The Prime Minister has stated on many occasions, with some justification, that she has transformed the political agenda in Britain. One policy area that has been put back on the political agenda is civil defence.
In the five years up to 1978–79, Government spending on civil defence halved in real terms, and that was the culmination of a period in which the subject had been almost entirely ignored. Indeed, in the eight years to 1976, only one debate took place on that subject in the House.
That situation has changed radically in recent times and the Government must be credited with having made the necessary commitment in terms of resources and having established new standards of preparedness. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) has made a vital contribution in keeping the issue before Parliament. As chairman of the National Council for Civil Defence, he has helped to stimulate a wider debate throughout the country.
Unilateral disarmers and those who have encouraged local authorities to declare their areas non-nuclear zones, thus perpetrating almighty hoaxes on the ratepayers, have resisted any commitment to civil defence, linking it exclusively with the issue of nuclear deterrence. Refusing to take part in civil defence exercises such as exercise Hard Rock, and ignoring the duties which central Government require local councils to undertake, does nothing to mitigate the dangers of nuclear warfare. On the contrary, such irresponsibility has extremely damaging effects.
It would be unwise to assume that the United Kingdom could never again be involved in hostilities which fall short of a nuclear conflict. During this century, nearly all the wars have been fought in ways that the experts failed to foretell. If preparations are based only on official expectations, a country will be ill-armed to deal with a crisis. Even a small chance that Britain may be sucked into a conventional war surely justifies the spending of a relatively small sum on civil defence. Many have suggested that conventional war might be much more likely a scenario, given the appalling consequences that are known to all nations of nuclear war and the devastation that would ensue. Lord Hill-Norton has said that in many ways nuclear war is the least likely option open to the Soviets.
We can all agree that the possibility, if not the probability, of a period of rising tension and the outbreak of conventional war before the use of any nuclear weapons might provide an opportunity for world leaders to pause and to step back from the brink. That presupposes that we shall have a nation, continent or world that is worth saving.
We tend to think only of the horrors of nuclear war. If they could rise from their graves, millions of victims of conventional war could tell us how terrible that is. More died in the fires of Dresden than at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Time and time again in the second world war, and in other wars known by our contemporaries and predecessors, those who survived were those who were prepared, whether they called their preparedness civil defence or used another term.
There have been many wars since 1945, although the policy of deterrence has ensured that Europe has been spared them. None of these wars has been nuclear. We cannot afford to neglect the possibility that the pattern could continue and that such a war could touch us too.
The policy of deterrence has averted a world war involving the major powers for 40 years, and as long as we remain a part of NATO and continue to maintain and modernise our defences, the possibility of nuclear war remains extremely low.
If we are to believe the results of attitude surveys, a high proportion of young people expect a nuclear war in their lifetime. I remain an optimist, but even an outside chance cannot be ignored. If we spend £50 billion annually on social security and the Health Service in protecting our people against sickness and unemployment and in making their old age tolerable and, we hope, productive and rewarding, should we not spend one thousandth of that sum in protecting them against obliteration?
Defence must surely be the first responsibility of any Government, for without defence there is nothing else. Our defence is rightly based on the thesis that any potential aggressor must believe that the price of his aggression will be too high to contemplate. However, a small part of the equation is the need to provide some protection if all our calculations are confounded. That is the belief of my hon. Friends and myself.
There used to be a consensus across party lines on this issue, but judging by the statements of many Opposition Members, and the absence of many other Opposition Members tonight, that seems, regrettably, no longer to be the position, although I know that, whatever their party, individuals such as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) support the National Council for Civil Defence.
It is our responsibility and duty to think the unthinkable. No one who cannot imagine a fire or a burglary in his or her home takes out insurance. If one never has a fire or burglary, it does not mean that that insurance has been wasted. Those who vote to ban the bomb, whether or not potential enemies ban it, are not necessarily opposed to our democratic way of life. Many are extremely sincere and honest in their beliefs, but they tend to regard the prospect of nuclear war as so horrific that their reaction is to ask why we should contemplate what would follow. Hence, there is an over-eagerness to show that nuclear winter — an as yet unproven hypothesis — must preclude any planning for the aftermath. Hence also, we have films that predicate only despair and death.
We should be ready to assert that, even in the remote event of all-out nuclear assault, as many as half our population could survive. Without civil defence, that proportion could be much lower; with civil defence, it could be higher. Whatever the scenario, there would almost certainly be some survivors. Self-preservation dictates that we should salvage as much as we can after the event.
Even Hiroshima was survived by many. Hiroshima was in a non-nuclear zone—if we need reminding of that—and, if its population had been prepared, many more people could have survived or escaped the appalling injuries from which they suffered then and from which many continue to suffer now.
More modern weapons would produce more catastrophic effects but, even then, many of those living some distance from a blast would undoubtedly survive, if sufficient protection were provided. The proportion who survived could be increased at a relatively small cost if they knew what action to take. Education is a relatively inexpensive but vital part of civil defence planning.
Civil defence represents a small but vital element in the theory of deterrence. The threat to use nuclear weapons in self-defence could hardly be credible to a potential adversary if it were obvious that the Government could not contemplate such a decision because its effects would be utterly calamitous and were not even prepared to take the minimum action necessary to fulfil their responsibilities of protecting their people. That was the signal that the previous Government were sending out before the Conservatives were elected in 1979. I am glad that that signal has now altered.
Britain spends less than £1 a year per head on civil defence; the Swiss spend more than £10, showing not only that neutrality does not make one immune from nuclear fallout but that civil defence is vital whether one believes in unilateral or multilateral disarmament. Nuclear-free, as has been pointed out, is not nuclear safe. It is estimated that in Switzerland 85 per cent. of the population might survive a nuclear strike. Our geological and geographical situation is different. I would not suggest that we should go to the same lengths as the Swiss, but we can certainly learn from them, just as we can learn from the Swedes. In the Soviet Union nuclear survival is taught in the schools and public buildings are designed with nuclear wars in view. If civil defence is right for the Soviets, why do so many people think that it is wrong for us?
New factors must be considered. Trident and other weapon systems developed by NATO and the Warsaw pact are more accurate than their predecessors. By providing pinpoint accuracy aimed at military targets, they provide the option of a response short of total annihilation. The ability to shelter one's population must be seen as a vital part of a credible deterrent. I have severe reservations about the strategic defence initiative, but if one day it comes to fruition, it must increase the possibility of conventional war, even if it provides a defence against nuclear weapons. In that case, the priority to be accorded civil defence would be immeasurably increased.
It is important to appreciate that civil defence should not exist only to deal with total war. I hope that the Government will expand its role to help deal with any civil emergency—for example, a land slip, a flood, a plane crash in a heavily populated area or any comparable disaster. Such a development would also help to unite people who vary greatly is their conception of a proper defence posture, but who could agree on the life saving role of volunteers in peace and war. The possible need to amend the Civil Defence Act 1948 to take account of such a change should be urgently considered.
Last month the Home Office issued its updated emergency planning guidance to local authorities. It still seems that a high proportion of local authorities will fail to complete their emergency plans by the end of this year. My local authority of Bradford, which at one time sheltered under the nonsensical self-deception of being a nuclear-free zone, has, I am glad to say, given up that dubious status. But I doubt whether civil defence has adequate authority there, let alone in counties and districts which are controlled by more Left-wing regimes. I think of the authority in which my lion. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office has his constituency.
A properly manned inspectorate should be established to ensure that all local authorities fulfil their legal commitments, especially with regard to the 1983 regulations. It is not up to local authorities to decide unilaterally that they will not make proper preparations for people's protection. For some limited civil defence purposes, central Government provides councils with 100 per cent. grants, but for other purposes only 75 per cent. grants exist. Civil defence is too important to be threatened by rate capping and penalties on overspending, even if such overspending is in reality brought about by less vital projects. If there is any danger that councils may justify their neglect of civil defence by reference to such factors, surely 100 per cent. grants should in all cases be made available by Whitehall. The progess made by local authorities should be monitored and reported on annually to Parliament.
