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 Sir Francis Pearson Sir Francis Pearson , Clitheroe 12:00 am, 29th February 1968

If it takes as long for the hon. Gentleman's points to be achieved as it has taken to withdraw from east of Suez I am sure the hon. Gentleman's constituents would prefer to have the cover of some civil defence organisation in the interim period and would think it valuable if the hon. Gentleman would come into the lobbies with us.

The speech to which I would wish to give my fullest support in this debate was that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) who, in superb language, said exactly what all of us on this side are thinking, and what many civil defence workers are thinking also. I found the speeches of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) and the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) of extreme interest. I could not for a moment accept the philosophy of fatalism on which they based many of their arguments, nor could I accept the philosophy that, because a nuclear explosion is going to be a most terrible catastrophe and this country may be more vulnerable than most to nuclear attack, we should just sit down and do nothing about it at all. There is some logic in the argument that we should be purely pacifist, opt out of our world commitments, and have no nuclear bombs. Then there might be a case for saying, "We shall not attack anybody, and therefore nobody will attack us", though in the world as we know it that is a very doubtful proposition. But that is not the situation. Ministers have said time and time again that we are playing our part as a world Power, particularly a European Power, and we are playing our part in a nuclear age in which, however horrible or terrible the nuclear threat may be, it is something we must take into account.

The Home Secretary made what I thought was a peculiarly weak defence of his position. He admitted that the risk was still there, and no responsible Minister can say that there is no risk today. Of course, there is a risk. I should like briefly to deal with the theory of the insurance policy. When we take out insurance as individuals we pitch the size of our premium to what we consider to be the degree of risk, and as that degree is reduced so it is right and prudent to reduce the premium. As I understand it, that is what the Government did last year. In their Defence White Paper of 1967 they said on civil defence: The future rôle of the Corps will be to help the local authorities to man the control system, which is the system of government in emergency, and to provide limited numbers of specialists to help to organise the first aid and welfare resources of the community. The new role of the Corps will be of great importance, and there will be a continuing need to attract people of high calibre, with qualities of leadership. That was the position taken up by the Government about nine months ago. Then we heard that they had completely changed their policy and had determined totally to abolish the civil defence services. Do not let us play about with hypocritical words about reducing the level. There is no reduction in level; it is total abolition. The training centres are to be torn down, the people in uniform are to be sacked and there will be nothing left. The very name, civil defence services, will be banished from the Statute Book. It is nothing but gross hypocrisy for a Minister to say that the Government are reducing the level of the services.

This vitally important policy decision has been made in the past nine months. What has happened in that time to justify such a change of view? Has there been a greatdémarchein world affairs? Is the U.S.S.R. less aggressive or expansionist than it was nine months ago? The U.S.S.R. is now entering the Mediterranean, where it was not present nine months ago. The world today is highly explosive. Whatever minimal protection our defence arrangements may give, it is totally irresponsible of a Government entirely to wipe them out, and to do it for a matter of £13 million or £14 million.

It is people's lives that the right hon. Gentleman is playing with. He is taking these measures for entirely the wrong reasons. I do not believe that he has for a moment weighed up the value of, or the need for, a civil defence service. He was told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he had to cut expenditure, so he sought to do it with the least damage to his Department. When he gave reasons for the measures this afternoon, there was not a single argument that carried weight. At one point he said that he was now of the opinion that we would have a much longer warning than in former times if a nuclear attack was likely to hit this country, but he never gave us any evidence for this new idea. He said it in a somewhat halfhearted manner, and I had the impression that he said it merely to get himself out of the difficulty of having to admit that he was scrapping civil defence and that no possible valid, reasonable arrangements could be made in less than six months.

The hon. Member for Rugby, in a speech full of interest, said that he would go into the Division Lobby with the Conservative Party tonight if he felt that his right hon. Friend was introducing the measures for the wrong reason. It sticks out a mile that the only reason they are being introduced is that the Treasury told the Home Department that so many millions of pounds had to be saved. That is a totally irresponsible and wrong reason for abolishing a service that has served this country well and could form the small nucleus of trained people that we shall require so badly if ever there is a national crisis.

Another aspect of the matter has been debated, and I believe that it is one of the greatest importance. In recent years, the civil defence services have almost begun to look on themselves as forming a civil defence service in the widest sense. The thought of nuclear attack has been in the background of the minds of even the most ardent volunteers. They felt that it might happen, and like all of us they hoped it would not, and believed that it would not. But as the thought of nuclear attack has possibly receded with the risk, so the conception of a body of volunteers in uniform, supported by the State, who will step in at times of local catastrophe and emergency has grown and played a valuable and important part in local life.

It is the passing of that side of civil defence that I regret so deeply, when these measures tear down the whole structure. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone said, in an urban and technical society such as we live in today when catastrophes occur they do so on a vast scale. Railway trains travelling at over 100 miles an hour and aeroplanes that will carry 500 people at great speeds can create catastrophes which need all the resources that we can bring to our aid. It is a tragedy that the civil defence services are being torn down when they could do such a magnificent job in that regard.

Do not let us forget that, more and more, we are developing nuclear fuel for power stations. Who is to say that some major leak might not occur, that we shall not have areas of the country affected by fall-out? It could well happen. If it did, we should be only too glad of the services of these voluntary bodies.

I do not believe that we have been given a single valid reason why these services should be abandoned. The Government Amendment contains words of praise for the volunteers who have served our defence services well. I do not think that they will appreciate those words very much. Yesterday, their services were said to be of the highest importance to the country; today they are told that they are not necessary. I do not think that they will lend any great weight or appreciation to the somewhat hypocritical thanks which the Government have included in the Amendment.