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18 Nov 2004 : Column 1508

Civil Contingencies Bill

Mr. Speaker: Under the Order of the House of 17 November, any message from the Lords relating to the Civil Contingencies Bill must be considered forthwith, without any Question put. I have to acquaint the House with the fact that a message has been received from the Lords as follows:

Lords amendments considered.

Lords amendment: No. 49B

3.31 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Ruth Kelly): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker: With this we may consider Lords amendment No. 50B.

Ruth Kelly: Following the concerns voiced both in this House and the other place, we have reconsidered the issues of sunsetting and reporting on the use of part 2 of the Bill. The Government remain convinced—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must have order in the House.

Ruth Kelly: The Government remain convinced that sunsetting the Act itself is not appropriate in this case. The need to be able to respond to the most serious emergencies will not disappear after a given period, and revocation of the legislation would simply necessitate replacing it with something very similar.

As I made clear in Commons consideration of Lords amendments, any use of the powers under part 2 will be subject to detailed and rigorous parliamentary scrutiny and will be limited by the restrictions and safeguards set out in the Bill. Any regulations made under the Bill will be subject to sunsetting after a maximum of 30 days. This is one of the most aggressive sunsetting clauses to be found anywhere on the statute book.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am sure that the Minister has had the opportunity since yesterday to speak to her advisers about the test of reasonableness. The plain fact is that the Bill does not contain an express reasonableness test with regard to the use of emergency regulations. In the light of the debate yesterday, will she explain to the House why that is not in the Bill?

Ruth Kelly: I explained in terms to the hon. Gentleman yesterday that it was not necessary to have express provision for a test of reasonableness in the Bill. I also explained why that was the case.

The Government remain convinced that the sunsetting of regulations, and the need for them to
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receive the assent of Parliament, is the right way to ensure that the powers cannot be misused and that effective scrutiny takes place. Indeed, we have amended the Bill to specify that regulations must contain provision to ensure that parliamentary scrutiny can take place where this is effected by the emergency in question, or by response efforts.

Mr. Cash rose—

Ruth Kelly: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman one more time.

Mr. Cash: The Minister may recall that the Minister in the Lords continually referred to the use of the powers as a temporary arrangement, yet it is clear from the wording of the Bill as it now is that the powers are not temporary but permanent. Will the Minister explain that as well?

Ruth Kelly: As I explained yesterday to this House, and as has been explained in the other place, the regulations and the exercise of the powers under the Bill are temporary and subject to an aggressive sunsetting clause, in that they fall after 30 days unless Parliament confirms that they should continue and the orders are relaid.

There is no doubt that, given the scale of the emergencies that we are talking about, the Government's handling of such an emergency will be subject to intense scrutiny both inside and outside Parliament after the event. I need only refer to inquiries and reports published after the foot and mouth outbreak—in that case, emergency powers were not necessary—to highlight the fact that post-event scrutiny and review are, and will remain, defining features of the most serious emergencies.

However, in the light of the concerns that have been expressed, the Government are minded to give a firmer assurance to both Houses about the way in which we will ensure that the Bill operates correctly. In the event of the use of emergency powers, the Government would put in place formal arrangements to review the way in which the Bill and its mechanisms, including the safeguards, had worked in practice. To that end, within one year of the end of the point at which the emergency regulations fall, a senior Privy Councillor, appointed by the Government, would carry out a review of the operation of the Bill. The process would be repeated for each emergency for which the Bill is used. That review would be published, and thus be available to Parliament.

The findings will provide a useful tool for the Government, who would aim to learn lessons from any emergency and improve processes wherever necessary. They will be conscious of the need to justify their decision to use the powers and their handling of the emergency in the cold light of day, both before they use the powers and throughout their exercise.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister believe that the appointment of a Privy Councillor by the Government is a broad enough base to secure a properly independent view? Would it not be appropriate for Parliament, with Members from all political parties, to agree the appointment of the Privy Councillor?
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Ruth Kelly: The Government's approach is consistent with the long-standing convention that, following major emergencies, Governments appoint senior independent figures to review events. The Anderson inquiry into foot and mouth is a good example. There are also strong parallels with the practice used under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I am grateful for the commitment that the hon. Lady has given, as it substantially meets the Opposition's arguments. It is obviously desirable to have such a report, but can she make a commitment that it would be debated in both Houses?

Ruth Kelly: I would certainly expect it to be debated. The nature of the review would be determined by the nature of the emergency—that is more flexible and less mechanistic than a sunsetting debate a year after the use of the powers, which could be disproportionate and unnecessary, particularly if the exercise of the powers was uncontroversial and effective.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I do not wish to be churlish, but the hon. Lady was asked to give a commitment. What she expressed was expectation, so would she now give a commitment?

Ruth Kelly: I can assure the House that a debate will take place—that is the commitment that I am giving on behalf of the Government. An independent report will be published and debated by Parliament.

Mr. Cash: Can the Minister confirm that the independent Privy Councillor who was appointed would not be a politician? He would be a person of independence and integrity by virtue of his oath, but should not be involved in politics.

Ruth Kelly: I have given a commitment that the Government will appoint a senior independent figure to review events along the lines of the practice adopted under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act. If we can agree to that—I hope that all hon. Members accept that it represents movement by the Government and a real increase in parliamentary scrutiny—we will have settled on a powerful, dual-track approach. First, actions under the Civil Contingencies Bill will be subject to the existing 30-day sunset provision. Secondly, there will be a slower review of the operation of the Bill itself.

I hope that that gives the House the reassurance that it seeks and demonstrates the Government's commitment to effective review and scrutiny of the use of the emergency powers legislation, not just at the time that it is used but in the longer term, when we can consider its appropriateness in the light of experience and the passage of time.

I have been impressed by the sensible and consensual nature of the debates on this important piece of legislation, both in the House and in the other place. The Bill has, indeed, benefited from a number of helpful amendments made in the light of concerns expressed during debate. I hope that all hon. Members receive this proposal in the same light, and I commend it to the House.
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