New Clause 2 — Emergency Public Education And Training Board

Orders of the Day — Civil Contingencies Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:05 pm on 24th May 2004.

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'(1) There shall be an Emergency Public Education and Training Board consisting of—

(a) up to six members appointed by the Secretary of State representative of Category 1 responders;

(b) up to six members appointed by the Secretary of State representative of Category 2 responders; and

(c) up to six other members appointed by the Secretary of State.

(2) The Secretary of State may by order make provision in respect of the duties undertaken by the Emergency Public Education and Training Board.'.—[Patrick Mercer.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 100, in clause 2, page 3, line 6, after 'maintain', insert 'resilient'.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home, Constitutional & Legal Affairs

New clause 2 relates to two particular measures—informing the public about a threat and training them to deal with it.

This is not a new subject in the public forum. It was talked about during pre-legislative scrutiny before the Bill was considered in Committee, discussed endlessly in Committee and has had any number of outings both in the press and generally in the public place. It is interesting that the Government have continually denied the need for public information. For example, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was particularly vocal in Committee about there always being a fine balance to be struck between telling the people too much and panicking them and not telling the public anything at all.

When we talked in Committee about the need for public information, the Government made it clear that there was no further need for a campaign to tell people precisely what was going on. We mentioned that the level of national alert was never disseminated in a public place and that we had always to rely on the BBC, and particularly Radio 4's "Today" programme, to leak the fact that the level of national alert went up or down.

For instance, after the bombings in early November of our embassies in Turkey, the public were simply not told that the alert level had gone up to its second highest possible stage, until we were told of the situation on national radio. It was interesting that, despite having talked about the issue in Committee and despite the Government having resisted any attempts to inform the public about what the threat was, it was left to the British Transport police and the Metropolitan police to mount an effective and thorough poster campaign immediately after the Madrid bombing. That gives the lie to the assertions that information would panic the public or that information was not necessary.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

Over new year I was in New York city. My hon. Friend may not be aware that Fox News, CNN and WCBS-TV—the local CBS affiliate—all had a banner across their news bulletins setting out the state of alert, which happened to be very high in New York city at that time. Does he think that that might be an indicator that could be employed in this country, given that there was no mass panic in New York and that the celebrations for new year's eve were performed well with many people attending them despite a high level of alert and the fact that they were informed of that situation?

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home, Constitutional & Legal Affairs

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that timely intervention. We ran out of time when we were discussing the previous new clause, but I intended to say that, during the second world war, we had an organisation known as the Civil Defence. It gave timely warnings about the likelihood of attack. Clearly, that would have been a conventional attack, probably mounted by the Luftwaffe. A terrorist attack is rather different. None the less, I believe that my hon. Friend made a valuable point. For example, during my several tours of duty in Ulster, it was always clear to me that information was being given by the police to the public about precisely what the threat was. It was less full than the American system. We have a formal system, and I suggest to the Government that there would be no harm in allowing the public to know. Rather than using the media to disseminate the message, part of the public information campaign should be exactly as my hon. Friend suggests. There should be a proper and orchestrated way of telling the public precisely what the level of threat is.

The Society of Industrial Emergency Service Officers says:

"The experience of SIESO members in warning and informing the public of the potential dangers of living next to top tier COMAH sites"— in other words, power stations and the like—

"gives the lie to the Government's belief that pre-education of the general population would cause panic. There is a need for people to know what measures they can take to safeguard themselves prior to the arrival of professional help."

Similarly, last year the Metropolitan police commissioned a report on possible co-operation between the Government and the private sector. That was known as Project Unicorn and it reported earlier this year, although the Government have chosen not to publicise the conclusions. Project Unicorn states:

"To the public at large the CBRN threat is undoubtedly the most frightening aspect of the 'new terrorism' . . . The Commercial Sector appears to be unanimous in its criticism of the present counter-terrorism Communications Policy prior to a major incident: they found it outdated, condescending, generally uncoordinated and at times incoherent."

I do not think that I need add to those two damning indictments of the fact that the Government are not prepared to tell us what is going on. I suggest that we might follow the example of the Australian Government.

Many people say that this country is extremely "proof" to terrorism, that the public are used to it and will be able to take it on the chin, and that living through 30-odd years of activity by the Irish Republican Army and similar organisations has made London and other large cities pretty resilient, if the Minister does not mind my borrowing that phrase, to the effects of terrorism. It is therefore interesting that, after the Bali bomb, which killed plenty of Australians but did not kill anybody in Australia, the Australian Government, who have no real experience of terrorism, chose to take the subject extremely seriously.

The Australian Government chose to spend the money that needed to be spent and to do the research required of a responsible Government. That is why every single Australian has received information from his Government and why the Prime Minister has written to every Australian, beginning his letter, "Dear fellow Australian". An information pack that is now in the hands of every Australian household contains practical little measures such as fridge magnets with all the emergency telephone numbers that any member of the public might want to refer to.

Why are we not doing that? Yes, it would cost and, yes, there would be opportunity cost, but have the Government failed to understand that the population are not a bunch of naughty schoolchildren, but responsible adults? I believe that knowledge dispels fear; it does not inspire panic, unless it is articulated irresponsibly or badly. Again, I speak from personal experience. The population of Northern Ireland were constantly told what the threat was and I never once saw panic over there.

