Orders of the Day — National Emergencies Organisation

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

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

7.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the need for a national emergency organisation, or perhaps a better phrase might be the need for a nation-wide organisation capable of action in the sort of emergencies that we have recently seen, with appropriate equipment, trained personnel, and so on, within its command. The emergencies that I have in mind are the disasters of floods, excessive snow, hurricanes, extensive fires, train, plane and multiple car crashes, landslides, oil slicks, and the like—the sort of incidents which happen all too regularly but which always seem to take us by surprise.

We have had the recent floods in the South-West and in the South-East, and one thinks back a few years to Canvey Island and Lynmouth. We have had hurricanes in Scotland. There was the Hither Green train crash, Aberfan, the "Torrey Canyon", and the frightening spread of foot and mouth disease. All these are national emergencies about which I think we ought now to think on a national basis, because we can be almost as sure that the unexpected will happen as that we shall be unprepared to deal with it when it does happen.

Even comparatively minor emergencies such as a sudden heavy snowfall, of the icing up of the roads or the railway points catch us with our organisational pants down, if I can express it in that way. There is a traffic chaos, the loss of thousands of hours of working time by people getting to and from their work and the loss of, I suppose, millions of £s in productivity.

Hon. and right hon. Members who have relatives or friends abroad will appreciate that it adds insult to injury when a brother-in-law of mine invariably writes to me from Canada saying how they deal with these things there. They have a full warning system, they know when bad weather is coming, everybody is at action stations before the gale or the snowstorm arrives and all is expertly organised.

I doubt whether their emergencies are more frequent than ours. Perhaps ours are more varied and therefore we need a more versatile organisation, but an organisation here on something like the same lines is neither physically nor economically impossible. I wonder whether we can afford further delay, having regard to the way in which disasters cause so much loss of life, so much loss of property, and so much loss of productivity.

I do not wish to include wartime emergencies because I think that would be going beyond the compass of an acceptable speech, but I cannot help commenting that the Government's cuts in our wartime protective forces have severely reduced our capacity for coping with peacetime emergencies. I refer to the cuts in the Armed Forces and particularly the Civil Defence Corps. They are wartime forces but they could and did tackle peacetime calamities, as training exercises for wartime if one likes to put it that way. On many occasions they were more than that. They were life-saving operations and home-saving operations, particularly when they were faced with disasters such as floods.

The civil defence teams in the past have been invaluable in boosting the morale of the public on the occasion of calamities of this sort by their purposeful operations, their discipline, the fact that they knew what had to be done, whether in the desolation of flooding or the tangled metal horror of a train crash. The loss of that valuable help in times of need, the dissipation of the skill and training and discipline is one of the tragedies of the Government's disbanding of the voluntary organisations, the Territorials, the Civil Defence Corps and the Auxiliary Fire Service.

Something more is needed than merely the restoration of those services. First, we need some very definite co-ordination of the efforts of existing voluntary organisations, a central directing and guiding organisation so that their efforts can be made purposeful. Secondly, we may need some sort of emergency rescue service, trained and expertly led. I ask the Government are there not blueprints, comparatively up-to-date, for such a sort of service? I would call it the British Rescue Force. Were they not prepared fairly recently by very experienced officers? Ought they not to be taken out of the pigeonhole in Whitehall and given very serious consideration?

Without some British Rescue Force, what are our present forces to deal with emergencies? The police, of course. For the work of the police in emergencies no praise is too high, but the police, I am sure, would not claim to have the administrative staff to organise other efforts than their own. Furthermore, they will have more responsibilities and more burdens now that they will not have the civil defence teams to assist them. We have the fire brigades, the ambulance service, with the Red Cross and the St. John Ambulance Brigade to assist them, the National Hospital Nursing Reserve, some local government officers still trained in civil defence work and perhaps some industrial civil defence units, the public bodies such as water, electricity and transport undertakings, the W.R.V.S. and similar voluntary bodies. All these do magnificent jobs when called upon to do them in emergency, but how much more effective their efforts would be if there were some national organisation of those efforts around which these voluntary organisations could be grouped and co-ordinated.

Eagerness to help can often give rise to confusion which in turn results in unnecessary loss of life. I remember a small example of this when ambulance men were hurrying to the Hither Green train disaster. Incidentally, they had no radio to call up their colleagues who did not happen to be on duty at the time. They got to the disaster and many eager, willing hands snatched the stretchers out of the ambulances, got the bodies on to the stretchers and went back to the nearest ambulances. Ambulances are not of standard size, nor are the stretchers. The ambulances left the Hither Green train disaster with stretchers protruding through the doors, which were tied up with string. That is a small example, but efficient loading and dispatch of ambulances is a life and death matter. Knowledge and organisation on that might prevent serious loss of life.

Incidentally, in pay, adequate training and pensions we treat ambulance men pretty shabbily having regard to the responsibilities and risks which we expect them to undertake. The ambulance service should be recognised as a senior partner in any national emergencies organisation.

Confusion in the field is perhaps frequently due to confusion in command. In emergencies, certainly in England and Wales, we find an extraordinary anomaly between peacetime and wartime. Responsibility for the planning for peacetime civil emergencies lies with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the operation of those plans falls to the police who are the concern of the Home Office. Responsibility for the planning for wartime emergencies is in the hands of the Home Office and the operation of those plans is carried out by the local authorities who are the concern of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. This anomaly should be corrected.

I should have thought that the peacetime organisation for emergency should be in the hands of special officers of the local authorities, plus a small expert staff within a recognised department of local government—financed, not by the ratepayer, but by the taxpayer because we are talking of national emergencies. A regional structure would be necessary; most of the voluntary organisations have a regional structure. There should be a national headquarters giving cohesion, guidance, training, financial help and, above all, the inspiration of leadership. If there is to be such an organisation, surely it will be right to create it quickly before disappointed members of the Civil Defence Corps and the Auxiliary Fire Service drift away from voluntary service.

Some areas have held their volunteers by turning Civil Defence Corps into the Voluntary Civil Aid Service. It has been very disappointing that from Whitehall there has been discouragement to local authorities to do that. I would describe that discouragement as stupidity, whether it be at the administrative level or at ministerial level. Birmingham, Sussex, East Suffolk, Devon, Somerset, Cornwall, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire—all these local authorities have sought to hold together their voluntary services by this Voluntary Civil Aid Service, and it should be encouraged.

Although we must make every effort to retain the services of the experienced and devoted voluntary workers, I think something more than that is needed now. What is needed is a new enthusiasm, especially among the young people. By liaison with youth organisations, the universities, the top forms in the schools, we could gain as enthusiastic support for something to fill the gap left by disbandment of the civil defence and the Auxiliary Fire Service—enthusiasm such as organisations like V.S.O. have from the young people. Indeed, there is not only the excitement and satisfaction of helping in emergencies in Britain. The example of the civil defence teams going to Turkey and Italy could be copied. To be trained, not with weapons for destruct tion, but with equipment for rescue, should have its appeal among modern youth.

The reason for thinking nationally in organising for emergencies is not necessarily to obtain uniformity. Indeed, any emergency force organisation we have must be versatile. A nation-wide organisation is necessary to ensure adequate coverage—coverage of the whole country. Disaster can happen where helpers are thin on the ground. Perhaps mobile columns are some solution to this, from a headquarters organisation or a regional centre, to deal with cases where recruiting in any particular area is not covering all the work that has to be done there.

It is no good having all this emergency organisation unless it can be put into operation effectively and rapidly. There are two aspects of this—first, gaining the information, and, secondly, communicating speedily. There is the kind of emergency which can be forecast—the weather emergency. There is the kind of emergency which cannot be forecast—train disasters and that sort of thing. There is the mixed type of emergency where forecasts are useful after the event, such as the oil slick from the "Torrey Canyon".

Here we must bring the Meteorological Office into very effective partnership with any national organisation, and it must be provided with adequate tools for the job, in particular the right kind of computer. I understand that the Meteorological Office at present is still trying to decide what modern computer it shall have and that it will not get that modern computer until 1971. In the meantime it is using a computer 40 times slower than that used in America, France and Germany.

Photo of Mr Eric Lubbock Mr Eric Lubbock , Orpington

I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State about the use of the C.D.C. 6600, which is the largest computer in the United Kingdom, for the purpose of weather forecasting. He told me that the necessity was for something 20 times as large as the Atlas and not something about five times as large, which is all that the C.D.C. 6600 can manage. Therefore, we shall have to wait for a new generation of computers to develop before we can cope with the existing models being prepared by the Meteorological Office.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The computer of which I was speaking is not very far from the House. It is being used, not only in America, France and Germany, but at S.I.A. next door to Victoria Station.

Photo of Mr Eric Lubbock Mr Eric Lubbock , Orpington

That is the one I am talking about.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

It is 40 times quicker than that used by the Meteorological Office at present. I know that the Meteorological Office uses the Atlas computer, but that is six times slower than the one I am speaking about and it is not in general use with the Meteorological Office.

The fact is that in the recent floods much damage could have been saved if we had had an efficient warning system. Are the Government starving the Meteorological Office of money for the computer that it wants? It is essential that an emergencies organisation should not be hampered by the absence of information and anticipation which the best computers can provide.

Having got that information, it must be dispatched with speed to the right quarters. In the South-East floods the Meteorological Office had its forecast a good many hours before the event. Because the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responsible for flood prevention, the Meteorological Office informed the river authorities of its forecast, I understand. As far as I know, the river authorities have no administration for setting emergency organisation into operation; so they kept the information to themselves. It may be that an elaborate radio system is required for getting this information out to the right people.

What about the R.O.C.? I hardly dare mention it, for fear that the Government will remember that they have failed to disband the Corps or put it into moth balls. The Royal Observer Corps has a good communications system on a network of stations 20 miles apart. Could not that be developed and utilised for the purpose of what I called earlier a British Rescue Force? Accurate information instantly communicated to the right people is what is required, and there should be no Treasury quibble about the finance to ensure that.

The Government's financial arrangements in connection with recent disasters have been very disappointing and very dilatory. I thought that the Minister's remark at Question Time today—I do not know whether it was a complaint or an excuse—that there were 40 flood relief funds in the South-East was very naive. He was apparently suggesting that those relief funds could look after the victims of the emergencies. The local authorities cannot decide on administering those funds until they know what the Government intend to do by way of helping those who have suffered. It is now two months since the South-East floods, and the Government have made no definite statement on how they intend to help financially.

In face of all the work to be done to cope more efficiently with emergencies, the Answers which the Minister of Housing and Local Government has given to Parliamentary Questions recently on action to be taken in future with regard to flooding have shown a failure to grasp the magnitude of the problem. He has said that he will issue a circular of guidance to local authorities. There has been no assurance of positive Government action. Is a Departmental circular the extent of the Government's thinking on this subject, the extent of their comprehension of the anxiety of the public over what has happened in recent disasters?

