Civil Contingencies Bill
Lord Avebury (Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, no doubt the noble Baroness has taken advice on the matter. As I read the amendment, at the end of the three years, either the legislation would have to be re-enacted so consuming parliamentary time, or alternative legislation would have to be put in its place. Either way it would not be a matter simply of a one-day debate, but would require the usual procedure for legislation with Second Reading, Committee stage, Report and Third Reading. If that is not the effect, no doubt the Minister in her reply will be able to explain, from the Government's angle, how they see the provision working.
If, at the end of the three years specified in the amendment, Parliament considers that the list of events or situations constituting an emergency under Part 2 needs to be modified, or that the scope of the emergency regulations needs to be widened to accommodate some yet unforeseen danger, it would be perfectly possible to deal with the matter in the normal way. However, both the definition and the scope of Part 2 are in such extensive terms that it would seem unlikely that such a need would arise.
My noble friend Lord McNally said that,
"we should not leave this kind of legislation on the statute book without an opportunity for Parliament to check on it".
He went on to say that,
"a sunset clause is well worth considering".—[Hansard, 9/11/04; col. 878.]
Since then we have given further thought to how Parliament should best exercise the kind of oversight envisaged by my noble friend. We reached the conclusion that the sunset clause would not be the ideal way to achieve that objective. If, at the end of the three years, or whatever period is considered most appropriate, no amendments are seen to be necessary to the legislation, we do not want to force Parliament to re-enact the present Bill as that would be a nonsensical waste of time. Instead we are attracted to the idea of a review and a report which would enable Parliament, as the noble Baroness suggested, to debate the operation of the whole Act, including Part I, without occupying legislative time unless it proved to be necessary at that point.
There are precedents for that. The precedent I looked at was under Section 126 of the Terrorism Act 2000 under which my noble friend Lord Carlile reports to Parliament, having had access to all relevant information, including sensitive material and intelligence. In his last report to Parliament in April of this year, my noble friend said that the Terrorism Act was necessary and fit for the purpose, so there has been no need for a debate on the matter. We have not requested time for a debate on the Terrorism Act, and I do not think that any of your Lordships would suggest that we should occupy parliamentary time unnecessarily to look at that legislation.
My noble friend also carries out an entirely separate review, which is non-statutory, on the operation of Part VII of the Act, which refers to Northern Ireland. So there is a precedent for having a non-statutory review as well as the statutory review of the Terrorism Act that I have already mentioned.
When the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, moved an amendment on Report for a more limited form of report to Parliament, the Minister said that because the Government were already transparent about their civil contingencies work and the Home Office regularly reports on these issues there was no need for an annual report of any kind.
The same arguments could have been applied to the Terrorism Act. The crucial point there, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, may have overlooked, is that Parliament could repose greater confidence in an independent person, such as my noble friend, who has access to a great deal of relevant but confidential or secret material, than in a Home Office Minister, even the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, or the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. If the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, told us in a year's time that the Civil Contingencies Act is fit for the purpose, the reaction might be, "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?". But, if someone like my noble friend said so, then we would be reassured that he had examined the matter on our behalf and from a different perspective from that of a Home Office Minister.
So what we would like is for the Minister to say that the Government will now invite an independent person of the standing of my noble friend Lord Carlile to review the working of this Act and to report back to Parliament. If the noble Lord can give me an assurance on that, even though it is not on the face of the Bill, then I think that I and my noble friend would be satisfied. If not, and subject to what the Minister has to say, we would be inclined to support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. That would at least give the other place an opportunity to reconsider the matter at a later stage.