I beg to move amendment No. 34, in
clause 5, page 5, line 40, at end insert–
'(d) establishing an emergency volunteer reserve force'.
I was interested to hear the Minister's view that the Bill is designed to update the framework of civil
defence throughout the nation–or words to that effect. I believe that I have got the quote right; if not, he will forgive me. As I see it, the Bill is designed to put in place a series of regulations and legislation that will empower local and, indeed, national authorities to deal with the problem. At one end of the spectrum there is the problem; at the other, the legislation. I contend that the vital link between the two is missing. There should be something wholly more credible and useful than what we have now that will allow the legislation to be put into practice. Without a work force to supplement the blue light services and other parts of the national framework, the problems will go unaddressed.
It is interesting to see what the Government have created so far to assist the blue light and other emergency services. Currently, in any region, in the event of an emergency such as those that we are debating, we would expect the ambulance service, the fire service, and the NHS with all its attendant parts, to respond to such an incident. Under chapter 4 of the strategic defence review, the Government have established a force that they refer to as the civil contingencies reaction force. The CCRF is intended to provide a series, largely of Army, but also of Royal Navy, Royal Marine and Royal Air Force volunteers, who are already serving members of the Territorial Army or the other reserve forces. When those soldiers, sailors and airmen have volunteered for the CCRF, they focus specifically on helping the emergency services throughout the region.
It is no coincidence that the CCRF has found itself extremely stretched in terms of declaring itself operationally ready. Just before the Bill's Second Reading–strange to relate–the Government said that the force was ready. However, the facts are rather less than the theory. There are supposed to be 7,000 CCRF volunteers under arms at the moment, but so far the Government have only 5,000 who are physically accredited as part of the CCRF. There is a further problem: the fact that any volunteer, of whatever colour of uniform, tends to be a recidivist–a serial volunteer. It will therefore come as no surprise to the Minister that three-quarters of the people who form two of the best civil contingency reaction forces–under the cap badge of the London regiment–have volunteered for service in Iraq. If the London CCRF were called now, we should find them somewhere outside Basra. My facts may not be quite correct, but it seems likely that the very sad death of a private soldier from the Royal Rifle Volunteers outside Kabul last night was exacerbated by the fact that he was also a member of his local CCRF. If a work force is established to help, it must be effective. Currently, the very slight measures that the Government have taken to assist and to create something additional, are utterly inadequate.
I should also like to mention the views of the British Red Cross. It talks about volunteering, in both theory and practice, across the board. It says that there should be a formal, explicit recognition of the contribution of the voluntary sector as key providers
of the humanitarian aspects of emergency planning and response. It goes on to say that a duty should be placed upon statutory authorities to involve the voluntary sector in emergency planning and response, and that an acknowledgment of the voluntary sector's contribution would formalise an already active response. What concerns me about the Bill is that there is no new thinking; no new initiatives have been taken to give it more muscle when it is enacted. I may be guilty of wagging a wholly inappropriate finger at the Government, but there has never been any difficulty with the creation of voluntary or part-time organisations. The British Government did so at least three or four times in the 20th century. Voluntary organisations were established during the first world war to deal with the threat of bombing. From as early as 1935, air raid precautions and other voluntary organisations were established to ensure that when–not if–an emergency occurred there would be bodies on the ground to assist.
Precisely the same thing happened during the cold war. Sadly the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is not present, but he held a position in the civil defence organisation during the cold war. Similarly, during the IRA emergency, voluntary bodies were put in place in Northern Ireland to assist in detecting terrorism and warning the police.
Some of the ideas put forward by the foremost thinkers on homeland security or civil defence, whatever we call it, should be aired. The Government should prove that they have carefully considered establishing, for want of a better phrase, an emergency volunteer reserve. I may be wrong, but I imagine that the hon. Member for Ealing, North is about to intervene and make a comment about ''Dad's Army''. The idea conjured up is of a body of elderly men and women in uniform, but we should not think like that.
We should borrow ideas from people such as David Veness, Major General Peter Curry and other foremost thinkers on such problems. We should put in place volunteer doctors, paramedics, hazardous material trained HGV drivers, and other crucial members of the community who, in an emergency, could be mobilised to help at the scene of an incident. I have been criticised, strange as that may sound, for making expensive suggestions, but this scheme does not need to be expensive. It should be viewed in the same way as the American army corps of engineers. They are civilians who might put on a uniform or an arm band during an emergency and physically stand to.
Let us assume that a dirty bomb explodes in Liverpool.
The fact that the hon. Gentleman could suggest that Liverpudlians would not notice is appalling and scurrilous. I do not associate myself with such a comment about Merseyside where I spent many happy years as a boy. [Interruption.] I was neither
jousting nor indulging in any other form of chivalric activity. If a dirty bomb did explode, I believe that the emergency services, perhaps with the assistance of the civil contingencies reaction force or regular forces, would be able to contain the problem for no more than 36 hours. They could establish a cordon and set up hospitals and decontamination points, but other factors, such as the wind or the style of the device, could prolong the threat.
In the event of such an incident, there should be a force that could be brought from perhaps Ealing, North and taken to Liverpool. Those doctors, paramedics, water workers and drivers could be in place not only to assist the police and other blue light services, but to take over from emergency workers exhausted by the style and scale of the emergency. There is nothing revolutionary in that and it would not be expensive. The British public would wholeheartedly seize upon the idea and volunteers would be forthcoming. I will not guess at a size or price of such an emergency volunteer reserve. I want fresh and innovative thinking from the Government.
