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8.27 pm

Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): I have listened carefully to this afternoon's debate and I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution. I welcome the Bill. It goes to the heart of the responsibility of Parliament and the Government, which is the protection of the lives and safety of our constituents. It also fulfils a commitment from the Government to reform and update legislation on civil contingencies and emergency planning. As has been said, it will give the Government powers that might prove necessary, but that no Government would wish to have to use. Such matters should not be debated lightly—they are not being debated lightly.

I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill some two years ago, when the Government, in light of 11 September, were under pressure to produce a much wider Bill than one that sought merely to put the financing of civil contingencies on a more satisfactory basis. The Government resisted that pressure then, and they were right to do so. The truth is that, whenever a Government choose to introduce legislation of this sort, they face criticism. There are those who will say that the Bill is too late, and others will say that it is too early or unnecessary. It seems to me that on this occasion the Government have got it about right.

It seems to me also that the key word in our deliberations should be "balance". Any Government who used too heavy a hand in determining the powers provided in the Bill or who allowed those powers to be used too soon would be justly criticised. They would also be criticised if they used too light a touch, provided too few powers or allowed delays in using them. That is

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why the process of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny has been so important. The widest possible consultation with stakeholders, Select Committees of this House and Joint Committees of both Houses has produced sufficient consensus at least to introduce the Bill, and the Government should be congratulated on that.

Politicians may not always be comfortable with positions taken by organisations such as Liberty and Justice, but it is appropriate that their views are listened to and, as far as possible, incorporated. Other bodies, such as Statewatch, which seems to start from the premise that the state is invariably the oppressor, never the defender, demonstrate that it is never possible to please all of the people all of the time. I am disappointed to have heard echoes of that perception of the role of the state in this debate. On balance, I think that the Government have got it right, at least in getting the Bill to this stage.

We live in dangerous times, probably as dangerous as 1920, when the Emergency Powers Act was passed, or 1948, when the cold war was setting in and attack by a foreign power was a distinct possibility. Any straightforward comparison with today is very difficult because it is a quirk of history that assessing just how serious a time is requires a sense of historical perspective, as those of us who lived through the 1970s can demonstrate.

It is evident, however, that 11 September and events since have demonstrated that the threat from terrorism is real, and although democracies need to think long and hard about emergency legislation, failure to act may place democracy itself in danger. We also live in an increasingly complex world where new technology brings great benefit but with it the risk of accident and disaster. It is therefore entirely appropriate that the existing legislation be looked at and, if necessary, changed to suit the requirements of a new set of circumstances and a new century.

I welcome clause 1. I recognise the good work that local authorities do, in conjunction with others, in maintaining civil defence plans for their area, but it is necessary to ask whether a system designed for the cold war is still appropriate today. There is not only a greater risk of terrorism, but the threat of flooding, transport accidents, chemical spills and much more. No constituency is risk-free. Two years ago, the local civil protection plan in my constituency had to be enacted when a fire broke out at a chemical factory. I was pleased at the time to place on record my thanks to the emergency services, and I am pleased to do so again.

In the review that took place in the aftermath of 11 September not every local authority was able to demonstrate the necessary high level of preparation. What we saw too often were arrangements whose resources had to be raided in times of local government hardship and a general lack of investment which characterised too much of our public services. The Bill sets out clear responsibilities, requires an assessment of local risk and sets out the duties of those involved. As a Member of Parliament for a coastal constituency, I want to know that the plans and the resources are in place to deal with any emergency. I want to know that those who are involved in the process, and those who seek

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protection from it, can have confidence in the arrangements. I want to know also that the plans and the resources reflect the present and future world.

In the last 20 years the balance between central and local government has changed. We have established new constitutional arrangements in Scotland and Wales, and English regions may follow, but we also have myriad agencies and companies, some within Departments and some outside, delivering essential services. A Bill that clearly sets out their role and responsibilities—for example, in a local resilience forum—is therefore welcome.

