Orders of the Day — Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 5:47 pm on 28th November 2001.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office) 5:57 pm, 28th November 2001

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is designed to apply the standard disciplines that cover public expenditure to a relatively small part of local government spending—the sum used to finance the administration of local authority emergency planning units totalling less than £20 million this financial year. It is important to stress at the outset that the Bill does not set the level of spending, but provides a mechanism for determining grants and the fair and equitable distribution of expenditure.

The Bill is a short, two-clause measure that will formalise the Government's practice of designating a formula to allocate resources, and allow Ministers to put in place a more effective strategic framework to manage the allocation of grants to local councils for emergency planning purposes under regulations made under the Civil Defence Act 1948. The Government are now engaged on their third comprehensive spending review, the purpose of which is to match public expenditure with our policy priorities so that we can achieve outcomes that make a real difference to the people of this country. Naturally, we want to be sure that the prioritisation process is reflected on the ground and can take effect. In short, we want the money to be spent for the intended purpose and allocated in a fair and reasonable manner.

The grants that we make to local authorities for the purpose of civil defence have always been intended for that specific purpose. The grant supports the local authority emergency planning units which prepare, train and exercise plans that guard against the risk of a variety of emergencies and disasters. Emergency planning officers ensure that local authorities, in conjunction with emergency services, are ready to respond effectively to every potential eventuality. To do so, local authorities need certainty and the ability to plan ahead. They need to know how much the Government are going to make available in support of emergency planning activities for each financial year, and need a clear indication of what will be available provisionally for future years. They need to know how the total is going to be allocated among them so that they can make their own calculation of their share of the cake.

With this knowledge, local authorities will be able to approach the task methodically and with a stronger commitment for the longer term, in a field which, by its nature, is all about planning ahead. Until this year, local councils had that certainty, but a recent legal challenge deprived them of it. The Bill will restore that certainty and the framework that allows local authorities to plan ahead with confidence.

Traditionally, the Government have always distributed the civil defence grant by a formula. Until autumn last year, each authority was given a set sum, with various additions, depending on the type of authority and population. However, last year, the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority lodged a judicial review to challenge its own formula allocation for that year, for which it obtained leave to move in the High Court.

It subsequently transpired that a lacuna exists in statute law, unusually inhibiting the Government's grant allocation powers in this small field of local government finance. Accordingly, the Home Office agreed to review its grant allocation to Merseyside for that year, so in the end the case did not proceed to a full judicial hearing. Nevertheless, the point had been made that the Government could no longer distribute the grant according to a pre-determined formula, and local authorities in England and Wales were thereafter able to claim any amount of money for emergency planning on an individual demand-led basis, rather than a national strategic basis.

That has caused problems for both local authorities and the Government, and the inability to plan ahead financially is clearly undesirable. The Government need to ensure that the civil defence grant is allocated on a national strategic basis according to a fair formula, and is not soaked up in a distorted or haphazard manner. That is the purpose of this short Bill. The House may find it helpful if I set the measure in the wider context of emergency planning and civil contingencies activities currently in operation.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

On the funding implications of the Bill, the Minister explained at the beginning that the Bill was about setting up a mechanism, rather than determining a level of grant. He will remember that when the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs, Mr. Denham, was responsible for the measure, when it was still a Home Office matter, he issued a press release on 22 June accompanying the publication of the Bill, in which he stated:

"This short, technical Bill would enable us to return to the previous funding levels for the Civil Defence Grant."

The explanatory notes provided by the Home Office point out that since the legal case, expenditure in the current financial year is expected to rise from about £14 million to £19.5 million. The comments of the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs imply that the Bill will enable a return to levels of about £14 million a year—in other words, roughly a 25 per cent. cut in the expenditure in the present financial year. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that and tell the House whether he expects, as a result of the passage of the Bill—assuming that it goes through both Houses—that funding would return to the previous levels, as set out by his right hon. Friend in the summer.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I shall deal later in my speech with the hon. Gentleman's points about the current financial situation. Suffice it to say that the Government have not yet made a decision about the next financial year, other than the usual pencilling in of the £14 million referred to in the press release.

There are many different aspects to the subject of emergency planning and civil contingencies activities, ranging from the detection of risk, through prevention, protection and preparedness, to the response and recovery activities following an emergency situation. Spending on preparing and planning for emergencies and disasters at a local level—the limited subject of the Bill—is not the same thing as our expenditure on responding to and recovering from disaster.

Let me give the House some idea of the scale of our commitment to the emergency services in England and Wales, which bear the brunt of the work tackling the consequences of disasters. Large sums of public money are being spent on front-line emergency services—for example, more than £9,000 million this year for the police, £775 million on the ambulance service and £1,650 million on the fire service.

As one of the Ministers working closely on civil contingency issues, especially since 11 September, I know that we can take great comfort from the fact that our emergency services are among the best in the world. We have an impressive resource with a track record of dealing with extremely demanding situations in an efficient and professional way.

Of course, much of the public expenditure spent on the blue-light emergency services goes towards preventive planning work. Avoiding and thwarting disaster in the first place is clearly preferable to the task of recovering from it, and the emergency services reflect that in their priorities. That applies also to the work of other protective agencies; for example, the efforts of those involved in coastal and flood defences, with their budget of £377 million this year. Since 11 September a further £30 million has been made available to the Metropolitan and other police forces.

The expenditure on those principal emergency service activities dwarfs the expenditure that we are discussing today on the administration of local emergency planning units, which of course play an important role. However, the House will appreciate that it is necessary to illustrate the bigger picture—the jigsaw—in which the civil defence grant is just one small piece.

To put today's business in context, I emphasise that this small but important Bill is not the Government's only or last word on bringing our civil contingencies arrangements up to date—far from it. As hon. Members may know, following 11 September, the Government set in hand a swift and comprehensive review of all our plans and arrangements to deal with emergency situations. Under the leadership of the Home Secretary in his capacity as Chairman of the Cabinet's Civil Contingencies Committee, significant work is under way to strengthen the resilience to disaster of the whole of the United Kingdom, with particular emphasis on key facilities in the capital and also on our ability to cope with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

My hon. Friend will know that I asked a parliamentary question yesterday that was answered today. I asked the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions whether he has any plans to restrict public access to information on major chemical sites held on public registers on security grounds. The answer that I received suggests that those registers will, understandably, be restricted, because of the sensitivity of some of the information. For the benefit of the public, will my hon. Friend reinforce the point that that does not imply that the Government are seeking to diminish those security arrangements, and are indeed increasing them?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that the Government are making sure that all our arrangements to protect large chemical sites and other areas of hazard are always updated and improved. In the light of the events of 11 September, we have looked again at the information that is available about key areas. Without going into detail, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Home Secretary and others involved in the Cabinet's Civil Contingencies Committee have been looking closely and making sure that extra protective measures to prevent potential attack are put in place at key sensitive sites.

The civil contingencies secretariat, now located at the Cabinet Office—which explains why I am introducing the Bill—has been engaged in the co-ordination of efforts across all Government Departments. That is a top priority and good progress is being made in reviewing and improving systems. Simultaneously, we have pressed ahead with the emergency planning review launched by the Deputy Prime Minister with a consultation document issued at the beginning of August.

The Government believe that we will need a new statutory framework for dealing with civil contingencies to replace the Civil Defence Act 1948. Responses to the consultation are being analysed following the closing date at the end of October, and a clear consensus is emerging.

In drawing together the results of the emergency planning review and the wider ongoing exercise to strengthen our civil contingencies capabilities, the Government intend to consider how best to apply the lessons learned in a new piece of legislation. Naturally, I am not in a position today to anticipate the legislative programme or timetable, but the Government are looking at reform and modernisation for the longer term. Today we are primarily focused on an interim measure dealing with a small but still significant part of our much wider effort to deal with emergencies.

Local authorities currently carry out emergency planning services under the Civil Defence Act 1948, which was introduced after the second world war and imposed on local authorities the statutory duty to plan a defensive response to hostile attack. That Act was supplemented by regulations, most notably in 1953 and 1993, which outlined more details on expenditure and provided for changes in local government and the creation of new types of local authorities. The Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986, which had been a private Member's Bill, provided for local authorities to use their civil defence resources not only in response to hostile attack, but for peacetime emergencies. It is now generally recognised, however, that that legislation is anachronistic and that new legislation is required. As I said, it is anticipated that the emergency planning review will recommend a way forward and that new legislation will be introduced when parliamentary priorities allow.

The civil defence grant enables local authorities to fulfil their civil defence duties by formulating multi-agency plans to respond to any eventuality that may arise. Local authority emergency planning officers liaise with their local emergency services counterparts, other local authority departments, local NHS trusts, the Environment Agency, local business operators, voluntary organisations, faith and community groups and others in order to prepare arrangements for responding to emergencies. Thus, the civil defence grant is spent by local authorities on staff salaries and expenses, office accommodation and service costs, telephones, emergency planning team support costs, training and exercising.

The civil defence grant does not pay for equipment for responding to emergencies or for the response itself. Local authority costs incurred during an emergency can be reimbursed under the Bellwin scheme, which is named after Lord Bellwin, the Minister in the Department of the Environment, as it then was, who introduced the system in the 1980s. The scheme allows for reimbursement at 85 per cent. for anything more than 0.2 per cent. of a local authority's annual budget. All responsible authorities will have some funds in reserve and they should be expected to utilise them, but the Government are prepared to assist them with extra costs. During the floods last year, exceptional payments were made at 100 per cent. under the Bellwin scheme. In the light of recent experiences, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has announced that the Bellwin scheme is being reviewed.

The Bill contains only two clauses. It substitutes new provisions for section 3 of the Civil Defence Act 1948 in so far as it applies to authorities in England and Wales. New Section 3(1) of the Act confers on the designated Minister—currently, that is the Home Secretary—a grant-making power to every authority that has a civil defence function. New section 3(2) requires that Minister to determine the aggregate amount of grant each financial year and the specific grant for each authority, and to publish those amounts and the criteria by which they have been calculated. New section 3(3) allows the Minister to use different criteria in relation to different authorities and to vary determinations.