I also question deeply the Government's use of the regular armed forces to help in such circumstances. If we were to go outside now and ask how many nuclear, biological and chemical warfare-trained regular servicemen there are in this country, I could be wrong but I guess that there would be about 60,000 hands in the air. That work force is completely untapped. There is no contingency or forward planning to involve the regular forces in the assistance of the country in emergency incidents. Powers certainly exist for them to be mobilised at short notice. In the event of a CBRN-type incident in Westminster, we would depend on the Metropolitan fire brigades to provide not just fire but decontamination assistance. Their resources are limited, but there are men and women trained to help in those circumstances.
I shall give an example. During the firemen's strike, a battalion of regular infantry was brought down and placed in Wellington barracks to assist with problems here in the event of a fire, and there were breathing apparatus teams with them. It struck me that the arrival of 600-odd soldiers in this area meant that we would suddenly have on hand a highly trained work force that, in the event of a dirty bomb or something similar, would be instantly available to give well-trained, well-organised and well-equipped advice on how to deal with it. On questioning that regiment, it transpired that they had not brought any equipment with them; no orders had been given with regard to a CBRN-type attack, nor had that been mentioned. That illustrates the fact that the Government's thinking on the subject is extremely sparse. Can the Minister, therefore, tell the Committee how the Government intend physically to implement the Bill on the ground? Without some muscle behind it in addition to those attempts that have already been made, the Bill is likely to become a paper tiger.
I am interested in the amendment, introduced by the hon. Member for Newark in such a chivalrous fashion, but I am not sure that we can
support it. There is scope for a lot of people to engage in an activity under subsection (1)(b) of clause 5 for the purpose of
''reducing, controlling or mitigating the effects of an emergency''.
I agree with him wholeheartedly that volunteers will play a significant part in that. In our discussions in the Special Standing Committee, we had representations from volunteer organisations, and the British Red Cross made very effective points about the way in which it had been engaged in mitigating the effects of emergencies over many years in the United Kingdom. Its members are often the unsung heroes. I am not entirely convinced of the merits of introducing a new structure to deal with that. We have structures in place already.
The British Red Cross is functioning well and there are bodies such as the St. John Ambulance. The hon. Gentleman correctly referred to the position of volunteer medical staff; I am aware of that because a lot of medics living in Sheffield already volunteer for the Territorial Army. When the TA needs medical staff, they will be called up from within my constituency and, I know, many other constituencies up and down the land. However, I am not convinced that there is any spare capacity; in other words, my instinct is that everybody who wishes to volunteer already volunteers. I am not sure that we would get any new resources by setting up an extra force that would appear to be in competition with what already exists. We must co-ordinate the existing bodies, and I hope that there will be a clear duty on category 1 responders. We recommended to the Special Standing Committee that we should like to see the duty on the category 1 responders to the existing bodies more explicitly spelled out. The Government responded in the negative because they felt that there were different views among the voluntary sector organisations. However, there was probably consensus about the leading voluntary organisations, especially the TA. The TA is an extra resource that can be, and is, called up for military activity abroad. I assume that it would be used as a major port of call for any emergency activity that took place in the UK. All those bodies should be enmeshed in the emergency planning process, and I am not persuaded that an additional body would be the way to achieve that aim.
I accept the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. The point that I was trying to make–I obviously did not make it clearly enough–is that an emergency volunteer reserve, if that is what we are to call them, must have some special form of training. I accept the points made by the hon. Gentleman about the voluntary organisations, including the TA, but I fear that the sort of specialist training needed for dealing, for instance, with contamination problems, will not be provided. The Red Cross–God bless it–at present has no training in dealing with such problems. Therefore, although such voluntary organisations would have some utility, my argument is that their use would not be a complete solution.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. There is a question about the extent to which all those organisations provide training for
the more extreme kinds of emergencies that are covered by the Bill rather than for their normal activities. However, I am keen to see a healthy voluntary sector that is regularly used–as happens at present. Organisations such as the St. John Ambulance, the Red Cross, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and many others that deal with different sectoral interests, carry out their business week in, week out. Those organisations will be ready, alert and willing to engage, although they might require additional training for a more severe emergency.
If the suggestion is that a separate force should be set up, my concern is that that force would never be used except in those most extreme circumstances. In other words, it would be sitting there unused, waiting for months or years until such an emergency happened. It would be better to focus on the provisions that require category 1 responders to reduce, control or mitigate the effects of the emergency, and to examine ways in which the relationships between the category 1 responders and the existing voluntary sector organisations or the TA could be meshed into that. I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point about training. However, that is not a sufficient argument for setting up an entirely different structure, so we cannot support the amendment.
Order. I remind hon. Members that it is not permissible to bring refreshments into the Committee. Although the new sitting hours may mean that some hon. Members are still feeling hungry, having had an early lunch, I should be grateful if they would refrain from consuming refreshments in the Committee.
If that comment referred to the fact that I am currently masticating, I should say that it is on nicotine chewing gum, which is more medicinal than pleasurable. I apologise if I gave the impression of consumption, or even enjoyment.
I shall respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Newark, henceforth to be known as the blue knight of Newark. Other hon. Members have commented on the gentlemanly and chivalrous way in which he made his points, and I, too, appreciate that. However, I will make two points in response. First, the hon. Gentleman rather betrays the military mindset–albeit from a rather more junior branch of the service. There are 42,800 men and women in the armed forces trained in the three categories to which he referred–the men and women in the Royal Navy. The hon. Gentleman did not mention them, but they are all trained and many of them performed sterling work in the recent fire dispute.
