Joint Committee on Draft Civil Contingencies Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-294)


16 OCTOBER 2003

Q280  Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall: What involvement do you see for other private sector institutions which are pretty vital to ordinary life, such as the fuel suppliers, food, road transport? Will they be involved in this process at all of planning for emergencies?

  Mr Hargreaves: What we have said is that in terms of using category 1 and category 2 we are trying to capture the people who are at the core of or are essential in co-operating with the local effort. What we are not seeking to do is capture everyone who has even the most peripheral interest in planning in certain local areas. What the Bill allows though is for certain key private sector organisations to be involved in particular local areas depending on local circumstance. It does not stop that sort of involvement. In terms of what we call the critical national infrastructure we have a separate process for engaging with them at a national level which takes place through Government departments and the security agencies who have a direct relationship.

Q281  Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall: Fine, but is that going to be something we all get to know about? Will we be told what is going on in some way so that we know how resilient our food supply arrangements are, for instance?

Mr Alexander: As I say, a balance clearly has to be struck here between the legitimate concerns that you have expressed to ensure that people are aware of and can have confidence in the measures that the Government is taking and to ensure that by that process we do not render less effective the resilience efforts that Government is directing its work towards. As I said earlier, we are giving consideration within Government as to how best to strike that balance. We would be very interested in the views of this Committee as to how best we could achieve the transparency that there have been some moves towards in terms of the evidence that you have received, but it is a matter that we will be giving careful consideration to.

Q282  Patrick Mercer: Minister, how would you respond to the view that local authorities should have the flexibility to select some of the category 2 responders in their area?

Mr Alexander: The current effectively unregulated situation has led to variable engagements of co-operating bodies in local authorities across the country. As I say, a central part of the intention of this Bill is to ensure that there is a national framework. In that sense we are keen to ensure that there is a degree of coherence in terms of the planning and framework that are in place. Bodies that are not covered by the list for category 1 or category 2 can of course still continue to be involved in local civil protection. That is why again we have endeavoured to strike the appropriate balance between a national framework and allowing the flexibility of local response which in many areas has served us very effectively in recent years.

Q283  Patrick Mercer: We have touched on this already, but what reasons are there for not including Government regional offices as category 1 responders?

Mr Alexander: My recollection of the position when I last sought advice on this matter was that there is a particular legal difficulty with that in that Government Offices of the Regions do not have a separate legal personality and therefore to place a distinct legal burden upon them would be, to say the least, difficult. Again, it is important to recognise that Government Offices of the Regions are there to support and assist both central Government in its efforts to liaise effectively with what is happening at a local level and equally to work effectively with local government.

Q284  Lord Jordan: The Regulatory Impact Assessment claims (paragraph 40) that the proposals "achieve the government's policy objectives without imposing significant new burdens on the relevant organisations in either the public or private sectors". You earlier made reference to your view on the burden on the private sector, but most local authorities believe that the Bill will impose new duties and generate additional work and therefore increase their expenditure. Do you still hold to the view in the Regulatory Impact Assessment and, if so (and given the gulf between the Cabinet Office and local authorities), should the implementation of the regulations governing civil contingency preparations be the subject of an independent review?

Mr Alexander: I do not believe that would be the appropriate way forward. Rather than characterising the divide between the Cabinet Office and the Local Government Association or local authorities as being a gulf, rather I would say that there is a constructive and important dialogue under way on this very issue at the moment. There have been significant resources contributed to the area of civil protection through a range of responders over recent years and very significant increases in the funding that has been provided. My recollection is that it is a 35% increase for local authorities over the last few years in terms of investments in fire capabilities, additional funding for the police and a range of other services. I think there is an important discussion to be had but I return to my basic proposition, which is that the focus of this Bill is the framework for civil protection rather than the funding of civil protection. The appropriate way forward in terms of discussions around funding is the discussions that are taking place at present between local authorities and the Cabinet Office and others in central Government. That will find expression not in statutory words on the face of this Bill or any other but rather in the Spending Review decisions that are reached in SR2004, and I can assure you that there are full and candid discussions being taken forward with local government to make sure that their voice is heard at the appropriate stage of those decisions that are being reached by central Government as regards funding.

Q285  Mr Bailey: You spoke of a dialogue. Yes, there is a dialogue. I think it is fair to say that there is always tension between local government and central Government on this issue. You do plan to replace the direct grants previously given under civil defence legislation with funding through the Revenue Support Grant. Why, therefore, does the Bill not include a requirement on central Government just to meet the expenditure incurred by category 1 and 2 responders in planning for civil contingencies and in dealing with emergencies?

Mr Alexander: On this point, I would echo some previous remarks that have been offered to this Committee by the Deputy Justice Minister from Scotland, Mr Hugh Henry, who happens to share my constituency as the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Paisley South. He said, having been himself a council leader prior to entering the Scottish Parliament, that there was always an interesting contradiction between those voices in local government demanding more autonomy and control at a local level with a desire for more funding and a recognition of the need for there to be discrete funding for particular areas of local authorities' work. The policy position of the government is that we want to move towards the more general funding. The move to the revenue support grant is about bringing a greater degree of autonomy to local government and to move away from the idea of there being discrete budgets for discrete areas of work. In that regard, this is not a significant departure from government policy that is before the Committee or the policy consequences that would follow from the framework that the Bill sets out. Rather, it is entirely consistent with broader government objectives of ensuring that we do move towards a general revenue support grant. Specifically in relation to civil protection, we believe that this would have the merit of ensuring that civil protection is mainstreamed within the thinking of local government in the same way that it is important that resilience is mainstreamed across government rather than corralled into a single department. Secondly, it is also important to recognise that the specific grant that has been made by central government over many recent years to local authorities is a contribution towards the civil protection work that is taken forward by local government. It has never been seen to be and is recognised by the Local Government Association as not being, the total sum that is spent by local government. There is consensus with the Local Government Association on that. There is a happy coincidence that the government's objective is to move towards a revenue support grant, rather than individual streams of funding and that is also the policy objective that has been set by the Local Government Association. I think these are important discussions. I do not diminish their importance but it is probably not of direct relevance to this Bill as much as for the spending review process that we are just beginning within government.

