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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


†Mr. Eric Illsley

†Allen, Mr. Graham (Nottingham, North) (Lab)
†Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
†Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
†Campbell, Mr. Alan (Tynemouth) (Lab)
†Davidson, Mr. Ian (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op)
†Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
†Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) (Lab)
Gummer, Mr. John (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con)
†Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
†Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
†Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)
†Mercer, Patrick (Newark) (Con)
†Morgan, Julie (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
†Murphy, Mr. Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office)
†Starkey, Dr. Phyllis (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab)
†Wright, Mr. Iain (Hartlepool) (Lab)
Ian Cameron, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Thursday 10 November 2005

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (Contingency Planning) Regulations 2005

8.55 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office (Mr. Jim Murphy): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (Contingency Planning) Regulations 2005 (S.I. 2005, No. 2042).

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship at five to nine on this Thursday morning, Mr. Illsley. I think that this is the first time that I have served under you, and we are relieved to see you.

Recent events in London, New Orleans and Pakistan have once again raised the profile of civil contingencies in the House, in the media and across the country. I welcome this opportunity to discuss the regulations and the contribution that they will make to further enhancing the preparedness of the United Kingdom.

First, I shall give a brief overview of the purpose, structure and content of the regulations and the supporting guidance. Secondly, I shall demonstrate how the Government have engaged Parliament and practitioners effectively in the policy development process. Thirdly, I shall bring hon. Members’ attention to the Government’s wider efforts to support local responders in meeting the challenges set out in the legislation.

Let me first give an overview of the new regime. The aim of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the supporting regulations and the guidance is to establish a single framework for civil protection that is capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century. The new regime will further enhance the resilience of the United Kingdom by setting out a clear set of responsibilities for those organisations with a role in preparing for and responding to emergencies at a local level; by delivering greater structure and consistency in local civil protection activity; and by establishing the basis for robust performance management of local responders’ civil protection work.

Although the broad shape of those duties is set out in the Act, the regulations clarify their scope and prescribe the manner in which they are to be performed. The regulations are complemented by the statutory guidance document “Emergency Preparedness”, which describes in more accessible terms what is required and provides good-practice guidance to support local responders in complying. It is vital that hon. Members read the two sets of documents in conjunction.

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As regards engaging Parliament and practitioners, the Government have, over the past 18 months, worked closely with Parliament and a wide range of stakeholders, including the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Local Government Association, to ensure that the package meets its objectives. In particular, we published an indicative set of draft regulations on introducing the Civil Contingencies Bill in January 2004 to facilitate parliamentary scrutiny of the primary legislation and to allow parliamentarians to influence the content of the secondary legislation. We established six stakeholder working groups during the passage of the Bill to steer the development of the draft regulations and statutory guidance for each of the main duties. We also consulted publicly on the draft package of regulations and guidance, directly engaging the expertise of practitioners in a series of roadshows and making important improvements to the package as a result. Improvements were made to the package in terms of the risk assessment methodology and the provisions on information sharing. We also kept responders informed of progress throughout the process by issuing regular bulletins and maintaining a close dialogue about implementation issues via the regional resilience forums.

That open and consultative approach has, without doubt, delivered results. In particular, it has delivered a better package of regulations and guidance, reflecting the needs of front-line responders and the job that they do; a clear sense of ownership among front-line responders, who feel that their contribution has been valued and listened to throughout the policy development process; and a genuine commitment on the part of front-line responders to delivering the objectives of this legislation and making that a core part of their work. That vividly illustrates the benefits of genuine dialogue between the Government, Parliament and practitioners. I understand that the House of Lords Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments has formally commended this process.

On the issue of ongoing support for local responders, finalising this legislation and bringing it into force is very much the start of a process, not the end. Significant work is under way in a number of areas to give front-line responders the support that they need to meet the challenges in the Act. Given the concerns raised by hon. Members during the passage of the Bill, it is worth setting out in some detail what we are putting in place to ensure that we will the means as well as the ends.

The new legislation is underpinned by the right level of resourcing. The level of funding for national security and emergency preparedness will double between 2001 and 2008, and local responders have benefited from that significant new investment. For example, funding for local authorities’ civil protection work was more than doubled in the 2004 spending review. That outcome has been warmly welcomed by the Local Government Association and the Emergency Planning Society. The Government are committed to ensuring that established public expenditure processes continue to secure for local responders the funding that they need.

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The Civil Contingencies Act has also generated an unprecedented demand for learning and professional development opportunities, and we are working with all the Government colleges, including the Emergency Planning College, Centrex and the Fire Service College, to ensure that we meet that growing demand.

