Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1460 - 1479)



  1460. If there is any additional information that you would like to send us to convince us more that emergency planning procedures and staffing and premises and co-ordination are going to meet a whole range of contingences, please send it to us because we still need a little convincing.[4]
  (Mr Ingram) Can I respond as well? It seems to me in some of the preamble to the questions earlier you were indicating that we did not have a coherent structure, that there was no confidence in that structure, that it was not delivering on the ground, Mr Jones was intimating that. I think if this is an inquiry then it is not to come with that preconceived notion but to try and establish—

  Mr Jones: I am sorry, Chairman—

  Chairman: Let Adam finish, please.

  Mr Jones: It is important.


  1461. Excuse me, Mr Jones, let Adam finish and then you can come back with your question.
  (Mr Ingram) I think we should try to establish the ground truth in this inquiry if that is what you are seeking to do and specific areas will then develop. As we have tried to argue from here, everything we do is tested by exercises. There have been major exercises undertaken across the wide range of the services that need to be pulled into place. Lessons are always learned from that. The important aspect of this, I would argue, is that much of that is below the parapet because when we learn the lessons we do not tell everyone about those lessons because who is then going to have that type of attack upon us. We can try and seek headlines in this but this is about effective delivery of the emergency services and therefore it is not all just tested in exercise terms but also tested in reality. The MV Nisha was a classic example. That incident proved to be of no threat but the reality was that it was tackled very, very effectively. There is nothing to indicate that if a similar threat arose that the combined services across a range, whether it is police, whether it is military support, whether it is emergency services, whether it is linkages between local authorities and the health service in terms of consequence management, could not deliver on the ground. I think you are wrong to give some indication that Government is not delivering on these key areas. The reality is from my experience, both from my time in Northern Ireland and my time in the Ministry of Defence, we have a highly, highly efficient, highly co-ordinated and highly effective delivery of emergency response across the reach of the threats that are posed. Can we be better? Yes, of course we can be, that is what we are doing, your inquiry will help us in this and that is what we do those exercises for and why we are constantly looking at ways to refine that.

  1462. Thank you. We are coming back to the role of the Ministry of Defence and the military in this process. Certainly what Mr Jones said is not some kind of "emotional spasm", it is honestly based on a four or five month inquiry, which is not yet completed, and that is why we are seeking additional information. When we do produce our report it will be very, very fair.
  (Mr Denham) It would be enormously helpful to us as Ministers, Chairman, before you complete it, if there are specific areas of concern that we hear of them. I am not aware of criticism that the police are completely unprepared or do not know what their command structures are or that the view is the National Health Service does not have well developed emergency plans. Whether I pick up there is a specific issue about local authorities we need to address or whatever, I think we would like the opportunity to know exactly what it is that is being suggested is simply so fundamentally wrong in the capacity of the emergency services and the co-ordinating structure to deliver. It is important to distinguish between that and the impression an individual may have given on a bit of Government Secretariat and this Committee. We are talking here not just about what has been put in place since last June but the structures that have been built up, tested, tried in practice, tested and developed again over a long period of time.

  Chairman: I can assure you, gentlemen, we are very responsible and when our report is published it will be very fair based on a lot of things we have heard, and heard in confidence that will not be included in our report, and if there is any follow-up we would wish then certainly we will approach you.

Mr Jones

  1463. I want to come back to the Minister because I actually find his comments quite insulting frankly, it was not an emotional spasm at all.
  (Mr Ingram) I never used that phrase.

  1464. I found your comments quite insulting. There are serious concerns that have been raised with this Committee as part of this inquiry both from local authorities, the police, the Fire Service, the aviation sector, the private sector, Transec. Are we supposed to ignore them? Because if that is the case, Mr Ingram, and I know you would not want us to exist as a Committee, that is our role. These questions we are asking today are not things that we just think up as a Committee, they are things that have been put to us. There are some serious concerns out there and they will be part of the report. To come at this, as you three seem to be today, that everything in the garden is rosy is not the impression that we have been given.
  (Mr Denham) Chairman, clearly that is not what we have said.


