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Mr. Foster: I had hoped that the Minister would have explained the need for a range of different formulae. However, his answer is largely to say that that is what has always been done. That does not necessarily make it right.
The Minister referred to specific projects that the Government might want to fund, but he has already told us that they provide vast sums of money to fund such projects outside the normal planning process. There is a mechanism for that, so we have not had a clear explanation as to why that particular provision is in the Bill.
I also hope that the Minister will turn his attention to when the funding is to be paid. Although I entirely accept that the Bill seeks to resolve a technical problem that resulted from the challenge mounted by the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority, I genuinely fear that it could create more problems than it will solve. It will certainly create considerable uncertainty about how the funding will be calculated and when it will be paid. As we have said, there are real fears that it could lead to cuts in funding for civil defence at the very time when its importance has been brought home to us by the appalling events of 11 September.
Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said that he opposes the Bill because it is irrelevant, inappropriate and penny-pinching, because we are just beginning to understand its basis. In essence, it provides a rational mechanism for delivering money. It is not about setting the grant itself. It is important to make that clear, irrespective of what was said in a press release dated, I think, 22 June, because that cannot be set in the context of post-11 September and the atrocity on that day.
I am a former leader of London's largest authority, which was responsible for budgets, including the civil defence grant. I am also a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which is dedicated to ensuring that public expenditure delivers value for money. From the view of the customer, in terms of budget management and projection, and the taxpayer, in terms of delivering value for money, the Bill is appropriate and necessary.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) did not mention this, but the legislation will be superseded in a wider context within the next couple of years. [Interruption.] I will come back to that if there is a problem with it.
Geraint Davies: It is known that the Government intend to introduce emergency planning legislation because the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned it for something like 2003 or 2004. That information is in the public arena. As I understand it, we are moving quickly to ensure that we do not have a blank-cheque approach in the aftermath of the Merseyside decision. Prior to that, and since the Civil Defence Act 1948, decisions were made on a reasonably even basis. Since the Merseyside decision, the Government have been open to a certain amount of financial exposure. Instead of future grants being determined by a rational formula, they could be decided arbitrarily. That is not in the interests of the taxpayer or, indeed, of local authorities, which need certainty when they plan for emergencies.
There is a need to act quickly. The Government are doing that. It is important that the overall budgets, which vary between £14 million and £19 million, are set in the wider context. That is not a large sum considering the total expenditure that is put aside for responses to disasters by the police, the fire service, ambulances and so on, which is provided through the Bellwin scheme. Hon. Members referred to the clarity of the formula and executive management, but the Minister made it clear that that is within the wider remit of the Home Secretary, who chairs the Cabinet Civil Contingencies Committee.
It is important that the level of grant is decided rationally and that it is appropriate for current circumstances. It is also appropriate to protect taxpayers. There must be accountability and the money's use needs to be rationally explained. The grant allocating method should be brought into line with all other Government grant allocating methods. It is the only grant from Government expenditure that is not formula-driven, and that anomaly needs to be sorted out.
We need to update the 1948 Act, which was introduced to deal with hostile attacks from abroad. I appreciate that the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986 extended local authority responsibilities from wartime planning to peacetime planning for flooding, train crashes, plane crashes, chemicals and so on. In the light of other events that have occurred, such as the flooding in 2000, the fuel crisis and foot and mouth, the legislation is overdue for amendment, especially because of the Merseyside decision.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): The hon. Gentleman is making a constructive speech, but does he believe that true need will be met by the legislation, or is an expectation being built up that may not materialise in the grant?
Geraint Davies: I believe that true need will be addressed. The alternative is to do nothing and face the uncertainty of a blank-cheque situation. If that happens, we will not know how much money will be spent or where it will be spent. It is important to have a rational basis that is flexible and targets money appropriately to the areas of need.
The formula offers an opportunity for rational targeting, formula-driven, project-based funding and some discretion. Alongside that, I am pleased that there is a chance to have a service level agreement to ensure that consistent and growing standards of service delivery are met. In the past, we did not have the quality assurance or the means to ensure that we got the output that the public require and the value for money that we demand.
