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I do not think that the Government have properly activated the private sector, which is now central to our economy and contains a great deal of expertise. A good deal of responsibility has been bestowed on those in the private sector because, should the balloon go up, not many military and police personnel will be available and they will have to defend their own premises. I wonder whether businesses and others in the sector have been told, "You must be clued up. You must have contingency plans. You must know what resilience is. You must know what to do if there is a direct hit on your premises."
If a concern in Canary Wharf, the City of London or the financial services sector elsewhere is out of business for half a day, it is dead. Are companies prepared to spend enough to develop in-house expertise and enable shareholders and employees to feel confident that, in the event of a disaster, the safety of personnel will be secured as far as possible and they will be able to repair to other parts of the country where there will be office accommodation, computers and staff who do not work in the central office, so that the organisation can soon be up and running?
We should consider how many of the companies that were based in the twin towers folded. How many of the companies that were destroyed by the IRA bomb in Manchester exist now? Some business men think, "My insurance will take care of it." It will not. Some think, "No one will attack my company", but someone might be prepared to attack a company 2 miles away, and others could be hit and destroyed in the process. The private sector must take its role more seriously and have the necessary resilience and contingency planning. About half of it does not.
I am the titular head of a number of private security organisations, although I have no financial interest whatsoever. I remember that, after 9/11, the private sector, which I had been challenging for a number of years on regulation, offered to provide the police with 2,000 personnel who would be available within four hours to assist them in responding to a direct and catastrophic attack. What has happened to that proposal? Nothing. The security industry could respond quicker than the Army or the Territorial Army, which may or may not be around when such an incident occurs. Even if they are around, they might not be able to muster very quickly.
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There have been a lot of positive developments. The Civil Contingencies Committee and the civil contingencies secretariat have had an influx of very good people, and much has happened to show that we are capable of responding to an attack at a certain level. But the Government need to show greatI will not say greaterprofessionalism in dealing with these issues. The structures must be good not only on paper; we must be capable of deploying against a whole range of threats, be it terrorism or natural or other disasters. Such events have overtaken others and could overtake us.
I hope that the regional and local structures that the new legislation provides will enable a suitable response to such threats and that a debate such as this will help our parliamentary colleagues to take more of an interest in emergency planning. Perhaps the Joint Committee provides a model for the setting up of a new committee, but in saying that, I should point out that I am not offering my services in this regard, even though I am semi-unemployed. Why let the emergency planning process in British government get away with not being scrutinised seriously? If those concerned are smart enough, they will know that it would be to their advantage to have interested, qualified and knowledgeable Members of Parliament sitting on a cross-cutting committee. Such a committee could focus attention on this issue and put questions and elicit answers regularly, rather than sporadically.
One thing is certain: be it tomorrow, next week, next month or next year, an attack will take place somewhere in this country that will make July's events in London seem like a minor preparation. If I were in government, I would not like to be hauled in before the major commission of inquiry, which would inevitably take place following such an attack, and have to answer the question, "Well, Minister"by then it might well be ex-Minister"Where were you during this country's preparations for dealing with a catastrophic attack?". I suspect that most would be absolutely clean in this regard, but a nagging doubt might arise in the mind of any Minister or civil servant. They will ask themselves, "Have we done enough? Have we provided enough resources? Do we have resilience in government? Are we prepared not just for low-level attacks, but for the serious attack that no country can respond to absolutely effectively?".
This debate is about more than simply chickens. That said, I point out that I was in Romania three weeks ago and tucked in heartily to a range of birds and animals, so watch this spaceor ostracise me in the canteen. More seriously, I hope that semi-permanent parliamentary scrutiny will enable better decision making and preparation, and enable us to give advice and to react to such events. There should be no party politics in this, just consideration of the health and welfare of our constituents and all the people of this country.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con):
The chief medical officer warned earlier this week that at least 50,000 people can be expected to die in this country if the flu virus mutates into one that can be transferred from human to human. We thus face two distinct threats: that of avian flu and that of a pandemic flu outbreak. The threat from a mutated avian flu is serious and material to all of us and our families. At least
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57 people have died in the far east from direct contact with birds, but the 50,000 figure for this country could be a conservative estimate if a pandemic takes hold.
That is why it is so important that we and the wider British public are able to trust the authorities when they give guidance for public safety. Experts believe that the H5N1 strain could be as devastating as the strain of flu that went round the world after the first world war, killing literally millions. Yet when I talk to constituents, I find little trust in the Government or their spokespeople, however eminent. It seems that the culture of spin, misinformation, untruths and gibberish, by which we have been governed in the last eight years, has done more than undermine the reputation of this Parliament and a once proud political party opposite.
The fact that a Minister can mislead a Select Committee, but remain a welcome member of the new Labour project, undermines public trust. The fact that thousands of animals could be slaughtered and billions of pounds of public money spent on foot and mouth without a public inquiry undermines public trust. The fact that terrorist horror is seen as a good opportunity to bury bad news undermines public trust. The fact that intelligence reports prior to a war were doctored by a spin doctor undermines public trust. Those things have done more than bring shame on principled Labour Members and more than weaken our civil service's independence, for they undermine the whole relationship between the Government and the people.
I ask Ministers to pledge today to be open and honest about the avian flu risk and the Government's preparations to deal with it. I ask them to resist the desire to have eye-catching initiatives and to work in partnership across the House and with those outside it to minimise any potential public risk. Any hint of cover-up, any refusal to accept that mistakes may have been made, will increase the likelihood that vital advice will be ignored or distrusted. It would be a calamity if the words of the excellent chief medical officer were set aside because the public saw him in the same light as the Chancellor sees the Prime Ministeras in the phrase, "You can't believe a word he says".
More than 1,000 jobs have been created in and around my constituency of Beverley and Holderness by the push towards free-range egg production. There are also a number of non-free-range egg producers. The poultry industry is of great importance to my constituents, who have a number of questions that they would like the Government to answer.
First, my constituents want to know whether their jobs are safe and whether free range is a passing fad or has continued Government support. They want to know how long the Government believe free-range birds might need to be kept indoors when the avian flu virus reaches northern Europe. I believe that European rules say that free-range birds may be brought inside "temporarily" so that their free-range status and added value will not be affected, but what length of time does that allow? My constituency is on the east coaston the front line of infection from migratory birds. Will birds in some areas be ordered to be kept inside before others? Is the east coast a priority area?
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My constituents also want to know that all preventive measures have been takennot just at home, but, as the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) mentioned earlier and perhaps more importantly, in currently affected countries. It would be a disaster if we allowed a pandemic to develop elsewhere, when it could have been stamped out at source. We would be fools if we stockpiled drugs here, when they were needed more urgently elsewhere to help reduce the risk of a pandemic reaching us at all.
So what steps are the Government taking to help affected countries prepare for and counter an epidemic threat? Let us hope that their actions are more concrete than 12 months of discussion about face masks. What offers have we made to the World Health Organisation to supply staff or other resources to help countries that lack epidemiological and laboratory capacity to respond to any emerging disease? Have we responded to WHO requests to establish local laboratory capacity in affected countries that lack such capacity? How have the British Government responded to a call by WHO for a meeting between the heads of state of industrialised countries and of risk-prone countries to reach agreement on the most desirable support?
Following the statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs earlier this week that imports of poultry are banned from all countries affected by the flu virus, can the Minister tell us which countries have recently been added to that list and when those orders became or will become effective? The last pandemic was in 1968. Since then, global movement of goods and people has grown exponentially. We cannot afford to build a bunker and hope that it protects us. At home, the Government must prepare and be open and transparent. We must also take a leading role in co-ordinating an international response and ensuring that poorer countries are helped, for reasons of both equity and, ultimately, efficacy on behalf of the British people.
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