  1465. No, that is not right.
  (Mr Denham) I do object to the implication that nothing has been done, that nothing is being put in place and nothing has changed, which is the implication of what Mr Jones has said.

Mr Cran

  1466. Chairman, I think we have to get a slight balance into this. I think the concerns we are talking about are not individual concerns about the performance of the police, the performance of the armed services, the performance of the Fire Service and so on, of course we are not saying that. It is a question of is the Civil Contingencies Secretariat doing this mammoth job of co-ordination properly? We have to be convinced that it is doing it properly.
  (Mr Denham) That is helpful.

  Mr Cran: Then the other question is once it takes a decision are the co-ordinated measures across the emergency services going to work or not? For instance, there is a question of radio compatibility as between the fire services and the armed forces and indeed we are told the two are not compatible, so if we had a situation where they needed to talk to one another somebody had better have a mobile phone or they probably could not. Those are the things that concern the Committee. I just thought that needed clarification.


  1467. I think Mr Mann would like to join in on this. Please, you are very welcome.
  (Mr Mann) If I may just respond on the point about communications. As I think I told the Committee, although it was in private session, we have decided that we will join the club on the secure communications network that is being put in place by the police and emergency services, so there will be that kind of compatibility.

  1468. It was not the MoD we were worried about, it was the Fire Service.
  (Mr Denham) Can I take that as an example of whether the structures are capable of moving or not. Decisions on a separate approach to procurement had been taken in different emergency services prior to 11 September on the basis of assumptions that were current at that time about the need or otherwise for interoperability. As a result of the work that we have been doing since those assumptions have been revisited and it has been decided that the police, who already have a system, the ambulance and fire brigade services will be procured with compatible and interoperable technology. I think it is reasonable to say that without the structures that we have here that bring together the emergency services, the civil contingency planners, that decision might not have been reopened. It was reopened, it was looked at again in the light of 11 September and a different approach is being pursued. I give that as one example out of a substantial number of issues which this structure has been able to say is a question which is either new or we need to revisit it again, are we going to review our decision? The decision is taken right up to ministerial level within departments and that is what is going to happen.
  (Mr Ingram) Can I just give another example because I have heard criticisms from local authorities that liaison with the Army is not as it should be. Whether that is right or wrong, whether that is an established fact, we will be putting two extra liaison officers into each of the regions to deal with that very specific issue. That is without having a debate about whether it is right or wrong, it is simply saying if there is a perceived weakness out there let us deal with the perceptions as well as trying to tackle some of the bigger elements.

  Chairman: I do not want people to get the impression that there is any animosity here.

  Mr Cran: Not at all. Absolutely.


  1469. Between the Committee members maybe, but not between the Committee and the witnesses!
  (Mr Denham) Mr Cran has been very helpful, I think, in illustrating the way things are.

  1470. Minister, when we had the Fire and Ambulance Services here, the system of Airwave that was coming in deliberately had not included a number of essential component parts. It did seem rather ridiculous to have a massively expensive programme where some of the component parts had decided that for one reason or another they were not going to participate. Now you say the Fire Service has joined?
  (Mr Denham) The Fire Service and Ambulance Service will procure radio systems that will be interoperable with the police and with each other.

Mr Cran

  1471. And the timescale?
  (Mr Denham) The timescale will be a procurement, as the previous one would have been, over a period of several years. It will take time to put into place. I will have to get back to you on that.

  Chairman: Please do, if you do not mind.

Jim Knight

  1472. Will the South West Fire Consortium be recompensed for having gone too early?
  (Mr Denham) Issues arising from the procurement decision will obviously have to be dealt with in due course, and I think that is the appropriate thing for me to say this afternoon. No doubt when you took evidence from witnesses—I do not know what the date was—they may well have been aware that the issue was under consideration but of course, quite properly, they did not raise it with the Committee. I do think it is a good example of revisiting a decision because circumstances have been changed, and having, I hope, the courage to take the right decision where lots of arguments could be deployed for not changing.


