|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many local authorities are spending over and above what they actually receive from the Government in the civil defence grant? In many areas, local council tax payers are paying for civil defence.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman, who represents an important north-eastern constituency, makes the same point as me, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and as colleagues in other parts of the country: local authorities are spending money for which there is no reimbursement. They might be willing to consider other ways of raising the money, but we are giving them a jobthis list of new responsibilities. They should carry out those responsibilities, but they need the resources to do so.
People in our capital city and throughout the country also want answers to many questions. Last year, a major power cut disrupted transport, although it could have been the gas or the water supply. Can the Government assure us that alternative sources of supply have been set up and that the system can cope with such an emergency, whether civilian or due to military intervention or attack? People need reassurance. Such an emergency could disrupt the whole city; it could bring down the stock exchange and completely change our ability to do international business. If there is now a back-up system, the public need to be told.
Last year, people were asking whether we had enough GPs and other national health service staff to deal with a chemical attack. Whether or not we have enough staff, the public should be told. Whatever the information, people can cope with it, but they must be given itthey need that reassurance. Are there plans for rapid evacuation of hospitals, if that is needed? We should have such plans, but whether we do or not, the public should be told.
Are there plans to evacuate parts of the city by road or by public transport, if that is required? People should be told whether that is the case. Is there adequate co-ordination of information from the police and other bodies, so that it is managed efficiently and accurately before it is shared with the public?
The following example shows that we do not yet have adequate information or scrutiny. After putting some parliamentary questions, I discovered that special emergency powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 had been applied across the whole of London every month since the Act came into forcethe whole of London, every month. I do not know as a fact whether that was justified, but I am surprised that the whole of London needed all those powers every month. No one had been told about that; the powers have not been renewed with the public's assent.
If a regional emergency is declared, whether in London or elsewhere, we need, first, to do more than simply put the whole region under emergency powers. If necessary to protect the public, it should be possible to apply the powers to a smaller area. The powers could apply to sub-regional groups of local authorities or to a single local authority rather than a whole region.
Secondly, where possible and appropriate, can elected representatives of the emergency planning authorities be consulted about those things? Local authorities, groupings of local authorities and in London, the Greater London authority, the assembly and the Mayor should be consulted. The representative bodies of the people in the region and, ideally, those of business and the voluntary sector should be part of the process of deciding what is appropriate to deal with any threatened or anticipated attack.
My last point is that the concern that the public relay to me most regularly is that they still do not get accurate information in easy and manageable ways on a regular, non-frightening basis. The reason why that needs to be done is to give not just information, but confidence to the individual and to businesses. Those in business and individuals tell me that they want that to be a two-way process; they want to be able to share ideas with the security services and to receive ideas. Those ideas may or may not be taken up, but a regular dialogue is needed. Around us, in the most important commercial community in the United Kingdom, people do not yet feel that that is in place.
Such arrangements should allow people to be told and to tell, to make inquiries and have questions answered and, above all, to feel that they are part of the process of deciding what appropriate further security is needed, and in this modern age, that involves all sort of methods. In a few weeks' time, an envelope containing our council tax bills will come through our letter boxes. Can we not have an update on the current plans for our local authority area with that piece of paperat no additional costto tell people what the score is? Cannot television and radio be used regularly, not just in case of alarm or an emergency, to tell people where to look and what the latest state of preparedness is? Phones, mobile phones, e-mail and websites can all be used, and in places such as London, where millions of people go by public transport every day, the public transport information can be used too.
If we are to be prepared without being alarmed, information is the key for most people in the country. I hope that we may improve the Bill significantly as it passes into legislationwe need to do sobut legislation is only part of the process, as colleagues have said. The rest of the process involves finding the resources for people to do the job and ensuring that the public and the commercial world know what job is being done, so that together, without alarm, we can deal with civil, military and other threats and we can do so in the good British way of being prepared, not overreacting and being a model for the rest of the world.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The Bill brings into sharp focus the classic dilemma for hon. Members: the need to achieve an equitable balance between the rights of the individual and the security of the state. Many commentators believe that the balance has not yet been achieved with the Bill, and I sympathise with them. Others say that the Bill is unnecessary and that it is an overreaction to the perceived, current terrorist threat. I do not think that that is correct. I believe that a measure codifying the various laws is necessary and that the present laws need reviewing in the light of today's circumstances.
Without considering the more drastic picture of terrorism, over the past five or six years the constituency that I am honoured to represent has suffered two leakages from underground fuel tanks. It is plain that such incidents will occur more often in future, unfortunately, as older tanks start to leak. During those incidents, it was interesting that the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and local council were all running around, but no one was prepared to say, "We take the lead. We decide where we are going. We disseminate all the necessary information to people living locally." Those incidents may be minor; nevertheless, they were emergencies for those two towns, and they bring into focus the fact that we need to know who is responsible for what and who will co-ordinate and lead the operations to deal with emergencies, as defined in the Bill.
