|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Heald: All this is well and good, and the Minister is setting out high principles, but when it comes to action on the ground, bodies will need to know what to do. Who will provide, for example, hazardous material support? Is there not a case for a national emergency volunteer reserve that brings together people with particular skills who can support the forces in emergencies?
Mr. Alexander: I always find it revealing when Opposition spokesmen suggest that principles should not underpin legislation. That tells us something about the legislation that they introduced. On the substantive point that the hon. Gentleman sought to make, there would be questions as to whether volunteers would be best equipped to cope with a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incident, as he described.
We recognise the valuable contribution made by voluntary organisations to the resilience capability of the United Kingdom. That is why we have been in discussion with a range of those organisations. However, we need to be clear-headed and keep a clear eye on the challenges that we face as a country. Our country is used to dealing with the threat of terrorist challenge over a number of years. We have lived with the heightened threat from Irish republican terrorism for more than 30 years. More recently, the threat from international terrorism has increased, noticeably since the events of 11 September.
In the new environment we must remain vigilant to new types of threat, including that from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, and also from attacks on IT and computer systems. Events in Bali in October, in Mombassa in November, and in Riyadh and Casablanca in May show that terrorists are often prepared to attack the least well-protected targets. The threat now comes not only from established groups with clearly defined targets, but from unaffiliated loose-knit networks of individuals with a much broader agenda.
David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that what he is now saying is the real justification, unfortunately, for the measure to be part of our law? If it were not for the ongoing terrorist threat, I would not see any reason to support the Bill.
Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend raises an important point in recognising that we face two challenges. One is to strengthen our capacity for national security after the events of 11 September, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already legislated on that matter and brought forward a range of work across government to ensure that our national security is strengthened. But we also need to bear in mind the need for national resilience, and it is to that that this legislation directs itself.
The threat, as I have already described, comes from a range of different organisations. We must, therefore, remain ever vigilant to ensure that both preparation and powers at our disposal are equal to the full range of possible eventualities, whether they are the result of terrorist action, an accident or a non-terrorist emergency. We keep all such matters under continuous reviewin particular, the arrangements for dealing with CBRN terrorism and other hazards. We will take all appropriate steps that we judge necessary to respond to these potential threats.
The Home Secretary will of course continue to keep under close review any threats to our national security wherever they come from, and will take whatever action is necessary to protect the British public. This is best achieved by a range of measures that accurately targets those individuals and groups that pose such a threat.
I do not offer these risks as the sole justification for the Bill; circumstances change and the unpredictability of emergencies is often their defining characteristic. It is, however, necessary to remain vigilant in the face of risk, and what we need are proper frameworks for preparing for and dealing with disruptive challenges.
The common thread that runs through the Bill is a clear definition of emergency. The message that we took from our discussions with practitioners was the need to define what we were legislating to deal with, and achieve a common understanding of that right across the board.
We considered that question carefully. We looked at the definitions of emergency in the legislation that we are now seeking to replace, but ruled them out as unsuitable. The Civil Defence Act 1948 refers to
We looked at the international examples, many of which were too imprecise or reflected the unique demography or geography of the nation in question. For example, the definition in the South African emergency powers legislation focuses on threats of war and disorder, and the French equivalent centres on the functioning of the institutions of government.
We also took the views of practitioners on the appropriate definition of emergency to capture in the Bill before the House today. The emergency planning review provided the Government with a wide range of opinion from civil protection professionals on how a definition of emergency should be framed. The result of that consultation and discussion was the definition of emergency in the draft Bill that was published last summer. The definition was based on threats to four elementshuman welfare, the environment, political, administrative and economic stability and national security.
The definition attracted considerable comment throughout the process of public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. In many respects, it was welcomed. The Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association described it as "comprehensive and clear". The Ambulance Service Association noted that it provided
But the Government also received powerful representations arguing against elements of the definition. The Joint Committee had
That is why the definition included in the Bill has been revised and reviewed. On the Joint Committee's advice, we removed
We have met the concerns of local responders, many of whom asked for a caveat to be issued in relation to the definition in part 1 by making reference to the definition of an emergency in the Government's publication, "Dealing with Disaster"namely, that it is a situation that requires special procedures or arrangements to be put in place. Clause 2(2) provides for that. The definition before the House has been weighed carefully and its scope narrowed as far as is prudent, and we now have a definition that we believe to be right. The Bill defines an emergency as an event or situation that threatens serious damage to human welfare, the environment or national security. That definition applies to both substantive parts of the Bill, to which I now turn.
Part 1 establishes clear roles and responsibilities at the local level. The local response capability is the foundation of our response to all emergencies, and the Bill reflects that. It will ensure that local responders are prepared to deal effectively with the full range of emergencies, from localised major incidents to catastrophic emergencies. We start from a strong base. The United Kingdom has substantial experience of major emergencies occurring within the bounds of relatively small areas, and we have highly professional and dedicated emergency services. However, just as our dependence on the various response organisations, the emergency services and local and central Government is understood, we also acknowledgenow, more than everthe importance of coherent strategies and systems for the harmonisation of contingency plans and procedure.
The Bill identifies the range of bodies at the local level that have an interest in local civil protection, which it describes as local responders. Irrespective of the particular responsibilities of organisations and agencies that may be involved with the emergency response, they will all work to the following common objectives at the local level: saving and protecting life; relieving suffering; protecting property; providing the public with information; containing the emergency by limiting its escalation or spread; maintaining critical services; maintaining normal services at an appropriate level; protecting the health and safety of personnel; safeguarding the environment; facilitating investigations