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House of Commons

Wednesday 22 May 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading Read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 12 June.

Oral Answers to Questions


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

Special Advisers

1. Norman Baker (Lewes): What plans he has to improve the code relating to special advisers. [55925]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): A code of conduct for special advisers was published in July 2001.

Norman Baker: I thank the Minister for that illuminating answer. Does she accept the need to amend the code to improve the accountability of special advisers, as it is almost impossible to find out what they are doing? In particular, does she agree that there is an opportunity to allow Select Committees to interview special advisers so that we could find out officially what we know unofficially—that Lord Birt knows nothing about transport and is full of ludicrous ideas?

Mrs. Roche: First, on behalf of the Government, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his recent marriage? However, wonderful as this place is, perhaps the Chamber is not the most exciting place for a honeymoon.

We are the first Government to publish a code of conduct for special advisers, which we did immediately after the general election. By contrast, our Conservative predecessors refused to do anything of the kind. It is for Ministers to decide who should represent them before Select Committees.

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Government Offices for the Regions

2. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): What priorities guide the operation of Government regional offices. [55927]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The Government offices for the regions bring together the work of many different Departments, and we have increased their number from three to nine. Their priorities are to deliver the programmes of sponsor Departments, such as the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal and the crime reduction programme.

Vernon Coaker: Will my hon. Friend make sure that in the delivery of the Government offices' priorities, particularly priorities such as tackling poverty and regeneration, small pockets of deprivation outside city areas get the attention that they deserve? Too often, in my Gedling constituency, although we now have sure start and some regeneration money, money pours into the city but pockets of deprivation outside the city area have missed out. Will my hon. Friend look into that to make sure that we get the support and help that we need to regenerate those communities as well?

Mrs. Roche: I accept the points that my hon. Friend makes. It is right to concentrate on the most deprived areas, but of course regeneration needs to go much wider, which is why, as he suggested, we have programmes such as sure start, which have proved such a success. However, I shall certainly take his comments to heart and make sure that in our regeneration programmes we do not forget those other areas.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Will the Minister bear in mind the fact—which, as a London Member, she will know—that if the Deputy Prime Minister has his way and regional assemblies are imposed on the kingdom, Londoners will primarily pay for that, because we produce more wealth than any other part of the kingdom? Will she at least eliminate one tier of interference—the Government offices for the regions?

Mrs. Roche: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the Government offices for the regions in that way, because in fact they were created by the Conservative Government that he supported. If that is yet another policy U-turn, it is good that the Chamber should hear about it first. As for regional governance, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is far behind the times; it was clear from the White Paper published by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister that that would be a matter of choice for regions, and they could decide by way of referendums. We are in favour of people having a say. Would the hon. Gentleman deny them that?

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Will my hon. Friend expand on the role of Government offices for the regions following the election of regional assemblies? Will the assemblies, for instance, draw the bulk of their administrative staff from the existing regional office staff, as happened to some extent in Wales and Scotland?

Mrs. Roche: Some of the staff of the Government offices will go to the new bodies, but we will still need

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the Government offices because, as we indicated clearly in the White Paper, some central functions will not go, including certain locally delivered services such as education.

Welsh Assembly

4. Ian Lucas (Wrexham): If he intends to contribute to the recently announced inquiry into the powers of the National Assembly for Wales. [55931]

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): I understand that, with the exception of Lord Richard, no appointments have yet been made to the independent commission on Assembly powers. As I understand it, the terms of reference of the inquiry have not yet been agreed, so it would be premature for me to speculate on the Government's input to the work of the commission.

