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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. There is not much time left and, as no time limit was placed on Back-Bench speeches, I hope that hon. Members will self-regulate. There are still about six hon. Members seeking to speak in the debate.

5.46 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): We have been throwing brickbats at the Government—some of which are perhaps deserved—but I wonder how good we, as a Parliament, are at dealing with civil contingencies. The answer is that we are very bad at it. We have Select Committees that inquire into their own Departments, but that misses the point. The issues of contingency planning, emergency planning and resilience cannot be resolved by one Select Committee monitoring one Department.

What has come out of the events of the past few years is that the Government's response needs to cut across all Departments, horizontally and vertically, and across regional and local government, the emergency services, the private sector and those who look after our critical national infrastructure, which is mostly privatised. Is our Select Committee system remotely fit to monitor that range of inter-departmentalism? No, it is not. We excel at stove-piping better than the most stove-piped industry or Government Department in the country.

There have been limited examples of inter-departmentalism in Parliament, involving collaboration between Select Committees. I have to say that most of that work involved the Defence Committee. There were collaborations between the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees, and the Defence and Trade and Industry Committees. The Defence Committee also played a major role in setting up the quadripartite Committee. We sought to break away—I should not say "we", because I am no longer a member of the Defence Committee—from that very limited approach to the role of the Select Committee. There are other mechanisms that can be used. We have the Liaison Committee, and there was a Joint Committee on the Bill that became the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Perhaps that is a model with which we can proceed.
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After 9/11, I called together the Chairmen of a number of Select Committees and suggested that as we were all going to be involved in examining the consequences of those events, we should establish some ground rules so that we did not each ask the same people to appear before each Committee, as the US Congress does, and ask them all the same questions. I suggested that we collaborate. The response was zero. For one reason or another—decent reasons, no doubt—my colleagues were not prepared to collaborate.

What did the Defence Committee do? We did it ourselves: we walked over all the Government Departments. An expurgated version of what one Minister is alleged to have said to us is, "What the devil is the Defence Committee doing walking all over my Department?" That was a classic example of stove-piping. Yet the result was the best report that the Defence Committee has ever produced, because we considered the issue across a broad base. I suggest that we, as parliamentarians, start to put pressure on our colleagues to consider an alternative model for the way in which we and those up the Corridor—like it or not, the House of Lords is also part of the parliamentary process—scrutinise the decision-making process, so that we can do it more effectively. If we were to ask the Library how many questions had been asked about the civil contingencies secretariat over the past three years, we would be given the answer, "Hardly any." It is okay having a good rant on an occasion such as this, but what are we doing seriously to scrutinise and influence the decision-making process?

Mr. Graham Stuart: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a ministerial post could offer the opportunity to bring that together and should not be dismissed out of hand?

Mr. George: That was going to be about my 11th point until I was instructed to make a short speech.

The Defence Committee's superb report, "Defence and Security in the UK", which, of course, everyone will have read, considered the matter. The then Home Secretary was not ecstatic about our proposals, because he thought that we were attacking him, which we were not. We did not want a director of homeland security—a Tom Ridge-type character—and events have shown that the American model is not very appropriate for the United States, let alone the United Kingdom. Any Home Secretary is overburdened with a range of activities, one of which is contingency planning and counter-terrorism. The Defence Committee proposed that there should be a very senior Minister because, as has been pointed out forcefully, someone who operates in Cabinet as an observer at Minister of State level in the hierarchy will just be used as an office boy. Therefore, it would be a good idea to have someone devoted to cutting across this whole range of activity as it is more than a full-time job. That idea is not getting very far, however.

I am sorry to keep on about the Defence Committee, but the report was excellent. At the time that we produced the report, the civil contingencies secretariat had been established—it was established before 9/11, and therefore had an opportunity to flex its muscles. The report stated:
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Two and a half years have passed since then, but one suspects that the problem of departmentalism has not yet been resolved.

I am not totally convinced about the lead Department concept, for a number of reasons. One might be a very good permanent secretary and able to operate one's Department pretty well in the normal crises that might unfold in the course of a working day, week, month or year. But we are now talking about leading the Department's response to a humdinger of a massive terrorist attack—not one or two on the Richter scale but 10—that has gone through the military and intelligence system just like the first attack in July this year. One wonders whether all Departments have done what the Ministry of Defence has done, which is to train a core of people who will head that response on behalf of the Ministry of Defence—professionals who are trained and have the psychological make-up to deal with such a crisis, who have attended relevant courses and spent a great deal of time eliciting information. I hope that all Departments are prepared to do that. Criticism of the permanent secretary by me and Members of Parliament is not something that Departments like, but the idea should be considered.

It is not a failure of this Government that causes me anxiety but of government in general: has anybody seen an organisational chart of central Government Departments, regional and local government, the health service, the intelligence services and the private sector, showing who is involved in the process of trying to pick up the pieces should there be an attack? In my experience, it is sometimes difficult for the Ministry of Defence to talk to the Ministry of Defence. What we have here is almost the entire spectrum of Government, and government in society, all of it heaped together in a labyrinth of decision making and input. Have we reached the point at which we can say that each component is trained for the task and prepared to respond? Is there the necessary glue and are there the necessary mechanisms for co-ordination? Is the decision-making process adequate?

We can learn much from our own exercises, our own mistakes and other people's mistakes, of which there are many. I understand why a small country, or a poor country such as Pakistan, cannot respond effectively. It is more reprehensible for the largest country in the world to fail so miserably. Why has that happened? The reason may be cronyism. Perhaps those who reached the top positions were appointed for their party political loyalties rather than their expertise. Perhaps the federal system, deliberately constructed more than 200 years ago, is to blame. The country should have stuck with the United Kingdom if it wanted an example of centralised decision making. The process of fragmented decision making was created with the intention of rendering decision making almost impossible, and that is what has happened.
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My main criticism of the process is that, despite the experience we have gained, we cannot be entirely certain that, for all its exercises and expertise, Cobra—the Cabinet Office briefing room—has been fine-tuned to deal with all crises. Too much responsibility is heaped on the police because they are so professional. Is the gold-silver-bronze system working to the desired extent? That may not be the case.

Adam Afriyie: It feels rude to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman's flow, but he has not mentioned the general public. In Windsor, we have a castle and a military presence, so there are some fairly clear targets. It seems to me that, among 60,000 or 70,000 people, there are many eyes and ears that could help to prevent threats of terrorism and other dangers. Is that part of his thinking?

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