I hope that we shall be assured today that that is not so and that the Government will put into operation without delay and without financial skimping a nation-wide organisation to meet those emergencies.

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

Order. This is the second of two debates of roughly the same length. In the first I was able to call 16 hon. Members because speeches were brief. I shall be able to call everybody who wishes to speak if speeches are reasonably brief.

7.39 p.m.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

It may help the House if at this stage of the debate I try, first, to set in perspective the disasters and emergencies which arise in this country—in other words, what we are dealing with—and second, describe in outline the arrangements which are made locally and nationally to deal with them.

National and other disasters, when they come, receive a great deal of publicity and are the focus, quite properly, of much attention while they last. We should recognise, however, that we are fortunate as a nation in that large-scale disasters seldom occur in our land. We do not have earthquakes, forest fires, avalanches and volcanic eruptions. We have our troubles, but, looking back over the years, there have been only a few which were on a large scale, like this year's floods, the wreck of the "Torrey Canyon", the Aberfan disaster, the Glasgow storm of January this year, and the East Coast floods in 1953.

The use of ever larger forms of transport by sea, air and land and the movement of highly dangerous substances may bring new problems which we ought to be alert to cope with, but we should nevertheless not base our plans on the premise that major disasters, national or man-made, are frequent.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) mentioned Canada. The weather situation in Canada is different from ours. We have to look at our problem in the light of the sort of situation which we experience in this country.

A second consideration is that no two major emergencies are at all alike in their circumstances and effects. It is necessary to refer only to the East Coast floods, different from Aberfan, and different again from the "Torrey Canyon" shipwreck. It follows that the Government's approach should not be to prepare detailed plans for every emergency which may or may not arise.

If the possibility of a particular emergency arising can be foreseen, the right course is not to prepare a contingency plan but to take steps to prevent it. Like crime, emergencies are best prevented. As the House knows, there are many safety and other measures in operation to prevent the occurrence of accidents which could lead to large-scale disasters. After the East Coast floods in 1953, the Storm Tide Warning Service was set up, and standing arrangements which are reviewed every year, were made for warning the public. But—and this was no less important—the coastal defences were built up so that a flood tide as high as that of 1953 would not now have effect on anything like the same scale.

If the right measures are taken to prevent such disasters as can be foreseen, those that do occur will be the result either of a residual risk which is too remote to be guarded against or will be unforeseen and unpredictable. For these emergencies it is of over-riding importance that there should be as much flexibility as possible in the organisation available for dealing with such emergencies so that the most appropriate arrangements may be made in the particular circumstances which arise.

I come now to the arrangements, national and local. In any emergency the rôle of the police, particularly in the opening phase, is likely to be crucial. It is to the police service that the public always turn first for assistance when in distress. Police officers on patrol on foot or by vehicle are likely to be the first persons with authority on the scene of a disaster, and reports of what has happened are likely to be received first at police stations. The police are able to make use of their wireless communications to assemble rapidly a force of men and vehicles to take immediate action where help is needed, and to call in other services such as the fire and ambulance services to assist.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Royal Observer Corps, for which in my new post I have some responsibility, as I did when concerned with the R.A.F. The communications system of the fire service and the police is far better than that of the Royal Observer Corps. The hon. Gentleman used the wrong example. The communications system of the Royal Observer Corps is geared to war, whereas that of the fire service and the police is geared to the civilian organisation and is much better for this purpose.

The police will also establish, where necessary, traffic control points and information posts, and direct the removal of casualties to places where they can be dealt with expeditiously. It is through the chief constables that the assistance of the Armed Services would be obtained. It is from the senior police officer in charge on the spot that the first comprehensive assessments of the extent of the disaster would be obtained to enable the local authority and, if necessary, the central Government to decide what further action was likely to be necessary. It is the availability of a widespread communications system in particular which will enable the police always to make a major contribution.

Most disasters are well within the capacity of local authorities with the resources at their disposal in the fire service and the ambulance service, to which the hon. Gentleman gave well deserved praise, assisted as necessary by neighbouring police and other forces and the Armed Services. For railway accidents, these other services include the railways themselves which have their own accident organisation. In such an event as the Aberfan disaster, the National Coal Board has its own organisation. When there are multiple crashes on the motorway, the fire services are soon involved, as they are in the collapse of buildings or bridges, local floods, and so on.

Local authorities are experienced in dealing with such events, and their services are so organised as to be able to adapt themselves rapidly to deal with events which may differ widely in character. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the weather. I shall return to that in a few minutes, but I have a comment to make with reference to notification of unusual weather to local authorities. We hear a lot nowadays about letting local authorities do things themselves and not allowing it all to be done centrally. One criterion by which, after nearly three years of responsibility for the Meteorological Office, I should judge a local authority is whether it bothers to pay the minimal amount of money to ensure that it receives a weather forecast to tell it what it should know, and, even more, whether it makes arrangements to receive the report in the middle of the night, for instance, so that it may do something. I do not believe that it is the job of the national Government to do that. If we talk in this place about devolution, one may add the comment that in many cases local authorities ought to pull their socks up in that sense.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I know that I am echoing the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Ellis), who chased me no end a few weeks ago on another matter in this connection.

It is important to put the responsibilities of the Armed Services in perspective. However, before coming to that aspect of the matter in detail, I shall refer to a specific example which is related to the knowledge which I gained before my translation a short time ago. When the Lewisham area had its flooding a short time ago, the police were on to Woolwich and Woolwich stepped in to help before the organisation which we had at the Ministry of Defence was brought into play. Every local commander, whether, Navy, Army or Air Force, is prepared to go in straight away when asked to do so. I was at St. Athan in South Wales on the day of the Aberfan disaster. Immediately the news came in, the air officer commanding Wales stood by a large number of men, vehicles and everything else ready to be called in. The fact that he was not called upon was no fault of his; it was just that the other organisation was moving into play.

Unit and formation commanders have instructions that if they receive an application for help from the civil authorities when there is danger, they are to provide assistance without reference to higher authority. There is at all times a duty officer of each Service in the Ministry of Defence. If any point regarding assistance is raised out of office hours, it will normally be dealt with by the general duty staff officer who is there. He will usually be able, if necessary, to consult an officer of the Directorate of Army Staff by telephone, but this would not be necessary if it was an emergency.

All chief constables know whom to contact. When the Armed Forces are used in civil emergencies, they act in support of the civil authorities. I am advised—I have to put in that way now, I suppose—that the Services would not wish to be made responsible for deciding between competing claims for help. When decisions of this kind are needed, they must be taken up by the civil authorities, in the more serious events by Ministers, sometimes by local authorities, and during the dangerous phase of an emergency by the police.

Photo of Mr Antony Buck Mr Antony Buck , Colchester

The hon. Gentleman has spoken of Service experience. Perhaps he will tell us what training Air Force personnel have in dealing with civil emergencies. No doubt, they do an excellent ad hoc job, but do they lack training for this sort of work?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I give one example. The Royal Air Force has large blowers for warming up the engines of V Bombers. At the time of the recent floods, Air Force units were down there like a shot. They knew how to use these blowers, which could dry a house out very much more quickly than—as one R.A.F. man put it to me—the "piddling little things used by the civilians". That is one way in which the Services can help. Next, the Engineers can do bridge-building. In the Ministry of Defence, at the time of the last floods, the operations room was—if one cares to call it that—playing a war game and bringing in the Army, including the T & AVR—not the T & AVR III for whom I have high regard, but engineers for the building of bridges and so on. I know very well now—if I did not know before—that in emergencies the Services have a skill and readiness which can be of enormous value to the civil authorities and population.

Photo of Mr Michael Noble Mr Michael Noble , Argyll

Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that in most disasters of that kind, the members of the Armed Services who are most useful are the sappers, and there are no sappers stationed in Scotland?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I just cannot deal with that point, but I am certain it is something that needs to be looked at; the Services would insist that they deployed their men in such a way for Service matters. But this is something which perhaps my right hon. Friend who is responsible for the military disposition would look at.

The Royal Air Force rescues every year 500 civilians. The helicopter service which is there for military purposes is used for civilian purposes and in marginal cases without cost.

I had not thought that the Meteorological Office would be mentioned, but until a week ago it was also my responsibility. If the new computer which the Meteorological Office requires and which is now going out to tender were to be in operation now—I know the hon. Gentleman the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) is conversant with the technical details—then the order for it would need to have been placed four or five years ago. If there is a dereliction in duty, it certainly is not a dereliction by this Government. There is a computer which is used; it cannot be used widely, but steps have now been taken.

A point I would like to take up on behalf of an organisation for which I had former responsibility—and my hon Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West has chased me about the question of the Meteorological Office a good deal in recent years—is that the forecasting at the time of the floods was almost impeccable, and when the hon. Member criticises the Meteorological Office for that he is being grossly unfair. There are times when everybody complains about the Meteorological Office, it is something that people can laugh at, but their forecasting about the floods on this occasion was first-rate.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

I did pay the Meteorological Office the tribute that they had their forecast several hours before the event, and that they conveyed the information, but conveyed it to the wrong people, the people they were told to convey it to but not to those who would act upon it. Surely time is available on these vast computers which can be hired for the Meteorological Office. Could that not be arranged until the Meteorological Office has its own computer?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I raised this matter at the time and, while I am now without the benefit of firm advice, I am pretty sure that I was advised then by those who know that this would not be the case. The Meteorological Office advised the people who are on their net for advising, and they also gave the flash warnings on the B.B.C., so there again on this occasion they warned the people who should have been warned. If the hon. Gentleman is referring to flood warnings, this is not the responsibility of the Meteorological Office. It cannot be. To use the technical jargon, precipitation they know all about, but if it rains and rains they do not know whether a flood will be caused or not.

Photo of Mr Roger Cooke Mr Roger Cooke , Twickenham

On the morning of Saturday, 14th September, when there were floods in South-East England, there was nothing special on the 8 o'clock meteorological report. It spoke about heavy rain. There were no flash warnings about floods on that morning; they started at about midday.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Without the benefit of the letter which I wrote to the hon. Gentleman at the time, I insist that on that occasion, whether at 8 o'clock or 7 o'clock—we need not play around with an hour—the Meteorological Office had a good forecast and they put it out. Floods are a different matter. It is a question of ground porousness and things of that nature.

Photo of Mr John Ellis Mr John Ellis , Bristol North West

Would the Minister agree that it is a matter of terminology? In a certain meteorological situation whereby forecasts are made of periods of heavy and continuous rain—I grant that he cannot use the word for it since this is where the expertise comes in—does he not agree that there should be a tightening up of terminology to portray the fact that we are having more than the usual dirty weather and this may have repercussions? I would be happy with that.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I accept the point; it may be that the terminology of the Met. Office should be altered. What I stick to is that a forecast that there will be a flood must be the responsibility ultimately of the river authorities, who are the experts in that matter.

