HC Deb 31 October 2001 vol 373 cc863-5
3. Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

If he will make a statement on his Department's recent activity regarding emergency planning. [9282]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The civil contingencies secretariat at the Cabinet Office is co-ordinating the work of the Civil Contingencies Cabinet Committee, chaired by the Home Secretary, and is comprehensively reviewing the nation's ability to deal with emergencies. The secretariat is also taking forward the review of emergency planning in England and Wales announced by the Cabinet Office in August.

Sandra Gidley

Is the Minister aware that the emergency planning officers who are responsible for delivering those plans on the ground have received only two communications from central Government since 11 September, one of which was to ask for the confirmation of a fax number? When the Minister's Department was asked whether it had responsibility for emergency planning, the response was, "Kind of." Is that acceptable and does the Minister agree that a Minister of Cabinet rank should be appointed to take charge of civil contingencies until further notice? The current situation is unacceptable. I would like to feel that somebody is taking overall responsibility; I am sure the House would and I am convinced the public would.

Mr. Leslie

There is a Minister of Cabinet rank in charge of civil contingencies: the Home Secretary, who chairs the Civil Contingencies Committee of the Cabinet. The Cabinet Office helps, through its secretariat, to co-ordinate the activities of all Departments; well worked plans are in place across all the critical elements of the national infrastructure to make sure that Britain stands ready to cope with whatever emergency situations may arise.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

My hon. Friend is aware of my interest and that of my constituents in the whole issue of emergency planning and of the work that has recently been done locally. I am sure that he will join me in congratulating the officers of the local authority and the public servants who have delivered their functions so well Can he explain why the role of emergency planning is not firmly established on a statutory basis?

Mr. Leslie

The review announced by the Cabinet Office in August is indeed examining the question of statutory footing for emergency planning. In fact, the consultation period for that document ends today. The Government will be considering the legislative background to emergency planning. In general, having worked closely on such matters, I believe that the arrangements and structures that are in place are adequate and capable of dealing with a whole series of eventualities.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am genuinely seeking information and help from the Minister. [Interruption.] Does he accept that foot and mouth was an emergency, and will he therefore give some consideration, through his office, to re-establishing the regional committees of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Those committees could have done an amazingly helpful job in reducing the terrible and horrific impact of foot and mouth. The committees were phased out, but if they had been in operation they could have played a valuable role.

Mr. Leslie

As with flooding, there are lessons for all Departments to learn from foot and mouth. A number of those lessons have been incorporated in the contingencies that are now in place to deal with events post-11 September. With specific reference to foot and mouth, I understand that the Government offices in the regions were significant contributors to regional operations centres during the whole crisis. That is certainly an area in which more work can be done and it will be developed in the future.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

May I press my right hon. Friend further on the role of the civil contingencies secretariat? I greatly welcome the recent consultation on emergency planning, but it is vital that we place it on a statutory basis. Given that the Home Secretary has taken some of that work forward, and although we do not wish to be alarmist about events after 11 September, I still believe that it is important that we give the Cabinet Office all possible support to ensure that organisations such as the Chartered Institution of Environmental Health have an active role in influencing what is placed on the statute book. Such legislation should be properly implemented and properly monitored.

Mr. Leslie

My hon. Friend makes several useful points, particularly about the expertise that is available from outside Government on emergency planning; it is not the preserve of Government Departments alone. I believe that it is our duty to ensure that we have plans to detect and prepare against any eventuality as well as respond and recover, and the Cabinet Office will help to co-ordinate that under the leadership of the Home Secretary.