Joint Committee on Draft Civil Contingencies Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 354-359)


21 OCTOBER 2003

  Q354  Chairman: Good afternoon everyone. I am sorry we have kept you waiting. If you would just introduce yourselves and your organisation first and then we will get into the questions, thank you.

  Mr Brown: Good afternoon, Mr Chairman. Peter Brown, Chief Commander, St John Ambulance.

  Mr Lever: Good afternoon, Mr Chairman. My name is Mark lever, Chief Executive of WRVS.

  Ms Beardshaw: Good afternoon, Mr Chairman. I am Virginia Beardshaw from the British Red Cross.

  Ms Wood-Heath: Good afternoon, Mr Chairman. I am Moya Wood-Heath and I am the Assistant General Secretary of the National Voluntary Aid Society Emergency Committee.

  Major Cochrane: Good afternoon, Mr Chairman. I am Bill Cochrane and I represent the Salvation Army in the United Kingdom.

  Q355  Chairman: Thank you very much. The National Voluntary Aid Society Emergency Committee has suggested that the Bill's definition of an emergency "does not place sufficient emphasis on `a serious threat' or major emergency" and that the definition of a `major emergency' in the Cabinet Office's Dealing with Disasters should be incorporated into the Bill. What benefits do you think this addition would bring?

  Ms Wood-Heath: Can I just say thank you very much on behalf of my voluntary representatives for the opportunity of coming before you this afternoon.

Q356  Chairman: Not at all.

  Ms Wood-Heath: The comment from the National Voluntary Aid Society Emergency Committee is that the definition in the Bill only goes so far and the problem is that in order to trigger a reaction you need to have some form of trigger. In the definition in Dealing with Disaster there is just such a trigger, it is "any event or circumstance happening with or without warning that causes or threatens death or injury, disruption to the community or damage to property or to the environment and it is on such a scale that the effects cannot be dealt with by the emergency services, local authorities and other organisations as part of their normal day-to-day activities." So what we say is that that definition gives some formal identification of scale and that enables individuals and organisations to have a judgment about something being outside their normal or their regular form of incident response. The benefits of such clarity in that definition are that it gives some form of clear concept that people can react to intuitively. What it would do is enable a common definition that works for everyone and for every organisation and so what that would avoid is the need to tinker with such a definition to make it suit a particular organisation. Having a common definition that everybody works to intuitively is of particular relevance for the voluntary sector because we see that our response comes in when an incident exceeds the resources that other organisations have, that is when they realise their dependence on us to provide some form of humanitarian support. So the need for us to have some clarity about a definition, again going back to Dealing with Disaster, is actually reflected there where it states more eloquently than I have just done that major emergencies can over-stretch the services of the emergency services and local authorities and the value of additional support from the voluntary sector has been demonstrated on many occasions.

Q357  Chairman: Thank you. Does anybody have anything to add to that? No. Can you give some examples of the types of emergencies you think would be most appropriately covered by the Bill and any incidents that you think it might not be appropriate for the Bill to encompass?

  Ms Wood-Heath: I think historically in this country our organisations have responded to emergencies by responding to the effects rather than the cause. Coming back to my point about having a common definition as I have just described with a trigger of scale, that enables us all to have this intuitive response to something which you immediately appreciate takes you outside your normal day-to-day response and the resources that you have. There needs to be no initial assessment of what sort of emergency the definition would fit, it would arise naturally as an event or a situation occurred. So it could be something that would encompass something fairly small scale, perhaps a minibus crash on a motorway with a small number of fatalities and serious injuries, but the impact of that can be quite extensive, with large numbers of people trapped in vehicles, people having their journey interrupted and inconvenienced, you have witnesses to the event, you have survivors, relatives and friends, responders all gathering together, all creating quite a lot of humanitarian need. So, you can see on a small incident scale that this definition would work, that it would therefore be considered an emergency within this legislation. It goes right through to winter pressures or a flu epidemic. Then there is what we all dread, which is a huge and large scale evacuation in response to some form of unexploded or an exploded bomb, so having something with a trigger according to resource would work for us all.

