Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

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Mr. Oaten: The purpose of the amendment is to delay the implementation of the Bill until the financial year ending in 2004. There are a number of reasons why we feel that a delay is needed. The first is to allow more consultation with local government. We heard some of the concerns that local authorities may have in the debate on clause 1. What consultation has there been with the local authority associations to allow them to express their concerns?

A second compelling argument for delay is that many of those actively involved in civil defence are extraordinarily busy at the moment. Obviously the events of 11 September have taken up their time. If local authorities are to be consulted and if there is to be change, it would be wiser to introduce it when those individuals can focus on it and work with the Government on what would be a sensible change rather than now when, I would hope, most of their activities relate to the aftermath of 11 September.

The third argument for delay is that a number of lessons may have been learned from the past couple of months. The Government should study what has happened since 11 September and how local authorities implemented their civil defence programmes. That may throw up a number of interesting points, not least about the financial demands that are involved in trying to put in place a programme. It therefore seems strange to move towards the proposed change in the system when we have just gone through the biggest practical example of how such change might have to be implemented in future.

No time is allowed for a review of the lessons that can be learned from 11 September and an assessment of the financial consequences for individual local authorities. They will have a much greater idea now of the real costs involved in trying to implement some of these proposals than ever before.

Mr. Miller: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making but does he not agree that his proposed study could not, by its very nature, be in the public domain? We would otherwise be informing potential enemies of the weaknesses in our defence arrangements.

Mr. Oaten: I understand that point, but I would much rather we had a system that meant that we got things right for the future. Many of the figures will be audited—the Audit Commission and the district auditor will examine them. They will appear in local authorities' annual reports. They will have been debated in council chambers throughout the land. The Government should take account of the physical costs of what is involved in the process. By pushing ahead now, there will not be a chance to do that. My concern is that the level of funding set and the formulae that are put in place will not take account of the reality and the lessons that we have learned from 11 September.

There is a fourth area that concerns me. The Government have recently completed a consultation exercise, and I understand that they plan to examine how civil defence is operated. If there is a review of civil defence, why cannot the Bill be tagged on as part of that review? Surely that review will include consideration of the best way to allocate resources. It seems strange to prejudge a review's findings by setting in place a formula. There are strong arguments for a delay. It would not cause difficulties for the Government and it would be sensible. After all, it is important that we get this right for the future. There are so many things that have resulted from 11 September that we really should delay the Bill.

Mr. Collins: The two changes proposed to the Bill would, in effect, be identical: amendment No. 2 would postpone the introduction of the Bill for a year, and new clause 1 would delay its introduction until the Government felt able to remove their proposed derogation from article 5(1) of the European convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The proposed derogation would last for only a year, or even less.

11.15 am

The proposals seek clarification from the Government of their current assessment of the extent of the threat to the United Kingdom and of whether they continue to take the view that the Bill remains appropriate, given the changed circumstances since 11 September.

The purpose of new clause 1 is to establish whether the Minister believes that legislation that he has reconfirmed would have the effect of reducing the funding made available by the Government for local authority emergency planning. Does he, on further reflection, continue to hold his view expressed on Second Reading that the Bill remains appropriate, given the scale of the national emergency formally declared by the Home Secretary, who went on the radio again in the past few days to tell the nation about it?

It was put to the Secretary of State recently that the United Kingdom is the only European country that has exercised its right to derogate from article 5(1) of the European convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as new clause 1 acknowledges. He said that that was because he had access to intelligence not available to others, and he spoke of the possibility of a threat of further terrorist action in this country before Christmas. The Home Secretary said that he hoped that that would not happen, a view shared by Opposition Members. It is curious that a Minister—not just any old Minister but the most senior Minister in charge of domestic security plans, whom the Under-Secretary of State has confirmed is the Minister designated under the Bill to take a decision on the allocation of grants—is saying that we are facing a national emergency that under the terms of the European convention threatens the survival of the state, when at the same time we are considering a Bill which the Minister, under pressure on Second Reading, acknowledged was likely to mean less money being available in the coming financial year to support local authority emergency planning than was available in this financial year.

The Minister has had two or three weeks since Second Reading to reflect further on the matter and to seek the advice of his colleagues and officials. I want to press him, first, on whether he still believes that the measure remains appropriate, and, secondly, on whether he still believes, as he said on Second Reading, that it would be appropriate for the Government to ''pencil in'' an allocation of roughly £14 million, the same sum of money that has been available for the past few years for the support of local authority emergency planning. He has said, encouragingly, that although that sum was pencilled in, he would need to negotiate and look again at the sums. It would be helpful if he could amplify that statement because some of us are worried about the timing and the appropriateness of the measure.

Mr. Miller: The hon. Gentleman accepted, in the light of 11 September and the court case, that some tidying up is needed. His new clause would defer matters until the current emergency ends. His arguments are contradictory.

Mr. Collins: I aim to defer a cut in Government support for local authority emergency planning. The court case removed the previous understanding of the grant's distribution, and we currently have a demand-led system. Our contention is that demand will grow, which is a significant problem. We cannot return to the previous system of an allocation where everyone assumed—I do not claim that the Conservatives had greater prescience than the Government—prior to 11 September that funding was sufficient.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was his colleague, the then Home Office Minister, who said of this Bill:

    ''This short technical Bill would enable us to return to the previous funding levels for the Civil Defence Grant.''

