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I conclude by saying that the emergency planning review was held by the CCS, and the Defence Select Committee concluded that there was an urgent need to replace the Civil Defence Act 1948, but we have seen no sign of that.
We all fervently hope that the dreadful events that have been on our minds in this debate never occur, but we must be ever-watchful and fully prepared. I hazard a guess that we are not fully prepared as yet.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Filkin): My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken, especially the noble Lord, Lord Roper, who proposed the debate, because it is such an important issue that it benefits from an opportunity for us to consider it. I shall try to speak rapidly to say as much as I can in my limited time.
First, the noble Lord, Lord Roper, was absolutely right to say that the nature of our perception of threat has gone through a scale shift in the past 12 months. This debate concerns not just terrorism but emergencies such as a cessation of fuel supplies or disasters, natural or otherwise. We are also discussing activities that may occur at a whole range of levels. They can be solely local, across a number of authorities at a regional level or national. In practice, they almost always have an impact locally and can therefore require planning at different levels, which is one of the challenges to the responsible authorities.
There is clearly an element of prevention involved as wellconsidering to what extent by improving intelligence one can reduce risk. That is crucial; the Government are putting more resources into it; but no one should be sanguine that that will automatically succeed. That is part of the picture, but I shall say no more on that.
I turn next to the key questions that I shall address: who is responsible; are they ready and prepared; and what more do we think we need to do? I shall try to keep to that plot as I wind up the debate.
First, on the question of who is responsible, all that we know about coping with emergencies tells us that clarity of command and responsibility is fundamental. The Government have spent some time considering that during the past 12 months, and the position is clear. At the local level, if there is a disaster or emergency, in the first instance the police are undoubtedly responsible. Let me give a clear, strong example of that. In London, if there is a major
Secondly, as one would expect, the Government have also looked across government to see whether there is clarity of command within government itself. We have considered the structures at the centre. The Home Secretary has the clear leadership role, accountable to the Prime Minister, and under that is a structure of relevant committees considering the issues. Effectively, there are three committees: one considering terrorism risk; one considering how we increase our resilience to cope; and one considering how in practice we would handle a problem as it occurred. I shall not bore your Lordships with the detail or their technical names.
The second aspect of considering the clarity of command is ensuring that there is a clear statement of which government department will lead on each type of situation. That is clear and precise, and there are also default operations for when there is any doubt. Over and above that, as no doubt noble Lords would tell me, there may be a range of incidents. In such situations, the centre will take clear command and where there is any doubt, the centre will act early and downscale afterwards, rather than acting late and upscaling. In other words, we have learnt from testing during the past few years that it is better, if anything, to go over the top rather than under in terms of pulling the response to the centre and responding powerfully.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and shall be brief. If that is so clear and well understood across Whitehall, why, only one week ago, when I asked who was in charge for the Government as the health spokesman in this House, did I receive the response, "I do not know"?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, be that as it may, I can only answer that the position is clear. The Government have made sure of that within government, as I sought to explain. That has been reinforced by the appointment of Sir David Omand. He has been given that responsibility by Andrew Turnbull for the best of reasons: to give someone with his weight of experienceof course, he is ultimately accountable within the Civil Service to Andrew Turnbullthe time and attention to focus on the matter as a priority, as he is doing. The reason there is a large number of people potentially on the Civil Contingencies Committee is that government is big. They do not all sit around the table at once but come in at various times as and when there is a need.
The next issue that we have identified during the past few years is that we are now aware that a disaster could take place not just in the area of an individual local authority. It could easily occur in several local authorities at once or across several local authorities. The Government, through my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford, London local authorities, the Metropolitan Police and others, have expended much effort on considering the arrangements in Londonthe capitalwhich is obviously a potential prime target.
A considerable amount of detailed work has been done to consider how we need to strengthen our preparedness. That has led us to the conclusion that, above all, we need to reinforce the role of the commissioner of police, clarify the local government lead role at chief executive level and recognise that we need robust cross-local government arrangements to deal with potential incidents.
Our conclusion from that is that we need a strengthening of regional capacity across the country. That is why we are signalling that it is important that, in the first instance, the government offices for the region are strengthened with an additional team capable of giving leadership and testing that capacity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, shakes her head. But in the first instance, we need capacity within the Civil Service to hold the ring and pull the issues together to ensure that the respective authorities are considering contingency planning and their preparedness to cope with a wide range of civil emergencies at a level wider than that of the individual local authority.
None of that takes away for a second from the importance of local authorities. The county emergency service is crucial in that respect, but it will not be able to deal with issues that span wider than an individual county, nor would we expect it to do so.
I turn to the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, which is a good one, about the role of elected members. I think that we have all experienced a local emergency. The key role for elected members, both now and in future, will be to put pressure on the paid executive to ensure that proper preparation and planning are in place, that it is a significant issue on the authority's agendawhether it is a police authority or a local authorityand that it has proper plans.