Go back 11 years in this country, and just before the traditional IRA pre-Christmas bombing campaign, the Government chose to tell the population of London precisely what was going on.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

Just this past weekend, every pub in Bangor was advised of a threat, which was also newsworthy. The hon. Gentleman speaks about letting everyone know about the threat: the Government sent a booklet dealing with the Belfast agreement to every home in Northern Ireland, but this is a much more important issue because it involves life and death.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home, Constitutional & Legal Affairs

I am most grateful for that helpful and perspicacious intervention. I hope that the Government pay attention to the words of an hon. Member who has clearly been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism for the past several decades.

It is interesting that the Government still continue not to take such action. The examples are there; other nations have tried those measures. I return to the point that, just before Christmas 11 years ago, we were told that if we owned lock-ups in London and saw suspicious groups of men, particularly if they were speaking with Irish accents, the police should be informed because there was a likelihood of a bomb or mortar attack.

To the best of my knowledge, there was no panic over that and no uprising among aggrieved Irish expatriates. People understood the difficulty and that the job was being done as properly as it could be. They understood that the Government cared and were concerned about their safety. I put the question again: why are this Government not acting on that particular point?

The next point that the new clause addresses is training of the public going hand in hand with the information that I have already addressed. My hon. Friend Mr. Brazier mentioned the effects of what turned out to be a benign demonstration here in the House last Wednesday. I accept that it was difficult to know whether the attack could have been lethal, what agent had been used and whether the House reacted correctly or incorrectly, but that is not the point that I am trying to make. The point is that not a single person in the Chamber had received any training in what to do in the event of such an attack.

About two weeks ago, I received from Officers of the House an hour and a half of extremely effective training in what to do in the event of a fire. At the end of the training, I was much better informed and had been told precisely what to do. One or two anomalies had been ironed out and, having served as a part-time fireman and having been involved in several fires in my time, I felt that I was a much more useful member of the House of Commons community, in more ways than one, than ever before.

I said to the authorities, "Thank you very much indeed, but what do I do in the event of a bomb being discovered outside the House of Commons or a contaminatory attack?" Answer came there none. There is no training available that I am aware of. Even more depressing is that fact that, with one or two notable exceptions, no Member of Parliament who spoke in public in the media after that attack said, "That is all very well for what is happening in Westminster, but what about our voters—the people who send us here to represent them on these green Benches?"

Very few Members seemed to be able to spread their wings and say, "Don't we owe it to our voters to give them some training in what to do in such events?" The Government may say that offering such training would frighten people. Fine, but I would say that knowledge dispels fear. The Government may say that the training would be expensive, and I acknowledge that there would be a cost. They may say that we have never done that sort of thing before but that is nonsense. This nation has faced threats in the past—conventional and unconventional.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West 7:30 pm, 24th May 2004

It might be sensible for my hon. Friend to remind the Government that for many decades we have had a Health and Safety Commission, a Health and Safety Executive and safety representatives at work. People have not been frightened by the analysis of risks at work and ways to reduce them. What he suggests is not quite analogous, but it is pretty similar to what we face in our daily lives at work, and have for many decades.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home, Constitutional & Legal Affairs

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. He makes the point a thousand times better than I ever could.

The fact remains that the Government are willing to spend money and resource on health and safety issues, and even on anti-obesity programmes. They are willing to spend time training children in what not to do in a pan of boiling chip fat is tipped over them, but they seem unwilling to address this particular issue, although we have done it before.

In 1937, training started for the whole population in knowing what to do in the event of attacks by weapons of mass destruction—I am talking about aerial bombardment and poison gas. By 1938, the population were properly equipped, as far as they could be, and properly trained. My mother, as a 13-year-old in north-east Nottinghamshire, knew precisely what to do in the event of her being gassed. A game was made of it.

The fact remains that when the sirens went in September 1939—that siren system, I might add, has been completely scrapped—the population filed carefully, quietly and without panic into their shelters and got on as best they could with whatever business they could conduct from there.

There was no panic. The population were told what was going on and they were warned. It is impossible to say how many lives were saved by that training, but I am sure that many hundreds were saved who might not have been otherwise. Similarly, we carried out training of the population during the cold war, and to a much lesser extent—I am sure that other hon. Members will back me up on this point—during the Irish Republican Army campaign in Northern Ireland and in this country.

If the Minister believes that there is no need for information or training, I ask her to consider the impact of a terrorist incident on, say, the Madrid scale. Let us conjure with the idea that one of our major cities is attacked three weeks before a general election, and that only 200 are killed—that sounds blunt and cold, but the fact remains that only 200 were killed in Madrid, although more than 1,000 were injured. What would be the political ramifications of a lack of information and training? Will our population forgive any Government for such an attack, as, in many ways, the American population forgave their Government?

It is fair to say that 11 September came out of the blue. Despite the appalling casualties, the majority of the population were willing to indulge the Government's lack of knowledge and pull together as a nation. Will we do that? First, how many of our people will say, "No, we were warned and nothing was done. There was no campaign of public information and precious little public training. There was even precious little training of the emergency services"? Secondly, those who opposed the war in Iraq will say that we have brought it on ourselves. Thirdly, and most tellingly, let us suppose that, in that hideous attack, 100 people were killed instantly and another 100 died as a result of burns that could not be dressed, of being poisoned by gases released in the area from which they were not evacuated or of being unable to get blood transfusions through. It would not have been because the emergency services had failed—I, for one, am a great admirer of everything that our emergency services do—but because they have simply not been allowed to exercise properly.

