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8.15 pm

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. The Bill is the traditional curate's egg but it is slightly unusual in that the bits of it that are good are very, very good while the bits of it that are bad are very, very bad. There does not seem to be any grey in the middle.

We in the United Kingdom have a great deal of experience of dealing with natural disasters and the threat of domestic terrorism, most if it from the Irish Republic and a little bit of it home grown from the Angry Brigade and the more extreme animal rights movements. As a former junior Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, I have a little experience of the past processes that the Government used to deal with emergencies. Thank heavens that, while I was there, there was no real emergency, but the powers that be in the Department decided to have a trial and dummy run.

I was awoken at 5.30 in the morning to the news that a nuclear power station situated on the Thames estuary had exploded and a plume of radioactive gas was spreading from the estuary to Southampton. I shall not describe all the processes of theoretical evacuation, except to say that the plans stated that the junior Minister had to go to the source of the radioactivity and report back to the Secretary of State, who was cowering in his air-conditioned, bomb-proof bunker at the bottom of the DTI. It was at that point that I learned exactly where junior Ministers are in the pecking order of importance, and I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that that is exactly why a junior Minister is introducing the Bill. He is expendable and if things go wrong—they never do—the powers that be will turn round and point to the Minister who introduced the Bill.

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We are in a changing situation in which international terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, threaten this country and our interests throughout the world. Those threats have to be anticipated and met, but I regret to say that they have been seriously increased by the ill-judged invasion of Iraq. We have given a spurious legitimacy to the Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists to bomb and to maim, and they are doing that because they regard the invasion of Iraq as an illegal act that should not have taken place.

I welcome the Bill in part, however, and the Government can be congratulated on their willingness to open up their proposals for improvement to deal with emergencies of all kinds. I particularly welcome the informed debate that takes place through a review process. I currently serve on the review process for the draft Gambling Bill and there is no doubt that, without that process, the Bill would not be as good as it will be when it comes to the House for consideration. This Bill is much better than it would have been had it been allowed to come to the House without the work of the review body. I do not often congratulate the Government, but I congratulate them on that. The review process of parliamentary Bills such as this is to be welcomed, encouraged and expanded.

No one inside or outside the House can be in any doubt as to where the Government stand on the vital issues of civil protection with which the Bill deals. However, I have serious reservations that, like those of some of my hon. Friends, veer towards objections in principle. First, like my hon. Friends, I am worried about the scope of the Bill's emergency powers. It will allow Ministers, Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Departments and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all to modify Acts of Parliament and prevent them from being applied if they consider that to be necessary. It is not clear to me or, I suspect, anyone else in the United Kingdom the exact circumstances in which that might be appropriate. Does the Under-Secretary know? If so, will she tell us the Acts of Parliament that might be treated in such a way? Is Parliament really prepared to put powers such as those that Henry VIII, let alone more recent dictators, would have been delighted to have into the hands of regional emergency co-ordinators or even less identifiable specified persons? The House and the country are being asked to have an immense amount of trust in advance without any real safeguards.

I cannot speak with the passion that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) evinced when he spoke about his concerns that the Government have taken more and more powers to bypass hard-fought democratic principles. I am embarrassed and ashamed that people in this country have been in jail for years without being brought to trial or having charges put against them publicly. Those people might not be British citizens, but they are still members of the human race. Some action should be taken to determine what risk they are, to make that publicly known and to allow them to be publicly represented.

I am equally disturbed that emergency regulations could be made to require individuals or organisations

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Allowing such oppressive measures to be taken of which no notice may be given in regulations, against which no objections may be made, or for which no redress will be available is unsound, to say the least.

As I said, I had the privilege of serving as a Minister in the last Conservative Government. Whatever else I learned from that experience, the importance of keeping proper records of decisions taken was clear. It is not good enough for Ministers to expect the House to authorise emergency regulations that convey powers to give mandatory oral instructions or orders, even in the most extreme circumstances. On that issue, I agree with the defenders of our civil liberties.

Of course, civil servants and legal advisers—we have heard much today about advice given to Ministers—want to cover every eventuality and possibility. However, my experience in the law shows that for every lawyer who can be persuaded to come along to give supporting evidence to a case, another will give a diametrically opposite opinion. I would like the Government's legal advice to be put into the open so that we can determine how sound it is. When considering legislation such as the Bill there sometimes comes a point at which Ministers must say no and mean no. I am sorry that they have been unable to do that, and I hope that they will offer more convincing explanations in Committee for their positions on key matters.

My other reservations have more to do with practice than principle. The main thrust of the Bill is to require certain specified bodies—such as local authorities and the emergency and health services, which are defined as category 1 responders, and transport and utility providers, which are defined as category 2 responders—to assess the risks of a range of emergencies and to prepare plans for their prevention, control, mitigation or reduction. That is perfectly sensible. However, I am not convinced about the extent to which it will be possible to enlist public co-operation if no more than partial information is made available to them. Allied to that, if an emergency is likely to occur or has occurred, it might well be too late to warn the public and to provide them with information. People living in a place in which an emergency is about to happen, or has happened, will not be sitting there thinking, "Gosh! I've got to contact a category 1 or 2 operator to find out what I should do." Such people will be on the move and doing something, although they could well be doing the wrong thing. Given that the Government have set such store on publicising their actions, I am surprised that they have not realised that point. To prevent chaos and confusion, the public of this country must be informed, perhaps by delivering leaflets to every home, of what they should and could do in a range of circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) made that point forcefully, so I shall not labour it further.

My next point has been galloped over, so I shall refer to it only briefly. There are concerns about the planning arrangements envisaged in the Bill. Many district councils of the kind outlined in schedule 1 have consultative arrangements involving business organisations, parish and town councils and voluntary groups in their areas. It would be sensible to bring those bodies into the proposed system, unless there were

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overwhelming reasons to the contrary. They should be consulted on planning preparations and involved in training exercises. Emergencies of the kind with which the Bill aims to deal will not necessarily occur in big cities. They could happen in areas such as my constituency, which is not especially densely populated. My constituents would like to think that a proper and adequate system for civil contingencies was available to them—we all want our constituencies to be protected in such a fashion. I endorse hon. Members who said that we should try to draw the whole community into a civil plan to deal with what might happen because the community could thus respond, rather than reacting to orders that might filter through slowly and far too long after an emergency had occurred.

I am happy to reiterate my support for the Bill in general terms. Some aspects of it are good, and it is a necessary measure. However, several important aspects must be amended before it returns to the Floor of the House, so I hope that the Government recognise that and respond to it positively.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that I can give the House a helpful steer. Back-Bench speeches are averaging more than 16 minutes at the moment and will have to come down to nearer 11 minutes if I am to be able to recognise all hon. Members who are still anxious to contribute.

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