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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1075—continued

Dr. Julian Lewis: I am listening with great interest to what my hon. Friend is saying about the serious situation that he is describing. In his discussions with people in local authorities with responsibility for emergency planning, did he find out whether they had been supplied with equipment to enable them to discover when a biological attack was under way? It is not easy to know initially whether such an outbreak is the result of an aggressive action. Although NATO is taking steps to ensure that our armed forces are prepared, I have not heard anything with regard to the civil powers in that respect.

Mr. Francois: My hon. Friend makes an important point. My understanding is that some local authorities—I emphasise the word Xsome"—have limited stocks and protection equipment, much of which is effectively outmoded, and that others have virtually no equipment whatever. Therefore, they would be extremely hard-pressed, if casualties were beginning to appear, to ascertain quickly exactly which agent was at work, which would be vital in co-ordinating a response. Much more needs to be done to get that equipment into the field, as it were, where it could be of material use were it ever needed.

That brings me to a key issue. As the excellent report by the Defence Committee pointed out, there is a crying need for new legislation. The statutory framework which governs emergency planning is now very outdated. There have been three paradigms of emergency planning in the UK since the second world war. The first might be defined as the cold war paradigm in which our emergency planning was configured largely to responding to a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the Berlin wall, we moved into the second paradigm, the post-cold war paradigm of the 1990s, when Governments of both political colours stood down much of the infrastructure that had been put in place. The 10-year rule started to creep in and we believed that perhaps there was no direct and immediate threat to the security of the United Kingdom. After

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11 September we moved into a third and new paradigm—the real threat of asymmetric attack with the potential use of a variety of weapons of mass destruction. Our existing legislation relates to the first paradigm, but the world has moved on. We now require new framework legislation and the resources to make it effective to address the scenario that we face in the 21st century rather than the 20th.

I stress as strongly as I can that we need to act before it is too late. The threat is very real, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) pointed out with great clarity. It may seem curious to argue that one of the most important things that we need to shore up the defence of the United Kingdom is a wad of paper, but in this case I believe it to be true. We need an emergency planning Bill in the Queen's Speech to clarify exactly who is responsible for what and when, and to update statutory responsibilities so that those people who hold these important—indeed vital—responsibilities in local authorities will have some chance to obtain resources in the face of all the other pressures on their budgets.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. It is not that we do not know who is in charge at local level. The real problem relates to the co-ordination of different local agencies and how that fits in with what the military are doing. I do not think that there is any confusion as to who is in charge of what; we need to work out how to get them working together.

Mr. Francois: I can only say that, having talked to practitioners in the field, my impression is that there is definitely some confusion about how it all knits together, who is responsible for taking decisions and the timing of the process—whether it be in relation to the civil contingencies secretariat intervening at national level, or chief constables acting in the county, or emergency planning officers, or regional military commanders. Who will give orders to whom and who is in charge when they disagree? I do not think that the military have a problem; rather it is those around them. One of the maxims of successful military operations is to have a clear chain of command and control. We do not have that. I am stressing this issue because if there is a crisis we will have only hours to deal with it, and if we do not sort things out in advance, people will die.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: My hon. Friend is making some extremely good points. Having been a Territorial soldier he also knows that in the event of an emergency incident it is extremely important to set up a command centre. Does he agree that the command centre system needs to be re-established so that people can get to an incident and take command?

Mr. Francois: I agree entirely. That command centre needs to be chemically and biologically secure. I understand that during the cold war local authorities had a statutory responsibility to maintain such a command centre, at least in a state of readiness. I further understand that that responsibility no longer exists, but should be included in a new emergency planning Bill.

I shall conclude my remarks as others wish to speak.

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Hindsight makes geniuses of us all. Many of us are wearing poppies this evening in recognition of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, partly because of mistakes made by our predecessors in this place. Perhaps, for once, we could at least learn our lessons in advance, because history shows that if we learn them after the fact, the cost, in all senses, is infinitely higher.

5.20 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. There have been a number of high quality contributions. I listened to the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) with great interest, although I do not necessarily agree with all his points. Relatively recently, however, I visited Falkirk council's emergency planning services covering my area. Because my constituency is underlaid by pipes going to and from a refinery over the boundary, I have always thought that there must be at least an element of risk, as the pipes are only 3 or 4 m below the surface. I am pleased that the local emergency service officer has taken that into account.

