Clause 22 - Limitations of emergency regulations

Civil Contingencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 10th February 2004.

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Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark 11:00 am, 10th February 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 63, in

clause 22, page 15, line 31, at end insert

'with the exception of industrial action that would lead to the endangerment of human life or property, or cause illness or injury'.

The amendment is tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I hope that there will be no non-plussing during the discussion, as the amendment is very simple.

Clause 22 addresses the limitations of emergency regulations. Subsection (3) states that emergency regulations may not

''(b) prohibit or enable the prohibition of participation in, or any activity in connection with, a strike or other industrial action.''

Amendment No. 63 would add to the end of subsection (3)(b),

''with the exception of industrial action that would lead to the endangerment of human life or property, or cause illness or injury''.

The right to strike is something that the Bill seeks to uphold, and rightly so. However, in the circumstances, our imagination should be allowed to travel a little further to appreciate the implications of a strike of crucial emergency services, road hauliers who provide food or any other firms whose right to strike in normal circumstances would be a sine qua non.

In the event of an emergency, a different light is thrown on the right to strike. This time last year, the firemen's strike was raging—if that is the right word to use. That prompted a different strand of thinking because not only did it endanger life at the time, but it seemed likely in January and February that we were about to fight a war against Iraq and, in the past, the Army had been used to overcome strikes by firemen. Some would argue that the Iraqis and the Iraqi cause are a current and present danger to the safety of the British Isles.

It would be wrong to allow firemen to strike when a large part of the infrastructure is either in flames or contaminated by the terrorist activities that we have described. To consider the likely effects of such an emergency not just at the site of the incident, but across the country, let us take the example of a terrorist attack in the south-west that happens to

coincide with an ambulance strike in Scotland. It is highly conceivable that Cornwall might need ambulances all the way from Scotland. That might be difficult to imagine at the moment, but in a Bill with these sorts of provisions it is important that we take our imagination one stage further.

Amendment No. 63 is designed to get the Government to explain how crucial services might be forbidden from striking. The Scottish ambulances would be needed not just at the scene of the incident in the south-west, but across the nation. The amendment would ensure that the emergency regulations cannot prohibit a strike or other industrial action unless the service that is on strike is crucial to ameliorating the emergency that has already occurred. I hope that the Minister can illuminate that point.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Cabinet Office) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 11:15 am, 10th February 2004

The Government cannot support the amendment and we will resist its inclusion. I was initially heartened to hear the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for modernising Conservative attitudes towards industrial relations; it seemed almost to be keeping pace with his enthusiasm for modernising the British constitution, which we heard about this morning. Alas, as his argument developed, my hopes were dashed.

Let me set out the basis of our argument and, I hope, provide the assurance that the hon. Gentleman seeks. Emergency powers are not designed to restrict industrial action, and the Government consider there to be merit in making that clear in the Bill; I hope that there can be agreement across the Committee on that. That, of course, reflects the position first set out in the Emergency Powers Act 1920. The Government are confident that that will not inappropriately impede the response to an emergency.

As I shall explain, existing criminal and employment relations laws already contain appropriate provisions to ensure that industrial action does not endanger human life. In particular, I refer the Committee to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which states:

''A person commits an offence who wilfully and maliciously breaks a contract of service . . . knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the probable consequences of his so doing . . . will be . . . to endanger human life or cause serious bodily injury, or . . . to expose valuable property . . . to destruction or serious injury.''

In addition, there are limits on the ability of the armed forces and the police to strike. The Government consider that the provisions hold good in emergency and non-emergency situations, and that there is therefore no need for emergency powers to be used in that case.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

I am grateful to the Minister for that clear exposé, notwithstanding one's views on the right or otherwise to strike.

Last year, we were spared the problems of having to deal with a potentially extremely damaging firemen's strike. The Minister has partially reassured me that thought has been given to the provisions that would be relevant in the event of a much more traumatic

emergency. On those grounds, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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 beg to move amendment No. 104, in

clause 22, page 15, line 31, at end insert

'; or—

( ) require a person, or enable a person to be required, to undergo any medical test, examination, treatment or vaccination if that person objects on the basis of his or her religious beliefs, but a person who objects to such a requirement on religious grounds may be placed in isolation or quarantine.'.

