Emergency Broadcasting Systems

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 13th May 2003.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 11:00 am, 13th May 2003

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We live in different times: the threat has changed and technology has moved on since the time of the cold war. As a community, the UK faces an increase in both natural and man-made disasters, whether as a result of climate change or failing technology. Consequently, we face severe flooding, train crashes and incidents involving hazardous materials, apparently with increasing regularity. Following the events of 11 September, we face the threat of random chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear—CBRN—suicide and conventional attacks by international terrorist groups, rather than invasion by hostile nations.

Maintaining public confidence in authorities has been shown to be instrumental in preventing mass panic and facilitating post-attack procedures. One of the most effective methods of maintaining such confidence is through communication and information dissemination. However, the Government's current guidelines significantly underestimate that vital aspect of managing and limiting damage following an attack or large-scale incident. For example, if there were an outbreak of a high-risk infectious disease such as smallpox, NHS Direct would be the only information service available to the public, apart from, presumably, the UK Resilience website. It is likely that, in the event of such an outbreak, the NHS Direct telephone service would be overwhelmed. It is therefore essential to provide supplementary sources of up-to-date information and advice for the public that can be easily accessed and readily understood.

The Government's website, UK Resilience, contains publicly accessible information on dealing with certain types of attack. However, that is insufficient to ensure the widespread dissemination of information, as it assumes that everyone has access to the web and that those who have will consult the site in an emergency. Although we might want to see 100 per cent. penetration of the internet, that is not the position at present, so the onus must be on the Government to ensure that the public are aware of possible responses to emergencies. The Government must consider a variety of media, as following, say, a nuclear incident or a large explosion, some communication networks, such as the telephone or television, may no longer function or may function only partly. They must also ensure that access to information is available to all sectors of society, not just to those with mobile phones or computers.

Any information strategy should be proactive as well as reactive in its outlook. Therefore, the Government should not rely entirely on post-attack dissemination of information. An informed, prepared public are less likely to panic in an emergency if they are aware of suitable responses that they can make themselves and are assured of an effective response by the authorities. Up-to-date generic advice on dealing with incidents should be made readily available in the form of leaflets and posters, as was discussed during a debate in this place a couple of months ago.

We can and should prepare now for eventualities for which we know that we are ill prepared and barely informed on. A recent episode of the BBC's "Panorama" suggested that many of the routes and modes designated for mass evacuation from London are unlikely to cope with large numbers of people in a short time. The rush hour demonstrates that daily, and evacuation information is not readily available to the public.

It is important to satisfy the vision that the national steering committee on public warning and information has of an integrated public warning and information package across the UK designed to meet local, regional and national needs. It is worth saying that we are not talking about a siren warning system. That was dismantled in 1992–93 and would be inappropriate in this day and age, as well as too costly to roll out. We need—again, in the words of the national steering committee—

"a coherent national policy on warning and informing the public . . . to increase the resilience of the UK".

Like the NSC, I acknowledge that public warning and information systems have improved. Parts of the jigsaw are already in place locally and nationally—certainly in relation to flood prevention and response to flood incidents—but the NSC identifies significant issues that remain: the absence of clear, statutory responsibilities for warning the public during many types of incident; the lack of a national culture of public awareness of how to respond to large-scale incidents, an aspect in which the USA is better prepared than the UK; and the ability to warn a static and transient population at all times of the day and night.

For those reasons, in my ten-minute Bill on 1 April, I called for an emergency broadcasting system with the ability to broadcast messages widely across different media and channels. That would save lives. The risk of doing without such an emergency broadcasting system is that information will not be provided, that it will be provided in an inconsistent fashion or that it will be provided to people at different times. That could lead to uncertainty and confusion when what is needed is clarity and confidence.

I hope that the Minister agrees—I know that he does—that, given recent incidents and events, a strategy for public information and reassurance is needed. How does he see that strategy developing? We know that there is a civil contingencies Bill, and we hope that it will be introduced soon. Can the Minister provide any information on the date when a draft Bill, White Paper or Green Paper will be available for consideration? When the Bill emerges, will it address public warning and information?

The sirens and new technology working group—the SNTG—recommends that the new legislative framework set out which agencies have responsibility for issuing public warnings and that a single national agency be made responsible for strategy and policy. What position does the Minister adopt on that? Does he think, as does the SNTG, that a single local agency should be made responsible for the command and control of public warnings prior to, during or after a major incident?

The NSC has suggested that any national policy needs to be able to respond to a variety of scenarios and that, during a catastrophic event with a short lead time, there is a need to contact a static person in their own dwelling, a static person in their place of work, a traveller on foot, a traveller in a vehicle and a traveller wishing to know about events elsewhere, for example, if they are moving into an area with possible flooding or a remote location with severe weather conditions. It will clearly be difficult to identify a technological solution that can address all those scenarios.

If we are to strengthen UK Resilience, a multi-channel strategy is the only way forward. I wonder whether the Minister agrees that the Government need to take a lead on developing such an emergency broadcasting system using a range of media. If we want national standards and protocols, the dissemination of good practice and a solution to the problem of responding to emergencies, the Government must take the lead. The Government need to help to facilitate the introduction of such systems and may need to legislate to introduce new licence requirements for telecommunications and broadcast media. I wonder whether they are considering the idea and are willing to entertain it.

Finally, if the Minister has free time in his diary tonight, will he be tuning into the BBC 2 programme, "The Day Britain Stopped"? The publicity for that programme describes it as a powerful drama examining a devastating chain of events on 19 December 2003, which, according to the drama, leaves Britain paralysed. The scenario is that we are facing a national crisis because the transport infrastructure is unable to cope with daily traffic volumes. That does not sound like the future—we are already there: our roads are the most congested in Europe, our skies are the most crowded in the world and our rail network lurches from disaster to disaster. In the drama, a combination of events leads to the implosion of the transport system, strikes and an incident involving two planes.

The scenario is clearly alarmist, but the Minister would probably concede that its individual components have occurred and that it is possible to envisage freak circumstances in which they all occur simultaneously. If such circumstances were to arise, does he feel that the emergency planning system is resilient enough to cope? What sort of emergency broadcasting system does he believe would be best equipped to deal with such a catastrophe? He will know that there are various options, which are helpfully set out on a website called www.cell-alert.co.uk, including sirens, public address systems, television, radio, radio RDS, telephone, electricity power lines, SMS text messages and cell broadcasting.

Does the Minister favour any of those systems? I favour the cell broadcasting system, which, if I understand the technology correctly, enables a message to be sent almost instantly to every person who owns a mobile phone. The cells are regional, which allows a message to be targeted on a particular region or regions. That system should be combined with television and radio to cover those people who do not have access to a mobile phone, perhaps because they are elderly or are permanently at home. Have the Government estimated the cost of such a system? A combination of the cell system, television and radio would ensure the simultaneous delivery of information. Has an estimate been made of the time scale in which such a system could be rolled out?

In conclusion, we cannot afford to skimp on emergency broadcasting systems or opt for obsolete technology, and we certainly cannot afford to delay. I hope that the Minister can provide reassurance on all the fronts that I have outlined so that we can avoid the fiction of "The Day Britain Stopped" becoming a reality.