Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Garden: My Lords, the amendments stand also in the name of my noble friend Lord McNally and I speak on his behalf to support what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has said. We have had a satisfactory exchange of views and a number of meetings with all members of the voluntary sector. Generally, the government amendments will meet their concerns provided the guidance reflects the degree of consultation needed. They will do so if we can have an assurance from the Minister—perhaps today—that the Bill will contain the right kind of guidance.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I hope that I am not cast in the role Eeyore. I had hoped to be able to lavish praise on the Government for the two amendments standing in the name of my noble friend. I doubt that we could have hoped for a more robust form of draftmanship. The various eventualities for which it may be necessary to plan and the differing voluntary organisations which it may be reasonable to consult lead inevitably to the form of words "have regard to"; they preclude a more precise formulation. It is a form of words with which the courts are familiar and I cannot foresee any difficulties with them.
9 Nov 2004 : Column 762

I believe in recognising the merits of what the Government have done and certainly I would want to encourage them in well doing. With a bit of luck, they may do it again. I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is content with what is on offer, subject to two matters to which she adverted. This is why my rather fulsome praise has been a little diluted.

First, the ice that our endeavours will cut depends upon what is in the guidance. It would have been helpful if we could have been told what is proposed for it. I follow that it is not yet in its final form but, if I am allowed to disclose what I was told behind closed doors, I understand that there exists at least a preliminary draft. I hope that on our agreement not to seek to hold the Government to every letter in the present draft, they may at least let us peer over their shoulders before Third Reading. As the noble Baroness said, our response at Third Reading may depend on the meat which lies at the heart of the sandwich.

The noble Baroness also adverted to the second reason which dilutes my paean of praise. Members of your Lordships' House who participated in the earlier debate were not told what was being proposed until it appeared as an amendment two days ago. As the noble Baroness said, our information came from the voluntary organisations—to whom I should like to add my congratulations on the fair and effective way in which they have handled this matter. Of course, I do not hold my noble friend personally responsible, but I hope that the department carrying the lead, whichever it is—I do not believe we have even been told—will practise the normal courtesies during the remaining course of the Bill.

The Government can and do make sensible concessions on occasion and they should be glorying in their listening ear, but somehow they always manage to convey the impression that they wish they were somewhere else. What they have done is right and sensible and it is a mistake to appear to be doing it grudgingly.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I support what has been done and I thank the Minister for his work in bringing the voluntary organisations into the Bill. It was terrible that they were left out.

Emergency disasters can happen anywhere at any time, and everyone who can give help should be prepared to do so. I feel that sometimes the statutory organisations do not work as well as they should with the voluntary organisations; they do not understand each other well enough. If the Government can do anything to bring the two together it will help society at large.

We live in difficult times—one only has to consider what happened to the train the other day—and co-operation is vital. But if people are not in at the planning stage they will not know who to call out; they will not know what is happening.
9 Nov 2004 : Column 763

I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply and what he has in mind for the guidance, which will be vital.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I took very much to heart what was said in the debate last time round on consultation and the voluntary sector. I was fairly much on my own in that debate. I read Hansard very carefully and listened to the arguments very thoroughly. I considered the matter and I thought that we had a logical position.

But I could certainly understand the almost overwhelming sense of slight from those who have done tremendous work over many years, over many decades in some cases, within the voluntary sector. Although obviously there was some discomfort for the Government to find that they were not so popular in this part of the Bill, we reflected on the matter—certainly I reflected on it—took it away and thought about it long and hard and, to perhaps defend our officials in this, we worked very hard with the voluntary sector to try to formulate something to go into the heart of the Bill which would work for everyone's best interests.

I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that we would perhaps have been well advised to have shared early on the fruits of those consultations with the voluntary sector but, in defence of our officials, they were concentrating their efforts on getting it right. I think that was right, but I can understand that others have detected some discourtesy towards them as parliamentarians. As a Minister, I have to take responsibility for that and I apologise unreservedly to those who have felt a sense of being left out of the loop in the discussions. That was not the intention.

Putting that to one side, I should like to concentrate on what has been positive about the dialogue. I certainly understand the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, about the value of involving the voluntary sector early on. I come from a culture that encourages that. I have worked in the voluntary sector myself. As a council leader I had many dealings with the voluntary sector to ensure that there was adequate funding for important voluntary sector services provided in partnership, so I well understand the force with which that view is expressed.

I hope that we can collectively lend our support to the agreement that is now in words in the legislation. We have made important progress and it is only right that I should try to give a full response to the points that have been made because we need to set out very clearly our intention.

As I said, we have long valued the voluntary sector organisations and the important role that they fulfil, particularly in the field of humanitarian support for individuals, families and communities affected by emergencies. I am sure that it will not have gone unnoticed that Ministers in both Houses have paid tribute to the work of the voluntary sector in many of the civil emergencies that have occurred over the past few years.
9 Nov 2004 : Column 764

We have also tried to build on the active engagement of voluntary organisations in local civil protection arrangements. Where we have perhaps disagreed with Members of your Lordships' House, among others, has been not so much on the ends but on the means by which we seek to achieve collectively shared objectives. We now feel that we have got it about right, in capturing the role of voluntary sector organisations in statute. We believe that we can create a climate of expectation that will enable voluntary sector organisations and their skills, resources and expertise to be unlocked and used to the full.