Secondly, I have–sadly–had some experience of this type of disaster, because some years ago there was a huge Real IRA bomb in Ealing. Having lived most of my life in the shadow of NATO Strike Command in Northwood, I had long anticipated what would happen if there was a disaster. As mayor of Ealing, I was privy to the London borough of Ealing's civil contingencies. Fortunately, we declared the borough a
nuclear-free zone, and there was not one nuclear attack on the London borough of Ealing–the Tupolevs and the Ilyushins thundered overhead and did not pause. In fact, most of our civil contingency seemed to be built around the identification of mass grave sites.
If we have a disaster on the scale envisaged by the hon. Gentleman, it could go two ways. Either the whole city will collapse and only a few people will survive, or there will be many injured civilians, civil disorder and the need to respond in the same way as we responded to the bombs in Ealing. Oddly enough, in the latter case, the need is not for highly skilled men and women trained in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but for people to do the basic things such as those done by the scouts and guides, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, the St. John Ambulance and the Red Cross: sweep up glass, take children out of houses, find temporary accommodation and keep the streets clear. Providing that support is essential, and if we tried to create a command structure filled with people trained to the highest level, we would lose sight of the need for a different but equally important level of support on the ground.
I just wanted my hon. Friend's assurance on the success of Ealing's anti-nuclear policy. When the Tupolevs and Ilyushins went past at 30,000 ft, is he convinced that the pilots did not look down at Ealing and think that it had already been bombed?
Only a bounder from south of the river would make such a comment. I am already bitterly regretting the slur that I passed on the proud city of Liverpool, which I withdraw unreservedly. I register my admiration for that noble metropolis.
Mr. Allan rose–
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Liberal Democrats now control Liverpool city council. His comment was most helpful to my colleagues there, and I will ensure that they receive not only the original comment, but his withdrawal.
A Liberal Democrat council is not necessarily a reason for a nuclear attack, but the idea has much to commend it.
To return to the point, a command structure already exists, and to duplicate it seems to go against everything that those of us who have a residual affection for the Conservative party hoped that it believed in–a removal of bureaucracy and a cutting away of the tiers of apparatchiks. However, the hon. Member for Newark seems to be proposing a system in which someone who wants to help on the day will have to go to a particular command centre or regional commander.
I remember receiving the phone call about the bomb in Ealing at 20 past 1 in the morning and going down to Ealing broadway to see the streets littered with glass, fire alarms going off and people milling around aimlessly. The people who wanted to help did so. They did not have to phone or write to someone or
work out where they fitted in the master plan; they merely came and helped. The official structure was in place, with the police as the primary commanders in conjunction with the other emergency services, and if people wanted to help, they could.
Of course the hon. Gentleman will regret it.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned one incident that happened in Ealing, which we all remember chillingly. It was an awful thing to happen, but it was limited in its nature, and we are considering all eventualities, which might include a dirty bomb or a smallpox outbreak in which specialist skills are needed, which some people, in the Red Cross, for example, have. Is it not right that they should be brought in at an early stage, even at the point of planning, to make suggestions? To prevent a terrorist attack, Ealing, North could clearly declare itself a smallpox or emergency-free zone. If the council puts up a few signs, Ealing will be all right, but what about the rest of the country?
We have been free of the pox for many years, largely because of our clean-limbed and healthy lifestyle, which we might export to Ribble Valley if necessary. However, the hon. Gentleman made precisely my point. I agree with him on the generality, and the Bill provides precisely the structure, inclusion and process of training to which he referred. I find myself in the unusual position of entirely supporting the Government. The Minister looks horrified, but I should say that the last time I voted against the Government was over foundation hospitals and they put me on the Standing Committee that considered the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill. Since then I have never voted against them.
There is always a balance to be struck between the skilled, trained, professional, permanent forces and the skilled, trained, amateur, volunteer sector–I do not use the word amateur in a derogatory sense, merely in the sense of remuneration. I think that the balance is right, so I reluctantly argue against the amendment of the hon. Member for Newark. We have a template, structure or format that meets the various needs that have been discussed. It respects individuals who contribute, without establishing the stultifying smothering layer of bureaucracy that every Conservative election manifesto that I have refers to.
We have heard that the Special Standing Committee thought it a good idea to place a statutory duty on category 1 responders to consult with and involve relevant voluntary organisations on civil contingency planning. Why have the Government not done so? We have also heard that the Red Cross offers emotional and practical support in emergencies, and the hon. Member for Ealing, North talked about a tragedy at Ealing broadway.
I shall discuss civil contingency in a more specific context than that of volunteers in general. My constituency contains a section of the River Thames, which flooded badly in the new year of 2003. The Environment Agency is a category 1 responder responsible for that section of the river. Many homes were flooded during the emergency, and numerous organisations were involved, including the Environment Agency, the local authority and the police. However, a system of volunteers emerged with people looking after their own and neighbours' properties for worthy and altruistic reasons. Elderly people were moved because their neighbours knew that they were likely to be in distress, and sandbags were delivered.
After the flooding many questions were asked, mostly of the Environment Agency. In my opinion, the Environment Agency had an institutional prejudice against volunteers. It said that there had been a voluntary warden system but that it had long been in disrepair. It used that as evidence that the system did not work and that voluntary systems could not be relied on for help. I took the opposite view–that the voluntary warden system had fallen into disrepair because nobody had taken an avuncular interest; it was nobody's responsibility to update it or ensure that posts were filled. I do not see a problem in sending a strong signal that large state or para-state bodies should be responsible for ensuring that the efforts of willing people, who know an area and know what to do in an emergency, should be channelled in an organised and regular way.
It is better that people are organised in an emergency rather than being left to organise themselves. I imagine a vigilante group of volunteers running around doing what they think might be best, but which might not be in the general scheme of things. One cannot stop them doing that, so they should have some sort of help. I am sure that the Government are in favour of the principle of volunteers. In some emergencies, such as the flood in my constituency, volunteers can be useful and will make themselves available. Surely, therefore, it is better to find some way of directing their energies and to include in the Bill some sort of strong guidance for organisations such as the Environment Agency that may need a culture change to be able to use this source of voluntary labour and enthusiasm when emergencies arise?
