Joint Committee on Draft Civil Contingencies Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-186)



  Q180  Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall: The model that the consultation paper sets out for the Emergency Co-ordinator is of someone who is only appointed when the emergency occurs and who is chosen, as it were, from a panel of specialists who have received a little training but are otherwise unpaid and uninvolved. Is that the model that you favour or do you see the Emergency Co-ordinator as being a permanent appointment or someone who is a leader rather than a specialist?

  Mr Morgan: It is not an easy question to answer but we tend to see the Emergency Co-ordinator as being a person who is exactly what those words say; namely, a co-ordinator. That is not necessarily a person that is a specialist in the field. That is the structure of a sort of corporate body, if you like, that locks different departments into one more tightly than in the traditional, British Government structures. For Wales, co-ordination would be very much what you would expect from the lead person. In England, I think, the complication is "What department does that person come from?"; therefore there is the concept of a lead department. I think that is probably inevitable in England. There is really no right answer and, clearly, whoever is co-ordinating, if it is a health-related strategy, they will be pulling in an awful lot of health resources and not an awful lot of resources from other departments around us. It just depends on the nature of the emergency. If it is agriculture it will be a lot of vets and a lot of people from our agriculture division. The actual co-ordinator we think should be a generalist or an expert in co-ordination rather than an expert in the field.

  Mr Henry: Our preference is very much someone who is able and capable of co-ordinating and organising rather than having specialist knowledge. A good organiser, a good co-ordinator can pull in the experts that are required. I do not think it would be helpful to have an expert who is incapable of co-ordinating, organising and developing a team around them. So I think the co-ordinator and organiser role is the one for us.

  Q181  Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall: Do you see that person as being a temporary appointment when the emergency occurs, or somebody who is there and involved in planning and training? In other words, someone who is really much more a permanent member of staff?

  Mr Henry: I think, from our perspective, temporary, because different emergencies may require certain different organisational skills. We think the ability to get the right person for that emergency as soon as is humanly possible is the best way to do it.

  Mr Morgan: It just depends on how big the emergency is. Nick Patel, here, is the Head of the Emergency Planning Permanent Unit, but there may be occasions when an emergency is that big that you have to have a person that is able to command the full resources of the whole of the civil service, if you like, in Wales. I repeat what I said earlier, that it is possible that, as I answered earlier to James Clappison (and he was very interested in the answer), there are times when you think that the co-ordinating is actually a matter for politicians because the judgment calls are: "Is this defensive politically?" "What are they going to think about this out there in Wales?" "Can I stand up there and be challenged, whether it is in the media or a session of the Assembly and say `Yes, I had to make those judgment calls.'?" So that is a job, in a way, for a politician rather than a civil servant, however senior or generalist.

  Q182  Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall: You might have gathered that I have slight prejudice against arbitrary regionalisation, but I wonder, in light of what Rhodri has just said, whether in fact we should consider having some sort of national panel—a commission—of experts? The type of person I am thinking about is somebody from the military, somebody from the police, somebody with knowledge of nuclear issues, somebody with a knowledge of ecological matters (I am not going to try and define them all). Should we, in fact, try to have, or superimpose on whatever process we devise, a panel or commission of national experts who have the ability to pull in from every source the sort of information that would be useful and the ability then to add that on in some sort of coherent form to the organisation—which, at the end of the day, will be local authorities and emergency services?

  Mr Morgan: You are in danger, probably, of going back to what Lord Rothschild argued and described as the type of person who gets appointed to Royal Commissions: they always live in the south-east of England, they are aged 53 and they are white, Anglo-Saxon members of the Reform Club, or something of that sort. I would be worried about a central casting set of people. I picked up on the word "nuclear", and Hugh has used it as well. Again, nuclear is important but there is a danger of reverting too quickly to civil defence in the Cold War thinking when it was dominated by "What would happen if there was a nuclear bomb dropped on Birmingham, dropped on Calais, dropped on London, or whatever?" I think the whole of this legislation is to try to be much more flexible and much less black and white than that sort of idea of how would you handle the day after a nuclear bomb dropped on a metropolis in the United Kingdom, and the idea that you would devolve power because the telecommunications have all broken down, health has broken down, and nobody knows where the food is, etc, and you devolve power to the chief executive of the county council, as I remember in the 1970s and 1990s sort of period of civil defence—trying to get away from that kind of Cold War thinking to resilience. A graduated response to all sorts of different emergencies means much greater flexibility than you are talking about. That is the reason, I think, for going for—this is UK Government, not our thinking—a regional tier, not the response to a nuclear bomb which means you have to go right down to the local authority or county level as dominated Cold War nuclear bomb thinking. We now look at the range of health, agriculture, flood, fuel (all sorts of shortages) crises, and if they are big enough to be called emergencies then they are not anticipatable in the way that we thought that you could try to plan for a nuclear bomb on Birmingham.

  Q183  Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall: You must represent the point that I am trying to make. There are certain issues that we recognise. Terrorism as we know it today will be with us for the next two decades—we can say that with some certainty. Global warming will bring a migration of plant and animal disease that is difficult to anticipate. It will bring, undoubtedly, flooding in the United Kingdom; perhaps we will see mutations of diseases between various breeds of animals. That type of thing, I believe, is what needs to be dealt with by my commission. It is not an alternative club to the kind which I now belong to, but it is a working group of experts who, in fact, can create some sort of cohesion that I do not believe you will get from inflexible, regional organisations.

