating capacity to the extent that we have succeeded in getting through the past fortnight without any power cuts. As the hon. Member very fairly stated, there were in the early stages also the difficulties occasioned by shortage of materials and non-availability of plant, and there were the problems, which took a considerable time to settle and decide, as to what was the right and proper rate of financial contribution to be made.

Finally, however, I accept the hon. Member's criticisms. There was the problem of how legally these matters should be implemented. I take it as rather a compliment to my opening remarks that the hon. Member has given the impression that the task has been so easy, because I assure him that it is an exceedingly difficult problem and one which has taxed the ingenuity of the lawyers for a long time.

What I did not refer to is that there is another Act—the Civil Defence (Suspension of Powers) Act, 1945, which suspended the Civil Defence Act, 1939. Then we had the Electricity Act, 1947, which, as I mentioned, repealed the relevant provisions—Section 42 of the 1939 Act—which at that time were in suspension. The point as to what happens when a provision which is in suspension is repealed gives rise to a great deal of difficulty.

The Civil Defence Act, 1948, gave power to revive and also to amend and vary the 1939 Act. Can one revive, amend or vary a provision, which has been repealed while it is in suspension? It is a matter of considerable difficulty, and I do not think the House would have appreciated it had we come along and misled hon. Members on this exceedingly technical point, on which I would only claim to speak upon advice. In the end it was felt that the doubt, as the hon. Member has indicated, was of sufficient weight to warrant the introduction of another Bill rather than run the risk involved in utilising the powers in the 1948 Act and seeking to revive the powers of the 1939 Act by means of Regulations.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

What puzzles me is that if there is this difficulty, surely the wise thing to do is to assume the worst and to assume that these tricky claims with their various suspending Acts will not work, and so straight away cut the Gordian knot and bring in a straight forward reinstatement under Section 6 in order to help the undertakings in the industry. I can quite imagine the lawyers having a "whale of a time" discussing this matter for two or three years and devising ways of doing something which could have been simply done in the straightforward way I suggest. We cannot understand why the simple thing was not done straight away.

Photo of Hon. Lancelot Joynson-Hicks Hon. Lancelot Joynson-Hicks , Chichester

I can quite appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point of view, but if there is a way of avoiding the introducing of an Act of Parliament, it is a normal reaction of one's legal advisers to try to find out. It is by no means an easy thing to do, and I think the House will agree that the fewer the number of unnecessary Bills that are introduced the better the House is pleased.

I think I have replied substantially to the points which have been raised, and I am glad that all the problems and difficulties have now been overcome and that we are, if the House is agreeable, in a fair way to putting the matter in order, by enabling my right hon. Friend to make the regulations to assist the industry to have these due functioning measures, which we are all agreed are necessary and desirable.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Legh.]

Committee upon Monday next.