The Government are also committed to giving local responders the guidance and support that they need to comply with the requirements of the Act. A good illustration of that commitment is in the field of risk assessment. In addition to the detailed risk assessment methodology set out in “Emergency Preparedness”, the Government issued in July centrally provided risk information to all category 1 responders: the so-called local risk assessment guidance, which maps out the risks that our communities face, and which makes available generic national information. That will help us to ensure that local risk assessments are made on the best available evidence, and will minimise the scope for duplication of effort. It has been warmly welcomed by all our stakeholders, who believe that it will make their plans better focused and more robust.

The Civil Contingencies Act has without doubt raised the profile of civil protection work, and the performance management regime that we are putting in place will ensure that that continues to be the case. The Government are committed to ensuring that the requirements of the Act are reflected in local responders’ mainstream audit and inspection regimes, such as Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and the Audit Commission.

The Act establishes a clear set of standards, and we are working closely with audit and inspection bodies to make sure that performance against them is assessed and consistently improved.

These regulations will make a significant contribution to UK preparedness by putting the legislative framework for civil protection on a sounder, long-term footing. We have worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders to make sure it is the right legislation, and the Government are committed to ensuring that local responders have access to the tools that they need to do the job.

9.3 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Illsley. I am grateful to the Minister for clearly and lucidly outlining his points. I am grateful to my colleagues for being present to support me, and to Labour Members.

I think I am right in saying that no one in the Committee Room had the dubious honour of serving on the Committee that considered the Civil Contingencies Bill.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I did.

Patrick Mercer: I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon.

The main plank of our concerns about that legislation are reflected, to a lesser extent, by these regulations. In 2004, when we went through the Bill, the climate was considerably different. Some people insisted that the legislation pertained to large-scale,
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natural disasters. They referred to the foot-and-mouth problems that had occurred a few months previously, and to the organisation of the civil contingencies secretariat. Opposition Members continued to stress that we had to prepare this country for an inevitable terrorist attack. The Government’s criticism was that what we were trying to do was likely to inflame concern and needlessly scare the pants off people. Clearly, the events of July have made things very different.

My concerns about the regulations are illustrated very clearly by the events of 7 and 21 July, and not least by the chilling events of the past week—a foiled attack in Australia, attacks in Amman yesterday and in Baghdad this morning, which are almost certainly linked to the same organisation, and the Prime Minister’s words yesterday that another two attacks have been foiled since 21 July. Anyone who does not see the wisdom of what the regulations are trying to achieve is blind. I shall make one or two points about parts 5, 6 and 7.

First, I fully recognise that many people on the Government Benches were fully apprised of the Opposition’s fears and shared our concern, which we expressed to the Government during the passage of the Bill, that the Bill was fine in theory but very poor in practice, and that it talked very little of delivery. The Government responded that the Bill was an enabling measure and that the regulations would tidy up the delivery, which I entirely accept.

We told the Government, however, that we believed that they had a duty to put in place a proper system for disseminating public information, followed by public training in the threats that the public face. I am therefore concerned about part 5 on the publication of plans and assessments, which has the subtitle “Alarming the public unnecessarily”. Regulation 27 states:

    “In performing its duty under section 2(1)(f) (duty to arrange for the publication of the assessments and plans), a general Category 1 responder must have regard to the importance of not alarming the public unnecessarily.”

The phrase “Alarming the public unnecessarily” is repeated in part 6. Will the Minister explain exactly what that means at local authority level? At what stage does the category 1 responder decide, “No, I will withhold information from the public. They must not know. It will alarm them unnecessarily?” Is the guidance enough for someone serving on a council in any of our constituencies to understand precisely what the Government mean by that?

Again, we tested the Government on the matter in 2004 and were told that any plan for public information was completely unnecessary. The Government then issued their own booklet to inform the public about the threat. In passing, does the Minister have any thoughts about why 1.5 million households have yet to receive that booklet?

Similarly, we asked the Government to ensure that there was a process of information and training, particularly on the underground. There have been sporadic poster campaigns to inform people of the dangers, but will the Minister make clear how the
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authorities that control the transport system will understand what “alarming the public unnecessarily” means?

Part 6 also talks about training and exercises, and states:

    “the carrying out of exercises for the purpose of ensuring that the arrangements are effective; and . . . the provision of training of . . . an appropriate number of suitable staff of the general Category 1 responder; and . . . such other persons as that general Category 1 responder considers appropriate; for the purpose of ensuring that the arrangements are effective.”

That is terribly loosely worded. What does it mean? What is appropriate? What is effective? What numbers are we talking about?

Paragraph 44 on charging, states at the end of part 7:

    “Relevant responders may make a charge for advice or assistance provided on request under section 4(1)”.

It then qualifies that in some detail, but does it mean that local authorities are now in a position to charge businesses that seek advice? Does that really mean that businesses will be content for yet more money to be demanded from them when they have already paid rates and taxes? Should not the advice be free? At what level are local authorities likely to charge someone who seeks advice?