  Mr Morgan: All right. Just a quick response. The concept of a region in England has been around formally since 1965, as I recall—Harold Wilson's first administration—so it has been there for 37, 38 years. The strength of the regional tier of administration in England has expanded regardless of swings from Labour to Conservative and back again over the past 38 years. Each region commands the resources of nine Whitehall departments in the 11 English regions. London is a bit of a special case, Wales and Scotland are definitely special cases and Northern Ireland is a special-case-and-a-half, as you know. It fits a model in which you are saying we are not talking about nuclear explosion and a breakdown of everything, and we can graduate the response and try to anticipate it, and the resources available at regional level in England now, without a democratic top tier, are pretty big and that is where the co-ordination should be done. Forecasting, we would probably agree, is a matter for more centralised resources, sometimes international, sometimes national.

  Q184  Lord Bradshaw: I have only got one question now because I think you have dealt with the lead department and the other questions. If an emergency occurred tomorrow, either nationally or locally, are you satisfied that there is in place some form of resilience team in either Scotland or Wales which would be in a position to respond?

  Mr Henry: We believe so. The Head of the Scottish Executive Justice Department chairs the Scottish Emergency Co-ordinating Committee and we have a number of senior officials involved in that now. I think that we are well-prepared. I am sure that there will always be things that we can do better, and one of the things that we hope we do is to continually review how we are doing it, what we are doing, whether we have the right people involved. We also want increasingly to be able, as I said earlier, not just to react but to be able to—not to anticipate emergencies because there are certain things that we cannot anticipate—continually update skills and revise procedures. So while we think we are well-equipped and well-prepared it would be foolish to be complacent and say that there are no improvements ever to be made.

  Mr Morgan: I would not disagree with any of that. We have a permanent team of civil servants led by Nick Patel, here. We have a permanent headquarters unit within the Government headquarters building in Cardiff. We have a high-level forum which pulls in the three armed services and the four uniformed life services (that includes the coastguard and health and safety) and local government. When we met last week it was very striking how you could say "All right, we are all round this table" but everyone of those people represented has a slightly different relationship to the Welsh Assembly and its Government, but that does not matter; that is something to be overcome with a bit of common sense. Do we have common sense in vast quantities? By getting to know each other we are as ready as we can be, but that is not complacency. Yes, part of the planning for this Bill is trying to see what you can do to make it more effective, while accepting that nature or terrorism will always throw the completely unexpected at you at some stage. So if you do not have your wits about you you will get lost. In 2000 and 2001 we were put to the test, if you like. We think we came through. A very important part of the early days of democratic devolution in Wales was crisis management. Nobody wants a crisis but, my goodness me, it is a very, very good test of competence, flexibility, resilience (if you like) and it did teach us an awful lot of lessons—it taught everybody a lot of lessons. September 11th taught a lot of lessons in bringing forward the modernising of this legislation. So I think we are good and okay, but that does not mean we cannot do better and, post the legislation, I think we will be a lot better.

  Q185  Chairman: Just one final question for you. We are discussing emergencies here and we have used the word "crisis"—although perhaps it becomes a crisis after the Government becomes involved rather than before it! Would you consider that this legislation goes some way to preventing that?

  Mr Morgan: I used the term "crisis management" just because it is a sort of standard term. Emergency management just sounds slightly awkward tripping off the tongue. It is not something you ever welcome, is it, but an absolutely critical test of government is what contribution can each level of government make to the protection of human health (and sometimes animal and plant health) when something unexpected arises from nowhere and hits civil society? You have to respond to that. I think that is a test of good government—the ultimate test of good government.

  Mr Henry: As far as we are concerned, this legislation is overdue and makes a significant contribution to enabling us all, collectively, from our individual perspectives, to be able to respond as well as we can on behalf of the people who we represent and on behalf of the communities who will be affected by an emergency or crisis, or whatever you want to call it, whenever that happens.

  Q186  Chairman: Have you any particular lessons from your own experience in Wales, Scotland and the rest of the UK as to how your structures are, perhaps, better than others or any advice you can give? Now is your chance.

  Mr Henry: I am sure that there are things that we do well and that others could learn from, but equally I am sure that there are things going on elsewhere that we can very clearly learn from. What is obvious is that that consistent administrative structure, where people are able to work together and able to relate at a local level, is very important. I suppose if anything has been looked at in terms of this legislation, as far as at least England is concerned, local co-ordination and delivery, albeit within national frameworks, is very important.

  Mr Morgan: Small countries cannot really teach lessons applicable to big countries and with England we are always conscious it is 17, 18 times bigger than Wales in terms of population, but I think the key thing is what have we learnt over the past three years? We have put a lot of work into our administrative arrangements and we have also, at the same time as having those administrative arrangements, had some crises as object lessons in dos and don'ts of crisis management, and that goes then into the next phase of emergency planning. What struck me about the meeting of the high-level forum that we had, which I chaired ten days ago or so, was how very similar it was to the arrangement that we had right in the middle of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis. It was actually in the same room (but with a partition so it was only half the size), but it was terribly similar to Sunday morning sessions which we would have in the middle of the foot-and-mouth period. You had the Army in one corner and you had—in that case—the vets (although we did not have them on this occasion), but you had all the different specialist groups—police, veterinary officers, Army, our civil servants, maybe some other civil servants from the transport department or whatever it might be—and a big map in the middle. You are trying to get the same degree of inter-departmental co-working regardless of who is paying your wages, whose turf you officially work in, and the high-level forum that we had last week paralleled (even though we were only talking generally about emergency planning) how we did it in response to the foot-and-mouth disease. I think that is the sort of atmosphere that you have to get. What you will not have in England, that is comparable to that, as far as I am aware, is a minister who is going to take the flak politically for whether what was done was defensible or not. I think that full time civil servants, army officers, specialist civil servants, they do like to have a political steer, that is what they need. Now whether that is a seriously missing element here in what is proposed, I do not know, that is for others to judge.

  Chairman: Thank you both very much indeed.

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