Sergeant Roberts died because he did not have the right equipment in Iraq. The Minister will remember what the tabloid newspapers made of that. If 100 of our people die because the emergency services have not been able to train effectively, the press will blame the Government. They will say, "You have killed our children, our spouses, our uncles." I strongly suggest that, in those febrile conditions, the Government will not survive that kind of blow.

The Minister will say that exercises have taken place. During a debate some weeks ago on London—the debate concentrated on the preparedness of London—I put several points to her about the level of training that had occurred. She only partially answered the question. She made the point that many civil contingencies exercises are taking place, and I wholly concur with her that something is being done. How many exercises, however, are live? How many involve the full panoply of the blue-light services, at a rush hour, with traffic on the roads, people on the pavements and in the undergrounds, and when the blue-light services have not been warned that the exercise will occur? Only by doing those sorts of exercises will the lessons be learned. How many parts of London have removable road signs and road barriers so that ambulances, fire engines and police cars can travel along the pavements when gridlock prevents access to the site of the incident? I know that the Minister will say that endless exercises are going on, but not one, to the best of my knowledge, has taken place in those conditions. Even OSIRIS II, which was as good as it got, was done on a Sunday, with the blue-light services warned beforehand and already in place.

New clause 2 makes the case clearly for six members appointed by the Secretary of State to be representative of category 1 responders, another six to be representative of category 2 responders, and for up to six other members to be appointed by the Secretary of State. It would provide that the Secretary may by order make provision in respect of the duties undertaken by the emergency public education and training board. I commend the new clause to the House, because unless the Government get a grip of their public information and public training, this country will suffer when the inevitable attack happens, and it will do so needlessly.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I intend to speak primarily to amendment No. 100, which is grouped with the new clause. I also want to respond to Mr. Mercer.

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about this issue, as I have been involved in considering the Bill with him throughout its progress. I was concerned about the direction in which he was taking us, as his argument seemed to be that the Government should commit themselves to an education and training programme so as not to be blamed if something goes wrong. Another perspective is the concern that all this is political, and that it would over-stress the population and create too much of a sense of alarm.

I recognise that the balance is somewhere in the middle. We all want to give the appropriate information, but I want to put on record my concern that we can end up politically creating a climate of fear. My perception is that the United States Government, through some of the legislation that they have passed, have started to create a climate of perpetual warfare and threat. There are equal dangers in that. That is a counter-perspective, and I recognise that we need to occupy a sensible position in the middle.

Amendment No. 100 would insert the word "resilient" in relation to the kind of public information systems that we are asking local authorities to maintain to warn people about an emergency that is about to happen or is happening. I can predict the Minister's response—I am sure that she will say, "Of course, the Government would expect those networks to be resilient." My concern, however, is that that is not currently the case.

When the Government are asked what they are doing to inform the public, we are frequently told that they rely on websites. As hon. Members may know, I am keen on the development of the internet, and spend a lot of time using it. I would not describe it as always resilient, however, and there is something of a myth about the resilience of the internet in the context of some of the emergencies that we are imagining. Its resilience depends on peering points, where peers get together—not the House of Lords, but usually a warehouse somewhere in east London where computers "peer" with each other. Increasingly, those may be the subject of attacks, both deliberate and accidental, given their complexity, and my concern is that we are starting to depend on technologies that may be less resilient in an emergency than some of the older technologies such as radio broadcasts, which may be more appropriate in those circumstances.

Because of the multiplicity of different media types, we are ending up in a situation in which resilience needs to be at the forefront of planners' minds. It may not be deliberate, but the kinds of assumptions that we have made previously about how to get information out may no longer apply. For example, if we wanted an all-channels television broadcast, it used to be the case that we would negotiate with a few major broadcasters. Now, an all-channels television broadcast must go out on 900-odd different channels, involving many different broadcasters. A range of media outlets creates additional complexity.

My concern in putting the amendment forward is to establish that local authorities need to think about the question of resilience far more than they have done to date. Although there are a lot of communications methods available, they must not simply rely on the fact that those will work at a time of emergency.

I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say. I am looking for a strong statement that there will be an attempt to tease out failure points, and that local authorities will be required to address potential failure points rather than being allowed to get away with lazy assumptions about communications mechanisms that may work in emergencies.

Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie Labour/Co-operative, Kirkcaldy 7:45 pm, 24th May 2004

The watchword in this debate, and in all debates on our response to potential acts of terrorism or disasters, is resilience. It is used advisedly, and I agree with Mr. Allan that we should always remember that it is the key.

I speak as one who has spent not inconsiderable time over the years looking at the way in which we respond to disasters—and often respond very inadequately. One thing is certain: we should not do anything to reduce resilience. As Mr. Forth said earlier, one way of ensuring that it is reduced is adding to the number of committees and other bodies that must be consulted on what is, after all, a series of hypothetical situations.

