Clause 3 - Section 2: supplemental

Civil Contingencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 27th January 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

We have not tabled any amendments to this clause, which is fairly short. It deals with a Minister of the Crown issuing guidance to a person or body listed in part 1 or 3 of schedule 1 about the matters specified in clause 2(3) and (5), the same applying in Scotland. However, I wish to press the Minister a little further on guidance. Exactly when will the general guidance become available, so that proper evaluations as to the cost and the likelihood can be made? I heard what he said earlier about the grand settlement for next year not yet being made, and this will not come into force until then. Today, we are giving best guidance. We are updating the Emergency Powers Act 1920, and various Acts that have come since. I assume that bodies are not waiting in splendid isolation before they start to update their plans, but are actually doing so. I am sure that the Minister is approaching the bodies mentioned in the Bill and that they are making representations to him. I hope he can give us some assurance that they have already begun to ensure that the plans they have in place are up to date in connection with every eventuality.

I am also seeking information as to when this guidance will come about. We have praised UK Resilience to the hilt and the Minister could, under clause 3(1) regarding issuing guidance, ensure that bodies mention that website somewhere in the literature they put out to members of the public. I found the website useful, but had it not been for the Bill's supplementary guidance notes, I would never have heard of it. We should encourage members of the public to visit the website now, as it is pointless to do so once an emergency happens, then nip down to the shop to get candles and all the other things needed, because there will be pressure on those items. Once it is rumoured that there will be a shortage of something, members of the public will go out and buy it, creating a shortage. Any manufacturer who has a stockpile of something should let it be known that there will be a shortage, and it will soon get rid of the excess.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

There speaks a shopkeeper.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I have certainly never done that.

The clause requires the Minister of the Crown and Scottish Ministers to issue guidance, so many people will receive orders and guidance well before the Bill comes into force. There may be issues in the preparation of the plans that the bodies will want to make sure are up to date. They will need equipment that they may not currently have to deal with chemical outbreaks, dirty bombs or a plane crashing into a building in some part of the United Kingdom—all the awful eventualities that we can possibly think of, including terrorist bombs. Local authorities may then have to say, ''Actually, we do need this extra bit of kit''. It will cost money; some of it may be expensive. The Minister may be au fait with the sort of equipment that I am talking about, but there will certainly be resource implications.

Some things that I have read in the newspapers recently about the lack of kit with which our soldiers went to war in Iraq worry me. We were told that they would get kit, but it is clear from the stories direct from the front that kit was not getting through, for whatever reason. I hope that the Minister can assure me that it will not be because of a shortage of money that the responders do not get information and that they will not be kept short of the resources necessary to obtain equipment.

The Minister of the Crown will also be able under subsections (1) and (2), through guidance no doubt, to direct bodies as to what they need to do. As we have said, a number of bodies will be involved, not only organisations such as BT. The Minister said, ''It should cost only a minimal amount of money. What are they worried about?'' However, if the mobile telephone network is down, the Government may direct companies to put landlines into parts of the country where they have been destroyed, get the network up and running or hire another satellite. I can only imagine that the costs of hiring a satellite at emergency rates are astronomic. At some time, the company will have to make the money back. Has that been taken on board? If BT had to spend hundreds, thousands or millions of pounds on hiring satellites—[Interruption.] We had the same fire alarm announcement this morning, Mr. Benton. It is just testing the Committee to see how we will react in the event of an emergency. As we can see, the members of the public know what to do.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

I suggest that we keep going for the time being.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

It is apposite that our debate should take place while alarms are going on. I only trust that there is not an emergency. We know that the staff have been trained to come in and give us guidance. The possibility that we will carry on with the debate while the rest of the building empties fills me with dread, but I assume that somebody will let us know if that is the case. If there were a failure now and the chap's voice disappeared, we would not know, so I assume that training has been done to ensure that someone will come in to let us know that there is a problem.

As the bodies go through their plans, they may write to the Minister, and I would encourage them to do so, and to ask him to look into the equipment that they will need and its cost. If firms in the private sector, such as BT, have to hire emergency satellite links costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, they should be comfortable in the knowledge that the costs will be picked up somewhere, and they will want to know where.

The guidance that the Minister will give the various bodies and authorities may say that—[Interruption.]

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle 5:11 pm, 27th January 2004

I shall suspend the Committee until the fire alarm has been investigated.

Committee suspended.

On resuming—

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 5:13 pm, 27th January 2004

Thank you for your protection, Mr. Benton. I have to say that even I could not understand some of the things that I was saying. I was waiting for the next ''Order''. I know that not understanding what I say is common to everybody else in the Room, but normally I can understand it.

