Civil Contingencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 5th July 2004.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip 7:45 pm, 5th July 2004

My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, the hour is late. I have a vast sheath of notes and responses with which I could regale your Lordships' House at some length. If I responded only to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, I would well exceed the time that she spent in setting out the Opposition party's approach to the Bill.

Before I begin my response, I congratulate all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, because it has been wide-ranging and intense in its concentration on a range of issues. I also want to add my general congratulations to the noble Lords who made their maiden speeches today—my noble friends Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe. In the comments of my noble friend Lord Rosser, I felt an echo of something that was said about me. He reported that he had been described as a lower profile figure in one national newspaper. When I was made a Peer, one local newspaper described me as a sub-regional minor celebrity. At the time I was flattered—I thought it was rather good.

Of course, the House will greatly benefit not only from the contributions of my noble friend Lord Rosser but also from those of my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe, who has practical experience in dealing with major emergencies during his time in charge of London Underground and in some of his other interesting roles and capacities before joining your Lordships' House.

I said that the debate had been wide-ranging in its intent. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, told us that we were dealing with a rather elderly law, which was a very true comment. There was a general welcome, along with many points of criticism, for the modernising effect of this piece of legislation. I cannot subscribe to the doomsday diction that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, visited upon us, during his very powerful contribution on the issues in the Bill. However, I certainly recognise the strength of view he has on this set of issues, and I have no doubt that strength of view will be echoed throughout what promise to be very interesting Committee, Report and Third Reading stages.

I did not recognise in the legislation the sort of excuse that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, regaled us with in his democratic doomsday scenario and its widespread threat to civil liberties, which he said the Bill anticipated. No doubt, however, we will have some very thoughtful debates on the issues the noble Lord touched upon in his interesting contribution.

I hope that, in the time I have, I can touch on some of the issues raised, because there are clearly some very important points that emerged during the debate. I will not be able to answer all the points: I can respond to some of them through correspondence, and no doubt we will touch on many of the other issues in Committee; that is probably best way to leave it.

This evening's debate and the passage of the Bill in another place have demonstrated that this is, in the end, not a party political issue. We are all very determined to try to get to grips with the fundamentals of modernising this elderly legislation. Whichever party was in power—or on watch, as it were—would have to bring forward a similar package of measures. I fully accept, in saying that, that the package would not be exactly the same, because I am sure there would be a different emphasis.

I am aware that the Bill has elicited a very strong response from all sides of the Chamber. But where there are differences between the Government and noble Lords, these have tended to be on matters of details rather than the principles underpinning the Bill. This Bill is, in my view, an excellent opportunity to build on the effectiveness of civil protection arrangements in the United Kingdom, and it is therefore crucial that we get the provisions of the Bill right. I was much encouraged by contributions from all sides of the Chamber that were determined to achieve that objective. I have enjoyed the dialogue that has begun this evening, and am looking forward to what should be a very constructive challenge during the later stages of the Bill process.

The UK's resilience to disruptive challenges is already high. There is a strong tradition of effective planning and response at a local level, and many of your Lordships made reference to that during the debate. After all, there are some 30 years of Northern Irish terrorism, and the effect of that has been to establish within government a capability, and awareness amongst businesses and the public, which puts the United Kingdom in a comparatively strong position.

I challenge the accusation that has been made: this Government are not complacent, and I rather resent the suggestion that we have been. Flooding, the fuel crisis in 2000 and the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 exposed weaknesses in our system. We think we have learned the lessons of these challenges, and there is good evidence to suggest that we have. The Bill is, after all, only one aspect of the Government's wider efforts to improve the United Kingdom's resilience to disruptive challenges. We have made massive and considered investment in civil protection and counter-terrorism over the last few years. We will continue to take steps to build the capabilities that we need. The Bill is a crucial aspect of this wider programme of work.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, made the strongest attack on the range of preparations. I would argue that the whole of Part 1 of the Bill is about preparation, and we have been making very substantial progress through our capabilities programme to build the resilience that all Members of the House see as being essential. Our whole counter-terrorism strategy is designed, after all, to protect, pursue, prevent and prepare for emergency challenges.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said that we were not ready for a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident. The emergency services have been training, and are equipped, to enable them to respond effectively to such incidents. In any incident of that sort, the emergency services would be on the scene in minutes. They would give instructions and advice, explain the situation to the public and carry out the necessary decontamination programmes, using mobile units if required. The Bill places the police at the core of response to emergencies by designating them as a category 1 responder. This is entirely consistent with their current role in emergencies and provides a strong basis for their emergency planning work.

Responses to incidents including terrorism are well practiced and well rehearsed through regular programmes of exercises. During the debate this evening much has been made of our spending in dealing with the sorts of incidents that noble Lords have mentioned.

The Government believe that the expenditure on this should be as transparent as possible. We will continue to announce counter-terrorism allocations subject to security considerations, as we did when the Chancellor allocated an additional £330 million of dedicated funding to counter-terrorism in the 2003 Budget.