I have talked about the matter with people in one local authority who have said that they will not go out to advise businesses, because as far as they are concerned they are not qualified to do so. They are also concerned about liability. They believe that the only way in which they can implement the regulations is by sending out leaflets and speaking at Rotary and business breakfasts.

I should be most grateful if the Minister would put flesh on the bones of the regulations. It worries me that a Government who should take responsibility centrally for much of what is happening are trying to devolve it to organisations, public bodies and councils that are probably not ready to implement it.

9.11 am

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I wish to make a couple of quick points to the Minister about the timing of the order and its timeliness. One relates to the points already made by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) about terrorist attacks. How much of the work that has been done on the measure predates the awful attacks that we have experienced in this country and that we have seen elsewhere? That may colour the Minister’s judgment of how the civil contingencies arrangements will operate.

Perhaps less dramatic, but equally important for my people in my constituency, is the split between local and regional responders. That may not have been considered in the drafting of the order. Over the summer—coincidentally, I am sure—the issue of the reorganisation of primary care trusts was raised. I think that it was on the last sitting day before the recess, unfortunately, and the period for consultation has now closed. If the Minister and his team had
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known what the Department of Health was doing, that might have influenced the drafting of the regulations. Health authorities have an important role to play.

Proposals to regionalise police forces—which are central to the measure before us—have also been announced in recent months. I suspect that the proposals were not taken into account in the early stages of drafting the regulations. The importance of the proposals—apart from the fact that they are recent and may not have been taken into account—is that they will influence the way in which people respond to civil emergencies. I share a county with the hon. Member for Newark; if responders are based on the Nottinghamshire police and a Nottinghamshire PCT, that will clearly be different—and the relationship in the localities will be different—from, say, an arrangement based on a regional police force of three or four counties or a PCT that is amalgamated, rather than being, as at present, split four or five ways.

This is an opportunity for the Minister to consider whether he and his team need to re-examine the matter, in the light of events that have happened since the regulations were drafted. I do not necessarily expect the Minister to answer my points on his feet now, although they are very pertinent and I hope that the Department has taken them into account. If he wishes to write to me, I will find that perfectly acceptable.

9.14 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): The Liberal Democrat view is that the regulations and the statutory guidance will assist the relevant authorities in dealing with emergencies efficiently and effectively, and I support them. As other hon. Members have said, it has become clear in past months, as several emergencies have arisen here and abroad, that preparedness and communication are critical in minimising the effects of such catastrophes. I welcome the approach in the regulations of ensuring that agencies are obliged to meet regularly and maintain up-to-date, detailed intelligence on emergency planning matters—joined-up government, I think it is called.

The main area about which we are concerned is the level of ambiguity in the regulations. There appear to be a number of ways in which category 2 responders can find that it is not “reasonably practicable” to attend meetings; I hope that we will be able to monitor the progress of the measures to ensure that there is co-operation at every level.

Although I appreciate the commitment to communication between organisations, I would welcome more detail on the kind of practical training that is surely required to back up the planning. I would also welcome greater explanation on how the Ministry of Defence fits in to the process, as I hope that its role is of vital significance. It is clear that the regulations will ensure that a variety of agencies are proactive in communicating with and meeting each other and that the system of meetings is well established, but that does not necessarily mean that action on the ground, when
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needed, will be effective. Therefore, I welcome the commitment that there will be regular monitoring and updating of procedures.

I wholeheartedly welcome some aspects of the regulations. The statement outlined in the Minister’s comments on human rights is to be welcomed, as is the section pertaining to the voluntary sector. Both highlight the compromises made by the Government when the Bill was passing through Parliament; that approach is a stark contrast to their approach in more recent days.

I am happy to support the regulations today. It is virtually impossible to plan completely for every eventuality and possible emergency, but the regulations will assist in what is a crucial, yet inexact science.

9.17 am

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Those of us who served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill took part in lengthy pre-legislative scrutiny, which was very useful. We took evidence from dozens of concerned category 1 and 2 responders and virtually all local authorities. A common thread through all the evidence that they sent in was the message that they would need additional funding to meet their new obligations. Hon. Members might say, “They would say that wouldn’t they?”, but consider the extent of their new obligations. They will have to:

    “Assess the risk of emergencies occurring and use this to inform emergency planning and business continuity planning; Put in place emergency plans; Put in place business continuity plans; Put in place arrangements to make information available to the public about civil protection matters and maintain arrangements to warn, inform and advise the public in the event of an emergency; Share information with other local responders to enhance co-ordination; Co-operate with other local responders to enhance co-ordination and efficiency; and Provide advice and assistance to businesses and voluntary organisations about business continuity management (local authorities only).”