I should warn the Government, however, that discussions about civil defence usually come round to money, and here again I think that a balanced approach is needed. The measures in the Bill are about reforming the way in which organisations work together, rather than setting out a whole new set of additional requirements. Organisations already have funding to play a role in developing a strategy, and the necessary front-line resources, whether it be police officers, firefighters, coastguards or the equipment that they need, are already provided in large number. I urge the Government to treat with caution pleas from local authorities for additional resources. There is no doubt that the plans have to be funded adequately, but that should not just be an opportunity to try to plug any gaps that might have existed or simply to approach central Government with a begging bowl.

We should be careful, too, about advice from Opposition spokesmen. In 21 minutes, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) made three spending commitments: first, for the training of a voluntary reserve; secondly, for a comprehensive programme of public education; and, thirdly, for increased funding of local authorities. That was described as cheap, but, as is often the case with the Opposition, there was no evidence of just how cheap.

I want briefly to address part 2, as I have no intention of getting into the area of law and civil liberties, of which others have much more experience and knowledge. It is entirely appropriate to bring a system that was set up in 1920 into the 21st century. It is sensible to set out the role of Ministers, and therefore crucial to set out the checks and balances that are required. It is regrettable but nevertheless a fact that there is a great deal of scepticism and cynicism about the role and motive of the Government—any Government. Any reassurances that the Government can give to illustrate their intent would be welcome. Nevertheless, I urge them to listen to the concerns expressed as the Bill makes its way through Parliament.

Let us not forget the purpose of the legislation. It is to put in place measures to defend the public in times of emergency. So let us have the debate about human rights and civil liberties—not that I would go along with describing the United Kingdom Government as "darker forces". Let us take a balanced view and not be selective in our memory of events during the miners' strike in 1985, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) reminded us. Such legislation is not about producing something by this Government for this Government. It is about legislation for Governments of the future.

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Let us not lose sight of the common-sense approach demanded by our constituents, who expect us to bring common sense to the issue. They look to us to legislate and to exercise power with care, but they want us to ensure that necessary powers and preparation are in place to safeguard them and their families.

8.37 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): There is no doubt that the Bill is long overdue. As we have heard, we have been waiting for a response to the flooding and fuel crises of 2000 and to foot and mouth in 2001—to say nothing of more recent events. The public have been looking to Parliament for a lead, particularly in light of the mixed messages from different quarters of the Government.

On 13 January last year, the Prime Minister stated:

He added that he was made aware of that situation on a daily basis. Yet, in the response to the Defence Committee's report in 2001–02, the Government denied that there is

chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear—

The Prime Minister was further criticised by the Home Office Minister, Lord Filkin, who told the House of Lords:

To say that such an attitude is complacent would be an understatement at the very least.

The Government have failed to date and are still failing to take the public into their confidence, to make them aware of their plans and to communicate those plans to them. If they did that more effectively and convincingly, the country would respond in kind. One problem is that nobody outside the hallowed portals of the Palace of Westminster can understand the niceties of this legislation, its implications for human rights and the area of responsibility—but the public need to know who is responsible.

Again and again this afternoon we have heard that the fact that there is no Minister in charge of civil defence is a real problem. That is why we, the Opposition, have such a post. We do not know who would take the lead following the declaration of an emergency. Who would oversee and co-ordinate our response? If, for example, there were a virus outbreak, would the Department of Health be in charge of the state of emergency? If a terrorist attack occurred, would the Ministry of Defence or the Home Office take control? If there was a strike, would the Department of Trade and Industry be responsible for implementing the emergency powers? Not only are we in need of clarification but, more importantly, so are the public.

In all the deliberations of the past few weeks and months, what have the Government learned from the response of the United States? The US Government

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realised early on the crucial importance of co-ordinated homeland security as part of their strategy to deal with the new insidious threat of terrorism. That approach is borne out through their "National Strategy for Homeland Security", which states clearly that

That is precisely what we need and precisely what we do not have.

Although we are now making progress on updating and improving our civil contingency planning, the lack of urgency and clarity in responding to any threat to our national security is truly worrying. Eight hundred and sixty days have passed since 11 September 2001, and even though the Bill has taken such a long time to come before the House, in all probability we will have to wait at least another four or five months before it becomes law. In the worst-case scenario, we will have to endure a summer recess without any updated legislation in place.