Q286  Mr Bailey: I certainly accept that there is a degree of common ground between central and local government on the need to have more autonomy over local budgets, but it does obviously throw up fresh issues, not least to ensure that from the government's perspective money which is allocated through the revenue support grant is actually used to provide improved civil defence measures. What sort of interim steps do you think should be taken to move from the previous basis of funding to the revenue support grant, perhaps until an effective audit or inspection regime is established, in order to ensure that that money is spent in the appropriate manner?

Mr Alexander: I cannot say I am convinced of the case that has been made to date that transitional arrangements would be necessary. We believe that we want to maintain the right level of spending on local, civil protection. We will not remove the specific grant obviously until the new framework is in place. As part of that new framework there will be means of auditing and reporting the work of local authorities through the existing auditing bodies to ensure that there is a clearer view of the support that is being provided locally in terms of the outcomes on civil protection being achieved by local authorities across the country.

Q287  Mr Bailey: Moving on to the capital side, do you think there is a case for a capital grant regime to finance certain elements of civil contingency planning?

Mr Alexander: We are already making a substantial targeted investment in equipment within an over-arching national capabilities framework which Roger spoke of earlier.

  Mr Hargreaves: We are making very significant investment in areas like the New Dimension project for the fire service. We are investing tens of millions of pounds in new equipment. There is investment in the health service and additional investment in resilience measures which the health service required. There is the 35% increase in the level of funding for local authorities, some of which will be directed towards capital, but most of that will be current. There is the additional funding which goes into the police service, in part again which goes on capital projects. Across the emergency services there is quite a significant investment over the last few years, focusing specifically on resilience measures and, within that, capital projects.

Q288  Mr Bailey: Finally, the Bill does not mention the Bellwin scheme. Is it going to be retained or is there some merit in incorporating it into legislation, or do you think it should be replaced with some sort of contingency fund?

Mr Alexander: The Bellwin scheme is retained by agreement with the Local Government Association and we believe it should remain part of local government finance structures.

Q289  Lord Archer of Sandwell: Could I ask a question arising from some of your answers about the right to take industrial action? Could I take you back to your law finals and what you call `delict' and we call `tort'? Assume under this Bill that one of the scheduled bodies has statutory duties imposed upon it. Assume that its workforce takes industrial action, or even that a union organises industrial action. Would that not amount, on the part of the workforce or the union, to inducing a breach of statutory duty if the result was that the body could not fulfil its statutory duty?

Mr Alexander: In recent days, it has sometimes felt like I have been sitting my law finals, but the area of my review did not cover my delictoral notes from 1991 so you will have to forgive me. I would be more than happy to write to you on the specific point that you raise. There is clearly an interface between delict and employment law here and I hesitate to enter such deep waters without greater authority.

Q290  Lord Archer of Sandwell: Could you give an undertaking to look at the case of Mead v Haringey Borough Council and the lack of protection of trade unions, even where there has not been litigation preventing a strike?

Mr Alexander: I am happy to give the Committee that assurance and, perhaps more usefully, give you an assurance that far better qualified lawyers than I will also look at the matter before we revert to you.

Q291  Lord Archer of Sandwell: Can we turn to clause 21(3)(1) which says that the regulations may confer jurisdiction on a court or tribunal, which may include a tribunal established by the regulations. First, has there been consultation with the Council on Tribunals? Perhaps I should declare an interest as a former chairman of the Council.

Mr Alexander: I am not aware that there has been. I can certainly check that factual point and write to the Committee confirming whether or not that has taken place.

Q292  Lord Archer of Sandwell: I would be grateful. Could you have in mind that it exists by statute for the very purpose of giving advice to government on the creation of tribunals and their powers? Does the suggestion that it should be possible to create a tribunal by regulation include criminal jurisdiction?

Mr Alexander: We cannot think of any examples where we would need to confer criminal jurisdiction in the sense of military tribunals. The principal benefit of this power would be to establish new tribunals to deal with elements of the emergency—for example, to deal with appeals against requisition or for the award of compensation. In that regard, we cannot think of any examples where we would need to confer criminal jurisdiction. It would only be possible for emergency regulations to confer criminal jurisdiction in sentencing on tribunals where this was accorded within the protections contained within Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is the right to a fair trial.

Q293  Lord Archer of Sandwell: I was not questioning its compliance with the European Convention or the Act. Would you again bear in mind that the Council on Tribunals, as a general policy, has advised very strongly against the creation of any court or tribunal otherwise than by primary legislation?

Mr Alexander: I will certainly bear the point you make in mind.

Q294  Chairman: We are nearly through, Minister, but I could not possibly let you escape without asking you one last question. What is so "essential" about educational services that their disruption can lead to a declaration of a national emergency? Can you perhaps give us an example of such a threat?

Mr Alexander: I have laboured long and hard with officials in expectation that such a question would be asked. Let me explain that we included education because we wanted to ensure that threats to essential public services were covered and captured within our definition of "emergency". That was basically the brief that was given to parliamentary counsel in terms of the phraseology that was then reflected on the face of the Bill. In all candour I have struggled to come up with such a specific example and I can therefore assure you that I will bear that in mind once we receive the response of the Committee to the point that you have raised.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, Minister.

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