Civil Contingencies Bill

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Several hon. Members rose–

Mr. Alexander: I was about to say that I hoped that I had covered the points raised, but clearly I have not done so.

2.45 pm

Patrick Mercer: The Minister mentioned the Osiris exercise, which I was lucky enough to be able to observe. My understanding is that it was more than two years after 11 September before a practical exercise of any sort took place to see what the reaction of the Government and, indeed, London would be to such an incident. That is in addition to the criticisms that I have already made. Does he seriously believe that one single exercise of that type is sufficient to suggest that London's business community is prepared for such an event?

Mr. Alexander: Operation Osiris, which I recollect took place in September, was only the latest in a number of exercises that the Government have undertaken. It is important at this stage in the Committee's deliberations to address a misperception that may be creeping into some of the analysis being offered on the Bill. It is important to recognise that the Bill is designed to update the framework of civil

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protection in this country. I can assure the Committee that, quite apart from the need to modernise the legislative framework, a whole strain of work has been taken forward to strengthen the resilience capabilities not only of the Government, but of the emergency services in the wider sense. That is why, in the previous Budget, there was an allocation of, if I recollect correctly, about £300 million across a range of Departments to fight terrorism. That was for local responders and to fund counter-terrorism work.

It would be wholly wrong to suggest that the time scale for legislative change was not preceded by a range of other work. That work has been taken forward principally by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but also by a range of other Departments. Operation Osiris formed only one part of a wide range of work that has been taken forward in relation not only to London, but to civil contingency planning across the UK more generally. If the hon. Gentleman would care to look back at the record of our previous deliberations, he will see that I referred to some of the exercises that the Government have undertaken since 11 September.

Mr. Allan: Before the Minister finishes speaking, could he deal with the transitional arrangements as set out in the regulations, particularly in respect of small businesses, and the clause 4(1) duty that will be laid on local authorities? I should like to be assured that I have understood precisely how the exemption is intended to work.

Mr. Alexander: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive my oversight in not addressing that point. The Government are considering whether it is appropriate to make transitional provision in relation to the business continuity management promotion duty. That would allow local authorities more time to build up their expertise in that area. There are some examples–Manchester and Kirklees come to mind–of authorities that do an outstanding job at the moment, but in some other authorities, capacity will need to be developed, and we are giving thought to that.

The draft regulations include a provision that would limit the business continuity promotion duty to businesses of a certain size. More thought is being given to how we ensure that we get the fit right between the need to ensure that that work is undertaken more widely by local authorities than is currently the case, and recognising where those local authorities are starting from. I am sure that we will be able to do that in the course of the discussions.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

General measures

Patrick Mercer: I beg to move amendment No. 34, in

    clause 5, page 5, line 40, at end insert–

    '(d) establishing an emergency volunteer reserve force'.

I was interested to hear the Minister's view that the Bill is designed to update the framework of civil

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defence throughout the nation–or words to that effect. I believe that I have got the quote right; if not, he will forgive me. As I see it, the Bill is designed to put in place a series of regulations and legislation that will empower local and, indeed, national authorities to deal with the problem. At one end of the spectrum there is the problem; at the other, the legislation. I contend that the vital link between the two is missing. There should be something wholly more credible and useful than what we have now that will allow the legislation to be put into practice. Without a work force to supplement the blue light services and other parts of the national framework, the problems will go unaddressed.

It is interesting to see what the Government have created so far to assist the blue light and other emergency services. Currently, in any region, in the event of an emergency such as those that we are debating, we would expect the ambulance service, the fire service, and the NHS with all its attendant parts, to respond to such an incident. Under chapter 4 of the strategic defence review, the Government have established a force that they refer to as the civil contingencies reaction force. The CCRF is intended to provide a series, largely of Army, but also of Royal Navy, Royal Marine and Royal Air Force volunteers, who are already serving members of the Territorial Army or the other reserve forces. When those soldiers, sailors and airmen have volunteered for the CCRF, they focus specifically on helping the emergency services throughout the region.

It is no coincidence that the CCRF has found itself extremely stretched in terms of declaring itself operationally ready. Just before the Bill's Second Reading–strange to relate–the Government said that the force was ready. However, the facts are rather less than the theory. There are supposed to be 7,000 CCRF volunteers under arms at the moment, but so far the Government have only 5,000 who are physically accredited as part of the CCRF. There is a further problem: the fact that any volunteer, of whatever colour of uniform, tends to be a recidivist–a serial volunteer. It will therefore come as no surprise to the Minister that three-quarters of the people who form two of the best civil contingency reaction forces–under the cap badge of the London regiment–have volunteered for service in Iraq. If the London CCRF were called now, we should find them somewhere outside Basra. My facts may not be quite correct, but it seems likely that the very sad death of a private soldier from the Royal Rifle Volunteers outside Kabul last night was exacerbated by the fact that he was also a member of his local CCRF. If a work force is established to help, it must be effective. Currently, the very slight measures that the Government have taken to assist and to create something additional, are utterly inadequate.

