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Mr. Hogg: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you remind me of the rule? When specific reference is made to a documentin this case, the advice of parliamentary counselshould it not be laid in the Library of the House of Commons?
Mr. Alexander: There are, of course, guidelines in terms of advice within the Government. I can assure the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that, in relation to the specific intervention that I received, I was happy to confirm that I had raised this matter with parliamentary counsel. That remains the case. What documentation on the Bill
Mr. Hogg: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It appears that the Minister has received written advice from the parliamentary counsel. If that is correctI think it is, from what he has saidthat document should be placed in the Library of the House of Commons, should it not?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: It is certainly usual, and helpful to hon. Members, for documents on which a Minister relies, or on which any other Member relies, to be more widely available. However, I do not know whether there may be an overarching reason of confidentiality for an exception to be made in this case.
Mr. Alexander: The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham seems to be suggesting that there is a specific opinion from counsel on a specific matter in my files at the moment. In fact, I sought the advice of parliamentary counsel through the normal channels within Government, and have received responses in discussion with officials. If there is a specific opinion on the specific question that it would be consistent with normal precedent to place before the House by putting it in the Library, I shall of course endeavour to do so. It is important to recognise, however, that the advice I sought was on the general points that we have raised with parliamentary counsel and that I have sought the advice of counsel on the specific point in relation to the Human Rights Act.
I shall address myself to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on funding. The Government believe that the responsibilities of local government should be properly funded. However, the Bill deals with frameworks rather than funding so the Government's focus is to ensure that we get the structures right.
Funding arrangements in respect of civil protection are kept under constant review. We have substantially increased the level of funding available for local civil protection over the last few years, including £330 million in the April 2003 budget to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office, as well as the Home Office, for counter-terrorism work.
There must be a clear and robust case for any additional funding. Resources must be carefully targeted where need is greatest. Any pressure for additional resources will thus be considered in the normal way in the course of the spending round.
The Bill is necessary, and I believe that both sides of the House realise that a legislative framework to deal with emergencies is a vital component of the statute book; recent events have brought that home to all of us.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): There is much to welcome in the Bill, but there is also much to probe, challenge and improve. I am pleased that the Government have at last presented the measure to Parliament. We live in troubled times and legislation to deal with our response to civil contingencies, locally and nationally, is necessary and overdue.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office highlighted the deficiencies and weaknesses of the current system, but they were already clear in 2000 during the flooding and fuel crises of that year, and during the foot and mouth debacle in 2001. Those events provided definite contemporary precedents and demonstrated that the existing procedures and protocols were not sufficient and needed to be re-examined. The Bill needs discussion and improvement, but we believe that with proper scrutiny it can become an important addition to the statute book.
I realise that there are other views about parts of the Bill and we take those points very seriouslyas we shall in Committee. For example, the Joint Committee made it clear that there should be specific protection for the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998a point made by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and others, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). It is not good enough for the Minister to say that he has had a telephone chat with parliamentary counsel[Interruption.] I am told that he did not even go that far.
When one examines the wording of the Bill, it is clear that there are specific points at which disallowances are made for particular human rights; for example, subsection (3)(a) of clause 22 disapplies the emergency regulations from a requirement for military service. Given the Joint Committee's recommendations and the fact that other Bills have included such protection, it is hard to understand why there is no specific protection for the provisions of the Human Rights Act, especially as the Act states that article 15 of the European convention on human rights can be disapplied for legitimate emergency powers.
Mr. Hogg: Let us assume that the Bill, as enacted, contravenes the European convention as incorporated into domestic law. The aggrieved citizen goes to court, the court makes a declaration of incompatibility, but the law remains in place.
Mr. Heald: That would certainly be the case with emergency regulations that have been introduced in this way. Of course we rely on the Minister's assurance that the Bill as a whole complies with the convention.
Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for that intervention. Of course I have relied on my ownmodest, in comparisonlegal experience, and I have had the opportunity of discussions with learned colleagues on the Opposition Benches. I have not been to other counsel, and I do not have a written opinion to put in the Library, but I share much of the hon. and learned Gentleman's concern.
I wish to say a word about delay, because it will be the third anniversary of the events of 11 September before the Bill receives Royal Assent. That is a long delay, given the obvious risks to our country, about which the Prime Minister and others have been vocal. There has been plenty of time to introduce legislation, but the Government have been sluggish on this issue. I consider the protection of the British to be the paramount concern of any Government. Surely Ministers have taken risks in not acting sooner. At a time when terrorism and international conflict have been so prevalent in the public consciousness and we have also seen new incidents of other kinds of emergency, such as flooding and drought, surely a Civil Contingencies Bill should have been higher legislative priority than measures on banning hunting and trimming back leylandii hedges.
Apart from the legal issues on which we must properly probe the Government, my main concern about the present state of the Bill is simply that its practical aspectshow it will work and how it will be enforceddo not seem to hold together. A Bill dealing with emergency powers is a rare and unusual event. It is the sort of law that we want on the statute book but never want to usebut that must not make us shy away from producing a Bill that will work in reality.
Yes, we shall probe in Committee to ensure that the legal definition of an emergency, which is much improved, adequately protects individual liberty. We will scrutinise the Bill, but it is vital not to ignore the practicalities. That is a problem. The Bill will place duties on councils and other responders, but no obvious resources will be allocated with those dutiesa point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). If and when the emergency situation arises, particularly the more serious type of terrorist event, it is hard to see where the work force is to put the plans into effect for a sustained period. Where is the muscle that will turn the new Act into action?
Just to give an example, it has been assessed that if there were a civil catastrophe, the emergency services in a city such as Liverpoolone of the United Kingdom's largest and most vital population centrescould manage 36 hours of continuous emergency cover, but that when those 36 hours were up, the emergency services would be spent and unable to continue. That would clearly not be enough if a dirty bomb were detonated in the centre of such a city.