HC Deb 07 June 2000 vol 351 cc396-402

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

10.22 pm
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

It seems appropriate to move from military defence to civil defence or, as the title of the debate terms it, civil protection. I know that that is a somewhat outmoded phrase for what is now known as emergency planning, but I wonder whether some policy makers in the Home Office have not moved on from the days of tin hats and sirens, or the even more ridiculous days when public protection was all about advising people to put a white sheet over the kitchen table and to hide under it in the event of a nuclear attack. In those days civil defence had a poor image, certainly among people who thought about the consequences of nuclear war. However, we are now talking about emergency planning, which is completely different.

I am grateful for this debate because the Isle of Wight has been uniquely disadvantaged by administrative events. Before 1995, the Isle of Wight was a county authority and the existing regulations meant that it had to have two minor authorities, so it was a county with two boroughs. That meant that the island attracted Home Office grants for emergency planning for two boroughs and a county. After reorganisation, it was recognised that we had particular difficulties because we were a county unitary authority. We retained a degree of Home Office comfort and our funding for emergency planning dropped only from £168,000 to £90,000 a year. Unfortunately, that comfort is being eroded. It was £63,000 for the year 2000–01 and is due to drop even further to some £53,000, or even, at the worst, £35,000 thereafter. If the Government drop the level beyond a point where we can employ a proper department, it is difficult to meet Home Office guidance for the service for which the grant is supposed.

One reason why the Isle of Wight is unique is not the nostalgia of having been a county for so long and now being a unitary authority, but because we must be self-sufficient in many respects. We are cut off from the mainland by the sea. Our nearest neighbours in Hampshire take some two hours to get to the island to offer any meaningful support. We have had incidents where the fire service has been so stretched that we have had to ask for support from the mainland, but instead of popping across a local authority boundary, those from the mainland must find a ferry, commandeer space on the ferry and come across. That makes a significant difference.

There is an added complication. Anyone involved with planning—which is, after all, about bringing emergency services together—must spend time talking to surrounding authorities that may have common interests. Again, it takes an incredible amount of officer time just to travel from one place to another.

We have made that case on a number of occasions. In October 1998, I led a deputation to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) when he was at the Home Office. I have written in the past to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), who I am delighted to see is here to respond to the debate. Other than gaining an interim bit of support, we have not been successful.

I should like to point out what accepting the full cuts that the Home Office proposes for the service on the island would mean. It would be possible to continue the maintenance of an annual plan, but that would probably be the maximum that could be provided, because there is all the co-operative work on the more detailed matters such as port safety. We have an oil refinery to the north of us, and Cap de la Hague lighthouse is to the south of us. Those are potentially difficult problems.

The other day, I was at a conference at the Southampton oceanography institute where I was introduced as "The Member for the Isle of Wight, that useful breakwater at the other end of the Solent". That was fairly disparaging of my constituency, but the speaker made a valuable point in that we are a traffic island in the middle of an extremely busy bit of sea.

Minor mishaps are not unusual, and we have had some major mishaps involving shipping. We have had boats crashing into each other, crashing into light towers and being cut open and discharging oil. Major disasters have been narrowly averted, but incidents have needed the activation of the major incident plan. To anticipate what the Minister might say, can we not co-ordinate all that regionally? We cannot.

There is a need for local knowledge in dealing with many of those issues. We have some superb voluntary services working closely with our expert fire and rescue service. The health authority clearly needs input from emergency planners for its major disaster plan. It would be difficult to serve not only a population of 125,000, but the extra people who may come on shore quite quickly should there be a repeat, for example, of the Canberra near disaster a few years ago, when many passengers had to be evacuated in a hurry.

Over the past 10 years, there have been some serious events. After the big storms in 1986 and 1987, all the emergency services, the voluntary services and anyone who could be found worked flat out. They were co-ordinated according to a well-honed plan, and all the statutory and voluntary organisations knew their place in the scheme of things.

In 1994 there was a serious event involving the Canberra, which luckily turned out to be all right, but there was a major evacuation. In 1995 one of the holiday camps caught fire and a major evacuation was required. Again, support brought in from the mainland had to be co-ordinated. A number of oil spillages and unknown chemicals on beaches all needed the input of people able to co-ordinate the efforts of the statutory services.

The most recent significant incident occurred in December when there was widespread flooding all over the island, causing hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. There must be a system in place to get in the right people from social services and to mobilise the Women's Royal Voluntary Service. Such a system needs to be provided by people who are local.

If the council had accepted the Home Office cut in funding, there would not be a duty officer on call 24 hours a day. With a fund of no more than £50,000, three people cannot be employed to make sure that there is always somebody on the island who is wakeable, fit and on duty. The council considered the cuts unacceptable and is at present supporting the service out of its general Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions revenue.

That is what councils get Government grant for, but we seem to be particularly unlucky with the Home Office. which sets standards for departments such as our fire and rescue service without funding what it expects us to deliver. The fire and rescue service is regularly inspected by the Home Office inspectorate. It gets glowing reports for its efficiency, and we are told that we cannot do with less than we currently have, yet the island general grant must subsidise our fire service by some 59 per cent.