Unfortunately, public education is still inadequate. Much more should be done, not to alarm people but to reassure them. We need to exercise as much sensitivity in getting our message across about civil defence as we do on the drugs menace, where the message can easily be distorted and misunderstood.
We all like to switch off when the stewardess on our aircraft demonstrates the use of life-saving equipment, but in our heart of hearts we are glad that it is there. We must be prepared for any eventuality, although we know that it is unlikely. The price of civil defence is a small price to pay for greater security, but it is a price we cannot afford not to pay.
I am most interested in this subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) said, we rarely get the opportunity to discuss one of the most important aspects of life. Only once in the past two years has the subject been raised in the House.
I was interested in what my hon. Friend said about reporting to Parliament, because it is important that my hon. Friend the Minister should keep a close watch on and monitor what local authorities are doing. It would be interesting every year to have a report of what they had achieved, how much of their quota they had spent, and what further funds were required to make a comprehensive safety net. We have already been told that some authorities are reluctant to do this, and some compulsion may be necessary. It is up to my hon. Friend the Minister of State to ensure that happens. I know that he is doing all he can by means of persuasion, but compulsion may be necessary in spite of all his persuasive powers.
It is quite wrong that civil defence should be under civilian control. In war, all our defences, be they protective or military should be under military control. It is quite wrong that civil defence should be under the control of an unelected area representative—it should be either a civil servant or an elected person, but preferably it should come under the control of the military.
There are two aspects to civil defence—protecting our citizens against nuclear or conventional attack, and protecting them against an attack that is becoming more and more apparent. The Warsaw pact has small teams of people who are capable of disrupting our vital installations. That perhaps poses an even greater danger than the first aspect of civil defence, because if our vital installations, such as electricity and water, are tampered with, all the other precautions that are taken to defend our citizens against nuclear attack will be quite useless.
The home defence force consists of only 5,000 men. I believe that we need 100,000. We are told that in the event of war, either conventional or nuclear, we shall be left with only 100,000 people here to protect our citizens. That is not sufficient. The additional 5,000-strong home defence force is important, but a much greater number of people should be capable of coming to the fore to be mobilised and trained for both defence and military aid to the civil power.
Small units of 30 or 40 people would be extremely valuable, provided they were properly trained and equipped and came under military control. We know that the Warsaw pact has small teams of people who speak very good English, are highly trained and know the country. In many cases, they have been living here for some time and know the area.
Hon. Members will be aware that schemes exist, such as Lord Hill-Norton's under which volunteers can be trained quite cheaply. A comparative table shows that 100,000 volunteers cost £17 million and that 700,000 cost £120 million. Such volunteers would not be paid but would have arm bands and equipment and could render military and other services to the community, including civil defence. They would be ready at the drop of a hat to come to the aid of the military forces and the civilian power. We shall require such people in the event of hostilities, when very few people will be left to man the country.
We need to do three things. First, my right hon. Friend the Minister has to force local authorities to carry out their statutory duties. Secondly, at the end of the year, I should like to see him produce a table showing those who have defaulted and those who are up to standard. Thirdly, we need to provide the additional money required to bring the whole of our civil defence up to strength.
We must look at the whole of our home defence forces. I believe that, under the Warsaw pact, if we were engaged in either nuclear or conventional war, we would be left at home with too few to protect our citizens. That is the danger. The additional numbers we provide for that purpose can also be used in civilian occupations to help perform numerous tasks. These home forces need to be considerably increased—5,000 is not enough. I should like to see many more people properly trained and armed, and capable of carrying out not only military but also many civilian tasks that they are called on to perform. A wealth of voluntary effort in all skills is waiting to be mobilised.
I welcome the opportunity for this debate on a general theme which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) has just said, perhaps too often has received too little attention.
At the outset I wish to endorse all the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), although I may put a different emphasis on one or two of his points. Of all the many aspects and assets that make up what we may loosely term civil defence, I choose to deal with three cases. I shall therefore be selective and, I hope, brief.
As so often with so many debates on civil defence, this debate will suffer from what I label a double defect. With no personal malice whatever towards the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), I believe his party must take the blame for this. By a double defect, I mean, first, the failure of some many members of Opposition parties to grasp the totality and the importance of civil defence. Secondly, following from the first defect, there is a total absence of positive and constructive input into the debate by so many members of Opposition parties.
On that point, I make one half-concession. The term "civil defence" is misleading. It concentrates the mind excessively, and sometimes exclusively, on wartime emergency. Perhaps it would be better if we scrubbed "civil defence" out of our vocabulary entirely, and spoke of "civil emergency planning".
Surely the essential point is that we are concerned to protect the civilian population from the effects of all disasters, whatever their cause, in which the regular services of fire brigade, police, ambulance and so on, either would be severely strained by the size of the particular disaster, or unable to operate effectively in time.
Of course, nuclear, biological and chemical warfare constitute potentially the worst forms of disaster we can suffer, but man-made disasters of a different sort and natural disasters are the equal concerns of civil emergency planning. All too often Opposition parties do not seem to have realised that. To be fair—I like to try to be fair—neither did the Conservative party in its 1983 election manifesto. In it, we concentrated exclusively on wartime emergency planning. To be even fairer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said—I hope that the Minister will take note of this—the Government have tarried too long in amending the Civil Defence Act 1948.
The hon. Gentleman is being so incredibly fair that I want to help him be a little fairer and go that little step further. I ask him to recognise that if, like the Minister and myself, he had served on the Committee on the Bill to abolish the metropolitan counties, he would know that we said that lack of effective civil emergency planning would be made infinitely worse by the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the Greater London council.
I do not wish to be drawn into all those details. Continuing the amicable theme of being fair, I welcome the opportunity of having learnt a little more.
I wish to explore three points. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will take my comments as the positive, constructive and friendly criticisms that I intend them to be. First, it can he argued that since 1979, the Government's attitude and actions on civil defence have shown signs of a lack of interdepartmental co-operation. The laudable exhortations and actions of the Home Office have not been matched by other Departments. For example, "Civil Defence and the Farmer" was too long in appearing and is too light in content. Moreover, there has been inadequate research into providing effective guidance for preparing a viable policy for food and agriculture in times of emergency. Farmers need more guidance on civil defence measures. There is also a strong case to be made for identifying a nucleus of farmer wardens from among current civil defence volunteers and training them in conjunction with local authorities.
In the Department of Health and Social Security, all is far from acceptable in the provision of emergency health and medical services. In 1983, the British Medical Association reported on the medical demands that a nuclear war might create. It found the present Department of Health and Social Security war plans quite ineffective. Interestingly, by a vote of 248 to 78, the BMA voted to be actively involved in the governmental war planning process. There are grounds for concern about emergency supplies of insulin, as I know from my dealings with a pharmaceutical company in my constituency. There should be greater emphasis on planning peacetime emergency provision sufficient to deal with the Bhopal category of emergency, when some 25,000 people were in sudden and dire need of medical treatment.
Similar concern can be expressed about emergency planning for industry. There is need for improved civil emergency advice to industry through the reintroduction of guidance circulars and liaison between industry and local civil defence authorities. The Department of Trade and Industry line hitherto has been that responsibility for civil defence lies with industry itself. However, that attitude is not good enough. I understand that last January the Department announced the setting up of a study to assess the essential civil defence requirements that industry can be called upon to supply and its capability to meet those requirements. That is to be welcomed. The essential point is that there are grounds for concern about interdepartmental co-operation and motivation.
My second major point is that the 1983 civil defence regulations required local authorities to undertake certain duties that incurred capital and current expenditure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said, the response from local authorities has not been impressive. The requirements in themselves were and are laudable. The charge against them, arguably, is that they do not go far enough, but what is needed is more detailed guidance by Government to local authorities on the raising and training of civil defence volunteers. Defined and timed objectives must be stated.
We need a civil defence inspectorate with powers and resources to monitor performance and to enforce compliance with the 1983 regulations. We need Government guidance on the required levels of emergency planning staffs employed by local authorities. At the end of last year, about 50 per cent. of the emergency planning staffs were undermanned even by 1972 standards, and scarcely a handful of the 54 local authorities had completed emergency plans in accordance with the 1983 regulations. All this is far from satisfactory.