First, may I express my pleasant surprise at the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North and the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend)? It was intriguing and then deeply worrying; so effective were my hon. Friend's comments from the Back Benches that I feared for my position on the Front Bench as his contribution continued.
On a more serious note, I extend my sympathy to the constituents of the hon. Member for Windsor who suffered in the flooding that he described, as I am sure would all hon. Members. My constituency has also suffered from flooding in recent years, and I know how devastating it can be to the lives of families in many communities. He asked me about the Government's
response to the voluntary sector, particularly to the request for a statutory duty to be placed on the category 1 responders. It is worth once again going over the specific point that we addressed in the response to the considerations of the Joint Committee.
The Government place a high value on the role that the voluntary sector plays in the response to emergencies. Voluntary organisations have a great deal of involvement in multi-agency planning and response. However, we anticipate that their contribution will continue on a voluntary rather than a statutory basis, because there is disagreement in the voluntary sector about what its status should be and, in any event, it is doubtful whether voluntary organisations could sustain a statutory obligation consistently in all parts of the country and for the foreseeable future.
Throughout the consultation period, the major national voluntary organisations expressed mixed views on their inclusion, and we do not want to impose an unrealistic and unwanted obligation on them. The status of voluntary organisations do not have the same level of certainty of resources or legal framework that public sector bodies have, so it is unrealistic to place a duty on them. There are often differences between the national and local levels, as some organisations are local or regional in nature. Again, it is important to draw the Committee's attention to the Government's response to the Joint Committee's report, in which we state that
''We fully endorse Category 1 responders seeking advice from organisations they believe could be of assistance to them. Though not specifically detailed, there are no impediments to this type of relationship within the Bill. We consider that details of this policy are best placed in the guidance and not on the face of the Bill.''
In response to the hon. Gentleman's query about the Environment Agency, I am confident that the framework that is established that brings together category 1 responders and that discusses collaboratively the challenges that a local community faces could effect exactly the sort of cultural change that he seeks. However, the Government's case in response to the Joint Committee is compelling. The two voluntary organisations that we have probably heard the most about this afternoon are the St. John Ambulance and the British Red Cross. As I recollect, they had fundamentally divergent views on whether there should be a statutory duty on category 1 responders and whether they should be included in the categories.
I am happy to ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are brought to the attention of the Environment Agency. We can explore whether that should be through me or by ministerial correspondence through DEFRA, but I undertake to write to him to let him know that his remarks have been passed on.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley, who is not in his seat, raised queries about the Red Cross. It is important to try to address specific issues, and two examples suffice. At the Potters Bar train crash, British Red Cross ambulances were deployed to undertake routine work, which freed the statutory ambulance service to concentrate on the incident. At the Ladbroke Grove train crash, the British Red Cross provided a befriending service to victims and relatives, and provided ambulances to support the statutory services. Indeed, I take this opportunity to place on record the gratitude of all members of the Committee for the work of the Red Cross and other voluntary organisations in dealing with major incidents.
I fear that the hon. Member for Newark strayed close to suggesting that the British Red Cross has no involvement in the preparations that are under way for major incidents. Although I accept part of the point that he made, it is important to recognise that all major voluntary organisations have enhanced their training in that area since 11 September and have been co-operating fully with the Government. For that, we are grateful.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North cut to the chase when it came to identifying the central issue. If there is common ground on the importance of the voluntary sector, there is fundamental disagreement across the Committee on the best means of harnessing that voluntary activity.
It is fair to say that the Government remain unconvinced by the case that has again been articulated this afternoon for an emergency volunteer reserve force taking the place of the many voluntary organisations that do such sterling work for the people of Britain and have done so over a number of years. It is no coincidence that that case is advanced by a party that has, in a separate guise, argued for a department of homeland security, rather than recognising the distinctive character of the British constitution and Cabinet system.
The idea of seeking to bring together in a brigade all the voluntary effort that would go towards dealing with civil contingencies such as we are discussing under the Bill ignores the reality of part of the motivation for volunteers joining organisations and comes close to failing to recognise the serious contribution that those organisations make.
To take one example, the suggestion that national health service staff would need to be part of an emergency volunteer reserve force in order to offer the necessary level of support to colleagues facing a major catastrophe is dangerously wide of the mark and does not reflect the reality of how the health service works. As someone whose mother has served in the health service for more than 30 years and someone who grew up in a village in the west of Scotland and well remembers the incident at Lockerbie, I do not think that there can be any question but that the dedicated public servants who staff the national health service would, without a second thought and regardless of whether they were part of an emergency volunteer force, ensure that they provided the help necessary to
support the range of services that are provided at the moment.
The hon. Member for Newark advanced a particular case on the role of the civil contingency reaction force. It is important to recognise that the contribution of the CCRF is only one of the response capabilities that the armed forces could provide in an emergency. As we have heard, the contribution of the regular armed forces during the foot and mouth outbreak and the firefighters' dispute is evidence of the fact that other contributions are available.
Can the Minister illuminate how much contingency planning by the regular forces had gone on in order to help with the foot and mouth crisis and, when the crisis occurred, how long it took to call the regular forces and how long it took them to go into action? I ask that simply because I contend that no contingency planning had gone on at all.
