HC Deb 28 January 2002 vol 379 cc63-71


Mr. Collins

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 21, at end insert— 'only in respect of an increased determination'. The debate on the amendment will enable the Minister to place on the record the Government's view of a point on which many local government emergency planning officers have sought clarification. The amendment would add a few words to proposed new section 3(3)(b) and would limit the powers that the Bill otherwise gives to the designated Minister to vary a determination by a further determination so that, in the words of the amendment, that could be done only in respect of an increased determination". There is much understandable concern among emergency planning officers that the Government may choose, on what local authorities may perceive to be wholly arbitrary grounds, to reduce a grant allocation in a financial year and after local authorities have begun to spend money on the basis that they would receive a certain level of grant to underpin it. At various points, the Minister has been at pains to assure Members of the House and members of the Committee that considered the Bill that such unworthy thoughts would not even cross his mind and that he would never want to do that.

The matter was discussed in Committee and I pay tribute to the Minister for writing to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). In the letter, which was copied to members of the Committee, the Minister was at pains to say that it was highly unlikely that the Government would ever consider cutting local authorities' grants in the middle of the year. The only reason that they needed the power would be to take account of unexpected contingencies in which he implied the Government would seek to provide additional help.

That formulation caused considerable interest in the emergency planning department serving Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Its emergency planning officer wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and, in an interesting choice of words, said that the copy of the letter to the hon. Member for Winchester was extremely interesting. With a degree of irony, the emergency planning officer added: Being naive politically and legally, I had to wonder, if the purpose of Section 3(3) is to enable Central Government to be able to make extra payments in unforeseeable situations, why it could not have been framed to say that, rather than the wording currently in the Bill, which could equally reduce grant at a whim? That struck me as an extremely good question. If there has merely been an oversight on the part of the parliamentary draftsmen, it will be easy for us to correct the matter on Report to ensure that the Bill fully reflects the Minister's intentions. Therefore, I genuinely hope to hear the Minister tell us that, on reflection, he accepts the aims of amendment No. 2. Even if he feels for some reason that escapes me that the amendment is technically defective, I hope that he will agree to the issue being reconsidered in another place.

However, on a crucial matter of emergency planning, I certainly do not wish to hear that the Government plan to retain the power to cut a grant in the middle of the year. Local authorities incur expenditure on the basis that they will receive a certain level of grant and that grant should not be cut in a way that they cannot possibly foresee, so I hope that the Minister will not oppose the amendment on anything other than the most narrow technical grounds. If he does, we should like to know why, contrary to the view of many emergency planning officers, he believes that it would be sensible for him to have such a power.

It is important to reflect on the fact that local authority emergency planning officers are already extremely worried about the consequences for staffing levels, for funding provision and for their ability to conduct operations on the current basis, let alone on what might come into effect if the Bill is introduced without amendment No. 2. Does the Minister agree with the Emergency Planning Society that we are talking about "an increasingly important service"? Does he also agree with it that local authorities across the country are increasingly having to subsidise their emergency planning functions from other elements of the council tax and other resources that are available to them? Is he aware that a number of local authorities have said that current funding levels are so difficult to predict and inadequate in their scope that some of them may have to pay for up to 50 per cent. of all their emergency planning functions from their own resources?

I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government will at least reflect carefully on the strong views that have been expressed by many county emergency planning officers who are genuinely and powerfully concerned about the flexibility that the Government are taking for themselves in proposed new section 3(3). A large number of local authorities believe that that is the heart of what they describe as negative legislation and that it will have extremely damaging consequences for them.

On Second Reading, the Minister specifically stated that he believed that the merit of the Bill was that it offered stability for local authorities. I see that he is nodding to confirm that that remains one of the objectives. I am sure that he would therefore agree that, in terms of stability for local authorities and their ability to plan ahead, it would be far better to tell them that if there are to be any changes in the amount of grant that is allocated to them for a particular financial year, between the start of that year and its end, they will only be by way of extra resources that are provided in case of unexpected and worrying developments. They need to know that they will not face a reduction or even a clawback of a grant allocation that has already been made available.

Local authorities are worried. That concern has been expressed by, among others, the chief emergency planning officers of Cumbria, Cheshire, Essex and Durham. There are large-scale worries. Will the Minister address the merits of the amendment? In particular, if he is not prepared to limit his power to cut a grant in year, so to speak, will he explain the precise circumstances in which he will use the power? If he insists on retaining it, there will be widespread concern in local authorities that he could simply use the power arbitrarily. It would be helpful if he agreed to publish a code of practice under which ministerial decisions exercising such a power would be limited or preferably removed altogether.

