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12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I thank the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) for giving us an opportunity to discuss an issue that has already been a subject of considerable debate, and of careful planning in Devon and Cornwall. I appreciate all the concerns that he raised.

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I thank him for his offer of a new job, but, for reasons that I shall explain, I must decline it. I already have a number of responsibilities, and I believe that the mechanisms that will be provided will enable Devon and Cornwall to respond to the challenge.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this will be the first total eclipse visible from the UK mainland since June 1927, and it will be of interest to many people. It has obvious implications for the police, local authorities and other emergency planning services. I recognise that, and will describe the steps that will be taken. I also recognise the health issues, and will speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health about advising the public of the risks involved in viewing the eclipse with the naked eye.

The Devon and Cornwall constabulary will, of course, play a major role in managing the influx of extra visitors. I understand that, in recent months, the chief constable has raised with the Home Office the issue of the additional expenditure arising from the major public order operation that the police will need to undertake because of the large number of visitors who are expected to travel to Cornwall.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is responsible for emergency planning in England and Wales, expects local authority emergency planners to deal with issues arising from major incidents or emergencies according to the principles of integrated emergency management. That is an all-hazards approach to emergency planning, which encourages local emergency planners to plan with all the agencies that are likely to be involved in a major incident response. The chief characteristics of plans developed according to the principles of integrated emergency management are that they should be non-specific and flexible, and that they should work well regardless of an incident's cause. They are therefore ideal to handle an event such as the eclipse.

It is fundamental to arrangements for dealing with an emergency that the first response should be at local level. If the scale of an incident overwhelms local resources, the first recourse is usually to mutual-aid arrangements with services in adjacent areas, and the second to military aid. The eclipse is not an unforeseen emergency, as the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell recognised; it is not a sudden danger requiring immediate action. An eclipse is an event for which there has been sufficient time for local services to plan and, accordingly, to seek assistance under mutual-aid arrangements if that is required.

From time to time, all police forces must deal with major public events, some of which are regular and some unexpected. The role of the police in controlling any outbreaks of disorder is to preserve the peace, uphold the law and prevent the commission of offences. Police tactics and decisions on how to achieve those objectives are a matter for the independent operational judgment of chief police officers. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary expects that additional costs arising from unique occasions should usually be met from the force's budget and by using its reserves. In certain exceptional circumstances, my right hon. Friend would consider an application for a special grant, although such grants are rarely given, as the criteria are tough. The additional expenditure incurred by the force must be exceptional and of a scale likely to threaten its efficiency.

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I understand that Devon and Cornwall constabulary has estimated that the additional cost of policing the eclipse next year will be about £600,000. That is less than half of 1 per cent. of the force's current budget. On the basis of information so far provided by the Devon and Cornwall police authority, it is doubtful whether it will be able to meet the criteria for a special grant that have previously been applied. I understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has had a working party looking into the issue, is of the opinion that forces should not ordinarily be given special assistance and that Government funding should be allocated through the police funding formula.

As the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell knows, police funding is allocated by means of a needs-based formula. Devon and Cornwall constabulary has done quite well under it. Over the past two years, the force has been able to increase its budget by more than the national average--by 4 per cent. in 1997-98 and by 4.5 per cent. in 1998-99. In those years, the average increase for police authorities in England and Wales was just 3.7 per cent. In the current financial year, Devon and Cornwall police authority has a budget of £167.4 million, which is a £7.2 million increase over the previous year.

In 1997-98, Devon and Cornwall constabulary was able to increase the number of police officers by 98 to 2,962. That contrasts with an overall reduction in police numbers in England and Wales of 302. At the same time, recorded crime in the Devon and Cornwall police area fell by 8.4 per cent., compared with an average reduction in England and Wales of 7.8 per cent.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced on 21 July that, over the next three years, police funding would increase by £1.24 billion. Overall police funding will increase by 2.65 per cent. next year, a further 2.8 per cent. in the following year and an extra 4 per cent. in 2001-2. Provisional police funding settlements for each police authority for 1999-2000 will be announced, as the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell knows, in the reasonably near future, at the same time as the local government settlement.

Mr. Steen: Is it the view of the Minister and the police that there will not be an invasion of tourists to watch this sight?

Mr. Raynsford: I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell rightly made the point that no one knows for sure how many people will visit. One cannot anticipate for such an event. The point that I am trying to get across is that the potential scale of additional pressures can largely be foreseen, and measures can be implemented to ensure that this opportunity--it is an opportunity, as the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and others have emphasised--can be taken without unreasonable and disastrous consequences. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell has raised serious issues, which need to be addressed.

