HC Deb 26 June 1991 vol 193 cc1111-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

11.29 pm
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

I hope that it will be helpful to the House if, first, I define the type of national emergency that I have in mind, how the helpline system now works, what I believe to be wrong with it and then the details of my proposals.

Whether we like it or not, there is nothing so certain in this life as death and taxes, and a third qualifier, as it were, is national disasters. I shall outline briefly a few of the recent events that have prompted my interest in national emergencies. There have been the Lockerbie bomb, the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster, the fire in the tube station at King's Cross, the rail crash at Claphatn, the stadium riot at Heysel, the Bradford football club fire, the Hillsborough disaster, the east midlands air crash, most recently the M4 road crash, the terrible fire at Manchester airport and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

All these national disasters have one thing in common —the great anguish of those who were directly involved and the anguish that was caused to those who had a direct interest in the events. Apart from recent disasters, there was the Laconia disaster and Aberfan. We now have the continuing terrorist outrages that plague our country.

In the event of a national disaster, those who are involved in broadcasting a news bulletin read out a telephone number that will enable viewers to make immediate contact, theoretically at least, with an emergency control centre. They can register their interest and sometimes they can get news. There are several difficulties with the system. First, what is the number that is to be telephoned? The number is different whenever there is a disaster.

Secondly, there have been numerous occasions when individual control centres have had their switchboards jammed. Following the Zeebrugge disaster, it was especially distressing when it took parents up to two days before they could obtain news by means of the emergency telephone number. When two cruise ships collided outside Athens and a number of British school children were involved, I understand that some anguished parents could not get through to the emergency number for three days.

That is not the only sort of anguish that can be created. For example, following the Chernobyl disaster, a Minister went on the radio and accidentally provided the wrong telephone number when referring to a helpline. There were criticisms of P and O when it created a private helpline during the Zeebrugge disaster, as there were for Pan Am shortly after the Lockerbie air crash.

The role of the helpline is to register the interest of those involved and to enable information to be obtained. It is important that the House understands the anguish of parents when they are watching television and they see events take place, such as the riot at the Heysel stadium or the bursting into flames of the football stadium at Bradford, that result in people dying in front of their eyes.

We have had a recent example of the way in which a helpline can be operated by voluntary effort. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward), who helped to set up the Gulf helpline. It was a remarkable example of people pulling together to meet one common need.

My proposal is the creation of one helpline number that would be permanent. At present, television viewers, radio listeners and parents generally hear a telephone number broadcast during a news bulletin and they rush to write it down. They are assured that the number will be repeated at the end of the bulletin. They may wait until the end of the bulletin to make sure that they have written down the correct number, only to discover on dialling it that the switchboard is in a state of meltdown—that it is being jammed by calls. Other difficulties may arise. Often, someone who fails to get the telephone number will ring his local police station to find out what it is. But the local police will not know it. Similarly, the telephone operator or directory inquiries will not know the number.

I propose that the single permanent number should be available to operators, to directory inquiries and to all police officers. It will also, I hope, be printed in the front of every telephone directory along with the numbers of the other emergency services. A number that immediately springs to mind is 0800 999 999.

If we have a single permanent number, difficulties may arise if two disasters occur on the same day. Let me explain to the House what I hope the technical procedure for the operation of the system will be. The 0800 numbers are operated by British Telecom's linkline service. Linkline has eight exchanges across the country and acts as a relay service. I have discussed my proposal with British Telecom, whose representatives tell me that it would be perfectly possible to put in place an 0800 number and to arrange for relays at very short notice. At present, linkline operates for commercial organisations with five days' warning. But I am told that, if asked to do so, it could operate within a matter of hours. I hope that the prospect of two disasters occurring on the same day will not deter the Government from taking an interest in my proposal. The principle remains the same, even if some of the technical details remain to be ironed out.

There is also the question, "Who will pay?" Today we heard the news that the sex lines and chat lines alone are responsible for taking about £200 million, and I suggest that they might have money available to contribute a small amount towards an 0800 number. An alternative that might be attractive to the Government is some method of commercial sponsorship. I know that this has not been the best day in the history of Lloyd's, but perhaps an insurance company might be a suitable sponsor for such a development.

