Civil Contingencies Bill

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

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[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 13, in

clause 1, page 2, line 2, after 'biological', insert 'noxious'.—[Mr. Mercer.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle 2:30 pm, 27th January 2004

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 14, in

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

'or

(iii) any controlled combustible substance'.

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)

As I was saying, we should consider oil, but other things should be included. That is why this is a rather good amendment: ''any controlled combustible substance'' would cover any accelerants, paints, gases and so on that are used in industrial processes. The amendment is a useful add-on to the clause because ''oil'' by itself does not convey what should be conveyed, and other materials would be covered by those additional four words. I fully support the amendment and hope that the Minister will respond in a like manner because it will improve this part of the Bill.

Photo of John Horam John Horam Conservative, Orpington

I, too, support the amendment, which widens the words used, because we are considering legislation that we hope will last for a long time. The original legislation, which this legislation would repeal, was enacted in 1922 or 1948. It will be a long time before we have to legislate in this area again. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the word ''oil'' does not convey what may happen in that time to what is stored at ordinary, everyday petrol stations. Liquefied petroleum gas, for example, is often stored at a certain number of petrol stations—although not enough—and hydrogen is an extremely combustible material, which will be stored when we get to the hydrogen-powered-car age. Other elements of that sort will develop in the next 10 or 20 years. It would be wise if the legislation spelled that out: the word ''oil'' on its own is a narrow word to cover what could be many different combustible materials.

One aspect of the legislation that troubled hon. Members who spoke on Second Reading, which arises with this amendment, is who is responsible for overall co-ordination in this area. If, for example, an incident at a local petrol station involved petrol seeping into groundwater, I know from my constituency experience that groundwater problems lead to immediate questions about who is responsible. Is it the water utility, the Environment Agency, or the local authority? Who takes the lead? As you, Mr. Benton,

may know, the flooding in 2000 had consequences in my constituency, resulting in residents having to bear some of the costs of drainage systems that were installed in flooded basements. There were then arguments between leaseholders and the freeholders.

Frankly, the question of who takes the lead, and who pays for damage that may be done as a consequence of unforeseen acts that affect groundwater, goes on for ever. There is a good case for extending the words used here. I am not sure what has been said about this and perhaps I am ignorant in this area, but there is also a good case for addressing who takes the lead in the inescapable co-ordinating functions.

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

I shall endeavour to answer the points that have been made. With regard to the amendments, I have considered them in recent days, and the wording has intrigued me, particularly the inclusion of the word ''noxious''. I shall, in the spirit suggested by the hon. Gentleman, try to answer the two specific points on the amendments.

Clause 1(3) sets out a clear and exhaustive list of the sort of events that may constitute a threat of serious damage. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) suggests adding ''noxious'' and ''controlled combustible substance'' to the list. To my mind, it is difficult to envisage a threat of serious damage to the environment that would not be covered under the Bill, as drafted. Ultimately, I shall urge him to withdraw the amendment in the light of that.

Let us consider noxious substances. It would be helpful, if during our discussions, members of the Committee could give an example of a noxious substance that would not be covered by subsection (3). Equally, comments have been made about combustible substances posing a threat. However, in so far as they present a threat to human welfare, they are covered by subsection (2), and their threat to the environment will either be captured by the chemicals that they contain or the impact that they have on plant or animal life and will therefore be covered by the Bill. I hope that I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's specific point.

This morning, there was some discussion on the Department's principles and the interaction between local responders and the role of central Government. I am sure that we shall have the opportunity to cover such matters during our debate.

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

A particular concern was that, if the substance was gaseous, whether the term ''chemical'', which might imply a liquid, would apply to it. Our worry was that the Bill covers not only land, but the soil below it and the air above.

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

I can offer the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks. It is my clear understanding that

''harmful biological, chemical or radio-active matter''

would capture the gas that he describes, given its chemical constituents.

Photo of John Horam John Horam Conservative, Orpington

Will the Minister amplify his objections to incorporating the words ''uncontrollable substance'' Hydrogen would not be caught under the present wording.