I come to the Services. If help from the Government is needed, this can most often be provided under the normal Departmental arrangements. For example, the arrangements to deal with the foot-and-mouth epidemic were made, quite properly, by the Ministry of Agriculture. Incidentally, many R.A.F. men—and I am sure many Army men as well—did a very dirty and nasty job during the foot-and-mouth epidemic, not a job that they joined the Service to do. This is an example of the Ministry of Agriculture asking for the Services to come in, and where routine orders were put up and the Services helped.

Supervision of the arrangements made in the recent floods was the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. If greater resources are required and there is a need to co-ordinate their use over a wide field, the Gov have well-established arrangements to come into operation. Responsibility lies with the Home Secretary for co-ordinating action to deal with major civil emergencies which cannot readily be dealt with by one Department. In particular, he is Chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Emergencies, which is responsible for dealing with civil emergencies which are of such magnitude that they affect supplies and services essential to the life of the community.

During the "Torrey Canyon" episode the Ministerial emergency organisation was activated, and when it was over the Government reviewed the working of the general arrangements for dealing with emergencies; and the terms of references of the Ministerial Committee were widened to make it clear that the Committee could be made responsible for the co-ordination of action in respect of any emergency of national importance which called for such co-ordination.

The whole system, including its lines of communication, can be activated quickly if it appears to any Department as a result of a broad assessment of the threat that emergency action on a large scale might have to be taken; but it is essential to underline that these arrangements do not alter the ordinary responsibility of Departmental Ministers who are responsible for preparing plans for foreseeable emergencies which might arise within their own sphere of responsibility, and for co-ordinating action in emergencies within that sphere. It would be impracticable and close to the absurd to provide for the appointment of a Minister to take over the responsibilities of other Ministers whenever a particular emergency arose. It would lead to delay and a great loss of efficiency.

I would like now to refer briefly to the recent floods. My main point is that during that occasion co-ordination was effected originally through the Home Office. It became clear that the local authorities and the police were getting all the help that they required, and from Monday, 16th September, onwards regular reports were made to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government by local authorities, the police and the Armed Services. These reports established that as the demand for military help never exceeded the supply—indeed, help was frequently offered even before it was requested—there was no need to filter requests for military assistance. On that, my right hon. Friends the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister of Agriculture are conducting inquiries into the lessons to be learnt for the future from the floods.

The hon. Gentleman referred to civil defence having been cut. The reduction, however, has not reduced the peacetime capability of the variety of forces under national or local control for dealing with emergencies. I would be the last to deprecate what was done by the civil defence people. The point I wish to make is that for the sort of disaster which I postulated at the beginning the Services and the local authority services, are adequate to deal with the peacetime emergencies that might occur.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

May I get this straight for the record? Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there is a civil defence organisation which can go into action in the same way as civil defence teams went into action in the past?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

No. What I am saying is that there are fire brigade and ambulance services and the Services, and, for the sort of national emergencies we have, the view of the Government—and I am accepting the argument put forward recently in the House in terms of nuclear warfare—is that all of the evidence that is available shows that we have the resources to deal with peacetime problems that may or may not arise.

Photo of Mrs Jill Knight Mrs Jill Knight , Birmingham, Edgbaston

Is the Minister leaving out of his calculations altogether the former civil defence organisation which is now at his request on a care and maintenance basis?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I am taking that well into account. I am saying that with the forces which are at our control—police, Armed Forces, the ambulance service—with what the National Coal Board has ready in case of mine disasters and things of that kind, we have sufficient to deal with peace-time disasters and the like. That is precisely what I am arguing.

Photo of Sir Francis Pearson Sir Francis Pearson , Clitheroe

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that as long as he has the support of all his official bodies, he is perfectly happy—

Photo of Sir Francis Pearson Sir Francis Pearson , Clitheroe

Sir Frank Pearson —and that he does not need voluntary help from the public? Is that what he is saying?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

No. I did not say that. Perhaps the hon. Member will wait and allow me to come to a section of my speech when I deal with the British Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance Brigade, the Special Constabulary and the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, which are voluntary and important. I am arguing that when we had a civil defence organisation there was a civilian pay-off which was valuable. I am not dealing now with the military aspect. I am arguing that we have sufficient now at our command to deal with the civil problems that may or may not arise.

Photo of Mr John Horner Mr John Horner , Oldbury and Halesowen

In reference to the Hither Green disaster, to which the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) referred, is my hon. Friend aware that the total attendance of auxiliary firemen at that terrible distaster was 11?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose knowledge of the fire service is very great.

I would like to make it clear that I am in no sense deprecating the voluntary activities of civil defence men and women, but I am being asked to deal with the problem of civil emergencies which may or may not occur. I have talked about the police, the fire service, the ambulance service and all the resources of the local authorities.

A dispassionate analysis—not an emotional one—of these disasters, which fits in with what my hon. Friend has said, does not indicate that they have failed to meet the need. I have mentioned the voluntary organisations, which were raised by the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson) rather earlier than I intended to deal with them. We appreciate the public service of those who are talking about voluntary civil aid societies. I know that discussions and a great deal of talk are going on, but in the context of this debate for dealing with the disasters that we could have in this country, the Government are satisfied that we can deal with them.

A great deal of equipment which was formerly used by the voluntary bodies is available for use as well. Local authorities have been advised by circular—

Photo of Mr William Wilkins Mr William Wilkins , Bristol South

I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said. I had experience of the rather terrible disaster in the West Country. Frankly, the conclusion which my hon. Friend or the Ministry has arrived at are not accurate. The employees of the Bristol local authority rallied round. They turned out literally in their hundreds, many of them giving hours of endless overtime, but one still could not cope with the flood water.

Whatever else we may disagree about, I think that there was a rôle for the Auxiliary Fire Service, who could have come in and used the pumps. I saw pumps brought into Bristol from as far away as Staffordshire, but no one had a clue how to use them. When one sees people's houses with 7 ft. of water in them and equipment is available which people perhaps cannot use, it is not conclusive that local authorities can adequately cope.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

My hon. Friend has referred to floods. The question which arises with flood water 7 ft. high is, who on earth will cope with in it terms of the problem involved in the short run when it is spilled out from rivers? I suggest that this is not a question of the A.F.S. or anybody else. If the fire service which I saw operating in Northumberland yesterday, with the latest equipment, far later than any equipment which the A.F.S. had, could not deal with problems of this kind, certainly no auxiliary body could deal with it.

My general thesis, to which I stick, that the Government can deal with the problems cannot, however, be allowed to cover the fact that there are some disasters, such as flooding, in which there are other considerations to be taken into account, namely, the prevention of flooding, which is a rather different question but something which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has been considering of late.

The Government are not complacent about their arrangements for dealing—[Laughter.] Hon. Members opposite might laugh. They are laughing at the fire service, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.

Photo of Sir Francis Pearson Sir Francis Pearson , Clitheroe

Let me make the position quite clear. I was laughing at the Government's complacency.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The hon. Member was laughing at the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Simply because he has an emotional feeling about civil defence, he has no right to laugh in that fashion just because he disagrees with an argument. I have the greatest pride in the Armed Services, which I have just left. They do an excellent job. It ill becomes the hon. Member to laugh and sneer at them, because that is exactly what he is doing.

Photo of Sir Francis Pearson Sir Francis Pearson , Clitheroe

I was not. I was laughing and sneering at the complacency of the Government.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I know that the hon. Member and many on his side of the House comprehend what all these services do, but when, in this sense, there is laughter at this sort of thing, I cannot but be angry about it.

There are problems in this respect. There is no room for complacency. The Government believe, however, that we can deal with the problems that arise. There will have to be discussions arising out of the floods, because a particular problem arises there.

At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for Crosby raised a point about a blueprint being available to be picked out of the shelves, or something of the sort. I know nothing of that. I think that that suggestion comes from another source. It is a figment of someone's imagination. The hon. Member argued the need for a nation-wide organisation capable of dealing with emergencies. My case is that we have such an organisation. There are problems, but this organisation is basic and something on which we can build in the years to come.

8.7 p.m.

Photo of Mr Richard Hornby Mr Richard Hornby , Tonbridge

We have listened to the Under-Secretary's explanations about structure, command, communications and co-ordination, which is really the main subject matter with which we are concerned. For me and for my constituents, this is a timely debate because my constituency, like many other constituencies, suffered severely in the recent floods. If I draw such points as I want to make mainly from that incident, that is my reason for doing so. I am fully aware that this debate comprehends many other types of emergency, examples of which, including rail disasters, foot-and-mouth disease, and so on, have been mentioned.

I suppose that when we talk of a national emergency, we are thinking of something which occurs and which stretches the local and normal services beyond their ability reasonably to cope without additional aid. We are, therefore, asking ourselves whether the structure of command and communication is such that they can call on what they need with the minimum of delay and the maximum efficiency when these emergencies occur. By its very nature and definition, an emergency is something which is not easy to predict and its scale, either at the start of the emergency or in its continuing character, is equally difficult to foresee. That is the problem of organisation that faces local authorities, the police voluntary organisations and, ultimately, the Government, too.

What are the questions that we should ask ourselves? I suppose that the obvious one, which is perhaps too detailed and fragmented to be part and parcel of this debate, is how to prevent such things occurring. In such a question, one could be drawn into discussions of railway engineering, the problems facing the National Coal Board, drainage, and so on. That would be a separate subject involving arguments of probability, possibility, cost and the like. I do not, however, propose to deal with those questions now.

Secondly, when a disaster or emergency has occurred, how can we warn people of what is about to occur or is already occurring? Thirdly, how can we organise the rescue services—that is, the immediate problem—and, fourthly, how most quickly, efficiently and humanely can things be restored to normality after the immediate rescue operations have taken place?

The answers to those questions will not be easy. Least of all is it wise to generalise about them, because they are different from place to place and from one emergency to another. There are, however, some lessons that can be learned about planning, training equipment and, most of all, communications. It is on these that I wish to dwell. If I suggest that things could be better I emphasise that I am in no sense criticising the very notable work which was done by the police, the local authorities, the Armed Forces, the voluntary organisations, and many others in the recent troubles.

The first problem is warning. It is on this subject that I have had the largest number of complaints expressed to me: the immediate warning mechanism. Warning of flooding initially comes from the Ministry of Agriculture, and then out to the police. There is still a considerable inadequacy in this arrangement. If something happens quickly, the police cannot get round on anything like a house-to-house basis. There is need for an additional warning mechanism to get effective distribution of the news of that emergency, particularly in scattered communities, and more especially if the centre of operations is for any reason cut off from the areas mainly affected, as through a bridge coming down, for instance.

One is glad to hear that the Minister of Agriculture will hold on 11th or 12th December a conference of the police, the Meteorological Office and others to consider working arrangements and the lessons to be learned. I hope that the Government will publish—I think they have said they will, but I would like confirmation of this—the findings; I hope they will inform the House about them and will make them immediately available in full to all local authorities, and I hope they will discuss them with voluntary organisations which are concerned as well. One must make information on the methods of warning and advice available, and that conference will have failed if it simply locks its advice up in the relevant Ministerial Departments.