The matter is the responsibility of the emergency planning department at the Home Office, and I am grateful to the Minister of State for being here to reply to the debate. My proposal is born of common sense. I started to try to find out over two years ago whether it would be possible to institute a single permanent number. During my research, I have discovered that, in embarking on operating a helpline system, it is important to have a large number of skilled counsellors at one's disposal. Many people in the civil service already have the necessary skills to operate helplines and can relieve the anguish and suffering of those on the other end of a telephone line. I hope that, if such a system is adopted, the civil service will keep a permanent record of those who have the necessary skills.

Having discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, I understand that the Foreign Office initially found it quite difficult to cope with the flood of calls and with the great emotion expressed over the telephone during the Gulf war, but that gradually, taking advantage of the skills of those who had worked with the Samaritans and on other telephone helplines, it got together a large group of enthusiastic people.

I believe that my proposal has the support of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has undertaken some research. Last year, an exercise was conducted near Bristol in which an entirely notional aircraft crashed on an entirely notional railway train. I hope that such a thing will never happen; the intention was to create a scenario that would test the system that I propose.

I understand—I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me more—that my proposal is entirely practicable. My noble Friend Lord Ferrers has worked hard at researching the subject, and has greatly assisted the campaign that I have conducted over the past two years.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his patience in staying to answer the debate. He has been very helpful to me in the past over other issues, and has also been helpful to my constituents. I hope that he will consider my proposal sympathetically.

11.40 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) on raising such an important and interesting subject. Let me also associate myself with his comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward), which were richly deserved: pulling together that Gulf war operation was a remarkable achievement.

I can, to an extent, reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay that the Government are proceeding in the direction in which he wishes us to go. First, however, I should like to describe some of the work that the Home Office has been doing under the leadership of my noble Friend Lord Ferrers, whose representative on earth I am this evening: I think that that would be helpful.

My hon. Friend referred to the spate of disasters that struck the United Kingdom in those bad years, 1987 and 1988—for instance, the tragic events at King's Cross, Clapham and Zeebrugge. It was in 1988 that, as Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), now Foreign Secretary, set in hand a review of the current arrangements for dealing with civil emergencies. He announced the outcome to the House on 15 June 1989.

My right hon. Friend concluded that the prime responsibility for handling particular disasters should remain at local level. I think that that is common ground between my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay and myself. It is at local level that expertise and knowledge reside; that is where co-ordination between the agencies responding to disaster is carried out most effectively. There was no support from practitioners—the people at the sharp end—for a national disaster squad, but there were a number of demands for much greater co-ordination. It was strongly felt that helpline communications should be put on a much firmer footing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay on the constructive campaign that he has conducted over the past two years to develop this idea, and the practical ideas that he has presented to Lord Ferrers.

My right hon. Friend's review also concluded that improved arrangements were needed to provide national supervision of the development of co-ordinated emergency planning, and also to address some specific practical issues that have been raised by disasters. Much more co-ordination was needed. For that reason, my right hon. Friend appointed Mr. David Brook as civil emergencies adviser to the Home Office in November 1989. I only wish that such a person had been appointed earlier.

Our starting point, when we consider arrangements for responding to peacetime emergencies, is the need for the response to be local. The Government accept the need for information about any emergency to be made available quickly to those who need it, and the lead Department will play a part in that by providing Ministers and Parliament with bulletins. However, the most up-to-date and reliable information about the nature and scale of the emergency will always be available first and foremost to local agencies on the spot. They will be in the best position to collect the information, and they will have it before it is available to central Government and to Ministers. It is the local agencies which, in the end, will be best able to convey the information to the general public—certainly in the first hours, and perhaps in the first day or so immediately after a serious civil emergency.

It would also be helpful to distinguish between the different types of information that the public will be looking for in the aftermath of a civil emergency in peacetime. First, and very importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay said, people will want to find out whether their relatives and friends have been caught up in the emergency. That is everybody's natural instinct. Casualty bureaux, manned by the police, play a vital role in collating and recording information about people who were or who may have been involved and passing information to relatives and friends and, in some cases, to investigating officers.

Anybody who has any knowledge of civil emergencies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay does, will know that running a casualty bureau is a tremendously complex job. There is a huge amount of information to process and calls come in at a phenomenal rate. I choose my words carefully, particularly the word "phenomenal." For example, within six hours of the Hillsborough casualty bureaux being opened, 1.75 million call attempts were made, but only about 1,000 of those got through. Many hon. Members will know that, after the Zeebrugge disaster, the number of calls to the Kent police casualty bureau was so great that it entirely jammed the Maidstone telephone exchange, in the way that my hon. Friend described could happen, under similar circumstances, to any telephone exchange.

