|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con):
I am delighted to begin by echoing the praise of our emergency services and of the many unsung heroesthe people who continue to go to work in the face of disasters, natural and otherwise. Like the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), I have first-hand experience of natural disasters in my capacity as a Member of the Welsh Assembly. In my experience, the devolved bodies did not make such a good job of responding as she implied the Greater London assembly did. In the past few years, we in Wales have faced two major problems: foot and mouth and severe localised flooding in the town of Monmouth.
19 Oct 2005 : Column 943
Meg Hillier: Although I am no longer a Member of the Greater London assembly, I am sure that the Mayor of London and the 25 assembly members would welcome a visit by the hon. Gentleman to see how they did such a good job.
The response to foot and mouth was an absolute disasterthat is the nicest thing that I could say about it. I saw at first hand the problems we had getting people in to deal with culling. In some areas, carcases piled up. There appeared to be no clear lines of accountabilityno one seemed to know who was in charge, even the people who were supposedly running the show. Monmouthshire is on the Welsh side of the border with England, so technically the Welsh Assembly was in overall charge, but an office of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Worcester was running things; yet on one occasion when we rang the Worcester office to talk to the people who were dealing with the problems, they did not seem to know what the Welsh Assembly was. That was totally unacceptable.
In the case of the flooding, nothing could have been done to prevent it, but every effort was made to alleviate the problems that people experienced. I give particular credit to the meals on wheels service operated by Monmouthshire county council, which risked life and limb to ensure that hot meals and drinks were delivered to people. We have no complaint about the way in which the situation was dealt with, but in the years since people have continued to face the problem of flooding because no one can cut through the thicket of bureaucratic regulations that have to be overcome to put in place a decent flood defence scheme. It is therefore important to make the case for a Minister for homeland security who can take overall charge of dealing with those problems.
We now face threats more serious than flooding or foot and mouth in the form of terrorism and avian flu. No one could say that the Government have failed to be proactive in talking about terrorism, but sometimes they have talked it up to try to gain more draconian powers for themselves. I draw Members' attention to a headline a few years ago that appeared in the Daily Mail. [Hon. Members: "It must be true".] I rather think that it was not. On 23 November, a report headed "Target Canary Wharf" said that a group of al-Qaeda terrorists was apparently planning to hijack planes and fly them straight into Canary wharf. The story came from intelligence sources, which had taken it upon themselves to talk to the Daily Mail just two days before the Queen's Speech, in which the Government were seeking extra powers for themselves, purportedly to combat terrorism. If there was any truth in that story why on earth were arrests not made and why did we never hear anything more about it? Why did the Government allow security sources to talk to the Daily Mail and if they did not give such authorisation, why did they not hunt them down in the same way that they hunted down David Kelly?
In the minds of many, the story is an utter fabrication given to a right-wing tabloid just hours before the Queen's Speech announced all sorts of controversial
19 Oct 2005 : Column 944
powers for the Government. That is why people do not have any confidence or trust in them when they talk about terrorism. They have told us what they are going to do about avian flu, yet we are well behind other countries. The Government say that they are going to reach their targets, but the target for vaccination courses in the United Kingdom is about 25 per cent. as opposed to 30 per cent. in France and the Netherlands and 50 per cent. in Italy. The Minister could not answer my question about masks and gloves. The Australians have purchased those items from the UK so we can no longer purchase them ourselves. She said that the Government had to talk to the health and safety people. Presumably, the Australians, who belong to a health and safety-conscious nation, did so several months before the British could.
What we are asking for is not in the least unreasonable. We are faced with a Government who have given us quangos, taskforces and bureaucrats galore. We have an army of clipboard-wielding busybodies up and down the country setting rules for everything. All that we are asking for is one extra Minister and a skeleton staff to be taken from other Departments to try to avert a disaster. I urge Government Members to put their constituents first, think again and support our motion.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). Many of the points that he made arose in other Members' speeches, and I shall deal with them in my summary.
I can reassure the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) that I will address issues specific to London. She may not like what she hears, but I hope that I am proved wrong. A number of hon. Members expressed shared concerns in our excellent debate which, I hope, will expose various things that the Government should do and which, with due humility, I trust the Opposition can help them to achieve. Emergency preparedness is not a party political subject. It should stand well above party politics. If there is anything that I can do in my shadow capacity, I would be extremely happy to help Ministers achieve safety for our citizens.
We heard an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who not only pointed out the terrorist aspects, but dwelt particularly on the serious problems posed by avian flu. I do not intend to go into that in any more detail, as quite enough has been said about it already.
The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) and the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), as well as the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch and my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth, all spoke about the need for a single Minister. Well, if there is a human embodiment of that creature, I am he. I probably have the right hon. Member for Walsall, South to thank for creating the impetus behind that appointment. The suggestion that the post should be created came from a Committee on which I was privileged to sit at the time. It came from a Chairman who belongs to the Labour party and has profound socialist views, a man for whom I have profound respect. We ignore at our peril his views and those of several Committees.
19 Oct 2005 : Column 945
The job of such a Minister, as and when he or she is created, is not to deal with events such as those at Boscastle or just with events such as those that took place in July, but to deal with events that encompass a much broader spectrum than anything we have seen. It is instructive that the Department for Homeland Security got it so badly wrong during hurricane Katrina. I have no doubt that that Department has many lessons to learn, and I hope that we can learn from it.
In addition, I hope we pick up the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, our reaction to terrorism and to other huge disasters that we are likely to face must not just be legislation. It is not words but deeds that count. Everything that we heard tonight was about meetings, committees, consultation and plans. What have we heard about exercises, putting those plans into practice, and delivery? We as politicians, and especially my colleagues who come from legal backgrounds, are extremely keen to stay within our comfort zones and talk about talkingnothing more and nothing less. I ask the Minister to consider the delivery of the plans, not just the theory.
At least we have a contingency plan for a flu pandemic. At least in Tuxford in my constituency, there has been an exercise of a sort to deal with a flu pandemic, but I am not sure that CONTEST, the strategy for counter-terrorism, is anything like as well prepared as the contingency plans for the flu pandemic. I am sure that, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire said, there is plenty wrong with that, but not as wrong as the woeful lack of preparation for terrorist attacks in this country.
We have seen that a flu pandemic is probable. We have seen that there are planning assumptions of 50,000 dead. What we know about terrorism is that it is not probableit is definite. It is unlikely to kill thousands. It is more likely to kill tens, but the insidious drip of calculated evil has an effect far beyond the vagaries of nature. Look, for instance, at how Islamist fundamentalists exploited the decades of fear that ETA had created in Spain. The appalling but bloodily modest 192 fatalities brought down a Government and fractured a coalition.
What have we done to prepare ourselves for such eventualities? The right hon. Member for Walsall, South talked about the use of the private sector. The London chamber of commerceI am sure that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch will be interested to hear thishas carried out a review of terrorist attacks on businesses and come up with some interesting proposals. In reply to the question whether it was thought that another terrorist attack on London was inevitable, 83.8 per cent. said yes. When asked whether a business contingency plan had been adopted or existing plans updated in the light of the recent bombings, 25 per cent. said yes, 74 per cent. said no.
19 Oct 2005 : Column 946
as advocated by the London chamber of commerce. That is not a responsibility for the private sector. That needs to be led and directed by Government, and I suggest by a single Minister for homeland security.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|