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House of Commons

Wednesday 6 February 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


London Development Agency Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second Time on Wednesday 13 February.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State was asked—

North-West Regeneration

1. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): When he next expects to visit the Government office of the north-west to discuss regeneration of the region. [30883]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has no immediate plans to visit the Government office of the north-west. He last visited it in September and I visited it in November.

Mr. Winterton: I am sure that the Minister is aware that not even a borough such as Macclesfield, which currently has an unemployment rate of just 1.1 per cent.—and is brilliantly represented—can rest on its laurels. We must look to the future not least because of the tragic announcement of 993 redundancies on the periphery of the constituency by BAE Systems at Woodford. Does the hon. Lady not accept that it is absolutely essential for the future prosperity and economic growth of my area that the regional planning guidance receives an early approval? The matter currently rests with a Minister in another place, Lord Falconer.

Mrs. Roche: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern in this matter. I know that he and other Members of Parliament have taken a great interest in the redundancies, and we extend our sympathies to all those affected. Of course it is right that we need to move as quickly as possible, which is why the Government office and all the other agencies, including the Employment

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Service, are working hard. It is right that we move ahead with the plan, and we shall do so as soon as we practically can.

Andy Burnham (Leigh): When my hon. Friend next meets representatives of the Government office of the north-west to discuss these issues, will she stress the important role that sport and sports development can play in regenerating deprived communities in the north-west, especially those such as mine which have proved to be the hardest to regenerate and turn round? In particular, will she ask the Government office of the north-west to give whatever support it can to Wigan council's exciting proposals for a new community sports complex and a new stadium and home for Leigh RMI and Leigh Centurions?

Mrs. Roche: I am aware of the interest that my hon. Friend takes in these matters, and I know that he used to play cricket for Lancashire Schoolboys. We can all admire his sporting prowess, from which the Commons team may benefit.

Of course I recognise the part that sport can play in regeneration. I spoke recently to some of the businesses involved in the sports and tourism industry about what can be done. When I next visit the area, I shall be delighted to have such discussions.

Civil Emergencies

2. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Pursuant to his answer of 9 January 2002, Official Report, column 530, on civil emergencies, if he will make a statement on the updating of guidance to local authorities. [30884]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Government have issued guidance to local authorities on the response to a deliberate release of chemical or biological agents. The guidance is under continual review, and the civil contingencies secretariat at the Cabinet Office remains in dialogue with local authorities on the matter.

Mr. Dalyell: What guidance is being given about the horrendous eventuality of smallpox?

Mr. Leslie: Many Members will be aware of the BBC 2 television programme broadcast on that subject yesterday, which described a hypothetical situation. I emphasise that smallpox has been eradicated and that good contingency plans are in place. We have substantial stocks of vaccine but, clearly, their size and location are not in the public domain for security reasons. The Public Health Laboratory Service is always updating its guidance, which is available to GPs on its website, and that guidance has also been sent out by public health directors.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does the Minister agree that civil emergencies occur for different reasons, be they climatic, medical—as he has described—or terrorist? What consideration has he given to the appointment—or what consideration has he given to talking to the Prime Minister about the appointment—of a Minister, perhaps

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not a Ministry, who can co-ordinate the activities of different Departments? Does he not accept that appointing a senior civil servant for such a role is not enough?

Mr. Leslie: Last year all Members were sent a letter on the matter by the Home Secretary, who chairs the Civil Contingencies Cabinet Committee. To make sure that we have the generic capability to co-ordinate emergency planning and civil contingencies, the new secretariat has been established at the Cabinet Office to allow us to be flexible and respond as necessary to whatever eventualities may arise.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): What preparations and plans exist for the possibility of a major aircraft failure or collision over central London? That is increasingly possible because of the intensification of the use of Heathrow airport and the aviation industry's wrong demand for an extra runway at Heathrow.

Mr. Leslie: I would not want to open up a discussion on the extra runway, but in terms of risk, new technology is being developed all the time to improve air traffic control. My hon. Friend will know that response and recovery activities fall in the first instance to local authorities and the police. We are ensuring that the tools are available so that those organisations are well placed to cope in the unlikely eventuality of anything happening.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): What preparation has been made for a major offshore incident that could result in a massive oil spill, similar to the Braer disaster or the Sea Empress disaster off the coast of Pembrokeshire? Both reports on those disasters recommended placing a statutory duty on local authorities to deal with offshore oil spillages, but that has still not been put in place. Will the hon. Gentleman promise to introduce that?

Mr. Leslie: I will submit the hon. Gentleman's comment to the emergency planning review that the Cabinet Office is undertaking. The maritime authorities and, indeed, local authorities ensure that we learn lessons from the accidents that occur from time to time. I shall certainly try to give the matter closer consideration.

Rural Policy

3. Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Which Departments and agencies are involved in the development of rural policy for whose co-ordination his office is responsible. [30886]

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): I am responsible for the Government office network which provides a strategic presence in the regions for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and, indeed, for the social exclusion unit whose work covers issues of relevance to rural areas.

Mr. Tyler: May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look again at the written answer given by the Prime Minister last Friday at column 571 in which he describes in detail all the responsibilities of the Deputy Prime Minister? There is no mention of rural affairs or the co-ordination

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of rural policy. Can the Deputy Prime Minister give a single example of when his intervention has secured an improvement in rural policy since the general election?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The hon. Gentleman seems to have missed the fact that we have established a Department for rural affairs specifically to deal with such matters. Many of the issues that he raises, which he used to refer to the Cabinet Office before the last election, are now dealt with by another Department.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): The rural White Paper said that we need to have a vibrant living and working countryside and that to achieve that aim a range of essential services needs to be in place in rural areas. I am pleased to say that there are plans to open two new rural post offices in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to ensure that the work of all relevant Departments is co-ordinated so that our rural communities have those services?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: Many of those issues were highlighted in the rural White Paper, for which I had responsibility in my previous job. We thought that it was important to separate rural areas from urban areas and not to get the two mixed up. We made it clear that special programmes were needed, which we identified in the rural White Paper and which are being carried out by the Department. Many of my hon. Friend's points are being attended to directly by the Department and the relevant Minister.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): The Deputy Prime Minister said today and, indeed, in the past in response to written questions that lead responsibility for rural policy now rests with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He however, is, responsible for the work of the social exclusion unit. Does he recognise that there are serious problems of social exclusion in many rural areas? Will he specifically ask the social exclusion unit to consider rural policies?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point; it is all the more valid after 18 years of a Tory Administration under whom we saw a doubling of poverty and a decline in bus transportation, the provision of schools and post offices in rural areas. That is why the social exclusion unit has been deliberately designed to look specifically at those problems, which we identify as existing as much in rural areas as they do in urban ones. Indeed, a specific study is under way on transport in rural areas because without an adequate transport system many people in those areas cannot get access to the services that they need. That is why we have increased considerably the amount of transport resources in rural areas, set against the decline that we saw in those 18 years.

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