Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7.16 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the Bill. It is important not just because of the imminent threat that we face from international terrorism but

19 Jan 2004 : Column 1141

because we need to modernise our emergency planning powers, some of which, as has been said, date back to the 1920s, the 1940s, and even the 1980s, an era from which we remember the "Protect and Survive" leaflet. Today we face a different threat. It is a different age, and computers and international telecommunications systems are far advanced from where they were, even in the 1980s.

The global threat from terrorism is not going to go away. It is here to stay. Unfortunately, 11 September raised the level at which terrorism will take place. The likelihood of terrorist attack will become greater rather than diminishing over the coming years. The next tactic will clearly be an attempt to be bigger and better than 11 September. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) referred to IRA terrorism, but we are dealing with terrorism of a different type and on a different scale. We are dealing with people whose political motives are not clearly defined, but who have one thing in common, which is that they wish to kill large numbers of people indiscriminately wherever in the world they act.

Our reactions must be twofold. We must try to prevent such attacks. We must also be prepared if those attacks take place, and that is what the Bill is aimed at doing. In any democratic society, it is difficult to get the balance right between taking basic rights away from citizens, and not alarming citizens but providing a level of reassurance. With other members of the Select Committee on Defence, I have visited the United States a number of times in the last couple of years, and I must say that the USA has the balance wrong. There is a lot of publicity about appointing a homeland security chief and a lot of public awareness about the possibility of terrorist attack, but much time and effort is being spent on publicity and the lack of co-ordination rather than on tackling some fundamental issues.

It would be unfair to say that this country has done nothing since 11 September. Clearly, the appointment of Sir David Omand, a very able civil servant, as intelligence co-ordinator is a major step forward. When he appeared before the Defence Committee we were impressed by his ability and his grasp of the subjects. The Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 has been referred to, and although it is controversial, the Government brought it in to guard against the threat of international terrorism.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) tried to give the impression that nothing was happening elsewhere in the country. On a daily basis, many local authorities work with police authorities, fire authorities and others to establish emergency planning and practise it daily or weekly. When I was chair of public health in Newcastle, I was responsible for public protection and emergency planning. It was important to receive daily reports of local organisations' activities in that sphere. Some of their exercises were well honed and have been mentioned as examples of good practice, especially in the Joint Committee's deliberations.

The appointment of regional resilience teams is a move in the right direction. The work by London Resilience in London as the nation's capital and some of

19 Jan 2004 : Column 1142

the planning exercises there have been important. Against that background, the Bill is important in trying to co-ordinate efforts throughout the country.

I congratulate the Government on providing for pre-legislative scrutiny. Like the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, I served on the Joint Committee, and I congratulate the Government on adopting most of our recommendations. The Committee took evidence from a wide range of organisations and had a variety of expertise—that was demonstrated in the tough report that we produced. It saddens me that the media have not yet grasped the idea of pre-legislative scrutiny, as shown in headlines that the Government have "caved in" or "withdrawn" items from the Bill. That is the exact purpose of pre-legislative scrutiny, to which I am a great convert. Many measures would be better if they went through the process.

I want to consider local arrangements for civil protection. The response to the Joint Committee's recommendations states that the aim

I am sure that no one would disagree with that, but a London-centric approach to the matter is taken. Let me pick up one of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on the regional tier. I remain unclear about its purpose and how it will relate to local practitioners—councils, fire authorities and others.

Paragraph 7 of the response to the Defence Committee report states:

and continues by saying that they

In the north-east, for example, in Tyne and Wear, we have an excellent fire and civil defence authority. However, I can envisage tensions if we do not clearly identify the role of the regional tier.

I am not clear about the role of the regional nominated co-ordinator. We know that it will not necessarily be the same person for the same emergency. The person will vary, depending on the emergency. Those matters need clarification before the Bill is enacted; otherwise there will be local tensions. Local councillors and councils have a clear democratic mandate, but if a Government office without any local democratic accountability intercedes, tensions will arise. The role of the regional co-ordinator will therefore be important. He or she could have draconian and wide-ranging powers under the Bill. Clearly, they will conflict with democratically elected local councils, and possibly with local police commanders and others. That needs clarifying before the Bill receives Royal Assent.

I welcome the fact that the Bill allows fire and civil defence authorities to remain in place. The co-ordination of emergency planning varies throughout the country. However, Tyne and Wear and County Durham have clearly defined and well organised fire and civil defence authorities. I urge the Government to examine them as models of best practice that should be

19 Jan 2004 : Column 1143

encouraged elsewhere. The original measure abolished them and I welcome the fact that the Government now recognise their importance.

I am worried about the responsibility for emergency planning that the Bill gives district councils. County Durham is currently a two-tier authority and has seven district councils. Some of those district councils' capacity for dealing with the Bill's provisions is worrying. Although I accept that they can devolve responsibility to county councils, the Government need to ensure that if possible, we get the best local co-ordination, and that that should be done at county or even sub-county level. I do not believe that some district councils have the capacity to deliver what the measure requires.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam spoke about funding local authorities' emergency planning. Such money should be ring-fenced, and I agree with him that when there are pressures on local authority budgets, with the best will in the world, no council will give emergency planning priority over, for example, a decision about closing an old people's home. That does not accord with my local government experience. I urge the Government to ensure that the money is ring-fenced and spent on emergency planning. If not, the Bill's aim for a consistent approach throughout the country will not be achieved, because councils will be tempted to use the money for other matters.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South spoke about the role of the military regionally and locally. The Defence Committee's report also mentioned that. I agree that military personnel who are responsible for supporting local civilian organisations should be a key component of the regional resilience teams. According to my experience, if one wants to ensure the best response in an emergency, people should know one another and have worked and practised together. Local authorities and police and fire authorities need to know who to contact. They also need to know the operating procedures—and, more importantly, the individuals, because personalities are important. From my experience of emergency planning in Tyne and Wear, I know that many meetings take place at which people plan and conduct exercises. That is also vital. Although I accept the constraints on military personnel, I stress that they should be part of the regional resilience teams so that they are perceived not as outsiders but as an integral part of the response to emergency planning.

I accept the criticisms of the Bill's long gestation period, but I welcome it because broadly, it has the interests of our citizens are heart. It would be remiss of us not to ensure that if local emergencies occur, whether they are natural emergencies, such as flooding, or terrorist acts, we have the most robust and effective emergency planning legislation in place.

I have listened carefully to the legal debate about rights. I respect the views of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) but I cannot accept the same from Conservative Members. In County Durham and other mining areas, the Conservative Government did not need an emergency planning Bill to deprive many constituents of their rights. Roads were closed and people were imprisoned and prevented from pursuing their livelihoods. I am sorry to say this, but some of what we have heard

19 Jan 2004 : Column 1144

tonight has been crocodile tears. In practice, the Conservatives did not need such a Bill, because they simply carried out its provisions anyway—and they did that not for reasons of emergency planning or civil disorder, but for directly political reasons, to break the mining communities.

I hope that the Bill becomes law, and I congratulate the Government on listening to the responses given and responding correctly to the points made by the Joint Committee.

Next Section

IndexHome Page