Clause 23 - Regional and Emergency Coordinators

Civil Contingencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 10th February 2004.

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Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark 2:45 pm, 10th February 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 128, in

clause 23, page 16, line 10, at end insert—

'(d) competence and demonstration of said competence'.

It is nice to see you back in the Chair, Mr. Benton, in this Room, which is much cosier than the one we used previously.

I trust that amendment No. 28 is relatively simple. The clause refers to regional and emergency co-ordinators and states:

''Emergency regulations must require a senior Minister of the Crown to appoint''

emergency co-ordinators and regional nominated co-ordinators. It goes on to say that in accordance with subsection (1) the provision may

''in particular, include provision about the coordinator's . . . terms of appointment . . . conditions of service (including remuneration), and . . . functions.''

The amendment would include, in a new paragraph (d),

''competence and demonstration of said competence''.

It is fairly clear that the co-ordinator has laid down his or her terms of appointment, the money that they will get and what they are expected to do, but nowhere in the provisions are we assured that the person will be physically competent for the job. Who might be a regional co-ordinator? What tests are there to ensure that the person will be up to the job?

The question stands comparison with the issue of how competence and training take place under the control of major accident hazards—COMA—regulations. That duty is discharged under legislation dealing with industrial and commercial sites. Each industrial site must ensure and demonstrate that its staff are competent to perform their safety and critical duties. Such sites must demonstrate safe systems procedures, correct performance, safety behaviours and attitudes, emergency response procedures, competence to provide safety critical tasks, and so on. Under the COMA regulations, a duty is imposed to carry out training to ensure that those things will happen.

Who will the individual co-ordinator be? We have talked endlessly—I have bored endlessly—about the nature of an emergency. It would be helpful if the Minister could illuminate us as to who the individual is to be, and convince us that that person will be competent to handle an emergency. Might it, for example, be a local government officer? If so, how do we know that he or she will have any competence in dealing with disaster?

Who else could it be? Could it be the regional territorial army commander? Is he or she likely to be competent? Yes, probably. It would be reassuring if we could have some indication from the Minister about not just what the person will be paid, what he or she will be expected to do and how long the contract will

last, but who it is to be, so that we can be sure that we are not sending a boy to do a man's job.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Cabinet Office) and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 3:00 pm, 10th February 2004

That seemed a curiously ageist comment on which to end what was otherwise a useful contribution. This is not an amendment that the Government can support, so we will resist it. The current emergency powers framework has always allowed central Government to confer responsibilities and delegate powers to deal with an emergency. The Bill does not change that. The regional nominated co-ordinators will be the focus for many of the new powers, delivering greater transparency and accountability. Such people will co-ordinate efforts at a regional level, providing strategic overview and a focus for media handling—a role that previous emergencies have shown to be vital. They will be able to act only within strict parameters: the powers given in emergency regulations. RNCs will be directly accountable to Ministers and, through them, to Parliament.

Regional and emergency co-ordinators will have three broad areas of expertise: subject matter specialisation—for example, public health—crisis management expertise and regional knowledge. All will be trained crisis managers with considerable leadership skills and personal authority. Establishing the right mix of skills will be a task for the planning phase during which the nomination will take place. Training will be tailored to build up the nominees' capabilities in the three identified areas to ensure that they can function effectively in any of them.

There is no question that RNCs will be appointed on any basis other than their competence to do the job, and that level of competence will be set very high, as befits such a significant post. I was challenged to name typical RNCs. Clearly, it is difficult to generalise, as it will depend on circumstances. However, it might be the chief constable of a region, a senior army officer from a local brigade, as was suggested, a senior regional officer from the state veterinary service, a regional director of public health or a director from a regional government office.

Reference was made to the control of major accident hazards regulations. Those cover very specific technical areas that are not, I would suggest, directly analogous to those to be handled by the RNCs. The circumstances that we are trying to anticipate vary widely. However, the basic point holds good. We need to ensure that there are competencies in every area; it would be otiose to put a general statement in the Bill when we are considering a range of qualities.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

Does a list of people already exist?

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

Work is under way in Government. We are seeking to develop a comprehensive list that encapsulates Government Departments' awareness of technical experts in their own areas of responsibility, such as public health or animal health. That will be matched with the effort to ensure that in each region of the United Kingdom we have people with the requisite skills and experience of or training in crisis management. I can assure that hon. Gentleman that that work is under way. There have been positive

experiences in the past—consider the foot and mouth crisis in Cumbria, from which we learned a great deal about what makes for effective co-ordination across geographic boundaries and liaison with central Government. Since then, we have progressed work that explains both the statutory framework that we are putting before the Committee and the work that has been done within Government Departments.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

When the Joint Committee considered the draft Bill, it contained a let-out allowing the Government not to consult the National Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly on matters of urgency. That let-out was deleted early in the Bill in clauses that related to designated areas of emergency, but it seems to have reappeared in another form under this clause. What is the logic of saying that the urgency clause should be dropped in favour of the absolute duty to consult the devolved Administrations when declaring an emergency, yet leaving it to cover the appointment of the regional co-ordinator? To be fair, the Government accepted the arguments about the other urgency clause.