It is extraordinarily difficult to keep cutting services that must be paid for out of the ordinary council income to support Home Office projects. I know that the sum in question is very small, but it is symbolic. Every Government Department makes requirements of the people living in my constituency and the local authority that looks after their welfare, without recognising the island factor.

A number of reputable accountants and consultancy companies have e examined the cost of maintaining services across a stretch of water. Even a few years ago, that was reckoned to be at least £6 per head of the population. That leaves a significant shortfall for a council that tries to provide services at least equal to those provided in the rest of England.

During the Scottish devolution debate, I almost intervened to suggest that should the Scots need a naval base on the south coast, I should be happy to offer my constituency, because the Scotland Office understands the extra costs and extra risks involved in living on an island. I am afraid that our political masters in this place and the civil servants in Whitehall think that the Isle of Wight is so far away that they do not have to worry about it, or they cannot see the little bit of blue on the map that makes us unique. I look forward to the Minister's explanation of how the Department has monitored our progress. Last year, he promised that the Government would monitor the island's emergency planning needs. I am ever hopeful that they will acknowledge that they must do something about it.

10.35 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I reassure the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) that I know where the Isle of Wight is. I have enjoyed its hospitality on several occasions. I was in Shanklin a few weeks ago, enjoying the weather and the fine opportunities for a holiday that exist in Britain on the Isle of Wight.

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the Isle of Wight emergency planning services. They have done a good job on several occasions. It is the council's role, primarily through its Government grant, but also through its council tax income, to fund those services. I hope that the council continues to do that.

The Home Office provided a civil defence grant of £14 million this financial year. The payment contributes towards the cost of specific civil defence duties, which are defined in statute as countering the effects of a hostile attack by a foreign power. It is not, and never has been, intended to meet the full cost of ordinary emergency planning services.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the role of civil defence has changed in the past couple of decades. The Home Office is not supposed to fund all civil defence planning through the grant. It does not claim to do that because it is primarily the council's responsibility.

The restructuring of local authorities between 1995 and 1998 necessitated changes to the way in which the Home Office contributes to the civil defence function in local government. I am sorry to say that I cannot offer much comfort to the hon. Gentleman because the legislation essentially refers to war planning. It is therefore unlikely that overall funding will increase.

Changes in local government structure clearly had an impact on the Isle of Wight. As a result of the changes in local government, there were more eligible candidates for the grant, and we reassessed our allocation system. Change is always difficult, and the Isle of Wight is especially unhappy about the new method of funding. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to explain to the House the rationale for some of the adjustments. I am also grateful for the chance to affirm how civil protection in England and Wales generally is enhanced by the new financial arrangements.

The previous system of grant distribution was based on a formula which was agreed with the local government associations in 1992. It was largely based on a two-tier system of local governance, which differentiated between county councils and smaller authorities such as district councils. The reorganisation of local government created several new all-purpose unitary authorities; each has a responsibility for civil defence and, consequently, access to a civil defence grant.

The reorganisation created numerous anomalies in the funding arrangements. They could he properly addressed only by introducing a new mechanism. The Home Office consulted with the Local Government Association and a new three-tier grant distribution was announced on 26 May 1999. The mechanism is based on the following rationale: all authorities with civil defence responsibilities will receive a basic allocation of £45,000 to ensure minimum, basic preparedness. County councils will receive an allocation of £10,000 for each district council in the county boundary to recognise the help that a county must provide to constituent districts.

Remaining grant after the first two elements have been addressed is allocated according to criteria adopted under the Bellwin scheme, which is operated by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It sets a level of expenditure above which central Government may contribute to costs incurred by local authorities in responding to major incidents.

Dr. Brand

I appreciate the Minister setting out exactly how the new arrangements were arrived at, but he has just described the difficulty that has been created for the Isle of Wight, which had one county and two districts and would therefore have qualified for some £65,000 under the new arrangements. How can he claim that civil defence has been enhanced by a cut in funding? The island is unique. Powys is similar as it has a unitary county authority, although it is not cut off by the sea. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Isle of Wight should be one of the unitary authorities for which Winchester receives an extra grant? That is not our understanding.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to continue his intervention.

Mr. O'Brien

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's point about the Isle of Wight's status, with which I am familiar, in a moment. No doubt particular problems are associated with island status, but my experience is that no matter which council comes forward, it will identify the local difficulties that it has to face, which it says are unique, in the hope that the Government will identify the area as worthy of special treatment.

Let me continue the point about the Bellwin scheme. The use of that scheme acknowledges some relationship between population size and the work load of emergency planning teams in large areas. The new mechanism provides funds to all eligible councils. To ensure protection for areas in which grant is reducing, the impact of the new mechanism is being phased in during the current financial year.

Under the previous grant distribution system, each county council was entitled to £140,000 in its own right with a supplement of £14,000 for each district in the county area. That gave the Isle of Wight £168,000 in 1993–94, which was reduced to £153,216 by 1998–99. It was agreed with the local government associations that grant would be ring-fenced by county area as an interim measure until the new grant distribution mechanism was in place. When the Isle of Wight became an all-purpose authority after the merging of the county and two district authorities, it received far in excess of the £35,000 provided to similar authorities. The Home Office acknowledged that that anomaly should be addressed in the new grant distribution mechanism.