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

It is a pretty fundamental principle of statutory construction to achieve brevity and clarity in the same clause. If it were the case that the present statutory wording captures the specific example that I offered the Committee, it is beholden on those who tabled the amendment to offer a clear rationale about why it is necessary. I have given the Committee what assurance I can that, under the present wording of the Bill, the particular example about which concerns have been raised would be covered.

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

The Minister has been most helpful. I do not want to press the amendment to a Division. We have had a useful debate.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I beg to move amendment No. 15, in

clause 1, page 2, line 9, after 'terrorism', insert

'or a direct threat of terrorism'.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 16, in

clause 1, page 2, line 10, at end insert—

'(c) serious crime leading to circumstances damaging to human welfare as defined in subsection (2)'.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Yet again, we want to probe the Minister about why the Bill cannot be more effective and precise in its wording to ensure not only that we prepare for terrorism, but for the direct threat of terrorism. Clearly, when an act of terrorism has occurred, the legislation will come into effect immediately. There will be no problems with that. Our worry is why we have to wait until there is a terrorist attack before we start to act. Indeed, the threat of an act of terrorism would ensure that the state of emergency could be called straightaway. If sufficient intelligence was in place and there was an immediate threat of terrorism, there is no reason why the blue-light services and several other agencies could not start to put into operation exactly what they need to do to ensure that the public will be protected and their health and welfare guarded. Will the Minister explain why we must wait for a terrorist act before beginning to ensure that the right action is taken?

Amendment No. 16 would insert into clause 1(4) the following threat to security:

''serious crime leading to circumstances damaging to human welfare as defined in subsection (2).''

Some people may think that there is often a fine line between terrorism and crime. The point was mentioned this morning in the context of hacking. I am mystified as to why people do it; they may be motivated by the challenge rather than earning money. Hackers do not say that unless they are paid £1 million or £10 million, they will hack into a system.

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)

To assist the hon. Gentleman with terminology, those

types of people are known as crackers rather than hackers. Hackers are generally good people whereas crackers are wicked people. Hackers get upset if they are confused with crackers.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for ensuring that I did not, through politically incorrect use of language, upset either group. To be honest, I do not mind upsetting both groups because hacking involves violating someone's system for any reason. Somehow they take joy from penetrating someone's system, perhaps to steal information, but it is a crime.

I assume that ''cracking'', which is new terminology for me, is an attempt to degrade or violate someone's system so that it is inoperable. That is sometimes done by viruses or spamming with dangerous viruses, and I suspect that we have all been on the receiving end of that. That is not terrorism, but I suspect that attempting to violate someone's system to make it inoperable is a crime.

Just after lunch I looked again at the UK Resilience website—that is what I do during lunch—and I noticed that a new virus has come about. I applaud the Government for the fact that the information is on the website straightaway.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Yes, it is called Mydoom. They have named a virus after the hon. Gentleman's political life. It is a particularly virulent email virus. It is right that the public should be made aware as quickly as possible and should know exactly what to do. I clicked on the Mydoom section of the website to find out what it was about and what could be done, but it would not download for some reason. If there is a technical problem, I hope that those responsible repair it quickly. It is important that as much publicity as possible is given to the virus.

Some people wish to violate someone's system to crash it, bring it down, and have a go at the Yahoos, Hotmails and Microsofts of this world, simply because it is a challenge. If they feel that they have achieved something, they are living pathetic little lives. It is the equivalent of someone taking a sledgehammer to someone else's wall and thinking that they have achieved something. It is not their wall, but they have been able to bring down a wall and they see that as an achievement. Personally I do not see that. However, we know that there are people out there who, whether they communicate with each other or do it in splendid isolation, want to bring down someone's system. I do not believe that I know any such people.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that part of the problem is that 10 years ago the internet meant absolutely nothing to most people in this country and indeed the world. It was at an embryonic stage commercially for most people. Today, most people—and, I suspect, most MPs' offices—could not operate without the internet in one way, shape or form. I am talking not only about the PDVN network, which has its own safeguards against this sort of thing, but about computers that operate outside that network. The threat might not have meant very much 10 years ago,

and it might have been a lot less. However, everyone is now dependent on computers. That is the problem: that is why I want to extend this measure to cover crime as well as terrorism.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North 2:45 pm, 27th January 2004

Like the hon. Gentleman, I enjoy being educated about Liberal Democratic policy. Their new motto—''Know your crackers''—will feature if not on their leaflets, then possibly on ours.

As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making a lucid, fluid and lightning case. Will he explain how crackers or hackers might affect what we are discussing, which is civil contingencies for national emergencies? If, at worst, a hacker or cracker managed to destroy the electricity supply or the water system, that would be covered elsewhere. What is the national disaster on the scale that the Bill addresses that he genuinely feels that hackers or crackers may effect? With all due respect, the loss of e-mails from the Ribble valley is not a national disaster within the province of the Bill.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for leading me to broaden my point. A cracker might get into the commercial sector. We have talked about money and the problems that could be caused to the financial sector. On a much wider scale, businesses in general could be affected: food supplies might in part be affected, as might the running of commerce. If that were the case, we would face a real problem.

The hon. Gentleman is raising a relevant point: the word ''emergency'' is used in a general sense in the Bill. Since the draft Bill was produced, the Government have redefined it to try to ensure that it is not too broad, but because of the very essence of what we are talking about it has to be somewhat broad or else we would not be able to cover some of the eventualities that we cannot predict. That leads on to some of the international terrorism that has occurred: we all joined together to ensure that we can counter the terrorism that exists throughout the world and address every eventuality. I hope that we can address serious crime as well as terrorism.

I shall move away from e-commerce to food and, specifically, to medicines, which are outside the scope of the legislation. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is old enough to remember the problem that arose in the United States of America with the tampering with a medicine called Tylenol. That was done for financial reasons, so it was a crime rather than terrorism. Someone tampered with bottles of Tylenol and put them back on the shelves of chemists somewhere in the USA.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

It was carefully targeted.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Yes, it was carefully targeted. The aim was to extort money from pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies in return for saying where the tampered supplies were. That led to ways to prevent such a crime from happening being looked at. Tamper-proof tops was a direct result of that. Almost every product on supermarket shelves is now tamper proof. Customers are told that if a seal is broken they should take the product back to the store so that it can be properly checked.

If there were to be that sort of tampering, it could lead to an emergency. If there was a sufficient lack of confidence in the supplies in Boots or Superdrug or some other shop, that could result in people not buying those medicines. That is a problem that we need to tackle. It is not terrorism, although I think that a sufficient group of people would be terrorised by the thought of buying something that had been tampered with, particularly products that they were buying to make them well but that might cause an illness.

In the context of crime, perhaps the Minister could also consider the question of credit card fraud. There could be a breakdown in confidence in credit cards in the UK, because fraud had reached a level at which people stopped using their cards. I suspect that everyone in this Room has had a telephone call from their credit card company asking whether their card has been used in a place where they have not been, because money could have been taken from their account. That happened to me: the credit card company asked whether I had been in Switzerland that day, because someone had tried to use my card to withdraw £1,500, but I had been in Cardiff—[Interruption.] Absolutely right—Cardiff or Switzerland are interchangeable.

The credit card companies are hugely concerned by fraud; it costs billions of pounds. We and our constituents pay huge sums of extra interest on our credit cards to deal with the misuse of the cards. I know that chip technology is now being introduced to try to crack down on fraud. The chip number has to be put in before the transaction is processed. I applaud that—things have moved on a stage further. However, as the Minister will know, the people who get involved in these sorts of crimes are clever enough to work out the data on the back of the strip, and so it will not be beyond their wits to work out a system to crack the code on the chip. It will therefore not be long before we have to think of something more.

About 15 years ago, no one had credit cards: today, everyone has them. If the integrity of the credit card system was brought to a halt, can the Minister imagine what sort of effect that would have in the UK? It would have a huge impact. I hope that when the Minister is replying, he will examine the two aspects that I have mentioned. I hope also that the Government will widen the scope of the Bill, and accept our suggestion that the threat of terrorism should be considered, as well as terrorism itself. I also hope that they will examine crime, as well as terrorism, as an area that could lead to national or localised emergencies that could damage the integrity of the systems of the UK.

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)

In the spirit of what has just been said, will the Minister say whether the direct threat of terrorism is covered in the Bill? I could envisage an awful situation arising in which there was a telephone call from someone to an airport or a ferry port, and everything ground to a halt. Animals, drugs and people would be left in transit, and air ambulances would not be able to get to people who were sick. That is potentially a big problem, as it is not unknown for such things to happen. Will the Minister confirm that provision for such a scenario is covered in the Bill? It is

right that the amendment should have been tabled in order to elicit such a response.

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 look forward to participating, with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), in the reform of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which I believe that the Government have planned for this year, and which should cover a lot of the issues that he raised. He also made a good case for the Minister to accept an earlier amendment to remove electronic communication systems from the scope of the Bill, so that our debate could be truncated in that area.

I shall not go over that ground, because I wish to speak against both the amendments. The first amendment seems curious to me, given that the scope of the Bill or the plans being made from the outset are described as being in terms of things that threaten damage. I was therefore not entirely convinced by the argument for repeating the threat.

With regard to the second amendment, I am concerned that when we discuss plans that relate to a threat to the security of the UK we do not broaden the scope. We are keen to keep it narrow. There has been much contentious debate about the scope of anti-terrorism legislation and how we define terrorism. There has not always been cross-party agreement on legislation to do with terrorism, but it is more helpful to try to get a common definition and to continue to refer to that definition when we talk about events that are classified as a response to terrorism.

Clearly, there is an understanding that a response to terrorism often takes a different form from responses to other forms of criminal activity. I am therefore rather keen that we do not broaden the measure. I assume that any circumstances in which ordinary criminal activity—non-terrorist criminal activity—had a serious impact on human welfare would be covered by the threats to a human welfare situation. Liberal Democrat Members would prefer to see those circumstances covered in that bracket, rather than in the threat to security bracket, which we want to keep quite tight.

One query was raised in my mind; it involves the crossover with the planning for anti-crime action in a local area. Crime and disorder plans have been put in place at local level. Clearly, some of the same resources, particularly as regards the blue-light services, will be used to deal with ordinary criminal activity, however serious. One can see that there are circumstances in which ordinary criminal activity, such as the activity that was the subject of the recent north London drugs bust, requires dozens and dozens of armed officers to be out on the streets to deal with dozens and dozens of potentially armed criminals. There is considerable overstretch in that respect, and there must be some meshing between planning for that type of emergency and planning for ordinary crime and disorder purposes. That, rather than broadening the scope of the measure, is the part that interests me.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

On the point about the electronic side, the hon. Gentleman said that another Bill is coming and perhaps this issue should have been taken out of

this Bill and we should have tidied things up in one Bill. Is he aware that, on the UK resilience website, one link leads to advice on protection against electronic attack, which is also under the headline of terrorism? It tells businesses what to do, which includes checking that protective security measures are properly implemented and up to date. Anti-virus software should be updated regularly, and patches should be applied to eliminate known vulnerabilities. There are a number of areas in which businesses are told what they should do, and I assume that that type of advice is given to local authorities and other blue-light security areas to ensure that their systems are protected.

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)

That is very helpful. Should I fail to drop off to sleep immediately tonight, I shall surf over to the UK resilience website and update myself.

The first stage of the strategy, which is ''Give a gong to the boss of Microsoft'', has clearly failed, because we are still getting viruses. I thought that they would stop immediately that occurred. Perhaps with the knighthood, viruses, spam and whatever will eventually go. I am interested to hear that the material described is still being pumped out.

In the context of the clause, we want to keep a tight definition: war or armed conflict, and terrorism. A tight definition is the most helpful one, but that does not prevent us from having further argument about how we should define terrorism.

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

I am yet again in the rather worrying position of having some sympathy with the points raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), although I am reassured by the fact that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) on deferring to the hon. Gentleman's expertise on who is crackers and who is not, given his long experience in the Liberal Democrats.

In respect of the substantive points, we are discussing two amendments. Clause 1(4) sets out a clear and exhaustive list of the type of events that may constitute a threat of serious damage to security. It is clearly important that we strike the balance that has been either implicit or explicit in the contributions that we have heard. I welcome the probing amendments to that effect, but the approach that the Government have taken holds good, for reasons that I shall come on to.