There is clearly provision to allow for the armed forces to be deployed. The hon. Gentleman need not take my word for it; he need only consider the evidence from the foot and mouth outbreak and other incidents that we have encountered in the past. The nature of a contingency sometimes defies immediate planning and preparation, but I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have been well aware from his own distinguished service that the British armed forces are without peer and have great capability and expertise. That was brought to bear on, for example, foot and mouth. It means that they are uniquely equipped to work alongside the emergency or blue light services–to which he paid tribute–in an incident.
However, it is important to maintain perspective at this juncture on the appropriate roles of the emergency services and the armed forces. Although the British armed forces have given great service in civil contingencies in the past, their responsibility has principally been to support the emergency services. Once again, that makes the case for the Bill that the Government are advancing. To ensure that there is the appropriate codification and clarification of the respective role of local authorities and other category 1 responders is in no way to diminish the contribution that our armed forces could make in particular circumstances.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I assure him that I have no designs on his elevated position. The point on the armed forces, and the fact that in a highly personal and confidential letter that I received today from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley I noticed at the bottom of his notepaper he has the sign ''Supporting our armed services'', featuring the Union flag and the stars and stripes–which is slightly unusual, but not something I wish to comment on–leads me to ask about those forces of another power that happen to be stationed permanently or on rotation in the United Kingdom? What happens to them? There is a wealth of expertise here, which does not necessarily have to be marked by having the flag of a foreign nation on a piece of House of Commons notepaper. Would they be brought into this process?
As ever, my hon. Friend raises a telling and searching point, which, had he provided me notice, I could have answered in a more comprehensive fashion. I am glad to say that the line to take has just been passed to me–those forces would help on a case-by-case basis. What sterling service from the Rolls-Royce machine that is the British civil service.
The point merits a serious answer. We would have a clear expectation that the humanitarian support provided by British forces overseas would be reciprocated. That applies not simply to work done by the emergency services, but, for example, to the recent work carried out by UK search and rescue teams in the Iranian city of Bam. It is clear that there is a high level of co-operation, and in that sense the point is well taken. We could look with confidence to our strategic partners in supporting us, if such circumstances arose.
I am most grateful for the opportunity to comment. Coming back to the lack of innovative and fresh thinking, it can be no better exemplified than by the hon. Member for Ealing, North, with a little bit of fresh and innovative thinking, suddenly bowling a quick one there to the Minister. What, for instance, will be done with the considerable number of American forces stationed inside this country? I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for, almost, coming on his steed to rescue a damsel in distress with this particular suggestion. How very nice that here is a precise example of an area about which the Government simply has not thought.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, whose comments crossed over with those of the hon. Member for Ealing, North, pointed out that, whatever exists at the moment, there is not the training or the specialisation in the voluntary sector to deal with the extreme emergency, precisely the sort of conditions that this Bill is designed to address. Not for one moment should the Minister misunderstand me–I fully understand the contribution of the voluntary sector. I sat on the Joint Committee and heard many representations from extraordinarily well motivated, dedicated, hard-working, honest, loyal and decent patriots, who are willing to come forward, and indeed do come forward, for voluntary work, and to which I pay tribute. The fact remains that, while they can certainly sweep up glass, remove trees that have been knocked down and, at a pinch, help people out of crashed vehicles, they cannot deal with chemical decontamination, for example.
I am surprised by the hon. Member for Ealing, North's comments about bureaucracy, because the Government thought it wise to establish a whole new form of bureaucracy, in the shape of the civil contingency reaction force. I must make sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that, with a whole new tier of brigade and divisional responsibility among the armed forces, the CCRFs are all about bureaucracy–about many figures and not much ability to react.
I take issue with him that I made no mention of the senior service. Unless his advanced age has managed to make his ears less effective, I did mention the senior service on at least two occasions–and, of course, I would pay tribute to them being without doubt the guiding light in this particular style of emergency.
I will summarise with the comments of the Minister, and I may be paraphrasing. He has already said that it is doubtful that a voluntary organisation could sustain a statutory regulation for any period of time. That is exactly the point–the emergency volunteer reserve must be formed to reinforce existing organisations, but there should be no extra bureaucracy and little expense. The powers laid down in the Bill could be easily adapted to allow these people to take the field to replace exhausted surgeons, drivers and policemen.
It has come from the minds and lips of some very eminent thinkers on the subject. They include, not least, one of London's police commissioners, David Veness, and one of the foremost thinkers on civil contingencies, Major General Peter Curry. They have had huge experience in such situations.
Question put, That the amendment be made:–
The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 9.
I should tell the Committee that the Clerk is impeded in taking the votes if hon. Members indulge in jocularity and conversation during a Division, and I should be grateful if they would resist that temptation in future.
On a personal note, may I also say how pleased I was during the discussion of inundation in Windsor and Paisley, South to see the temporary and minor inundation of the papers of the hon. Member for Newark treated through voluntary action by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. That was splendid, but the Badge Messenger may be able to get a cloth to mop things up in future.
Government Whip, I am reported to have said that he was
''extremely reasonable, accommodating and co-operative, as he always is''–[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 27 January 2004; c. 4.]
For the avoidance of doubt, I would like to make it clear that I never had any doubt that the Government Whip was a lady and that the record should have read ''she''.
Aspects of the two amendments overlap, and that is why they have been grouped for debate. I hope that the Chairman will take a tolerant view if the arguments overlap and interlock with each other.
My concerns about the lack of provision for public information in the Bill go hand in hand with the issues discussed under amendment No. 34. There is no emergency volunteer reserve. So much of the fear, drama, difficulty and worry that those sort of threats-–including new sorts of threats–bring to a largely untrained and inexperienced population could be overcome by a more vibrant, thoughtful and better designed campaign for public information.