There is need, too, for a definition of responsibility in Whitehall. To give one example. I put down a Question on this subject to the Minister of Housing and Local Government; it was transferred to the Minister of Agriculture; part of the Question was answered by the Minister of Agriculture, for the second half I was referred back to the Minister of Housing and Local Government. That is not good enough, though I understand the main reason for that on that occasion.

Still on the subject of warnings, there is a need for wider distribution of wireless communication services and training in that. I do not think the police network by itself is adequate in this respect. In the floods, the trouble occurred after darkness, and the crashing silence, except for music, of the B.B.C. gravely irritated many of the people affected. We did not know what was happening. It would have been useful, once the facts were established, if the wireless services could have been used to give advice about what should be done when water came up to power plugs, and so on. That is the sort of thing for which a national broadcasting company could be used and should be used, but was not used properly on that occasion.

Lastly on warnings, can the Government impress on all with whom they come into contact the importance, which is drilled into the people in the Services, of the accurate collection of information and its immediate distribution to all the places affected by an emergency? Sitting on information once it has been collected renders that information totally and utterly useless. It must be passed on through the proper channels.

My next point is, how to organise the rescue services. I would make one point immediately, that the need for a clearly defined chain of command is vital, and this chain of command, in every locality, must be known. Doubtless it usually is; sometimes it is not. A chain of command and of communications are necessary for effective action. The Minister emphasised that the chain of command remains, unless what has occurred is a massive disaster, in local hands. The local people know their area; they know its topography; they know the people with whom they have to communicate. It is vital that the chain of command should rest in local hands.

The police then come in. They deal with the immediate situation, but it is also necessary to have a reserve of people to cope later on.

Photo of Mr Eric Lubbock Mr Eric Lubbock , Orpington

I wonder whether the hon. Member finds any difficulty in his area in getting the help of responsible local authority officers on a Sunday. It was quite impossible to ring them up; their telephone numbers were not listed in the emergency numbers in the tele phone directory. I absolutely agree that local authorities should have the responsibility for seeing that the emergency services are got into action, but there must be for members of the general public affected a direct chain of communications with them.

Photo of Mr Richard Hornby Mr Richard Hornby , Tonbridge

That is certainly true, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a very real problem of communications which I personally found on the Sunday morning in question. It was not the fault of the local authority officers concerned, who were out and about doing everything they could. It was because the telephone service had gone out of action. The problem of communications is a very real one, particularly if the telephone is totally cut off, as happened in the floods, for then one part of an affected area is unable to communicate with another.

Following my point on the importance of local command, Service units, when they come into an area, must come under that local command, so that they can be directed with the help of the local knowledge available.

I would ask the Government to consider the distribution of wireless sets, especially considering the difficulties which arise when the telephone system has gone out of action. There arises the whole problem of directing the relief work and the rescue work, for which quick communications are essential. I suggest to the Government that it is worth while their considering whether some of the voluntary organisations should be asked to consider taking on training in wireless telegraphy. The Women's Transport Service, I believe, has an arrangement with the Metropolitan Police for precisely this, but I think there are other organisations which might well consider doing this type of work which could well be used.

The next point, on the rescue services, is that of equipment and the difficult question of storing it locally and knowing where to find it, and of storing locally things which one needs but has not got oneself. One comes straight back to the question of local authorities knowing with whom to get in touch for key equipment—as, in case of the flooding, pumping and drying equipment and, in some cases, haulage equipment. Some of this can be easily found locally, but its availability needs to be registered so that people may know where things likely to be needed are most readily available.

Lastly, manpower, skilled and unskilled, is needed in emergencies. The fund of good will and willingness to help amongst voluntary organisations and amongst the unorganised is very great indeed. It is better to tap the willingness of existing organisations than to build a new and totally separate rescue corps.

There is a need to see that first-aid training, for instance, should be a nationwide responsibility, based on schools and elsewhere and developed through the voluntary organisations. Local authorities should have stand-by rosters of voluntary bodies, and people willing to cope. I think this is done in some places.

Finally, there is the question of restoring things to normality, and here one comes to finance. When an area is hard hit by a disaster it is important that the Government should acknowledge that the normal programmes of road building, school building, and so on, are not to be kept back by that disaster, and that they will help to make them good.

No one in a debate like this should under-estimate the responsibilities of individuals to take normal insurance precautions. Equally, losses have been very great, and problems are very difficult in areas liable to flooding. I would ask the Government to hurry with their announcement about their reaction to local authority sponsored funds.

To summarise, I suggest the use of existing organisations, which should remain locally organised for as long as possible; the chain of command and sources of information should be absolutely clear; there should be practice drills, as there are fire drills, for emergencies, as a normal precaution; and, thirdly, the command structure should be locally understood. Finally, the warning and communications systems should be improved. Neither are fully adequate at present.

Photo of Mr Harry Gourlay Mr Harry Gourlay , Kirkcaldy District of Burghs

Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I remind hon. Members that this is a very short debate. I hope that hon. Members will speak briefly.

8.21 p.m.

Photo of Dr David Kerr Dr David Kerr , Wandsworth Central

The hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) made a number of interesting points, and I particularly want to endorse the categorisation of the process of rescue, to which he referred, namely, forecasting, the rescue and rehabilitation and recompense. He made out a fair case for his non-political recommendations. I want to open up a rather different aspect of the problem of civil national disasters. It is very difficult to quantify what is national. I do not know.

There were floods affecting 200 families in my constituency. The number of people was small, but the size of disaster to them was catastrophic. I was requested several times to ask that Parliament should be recalled. It did not seem to me to be the most appropriate way of organising a national disaster organisation. The sad fact is that for people involved in a disaster, the problems arise after the publicity ceases. Once a thing is off the front page and the photographs are yellowing in the cupboard, this is when people have to face the problems of non-insured goods and uninsured relatives with long periods of unemployment following injury.

It is that aspect, which I have experienced in Wandsworth, Central, which has left me convinced that what we are most lacking is the kind of help needed here. Many of the points raised by hon. Members opposite are sound, but many, I am afraid, are unsound. To talk about disasters as requiring comprehensive services only when they are national disasters is to overlook the fact that even the most minor fire will often involve a wide diversity of services. The problem of integration of those services is not widely different simply because the size of the disaster varies.

Moreover, to talk about a chain of command is to think in rigid and inflexible military terms. In a civil situation of this sort, involving interdisciplinary relationships, in which there may be chains of command within one discipline, within the fire service, or the police service, there is the necessity for intercommunication at many different levels between each service. The chief superintendent of the police will need to communicate with the town clerk, the town clerk with his chief welfare officer, the chief welfare officer with the ambulance service. To talk about a chain of command when one is dealing with a series of interlinked commands, all covering the surface of a sphere, is to over-simplify an immensely complicated situation.

It is after this is over that the trouble really begins. If we are to have a national organisation of some sort, then my experience leaves me in no doubt that the thing we are to look for is a national funding organisation, a finance organisation. It can be called the National Disaster Fund if that is thought appropriate. In discussing this with the Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Housing I was advised that two major objections were seen to lie against the establishment of such a fund. I am bound to say that I accept neither.

The National Disaster Fund, it was thought, would create difficulties of administration and distribution, because it would not be easy to identify which was a disaster worthy of bestowing funds upon. I deny this. If it is not beyond the imagination of those who administer the Ford Foundation to distribute that fund, it ought not to be beyond the bounds of the imagination and responsibility of any publicly accepted group of trustees to accept the responsibility of deciding what is worthy of the bestowal of these funds. The other objection is that, by failing to attach a specific purpose to the collection of such a fund, it would deny the public interest which would be necessary to create a fund of reasonable size. This is not how I see such a fund operating.

The essential feature of such a fund would be to ensure that a large-scale catastrophe which is national, not in its geographic sense, but in its implications, should not be borne by the victims of the disaster, or even by the local ratepayers and do-gooders. We seek to ensure only that what is bestowed should be spread as widely as possible through the whole community. This is a procedure which I would have thought we on this side of the House would find easy to accept. If we do not have a National Disaster Fund, we have to resort to the more complex, and often restricted machinery of for instance the social services or the Department of Health and Social Security.

The argument for a fund is one which ought to be looked at much more sympathetically, particularly in the light of, for instance, Aberfan and the consequent deprivations of the "Torrey Canyon". There is one generality about all great local catastrophes which is not true of other aspects of disaster. The difficulties of generalising about a railway accident, heavy rains or floods have been emphasised, but there is this one generality about all catastrophes, which is that the financial consequences affect very viciously people in lower income groups.

It is those people who tend to live in houses in areas more likely to be flooded, and these people are more sensitive to the disaster which affects them, when their families are individually involved in death and injury. As to the collection of a National Disaster Fund, there is a good deal of money lying about which ought to be, by legislation if necessary, put into such a Fund. There ought to be Exchequer funding of such a collection. Equally, we could well look at the many out-of-date charity collections, some of quite large dimensions, which no longer have a social applicability. If by legislation we could ensure that those dormant funds could be brought in, let us do so. Remember that this is a continuing process, charities continue to go out of applicability, but the funds remain and often accumulate in a startling way.

Photo of Mr Roger Cooke Mr Roger Cooke , Twickenham

Is the hon. Member aware that the "Sinking of the Birkenhead Fund", set up for a disaster which happened 100 years ago, has still not been wound up?

Photo of Dr David Kerr Dr David Kerr , Wandsworth Central

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know of other similar cases, many of them comparatively small local charities. There is a case for treating them in this way.

As for the challenge that the public would show no interest in a fund of this nature, I believe this is untrue if it can be shown that, at times of national disaster, the money is being distributed rapidly. The whole nub of the problem is the rapidity with which available finance is distributed to people in great difficulty. It is no use the Government saying, "We will give £175,000 six months hence". When people have no sheets and blankets and their beds have been washed down the local sewer they want the money straight away, and it is not always available from local funds or from the Ministry of Social Security.

Let us look into this proposal. I believe this could be a most constructive development in the light of recent unhappy occurrences in this country. I hope, therefore, that when the Minister replies he will be able to tell us something about this aspect.

8.30 p.m.

Photo of Mr Richard Body Mr Richard Body , Holland with Boston

One industry which would support the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Dr. David Kerr), an industry which includes many in the lower income group, is agriculture. I believe that a national disaster fund would be of inestimable benefit to the farming industry. I think, equally, that those who come from farming areas will be disappointed with the speech of the Under-Secretary of State, who made only one passing reference to agriculture, namely, the occurrence of foot-and-mouth disease, a disaster which is spectacular, arouses emotions, and catches people's imagination. There is no doubt that many of the farmers who suffered from this appalling disaster will eventually have adequate compensation.

We all know how appalling it must be for someone to lose his home, or at least the use of his home, as a result of flood, but many lose their livelihood as a result of flood, and this is more difficult to portray and to get on the front pages of the newspapers or on the television screen, unless livestock are drowned. That does not apply to arable farming. I mention this particularly because of one area where the storm began last July and did not end until 5·37 ins. of rain had fallen. I am told that no other area has been afflicted quite so much in one rain storm.