The previous funding levels were £14 million a year, not the current £20 million a year. We are debating a substantial reduction, which we would defer. It is currently inappropriate for the Government to introduce legislation that would reduce funding.

Mr. Leslie: On the third repetition of his intentions for the new clause, I must defend the Government's position. The Bill does not set the level of funding for the next financial year. I have said it before, and I will say it again; it enables the Government to have a national and strategic formula rather than a demand-led system. The hon. Gentleman refers to deferring a cut, but the new clause could have the effect of deferring an increase, if a formula is not possible, and we do not have the power to budget on a national basis.

Mr. Collins: The Minister's last comment was extremely reassuring, although I do not know whether the Minister's colleagues in the Treasury will find it so. It is the first time that a Minister has said that the Government may increase provision. I remind him that his colleague—not someone outside the House, or a Member of another party—said that the Bill's purpose was

    ''to enable us to return to the previous funding levels for the Civil Defence Grant.''

The previous levels are lower than the present levels.

However, the Minister is right when he says that we have debated the matter on several occasions. He holds to the proposition that the Bill is a technical procedure to allow a formula. I hold that it is not, since he refers to pencilling in £14 million—a sharp reduction. I want the Minister to explain how long the state of emergency declared by the Home Secretary, requiring derogation from the European convention, is likely to last. Two changes to the Bill were grouped together, which seems to imply that it will take about a year, but the period may be longer. Before the Minister denies that it is a matter for him, if this country is formally declared to be in a state of emergency threatening its survival for more than a year, it would make sense to bring forward the Bill in the context of an overall review of the nature of emergency planning and the demands placed on local authorities and other bodies, rather than as a freestanding piece of legislation that causes many people concern.

In support of amendment No. 2, I refer the Minister to remarks of members of the Emergency Planning Society who are experts in these matters. They told journalists and others that the Bill is premature and that it pre-empts the results of the Government's emergency planning review, to which the Minister referred, which we hope will be concluded by 2002 or, at the latest, by 2003. If the Government accept the amendment, it would make sense for the Bill to be enacted after the review has been completed and we have had a chance to reflect on it.

The hon. Member for Winchester had an interesting exchange about whether we should give away information to a potential enemy when we talk about weaknesses in our emergency planning structures. He will recall a similar criticism of Mr. Winston Churchill before the second world war that he should not complain about the weaknesses of the RAF because it encouraged the Luftwaffe. Mr. Churchill is relevant to current events as someone who not only defected to the Liberal Democrat party, but defected back again. I can tell that Government Members hope that the second precedent will not be followed.

There is serious concern that the Government are trying to have it both ways. They are telling the nation that there is a serious problem, which requires rapid legislation on terrorism. That is true. However, they are also telling us that they should introduce the legislation without amendments, which concerns us. No change has been made to the Bill since 11 September. It is the same Bill with the same wording and purposes, which seems curious.

Will the Minister respond to concerns about funding? The Local Government Association stated in its representation to the emergency planning review that

    ''there needs to be a real and substantial increase in financial support for emergency planning work, including new money for non-metropolitan districts.''

If the Bill's introduction were delayed, the Government would be more likely to take into account the need for an increase in the financial year 2004 after listening to such representations and adjusting the financial formula accordingly. If they introduce the proposed legislation now, there is likely to be a reduction in the coming financial year.

It would be regrettable if the Bill's introduction in 2003 resulted in a reduction followed by an increase. It will probably be agreed that all public services experience problems when years of feast are followed by years of famine, or vice versa. I freely admit that that problem existed when the Conservative party were in Government. Stability is required, but it is unlikely that it will be achieved if the Bill is introduced prematurely. The Local Government Association also referred to its longer-term concerns and stated:

    ''Local authorities have, for the last ten years, complained about the under-funding of emergency planning, as Civil Defence Grant was progressively reduced. The recent emergencies have highlighted both the inadequate level and the inappropriate basis of government funding in this area''.

If the Bill were delayed, the Government would have a chance to think again. For at least a year, that would ensure that decisions on the grant would be—in the words of the Minister—''demand-led''. They would be dependent on what local authorities could prove they needed.

11.30 am

Local authorities cannot spend whatever they like, claiming that they are charging under the provisions of the legislation—[Interruption.]—I am grateful to the Government Whip for applauding my dexterity. I do not think that I shall field for England. Local authorities must obtain a Government agreement that they spend whatever they receive on particular projects. The Government must agree that the money has been appropriately spent. Finally, audited accounts must demonstrate that the money has been spent as set out in the agreement.

Although not as neat, tidy and simple as most Ministers would like, the demand-led system has the merit of ensuring that local authorities have what they need to spend on a vital public service during a national emergency.

Does the Minister intend that the moneys available should be reduced? Is the Bill right at this time of national emergency? How long will the emergency last? Will the planning review be completed in 2002, 2003 or 2004? The Minister should take the opportunity to think again. The Government and local authorities would benefit from extra time, whether that is 12 months or another period, to reflect carefully on whether the Bill is appropriate in the prevailing dramatic circumstances since 11 September.

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