Civil Defence

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th January 1968.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. loan L. Evans.]

10.26 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hugh Jenkins Mr Hugh Jenkins , Wandsworth Putney

One of the reasons which has carried me through the Lobby tonight in support of the Government is that at long last they have accepted the proposition that civil defence against nuclear war is an impossibility, and they have acted in the light of that acceptance. They have agreed that the war game is over.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. Will hon. Gentlemen leave the Chamber quietly, please.

Photo of Mr Hugh Jenkins Mr Hugh Jenkins , Wandsworth Putney

For me this is a justification for the struggle fought hard for the last 10 years. Elected to the London County Council in 1958, the abolition of civil defence was a first priority in my election address.

After a struggle the London County Council Labour Party accepted the arguments and carried in the council chamber a resolution in which the L.C.C., as it then was, correctly asserted that there was no means of protecting Londoners from nuclear war. But the L.C.C., in spite of this was forced, as all other local authorities were forced, to carry on what they knew to be an expensive charade because the central Government said that they must.

Thus over the years several hundred million pounds of public money has been wasted. Why? Because the Government of the day thought it psychologically necessary to have civil defence. They thought it psychologically necessary to maintain the belief in the survival of millions after nuclear war, because they thought that our people could not contemplate the possibility of extinction, and must be cocooned into accepting a totally unrealistic fairy tale about carrying on some semblance of civilised life after a nuclear war. The fairy tale was very little believed outside this House. All that it succeeded in bringing about was the discredit of those who pretended to believe in it and who propounded it as a solemn truth.

We had the spectacle of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence declaring that in the event of nuclear war, all life in this island would be extinct, I think he said, in a matter of hours, a view which was endorsed by the right hon. and learned Member for St.Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) on behalf of the Opposition. I am glad that the right hon. and learned Member is present tonight to certify that that was what he said at that time.

Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , St Marylebone

No, the hon. Member is wrong. I have never said that all life would be extinct. I said that we as a nation would be destroyed, and that I believe, but it is absurd to pretend that all life would be extinct. That is not in accordance with the scientific advice which I received when I was in government, and it is not in accordance with my opinion now.

Photo of Mr Hugh Jenkins Mr Hugh Jenkins , Wandsworth Putney

If I have misquoted the right hon. and learned Member, I apologise. If he said that the nation would be destroyed, I accept that correction. When reading HANSARD the other day, although I do not have the exact words with me, I thought that the right hon. and learned Member went a little further than that. However, it is not necessary to press the point. I need only make the point that in the event of nuclear war, destruction of the nation would be the outcome; and in that the Minister of Defence went even further.

However, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who is to reply to this debate, contradicted my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence on another occasion by saying that he did not really mean it, because what he meant was that millions of people would survive. He said that the Minister of Defence was referring to a major nuclear attack, whereas he meant that millions of people would survive a minor nuclear attack. He must have known that that was nonsense, because there is no such thing as a minor nuclear attack.

Nearly 10 years ago, the then London County Council calculated the effect of a 2-megaton bomb—not a 10-megaton bomb, or several bombs—on London. In its official report, the Council said that the largest bomb then known could, if centrally placed, destroy most of the administrative County of London beyond repair and suggested that the possibility of survival, whatever might be the case outside London, could not be relied upon in the Metropolis.

Let us, therefore, hope that the decision taken by the Government—in my judgment rightly—on policy grounds, as well as on the financial grounds which are given as the cause, to continue civil defence on a care and maintenance basis really means an end to this rather unsuccessful attempt at mass deception and an end to expensive advertising containing statements of such blatant falsehood that, in comparison, private advertisers are models of modesty and restraint.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is freed from the necessity of official prevarication. He can admit the truth that in the nuclear age civil defence is an expensive nonsense, and always has been. What is the consequence of admitting this to be so? When I put down my subject for this Adjournment debate, I had no idea that the Government would agree with me. This is indeed a new experience for me, and a most welcome one. It usually takes Governments about three years to come round to my point of view. I should, possibly, have realised that conversion was about due.

If it were in order, I would say that the Government will be agreeing with me in about three years' time and by then, perhaps, will have scrapped Concorde; but that will have to wait for another occasion. In less than three years, I hope that they will agree that it was a mistake to introduce prescription charges. Let us, however, make the most of what we have today. We can do this only by accepting the logic of scrapping civil defence. It is a simple and eternal rule of war never to use a weapon against which one cannot defend oneself. In the nuclear age, the nation which neglects that rule will destroy itself.

