Clause 1 - Meaning of ''emergency''

Civil Contingencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 27th January 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 9:45 am, 27th January 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in

clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out 'a place in'.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in

clause 1, page 1, line 7, at end insert

'or in a Part or region'.

No. 3, in

clause 1, page 1, line 8, leave out 'a place in'.

No. 4, in

clause 1, page 1, line 8, after 'Kingdom', insert

'or of a Part or region'.

No. 5, in

clause 1, page 1, line 9, leave out

'place in the United Kingdom' and insert 'Part or region'.

No. 6, in

clause 1, page 1, line 10, at end insert—

'(1A) In subsection (1), ''Part'' and ''region'' have the same meanings as in Part 2 of this Act.'.

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

This is a series of probing amendments designed to test the differences in the two definitions of an ''emergency'' that appear in the Bill: here in clause 1 and later in clause 18. During pre-legislative scrutiny and in discussion and consultation, the Government have moved a long way, and it is right to give credit for the improvements made in the Bill. The other criticism, which we have made forcefully, is that there has been a delay in bringing forward the Bill— by the time this Bill receives its Royal Assent it will be about three years since the events of 11 September 2001. That is too long a delay, so although one gives credit for consultation, discussion and pre-legislative scrutiny, on balance the Government's performance has been sluggish.

We must look at the two parts of the Bill and the definitions concerned. Part 1 deals with county councils, other local authorities and services, and their duties as responders to assess, plan and advise, give help to business and prepare for an emergency. That is at a local level. Part 2 deals with the use of emergency

powers to make emergency regulations for a very wide range of serious measures, such as confiscation and destruction of property and prohibitions on movement.

In clause 1(1) the definition of an ''emergency'' is an event or situation that threatens serious damage to human welfare, or the environment or security of a place in the United Kingdom, or the security of the United Kingdom itself. This concept of ''a place'' is central to the definition in clause 1. The clause then goes on to describe how an event may damage human welfare and deals with the issues that we will discuss in due course.

The bodies that have to assess, plan or advise cover different sizes of areas. For example, the definition covers a county council, which can cover millions of people over many square miles, a district council, which may have perhaps 100,000 or more residents over a smaller area, and health bodies, whose areas can be of all sizes. The amendments ask what, in this context, is the meaning of

''a place in the United Kingdom''.

Does it include, say, the whole of Hertfordshire or Essex? Does it include a city? The responders for London, say, seem to be the boroughs, but some of the other areas concerned seem to be of a variable size.

In clause 18 the emergency must be in a part or a region of the United Kingdom. A part of the UK seems to be a country, such as England or Scotland, and a region is defined as a region for regional development agency purposes. Will the Minister explain at this early stage the structure that underpins those definitions? How will planning advice and so on be undertaken for cities, regions and parts? If a large county council is planning for, say, 3 million people, why is that dealt with differently from a city with a similar population, or is it not? It would be helpful if the Minister could explain that.

To put it into perspective, the Police Federation, which is used to dealing with this type of situation, said that it would like to see a rational organisational structure, so that it is clear where the responsibilities lie. It says that the Bill should

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

It wants proper and effective co-ordination between public bodies and utilities and, as I said earlier, the full backing of the law, with the necessary powers to implement the measures.

We want the Minister to explain the various tiers. What is a place compared with a part or a region, and how does he see that working for cities, rural areas and the country as a whole?

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) 10:00 am, 27th January 2004

I support what the hon. Gentleman has just said: the explanatory memorandum takes us no further. Frankly, it makes the situation even worse. Paragraph 13 says:

''This definition differs from the definition of 'emergency' for the purposes of Part 2 of the Bill in that, for the purposes of Part 2, the situation must threaten serious damage in the United Kingdom or in a Part or region (rather than a place in the United Kingdom).''

I cannot understand any of that. It is a fundamental question, and we should be given a proper and clear response.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

I congratulate you on your knighthood, Sir John, as I have already done privately, and wish your wife the best of good fortune.

I rise to back up the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and to ask the Minister to empathise with the Police Federation's point of view in this regard. The Minister will be aware that Opposition Members come at the issue from a practical standpoint.

The police have thought long and hard about the way in which they will respond. The Minister is aware of my reservations about the resources at the police's disposal, but the police have little doubt that their regional control centres, basic command units and chain of command are structured in a way that allows the blue light services to respond across the piece. Therefore, will the Minister make clear, in relation to the blue light services, the differences between place, part and region? As the hon. Gentleman has just said, the terms seem to add another layer of confusion, which could be clarified. Only by clarifying the terms can we help the blue light services, in particular the police, to make their point clearly.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I, too, rise to speak in favour of the amendment, because I also seek clarification from the Minister. I want to find out exactly what

''a place in the United Kingdom'' means and what sort of emergency might occur in a place as opposed to a region or a city, a town or a village. Does he have in mind a train accident, of which, sadly, we have had too many in the past?

I assume that, although the emergency services would be used—as they are now, and they do a tremendous job—a train accident would not require a state of emergency to be called. The current legislation already deals with such a scenario and through existing regulations the emergency services already know exactly what to do.

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

What would happen if Hertfordshire had an excellent plan to deal with a massive forest fire—not that there are any forests in Hertfordshire, but supposing there were—and the fire swept into Essex? Everybody knows that there are no trees in Essex, but supposing there were, how would part 1 deal with such liaison?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify what will happen when ''a place'' happens to be moving. To give another example, the Lockerbie disaster was huge and seismic. Is that the sort of area to which ''a place'' is referring? When Lockerbie happened, a state of emergency was not called and the emergency services, which knew that such an event

could happen, already knew exactly what they needed and wanted to do. So, I wonder why the Bill says what it does.

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 was keeping quiet because I thought I understood the definitions, but as the debate continues they are becoming less clear. Will the Minister clarify my understanding of the Bill, having sat on the Joint Committee, that the threshold is much higher in part 2 of the regulations; that in very broad terms the planning is for very localised incidents; and that we are trying to set a hurdle whereby we cannot bring in emergency regulations unless a much bigger area is affected? It would be helpful to hear the legal precedent for it and to hear on what basis we can have confidence that place is far more localised than part or region. Those are the two differences in wording.

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

Would the hon. Gentleman not accept that, in a large county such as Yorkshire or Essex with millions of people, if one is planning for an incident that might affect the whole county, we are discussing quite a high threshold? It is the interplay between that level of threat and part 2 that needs explaining.