Headline spending figures specifically for CBRN incidents are difficult to distinguish in a standard budgeting process. For example, medical counter-measures purchased by the Department of Health are not specifically for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents in the same way that gas-tight suits for the fire service are not purchased only to be used in a chemical incident.

I would like to give some examples of investment because much has been made of this. As I have said, in the 2003 Budget we awarded £330 million over three years to counter-terrorism projects. There was £85 million allocated in 2002–03 to the NHS for medical counter-measures and equipment, including personal protective equipment and £56 million to the fire service for the mass decontamination phase of the new dimension programme. Those are examples of where we have been putting our investment as part of our measures to build up resilience over the past few years. I could go through where that money has been spent, but my time will be better spent if I go through some of the other issues that were raised during the discussion.

We have learned the lessons of previous emergencies, including the fuel crisis and the foot and mouth outbreak. The review that we launched following these crises reinforced the Government's conclusion that existing legislation no longer provided an adequate framework for modern civil protection efforts and that new legislation was needed. That is an opinion that is widely shared in your Lordships' House.

Disruptive challenges exist along a spectrum of severity from localised flooding to a massive terrorist attack. While the threat of terrorism remains real, we should not lose sight of the smaller-scale emergencies that can and do have an equally devastating impact on local communities—for example, flooding or industrial accidents. The challenge is to ensure that arrangements are robust and flexible enough to manage all of those risks.

The Government have also strived to strike the right balance between safeguarding security and the welfare of the community and protecting the rights of individuals. We heard wide-ranging views on that subject during the debate this evening. They were expressed very robustly by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, regarding the need to protect civil liberties—or, as he was arguing, to set them to one side; whereas the noble Lord, Lord McNally, made a strong plea for civil liberties to be protected even in legislation such as this which deals with emergencies and very challenging circumstances for the Government.

The Government must be ready and able to protect citizens from the effects of a catastrophic incident, but without unnecessarily threatening civil liberties. We have worked with the fullest range of organisations to construct the right legislation, and the quality of the legislation that we have delivered is due in large part to the willingness of stakeholder groups to contribute to it. These have been as diverse as those involved in emergency planning at a local level through to national organisations like Liberty.

The public consultation and beneficial pre-legislative scrutiny have made a real difference to the Bill. We will continue to work closely with practitioners to ensure that the regulations under Part 1 of the Bill pitch the duties at the right level, and that we make available helpful, practical guidance.

We have established a series of practitioner-led working groups to help us achieve this. We will also issue a public consultation on the regulations shortly after Royal Assent. Getting the balance right in this field of consultation is difficult. We have been criticised for slowness in taking the legislation through the parliamentary process and getting it here. We have also been criticised in the past for failing to listen. I think we have the mix about as right as one can get it.

Local responders are the building blocks of our ability to deal with emergencies. Our fire, police and ambulance services are among the best in the world, and they have unquestionable expertise in emergency planning and response. The Government recognise the long-standing demand for legislation in this area, and practitioners have in general welcomed the proposals we have brought forward. For the first time, this legislation identifies the roles and responsibilities of responder bodies at the local level, establishing clearly what the Government expect of them.

The Bill will make the United Kingdom more resilient by ensuring greater consistency of civil protection activity across the country, delivering improvements in the performance of individual bodies and improvements in communication between them. This clear and consistent framework of roles and responsibilities will also facilitate better performance management of multi-agency arrangements, allowing more effective benchmarking and best practice sharing.

The lead government department principle places clear responsibilities on all departments. This is reinforced by the key capabilities programme, which establishes clear ownership for developing the capabilities that underpin the response to emergencies. The structures are to be reinforced by a new standards and audit regime. The noble Lord, Lord Condon, made particular reference to the need for resource management and effective audit, and we agree with that. This will be overseen by the Cabinet Office as part of its co-ordination responsibilities. It will make sure that departments are planning properly and can respond effectively in emergencies. Details of the regime were published earlier this year.

We also recognise the need to modernise the tools available to the Government to deal with the most serious emergencies. Some disruptive challenges are of such a scale or nature that they may require extraordinary measures which would not be appropriate in normal circumstances. Temporary changes to legislation may be required in order to deliver an effective response.

Emergency powers are a necessary safety net to ensure that we can deal with even the most serious and unpredictable situations. Such potentially wide-ranging powers must be accompanied by robust safeguards to ensure that they are not abused. Many contributors to the debate, including the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, referred to their concerns for the protection of civil rights and civil liberties. We share that concern, which is why we have worked very closely with stakeholders to ensure that the legislation reflects that. I think we will be able to argue during the course of the Bill that the safeguards are a huge improvement on those contained in the existing legislation. We could make out a case that those safeguards are not properly there. We recognise the importance of that issue, and I will pay particular and close attention to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. We will no doubt come back to those during our debates on the Bill.