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Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): The Minister has been speaking about the grants that are given to local authorities for emergency planning. Is he aware that, in Bedfordshire, the Government's intended plans would result in a 33 per cent. cut in the emergency planning budget? That would cause us to lose an emergency planning officer and an emergency planning assistant and ensure that we could not mount one of the three eight-hour operational shifts that are required in respect of an emergency planning assistant. The matter is causing great concern to my county council.

Mr. Leslie: I shall try to find out a bit more about the situation in Bedfordshire. My understanding is that the estimate for spending in 2001–02 has increased by 53 per cent. in one year; that is, since the previous financial year. That illustrates the point about the demand-led budget that we are discussing. I entirely accept that we need to find new ways of allocating sufficient resources for emergency

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planning purposes, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we need a nationally strategic and coherent framework in which to allocate resources.

Mr. Collins: As the Minister is speaking about the way in which the system is working now, before the Bill completes its passage, will he address the very interesting remarks that are reported in the excellent Library note that was prepared for the purpose, among others, of this debate? The note reports a conversation between an Officer of the Library and a Cabinet Office official. The conversation deals with the way in which the system works after the Merseyside legal case and prior to the passage of the Bill. It is stated that a local authority must have conversations with central Government about what it would propose to spend, agree with central Government about what it will spend the money on and also spend the money reasonably and within an agreed budget. Will he confirm that that is how the situation works currently and that it is not the case, as might have been implied by what he told my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), that a county council can jack up spending however it likes and without any basis for doing so?

Mr. Leslie: Clearly, that was one of the corollaries of the resolution of the legal action. The question about finance for local authorities, which have naturally increased their claims for this financial year, involves a number of criteria, including the reasonableness test. The difficulties arise for the Government when they are trying to assess the many local authority bids. For example, the process of assessing and auditing reasonableness might be disproportionate to the grant that is paid in the first place, which, at £15 million to £20 million, is relatively small. We need to find a formula system that can allocate the resources far more efficiently and a demand-led, authority-by-authority system.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): While the Minister is speaking about the current system—his implied criticism was almost that local authorities were flinging everything into the pot and trying to get as much money as they could—will he accept that the situation was not helped by the fact that the Home Office, which wrote to all local authorities, specifically stated in its letter of 22 December that it did not intend to issue guidelines to them about what they should include in their bids?

Mr. Leslie: The provisions on what may or may not be paid for by civil defence grant have not changed. Local authorities have a fairly limited series of activities that can be paid for under the regulations that I mentioned—a point that I hope to develop later. The issues and subjects on which the money can be spent have not altered. It is simply a question of ensuring that the sums themselves are reasonable. It is that whole process that has been focused on the demand-led side of things and which explains why the Government feel that we need to have a more formula-based approach to these matters, such as that which applies to all other aspects of local government expenditure.

The Government have acted responsibly in the past by advising local authorities what grant they would receive for three consecutive financial years and allowing them to budget and plan their finances accordingly. We intend to

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proceed just as responsibly in the future. As I said, the Bill does not set the level of grant, which is decided by Ministers.

The end of the cold war saw a gradual reduction in the amount of civil defence grant allocated in the 1980s and early 1990s, largely because the original purpose of planning for response to hostile attack from a foreign power had subsided. In recent years, however, the level of civil defence grant has reached a plateau at just over £14 million. The legal challenge has destabilised the budgeting process, leaving the Government with no way of managing expenditure. No responsible Government can stand by and let that situation continue, so the Bill will provide the remedy.

Bids have come in from local authorities totalling approximately £22 million, and later reducing to £18.5 million, as the opportunity has arisen to use the deficiencies in the legislation. Local authorities usually contribute to their emergency planning services from their own general funds. However, this year, many authorities are naturally making the most of the opportunity to get the money from central Government and may be spending their own resources on other items. However, the distortion to the budgeting and planning process cannot be allowed to continue.

While the Bill seeks to close the loophole in the law, the Government recognise that the financing of local emergency planning needs to be reconsidered, and that is why we are seeking to redress this matter on a longer term basis through the emergency planning review.

Although the Bill received its First Reading on 22 June, and was therefore prepared before the tragic events of 11 September, it remains a necessary instrument in the Government's policy for a more strategic and comprehensive national resilience framework involving the work of local authority emergency planning officers. The Government recognise and applaud the work that local authorities have done in emergency planning. The result of that work over many years is that they were prepared to respond to the various emergencies that have occurred in the past year or so—the fuel dispute, the unexpectedly extensive flooding last year, and the foot and mouth outbreak this year.

Although the events of 11 September have heightened awareness levels, local authorities have not been asked by the Government to do any significant extra work at this stage, not least because well-worked plans capable of tackling a number of eventualities are already in place. Obviously, local authorities have been reminded to ensure that their emergency procedures are up to date.

Local authority emergency planning officers provide a valuable service, co-ordinating the planning and preparations necessary to deal with emergencies in any shape or form. Their work alongside the emergency services is of immense value, and goes a long way to ensuring that the effects of any disaster on a local community are mitigated as far as possible. The Bill will help local authorities to continue to carry out those functions by providing them with a fair, open and secure framework for funding. I commend the Bill to the House.

6.21 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I am grateful to the Minister for setting out a number of the issues before us with a considerable degree of clarity.

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It is helpful for the House to have the chance to debate civil defence issues. We shall discuss in a moment whether this is the right legislation at the right time.

Public interest in civil defence is arguably at its highest level for 15 years, since the concerns about the nuclear arms race that prevailed in the 1980s. I hope that there will be cross-party consensus on the idea that the first duty of a Government of any colour is to provide for the safety of their citizens and for protection against the consequences of armed or hostile attack. I am delighted that the Prime Minister said very much the same thing in our debate on 8 October. When commenting on the events of 11 September, he said:

He referred to

and said:

He also said that

One of our contentions is that, contrary to what the Minister said, the Bill—which was prepared before 11 September—has not been adequately revised in the light of the events of that day, and of the consequent changes in Government policy and in the national security status. I should stress, as I have before in the House and elsewhere, that I have no criticism of the Government's general handling of the crisis, or of the Prime Minister's decision immediately to align this country with the United States. Indeed, I would say that the Prime Minister's conduct of these matters has been superb. It is in that constructive spirit that I hope that we can discuss the civil defence implications of what happened on that day.

We are dealing with a crisis on an historic scale. Those are similar to the words used by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Labour party conference, when he said that

He said also that

and that those who had committed the acts on 11 September

In other words, the need for civil defence in this country is probably at its highest for many years, and the nature, imminence and seriousness of the threat to our citizenry is at its height. Yet, although the Government have not made any final decisions, the Minister confirmed in his response to my earlier intervention that they are "pencilling in" a reduction of about 25 per cent. in the amount provided by central Government to support the civil defence activities of local authorities.

It is worth putting that in context, because the Home Secretary wrote to every hon. Member on 9 November to say that

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It is, therefore, the judgment of the Home Secretary that the threat to the people of the United Kingdom has reached "heightened levels" since 11 September. He went on:

The Home Secretary has, of course, gone further still, as we heard earlier this week during our consideration of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. He formally issued a declaration under the European convention on human rights, in relation to the provisions that he intends to introduce in that Bill. He cited article 15, which states that

it is permissible for him to act in the way that he is in relation to detention and habeas corpus.

The Government are telling us—entirely accurately and wholly responsibly—that we are in the midst of a

while proposing to go ahead with legislation drafted long before 11 September—I have no criticism about the fact that it was drafted then—for the purpose of restricting and perhaps reducing the amount of money that local authorities choose to spend on civil defence.

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