Clause 4 - Advice and assistance to business

Part of Civil Contingencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 29th January 2004.

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Cabinet Office) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 2:30 pm, 29th January 2004

I shall first endeavour to place in context the remarks of the hon. Members for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) before turning to the latter's specific questions.

For context, it is important to put on record that many local authorities already undertake such preparation and work. The merit of local authorities making preparations was made evident not least by the work of local authorities in Manchester following the IRA bomb several years ago. Kirklees metropolitan council is another example of an authority undertaking such work.

I should emphasise that the burden is not necessarily onerous. The regulations are likely to require light-touch awareness raising, for example by the circulation of leaflets and giving of seminars. The more burdensome assistance–effective business continuity consultancy–will not be undertaken by all local authorities, and those that do will be able to charge for it. That will be on the basis of a judgment made by businesses on the merits and demerits of the consultancy available.

Local authorities will be able to draw on centrally provided material, which will help avoid the duplication of effort. As we have previously discussed at some length, we are committed to ensuring that local responders are properly funded. Any additional funding pressures will be dealt with via the established procedures in the 2004 spending review.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam asked for guidance on the distinction between ''must'' and ''may''. The regulations provide that each local authority must provide advice and assistance to the public at large. As I suggested, that advice could be in the form of leaflets, poster or mailshots. The regulations provide also that local authorities may in addition give advice and assistance to individual businesses and may refer businesses to a qualified business continuity consultant–someone with qualifications and expertise in business continuity

management, for example. Local authorities may provide those additional services, and many already do, but the Government do not propose to impose an obligation. Such advice would be tailored more to the needs of particular businesses in particular circumstances.

It was suggested that this part of the Bill might trample on the authority of the Financial Services Agency, but that is not the case. The primary responsibility for civil contingency planning in the financial service sector rests with the private sector, and outstanding examples of business continuity management are already manifested by the private sector. Authorities such as the FSA, the Bank of England and the Treasury have also put in place several measures to promote order in the event of a major operational disruption to the financial system. I am confident that we are striking the right balance between not undermining the FSA, the Bank of England, the Treasury and the particular circumstances of the City of London, and ensuring that we build on the best practice from elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Newark made some points about a leaked document on Project Unicorn. He will understand that the Government would prefer to comment on documents when they are published rather than in leaked form–I say that with assurance in the light of this week's events. However, I am certainly aware from my experience of travelling to see Operation Osiris that there is a high level of co-operation between my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire, the elected Mayor of London and the City of London authorities. I understand that the hon. Gentleman accompanied Ministers on that occasion. I can assure the Committee that a great deal of work takes place to ensure that there are adequate preparations for any civil contingency likely to affect the City of London.

Several hon. Members rose–