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

I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's point. With the forbearance of the Committee, I shall write to him. I took note of his first point about consulting the National Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

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

Subsection (1)(a) talks about emergency co-ordinators for a ''Part''. I understand that ''Part'' is a country. Is the Minister satisfied that that would work well? England, for example, has a much larger population than, say, Wales. Is he satisfied that giving each country an emergency co-ordinator is a proper way of dividing up the United Kingdom for these purposes and, if he is, will he explain why?

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

I hope that I can clarify those points. First, England could have regional co-ordinators who work at a regional level in England. In that sense, the appropriate comparison would be between a region of England and parts of the UK—in this case Scotland and, as the hon. Gentleman said, Wales—where the emergency co-ordinators would otherwise operate.

Photo of John Horam John Horam Conservative, Orpington

I presume that the Minister is referring to the standard regions when he talks about the regions of England.

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

There is a statutory basis for the regions, which I will happily share with members of the Committee. ''Part'' means England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and ''region'' was defined in the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. There are nine such regions: east midlands, eastern, London, north-east, north-west, south-east, south-west, west midlands, and Yorkshire and Humber.

The only other point that I want to make while I am still on my feet relates to the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies. I understand that a concordat was drawn up, which will form the basis of my letter about the operation of emergency co-ordinators and the relationship between the devolved Administrations in

Scotland and Wales and central Government in the UK.

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

Concordats are being drawn up at the moment, so the hon. Gentleman's intervention may be timely. I will ensure that I will address that point in my letter to him.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

The Minister has explained extremely clearly and concisely why the Government will resist the amendment. I feel a little easier now that the Minister has told us that work is already being undertaken to identify these various individuals, who will be required to demonstrate experience and confidence in three different fields. He did not, however, answer my question about whether these people would be told that they were going to be on this list.

Mr. Alexander indicated assent.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

The Minister is nodding, so I assume that they will be told. I very much hope that the list will be kept up to date and that the incoming regional brigadiers will become fully aware of exactly what their duties will be in an emergency. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I refer the Minister to what the National Council for Civil Protection has said. I quote verbatim from the question put to me. It says:

''If an emergency is affecting a region so severely that Ministers have decided it is necessary to apply Emergency Powers, then it should be a democratically elected Minister who chairs the strategic decision making group and is subsequently accountable for the actions taken, rather than an appointed official such as a Chief Constable.''

It goes on:

''This is in line with existing 'Lead Government Department' arrangements for central government's involvement in emergencies, which are proposed to continue. If Emergency Powers are declared, then it follows that the central government is involved, so the appropriate government department must be leading, and at the head of each government department is a Minister.''

I ask the Minister to respond to that.

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

I am in dangerous waters in describing the relative merits of Ministers and competent officials. I will, none the less, seek to make some progress. The first point I make is that clearly, under our parliamentary system, Ministers are accountable for all actions under emergency regulations. That will include the appointment and functions of the regional nominated co-ordinators.

I think, therefore, that there is a genuine disagreement between ourselves and the submission that the hon. Gentleman referred to. We are keen to uphold the lead Government Department principle, in the sense that one of the bodies charged with

responsibility for drawing up the list of people will be lead Departments. For example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will have responsibility on animal health and the Department of Health on public health. There will continue to be a direct involvement for the lead Departments.

On the other hand, we wanted to ensure that accountability was secured to Parliament over ministerial decisions. The Minister will be responsible for the appointment of the regional nominated co-ordinator. To suggest that there should be another structure with a regional level of accountability could confuse the degree of clarity that is valuable in ensuring that the Minister responsible will be accountable to this House for ensuring that the right person has been appointed.

To cover the ground that I have touched on, the individual appointed by the Minister to the post would be selected on the basis of specific expertise. Rather than, for example, the democratic mandate secured for an individual in one locality, it would be the technical expertise of the individual that would be an important element in their ability to exercise the personal authority necessary in an emergency. In that sense, I do not think that that usurps the role of local democracy. It supplements the democratic accountability of a Minister to this place with a degree of technical expertise that is in keeping with command authority in difficult circumstances—in the event of a contingency.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.