Ian Lucas: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The devolution settlement in Wales is still very young, but any changes to it should be made only with the consent of the people of Wales. Does he agree that Members of Parliament should be fully involved in the inquiry that has been set up, and will he write to the First Minister to say so?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: The agreement and settlement for the Welsh Assembly and Welsh devolution was decided by the Welsh people. However, the partnership agreement signed in October 2000 between the Labour and Liberal elements of the Administration established the commitment that before the end of the Assembly's first year, an independent commission on its powers and electoral arrangements would ensure that we could operate in the best interests of the people of Wales. The commission has not been appointed and terms of reference have not been given. We must wait and see what emerges from the discussions.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I welcome the publication of the right hon. Gentleman's White Paper on the English regions a couple of weeks ago. I think that paragraph 5.2 says that the document recognises that in England, devolution will be a process not an event. Will he use his considerable influence in such matters to ensure that whatever happens in England in terms of regional devolution, Wales, as a nation that is part of the United Kingdom, will stay one step ahead in the process of devolution?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I think that we have made the position absolutely clear. The people of Wales settled for their Welsh Assembly and the people of Scotland settled for their Scottish Parliament. We now intend to give the English regions the opportunity to decide about English regional government. It will be their choice—and properly so—and the people will soon have that opportunity to speak.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Does the Minister not think it somewhat ironic that certain people are pushing for more powers for the Welsh Assembly, when it refuses to use the powers that it already has, such as those relating

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to quangos? Is it not also ironic that those people have the cheek to ask for more powers for the Assembly when virtually no one in Wales is at all sympathetic to the idea?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: My hon. Friend makes a good point; there is certainly an awful lot of irony in this debate—in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Civil Defence and Emergency Planning

5. Colin Burgon (Elmet): What plans he has to improve the co-ordination of civil defence and emergency planning. [55932]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The civil contingencies secretariat at the Cabinet Office was established last June. It provides the central focus for the Government's commitment to deal effectively with disruptive challenges, crises and emergencies. Effective multi- agency arrangements for dealing with emergencies, whatever their cause, are in place. We need to update the statutory framework and we are preparing the ground for that.

Colin Burgon: I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he confident that local authorities in areas of high population density such as Leeds can cope with the various emergency scenarios that they may face?

Mr. Leslie: One thing that I have learned in the course of my work on emergency planning is that the preparedness and work of local authority emergency planning officers are excellent. I should like to pay tribute to them. There is excellent co-ordination between the health services, the police and the fire authorities. I am confident that in major centres of population such as Leeds, the emergency services stand ready to cope with whatever challenges they may have to face.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): The Minister will recall from our extensive debates on the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill that many local authorities throughout the land remain deeply disappointed at the level of support and guidance from central Government following the events of 11 September. Will he clarify whether the Cabinet Office has now issued definitive guidance to all local authorities about what they should do to prepare for any repetition of 11 September or anything like it? Do the Government endorse the conclusions announced in the past few days by senior members of the US Administration that further terrorist attacks may indeed be very likely? If so, will he review any guidance that he has already issued?

Mr. Leslie: In respect of any terrorist threat, we remain on the alert and the situation is as it was after 11 September. As for discussion with local authorities, a ream of advice is available for emergency planning offices. The website at www.ukresilience.info should be sufficient to provide up-to-date information from the central news co-ordination centre about a number of different matters. I assure the hon. Gentleman that advice to postal services and a series of other agencies, including health and fire authorities, is available in the public

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domain, as well as on the basis of the emergency planning college and the training that is done through the civil contingencies secretariat.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): What powers would a directly elected assembly have in relation to emergency planning and civil defence?

Mr. Leslie: The Deputy Prime Minister recently published the White Paper on regional governance, which included information on how we intend to give responsibilities to regional authorities in respect of civil contingency matters—and to strengthen the regions that do not opt for regional elected assemblies—in terms of the capacity to co-ordinate on a regional basis any mutual aid arrangements between local authorities, and other more strategic issues. I am certainly working hard to ensure that we have a strong regional dimension in emergency planning.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Does the Minister agree that the system of making security status known in Government buildings is obscure and not widely publicised? The term "Black Bikini", for example, does not mean much to people in security terms. Has he observed that in the United States, the Department with responsibility for homeland defence has recently produced and widely publicised a new system using five different statuses ranging from red to green? Does he think that we have something to learn from that?

Mr. Leslie: The British are always very good at such things, and I am confident that the advice given to all public officials and civil servants in Government buildings about the level of security that applies is widely understood and readily available. I am not aware of the hon. Gentleman's "Black Bikini" example, but, having discussed with American homeland security officials some of the wider experiences in the United States, I shall certainly look much more closely at the matter.

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