New section 3A of the 1948 Act allows the designated Minister to pay a discretionary grant to any authority with civil defence functions. New section 3B provides for the Minister to determine when grant is paid, ensures recovery of any over-payment of grant and allows conditions to be applied to the payment of that grant. Those provisions are very similar to measures contained in sections 46 and 47 of the Police Act 1996, but as the amounts of grant involved are not on the same scale, those provisions have not been replicated. We hope that the Bill will have effect from the next financial year, which would allow the Government to return to the position that we were in before last year's legal action.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

The Minister has been speaking about the grants that are given to local authorities for emergency planning. Is he aware that, in Bedfordshire, the Government's intended plans would result in a 33 per cent. cut in the emergency planning budget? That would cause us to lose an emergency planning officer and an emergency planning assistant and ensure that we could not mount one of the three eight-hour operational shifts that are required in respect of an emergency planning assistant. The matter is causing great concern to my county council.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I shall try to find out a bit more about the situation in Bedfordshire. My understanding is that the estimate for spending in 2001–02 has increased by 53 per cent. in one year; that is, since the previous financial year. That illustrates the point about the demand-led budget that we are discussing. I entirely accept that we need to find new ways of allocating sufficient resources for emergency planning purposes, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we need a nationally strategic and coherent framework in which to allocate resources.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

As the Minister is speaking about the way in which the system is working now, before the Bill completes its passage, will he address the very interesting remarks that are reported in the excellent Library note that was prepared for the purpose, among others, of this debate? The note reports a conversation between an Officer of the Library and a Cabinet Office official. The conversation deals with the way in which the system works after the Merseyside legal case and prior to the passage of the Bill. It is stated that a local authority must have conversations with central Government about what it would propose to spend, agree with central Government about what it will spend the money on and also spend the money reasonably and within an agreed budget. Will he confirm that that is how the situation works currently and that it is not the case, as might have been implied by what he told my hon. Friend Andrew Selous, that a county council can jack up spending however it likes and without any basis for doing so?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

Clearly, that was one of the corollaries of the resolution of the legal action. The question about finance for local authorities, which have naturally increased their claims for this financial year, involves a number of criteria, including the reasonableness test. The difficulties arise for the Government when they are trying to assess the many local authority bids. For example, the process of assessing and auditing reasonableness might be disproportionate to the grant that is paid in the first place, which, at £15 million to £20 million, is relatively small. We need to find a formula system that can allocate the resources far more efficiently and a demand-led, authority-by-authority system.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

While the Minister is speaking about the current system—his implied criticism was almost that local authorities were flinging everything into the pot and trying to get as much money as they could—will he accept that the situation was not helped by the fact that the Home Office, which wrote to all local authorities, specifically stated in its letter of 22 December that it did not intend to issue guidelines to them about what they should include in their bids?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

The provisions on what may or may not be paid for by civil defence grant have not changed. Local authorities have a fairly limited series of activities that can be paid for under the regulations that I mentioned—a point that I hope to develop later. The issues and subjects on which the money can be spent have not altered. It is simply a question of ensuring that the sums themselves are reasonable. It is that whole process that has been focused on the demand-led side of things and which explains why the Government feel that we need to have a more formula-based approach to these matters, such as that which applies to all other aspects of local government expenditure.

The Government have acted responsibly in the past by advising local authorities what grant they would receive for three consecutive financial years and allowing them to budget and plan their finances accordingly. We intend to proceed just as responsibly in the future. As I said, the Bill does not set the level of grant, which is decided by Ministers.

The end of the cold war saw a gradual reduction in the amount of civil defence grant allocated in the 1980s and early 1990s, largely because the original purpose of planning for response to hostile attack from a foreign power had subsided. In recent years, however, the level of civil defence grant has reached a plateau at just over £14 million. The legal challenge has destabilised the budgeting process, leaving the Government with no way of managing expenditure. No responsible Government can stand by and let that situation continue, so the Bill will provide the remedy.

Bids have come in from local authorities totalling approximately £22 million, and later reducing to £18.5 million, as the opportunity has arisen to use the deficiencies in the legislation. Local authorities usually contribute to their emergency planning services from their own general funds. However, this year, many authorities are naturally making the most of the opportunity to get the money from central Government and may be spending their own resources on other items. However, the distortion to the budgeting and planning process cannot be allowed to continue.

While the Bill seeks to close the loophole in the law, the Government recognise that the financing of local emergency planning needs to be reconsidered, and that is why we are seeking to redress this matter on a longer term basis through the emergency planning review.

Although the Bill received its First Reading on 22 June, and was therefore prepared before the tragic events of 11 September, it remains a necessary instrument in the Government's policy for a more strategic and comprehensive national resilience framework involving the work of local authority emergency planning officers. The Government recognise and applaud the work that local authorities have done in emergency planning. The result of that work over many years is that they were prepared to respond to the various emergencies that have occurred in the past year or so—the fuel dispute, the unexpectedly extensive flooding last year, and the foot and mouth outbreak this year.

Although the events of 11 September have heightened awareness levels, local authorities have not been asked by the Government to do any significant extra work at this stage, not least because well-worked plans capable of tackling a number of eventualities are already in place. Obviously, local authorities have been reminded to ensure that their emergency procedures are up to date.

Local authority emergency planning officers provide a valuable service, co-ordinating the planning and preparations necessary to deal with emergencies in any shape or form. Their work alongside the emergency services is of immense value, and goes a long way to ensuring that the effects of any disaster on a local community are mitigated as far as possible. The Bill will help local authorities to continue to carry out those functions by providing them with a fair, open and secure framework for funding. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale 6:21 pm, 28th November 2001

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out a number of the issues before us with a considerable degree of clarity. It is helpful for the House to have the chance to debate civil defence issues. We shall discuss in a moment whether this is the right legislation at the right time.

Public interest in civil defence is arguably at its highest level for 15 years, since the concerns about the nuclear arms race that prevailed in the 1980s. I hope that there will be cross-party consensus on the idea that the first duty of a Government of any colour is to provide for the safety of their citizens and for protection against the consequences of armed or hostile attack. I am delighted that the Prime Minister said very much the same thing in our debate on 8 October. When commenting on the events of 11 September, he said:

"We must safeguard our country . . . Our first responsibility is the safety of the public. Since 11 September, every one of our arrangements has been under scrutiny."

He referred to

"extensive contingency planning" and said:

"We are doing all that we reasonably can to anticipate the nature of, and thwart, any potential retaliation."

He also said that

"we would be foolish to be anything other than highly vigilant".—[Hansard, 8 October 2001; Vol. 372, c. 813.]

One of our contentions is that, contrary to what the Minister said, the Bill—which was prepared before 11 September—has not been adequately revised in the light of the events of that day, and of the consequent changes in Government policy and in the national security status. I should stress, as I have before in the House and elsewhere, that I have no criticism of the Government's general handling of the crisis, or of the Prime Minister's decision immediately to align this country with the United States. Indeed, I would say that the Prime Minister's conduct of these matters has been superb. It is in that constructive spirit that I hope that we can discuss the civil defence implications of what happened on that day.

We are dealing with a crisis on an historic scale. Those are similar to the words used by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Labour party conference, when he said that

"the events of 11 September marked a turning point in history, when we confront the dangers of the future."

He said also that

"every reasonable measure of internal security is being taken" and that those who had committed the acts on 11 September

"will not desist from further acts of terror."

In other words, the need for civil defence in this country is probably at its highest for many years, and the nature, imminence and seriousness of the threat to our citizenry is at its height. Yet, although the Government have not made any final decisions, the Minister confirmed in his response to my earlier intervention that they are "pencilling in" a reduction of about 25 per cent. in the amount provided by central Government to support the civil defence activities of local authorities.

It is worth putting that in context, because the Home Secretary wrote to every hon. Member on 9 November to say that

"the Government has been scrutinising every one of our arrangements for protecting the public . . . We do not believe that the overall level of threat to the UK has increased beyond the heightened levels following the events of September 11."

It is, therefore, the judgment of the Home Secretary that the threat to the people of the United Kingdom has reached "heightened levels" since 11 September. He went on:

"Our objective is to do everything that can be done to enhance our resilience and protect our key facilities, utilities and essential services."

The Home Secretary has, of course, gone further still, as we heard earlier this week during our consideration of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. He formally issued a declaration under the European convention on human rights, in relation to the provisions that he intends to introduce in that Bill. He cited article 15, which states that

"in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation" it is permissible for him to act in the way that he is in relation to detention and habeas corpus.

The Government are telling us—entirely accurately and wholly responsibly—that we are in the midst of a

"public emergency threatening the life of the nation", while proposing to go ahead with legislation drafted long before 11 September—I have no criticism about the fact that it was drafted then—for the purpose of restricting and perhaps reducing the amount of money that local authorities choose to spend on civil defence.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

It is important that the hon. Gentleman understands the scope of the expenditure that we are discussing in the civil defence grant. We are considering the administration of local authority emergency planning officers, not expenditure on response to or recovery from disasters. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will put that into the context of the wider measures that the Government have taken.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

I am grateful to the Minister for saying that, because I was about to come to the importance in any civil defence of the local dimension. I shall quote from documents prepared by the emergency planning department, which used to be in the Home Office and is now in the Cabinet Office. Its website states:

"The first response in any disaster is at the local level."

It goes on to stress that point further, as part of a question and answer feature referring to integrated emergency management. I understand that this is the official Government policy on emergency planning:

"The prime responsibility for dealing with disasters lies at local level where resources and expertise are best placed to provide an effective response."

So, in answer to the Minister's point, of course we welcome the Government's announcement of additional resources for the police, the armed forces and many others who would have a role in dealing with the consequences of—God forbid—another attack, or other disaster linked to or consequent on the events of 11 September. However, the Minister must acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend Andrew Selous that we are not talking about theoretical, "paper" or arbitrary changes in the quality of local authority responses and abilities to plan for emergencies. We are talking about local authorities contemplating making significant reductions in their staffing levels.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that his local authority may have to remove a member of staff without whom it cannot maintain its emergency call centre 24 hours a day. None of us knows when a disaster or problem might occur, but it would be a matter of concern if one happened in the eight hours out of 24 for which there was no cover. The Local Government Association takes a similar view:

"Emergency planning and response are core functions of local authorities".

Those matters are not bolt-on additions or peripheral, nor are they unimportant to local authorities in emergency planning and responding to a disaster, whether it be man-made or natural.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Opposition Whip (Commons)

Surely the distinction drawn by the Minister between pre-disaster planning and post-disaster responses is false. Is it not a fact that the planning that we have to undertake is naturally on a much larger scale since 11 September and therefore requires much greater resources?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

My hon. Friend is right. I make no particular criticism, as none of us has 100 per cent. or even 1 per cent. ability to foresee everything that will happen, but a Home Office consultation document published in August—before the events of 11 September—and entitled "Future of Emergency Planning in England and Wales", which no doubt informed the Bill's drafting, says at paragraph 4.14:

"In the last decade or so, there has been a clear reduction in the threat of war".

That is the context in which the Government made policy relating to emergency planning.

I shall deal with the money provided by central Government for civil defence, but before the Minister or another Labour Member points it out, let me make it clear that the reduction started not in 1997 but in 1990. That was the year after the fall of the Berlin wall and the liberation of eastern Europe from communism, so it is hardly surprising that Governments of both political colours through the 1990s operated on the assumption that war was less likely.

Although my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis knows more of the detail than me, we remember that those of us who take an historical perspective always begin to worry when the Treasury or the Home Office says that war is unlikely in the next 10 years. Several of my hon. Friends recall that that was the Treasury assumption in the 1920s and early 1930s. Sad to say, there is recent evidence that the Treasury, as well as the Home Office, is again operating on that basis.