  Mr Lever: I think the perspective of the WRVS is really to look at the need that is there and I think where we respond is where there is a need for our services, whether that is through preparing rest centres, registration, reception, emergency feeding and that can range from any emergency, whether it is a bomb threat, the Potters Bar rail crash, the Hackney siege or last weekend at the derailment in Staffordshire where we were feeding 250 people three times a day for three days. It varies and I think what we tend to focus on is what we are able to provide at the time of emergency and be called on to provide that.

Q358  Lord Roper: Do you think there ought to be a threshold set for the various types of emergencies which would be able to trigger emergency powers and, if so, what should it be?

  Ms Wood-Heath: From the National Voluntary Aid Society Emergency Committee perspective, we would say no, we do not want thresholds because they become a problem. It is about the nature of the situation, what are the pressures that it is placing on us, does it take us outside the resource that we have for a normal day-to-day response. If it does then we are moving into what would come into the classification of an emergency or a major incident. To attach figures to it means the figures become a restraint.

  Major Cochrane: The Salvation Army would want to support that. Our arrangements vary tremendously across the country. In London, for example, there would be a very clear threshold that is set in terms of the arrangements we have with the statutory emergency services, but in other more rural communities then what might be considered a small event in London terms could be considered very substantial and therefore to set a threshold that would be common would not be terribly helpful.

  Ms Beardshaw: The Red Cross takes the same view.

  Mr Brown: And St John Ambulance would concur. We would see ourselves responding to requests from the statutory services and supporting them in circumstances where they require that measure of support.

  Mr Lever: WRVS is about providing support and not necessarily deciding when plans are needed or powers invoked.

Q359  Lord Archer of Sandwell: Ms Beardshaw, in your written significance the Red Cross says that it would like to be a category 1 responder. Why do you want that? On the face of it it would make you susceptible to statutory duties. It would not gain you any rewards. What is in it for you?

  Ms Beardshaw: The Red Cross has considered its position with regard to this request very carefully, as you would expect. At a time when national policy is stressing the importance of voluntary sector organisations acting in partnership with statutory sector emergency services and other partners we take the view that the role of the whole voluntary sector as key providers in the humanitarian aspect of emergency planning and response needs to be recognised formally in this Bill. When we considered our own position as an organisation and made our request for category 1 status we were very careful to take advice from the Cabinet Office civil contingencies secretariat who advised us to consider what our ordinary activities were every day and to consider whether if we did not do it we would be failing in our duties. In other words, do not be aspirational and do not think what would it do for you. So looking carefully at what we do every day, we are a dedicated national emergency response organisation operating 24 hours a day 365 years a year. We have 30,000 volunteers working with us and 3,000 staff. Within our volunteer complement we have a dedicated 3,500 emergency response volunteers. We provide emergency help and support in a range that encompasses support to individuals in crisis right through to response to major and national emergencies. We helped more than 420,000 people last year in this way. That is what we do now and what we will continue doing. In terms of looking at our formal duties and whether we would be in dereliction of them, we went back to our Royal Charter and the legal functions given to us under the Geneva Conventions of 1949. These established the Red Cross as an auxiliary to the statutory authorities in the humanitarian field, a unique status which we have in Britain and all other Red Cross national societies have in relation to their own governments. There are 178 Red Cross national societies across the world and we are the British one. With this unique status as auxiliary to the statutory authorities in the humanitarian field we feel strongly that we would be failing in our duty if we did not come in and support statutory partners and give humanitarian relief and that is why we have asked to be designated a category 1 responder. As I say, we have been encouraged in doing so by a wider Government policy which at the moment is stressing very strongly the importance of voluntary sector organisations acting in support of statutory partners, as we do.

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