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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day.

On the motion Marketing of Foods Derived from Genetically Modified Maize, the Ayes were 215, the Noes were 75, so the motion was agreed to.

[The Division Lists are published at the end of today's debates.]

19 Oct 2005 : Column 908

Emergency Preparedness

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): We now come to the next debate on the Opposition motions. Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.15 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): I beg to move,

This debate has three purposes: first, to give the House its first opportunity since 7 July to consider the implications of that terrorist attack on our contingency plans and preparedness; secondly, to put to the Government the case for further co-ordination and communication measures designed to increase our preparedness; and thirdly, to focus in detail on our contingency planning and current measures to combat the threat of an avian flu pandemic.

The House will be aware that there is a wide range of emergencies in response to which the Government are seeking to build resilience under the capabilities programme. Some of those concern natural disasters. As a vice-chair of the all-party group on flood prevention and a representative of a constituency affected by flooding in October 2001, I am only too aware of our developing plan for flood defence. There is an increasingly well-defined population who, all credit to them, actively seek information and means of protecting themselves. The Environment Agency, which, as I know from personal experience, learned some bitter lessons about flaws in its alert system in 2001, is introducing remodelling of the flood risk patterns to increase the advance warning that might be given. That is a good example of ways in which emergency preparedness can learn from past deficiencies.

Extremes of weather present other threats. The heat wave in France in the summer of 2003 caused 5,000 excess deaths. During winter in this country, as things stand at the moment, we have more than 20,000 excess deaths—twice the relative number in Germany. With the Met Office warning of the risk of severe cold weather this winter, now is the time for Government, local authorities, the NHS and housing associations to act, and for families to consider how they and their friends and neighbours are looked after.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman referred to the larger number of deaths in Britain compared with Germany. What is the reason for that?
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Mr. Lansley: I do not want to dwell on that at great length, although I was a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry when it undertook an inquiry into fuel poverty and highlighted excess winter deaths in this country. They derived from a combination of factors, including the relative cost of fuel as a proportion of the income of people on very low incomes, and building regulations and standards of insulation. That is one reason, apart from many others, why I will join warm homes week in my constituency in November to encourage the fight for such insulation. Those are the things that we should be doing in the weeks ahead.

In Cambridgeshire—I am sorry; I will stop talking about my constituency after this—the big freeze on the M11, which some of my hon. Friends were caught up in, illustrated how severe weather can rapidly lead to a deterioration of services. If that freeze had continued for only 12 more hours, it would have interrupted just-in-time deliveries of supplies to clinics, pharmacies and the like. We need to be aware of the way in which severe weather could have an adverse impact very quickly.

The principles of preparedness for a range of emergencies often have much in common: prevention, when possible; preparation; effective co-ordination and chains of command; proactive communication with professionals and the public; and a continuous, active engagement with the possible risks and solutions.

Clearly, terrorist attacks are a major threat that we continue to face. In recent times, as distinct from Northern Ireland-related terrorism, the threat became real in this country on 7 and 21 July. On 7 July, we were deeply thankful for the work of the emergency services, Transport for London and all those involved. After 21 July, many of us heaved a sigh of relief as the House rose in the wake of a failed bombing attempt. The summer may have allowed people to let the threat of terrorism slip from the forefront of their minds. We should not let that happen. The newspapers tell us that, as recently as two weeks ago, a group was prevented from carrying out another series of attacks, probably suicide attacks, in this country. A cool look at what we have done between July and now is needed.

First, there is no doubt that a huge effort has been put into devising legislation that might prevent, should deter and will punish terrorists. However, we must ask ourselves how much laws can achieve against a form of terrorism whereby our enemies care nothing for their lives. Indeed, the loss of their lives is their aim. While legislation might protect us against conventional terrorism—if one can describe terrorism in those terms—can it do the same for the new kind of radicalism? We need concrete measures to protect our citizens and make it much more difficult for terrorists to operate in our midst.

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, who is in her place, spoke recently about creating

Since September 2001, have we done that? We need a well formulated and articulated campaign of public information about the flu pandemic and we need precisely the same for terrorism.      The Home Secretary and his Ministers stick to the mantra that we must be alert but not alarmed. The Minister talks about striking a balance between telling people enough and not
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terrifying them. She is right in principle but wrong in practice about how much people have been told and how the balance has been struck so far.

Nearly 18 months ago, the Government published a booklet telling us how to prepare for emergency. It partly dealt with terrorism but the message was muted and 1.5 million households have yet to receive their copies. We can do better. There have been spasmodic poster campaigns on the underground and other parts of London transport and we are rightly told not to leave our baggage on the tube. However, do not we need to know what the threat is and how to deal with it? For example, why are not we told publicly what the national alert status is? Why do we need to depend on leaks from the BBC to tell us what the security services perceive as the danger level?

If, as must be the case, an alert and vigilant population is among our best defences against terrorism, we must engage the public actively in that task, explaining what they need to do and why raising the alert status is not crying wolf, however often we do it. We must also explain the sheer scale of information and intelligence that needs to be pursued if we are to be more likely to intervene successfully against future attacks.

We need a concerted campaign of public information because we know that knowledge dispels fear. To back that up, we must start basic public training. I do not mean that we should all practise running to the air raid shelter and donning our gas masks, but we need basic pointers about what we should do. If the Government need some guidelines on that, they need only examine how the people of Northern Ireland were taught to recognise the sort of vehicles that terrorists might use as bombs. Indeed, I recommend that the Government look closely at the way in which we handled similar threats over 30 years in Northern Ireland. New Labour has a habit of ignoring the lessons of history but lessons learned in Ulster could save lives in Britain today.

Beyond that, we need a single point of contact and a single Minister who has the authority to control and co-ordinate all the different elements of preparedness. I understand and appreciate the co-ordination necessary for the many agencies that are required. It depends on many different chains of command being effectively linked together. However, the essence of what is required is early action, constant examination of plans and leadership to ensure that the responses to risk are swift and effective. That is often achieved in respect of each of those chains of command by someone with authority from outside looking creatively and constructively—sometimes destructively—at their plans to see how genuinely robust they are.

Ministers are responsible for the effectiveness of our emergency preparations, and it is to Ministers that civil servants and Government Departments respond. In circumstances in which Ministers determine priorities in their Departments, we cannot look to the civil contingencies secretariat to carry the burden of securing the necessary priority and action across government. The most effective way of securing the necessary priority is a Minister for homeland security with sufficient seniority to have the single-minded focus to achieve it. On Monday, for instance, during the urgent question on avian flu, it was instructive that, when the Secretary of State for Health was asked what poultry farmers should
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do to protect their flocks, she replied, in effect, that that was a matter for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

How many different agencies were involved in the response to the events of 7 July? The emergency services did a magnificent job, but we need to be sure that the co-ordination worked, and continues to work, and that it offers the greatest effectiveness.

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