Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 644 - 659)



  (Mr Hoult) Chairman, would it be of benefit to the Committee if I were to introduce my colleagues and myself?


  644. Please.
  (Mr Hoult) On my left is Mr Mike Parker. Mike is Hon. Membership Secretary of the Emergency Planning Society and he is also the Emergency Planning Officer for Severn Trent Water. On my right is Mr Patrick Cunningham. Patrick is County Emergency Planning Officer for County Durham and Darlington and he is also Chair of the Society's Local Authorities' Issues Group. My name is Ian Hoult. I am the Hon. General Secretary of the Emergency Planning Society and the County Emergency Planning Officer for Hampshire.

  645. Thank you for coming. I am sorry that we kept you waiting. As I said, maybe before you came, you may find yourselves rather surprised to be questioned by the Defence Committee but in some ways our intervention I think is helpful because we do not have the same institutional prejudices to preserve because the MoD is not marginal to the process but is not central to the process that we are talking about and maybe coming from the outside is quite helpful. I would encourage you, like one of your colleagues a few moments ago, to be very forthright. We have enough diplomats coming in and avoiding answering questions, so I would totally encourage you to tell it as it is as opposed to how others would try to portray it to us.
  (Mr Hoult) We will try to do that without sounding too much like cynics-r-us.

  Chairman: There are not any television cameras and the radio is not operating and the one journalist from a national newspaper has gone so you can be freer.

Mr Crausby

  646. For starters, can you explain what you understand the role of emergency planning to be and what areas need further clarification?
  (Mr Cunningham) The Emergency Planning Society believes that it is the responsibility of all public agencies to have in place systems, training programmes, resources and plans so that whatever type of emergency should befall either themselves or the local communities they are able to quickly assist those local communities. We believe that is a responsibility on all public agencies and not just on local authorities. We think that there is a misconception in this country that because local authorities employ more emergency planning officers than anybody else that it is primarily a local authority responsibility. Local authorities cannot do it without their partner agencies and it is essential, in our view, that the roles of central government departments, the emergency services, the utilities, the health service, the army and all the rest are very clearly defined and at the moment they are not clearly defined. If I can use the example of an emergency occurring, say a localised flooding in an area, it is not entirely clear what is the responsibility of the local authority and what is the responsibility of the Environment Agency in helping the population to recover. That is something which we would like to see clarified both in legislation and support and guidance.

  647. In response to the consultation paper The Future of Emergency Planning in England and Wales, you offered a definition which talks of "any extraordinary incident which has a significant detrimental impact upon the population or the environment". That is a pretty wide definition. It occurred to me that you could almost apply that to the death of Lady Diana in the sense that it was an extraordinary incident and it had a detrimental impact upon the population. Should we take it from this that you believe that the same principles and responsibilities apply to managing the whole spectrum of possible emergencies from a small industrial chemical spill, for example, into a river to an incident like September 11?
  (Mr Hoult) The definition is on purpose that wide and that broad. As emergency planning officers, as practitioners, we get involved in all manner of extraordinary events. Indeed, you used the example of Princess Diana's death and whilst that did not cause any need for reaction by emergency planning officers, if that accident had happened in this country and people had gone to the site where it had happened and people had gathered in mass crowds then there would have been a need for emergency planning officers. Our remit is to be involved in anything that is beyond our normal day-to-day activity. I know full well that my chief executive will ring me and ask me to be personally involved in anything which is beyond the norm.

  648. What about the principles and responsibilities? Do they run right across? Do you think that you can apply the same system and rules to any of these incidents regardless?
  (Mr Hoult) No, probably not. There are different things for different circumstances, different needs for different circumstances. Each occurrence will have its own needs and necessary responses and the response to every occurrence varies and the response will fit the needs of that occurrence.

  649. You made the point that there was no need in an incident like the death of Lady Diana for an emergency planning officer to get involved—
  (Mr Hoult) There may have been.

