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"DUTY TO ASSESS, PLAN AND ADVISE: SECRETARIES OF STATE
(1) Each Secretary of State shall
(a) from time to time assess the risk of an emergency occurring,
(b) from time to time assess the risk of an emergency making it necessary or expedient for him to perform any of his functions,
(c) maintain plans for the purpose of ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that if an emergency occurs he is able to continue to perform his or its functions,
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(d) maintain plans for the purpose of ensuring that if an emergency occurs or is likely to occur he is able to perform his functions so far as necessary or desirable for the purpose of
(i) preventing the emergency,
(ii) reducing, controlling or mitigating its effects, or
(iii) taking other action in connection with it,
(e) consider whether an assessment carried out under paragraph (a) or (b) makes it necessary or expedient for him to add to or modify plans maintained under paragraph (c) or (d),
(f) arrange for the publication of all or part of assessments made and plans maintained under paragraphs (a) to (d), in so far as publication is not undesirable, for the purpose of
(i) preventing an emergency,
(ii) reducing, controlling or mitigating the effects of an emergency, or
(iii) enabling other action to be taken in connection with an emergency,
(g) co-ordinate his actions with other Secretaries of State and in particular with any Secretary of State who may be designated from time to time as having particular responsibility for co-ordination,
(h) co-operate with persons and bodies listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 1 in their performance of their duties under this bill, in particular their rehearsals for dealing with an emergency, and
(i) ensure that persons and bodies listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 1, all other Secretaries of State, and (insofar as it is not undesirable) the public are aware of the role that he will play in dealing with emergencies."
The noble Lord said: Nothing in this part of the Bill binds central government to play their part in civil contingencies, although obviously their part will be absolutely vital. You cannot react at the local level to something that requires national expertise and resources to deal with without having access to the right bit of central government. Some emergencies, such as the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, essentially become matters for central government because they are so widespread. It therefore seems evident that not only must central government be prepared, they must also be properly rehearsed, as must the interface between them and the other agencies likely to be involved in dealing with an emergency.
Someone in each county council has to know who is at the other end of the line when they encounter a particular set of circumstances. They must get to know the person and have worked through the process of understanding what they are capable of and what to expect from the relevant ministry. That is what rehearsal gives you: an ability to respond very quickly to an emergency, but we do not have that in the Bill.
We have a vague promise that the Government will do something. A useful document entitled The Lead Government Department and its roleGuidance and Best Practice sets out what the Government say they
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will do, although I must say that it is pretty thin on the process of how the lead government department is to be established in any circumstances. It is clear that there will be a long and difficult argument over any question regarding which government department should take this on, which will not be in the best interests of handling an emergency quickly.
Moreover, as a Parliament we do not have an easy way of holding the Government to account for how well central government are doing in their preparations for dealing with an emergency. So far as I can see, nothing has been set out by way of commitments to do anything in particular. Nothing is set out by way of an auditing, monitoring or reporting strategy which we can latch on to, as did my noble friend in his previous amendment when he asked the Government how they would react to a smallpox outbreak started by 200 people scattered throughout the UK.
We can seek this information in a random way by asking Parliamentary Questions, and no doubt the Freedom of Information Act would be helpful. However, it is inevitable that for this to work properly the Government should be playing their full part. If they are doing that, they might as well be tied into the same mechanisms set out in the Bill as everyone else. The position will then be quite clear. I beg to move.
Lord Garden: In rising to support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in his Amendment No. 39, which would be a sensible addition to the Bill, I should like to speak to my Amendment No. 82 grouped with it. My amendment looks at a particular department; that is, the Ministry of Defence. I have singled out that department because we are all aware that the MoD and the armed services have particular capabilities that will be enormously important in the event of any large-scale emergency.
As it is at the moment, we are working on a system that dates back over many years, one in which we have military aid to the civil power and military aid to the civil community. It dates back to dealing with the sorts of emergencies that build up over a period of time, yet as we have already discussed this morning, things could happen quite fast with the kind of terrorist attacks we are talking about.
The Ministry of Defence White Paper on the preparations that are made refers to fairly limited areas. The Civil Contingency Reserve Force, which is effectively a TA organisation, was described in the previous White Paper as being not yet fully up to strength and its coverage patchy. Can the Minister say whether that situation has improved, particularly given the number of TA personnel now required to be in Iraq rather than ready for an emergency in this country?
Earlier today, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, asked about water purification. The Minister replied that certainly the Ministry of Defence has the equipment for a civil contingency in the UK but its use would depend on military priorities. That is
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really not good enough. We need to ensure that the Ministry of Defence is fully engaged in all the preparations and that local authorities know what they can expect.
It may be that some of the priorities of Ministry of Defence action ought to be centred on providing capabilities that could be rapidly deployed throughout the country, given that it has available the protective equipment, the manpower and, particularly, the helicopter transport. It is not good enough to say that it will provide whatever happens to be available on the day. For that reason, I would particularise the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in terms of specifying that the Ministry of Defence should be one of the agencies involved in this.
Lord Condon: I support the spirit and the motivation behind both amendments. On Monday of this week I spent a full day with the Chief Constable of Kent, the Chief Fire Officer of Kent and the Chief Ambulance Officer of Kent to remind myself of the state of preparedness on these issues. There is a real sense of urgency in the blue light services to improve their preparedness.
As the Minister said earlier, there has been real progress recently in equipment, preparedness, training and so on, but there is still a hole in the provisions. I do not think that there is yet enough reassurance that the Government themselves have the mechanisms to reassure people of how they have made progress and their urgency in relation to these issues.
As a member of the Joint Committee involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, I was reassured by much of the government evidence that we received. But on the issue of the Government's own responsibility to be prepared, there is still more scope for reassurance. There is a danger that the Government try to say that the debate is all or nothing: either you have a homeland security department, which they reject, or you rely exclusively on the status quo.
There is room for a middle ground. There may not be a need in this country for a department of homeland security, but there is scope for the Government to be put into a framework of some kind which builds on and enhances the current provisions, so that not only your Lordships' House and another place but the country at large can have more confidence in the preparations that are being made. I invite the Minister to give some reassurance about how the spirit and motivation behind these two amendments will be remade to this House.
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