Photo of Mr William Wilkins Mr William Wilkins , Bristol South

The West Country was worse with 7 ins. in one rainstorm.

Photo of Mr Richard Body Mr Richard Body , Holland with Boston

After that rainstorm it eased up, but soon afterwards it started again. It rained throughout most of August, and in the middle of September saturation point was reached on the land in this area. This has never been known before in any farming area. If ever saturation is reached on farming land—and it happens perhaps only once in 10 years—it is invariably at the end of November or December, or, if it is an exceptional flood, perhaps in February or March. I am speaking about the Parts of Holland in Lincolnshire. Some farmers lost up to £5,000 of their income because their land had been drowned and remained drowned for a long time. They were not large farmers. In the result, hundreds of acres of potatoes were laid waste. No method of mechanical cropping is now possible over much of that area to save the crop, so volunteers are needed to take off their coats and get down to it manually. However, that is not a practical possibility as matters stand. It was urged that the Army might be brought in, but there are obvious difficulties in doing that.

I believe that we should have an organisation—call it a national emergencies organisation—which would be fitted to deal with this kind of disaster.

I have singled out one particular disaster as an example, but there are many others affecting small farmers which do not hit the headlines. They often take place when other events in the world shrink their importance and perhaps they are only reported in local newspapers. They are none the less real, and I believe that we can save people in that situation only if there is a national emergency organisation.

My one complaint about it is the name. I think that nothing could be more uninspiring than that. I think that something better could be devised by way of a name. Equally, I am convinced that there is an overwhelming case for a national disaster fund. I hope, therefore, that before the debate ends we shall have a more sympathetic response from the Government than we have had so far.

8.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Horner Mr John Horner , Oldbury and Halesowen

I suggest to the House that there is a national emergency organisation, and that the House would be most usefully employing its time if it began to consider ways of spending more money on that service rather than on building other organisations. In the debate tonight little attention has been paid to the single emergency organisation which exists, and which can form the nucleus, if it were felt to be necessary, of any such organisation as has been suggested by both sides of the House. I refer, of course, to the fire service.

In 1958 the fire service attended 21,500 special service calls. They were emergencies. I am not referring to fires. They were emergencies extending from floods to aircraft disasters. In 1967 there were 49,500 such emergencies, from Aberfan to train crashes. The London Fire Brigade was even called to cut away the brickwork when a burglar was caught in a chimney. It was a special service call. In addition, there were about 250,000 fire calls to be dealt with. That is the record of service in one year of our fire brigades. What I am suggesting is that here there is an emergency organisation, ready to be deployed, to be better organised if one wishes, to be given, if one wants, larger chains of command, and more forms of reinforcement, but here is the organisation.

Let us consider one of the disasters which has been referred to tonight, that at Ronan Point. The first service there was the fire service, with 19 appliances, breakdown lorries and heavy removal equipment. A deputy chief officer was in command with a control unit, with radio communications over the whole of London.

Reference has been made to the work of the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Torrey Canyon disaster, and I am with those who paid tribute to the work of these volunteers. The Chief Officer of the Devon Fire Brigade said in his report: We should be able to cope with any future emergencies on the scale of 'Torrey Canyon'. Then, the majority of the men brought in were whole-time firemen plus a few retained men. The Auxiliary Fire Service was used only at the beginning of the first 48 hours and then those men would not have been available had it not been an Easter weekend. I beg the House to consider the sort of emergency service which has been proposed by hon. Gentlemen opposite. We cannot have an emergency service if it operates only at weekends or on Bank Holidays. We need a whole-time, round-the-clock emergency service, and I put it to the House that we have one.

I want to be brief, because I know that others wish to take part in the debate. I want to refer to a most interesting contribution to the debate by Lord Robens. I think that all who have followed this argument since the winding up of the Civil Defence Corps were struck by the contribution made by Lord Robens to this discussion, when he said after the Aberfan disaster: First, there must be a single, unchallengeable directorate to control operations. Secondly, it must have the ability to control the movement of men, materials, and messages within the disaster area. Thirdly, it must have the ability to secure relevant expertise without delay. There is not a fire officer in the country who does not organise his fire-fighting operations on that basis. Every fire brigade in the country has its emergency plan.

I invite hon. Members, when they get back to their constituencies, to imagine, for the purpose of this table-top exercise, a rail crash, an aeroplane crash or a multiple road crash, and to ask the local chief fire officer what his plans are. The plans are there. After the terrible disasters at Lewisham and Hither Green the London Fire Brigade was given overall responsibility for co-ordinating rescue work and other services when rail disasters occur in the London area. My plea is not that we should begin to think of alternative organisations but that the fire service should be adequately reinforced. It should be given the necessary men and equipment.

In July there was a conference in Geneva at which about 40 nations were represented, and where delegates considered the whole question of the organisation of peace-time disaster services. The British fire service came out rather badly in terms of the amount of equipment available to it. I am not complaining about radio communications, or about tackling peace-time nuclear disasters where equipment has been supplied, but much equipment could still be made available to reinforce the fire service.

Mention has been made of soil moving equipment. It is not a fireman's job to use a bulldozer, but as one hon. Member opposite said, someone must have this sort of equipment available, ready on call, and in this sense a great deal can be done to reinforce the work of the fire services on the ground. Instead of wasting money on new and—perhaps I am speaking rather unkindly—fancy schemes, I suggest that adequate money should be made available to strengthen the professional fire service and give it what it needs to provide training facilities, equipment and appliances.

I ask the Minister to consider giving the fire service control of operations, not because a chief fire officer at any one of these disasters has all the comprehensive knowledge and technical expertise available to deal with any aspect of the multifarious disasters that occur in the course of the year but because it is necessary to establish a single chain of command. This was discovered at Lewisham and at Aberfan. In the latter case the Chief Fire Officer of Merthyr Tydvil, who was in charge of operations in the early stages of the disaster, pleaded in his report that a way should be found to provide for the establishment of a single command in order to prevent the wastage of manpower and the cluttering up of roads with vehicles and equipment that had not been requested. The fire service, with the police, can make available their radio communications.

In considering how to strengthen the emergency service the questions of command, liaison and communications should be vested in the one organisation which is readily available without spending a penny more. The fire service has radio communications equipment and the necessary appliances. It has a regional command, and it has reinforcements available on a nation-wide scale. That is the direction in which the thoughts of the House should be turned in considering the problem which the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has raised.

The fire service has never shirked this responsibility. It would be willing to undertake these additional responsibilities. The problem which has been highlighted tonight is real and important. I am glad that the House has discussed these problems. The way out is for us to see how to improve the fire service. This is an emergency service ready to hand.

8.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Glasgow Cathcart

The hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner) spoke with knowledge and experience about the fire service, and we all know the unique service it renders in every emergency. However, some of us might disagree about whether the existing services can meet all kinds of disasters. We must draw a line between the immediate disaster, like a rail disaster, where the problem is of short duration, and the kind of continuing catastrophe which brings a need for long-term organisation. An example is our problem in the West of Scotland. We had the great hurricane in January, but the problem of repair and rehabilitation is still with us, and has stretched over months. This shows the need for more than just the splendid immediate service done so magnificently by organisations like the fire service.

The Minister objected strongly when one of my hon. Friends said that his speech was complacent, but we can object to his claim that an emergency organisation along the lines outlined by my hon. Friend would be inappropriate. Although it is true that the kind of problems which have been discussed arise perhaps only once in 50 or 100 years in particular areas, the extent of human misery and suffering involved imposes on us a real obligation to provide the kind of organisation which can spring into instant action in such a disaster.

This is the kind of disaster which we had in Glasgow when 120-mile-an-hour winds caused horrifying devastation on the dreadful night of 14th–15th January, with about £20 million to £25 million worth of damage, affecting about 270,000 houses. That was a major disaster and is still with us. Although I was interested in the comments about computers and the rest, this is not the kind of situation which can be sorted out by computers. Glasgow already had a serious housing problem, with its roots in history, and the storm added greatly to this.

The Minister said that the essential services are there and that we can dispense with several of them without removing the obligation, but what about the civil defence organisation? Those Glasgow Members who have visited the storm damage centre know that the Minister of State has been assiduous in keeping in touch with the problem. I wonder what the problem would have been without the enthusiasm, organisation and co-operation of the civil defence organisation? It has been acting as a nerve centre of organisation for Glasgow storm damage and our problem would have been even more serious without it. In these circumstances, I hope that a permanent civil defence element will be a real factor in any organisation which is considered.

What could be provided by a national disaster organisation? One thing is a supply of temporary, mobile homes, because, in most of the disasters, one urgent problem is housing. In major cities, where there is a district housing problem, the local authorities cannot readily respond to the increased demand and such a supply of temporary homes, located throughout the country, could be brought into a disaster area at the time.

Would it not be possible to have an organisation to advise individuals in trouble where they can get help? Most Members of Parliament with surgeries are often surprised at how little knowledge there is of the available services offered by local authorities, boards and councils. Often people do not know what are their rights and which services are available. Could not a temporary organisation be set up immediately to give people legal advice, advice on welfare and on housing and the other general advice which people in trouble need?

The third need is for equipment. A great deal of equipment and many supplies have been brought into the west of Scotland. Will a continuing supply be available at all times? Would not this best be organised by a national disaster organisation?

Fourthly, what about research? It would be interesting if the Secretary of State for Scotland, who has taken such a personal interest in our problems in Glasgow, could indicate which Ministry or organisation is undertaking research into the kind of facilities and materials which can make good damage in disasters. That is very important. We have been greatly assisted in Glasgow by new systems of covering roofs, for example, which have been made available. Will any Department or Ministry be responsible in future for research into the maintenance and repair of homes?

The fifth need is for skilled personnel. The Secretary of State is aware that we have had a few difficulties in the west of Scotland because of shortages of key personnel. For example, in one area there may have been plenty of tradesmen but a shortage of technical staff, such as surveyors or masters of work. From inquiries which I have made, it appears that on occasions work has been delayed because of a shortage of key technical assistants—in one case of surveyors and in another case of masters of works. This difficulty cannot be overcome overnight, but is it not possible for every major private construction organisation and every local authority to have two or three of its permanent staff on call in such a disaster? This is not a suggestion that every local authority should carry surplus labour. We cannot expect that. On the other hand, if regular conferences were held of individuals who would be available for such temporary secondment to a permanent organisation, it would help.

As my hon. Friends have said, the initial burden in any disaster falls on the police force, and they have a vital part to play. In that situation, is it not essential that both the police service and the fire service be fully manned? Unfortunately, that is not a situation which exists either in Scotland or in England. The greatest contribution which we can make to meeting disasters is to ensure that at all times we have a fully manned police force. The same comment can be made of the ambulance service. Concern was expressed in Scotland at the week-end about the availability of the ambulance service. I have no information about the validity of those fears, but they were expressed by some engaged in ambulance work. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that the matter will be reviewed and that any fears which have been expressed will be relieved?