That is the great danger. I think that the IRA analogy, for instance, is quite wrong. In that case we were dealing with a predictable set of actions and a reasonably predictable set of responses that could be handled by any fairly intelligent person. Given the greater complexity of the asymmetrical threats that face us now, we cannot predict the form of an attack—if it occurs—and we must therefore ask what exactly we should educate people about. Many of the responses are basic common sense. I do not think Patrick Mercer is suggesting that in the event of a disaster, we would need hordes of ill-trained and semi-informed actors milling about trying to be helpful. That is the last thing we would need. What we do need is people responding quickly to information.

Setting up emergency numbers in advance may seem a sensible idea, but our experience of disasters around the world suggests that it is most important to establish a clear line of communication with the public, separate from anyone dealing directly with the disasters. That cannot be done in advance; it can only be done after the event, once the extent of its severity has been calculated by those capable of such a calculation. I am suspicious of any attempt to impose a public education gloss on circumstances that do not lend themselves to the type of education that is being suggested.

If we intend to be resilient, and set up a multitude of plans—which seems likely, as every area will set up its own plan—the civil contingencies unit must monitor events carefully, in order to recognise and implement best practice and generalise from it. Over the next few years we will generate many different ways of coping with potential disasters, but until we have to cope with a real disaster we will not know whether any of them will work. I recommend a book by Patrick Lagadec called "Preventing Chaos in a Crisis". If Members read about all the mistakes that have been made, the last thing they will want to do is repeat them.

The whole point of the exercise that the Government are conducting—with the broad support of Members on both sides of the House—is to try to avoid chaos when crises develop; for they will develop. I believe that adding to the complexity of what we are trying to do will not help to alleviate chaos in a crisis.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I hope Dr. Moonie will not mind if I do not follow his line of argument. Let me say, in the gentlest possible way, that I disagree with him entirely.

My hon. Friend Patrick Mercer, with the assistance of Mr. Allan, raised an issue that goes beyond the contingency planning that is best represented in clause 2, which refers to

"preventing the emergency . . . reducing, controlling or mitigating its effects, or . . . taking other action in connection with it".

The matters that we are contemplating are not just for the professionals; they are for members of the public as well. We should be letting the public—individuals as well as groups—know what they can do to help reduce the incidence, impact and consequences of events. If those events do not happen, it will be fine—the best job that can be done by the blue-light services is not to turn the blue light on—but when they do happen, more people should know what they can do in order to make a significant difference. They need to know what they should avoid doing because it would do more harm, and what should be done to improve the situation.

I do not claim to be an expert, but for various reasons I have been around when a number of small disasters have taken place. I was beside the coffin of Oscar Romero, on the occasion of his funeral service on Palm Sunday 1980 in El Salvador, when a number of bombs—or demonstration bombs—went off in a crowded square containing 20,000 people. There was a lot of shooting from the military headquarters on one side of the square, and people sought refuge in the cathedral. There were two problems. The archbishop's coffin was blocking the doors; and the impact of a crush at the doors, straight away, would have made even the Hillsborough disaster look modest. A small number of us tried to make sure that there was enough space to get the coffin out of the way, and we ended up with about 5,000 people inside the cathedral.

Fourteen people did die through crushing, which is one of the big panic problems in a disaster. The immediate problem is the rush. I suspect that the number of deaths would have been significantly greater if we had not managed to clear at least a pathway. In the Heysel stadium in 1985, the problem was caused by British louts attacking Italian fans. Because the other British fans were too squashed together, they took the space that was liberated. Plainly what was needed was an English voice on the loudspeaker system telling those not involved in the disturbances to stay where they were, and not to move into space that had become free. If that had happened, there would not have been the push, push, push and the 39 dead Italians.

It took 20 minutes to find someone with authority to enable microphones and loudspeakers to be used. It is not necessarily the authorities who spot what should be done first; it may be a member of the public. In this case it was me, and I did not succeed in getting it done fast enough, but another 200 or 300 people there might, with some foreknowledge, have been able to say, "This needs to be done". They might have passed on the message, so that someone with the necessary authority and control could take effective action.

Then there was the King's Cross disaster. People were brought out of the underground after a fire that was not—so to speak—necessary, and had consequences that were not necessary either. I suspect that, as in the case of the fire at the Bradford football stadium, many people knew that there was rubbish around that could be set alight. The cause of the fire might not be known, but the existence of fuel that need not and should not have been there was something of which any member of the public should be aware.

We learned from the Windsor castle fire that breaking up roof spaces stops a fire spreading. As a result of explosions, gas can be ignited. If ordinary members of the public were aware that the presence of unnecessary combustible material is wrong, public emergency training and education could greatly reduce secondary consequences, although it might still be impossible to prevent the primary cause.

So generally raising people's awareness of the practical steps that can be taken is important. If the Government do not accept the new clause today, it is fairly safe to say that they will have to answer some of the arguments in detail now and later, and that they are almost certain to say within six weeks or six months, "Well, perhaps we will adopt it in a modified form." I would much prefer them to say today that they have authorised the Minister to accept it, and that they have tried to work out the consequences. However, my experience is that Ministers who agree with a particular proposal often have to put the argument against it because of the process of government.