Now that we have admitted the truth, it follows that we must cease to be a nuclear target. Soviet nuclear weapons are targeted on Britain because we are a nuclear base, and we have nuclear weapons targeted on Russia. Cease to be a nuclear base and automatically we cease to be a nuclear target. Therefore, I hope that in three years' time the Government will get rid of the Polaris submarines, because they will realise that that is the logic of having abolished civil defence. Why not do it now? If they were to do so, there would be no need to tax the sick, no need to make the poor poorer. Let us hope that the light will soon dawn, and that this illumination will presage a great change of policy.

In congratulating the Government on making this decision I should like to make one suggestion. It is this. The civil defence services have rendered great service when there have been the kinds of industrial accidents which must happen from time to time in any urban society. Indeed, there was an example only very recently in Glasgow, where the work performed by the civil defence service was of enormous value. There seems to be a case—and I make no new point here: it was my original argument in the L.C.C. —that the name of the force should be changed from Civil Defence Corps to Civil Rescue Service, and that the emphasis on the work of the force should be transferred from nuclear defence, which I believe to be impossible, to help in case of large industrial accidents, help which, I believe, experience has shown to be not only possible but most valuable. There seems to be a case for the continued existence of a civil rescue service in a dozen major towns, and that it should be highly mobile and ready to help, and perhaps attached to the fire brigades. This would be a better reward for the public spirit which has always animated the civil defence people, than setting them to a task which they in their hearts have always known to be an illusion, and a most dangerous illusion at that.

That illusion is over, and for this small mercy, much thanks. I am sorry, as I am sorry about the defence cuts, that instead of being a deliberate act of policy these changes are made under financial pressure. The main thing, however, is that they are made, and, having been made, nothing can be quite the same again. We may, in our lifetime, if we are intelligent and not too hidebound, yet remove the shadow of nuclear war from the face of our country. The abolition of nuclear defence—" care and maintenance "is, I trust, only another term for it—is a step in that direction, and I warmly welcome the Government's decision.

10.38 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

Confusion of thought seems to me to have been the basis of the speech which we have just heard from the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins), confusion of thought which was typified by the misquotation or misunderstanding of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg). There has also in my opinion, been serious confusion of thought in the mind of the Government in making the decision to abolish the Civil Defence Corps and put it on a care and maintenance basis, whatever that may mean, and I hope we shall be told about that this evening.

It is very strange, because the Government, like their predecessors, had assumed that civil defence was a necessary part of the policy of the deterrent and lent credibility to the deterrent. The credibility of the deterrent has been partly sustained by there being a Civil Defence Corps not only in this country but also in Russia, in Germany, in France, in the United States—indeed, in all countries which either were threatened by the possibility of nuclear war, whether they had the deterrent of not, and which felt that they should do all that they could to protect their people against any emergency. We are not only to have the credibility of the deterrent removed at a time when we are continuing our policy of having atomic weapons, but we are to have removed a most valuable service to humanity, a service which has already saved the lives of many people in this country.

As the hon. Member for Putney acknowledged, the Civil Defence Corps always has had a secondary rôle, which was the peacetime rôle of being there to assist the regular fire services, the police, and the civil and local authorities generally in times of unusual disaster. If the Civil Defence Corps and the Auxiliary Fire Service are to be disbanded, people should understand clearly that a means of saving life is being taken away from them. If that is not so, the Government should say at once what is to be done to replace the services which these volunteers provide.

I ought not to take up too much of the time of the House in a half-hour debate, but we on this side are deeply distressed by what the Government have done this week, as announced by the Prime Minister and set out in paragraph 43 of the White Paper. In taking these decisions about civil defence, which were Home Office decisions, were the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence consulted about the decision with regard to the Civil Defence Corps, and was the Ministry of Defence consulted about the decision to abolish the very important T.A.V.R.III, which contains 22,000 seasoned Army officers and men who are trained and experienced and who were a valuable potential reserve for the Regular Forces if the need for expanding those Forces should arise?

There is a report in the Press this evening that there was no prior consultation with the Territorial Army Association and the various others who were concerned, in addition to the Ministry of Defence, and who should have been consulted. This has been a very unhappy two days for the country, and, although these matters have not arisen in the main debate, we should at least thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us the chance to get the Government to explain their most extraordinary action on these matters.