In view of the strong views and expertise expressed on the issue, we decided that we would set out in some detail our objectives on the proposed amendments, the drafting of the amendments and how we planned to use regulations and guidance in this area—very much as has been desired in your Lordships' House. Amendment No. 17 will confer a power on Ministers to make regulations requiring category 1 responders to have regard to the activity of voluntary organisations when developing contingency plans. My noble and learned friend Lord Archer made it clear that he thought that "have regard to" was a well understood expression and a valuable one.

It is perhaps worth explaining why we have chosen that formulation, rather than that using the term "consult" in alternative amendments, and the practical and legal implications of doing that. A requirement to consult relevant voluntary organisations means exactly that: a duty to consult the voluntary sector in the course of performing the planning duties under the Bill could be fulfilled by category 1 responders sending a near final version of the plans to the appropriate voluntary sector bodies, allowing an adequate period for comments and then considering the comments.

Consultation processes can, when they work well, add significant value. However, in this context there is a risk that a duty to "consult" could lead to the voluntary sector being involved in the planning process too late in the day—that is, when the plans are in near final form. It would run the risk of responders, and the voluntary sector, for that matter, seeing the duty as a bureaucratic "paper pushing" process exercise. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, remarked that consultation could end up being the new red tape. We do not want that to happen by default, and we are completely at one with her on that point.

We looked for an alternative form of words which would ensure that the capability of the voluntary sector was considered early in the plan formulation process and was worked out in emergency planning, training and exercise regimes, where appropriate. The aim is to ensure that the contribution that the voluntary sector can offer is actively considered in the course of plan formulation, rather than as an "add-on" at the end. We are seeking to achieve active and meaningful engagement between category 1 responders and voluntary organisations, and we believe the "have regard to" formulation delivers exactly that. What is crucial here for us is the climate of expectation that the requirement will generate.
9 Nov 2004 : Column 765

The formulation "have regard to" incorporates, but goes well beyond, the requirement to consult. A category 1 responder will not be able to "have regard" to the activities of appropriate voluntary sector bodies if he does not know what those activities are. As prominent figures in statutory responders have made clear to the officials preparing the amendment, no reasonable category 1 responder will develop a plan containing provisions relating to the voluntary sector without consulting them as part of the process. Similarly, no reasonable category 1 responder would consider a plan to be final without first clearing with relevant voluntary organisations the assumptions that it makes about their roles and capabilities.

Some noble Lords may be concerned that "have regard to" sounds vague and perhaps—worse than that—woolly, and that it may give rise to misunderstandings. Cabinet Office officials have worked closely with key figures in the voluntary sector to ensure that the text of the amendment is right, and that the draft regulations and, importantly, the guidance, reflect our shared aspirations. We are committed to using the guidance to make clear the extent of the duty and set out models for compliance. It is absolutely crucial that category 1 responders and voluntary organisations know what they can expect from each other.

Before turning to the government amendments to Clause 4, it is perhaps worth reminding the House of the purpose of the provision. In an emergency, local responders will give all the assistance they can, but there is merit in ensuring that communities themselves are resilient. We believe that establishing a source of advice and assistance will raise business continuity awareness in the community and help businesses to help themselves in case of an incident.

Clause 4, as drafted, focuses on commercial organisations, and the reasons for that are straightforward. Experience from the Bishopsgate and Manchester bombs demonstrated that commercial organisations with business continuity arrangements in place were more likely to recover from major emergencies. However, a number of voluntary organisations have made a clear and convincing case for amending the Bill to bring the voluntary sector within the scope of Clause 4.

Voluntary organisations play a critical role in local civil protection arrangements; they also deliver a wide range of services that are crucial to the effective functioning of communities, providing care and advice, cultural and—importantly—spiritual services. Demands on those services are likely to increase in emergencies, and if they are unable to continue functioning it could exacerbate an emergency and its effects. Providing business continuity advice to voluntary organisations will help to build community resilience and to limit the impact of emergencies on its ability to function effectively.

We worked closely with key voluntary organisations to develop the text of the amendment, and we have involved them in developing the supporting regulations
9 Nov 2004 : Column 766
and guidance. The voluntary organisations that have been pushing for the change wholeheartedly support our approach—so much so that they have written many items of correspondence to a number of noble Lords urging them to support our amendments and have even mounted something of a media campaign. Voluntary organisations themselves do not support the proposal to prohibit local authorities from making a charge to voluntary organisations. Charity Logistics, which led the charge for the change, has said:

I was asked when the guidance would be available. We expect to publish the guidance in draft for full public consultation in early December—in about three weeks' time. As my noble and learned friend Lord Archer said, drafts are already circulating and have been shared with all key voluntary sector partners. Their development will very much follow on from those negotiations and discussions. That has been an important and valuable process for us.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page