  650. Where exactly would you draw the line? Could you define that?
  (Mr Cunningham) I think that our definition encapsulates what it is that professional emergency planners do on a day-to-day basis. I accept that it is a wide basis and people may have some concerns about that. To be honest with you, that is the reality of the situation. In the debate early this morning I believe the LGA were talking about unforeseeable occurrences, I think now we have had the September 11 disaster it is very difficult to think of anything that could be worse than that that could be unforeseeable. If I could perhaps break the definition down for you it may help a little bit. We talk about those activities, that includes the risk assessment, the research, the problem solving and the formulation of the planning process. It includes the consultation, the liaison process with a multitude of people in quite a lot of different types of organisations. It includes the training programmes that support the plans and whatever you have agreed in the consultation and it also includes the operational activities which all organisations get involved in once an emergency occurs. Extraordinary incidents, we felt that potential emergencies do include flooding, they do include transport accidents, incidents at chemical and nuclear sites, crowd related disasters, outbreaks of human and animal disease, shortages of food, water, fuel and other essential commodities, the influx of foreign evacuees, acts of terrorism. It is a very, very wide spectrum and I am sure I could add more to that list for you. The effects of those incidents are even more wide ranging. We believe they include death and injury, they include environmental pollution, sudden large scale homelessness, breakdown in communications, economic consequences for both government and the public, intense media scrutiny and also something which I think we should all be aware of, the potential loss of faith in both central and local government if we do not perform well. I think there have been instances in the last 12 months when we—as in the public services as a whole—could have performed much better.


  651. In addition to that formidable list my local emergency planner, excellent person, is also in charge of closed circuit television.
  (Mr Hoult) Yes.

  Chairman: A small number of officers, not only do they have to deal with seemingly everything but the council can impose extraneous tasks upon them. I can certainly see the problem you face.

Mr Hancock

  652. I noticed you were in the room during most of the last session so you heard the questions. I am interested in this point about quantifiable objectives and how you judge what is realistic and what is not and what you can deliver and what you cannot. What rights do the public have to know what is going on? One of your colleagues representing a London borough right at the end of the last evidence session said he did not want to be party to any secrets, he wanted to share as much information as possible. What are your views on that?
  (Mr Hoult) Yes. I would reiterate what David said, and that is right. Certainly we do not go out to hide things and we try where we can to flag issues up and shortcomings. The point was made to me post September 11, for example, that the burns unit capability of one hospital in New York, St Nicholas's, outstrips the entire UK's burns unit capability. We do not hide facts like that, we try and bring them into the open although there is little that we as emergency planning practitioners can do about those. We do flag these up where it is appropriate to do so and where we have an audience which will listen to us making those points.

  653. What about the plan itself? Do you think it should tie in targets and indications of what you can and what you cannot deliver?
  (Mr Cunningham) Could I add to that? I think the point you make is a very, very good one. Personally I think the plan should contain those types of targets. The Emergency Planning Society has met with the Home Office, as it then was, Emergency Planning Division to try to get them to agree to national performance indicators. Indeed, at one two day meeting that I attended, at which there were Local Government Association representatives as well, we did agree a list of some 13 targets similar to the ones that you are talking about. These targets were then taken away and they were going to be the discussion point of a further meeting which unfortunately never materialised. I think the point you are making is a good one. We have yet to see an emergency plan which could not be improved. We are always trying to improve them. A lot of the difficulty we have is that we have not got the resource capability, for example, to deal with extensive flooding incidents, we have not got enough boats, we have not got enough protective clothing for our staff, we have not got enough pumps and emergency planning officers throughout the country are trying, through different means, to try to bring that to the attention of the Government. It just seems to us that over the last 12 years or so, after Lockerbie, after Dunblane, after Hillsborough, local authority emergency planning budgets were actually cut by more than 50 per cent. Then after the fuel crisis and after the latest flooding our funding did go up from 14.1 million to 18.6 million but it seemed to us to be a begrudged increase brought about by a legal challenge which one local authority actually brought upon the Home Office. As you have already heard this morning whilst the level of funding for this year remains the same it is in fact a cut in real terms and some local authorities are very much going to face cuts of 10 per cent. That makes it all the more difficult for the local emergency planning officers to ensure that the things that they would like to see in the plans to protect the public are actually there.

