Orders of the Day — Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:09 pm on 28th November 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh 8:09 pm, 28th November 2001

I begin by apologising to the Minister for missing the first few minutes of his opening speech. I serve on a Select Committee, and even with all the modern technology of the 21st century, one cannot be in two places at once. I came hot foot to the debate, but missed the first couple of minutes. I served for seven years in the Territorial Army, including in a home defence role, and I shall bring a little of that experience to bear on the debate. I shall directly address the Bill later, but begin by putting the debate into an historical perspective.

The emphasis on civil defence has broadly been declining since the second world war, at the end of which Britain had formulated a highly efficient civil defence system. During the battle of Britain, the courage of pilots in the air was matched by that of those serving in the civil defence network on the ground in units such as the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Royal Observer Corps. Without such people the effective defence of the UK from attack would not have been possible. Even to this day, we continue to owe them a great debt for helping to defend freedom.

With the advent of the cold war the emphasis in civil defence planning changed, in particular to reflect the new nuclear era. Considerable effort was expended on adjusting civil defence planning to cope with the prospect of nuclear attack on the UK by the Soviet Union. A series of emergency bunkers was created and both national and local government officials trained for the eventuality, however difficult it might have been to contemplate. It transpired that the democratic west won the cold war and helped to bring freedom to eastern Europe, as well as to Russia itself to some extent. All those who were part of that apparatus played an important role, in their own discreet way, in that most welcome extension of democracy.

I pay tribute in particular to the members of the Royal Observer Corps. For many years, ROC volunteers trained to help Britain to deal with aerial and ultimately nuclear attack. Those who served in the ROC were highly trained to deal with perhaps the worst of all imaginable events: a nuclear attack on their country. From their series of posts and bunkers around the country, they would have been responsible for plotting the nature and extent of any such attack and informing the Government of the extent of the damage. They trained for all that in the knowledge that they might have to continue to operate even after their own families had become casualties.

Thankfully, with the end of the cold war the possibility of such an all-out assault receded. The corps was disbanded as a result. It is always difficult for members of a unit or organisation who have worn their uniform with pride, as the volunteers of the ROC certainly did, to accept the order to stand down. However, they have the satisfaction of having done an important job quietly and thoroughly. The ROC performed a valuable service for this country for many years and I pay tribute to its members.

The end of the cold war did not necessarily entail the end of all threats to the security of the UK—far from it—but that point was not fully appreciated by the new Government in 1997. The 1997–98 strategic defence review had important implications for civil defence planning in the UK. It switched Britain's planning assumptions towards a largely expeditionary strategy: the concept was one of greater flexibility and mobility and the ability to project forces to trouble spots around the globe. As the then Secretary of State for Defence George, now Lord, Robertson put it at the time,

"If the war is no longer going to come to us then we may have to go to the war."

That had implications for resource allocation and the switch towards expeditionary warfare was made at the expense of home defence, including civil defence. Not only was the Territorial Army severely cut, which I believe was a great mistake because the TA has great potential in times of domestic emergency, but the civil defence infrastructure was further run down, to the point where many professionals working in the field were becoming increasingly alarmed and, at the same time, demoralised by the low priority that the Government appeared to attach to their work. It is that overall trend of running down domestic defences that provides the background to the Bill.

When professionals in the field began to protest about the low priority given to their work, some accused them of crying wolf. The atmosphere was almost such that people voicing concerns and asking questions about civil defence in a post-cold war world were regarded as alarmist. That led to the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority feeling obliged to take the Government to court for failing to meet their statutory obligations. The Government declined to contest the case, and that led to the introduction of the Bill. It is important that our debate is seen in that context.

All that took place before 11 September. Since then, there has been a great deal of discussion about the possibility of so-called asymmetric attack on the UK by terrorist groups of the type whose actions people in the United States have had to suffer. In the debate on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill a few days ago, Ministers took pains to argue that the UK faced a genuine national emergency,

"threatening the life of the nation" as a result of events in the United States, and that the serious risk justified our derogation from certain aspects of the European convention on human rights that were inconsistent with some of the measures in that Bill.

It is utterly inconsistent for one set of Ministers to argue in the House that the UK faces a genuine domestic emergency, and other Ministers to argue a few days later for legislative powers to reduce spending on civil defence. Either we face such a threat or we do not. We should allocate our resources, including funding for civil defence, accordingly. I happen to believe that more must be spent in that respect, so I deprecate the spirit of the Bill, which would facilitate precisely the opposite.