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 grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the point because it will be helpful to have it clarified. I hope that, as with the definition of place, the two parts are not mutually exclusive. If the trigger level were low and there were a forest fire in Yorkshire, where there are forests, which spread to Northumberland, where there are also forests, I hope that the powers in part 1 would not be excluded from use; in other words that one could go from place right up to part or region, but not introduce part 2 emergency regulations for something more localised. It is important that the powers are restrictive upon part 2 rather than part 1.

I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point, which is entirely correct. If a part 1 emergency spirals out of control and crosses boundaries, there must be cross-boundary working.

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

I echo many of the points made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), which were instructive and helpful. He understood the distinction between a place in the United Kingdom and a part or region more than he gave himself credit for. For the record, I will clarify the definitions.

The definition of emergency that underpins part 1 is crucial and it is essential that we get it right. It is therefore appropriate for Opposition Members to table probing amendments, but I am unable to accept them. The definition of ''emergency'' in the Bill is critical, and in modernising local civil protection, we have been keen to ensure that the definition in parts 1 and 2 is accurate. Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill serve fundamentally different purposes, as the hon. Gentleman just recognised. There is no reason why the duties imposed under part 1 should apply in the same circumstances where regulations may be made under part 2.

Let me clarify the Government's intention on that matter. We intend that part 1 should apply in relation to more localised events or situations, whereas the

scale of an event or situation must be much greater before emergency powers could be invoked. That is why there is a differentiation—which has caused some confusion in the Committee—in the definition of ''emergency'' in parts 1 and 2 of the Bill. The definition in part 2 states that an event or situation must threaten serious damage to human welfare, the environment or security of a part of the United Kingdom or region. In that regard, part of the United Kingdom is defined as meaning England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, and region means a region for the purposes of the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

To give the comparison of the United States, jets flew into the World Trade Centre in New York, and the Pentagon. The US authorities were then worried about the White House, because they understood that a plane was heading there. Would such an incident come under part 1 or part 2 of the Bill?

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

I hesitate to draw direct parallels with a particular contingency that took place under a different system of government. The US has both a presidential and executive system of government as opposed to the parliamentary democracy that we have in the UK. One would have to consider the perhaps better analogy that the hon. Gentleman raised earlier of Lockerbie. One could envisage circumstances—this is well-known in my part of the world—where the emergency services were obliged to pull together in a wholly distinctive response, as they did in the tragic circumstances of the Pan Am flight going into a village in south-west Scotland.

In such circumstances, we would apply the criteria from part 1 of the Bill, where we consider the response capabilities and planning functions of local authorities and other part 1 and part 2 responders. That case would meet the criteria set out in part 1 of the Bill. There is a separate discussion to be had, in which the Committee will want to take part, on the circumstances in which it is appropriate for emergency powers to be contemplated. That will form the basis of the debate that we will have on part 2.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

The Minister understands my point, but if we move on from there and imagine that there was a terrorist attack in three different parts of the UK, would it be dealt with completely differently, as opposed to the emergency powers in each area dealing with that particular crisis? It would be a threat, and part of the Bill deals with the prevention of possible terrorist attacks in the rest of the country. I assume that in such a case a state of emergency may be called because the terrorist activities were co-ordinated and so might be deemed to constitute a threat to the entire UK.

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

We should remember that the focus of part 1 is local response and the capability of local organisations to respond and plan effectively in a range of different contingencies. The need to take action through planning and preparation does not, of course, preclude action that needs to be taken at a national level such as in the event of a catastrophic terrorist incident, for example. The Home Secretary

retains oversight for the security and protection of the people of the UK under the parliamentary system we enjoy, and he would have a view of the need to take action in advance of any incident—which is why legislation was introduced after the events of 11 September—but he also has concern for the resilience capability of the UK, anticipating circumstances that might arise after any incident.

The distinction has to be drawn between a planning capability in part 1, which is necessarily local in its focus because civil contingency planning in the UK for many years has been based on local response and capability—the framework that the Bill establishes honours and upholds the importance of that local response from the emergency services and other agencies—and the need to update our emergency powers under part 2 to ensure that there is a national resilience capability to match the capacity for local response.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 10:15 am, 27th January 2004

I would like to pursue the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). In this country we tend to organise ourselves, as regards counter-terrorism, at the centre—we have a national system for dealing with that. Yet any incidents that occur could well be very localised, so there could be a series of incidents around the country. Therefore, I wonder how one can match the two aspects, the national—knowing what is going on around the country and being sure that the counter-terrorism aspects are being tackled adequately—and the local. If there were a string of events in different parts of the country on one day, how would we swing into action as a country? Would it be a national response, or would we be expecting the local areas to pick it up? How does the Minister's system work with an instance such as that put forward by my hon. Friend?

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

I fear that some confusion has crept into the hon. Gentleman's remarks on counter-terrorism measures. Of course there is a counter-terrorism strategy—taken forward by the Government—that is national in focus, but specific in circumstances; arrests may be necessary under counter-terrorism legislation in any part of the United Kingdom. None the less, the work is taken forward by the Government on a day-to-day—often hour-by-hour—basis to ensure that intelligence is looked at in the appropriate fashion, deliberations are made, decisions are reached and any necessary action is taken. Those actions obviously predate any terrorist activity that would either require a resilience response or, in the case of a catastrophic terrorist incident, emergency powers.

In that sense it is important to remind the Committee that what we are discussing in terms of part 1 of the Bill is not national security per se, but national resilience and the capacity to respond to circumstances that none of us would wish to see, in either a localised or a catastrophic incident of the kind already

described. There are clear means of ensuring that the Home Secretary—working alongside the Prime Minister and other colleagues within Government—is able to ensure that our counter-terrorism strategy is taken forward at a national level, while recognising that the British public would have a reasonable expectation that we would have in place an appropriate framework to ensure that, if a civil or other contingency arose, there was the resilience locally to cope. In that sense, it is important to recognise the distinction between resilience capability and the issues of national security that the hon. Gentleman raised.

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)

The Minister knows that one problem to be catered for is environmental damage. Can I remind him of the Sea Empress disaster off the coast of Wales? In that instance it was almost fortunate that the accident happened near Milford Haven, where the expertise was situated. Further up the coast, in north-west Wales, from where I hail, there is no such counter-pollution expertise. How would our local contingency plans be knitted in with somebody who was more au fait with what is necessary in that sort of disaster?