10.43 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Ennals Mr David Ennals , Dover

Much as I should like to accept the congratulations of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) on the Government's change of heart, I feel bound to tell him that our reasons for reducing civil defence to a care and maintenance basis are not those put forward in his speech, nor is the effect of our decision to deprive the country of any civil defence potential.

I want to deal briefly with the argument that it is no use doing anything about nuclear war, as he says, because, once it breaks out, virtually everyone will be killed. It is an argument which my hon. Friend and others have put forward on several occasions, but its validity does not increase with repetition, and it is no more true today than it was on the last occasion that he made the point, on 14th December.

Photo of Mr Hugh Jenkins Mr Hugh Jenkins , Wandsworth Putney

Does my hon. Friend deny that the L.C.C., which at that time was the largest authority in the world, publicly declared that there was no civil defence for London against nuclear war?

Photo of Mr David Ennals Mr David Ennals , Dover

It has never been doubted by most local authorities that there will be a rôle for civil defence if the country suffers the inevitable devastation which would result from a nuclear war, and I would be the last person to minimise the catastrophic effects that a nuclear war would have. If a substantial proportion of an enemy's nuclear potential were directed at this country, the dead and injured would be counted probably in millions, and recovery might take a generation or more. Equally, there would be millions of survivors. As I said in the House on 14th December: There would undoubtedly be very serious devastation, but there would be life on this island. Civil defence is necessary in order to prevent casualties, for the treatment of the injured, and in order to provide survivors with a means of life."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th December, 1967; Vol. 756, c. 617.] There are measures which would have to be taken, both to reduce the casualties and to help the survivors to go on living and eventually to recover.

There was some reference to the statement by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence. I will not go into it at this stage, but I tried to deal with it and put it in proper perspective in reply to my hon. Friend's Question on 14th December. I do not agree that civil defence has been a charade or that the service of those who have been voluntarily in the Civil Defence Corps or in the Auxiliary Fire Service has been time wasted.

The extent of civil defence preparations must depend both on the extent of the danger, as represented by the international situation, and on the ability of the country to pay for the cost of civil defence preparations. Inevitably the most expensive part of any war preparations is the maintenance of forces in being. Buildings and equipment can be maintained at relatively little cost, but any standing body, even if it consists, as have done the civil defence forces, of part-time volunteers, must necessarily cost a considerable sum of money. For example, training cannot be on a "once for all" basis. There must be a constant influx of new members, recruitment, refresher courses for existing members, and a continuous review of the content of the training itself. I am not saying that such expense may not be justified. Clearly it would be justified were there to be a situation of mounting international tension; but this, happily, is not the present situation.

In 1966 we came to the regretful conclusion that the reductions announced in December of that year were the largest that we could make, consistent with keeping alive the volunteer bodies. So, as the Prime Minister announced on Tuesday, we have decided, as part of the present economy measures, to reduce civil defence to a care and maintenance basis.

This means stopping further development of our civil defence preparations and reducing expenditure to the minimum consistent with our ability to resume them in the future, if the need should arise, without too much loss of ground. As far as practicable, physical assets already created will be preserved, but training will be reduced to the minimum necessary to preserve existing knowledge and techniques.

Most of the volunteer services will shortly be disbanded: in particular, the Civil Defence Corps with its 75,000 active members, the Auxiliary Fire Service with its 14,000 members, and the T. & A.V.R. III with approximately 15,000 strength at the present time.

In answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) I would say that these decisions were not simply Home Office decisions. These were taken collectively by the Government by Ministers after general consultation with other Ministers. These were not Home Office decisions. They were decisions of the Government.

I pay tribute to the devotion and sense of service of the members of the Civil Defence Corps and the Auxiliary Fire Service particularly, since the Home Office is most directly concerned with them. There will be later opportunities for paying a more general and carefully prepared tribute to the service that has been rendered in peace and in war both during the last war and through the years when international tension was much greater than at present. They have given their time voluntarily and willingly in the country's interests. As one who was a civil defence worker about 30 years ago, I thank them for all that they have done.

The Royal Observer Corps will, however, be retained as part of the Warning and Monitoring Organisation, and the W.R.V.S. will be retained because of its very considerable and notable peacetime service. The Government have taken these decisions because they believe that the risk of nuclear war does not, in present circumstances, justify home defence expenditure on the scale of recent years.

