Orders of the Day — Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:21 pm on 28th November 2001.

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

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.