  654. I would be interested to know, Ian, you are emergency planning officer for one of the biggest local authorities in the country, one of the biggest budgets, how did you get on with your budget this year?
  (Mr Hoult) My budget for 2001-02 was £285,000, my budget for 2002-03 will be £296,000 so I have seen an £13,000 rise.

Mr Roy

  655. Could I come back to you on that. You will have seen this report in Friday's Journal that you in particular are suffering a drop of 10 per cent, you are down. What does that mean to you?
  (Mr Cunningham) Effectively it means that we will not be able to provide the same level of training provision to our colleagues in other local government departments as we would like to do. There is just no way that we will have the materials. There is no way that the staff will have the time to deal with that. The priorities on our end at the moment are the aftermath of the foot and mouth crisis. I have to say that over the last 12 months, there are seven emergency planning officers in County Durham in Darlington, four of those officers were involved on a seven day week helping DEFRA with the foot and mouth crisis. Whilst they were doing that then other aspects of our work were not getting done. I am very fortunate in that I have got some very good emergency planning officers in County Durham, in Darlington. I am very fortunate in that the chief executives of the nine local authorities are very supportive of the function. Because it was such a late decision to cut our funding it will be very difficult for those nine local authorities to now give me some of that money back although I am optimistic as the months go on they may be able to do so.

Mr Hancock

  656. If I can go on from the publication of the emergency plan. Does your Society think the emergency plans for areas ought to contain the battle plan for how you are going to deal with various issues but also to flag up where there are significant crisis points like not enough hospital beds, not enough sheltered accommodation, not enough transport available, not a robust communications network? Do you think that should be part of the role of the emergency planning unit to flag those things up in a publicly available document?
  (Mr Cunningham) Whether or not the document should be publicly available I am not so sure but certainly the weaknesses in the systems and in the lack of resources will be flagged up privately between the public agencies involved. Whether or not it is a good idea to let the public know of those weaknesses I am not so sure because we would not want to alarm the public. Having said that, perhaps that is the only way forward to get people to take emergency planning seriously as a local government function, to flag up the fact that we are under-resourced and that we may not be able to help the local community as much as we would like to.

  657. During the time that I was Leader of Ian's local authority I was given a copy of the emergency plan for Hampshire. I had my car stolen and the plan was actually in my car. The embarrassing thing was at that stage there was only one copy of the plan and I had it in my car and my car was stolen. The emergency planning officer had dual responsibilities because he was the emergency planning officer and he was a former Lieutenant Colonel and he spent the majority of his working week as batman for the Chief Executive who had been a National Service NCO and spent a lot of his time looking after the Chief Executive rather than the emergency planning. The interesting thing was once it got about that I had lost this plan journalists started to ask questions about it and they were asking all of the sort of questions that I am sure the public would have wanted to know. I could not understand why that plan was not a public document. Why is it not?
  (Mr Hoult) The plan is a public document.

  658. Not for every local authority.
  (Mr Hoult) We lodge ours in all the libraries. Not every local authority. The principal reason is one of the major things within an emergency plan is a contact list of people you need to get hold of in an emergency with private telephone numbers and for that reason, if you are making the document public, you need to withdraw those pages or you do not make it a public document at all.

Syd Rapson

  659. Is there not a real danger, taking the other view, that publishing details could be used by an enemy, especially after 11 September, in a way that would be devastating? Not least the fuel protesters, if they knew how you could plan to offset what they are doing, they would change their tactics to try and outdo you. It is more serious with terrorists. Is there a limit as to what you say and do not say?
  (Mr Hoult) Some of our plans we do not publish. As you are aware, we have a statutory duty to prepare plans for pipelines carrying hazardous substances over certain pressures under the ground. We do not publish those plans because obviously we do not want terrorists to find out where these high pressure pipes carrying hazardous substances are.

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