Obviously we cannot hope to plan for every disaster or to ensure that speedy relief always is given, but my hon. Friends have proved the case completely for having a basic organisation which can spring into instant action and bring relief.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Would the hon. Member give a brief calculation of the cost of his proposals in Civil Service manpower and in cost to the Exchequer?

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Glasgow Cathcart

Of course I cannot give any such calculation. I am saying that in the West of Scotland the existence of the civil defence organisation has provided the basis on which work has been done. We do not wish to criticise the other services, such as the Army, the police and the fire service, but we can say that in the West of Scotland the existence of a nucleus of people who were accustomed to working together on this kind of problem and to preparing for emergencies has been of immense value, and it would be a tragedy if that organisation were removed and nothing put in its place.

8.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Hannan Mr William Hannan , Glasgow Maryhill

I agreed with the latter remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) but I suggest that we should consider why the nucleus to which he referred now exists. It was only as a result of the disaster in January that that nucleus was built up. Considering how it has been built up, I believe that it should be on an area or regional basis and not, as hon. Gentlemen opposite have argued, on a national basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner) referred to the fire service and he will know that I tried to render some service to that organisation during the war. The N.F.S. was formed because even in the City of London it was found that different boroughs had different coupling methods, which often meant that one fire brigade which wished to go to the assistance of another had to stand helpless and look on. There is such a difference even between Edinburgh and Glasgow. We are at present awaiting the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government. This may result in large enough units being formed to provide a comprehensive nucleus of services, without our having to resort to a national organisation.

The financial side of the matter is vitally important. The right hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble) will recall that in a previous Parliament attempts were made to amend the local government legislation to give local authorities power to make donations to disaster funds. This is not a party point. We appreciated the difficulties which existed at that time and which, I believe, still exist. Nevertheless, it might be worth considering making amendments to the local government legislation to empower local authorities to give money to other local authorities when a disaster occurs in another area. Under present Statutes they are prevented from doing this.

I agree with the remarks that have been made about the need for a pool of labour, particularly when disasters occur. A shortage of the right type of skilled labour has faced us in the City of Glasgow and in the West of Scotland. It has been pointed out in previous debates that, while the Government can provide the finance, resources and materials, building work can proceed only as fast as the availability of skilled men able to lay the bricks and do the other work. I often wish that hon. Gentlemen opposite would remember this when debating this subject. We have been desperately short of skilled slaters in Glasgow to repair the damage caused by the disaster.

Although offers of help came from roof workers south of the Border, in Glasgow the buildings are altogether different and men must work 40 to 60 feet up repairing the roofs. In many cases men sent to Scotland to do this work had to be returned. Hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies will wish to join in paying the highest possible tribute to the courage of those men who, 50 to 60 feet above ground level on slippery roof tops, did their best to repair the damage and comfort the unfortunate inhabitants of the houses which were so badly damaged in the disaster.

With reference to a pool of men for this work, I hope that my hon. Friend will have regard to the report on Scotland's older houses and the projected legislation to deal with that situation and will look now to the supply of the skilled men of whom we are talking. There are not many of them. Out of the 1,700 men engaged in restoring the position in Scotland at present only 404 are skilled slaters, and other tradesmen—joiners and the rest—can work only as fast as those slaters can get on with their job. This is the most important problem, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will have regard not only to future emergencies but to the normal processes of building in Scotland.

Another important question arising out of a lot of experience concerns finance and the compensation payable. When speaking in an earlier debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned that tenement buildings in Glasgow and in Scotland generally are the hard core of the problem. It must be remembered that each roof covers at least eight to 12 houses. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Argyll who was pictured in the Press at the weekend on the roof of one of these buildings gathering his information at first hand. In that respect he is to be congratulated, in contrast to some of the journalists and other newspaper scribes who are only too anxious to criticise the Government. If those people could lay slates as quickly as they can compile sentences critical of the Government, we might get somewhere.

One tenement roof covers eight to 12 houses, and private ownership of these gaunt, grim buildings is in question. Insurance problems arise, the local authority has to intervene, arguments start, and one can understand why in some instances there has been some impediment to progress. Some 10,000 such tenements have been affected in Glasgow. They are all privately owned. But, as the hon. Member for Cathcart has said, the local authority took the initiative by setting up a special office in Elmbank Street, with special professional and technical staff. The Scottish Development Department made a very good contribution of skilled staff.

The lessons that have been learned may be of great value in the approaching months when we deal with legislation affecting older houses. The information gained by the committee I have mentioned in assessing whether or not some buildings were worth restoring at all, or whether they needed modified repairs, or whether they were worthy of permanent repair will be extremely valuable to us in the months ahead. As the hon. Member for Cathcart said, if one of the by-products of the frightful horror and pain which the citizens of Scotland suffered in January is the nucleus of such an organisation, not only for dealing with storm damage or other emergencies but with other civil problems, that suffering will not have been in vain. I take this opportunity of expressing the appreciation of the local authority and of some of my hon. Friends to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues at the Scottish Office for the services they rendered to the local authority in the recent disaster.

9.5 p.m.

Photo of Mr Roger Cooke Mr Roger Cooke , Twickenham

As time is short, I shall not follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) in the very fair points and searching criticisms he has made of what went on in Glasgow.

I want to confine myself to two points. The first is concerned with warning of impending floods. I do not think sufficient attention has been given to this. We have had at least three serious floods this year—in the West Country, the South-East, York and the Midlands. There have also been local flooding outbreaks. There has not been adequate warning of impending disasters. I think there could have been if the Meteorological Office had warned the public of what was likely to happen. On Saturday, 14th September in my constituency I happened to hear the early morning weather forecast. We were not told by the Meteorological Office that it was expecting four or five inches of rain in the next 48 hours. If the Office had told the public, they could have drawn the conclusion that serious flooding would occur.

When the Minister goes to the conference which has been mentioned, he should bring the Meteorological Office into the discussion and give it the power to warn the public when floods are likely to occur through heavy rainfall. I am surprised that the Meteorological Office did not warn the Government earlier that serious flooding was likely to occur. I read an article in the August issue of the magazine Weather which disclosed that the ice flow in the Arctic had been so heavy last winter that one could walk on solid ice from Iceland to Greenland. That is very exceptional. It should have put the Meteorological Office on notice that something odd could happen to our weather this year. If the Office knew that, it should have warned the Government to look out for exceptional circumstances.

I do not think this is the last flooding that we could get this winter. We are in a very peculiar meteorological period a present. We are not in those pleasant days such as were experienced when I was a boy and when we had warm summers. Since 1960 the quantity of northerly winds has doubled compared with the average in the first 50 years of this century. There are more easterly winds than there used to be and the percentage of westerly winds has fallen Westerly winds more or less bring warm weather from the Gulf Stream, but now we get more easterly winds. They tend to bring colder and more frosty weather such as we have been having in the 1960s and which we did not have in the first 50 years of the century.

I should like the Met. Office to give further thought to the long-term prospects for the late 1960s and early 1970s, to how long a period with weather of this nature and these exceptional circumstances may last.

In my constituency, and I think in others, there is the remnant of the Civil Defence Corps. Its members are still meeting. Some of them have written to me to ask why they should not be allowed to continue as a voluntary emergency service to be called in to assist the police or the fire service when disaster strikes.

The results of the flooding in the South-East continued for several days—witness what happened near my constituency at Molesey, Thames Ditton and Esher. There was a long period of clearing up far beyond the period which could be coped with by the police, the fire service, and so on. The hon. Member for Wands-worth, Central (Dr. David Kerr) said that it is the after-effects of floods which are so serious, as well as the immediate impact.

Photo of Mr Antony Buck Mr Antony Buck , Colchester

Is my hon. Friend aware that as recently as 20th October in Birmingham there was a national conference of voluntary civil aid societies to which the Government refused to send a representative and that the Government refuse any assistance to these people who are prepared to give their service entirely voluntarily in providing exactly the sort of help that we need?

Photo of Mr Roger Cooke Mr Roger Cooke , Twickenham

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. That is absolutely disgraceful. There is a large fund of voluntary effort which could be called on in emergencies. My wife was a member of the Civil Defence Corps until it was wound up. If it still existed, she would be willing to give her services in emergencies. There must be tens of thousands of others who would be willing to do so.

To follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central, we want a national emergency fund, one which is in constant being. I would like to see a fund of about £2 million raised and kept constantly in being. A Private Bill introduced in the House of Lords a few years ago sought to wind up all the old funds, including the old troopship "Birkenhead", dating from 1850, which is still in existence, and bring them all into one central national disaster fund. If that were done, there would be a nucleus for future ues.

I reiterate my three points. First, we want more warning from the Meteorological Office. Secondly, the voluntary emergency service should be allowed to operate under the police or the fire service—I do not mind which. Thirdly, a national disaster fund should be built up to deal with all the emergencies which will occur.

9.12 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Ellis Mr John Ellis , Bristol North West

I will not follow the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) into comparisons between the weather which prevailed in his youth and what it is likely to be in future. As one who was employed by the Meteorological Office for 15 years at one time and another, I hope that we can so improve our one-day forecasting—never mind the forecasts for the coming month or the coming week—that we can achieve a high degree of accuracy.

I will demonstrate my point by stating what occurs in the case of flooding. The Meteorological Office is responsible for issuing weather warnings. I think that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary grasped my point that, although the forecasts may be good and accurate from the point of view of terminology, there is room for improvement in instilling a sense of urgency into listeners that a different situation is imminent.

I agree that more use could be made of flash messages. I believe from inquiries I have made that only one message was put out at the time of the South-East floods by means of radio and television. The plea which has been made for utilising the radio and television network to a much greater extent deserves to be heeded. There should be a pulling up of socks as regards the origination and use of such messages.

The Meterological Office passes the warnings to the river boards. I entirely agree that one inch of rain may cause flooding in one area but not in another. Therefore, there must be an assessment of the knowledge available at the particular point. However, it should be possible, after the Meteorological Office has passed warnings to the local river boards, for the river boards to come back and say, "We regard this as a serious situation". Thus, when the Meteorological Office broadcasts its warnings, it could say that a period of heavy and continuous rain was expected and that it was advised by a certain river board or several river boards that a serious situation was developing and flooding was imminent.

The Meteorological Office comes under the Ministry of Defence. The river boards come under the Ministry of Agriculture. The warnings go from them to the police, who come under the Home Office. So far, we have three Departments concerned. The police may or may not go round and inform the local people. The Minister of Housing and Local Government comes in to co-ordinate the disaster relief, if or when it happens. That is another Department. Moreover, in response to a Question I put the other day, I was told that the Department of Education and Science is conducting a long-term survey into the effects of flooding—which brings in another Department. All these Ministries have their Departmental responsibilities and the thing needs tying together. I do not mind which Minister does it, but there should be co-ordinated contingency planning.