According to this process, a good idea is first ignored, then people just say "no", bringing up the historical negative whereby one cannot do something in a new way because it has not been done that way before. But when the Government of the day produce a two and a half page argument against the proposal in question, they actually engage with the arguments, and within six weeks or six months they say, "It was our idea in the first place and we always intended to do it, so we aren't going to share the credit with others."

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark and I would not mind if the Government did not share the credit for this proposal, so long as they introduce such a board. The proposal is a sensible one, involving as it does category 1 responders such as local authorities and the emergency services, category 2 responders such as the utilities and the transport agencies, and independents. Such a structure is very similar to that of the Health and Safety Commission, which is also a tripartite body. Of course, one reason why our performance in respect of injury and death at work is about the best in the world is the existence of a tripartite system that involves independent experts and the two sides of industry. Combining the two sides of the emergency services—put simply, local government, and the blue light services—with the utilities and the transport agencies would be a good way of achieving the same thing.

Moreover, having a public discussion is probably the best way of dealing with the ghouls and the real worries. The worst worry is the darkness; having light is not actually a serious worry. Each of us, whatever our station or responsibilities in life, will at some stage be told that we or someone dear to us—a parent, spouse or child—will have our date of death known rather more accurately than we anticipated. Nothing can bring death where there would otherwise be unending life; the question is whether death is to be brought forward. If each of us can cope with such information, I suspect that we can cope with anything that might emerge from an emergency public education and training board.

It is open to the Government to say that their civil contingencies system will be able to absorb the kind of work to which the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark relates. That argument is perhaps slightly better than the one offered by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy, but it is not good enough. There could be an overarching national body and a body for each of the nations of the United Kingdom, and certain groups could be given the task of working on particular issues. However, my belief is that we ourselves know more about what we can do, and that we could contribute our knowledge.

Let us consider the Kegworth air disaster, in which an airliner landed on the M1. Some four or five hours after it happened, I said to Sir Michael Bishop—this sounded a bit odd to say so in the middle of a disaster—that I thought he was doing rather well. He said that he had gone through what his and his team's reaction ought to be to such a disaster. Although one hopes that planes will always land safely, one has to plan for when things go wrong. He and his people knew what to do. I am not sure that the general public always know what to do, which is one reason for having the kind of board that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark has proposed.

I am very pleased that we are having this debate. Contingent on a serious approach to our growing knowledge and anticipation of disaster—be it man-made or natural, deliberate or accidental—is the beneficial and open discussion that such a board would enable. I hope that the House will agree to the new clause without Division. If, by chance, the Government have instructed the Minister to resist it, I hope that such resistance will not be offered on the basis of poor reasoning.

Board after board, forum after forum and organisation after organisation have been introduced in the past seven years, although I shall not take this opportunity to discuss my current pet worry, which is the proposed substitute for the community health councils. The House should reject the argument that we should not create this board, which has a real purpose and could be made to work. The people expect us to anticipate what will be helpful, and such a board would be.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 8:00 pm, 24th May 2004

If ever we needed to remind ourselves that education and instruction are extremely important, what happened last Wednesday must surely remind us. Nobody in this Chamber knew what was going on, and, more to the point, nobody knew what we should have been doing at that time. I was told after the event that we should all have sat down to await decontamination. I was one of the last to leave the Chamber—not because I am brave but because I was not sure what the hell was going on. However, everybody left the Chamber.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I notice that Government Front Benchers were nodding agreement at the point about decontamination. The amazing thing was that even those at the very top of Parliament did not know what to do. It was the recipients of the attack who were in the most danger, and it was they who should have stayed put until they were decontaminated. Opposition Members should have got out of the Chamber as quickly as possible, before the powder spread. That incident highlights the very point that we are trying to get across: education is necessary in every eventuality.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; indeed, I could not have put it better myself. Of course, if we in this place are not sure what is going on, how can we expect the public to behave in the safest manner in a civil emergency?

In the days of the cold war, I remember receiving leaflets on what to do in the event of an attack. They made people think about such things, but they did not strike fear into them. I certainly do not recall a wave of panic around where I lived, and I doubt whether we are more resilient than the rest of the United Kingdom. Such a public information campaign was undertaken even back then, but we have moved on a bit since. We have a Government who are very keen on imparting information—albeit selectively—and on using all manner of media to do so. It has been suggested that websites be used, but some elderly people do not even know what a website is. Indeed, although some of us who are less elderly know what they are, we are not very good at using them.

Last year there was a severe flooding problem in my constituency, which affected two or three villages. There was the odd newsflash on television, and apparently a limited attempt was made to telephone people. The Environment Agency decided that although the incident might be severe, it would not treat it as severe because fewer than 100 houses were affected. I do not know what kind of message that sends. Of course, the Environment Agency denied at the time that it got it wrong, but it has since realised what happened and has publicly announced that things have been tightened.

As I said, there were some newsflashes on television, but I know of some elderly people who did not really want to watch the television that evening; they preferred instead to read the newspaper by the fireside. They and all their furniture were badly affected, and although their neighbours came to help, it was a bit late in the day. The example of those three villages shows that we needed to tighten procedures in respect of risks of which we were already fully aware. They had been flooded before, yet still the Environment Agency did not get it right.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with great interest, but surely he is running up against the counter-intuitive wall. On the occasion of the purple powder-packed prophylactic projectile, everyone's natural instinct was to flee, when it would have been logical to stay and die for one's country and avoid spreading the problem. It is that measure of seriousness. How on earth can we educate people that it is better to stay and die than to go and spread the problem? That will be difficult. With the best will in the world, it will be beyond websites.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I agree entirely. I have no doubt about that, but there are other scenarios in which, although there may a serious risk, some steps that could easily be taken will minimise the risk for some people. Let us save them at least for heaven's sake, if we can.