It seems therefore—I refer to what the hon. Member for Newark said—that it is not a matter of choice; such bodies will have a duty to advise businesses. Whether they will want to charge for that is another matter. By the way, I may have taken an active part rather anonymously in the Standing Committee from his point of view.

Those bodies will also need to arrange simulated emergency operations. That is clearly of great importance; the tube has been mentioned. In his opening remarks, the Minister said that spending on that area had doubled. I have in front of me an extract from the comprehensive spending review 2004, which is, I am sure, essential reading for us all. On page 76, in the section on global security and prosperity, is a chart that shows what he rightly says—that spending has virtually doubled from that in 2001. However, something about which I am not sure concerns me. On page 75, table 6.1 shows figures for intelligence operations, and resources for emergency planning are set at £20 million for 2006-07; there is a similar figure for 2007-08. Is £20 million enough for all local authorities to carry out all of the new functions? If these welcome regulations, which come into force on
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14 November, are to mean anything, local authorities will need funds to back them up. They are additional services, some of which are brand new; I presume that more staff will need to be engaged, and co-ordination will take a lot of time. I want to press the Minister on that. We all want to see the regulations work; the 2004 Act stands or falls on whether they are practical, and how local authorities are able to respond.

I know that there are other category 1 responders, but I am concentrating on local authorities for the time being. So I ask the Minister to advise the Committee how much precisely will be committed as new money and how that will filter through to our local authorities, who are when all is said and done very important first responders.

Those are my points of concern. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I welcome the regulations. I hope that we will be able to review them in a few months’ time, and I hope that they work successfully. The fact that they are almost loosely worded is perfectly all right, because the Government will issue further guidance on how local authorities and the emergency services need to approach such matters. I ask the Minister when he responds please to address my concerns about the funding.

9.21 am

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I wish to make a point about the fact that utility companies are category 2 rather than category 1 responders. Because we are elected politicians, we tend to think in terms of democratic institutions, whether nationally or locally. We tend to overlook the fact that everyone relies on the services provided by utility companies. The most obvious is electricity, and water is another; nowadays we could add mobile phone operators to the list.

We are dealing with civil contingency planning, but it may not necessarily be in response to a terrorist threat. It could be in response to a failure in the delivery of a utility service. For example, I believe that the United Kingdom has the longest-established electricity grid network in the world that has never been switched off. The grid has never not worked. The lights have always remained on. They may have gone off in some parts of the country at some point, but the whole system has never been completely switched off.

What procedures are in place should the whole network grind to a halt? How is the grid network to be restarted if there are no power stations feeding into the grid? The power stations would have to be fired up one by one, operating what is called the black start procedure, in order gradually to get the entire network running again. That has never been done in this country, thank goodness, but what procedures are in place to ensure that it could be?

My concern is that including utility companies as category 2 responders may undermine the efforts of the remaining emergency services in responding appropriately to civil contingencies. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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9.24 amMr. Murphy: I do not know whether any members of the Committee were present when we debated this subject in July. I made the opening speech, no one else spoke except the Opposition spokesman, and the first line of my excellent winding-up speech was, “We have had an excellent debate”. So here we go again.

We have had an excellent debate. I should have said at the outset that the Government pay tribute to the tireless work undertaken by emergency managers in recent months, in planning for and responding to emergencies in the UK—and increasingly overseas. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in thanking them for their contribution to the safety and security of the communities that we all serve.

To respond to the many specific points raised this morning, including those raised by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), would take more time than we have available, but I shall try.

In answer to the hon. Member for Newark, the regulations were welcomed by category 1 responders. I know that it is unfashionable to say so, but that included the police forces of our country, and it is important that they made that assessment.

On the provision of information, there is a difficulty with the ambitious plan to distribute a booklet to every household, as the hon. Gentleman will know. It is difficult to guarantee the delivery of a single booklet to all houses, flats and what we in Glasgow call “closes”—houses in multiple occupation. If we were relying simply on one booklet, the hon. Gentleman’s point would be fair, but the fact is that we are using many different ways to communicate to the public the dangers, the protective measures that they can take and the efforts that the Government are making. We are using television and, increasingly, websites, although they do not reach everyone. We are also using advertisements in newspapers, on public transport, on radio and elsewhere.

As the hon. Gentleman will know from discussions during the passage of the Bill, we also have clear arrangements in place with all the broadcasters so that we can, in partnership with them, deal with some of the issues that we have discussed and with others about which we can speculate. We will take a shared approach to dealing with those issues; the broadcasters, the Government, local responders and the emergency services will have a shared agenda. An arrangement is in place with broadcasters to ensure that they play their part in real time and broadcast the information that people need live across all the networks. We are not, therefore, talking just about the booklet that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

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Prepared 11 November 2005