I have covered the subject of police funding, and shall move on to the other services for which the eclipse will have implications, as the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell rightly emphasised. Emergency planning in the water industry is one of the other main areas affected. In June, under the provisions of section 208 of the Water Industry Act 1991, the Department issued the Security and

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Emergency Measures (Water and Sewerage Undertakers) Direction 1998. It requires all water and sewerage companies in England, including South West Water, to make contingency plans, based on the integrated emergency planning concept, to cater for all types of emergency, irrespective of the cause.

The direction specifies the main resources and facilities that water companies should provide in an emergency and the need to consult and co-operate with all relevant bodies. It states that priority should be given to the domestic needs of sick, elderly and disabled people, hospitals, schools and other vulnerable sectors of the community. It also states that regard should be given to the needs of non-domestic users and, in accompanying guidance, examples of livestock and essential food industries are given.

One of the most significant things in the new direction, which was not in the preceding 1989 direction, is that it provides for the Secretary of State to specify the amount of water that an undertaker should provide in an emergency. Companies have been notified that that is 10 litres of drinking water a head per day. New plans to comply with the direction must be submitted to the Secretary of State by 1 April--well before the eclipse--having first been subjected to independent audit.

It is important that all areas that are likely to be affected by the extra work created by the eclipse should keep in close contact. I know that, over the past 12 months, there has been a series of inter-agency meetings involving all those with an interest. An emergency planning co-ordination group has been taking a strategic overview of the problem and, at operational level, the plan review working party has been considering the issues. Such cross-service work is vital in identifying potential problems and producing appropriate solutions.

On resources, I know that there have been calls for the Government to use available measures--under what is known as the Bellwin scheme--to help local authorities cope financially with emergencies. The scheme is designed to prevent an undue financial burden falling on council tax payers of an authority that is affected by an emergency or disaster that threatens life or property. An incident for which assistance is sought must involve clearly exceptional conditions by local standards, and damage to local authority infrastructure for communities must be exceptional, too. In the past, the scheme has generally been activated following events such as freak storms or floods--most recently, severe flooding across the midlands over Easter.

On the face of it, expenditure that authorities might incur as a result of the eclipse seems likely to be outside the scheme's criteria. However, we would of course consider any case that an authority might make for the

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activation of the scheme. If some of the worst prognoses of the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell turned out--unfortunately--to be true and there were very serious problems, the authority would unquestionably be in a position to seek assistance under the Bellwin scheme. I hope that that will not be so. I hope that, with sufficient forward planning, the risk can be minimised. However, I would not rule out altogether the need for such assistance in the event of a serious breakdown of normal administrative arrangements.

As I have stressed, careful planning will be absolutely vital to make the most appropriate arrangements and, indeed, to make the most of the opportunity that is presented by this unusual event. Many more people in Devon and Cornwall will benefit through offering bed-and-breakfast facilities to visitors. Farmers and other landowners stand to gain considerably by offering campsites to cater for the expected 500,000 additional campers who cannot be accommodated on existing sites. I understand that special provisions allow sites on which camping would not normally be permitted to be brought into use for a limited period. That clearly provides an opportunity to cope with the numbers of people, and should raise income for farmers who have made available sites for such use.

I have seen estimates that bed-and-breakfast charges and campsite fees for extra visitors could bring in more than £150 million to the area. The take-up in the unused capacity for hotels and other accommodation will also generate significant income. Given last summer's disappointing weather, I know that several hotel and tourist interests in the west country have been looking for ways in which to increase their revenue. I hope that the eclipse will provide such an opportunity. Obviously, there is an opportunity to encourage people to make a proper holiday of visiting Cornwall, rather than just going for the day. That will benefit the local economy.

The situation is therefore by no means all doom and gloom. Indeed, there is no doubt that people in other areas in Britain wish that the eclipse could be viewed from their location. I noted the naked appeal of the hon. Member for Totnes for people to go to his constituency rather than Cornwall to view the eclipse. The eclipse will present the local tourism industry with a great opportunity to promote itself in both pleasure and business to the vast number of visitors whom the major event will attract. Many visitors will be visiting the area for the first time and may be encouraged to go back, which would be in the long-term interest of the west country's economy. I am certain that local businesses, local people, local authorities and others who have a wealth of experiences in tourism will ensure that best use is made of this wonderful opportunity for Devon and Cornwall.

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