Whatever people may have thought, reasonably or unreasonably, before 11 September, surely that assumption cannot be so readily endorsed post- 11 September. Whether we describe the current situation as a war or not, we should be cognisant of the fact that the press spokesman of the US President, the leader of the international coalition, said on Monday that the President is conscious that the US is "a nation at war".

If the President believes that his nation is at war, there is a serious question mark over whether the United Kingdom, as America's closest ally in those proceedings and other matters, should operate in similar manner. I repeat that the Home Secretary said that we are in the midst of a

"public emergency threatening the life" of the state.

Let us deal with the precise reasons behind the Bill, which, as the Minister rightly said, relate to the legal action brought last year by the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority. He set the exact position out in detail and with some clarity, but neglected to say that the Home Office chose not to contest the case. Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that the judge upheld the authority's case and ruled that under current legislation there is no provision to introduce cash limits.

Let me immediately make it clear that, as a Conservative Front Bencher, I am hardly likely to say that cash limits are evil and should be resisted at all times. Labour Members will be aware that my party is re-profiling its view on public services, but I hasten to add that that does not mean that we are suddenly in favour of spending any sum that anyone suggests for any public purpose whatever. Clearly, we are not.

However, although we are dealing with serious circumstances and a context that the Minister was kind enough to confirm, the legal situation means that local authorities cannot spend under the civil defence heading money unrelated to civil defence or emergency planning. They must spend sums that are reasonable and, in the context of the crisis, their spending is not gigantic.

We must ask whether the Bill is the most sensible civil defence measure that the Government could introduce at a time when many civil defence experts believe that there is a more urgent need for other legislation. I shall set out the possibilities in a moment, and a number of my hon. Friends want to point out that, since the introduction of the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986, which slightly regularised procedures, local authorities have often used civil defence funds made available to them to deal with other emergencies and difficulties.

We must reflect on the fact that, in the past 12 months, there have been not one, not two, but three largely unexpected but very serious public emergencies in this country—although I do not blame the Government for every aspect of those. First we had the fuel crisis, then the floods, which affected large parts of England and Wales. Then we had the foot and mouth crisis. In such circumstances, we must wonder whether the Government are acting wholly appropriately in introducing the Bill.

I said that I would touch on the way in which civil defence grant has been reduced, and, once again, I acknowledge that it peaked and began to fall under the Conservative Government. However, it has continued to fall since 1997. Although local authorities may be mildly interested in the exchanges that take place across the Floor of the House about who did what when and what happened before and after a general election, they perhaps focus not on that but on the fact that the reduction is 38 per cent. in cash terms since 1990 and some 55 per cent. in real terms. That is clearly a substantial cut on any basis.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

Perhaps I may re-profile the hon. Gentleman on a couple of points. He will be aware that the civil defence grant budget has levelled off at about £14 million since 1997, so there has been no reduction on our watch. Most importantly, it must be reiterated that the Bill is not about setting the budget for the next financial year. That is a matter for Ministers and a debate for another time. What we have to deal with is the question whether there should be a formula to allocate the grant.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

If the Minister wants to do so, he would be right to point out that the Government inherited low inflation when they came to office in 1997. We have difficulties with their economic mismanagement, but they have not succeeded in achieving high inflation since 1997, nor have they achieved zero inflation either. In 2001, £14 million does not buy what it bought in 1997, so a freeze in cash terms is the same as a continued fall in real terms.

I come specifically to the Minister's reiteration of the centrepiece of his case: the fact that the Bill is about procedure not outcome—about creating a possibility for a Minister to set a rate rather than about determining that rate. The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs was previously responsible for these matters and I have already put to the Minister what his right hon. Friend said in the official press release of 22 June, which described the Bill. He said:

"This short, technical Bill"— no doubt that is a description with which the Minister will happily concur—

"would enable us to return to the previous funding levels for the Civil Defence Grant."

Let us now consult the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill, which tell us the difference between the previous and the current levels. According to them,

"in the current financial year expenditure is expected to rise from approximately £14 million"— the level that the Minister mentioned—

"to £19.5 million."

No one needs a GCSE in maths to work out that moving from £19.5 million back to £14 million—in other words, returning to the previous funding levels—means not keeping expenditure the same or increasing it, but reducing it. In fact, it means reducing it in cash terms by about 25 per cent., and in real terms by rather more.

When I put the point to the Minister earlier—I am happy to give way to him again if he wishes to intervene—he did not say "We do not intend to reduce spending on civil defence". Nor did he say "There may have been a one-off increase recognising the existence of past difficulties, but we do not want any further increases". What he said was "We have pencilled in £14 million—again—for the future". Those sound to me like the words of a Minister who is preparing to reduce the amount spent in the current financial year.

Our case is this. Regardless of whether such action would be right in normal circumstances and regardless of whether it will be right in two or three years, it is difficult to see that it can be right now, after what happened on 11 September and given what the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others have said about our present situation.

Earlier this afternoon, I mentioned to my hon. Friend Mr. Bercow, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that I intended to refer to the figure of 686 billion. He visibly blanched: he definitely whitened. That is, of course, an American rather than a British figure, but it is worth noting that since 11 September Congress has appropriated $686 billion to deal with the domestic implications of what happened then, and that it is currently discussing with the White House whether an additional $40 billion should be provided purely for what it calls homeland security—something that is in many respects, although not all, similar to civil defence as provided in this country.

I do not suggest for a moment that we should move from £14 million to the equivalent of $40 billion. Nevertheless, it is at least interesting to note the United States belief that the present international situation requires not a small—not even a significant—but what on any terms would be described as a dramatic increase in allocations for all aspects of what it calls homeland security.

I suspect that the vast majority of those outside the House who knew that we were debating the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill would assume that it had been presented by the Government, in the light of a major international emergency, to improve, enhance and expand civil defence. In fact, its purpose is to constrain, limit and perhaps even reduce local authority contributions to civil defence.

Members should note what the Local Government Association said in its submission to the emergency planning review. I am not sure whether this was said before or after 11 September, but the impact is perhaps even more powerful if it was said before that date. The association said:

"there needs to be a real and substantial increase in financial support for emergency planning work".

It referred to huge demands on emergency response work, and said that

"work would need to be undertaken to identify the right level of funding", but expressed the view that a

"substantial increase would . . . be justified".

I am not arguing that any or all demands for increases should be granted, or that public expenditure control should be abandoned. I am saying that, according to powerful voices inside and outside the country, it is more than slightly odd that the Government should present this Bill in the present circumstances.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the press release to which he continually returns was pre-11 September? Does he accept that the view that a formula-driven approach could lower expenditure to normal levels was expressed in that light? Does he also accept that, by definition, a formula-driven approach can also be adjusted upwards in different circumstances? I am sure that such adjustments will be made.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has a hotline to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but if the Minister had said that, I would have been very interested and, to an extent, reassured. In fact the Minister, speaking long after 11 September—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present—confirmed today that the Government had pencilled in £14 million, again, for future supplies of the civil defence grant.

The hon. Gentleman's assumptions would be entirely reasonable if the Government had reviewed the position post-11 September, and had recognised that, at least for a short time, it would seem difficult to justify a return to wholly normal peacetime grant levels; but the Government do not appear to be there yet. Perhaps they will get there as a result of the hon. Gentleman's submissions, and those of my hon. Friends and others. I very much hope so.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

May I just clarify the issue of the grant for last year, this year and next year? When I spoke of "pencilling in", I was referring to the comprehensive spending review allocation. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we allocate resources for a three-year period, and we hope to do the same for the next three-year period. We are still engaged in discussions about the next comprehensive spending review. No decisions have yet been finalised: we are obviously looking at the whole post-11 September situation, but many other large sums are being spent on civil contingencies—not least the £30 million confirmed by the Chancellor yesterday, to be devoted to policing in London and elsewhere.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

What the Minister says is entirely right, and very reassuring. It simply reinforces my point. If the Government have recognised that they need to increase resources in all other areas, why are they producing legislation that they themselves say is likely to result in fewer resources in this connection? I realise that it is not the only aspect of civil contingency planning, but it is an important part.

We must also ask why the Government thought it necessary to present this Bill if they were going to present legislation on civil defence. A strong consensus is emerging among those with a degree of expertise and experience that there is an urgent and increasing need for new legislation in this field, but not for this Bill. People who deal with these issues feel that what is needed is swift legislation to modernise the Civil Defence Act 1948, and to provide a new statutory basis for emergency management. Encouragingly, the Minister seemed to suggest that the Government recognised that need; indeed, it is mentioned in some of their consultation documents.

According to the Local Government Association:

"The current framework . . . does not ensure participation: that can only be secured by the imposition of a statutory duty."

The association speaks of the need for a new duty of civil emergency planning, and describes in some detail what it would like to happen. It has also said that it

"strongly supports a new statutory duty of civil emergency preparedness".

It feels strongly that the present system does not deliver the level of effectiveness in terms of local response to civil contingencies—which, of course, may or may not be related to the events of 11 September—that is needed in the present climate.

Many people are concerned about the way in which the whole business has been run. It is not just that this is not the Bill that should have been produced. The Government were entirely right to present legislation on civil defence, although many of us would argue that the legislation should have addressed the very concerns that the Minister touched on, and on which I know he is consulting. I do not doubt his personal commitment for a moment, but we need a degree of clarification—which, it must be said, cannot be found in the local authority world at the moment—in regard to who, in the present Government, is responsible for these matters. Mr. Foster and his hon. Friends have asked a number of questions about that, and I pay tribute to them. Sandra Gidley asked a very piercing question a little while ago, and the ministerial response was not all that it might have been.

I shall give a classic example of the point. Today, I visited the Home Office website and found a statement on emergency planning. Although it is interesting that the Home Office still has an emergency planning website, the statement begins with these very reassuring words:

"You may have been aware that since the General Election a decision has been awaited concerning the ministerial responsibility for emergency planning, and hence the parent department for the Emergency Planning Division (EPD). It has now been announced that ministerial responsibility for emergency planning is transferred from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office."

The statement is dated August, which is apparently the last time that the Home Office emergency planning site was updated. Moreover, slightly disconcertingly, there was no link between the website and the Cabinet Office. Furthermore, in October, the Home Secretary was still responding to parliamentary questions with statements saying, for example, that he is "the Minister responsible" for civil defence preparations and that all matters were still under review following the events of 11 September.

In the face of all the uncertainty and lack of clarity about exactly where emergency planning staff had gone—although their responsibilities have been transferred to the Cabinet Office, many staff still work in the Home Office—the general secretary of the Emergency Planning Society, which has great knowledge of these matters and with which Tom Brake is associated, said:

"Our emergency planning is a shambles . . . If a disaster like the terrorist attacks on New York was to occur over here, we couldn't possibly cope. Councils and the emergency services have never planned to deal with something that big."