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

Within Government, there is the elite Government Department principle, which means that in a range of different circumstances—a significant maritime pollution incident, for example—there are Government Departments who have the expertise within central Government in that regard. One of the weaknesses we have identified is that historically, the bridge between the expertise at central Government level and the local response that we have been describing, often led by local authorities, is not as strong as it should be. It is for exactly that reason that, notwithstanding some criticism, we aim to introduce a regional tier at this juncture.

That is not a reflection of inadequacy on the part of local government or other responders, but of the point the hon. Gentleman raised; the need to build a stronger bridge between the expertise, often held at the centre of Government, and a clear-headed understanding of what is happening on the ground, as local responders encounter the circumstances of a particular incident. In that sense, I do not want to get ahead of myself in discussing the regional tier, but I do believe that it has a significant contribution to make. If there were circumstances in which a particular local authority did not have the expertise to cope with some of the challenges that it might face, there would, on a long-standing principle, be support available from the Government in terms of technical expertise. However, I believe that the passage of this Bill would give stronger assurances to local responders than those currently in place.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

I wish to probe further the point made by my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire and for Ribble Valley. An example that gives me great concern and which I hope will be discussed later in the Bill is the problem of contamination. Suppose that a dirty bomb goes off, let us say in London. Simultaneously, a number of football matches are going on in London, the crowds

from which are about to disperse to all sorts of different parts, by train, coach and perhaps car. Without any form of training—the point is made later in the Bill—or public awareness of the problem, those crowds become contaminated; perhaps not severely, but severely enough to pose a threat. They then disperse to Liverpool, Newcastle or wherever. Suddenly, we have a traumatic incident in London and health problems in dispersed parts of the country. I am still not clear from what the Minister said how that would be handled; I should be grateful if he clarified it. Would it be handled by authorities in London, Newcastle and Liverpool, or would it be a national emergency? If the latter, who would control it?

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

Clearly such a situation would require a response at a local and a national level. A catastrophic incident such as the one that the hon. Gentleman describes would require central Government co-ordination; equally, there would be a need for a local response in the areas that he mentioned. In that sense he makes my point for me. A serious biological or chemical attack with effects that spread across the country would make the case for the Bill, because in such circumstances we must make sure that there is national understanding. That would be our approach in each part of the United Kingdom. At the same time, central Government would have to take a strong view and would stand ready to assist in and co-ordinate the work of a range of bodies.

Let me take another example, which is not a direct parallel but is instructive; the incidence of foot and mouth, which may have been in the hon. Gentleman's mind. One feature of that incident was that—notwithstanding the determination of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to take a lead, together with other Government Departments, in advancing the appropriate response—it was recognised that the link between MAFF and individual local authorities, be they in Cumbria, Yorkshire or elsewhere, was not as strong as it should have been. Again, that makes the case for a regional tier to ensure an intelligent and structured response from central Government, which of course would accept its responsibilities in those circumstances, while recognising the need to reach the incident on the ground. That makes the case for greater co-ordination. That is why the aim of the Bill is not only to provide a national framework, but to strengthen the links of co-ordination between central and local government.

Mr. Heald rose—

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

I have two points, so I hope that the Minister will answer another one later, if possible.The Minister referred to the regional tier. Where is that in the Bill?

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

We will come to regional tiers in later discussions. We are now specifically discussing the definition of emergency in terms of planning. I shall be happy to cover the regulations that will accompany the Bill and the work that can be done by

local authorities and central Government later, but I am straying rather far from the particularities of the clause.

As I have said, subsection (1) describes an emergency as

''an event or situation which threatens serious damage to—

(a) human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom,

(b) the environment of a place in the United Kingdom, or

(c) the security of the United Kingdom or of a place in the United Kingdom.''

I can understand the concern expressed by some hon. Members, who think that serious damage in a place in the United Kingdom—which might be as small as a town, a village or even a street—might not seem serious enough to require a risk assessment or emergency planning. I understand that the Joint Committee asked whether a fire in a single house would be enough to trigger such duties. In the Government's response, they made it clear that the threshold for the scale of events by local responders should be one for which they were planning. It is an event or situation

''which would be likely to seriously obstruct the responder in the performance of his functions or in relation to which the responder could not respond in an appropriate way without changing the deployment of resources or acquiring additional resources''.

That makes clear the sorts of event for which local responders should, and indeed do, prepare. I argue that a single residential fire could easily be dealt with under the existing arrangements, but a large industrial fire in a densely populated area, which could well require detailed multi-agency contingency planning, would not be and would fall within the criteria for undertaking the duties.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

If individual fires broke out in two or three areas within a given fire brigade's area and there was a serious terrorist threat to human life in that area, what would be the contingency plan? Clearly, if there were two or three fires, that might overstretch the local fire brigade, which might not be able to deal with the terrorist threat as it would be obliged to do under the Bill.

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

I can do no better than offer a reminder of the definition that was given in response to the observations of the Joint Committee. That definition is:

''An event or situation which would be likely to seriously obstruct the responder in the performance of his functions or in relation to which the responder cannot respond in an appropriate way without changing the deployment of resources or acquiring additional resources.''

In the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes, a local responder might be required to change the deployment of resources or acquire additional resources and, as such, we are talking about something that falls within the responsibilities and duties as set out.

The definition of ''emergency'' is fundamental to the way in which part 1 works. The civil protection duties described in clause 2 all relate to assessing the risk of an emergency occurring or the advent of an emergency. That is why we worked so closely with

practitioners to get the current definition right. I urge the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire to withdraw the amendment.

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

What are ''places''? That is our concern. I know that the word is in common use, but it seems that the meaning of ''a place'' in the Bill relates to the sorts of bodies that have duties under clause 2. In other words, in relation to an emergency that threatens serious damage to

''human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom'', a place means one of the areas covered by, to quote from schedule 1:

''(a) a county council,

(b) a district council,

(c) a London borough council,

(d) the Common Council of the City of London,'' and so on, or a police authority area or an NHS trust area. I think that that is the Minister's point. We are talking about counties, towns and villages. Two counties might be involved, but we are talking about an area less than a region. Anything in that category has to be planned for under clause 2. I understand the point, but there is still the question of how the bodies concerned will liaise and co-operate. If I am wrong, I hope that the Minister will feel free intervene and explain where I have got things wrong, because it is essential to understand the interface between part 1 and part 2, and the escalation of powers.

I mentioned the regional tier because the response in a region is the next level up from the response in a locality or a place, yet the Bill does not deal with a regional response. Under part 2, it is possible to make regulations for emergency powers in a region, but the mechanisms by which that will work are not entirely clear.

