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9.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): We have had an interesting and, at times, impassioned debate on what all those who have spoken agree is an important topic. I am grateful for Members' contributions, and I shall do my best in the time available to answer the points made. However, when I am unable to do that, as I will be in several cases because of the lack of time, I undertake to write to them at the earliest opportunity.

It is clear from the debate that we are not considering a party political issue. I believe that something like the Bill would have been introduced by whatever party was in power. However, the Bill has generated a strong response in the House, so, as many hon. Members said, it is crucial that we get its provisions right. I welcome the thoughts of hon. Members that have helped to point the way on how improvements could be made.

My hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outlined the principles underpinning the Bill, which is part of the

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Government's commitment to building the UK's resilience to destructive challenges. We are committed to delivering a single framework for civil protection in the UK that is capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

Hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) asked whether a single framework represented the right strategy. Disruptive challenges exist on a spectrum of severity—from localised flooding to a massive terrorist attack. While the threat of terrorism remains real, we should not lose sight of smaller-scale emergencies that can have a devastating effect, and hon. Members gave examples of such emergencies from places as far apart as Meirionnydd and Tynemouth. The impact of those emergencies on local communities can be similar to that of terrorist attacks, so our challenge is to ensure that arrangements are sufficiently robust and flexible to manage all risks. On the one hand, the Government must be ready and able to protect their citizens from the effects of a catastrophic incident, but, on the other hand, adequate safeguards must be in place to ensure that emergency powers are used only when absolutely necessary.

We recognise the contribution made by many stakeholders in response to the extensive consultation on the Bill and its pre-legislative scrutiny. I welcome comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House about how that has helped to improve the Bill to date. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) about the way in which the media often misunderstand how the Government react and respond to pre-legislative scrutiny by changing their proposals. They have done that substantially to deal with several points regarding civil liberties. However, it was not a climbdown, but a powerful reaction to pre-legislative scrutiny, which should be welcomed rather than treated in the way in which it sometimes has been.

The local response capability is the building block of our ability to deal with emergencies. As we all know, our fire, police and ambulance services are among the best in the world and have unquestionable expertise in emergency planning and response. The Bill will give the organisations that form the core of the local response—local authorities, emergency services and the voluntary sector—a clear and consistent set of expectations on, and responsibilities for, civil protection for the first time. The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) tellingly highlighted the importance of co-ordination, and the Bill must provide a framework that can work in practice. It is an enabling Bill, so it does not name the precise parts of the building blocks that will be pulled together. Nevertheless, he was right to highlight the importance of making the process work, which is why practitioners have welcomed the proposals. The Bill will deliver the benefits of improved communication, co-operation and information sharing, which are all at the heart of the issues that he and other hon. Members raised. Greater consistency throughout the country will facilitate better performance management of multi-agency arrangements, which will allow more effective benchmarking and best practice sharing.

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We recognise the need to modernise the tools available to the Government to deal with the most serious emergencies. Some disruptive challenges are of such a scale or nature that they might require extraordinary measures that would not be appropriate in normal circumstances. Emergency powers are a necessary safety net to ensure that we can deal with even the most serious and unpredictable situations. I believe that the Bill meets those challenges and strikes the right balance between the individual's rights and the need to ensure the safety and well-being of the nation.

Some Members have suggested that the powers are extreme and draconian. Indeed, in some cases the powers are draconian, but only if they are necessary. I am concerned that the debate has proceeded as though there were no current emergency powers legislation. It is important to recognise that the Bill replaces the Emergency Powers Act 1920, which included many of the powers in the Bill. There were some restrictions on when the powers in the 1920 Act could be used, but it did not require the exercise of emergency powers to be necessary and the provisions of the regulations did not have to be in due proportion to the emergency. Of course, the Human Rights Act 1998 will substantively limit what can be done under emergency powers, which was not so in 1920.

Mr. Cash: Does the Minister agree that the Bill would be improved if we imported into it the notion of reasonableness in the making of the decisions and the question of how the Secretary of State arrives at those decisions when he thinks that something should be done?

Fiona Mactaggart: The question of importing the notion of reasonableness was specifically considered following the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the draft Civil Contingencies Bill. We straightforwardly concluded that reasonableness is an absolute expectation of the actions of Ministers and that to import the notion specifically might query whether Ministers act reasonably in other respects. All Ministers are expected to act reasonably at all times. Indeed, in the case that the hon. Gentleman cited, that was the conclusion of the minority judgment that he so praised.

Members have asked why it has taken so long to get to this point. We have not been idle: we have introduced the Terrorism Act 2000, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and the Animal Health Act 2002, all of which deal with aspects of matters dealt with in the Bill. We have developed new structures within government such as the new security and intelligence co-ordinator, the overhauled co-ordination arrangements in central Government, a new regional tier, new structures within the devolved Administrations and a dedicated civil contingencies secretariat. We have also put in new funding: £330 million in the 2003 Budget for counter-terrorism; an extra £62 million for police work on counter-terrorism; and additional funds for the fire service and the NHS. Those practical measures go together with the new civil contingencies reaction force.

We are trying to ensure that local government has the resources that it requires and are working closely with the Local Government Association to make sure that Government requirements are properly funded. As I have described, additional resources have been put into

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that area, and, as the needs of local government become clear, we will, as part of the 2004 spending review process, ensure that they are carefully considered.

The other point raised in that respect is the question of where the buck stops and where responsibility lies. It is clear that the Government's view is, first, that resilience should be embedded within all Government organisations rather than being sliced off in a separate Department. We have made that clear choice because it is necessary for all parts of Government to be able to support resilience, but nevertheless it is clear that the Home Secretary is the core Minister with responsibility for those matters, and that he will be the lead Minister in responding to many of those points.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made a number of powerful points that reflected his continuing commitment to the rights of this House and of the citizens of this country. He had fun—let us be honest—with his point about Lords Commissioners to Her Majesty's Treasury, who are in large part Whips. Lords Commissioners are included in the Bill because there might be emergencies in which the primary interests affected are the responsibility of the Treasury, such as a terrorist attack on the Bank of England. In those circumstances, the Chancellor would be the person whom one would normally expect to take progress forwards. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister are normally referred to in legislation in such a way.

I hope that it might assure the hon. Gentleman if I add that, by virtue of the Treasury Instruments (Signature) Act 1849, action must be taken by at least two Commissioners. One Commissioner cannot act alone. The intention of the procedure is to ensure absolutely that the Chancellor could take responsibility in such cases.

Along with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills rightly made much play of the issue of the Human Rights Act 1998. Let us be clear that the Government have not sought to derogate from the provisions of the Act because we do not expect any regulations made under the powers in the Bill to contravene that Act. That is a very important commitment and safeguard to give the House. It makes clear the context in which we seek the powers. Frankly, the "dark forces" that my hon. and learned Friend referred to should not be forces that are designed to restrict the civil liberties of Members, but forces that threaten the safety and security of this nation. That is why such serious powers need to be considered at this point.

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