The greatest defect, however, is financing. All civil defence and emergency expenditure must be taken outside the rate support grant framework and be completely reimbursed. Nor should capital expenditure on civil defence be counted against normal local authority allocations. There is still much work to be done with the implementation of the 1983 regulations.
Thirdly, there is a dire need for a clearer and more succinct overall civil emergency planning strategy. The most adverse comment that can be made about the Government's actions is that they are making well-intentioned but ineffective noises and paying lip service to the need more than they are delivering the goods. It must be acknowledged, however, that the Government are doing infinitely more than a Government of any other political party would be doing.
Within the overall civil emergency planning strategy, priority must be given to restoring public confidence in emergency planning. A long-term strategy must be adopted, and it must have defined and timed objectives just as the Swiss and Swedes have had for many years. Planning and preparation by all agencies must be coordinated and monitored at all levels. There must be provision to ensure compliance with the law. It can be argued that insufficient thought has been given to how civil emergency planning can be most effectively and economically organised and delivered. There is certainly scope for academic research. Above all, the public will have no faith in civil emergency planning which fails to protect the individual. That can only mean shelters and relocation schemes. Local authorities must prepare—and keep updated—effective evacuation and reception plans. The absence of such plans is a major defect in existing regulations. There should be research into the viability of a long-term public and domestic shelter programme, now notable by its absence. All of those things should appear in a civil emergency planning strategy.
Good intentions and considerable advance characterise civil emergency planning during the past few years, but there is still much work to be done. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give us assurances that the work will be done.
Many people do not want to talk about civil defence. It frightens some, and others belittle it as irrelevant to modern war machines. It is rather like people not wanting to talk about a serious illness because not much can be done about it. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) on raising this subject, although I should have congratulated him even more if he had secured an earlier debate.
None of us expect to have to call upon an emergency service. The more we can do to prevent our having recourse to emergency services, the better we like it. But we know that it will sometimes be needed. The quality of the trained personnel is then critical. That is how one must consider civil defence. We hope that it will be in much less demand than the fire service, but unless we make sure that in our local communities there are those who can help in emergencies we shall suffer an even greater catastrophe.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley referred to what could happen in the event of a nuclear war. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) referred to civil emergencies. The sooner the Government change the 1948 regulations to include civil emergencies the better.
The emergency services come very much into their own on the fringe of a catastrophe. It often takes time before the professional services can arrive on the scene in strength, and before they arrive the emergency services perform a very useful role. When the professionals arrive the emergency services can help with evacuation. Emergencies do not normally last only for a few minutes; they can last for days or even weeks. During that period a volunteer force that is trained in certain specialties and that has communication facilities available to it can greatly relieve the pressure on the professional services.
Furthermore, this is very much a community activity. The service will know the locality well. It will also know what communication facilities are available. Although the main emergency services were quickly sent to the disaster area when a dam burst its banks in Italy last week, a great deal had to be done initially by the local volunteer force.
We adopt a very low-key approach to civil defence. It is not very well publicised. We shall have to do a public relations job and sell the idea of joining the civil defence force because it is a worthwhile community service, not only in the remote event of warfare but in the event of civil emergencies. We must also sell the idea of a credible civil defence strategy. The Government must put forward a meaningful strategy and sell the idea that if war should break out it is important to have people in certain key positions. It will need a great deal of selling. After two world wars people feel tremendously relieved that it is all over. It will be difficult, after such a long gap, to get people thinking again about civil defence. But we must do so, because there are so many different types of weapon about. The Government must try to do as good a PR job as they can.
Local authorities will play a key role in civil defence. It is disappointing that, so far, few authorities have approached the task with enthusiasm, or even with a commitment to do it at some time in the future. More than half of the emergency centre programme has not been completed. Some authorities have ignored civil defence completely. Other authorities and organisations have expressed outright hostility to the idea that civil defence is important. My hon. Friend mentioned nuclear-free zones. I live in a nuclear-free zone, but I feel no more safe than do my constituents who do not live in such a zone. We must overcome those delusions.
Our communications systems for civil defence must be appropriate for wartime as well as for civil emergencies. The implementation of the recommendations in the report of the Home Office working party on communications will be a key factor in setting up a network that can be coordinated nationally. In an emergency, communications are critical. If we had an emergency in one of our cities, two great problems would be communicating with people to tell them what to do, and moving people around the area. In some cities, a small stretch of roadworks is enough to cause traffic jams. We are talking about bigger problems than that.
The best way to encourage local authorities to undertake civil defence programmes would be for the Government to reimburse their capital expenditure and their expenditure on emergency planning personnel. They will not respond unless the Government offer a carrot as well as a stick. It is only right that the Government take responsibility for civil defence and pay for it through the Exchequer. They should not expect local authorities to bear the entire cost. I realise that the benefits will be seen in local communities as well as in the national Parliament, but with the present restraints on local government expenditure, we cannot expect authorities to co-operate willingly on the current terms.
We should also consider chemical and biological warfare. The public seem to know very little about that. I am sure that our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence know much about it. If there is a deterrent balance in nuclear weapons, I am sure that the alternatives of chemical and biological weapons will be considered. We must provide information about such weapons to the volunteer force, and we should publicise the precautions that can be taken to cope with chemical and biological warfare. Such provision will be essential if we are to create a civil defence force that will be effective, should the need arise.
We must remember that major emergencies come out of the blue. If they did not, we would not need so many preventive measures. Major civil emergencies especially are completely unexpected. It is then that the local volunteer force can do so much to avoid the worst results of such a catastrophy.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who does so much to publicise the need for civil defence, and the importance of the volunteers to the community, to continue to put across the message that civil defence has an important part to play in a modern society, despite the terrible weapons that are available to major countries.
Even at this early hour of the morning, I am glad to add my words to this well-initiated debate on civil defence. I suspect that the numbers in the House represent the feeling of our respective parties towards civil defence. My party and Government have a strong feeling for civil defence, but all the Opposition parties have little of it. That is adequately represented this evening—I was going to say to the tune of 10:1, but the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) has just entered the Chamber, so the odds have shortened slightly to 10:2. We are glad that the hon. Lady has joined us, because I am sure that she will hear something to her benefit from the Government Benches.
There are many definitions of what civil defence is and should be. I draw the attention of the House to the definition that it is the means to protect the civilian population from the effects of all natural disasters, in which the regular services would be severely strained by the size of the disaster, or unable to act in time. We should concern ourselves with it whether it is in wartime or peacetime, because there are disasters at both times for which we should make provision. Thankfully, we live in a time of peace, but that time has come about because of the defence policies followed by this country and others since the last world war—a policy of deterrence in the main. We have had that peace for 40 years.
However, even in peacetime, many horrific disasters have occurred, such as that at Bhopal and those in Canada and Italy. At such times, we need civil defence provisions. Just because we live in peace does not mean that disasters will not happen. It does not mean that we should not make provision. We hope that we shall never see such disasters, or that they will never happen to us or our friends, but inevitably, things do happen. We should take proper precautions against such art eventuality. I am speaking of major disasters that affect countries or cities.
In our lives, we all make insurance arrangements against things that we hope will never happen. We now wear seat belts as a precaution against an accident in our car that we hope will never happen. In a minor way, that is a civil defence arrangement. We take out insurance for many other things. We insure our homes against contingencies and make provisions of that kind.
Those are precautions in a small way, but we can multiply them into the need for a local authority, an area or a country to make civil defence arrangements for local populations. There is general recognition by the public of the need for civil defence, but the public at large need to be wakened up to the eventualities that could occur and to the need to guard against them. The public accept and understand the need for civil defence, and the Government and we as Members of Parliament have a responsibility to bring that home to our constituents and to people at large.
As many of my hon. Friends may remember, I was on a local authority and we tried to accept our responsibilities. I refreshed my mind about those responsibilities before coming to the House, and as I understand it, county councils should have the following obligations:
To make and keep under review plans for the continuation of a number of essential services in war.
To arrange for the training in civil defence of their own staff and those of districts and London Boroughs.
