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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the Minister replies, may I say that we have had two fairly long interventions at the start of the debate? I hope that a pattern has not been set, as we have quite a long list of hon. Members who will seek to catch my eye during the debate.
Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about ensuring appropriate consultation with local authorities. That is why we are introducing this framework legislation, along with a number of other policy objectives that we have set for ourselves. I will be happy to address specific points about local authorities in the course of my remarks.
Over the past few years, we have witnessed a range of disruptive challenges to our country. As long ago as the Fennell inquiry into the King's Cross fire of 1987 there has been demand for improved co-ordination and liaison between organisations that prepare for and respond to emergencies. These concerns were still evident in the inquiries into the Southall and Ladbroke Grove rail crashes, the fuel crisis and foot and mouth, which have also shown where frameworks for handling challenges could be improved. Too much has had to be improvised when it could have been better planned for in a co-ordinated fashion. This has been a matter of growing concern for civil protection practitioners for well over a decade.
That is why it would be wrong to characterise the Bill as a single response to 11 September, important though those tragic events have proved in informing our work. In fact, the start of this process was a commitment to a review of emergency planning that was made by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in November 2000 following the serious flooding of that year. The Government carried out the promised emergency planning review in the second half of 2001, which initiated the work stream that has culminated in the Bill. There was wide consultation with practitioners
Since that point we have been working hard with the fullest range of organisations to construct the right legislation. My Department, as well as working closely with many Whitehall Departments, Government agencies and the devolved Administrations, has built up close working relationships with key practitioners.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is doing splendidly in spite of the dreadful point of order that was made earlier. He mentioned the devolved Administrations. When I was Minister of State at the Scotland Office, I was a wee bit worried that there might be some problems because of a lack of clarity between devolved and reserved responsibilities, and also because of some rivalries. Will he address these matters as part of his considerations?
Mr. Alexander: I will be happy to address that specific point in the course of my remarks. I would merely make an observation as a Scottish Member to a fellow Scottish Member that the Deputy Justice Minister, who was responsible for overseeing this work on behalf of the Scottish Executive, happens to share a constituency with me. I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that many conversations took place both with the Deputy Justice Minister and the First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales, who gave evidence before the Joint Committee of this place. We have been working hard to ensure that we had a dialogue with a range of organisations.
Frequent meetings have taken place to discuss the Bill's development with organisations such as the Emergency Planning Society, the Local Government Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, the Ambulance Service Association, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Association of London Government. We have also maintained regular dialogue with civil liberties organisations, including Liberty and Justice.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Minister will know that he has moved a long way on the definition of emergency and that there are still some concerns. Would he be prepared in Committee to look again at some of the issues such as whether disruption of an electronic system should amount to an emergency? Some of these detailed points are still troubling Justice, Liberty and many other organisations.
The Government have also been active in discussions with a range of organisations, as I have set out to the House, in talking directly to civil protection practitioners as we developed the policy underpinning the Bill. We have carried out two national seminar programmes attended by more than 2,000 local civil protection professionals and members of my Department have spoken at national conferences and local events. They kept practitioners updated both by website and by correspondence. We also took the unusual step of seconding an emergency planning professional from local government directly to the Bill team.
That open and consultative approach has been a consistent theme. When the Government's proposals were ready, we published them in a draft Bill last June and set two important processes in train, the first of which was public consultation. Notwithstanding our almost continuous contact with practitioners and their representatives, we wanted to maintain a high level of dialogue. The 12-week public consultation exercise included seminars in all the English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to explain the content of the draft Bill and the policy behind it. The consultation elicited a wide range of responses from local authorities, the emergency services, the private and voluntary sectors and national lobby groups. We received about 400 responses.
Derek Conway : The Bill deals with human welfare, which is rightly the priority for the Government and the House. However, did the consultation involve animal welfare organisations, as many people are close to their pets, especially family pets? There could therefore be a practical difficulty, and the Minister will have to spend time on such difficulties in Committee[Interruption.]
Mr. Alexander: One of my colleagues observes from a sedentary position that no animals wrote to us during the consultation, and I certainly believe that that is the case. We must look at the definition of emergency in the Bill to understand what we were consulting on. Human welfare was uppermost in our minds throughout the 12-week consultation that concluded on 11 September last year.
We received about 400 responses, with about half of all local authorities and fire services commenting, along with a quarter of police and ambulance services. The message was clearthere was wide support for the overhaul and modernisation of the existing framework, but there was still work to be done on the detail of the proposals. Following the conclusion of the 12-week public consultation, we submitted the draft Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government invited a Joint Committee of both Houses to look at the draft Bill and work with us to refine its content. The Committee took evidence in six sittings in September and October, and heard from more than 30 witnesses, including local government emergency planning professionals, the
As hon. Members on both sides of the House will be aware, pre-legislative scrutiny is a relatively new process. The Government and Parliament are committed to making it work, but we are still all finding our way. Nevertheless, in this instance, the process worked well and dialogue was constructive. I am grateful for the time and considerable effort contributed by the members of the Joint Committee to that process. Together, the public consultation and the pre-legislative scrutiny have made a genuine difference to the Bill, which is now stronger in a number of important ways than the draft Bill that was presented last summer. It has benefited significantly from further consultation and discussion, and the response of key individuals and organisations to the publication of the measure before us today is testament to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), who chaired the Joint Committee, said:
The legislative framework for civil contingencies that we are debating today sits within a wider effort to protect the United Kingdom from a series of potential disruptions, ranging from flooding to large-scale accidents, from e-viruses to epidemic disease. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has overall responsibility for the safety and security of the citizens of the United Kingdom. The Cabinet Office, for which I am responsible, co-ordinates activity across government and works with the Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator, Sir David Omand. Ministers or particular Departments have the lead on subjects that fall within their responsibilities. For example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs leads on flooding and the Department of Health leads on epidemics in humans. The Home Secretary chairs the Cabinet committee that oversees both planning and response, bringing together key Government Departments along with external stakeholders, such as the emergency services, as necessary.
The Bill will support the main mechanisms for planning and response through which work is co-ordinated across government. Turning to planning, the Home Secretary's statement to the House on 3 March 2003 set out the background to the Government's capabilities programme. We are building 17 cross-governmental capabilities, including the supply of essential services such as food and fuel, and practical response capabilities for dealing with mass evacuation.
Hon. Members will be aware that it is inevitable that the Bill will be considered in the light of current circumstances. We face new threats and risks and it is important that we respond to them. The Bill is not, however, driven by short-term concerns. It is designed to be a long-standing framework, but it is right that we reflect on the current context as a useful illustration of why civil contingencies legislation should be kept up to date.
Many hon. Members have experience of the effects of flooding in their own constituencies over recent years. The water shortages over recent years and last summer's heat wave demonstrate some of the risks of being unprepared. Perhaps the best example is flooding. Environment Agency research indicates that the risk of flooding is increasing and we are seeing more frequent instances of severe weather that could cause serious flooding. The response to flooding is often regarded as the benchmark for effective planning and multi-agency co-operation at the local levelthe activities that the Bill will strengthen.
Just as the climate may be changing, so are the economy and society. We have to cope with the demands of modern networked societies, in which disruption can grow quickly and in unpredictable directions. The definition of "emergency" in the current Emergency Powers Act does not include IT networks or telecommunications, yet from local to global networks boundaries have become far more permeable. The modern reliance on new technology and interconnectedness brings with it vulnerabilities, as the millennium bug problems, for example, demonstrated.