If the Press or any hon. Members want to look for scapegoats for whether the organisation ran well or badly in the past, they should look to the local authorities and ask which of them subscribed to the Meteorological Office warning system. Many did not. The Meteorological Office will supply a flood warning, a snow warning, a frost warning or a gale warning—it will even give warnings to pigeon fanciers—but someone must take notice of the warning. When I was a meteorologist, I used to issue potato blight warnings. Hon. Members may not realise that, when the temperature exceeds 80 degrees and is over a certain level for 48 hours, conditions become such that the potato harvest may be seriously threatened. We used to issue these warnings because we were asked for them.

On the other hand, it is a different kettle of fish when one tries to pass the warning on. Very often, there is no one at the other end, or, if there is, he is too sleepy to take it. It is only when one asks for his name so as to record it in the warning book as proof that the message was sent that he wakes up and asks, "What do I do with it?" I had that sort of response many times myself.

There should be an overall plan. The fire service has a great part to play as well. After the warnings have been given, the various authorities concerned should know what information they ought to have, what services should have it, and what ought to be done in response to the information. That is vital.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) spoke of the Meteorological Office being starved of funds. I have said my piece about the accuracy of its forecasts, and I know that the Director-General of the Met. Office, a man for whom I have a high regard, is anxious to do the best he can for his department. I believe that, if we give him a big enough computer, he will forecast every last rain drop which falls anywhere. But I have put down a lot of Questions on this subject already asking what has been the improvement in forecasting with the computer which the Director-General already has. So far, I have not received an answer.

Before my hon. Friend starts lashing out money on bigger computers, I want to see a justification from the Director-General of the Met. Office showing how forecasts have improved with the big computer which he already has. When he says that 80 per cent. of short-term forecasts are correct, this must depend upon the criteria applied. While I have been sitting here I have written out a forecast "It will be cloudy with occasional sunny periods, with moderate to strong winds in exposed places. Winds will be light to calm in sheltered areas. Periods of rain, heavy at times, may be associated with the cloudier periods. Temperatures will be around normal for this time of year." I assure hon. Members that that forecast covers every possible contingency. I have had some experience, and I would get full marks for that.

I say to the Director-General of the Met. Office, in all fairness, that I have studied his criteria of how he assesses the accuracy of his forecasts, and it is a very unscientific document which he should go over before he makes these extravagant claims. I would say that our Met. Office is as good as any in the world, bearing in mind our weather conditions.

I agree with my hon. Friend in the main analysis he has made of our overall facilities, but we ought to address ourselves to the problem of tying in the existing services so that exact duties are laid down for every Government Department and every department lower down. The local authorities ought to look to their laurels to make sure that their organisations are functioning at 100 per cent. efficiency, since I think that they are capable of considerable improvement.

9.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Noble Mr Michael Noble , Argyll

We have had a short but extremely interesting debate on the problem of disasters, and it is natural enough that hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken particularly about the disaster which has most recently occurred in their own area, whether it was floods in the South-West or in the London area. My hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) seemed to think that a rainfall of 5 inches was remarkable, but in Inverness we had a rainfall of 9·25 inches a year or two ago, which I think is the record for the British Isles. Not that we want to claim records about that sort of weather.

We have covered many types of disaster, and it is inevitable that different problems should be inherent in dealing with each type. While I share with the Under-Secretary of State the privilege of having been in the Air Force during the war, I was concerned with bombs and the effect of bombs, and probably saw a good deal more of national disasters of that sort than most hon. Members. I agree with him that no two emergencies are alike, but I cannot agree with him that therefore the Government should have no fixed plans. If different sorts of disaster occur, which is inevitable in the wide sphere we are considering, a particular fixed plan will make nonsense. What are needed are plans in general and, above all, people who are trained to deal with a wide variety of emergencies and who are able to take command when the moment comes.

There are two types of emergency which have hardly been touched on during our debate and which I would like to mention, so that the House will be able to think about them, since I am certain that this will not be the last debate on this subject. We have been lucky recently in that we have had no major strikes, which can cause considerable troubles—disaster, if you like. A shipping strike on the West Coast of Scotland created most difficult conditions over a wide area. We have also been extremely fortunate in not having the experience which so many other countries have had of large-scale riots. Riots can create quite different conditions from those we have been discussing, but are a serious part of the problem.

I will briefly try to distinguish the type of problems that emerge according to the stage of the disaster. All disasters of the sort that we are considering have two phases. The first, or the immediate phase, is what one might call the first-aid stage. I agree with many hon. Members, on both sides, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby), my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) and many others, who said that in this stage the key is communications. Unless one knows immediately what has happened and where, and as clearly as possible the size of the disaster, no further action can sensibly be taken.

I remember very well—it has happened in some of the disasters which we have been discussing—that one of the first things to happen is that telephone communications go out altogether. Therefore, it is vital to have short-wave wireless systems. I do not mind whether they are Territorial, Army, civil defence or whatever they may be. The police short-wave wireless system is already enormously overburdened and if we were to rely simply on that, we would be making a mistake.

As soon as one has the information, the next immediate priorities arise. I do not want to start any inter-service quarrels with the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner), but I put the police at the head of the list and the fire brigades second. This may be because during a lot of that sort of operation during the war, our experience was that the police had the training, the equipment and the power of command in, perhaps, slightly greater measure than did the fire brigades at the time, and I regard them as the top. After that, one needs rescue squads, ambulances, hospital services, and so on. I stress, however, that there must be somebody in charge, and somebody in charge immediately, to whom the others automatically give respect and from whom they accept orders, otherwise chaos will result.

Immediately after the first-aid period, one gets a quite different problem, which will be entirely different according to the nature of the disaster. Floods may take 24 or 36 hours or a week to subside. A bad aircraft smash, like the one at Stockport, may take 24 hours to clear up, and the same with railway trouble. When, however, one gets something like hurricane "Low Q", which seriously hit the West of Scotland and not simply Glasgow, we have a problem on our hands which, as we now know, is certainly well over a year in duration. This needs a different type of organisation and a different type of long haul from some of the other disasters.

It may be useful for a few minutes to consider what happens in those longer periods of disaster and where a national organisation of some sort might fit in. After the first six or 12 months—or, it may be, 24 hours in certain cases—when one has a major problem on one's hands which must be put right, I would say that the first essential priority is unified control. Here I disagree with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees), who opened the debate for the Government.

It may be that we in Scotland are fortunate. We happen to have a system by which the Secretary of State is Minister for home affairs, in charge of local government, in charge of agriculture and effectively in charge of the meteorological office. He has an enormous width of responsibility and, therefore, he can, and should, take control himself or one of his Ministers. There is no argument about it.

In England, as the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Ellis) said, there is a multiplicity of Ministers. I did not quite understand what the Under-Secretary of State was trying to tell us. He said that he was against having unified control; he was against any of the Ministries giving up their Departmental responsibilities. As I understood him, he was saying that in the ultimate resort the Home Office was in charge.

Photo of Mr Michael Noble Mr Michael Noble , Argyll

To my mind that is not enough, because it is not the ultimate resort that I am interested in. It is the man on the spot dealing with the problem for the first week or fortnight, or month or six months, according to the nature of the problem. I believe that this has got to be a single Minister. I do not mind to whom he is responsible as long as he is trained and has under him an adequate staff who are trained. After all, during the war we found it essential to set up a regional commissioner who had immediate authority, irrespective of the defence Services or anybody else, to deal with this sort of problem. That is the model we ought to follow, though, I hope, with nothing approaching the same size of staff.

The second priority seems to me to be the absolute need for accurate information of what has, in fact, happened. In a storm of the nature of hurricane "Low Q" it takes time fully to collect. In my own area we were cut off by road and by telephone for about a week. Information quickly gathered is not likely to be very accurate. In this case the Secretary of State himself had to tell the House—I think it was in April—that he had been totally misled by the information which he had been given from the people in charge of the problem. Equally, Glasgow Corporation itself was totally misled as to the nature of the problem, and three months after the gale hardly anybody had any idea what really was the problem to be solved. I have been in Glasgow, and I have been to the various places affected, in the last two or three weeks; there is still an enormous lack of knowledge of the problem 10 months after the storm took place.

It makes me have great sympathy with the Secretary of State when he has been absolutely refusing to give targets of when certain things would be done. Of course, one cannot give a target when one does not know what the basic problem is, for then one cannot conceivably have an idea of when the job will be finished. It is true that the Storm Damage Control Centre, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) said, has done a wonderful job of work, but it was not set up until June—perhaps the end of May; but it did not start work until June. I was told that when I was there. If I am wrong I shall be delighted to be corrected by the Secretary of State, but it was very late before it got started and very late before it was able to give the necessary information to the people who were handling the repairs.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will permit me another minor point—the Section 11 houses. He will know what I mean by this. He told us, in the debate in February, that he had powers to deal with these. There was no use of those powers until June. The Minister is shaking his head, but this is what the Lord Provost and the people there told me when I was there. If it is inaccurate information I shall certainly withdraw that remark, but I can only tell the House what I was told by the people responsible for dealing with the operation.

Then the third priority, or the long haul, is getting the necessary personnel there. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) talked about the shortage of slaters. This was one of the main factors which got all the sums wrong in the early days, because information was made available to the Glasgow people of the number of slaters who were available. They were not. They did not exist.

But this is not the whole of the problem, because it became immediately clear, and was still clear last week when I was on those roofs, that there is a vast amount of work to be done, and it cannot be done with slates. What is more, it is a great waste of time if people are to remove slates, as they are doing, and try to cover the roofs with felt and tar. It is a waste of time because there is a perfectly good plastique which has been available a long time—for many years—and is now being used in Glasgow. It is perfectly effective; it is quicker and cheaper as it involves putting special material on top of the slates. One needs to know what resources one has by way of labour, by way of materials or methods avoiding the use of scarce materials. One has to get cracking with it.

The point I would specially like to make tonight is that whatever criticism there may be—and inevitably there will be some, because by the very nature of things, a national disaster is something of which people have not had much experience—it will depend on the quality and calibre of the people in charge of operations whether mistakes are made. The essential thing is that at the end of the day, when the immediate work is finished, a full and independent inquiry should look at the whole of the operation of the disaster work, and come to its own conclusions as to what was right or wrong. This is not to criticise Ministers or town clerks, or anyone else, but to assess accurately what went wrong and to record it for future use in five or 10 years, or perhaps six months' time. This is very much worth doing, and I hope that the Government will agree that this sort of inquiry should take place after the major problems of Hurricane "Low Q", through the whole of the West Coast of Scotland.

Here are one or two questions with which the inquiry should deal. First, it ought to study why it took so long to discover the nature of the problem of the housing in Glasgow. It was certainly three months before the full nature of the problem was known. I do not say that one local authority was better than another; it may have been luck—I do not know—but the Burgh of Clydebank was about the worst hit of any judged by the number of houses damaged. Yet it had all of its repairs completed by the summer, while Greenock, which was about the same, or perhaps not so badly damaged, has not yet finished, and is nowhere near finished its work. There may be perfectly good reasons for this.

