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Mr. Leslie: It is important that the hon. Gentleman understands the scope of the expenditure that we are discussing in the civil defence grant. We are considering the administration of local authority emergency planning officers, not expenditure on response to or recovery from disasters. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will put that into the context of the wider measures that the Government have taken.
Mr. Collins: I am grateful to the Minister for saying that, because I was about to come to the importance in any civil defence of the local dimension. I shall quote from documents prepared by the emergency planning department, which used to be in the Home Office and is now in the Cabinet Office. Its website states:
My hon. Friend referred to the fact that his local authority may have to remove a member of staff without whom it cannot maintain its emergency call centre 24 hours a day. None of us knows when a disaster or problem might occur, but it would be a matter of concern if one happened in the eight hours out of 24 for which there was no cover. The Local Government Association takes a similar view:
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Surely the distinction drawn by the Minister between pre-disaster planning and post-disaster responses is false. Is it not a fact that the planning that we have to undertake is naturally on a much larger scale since 11 September and therefore requires much greater resources?
Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend is right. I make no particular criticism, as none of us has 100 per cent. or even 1 per cent. ability to foresee everything that will happen, but a Home Office consultation document published in Augustbefore the events of 11 Septemberand entitled "Future of Emergency Planning in England and Wales", which no doubt informed the Bill's drafting, says at paragraph 4.14:
I shall deal with the money provided by central Government for civil defence, but before the Minister or another Labour Member points it out, let me make it clear that the reduction started not in 1997 but in 1990. That was the year after the fall of the Berlin wall and the liberation of eastern Europe from communism, so it is hardly surprising that Governments of both political colours through the 1990s operated on the assumption that war was less likely.
Although my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) knows more of the detail than me, we remember that those of us who take an historical perspective always begin to worry when the Treasury or the Home Office says that war is unlikely in the next 10 years. Several of my hon. Friends recall that that was the Treasury assumption in the 1920s and early 1930s. Sad to say, there is recent evidence that the Treasury, as well as the Home Office, is again operating on that basis.
Whatever people may have thought, reasonably or unreasonably, before 11 September, surely that assumption cannot be so readily endorsed post- 11 September. Whether we describe the current situation as a war or not, we should be cognisant of the fact that the press spokesman of the US President, the leader of the international coalition, said on Monday that the President is conscious that the US is "a nation at war".
Let us deal with the precise reasons behind the Bill, which, as the Minister rightly said, relate to the legal action brought last year by the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority. He set the exact position out in detail and with some clarity, but neglected to say that the Home Office chose not to contest the case. Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that the judge upheld the authority's case and ruled that under current legislation there is no provision to introduce cash limits.
Let me immediately make it clear that, as a Conservative Front Bencher, I am hardly likely to say that cash limits are evil and should be resisted at all times. Labour Members will be aware that my party is re-profiling its view on public services, but I hasten to add that that does not mean that we are suddenly in favour of spending any sum that anyone suggests for any public purpose whatever. Clearly, we are not.
However, although we are dealing with serious circumstances and a context that the Minister was kind enough to confirm, the legal situation means that local authorities cannot spend under the civil defence heading money unrelated to civil defence or emergency planning. They must spend sums that are reasonable and, in the context of the crisis, their spending is not gigantic.
We must ask whether the Bill is the most sensible civil defence measure that the Government could introduce at a time when many civil defence experts believe that there is a more urgent need for other legislation. I shall set out the possibilities in a moment, and a number of my hon. Friends want to point out that, since the introduction of the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986, which slightly regularised procedures, local authorities have often used civil defence funds made available to them to deal with other emergencies and difficulties.
We must reflect on the fact that, in the past 12 months, there have been not one, not two, but three largely unexpected but very serious public emergencies in this countryalthough I do not blame the Government for every aspect of those. First we had the fuel crisis, then the floods, which affected large parts of England and Wales. Then we had the foot and mouth crisis. In such circumstances, we must wonder whether the Government are acting wholly appropriately in introducing the Bill.
I said that I would touch on the way in which civil defence grant has been reduced, and, once again, I acknowledge that it peaked and began to fall under the Conservative Government. However, it has continued to fall since 1997. Although local authorities may be mildly interested in the exchanges that take place across the Floor of the House about who did what when and what happened before and after a general election, they perhaps focus not on that but on the fact that the reduction is 38 per cent. in cash terms since 1990 and some 55 per cent. in real terms. That is clearly a substantial cut on any basis.
Mr. Leslie: Perhaps I may re-profile the hon. Gentleman on a couple of points. He will be aware that the civil defence grant budget has levelled off at about £14 million since 1997, so there has been no reduction on
Mr. Collins: If the Minister wants to do so, he would be right to point out that the Government inherited low inflation when they came to office in 1997. We have difficulties with their economic mismanagement, but they have not succeeded in achieving high inflation since 1997, nor have they achieved zero inflation either. In 2001, £14 million does not buy what it bought in 1997, so a freeze in cash terms is the same as a continued fall in real terms.
I come specifically to the Minister's reiteration of the centrepiece of his case: the fact that the Bill is about procedure not outcomeabout creating a possibility for a Minister to set a rate rather than about determining that rate. The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs was previously responsible for these matters and I have already put to the Minister what his right hon. Friend said in the official press release of 22 June, which described the Bill. He said:
When I put the point to the Minister earlierI am happy to give way to him again if he wishes to intervenehe did not say "We do not intend to reduce spending on civil defence". Nor did he say "There may have been a one-off increase recognising the existence of past difficulties, but we do not want any further increases". What he said was "We have pencilled in £14 millionagainfor the future". Those sound to me like the words of a Minister who is preparing to reduce the amount spent in the current financial year.
Our case is this. Regardless of whether such action would be right in normal circumstances and regardless of whether it will be right in two or three years, it is difficult to see that it can be right now, after what happened on 11 September and given what the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others have said about our present situation.
Earlier this afternoon, I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that I intended to refer to the figure of 686 billion. He visibly blanched: he definitely whitened. That is, of course, an American rather
I do not suggest for a moment that we should move from £14 million to the equivalent of $40 billion. Nevertheless, it is at least interesting to note the United States belief that the present international situation requires not a smallnot even a significantbut what on any terms would be described as a dramatic increase in allocations for all aspects of what it calls homeland security.
I suspect that the vast majority of those outside the House who knew that we were debating the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill would assume that it had been presented by the Government, in the light of a major international emergency, to improve, enhance and expand civil defence. In fact, its purpose is to constrain, limit and perhaps even reduce local authority contributions to civil defence.
Members should note what the Local Government Association said in its submission to the emergency planning review. I am not sure whether this was said before or after 11 September, but the impact is perhaps even more powerful if it was said before that date. The association said: