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Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): Nobody would resist the duties that the Minister properly sets out, but they come at a price. The notes to the Bill suggest that the Government's current spend provides £19 million to local government. Can the Minister tell us whether the new duties that the Bill imposes on local authorities will be fully funded; and, if not, how much they will be expected to raise to fulfil them?
Mr. Alexander: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the explanatory notes state, if I recollect clearly, that the figure of £19 million relates to planning for emergencies at local authority level. There is a key distinction to be drawn between planning work that currently takes place across local government and the very wide range of support that has been provided to local emergency servicesand, indeed, to local governmentthrough other initiatives that I will cover in the course of my remarks.
The Bill defines category 1 responders as the "core" organisations that are more likely to be closely involved in preparing for most incidents. They include the emergency services; local NHS bodies and the Health Protection Agency; local authorities; the Maritime and Coastguard Agency; and the Environment Agency. They can be characterised by their central role in co-ordinating response and delivering its main elements. Category 1 is subject to more significant duties than is category 2. They include: a duty to assess the risk of emergencies occurring and to use that to inform emergency planning; a duty to put in place planning arrangements; and a duty to put in place arrangements for business continuity management. Category 1 responders are also subject to a duty to put in place arrangements for warning and informing the public in the event of an emergency, in so far as that helps to prevent, reduce, control or mitigate its effects. They will also be obliged to co-operate with each other through local resilience forums. That will place the existing network of multi-agency groups on a sounder footing, delivering improved co-ordination and communication.
Category 2 responders are "co-operating bodies" that are less likely to be involved in the heart of planning work, but will be heavily involved in incidents that affect their sector. They have direct responsibility to the public, either for their safety or for the provision of certain essential services; and, in most cases, they are already subject to a range of specific civil protection duties by virtue of their licensing or regulatory regimes. They include: utilities such as water, gas, electricity and telecommunications; transport companies and infrastructure providers; and the Health and Safety Executive. Category 2 responders will take on two activities that mirror the final obligations on category 1 bodies. First, they too will be obliged to share information, which will allow them to support the development of effective multi-agency plans through their knowledge of risks and essential services. Secondly, category 2 bodies, like those in category 1, will be obliged to co-operate with each other through local resilience forums. While most category 1 bodies already
One dutythe promotion of business continuity management in the communityfalls on local authorities alone. In the event of a serious disruptive challenge, local responders will offer assistance, but there are many advantages if businesses are also able to help themselves: the economic impact of emergencies is reduced, and local responders can target resources at the most vulnerable. Many local authorities already take on something akin to that role, particularly in urban areas. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the IRA bomb that devastated Manchester in 1996, the city council worked tirelessly with local businesses to mitigate the effects of disruption and keep affected businesses going. That was very successful, and Manchester has built on that approach, fostering links with the business community to share awareness of business continuity issues through briefings, written materials and advice. Should the city face similar challenges in future, businesses in the Manchester area will be better prepared to face them.
Mr. Heald: On that point, has the Minister seen details of Project Unicorn from Scotland Yard? It identified five significant themes: a lack of co-ordinated and structured Government counter-terrorist communications policy; the absence of an identifiable and publicised centre for counter-terrorism in London; the non-use of the potential of the private security industry as part of a wider police family; a need for better understanding of the chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear threat; and the application of corporate governance to counter-terrorism. Why are the Government not doing anything about all that?
Mr. Alexander: A range of work is being done across Government to address exactly those issues. I got up feeling some scepticism yesterday morning when I read newspaper observations about a 60-page report, which, I must point out, was a report to the police, not by them. In that sense, I would be cautious about interpreting the lessons of the report at this stage. Work is being taken forward by the Home Secretary on exactly the issues identified.
The Bill does not itself place a heavy burden. Rather, it is an overarching framework for local response. It places an emphasis on regulations and guidance that will accompany it. The Government have published the regulations in draft for part 1, and their development will be informed by the Bill's passage through Parliament. Before the Government seek to finalise the regulations and guidance, we will again consult publicly,
The final piece of the new local response framework will be effective performance management to ensure that we deliver and maintain effective civil protection. The consultation contained a specific element on how best to achieve that. Over three quarters of responses to the consultation supported the suggestion that the most effective route would be to use existing audit mechanisms. For example, the Audit Commission would add civil protection to the list of factors that it reviews when it audits the performance of local authorities.
Proposals from the Joint Committee that a new inspectorate body should be considered have also been examined, but the Government concluded that we should press forward with our original proposal. For a dedicated inspectorate to be effective, the costs of setting it up and maintaining it would be likely to be disproportionate to the benefits. That view has been formed in discussion with organisations such as the Audit Commission, and they share it.
In part 1 as a whole, the Bill sets out a new framework for local civil protection that builds on many years of good practice and experience. It contains duties that reflect the wishes of practitioners, and it sets in place structures to ensure that standards of performance are maintained. Those features in part explain why the proposals command widespread support among civil protection professionals.
Simon Hughes: Now that the Minister has finished his description of part 1, what does he expect to be the total cost of the part 1 measures to be implemented across local government, and how much of it will Government fund?
Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. I intended to deal with some of the specific anxieties that hon. Members raised. I appreciate that there is concern about funding and, with permission, I shall address that point later.
Part 2 essentially updates the Emergency Powers Act 1920. It retains as its foundation the ability to make rapid temporary legislation to deal with the most serious emergencies. The 1920 Act was last used more than a quarter of a century ago. In subsequent years, considerable sector-specific emergency legislation has been introduced and reduced the need to resort to emergency powers, partly through a recognition of the weakness of existing emergency powers legislation. For example, the Energy Act 1976, the Electricity Act 1989, the Water Industry Act 1991, the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 and the Environment Act 1995 contain provisions that relate specifically to powers that are available in emergencies.
The Bill repeals the Emergency Powers Act 1920 and the Emergency Powers Act (Northern Ireland) 1926 and will apply to the United Kingdom. It sets out a new definition of what constitutes an emergency, appropriate to the times in which we live, and incorporates new risks and threats, which were not anticipated in the 1920s. They include contamination after a biological or chemical terrorist act and loss of electronic or other communications systems on which we now depend.
As in the 1920 Act, the Bill places the Head of State at the centre of the process for making temporary special legislation. The Government have been in discussions with the palace about the existing procedure and how best to update the approach. Following discussions, we have agreed that the current process of royal proclamation might lead to unacceptable delay. The Government and the palace have also considered and agreed that, should emergency powers be needed and the Queen be, for whatever reason, unable to act without serious delay, the Bill should allow for a senior Minister or the Prime Minister to make the regulations. Such a power would be used rarely, if ever. The Queen, as Head of State, will in almost every case formally indicate that emergency powers are necessary. However, she will do that as part of the Order in Council that makes the regulations. That improved process was determined in discussion with the palace and reflects the centrality of the Queen's role and the need for practical arrangements in such circumstances.
In discharging that responsibility, the Queen would act on the advice of her Ministersprincipally the Home Secretary as the Cabinet member with responsibility for domestic security and resilience. That reflects long-standing practice in the current emergency powers framework. Should the Home Secretary be unable to take on the role, or if the emergency is focused on a specific sector that is outwith his responsibilitiesfor example, an emergency that relates solely to animal healthit may be appropriate for the lead responsibility to pass to another Cabinet Minister.