Orders of the Day — Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:03 pm on 28th November 2001.

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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.