The hon. Gentleman's points were well made. I am not sure about including proposals in the Queen's Speech, but this is a very important area. I was aware in a previous existence of the importance of emergency planning by local authorities under the old system. We may never get back to that, but it is an area that local authorities must consider.

I have a few comments about some of the other excellent speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) spoke about the UN and child soldiers, as she described them. Although I suspect that I share my hon. Friend's world view in some respects, I get a wee bit fed up—not with my hon. Friend—when UN reports directed at Britain refer to child soldiers, when clearly it is very peripheral. Since I have been in the House, I have been lucky enough to visit Africa a few times to see that very real phenomenon about which many international agencies write and talk. To see 13 and 14-year-olds taking part in combat—indeed, we saw a couple of 11 and 12-year-olds in Sierra Leone, who were quite infamous for a while—using weapons, killing and being killed, is not just slightly but enormously different from the situation in the UK.

As the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) said, there is an enormous difference between military training and education for 16-year-olds in this country and what is described as training in foreign armies. The UN is concerned about where training takes place and people being of a sufficient age to be involved in military operations because training in some African states takes place pretty much in theatre. There is no separation between training, having a weapon, being 15 and taking part in operations. I urge people who criticise our system, in particular the UN panel, to visit an Army apprentice college or training establishment to see the quality of the education, which is second to none and compares to that in any civilian college. No one takes unnecessary risks. Even when those still under 18 go into an operational theatre, commanders, by and large, take account of their age and they will often be given duties that are at the less risky end of the spectrum. I think that the UN should take account of that in its reports.

My hon. Friend also mentioned diversification, and I intervened on her at that point. Diversification is a perfectly sound concept; indeed, the Government have

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a diversification programme, although a fairly modest one. However, people, perhaps understandably, sometimes miss the fact that the Ministry of Defence is the single largest customer for British industry, and its impact on the economy is enormous. I would not want procurement used simply as an economic device—the aim is clearly to procure the best equipment for the armed forces—but it is nevertheless significant for a number of constituencies. Retraining does not exactly deal with the issue, which is about movement—the jobs tend to move to the south-east. Studies have shown that jobs tend to move to areas that are better off and away from those that are worse off.

Although job mobility is very important, the fact is that movement created by excessive diversification adversely affects areas, such as Scotland, which is experiencing a net loss of people We would like to keep them there if we possibly can. I suspect that that possibly also affects the north-east, although I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon that there is also a translation from the lower skilled end of the spectrum to the higher skilled, new economy jobs in those areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) alluded to industrial procurement issues, but it is worth flagging up—this has not been discussed today—the extent to which expenditure on military equipment in Europe is enormously inefficient compared with the United States because we have different interests in various countries and there is enormous duplication. The Government have to consider this country's interests, but in due course there will have to be far greater co-operation between companies and countries, so that we can get a far greater bang for the buck—or euro, or whatever currency we are spending—in comparison to the Americans. At the moment, we in Europe punch far below our weight in procurement and capability terms.

I want primarily to talk about something that was raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen): international law, which we hear quite a lot about in the Chamber. I have great respect for international law and the UN—we all do—but people sometimes miss the point about the nature of international law when they refer to it as being written in stone and considered very objectively by judges.

I am not a lawyer. Some might say that I have not been blessed or cursed with a legal training depending on their perspective, but I understand that international law is, by and large, made up of a number of different instruments: the UN charter, resolutions passed by the General Assembly, by the Security Council and in a number of other places. That is very different from domestic law. If any lawyer wants to intervene, I shall happily take the intervention.

We have a set of laws. We have judges and juries and, by and large, our legal system's interpretation of the law is pretty objective, but that does not exist in international law. We can all refer to international law and aspire to its ideals, but ultimately, most of the time, international law will be interpreted very subjectively and in a way that reflects the interests of states that are members of the UN, which tends to be the arbiter of such things. More than just being subjective, the interpretation will be a matter of politics.

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I am as much a fan of the UN as any other hon. Member. I really do believe in its ideals, but the UN is made up of a very large number of nations, half of which, or more, do not have democratic systems such as ours. We say that the UN should be the arbiter of all things good, but we have to qualify that in some way. I will not suggest today how to do so in all senses, but we must qualify what we mean when we refer to international law, on one hand, and the UN being the supreme moral arbiter on the other.

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