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Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is trying his best to provoke me. I genuinely do not wish to make a party political point, because I understand that, at some point in the past, the Conservative party had a principle of sound financial management. The Bill's purpose is not to set the grant but to impose a formula system, like that for all other local government funding arrangements, to ensure that we can plan strategically nationwide. Does he support that?
Mr. Luff: I am glad that I did not anticipate the Minister's intervention, because I thought that he would ask a much more difficult question. The Bill's financial effects are set out in the explanatory note; the formulae lead to the conclusion that money will flow to local authorities. He is dancing on the head of a pin. His argument has some intellectual respectability, but I am afraid that, politically, it does not engage me at all, which I find disappointing.
The Minister was really saying that he could give Worcestershire a certain sum and the council could budget for it, but he could sit on it for months or even years and then decide not to pay. So much for the certainty to which he referred in his opening remarks. So what if the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) ran a local authority? Judging from his remarks and considering the effect that I think that the Bill will have on local authorities, he has gone native now. I hope that the Minister finds my suggested explanatory note helpful; perhaps he will consider revising the Government's version when the Bill goes to the other place.
I am glad that we have heard a lot about flooding, which is one issue that gives the matter such great urgency and importance. I declare an interest in two senses: I was Chairman of the Agriculture Committee when it produced its July 1998 report, just three months after my constituency suffered catastrophic flooding. We began the inquiry before the floods, and they occurred during it. We talked about confusion of departmental responsibilities, and when the floods in my constituency occurred, at Easter 1998, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, turned up to see what was going on. He then discovered that he should not have been there, because the matter was the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but we were glad to see him during an exceptionally serious event for my constituency.
In April 1998, Wychavon district council experienced serious flooding in 60 of the 91 parishes in its area, one of my constituents died and many came very close to dying. I have in mind the experience of one of my constituents who lives near what is normally a harmless bubbling brook, Bow brook, and who had to swim through 6 ft of diluted sewage to get from his garage to his front door. He nearly died in the process, and it was a terrifying experience.
The Agriculture Committee report of three years ago still bears careful reading. I re-read it today, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale may have been on the Committee.
Mr. Luff: Indeed. The report was so radical that the Daily Express splashed, if that is the right metaphor, across its front page the headline, "Let Britain Sink Say MPs". That was not quite what we had in mind, but it certainly made people read the report. It highlighted the dangers of the increased flooding risk in the United Kingdom, often in very dramatic terms.
Those dangers arise from a range of factors: the Government's plan to build lots of new houses on flood plains, climate change and the fact that the nation is tipping slowly into the English channel, which I believe is called geomorphic tilt. That means that huge numbers of our population are at increased risk of flooding, so civil defence becomes much more important.
I know that for two-tier authorities such as mine, most of the practical burden of dealing with flooding falls on district councils, not the county councils, which are the authorities for the purposes of the Bill. I pay tribute to the staff of Wychavon district council who did so much three years ago. They gave up their Easter break and worked tirelessly to run welfare centres, open rest centres, clean up the mess, arrange for dehumidifiers, certify whether food was fit for human consumption, examine the structural stability of buildings, check electricity suppliesparticularly in touring caravan parksdeal with fallen trees and so on.
The county council produced a report. I was not sure about that, as I thought that perhaps the district council should do so, but never mind. It dealt with a flooding emergency in my county last year, asking,
I had thought that I might talk at length about terrorism, but as others have done so, I merely note that all kinds of new terrorist and broader microbiological risks emerge daily. We have talked about foot and mouth disease, but what other microbiological hazards are evolving to confront us? What new microbiological hazards are being planned by those who do not like our lifestyle or approach, or bear some bizarre grudge against western society? We do not know. The need for emergency planning does not diminish but grows.
It appears on the surface that it would be far more logical to leave the current arrangements in place and incorporate this Bill within the provisions of the proposed Emergency Planning Bill, which at most on the current timescales proposed would only extend the current arrangements for one financial year."
Mr. Luff: I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend, as I always am. He makes a powerful point. There is a desperate need to overhaul and reform the structure of flooding policy, which is bewildering and confusing to us all. An earlier Select Committee report found some 240 different authorities and agencies involved in one way or another with flooding issues. The classic division is between the Environment Agency, district councils, county councils and water companies. There is a need to ensure proper co-ordination. That makes the provisions of the Bill so much sadder for me. I am sorry that the Minister has fallen for the line sold by others. I hope that he will listen to the wise words of Worcestershire county council and even at this late stage withdraw the Bill and reintroduce it later as part of a more comprehensive solution to the problems that we face.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I shall be brief. I declare a non-pecuniary interest as the chairman of the National Council for Civil Protection, and a personal interest as my wife works for Sutton council and is one of its emergency planning officers.
The NCCP is an advisory or pressure group that is extremely active in promoting emergency planning best practice. Its members are principally drawn from the emergency planing community in local authorities. It has met representatives of the Home Office to discuss these matters on a fairly regular basis.
I shall not go into whether the Government are intending to downsize the sum of money that can be allocated to emergency planning from £19 million to £14 million because I know that the Minister would intervene to point out that the Bill is about not a formula but drawing up a system of formulae. That is rather hard to pin down. What is clear, however, is that local authorities are not in a position to plan properly. They are having to set budgets without knowing exactly where they stand.
It is worth pointing out some of the risk associated with any downsizing of funding allocated for emergency planning. Hertfordshire council has received additional moneys that have been used to identify the homes in which elderly people liveand specifically those on flood plainsand to confirm whether such homes have adequate emergency plans in place should flooding occur. I understand that such projects would be at risk if the money allocated was reduced to £14 million.
I also understand that the Government have issued guidance saying that, as well as normal arrangements for emergency planning, local authorities should be putting together a central Government advisory team, which is supposed to consider terrorism and hostage scenarios. They are also supposed to be drawing up a joint health advisory cell to consider chemical and biological threats. Such systems are obviously not in place currently and will require officer timethat is what emergency planning is mainly aboutto implement them and ensure that they work. Again, if the sums of money are reduced, such systems will probably not be implemented.
The Minister said that he cannot predict the legislative timetable. I wish that he was as successful at doing so as the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies). Will the Minister at least give an assurance that he will personally make the matter top priority and fight for legislative time to be made available for such a Bill? Given the different crises in the past few yearswhether it be the fuel crisis, foot and mouth, terrorist threats or floodingsuch a Bill is clearly a top priority.
Does the Minister expectpreferably before but possibly after a review and consideration of the legislative programmea mechanism to emerge to ensure the wider promotion of best practice in emergency planning? Members have referred to some of the omissions from the website. From talking to people in emergency planning, I understand that the content is very limited and that much more must be done about promoting best practice. Rather than simply telling local authorities that, for example, they should be reviewing their arrangements for mortuaries and how to go about decontaminating bodies if necessary, the Government should provide some best practice advice on
As the Minister has said, the Bill is specifically about the system of formulae to be implemented. I hope that there will very soon be an opportunity to return to the subject in order to deal with emergency planning in a much wider sense.