Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Mark Field: My hon. Friend has given a very good, practical and specific example from the past few months. Does he agree that if this whole process is to be, as it is at the moment, demand rather than needs-led, we need at this juncture to have an entire rethink, which will inevitably take some time? It is particularly important to gain a sense of perspective beyond what has happened just in the past four months and look towards getting some pattern—inevitably, it will be a flexible pattern—into place for the years ahead to ensure that we have the right formula.

Mr. Wilshire: My hon. Friend is right. He may be amazed to discover that the Government agree with him. They set up their 10 working groups to carry out exactly that process. He is right to say that it should be completed before we embark on legislation of this sort.

As I have said, I am not sure that new clause 1 commends itself to me that much, but I want to support amendment No. 1. I sincerely hope that we will have the chance to do that. I make only one criticism of it; it is in the same spirit as my previous criticism of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I consider that 2004 may be too soon and that the date should be later but in the absence of a chance to vote for an even later date I would be happy to support him.

Jim Knight: Like most hon. Members here, I have concerns about emergency planning. I sit on the Select Committee on Defence, which as I am sure the House is aware, is reviewing the defence and security of the United Kingdom and emergency planning. The civil contingencies secretariat is very much part of that review but I support this legislation because it is right to end the blank cheque to local government.

28 Jan 2002 : Column 52

With all due respect, amendment No. 1 is bizarre. It says in effect that, in 2004, the Government will be able to limit spending by making an assessment but in the meantime the loophole remains and local authorities can spend what they like: we will just have to foot the bill as the Government.

Mr. Beith: I think that the hon. Gentleman slightly misunderstands the present situation. He is surely not suggesting that the Government are allowing local authorities to spend whatever they like. In fact they are engaged in regular consultation with local authorities to try to ensure that the funding that they provide is appropriate to an authority's needs.

Jim Knight: Different people have given me different interpretations of the system. I have spoken to some people who are basically saying that currently it is so confused that they can go ahead and spend and Government will have some obligation to reimburse.

Mr. Flook: It is not as simple as that. The first £25,000 is paid for by the local authority, and if that is a shire district that is a substantial amount. Under the Bellwin system, above £25,000, only 80 per cent. is clawed back, so local authorities are responsible for large elements of the money.

Jim Knight: I accept that, but there is a danger that if we leave open the loophole, local authorities—seeing 2004 on the horizon—will have a spending bonanza, buying everything that they need to cope with a threat.

Mr. Mark Field: The hon. Gentleman takes a cynical view of local authorities. I suspect that, like me, he has been a member of one and remembers the mad dash in the 11th or 12th month of a year to see which road-widening scheme, for example, is required. I can appreciate that the Government, understandably, take the view that they want to cap expenditure, to an extent, and do not want it to spiral out of control. But does not the hon. Gentleman see that given that the average over the past three or four years has been around £14 million, and is to be nearer £18 million for this year, and given all the disaster and emergency planning that has had to be planned for during the past 12 months, most people outside would think that a relatively small increase from £14 million to £18 million was reasonable—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Interventions should be much briefer.

Mr. Field: Does the hon. Gentleman feel therefore that—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Knight.

Jim Knight: I shall try to pick away at what the question might have been. I would not be happy to see funding continue at £14 million and I am happy to see that increase.

Mr. Wilshire: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jim Knight: I have been generous in giving way and I would like to make progress. However, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has such a pleading face.

Mr. Wilshire: I am only asking the hon. Gentleman to extend to me the courtesy that I extended several times to

28 Jan 2002 : Column 53

him. I warn him that I may have several more interventions to come. I thought that I was cynical but I have heard a level of cynicism from him that I could not surpass. His suggestion that local government will have a spending spree over the next couple of years if we pass the amendment, and will stoke up natural disasters so that it can put in bills, is the sort of cynicism that I am surprised to hear.

Jim Knight: I have spoken to the chief fire officer in Dorset and to chief executives of local authorities, and they have a number of concerns relating to various threats. My constituency office is on a site that is regulated by the nuclear installations inspectorate which, in turn, is policed by the nuclear police. They have concerns in terms of biological, nuclear and chemical threats. If every authority thought that it needed more suits, showers or other things, the bill could get out of control. We may need an assessment of where the risks really are in order to balance the priorities. That is not total cynicism, but I know how strapped for cash local authorities can be. If they see a window and a chance to get what they need, they might leap through it without looking first.

I have concerns about the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), which are along the same lines as those expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). The amendment tries to anticipate the review and does not deal with the Bill. I agree with my hon. Friend that the Bill is about the here and now and deals with the problem that arose in Merseyside. After 11 September, the review is vital for England and Wales. We desperately need it, and we must look also at statutory powers and the levels of funding that underpin those powers. We will need legislation; perhaps not just one Bill, but others.

I do not have a problem, as Conservative Members seem to, with the notion of closing a loophole, finishing a review and proposing legislation that arises out of the review.

5.30 pm

For example, I was sent a letter by the chief executive of Purbeck district council regarding local authority responsibilities in relation to marine pollution. I am responsible for most of Poole harbour. Let me correct myself; happily, I am not responsible for it personally, but most of Poole harbour lies within my constituency, as does the Wytch Farm oil plant, which is run by BP and located in a highly sensitive area that has just been granted world heritage status by UNESCO.

The authorities concerned with these sites, including the Environment Agency and the county council, should agree a joint memorandum of understanding about the responsibilities assigned to them in the national contingency plan, but, because they have no statutory powers—and they certainly have no finances with which to produce such a memorandum—they have not agreed to sign it. A recent emergency planning exercise in the harbour—entitled Poolespill—examined the possibilities of major oil pollution on the world heritage coast. That exercise revealed all sorts of problems that need to be addressed, and I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will listen carefully to Opposition Members, and

28 Jan 2002 : Column 54

to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and me, when we argue for more finance as a result of the review.

I hope that the Minister will also consider the powers that the various authorities hold. The fire authority does not have the power to deal with anything other than putting out fires at the moment. It is still covered by out-of-date legislation, which needs to be updated to deal with the threats that have arisen following 11 September, and with other forms of accident response.

I am sure that many hon. Members have attended many pleasurable party political conferences in Bournemouth, and I hope that all parties will continue to return to Dorset for their conferences. My guess is that those conferences represent the biggest risk of large-scale terrorist attacks for Dorset, and it is worth reminding the Minister that, although the police are reimbursed for the cost associated with political conferences, the fire authority is not. The fire authority incurs significant extra costs related to the running of the conferences in Bournemouth—two were held there last year. The Department of Health has now contracted fire authorities to carry out the necessary decontamination in the case of a chemical or biological attack, but I do not know whether they would be reimbursed for that work.

I am grateful for your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to run through some of the reasons that I would like more statutory powers and more finance to come out of the review. The Bill is needed to close the loophole revealed by the Merseyside case. We need the legislation now, without further delay, but I am looking for a commitment from those on the Front Bench that proper resources and statutory powers will come out of the emergency planning review.

Next Section

IndexHome Page