That is the scale of the problem facing us, and that is the nature of the difficulty caused by the fact that the Government have chosen to introduce this Bill rather than a different one.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

The hon. Gentleman has been dealing with confusion about which Department is responsible. Did he, like me, note with interest that, when detailing the Bill's various provisions, the Minister specifically said that the Home Secretary is the designated Minister responsible for determining the formula? What are the hon. Gentleman's thoughts on that?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

The hon. Gentleman is on to an extremely important point, and I did notice that slip.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

Perhaps the Minister is about to reassure Mr. Foster and me on that point. We look forward to his doing so.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

I do so enjoy re-profiling, the joys of which I am learning minute by minute. We began the process of creating the new civil contingency secretariat at the Home Office precisely because we wanted to have at the centre of Government the ability to inter-relate with all Departments at a moment's notice. I think that many people have recognised the need for that. The process of creating it has reflected the responsibilities of the relevant Cabinet committee.

The Home Secretary chairs the Civil Contingencies Committee, which has three Sub-Committees. One of the Sub-Committees deals specifically with London resilience and is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government; another specifically addresses chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear issues and is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs; and I chair the United Kingdom resilience Sub-Committee at the Cabinet Office. The responsibilities have been divided in that manner after 11 September. Hon. Members should, however, always bear it in mind that those matters are under the Home Secretary's leadership and that there is a transfer of functions order to establish the civil contingencies secretariat.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

I am not sure that that does clarify matters. I noticed, however, that in a slip of the tongue—I hope that he will forgive me for picking it up before it is rewritten by Hansard—the Minister mentioned the civil contingencies secretariat at the Home Office; it is of course at the Cabinet Office. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to his powers of memory in explaining the situation. When he was trying to remember who was in charge of each of the Sub-Committees, he looked a little like someone trying to do their nine-times table but grinding to a halt after reaching 81. Although there was a painful expression on his face when he did it, he got there in the end.

The whole point that Conservative Members and, I believe, Liberal Democrat Members are making is that if the situation is not instantly clear and on the tip of the tongue for one of the responsible Ministers, how can it be clear to the public? Should we not consider having a Cabinet Minister with sole and specific responsibility for the matter, as is the case in the United States which has created the post held by Tom Ridge?

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

Speaking of ministerial slips, did the hon. Gentleman note the interesting way in which the Minister said that some of the arrangements at the Home Office were being made there to ensure that they were "at the centre of Government"? Is that not an odd phrase to be used by someone who works in the Cabinet Office?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

I did notice that. However, in fairness to the Minister, I think that that was a slip of the tongue and that he meant to say the Cabinet Office rather than the Home Office. We have probably had enough fun with him on that point, and I think that he understands where we are coming from.

The final series of points that I shall make on the Bill relates to the fact that this is the House's first opportunity to debate issues arising from civil defence, emergency planning and the way in which the Administration have handled unexpected crises and difficulties. The history of those matters has been not at all encouraging. We have had, as I said, a fuel crisis. Many people in my part of the world, in Cumbria, believe that the Government might have reacted rather more rapidly to that crisis if the petrol stations had started running out of fuel in London and the home counties rather than in the north and north-west. There have been many criticisms of the way in which the crisis was handled.

We can also debate the way in which the floods were handled at about this time last year. The floods produced a commitment by the Government that they would review those matters but there has not been a great deal of activity since then. I know that some of my hon. Friends may wish to develop that point in later speeches.

Finally, and most seriously, we had the outbreak of the foot and mouth crisis. I do not propose going into that matter in any depth, other than to point out that many hon. Members will have read the very powerful Private Eye report which states that the outbreak

"was allowed to escalate into the worst epidemic of the disease the world had ever seen."

For my constituents and many others, not only in Cumbria but elsewhere, the Government's mismanagement of the outbreak was spectacular. At various times in the crisis, to defend themselves against the charge that they must have known the true situation before the last few days in February, when the official announcement was made, the Government said that they had contacted various people to get hold of railway timbers, for example, because that was part of "contingency planning"—which is particularly relevant to this debate. If the Government had a contingency plan, it was not a very good one. I think that emergency planning was better at local authority level than it was in central Government, but even that planning was not as good as it could have been had we had proper, adequately funded civil defence and emergency planning.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

This point is in no way party political. I simply ask my hon. Friend to join me in paying tribute to emergency planning officers across the United Kingdom who have had to deal with the three crises that he has rightly outlined. Many of them have also been working extremely long punishing hours since the events of 11 September to refresh and update whatever plans their local authorities had on the books. I think that it is appropriate, especially in a debate such as this, for the House to recognise the very real effort that they have made on behalf of the communities they serve.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point with which I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be happy to agree. Those people are at the forefront of public service. They make a huge difference to people's lives, and when they do their work well they make the difference between life and death for many of our fellow citizens. We should pay tribute to them and commend them for their work. I hope that emergency planning officers will feel that although there will necessarily be some differences between the parties in these debates, every hon. Member will wish to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to their work. I am sure that every hon. Member would also wish to give them strong backing and strong endorsement.

Sadly, the Government—who are handling the general international situation admirably, with the full-hearted support of the Conservative party—have a record domestically not of resolving crises so much as creating them and making them worse. To adapt the famous insurance slogan, the Government always make a drama out of a crisis.

Our fear about the Bill is that the Government are irresponsibly trying to reduce vital aspects of planning and public protection at the worst possible time. They have ignored the need for different, much needed and urgent legislation on civil defence by choosing to introduce the Bill instead of considering the matters it covers as part of a wider civil defence Bill. Consequently, the legislation is inappropriate and dangerously irrelevant at the moment. It has been introduced by a Government who have not demonstrated on this issue the grip and competence that we would wish.

For those reasons, we have no choice but to oppose the Bill tonight, in the hope that it will encourage the Government to think again and to recognise that the issues are deeply important and that, especially in the crucial atmosphere prevailing since 11 September, local authorities need and deserve the strong backing of central Government. Local authorities should not feel that irrelevant and unnecessary penny-pinching will restrict them, at this of all times, in their vital activities.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 7:01 pm, 28th November 2001

The first assurance I seek from my hon. Friend the Minister is that the emergency planning that Mr. Collins mentioned—the restructuring of the Conservative party—will not be funded by the Bill. We need to examine the issues calmly and carefully. This country has a superb record, under successive Governments, of planning to avoid risk. We try to avoid putting our citizens in positions where they could face some of the serious risks that we have seen as a result of appalling accidents and human error in other countries. Of course, nothing is ever perfect and human error does creep in. Notwithstanding the military issues that have been mentioned, both acts of God and human error need to be taken into account.

We have an exceptionally good record, and the first issue that the Minister's Committee should consider in seeking to minimise the cost to the public is the continued planning for further risk avoidance. I have spoken to the Minister about the need for a fresh look at some overfly zones and the holding patterns for areas that are, by their very nature, hazard sites. As I said earlier, a written question was answered today on the issue of access to information about major chemical sites, some of which was previously held on public registers. I am sure that the House will be glad to hear that steps are being taken to ensure that sensitive information will, at least temporarily, be held on a more restricted basis. It is, however, important to reassure our constituents that the commitment of the Government and the security services to public safety is not only maintained but enhanced during this difficult time.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned the fuel protest several times. That is a bit rich for a Conservative Member, whose party supported the fuel protesters who put my constituents' lives at risk. When the protest started, the blockade at the Stanlow refinery meant that emergency vehicles could not gain access to the site. The hon. Gentleman will know that if an accident occurs in an oil refinery, it requires rapid reaction. In Cheshire, we have a superb network, in partnership with the in-house fire services of some of the chemical companies, that includes the Cheshire fire authority and the other fire authorities in surrounding areas, to provide a rapid response to any emergency. Those fuel protesters prevented access and, had there been a crisis, the outcome could have been very serious.

If that argument does not persuade the hon. Gentleman, perhaps a description of events when Friends of the Earth decided to blockade Stanlow this summer—supported, I may say, by the Liberal Democrats—will do so. When I visited the emergency planning room to see how the matter was being handled, I saw that the first comment written on the whiteboard recorded the fact that public fire vehicles could not gain access to the site. I hope that the whole House will agree that emergency vehicles must have easy access to such important sites in case of any incident occurring.

The public information issue is especially interesting. Work is being done that may have an impact on the long-term planning undertaken by my hon. Friend the Minister. Hon. Members will recall that some years ago, under the previous Administration—I make no criticism of them on this point—the old Ministry of Defence siren systems were removed. Several concerns have been expressed in my constituency, and others that contain chemical sites, that the warning systems in place are not adequate. People do not understand what the sirens mean. They do not know whether a certain siren sound means, "Get the hell out of here", or, "Close your windows and stay indoors." They do not even know which siren signals the all clear. A generation ago, those signals were well understood because, for reasons we all know about, the siren system was in regular use.

I hope that my hon. Friend, within the framework of the Bill and the broader study of emergency planning, will consider some of the newer technologies that could assist in the provision of warning systems. One hon. Member—I can never remember his constituency—mentioned the emergency planning officers, and they have done a superb job. Members of the Emergency Planning Society have also considered some of the newer technologies, and—to give one example, which would not necessarily be the whole solution—it has been suggested that a national alert and information system could be developed using selectively addressable digital television systems. For less technical hon. Members, I can explain that that means that digital television receivers can be programmed with a range of identifiers. As a result, any group in the population can be selectively informed of any risk that might exist. As the technology advances, the interesting question arises of whether other Departments should be included in the debate.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

For the record, I inform the hon. Gentleman that my constituency is called Rayleigh. It is in Essex, and I am honoured to represent it.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. An effective warning system must be understood by everyone. For instance, in 1940, everyone knew what it meant when the church bells rang. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I hope that the Department will consider the application of the technology that I have described, which was brought to my attention by a member of the Emergency Planning Society.

Some military considerations have been raised. The BBC's website is reporting what is happening in the US, where the security services are considering in what circumstances additional security will be required. I am sure that our security services will do the same.

The space shuttle Endeavour is due to take off again on Thursday. For the first time, a 30-mile no-fly zone around the launch site at the Kennedy Space Centre has been imposed. That is based on the assessment of risk, and we in this country must consider the relationship between our civil defence on the ground and the use of military services.

In the previous debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry gave a clear assurance that, since 11 September, the RAF has been on stand-by to deal with any problems to do with nuclear safety. That is a fresh dimension that needs to be taken into account.

I wish to comment on the proposed funding regime, and on the review of standard spending assessments. My district emergency planning liaison officer recently sent me a copy of a document containing the local response to the review of emergency planning drawn up by the chief executives of the district councils in Cheshire, and by the chief executive of the county council. A combined response of that sort is appropriate in Cheshire, where areas of risk spread across district boundaries. That requires local authorities to work together.

I commend the document to my hon. Friend the Minister. In response to the question of whether funding should be delivered through the SSA, it states that

"Cheshire Chief Executives have grave concerns over the proposal to support emergency planning activities through the SSA, and would like to see a continuation of a specific grant."

That contrasts with the removal from SSAs of ring-fenced sums of money, which is what most hon. Members want the review of SSAs to recommend. However, it is possible that some common ground exists. The chief executives go on to state that they

"feel that the proposed system . . . will only work if adequate, transparent and robust funding mechanisms" are in place. Equally, the direct responsibilities of shire districts must also be considered in any study that is undertaken.