  1473. Thank you. We had a session on 24 April with the Fire Service, and it certainly had not been resolved then, so anything that you say will have happened subsequently. All I must say is if you can sort out communications, then give Lord Bach a little help to sort out Bowman. I am sorry, I am referring to Mr Ingram now.
  (Mr Ingram) I am not being drawn into that! I shall write you a letter about that.

Mr Howarth

  1474. Chairman, we cannot let Mr Denham get away with telling us that this key equipment is going to take years to procure. Seriously, can you give us some indication as to when commonality of emergency radio equipment between essential services is going to come into effect?
  (Mr Denham) As I have offered, Chairman, I will write to the Committee, because I do not want to give a date that is wrong. The procurement will take place over a period of years, and indeed the police system which is currently being rolled out will take a number of years to implement and to replace the previous systems.

  1475. Do you feel satisfied with that?
  (Mr Denham) I think that we are taking the necessary measures to make sure that as replacement takes place, as replacement must because of the existing systems, we are moving from a system which is less than ideal to a much better system. Clearly, there is no getting away from this, the question of resources that are available at a particular time, as well as the technical ability to implement, as well as the fact that we have to follow proper procurement policies—all of these things add to the timescale which is involved. Everybody would wish, say, to take a decision one day and it is in place the next, but actually contracts have to be tendered, let, programmes have to be put in place, and frankly, public sector experience of not managing to make these things work suggests that we had better get it right.

  Chairman: No one knows better than this Committee the time it takes from conception to delivery.

Jim Knight

  1476. I will exercise unusual self-discipline for this Committee in this session and ask if you could, Mr Leslie, give me a written response on the role of the proposed regional assemblies. I noted your response to Louise Ellman's question. I then dug out the Red Book of the White Paper and read the two sentences that referred to it, and I would be very interested in more reflections on the work of the Emergency Planning Review Implementation Unit in this area. One general impression I have had is that whilst we get a very strong presentation today about things working well in Whitehall, it has not trickled down very well to some people on the ground, and if regional government is going to play a possible role in achieving that, then I shall be very interested to hear how that will work.[5]
  (Mr Leslie) I can certainly supply that. I can certainly say that the Deputy Prime Minister is very much committed to making sure that we do have strong emergency planning capabilities at government office, devolved, as well as elected regional assembly level, and I will make sure that I will keep you up to date not just with more information, but we will feed you with information as policies develop.

  1477. Thank you. To move on to look at the Emergency Planning Review a little bit more, you mentioned earlier on in principle the need for emergency planning legislation. There is a long history of this being talked about. Certainly it was talked about in the context of the Civil Defence Grant Act debate, and that was the excuse for those like me who are concerned about supporting it, when I knew you would resolve it in that legislation. I am therefore concerned that we do not see any sign of that legislation coming forward. First of all, can you say that the events of September 11 have changed things and confirm the need for new emergency planning legislation? Secondly, have the events of September 11 changed your view of what should be in that legislation?
  (Mr Leslie) The Emergency Planning Review began, I think, at the beginning of August 2001, so obviously prior to September 11, but in fact I think the vast majority of the 260 responses that we have received from the local authorities did take into account their very immediate impressions of how they would be affected in the September 11 scenario. I think that I am coming to the conclusion that whilst the questions and the scope of the Emergency Planning Review were wide, looking at questions about duties on local authorities, how we could improve partnerships, the funding mechanisms and so on, there are some fairly fundamental, deep-seated questions about how we embed resilience concepts into all our government structures much more so that we have this routine level of operation I was talking about earlier. So I think our commitment, which is strong, to a Civil Contingencies Bill, will want to try to resolve most of these big policy questions as rapidly as possible. I cannot give any commitment about the timing of legislation.

  1478. You anticipate my next question.
  (Mr Leslie) Surprisingly, you will be shocked to hear that I cannot say it might be in the next Queen's Speech, but certainly my own personal commitment to making sure we resolve a lot of these issues is strong, and I know that is shared by all my government colleagues whom I have been discussing with on this issue.

  1479. You are making a strong pitch for it to be in the next Queen's Speech?
  (Mr Leslie) These are matters that will be announced in due course.

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