I wish to echo something that many hon. Members have said already: the Joint Committee, pre-legislative approach is to be welcomed. During our deliberations, we received evidence from myriad authoritative sources, and such evidence is vital in informing the debate and, I hope, in leading to improved legislation that will prove practicable and stand the test of time.
We have already heard several powerful speeches this evening. In particular, I commend the speeches of the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). I associate myself fully with what those gentlemen said. We should always bear it in mind that legislation should be consistent with human rights, and some serious concerns about the Bill remain. With great respect to the Minister, it is all very well for him to say that he has signed the section 19 caption on the Bill and that it accords with human rights. I have yet to see a Bill that does not carry that caption, several of which were rather iffy, to put it in the vernacular.
The Joint Committee has three major concerns: first, the Government's definition of emergency; secondly, the possiblenay probablehuman rights abuses in the Bill; and, thirdly, the use of the triple-lock guarantee promised by the Government. It appears that the Government have attempted to meet some of the concerns of civil liberties groups, but I am still unhappy with the definition of emergency, despite the fact that it has been narrowed.
The initial draft said that an emergency was an event that "presents a serious threat" to human welfare, the environment, political, administrative or economic stability, and the security of the UK or part of it. The Bill now reads:
With regard to human rights and civil contingencies, although there are no explicit human rights abuses in the Bill, its implementation could lead to severe abuses of civil liberties. Clause 25 in the draft Bill allowed regulations to be treated as though they were Acts of Parliament, making it possible to bypass rights guaranteed by the European Court of Human Rights. The new Bill will not specifically prohibit the amendment of the Human Rights Act 1998, by emergency regulation. The Government's response on that is not very convincing. Page 18 of the Government's response states:
The triple lock is the third concern, and it is has been referred to already in previous speeches. The triple lock is intended to persuade us that everything is fine because the triple-lock procedure will have to be used before considering the declaration of an emergency. The draft dictates that the seriousness of the situation, the necessity for special legislative measures and the relevant geographical extent should be considered. The Joint Committee thought that the triple-lock feature needed to be strengthened. The revised Bill demands that there must be a serious threat of damage to human welfare, that existing legislation must be deemed ineffective and that the response must be in proportion to the emergency; but, as has been said, the triple-lock will only be as good as Ministers' own opinions.
Pre-legislative consultation appears to have yielded some positive results, but not enough. Statewatch, another civil liberties group, is less happy with the changes, but it came from the position that it did not believe that legislation was necessary. It pointed out that "assemblies", "travel" and "other specified activities" could be banned. Furthermore, although Parliament has the ability to let powers lapse after 21 days, it never has the chance to vote on the declaration of an emergency.
In most circumstances, the requirement for urgency would not allow for such a vote to take place but, interestingly enough, deliberations in the Joint Committee revealed that the draft Bill contained a provision that the National Assembly for Wales would have to be consulted about the declaration of an emergency in Wales. However, the next provision says that it would be consulted except in cases of urgency. I may be a simple man, but I have never known an emergency that did not have within it an element of urgency. I am pleased that that provision has now gone.
Several parts of the Bill still defy logic and need further careful investigation, and I hope that that will be done in Committee. No one imputes unworthy motives to the Government, but one must be wary of over-reaction in legislation and about when such legislation might be used. Let us consider the Terrorism Act 2000, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said had been in force throughout London for many months. I well remember that, in that Bill's passage through the House, firm, bankable assurances were given by Home Office Ministers that such legislation was necessarybut only as a last resort. The Bill made it to the statute book only to the used shortly afterwards by the Metropolitan policewith or without Home Office collusionto tackle peaceful, flag-waving demonstrators protesting against a visit by a member of the Chinese Government. It is no wonder that people such as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, who made an impassioned speech, feel strongly about the issue.
I am not imputing impure or wrong motives to the Government, but the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham pointed out that he has a healthy distrust of all Governments taking too much power. One is therefore naturally a little apprehensive when we deal with sweeping legislation such as this Bill. A less scrupulous Government in the future could undoubtedly misuse the law to disturbing effect.
In fairness to the Government, we must recognise that there have been important changes, but I would say not enough. Although I said that a Bill is necessary, I do not believe that this Bill is the vehicle to deal with the issue. I am wary about the provisions for the Council on Tribunals, and I am still wary about the definition of any emergency. I am also very wary of the human rights aspects and about imposing seven new duties and obligations on local councils without providing them with the full fundingring-fenced if necessaryto ensure that they can afford to carry them out.
I am also concerned about provisions that would prevent assemblies, protests and so on and travel to other specified activities. I am concerned about those and other issues, but time does not permit me to deal with them now. My party and the Scottish National party are prepared to vote on Second Reading if there is a vote today, but we shall keep our powder dry until the Bill's final stages. Unless substantial improvements are made in the provisions to which I have referred, we will certainly not support the Bill then.