Having said that, and on the basis that we may wish to return to the matter on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 10:30 am, 27th January 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in

clause 1, page 1, line 16, at beginning insert 'severe'.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 8, in

clause 1, page 1, line 17, leave out 'money'.

No. 9, in

clause 1, page 1, line 18, leave out 'an electronic or other' and insert 'any'.

No. 10, in

clause 1, page 1, line 18, at end insert—

'(ff) spread of fire leading to circumstances damaging to human welfare,'.

No. 11, in

clause 1, page 1, line 19, leave out 'transport' and insert

'air, rail and sea transport, and major roads considered vital to human welfare for the purposes of subsection (1)(a)'.

No. 12, in

clause 1, page 1, line 20, leave out 'relating to' and insert

'and impediment of persons concerned with preservation of'.

No. 40, in

clause 21, page 13, line 44, leave out 'money'.

No. 41, in

clause 21, page 14, line 1, leave out 'an electronic or other' and insert 'any'.

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

This group of amendments raises questions about the definition of emergency in clause 1. This time we are talking not about place, but about the issues in subsection (2) and the events or situations that threaten damage to human welfare and therefore form part of the definition in clause 1(1)(a). Amendment No. 7 would add the word ''severe'' to the subsection (2)(d) reference to ''damage to property'' so that damage to human welfare would include situations where severe damage to property was threatened. The definition in subsection 1(1) refers to a threat of serious damage to human welfare, but we want to make it clear that, in that respect, it would only be a severe threat of damage that would satisfy the test in terms of property. I want the Minister's assurance on that.

Amendment No. 8, which is grouped with amendment No. 40 to clause 21, would delete from clause 1(2)(e)

''disruption of a supply of money''.

The other ingredients of a threat to human welfare in that subsection—namely food, water, fuel and energy—are obvious threats to human welfare. If the Government have identified circumstances where a local council or any of the other responders might be able to help with problems caused by a disruption to the money supply, we want the Minister to explain what they are. We are looking to restrict the definition of emergencies to those that require such a level of contingency planning. Perhaps the Minister could explain the reason for that.

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)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the circumstances that could cause a disruption of the money supply is the post office closure programme that is happening throughout the country?

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. I trust that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will not respond to that.

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

I shall not respond directly, because I think that that was made as a slightly partisan party political point. The Government may have in mind situations where the vulnerable, deprived of money, might not be able to go about their everyday life and that that might cause a threat to their human welfare. Although the issue about post office closures may be a little too extreme an example, one can imagine that if post offices or local banks were closed and no money was available to local people, it might cause hardship. Does the level of hardship meet the threshold for contingency planning of this sort?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that obstruction to the supply of money would be more properly planned for and exercised under part 2 on a national or regional basis?

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because I was going to come to the question of where the measure naturally fitted. If we are talking about an emergency in which people literally cannot get money—where there is a disruption to the money supply and all that that means—is that not too serious an issue for a local council to deal with? A council might be able to hand out some vouchers or money, but where there is disruption to the money supply, one really needs central Government action to ensure that the situation is remedied; perhaps even action from the Bank of England. It would be interesting to know what the Minister has in mind.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Would this measure be better in part 2 than in part 1? What exactly might be the disruption to the money supply locally as opposed to nationally? If confidence broke down in the money supply, terrorists or fraudsters might come in with huge supplies of money that resulted in people having no faith in the money supply. How that would happen locally is one question, but it is unlikely; it would be a national rather than a local issue.

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

One simply does not know, and the Minister can help us on this. Does he have in mind a situation in which banks and post offices are shut and coins and notes are not available to people, which is one possible scenario, or a serious disruption to the money supply, which would be a national rather than local issue? It is hard to see how bodies such as a county or district council would have much impact. The amendment probes the sort of situation that the Minister has in mind, the necessity of the provision and whether, if it is a national rather than local matter, the measure should not be in part 2.

Amendment No. 9—paired with amendment No. 41 to clause 21—would delete the disruption of ''an electronic'' system and insert ''any''. The amendment is based on concerns expressed by the Law Society and British Telecom. Noting that the definition of an emergency includes the expression ''disruption of an electronic or other system'', BT would like to know why the disruption of an electronic system of communication on its own should be included.

Disruption to BT's system on its own—rather than as a by-product of a more serious incident involving several category 1 and 2 responders—can be dealt with by BT; it believes that it has the expertise and processes to deal with that. It cannot understand why the local council would wish to be involved in the restoration of the service. Why should the disruption to an electronic communication system such as that operated by BT, on its own—rather than as a by-product of a more

serious incident—involve councils or other responders? BT says:

''There could be no value added by involving local or national officials under such circumstances. Government responders are unlikely to have the required knowledge, skills or expertise to direct the details of a telecommunications recovery.''

The Law Society has also raised concerns about the provision.

Amendment No. 10 would add the

''spread of fire leading to circumstances damaging to human welfare'' to the events that threaten human welfare. Fire is not well covered by the Bill. [Interruption.] How appropriate. The Minister has obviously sent out an urgent message and careful fire precautions are now being taken in all parts of the country. Perhaps I ought to just give up on the amendment; I very rarely get such a quick response. There was I saying that the Bill had been far too long delayed.

Some people in this country live in houses surrounded by forests. In places such as California, France and Australia, there have been great tragedies because of fire. As climates are changing—it seems that in this country we have drier, more arid periods than we once did—there is a legitimate question about whether fire should be included in the Bill.

Amendment No. 11 probes what the Government have in mind for transport in part 1. The amendment would leave out ''transport'' and insert

''air, rail and sea transport, and other major roads considered vital to human welfare for the purposes of subsection (1)(a)''.

We hope that the Minister will explain the role of local planning for transport, and whether air, which we have specifically included in the amendment, requires a national rather than local response, given the sort of problems we know about following 11 September.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Will the hon. Gentleman expand on his reasons for the term ''major roads'' in his amendment? I am not aware that it is a term of art known to law in any part of the country. Why is it necessary? We had a major disaster with the Braer in my constituency. Many of the roads in the southern part of Shetland could not, by any estimation, be called major roads, but they would clearly be vital to human welfare for the purposes of subsection (1)(a).

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The justification may be that made by the Minister and that may be the answer.

We are keen to test exactly what level of emergency the Government expect local authorities to plan for. In many part of the country, one would not expect a great deal of detailed planning about a road with less importance in terms of its links between towns and villages. A major road within a locality might be a different matter. The fact that a road is narrow, as in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, does not necessarily mean that it is not vital. For example, there are isolated communities in his constituency; a road may be minor, but it may also be vital. The expression ''major roads'' is not a term of art and we do not claim to have parliamentary counsel working on our team, although my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley is excellent.