To participate in training or training exercises organised by the designated ministers.
To make arrangements for the organisation of civil defence volunteers.
To provide emergency centres for civil defence direction.
To implement plans as directed by the designated minister.
Those are the responsibilities of the county councils throughout this country, and one would like to see them taking those responsibilities a bit more seriously than they do. Many are conscientious in that respect, but some are not as good as others. The lower tier, the district councils, have an obligation to assist the county councils wherever that is possible, although, of course, the counties have overall responsibility.
Ours is not the only country to have civil defence, but to hear some Opposition Members one would think we were. Of course, as my hon. Friends said earlier, Russia and China have active civil defence organisations and many countries in Europe also accept their responsibilities for civil defence. We are doing nothing more than keeping pace with other countries. It is easy to talk of wartime precautions and one understands them more readily, but we should look more seriously at the prospect of local disasters.
One of my hon. Friends referred to nuclear-free zones. I live in a nuclear-free zone, but I do not feel any more secure there than I felt when I was the leader of Cambridge city council and did not live in a nuclear-free zone. In fact, I felt more secure in my previous city in terms of civil defence than in the city in which I now live. That is because we observed civil defence precautions whereas my present local authority, the district council, makes no provision for civil defence.
It seems that we have a nuclear-free zone, which includes a civil defence-free zone, or a civil defence zone. I should prefer to live in the civil defence zone. I should feel safer if my local authority took the issue seriously. The authority takes its support for CND seriously, but that will get my constituents nowehere and will mean that they are less secure. I wish that the council would pay as much attention to its civl defence responsibilities, becaue my constituents would then feel more secure.
Heaven forbid that it should happen, but there could be a civil disaster in Norwich. We have a modest airport and there could be a plane disaster over the city or a plane could hit a multi-storey block of flats. There should be proper civil defence arrangements for such a contingency. The local authority does not make such arrangements.
I regret the attitude of many other Labour-controlled authorities. I understand that South Yorkshire county
council has condemned the Government's "irresponsibility" in suggesting that it is anything but futile to plan for a nuclear emergency. A spokesman for Labour-controlled Hackney borough council has said:
We should not be doing civil defence at all. It is an absolute waste of time.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has gone so far as to say:
Civil defence plans now being developed are a thinly veiled cover for a policy of military repression always available to deal with any opposition to Government policy.
I cannot imagine a more ludicrous attitude.
The Government have an honourable attitude to civil defence, but I hope that they will be firmer. We are too often wise after the event. With peacetime or wartime planning in civil defence, it is better to be wise before the event than to have regrets afterwards. The Government must take civil defence more seriously—commendable though their attitude is already—and impress on local authorities the need for better arrangements. Better publicity must be given to the arrangements. Then we shall all feel safer in our beds. I hope that the Minister who is to reply will give us that reassurance.
The problem that civil defence has in projecting a proper image has emerged directly or indirectly from the speeches of all my hon. Friends. The concept of civil defence in the public mind seems to be one of an outdated procedure which is irrelevant to the needs of modern disasters and warfare and is an inadequate response to the ultimate threat. As such, this rather weary impression has provided a perfect target, a focus for the anti-nuclear lobby.
Some part of our job, I think, must be to redefine the role of civil defence, to change the emphasis that we attach to it. To this extent, the National Council for Civil Defence and the Trebah Trust have done a great deal to give it a new orientation by emphasising the all-hazards approach as opposed to the single response to the nuclear threat.
The all-hazards approach accepts the fact that, in the most extreme circumstances, there must be a response to the nuclear threat. However, this is perhaps the most unlikely scenario to occur. While we maintain the strategy of deterrence, it is unlikely that we will be attacked with nuclear weapons. But there is a much more likely hazard in natural or industrial disaster. It is in this area that the all-hazards approach can be best developed.
This raises the question not only of redefinition but of presentation. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) alluded to this by saying that we should perhaps have a better PR presentation of the approach of civil defence to hazards. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) suggested that the phraseology "civil emergency planning" might more accurately describe what civil defence, in our view, is attempting to do.
This more positive response should alert the Government and local authorities to their responsibilities. The Government's role is clearly, if broadly, defined in that they have the responsibility for long-term planning, which means that there must be some co-ordination between the different Departments of state. It is apparent, from the Questions that we have tabled to different Departments in the last year or so, that there are different degrees of priority within different Departments, a different emphasis and sometimes, it would seem, a different sense of direction. There is a need for a comprehensive civil defence strategy, and for that to be co-ordinated in the first instance.
Secondly, central Government have a duty to provide the finance. It is an unfair and unrealistic burden on local authorities to imagine that, through their ratepayers, and in the difficult circumstances in which some of them have been placed recently, they can make provision for the finance to do what is necessary to meet the risks.
Having said generally what central Government should do, I think that it is in local authorities that the operations can be most effectively deployed. Local government must seek to adopt a realistic approach to its responsibilities, to co-ordinate local needs and to recognise how local services can be brought into operation in conjunction with civil defence services so that they meet the needs of the locality. This is particularly important when dealing with the sort of localised industrial disaster in which the efforts and energies of those outside the local community have to be harnessed to bring help and support.
It is sad that many local authorities have been indifferent or downright obstructive to suggestions that they should carry out civil defence planning. My hon. Friends have alluded to experiences in their local authorities. Mine is perhaps, regrettably, typical. The London borough of Southwark, in one of its committees, discussed the Government's 1983 civil defence regulations, and took a positive decision that it would ignore or not implement them. It has not even taken this decision to the full council for further discussion. It compounds what I feel to be contemptuous irresponsibility by making positive and substantial contributions to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I am conscious that a number of the members of council belong to the CND, and I am surprised that they have not declared their interests in the members' declaration of interests, which all members of Southwark council are required to make.
A further cynical posturing by that council is to declare itself a nuclear-free zone. Such cynicism, such a contemptuous attitude to the needs of those whom it is there to serve, suggest that the Government must play a positive role in leading and directing councils in the way in which they should go. Only by so doing can the public at large be protected from and reassured about the threats and hazards.
There is a need for public relations presentation, not in any superficial way, but to reassure the public and to restore public confidence that the emergency and planning services exist to meet any hazard that might arise. In restoring confidence, there is the need to recruit and harness public participation. There is a willingness by many to volunteer to help in extreme cases. If that can be seen to be professionally organised and the training to be professionally directed and relevant to the need, I am sure that recruits of the right calibre and quality will come forward.
We need a positive response to the likely and less likely threats that might arise. That is what civil defence is about. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister is here this evening because I hope that he will be able to give a sure-footed lead in the direction in which we must go in future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) on the admirable way in which he introduced this debate. Fourteen hon. Members sought to table a motion on civil defence for debate this evening, and he was fortunate to come out at the top of the list. I regret that the lateness of the hour means that there is a smaller attendance than I had hoped. Indeed, there is only one hon. Member on the Opposition Benches. Distinguished as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) may be, it shows how his party regards civil defence. I very much regret that.
Until relatively recently, civil defence had all-party support. The humanitarian and other advantages of a civil defence policy were considered to be above politics. For some strange reason the campaign for unilateral nuclear disarmament has adopted the view that civil defence is not a good thing. It claims that it encourages the thought that war is survivable, while at the same time it advances a strange and quaint theory that the Soviet bloc would feel threatened by an effective civil defence service.
Clearly no sensible person could possibly believe that. The Russian civil defence system in Moscow is comprehensive, and we do not feel threatened by that. We feel much more threatened by their very effective arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that are pointing in this direction.
We know positively that there were about 150,000 casualties in the war in Vietnam. We also know that 3 million civilians died. That is a significant factor in this sphere. It shows that the civilian population in any conflict is extremely vulnerable. Unless it is given proper protection and facilities for looking after itself, together with proper leadership, the chances of it surviving are much less than they would otherwise be. That is an unfortunate state of affairs.
Apart from preparing for war, civil defence has much to do in preparing for civil emergencies, and I commend the admirable decision that the Minister has taken to follow an all-hazards approach, for only by adopting such an approach can we hope to generate the commitment and enthusiasm of the man in the street.