I should also like to mention the views of the British Red Cross. It talks about volunteering, in both theory and practice, across the board. It says that there should be a formal, explicit recognition of the contribution of the voluntary sector as key providers

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of the humanitarian aspects of emergency planning and response. It goes on to say that a duty should be placed upon statutory authorities to involve the voluntary sector in emergency planning and response, and that an acknowledgment of the voluntary sector's contribution would formalise an already active response. What concerns me about the Bill is that there is no new thinking; no new initiatives have been taken to give it more muscle when it is enacted. I may be guilty of wagging a wholly inappropriate finger at the Government, but there has never been any difficulty with the creation of voluntary or part-time organisations. The British Government did so at least three or four times in the 20th century. Voluntary organisations were established during the first world war to deal with the threat of bombing. From as early as 1935, air raid precautions and other voluntary organisations were established to ensure that when–not if–an emergency occurred there would be bodies on the ground to assist.

Precisely the same thing happened during the cold war. Sadly the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is not present, but he held a position in the civil defence organisation during the cold war. Similarly, during the IRA emergency, voluntary bodies were put in place in Northern Ireland to assist in detecting terrorism and warning the police.

Some of the ideas put forward by the foremost thinkers on homeland security or civil defence, whatever we call it, should be aired. The Government should prove that they have carefully considered establishing, for want of a better phrase, an emergency volunteer reserve. I may be wrong, but I imagine that the hon. Member for Ealing, North is about to intervene and make a comment about ''Dad's Army''. The idea conjured up is of a body of elderly men and women in uniform, but we should not think like that.

We should borrow ideas from people such as David Veness, Major General Peter Curry and other foremost thinkers on such problems. We should put in place volunteer doctors, paramedics, hazardous material trained HGV drivers, and other crucial members of the community who, in an emergency, could be mobilised to help at the scene of an incident. I have been criticised, strange as that may sound, for making expensive suggestions, but this scheme does not need to be expensive. It should be viewed in the same way as the American army corps of engineers. They are civilians who might put on a uniform or an arm band during an emergency and physically stand to.

Let us assume that a dirty bomb explodes in Liverpool.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): No-one would notice.

Patrick Mercer: The fact that the hon. Gentleman could suggest that Liverpudlians would not notice is appalling and scurrilous. I do not associate myself with such a comment about Merseyside where I spent many happy years as a boy. [Interruption.] I was neither

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jousting nor indulging in any other form of chivalric activity. If a dirty bomb did explode, I believe that the emergency services, perhaps with the assistance of the civil contingencies reaction force or regular forces, would be able to contain the problem for no more than 36 hours. They could establish a cordon and set up hospitals and decontamination points, but other factors, such as the wind or the style of the device, could prolong the threat.

In the event of such an incident, there should be a force that could be brought from perhaps Ealing, North and taken to Liverpool. Those doctors, paramedics, water workers and drivers could be in place not only to assist the police and other blue light services, but to take over from emergency workers exhausted by the style and scale of the emergency. There is nothing revolutionary in that and it would not be expensive. The British public would wholeheartedly seize upon the idea and volunteers would be forthcoming. I will not guess at a size or price of such an emergency volunteer reserve. I want fresh and innovative thinking from the Government.

I also question deeply the Government's use of the regular armed forces to help in such circumstances. If we were to go outside now and ask how many nuclear, biological and chemical warfare-trained regular servicemen there are in this country, I could be wrong but I guess that there would be about 60,000 hands in the air. That work force is completely untapped. There is no contingency or forward planning to involve the regular forces in the assistance of the country in emergency incidents. Powers certainly exist for them to be mobilised at short notice. In the event of a CBRN-type incident in Westminster, we would depend on the Metropolitan fire brigades to provide not just fire but decontamination assistance. Their resources are limited, but there are men and women trained to help in those circumstances.

3 pm

I shall give an example. During the firemen's strike, a battalion of regular infantry was brought down and placed in Wellington barracks to assist with problems here in the event of a fire, and there were breathing apparatus teams with them. It struck me that the arrival of 600-odd soldiers in this area meant that we would suddenly have on hand a highly trained work force that, in the event of a dirty bomb or something similar, would be instantly available to give well-trained, well-organised and well-equipped advice on how to deal with it. On questioning that regiment, it transpired that they had not brought any equipment with them; no orders had been given with regard to a CBRN-type attack, nor had that been mentioned. That illustrates the fact that the Government's thinking on the subject is extremely sparse. Can the Minister, therefore, tell the Committee how the Government intend physically to implement the Bill on the ground? Without some muscle behind it in addition to those attempts that have already been made, the Bill is likely to become a paper tiger.

 
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Prepared 29 January 2004