It is sad that so few hon. Members are in the Chamber this evening to debate these matters, which have important ramifications for areas such as mine where there are large hazards. The relationship between our civilian emergency workers and the more obvious aspects of emergency response after 11 September must be examined.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the Bill. It is a simple measure that will put us back on an even keel, but a much more long-term study should be undertaken to guarantee to citizens that the House takes seriously the risks that some people face. Parliament and Government must give proper resources to meet the needs of the emergency services.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath 7:16 pm, 28th November 2001

The House readily and rightly pays tribute to the various emergency services—the police, fire and ambulance services—when there is a major civil emergency in this country. However, hon. Members rarely congratulate the people behind the scenes who plan and co-ordinate the activities of those organisations. On behalf of my party, I therefore join in the tributes that have been paid to all those who work in civil defence, and to the emergency planning officers.

On 15 May 1997, I had the pleasure of speaking after the Minister made his maiden speech in the House. I recall that I referred specifically to the quality of that speech and the confidence with which it was delivered. Nothing has changed: the Minister lives up to the high expectations that we had of him. I am grateful for the way in which he described the Bill's contents, and for the way in which he set out what he called the "bigger jigsaw" of the country's civil defence structure. I am sure that the House is grateful for the opportunity to raise various issues in respect of civil defence, as they affect the Bill.

It is always interesting to follow Mr. Collins. I pay tribute to him for introducing a new word into the lexicon of Conservative thinking, which he did when he spoke about the "re-profiling" of the party's views on public services.

However, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale frightened me a little later in his speech when he kept mentioning the billions of pounds that the Americans are to spend on what they call "homeland security". I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is getting ideas. For a Conservative Member to consider spending billions on public services would be a significant U-turn, although it is one that Liberal Democrat Members might welcome.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made some important points. I agree with him that the Government are right to acknowledge that a problem exists at the present time, and that some form of legislation, at some point, is needed to regularise the way in which grants are awarded to the bodies responsible for planning and co-ordinating civil defence arrangements. However, I share the hon. Gentleman's view about dreadful timing. At the same time that we are debating the Bill, the Home Secretary is seeking to rush through the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill because apparently we are facing a national emergency.

Underlying the wording of the Bill seems to be at least the possibility of an intention to cut the money provided by the Government to support and plan for vital civil defence work including, of course, anti-terrorism measures. My fear is that if the measure is about both capping and cutting resources for councils which plan our civil defence arrangements and co-ordinate the work of various emergency services, we will have a real difficulty on our hands.

Over the past 12 months we have had floods, foot and mouth, terrorist bombs and the terrible events of 11 September. Just when we need the professionalism of our emergency services, it appears that the Government are sneaking in a 28 per cent. cut in the civil defence budget in what they call a short technical Bill.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Gentleman's point about finance has been made before this evening. Let me make it clear again that the Bill is about enabling Ministers to set a formula to allocate the grant, not about the level of the grant. Post-11 September, we are looking again at all funding arrangements. Although the previous comprehensive spending review pencilled in the sum of £14 million for that three-year period, we are reconsidering the arrangements in the light of all the representations that are being made.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I am grateful to hear the Minister repeat what he has said already. However, when the Bill was introduced on 22 June, the press release issued by the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs, made the Government's underlying intention very clear. It says, very specifically:

"This short technical Bill would enable us to return to the previous funding levels for the Civil Defence Grant."

If the Minister is saying that the Government have changed their view, I would be delighted to hear it. Much more importantly, those responsible for civil defence planning around the country would be ecstatic. However, the Minister has not come to the Dispatch Box and said that he disowns what the Home Office Minister said on 22 June. Geraint Davies said that he is confident that the Government will make changes, but the Minister did not assure him that a decision had been made. If the Minister is about to do so, we will be delighted.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

It is a simple point, and I will try and reiterate it clearly. The Bill is about enabling the Government to set a budget. It does not allocate the amount; those decisions have yet to be made. We are trying our best to calculate the level of civil defence grant for the next financial year.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

Once again, the Minister has had the opportunity to stand at the Dispatch Box and disown the words of the Home Office Minister on 22 June. He could legitimately say that in the light of the events of 11 September, the Government have had second thoughts. He could say that what the Home Office Minister said in the press release at the time was reasonable, that they had intended to cut the figure from £19.5 million down to the previous level of £14 million, but that in the light of what happened on 11 September, they intended to raise the figure after all. The Minister has been given the opportunity to say that about five times, yet he has not done so. Therefore, there will remain significant doubt in the minds of many Members in the Chamber and anyone listening to the debate as to whether the Government intend to reduce the level of funding by 28.2 per cent. Until we get a clear statement from the Minister, I fear that that is the only interpretation that we can make of the Bill, because the only official statement that we have had on its meaning was in the press release of 22 June.

I go further. The Home Office Minister had the gall to say:

"The new arrangements would improve local authorities' ability to plan their expenditure when fulfilling their statutory responsibilities for civil defence."

From what we have discovered so far today, that surely means that authorities can plan better but will probably have less to plan with.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

Does the hon. Gentleman also notice that, similarly, the Minister said earlier that the court case had "deprived"—I think that was his word—local authorities of clarity. It may or may not have deprived them of clarity, but it has given them rather a lot of money that the Minister seems anxious to take away.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

That is absolutely right. One reason why we will seek to amend the Bill and delay the implementation of the new arrangements is to give each authority an opportunity to make it clearer to Ministers than they have been able to do so far the significant pressures that they are under and why there must be improvements in the level of funding rather than cuts, if cuts are to be made.

To illustrate how concerned I am, I shall refer to the work of Bath and North East Somerset council's civil emergency planning unit. It has a Government budget of £51,000 to cover all its work. That is clearly inadequate, so the council adds another £74,000 from its own coffers, making the total amount of money available to the unit £125,000, the majority of which is not provided by the Government.

I accept the Minister's point that that is not the only amount of money that is available to be spent when an emergency occurs. I fully accept that the Government have made additional sums of money available to local councils through the Bellwin fund, which, I acknowledge, will be changed. However, before my council can even get its hands on the Bellwin money, it must spend up to £340,000 of its own money. Major emergencies therefore draw heavily on the council tax payers in the area.

The Minister will acknowledge—indeed, he already has done, given the way in which he introduced the Bill—that the money the Government make available through the civil defence grant budget is intended to cover a wide range of activities that relate to the planning, preparation and co-ordination of the likely activities of the various emergency services. It covers staff salaries, training activities, and so on.

My local authority has £125,000 to spend on those activities. In the past 12 months, it has had to deal with floods and the effect of foot and mouth in the area. It has had to prepare for the possibility of plane crashes, terrorist threats and, most recently, it has had to consider how it might handle possible anthrax or chemical attacks. My constituency is particularly vulnerable because it has a significant Ministry of Defence presence, although it receives no additional money for that.

Out of that £125,000, £98,000 goes on salaries. The remaining budget, to be spent on training, high-tech communications, IT equipment, emergency planning preparation, community schemes—including public meetings and community education—is a mere £27,000. Because of everything that has happened, the demands placed on the unit are at an all-time high.

The Minister mentioned training in the list of items for which the unit should have responsibility. Out of this huge amount of £27,000, my local unit is allocated £1,300 for training. Like all the other units, the only specialist training it can get is in north Yorkshire, and although the cost of that is subsidised, more than £1,000 would have to be provided for two members of staff to go on training courses. That now leaves only £300 to pay for the Virgin train fares and nothing for other courses during the rest of the year.

The unit and all units are expected to have high- standard communications equipment. Until recently, the Government advised my unit to invest in the Dolphin project for its communication system. It spent a lot of money but, unfortunately, the Dolphin system went bust. The unit, like other units, is now being advised to make arrangements to link into the police and the Home Office's airwaves project. That will cost £10,000 of the unit's money but, given the budget that I have just described, it does not have £10,000. Therefore, it cannot link into that huge communications system.

I have given a number of examples that show that the current level of funding is totally inadequate for the range of activities for which a unit, such as the one run by my local council, is responsible. The Government recently advised it to try to get involved in a business continuity scheme to enable local economies to weather the storm of an emergency, but it cannot afford to do that. It wants to set up a flood warden scheme so that local people can advise other local people about floods. It also wants to set up other schemes, but it simply does not have the money to do so.

Funding is a big issue for the unit in my area and for others throughout the country. That is why so many people have raised so many times the issue of the sums of money to be made available. They desperately want a much clearer answer from the Minister than we have heard so far.

The Minister is right to say that the current arrangements are based on the Civil Defence Act 1948 and the amendments to it that have followed. As he acknowledged, the Act is obsolete and new legislation is desperately needed to put civil defence on to a footing fit for the 21st century. However, I was somewhat surprised by what he said about how the planning for the future was going. In December 2000, following the Leeds castle meeting, we were told that there would be a review of civil defence legislation. However, he has told us today that the consultation did not begin until August this year, with the consultation period ending in October. Will he explain why there was such a long delay between the promise made in December 2000 and the start of the consultation in August? Perhaps more importantly, when might we expect new legislation to be introduced? He merely told us today that that depends on when priorities will allow.

In the meantime, many things could be done that do not require further legislation. Since 11 September, a great deal of information has been sent by a variety of civil servants to civil defence units around the country. The units have received information from the Cabinet Office, the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry, health authorities, Government offices of the regions and many others. Clearly, in many cases, that information is welcome, but I hope that the Minister is aware that complaints are often made that the information provided by the different organisations has been contradictory. There is, therefore, a need for much greater co-ordination of the communication between the Departments and the units.

I understand that that point was raised with the Minister when he met representatives of the Local Government Association on 15 September. I am told that at that meeting he undertook to find ways of improving the means of communication between Departments and local councils. Perhaps he can confirm that the Government intend to do that, because that would be of great interest to local councils.

According to the minutes of that meeting provided by the LGA, I note that, when the Bill was discussed, the Minister undertook to

"Reconsider the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill currently before Parliament."

I know that the LGA raised a number of points with him. However, as the Bill remains in exactly the same form as it was when it first appeared in June, it is clear that he has not decided to make any changes. I hope that he can explain why.

In the Minister's response to the many questions about finance, he has stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that the Bill is not about the amount of money involved, but about establishing a formula for the distribution of grants to the various bodies. I understand entirely that that is the Bill's purpose. However, if that is what it is meant to be about, I fail to understand why, as clause 1 makes clear, the new section 3(3) of the 1948 Act will state:

"The designated Minister—

(a) may use different formulae or other criteria in making determinations for different authorities".

Surely that means that the Bill is not about creating a formula but about creating several different formulae at the whim of the designated Minister. If the Minister so chooses, he can say to a particular authority that the formula is such that it will receive no money whatever. I hope that the Minister will explain why the Government believe it is necessary to have a system with different formulae that gives huge discretion to, at the moment, the Home Secretary.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

The hon. Gentleman is on to an extremely important point. In response to the Minister's point about trying to provide certainty for local authorities, he will notice that the new section 3B says that the grant should

"be paid in such manner and at such times as the designated Minister determines . . . a grant for a financial year need not be paid in that year".