On 3 August 1998, the then head of the Home Office emergency planning division wrote to the Isle of Wight to say that we intended to reduce its grant for 1999–2000 to £70,000 in a move towards equalising the grant available to each all-purpose authority. Following representations from the Isle of Wight about that reduction, a Home Office emergency planning unit official visited the island on the 11 November 1998 to discuss how the reductions would be made with minimum effect on emergency planning arrangements. Subsequently, to acknowledge that the reductions would significantly affect the emergency planning funding arrangements for the island and to assist it in managing the inevitable further reductions—it was made clear that those reductions were inevitable—it was agreed that the allocation for 1999–2000 should be £90,000, not £70,000.

On 26 May 1999, the Isle of Wight was advised that, as a result of the new grant mechanism, its allocation would be £63,000 for 2000–01 and £53,546 for 2001–02. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that we have to consider other areas with different problems. For example, in the context that I have described, it might be argued that the allocation of £168,000 to the Isle of Wight up to 1996–97 was excessive. Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield each received only £35,000. Obviously, all those authorities would say that they had particular problems in terms of emergency planning, given the size of their areas.

The local authority in the Isle of Wight argued that it should be given special consideration, for two reasons. First, it said that the status of the island was misunderstood. It maintained that, while the council was a unitary authority, it was also a unitary, or all-purpose, council. In its view, that means that, while other unitary authorities are located within areas that offer them strategic support from county councils or fire and civil defence authorities, the Isle of Wight has inherited both the strategic functions of the county council and the functions of the former borough councils. I do not accept that argument. Many other unitary authorities are in a similar position, with no county council or fire and civil defence authority.

Dr. Brand

It would be extremely helpful if the Minister would write to me listing the authorities that he has just described.

Mr. O'Brien

I will do that with pleasure.

The position of the Isle of Wight will have no effect on the level of its grant under the new arrangements. In 2001–02 it will receive, as a unitary authority, £45,000 as a basic allocation, plus a Bellwin element of £8,546. If it were treated as a county, its allocation would be identical, because it no longer has any constituent districts.

Secondly, the Isle of Wight has argued that its circumstances are special because it is an island. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman advanced that argument. However, the Home Office does not believe that the Isle of Wight is unique in its responsibility for civil defence, or that it should be allocated significantly more grant than other authorities with broadly similar responsibilities.

When my predecessor with responsibility for emergency planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), met a delegation from the Isle of Wight on 26 July 1999, those points were made. A paper was submitted by the hon. Gentleman, presenting the island's view that it was in a unique position and had been disadvantaged by the new grant distribution formula.

As I have said, I hafe found that almost all councils can come up with some unique element. I well remember, on occasion, arguing the case for unique elements in my county council.

Dr. Brand

When the Minister lists unitary authorities that are similar to Isle of Wight, will he list other English constituencies that are surrounded by water?

Mr. O'Brien

I think the hon. Gentleman knows quite well that I would have some difficulty in doing that. I also think he must take my point that being surrounded by water is not the only basis on which an authority can claim to be unique. There are all sorts of bases on which authorities have been known to claim a level of uniqueness—for instance, their population, income distribution, demography and communications. While I think it fair to say that there is a uniqueness in the fact that the Isle of Wight is surrounded by water, I am afraid that that uniqueness does not distinguish it sufficiently from other councils that may also claim to be unique.

Dr. Brand

Does the Minister acknowledge that being surrounded by water is just about the only criterion that does not appear in any of the grant allocation formulae?

Mr. O'Brien

I shall have to look at that and write to the hon. Gentleman. He may well he right: it may well not be one of the criteria in the grant allocation formulae. At the same time, other councils do claim particular problems, not perhaps unique, but sufficiently uncommon in relation to communications, demography, the ability to plan or the nature of establishments—nuclear and other—in their areas that unusual emergency planning is required.

Whether risks and hazards should form part of the distribution mechanism has been explored in depth many times. I am of the view that any attempt to set one type of risk against another would be controversial, with little prospect of successfully agreed outcomes among local authorities. Any ensuing mechanism would be unduly complicated and costly to administer, given the funding involved. As I said in opening, the grant is only a contribution towards civil defence expenditure.

The Government allocate funds largely by negotiation with local authorities. The hon. Gentleman may argue that our allocation should be greater, and we could debate the extent to which the taxpayer should fund different areas. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will tell me that we could use an extra penny on taxation—

Dr. Brand

Not on this one.

Mr. O'Brien

I accept that.

When the Government are asked to treat an area uniquely, the decision lies not only with the Home Office or the Government. In practice, we discuss these matters and negotiate with the local authority organisations. There is some compromise and agreement over allocation of the formula.

Dr. Brand

Having conceded that being surrounded by water is a unique factor, does the Minister recognise that it is unlikely that the Isle of Wight will ever receive support from local authority associations on having that feature introduced as a unique factor?

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman may be right. Many other authorities—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.