As I have said, we must maintain the equipment and the stores to enable us to activate these voluntary services if circumstances make this necessary. Over the years we have built up substantial stocks of equipment, radiac instruments, fire service vehicles and equipment, wireless sets, and similar items, and a number of emergency control buildings, mainly local authority controls. We have stockpiles of food, oil and medical supplies. The constitution of these stocks is to be reviewed, and some items, such as vehicles of types easily obtained commercially will probably be disposed of, but we intend to keep the bulk of equipment and all the control buildings. There would be little point in trying to sell these stocks, as we would realise only a fraction of what they are worth, and we would thereby deprive ourselves of the opportunity to raise the level of our preparations fairly quickly should the need arise.

In the course of his speech my hon. Friend suggested that we should instead establish some form of a civilian rescue service. I was glad that he paid tribute to the service rendered in peace time by some of the voluntary organisations whose services will no longer continue. But my hon. Friend must be aware that the services are constantly standing by to deal with precisely the sort of emergencies which he described, emergencies which one can never anticipate, hut for which one must be ready, whether we are talking about civilian services, the police, the fire service, the W.R.V.S., the local authorities, or about the Armed Forces who respond imme- diately when there is distress in any part of the country, and if my hon. Friend thinks that there would be some sort of saving by the establishment across the range of the country of some special civil rescue service, I think that he does not understand the financing of the situation. I think that he will realise the extent to which the existing services are ready and willing to respond, as they always do, in times of emergency.

The Warning and Monitoring Organisation, manned mainly by the Royal Observer Corps, will continue. It has the task of warning the public of an imminent attack with nuclear weapons—sometimes referred to as the "four-minute warning "—and subsequently to warn them of the presence of radioactive fall-out. The Organisation also has an ability to provide more detailed information, particularly on fall-out, to services which can make use of it.

There are powerful reasons why this Organisation should not be disbanded. The capital cost of the Organisation has already been met—its buildings, equipment and communications are, for the most part, complete. Furthermore, the preservation of the techniques is more complex than in most other fields. Therefore, we are making an exception to the general principle of winding up the volunteer organisations and keeping the Royal Observer Corps in being, although there will be some reorganisation and reduction to secure economies.

The effect of the reorganisation on our civil defence preparations is to make a considerable saving. The present programme involves total annual public expenditure of between £25 million and £27 million. The revised arrangements are expected to reduce this figure to about £13 million in 1968–69, falling to about £7 million to –8 million on a continuing basis.

10.55 p.m

Photo of Sir Harmar Nicholls Sir Harmar Nicholls , Peterborough

For the most part we accept what the hon. Gentleman has said, that the service, though reduced to a care and maintenance basis, will still be there to play some part in the unhappy event of a crisis hitting us. The hon. Gentleman and his Department must have in their minds that, with this being included in the package deal to do with devaluation, it has caused doubts, and will cause greater doubts in many quarters.

The argument that the hon. Gentleman has used was one for doing what has now been done some time ago. It was not only last week, for example, that it was realised that the period of crisis was here, and that there were considerable savings that could be made, which would prevent the training of future personnel to keep the thing going. It is such a pity to do this to such an intimate and personal thing as civil defence. There are many civil defence workers in the various services, and householders running their various groups. For this to have the appearance of having been thrown into this devaluation panic decision, makes it appear as though this vitally important matter, which has frightened so many people, is being run to this point of care and maintenance before it would have otherwise been the case, had devaluation not come about.

I do not say this by way of criticism of the arguments of the hon. Gentleman, but he and his Department will have to go to a lot of trouble to convince the nation that the arguments that he has just given from the Box are the arguments that have brought about this reduction in the service. As things stand, saving this money in order to help us over this period, brought on for reasons which have been debated for the last two days. does not really fit in.

For what contribution it makes, it would have been sensible if it had been left out of the package deal and brought in in a month or two months' time. It would have been accepted as a possibly good decision, not a decision forced on the Government in order to make still further contributions to getting over this national crisis. I hope that the Home Department will carry its efforts a little further than the hon. Gentleman's speech and let it be seen that the argument that he has adduced to the House is one that stands on its own and is not part of a panic measure to get us over a crisis, which has nothing whatever to do with the millions who would be slaughtered in the even of a nuclear onslaught.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.