Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580 - 599)



  580. The three of you who are officers in local government would say that there is a robust understanding of what emergency planning means and what it should cost to your local authorities. Are you happy that local authority members take seriously enough the financial implications of delivering an emergency plan which is actually deliverable? That is the truth of the matter, is it not?
  (Mr Griffin) Some do but I think a more important question is: Does central government take that seriously?
  (Councillor Phillips) Having just received cuts of 10 per cent, sir, in our budgets in my county, we are having to resource the same emergency plans we have always understood would be adequate in my particular case. (I cannot speak for other counties.) We have always had a pretty good system in our own county. The deficiencies could easily be recognised by me as an elected member by saying to you, sir, "Over the county boundary we have Hinkley Point Power Station. I cannot cater for the fact that the wind may come from the south west and there would be a leak at Hinkley Point, because how far does one authority or group of authorities go to provide for that sort of incident which we all pray will never happen. You know, could you say in my county's plan that my emergency planning officer says, "Our plan is inadequate because we are not catering for an incident that could happen outside our territorial boundaries." Ian made the point, I think quite rightly, that as far as a council is concerned it can cater with a plan for its own area but it is not able to resource that if it comes from somewhere else which is not at any stage out of the control. That is where central government come into the role, because they can look at the regional aspect and the national aspect which we are not empowered on our tax payers to be able to draw money from.


  581. My view of local authorities is jaundiced as I represent what is one of the worst local authorities, if not in the universe in England.
  (Councillor Phillips) I saw that on the minutes.

  582. They have been take over almost as completely as Germany and Japan after the Second World War. They are worst at almost everything. Yet I hope that emergency planning is not as bad as the rest of the services. I do not want to find out after a disaster whether it is true. I am reasonably hopeful that it is a cut above almost all the other departments, but it does seem to me—and I am not a local government specialist—that it does seem a little hit and miss. You know, you rely on councillors, you rely on professional staff, and you are left to your own devices and we do not know, no-one knows, how well you perform. The best value process—and I do not know who does it—is not going to be the definitive assessment as to whether local authorities meet any standards at all. I have seen the evaluation of the Cabinet Office's consultative document and the methodology has been criticised. The response appears to be patchy. What kind of confidence can an outsider have that the system is working well? It might work well on the day but in some areas it might work very badly on the day. The one ray of sunshine—and I never thought I would say this—was something that came out of Ken Livingstone's organisation. Mr Kerry must have had to fill in that—a very, very comprehensive document. Would you like to comment on that document? Of course yours was honestly filled in, but—
  (Mr Kerry) I filled it in, yes!

  583.—but local governments containing dubious characters, in filling in a form, you often say what you would like it to say as opposed to answering objectively. Has that provided a model, do you suspect? Has it put the heat on your local authority? Does it force them to realise how weak perhaps some areas are? And will this London model be of relevance to the rest of the country, forcing local authorities to honestly tick off the right boxes and answer in a way which might lead to a more effective system?
  (Mr Griffin) Perhaps, Chairman, you would just let me make a comment before David answers those specific questions, because you made some comment about Walsall and asked how could we be confident. I give three responses. The first is that many local authorities provide good services generally. The second is that there have been a number of emergency incidents up and down the country over the years and, generally, I think you will find that local authority responses have been good and, in some instances, brilliant. If you look at what happened in Lockerbie, which was a totally unpredictable, unforeseeable kind of event, the response of Dumfries and Galloway was extraordinary. Yes, the picture is likely to be patchy. That is the nature of life. The third point I would make is that one of the reasons why the Local Government Association has been pressing for fresh legislation, has been pressing for a duty of partnership is to make that picture less patchy. Perhaps, then, David could answer your specific points.
  (Mr Kerry) The questionnaire which came out from the London Resilience Team, which obviously came from the Minister Nick Raynsford's office rather than—

  584. I apologise for complementing Mr Livingstone.
  (Mr Kerry) Part of the Government Office for London and working with the Cabinet Civil Contingencies Secretariat. That questionnaire has been the most comprehensive benchmarking exercise in emergency planning for the 33 London local authorities and of course there have been other questionnaires that have gone to the transport undertakers and the utilities as well, as I understand. From speaking to colleagues, I believe local authorities have fairly and responsibly answered that questionnaire. Obviously it is very easy to tick boxes in a way that might get a "good report". I am quite confident to say there was a clear wanting to get a proper picture, to find out where we were strong, where we were weak, but, more importantly, so that, where there are flaws, those are well telegraphed to central government and then we can discuss the reasons why there are flaws and we can look at ways we can deal with that. The questionnaire was backed up with a very in depth visit to each of the local 33 authorities. I think our visit lasted about three and a half hours and they varied from between three hours through to six hours, depending on the nature of the authority and the questions being asked, and those were undertaken by civil servants and secondees to the Government Office for London, probing from the questionnaires that had been filled in to look for areas of best practice, to look at strengths, to look at those weaknesses, all so that could be reported to the Minister. That work was completed in December. The Minister has recently received the report from civil servants about the outcome of that. We are still waiting to hear ourselves what the exact results are. Some of that is beginning to filter through.