We in this country have been fortunate in having had 40 years of peace. During that time, people's memories of war have dimmed. Nevertheless, we have often seen the advantages of proper civil emergency planning, which has enabled necessary services to be provided in emergencies.
I have in mind the blizzards that occurred a few years ago in the west country, when the civilian population became acutely aware of what civil defence could contribute to their general welfare. That experience encouraged large numbers of people to volunteer for civil defence service. They realised that it was necessary to be equipped to look after not only oneself and one's family, but one's friends and neighbours. A proper course in civil defence is of great advantage to people.
At Flixborough in Lincolnshire, an incident involving a chemical works a few years ago caused devastation. That, too, demonstrated how the civil defence services play a leading role. Many other examples in other countries remind us of the need for emergency planning. For example, at Three Mile Island in the United States there was an escape of nuclear radiation and the emergency planning services played a major role.
In Seveso, dioxin gas escaping from a chemical plant caused many casualties. Had the civil emergency caring services been better equipped, the casualty rate would have been much lower. The same applies to the Bhopal tragedy in India. Had the emergency planning services been as well equipped as those in Pakistan, the casualty rate of 2,000 deaths and 100,000 severely ill would have been much smaller. In Canada, a chloride gas discharge occurred as the result of a. rail crash. The most recent example of such emergencies was the Stava dam breaking in Italy.
Nearer home, there were the events on the M25 when fog descended on a short stretch. Yesterday the coroner declared that it was an act of God. Fourteen were killed on a bright sunny morning. It was the gathering of fog in one area that caused that devastation. Again, the emergency services came into play. It might have been possible to save more lives if some of those involved in the accidents had had experience and knowledge of emergency service work. We must pay a great compliment to the fire service, the ambulance service, the St. John Ambulance Brigade, the Red Cross, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and many other voluntary services that we are so fortunate to have. They do so very well on occasions such as the M25 tragedy. There is still a major role for the private individual to play if he is given the opportunity to become an emergency or civil defence volunteer.
It is unfortunate that we still have local authorities which maintain that they are nuclear-free zones. It seems entirely inappropriate that in 1985 there are those who are so short-sighted that they cannot see the need for nuclear systems in medical treatment and other areas. These systems make nonsense of the claim that the areas that they represent include no nuclear capability. It is an essential aspect of medical treatment that such facilities are available and it is nonsense to claim that an area that includes a hospital with a unit dealing with cancer, for example, does not have a nuclear facility. To pretend that it does not exist is ridiculous.
There have been some excellent contributions to the debate. Apart from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, I was intrigued by the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn), who spoke of voluntary service in defence of the home in a more general context. There is a major role for those who are involved in the Territorial Army and the general services in leading the civilian population in protecting itself when the occasion demands. As we experience such a low-key civil defence provision, we should take advantage of the knowledge of those who have received training in raising the standard of preparedness and knowledge.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) was helpful in mentioning various other aspects of civil defence and highlighting the nonsense that is talked by local authorities which claim to be nuclear-free. He spoke of the need for a comprehensive system and to provide adequately for a service throughout the country.
I sympathise greatly with my hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens), for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) and for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), who have to suffer under nuclear-free local authorities. These authorities are neglecting their duties and responsibilities to those who they represent. We have to make up a lot of lost ground. Since 1968 we have not made adequate provision for civil defence. This Government are doing their best to catch up, but the major investment in terms of shelter and other materials that is needed cannot possibly be provided within a short period.
The Swiss, Swedes, Germans, French and people of other civilised countries have got on with the job over the past 20 or 30 years and have built up a nucleus of civil defence capability. It is sad that we have not made that provision. Immediately after the last war, all the buildings that were constructed in the City of London and. I imagine, in most of the other major cities specifically provided for a civil defence capability. The majority of underground car parks were built with that point in mind. I am sorry that that process has not been continued. In many other countries, especially Sweden, allowances are made for the additional cost of providing this type of accommodation.
For a long time I have advocated giving special rate relief to those buildings that are capable of being used for alternative purposes—storage or underground parking—and of being converted quickly and satisfactorily into shelters.
We must press the Government on a number of matters, especially the need to provide 100 per cent. funding for civil defence. Treasury Ministers shy away whenever it is suggested that more money should be spent. However, it is not necessary to spend more money. It is necessary only to readjust our present finances. It is possible for the Government to withhold funds from rate support grant to ensure that 100 per cent. funding for civil defence can be provided. This is essential because, in an emergency, the population would tend to move towards those parts of the country that had provided a civil defence capability, and would leave their own areas. It would be unfair if the areas that had provided adequately for their population faced a massive influx of people from other areas.
We must provide for civil defence in the same way that we provide out of central funds for the Territorial Army and a number of other essential national forces. It is wrong to ask local authorities to make a 25 per cent. commitment, especially when such expenditure would mean that they were liable to pay a penalty in terms of Government grants. The Government must take this message on board. They must deal with this problem properly and sensibly and say, "We shall provide 100 per cent. funding because this is such an important issue."
The same conditions should apply to the Manpower Watch figures. Local authorities are being told that, if they recruit more than their previous manpower numbers, the extra recruitment will be excluded. Nevertheless, I believe that total expenditure—not just extra expenditure—and total manpower devoted to civil defence should be taken out of the limitations that have been imposed in recent years by central Government on local authorities. This measure is far too important to be treated in any other way.
The other important issue that I beg my hon. Friend the Minister to support is the amendment of the Civil Defence Act 1948 at the earliest possible opportunity. We are endeavouring to obtain support for such an amendment through a private Member's Bill, but if that support is not available, the Government must deal with the matter; clearly we can properly exercise the all-hazards approach only if the Act is amended. That all-hazards approach is the best and safest way of ensuring all-party support.
I compliment the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) on leading his party towards the need for civil defence, and I hope some of its members will soon follow his lead, just as I hope that Opposition Members will follow the rather more statesmanlike lead of their colleagues in the other place. Labour Members in the other place who may not be so hidebound by the reselection process, undoubtedly made some valuable speeches in the debate in February. They do not have those worries and problems, or the fear of a reaction from the local Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, so they could make a more positive contribution.
The analogy is not quite right. Members in the other place looked at the matter realistically and came up with sensible arguments and solutions. They made it clear that people in all parties viewed the matter most seriously, and believed that something must be done about it sooner rather than later.
I cannot understand why Opposition Members are not pressing harder than we are for money to be spent on civil defence, on the basis that that might leave less money for general defence expenditure. I would not wish that, but I would have thought that that argument might have appealed to them.
Finally, terrorism is a much greater problem now than ever before because the range of equipment available to a potential terrorist has grown considerably. We are undoubtedly entering an era in which a terrorist is likely to be able to use sophisticated equipment and certainly to cause a chemical, biological or nuclear explosion. We are inadequately prepared to meet that.
Some Governments support terrorism, as President Reagan and others have made clear in recent weeks. Terrorists are supported by a blind eye being turned to their activities, often by countries actively supplying them with equipment to export elsewhere. That is worrying. Until relatively recently, only five countries could build a nuclear weapon. That number will soon approach 19. Inevitably, before the end of this century — possibly even before the end of this decade—a country with terrorism at heart could be in possession of this information. That causes considerable anxiety.
Moreover, those countries with chemical works capable of producing fertiliser are able to produce nerve gas that could be discharged into an area, thereby causing enormous casualties. The Government must turn their attention to that. They would be severely criticised indeed if an explosion or discharge occured in a densely populated area, be it an airport or the centre of a major city, as a result of terrorist attack. The Government must ensure that adequate medical supplies and other equipment are on hand to deal with such a situation. Clothing, blood plasma and many other things would be required very quickly.
The medical profession has made it clear that at present in adequate resources have been made available. It is incumbent on the politicians to ensure that that state of affairs does not exist for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
The case for civil defence had been made by my hon. Friends. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us extremely promising news about a major boost in this area and that he will ensure that no stones are left unturned in giving adequate protection to the population as a whole.
