New Forest East

EMERGENCY PLANNING - 12 February 2003

EMERGENCY PLANNING - 12 February 2003

Dr Julian Lewis: The hon. Member for St. Helens, North (David Watts) put his finger on one or two weak spots in the argument of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). Nevertheless, I congratulate the latter on securing a debate that is so topical and so timely. He asked why more had not been done to educate the public at individual, community or family level with regard to the preparations that they might make in order to mitigate the effects of attack by terrorists using radiological, biological or chemical weapons, and hinted at the answer when he referred fleetingly to Protect and Survive. May I remind hon. Members what that involved?

In 1980, the booklet Protect and Survive was finally published. It was the guidance that was meant to be issued to individual households in the run-up to an anticipated nuclear strike. The issuing of that guidance turned out to be a public relations and a political disaster. It led the essayist E. P. Thompson to produce a counterblast, a radical manifesto called Protest and Survive. The nub of the case made by Thompson, who later founded European Nuclear Disarmament, was that by suggesting that any effective measures could be taken to protect the community against the effects of a nuclear war, one was trying to anaesthetise the community, or to lull it into a false sense of security that a nuclear war would be survivable.

I am sure that if we could look into the minutes that have been flying around various Government Departments about the advice that should be issued to households, families and communities, we would see repeated references to the disastrous decision to make public copies of Protect and Survive over 20 years ago. However, the parallel does not really hold; a nuclear war launched by a nuclear superpower, or any major nuclear power, would have been likely to overwhelm the majority of civil defences, whereas we are considering attacks that, although they might use weapons supplied by a state producer, will involve small quantities of weapons – I shall say more about that later.

Admittedly, weapons of mass destruction, even when applied in small quantities, can still have large and horrifying results. However, we are working in a strategic and military environment in which the possibility of palliative action is much greater than it was in 1980. Therefore, it would be a mistake to hold back from issuing such practical guidance as can be issued, to the public in good time, despite the sensitivities arising from the lesson of more than two decades ago.

I was a little surprised by the naivety of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington when he said that we must ensure that there are “no chinks in our armour” against such attack. We can no more ensure that than we could ensure that there were no chinks in our armour against terrorist attacks by the IRA from 1969 onwards. The fact is that small numbers of people are all that are required to ensure that considerable numbers of people die or are seriously injured in such an attack.

I am not in a position to know the answers to the questions that need to be asked about the preparations that the Government should be taking, but I know some of the questions that should be asked.

David Watts: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that little advice can be given to individuals about how to protect themselves? I am talking about what the institutions can do. If the hon. Gentleman does not agree with that premise, can he say what actions can be taken by individuals? When we had an emergency in my area, it was up to the authorities to inform residents about what was happening and arrange back-up support for the community. Individuals were not able to take any action; the organisations had to do so.

Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman has made several intelligent contributions to the debate, but I do not agree with him about his latest one. After an attack, two courses of action can be taken. A radiological, chemical and biological weapons ‘flying squad’ full of specialist techniques and equipment can descend rapidly on the area to help people. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is approaching the problem with that attitude. I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government are approaching the matter with the same attitude and if they are building a network of flying squads to help the afflicted parts of the community as soon as an attack is reported. Perhaps the main emphasis will have to be placed in that direction.

[Mr Watts indicated assent.]

Dr Lewis: However, thinking particularly about chemical and biological – not radiological – weapons, there are probably some emergency measures that individuals who suspect that they have been showered with potentially lethal material could take in the first few minutes significantly to lessen the likelihood of fatal effects. I have no scientific expertise in the matter, which I am sure is blindingly obvious to other hon. Members. However, given that the Royal Navy has for years had pre-wetting systems on its ships to douse the superstructures and slough off radiation, chemicals or other material which is deposited on them, I am sure that some fairly basic advice could be given to individuals for them to follow if they knew that they had been attacked.

I admit – talking about biological weapons and germs – that people might not know that they had been attacked. Either my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Hugo Swire) or the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington [Tom Brake] said that there might be a time-lapse; but in the case of a chemical attack there is a reasonable chance that people might know whether they had been contaminated. I draw attention especially to a biological organism, such as anthrax, or persistent chemical weapons that contaminate and work over time. They could be reduced in their lethality by the taking of immediate steps to wash them off, change clothing or take other simple but practical measures.

Tom Brake: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that providing advice might be one way of preventing large numbers of people who suspect that they have been affected by a chemical attack from turning up at hospital? The advice might be that they need not refer themselves to a hospital.

Dr Lewis: Under those circumstances, I think that emergency broadcasts would be made continually to inform the community whether it had been subjected to an attack. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's basic point that some practical advice should be issued from the bottom up, even if the main focus of the Government's approach is for specialist organisations – which I hope that we shall hear that they are putting together – to descend from the top down and rescue the people who have been attacked.

I will not take up much more time, but I wish to make a couple of remarks on the history of some of these weapons to see whether we can learn any lessons from it.

Mustard gas was used to great effect in World War I, but it was not used in World War II because the Churchill Government made it absolutely clear that if the Nazis used it we would retaliate and our retaliation would be effective because we had huge stocks of it. Churchill even made that promise on behalf of our Russian allies: they did not have retaliatory stocks and Churchill said that if the Russians were attacked we would use that gas on their behalf. In that instance, deterrence worked.

At the end of the war, the Allies occupying Germany were horrified to discover huge stocks of Tabun – the first of the nerve gases – and small stocks of Sarin and Soman, which the Nazis were developing. They were also not used because of deterrence. Although the Allies did not have those weapons and did not know that they could be made, the German leadership had been advised by its scientists that it was inconceivable that the Allies would not have them too. Therefore, Hitler was deterred from using nerve gases by the mistaken belief that the Allies also had them.

In our current situation, the trouble with that sort of approach is that one does not know whether anything would deter an organisation such as Bin Laden's because the people who would launch the attacks do not care whether they die – and even welcome the prospect of death. In that context, deterrence does not work as effectively as it used to, which means that there is the prospect that some such attacks will succeed. As that is the case, people should receive at least some practical advice about what they can do, even if the main help will have to come from the Government. That was the most important point made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington.

The best way to negate such attacks is to prevent them. To achieve that, Governments who are producing these weapons with the possible intention at some point in the future of putting them into the hands of the fanatics who will not hesitate to use them – such as the Iraqi Government – must be taken out of the equation.