We are anxious to probe the Minister about the sort of transport links he believes local authorities and others should seek to protect in the context of emergency legislation. I would have thought it proper to probe that in an amendment. I agree with him that some other form of words might be better than ''vital roads'' and we would be more than happy if the Minister were prepared to go away and consider that.

Several hon. Members rose—

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

I apologise, Sir John. I was so carried away with my reply to that intervention that I had forgotten that I have not spoken to the other amendments, no doubt much to the Committee's relief.

I have now found the Law Society's comment about the electronic systems to which amendment No. 9 refers. It said:

''In our view an interference with an electronic system does not merit inclusion within the definition of an emergency except where it threaten the lives of individuals or deprives the community of the essentials of life.''

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 should like to speak to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. There is a lot of sense in many of them. Amendment No. 7, which refers to severe damage to property, relates to justified concern that the scope of the Bill and the powers as we understand them are associated primarily with human welfare, which is repeated throughout the provisions. A major concern for the Joint Committee was that human welfare should remain the focus. The notion of damage to property sits awkwardly within the scope of the Bill and the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire was sensible to propose a severity threshold. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to that.

Amendment No. 8 refers to money disruption and, again, the hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill are not mutually exclusive and there may be situations in which regulations are brought into play under part 2. One could imagine that something that disrupted the money supply so significantly that it was causing chaos throughout the country—such as a terrorist attack on the Royal Mint or on a key component of the money supply—might require the Government to bring in exceptional powers under part 2. However, that might also require a local component in relation to the way in which money was distributed to people locally. Should local authorities plan for such circumstances, or are the circumstances so extreme that it is not worth them putting the effort in? Could they do anything useful if such circumstances were to occur? It is incumbent on the Minister to respond—specifically to the money point—to try to explain where he thinks the local authority realistically could perform a function. If it cannot and there is not to be a useful end product, there is not much sense in including the measure in the Bill as a duty on which local authorities will have to spend money.

The most significant amendment that I wish to speak to now is amendment No. 9 on the electronic communications networks. Valid concerns have been raised about the amendment. In particular, there is a risk of confusion about the different regimes that apply to an electronic communications provider. BT is the classic example of a large national provider. We must remember that there are also local providers such as Kingston Communications, which is listed in the regulatory impact assessment as the kind of provider that would be affected, and distributive providers, such as Thus, which has customers all over the country. It is a very distributive network, because it is not obvious that they are concentrated in one region. There is a strong presence in Scotland but, increasingly, there is a presence in many other areas.

All those companies work on tight margins and all of them are naturally worried that they will be brought into a framework in which they will have to answer for the local plans to many different bodies. The regulatory impact assessment says that, to fulfil its requirements,

''each business in Category 2 will in practice need at very most 5 days a year of the time of a senior manager and ten days of a professional at a more junior level.''

It goes on to explain in detail why it thinks the impact will be negligible. It also says that the burden on utilities represented in many different areas must be multiplied by the number of areas in which they must respond. Telecoms providers are worried that the measure could become a burden.

The regional utilities, on the other hand, will be hauled in by everybody. If a key installation is a customer of one of the smaller telecoms providers in a certain area, it might be legitimate under the Bill for the local authority to call in that telecoms provider. However, the provider might have only that one customer and no other significant presence in the area, so the cost to the business in those circumstances clearly will be disproportionate to the value of its business there. Those are valid concerns to which the Government must respond.

The other area of confusion relates to the overlap between the provisions in the Bill and the other regulatory requirements imposed on businesses. Telecoms businesses in particular have requirements to Ofcom to provide a certain level of business continuity and they clearly have requirements to provide business continuity. There is a genuine fear that they will have to go beyond simply demonstrating how they would offer a telecoms service to important local providers in an emergency. They will have to justify how they will keep their network running in all circumstances. They need to do that for their shareholders and for Ofcom, but they should not have to do it for every local authority. The fear is the extent to which that line could be blurred by the wording of the Bill. The amendment is an important test of that.

In his opening comments on the programme motion the hon. Member for Ribble Valley referred to the other side of the electronic communications network. I was tempted to dive in then, but you quite correctly

steered me away, Sir John. I thought that, fortunately, we could come back to electronic communications networks at this point. On a point of accuracy, the hon. Gentleman said that central networks could be hacked into quite easily by people walking in with laptops. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that that is not the case. The Government spend a great deal of money on a Government-secure network, and the whole point of that network and its cost is that it cannot easily be hacked into. Plenty of other systems can be, but I hope that the Government's cannot.

I hope that we do not go away from the Committee with the idea that Government networks such as NHS networks and so on can be brought down so easily. However, the point is valid in the context of the Bill; there is a risk that a local authority will rightly have to assess where essential networks are in place. Whether it is the authority's own network or another government network, the authority will have to assess how resilient the network is.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 10:45 am, 27th January 2004

The hon. Gentleman has just referred to local authorities. I assume that they have been written to or advised about the matter. Does he agree that they should check the integrity of their networks to ensure that no one can get in? Part of the problem is that the ingenuity of hackers is amazing. There are people who set out with the intent to cause disruption and have no other reason for doing what they do. They seem to get some joy out of that. We have to ensure that every local authority or local network takes precautions against such people.

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)

The hon. Gentleman is correct. In a sense, he makes the point about the amendment that I wish to make. As regards the responsibility of the local authority for emergency planning, the focus should be on its own networks and what it can control; its own resilience. It should not be seeking to gain information on, or get involved with, the resilience of the entire BT network. The amendment makes that distinction and would limit the scope of the clause to those matters that the local authority can control. The current wording could be interpreted as going far wider than that. The disruption of an electronic system of communications seems to be much greater than that local scope.

My final point on the subject concerns the business impact, which is significant. We all know of cases where local providers have gone down for economic and other reasons and people's telecommunications systems have been disrupted. The obvious response to that is to transfer them to another telecommunications provider that is represented locally. The complexity of the networks means that businesses could be frequently transferred. However, that would obviously have an impact on the businesses if there were a forced migration rather than a normal, voluntary competitive tendering process in which people moved from one provider to the other.

Under such circumstances, we would be asking people who were normally cut-throat competitors to work together in a co-operative manner. We must be sensitive to that and understand that the local

planning of a local authority is essentially asking, ''If this provider goes down, who else can pick up their customers?'' That is clearly a difficult issue for businesses to discuss. I hope that we are not going to break up the partnerships that already exist. I understand that most of the resilience planning that is done already is largely voluntary on the part of companies such as BT, which has always been committed to it. I hope that the Minister will confirm that sensitivity will be shown to those business considerations.

Amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 12 on fire, transport and health, are sensible ones that test the scope of the clause. There are concerns about the involvement of utilities, but we are not testing that under this group of amendments. That subject will have to wait until the stand part debate.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

Amendment No. 12 relates to clause 1(2), which reads:

''an event or situation threatens serious damage to human welfare only if it involves, causes or may cause''— in the case of paragraph (h)—

''disruption of services relating to health.''

The amendment would change that to

''disruption of services and impediment of persons concerned with preservation of health.''

The amendment is a simple, probing one, and has already been covered in part by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). I hope that the Minister will allow us to tease out the meaning of the provision.

The amendment is designed to deal with what would happen in the event of destruction of hospitals or the blocking of ambulances, doctors, nurses or other health staff trying to get to hospitals. That would clearly constitute a threat to human life and consequently national security. Similarly, anything that prevents a doctor or nurse doing their job constitutes a threat to human welfare. I wish to probe the Minister on why there is so little definition in the Bill. We seek to introduce further definition to clarify the matter.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I, too, want to do a little probing. Amendment No. 8 would leave out ''money'' from subsection (2)(e). I should like the Minister to explain how he thinks local authorities can help in that area, and the sort of disruption that he envisages in that regard.

Food is mentioned afterwards. I can understand that, particularly in the light of the severe weather warning that has just been given. Food cannot get through to a town if it has been cut off. I remember—I think it was in the 1980s—when there were incredible problems getting bread to our shop in Swansea. The Army was called in to clear the roads because we needed to get food into certain areas. I could not get to a cash-and-carry for about three days, and most of the food that we had in the shop disappeared after one day because people started hoarding. That is what people naturally do. If they need to, they will do it.

In a similar situation, some people might have only £20 in the house. That might disappear on day one, and those people do not have a credit card; if they do,

it is full. They would have nothing to buy goods with. Is that the sort of eventuality that the Minister is thinking of? Perhaps there is one hole in the wall in a village, and that money disappears after one day, too, because people start to say, ''Quick, nip down to the hole in the wall and get as much money out as you can, because we may just need it.'' Cheques may not be accepted. There could be a cash society in certain shops, or the one local shop. Is that the sort of thing that the Minister is thinking about? I can understand that it could be a problem if people ran out of money in a city, town or village because of severe weather; if they were snowed in for 10 days, for example. That would be a real emergency that would need to be dealt with locally. It would be right to include that in part 1.

I hope that we have made progress on electronics and on amendment No. 9. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam that in cases involving hospitals—or the fire brigade and other emergency services that rely on communications—it is vital that the integrity of their communications remains intact; otherwise they cannot deal with any other emergencies that may occur. There would be a real threat to the welfare of human beings if communications in the ambulance service or the fire brigade fell. There could be severe loss of life, so that needs to be dealt with.

However, I cannot for the life of me see how a local authority could help on the generality of things. If a BT exchange went down, for whatever reason, there would be a real problem. What precautions would be taken to ensure that, in the event of a BT exchange going down and the local fire brigade headquarters being affected, there would be a secondary line of defence so that the fire brigade could carry on with its local business? That is important.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend. Does he feel that exactly the same points apply to satellite communications? Clearly in these circumstances, satellites will be crucial when it is likely that blue light and military services are to be brought in.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I have been trying to work out how I could bring satellites into the discussion. We have been talking about the United Kingdom and its environment but, in talking about communications, I assume that satellites will also be important. I assume that it is not beyond the wit of terrorists to target some of the low-level satellites. Alternatively, let us say that a major satellite goes down because it is hit by some debris from space. That would have an impact on communications. Will the Minister say what would happen in that regard? What would happen if the communications satellite used by the police, the fire brigade or the ambulance service—any of the blue light services—were affected?

Amendment No. 10 relates to fire. I flew over Los Angeles at the time of the outbreaks of fire, of which there were four in and around the Los Angeles area. The outbreaks were in specific and different parts and

were attacking the city from all over. As I remember, the Governor declared a state of emergency because of the problems they were facing.

Those fires were severe, huge and life threatening. The Minister will be aware that, in such cases, some people do not want to move from their homes; they somehow have an idea that their homes will be safe. As we saw so sadly in Los Angeles and in Australia, people can lose their homes and everything in them because of fire. It is absolutely ruthless when it takes a grip. I wonder whether it would not be better to have something relating specifically to fire, particularly as it is no respecter of borders, of towns, cities or villages. It is no respecter of the environment or of forests; indeed, it lives off these and then starts to threaten local communities. I can only imagine that, at some stage, it will be essential for support to be given not just in one area, but in a number of areas to fire brigades.

We have been fortunate that the fires that have broken out in this country have not been so bad, perhaps because of our weather conditions. However, we had a very hot summer last year, and if, with global warming, we were to have a couple of similar summers, fire could become a huge threat to the welfare of human beings.

I should like to test the Minister to see if he believes that a specific reference to fire is unnecessary because of everything contained in subsection (2), paragraphs (a) to (h); if he believes that this is a cover-all and that every one of those eventualities—including homelessness, damage to property, transport and health and human life—is covered, so that nothing specific is needed. If so, I seek an assurance that the fire brigades in every area are to be given sufficient training, advice and guidance to ensure that this is kept at the front of their minds and that they will take sufficient precautions so that if fire broke out in a number of areas in a part of the United Kingdom, they would be able to cope.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Cabinet Office) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 11:00 am, 27th January 2004

We have had a wide-ranging discussion on the amendments and I shall endeavour to answer the range of points that have been put to me. Before I deal with each amendment, I should like to make a couple of points by way of context. First, on a number of occasions in this debate the suggestion has arisen that the amendments relate only to local authorities and to local government. It is of course the case that local authorities are not the only local responders to which these remarks are directed. Duties also apply to the police and to other emergency services, and therefore the element of the definition will apply to different organisations in different ways.

