Civil Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th February 1968.

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Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury 12:00 am, 29th February 1968

I agree, Mr. Speaker, that we had enough of that last night.

In saying that we are not doing away with civil defence, some Ministers have lost the ability to talk with directness and a singleness of purpose. That remark stands matters on their head. I do not entirely blame the hon. Gentleman, since the example for this sort of talk comes from the top of his party.

Clause 4 of the Public Expenditure and Receipts Bill deals with compensation paid to those who will lose their jobs in civil defence. There will be an appointed day at the end of March, I think, and people will be compensated if they are still in the service on that day. But if they should leave beforehand, they may get no compensation. Many of these people are perhaps 50 years old or more and it is hard to get or change a job at that age. So if a man had an opportunity for a job before the appointed day, surely it is right that such a person could accept it without fear of losing his compensation. Therefore, my suggestion would be—and even if the Minister cannot answer it today I would be grateful if he can give it serious consideration—that the appointed day should be the day on which the Prime Minister announced the cuts to the House of Commons, after which all these men, who have served so well in this service, became aware that they would be redundant. Clearly, at that age one has to search around and to take, very gratefully, the first job that comes along. I would be grateful if the Minister could look into that suggestion.

Much has been said about continuing civil defence in a voluntary way and, clearly, that has been dismissed by the Government as something which is simply not on. But the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary mentioned the question of other voluntary organisations such as the St. John Ambulance Brigade, the Red Cross, etc. I am vice-president of my local St. John Ambulance Brigade unit and I know that much of the work they do is typical of the work done by some elements of civil defence.

I wonder if there is scope for looking at the work of organisations like the St. John Ambulance Brigade and the Red Cross to see whether we can put some civil defence work into these organisations and make a bigger, broader and perhaps more useful joint organisation for local disasters. If that is so, could we ask the Government to consider whether they would make an extra financial contribution towards this if the proposal should be found to be worth while and practical?

In Oxfordshire, of which I represent the northern part, the county council has estimated that once the civil defence organisation is completely run down there will be saving of £72,000 a year. That is a saving; but when one considers what has been put at risk for the people of my constituency by that saving one may find, as I find, that the risk is really an incalculable risk particularly when, as has been said so often today, we are allowing the skills and knowledge built up over the years to evaporate. That seems to me one of the most serious aspects of this whole thing.

We in Oxfordshire live in an area which is not very far from certain nuclear places. There was the case of the Windscale Reactor that blew off. There was fall out. If this should happen again, as it happened at Windscale, perhaps on a bigger scale, what organisation has the Government got to cope with such an emergency? There are nuclear power units where this may not happen but if, for example, an armed aircraft should, by misfortune, crash into such a place and there was nuclear fall out, what would the Government do about that? These are the kind of matters which I feel could not have been thought through by the Government when they decided to make this relatively small cut.

There has been quite a lot of talk and argument in this debate on the question of the nuclear deterrent. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments but I believe one of the arguments for having the nuclear deterrent is that it prevents this country being blackmailed by another nuclear power. We come back, therefore, to the idea that the other nuclear power is going to blackmail us and force us to do something we do not want to do. But if our nuclear deterrent—and it is a deterrent—is credible then we are less likely to be blackmailed. But what the winding up of civil defence has done is to make our nuclear deterrent, as has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker), less credible.

This is where we come back to what was said by the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins), because all along he and his friends in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament have wished to abolish the civil defence, purely because they wish our deterrent to be less credible because, in my view, they wish to weaken the standing of this country in the world. I do not know whether the answer to this is to be found in an interview given in in the Sunday Telegraphby the Lord President of the Council on 11th February in which he said: I am convinced that ultimately Britain's role is to be a spokesman of the non-nuclear powers in relation to the super-powers. If the Lord President of the Council, a high member of the Cabinet and an intimate colleague of the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, is here expounding what is the long-term aim of this Government, then all this, of course, falls into a pattern; and the abolition of civil defence, which reduces the credibility of our nuclear deterrent, falls into the pattern of what the Government is aiming at—that we shall become a non-nuclear Power and the spokesman of the non-nuclear Powers.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary gave as his reasons for winding up civil defence firstly, of course, the budgetary ones—the financial situation. That we accept; and the whole Government has accepted that the cuts and devaluation and the financial situation is entirely—and I repeat, entirely—their own responsibility. The Chancellor of the Exchequer observed, and the Prime Minister said on television, that it was a defeat—for their policies. That is fine. We accept that it is.

The second reason he gave was that the non-proliferation treaty was coming along nicely and would shortly be signed and therefore we had no need to go on with civil defence. If that is so, then, as I believe my right hon. Friend asked in…. opening, what is being done about civil defence by the other NATO countries who will also be in this…. nonproliferation treaty? Have they done the same? Have they taken the same decisions? The answer is no. I believe, therefore, that the House can dismiss, that reason given by the Home Secretary for winding up civil defence.

The third reason he gave was that tension in the world was being eased; and he said as long as the United States of America remains in Europe we are all right. But we have got out of the Far East and the Middle East because of a financial crisis. That was part of the package cuts. The Americans are having a financial and balance of payments crisis and it does not stop; it goes on and gets worse. Could there not possibly come a time when, for financial reasons, the Government of the United States takes the same steps as the British Government has taken and gets out of Europe? I am not saying that that is probable but it is a possibility and if that is so then the whole argument that tension in Europe has eased totally falls to the ground; so that I believe that we as a responsible Parliament can dismiss that argument of the Home Secretary as a rather silly excuse dredged up to try to pad out the real excuse, which is financial.

If we accept that the reason is financial then surely the logic of it is that this package deal and all these most troublesome things which have been fought out night after night on the benches opposite are only being done because the Prime Minister and his Government believe that they are going to be successful; and we are told that by about 1970 or 1971 all will be well. We believe this, for reasons other than purely economic ones. But, if that is so, and if the reason for abolishing civil defence is financial then surely the logic is that when our economy is again booming, when we have the resources and feel well off—and if we dismiss the other contemptuous and spurious arguments—an assurance should be given that civil defence will be brought back when we can afford it.