Civil Contingencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:05 pm on 9th November 2004.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip 5:05 pm, 9th November 2004

My Lords, as both the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and the noble Lord, Lord Garden, said, we have had this debate more than once already. I shall not disappoint or alarm the House when I say what I have said before; namely, that we remain to be persuaded. This is not a measure that we consider we can support.

Much has changed over the past three or four years. I return to a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, made a few moments ago about earlier crises. We have learnt a lot from those. In the time since the fuel crisis, the foot and mouth outbreak, flooding and so on, we have demonstrated a very clear commitment to the resilience agenda. That agenda is championed at Cabinet level by the Home Secretary, who gives a very firm and clear lead. I do not think that anyone would deny that our Home Secretary is very clear in his intent.

I consider it is almost unarguable that there has been a major change in the quality of contingency planning in central government since 2001. As I say, that was because we reflected on some of the weaknesses which had been exposed by crises. The previous foot and mouth outbreak occurred back in the 1960s. Flooding does not occur every year and a fuel crisis does not arise every year. However, we had to deal with those three major problems all within a fairly short period of time. We had to take account of changes that had occurred in the period that had elapsed since those crises arose in the past. We had to take account of things that had happened nationally, the way in which local government had been reorganised, the impact of technology, the way in which distribution networks work and so on. That caused us to think long and hard about our approach. As I said earlier, I believe that we now have a very robust strategy in place for developing our counter-terrorism and resilience capabilities based on wisdom accumulated over many years. We have detailed contingency planning and exercising arrangements in place within central government. As I said a few moments ago, local responders understand how they fit into the wider picture. More than that, they now have a clear understanding and a good working relationship with central government. This will, of course, be enhanced through the guidance supporting the Bill.

I can see why it might be argued that in future another government might attach less priority to the issue. We went through a period prior to this Government coming to power where civil defence—this is not a criticism of the previous Conservative administration—had a lower order of priority, as did some emergency work. We have moved on from that, due to the exigencies of events. We have set out our stall regarding what we want to do. We are establishing a clear legislative framework. It also has to be said that there are few precedents for imposing high-level duties on central governments. The Government do not consider that it is possible to do so in this case.

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

The noble Lord, Lord Garden, said that the amendment was a neat solution. I am not convinced. We solve the problem in relation to the local response through a heavy reliance on regulations and guidance. There is sufficient commonality between the functions exercised by local responders that it is possible to impose a single statutory duty them. If we applied the same principle here, central government would be regulating and guiding themselves. That would be an interesting conundrum.

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 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 change behaviour—could be imposed on central government. What matters is ministerial will, which is of the utmost importance.

The Government are already committed to a clear performance framework for central government in this area. Noble Lords may be aware of the document The Lead Government Department and its role—Guidance and Best Practice. It was published recently and is a type of document that, no doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, would like to see more of. I am more than happy to ensure that copies are made available. The document sets out a clear audit regime. Lead departments will be required to incorporate contingency planning into the annual assurance and risk control mechanism. That will form part of the central government corporate governance regime.

The process will require senior officials to ensure that contingency plans are adequate and that they are validated. It will form part of the department's statement of internal control. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat at the Cabinet Office will co-ordinate the work, ensuring that standards are maintained. However, the results will not be published. Noble Lords will understand some of the difficulties of exposing strengths and weaknesses to those who wish to do us harm.

We take counter-terrorism and resilience issues extremely seriously. We have invested heavily in that work and have in place much improved arrangements as a result of that work and that investment. It is not possible to craft a meaningful duty on central government to ensure that future governments match this Government's commitment to countering terrorism and enhancing resilience. Introducing a defective duty could even hinder effective contingency planning.

What is important at the end of the day is ministerial will. We have that will, and we have a framework that has been given a clear lead in Cabinet. That is the best way for us to organise our arrangements. For those reasons, I must resist the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness.