Civil Contingencies Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 27th January 2004.

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[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West 9:30 am, 27th January 2004

Before I call the Minister to move the programme motion, I remind the Committee that there is a financial resolution in connection with the Bill, and copies are on the Table. I also remind hon. Members that adequate notice must be given of amendments. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting of the Committee.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Cabinet Office) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I beg to move,

That—

(1) during proceedings on the Civil Contingencies Bill the Standing Committee shall meet when the House is sitting on Tuesdays at 9.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. and on Thursdays at 2.30 p.m;

(2) 8 sittings shall be allotted to the consideration of the Bill by the Committee;

(3) the proceedings shall be taken in the order shown in the Table below and shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the second column of the Table.

TABLE

ProceedingsTime for conclusion of proceedings
Clauses 1 to 17;Schedule 1.5.30 p.m. on Thursday 29th January.
Clauses 18 to 31;Schedules 2 and 3;5.30 p.m. on Tuesday 10th February.
Clauses 32 to 35; remaining proceedings on the Bill.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir John. I know from a number of hon. Members of your reputation as a fair and experienced Chairman. I know also that all members of the Committee would want to send their best wishes to your wife.

As I said on Second Reading, the Bill has been developed following a wide-ranging process of consultation and discussion. We are grateful for the contribution of the Joint Committee of both Houses, which considered the Bill when it was published in draft last summer. We will listen to the points raised by all members of the Committee and will reflect on the arguments. Looking around the Room, I am conscious already of the experience and expertise that will be brought to bear on the Bill.

As a service to members of the Committee, I have ensured that my Department has provided a pack of the relevant documentation for the clauses to be taken this morning; it is available on the Table. I also make

 

clear our commitment to updating the legislation on civil protection in this country, which is the principal reason for the Bill. The Bill and the accompanying non-legislative measures will deliver a single framework of civil protection for the United Kingdom to meet the challenges of the 21st century. I commend the motion to the Committee.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I join in the welcome to you in the Chair, Sir John. We have spent many a happy hour on Committees considering Finance Bills under your expert chairmanship, so we know that we are in safe hands today.

I also join in the remarks about Lady Butterfill. We missed you last night, Sir John, at the meeting last night of the Programming Sub-Committee and we all join in the hopes and wishes for a speedy recovery for her. I do not think that I have said this on the record, but it is a marvellous thing that you are now Sir John. It is something that I know will be welcome to all sides of the Committee.

We have grave reservations about programming Committee sittings. There was no problem with the old system, which enabled the usual channels to reach agreement about progress in Committee. Although on this occasion I have been fortunate to discuss matters with the Government Whip—who has been extremely reasonable, accommodating and co-operative, as she always is—there is still always the danger that the debate will develop as we go through the clauses and that we will reach a point where, quite reasonably, we need a little more time here and perhaps a little less time there. We are very much against the inflexibility of programming. Therefore, in the best possible spirit, I say—as I did last night—that we do not accept programming, or this programme.

It is worth considering the range of issues that we must cover on the Bill. As was clear on Second Reading, the Bill raises points of law of severe complexity. Hon. and learned Members asked, for example, why part 2 of the Bill contained exceptions to the regulations that could be made in an emergency in respect of strikers and those who may not wish to serve in the forces. Reservations are made in the Bill about those particular human rights, but no reservation is made for the rights that the Human Rights Act 1998 conveys.

There are definitional issues and we shall debate the meaning of ''an emergency'' in parts 1 and 2; the meaning is different in each. It has been suggested that in making the regulations in part 2, it might be better if a Privy Council committee were involved, where practicable, in deciding whether emergency powers could be used in particular circumstances to provide the sort of reassurance that a wartime, all-party, National Government style of Cabinet would bring to such proceedings. We want to press the Minister on what could be done to give a more all-party feel to that aspect.

The Local Government Association has raised concerns about the imposition of duties—seven in all in clause 2—without the provision of necessary resources. Very fairly, the Minister said on Second

 

Reading that he was prepared to discuss the matter with local authorities and that it was not the Government's intention to impose burdens without adequate resources, but the track record of the Government is such that we have some doubts about that. We shall press him on the matter.

The question arises of the nature of the work force that will enable emergencies to be tackled. As was made clear on Second Reading, it is not enough to rely on our marvellous public servants who can tackle the ordinary situations that they encounter. The example that I gave on Second Reading was that if a dirty bomb fell on a medium-sized city in this country, the point would come relatively quickly where the emergency services were spent. Which reserves would then come into play? The Government have said that defence forces will be available. However, the concern is that the required numbers are not available on the ground. Often, territorial personnel are committed to theatres elsewhere in the world. Is there a case for a volunteer reserve force that would bring together the necessary skills so that more manpower is available?

The Police Federation has made the point that it is necessary to rationalise the organisational structure that would follow a civil emergency in order to provide a new tier of organisation. It talks about making

''clear and unambiguous issues pertaining to jurisdiction, remit, lines of control and lines of communication.''

It also talks about permitting

''proper and effective coordination between public bodies and utilities'' and providing

''the full backing of the law to individuals with designated civil emergency roles and responsibilities.''

We want to probe the structure that underlines the Bill and whether it would produce a practicable and effective response to the sort of emergencies to which the Bill refers.

We are concerned that the appraisal that was commissioned by Scotland Yard—the Unicorn project—has shown big voids in the sort of cover available in London, particularly in the business sphere. We want to examine the arrangements that exist to protect our businesses and what more needs to be done, particularly in the communications field, as highlighted by the report.

At times when our nation has been threatened, arrangements have been put in place for public training and education. More could be done without frightening the public, and it is necessary for our society to prepare for the new threats that we face. For many of the years of my lifetime, the threat that we seemed to face came from the USSR, and we made preparations with that in mind. The current threat is not a certain one; it is more the threat of uncertainty, risk and an unknown form of terrorism. We must ensure that the public are aware of the likely ways in which we might have to deal with the current threat as opposed to that of previous years.

With regard to the motion, it is always helpful if a Minister can provide the Committee with the latest information on any draft regulations that his Department is preparing for the Bill. It would be

 

helpful if the Minister told us of the latest situation on drafting regulations for this Bill. We do not agree with the motion, but we hope that it will be possible to fit all the important issues and concerns into the time frame set out.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I echo the comments of the previous speakers about your chairmanship, Sir John, and the good wishes to yourself and your wife at this time.

We do not have any problem about the principle of programme motions, and we think that Programming Sub-Committees are quite sensible. I say that with a certain degree of shame, as I was unable to attend the Programming Sub-Committee sitting last night. I was in a Public Accounts Committee dealing with the fascinating subject of duty on Scotch whisky; so one can understand that we were, to a degree, distracted. [Interruption.] It was a spirited discussion, as the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) says. I emerged from it to find that I had just missed the Programming Sub-Committee, for which I extend my apologies.

In general terms, we are comfortable with the programme motion; we were not happy with the motion on the Order Paper on Second Reading, because there had been no prior discussion. The motion was put to me before the Programming Sub-Committee sat and we were broadly content with it.

As we said on Second Reading, our main concerns are with part 2, in which there are important principles to discuss. The motion allows us to have a serious debate about part 2; therefore, we do not seek to block it.

TABLE

As I said on Second Reading, the Bill has been developed following a wide-ranging process of consultation and discussion. We are grateful for the contribution of the Joint Committee of both Houses, which considered the Bill when it was published in draft last summer. We will listen to the points raised by all members of the Committee and will reflect on the arguments. Looking around the Room, I am conscious already of the experience and expertise that will be brought to bear on the Bill.

As a service to members of the Committee, I have ensured that my Department has provided a pack of the relevant documentation for the clauses to be taken this morning; it is available on the Table. I also make

 

clear our commitment to updating the legislation on civil protection in this country, which is the principal reason for the Bill. The Bill and the accompanying non-legislative measures will deliver a single framework of civil protection for the United Kingdom to meet the challenges of the 21st century. I commend the motion to the Committee.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I join in the welcome to you in the Chair, Sir John. We have spent many a happy hour on Committees considering Finance Bills under your expert chairmanship, so we know that we are in safe hands today.

I also join in the remarks about Lady Butterfill. We missed you last night, Sir John, at the meeting last night of the Programming Sub-Committee and we all join in the hopes and wishes for a speedy recovery for her. I do not think that I have said this on the record, but it is a marvellous thing that you are now Sir John. It is something that I know will be welcome to all sides of the Committee.

We have grave reservations about programming Committee sittings. There was no problem with the old system, which enabled the usual channels to reach agreement about progress in Committee. Although on this occasion I have been fortunate to discuss matters with the Government Whip—who has been extremely reasonable, accommodating and co-operative, as she always is—there is still always the danger that the debate will develop as we go through the clauses and that we will reach a point where, quite reasonably, we need a little more time here and perhaps a little less time there. We are very much against the inflexibility of programming. Therefore, in the best possible spirit, I say—as I did last night—that we do not accept programming, or this programme.

It is worth considering the range of issues that we must cover on the Bill. As was clear on Second Reading, the Bill raises points of law of severe complexity. Hon. and learned Members asked, for example, why part 2 of the Bill contained exceptions to the regulations that could be made in an emergency in respect of strikers and those who may not wish to serve in the forces. Reservations are made in the Bill about those particular human rights, but no reservation is made for the rights that the Human Rights Act 1998 conveys.

There are definitional issues and we shall debate the meaning of ''an emergency'' in parts 1 and 2; the meaning is different in each. It has been suggested that in making the regulations in part 2, it might be better if a Privy Council committee were involved, where practicable, in deciding whether emergency powers could be used in particular circumstances to provide the sort of reassurance that a wartime, all-party, National Government style of Cabinet would bring to such proceedings. We want to press the Minister on what could be done to give a more all-party feel to that aspect.

The Local Government Association has raised concerns about the imposition of duties—seven in all in clause 2—without the provision of necessary resources. Very fairly, the Minister said on Second

 

Reading that he was prepared to discuss the matter with local authorities and that it was not the Government's intention to impose burdens without adequate resources, but the track record of the Government is such that we have some doubts about that. We shall press him on the matter.

The question arises of the nature of the work force that will enable emergencies to be tackled. As was made clear on Second Reading, it is not enough to rely on our marvellous public servants who can tackle the ordinary situations that they encounter. The example that I gave on Second Reading was that if a dirty bomb fell on a medium-sized city in this country, the point would come relatively quickly where the emergency services were spent. Which reserves would then come into play? The Government have said that defence forces will be available. However, the concern is that the required numbers are not available on the ground. Often, territorial personnel are committed to theatres elsewhere in the world. Is there a case for a volunteer reserve force that would bring together the necessary skills so that more manpower is available?

The Police Federation has made the point that it is necessary to rationalise the organisational structure that would follow a civil emergency in order to provide a new tier of organisation. It talks about making

''clear and unambiguous issues pertaining to jurisdiction, remit, lines of control and lines of communication.''

It also talks about permitting

''proper and effective coordination between public bodies and utilities'' and providing

''the full backing of the law to individuals with designated civil emergency roles and responsibilities.''

We want to probe the structure that underlines the Bill and whether it would produce a practicable and effective response to the sort of emergencies to which the Bill refers.

We are concerned that the appraisal that was commissioned by Scotland Yard—the Unicorn project—has shown big voids in the sort of cover available in London, particularly in the business sphere. We want to examine the arrangements that exist to protect our businesses and what more needs to be done, particularly in the communications field, as highlighted by the report.

At times when our nation has been threatened, arrangements have been put in place for public training and education. More could be done without frightening the public, and it is necessary for our society to prepare for the new threats that we face. For many of the years of my lifetime, the threat that we seemed to face came from the USSR, and we made preparations with that in mind. The current threat is not a certain one; it is more the threat of uncertainty, risk and an unknown form of terrorism. We must ensure that the public are aware of the likely ways in which we might have to deal with the current threat as opposed to that of previous years.

With regard to the motion, it is always helpful if a Minister can provide the Committee with the latest information on any draft regulations that his Department is preparing for the Bill. It would be

 

helpful if the Minister told us of the latest situation on drafting regulations for this Bill. We do not agree with the motion, but we hope that it will be possible to fit all the important issues and concerns into the time frame set out.

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 echo the comments of the previous speakers about your chairmanship, Sir John, and the good wishes to yourself and your wife at this time.

We do not have any problem about the principle of programme motions, and we think that Programming Sub-Committees are quite sensible. I say that with a certain degree of shame, as I was unable to attend the Programming Sub-Committee sitting last night. I was in a Public Accounts Committee dealing with the fascinating subject of duty on Scotch whisky; so one can understand that we were, to a degree, distracted. [Interruption.] It was a spirited discussion, as the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) says. I emerged from it to find that I had just missed the Programming Sub-Committee, for which I extend my apologies.

In general terms, we are comfortable with the programme motion; we were not happy with the motion on the Order Paper on Second Reading, because there had been no prior discussion. The motion was put to me before the Programming Sub-Committee sat and we were broadly content with it.

As we said on Second Reading, our main concerns are with part 2, in which there are important principles to discuss. The motion allows us to have a serious debate about part 2; therefore, we do not seek to block it.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I, too, pass on my best wishes to you and your wife, Sir John. I have already privately congratulated you on the honour bestowed on you recently.

I wish to speak against the programme motion. I am normally against them in principle; some time should be provided to see how a Bill is progressing and to hear the comments and reservations that people have on both sides of the House before it is decided whether politics is being played with the Bill. There is always an opportunity after a couple of sittings to gauge how political parties are treating legislation. There is nothing to prevent a motion in the middle of a Committee that places a limit on the time to be made available to discuss proposed legislation in Committee. I see no problem with gauging the mood of the Committee. It would be totally irresponsible of any Member to filibuster with the aim of stretching the Committee to a few more sittings.

I have read the Library's explanatory notes and I welcome the thrust of the Bill; we need it to deal with possible eventualities. Last night, I looked at the UK Resilience website. I congratulate the Government on the site; it is fairly comprehensive, and the public should be made aware of it and consult it on a regular basis. The homepage leads with an advance severe weather warning. With the cold weather last night and this morning and the threat of snow—we know the chaos that severe snow can bring—it is right to make

members of the public aware of what might happen and of the precautions that they can take to ensure that they, their families and their neighbourhoods are protected should severe weather occur.

As well as the information on the threat of terrorism, which is vitally important for British nationals travelling abroad, the website lists various areas where emergencies might occur. We want to probe the Government on whether the Bill is sufficient to deal with every eventuality. I suspect that at the back of people's minds is the question of whether we are sufficiently protected against any abuse of the Bill. That is where the balance that the Minister talked about on Second Reading comes in. There must be a balance. We cannot make the Bill totally prescriptive, otherwise we will not be able to prepare for every emergency.

Much of what we say today will be coloured by what happened on 11 September. The United States did not seem to be prepared for the fact that people were prepared to get into jet airliners and fly them into buildings. Looking at what happened on 11 September, I suspect that if those terrorists had known how successful they would be, more atrocities might have occurred on the day, and they might have tried something on a much wider scale.

I assume that many lessons have been learned since, not just on the intelligence front—intelligence seemed woefully lacking—but on a number of other fronts related to the prevention of such a thing happening again. There have recently been delays and cancellations of British Airways flights from the United Kingdom to the United States because of intelligence received, but I am sure that people would prefer to be on a safe flight, rather than take a chance. I think that 11 September will definitely colour our view of future events and the preparations against certain eventualities.

The list on the website refers to aviation. One of the objectives is not only to prevent people flying aircraft into buildings, but to ensure that there are regular flights, and that flights from the United Kingdom to the rest of the world, and vice versa, are not disrupted. It is important that we get that absolutely right. It was not so long ago that we saw tanks outside Heathrow airport. I supported that, because obviously the Government had been given a tip-off and it was right to take every necessary precaution. I know that people were shocked at the use of tanks, but it was right to deploy them. It was deemed that an emergency could take place, and the Government took the right course of action.

Mention is made of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks, chemical accidents, civil contingencies, and energy and power supplies, which are vital. If terrorists were to knock out certain energy sources, the country could be brought to a complete standstill. It is important that the legislation is able to deal with that.

Epidemics are also mentioned. We can see what is happening in relation to the fowl disease that has hit Thailand, Indonesia and number of other countries around the world including China, which believes that it has had an outbreak as well. There could be a state of emergency in this country that involved people dying because of something that we could not foretell. I hope, touch wood, that the disease will not come here, but if it did, we might have to consider whether the entire fowl population should be killed to protect everybody. That is something that the Ministers may have to take on board in the Bill. Even six months ago, who could have dreamt that such a thing might happen? It is important that we get such things right.

Mention is also made of fire safety and flooding. Sadly, flooding takes place in a number of areas from time to time. The Bill mentions the fact that there may be a regional emergency, as opposed to a full state of emergency. Parts of the country may be affected. In the part of Wales that I come from, flooding is a real problem. Regional states of emergency, or whatever they are termed, may well be called to protect people's lives and to ensure the safety of their property. Flooding and flood alerts are vital issues.

The fuel situation is also mentioned. I do not know whether the Minister wants to say anything about that, but I assume that that refers to the blockades of the fuel depots that took place not so long ago and which led to people not being able to obtain fuel. There were huge protests from the NHS because nurses and doctors were not able to obtain supplies to get to work. It is important that that is taken on board, and that people have access to fuel.

Mention is also made of a nuclear accident, terrorism, a train crash, travel, a water shortage, and web and internet alerts. I wondered what that last phrase meant. What problem could there be now that we have firewalls that are supposed to protect computers and networks? I was told that, thanks to Wi-Fi and the wireless network, people could come into one of the Departments, get around the firewalls with a laptop, infect an entire system and bring it down. That might not just affect a Department such as the Department of Trade and Industry. Imagine if someone did that to the Child Support Agency or to the pensions network. It would be an absolute catastrophe if people were not able to get access to the funding that they deserve. It is important that we get enough time to discuss those matters.

Mr. Allan rose—

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West 9:45 am, 27th January 2004

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman takes interventions, I point out that we are discussing the programme motion. I have been lenient in allowing hon. Members to go wide of the motion, but the hon. Gentleman must now return to it. I give notice to the Committee that I shall not be so lenient later on in allowing people to go wide of the subject under debate.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

The point that I am making is that it is vital to debate all the areas that I have mentioned; it is important that we get the legislation correct.

Therefore, we must have sufficient time to discuss each of the areas to ensure that the legislation will be effective and that there will not be loopholes.

I can only imagine the nightmare for Ministers if, when they take action, in the back of their minds they have to ask, ''Am I doing the right thing? Is this going to come back to bite me later on in a judicial review, which I will be hauled before to explain exactly what I have done?'' That is why we must be given more flexibility in the time allowed to discuss the various issues of importance not only to us but to our constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) mentioned that we do not want to scare the public, and that is right too. We want to ensure that the public have the right preparation, protection and training. The Minister could be more flexible in how he approaches the issue of timetabling and could look at ways for us to discuss things such as educating the public in what they can do to obtain protection not only for themselves and their family—we have an ageing population so we must consider elderly people as well—but for communities and people living alone. We must ensure that they are told what they should do in the event of an emergency taking place in the country. That is why I hope that the Government will see how the debate progresses and give it a chance.

I have to say that that applies to both sides of the Committee: this is not an issue of one party against another or two parties against the Government. I am sure that some Labour Members have reservations about some of the things contained in the legislation. As my hon. Friend said earlier, a number of civil liberties groups say that they are not sure about some aspects of the policy either. There may be some areas where we think that the Government should go a bit further; because we think that they are not being sufficiently prescriptive. I hope that the Minister will take what I have said in the spirit in which it is meant and think again about the programme motion.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Cabinet Office) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

In the generous spirit with which the deliberations have started, it might be helpful if I answer the specific point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire on the regulations that relate to the part of the Bill that we are discussing today. The part 1 regulations were published on 7 January alongside the Bill. They were clearly developed and discussed with stakeholders during the autumn, but will be further developed in the light of the comments made during the parliamentary process. There will then be a further process of public consultation on the regulations following Royal Assent. The part 2 regulations are clearly of a different order in the sense that there is no precedent for those being published, but perhaps we can discuss the merits of that position from the Opposition's point of view at that stage.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

It may be helpful if I explain to members of the Committee that the motion, even if passed, would be capable of amendment at any time if it were the pleasure of the Committee so to do.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 14, Noes 4.

Division number 1 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 12 - Power to charge for traffic officer services provided on request

Aye: 14 MPs

No: 4 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to. Clause 1Meaning of ''emergency''