Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 680 - 699)



  680. Would you accept that in the absence of the adequate finance that we were asked about and got answers about earlier on, the agency would probably have marginal effect? You need money to make all this work, do you not?
  (Mr Hoult) We do, absolutely, it is one of our major problems, the lack of funding. There is obviously money for this type of work available. The fire services have just been awarded £53 million brand new money for this year to buy equipment for CBRN, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear, and that is going to be followed up by £13 million afterwards. There is obviously new money available for this type of work.

  681. One last question, have you any indication that Government is taking you seriously? I know they asked the question or at least the CCS asked the question and you answered it but do you think they are taking it seriously? If you do not know say so.
  (Mr Hoult) We have concerns that they are not, it is fair to say that. We know there is an awful lot of work going on. One of the major problems we have is the lack of close working relationships between local government and central government. The Emergency Planning Society has tried very, very hard to foster and develop relationships. We sit with the Home Office Emergency Planning Division and now with the CCS. It is not always easy to promulgate those relationships and to move them forward.
  (Mr Cunningham) I have to say that I have concerns that the CCS are not taking the subject seriously enough. I think the biggest indication of that is the fact that some local authorities have had a cut in grant this year following the terrible events of foot and mouth and the fact that we have been asked to make sure that our plans are more robust following September 11. I think that if the CCS were taking that seriously they would have been able to make a much better case to the Treasury than they obviously have bidding for increased funding for local authority emergency planning particularly when the fire service have, quite rightly in my view, been given this figure of £53 million because that was deemed to be important by another Government department. I would have much more confidence in the CCS if they gave us a sign which actually meant something as opposed to what we are getting at the moment which is a lot of talk but nothing tangible. At the end of the day we are still having to do the job without the resources.

  Mr Cran: Chairman, just one more sharp question.

  Chairman: A sharp question, not one more.

Mr Cran

  682. Why do you think the CCS asked the question? What has changed between the time that they asked the question, got you to answer it and countless others and now they do not take it seriously in your view, what has changed?
  (Mr Cunningham) The question about the new national agency?

  683. The new agency, yes?
  (Mr Cunningham) I think that what has changed is that the CCS have had a golden opportunity in my view to raise the profile of the emergency planning following foot and mouth, following September 11 and yet we are still faced with a cut in funding. It does not seem to be serious to me that we are faced with a cut in funding after we are being asked to undertake a lot of extra work and after we have told them that we have not got the capacity to do it.


  684. As a Society do you meet senior civil servants? Do ministers speak at your conferences?
  (Mr Hoult) Yes.
  (Mr Cunningham) Yes, ministers have spoken at our last two annual conferences and certainly the Society is now invited to a quarterly meeting with the head of the CCS. We have met once, the second meeting is actually at the end of April. At that meeting SOLACE and the LGA are also represented.

Mr Roy

  685. Gentlemen, still on the role of central government. In response to the consultation document The Future of Emergency Planning in England and Wales, the Society of Emergency Planners state that the role of the Cabinet Office should be "providing drive and leadership". Are you concerned that particular form of leadership might become "direction" and that an increasingly prescriptive central government will limit the ability of local authorities to respond to local circumstances? Or should central government limit its involvement to planning against major incidents?
  (Mr Cunningham) I do not think it is a concern of ours that it will lead to direction from the centre. However, there is a need for the CCS to become more involved when there are wide area emergencies such as the fuel crisis or the foot and mouth crisis. I honestly do not think there is any danger that this will become direction, the danger is more that the CCS do not want to take the responsibility to drive, indeed they keep using this word sponsorship which quite frankly in our view does not mean anything except not providing the leadership that we want them to provide. In other words, providing the national standards, providing the national guidance and making sure that all the organisations which are involved in the process actually do what they should be doing. That is part of the problem now. Emergency planning in this country is very much a patchwork quilt. In some areas of the country it is very good, some organisations are very good and in other areas it is not very good at all. It tends to be personality driven, it is driven by whether a particular area of the country has actually had the unfortunate experience of a disaster to live with. It seems a great shame to us that people have to wait until they have had a disaster before they start to take this whole subject area seriously.


  686. A provocative question: are local authorities up to it? You are saying there should not be direction.
  (Mr Hoult) Absolutely.

  687. There should not be any hit teams coming in in a major crisis. Can you give us a degree of confidence?
  (Mr Hoult) I think you only have to look historically at the types of incident which have happened in this country in recent years and the way that local authorities have very ably responded in every instance to those to prove it works. We constantly get tremendous praise from our own political leaders within our own authorities and there have been a number of debates in this House about the marvellous work done by local authorities' emergency planning officers and the emergency planning officers in other regions of life. I would say absolutely categorically yes we are up to the job, yes.

Syd Rapson

  688. If we could look at major incidents such as a terrorist attack which hopefully will never happen. Clearly that is a major incident with mass casualties which will exhaust and stretch the resources of local authorities to cope. Should the central government play a more active role in providing capabilities such as mortuaries and personnel in these circumstances?
  (Mr Hoult) Absolutely, categorically yes.

  689. Where would you see them getting that from? Would they have an emergency organisation ready to be parachuted in at any time?
  (Mr Hoult) I have to be frank, speaking personally I do not have enough knowledge about what central government, what Cabinet Office, what CCS, what resources it has at its control, what it could get hold of, what it could offer, but I imagine if it looked around there are quite a wide variety and large number of things it could access and provide. Many of my colleagues were disappointed by the response of the CCS per September 11 at Heathrow Airport. There was contacts with one of my colleagues who said "can you provide facilities to put up a large number of people stuck here who cannot fly out" and the call was put into the CCS and the question asked "can you help with this" and there was a categoric flat "no, not our responsibility, nothing to do with us, governor".

  Syd Rapson: A very worrying aspect.

Patrick Mercer

  690. Last time one of Mr Parker's rivers got out of control in Newark the cry went up "where is the Army?" and they got there eventually. Foot and mouth was exactly the same, "where is the Army? Where are the forces?" We have heard evidence from the Ministry of Defence about the role of the armed forces in civil emergencies. Clearly it is not as simple as that, you do not just say and they come, and we covered that earlier on today. Do you believe that the role that the armed forces can play in emergency response is properly understood?
  (Mr Hoult) I could not answer that question with 100 per cent certainty. I guess the majority of my colleagues would say yes, they do understand the role, but whether that reflects the reality of what can be provided or not is a completely different matter. We do recognise the added value that bringing in the military can bring in response to an emergency. We saw the benefit that they brought into the Lockerbie disaster and the work that they did there in body recovery, trawling the hillside looking for wreckage and other things, and what they did in West Sussex when it suffered the flooding in 1993-94 when basically the city was cut off and they built bailey bridges and reopened the city to traffic and reopened it for business. We know that they are an effective force that can be brought in. What they perpetually tell us, of course, is we cannot rely upon them because they may be deployed elsewhere and not available to us. The other unfortunate thing with the military is the scale of charges. Whilst they are more than willing to come and help, if it is life saving then they will come free of charge but if it is anything other than that they come at a very exorbitant rate which most local authorities will not be able to afford.

  691. We were somewhat alarmed to see the pamphlet that the armed forces use, Military Aid to the Civil Community.
  (Mr Hoult) The 1989 document?

  692. Exactly that. You pre-empt my next question. We were delighted, having been alarmed, to see that it was being rewritten. Have you been consulted on the rewriting of that document?
  (Mr Hoult) I did not know it was being rewritten, if that answers your question.

  693. Moving on. We have had some fairly brief answers before on this particular question. The new chapter for the Strategic Defence Review, which you will appreciate has come out as part of a public discussion paper called Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter, the deadline for that was 15 March, have you contributed to that?
  (Mr Hoult) No.


  694. Have you heard of it?
  (Mr Hoult) No.

  Chairman: I am not casting any doubts on your competence but not many people have specifically outside the defence community.

Syd Rapson

  695. Moving on again to communications. We talked about sensitive areas in emergency planning, terrorism, etc, but do you believe that central government is prepared to share with you sensitive or classified information that you really need for your emergency plans? Do you think that they would?
  (Mr Hoult) Experience has taught us not. They tell us they have these plans but we have not seen them yet. The plan for London, we understand, is going to be shown to the London authorities later this month, we wait to see what is within that when that comes out. At this moment in time there is no sharing of its planning arrangements by central government with local government or with other partners as far as I am aware.

  696. Or even the sensitive information you require to plan ahead if something is going to happen?
  (Mr Hoult) No, we do not get that.

  697. I did not think so. There is an example here. What involvement have LGA officials had in the exercises run by central government and the blue light services since September 11? Has there been any involvement at all of the LGA officials in exercises run by central government?
  (Mr Hoult) LGA officials I would not know.

  Jim Knight: Do you mean LGA?

Syd Rapson

  698. You would not know? Not to your knowledge?
  (Mr Hoult) No.

  699. If there is sensitive information that needs to be transmitted to local authorities, are there people in place who would be security cleared to the level required?
  (Mr Hoult) I was thinking about this question when you asked it to the previous people giving evidence. Mr Clark, adviser to the Committee, and I, we sit on the same military liaison panel covering our area of the South of England. I am in this curious position that I go to the meetings and everybody around the table has the papers in front of them except me and I am not allowed to have them in front of me because I am not security cleared but everybody else has them and it is quite an extraordinary position. I asked back at county council would it be possible to get security clearance and was told "Well no, you cannot have security clearance" because of course the chief executive or the leader of the authority or any of the politicians could quite rightly ask for that information and I would have to show it to them.

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