I have a particular interest in the dirty bomb scenario. As the crow flies, I live about 15 miles from a decommissioned nuclear power station. It does not take a genius to work out that that is a real threat. Of all UK constituencies, mine was the worst affected by the Chernobyl fallout, and it is still affected. I have been to Chernobyl and unfortunately seen the effects there, too.

Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie Labour/Co-operative, Kirkcaldy

In the absence of any radiated fuel on the site, as is the case with a decommissioned power station, the risk from explosion is relatively minor.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

To move from a decommissioned nuclear installation to one that is active—Hinkley Point—in the 1980s I had a protracted argument with the Central Electricity Generating Board about whether local communities should be issued with potassium iodide tablets, so that they were ready for an emergency; whether there should be muster points in village halls, which there should have been; and whether people would know about what was going to happen and which radio station to tune into to get local information. We eventually won that argument in respect of Hinkley A and B but I am not sure of the position in the rest of the country.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The point that I was trying to make was that the rods have been taken away but the medium and low-level waste remains on-site. Dr. Moonie agrees on that.

Where I come from, we are living with a real danger. The local council has set up its own liaison committee. It has had a civil defence committee type of thing for many years, but no one in the local council seems to know what would happen if there were an incident, apart from one or two council officials, so again that is a failure.

I am not making any political point. If the Minister tells the House that the training board is not necessary, will she please say how we will get up to speed to ensure that the information is available, and that everyone knows in a given set of circumstances what they should be doing. How will we ensure that the public are properly protected? That is her concern, it is my concern and it is the concern of the whole Chamber.

The whole point of the Bill is to update and to strengthen existing legislation, and I fully agree with it, but if she says that it is otiose—to use the usual parliamentary word—or if she uses a similar parliamentary word, will she please explain how that important information will be disseminated? How will we ensure that we reach all the countries of the UK to ensure that any risk—heaven knows, we do not want it to happen—is minimised as far as possible?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

Mr. Llwyd asked a key question: how can information be disseminated? Even Dr. Moonie, who disagreed with the point that my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer made, said that lines of communication are important. My question to the Minister is: how will those lines of communication operate? If there is a flood, generally, one is aware of the problem, although, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy pointed out, that is not always the case. As my hon. Friend Peter Bottomley pointed out in a series of examples of catastrophes he has been involved with, witnessed or knows about, communication can break down even when a catastrophe is happening before one's very eyes.

If a dirty bomb were to go off 100 yds from here, we would not know. When I asked the Home Secretary—I have only just received his written response—about what training there would be, he answered:

"In the event of an attack, unless people are under the direction of the emergency services, they should go indoors and tune into the TV or radio for further instructions. The media is the main system through which the government and the emergency services will alert the public. The message is 'go in, stay in, tune in'".

That is all very well if one knows that an event has happened. When we were in Chamber, we saw the purple dye come down. We knew that the event had happened, but if a dirty bomb with a small amount of Semtex spreading radioactive material were to go off, unless—

Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie Labour/Co-operative, Kirkcaldy

You are not going to die of purple flour.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman shows his ignorance. A dirty bomb may consist of a conventional explosive in which radiological material is embedded. He was a Minister. He knows that. If a bomb were to go off and radiological material were spread by the wind, unless one were in earshot of the bomb, one would not know it had gone off. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark said, the siren system has been dismantled. How would we know that we had to go in, stay in and tune in?

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

A regrettably large proportion of people in eastern Wales cannot receive television transmissions and many valleys throughout the whole of Wales cannot receive radio. Therefore, I am a bit concerned about the Home Secretary's response.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Please God, Meirionnydd will not be a key target but other things may happen, and we know that terrorists often go for soft targets. Dolgellau and other areas could be regarded as a soft target. He is absolutely right. There are areas where there is no local radio, where national radio is difficult to receive, even on long wave, and where television signals are very weak.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's argument, which I think I am correct in thinking shows his strong support for the amendment that I have tabled. The decision on the most appropriate form of communication in each area should be made locally. In mid-Wales, it may be different because one cannot get TV and radio reception, but the key test is that networks should be resilient for their areas. That is the test that we must apply.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

Again, I quote the point made by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy: lines of communication have to be established. The question I ask the Minister is: if a bomb were to go off, but we did not know that it had gone off, how would we know that we had to go in, stay in and tune in, even if there is something to tune in with?

What is the Minister frightened of? What are the Government so frightened of? Does she have such a low level of trust in the British people that she thinks people will panic if they know about these issues? Why does not she do what they do in the United States of America? Why does not she do what they have done in Australia? I hate to reduce the matter to political phrases, but education, education, education in this instance could be a matter of life or death.

I should quote another phrase: "trust the people". As my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West said, people perform better in the light of knowledge rather than in the darkness of lack of knowledge.