I am pleased to support the Bill. From the local government point of view, the Government clearly intend to consult the Local Government Association further. Some authorities might have irrationally overspent and not be delivering high-quality services. That will be addressed. In time, the wider needs of the legislation will be a consideration. Basically, the Bill offers an opportunity to deliver the level and quality of service that we need for emergency planning and to provide value for money for the taxpayer.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Civil defence is something that we all hope that we never need, but we understand that if we do, it must work, and work well. Certainly New York's emergency services worked well in the aftermath of 11 September, and I join the Minister in paying tribute to all those who work in the British blue light emergency services. We are well served, and sometimes we take them too much for granted.
People who are called to emergencies are contemporary heroes, but their heroism will work only if there is proper co-ordination behind the scenes to ensure that their services are delivered in the right way at the right time and are the right response to particular circumstances. That is why the Bill is so important.
The Bill is an emergency response to an uncontested court action, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said. I do not much like it. I am not saying that cash limiting is wrongquite the oppositebut when one is considering how to restructure the funding for any national or local government service, it must be done against an intellectually consistent and honest background.
The Government are reviewing all such legislation and that will provide an intellectually honest and coherent background for a proper review of the financial arrangements that support it, and that is the right way to proceed. One should start with the intellectual analysis, and move on to finance, rather than the knee-jerk reaction of rushing through a Bill whose only effect, as my hon. Friend said, will be to cut the expenditure available for co-ordination at a crucial time in our nation's history.
There are two reasons for opposing the Bill: the fact that the legislation is being reviewed and the fact that the world has become a more dangerous and uncertain place since the Bill was published. We all know that the origins of civil defence lie in concerns about the cold war, but our enemies are now more complex, subtle, sophisticated and, indeed, numerous. Foot and mouth disease is but the latest. We must also deal with flooding, which I shall discuss in detail later.
There are long-standing hazards resulting from industrial processes. I have three tier 1 COMAHcontrol of major accident hazardsites in or near my constituency that cause the emergency planning authorities of Worcestershire a great deal of concern. The sites are well managed, but the authorities need to keep a careful eye on them and plan properly for responses to anything that may happen. Of course, there is also the question of the post- 11 September world, which has featured heavily in speeches so far. Far from getting better, the civil defence front is getting worse and more complex. Hon. Members have mentioned the fuel crisis, and there was the millennium bug. Who knows what scientific disaster we will have to confront next?
My hon. Friend spoke about the hundreds of billions of dollars voted by Congress for civil defence purposes in the United States. I was struck by the fact that, while we have cut £10 million from civil defence expenditure for the understandable reasons that have been set out, the national Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States co-ordinates emergency responses to natural or man-made disasters with an annual budget of $300 million. It has access to contingency funds of $2 billion, 2,900 staff and more than 4,000 reservists. That is a sign that that country takes civil defence seriously.
We know that we need fundamental change, and the review has rightly begun. I cannot remember who launched it, because I am so confused about where responsibility for the subject lies, but someone in the Government deserves credit for doing so in August, before the events of 11 September heightened the need to act. I am delighted that the Government say in the discussion document on which we were invited to comment by the end of last month that greater consistency is needed in the delivery of emergency planning. They are considering precisely the legislative changes that, in principle, the House should welcome.
I am also delighted that the Government are seeking views on funding arrangements, proposing that civil defence arrangements should be supported through the standard spending assessment alongside other locally delivered services, rather than being put in a special pigeonhole. That may be a sensible way to proceed. I understand that the responses to the document have been very favourable, giving the Government a clear mandate and consensus on which to proceed. All that is very encouraging, so why this grubby little Bill now?
The chief emergency planning officers of the west midlands region discussed the Bill at one of their regular liaison meetings. Not one of them felt that it was needed, especially in view of the review of legislation, so what does it do? As my hon. Friend said, it cuts expenditure, but it does so highly capriciously. The explanatory note is a model of obscurantism, and just the sort of explanatory note that, we are learning, is a non- explanatory note. Let me offer my own version:
"This Bill gives the designated Minister the power to vary the Civil Defence Grant, payable to grant receiving Local Authorities on an annual basis, at will. Under its provisions, he will be enabled to use different criteria in determining the amount of grant to be paid to different authorities across the country.
Further, the grant could be held back and not paid for an indefinite number of years after that to which the grant applies. In the intervening period, the amount previously determined could retrospectively be altered.
In order to ensure almost complete uncertainty for local authorities, he will be given the power to decide arbitrarily that the grant payable to any particular authority will be reduced to zero from the original determination and this could be announced at any time, even after the grant period has started, leaving local authorities without any resource to carry out their Civil Defence functions."