Our adviser, Mr. Brook, has been examining the operation of casualty bureaux as one of his key remits from the Home Secretary and Lord Ferrers. I am pleased to be able to say—my hon. Friend's debate has helped us to crystallise and put into words our proposals—that proposals have been developed that should greatly enhance the capacity of any casualty bureau to handle calls from the public and to process the information that they provide, using the latest telecommunications technology advanced linkline. With that, incoming calls can be shared between police forces, using up to 500 incoming lines.

We are looking to introduce this new facility just as soon as developments on the new police national computer, PNC2, will allow. The new police national computer will come into operation later this year. By the end of 1991, it will be fully operational. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will then need to decide, in the light of the available machine and manpower resources, which of a number of competing applications should be given priority for implementation on the system, but the case for the early introduction of a proper casualty bureau system will be given very careful consideration in terms of getting the order of priorities right.

Persuasive though my hon. Friend's comments are about the need for rapid access into casualty bureaux, there may not be a strong case for using the same number for all casualty bureaux. After a civil emergency, the casualty bureau usually goes live and its number is publicised a little while after the disaster strikes—perhaps within an hour or so. This delay is necessary to allow the police to gather reliable information about the emergency, to call in staff to man the bureau and—very important —to arrange with British Telecom for incoming lines and telephone exchanges to be protected to minimise the risk of the system crashing, which can happen under those circumstances.

Even when the system is protected against overloading by the advanced linkline system, this delay of an hour or so will still be needed. With one casualty bureau telephone number only, publicised in the telephone book and elsewhere, perhaps, as my hon. Friend suggested, calls would be made as soon as the public heard of the emergency—which, in these days of almost instant communication, would very probably be before the bureau was functioning in a particular disaster area. Alas, this would do nothing to ease the plight of people seeking news of their friends and relatives. I recognise that the problem could be circumvented if a national casualty bureau were manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, like the 999 system, but that would not be a good use of police resources, especially as, mercifully, the bureau would be inactive for much of the year.

Another reason why it would not be wise to have only one telephone number for casualty bureaux is that, if two disasters strike in quick succession, as, alas, they have done, we would need to set up two distinct bureaux. There could be serious consequences if casualty information went to the wrong bureau or were lost between the two. When the bureau becomes operational on PNC2, British Telecom will set aside at least six numbers for use solely for casualty bureaux, and the number to be used will be announced on the day.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay will join me in welcoming the new system, which is based on advanced linkline. Many more calls will be handled and it is hoped that the problems of callers being unable to get through to the bureau or of the system being swamped with calls and then failing or crashing will be overcome. The system has all the advantages of my hon. Friend's concept, but it avoids the possible disadvantages if two disasters occur close together.

The public will be looking not just for information about casualties and survivors, so I should like to say a little more about the methods by which information about the nature of a disaster and its effects on the community will be available on the new system, whatever numbers are used. It has not been decided whether it will be an 0800 or an 0345 number.

We must be cautious about basing plans for providing information to the public solely on the telephone. In many recent severe weather emergencies, telephone lines were brought down and people were left without the use of their phones for considerable periods. We must remember, too, that not everyone has ready access to a telephone, although I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer sometimes thinks that too many people have too ready access to telephones. In the aftermath of an emergency, if a telephone system has been damaged, we would run the risk of overloading the system if unnecessary calls were made.

In addition, we must never forget that, even with a free phone system dedicated to emergencies, hoaxers will use the line. It is hard to appreciate, but it is true, that a substantial number of hoax calls were made during recent emergencies. Only yesterday, the House passed a Lords amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that increased the maximum penalty for making hoax calls from five years to seven years.

The aim should be to convey information to the public without them having to telephone to obtain it. The media will always be an invaluable source of information. Nowadays, just about everyone has access to a battery-powered radio, and radio, particularly local radio, can relay up-to-date information, reflecting local circumstances, to the majority of the population. Most local authorities and emergency services include arrangements for briefing the media as part of their planning for responding to peace-time emergencies.

New systems will be introduced as soon as possible to handle the many thousands of calls that are made to casualty bureaux, and we are making good progress towards a bigger and much more flexible system. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay will feel that we have gone some considerable way towards meeting the system that he wishes to see us introduce, and I congratulate him on crystallising the issue so clearly in his excellent speech.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Twelve midnight.