If I were an optimist I would be encouraged by the number of Conservative Members who so willingly support increased public expenditure. We have even had calls for this area to be excluded from rate capping. I have recently made calls for excluding victim support schemes from rate capping but the Government do not seem to be too keen on doing that. I therefore suspect that they will not be too keen on excluding civil defence.
The myth is that the Government are always willing to put money galore into defence, civil defence and law and order, despite the fact that they know that without other social, economic and political policies all one gets is more instability. In fact, one is throwing good money after bad and creating the very instability that one does not wish to see. That applies to defence systems and to law and order.
Another theme running through the debate has been the request for a co-ordinated response in civil defence, or civil emergency planning, as I, along with the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) would prefer to call it. That is a very good idea. This is where my heart goes out to the Minister. He is not a bad chap. He is really quite nice. Along with myself and the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) he sat for long hours discussing the Local Government Bill, which abolishes the metropolitan counties. That Bill devastated the civil emergency systems, and the Minister knew it. He admitted it, and Lord Whitelaw said it as well. In fact, they all said it.
The hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) is right to talk of the way in which the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries have highly trained people who speak good English ready to be strategically placed in the United Kingdom to disrupt this country. Few Conservative Members realised it, but the hon. Gentleman was talking about the Secretary of State for the Environment, because when he decimated the major conurbations and their local government, he also decimated a co-ordinated response towards civil emergency planning between the fire, ambulance and police services. Those are three of the most crucial services. The Minister knows that that is the case, and it is on the Hansard record of the Committee stage. The hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead had better speak to the Prime Minister and decide just who these well-spoken, highly paid agents of this alien power really are, and what they are up to.
I am afraid that the speech of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) was full of fallacies. He came out with the fine old assumption that we hear repeated by Tory Members—that the deterrent factor has kept the peace for the past 40 years. It would be wrong of me to involve myself in a long debate about that, but I will respond in this way: at best, all we can say about that assumption, to use the good old Scottish phrase, is that it is not proven. At worst—and this is the point to which Tory Members always fail to address themselves—such an assumption can lead to a dangerous self-deception, whereby a country thinks it can continue to deter war by producing more and more sophisticated weapons, when in fact the history of warfare shows that the more a country plans to use its weaponry against another power, the more likely is war to occur. I cannot expand further on that point, now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or you would rule me out of order, but if any hon. Member wants to develop it he should listen to the lectures of A. J. P. Taylor on how wars begin. They are most instructive.
The second fallacy of the hon. Member for Keighley was his claim that defence is and must be a first priority. At a superficial level that is true. However, what happens is that the more a country makes defence its first priority and pours money into it, the more is caused in political systems the very instability that causes war. Deterrents do not prevent war, as most people who, over many years, have thought about the causes of war will agree. Instability in power relationships is the cause of war.
When it comes to talking about what should be done if a major war occurs, Conservative Members start talking about civil defence, and get confused, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke became confused. He said that we should talk not about civil defence but about major disasters, and I go along with that. But like other of his hon. Friends, the hon. Member then fell into the trap of talking about civil defence in relation to nuclear war.
The problem is that to create a major programme of civil defence to deal with nuclear war a Government would have to raise the level of fear of nuclear war. The programme would have to ensure that virtually every citizen in the country knew how to cope with the early and later stages of radiation. People would have to know how to avoid radiation—how to avoid ingesting air, food or water that had been irradiated. They would have to know how long they had to stay out of certain areas and how long not to drink water in those areas.
Hon. Members must know that to conduct such a programme would raise the level of fear amongst the population. It is a fallacy to believe that a Government could run a sensible civil defence programme in preparation for nuclear war without raising the level of fear.
When the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) dismissed rather simplistically the arguments presented against civil defence, he fell into the trap of assuming that if we simply increase our civil defence aid a little we will in some way frighten the Russians. If the whole Western world raised expenditure and intensity of effort in relation to civil defence to a level that made the Soviets think we were planning to fight and survive a nuclear war, the deterrent theory becomes even less meaningful. One of my criticisms of the Soviet and Chinese policies, is that they did, and do in the case of the Soviet Union, plan to fight and survive a nuclear war. That shows the absurdity of the argument that Conservative Members get themselves into.
The hon. Member for Keighley did not have a stable, consistent definition of what he meant by deterrence. Later in his argument he said that one can show that one can survive a nuclear war. If one can do that, the nuclear weapon is no greater a deterrent than the conventional weapon. The nuclear weapon is only a big deterrent if its use is so dramatically effective that war will not be considered by any rational, sane person. The problem for both the western and eastern world is that that system worked tolerably well in the 1950s and 1960s, but the new war-fighting technology of the 1970s and 1980s has undermined that deterrent theory. Whether it is in the House, the Soviet Union, the United States or anywhere else, if the hon. Gentleman creates the impression that one can fight and win a nuclear war, the theory of deterrence in its original sense, or in terms of nuclear weapons, is meaningless. It becomes similar to the conventional deterrent theory only when the effect of war is so overwhelming and devastating as to make the act of warfare irrational.
The other problem about that theory is that most wars do not break out in a rational way. As I have already said, the situation develops when political systems get out of control. In many ways I would feel much safer if I thought that President Reagan or Mr. Gorbachev were in control of the system. We kid ourselves about that—we really do. The history of great powers throughout the centuries, for example Britain, Rome classical Greece or Egypt, shows that there is an assumption that people are in control. In fact wars break out without the intention of a war. The classic example is the first world war. A great Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey, said in the House that when war came, it would not be wanted by any of the major powers, but it came. Lord Grey could have taught Conservative Members far more about the nature of deterrence, the concept of defence and how wars break out than I can tonight.
There is a strong case for well co-ordinated, well resourced civil emergency planning. The Government have already undermined that by their abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties and their replacement by boards, which, taking the words of Lord Whitelaw, will be difficult to make work effectively. They have further undermined that planning by having no coherent policy towards civil defence, but one that is confused between civil defence designed to deal with nuclear war, civil defence designed to cope with conventional war and civil defence designed to cope with emergency planning. Obviously one can overlap those three to some extent, but it is limited. That is a dangerous illusion. I share the view of several people inside and outside the House who think that if one leads people to believe that one can fight, win and survive a nuclear war, one increases the risks of such a war happening. Similarly, if one goes about it in such a way as to make one's opponent think that one is planning to win and survive a nuclear war, again, one increases the chances of it happening. The Government do not address themselves to that view.
There is another area that the Government do not address. It was interesting that only about two Conservative Members mentioned the nuclear winter. When they did, they mentioned it in such a way as to say that it is unproven. It came across to me that they do not want to believe that it is possible. I believe that it is probable. I certainly think that, once a nuclear war has broken out, it will be almost impossible to contain and that if we managed to contain it, that would be by luck rather than by an act of judgment. That is what makes it so profoundly dangerous and what has led so many people in the professions to say, having thought about the matter carefully, that it is not realistic to plan civil defence for the type of nuclear war that Conservative Members have talked about.
The British Medical Association is not a bunch of CND supporters. It is not known to comprise strong, card-carrying members of the Labour party. It might be among the group of whom the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead talked — well-spoken placemen of the Soviet Union—but I doubt it. It is a group of people which believes that it is not possible to plan effectively to deal with the consequences of nuclear war. It has said so clearly. Many scientists have said the same. Conservative Members, however, persist in talking about civil defence in the confused way that I have described, which suggests that they are clinging to concepts of the past. Another of the dangers of wars is that they tend to be fought on the assumptions of the previous war. Conservative Members are guilty of that serious misjudgment.
The hon. Member for Ilford, South rightly mentioned terrorists. The more weapons are available and the more they can be made and used, the greater is the likelihood of their being used. That is almost a mathematical fact, not just a statement on human behaviour. The hon. Gentleman is rightly worried about the terrorist threat and the threat of a minor Government having and using weapons of enormous potential. He must recognise that, as long as we continue to run the world on present assumptions. we are heading for every nation state having its own nuclear weapon to deter and every group in a state asking for a nuclear weapon to deter the other side. The greater the instability, the greater is the danger of that, and we need look no further than Lebanon to see it. There can be no civil defence in those circumstances.
I am not pretending that there is any simple solution. I do not believe that there is. Human beings have been too good at bashing each others' brains out for many thousands of years for me to give a simple solution from the Dispatch Box. The one lesson that comes over strongly from human history is that when we plan to fight wars, we tend to end up fighting them, and with the people we plan to fight. The more weapons are available, and the more that is spent on them, the greater the political instability and hence the greater the need for the authoritarian approach to national and international problems.
The hon. Member for Ilford, South would do well to dwell on what I have said in regard to what President Reagan has done with, I am sorry to say. the support of some Conservative Members, in Nicaragua. It is unacceptable to use terrorist methods. The mining of Nicaraguan harbours was an example of unacceptable behaviour and gave some Governments precisely the type of example that they are only too willing to follow. When the hon. Gentleman picks up clear statements by President Reagan against terrorism, he should put them in perspective and recognise that, when Western leaders such as President Reagan do such things, they feed the problem that they claim to oppose.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if we give up nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapons this will disinvent them from a terrorist point of view? Is he saying that they will discard any knowledge that they have acquired? That is not my understanding of the argument. If terrorists have this knowledge they will use it.
It is not, and it never has been, part of my argument that terrorists would automatically give up such weapons. My argument is that as the political system gets out of control, the more we spend on arms, the more unstable the political system becomes. Consequently, the more the spread of arms, and information about them, the more they are likely to be used. History is on my side. We have to reverse that process without further destabilising a system that is already dangerously unstable. I could refer the hon. Member for Ilford, South to many other examples of the case I am putting forward. If he believes that he can solve this problem by spending more money on arms and civil defence, he is not only under a dangerous illusion but he is feeding fires that he would not wish to burn.
It has been an interesting debate. It has told us a great deal about the attitude of the Conservative party. It is out of touch with the political changes that have taken place in the world. What is even more important, it is dangerously out of touch with technological change. This Government have quite cheerfully disrupted and undermined the civil emergency planning that is available to this country, not least by their abolition of the metropolitan counties, rate capping, targeting and other public expenditure cuts.
The House will have listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), but it will have heard the same siren voice calling from the other side as it has heard on other occasions. That voice says that if we seek to make ourselves strong we encourage conflict and that therefore we should seek to get rid of defence and lie down in the unilateralist path. I hope that all Conservative Members reject that argument. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman's difficulties in arriving at a theologically satisfactory position. He has managed to shelter behind the claim that the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the Greater London council is the biggest disincentive to civil defence that this country has yet seen.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) on introducing this debate. As he rightly said, this is a rare occasion. It is possibly even more rare that we should be debating civil defence issues in the early hours of the morning. I congratulate also my hon. Friends who have taken part in the debate on their individual contributions.
My hon. Friend raised a number of issues. I shall deal with two of them at once. He asked the Government to confirm that they will amend the Civil Defence Act 1948. My hon. Friend knows that this was a manifesto commitment. Although the Government have not yet succeeded in finding a vehicle for it, the objective must be to achieve that during the next Session of Parliament. By means of a private Member's Bill a very important contribution could be made towards securing a major Government policy objective. We would prefer to consider that route, and to review our position should we fail to achieve our aim during next Session. However, that remains our commitment.
All my hon. Friends who spoke in the debate mentioned the grant aid to local authorities to ensure that civil defence planning is taken seriously. I understand that the 75 per cent. grant, which is considerable in terms of local authority expenditure, is not regarded as sufficient. A 100 per cent. grant is available for amongst other items the purchase of capital equipment for communications networks and centres. The grant aids available have not been in position for long, and we have not yet decided to review the 100 per cent. grant. But the pressure has been consistent, and was continued in the campaign recently launched by the National Council on Civil Defence, so I am bound to take it seriously. We should not close our minds to reviewing this matter in the light of the progress that we wish to make. I hope that I can convince my hon. Friends that, such is the extent of progress that we wish to make, if it should be shown that grant aid is a serious impediment to the pursuit of that progress, we shall consider the position.
My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) asked about monitoring and reporting on local authority performance. I agree that we should do that, and I shall make arrangements to provide regular reports to the House on how local authorities proceed. My hon. Friend may recall that some answers have already been given on this matter, and I undertake to provide such information as we proceed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) urged full central funding, with which I have already dealt, and also introduced the concept of civil defence or civil emergency planning. I agree with my hon. Friend that that is not simply a change in nomenclature, but a change in policy. To start widening the concept of civil defence to include civil emergencies or emergency planning is a genuine attempt to recognise that, in today's world, that is probably a more effective way of describing the protection of the population, which is a duty of Government. I welcome my hon. Friend's suggestion, and I hope that we can offer—in our all-hazards approach—a reasonable answer to his point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) argued for a volunteer force. This is always an important factor in any major movement, and it is an aspect of preparation that makes Britain the envy of the world. My hon. Friend will be aware that about 13,000 people are involved as community volunteers, which is not a bad figure. In addition, we must remember the 11,000 people involved in the United Kingdom warning and monitoring organisation, which is probably the most effective organisation of its sort anywhere in Europe. This is a large cadre of people who give their time to preparing Britain for times of potential difficulty and conflict. However, I accept that we must find a way of ensuring that we have a corps of trained volunteers, and the local authority provision in the civil defence regulations will encourage this. I take on board my hon. Friend's commitment to the volunteer component of our civil defence plan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) mentioned the civil disasters that have occurred, despite the fact that, for a considerable time, the western world has been at peace. He is right. The disasters in Bhopal, Seveso and Flixborough have reminded us, if we needed reminding, of the vulnerability of civil populations to major industrial or natural disasters. Again, this adds weight to his view that it is time to broaden the preparation for civil defence to include preparation for such civil emergencies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) said that there should be better co-ordination with other Departments, and I accept that. The Home Office is the prime sponsor for civil defence, but almost every other Department is involved in emergency planning. Arrangements need to be made for matters such as fuel and emergency supplies, housing, environmental issues, health, food and so on. In the past, I agree that these things have tended to develop piecemeal, with emergency planning representing just one of the vast multitude of activities undertaken by each Department. Recently, we have taken two important initiatives. Centrally, we are developing a fully co-ordinated plan embracing all Departments, which will improve the effectiveness of our planning and enable us to pursue a balanced plan across Government as a whole.
Secondly, at regional level, we have started a pilot study that, over the next 18 months or so, will explore the scope for improving regional co-ordination of civil defence by all the agencies and services of Government and local government that have a part to play. I hope that my hon. Friend will take the assurance that not only do I accept what he says, but I have acted upon it, and will ensure better co-ordination of our policies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) gave us, as he is always wont to do, a robust, full, tour d'horizon of the civil defence scene. He asked that we should commit ourselves to an all-hazards approach, and I accept that we should do so. He also referred to the 100 per cent. funding and the amendment of the 1948 Act. He spoke about Manpower Watch and extracting civil defence figures from that. In our examination of local authorities' performance, and in our monitoring, we shall be looking closely at the manpower figures as well as at the fulfilment of the regulations laid upon the authorities. I shall then bear in mind what he wished us to do.
My hon. Friend also spoke about terrorism. I understand the anxiety that he and the National Council for Civil Defence have about the terrorist threat. We are well aware of that threat in this country, and as my hon. Friend will recognise, we have an important role to play in counter-terrorism. I accept that in any civil emergency on any scale, the civil defence services will have a part to play, but if he is suggesting that civil defence has a role to play in counter-terrorism, I beg to differ. He must recognise that the Government's anti-terrorism policies are essentially covert and skilful and are not determined by large groups of people who are trained, albeit in a relatively small number of activities, to a reasonably high extent. We are dealing with a highly-skilled international threat, and something that requires a highly sensitive and sophisticated response. In that aspect of terrorism, I would not expect a civil defence body to play much part although I understand his point of view.
The threat of war and our foreign and defence policies are our starting point. Those policies and our membership of defensive alliances such as NATO, our participation in its policy of deterrence, and our determined effort with our allies to reach agreement on arms reduction and multilateral disarmament have been instrumental in giving us 40 years of peace in Europe. We have every reason to believe that this will continue. That is the fundamental background that allows us to review civil defence planning and to discuss it in a different context.