It could even be paid in instalments. How on earth that is supposed to help the long-term financial planning of local authorities escapes me.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

The hon. Gentleman must have good eyesight, because he has read the next part of my speech. I was about to make that very point. Not only is the Home Secretary able to use as many different formulae as he wants, but he will have the power to pay whatever money the formulae decide is appropriate whenever he chooses. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, that hardly helps local authorities to plan their activities efficiently.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

Now that we are dealing with the provisions of the Bill itself it is important to reiterate what I said about how the establishment of the formula replicates—but not exactly—provisions in other standard local government grant arrangements. The provision is simply a form of words that exists in other local government finance legislation. It will give Ministers the flexibility to examine specific projects or initiatives in an area that might have a long-standing emergency planning need. That is why we need the powers that currently do not exist in statute.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I had hoped that the Minister would have explained the need for a range of different formulae. However, his answer is largely to say that that is what has always been done. That does not necessarily make it right.

The Minister referred to specific projects that the Government might want to fund, but he has already told us that they provide vast sums of money to fund such projects outside the normal planning process. There is a mechanism for that, so we have not had a clear explanation as to why that particular provision is in the Bill.

I also hope that the Minister will turn his attention to when the funding is to be paid. Although I entirely accept that the Bill seeks to resolve a technical problem that resulted from the challenge mounted by the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority, I genuinely fear that it could create more problems than it will solve. It will certainly create considerable uncertainty about how the funding will be calculated and when it will be paid. As we have said, there are real fears that it could lead to cuts in funding for civil defence at the very time when its importance has been brought home to us by the appalling events of 11 September.

As I bring my remarks to a close, it is appropriate that I should include the words of the manager of my council's civil defence planning unit who said to me only the other day:

"Over the past 10 years, these services have been trimming the fat from the bone—but now that the bones themselves have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, we really do need emergency treatment".

That opinion will be echoed by many emergency planning officers around the country. The Government need to provide more than technical legislation to sort out the mess that they are in. We need a clear commitment on the security of funding and the level of funding for this vital service.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central 7:40 pm, 28th November 2001

It is unfortunate that Mr. Collins said that he opposes the Bill because it is irrelevant, inappropriate and penny-pinching, because we are just beginning to understand its basis. In essence, it provides a rational mechanism for delivering money. It is not about setting the grant itself. It is important to make that clear, irrespective of what was said in a press release dated, I think, 22 June, because that cannot be set in the context of post-11 September and the atrocity on that day.

I am a former leader of London's largest authority, which was responsible for budgets, including the civil defence grant. I am also a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which is dedicated to ensuring that public expenditure delivers value for money. From the view of the customer, in terms of budget management and projection, and the taxpayer, in terms of delivering value for money, the Bill is appropriate and necessary.

Mr. Foster did not mention this, but the legislation will be superseded in a wider context within the next couple of years. [Interruption.] I will come back to that if there is a problem with it.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

The hon. Gentleman is more illuminating than the Minister. He told us that he is confident that the budget figures will increase and, despite what the Minister said, he now tells us that new legislation will be introduced within two years. I would be grateful to know his source of information.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

It is known that the Government intend to introduce emergency planning legislation because the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned it for something like 2003 or 2004. That information is in the public arena. As I understand it, we are moving quickly to ensure that we do not have a blank-cheque approach in the aftermath of the Merseyside decision. Prior to that, and since the Civil Defence Act 1948, decisions were made on a reasonably even basis. Since the Merseyside decision, the Government have been open to a certain amount of financial exposure. Instead of future grants being determined by a rational formula, they could be decided arbitrarily. That is not in the interests of the taxpayer or, indeed, of local authorities, which need certainty when they plan for emergencies.

There is a need to act quickly. The Government are doing that. It is important that the overall budgets, which vary between £14 million and £19 million, are set in the wider context. That is not a large sum considering the total expenditure that is put aside for responses to disasters by the police, the fire service, ambulances and so on, which is provided through the Bellwin scheme. Hon. Members referred to the clarity of the formula and executive management, but the Minister made it clear that that is within the wider remit of the Home Secretary, who chairs the Cabinet Civil Contingencies Committee.

It is important that the level of grant is decided rationally and that it is appropriate for current circumstances. It is also appropriate to protect taxpayers. There must be accountability and the money's use needs to be rationally explained. The grant allocating method should be brought into line with all other Government grant allocating methods. It is the only grant from Government expenditure that is not formula-driven, and that anomaly needs to be sorted out.

We need to update the 1948 Act, which was introduced to deal with hostile attacks from abroad. I appreciate that the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986 extended local authority responsibilities from wartime planning to peacetime planning for flooding, train crashes, plane crashes, chemicals and so on. In the light of other events that have occurred, such as the flooding in 2000, the fuel crisis and foot and mouth, the legislation is overdue for amendment, especially because of the Merseyside decision.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

The hon. Gentleman is making a constructive speech, but does he believe that true need will be met by the legislation, or is an expectation being built up that may not materialise in the grant?

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

I believe that true need will be addressed. The alternative is to do nothing and face the uncertainty of a blank-cheque situation. If that happens, we will not know how much money will be spent or where it will be spent. It is important to have a rational basis that is flexible and targets money appropriately to the areas of need.

The grants will be cash-limited and formula-driven, but there will be opportunities for project-based financing. There is also an option for Ministers to exercise discretion. Although we can plan rationally for various scenarios, we must consider that the nature of disaster and terrorism is uncertainty, and the planning system might have different configurations for different places. For instance, the needs of London are different from those of other towns, cities and villages.

The formula offers an opportunity for rational targeting, formula-driven, project-based funding and some discretion. Alongside that, I am pleased that there is a chance to have a service level agreement to ensure that consistent and growing standards of service delivery are met. In the past, we did not have the quality assurance or the means to ensure that we got the output that the public require and the value for money that we demand.

I am pleased to support the Bill. From the local government point of view, the Government clearly intend to consult the Local Government Association further. Some authorities might have irrationally overspent and not be delivering high-quality services. That will be addressed. In time, the wider needs of the legislation will be a consideration. Basically, the Bill offers an opportunity to deliver the level and quality of service that we need for emergency planning and to provide value for money for the taxpayer.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons) 7:49 pm, 28th November 2001

Civil defence is something that we all hope that we never need, but we understand that if we do, it must work, and work well. Certainly New York's emergency services worked well in the aftermath of 11 September, and I join the Minister in paying tribute to all those who work in the British blue light emergency services. We are well served, and sometimes we take them too much for granted.

People who are called to emergencies are contemporary heroes, but their heroism will work only if there is proper co-ordination behind the scenes to ensure that their services are delivered in the right way at the right time and are the right response to particular circumstances. That is why the Bill is so important.

The Bill is an emergency response to an uncontested court action, as my hon. Friend Mr. Collins said. I do not much like it. I am not saying that cash limiting is wrong—quite the opposite—but when one is considering how to restructure the funding for any national or local government service, it must be done against an intellectually consistent and honest background.

The Government are reviewing all such legislation and that will provide an intellectually honest and coherent background for a proper review of the financial arrangements that support it, and that is the right way to proceed. One should start with the intellectual analysis, and move on to finance, rather than the knee-jerk reaction of rushing through a Bill whose only effect, as my hon. Friend said, will be to cut the expenditure available for co-ordination at a crucial time in our nation's history.

There are two reasons for opposing the Bill: the fact that the legislation is being reviewed and the fact that the world has become a more dangerous and uncertain place since the Bill was published. We all know that the origins of civil defence lie in concerns about the cold war, but our enemies are now more complex, subtle, sophisticated and, indeed, numerous. Foot and mouth disease is but the latest. We must also deal with flooding, which I shall discuss in detail later.

There are long-standing hazards resulting from industrial processes. I have three tier 1 COMAH—control of major accident hazard—sites in or near my constituency that cause the emergency planning authorities of Worcestershire a great deal of concern. The sites are well managed, but the authorities need to keep a careful eye on them and plan properly for responses to anything that may happen. Of course, there is also the question of the post- 11 September world, which has featured heavily in speeches so far. Far from getting better, the civil defence front is getting worse and more complex. Hon. Members have mentioned the fuel crisis, and there was the millennium bug. Who knows what scientific disaster we will have to confront next?

My hon. Friend spoke about the hundreds of billions of dollars voted by Congress for civil defence purposes in the United States. I was struck by the fact that, while we have cut £10 million from civil defence expenditure for the understandable reasons that have been set out, the national Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States co-ordinates emergency responses to natural or man-made disasters with an annual budget of $300 million. It has access to contingency funds of $2 billion, 2,900 staff and more than 4,000 reservists. That is a sign that that country takes civil defence seriously.

We know that we need fundamental change, and the review has rightly begun. I cannot remember who launched it, because I am so confused about where responsibility for the subject lies, but someone in the Government deserves credit for doing so in August, before the events of 11 September heightened the need to act. I am delighted that the Government say in the discussion document on which we were invited to comment by the end of last month that greater consistency is needed in the delivery of emergency planning. They are considering precisely the legislative changes that, in principle, the House should welcome.

I am also delighted that the Government are seeking views on funding arrangements, proposing that civil defence arrangements should be supported through the standard spending assessment alongside other locally delivered services, rather than being put in a special pigeonhole. That may be a sensible way to proceed. I understand that the responses to the document have been very favourable, giving the Government a clear mandate and consensus on which to proceed. All that is very encouraging, so why this grubby little Bill now?

The chief emergency planning officers of the west midlands region discussed the Bill at one of their regular liaison meetings. Not one of them felt that it was needed, especially in view of the review of legislation, so what does it do? As my hon. Friend said, it cuts expenditure, but it does so highly capriciously. The explanatory note is a model of obscurantism, and just the sort of explanatory note that, we are learning, is a non- explanatory note. Let me offer my own version:

"This Bill gives the designated Minister the power to vary the Civil Defence Grant, payable to grant receiving Local Authorities on an annual basis, at will. Under its provisions, he will be enabled to use different criteria in determining the amount of grant to be paid to different authorities across the country.

Further, the grant could be held back and not paid for an indefinite number of years after that to which the grant applies. In the intervening period, the amount previously determined could retrospectively be altered.

In order to ensure almost complete uncertainty for local authorities, he will be given the power to decide arbitrarily that the grant payable to any particular authority will be reduced to zero from the original determination and this could be announced at any time, even after the grant period has started, leaving local authorities without any resource to carry out their Civil Defence functions."

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I think that I know what the Minister is going to say, but I will let him say it anyway.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Gentleman is trying his best to provoke me. I genuinely do not wish to make a party political point, because I understand that, at some point in the past, the Conservative party had a principle of sound financial management. The Bill's purpose is not to set the grant but to impose a formula system, like that for all other local government funding arrangements, to ensure that we can plan strategically nationwide. Does he support that?