  585. We have asked as well.
  (Mr Kerry) Some of that is beginning to filter through. The difficulty we have, and I think as we have always had in local authority as far as emergency planning is concerned—and I am talking a little bit of a risk now—is we are very happy to provide information. In the current circumstances, we think it is not coming back to us terribly quickly. I have no doubt that a huge amount of work is being done in London through the Government Office for London, through the Minister and through the Mayor. There is an awful lot of work going on—we know that because we keep getting phone calls and being asked to provide information. We are waiting to see what results will come from that, but, in the absence of primary legislation that tells us, the local authorities across the UK, as a standard what we should be doing as a minimum, it is very difficult for local authorities to determine themselves what that national standard in default would be. We do have the situation then where local authorities will do their best to benchmark with their neighbours, find out what they are doing—you know, "How many rest centres have you got? How many people can you put up? How many beds have you got?" If nothing else, we need to know for mutual aid purposes, so that we can borrow from each other when we need to. I think you have probably inferred already that is not terribly satisfactory. Well, I would not disagree with you on that, which is why local authorities have been asking for some years for new primary legislation to provide that steer. We are very pleased that the emergency planning review of the recent months has also identified that as a target. We think that is going to be part of the mechanism, so that we can start looking at what minimum standards are, how they should be resourced, and then of course we can properly start saying, "Well, where are the flaws, where are the gaps, and who is not pulling their weight?"

Mr Cran

  586. Gentlemen, you submitted a memorandum to the Committee. In that memorandum you said that a ". . . simple duty to plan for `reasonably foreseeable' disasters should be sufficient". As you know, that is not quite what the Government are saying. The Government are saying that there should be a duty of hazard assessment. Could you tell me whether I have got that right and what the difference is in the two approaches.
  (Mr Kerry) What is hazard assessment is causing a little bit of confusion because on the one hand you could say that we already do hazard assessment and should, but on the other hand in a different interpretation we would say that we would not want to. Let me try and explain what the two definitions are as we see it. All local authorities and all emergency services and primary responders should of course be looking at what hazards may affect the authority in order to let us get a framework for an integrated emergency response. So if we have low flying aircraft, if there happens to be a major chemical plant nearby, a nuclear power station, major railways, roads and whatever else, we need to be aware of those and we need to look at those risks that may present themselves as major emergencies and ensure that we then have a framework that means in the planning process we are talking to the right partners and in the response we know who those partners are. We would certainly say that is something which local authorities should be doing, just as all the other agencies, and it is one of the national standards for civil protection that came out a couple of years ago. If, however, you were to say should that be a duty to undertake hazard assessments with the purpose of identifying what actual risks may happen and take measures to reduce those, we would say that is the responsibility for other government departments, the HSE and those who have the regulatory duties to enforce the statutory powers that exist. As local authorities I think we would want to avoid getting into huge new areas of responsibility which should be properly dealt with under existing legislation by the proper regulatory authorities. Yes, we need to know in outline what could happen, we need to use that to have the right frameworks to do the generic planning to talk to the right partners, we cannot get into the nitty gritty of getting the plant operators or whatever else to take steps to reduce that hazard happening, that is a job which exists and that is for other people.

  587. What you are really trying to do, I think, is to limit your liability, as it were. It is hardly surprising because, as we all realise, the job that you are in has no limits and that is what 11 September showed us, so what you are really trying to do is limit your particular liability and hand it on to somebody else, namely the Government. Would that be fair?
  (Mr Kerry) I think it is the liability going to the appropriate people for that and the appropriate people for some liabilities in the sense of assessment and enforcement would be the HSE, for example, or it could be the relevant ministry that enforces regulations in certain areas.

  588. So it is definitely not the responsibility of local government, that is what you are saying.
  (Mr Kerry) For what I am talking about, yes.

  589. Why? Surely the proposition could be put that this is your function, this is your role, this is the role that you have performed for donkey's ages, why should it not be?
  (Mr Kerry) If we are talking about a regulatory role then that would require the appropriate statutory powers, that would require the trained personnel, that would require the resources to go with it, it would be a new role. I think it is a role that is already covered elsewhere by more appropriate bodies.

  590. Are you confident that the other bodies are up to the job?
  (Mr Kerry) I have to be.

  Mr Cran: No, no, that is not the question.

  Chairman: You are paid to be.

