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Mr. Deputy Speaker: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I was just having an exchange with the Minister that I thought might be helpful.
Mr. Heald: I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I thought that I had lost the Minister for a moment; I had not realised that he was in discussion with you.
The sole current support for the emergency services[Interruption.] I welcome the Minister back to his place. The sole current support for the emergency services comes from the civil contingency reaction forces. In a recent ministerial statement, it was claimed that 14 of these forces had achieved full operational capability. The research undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who will wind up the debate for the Opposition, shows that the maximum theoretical strength of these forces is about 7,000 people, but the actual number available is nearer to 5,000. I certainly understand that at the moment they are being sent abroad to undertake duties in theatre elsewhere. Clearly those forces are less than is required, and a blind reliance on them as they stand would be a mistake. That demonstrates a lack of imagination on the part of the Government and a failure to take on board the full skills and competences that are available in our country.
I have mentioned Project Unicorn, the report by Scotland Yard that shows great gaps in what the Government should be doing. The shortfall forces organisations such as the Metropolitan police into making ad hoc gentleman's agreements with private bodies, such as Group 4, to ensure that they will arrive to bail out the under-equipped emergency services at the scene of a major incident. The Met has no choice but to make such arrangements, as the Government have not put in place any other back-up for those vital operations.
Mr. Alexander: I would not want the hon. Gentleman inadvertently to mislead the House. Does he accept that although the report was commissioned by the Metropolitan police, it does not bear the imprimatur that he suggeststhat of a Metropolitan police report? It was a report to the police rather than a report by the police.
Mr. Heald: I fully accept that, but I hope that the Minister is not challenging the abilities of the people who produced the report. They are some of the most senior figures in security in the country, including major-generals and people of great expertise. They certainly have far more expertise than either he or I would even attempt to suggest we had. Why have the Government not dealt with this problem in the Bill?
Some years ago in the 1980s, I was asked to be an emergency plans community adviser in Royston, the town where I live. A number of us drawn from the town were prepared to volunteer to give up a small amount of time to be trained in the emergency procedures that were then thought necessary in case there was a missile attack from the USSR. It was simply a question of informing
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Can my hon. Friend throw any light on why, when he intervened to ask about the potential role of volunteer reserve forces, the Minister was so dismissive? We have volunteer reserve forces for the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, and they do a very good job in the heat of battle. Why should we not have volunteer reserve forces for civil emergencies of the type that we are discussing?
Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend, as always, makes an extremely good point. The Bill makes provision for certain organisations to be enlisted for helpthe category 1 and the category 2 respondersand we will question the Minister further in Committee on why certain bodies are in certain categories.
Some key personnel, such as paramedics, doctors and environmentalists, will be required to offer their support, and that is a good thing. However, that does not reach down far enough into the pool of people who could usefully be employed in an emergency. Experts have suggested to us that there is a need for an emergency volunteer reserve. It would consist of willing individuals with important skills who would be asked to volunteer to spend a small amount of their time for the sake of the public good. The people who were asked to volunteer in the reserve would be specialists in their fields, so they would have a suitable and useful knowledge base. They would receive further training in what would be expected of them in the case of an emergency and the actions that they could usefully take. That ties in with the thinking of the Red Cross.
Let us consider an example. Specialist hazardous materialsHAZMATdrivers could be useful in several of the incidents about which the Minister has spoken. Such drivers have specialist training in the action to take when dealing with chemical spillages, so surely that could be used in an emergency situation. The Bill ignores a huge pool of skills among the general public. An emergency volunteer reserve would be practical, valuable, controllable and cheap, which is obviously what the Minister wants. It would also serve to make the public feel part of the solution, rather than always part of the problem. We ask the Government to explore the idea.
We renew our call for one senior Cabinet Minister to be placed in charge of, and made accountable for, civil contingencies and emergency planning. Surely the importance of getting the plans right dictates that they are sufficiently crucial to merit the attention of a senior Government Minister. The Government must recognise that we would not get a second chance in such a situation because if there were a dirty bombin London, for exampleextremely serious damage would be done. We need a Minister to take responsibility in such circumstances; the Government could call the post what they liked. We need to get the measures right first timeand quickly, because the consequences of not doing so are literally a matter of life and death.
It might be helpful if decisions on whether an emergency should be declared involved, when practical, consultation with senior Privy Councillor representatives of each of the other main political parties, who could be nominated in advance. That would provide some of the advantages of the wartime national Governments that existed in the past, by persuading the public of the seriousness of the situation and reassuring them about decisions taken. We shall certainly probe the Government on that suggestion in Committee.
I question the Bill's failure to refer in any way to a public education programme to supplement and support its other measures. It is all very well to introduce new emergency powers and measures, but what is the good of them if people do not know about or understand them? I am sure that the Minister will point out that he has established a website that contains useful information about various scenarios that could occurwww.ukresilience.infoand that he is also preparing a leaflet. Irrespective of how valuable that information is, it is not getting to the people who need it, because it is not being disseminated sufficiently vigorously or widely. How many people are likely to visit the website to check the information? If there were an incident, how many people would immediately click on www.ukresilience.info? Very few, I suggest.
Many necessary responses in such situations rely on people understanding that they must obey instructions, and having an idea of what their responses should be. Fire brigades already visit schools to explain issues relating to fire safety. Hearing such information does not cause children great problems, and the process helps the fire service if incidents occur in due course. Similarly, if we want people's responses to the new emergencies that we are discussing to be instinctively correct, it is worth noting that the correct response might be counter-intuitiveit might not be what one might think that it should sensibly be. For example, the first instinct of workers in an office in which there was an anthrax scare might well be to vacate the building as quickly as possible and get away from the threat. However, a much more sensible course of action would be to stay in the building and get vaccinated. The same is true of other similar situations.
I do not want to trouble the House for too long, because we have heard one long speech and many hon. Members wish to participate in the debate. For the most part, the British people have been lucky: they have led sheltered lives and do not necessarily know how to react to a soldier with a rifle manning a cordon at the end of their street. They do not know that that soldier can open fire on them if he judges it to be necessary. We believe that they need to know, and that a public information campaign must be a sensible precaution. We recognise the need to avoid unnecessary alarm, but we also recognise that the British public are mature and sensible and that they will take on information that could potentially save their lives. If schoolchildren can take on such information, why do the Government not trust adults not to panic when they are warned of potential dangers?
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that local authorities, including those in my area, regularly complain that the Government foist new responsibilities