I do not know whether it is right that the Clydebank burgh got two big contractors and said "Go right through the whole town and clear up all the roofs. Do not bother about who they belong to; just get the thing done." If this is so, it was very effective in providing its Citizens with roof cover very quickly. In doing so the burgh might have infringed some regulation about finance. If it has, I beg Ministers to forget about that petty affair. If one does not encourage local authorities which show initiative and get on with the job, even if they spend a bit too much, the next time we will be in trouble.

The next problem that ought to be studied is how much information is available about alternative methods of dealing with these slated roofs? The system which is known as plastique was invented many years ago, and used for a considerable time. But it is only now, eight or nine months after the storm, that this technique is beginning to be used in the City to any reasonable extent. It is much quicker and cheaper, and if it had been used we would not have large numbers of houses still to be repaired.

I have spoken mainly about the damage in Glasgow, and the roofs. But, as many hon. Members have said, there were serious disaster problems in different areas to agriculture, farming, forestry and to many other things. This may well be a subject to which the House should come back on another occasion. But in this short debate I believe that we have made a good case for some form of organisation—we are not rigid in our planning—and particularly for some set-up which will train the necessary people to take charge of these emergencies wherever and whenever they occur.

9.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , Kilmarnock

Mr. Speaker, I will hurry as much as possible through quite a number of the important points which have been raised.

We started with a general proposition concerning the establishment of a national emergencies organisation. But inevitably—and I think understandably—we got to examining particular problems of particular disasters that affected certain local authorities.

I would make three very quick answers to the right hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble). Why did he take so long to assess the problem? We did not take any length of time to assess the problem. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the original estimate of 10,000 roofs to be repaired in the private sector was made in March, and that has never seriously been challenged. The real difficulty has been to get the people to do it, because we knew at the start that it required specialists. This is after the emergency was over. The right hon. Member for Argyll stood here in the House and congratulated us on the way we handled the emergency. The right hon. Gentleman has gone on from the emergency to something else.

The difference concerning Greenock, Clydebank and Glasgow is the incidence and nature of the problem. Anyone who knows the Glasgow tenements knows that one thing to be taken into account is the state of repair, which is probably worse than anywhere else.

Concerning techniques for repair, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) asked who was looking into this. The Building Research Organisation is looking into it. The right hon. Member for Argyll suggested that there was a Plastique method which had been known for a very long time. The right hon. Gentleman must appreciate that the houses that we are repairing do not belong to the Government or the local authorities; they belong to factors. One difficulty has been to convince the factors to accept this as a valid semi-permanent repair. If the right hon. Gentleman appreciated some of the complexity we have had in dealing with his friends in Glasgow, the property owners, on the information they had to give us, he would be just a little less assured about coming along, whether he likes it or not, to criticise Ministers.

No two disasters are alike. It is suggested that there should be a flexible organisation, but we must appreciate what it will cost to train people for a permanent job and to set up a new organisation. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) asked the hon. Member for Cathcart whether he had priced his proposal, to which the hon. Gentleman replied "No". That is true. We must appreciate that one of the main reasons for abolishing the Civil Defence Corps, which I admit was useful in this sphere, was the question of finance and the national economy. Therefore, it would be wrong for us to come along and say that we should resurrect it in another form to do a limited job which might not be done as well as it could otherwise be done.

Those who suggest that we should have this National Emergencies Organisation should appreciate that we may well, by this, run the serious risk of undermining the practical responsibility of the local authorities on the spot. I think that the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby) put his finger on the problem. At the beginning of these disasters there must be an immediate local response.

We should appreciate that the greatest disasters in Britain over the last century have occurred in the mining industry. This industry, because of the almost predictable nature of accidents in the pits, has its schemes ready. There is never any delay in carrying out salvage operations, in helping to save lives, in providing medical services, and so on. AH the services are there, and they run smoothly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Horner) said that every fire, large or small, was an emergency, and that there was an immediate response to it, but of course the matter does not end there. As hon. Members who study this problem know, there have been plenty of reports on this subject. There is the first call, and then there is the follow up. There is the ability to get people in from outside to help in an emergency. There is already a regional structure.

What people have in mind when they talk about emergencies is where more than one service is involved, and where there has to be a certain measure of liaison and an assurance of co-ordination. We learn something from every disaster. We improve our organisation. We improve our techniques, but I think we must appreciate that the body on the spot with the widest coverage of responsibility, be it for welfare, or housing, or roads, or the police, or anything else, is the local authority. The local authority and the police are there right from the beginning. This is the set-up which exists now.

The disaster in Scotland was not only a Glasgow disaster, nor only an urban one. It affected agriculture and forestry, too, and the existing system worked, and worked well. It means, of course, that Ministers have to accept responsibility. I admit that this is easy in Scotland. One thing which we have established tonight is that the Secretary of State for Scotland is not responsible for the Meteorological Office, but I say to the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Ellis) that if I were responsible for the Meteorological Office I should object to him blaming civil servants, and ask him to blame me for any failures. There has to be this backing from Ministers. As I say, this is relatively easy when it comes to the duties of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Reference has been made to the agriculture industry. It was agriculture which suffered one of the biggest disasters to afflict Britain this year. There were, of course, compensations following the ready response of the Minister of Agriculture to the appeals for help, but even in Scotland I have no power to do anything. This matter has been centralised in the hands of one Minister, and that is the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He is responsible for dealing with outbreaks of animal diseases, even in Scotland, and it is right that this should be so.

When it came to a question of dealing with flood damage, responsibility naturally fell on the Minister of Housing and Local Government, with his direct connection with local auhtorities, and this arrangement has worked well. On a very much larger scale, where the damage is far more wide-reaching and less localised, and less confined to one Department, of course the Home Secretary is there.

After an emergency there is inevitably a certain amount of inquiry into whether things could have been done better. I think that it is healthy and right that there should be such an inquiry. One hon. Gentleman opposite said that communications were vital during an emergency, and I agree. One cannot get anything done in the right place, and to the right extent, and one cannot establish priorities, without having the person in charge backed from the centre, and with all the information flowing both ways.

This is where we have the advantage in relation to the fire services and the police. In Scotland we found it of considerable advantage to move in the equipment from our own stores, and indeed to use our own staff. I assure the hon. Member for Cathcart that if we were required to do the same thing again tomorrow, even though the Civil Defence Corps has gone, we could do so. We established headquarters there and we were able, through the welfare services to provide halls and so on.

Local authorities have shown that they can create this organisation. They can handle the voluntary help that comes in. One hon. Member who intervened seemed to think that we were discarding the possibility of using voluntary organisations. They are an essential part of the backing-up organisation of local authorities. Another hon. Member referred to the women's transport service. I think that it is part of the Women's Voluntary Service. Perhaps we could examine the question whether they could be taught to use radio equipment. We have to learn the right use of communications and make the right provision for them.

I am satisfied about the chain of command, and I now turn to the question of warning. This is the most difficult thing in the world. We had a tremendous storm in Glasgow, in the middle of the night. Thank goodness it was in the middle of the night. If people had been on the streets many hundreds would have been killed. But what can we do about such disasters? The most unlikely buildings were affected. If we had given a warning people may well have left their homes and been in even more danger.

The one thing that has been emphasised by the debate is that there should be a conference of all the people involved, including the Meteorological Office, the Ministry of Agriculture and the river authorities, and such a conference will take place. An assessment of the danger of floods cannot be made by the Meteorological Office. The only people who can do it are the river authorities. In this respect England and Wales are more fortunate than Scotland, because Scotland has no river authorities. Only sketchy provision is made for flood prevention. Someone is responsible for that aspect of the problem, however, and that must continue. I know from what happened in Ross and Cromarty that warning is vital. Once decisions are made measures must be put into operation and people must know how they should work and where responsibility lies at every point.

The question was raised of sappers stationed in Scotland. There are some. In September I visited some who were doing a very useful piece of building in Argyllshire in the right hon. Member's own constituency. They have moved from there since but I believe that some are still stationed in other parts of Scotland. But this is not the point. If a situation arises that requires the assistance of the Army, Navy or Air Force, there is no hesitation, wherever they may be stationed. We got specialist people from Ripon into Scotland, and the Royal Air Force flew in tarpaulins. We know where all the required materials are, and on this occasion they were flown in. The last thing that anybody spoke about at that time was money. They thought in terms of getting the job done, and we are very grateful for the dangerous work that was carried out by the Armed Services and the other services.

The shortage of slaters was a vital issue. This is why we had to try to extend the number of those who could be drawn from other trades for a particular roofing job in Glasgow. A considerable number of people have lost their lives working on these roofs and we should be aware of the extent of the progress which has been made. A total of 169,000 local authority houses were damaged in Scotland, excluding Glasgow, and all except for a few hundred have been repaired. In the whole of Scotland, 187,000 local authority houses were damaged and 179,000 have been repaired. That is pretty good. As for private houses, 84,000 were damaged and 77,000 have been repaired.

We had hoped to build up a labour force of just over 1,000 and we now have a force of 1,700, 500 from the Scottish Special Housing Association. This, of course, will have some effect on our house building, perhaps not this year, but next year. I hope that people will understand that we have spared no effort in manpower. We are grateful to the Department of Employment and Productivity for the help that they have given us, and to the Army and to those institutions in Scotland which have helped.

From the information which I receive from the Corporation and the owners of property in Glasgow, in recent periods of heavy rain, the number of complaints about these houses has not been more than in a normal year. The Lord Provost of Glasgow is right to say that, as a result of our efforts, the roofs in Glasgow are probably better than they have been for a long time. But we are not satisfied. We must go on to give the maximum protection to everyone.

It did not take us long to set up an advice centre. We used the old civil defence headquarters very early on, and it has since grown and is more sophisticated. The people of Glasgow now have a place where they can complain about the state of their roofs. They might have been able to telephone a factor before, but they now have a better chance of getting something done.

I admit that there has been a shortage of technical men, but we have solved this by using people from our own technical departments and we have been able to draw on the S.S.H.A. as well. Generally speaking, we have had co-operation from private firms as well where questions of life or property have been involved.

I have explained our concern about the continuing problems. It is too easy a solution to talk about a national organisation, without understanding what is behind it and whether it is better than what we have. There may be men who are anxious to continue the kind of job that they were doing in the Civil Defence Corps, but they will be able to do it by strengthening existing voluntary organisations. This is one way in which they can serve.

I wanted to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Dr. David Kerr) about a national disaster fund. This is an old one which has been brought forward time and again by different Oppositions and Government back-benchers. Every Government has so far turned it down. It has fatal weaknesses. I sincerely hope that, having heard the Government's response, the Opposition will not press the Motion to a Division.

Photo of Mr Ernest Perry Mr Ernest Perry , Battersea South

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.