Mr Cran

  591. That is not the question.
  (Mr Kerry) I shall seek help from colleagues along the panel on that one.
  (Mr Griffin) My experience is perhaps limited to one particular kind of body because we have got a couple of nuclear power stations in our area and my experience, therefore, essentially is limited to bodies such as the NII. Yes, I do.

  592. Yes, you do?
  (Mr Griffin) Have confidence in what they do.

  593. But your colleague evidenced a certain distinct lack of confidence.
  (Mr Griffin) I do not think so.

  594. This is clearly very important.
  (Mr Griffin) Yes, it is.

  595. Because what is going to happen is we are going to get a new regime for dealing with these disasters, we have got local government on the one side saying on the sort of analysis I was asking for, strategic analysis, "that is not my job, that is somebody else's job" and if that is going to work it has got to be based on the principle that we have confidence that whoever the bodies were that you were suggesting it was the responsibility of are up to the job. You must have a view about that. Have you a different view?
  (Mr Kerry) No, I take the view that you have heard from Mr Griffin. Sitting here today it is very difficult to think of actual examples but, for example, with the nuclear industry there are regulatory bodies and we have to have confidence that those regulatory bodies will take their roles. For the local authority to come in with a new role on hazard assessment on top of that would be divisive. Too many people arguing over the same thing is wrong. I think that we should support the existing regulatory authorities where those are and we should not be seeking to take on a new duty like that. Hazard assessments, yes, of understanding, as I have said, that what happens could affect any local area, those are partly the same across the UK but partly different depending on what is around, and it is quite proper for the local authority to have that role. It is quite proper for us to explore the partners, the framework, to make sure that everybody is talking. It does not matter then whether you have a power station or a COMAH plant or whatever else where you have got the regulatory bodies, the HSE or whomever, ensuring that the operators are following all the rules and are being safe because we are not in conflict because we are then talking to the regulatory authorities as we are with the emergency services and the site operators. That is appropriate hazard assessment and hazard analysis because we are then working to meet what may come out if something untoward were to happen.

  596. I have one question left, Chairman. Gentlemen, you had better be absolutely clear in your minds on the answer to the question I posed to you, do you have absolute confidence in these other bodies. You had better be clear in your minds that you gave a clear answer and that was "Yes, we do", so be clear about that. My last question is simply this: if the Government decides not to heed your advice at all but indeed to put a hazard assessment duty on you, what then happens?
  (Cllr Phillips) We would have to take it up, it is as simple as that. If it is legislation local authorities have the same responsibilities as other bodies to accept that ruling and to carry it out. I think that you would find that local authorities would attempt within all their possible means to undertake that, I do not think that there would be any shirking. As an elected member I would not suggest to you at any stage that because somebody introduced that we would turn around as local authorities and say "Get lost, nothing to do with us, mate". There is no question of that. We are there to carry out the legalisation that is passed and if in actual fact one passes legislation that gives us those responsibilities in local government we have to take it up, we do not have any option.

  597. In the light of what I have heard from particularly Mr Kerry, I am left with the very distinct view that you would be absolutely handed a pup, it is not a job you want, it is not a job I suspect, given what you have said, that you could do properly.
  (Cllr Phillips) As an elected member as opposed to an officer of a local authority, if we were handed the pup, as you might term it, it would be our responsibility as elected members to ensure that the work was carried out to the best of our ability. What you are saying to us is are we satisfied that the regulatory bodies carry out their functions. I think the answer to that one must be that we are assuming they do because it is not our position to be able to challenge the Health and Safety Executive or any of those other statutory bodies because they were deemed to be given powers by Parliament to carry out certain functions. I think the answer to that is if you have the feeling that they are not carrying out their duties and have good reason to challenge that then it should be challenged, but I do not think because we are not responsible for that function at the moment in local government that we have the expertise, for want of a better description, to be able to challenge a statutory obligation. I cannot see how we could as elected members.


  598. Does the Fire Service have access to these hazard assessments? I hope to God they do.
  (Cllr Phillips) Now they are separate authorities from local government it is more difficult to answer that question as to whether it has changed at all.
  (Mr Shuttleworth) Just to follow on, I think there needs to be a little bit of care if that duty is put on local authorities so there is no duplication of effort. I think that is what we are concerned about over here.

Mr Cran

  599. And duplication of effort means what?
  (Mr Shuttleworth) If we were given that duty, that hazard assessment, then the other agencies that have got that duty already and carry it out and have got the resources to carry it out, and in my experience of the Health and Safety Executive they do carry it out, we would want to do the same as the Health and Safety Executive or the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.
  (Mr Griffin) And ambiguity of accountability as well.

  Chairman: Thank you. Just to show we do have defence interests, Colonel Mercer will ask the next question.

  Patrick Mercer: Former Colonel.

  Chairman: Once a Colonel.

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