Let us reflect more on the detail of the message to go in, stay in and tune in. If people are not trained to know exactly what to do, what do they do once they are in? Do they block the windows to ensure that no dust or ricin contaminant comes in? It may be common sense to do that. I do not know: no instructions have been given. As for tuning in, will the Minister tell us whether there is a national emergency system in place now—there certainly was not a few years ago—whereby every single radio channel and every single television channel goes to one source, so that the same message is sent out?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

The Minister nods, so I hope that that means that whatever station one tunes into, a network feed will tell people exactly what they should do. Again, the problem is that if people do not know that an event has happened—whether it be a dirty bomb or whatever—they will not tune in. Who outside the Chamber—apart from those watching our proceedings on television—knew at the time that the purple dye had come down? No one in the Tea Room knew. When we all went in there, potentially to contaminate people working there, they did not know what was going on. All they knew was that the House had been suspended because that is what it said on the Annunciator. If we in this small area do not know what is going on, what about the whole of Whitehall and its surrounding area, which would be affected by the wind blowing in any direction?

I ask the Minister to trust the people, to have faith to educate them and to consider how best to announce to a given area that an incident has happened. The problem is not as obvious as the Blitz in the second world war; it is far subtler than that. The Minister should believe in the fact that, if people know what to do, they will be confident in doing what they have to do.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

I can see and hear for myself how passionately Members feel about these issues, and I understand that there was a wide-ranging debate in Committee on this very subject. I know that people have strong views, which has been evident in this evening's debate.

The amendments raise important questions about the level of information, training and advice that the Government can usefully give the public in advance of an emergency, as well as during it and after it has happened. Those three stages are all important. We recognise that the behaviour of the public in all three stages is absolutely crucial. In some circumstances, facilitating self-help by the public could reduce the burden on the emergency services, helping them to act in a way that does not exacerbate their problems. Equally, the public can help to add capacity to the emergency services' ability to respond. The public should, first, do good things to help the emergency services, and, secondly, desist from doing bad things that would hinder them.

We take these issues seriously. As hon. Members have anticipated, I am not about to agree that the

"Emergency Public Education and Training Board" in the form recommended in the new clause should be established. I do not believe that that is necessary to ensure that the public are properly informed. I direct hon. Members to clause 2(1)(g), which provides that the responders in part 1 or 2 of schedule 1 shall

"maintain arrangements to warn the public, and to provide information and advice to the public, if an emergency is likely to occur or has occurred."

That provides for a clear duty to ensure that arrangements are in place to warn the public and to provide information in advance.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

What, then, is in place if the dirty bomb, ricin contaminant or whatever were to go off up Whitehall or wherever? How would we know about it, unless we were tuned in to the radio at the time?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

The hon. Gentleman has raised his point before I have responded to those of other hon. Members. I had him on my list, but he has raised the issue now. We believe that "Go in, stay in and tune in" is the best first piece of advice that we can give people, but it would obviously not be appropriate in all circumstances. If there were a fire and a building were collapsing, for example, it would be entirely inappropriate, and the best advice would be the fire service's demand to get out of there.

The hon. Gentleman asked me specifically whether a national system was in place to ensure that all the emergency broadcasting systems would disseminate the same message, and I can tell him that the UK does have an emergency broadcasting system, and that arrangements are in place to ensure such rapid dissemination of public warnings through the whole range of communications—radio, television, Ceefax, teletext and websites. My experience of last week's event in Parliament was that all the breaking-news agencies—Sky and others—immediately recognised what had happened. Indeed, members of the public contacted us immediately. Our friends and family were contacting us to express their concerns.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

I am going to press on because we have dealt only with part 1 of the Bill and we have to move on to Third Reading at 9 o'clock. A whole range of amendments has not yet been covered.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

If it is an emergency to try to cover the ground in the Bill, will the Minister send a message to the Leader of the House requesting more time to debate this important measure?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

We will have had five and half hours to debate the Bill this evening, and we had a lengthy debate on the previous group of amendments dealing with the voluntary sector. That is why I am anxious to press on.

Clause 2(1)(g) provides the duty, as I explained. Amendment No. 100 is connected and I shall deal with it briefly. It was ably proposed by Mr. Allan, who brought out the key point that the responder systems must be resilient if at the end of the day they are to protect the public. I refer him to the Act—no, the Bill, I must not be so presumptuous—particularly to clause 2(1)(c), which states that the responders have to

"maintain plans for the purpose of ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that if an emergency occurs the person or body is able to continue to perform his or its functions".

That embeds the resilience point. If plans were not in place to carry on and warn the public, there would be a breach of duty under that provision. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the Bill meets the requirements that he set out in the amendment.

I have already pointed out that clause 2(1)(g) deals with the responsibility to ensure that the public receive proper information. The clause also requires responders to publish aspects of their civil protection in so far as it is necessary or desirable for preventing an emergency or mitigating its effects. That includes the provision of information about the risks before an emergency happens, the actions to be taken by the authorities and, crucially, the actions that the public can take in the event of an emergency.

I would like to point out a couple of ways in which that can happen. Several hon. Members have asked about floods—an issue close to my heart, because there is an area in my constituency that was flooded disastrously in the 1930s and people there are currently examining various flood defence schemes. There is a variety of methods, depending on the nature of the incident, through which we can inform people of what is going on.