I should make it quite plain that we do not consider that war in Europe is at all probable, let alone inevitable. But I should also make it plain that it would be quite irresponsible to neglect entirely the remote possibility that war might come and that we might suffer attack. Civil defence must be seen in that light. It is a humanitarian and commonsense effort to reduce suffering and loss of life, and to enable the recovery of our country if such an attack should occur, whatever the twists and turns of contrary arguments offered. My hon. Friends have urged upon me the view that we should redefine our objectives in terms of civil emergencies, but we must keep in mind the need to prepare for certain emergencies, which may be military in character. Many detractors seek to cloud the issue, but the simple fact remains that if there is a threat and the realisation of that threat would bring disaster, it is our clear duty to take all reasonable steps to mitigate the likely effects.
When we took office in 1979, civil defence was still on a care and maintenance basis. Despite the difficult economic circumstance we inherited then, and the constraints on our economy now, we are today spending twice as much in real terms on civil defence as was being spent in 1980. Moreover, despite the continuing need to maintain control over public expenditure, we intend to pursue the planned provisions for civil defence over the next three years.
Let me turn to how this Government's commitment to civil defence has been realised. If this country was ever to come under attack, a warning of that attack, even if it was very short, could make a considerable difference to the number of survivors. Hence the importance of the United Kingdom warning and monitoring organisation. That organisation is near to the completion of a substantial programme of improvement. It stands ready to warn of an attack and to monitor and disseminate information on the effects of hostilities. Its state of readiness is probably better than any other such organisation in any other country in the world. Even now we are giving consideration to how this efficient organisation could be adapted to deal with the needs of detection, warning and monitoring against the possibility of the chemical threat, which figures in our present planning assumptions.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if emergencies do arise in the form of a war, it is vital for the civilian and military sides to work in close cooperation? I have always said that the military should be in charge. If it is in charge, close co-operation, especially in communications, must take place.
My hon. Friend will recognise that in a war, there will be a high military component to civil defence. But in the planning we seek to establish now, what we are concerned with, and what on reflection perhaps my hon. Friend will agree we should be concerned with, is to supply a civil organisation based upon the local regions of this country and essentially through a regional authority structure. That is the basis of the present planning and the present commitment. Even now we are considering how this organisation could be adapted to deal with other threats.
Just when we needed the most effective direction of coordination of effort, communications would be at their weakest. For a time it would therefore be either difficult or impossible to sustain central control of essential functions. Plans for wartime decentralisation of Government are therefore a necessary part of our policy and we have recently overhauled and improved them.
We have an emergency communications network whose purpose is to support arrangements for decentralising Government so as to ensure that those in need could be helped as quickly as possible, and that the effort available is co-ordinated and directed in the most effective way. That network, vital to our emergency arrangements, is well into a substantial programme of modernisation which will further help to pull together all our plans and resources in time of need.
I have already stressed co-ordination within Whitehall in commenting upon the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich. Co-ordination of planning, a feature of our central and regional initiatives in civil defence, is also a crucial factor at local authority level.
In that context, I come to the remarks of the hon. Member for Hammersmith. When the abolition Bill was proceeding, we took the view that the abolition of the Greater London council and the metropolitan counties should result in civil defence functions being placed with the new joint fire boards. That is another illustration of how they should be working alongside a civil emergency procedure, which the fire services clearly are. We agreed to amend the Bill to ensure the same provision was made for the metropolitan counties.
Over the last few years, we have gradually extended our base for research and development into civil defence and we have developed an effective R and D programme.
A number of my hon. Friends mentioned public relations activity. I should mention our preparations for a new information booklet for the public and for a civil defence film—all material which we hope will set the record straight and do much to counter the misleading propaganda so beloved of Opposition hon. Gentlemen.
Indeed, there are hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies who prefer misleading information.
The Government are not confused by spurious and misguided arguments against the straightforward humanitarian case for protection of the public in time of emergency; we are getting on with the job. If the time should ever come when the plans needed to be put into operation, the case for civil defence will be crystal clear to all—even to those who now profess to doubt.
Let me outline the progress in civil defence preparedness by our local authorities. Last month we issued comprehensive emergency planning guidance to local authorities. It was a consolidation and revision of existing guidance and is designed to help local authorities to fulfil their humanitarian duty to prepare for the protection and survival of people in their area. It sets out the expanded planning assumptions, first issued in 1984, which in particular emphasise the possibility of conventional attack.
The former prominence of a nuclear attack in our planning assumptions has receded, and the guidance makes it clear that planning against conventional attack and planning flexibly are essential. That is an important part of the anxieties expressed by a number of my hon. Friends about how local authorities will get on with the job.
I accept that we need not only to monitor activity and to lay information before the House but to persuade local authorities to take their statutory obligations seriously. If they do not do so, the Government have powers to act and will use them if it is found that local authorities are failing to implement the 1983 regulations. The Government introduced the regulations, which lay statutory obligations on local authorities. They are required to make and to keep up to date plans for the protection of the people in time of war, to make plans for the use of buildings as public shelters, to plan for the accommodation of the homeless, to make arrangements for emergency feeding, to make plans for the recruitment and training of the many people who wish to volunteer their services in time of need—in short, they have to provide and maintain the services essential to the life of the community in time of tension and in war. The emergency planning guidance has been restructured to reflect those statutory responsibilities and to assist local authorities in their implementation.
Civil defence is a partnership between central and local government. That is what we must build on, by working together to improve our preparedness. The majority of local authorities recognise both their humanitarian and their statutory duties in civil defence.
We are determined that all local authorities shall meet their obligations. They have been asked to complete their plans by the end of the year and we intend to take stock of the situation at that point. We have made it clear that while we intend to proceed by reason and persuasion we shall hold in reserve the use of formal directions and the default powers available to us, and we shall not hesitate to use them if necessary.
We do not expect local authorities to go it alone. We have made available guidance and plans for them to do their job and we shall continue the existing rates of grant aid for civil defence expenditure. I have already said that we may wish to review that matter if we are unable to persuade local authorities to proceed on the present basis.
We have heard much about the need to plan for peacetime emergencies. Indeed, I accepted at the outset the importance of the all-hazards approach. We have Long recognised that many of the problems faced locally in planning to alleviate the effects of war are the same in kind, if not in scale, as those in peacetime emergencies. The recent debate in another place called attention to the duty of the Government and local authorities to deal with peacetime emergencies and to provide civil defence in case of conventional, chemical or nuclear attack. There was widespread support on all sides of the House for planning against war and peacetime emergencies. No one argued that there were not similarities in the planning required, that they were not required, or that one should be undertaken without the other.
It was in recognition of this argument that our election manifesto committed us to legislate to allow civil defence resources to be used by local authorities to meet peacetime emergencies. Hence the importance of the amendment to the 1948 legislation, which will be a statutory expression of the Government's recognition that we should be prepared for any kind of disaster, be it military or civil.
As we see civil defence now, I recognise that the time is right to bring the all-hazards aspect of emergency planning to the fore. There is much that can be achieved by this approach. We need, as a matter of Government policy, to be committed to the premise that an all-hazards broadly based approach to civil defence is now the way to go forward.
The Government have raised the level of civil defence preparedness, and it is our firm intention that the performance will be maintained. We have done much in recent years to develop the co-ordination and planning of central Government. We have done much to encourage and guide the local authorities to play their vital part. We have made available the guidance and resources that they need to do their job. We have done much to modernise our civil defence facilities, when this has seemed necessary, and we are giving consideration to extending them where this might be of benefit. That, as I trust my hon. Friends will recognise, is a very good record of achievement, but there is much to be done centrally and locally. We intend to take what measures are necessary to ensure that the momentum which we have generated on civil defence is not lost. We are committed to civil defence in peace or war as a policy to provide a humanitarian response to all emergencies, military and civil, which may threaten our people. That is a prime duty of Government, and only a Conservative Government will deliver it.