In the time remaining, I shall discuss the implications for those bodies that are to be charged with front-line response. The Joint Committee on the draft Civil Contingencies Bill recommended that clearer provisions outlining the responsibility of councils at local level were needed in the Bill. My local council, Devon county council, echoed that view in its response to the Government's consultation document. The council claimed:

Although I can understand the Government's desire not to over-complicate matters through excessive legislation, it is vital that we be assured that the question of first responders will be seriously examined. Rather than merely inviting co-operation, the Government and the Minister should be ensuring that those members of the public who are likely to be in a position to respond instantly will be able to do so, and do so effectively. Only by outlining the aims and objectives of planning and training at national level through to local level, rather than simply encouraging such strategies to be taken on board, can we harness the effectiveness necessary to deal with such an emergency.

It is worth noting that Devon and Cornwall police, the force that covers my constituency, already has in place a multi-agency response plan, in which the military, the police, health and fire services and utilities companies have a clearly defined strategy. Although they welcome the Bill as recognising good work and putting in place good practice, there is concern about how the Bill will affect them in terms of increasing their work load and the likelihood of increased costs. What is more, although it is reassuring to know that the police force in my constituency already has a well structured plan in place, we have no framework in place to ensure that the same degree of diligence is applied nationwide.

That brings me to a topic that has been touched on by many Members this afternoon—funding. Funding is critical to the working of the Bill and the enactment of it. About 90 per cent. of the respondents to the consultation exercise said that the level of funding was

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inadequate. My council in Devon was no exception to the rule. It claims that the new areas of work indicated in the Bill suggest a need to increase central Government funding for emergency planning. In particular, it has reservations about the increased duties placed on local authorities as a whole to deal with and respond to threats to the environment.

First, there is the need to respond to coastal pollution. Secondly, there is the inclusion of the environment in the new definition, which will lead to the need to include environmental impact assessments in the development of all multi-agency plans. For emergency planning purposes, local authorities have the duty only to consider environmental impacts for sites covered by the control of major accident hazards regulations, and environmentally sensitive areas close to major gas pipelines crossing their area.

Further to that, there is the duty on local authorities that is related to two main areas of business continuity work. These are the councils' own internal business continuity management and the promotion of it throughout their areas. It is estimated that this increase in work load would merit at least one new post fully to adhere to the new duty.

We must remember that in addition to the Bill the enabling of subsequent Acts may well produce future needs for additional funding. If it is the case, as seems likely, that there is underfunding, the result will be either the transference of funds from other services or, perhaps more likely, the inadequate performance of statutory duty in this instance, and I have already alluded to that. That is of grave concern.

Having ill-thought-out measures in place due to a lack of funding is beneficial to no one. At best it is irresponsible and at worst it is potentially catastrophic. I will not spend time reciting Devon's tale of woe with regard to council tax and the likely rises. I will say, however, that it has virtually doubled since 1997–98. It is most unlikely that the people of Devon would respond kindly to the Government suggesting that their local authority would have to pay for these additional requirements.

There is a lot of good and a lot of what is needed in the Bill, but I am not altogether convinced that it is as good a Bill as those that other countries have enacted to deal with a new form of terror. I am not convinced that it is as good as New Zealand's Bill, which was described as being far more comprehensive and informative than the Bill before us. At the same time, there is much more specialised legislation such as the Biosecurity Act 1993 to deal with public welfare emergencies.

Canada's Act, for instance, deals successively with public welfare emergencies, public order emergencies, international emergencies and war emergencies. The report says that that Act is far more comprehensive and informative than the Bill before us, and possibly also the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002. During this period of reflection, which is necessary, perhaps we should once again revisit some of the other schemes that other countries have in place.

I do not have time to touch on the issue of human rights and the implications of the legislation on human rights, which was dealt with so effectively by right hon. and hon. Members. While the triple lock is a good

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response by the Government to earlier concerns, I believe, like others who have contributed to the debate, that it leaves a lot of power in the hands of Ministers.

The Government still have much work to do. They must convince the doubters in this place, some of whom we have heard this afternoon, that this legislation is necessary, workable and good. In the country, they must persuade the wider public that they are in control and that in the event of an emergency would be able to provide properly trained personnel to deal with it. They have some way to go.

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