Civil Contingencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 14th October 2004.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip 11:00 am, 14th October 2004

This has been a useful debate because it enables me to spell out how we see the role of central government and, importantly, the relationship that the arrangements have with the MoD and its part in the overall picture. I was particularly grateful for the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Condon, who said, quite accurately, that we have made a great deal of progress in this field over the past few years.

In part, that has been in reaction to the fact that we have had a number of national situations which have required a national response to different kinds of emergencies. Flooding, the particular problems with oil distribution and, of course, foot and mouth placed contingency pressures on the way in which the Government worked. That has forced us to think anew about how the structures interrelate to each other and how they pull together. Important lessons have been learnt from that and we have been assessing how we can continue that programme of improvement.

The amendments go very much to the heart of the crucial issue of how to ensure that central government pulls its weight in an emergency. For the reasons I shall outline, the Government cannot accept these well spirited amendments. However, because of the way in which we have set up our systems and the way in which they work and will develop, Clause 2 sets out the civil protection duties the Bill will impose on local respondents. These amendments would extend those duties to central government departments.

Amendment No. 39 would also add additional duties on central government to ensure good internal co-ordination, good co-ordination between central government and local responders, and also to inform the public about its role in relation to emergencies. Obviously I am aware that there is support for a formal duty on central government to be included in the Bill and that there is a perception that central government need to raise their game on emergency planning and to communicate better what its role is. We can all agree with that aim and that objective.

But I would argue that it is not necessary to use legislation to achieve that. Although I see and understand the direction in which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in particular, seeks to take us, I am not sure that it would be possible to craft a meaningful duty to this effect.

It is right that I should first address the issue of necessity. We can all agree that by the end of the 1990s, central government planning arrangements were not what they should have been after a decade or so of relative freedom from the kind of major national emergencies that were so much more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. Arrangements were exposed by the major flooding of 2000, by the fuel crisis and by the foot and mouth epidemic.

There has, as is commonly agreed, been a change in the quality of contingency planning in central government since 2001. The Government have put in place exactly the sort of arrangements that I think the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is seeking. A clear operational centre has been established within the Cabinet Office to ensure coherence and co-ordination across government in both planning and response. That operational centre is supported by horizon scanning risk assessment and capability.

Individual departments take responsibility for planning for response to emergencies which occur within their field of responsibility. The division of tasks between departments is clearly set out in the Home Secretary's statement on lead government departments. This is consistent with our position that, in principle, responsibilities in relation to emergencies should sit with those organisations which have general policy responsibility. For example, if the DTI has responsibility for oil and gas supplies on a day-to-day basis, we believe that it is best placed to build in contingency plans and has the maximum expertise, should something go wrong. This approach ensures that we are mainstreaming resilience as an issue within all government departments.

We have also taken steps to ensure that departments all fulfil their responsibilities. That is why The Lead Government Department and its role—Guidance and Best Practice was published by the Cabinet Office in March of this year. That document describes the key processes and disciplines necessary in planning for and responding to crises for which they are either the nominated lead or have key responsibilities to act during the progress of a crisis. It also describes how these processes will be monitored and, to take up the point of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, audited in order to achieve a uniformly high standard of planning and preparation.

To ensure that their contingency planning arrangements are robust, the Government have put in place a co-ordinated cross-government exercise programme. The programme tests systematically the range of lead government department responsibilities, including the devolved Administrations, the regional tier and local responders. The programme covers a wide range of contingencies—not just terrorism but also accidents, natural disasters, and human and animal diseases. All this has been achieved without a duty but with the strong commitment of Ministers.

I can see why it might be argued that in the future another Government might attach a lower priority to this issue unless they could usefully be bound by a clear legislative duty. In theory, while this might appear attractive, it is in practice, we think, unworkable. While there are precedents for imposing high-level duties on central government, the Government do not consider that it is possible to do so in this particular case.

Central government exercise a huge range of functions, ranging from legislative functions, delivery of essential services, management of the public finances and advisory services. Each department has different functions and exercises its functions in a different way. As a consequence of central government's diversity, any duty would have to be extremely broad.

We solved this problem in relation to the local response through a heavy reliance on regulation and guidance. There is sufficient commonality between the functions exercised by local responders that it is possible to impose a single statutory duty on all of them. But if we apply the same principle here, central government could be regulating and guiding themselves. Essentially, a future government would be free to take a narrow interpretation of any such duty on themselves. So, as is the case now, the key factor in terms of central government's efforts would not be the shape of any duty but the level of ministerial commitment. That is why we do not believe that a meaningful contingency planning duty—one that would actually change behaviour—could be imposed on central government. Nevertheless, we are considering what options there might be to offer more reassurance to Parliament and to the wider public that the performance of central government will continue to improve.

I hope that that explanation offers some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on his amendment.

I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Garden. Again, this does not cover the Ministry of Defence category 1 responder, and we are not drawn to it. The emergency services will deal with almost all emergencies within normal response arrangements. I think that we can all accept that. Where an incident stretches the resources and personnel of the emergency service, it can request military assistance under the well established military aid to the civil authority arrangements.

The Armed Forces' organisation, skills, equipment, training and flexible command and control structure make them an extremely valuable national resource. They have a long and well rehearsed record of providing support to the civil authorities during emergencies. The fire dispute, flooding and foot and mouth are examples of the assistance that military personnel give to the local authorities and civil authorities and where they provided aid. However, it is important to keep sight of the limited role the military play in dealing with those civil emergencies. The MoD plays a supporting—not leading—role in emergency planning and response. It is not at all clear why it should have the full range of civil protection duties the Bill imposes on front-line responders. That goes to the heart of the issue about proportionality, something on which the noble Lord has reflected in previous amendments.

We have a well established and entirely proper principle in the UK of civil primacy. The Armed Forces are not—and, I argue, should not be—the first responder to incidents. We have many more specially trained, specially equipped personnel in the emergency services. The Armed Forces may have a role to play in a small number of incidents, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of emergencies are dealt with by the civilian services without recourse to military assistance. Let us not play down the excellent work and high standards of those civilian local responders.

We need to remember that, where required, existing military aid arrangements are well established and work well. The Armed Forces are closely linked into civil resilience arrangements and the Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter enhancements, like the creation of the civil contingencies reaction forces, will enhance their ability to respond in the event of an emergency.

The MoD is fully integrated into the national exercise programme and regular and reserve forces participate in a range of exercises with emergency services to test joint working arrangements. Ultimately, this engagement must be on a flexible basis—the same flexibility which is one of the great strengths of the Armed Forces.

This is not a case of the Armed Forces shirking their role on the home front, as all the evidence points to their active engagement wherever necessary. It is a more a reflection of their limited engagement and the competence of civilian responders.

I hope that, having heard that explanation, the noble Lord will feel convinced that we have a flexible series of arrangements that have been successful in the past—I do not think there is any argument about that in terms of giving support to the civil powers—and that we try to exercise that reaction and response, integration and involvement, on a proportionate basis. For those reasons, we are not drawn to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Garden, today.