Let me begin by addressing the point in relation to electronic networks raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam. With the forbearance of the Committee, I will read out a section of the Government's response to the Joint Committee on exactly the question raised, because I think it is closely linked with some broader points on some of the amendments that were covered. It states:

''Category 1 responders will have a duty to plan in relation to emergencies that are connected with the operation of the utilities, for example, plan for drought or for major loss of water, and possibly for major loss of electricity or telephone supply. However, the duty on Category 1 responders to maintain plans in relation to these emergencies will not duplicate or cut across the duties imposed on utilities as part of their regulatory or licensing regimes. The duty imposed by the Bill to maintain plans in relation to emergencies is not a duty to maintain plans to direct or manage each and every emergency. It is highly improbable that a Category 1 responder would plan to direct the details of a telecommunications recovery, for example. The duty to maintain plans under the Bill is linked to the exercise by the Category 1 responder of its functions. So the plan must ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, that if an emergency occurs the responder is able to continue to perform its functions or to ensure that the responder can perform its functions so far as necessary or desirable for the purpose of responding to the emergency. The functions of Category 1 responders do not include the operation and maintenance of the utilities, but they do have functions which may be engaged by a utility based emergency such as duties towards school pupils and elderly or disabled residents or nursing mothers and hospital patients and to ensure that streets remain open and traffic moving or traffic lights and street lights or fire alarm warning systems are in order. Thus while Category 1 responders and the utilities may be planning in relation to the same event, the content of the plans will be very different.''

I hope that addresses the point that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam made.

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

BT make the point that it would be expert at getting its system back up again if there were a disaster. It is just wondering what input the local authority or any other responders might have. The planning has to be BT's. Is there some other point that the Minister would like to explain?

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

I thought that the distinction was clear from the Government's response to the Joint Committee. For example, if BT engineers needed to access a specific exchange with the assistance of the police, the provision would be an eminently sensible precaution, standing outwith the direct responsibilities of BT, but reflecting the fact that different responders within the category have different roles in the contingency that they are dealing with.

I hope that BT would deem that my assurance, based on the Government's response to the Joint Committee, makes it sufficiently clear that we do not anticipate local authorities tinkering, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam described it, or re-engineering BT exchanges; rather, a collaborative approach would ensure that BT engineers and their expertise could be brought to bear on the particular contingency that might arise.

The effect of amendment No. 7 would be to provide that there must be ''severe'' damage to property before an event or situation can be treated as threatening human welfare. Subsection (2)(d) requires only ''damage to property'', and I agree with hon. Members that for damage to property to constitute an emergency, it ought to be of a certain scale. However, the Bill already provides for that qualification. To meet the definition of serious in subsection (1), the threat to human welfare must be ''serious''. The Bill already requires there to be serious damage to property. It is an important point to probe but the Bill already provides the assurance.

In amendments Nos. 8 and 40, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire proposed that

''the disruption of the supply of money'' should not be treated as a threat to human welfare. Hon. Members engaged in an interesting discussion, but the starting point for any discussion must see us agree that money is fundamental to human welfare in modern society. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley made the case powerfully: a disruption to the supply of money could undermine mechanisms of production, distribution and exchange with serious implications.

I echo the sentiments expressed in the Government's response to the Joint Committee from which I have just quoted. It explained the circumstances in which other responders could potentially work alongside the Government and banks to ensure that the money supply is re-established. I am cautious of being drawn into a discussion about the merits of broad money or narrow money when defining the money supply, and I am sure that many responders would be happy to avoid it too.

If there were a disruption of the money supply, national efforts to restore the supply would involve effective co-operation with national authorities by other local responders. Equally, where local authorities have direct responsibility for specific individuals, circumstances might arise in which it would be necessary to extend credit for the provision of council services in the absence of money. Of course, were there disruption to the supply of money nationally or locally, it would be a matter not only of direct interest to the Bank of England, the Treasury and the Government, but to the nation. It is therefore appropriate to place disruption to the supply of money locally within the definition of emergency in part 1, recognising that the nature of responsibility placed on local responders would differ from that placed on national authorities.

In amendment No. 10, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire proposed adding

''spread of fire leading to circumstances damaging to human welfare'' as a threat to human welfare. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley made clear, preparation for fire is very important. Subsections (2)(a) and (2)(b) adequately cover that threat, however. Fire would threaten human welfare because it may cause loss of human life or damage to property. No other provision in subsection (2) states a threat to human welfare; therefore to include a specific reference to fire would be somewhat awkward given that no other sources of potential disaster are mentioned.

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

Of course human welfare is critical, but the scope of clause 1 is a little wider than that and refers also to damage to the environment. Would the hon. Gentleman explain how fire would be dealt with in that context?

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

Well, clearly there could be circumstances in which the environment of the United Kingdom was affected by a catastrophic fire. Given the weather that we are—or are not—enjoying at the

moment, it seems rather unlikely, but I would not preclude the possibility that fire could fall into the category of subsection 1(b) in terms of

''the environment of a place in the United Kingdom''.

The substantive point stands, which is that given an absence of other sources of disaster mentioned in the Bill, it would adequately be covered, as I suggested, in terms of a threat to human welfare, a loss of human life or damage to property and, potentially, the environment, as the hon. Gentleman made clear.

Amendment No. 11 would make it clear that disruption to certain forms of transport, mainly air, rail, road and sea, are covered by clause 1(2)(g). I am not clear that that would add anything specifically to the definition and it could, in fact, muddy the waters. Does it mean, for example, that disruption to travel by river is not covered? The nature of the preparation required will clearly depend on the circumstances for each responder.

I remind the Committee at this juncture of the function of clause 2(2). The test will be, therefore, whether the disruption to the road is serious enough to obstruct the responder in the performance of its functions, or require additional resources to enable the responder to deal with it? Conscious of that functional trigger, it is more obvious why the definition alighted on by the Government is the more appropriate, rather than seeking to discuss the merits of specific or narrow roads.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for explaining that point. So, disruption of facilities for transport could, on a local basis, include events such as a strike on the tubes and buses in London at the same time? Would power reside somewhere—I am still unclear as to where—to ensure that people were still able to get to work, able to travel to hospitals and so on?

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

As I have tried to make clear to the Committee, the circumstances in which there would be disruption to transport would vary from community to community and we would need to be cognisant of what mode of transport is most effective and popular in each locality. If there was significant disruption to all public transport in London—road, above-ground rail and the tube—those would clearly be circumstances that local authorities and other responders would have to have regard to given the demands of a major city.

That would not be prescriptive for other communities, but would depend on circumstances. It may be that roads are vital, be they the narrow roads of Shetland or the major roads of spaghetti junction outside Birmingham. I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. It will clearly be specific to the locality and that is what we aimed to reflect with the use of the word ''transport''.