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am glad that I did not anticipate the Minister's intervention, because I thought that he would ask a much more difficult question. The Bill's financial effects are set out in the explanatory note; the formulae lead to the conclusion that money will flow to local authorities. He is dancing on the head of a pin. His argument has some intellectual respectability, but I am afraid that, politically, it does not engage me at all, which I find disappointing.

The Minister was really saying that he could give Worcestershire a certain sum and the council could budget for it, but he could sit on it for months or even years and then decide not to pay. So much for the certainty to which he referred in his opening remarks. So what if Geraint Davies ran a local authority? Judging from his remarks and considering the effect that I think that the Bill will have on local authorities, he has gone native now. I hope that the Minister finds my suggested explanatory note helpful; perhaps he will consider revising the Government's version when the Bill goes to the other place.

I am glad that we have heard a lot about flooding, which is one issue that gives the matter such great urgency and importance. I declare an interest in two senses: I was Chairman of the Agriculture Committee when it produced its July 1998 report, just three months after my constituency suffered catastrophic flooding. We began the inquiry before the floods, and they occurred during it. We talked about confusion of departmental responsibilities, and when the floods in my constituency occurred, at Easter 1998, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, turned up to see what was going on. He then discovered that he should not have been there, because the matter was the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but we were glad to see him during an exceptionally serious event for my constituency.

In April 1998, Wychavon district council experienced serious flooding in 60 of the 91 parishes in its area, one of my constituents died and many came very close to dying. I have in mind the experience of one of my constituents who lives near what is normally a harmless bubbling brook, Bow brook, and who had to swim through 6 ft of diluted sewage to get from his garage to his front door. He nearly died in the process, and it was a terrifying experience.

The Agriculture Committee report of three years ago still bears careful reading. I re-read it today, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale may have been on the Committee.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

Indeed. The report was so radical that the Daily Express splashed, if that is the right metaphor, across its front page the headline, "Let Britain Sink Say MPs". That was not quite what we had in mind, but it certainly made people read the report. It highlighted the dangers of the increased flooding risk in the United Kingdom, often in very dramatic terms.

Those dangers arise from a range of factors: the Government's plan to build lots of new houses on flood plains, climate change and the fact that the nation is tipping slowly into the English channel, which I believe is called geomorphic tilt. That means that huge numbers of our population are at increased risk of flooding, so civil defence becomes much more important.

I know that for two-tier authorities such as mine, most of the practical burden of dealing with flooding falls on district councils, not the county councils, which are the authorities for the purposes of the Bill. I pay tribute to the staff of Wychavon district council who did so much three years ago. They gave up their Easter break and worked tirelessly to run welfare centres, open rest centres, clean up the mess, arrange for dehumidifiers, certify whether food was fit for human consumption, examine the structural stability of buildings, check electricity supplies—particularly in touring caravan parks—deal with fallen trees and so on.

As Carl Craney, the head of housing and engineering services at Wychavon, told me today:

"In emergencies like these, district councils rely on the good will of the staff that they do little or nothing to deserve."

Certainly, district councils are not rewarded by the Government for the work that they do to plan for emergencies—that function is reserved for the county council. We owe it to counties such as mine that have suffered so disastrously to ensure that flooding arrangements are properly co-ordinated.

The county council produced a report. I was not sure about that, as I thought that perhaps the district council should do so, but never mind. It dealt with a flooding emergency in my county last year, asking,

"What can be done to minimise the future impact of floods?"

The first recommendation was

"Do not cut Home Office grant for emergency planning."

It was made by the then Liberal and Labour-controlled council, but it seems that the Government are ignoring it.

Apart from flooding, I want to mention other regular issues that are now of increasing concern. I talked about my tier 1 COMAH sites, which need to be properly controlled and monitored. Proper rehearsals should be held for the kind of eventualities that we might face. To give the House an idea of the kind of site that I am talking about, I should add that I am delighted to have Royal Ordnance at Summerfield in my constituency. It makes rocket motors for a wide range of defence purposes. It is bidding for a new contract—I was lobbied by it only today—and I hope that it gets it. Rocket motors are dangerous things. Huge amounts of explosive and inflammable material are held at the site. It is important that my county has the resources to ensure that such issues are properly addressed.

I had thought that I might talk at length about terrorism, but as others have done so, I merely note that all kinds of new terrorist and broader microbiological risks emerge daily. We have talked about foot and mouth disease, but what other microbiological hazards are evolving to confront us? What new microbiological hazards are being planned by those who do not like our lifestyle or approach, or bear some bizarre grudge against western society? We do not know. The need for emergency planning does not diminish but grows.

I asked my local authority what it thought about the Bill, and I say to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central that this is what Worcestershire county council said. It said that it finds

"the provisions of this Bill to be draconian and totally unnecessary. The Cabinet Office is currently carrying out a fundamental review of Emergency Planning, with a view that an Emergency Planning Bill shall be introduced before or during 2003, when this Bill"— the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill—

"would come into force. It is anticipated that the Civil Protection Bill will impose a statutory duty on all local authorities for emergency planning and that this will probably bring about a change in the way that this service is funded.

It appears on the surface that it would be far more logical to leave the current arrangements in place and incorporate this Bill within the provisions of the proposed Emergency Planning Bill, which at most on the current timescales proposed would only extend the current arrangements for one financial year."

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

My hon. Friend spoke at length about flooding. Does he accept that as well as local authorities—the Bill relates to local authority grants—public utilities should be involved in seeking to create a policy to prevent flooding? At the moment, they cannot take the action that they want to take owing to shortage of money. The village of Eaton in my constituency suffered severe flood damage and danger to health from sewage. Such issues are involved in this debate.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend, as I always am. He makes a powerful point. There is a desperate need to overhaul and reform the structure of flooding policy, which is bewildering and confusing to us all. An earlier Select Committee report found some 240 different authorities and agencies involved in one way or another with flooding issues. The classic division is between the Environment Agency, district councils, county councils and water companies. There is a need to ensure proper co-ordination. That makes the provisions of the Bill so much sadder for me. I am sorry that the Minister has fallen for the line sold by others. I hope that he will listen to the wise words of Worcestershire county council and even at this late stage withdraw the Bill and reintroduce it later as part of a more comprehensive solution to the problems that we face.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip 8:03 pm, 28th November 2001

I shall be brief. I declare a non-pecuniary interest as the chairman of the National Council for Civil Protection, and a personal interest as my wife works for Sutton council and is one of its emergency planning officers.

The NCCP is an advisory or pressure group that is extremely active in promoting emergency planning best practice. Its members are principally drawn from the emergency planing community in local authorities. It has met representatives of the Home Office to discuss these matters on a fairly regular basis.

I shall not go into whether the Government are intending to downsize the sum of money that can be allocated to emergency planning from £19 million to £14 million because I know that the Minister would intervene to point out that the Bill is about not a formula but drawing up a system of formulae. That is rather hard to pin down. What is clear, however, is that local authorities are not in a position to plan properly. They are having to set budgets without knowing exactly where they stand.

It is worth pointing out some of the risk associated with any downsizing of funding allocated for emergency planning. Hertfordshire council has received additional moneys that have been used to identify the homes in which elderly people live—and specifically those on flood plains—and to confirm whether such homes have adequate emergency plans in place should flooding occur. I understand that such projects would be at risk if the money allocated was reduced to £14 million.

I also understand that the Government have issued guidance saying that, as well as normal arrangements for emergency planning, local authorities should be putting together a central Government advisory team, which is supposed to consider terrorism and hostage scenarios. They are also supposed to be drawing up a joint health advisory cell to consider chemical and biological threats. Such systems are obviously not in place currently and will require officer time—that is what emergency planning is mainly about—to implement them and ensure that they work. Again, if the sums of money are reduced, such systems will probably not be implemented.

The Minister said that he cannot predict the legislative timetable. I wish that he was as successful at doing so as Geraint Davies. Will the Minister at least give an assurance that he will personally make the matter top priority and fight for legislative time to be made available for such a Bill? Given the different crises in the past few years—whether it be the fuel crisis, foot and mouth, terrorist threats or flooding—such a Bill is clearly a top priority.

Does the Minister expect—preferably before but possibly after a review and consideration of the legislative programme—a mechanism to emerge to ensure the wider promotion of best practice in emergency planning? Members have referred to some of the omissions from the website. From talking to people in emergency planning, I understand that the content is very limited and that much more must be done about promoting best practice. Rather than simply telling local authorities that, for example, they should be reviewing their arrangements for mortuaries and how to go about decontaminating bodies if necessary, the Government should provide some best practice advice on such matters. That would mean that each authority would not then draw up an individual plan, even though someone somewhere had already done the work.

As the Minister has said, the Bill is specifically about the system of formulae to be implemented. I hope that there will very soon be an opportunity to return to the subject in order to deal with emergency planning in a much wider sense.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh 8:09 pm, 28th November 2001

I begin by apologising to the Minister for missing the first few minutes of his opening speech. I serve on a Select Committee, and even with all the modern technology of the 21st century, one cannot be in two places at once. I came hot foot to the debate, but missed the first couple of minutes. I served for seven years in the Territorial Army, including in a home defence role, and I shall bring a little of that experience to bear on the debate. I shall directly address the Bill later, but begin by putting the debate into an historical perspective.

The emphasis on civil defence has broadly been declining since the second world war, at the end of which Britain had formulated a highly efficient civil defence system. During the battle of Britain, the courage of pilots in the air was matched by that of those serving in the civil defence network on the ground in units such as the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Royal Observer Corps. Without such people the effective defence of the UK from attack would not have been possible. Even to this day, we continue to owe them a great debt for helping to defend freedom.

With the advent of the cold war the emphasis in civil defence planning changed, in particular to reflect the new nuclear era. Considerable effort was expended on adjusting civil defence planning to cope with the prospect of nuclear attack on the UK by the Soviet Union. A series of emergency bunkers was created and both national and local government officials trained for the eventuality, however difficult it might have been to contemplate. It transpired that the democratic west won the cold war and helped to bring freedom to eastern Europe, as well as to Russia itself to some extent. All those who were part of that apparatus played an important role, in their own discreet way, in that most welcome extension of democracy.

I pay tribute in particular to the members of the Royal Observer Corps. For many years, ROC volunteers trained to help Britain to deal with aerial and ultimately nuclear attack. Those who served in the ROC were highly trained to deal with perhaps the worst of all imaginable events: a nuclear attack on their country. From their series of posts and bunkers around the country, they would have been responsible for plotting the nature and extent of any such attack and informing the Government of the extent of the damage. They trained for all that in the knowledge that they might have to continue to operate even after their own families had become casualties.

Thankfully, with the end of the cold war the possibility of such an all-out assault receded. The corps was disbanded as a result. It is always difficult for members of a unit or organisation who have worn their uniform with pride, as the volunteers of the ROC certainly did, to accept the order to stand down. However, they have the satisfaction of having done an important job quietly and thoroughly. The ROC performed a valuable service for this country for many years and I pay tribute to its members.

