Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

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Mr. Luff: On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. Will the Minister clarify the implications of the Committee's choosing to insert new clause 1 into the Bill? What would be the consequences for clause 2(2)? We need to know when it is likely that the proposed derogation would cease to have effect. If it ceased after 31 March 2003, clause 2(2)(a) would be nonsense, and probably so would clause 2(2)(b). Should the Minister explain when the derogation would cease to have effect, or is that not a point of order?

The Chairman: I can confidently say that that is a matter for the Minister. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman put the point in that way.

Mr. Luff: That helps me enormously because it reinforces the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale: we need to know when the derogation will cease. The Minister must address that.

I welcome the amendment and new clause 1. We do need to pause and take stock for the reasons cited by the hon. Member for Winchester and my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. All hon. Members accept that civil defence is good, and as a Conservative, I also believe that cash limits are. We accept the principles that underpin the Bill. The application of those principles in the current circumstances causes me concern. I emphasise the point already made—not at length because that would be repetitive and tedious—that a fundamental review is under way. The Government will undoubtedly draft a Bill during the next parliamentary Session addressing current matters, including financial arrangements. That will be the right time to make a change. The official Opposition oppose the Bill, because this is not the right time for it. Changing the time would make the Bill much more acceptable.

The absolute percentage increase from £14 million to £19.5 million mentioned in the explanatory notes is clearly large and means quite a significant change in the amount of money available to county councils for this function. In the context of the great global expense of the Government, however, the sums are really quite modest. I doubt that £5.5 million would meet the Deputy Prime Minister's travel bill in this financial year. We are talking about very small sums in the great scheme of things, although the Minister says that the Bill is urgently needed to bring them under control. [Interruption.] I did not catch that.

The Chairman: Order. Please continue, Mr. Luff.

Mr. Luff: I am not sure whose make-up bill was mentioned, but the phrase ''pot and kettle'' comes to mind.

Counties are on a tight budget. My local county council's settlement is very tight. I am sorry to bring Worcestershire into this, but it is a useful practical example to illustrate concerns about the Bill. It does not have money splashing around to fund additional requirements for civil defence and emergency planning. This is a strange time to be introducing the Bill in a great hurry. I am sure that the Minister could quite easily find another £5 million for these purposes in the current year, when there is a more acute need for emergency planning than there has probably been in any of our lifetimes and certainly since the war.

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend is on to a vital point about the pressures on local authorities. Is he aware of what the Government say in their submission to the emergency planning review? It states:

    ''The Government anticipates that local conditions will encourage some authorities to provide more than the SSA allocation''.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government believe that local authorities need to provide more at a time when they say that they are very short of cash, this is the worst possible sector and the worst possible time for local authorities, which may feel that they have no choice, to make reductions?

Mr. Luff: That is a fundamental point about the timing and construction of the Bill, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight the financial pressures on county councils.

Let us consider a service that is related to emergency planning. The Home Office—the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions now has the responsibility—traditionally demanded a high level of service from the fire service in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, but did not provide adequate funding for the standard spending assessment formula. My county has had to spend above SSA on its fire service for all of living memory. That is not a party political point; it was true under the Conservative Administration, too.

For what it is worth, this year's settlement has been marginally better for our fire service than usual. [Hon. Members: ''Hear, hear.''] I am a fair-minded man and am always happy to pay tribute where that is due. Our education settlement was a disgrace, but that is not relevant to the Bill so I will not pursue it.

We have been spending above SSA on the fire service for a long time and continue to have to do so to provide the level of service cover that the Government demand. In the current financial year, we have an opportunity to loosen the reins just a little on civil defence instead of tightening them up.

The Minister says that the Bill is not about money, but I submit that it is. That is why the delay proposed by the two amendments is so important. If the measure is not about money, why do the explanatory notes deal with money so specifically? They say:

    ''For example, in the current financial year expenditure is expected to rise from approximately £14 million to £19.5 million.''

It is not worthy of the Minister to make a tight, semantic and legalistic point by saying that the Bill is not about money. In a tight, legal and parliamentary sense, that is correct, but to people who live in the real world, the Bill is all about money—it has the word ''grant'' in its title.

In the next financial year, of all years, these functions should not be subject to a reduction in funding—not now. The Great British general public will find it incomprehensible if a local authority experiences a terrorist outrage, but says, ''Sorry. We're not prepared for this, because the Government cut our grant for civil defence planning this year.'' The Minister faces that danger. I urge him to reconsider the possibility of accepting either or both amendments, which would make the Bill much more palatable. That would reflect a great deal more common sense about the dangers that our country faces at present.

Mr. Leslie: I understand many, if not all, the detailed points made by Opposition Members on amendment No. 2 and new clause 1, to which I shall reply. Broadly, the proposals would delay the Bill's implementation, so it is worth reiterating why we have introduced it now. We believe that a national strategic formula system rather than a local, haphazard demand-led system is a better approach to supplying resources for local authority emergency planning units. We are discussing not spending on responses to emergency situations but the planning capacities of local authorities. The sums for staff salaries, stationery costs and so on are relatively limited.

Mr. Miller: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the argument made by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire is incorrect? If there was a fire or any other civil emergency, we would expect all public authorities to do their utmost, irrespective of budgetary constraints, to sort out the problem.

Mr. Leslie: That is absolutely correct. The budget that we are discussing is only for the planning abilities of local authorities, not the actual responses. Vast sums are budgeted for police, fire, ambulance and other emergency service provisions. It is not appropriate to discuss the Bill outside that context.

Mr. Collins: The Minister is right to say that the front-line provision of services is not dealt with in the Bill. However, does he not agree that planning is at the heart of effective delivery and speedy response? One cannot easily distinguish planning from delivery. I am sure that in his constituency, as in mine, ambulance, fire and other services say that much depends on the amount and quality of advance planning and whether emergency planning facilities are manned at all times. As was mentioned on Second Reading, some local authorities will no longer be able to provide 24-hour cover for some of the vital back-up functions that are necessary for the other roles if the Bill is passed.

Mr. Leslie: Again, it is important to point out that we are not discussing planning facilities for police, fire or ambulance services. Their planning budgets are separate from budgets for local authority emergency planning units. If there is an incident, in the normal course of events, the police respond initially and set up a base station to co-ordinate activities. Local authorities become involved subsequently.

I entirely accept that it is important to maintain and update local authority emergency planning, but we must consider that piece of the jigsaw in the broader context of emergency planning funding. As has been mentioned, circumstances now are such that we need a national strategic approach to planning and preparing the resilience of the national infrastructure. We must look at the whole of the country so that we do not have distortions because certain authorities are keener than others. That must be the basis for determining resources for local authority emergency planning.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I entirely accept that that is an aspect of the review. However, my local authority, King's Lynn and West Norfolk borough council, is particularly concerned about low flying aircraft. Much of the low flying takes place over Scotland, Wales and Yorkshire, but we have Royal Air Force and United States air force bases in Norfolk and Suffolk, and there is a lot of low flying over built-up areas; a Harrier crashed in my constituency a few years ago, mercifully missing buildings. That issue concerns me a great deal. Will authorities in that bracket get extra funding?

11.45 am

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