I want to refer again to my previous point, before I go on to the next one. BT may have to hire some equipment or a satellite, which I imagine is hugely expensive, particularly at emergency rates. I remember the time when a transponder to transmit pictures cost £6 million a year, although I know the cost has come down a lot since then. I simply seek an assurance that if the Government say that mobile telephony must be made available in an emergency because landlines are down, and if BT has to hire a satellite at short notice at a cost that could run into millions, the company will be told how that cost will be met.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

There is a further problem. The Government have massive powers under the Bill, and if they were to order a public utility—a private company—to undertake an action that later turned out to have been unnecessary, one would assume that reimbursement of the costs would be automatic. My hon. Friend mentioned foot and mouth. On the two occasions on which I recall that disease occurring in the UK, the Government footed much of the bill. The Government cannot therefore avoid responsibility.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. I remember that during the foot and mouth epidemics farmers were directed to clean up a lot of the land and equipment around their farms to cut down on the spread of the disease. That was quite right, but the farmers bore the cost because they had to hire equipment and do various things that they otherwise would not have done. There was no cost on their time, because they were not farming, and money and resources were made available. As my hon. Friend rightly said, for that job to be done effectively, that money ran into billions.

The utilities might be required to do things that they otherwise would not do or to direct their people away from certain jobs into other jobs that might have a resource implication. A number of bodies—not just the commercial bodies, but other bodies that examine Government activity—have expressed such concerns. They want to a reassurance that the costs will be met.

The hospital trusts, the police, the ambulance service and the fire brigade are always brilliant in emergencies. They are great all the time, but in emergencies they may be asked to do things that they are not usually required to do. I assume that in an emergency, when hospital trusts would be working flat out, the working time directive, which will, I believe, be introduced for them later this year, would be suspended. If doctors were required to work 60, 70 or 80 hours in an emergency, would that legislation be applied?

Photo of Mrs Helen Jackson Mrs Helen Jackson Labour, Sheffield, Hillsborough

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has ever experienced a major event in his constituency. About 10 years ago, as hon. Members will know, the Hillsborough football disaster killed 90 people in a

very short space of time. I assure him that when that sort of thing happens, there is no question of anyone in the NHS or the associated services saying, ''Oh, I'm sorry, it's time to go home for my tea now.''

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I fully accept that. That is why I said those services are brilliant all the time. Moreover, when there is an emergency, people volunteer, and not only in this country. For example, members of the fire service went to Iran to give voluntary help. However, I want to ascertain whether, if extra resources need to be made available—for example, to bring extra people in—they have been costed so that that money would be available.

The scale of the emergency is also an issue. I remember Hillsborough: it was a complete and absolute tragedy. People who worked in the NHS, who were in their cars going somewhere, heard that the disaster had happened and went directly to the hospitals. There was no question of them telephoning to ask whether overtime was available—they just did it. I fully accept that that is the case.

However, there may be some emergency cases that we cannot imagine now, for which people may volunteer their time. Would they be allowed to do the job that we asked them to do, whatever the requirements of the working time directive? I hope that that would be the case. Will the Minister give an assurance that the working time directive would be waived in the event of an emergency and that anybody volunteering their time after a full shift would be allowed to do so?

Trucks and other vehicles might be requisitioned by the Government, because under subsection (2)

''A Minister of the Crown may issue guidance to a person or body listed in''

that part. Goods may need to be shifted quickly around the country as a matter of emergency. What sort of guidance would be given to truck firms or coach firms if a large number of people had to be transported? Would the tachograph, which we know is there to protect people's lives, not act as an obstruction? Would red tape be waived because of the urgency of the case? [Interruption.]

Some hon. Members scoff at what they consider to be pedestrian questions, and ask why I am even putting them. I will tell the hon. Member for Ealing, North why: we expected the people serving in Iraq to get the resources for the job that we were asking them to do. In some cases, they did not get them and had to buy their own equipment to take with them. When they were ordered to give up that equipment, which was there to protect their lives, they did so. That is why I asked the question. Who would have thought that members of our armed services would have to buy their own life-saving equipment for a war that we asked them to fight on our behalf? I ask the Minister for an assurance that when we ask people to help us in emergency situations, we will not ask them to dip into their own pockets to buy equipment. It should be provided for them. The issue should be properly costed and the Government should ensure that the local authorities get the money for the job that they ask them to do.

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

In relation to subsection (2), the Minister will see that

''Scottish Ministers may issue guidance to a person . . . listed in Part 2 or 4 of Schedule 1''.

As I read it, that means that Scottish Ministers could not give guidance to the British Transport police. As the Minister pointed out, they come within part 1 of schedule 1, but are not a UK-wide body. It would be sensible, and in the interests of joined-up government and the integration of policy, for Ministers in Scotland to be able to give guidance to the British Transport

police on the implementation of civil contingencies in Scotland. Subsection (3)(b) states that any

''person or body listed in any Part of Schedule 1 shall . . . have regard to guidance under subsection (1) or (2) above.''

Apparently, the British Transport police will have to have regard to guidance that was not issued to them.

Debate adjourned.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Five o'clock till Thursday 29 January at half-past Two o'clock.