The end of the cold war did not necessarily entail the end of all threats to the security of the UK—far from it—but that point was not fully appreciated by the new Government in 1997. The 1997–98 strategic defence review had important implications for civil defence planning in the UK. It switched Britain's planning assumptions towards a largely expeditionary strategy: the concept was one of greater flexibility and mobility and the ability to project forces to trouble spots around the globe. As the then Secretary of State for Defence George, now Lord, Robertson put it at the time,

"If the war is no longer going to come to us then we may have to go to the war."

That had implications for resource allocation and the switch towards expeditionary warfare was made at the expense of home defence, including civil defence. Not only was the Territorial Army severely cut, which I believe was a great mistake because the TA has great potential in times of domestic emergency, but the civil defence infrastructure was further run down, to the point where many professionals working in the field were becoming increasingly alarmed and, at the same time, demoralised by the low priority that the Government appeared to attach to their work. It is that overall trend of running down domestic defences that provides the background to the Bill.

When professionals in the field began to protest about the low priority given to their work, some accused them of crying wolf. The atmosphere was almost such that people voicing concerns and asking questions about civil defence in a post-cold war world were regarded as alarmist. That led to the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority feeling obliged to take the Government to court for failing to meet their statutory obligations. The Government declined to contest the case, and that led to the introduction of the Bill. It is important that our debate is seen in that context.

All that took place before 11 September. Since then, there has been a great deal of discussion about the possibility of so-called asymmetric attack on the UK by terrorist groups of the type whose actions people in the United States have had to suffer. In the debate on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill a few days ago, Ministers took pains to argue that the UK faced a genuine national emergency,

"threatening the life of the nation" as a result of events in the United States, and that the serious risk justified our derogation from certain aspects of the European convention on human rights that were inconsistent with some of the measures in that Bill.

It is utterly inconsistent for one set of Ministers to argue in the House that the UK faces a genuine domestic emergency, and other Ministers to argue a few days later for legislative powers to reduce spending on civil defence. Either we face such a threat or we do not. We should allocate our resources, including funding for civil defence, accordingly. I happen to believe that more must be spent in that respect, so I deprecate the spirit of the Bill, which would facilitate precisely the opposite.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Bill. New section 3B(4), on payment, states:

"An authority shall repay to the designated Minister any sum which . . . exceeds the amount to which the authority is entitled under that section for that year (whether or not by virtue of a varying determination under section 3(3)(b))."

If the Bill is designed to enhance the resources given to civil defence, why is it necessary for the Government to include a clawback provision? No Labour Member has defended that point so far.

This country has survived many threats to its security down the centuries. Now, we face a new and in many ways more invidious threat than we have faced hitherto. We need to guard against the threat of terrorism and asymmetric warfare, just as we have guarded against all other threats. That means spending more on civil defence, not less. When the total allocated to local authorities for civil defence last year—£20 million—is around half the cost of a single Eurofighter aircraft, we have got the balance of our planning wrong.

The first duty of Government, above all others, is defence of the realm. We forget that at our peril. From what I have heard today, I believe that we are in real danger of forgetting that tonight.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale 8:18 pm, 28th November 2001

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We have had a useful and constructive debate. If the Minister is unable to deal with all the points raised now, perhaps he will write to those who have spoken.

Mr. Miller made an extremely important point about the need to clarify what different siren sounds mean. He was entirely right to draw that to the House's attention. I also strongly endorse his comments on the importance of no-flying zones. He will understand why the matter is of no small concern to my constituents, one of whom recently pointed out to me, using a somewhat morbid phrase, that his home at Windermere was only 25 miles "as the radiation flies" from Sellafield. Greater clarification would be appreciated, although I should say that the measures already taken by the Government in that respect are most welcome.

My hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and Mr. Foster all paid important tributes to emergency planning officers, which I am sure will be supported by all hon. Members on both sides of the House. We should applaud the officers' work.

The hon. Member for Bath was entirely right when he said that we all accept that legislation of some sort to deal with funding matters in this context is needed at some stage, but as he said, the Government's timing is dreadful. He said that he looks forward to introducing amendments when the Bill is considered in Committee to delay its effect. He will have the support of the official Opposition in doing so, and perhaps we can work together on that. I look forward to that because his party and mine have recently taken joint control of Cumbria county council, and are doing a great deal better there than the previous Labour local authority.

Geraint Davies made, perhaps unintentionally, a slightly entertaining speech. He tried to argue that the Government were not about to cut civil defence funding. For the Minister's benefit, he went on to announce that new legislation would be brought forward in the next two years. The Minister was a little less certain than the hon. Gentleman about that. However, it was an interesting contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire rightly said that heroism works only when there is proper co-ordination behind the scenes. I am sure that he is right to say that it would have made a great deal more sense to address finances as part of an overall framework of legislative reform, and not on their own. I am sure that he was right to pay tribute to the work of his local district council. I was taken by the quote that he provided from Worcestershire county council, which described the proposed legislation as draconian and entirely unnecessary.

My hon. Friend Mr. Winterton made a typically constructive contribution. He spoke of the need for utilities to be brought within a proper legislative framework. Tom Brake, who is a great expert on these matters as the chairman of the National Council for Civil Protection, made a helpful and positive contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh, whose expertise in these matters as a former member of the Territorial Army is important, was right to pay tribute to the work of the Royal Observer Corps. His tribute was entirely appropriate and well informed, and it should be endorsed by everyone in the House who loves freedom. It was interesting that he referred to the words of Lord Robertson, who said some years ago that the war would no longer come to us. Sadly for the citizens of New York, it came to them. That must influence the way in which we approach these matters.

The Opposition genuinely believe that the Government have got this one wrong. It is the wrong Bill at the wrong time. It is a misguided response at a time of national emergency, to use the Home Secretary's words. That is why we shall be voting against the Bill. We ask the Government to reconsider the measure.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office) 8:22 pm, 28th November 2001

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I want to respond to what has been a brief but constructive debate. It has allowed the Government to explain—I hope that it will not be necessary to do so more frequently—that the Bill is about enabling the Government to set a formula for the allocation of grant, and not the actual level of spending.

Mr. Collins, in opening and responding to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, mentioned the great work of the emergency services and others. Indeed, he complimented the Government's handling of events post-11 September. I welcome those remarks. I am sorry that he has concluded that he will actively oppose the Bill. It seems that he is opposing a national strategic approach to emergency planning funding, which is extremely regrettable. The Government want a planned and fair distribution of grant. The hon. Gentleman appears not to want that.

My hon. Friend Mr. Miller made a number of legitimate suggestions for improving public protection. He referred to the demise of the old warning sirens that were in place in the cold war era. I know that the Government are reviewing the adequacy of public warning systems and I hope that announcements will be made on that. My hon. Friend talked about no-fly zones around sensitive sites. He will be aware that following discussions in another place, the Departments involved will be taking up a number of his suggestions. He has given much attention to the Bill and has scrutinised it, and I value enormously his contribution.

Mr. Foster also paid tribute to the work of local emergency planning officers and others. He gave examples of work that is undertaken in his local authority area and the issues that are faced. He talked about demands on budgets, the need for training and the wish to see better communication systems. We need to reinstitute the ability to allocate a formula that is based on a series of criteria on a range of issues. We need legal authority to do that, and that is precisely what the Bill is designed to achieve.

My hon. Friend Geraint Davies has much experience as a former leader of his local council and as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. He understands entirely the need for the rational allocation of grant. He correctly summarised the Bill's provisions.

Mr. Luff raised a number of questions, in particular the flooding in the Wychavon area. He also referred to one possible cause of his geomorphic tilt, which I feel I may be suffering from at this time of the evening. Civil defence grant covers only the funding for local emergency planning units; it does not cover responses to floods. I understand that the budget is rising from £66 million for the financial year 2000–01 to £114 million in the financial year 2003–04. There is an increase in the amount that we are allocating to flood prevention. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned issues surrounding the control of major accident hazard sites. These are being reviewed by the Cabinet's Civil Contingencies Committee.

Tom Brake has a great deal of knowledge about civil contingencies and emergency planning. I welcome his contribution. He specifically urged the Government to bring forward wider emergency planning legislation as soon as possible. The truth is that we are still learning many lessons, particularly after the events of 11 September. We intend to bring forward a Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows. We must ensure that we are covering all the relevant issues in such legislation.

Mr. Francois made an interesting speech. He paid tribute to the Royal Observer Corps and the Territorial Army. He discussed the end of the cold war. I disagree with his conclusions about the Bill, but I understand the experience from which he speaks.

Several Members talked about the level of funding, especially those who spoke from the Front Benches. The issue of reprofiling spending has arisen throughout the debate. I am learning at all times. The Bill does not set the budget for civil defence grant, but it enables Ministers to do so. Ministers have yet to set the 2002–03 financial year resource. The question this evening is whether we should have a formula for allocating such grant.

We accept that we should reconsider financing for local authority emergency planning units. That is why we have the emergency planning review. Discussions are continuing, especially following the events of 11 September, in respect of the next comprehensive spending review. We will be considering all the representations that we are receiving from local authorities. The Local Government Association, in particular, has made representations, and we are trying to build on our continuing dialogue and regular communications with it. Its representations will be taken into account as far as possible. We are actively investigating the question of a formula based on the standard spending assessment.

To revisit the point about the Civil Contingencies Committee, it is chaired by the Home Secretary, although the civil contingencies secretariat is based in the Cabinet Office. It is clear, to me at least, where those organisations sit; I hope that that helps to clarify the matter for the House.

While the Government intend to consider new legislation on a range of civil contingency issues, this short Bill is required in the interim to re-establish a national strategic approach to civil defence grant allocation. The Government are concerned that, following the legal challenge, the costs of assessing the individual claims of each authority's bid to check whether they are reasonable is both disproportionate and burdensome, given the total size of the budget. A formula allocation is easier and more cost-efficient in administrative terms. Moreover, a system led by authority demand would fail to take account of the need for prioritisation and fairness across the country as a whole, so the Bill is needed now to reassert the importance of a comprehensive and planned nationwide emergency planning framework.

The hon. Member for Bath, among others, mentioned the need for a fundamental re-examination of civil contingencies work, which is currently under way in the emergency planning review and will address many specific representations on the level of grant and how best it should be allocated. The review specifically asked for comments on whether funding for local authorities should be made through the SSA. In the meantime, the basic building block of statute law is needed to give the Government the ability to implement the existing scheme and any new schemes.

There can be no doubt that the events of 11 September have caused significant anxiety across the world and in our own communities. Part of the process of ameliorating that concern is the demonstration that, as a society, we are well placed to cope with whatever emergencies may arise. The Bill reflects a mere fraction of the work required to tighten up our national resilience framework, but it is important nevertheless. It is a necessary tool in the delivery of effective emergency planning co-ordination across the country, and I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 292, Noes 159.

Division number 90 Orders of the Day — Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

Aye: 292 MPs

No: 159 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.