That is not always the case in every local authority. In a fair number, that does not sit on the agenda as a serious issue. That may be surprisingit surprises mepost-September 11th. It is crucial that elected members give leadership on that issue at local authority level and do not accept excuses from officers.
Let me leave aside the issue of who is responsible, the detailed structure of government and what is happening in London. Time will not allow me to go into more detail. I turn to an equally important question. If responsibilities are clear, as I believe that they are, recognising that such situations may be highly complex, are the authorities prepared? The short answer is: we can never be adequately prepared.
The problem is that we cannot predict everything that may happen. As part of horizon scanning and risk assessment, central government, local government and the Police Service must try to make an estimate and think the unthinkable. The big shift since September 11th is that we now know that we ought to prepare for things for which we would not previously have dreamt about preparing. The previously unthinkable is now much more thinkable. So, there is a need for a shift of scale in recognising the potential risks to which we could be exposed.
Central government is doing a range of things. First, it recognises that we need some form of performance management testing for central government itself, for the emergency services and for local government. In a sense, it is trying to identify the capabilities that ought to be in place in any organisation that has responsibilities in such a situation and test its preparedness by considering whether it has a strong capacity at the centre to respond; whether it has a supply of essential services; whether there is a local response capacity and the capacity to deal with de-contamination and site clearance; whether it has vaccination and treatment facilities; whether it can deal with mass casualties and mass evacuation and identify and detect risks; and whether it has communication capabilities in place. That is the diagnostic against which any organisation should be tested.
The second stage is that we may need to develop national standards for what we might expect to have in place to test those capabilities. We are considering that. The third element is a process for auditing and testingbe it a central government department, a local authority or a police forcethat those standards have been put in place and can be met. In other words, we cannot test for every eventuality, because we do not know every eventuality. We must consider what portfolio of capabilities we might require and seek to have clear standards for what should be there and test it.
The next element is to get as close to reality testing as possible. Exercises are a crucial part of that process. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked when the last cross-government exercise was undertaken: it was "Capital Response", which took place between 18th and 19th October 2002. In addition, the Home Office supports three full-scale live exercises each year. They are held over a weekend and test specific parts of the counter-terrorism plans. There has been a growing trend towards involving the whole range of responding agencies in the exercises to validate the arrangements. Between 600 and 1,000 people take part in those exercises. Over and above that, between 15 and 20 seminar-style exercises are held each year on elements of counter-terrorism.
At one level, we might hope that we would not have to ask local authorities whether they had the capacity to remove rubble or to deal with mass evacuation. However, it was demonstrated that it was necessary to ask that question. There was a mixed response, which will be no surprise. Some such measures seemed to be in place; others did not. That is part of reality testing.
I was also asked about medical supplies. Time is tight, but I can say that noble Lords will have seen recently in the media that the Department of Health is taking a range of actions, as one of the departments with a lead role in many contingencies. A procurement exercise is under way, which will put in place digital radio communications for the police. That could roll on to the ambulance service, so that we would have intercommunication between the emergency services. The intention is to have a fully manned, equipped and trained reserve reaction force in place by the summer of next year.
I noted the comment about the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. An enormous amount of good work is being done by the secretariat; that is not a ground for complacency. My judgmentI have spent some time at weekends thereand that of others is that, after testing in the recent fire dispute, it has coped well. There has been the capacity to run things from the centre effectively and well.
Time is too tight to give all the figures for funding. No local authority has less than it had in the past. Part of the Bill will consider whether we need a new grant system for dealing with civil emergencies. We will consider that, but I cannot believe that any local authority would use the hoary old chestnut that it will not do anything because there is not enough central government grant. Unless a local authority has a guarantee from somewhere that it is in a disaster-free zone, that would be irresponsible.
What more and what next? In a sense, the civil contingencies Bill is important. We expect to publish it in draft form in the spring. Early in 2003, we will publish an update on Dealing with Disaster, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, asked. The Bill should be the culmination of a process that is already under way. All that it will do is to put in place for anybody who is in any doubt explicit statutory responsibilities for the relevant emergency services and a process for auditing whether they are meeting them. I would expect that any good local authority already does all those things. There is a leadership issue for local authority members and chief executives and the LGA itself. They should not wait for the Bill to tell them to prepare effective plansby themselves and with others. They should be doing so. It is as plain as the nose on one's face that the world is
On some issues, it is impossible to divulge information to Parliament on, for example, terrorist threats. I know that the House recognises that. However, we should not be so shy about whether governmentnational or localis prepared to deal with the consequences of a disaster. In other words, there is nothing wrong with parliamentary testing and accountability on such issues; it is part of what we believe in. There may be some doubt about whom to ask. In this House, it is the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and I, as the Home Office representatives. In the other place, people should, if in doubt, ask the Home Secretary. He has the overall responsibility. That is, I think, clear. We would not wish questions to be impeded by any doubt
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