For flooding or severe weather, the Environment Agency and the Met Office have well established systems to inform the general public through broadcasting. They also have an automatic telephone dialling system, a fax system and, for hazardous industrial sites and nuclear power stations, there is an obligation on the operator to warn the public within a specified distance. Fixed sirens are often relied on in those circumstances. Water companies will inform their customers about loss of water through loudspeaker vans—we have all heard them: in the old days, they used to tell us to fill the bath up, but I am not quite sure what they are telling us now—and health authorities will contact vulnerable groups if there is a health risk. More generally, the police are likely to warn members of the public if there is an immediate threat to life. That could be done in person by constables, or by a helicopter using sky shout—a system that enables warnings to be sent down from helicopters.

On Friday, I visited the Home Secretary's constituency, where there is a new van that has both cameras and a loudspeaker system, to alert people if an incident should occur.

There is a wide variety of emergencies, so there is a wide range of ways of alerting the public. There is not one simple, uniform method.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am part of the system, because my constituency floods every year and I am the village contact who is telephoned by the automatic dialling system—which is not terribly resilient, because if I am here when there is a flood, I am out of touch.

My point was that there should be commonality of systems wherever possible. For instance, would the Environment Agency system be available to other emergency services, to give advice, because it makes common sense for that to be the case, so that we do not have a variety of systems reaching the wrong people rather than a single system reaching the right people?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

There is a balance to be struck, and I am sure that there is common sense about using systems that are already in place, but we must also have the right people in charge of the right area, and in seeking a completely homogeneous system, we could lose out on the particular skills and knowledge of the various agencies. We want to keep the lead agencies for their expertise, and we should not overlook the possibility of using their infrastructure—avoiding the cost of creating new infrastructure. That needs to be developed through guidance and regulations, which are part of the framework that we need to set up. It cannot be right, however, to have only one system, when the threats are various. That is why clause 2 makes it a local duty to have proper arrangements in place to inform the public.

We see no real merit in setting up the board proposed in the new clause, because there is no such thing as a standard terrorist threat or incident, so there can be no standard response. My hon. Friend Dr. Moonie said in his thoughtful and insightful contribution that resilience should be flexible enough to respond to threats that we had perhaps not even contemplated. The responders need to co-operate, as there is not one size that fits all.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home, Constitutional & Legal Affairs

In at least three newspapers recently, there have been reports that the Government intend to produce a leaflet for every household. Indeed, a draft of it was leaked to one of the newspapers. It certainly was not perfect, but it struck me that it was better than nothing. Do the Government intend to do that?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

We have considered the matter over the past 18 months, and a range of issues is under consideration. I do not intend to comment on individual leaks at this stage, but as well as leaflets we have done a huge amount with the websites and we are considering a whole range of ways of being in contact with the public.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam asked about the resilience of electronic infrastructure. Clearly, that is a key issue for our capabilities programme, and we are very conscious of it. It is vital for our resilience to keep up to date, as we are far more dependent on electronic communication than we were in the past.

The Home Office site contains advice on the threats and what to do at home, at work or when travelling, and information on what the Government are doing to help. The MI5 site, which was launched fairly recently, contains much more detailed advice on the threats that we face and what businesses can do. It describes how individuals can help combat the threat, acting as our eyes and ears.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office site provides constantly updated advice on threats abroad. "London Prepared" provides detailed advice on business continuity planning, with links to many other organisations. Many other departmental sites also include resilience and counter-terrorism advice and information.

There are 15 Government reports on resilience-related issues, and we have guidance for schools and teachers, through the "TeacherNet" site. There is a whole range of public information resources to ensure that the messages are accessible to as much of the public as possible.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs) 8:30 pm, 24th May 2004

If a biological, radiological or other weapon of mass destruction was let off near a school, say, how would people know to log on to one of those websites? How would they know to tune in to the radio, without there being a siren system or another system to let them know that an event had happened?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

The response would vary depending on the incident. For example, in a nuclear installation there would be sirens, and on the street the emergency services would be the first there and would set up a cordon and instruct the public, and our normal systems of responding to emergencies would be in place.

We need to have some perspective and get the balance right. Patrick Mercer asked about live exercises. As he well knows, numerous exercises are taking place, both table-top and reality, and there was Operation Magpie just a couple of weeks ago. No-notice exercises such as he suggested would simply cause chaos and create the effect of an incident—almost doing the terrorists' job for them. None of the emergency services advocates such exercises. I urge the House to resist the new clause and the amendment.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home, Constitutional & Legal Affairs

I am extremely disappointed but not surprised by the Government's reaction. Let me say to Mr. Allan that the points that I was trying to make were not political, but in fact supportive of the Government, because the last thing that this nation needs in the aftermath of a terrible incident is a Government put under intolerable pressure by the media about things that could have been avoided before the incident rather than being revealed by it.

The Minister's response on training is especially disappointing. The fact remains that if the Government follow any of the precedents, they must realise that there will be an opportunity cost for getting people and society prepared.

Only by so doing will we avoid the unnecessary loss of life and the political ramifications that will result. I am very disappointed by the Government's response and I shall seek to divide the House.

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

The House divided: Ayes 112, Noes 306.

Division number 184

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.