Amendment No. 12, which we covered latterly, seeks to clarify the definition by ensuring that the disruption of activities of health protection workers be considered a threat to human welfare. I certainly agree

with the thrust of the amendment, but it does not seem to add much to the drafting. Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the Government's thinking in relation to the draft. We sought advice and discussed with the Department of Health the appropriate wording to capture the spirit of the point that has been raised. It is a broad meaning and will encompass the range of services provided in the NHS, stating

''disruption of services relating to health.''

Discussions with the Department of Health reflected the fact that the Government considered that reference to medical services might be construed too narrowly and there might therefore be some doubt as to the range of services covered by the health service community. I would certainly not preclude the point that the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) raised about health service workers; indeed I am confident that that will be captured in the wording. There will be circumstances where, if there was significant disruption to health workers, that would pose a threat, as described in the Bill.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

If that is the case, I wonder whether the Minister would agree that that ought, perhaps, to be spelt out. Capturing the spirit is all very well, but with the amendment that we have tabled, there is no room for doubt. That would be helpful, useful and add clarity.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Cabinet Office) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 11:15 am, 27th January 2004

Tempting though the hon. Gentleman's offer is, given the need for brevity in statute and the assurance that I have just put on the record, I feel that the matter is adequately covered. However, if we were to take what might appear to be an inviting path in relation to health workers, we would have to specify the range of health services covered on other points. I hope that members of the Committee will judge adequate my assurance that health workers will comfortably fall within the definition of disruption of service relating to health.

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

The Minister began his response with amendment No. 9 and whether the disruption of an electronic system should be included in subsection (2)(f). Clearly British Telecom and the Law Society have concerns about that. The Minister says that the Government are not thinking of sending in council workmen to back up BT in doing work on its systems, and I imagine that BT would be grateful for that reassurance. Even so, BT says that it undertakes planning to ensure that it can get its systems back up and running as soon as possible. What is the role of the council or the police in that? Although the example that the Minister gave in his explanation was that it might be necessary to clear the roads to get to the BT installation, we are not totally satisfied with that and shall want to return to the subject at a later stage, but I shall not press the amendment to a vote today.

Amendment No. 7, the lead amendment, deals with the nature of the damage to property needed to ground an element of serious damage to human welfare. If the Minister is right that only where there was major property damage would serious damage to human

welfare arise, I can see his point, but will he accept that there may be situations where relatively minor property damage causes serious damage to human welfare? Does he want to cover those situations too? If he does, the Bill allows him to do that. However, if what he said is right, why does he not agree to our amendment, which simply says that serious damage to human welfare would occur only where there was severe damage to property? As I have said, I am prepared to treat it as a probing amendment and perhaps return to it at a later stage.

I am still not satisfied about the money supply.

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

I am grateful for the wider support of the Committee. I blame the Government, but it does not look as if the hon. Gentleman would go quite that far, particularly today.

We have had a good debate on the amendments, which have raised important issues, and we shall think seriously about the Minister's reply. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in

clause 1, page 2, line 2, after 'biological', insert 'noxious'.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 14, in

clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end insert

(iii) any controlled combustible substance'.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring into play these two, I hope fairly simple, amendments, which I hope the Minister will agree clarify the intention of the Bill.

Subsection (3) says:

''For the purposes of subsection (1)(a) an event or situation threatens damage to the environment only if it involves, causes or may cause—

(a) contamination of land, water or air with—

(i) harmful biological, chemical or radio-active matter, or

(ii) oil''.

Amendment No. 13 would insert the word ''noxious'' in sub-paragraph (i) so that it reads ''harmful biological, noxious, chemical or radio-active matter''. Amendment No. 14 would add, after ''oil'', a new sub-paragraph,

''(iii) or any uncontrolled combustible substance''.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. The hon. Gentleman said ''uncontrolled''. In the amendment it says ''controlled''. Which did he mean?

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

I beg your pardon, Sir John, it should be ''controlled''. To continue, the point of these amendments is that the contamination of the environment, as it is specified here, speaks clearly of the sort of natural disaster that we may have expected in the past, for instance the foot and mouth problems,

oil spills off the coast, or perhaps, if we look to other areas, forest fires—particularly in the way that Australia and parts of south-east Asia have had their environment damaged by smoke and other forms of contamination.

I would like to address particularly amendment No. 13 by pointing out the need to underline the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threat and its precise effects on the environment. That is the point of the amendment.

The Minister and I have already jousted over Project Unicorn, and I would like to quote from that report. It states:

''To the public at large the CBRM threat is undoubtedly the most frightening aspect of the new terrorism; it is also the one that the Government say least about. It is little surprise, therefore, that the media fills the vacuum and the public assume the worst.''

Thus the point of introducing the word ''noxious'' after the word ''biological'' and before the word ''chemical''. It is an attempt to underline the fact that this is an extraordinarily dangerous matter, which, mercifully, we have not had the chance to experience in the past, but which may, in the form of the new terrorism, be something that happens in the future.

Moving on to amendment No. 14, it is probably clear that the talk about an oil spill is well understood. I believe that it is equally clear that combustible substances, either controlled or uncontrolled, may be equally dangerous. For instance, large-scale oil spills, large-scale petrol spills, or indeed the use, of a highly inflammable substance, either as a terrorist weapon or as a spoiling device—perhaps by animal rights or other movements—which would threaten the environment as well as the welfare of anyone who became involved. These two amendments seek focus on to two particular parts of the Bill that I believe are currently imprecise.

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)

I have a particular interest in the issue of oil pollution. I mentioned it earlier with regard to offshore pollution, but in fact, one of the problems we will encounter in the coming years is that at least 35 per cent. of all underground fuel tanks will start leaking. In London alone there can be up to 80 individual incidents in one year, so it is potentially a serious problem.

While I am pleased that the phrase has been brought up, I do share the concern of the hon. Gentleman about ''other combustible substances''. Oil covers all oil derivatives, but there are other combustible substances openly available that do not necessarily derive from oil. So it is a sensible amendment and I wonder if the Minister would address that in due course. It is a very important issue—we will undoubtedly face much disruption in the coming months and years. This is something that I welcome in the Bill, but I would also welcome further consideration of the amendment, particularly ''other combustible substances''.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

Butterfill, Sir John (

Chairman

Alexander, Mr.

Allan, Mr.

Campbell, Mr.

Carmichael, Mr.

Dowd, Jim

Evans, Mr.

Heald, Mr.

Lazarowicz, Mr.

Llwyd, Mr.

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mercer, Patrick

Osborne, Sandra

Pope, Mr.

Pound, Mr.

Prentice, Ms

Quinn, Lawrie

Turner, Mr.