Amendment No. 15 would mean that

''a direct threat of terrorism''

was treated as a threat to security, in addition to terrorism as it is generally defined. However, the definition of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2000 includes a threat of action as well as the act itself. It may assist hon. Members if I remind them that that Act defines terrorism as

''the use or threat of action''

that

''involves serious violence against a person . . . involves serious damage to property . . . . endangers a person's life . . . creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public . . . or . . . is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.''

In addition, the use or threat of action must be designed

''to influence the government or to intimidate the public''

and be

''for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.''

The points that have been made about whether threat is implicit are captured by the Terrorism Act 2000. I trust that the amendment will be judged unnecessary on that basis.

Amendment No. 16 would make certain serious crimes a threat to security. Crime is obviously an important threat, but the threats of crime to human life and property are already included in the definition of emergency as threats to human welfare. For illustrative purposes, I remind hon. Members again that the Bill is not intended to deal specifically with crime. Many other arrangements already exist to deal with the consequences of crime, although that is not to say that crime cannot lead to emergencies. However, the Bill already covers crimes that are relevant, such as terrorism. To trigger the duties under the Bill, an incident would need to be on a sufficient scale to stretch the capability of local responders to deal with it collectively, as set out in clause 2(2). An arson attack affecting one person or a fraud affecting only a small number of people could clearly be dealt with within existing arrangements. On that basis I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I thought that it was worth while probing in those areas to get the Minister to elucidate the points that he described in his response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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) 3:00 pm, 27th January 2004

We have covered most of the detail of the clause, and I shall not go over that ground again. However, subsection (2)(e) deals with disruption and, although we discussed money, we did not discuss energy or fuel, nor did any amendments touch on those issues. I have some points about energy suppliers and the utilities—category 2 responders—that echo the points made about telecommunications providers this morning. Given the complexity of the market, how does the Minister envisage the gas and electricity suppliers responding to their duties as set out in the clause? Some distribution companies are quite separate from the retail companies that are in contact with customers, and in the electricity market the situation is sometimes confused.

My understanding from the regulatory impact assessment is that, in the context of the clause, Transco is relevant for gas, and the regional distribution companies for electricity. However, that may not be obvious to the customer. During the recent Eastern Electricity disaster, for example, a lot of power was lost in the region that that company covered; Eastern Electricity was clearly responsible for the infrastructure, so the local authority had to deal with

the company, but the public may now perceive themselves to be customers of British Gas, London Energy, Scottish Hydro-Electric or other companies in the market. Can the Minister assure us that the ways in which public now interact with electricity and gas markets can be properly factored into local authority action to deal both with the public and with those who are responsible for infrastructure?

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

I hope that our debate on the clause can be brief in light of the fact that, as the hon. Gentleman observed, we have covered a number of points in detail this morning and so far this afternoon.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's point, I return to this morning's parallel discussion about British Telecom and the need to be clear about the responsibilities on local responders other than local authorities, which may include blue-light services. We must put in place the means to ensure the appropriate ground-level working relationships among those local responders—energy providers in the present case, and BT in the case discussed this morning. Rather than focus on who is facing the customer, it is important to have clarity about who is responsible for participating. We can assure customers that a number of the organisations that the hon. Gentleman mentioned operate under regulatory regimes for the energy sector that will endure. In this part of the Bill, our aim is to ensure that there is an appropriate working relationship between other responders in recognition of the fact that energy providers will have a key role in getting utilities back in place after the contingencies that the Bill anticipates.

I am aware that a significant amount of work was undertaken by Government, led by the Department of Trade and Industry, following the power outage that London suffered in August last year. Both ministerial and departmental work has been undertaken to ensure that we have the correct relationships with the energy sector and, in that case, with the electricity utilities. The challenge is not so much providing information to the public—a matter on which we shall touch this afternoon—as making sure that the sector is represented in discussions at local level, and that the companies' relationships with local authorities emergency services and others are appropriate.

The starting point of the Bill is the framework for planning and for responding to emergencies. That has been clearly and logically set out for the Committee. The purpose of clause 1 is to establish a clear definition for the purposes of part 1. Thanks to a number of probing amendments, we have managed to offer some useful clarification to members of the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.