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Mr. Don Foster: Speaking of ministerial slips, did the hon. Gentleman note the interesting way in which the Minister said that some of the arrangements at the Home Office were being made there to ensure that they were "at the centre of Government"? Is that not an odd phrase to be used by someone who works in the Cabinet Office?

Mr. Collins: I did notice that. However, in fairness to the Minister, I think that that was a slip of the tongue and that he meant to say the Cabinet Office rather than the Home Office. We have probably had enough fun with him on that point, and I think that he understands where we are coming from.

The final series of points that I shall make on the Bill relates to the fact that this is the House's first opportunity to debate issues arising from civil defence, emergency planning and the way in which the Administration have handled unexpected crises and difficulties. The history of those matters has been not at all encouraging. We have had, as I said, a fuel crisis. Many people in my part of the world, in Cumbria, believe that the Government might have reacted rather more rapidly to that crisis if the petrol

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stations had started running out of fuel in London and the home counties rather than in the north and north-west. There have been many criticisms of the way in which the crisis was handled.

We can also debate the way in which the floods were handled at about this time last year. The floods produced a commitment by the Government that they would review those matters but there has not been a great deal of activity since then. I know that some of my hon. Friends may wish to develop that point in later speeches.

Finally, and most seriously, we had the outbreak of the foot and mouth crisis. I do not propose going into that matter in any depth, other than to point out that many hon. Members will have read the very powerful Private Eye report which states that the outbreak

For my constituents and many others, not only in Cumbria but elsewhere, the Government's mismanagement of the outbreak was spectacular. At various times in the crisis, to defend themselves against the charge that they must have known the true situation before the last few days in February, when the official announcement was made, the Government said that they had contacted various people to get hold of railway timbers, for example, because that was part of "contingency planning"—which is particularly relevant to this debate. If the Government had a contingency plan, it was not a very good one. I think that emergency planning was better at local authority level than it was in central Government, but even that planning was not as good as it could have been had we had proper, adequately funded civil defence and emergency planning.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): This point is in no way party political. I simply ask my hon. Friend to join me in paying tribute to emergency planning officers across the United Kingdom who have had to deal with the three crises that he has rightly outlined. Many of them have also been working extremely long punishing hours since the events of 11 September to refresh and update whatever plans their local authorities had on the books. I think that it is appropriate, especially in a debate such as this, for the House to recognise the very real effort that they have made on behalf of the communities they serve.

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point with which I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be happy to agree. Those people are at the forefront of public service. They make a huge difference to people's lives, and when they do their work well they make the difference between life and death for many of our fellow citizens. We should pay tribute to them and commend them for their work. I hope that emergency planning officers will feel that although there will necessarily be some differences between the parties in these debates, every hon. Member will wish to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to their work. I am sure that every hon. Member would also wish to give them strong backing and strong endorsement.

Sadly, the Government—who are handling the general international situation admirably, with the full-hearted support of the Conservative party—have a record

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domestically not of resolving crises so much as creating them and making them worse. To adapt the famous insurance slogan, the Government always make a drama out of a crisis.

Our fear about the Bill is that the Government are irresponsibly trying to reduce vital aspects of planning and public protection at the worst possible time. They have ignored the need for different, much needed and urgent legislation on civil defence by choosing to introduce the Bill instead of considering the matters it covers as part of a wider civil defence Bill. Consequently, the legislation is inappropriate and dangerously irrelevant at the moment. It has been introduced by a Government who have not demonstrated on this issue the grip and competence that we would wish.

For those reasons, we have no choice but to oppose the Bill tonight, in the hope that it will encourage the Government to think again and to recognise that the issues are deeply important and that, especially in the crucial atmosphere prevailing since 11 September, local authorities need and deserve the strong backing of central Government. Local authorities should not feel that irrelevant and unnecessary penny-pinching will restrict them, at this of all times, in their vital activities.

7.1 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): The first assurance I seek from my hon. Friend the Minister is that the emergency planning that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) mentioned—the restructuring of the Conservative party—will not be funded by the Bill. We need to examine the issues calmly and carefully. This country has a superb record, under successive Governments, of planning to avoid risk. We try to avoid putting our citizens in positions where they could face some of the serious risks that we have seen as a result of appalling accidents and human error in other countries. Of course, nothing is ever perfect and human error does creep in. Notwithstanding the military issues that have been mentioned, both acts of God and human error need to be taken into account.

We have an exceptionally good record, and the first issue that the Minister's Committee should consider in seeking to minimise the cost to the public is the continued planning for further risk avoidance. I have spoken to the Minister about the need for a fresh look at some overfly zones and the holding patterns for areas that are, by their very nature, hazard sites. As I said earlier, a written question was answered today on the issue of access to information about major chemical sites, some of which was previously held on public registers. I am sure that the House will be glad to hear that steps are being taken to ensure that sensitive information will, at least temporarily, be held on a more restricted basis. It is, however, important to reassure our constituents that the commitment of the Government and the security services to public safety is not only maintained but enhanced during this difficult time.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned the fuel protest several times. That is a bit rich for a Conservative Member, whose party supported the fuel protesters who put my constituents' lives at risk. When the protest started, the blockade at the Stanlow refinery meant that emergency vehicles could not gain access to the site. The hon. Gentleman will know that if

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an accident occurs in an oil refinery, it requires rapid reaction. In Cheshire, we have a superb network, in partnership with the in-house fire services of some of the chemical companies, that includes the Cheshire fire authority and the other fire authorities in surrounding areas, to provide a rapid response to any emergency. Those fuel protesters prevented access and, had there been a crisis, the outcome could have been very serious.

If that argument does not persuade the hon. Gentleman, perhaps a description of events when Friends of the Earth decided to blockade Stanlow this summer—supported, I may say, by the Liberal Democrats—will do so. When I visited the emergency planning room to see how the matter was being handled, I saw that the first comment written on the whiteboard recorded the fact that public fire vehicles could not gain access to the site. I hope that the whole House will agree that emergency vehicles must have easy access to such important sites in case of any incident occurring.

The public information issue is especially interesting. Work is being done that may have an impact on the long-term planning undertaken by my hon. Friend the Minister. Hon. Members will recall that some years ago, under the previous Administration—I make no criticism of them on this point—the old Ministry of Defence siren systems were removed. Several concerns have been expressed in my constituency, and others that contain chemical sites, that the warning systems in place are not adequate. People do not understand what the sirens mean. They do not know whether a certain siren sound means, "Get the hell out of here", or, "Close your windows and stay indoors." They do not even know which siren signals the all clear. A generation ago, those signals were well understood because, for reasons we all know about, the siren system was in regular use.

I hope that my hon. Friend, within the framework of the Bill and the broader study of emergency planning, will consider some of the newer technologies that could assist in the provision of warning systems. One hon. Member—I can never remember his constituency—mentioned the emergency planning officers, and they have done a superb job. Members of the Emergency Planning Society have also considered some of the newer technologies, and—to give one example, which would not necessarily be the whole solution—it has been suggested that a national alert and information system could be developed using selectively addressable digital television systems. For less technical hon. Members, I can explain that that means that digital television receivers can be programmed with a range of identifiers. As a result, any group in the population can be selectively informed of any risk that might exist. As the technology advances, the interesting question arises of whether other Departments should be included in the debate.

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