I will give an example that my mother told me about. As a 12-year-old girl in north-east Lincolnshire, she was informed that it seemed likely that an enemy would deploy ''weapons of mass destruction'' in the British Isles in the near future, though that specific phrase was not used. She was told that it was highly likely that the country would go to war with Nazi Germany, and that if that happened the enemy would use two new types of weapons: fleets of aircraft with high explosive bombs, possibly on the Hull docks, which would effect the area where she lived, and poison gas, a weapon of mass destruction of its time.
It is interesting to consider how the Government of the day reacted to that news. Using a systematic approach to public information, everybody was told that neither of those threats was insuperable. In the case of the gas threat, they were helped by the fact that there was a generation of men around who had experienced the use of poison gas in the first world war. My grandfather was a victim of gassing in the Ypres salient in 1916. There were people who could say, ''Look, if they use gas, do not be afraid of it. This is how we can handle it.''
The Government of the day chose to take other measures that were innovative and thoughtful. For instance, red pillar boxes–so familiar in every town
and village in the UK–were painted in a colour that would, in theory, change in the presence of gas. Bright red pillar boxes were painted grey. The theory was that they would change to green in the presence of gas. That was never going to work, but it made everybody aware that there was a new threat. Every time people went to post a letter, they would think, ''By golly, something is different here. Something has changed. We have a new threat''. That was a highly subtle and effective manner of spreading public information. The Government tell us that spreading that sort of information, concern and knowledge will lead people to panic even more than they have already.
I shall quote again from Project Unicorn. The report states:
''To the public at large the CBRN threat is undoubtedly the most frightening aspect of the 'new terrorism' . . . The Commercial Sector appears to be unanimous in its criticism of the present counter-terrorism Communications Policy prior to a major incident: they find it outdated, condescending, generally uncoordinated and at times, incoherent. Much of this criticism stems from the perceived lack of a central focus for counter-terrorism in government, which is accentuated by the belief that Government does not always understand the commercial implications of counter-terrorism.''
As we have heard, that report was commissioned for the Metropolitan police, and shows Project Unicorn's view of the lack of information being put across to the public by bodies that should know better.
The Society of Industrial Emergency Services Officers states:
''The experience of SIESO members in warning and informing the public of the potential dangers of living next to top tier COMAH sites gives the lie to the Government's belief that pre-education of the general population will cause panic. There is a need for people to know what measures they can take to safeguard themselves prior to the arrival of professional help. Even then, it will take time for the emergency services to assess the scenario, formulate a response and establish means of indicating to the victims what actions they should take. Neglecting to involve the public prior to an incident, and expecting to be able to inform people after the incident has occurred, is contrary to all best practice of emergency preparedness; it will inevitably be too little, too late.''
We hear that such a campaign would be very expensive. However, the Government are perfectly happy to be involved in campaigns such as the anti-smoking campaign, and so they should be. An extraordinarily effective campaign of public information is being mounted at the moment, with disgusting scenes of fat being squeezed from people's veins and the like. It is extremely persuasive.
That was, I fear, a cruel intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire.
Why cannot the Government address themselves to making a much clearer point than they have already? The only information and advice from the Government of which I am aware–perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, although I am straying on to amendment No. 36–is to go in, stay in and tune in. That seems to be the only existing form of public information.
Order. Since we are debating amendments Nos. 35 and 36 together, it is perfectly in order for the hon. Gentleman to deal with them both at the same time.
I am most grateful for your advice, Sir John, and I shall try to be more skilful.
On top of all that I have said, there is the fact that the Government are perfectly happy to mount a public information campaign about working families tax credit. Television is currently inundated with very effective means of informing poorer families how they can get their hands on more money. Is not it entirely proper that a similar campaign should be mounted, in precisely the same way as in the 1950s during the cold war, in the event of weapons of mass destruction–I return to that phrase–being used against an unprotected and unprepared civil population?
It is important to understand that the generation that had been victims of weapons of mass destruction, who helped to inform my parents' generation, are generally not around any longer. If, therefore, we are to be ready before–not during–an incident, the Government must make these points clear. There is also the issue of pre-training before an incident occurs. We have already trespassed on that particular ground during the debate on an emergency volunteer reserve, and the need for it to be trained. How much thought have the Government given to wholly new methods of training the public, such as virtual reality training? This can be done quickly, easily and reasonably cheaply. It would be possible, in various different centres, including cinemas around the country, to use virtual reality training to train the public. Voluntary organisations, such as the police force and the fire service, already do a certain amount of this training, but I wonder whether the Government initiative relies on taking, for instance, the Red Cross and using virtual reality to bring them up to scratch on subjects such as decontamination.
One of the criticisms levelled against the idea of training the public before an incident is that this will somehow cause fear. May I stray, Sir John, into what was done in Northern Ireland during the IRA's campaign of the 1970s to the 1990s? There it was recognised that the vast majority of the public had absolutely no sympathy, quite rightly, with any form of terrorism that was likely to be perpetrated within the Province, and indeed that the public was going to be one of the security forces' most valuable assets. Not only were there frequent public information campaigns, but also terrorism awareness lessons were given in schools and in other public meeting places and to other public bodies.
As a result the public became aware, for instance, that every year at Christmas and Easter republican terrorists were likely to mount campaigns, which indeed they did. It therefore became embedded in the public understanding that these two particular times of year were extremely dangerous. Hand in hand with that went a thorough understanding of terrorist techniques. For instance, every Christmas in the centre of Belfast there was a firebomb campaign; sometimes it was successful, sometimes not. Before Christmas there were public information campaigns to
ensure that any shopper who bought a coat or a jacket immediately inspected their purchase to see if there was a cassette bomb in one of the pockets. There was an additional incentive of financial reward for discovering these types of devices.
