|Civil Defence (Grant) Bill
Mr. Leslie: As a prerequisite to the hon. Gentleman's request, we need to enact the Bill. If we do not have the power to institute a formula, it will be difficult to discuss how much will be paid and how that will be done, especially if we stay with a demand-led system in which, under a distorted and haphazard arrangement, authorities are able to bid individually. The comprehensive spending review process aims to give greater surety about sums over three years. As I mentioned on Second Reading, we have already pencilled in sums for the next financial year, although we need to renegotiate those sums in the light of recent events. The formula powers are necessary in order to move on to discussions about how we would institute a national strategic budget available to all civil defence authorities.
Mr. Oaten: Will the Minister clarify a question on timing? Proposed new section 3B of the Civil Defence Act 1948 states that
What does that mean? Is it possible that some local authorities would receive no money in some financial years for civil defence?
Mr. Leslie: My understanding is that the wording is standard practice in statutory drafting on payments for cash-limited grants to local authorities. We are again touching on the flexibility issue raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who talked about why the Bill had clawback provisions. Governments can occasionally make mistakes.
Mr. Collins: Not since 1997.
Mr. Leslie: No, certainly not since 1997 to my knowledge. In the rare event that errors take place, a statutory power is required to correct them. That is normal drafting procedure.
I also want to refer to what the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire said about responsible use of powers, a point that leaps out of the statute on a raw reading. For example, it is true that a judicial review would apply to Ministers' decisions, which need to be reasonable. A responsible use of powers is needed, and we have been examining the fact that decision makers have to act in accordance with the law fairly and reasonably. It would be unlawful to exercise a discretion for improper purpose or without taking into account all relevant considerations.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked about the designated Minister. The Home Secretary is currently the designated Minister, but in the process of the transfer of function order, my understanding is that it will shortly become the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Mr. Luff: The Minister has assured us in general terms and said that his understanding is that there are precedents in the formulae for other local services. He gave a specific example of one police formula. Will he undertake to write to Committee members before Third Reading to list other precedents that exist elsewhere in local government funding arrangements?
Mr. Leslie: I shall endeavour to do that. I shall be interested to ascertain whether we can trawl through the statutory provisions of previous Local Government Acts, although we would not want to spend an inordinate amount of time digging through the annals of history.
Mr. Luff: I do not seek a comprehensive response, just a few further examples.
Mr. Leslie: I shall do my best.
Mr. Oaten: I am more reassured, but how many different formulae will there be? Are we talking about two or three? I would be concerned if there were many more than three or four, and it is important to get an idea of the number. If there are three or four, we will be able to understand that there different ones for counties or local authorities. If there are any more, the system will become confusing.
Mr. Leslie: I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is a discrete and limited grant operation. My understanding is that there are only a limited number of different types of local authorities—counties, unitaries, metropolitans, and fire and civil defence authorities, for example. We will need different formulae to reflect their different characteristics. It is not an endless and complex labyrinth of formulae, but if I can provide the hon. Gentleman with a more detailed answer at a later date, I will do so.
In summary, the Government need to have the flexibility to have a strategic grant-giving powers approach, and I urge the Committee to reject the amendments.
Mr. Oaten: We have had a useful exchange, and I am reassured. I still do not understand why much of the flexibility, which the Minister wants in order to make the special additional payments, cannot be found within the existing system. There must be a way for the Government to respond to and the system to cope with a bid that comes in with odd circumstances. We have been reassured also that the system is not completely unusual and that the practices take place elsewhere. I am almost convinced that the proposal to make granting payments in instalments and to make a consideration that a grant payment may not be made in a financial year is a technical provision and not about trying to withdraw grants.
Mr. Leslie indicated assent.
Mr. Oaten: The final point on which I wanted reassurance was that we would not establish six or seven different systems. Again, the Minister has reassured me that we are probably talking about only three or four formulae, depending on different authorities. Having had those reassurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Leslie: I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 17, at end insert—
This is a short technical and consequential drafting amendment to ensure that the references in the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986 are consistent with the Bill. The amendment will remove references in the 1986 Act to grant-making regulations—currently the Civil Defence (Grant) Regulations 1953—and replace them with reference to sections (3) and (3A) of the Civil Defence Act 1948 as amended by the Bill. The amendment will allow local authorities to continue to use civil defence grant for emergency funding and not simply for responding to hostile attack from a foreign power, which was the original intention of the 1948 Act.
I apologise to the Committee for the oversight in the drafting of the Bill and the need for the amendment. Without the amendment, we would risk returning to the old system that could prevent us planning for non-hostile attacks, such as adverse weather conditions, foot and mouth and chemical hazards.
Mr. Collins: I have no reason to doubt the Minister's explanation for what is largely a technical amendment. It is unlikely that we will oppose it after further clarification from the Minister.
The Minister may have an encyclopaedic memory of all the provisions of the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986, but I do not. Why do the words that the amendment would delete start with
The words that will be inserted instead begin with
The word ''regulations'' will disappear. Will the Minister or his colleagues assure me that if the amendment is made, the 1986 Act will still make sense?
My second point flows from what the Minister said about the importance of stressing that since the 1948 Act the scope for civil defence and the civil defence grant has broadened. I am sure that there is a wish that we should not be restricted to defending the civil population from purely armed attack. However, given present circumstances in which the risk of such armed attack is greater than it has been over the past decade, will the Minister assure us that the provisions that the amendment will change will not result in a reduction of the activity that is directly related to protection against an armed attack? He will understand that there is appropriate public concern about this matter, and that assurance would be helpful.
Mr. Leslie: The 1986 Act was the result of a private Member's Bill—I was not in Parliament in 1986; I am not sure where I was, I was 14 years old—that broadened the limited powers specified in the 1948 Act. I understand that the provisions in the Bill and the amendment would not reverse the situation.
The 1986 Act broadened the range and remit of the powers under which local authority emergency planning units were able to spend the grant. That applies to planning for peace-time activities and, if the need arises, to planning for potential hostile attack. I have seen some local authorities' detailed emergency plans, and they cover an enormous range of eventualities. Therefore, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the wide-ranging scope will continue.
The hon. Gentleman asked a technical question about why the amendment would substitute the existing phrase that contains the word ''regulations'' for a phrase that does not include that word. I am assured that there are no regulations under the new system. We will have a published formula and criteria. I have asked about the provisions of the amendment and I was reassured on several points. Asking questions of a parliamentary counsel was an enlightening experience. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it seems to us that the Government have been entirely in order.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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