The amendment raises an issue that was brought to my attention by the Christian Scientists, but it would equally apply to a number of religious groups. It is important in Committee to explore serious concerns that people raise and to seek ministerial comment on them so that people can respond to that. The amendment deals with situations that are much more imaginable than some of those that have been described. It deals with compulsory medical treatment in the context of biological attacks on the United Kingdom, any of the other extreme terrorism circumstances that we have imagined, or other emergencies such as avian flu or foot and mouth diseases that somehow transfer to humans. There are quite a lot of circumstances covered by the emergency regulations for which one can imagine medical treatment or intervention being the object of the regulations. Many religious groups may, for one reason or another, have problems with particular types of medical intervention.

Under article 9 of the European convention on human rights—the right to freedom of religion—people would have grounds to take action perhaps subsequent to an attempt to require them to receive compulsory medical treatment. However, in an emergency, we will not have time to process the court claims; that will happen post hoc rather than before the regulators come in.

We can imagine a situation in which a regulation is introduced that says that a certain form of vaccination is compulsory for the population in a certain area. An individual may refuse on religious grounds, and be taken through the system and prosecuted because of that. Worse still, there may be some attempt to forcibly administer medication. Six months down the track, the person might get to the court system and find that they were right, or that their rights had been breached by the Government. However, that will not help them if something has happened that fundamentally violated their religious principles.

It is important briefly to explore that, and I hope that the Minister can give some assurances about how any kind of medical intervention applied to humans would be dealt with when it impinges on any group's religious beliefs, whether they are Christian Scientists or anyone else.

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

Although the Government cannot support the amendment and will resist it, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam has raised an important point. Let me try to set out the Government's position.

First, it would be helpful if I illustrated for the Committee the established approach to date. An adult of sound mind can refuse medical treatment, even if in so doing he or she is endangering their own life. Thus there is no question of a person of sound mind being compulsorily treated to save their life. When the failure of a person to accept treatment would have an effect on the health and life of others, for example if they are infectious—that circumstance could clearly be anticipated—it would be permissible to take action in relation to that person to protect the life and health of others. Such action would have to be proportionate. It would be possible to quarantine them or otherwise prevent them from infecting others.

The requirement to protect human life is one of the most fundamental provisions of the convention, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said, from which no derogation is possible, except in very limited, extreme cases in times of war, when that is the only way to prevent a person from threatening the life or health of others, and when it is necessary to do so. It is possible to conceive of theoretical cases in which it would be appropriate to treat people compulsorily. For example, if a person were highly infectious with a deadly disease for which there was no reliable cure and they refused treatment, if they persistently attempted to breach quarantine and there was no method in the time available to ensure that quarantine was enforced, it is possible that compulsory treatment would be considered. However, as I hope the example shows, the circumstances would have to be extreme and unusual.

Of course, efforts would be taken to ensure that such treatment was in accordance with the individual's beliefs as far as possible, but the risk of infection or contamination to others and the need for urgent action must remain the overriding concern. As the hon. Gentleman said, it should be remembered that any use of emergency regulations must be in full compliance with the European convention on human rights.

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

Can the Minister give us any idea about what is the balance of opinion across other jurisdictions? He has probably seen the 16 examples from American states that the Christian Science committee on publication have sent me and the Liberal Democrats. It seems that some enlightened states, such as Connecticut, Arizona, and Delaware—and even some that are not so enlightened—seem to have a provision allowing an individual to choose quarantine, rather than be forced to accept a mode of treatment that conflicts with their beliefs. On looking across the world, does he think that the provisions he has outlined for this country are modern and up to date?

There was a time when there was, perhaps, a rather more robust approach to these matters. However, given that nowadays people's human rights are to be respected—the Minister's party has made a great deal of that—should we not be considering whether we can accommodate religious beliefs, provided that that does not endanger the community? What is wrong with having something like the provision in Connecticut, which says:

''The Commissioner shall inform individuals subject to such vaccination order of the benefits and risks of the vaccine and an

individual's option to refuse to be vaccinated for any reason, including, but not limited to, health, religious, or conscientious objections. No individual shall be vaccinated unless such an individual''

consents?

Arizona has something similar.

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

In the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's intervention he recognised that a balance had to be struck between respecting individual religious beliefs and safeguarding the concern for the community, which is one of the underlying purposes of the Bill. He got to the nub of the issue.

On the American jurisdictions, it is the case that Connecticut and the other 49 states of the United States are not governed by the European convention on human rights. The situation in the UK is distinct from the American jurisdictions. However, I understand that there are examples at a European

level that might help him. I am happy to write to him on those points.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

The Minister's response was helpful. To paraphrase, he said that quarantine and so on would be used unless there was a threat under article 1 in connection with the right to life. I understand that the Government want a balance to be struck between the various rights. We shall study his statement and, in that context and given that it is nearly 11.25 am, it would not be helpful to press the amendment to a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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