Orders of the Day — Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:49 pm on 28th November 2001.

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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."