The public were told that the vehicle that the terrorists favoured was the Hiace van, so the public came to understand that Hiaces were therefore suspicious and they came to look at any Hiace lying low on its axle as perhaps containing a mortar or a bomb of considerable weight. As a consequence the public were made aware and were trained, and became part of the wider security family. Terrorism was made additionally difficult for our enemies to perpetrate.
The only form of training that has gone on so far for the current style of emergency is the phrase I have already used: ''Go in, stay in and tune in''. That is both public information and training. To be honest, I wonder if it is correct. If one is walking on the Embankment, say, when a dirty bomb goes off, and one perceives oneself to have been contaminated, is that the correct advice? Should one go in and stay in? Absolutely not: it is wholly wrong to follow this advice. Someone who believes that they have been contaminated must stay precisely where they are and so make themselves less of a threat to the rest of the population.
If the Government are serious about this issue, not only will they make people aware of the problem beforehand, they will also help to train the public in what they should do in the event of large scale explosions, contamination and poisoning, and indeed civil emergencies in the shape of floods and other types of contagious diseases. That is neither too difficult nor too expensive.
I suggest most strongly that knowledge dispels fear. In 1992 the Government of the day were perfectly happy to have the Metropolitan police announce that a bombing campaign in central London was about to take place, and to tell the public that if someone with an Irish accent asked to hire or borrow their vehicle or lock-up, they were to refuse, but instead were to report it to the police. The result was that the public became, in the phrase I have already used, part of the wider security family, and that bombing campaign was thwarted. The time has come for the Government to address the problem before drama, emergency and crisis occur on a large scale. Without implementing the two proposals in question, the Bill continues to be woefully impractical.
It might be helpful for the Committee if I explain the effect of grouping amendments. Whether amendments immediately follow one another or come elsewhere in the Bill, they are grouped because they are complementary or interrelated in some way, thus allowing debate on a general subject to take place. That does not prevent the amendments from being voted on separately in the order in which they appear in the Bill. They are grouped simply to facilitate a general discussion on the subject matter, which may be complementary or in
some way related. I hope that that is helpful to members of the Committee.
We have had a useful and educative discussion. I have certainly learned something this afternoon, because I did not know that pillar boxes were supposed to change colour in the event of a serious gas attack in the second world war.
The substantive point made by the hon. Member for Newark bears serious consideration and I shall endeavour to offer a serious response. The Government cannot support the amendment; in fact, we shall resist it. The hon. Gentleman seemed to grasp the nub of the argument in his concluding remarks, when he contended that the generic advice of ''go in, stay in, tune in'' would in certain circumstances be wrong. However, there is a glaring logical inconsistency in going on to argue that it is possible in such circumstances to provide the general public with information on every conceivable threat that they may face that manifests itself as a civil contingency. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that serious thought has been given and continues to be given in the Government on what advice it would be appropriate to offer the people of the UK.
In the event of an incident, the Government would uphold the long-established practice of saying that members of the public should follow the advice of the emergency services on the ground. That is important and bears repetition. It is also important to recognise the fact that we have an emergency broadcasting system and existing arrangements to ensure the rapid dissemination of public warnings through a range of radio and television services, including Ceefax, Teletext and websites. Today of all days, I should perhaps pay tribute to the BBC on both ''Connecting in a Crisis'', which does great service, and the range of media employees who have worked with the Government to ensure that the emergency broadcasting system is fit for purpose.
It also bears repetition that public safety is of course the Government's first responsibility in all decisions on warning and informing the public. If a warning is necessary to protect public safety in the face of a specific and credible threat, we shall issue one without hesitation, as well as any further information that will help people to respond effectively to the circumstances in which they find themselves.
The amendment addresses the important question of what role the public should play in emergencies, which some respondents raised in the public consultation exercise for the draft Bill. I recognise that the issue is of wider interest. The Government appreciate that the behaviour of the public during emergencies can impact on the effectiveness of the response. In some circumstances, the public may be better able to help themselves, thereby reducing the burden on the emergency services.
The public can also be encouraged to avoid taking action that hinders the emergency services, which is why the Bill contains provisions on informing the public. Clause 2 places a duty on category 1 responders to publish elements of their civil protection work, in so far as that is desirable for
preventing an emergency or mitigating its effects. Those provisions will ensure that the public understand what plans are in place and their relationship with them. However, training goes well beyond information–it is not a matter of explaining to people what might happen to them or the actions that others might take. Training involves the instruction of people in what action individuals should take when an emergency arrives and suggests a more proactive response from those individuals.
The Government appreciate that the idea of civil protection training is not new, not least in the context of the civil defence arrangements for fear of a nuclear war, as described by the hon. Member for Newark. Those arrangements have long since ceased to be operational and many have called their effectiveness into question, and did so at the time.
Such training is not consistent with the modern approach of integrated emergency management. That is why we believe that the Bill as drafted strikes the right balance.
Obviously, there is a range of threats and the Minister is right to say that we cannot cover them all in advance, but under some threats the action required from the public is counter-intuitive. For example, if an anthrax attack takes place in a building, I understand that it is better to stay there and be vaccinated, rather than fleeing the scene. In a situation such as the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark involving a dirty bomb, it is much better to stay put to receive the treatments. Should it not be part of the Government's job to promote training in the workplace and through schools, in a sensible way that does not create panic, so that people understand those counter-intuitive situations? If not, I do not see how things will work. Will the Minister address that?
I shall endeavour to do so. One of the key obligations in those circumstances is to minimise confusion and maximise control so that the emergency services can operate. In that regard, I think the hon. Gentleman's recognition of the fact that divergent responses are appropriate to divergent threats is important.
Rather than have a position during a genuinely frightening and catastrophic incident whereby members of the public become involved in a potentially prolonged discussion as to which response is appropriate, and given their lack of knowledge of the threat, it is eminently sensible to build a communications strategy around the principle of communication used in such emergencies for many years, which is to seek the advice of the emergency services on the ground.
In that sense, the best way in which we can uphold the position of the emergency services and offer the assurance that the British public would want is to be absolutely clear about the fact that the people best equipped to make judgments on widely divergent responses in the face of divergent threats would be the emergency services. A response to any incident, including chemical or biological incidents, would
depend on a number of factors: what the danger is, who is affected by it and how best to contain the incident in those circumstances. I do not think that it is illegitimate to argue–indeed, it is the sensible approach–that trained personnel from the emergency services are best placed to decide the appropriate response in the circumstances.
I fully understand the point that at the scene it is obviously sensible to follow the advice of the emergency services. Nobody would disagree with that, but what is wrong with giving people public information in advance? They would at least have some knowledge of the likely threats and of what the emergency services were likely to say to them, particularly as some advice would be the opposite of what one would logically think. I do not disagree with what happens on the spot, but why cannot we do some work in advance? That certainly seems sensible.
During our deliberations earlier in the week, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley spoke with enthusiasm about the UK Resilience website–[Interruption.] I was just about to say that I think it would be unfair to contend that no material is available. The Government's long-standing position has been to seek to strike the appropriate balance to ensure that the British public are alert but not alarmed.
In circumstances where a specific threat has to be brought to the attention of the British public, we have ensured that the appropriate advice will be offered without hesitation. However, the point endures that in circumstances of a catastrophic or serious civil contingency, the right response for the Government is to ensure that the emergency services are able to direct the public. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
I am most grateful to the Minister for his clear outline of where the Government stand. My concern is underlined by the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. Almost everything that the Minister said indicated that the provisions for public information and training would be retrospective rather than proactive.
We are perfectly content to train our children in schools on how to avoid being knocked down on the road, how to avoid the common problems of a house fire or, as I saw last week in Retford in my constituency, to train children to deal counter-intuitively with the problem of boiling chip fat being poured on them and their catching fire. None of that training takes place once the incident has occurred.
For instance, it is no good going up to a child who has been knocked over in the road and saying, ''Now, if you'd looked left and right and watched the traffic, you wouldn't have been knocked over.'' All such training should be proactive–to prevent injury, to prevent crisis and to act as a contingency plan. The Minister says that, given the number of emergencies that we are likely to face, preparing for those emergencies would probably be more confusing than helpful. I differ strongly with him on that.
I turn to my experience of Northern Ireland. People there were trained to deal with four broad circumstances: a bomb that was about to go off; a bomb made of high explosive; an anti-personnel bomb; and a bomb that had just gone off. The Minister could have made sensible arguments to suggest that those four contingencies would indeed have been confusing–each required a different reaction.
Without becoming even more tedious than normal, I would suggest that there are a number of simple, broad expedient situations that can be trained and prepared for. That is why I believe we must both inform people beforehand about where the dangers lie and train them properly to deal with such events before they occur, rather than when they have occurred.
I am particularly concerned about public awareness. We can happily get across the idea of fire regulations, for example, once people understand how to deal with fire. Looking around the Room, I cannot see the fire instructions, but I am sure that there are some, which are perhaps in the Corridor. We have fire extinguishers, fire alarms and fire drills in place, which represent campaigns of public information and of public training. I see little difficulty, and little expense, in combining what we have to deal with fire with, for example, four simple contingencies to deal with the most likely threats that the Bill addresses.
My hon. Friend will be aware that in schools these days young people learn about citizenship. Does he see school as an obvious place in which they could learn some basic aspects of civil protection?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his useful and informed intervention. I answer his question by referring to a campaign called Firewatch, which is being conducted in the east midlands by the fire brigades, with a view to doing exactly what he has just mentioned. It aims to ensure that children understand how to react–probably counter-intuitively–and his suggestion is sensible and practical.
I would like to comment before the hon. Gentleman moves on. It seems that the central charge he lays at the Government's door is a lack of proactivity in this area. Does he not accept that the purpose of part 1 is proactively to plan for the contingencies that we are discussing? However, clause 2(1)(f) contains the specific obligation
''to arrange for the publication of all or part of assessments made and plans maintained under paragraphs (a) to (d) in so far as publication is necessary or desirable for the purpose of . . . preventing an emergency''.
Is there not, therefore, more common ground in the Committee than his remarks suggest?
I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. He will no doubt remember my closing words on Second Reading, when I said that I hoped that the Bill would be made to work effectively and that the Opposition broadly supported it. I take his
point about the provision that he mentioned, but the fact remains that more must be done physically to help local authorities with public information campaigns and training. That is why we have tabled the amendment. Those activities will have to receive central and national endorsement, direction and funding if they are to work.
I am not content with the answers that I have received, so I will press the amendment to a vote. Should it go against us, I have no doubt that we shall return to the point on Report.
Question put, That the amendment be made:–
The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 7.
The hon. Member for Newark has twice referred to returning to amendments on Report, but I should point out the fact that it is not possible to return to those that have been debated and, in particular, voted on in Committee. It is sometimes possible to deal with those that have been debated but not voted on, although that is at the discretion of Mr. Speaker. I hope that is helpful.
On a point of order, Sir John. We are grateful for your guidance, but if an amendment on a matter central to the Bill was tabled in an entirely different form on Report, might it not be open to those in charge of the selection of amendments to look favourably on it, given that it relates to a matter of such importance?
That is always possible, particularly if the amendment that is tabled on Report differs materially from the one that was discussed in Committee, even though it may relate to the same general subject. However, an amendment would need to be important and materially different.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.