6.15 pm
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Amendment proposed—

Richard Younger-Ross


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is a great help to the Chair if hon. Members indicate that they wish to participate in the debate because otherwise we might have swept on.

Richard Younger-Ross

I shall redress that next time I want to speak.

I shall be brief. My first knowledge of civil defence was as a boy scout. It was not so much the motto "Be prepared", which would be a good motto for civil defence, but partaking in a Civil Defence Corps exercise, that gave me an understanding of what was required to be prepared for a civil emergency.

The local authorities that I have spoken to and others that I have heard from are concerned that if the grant is fixed at £18 million and the needs of only some authorities are taken into account, there will be winners and losers. In Committee, the Minister referred to increases or reductions in grants".—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 11 December 2001; c.8.] Can he assure local authorities that their grants will not be reduced? They think that they have only just managed to secure adequate funds for the needs of civil defence.

We want the determination of grant to be upwards to recognise current needs. We do not want a "Goosey-Goosey Gander" approach that leads local authorities upstairs and downstairs; nor do we want civil defence to end up like Jack and Jill, to continue the nursery rhyme. Rather than a brown paper and vinegar solution, we need a well thought-out and exercised plan. As a country, we tend to be under-prepared for disasters. We have only to consider the problems of the railways when the wrong leaves or the wrong snow are on the line. It is important that we do not have the wrong measures in place when a disaster strikes. All authorities need to have well-exercised plans and well-trained staff and to have the funding to put their plans into effect.

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

I do not want to detain the House unnecessarily. I merely ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look closely, during the time that it takes for the Bill to complete its stages here and in another place, at the work of the Staffordshire emergency planning service. It has written to me and I understand that the chairman of the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire fire authority has written to the Deputy Prime Minister. We have a wonderful record of joined-up processes to consider the whole issue of civil defence in Staffordshire. There are genuine concerns about the level of grant should there be any large-scale change to the formula on which funding is allocated. Will my hon. Friend look closely at the work that has been done in Staffordshire and consider how that can be retained without any loss of service?

Mr. Leslie

I shall look with care at the representations made by my hon. Friend's authority. Indeed, last week we announced the funding allocation for the next financial year, and we have tried to maintain the level as close to £18.6 million as possible.

Amendment No. 2 attempts to ensure that the grant can only ever increase. I reiterate that the £18.6 million—or whatever closely similar amount is determined once the estimate is resolved—is a significant increase on last year's grant. Indeed, in Committee the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said that if I promised to provide a grant that is maintained at this year's level, most hon. Members' objections would melt away. I hope so.

The debate on the amendment echoes what was said in Committee on the flexibility powers that are given to Ministers, who will be obliged to exercise discretion reasonably. They must base decisions on relevant matters and use powers with due care and consideration. I am afraid that I must inform the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that there are technical reasons why the amendment is severely deficient. It would have a number of perverse consequences. I tried to explain that currently, 90 per cent. of the grant is paid in September or October, and the remaining 10 per cent. in the subsequent financial year, when the moneys spent have been verified by the district auditor.

The practice of not paying the last 10 per cent. of a grant until audited accounts have been presented would be inhibited if the Government had limited powers to deduct or disallow expenditure from the outstanding balance if that expenditure proved not to be for the purposes for which it was intended. That is National Audit Office best practice, and I am advised by my officials that it would be compromised by the amendment.

Mr. Collins

I have no reason to challenge what the Minister said about the amendment's technical merits, but he will be aware that we are talking about the Minister's power to vary the determination of the grant, not about how local authorities spend money within that target. Why is it a good idea for Ministers to have the right to set a certain level of desired expenditure in a financial year and then cut that amount during that same year?

Mr. Leslie

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) was talking about whether a formula would create winners and losers. Of course, all formulae have that consequence; it is in the nature of allocating resources from a national to a local level. If we manage to return to a formula, we will try to make it as fair and equitable as possible and we will publish it, but it will undoubtedly create winners and losers.

The amendment is wrong in principle because it is not responsible budgeting to enshrine in statute an ever increasing grant. We need to retain the ability to make choices and decisions about public finance. Flexibility and discretion in a national strategic framework are especially important in civil defence. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale knows, the previous Conservative Administration steadily reduced the civil defence grant, presumably to reflect the fact that the world was more stable and secure after the cold war. It is a depressing outlook if, as he thinks, we will for ever require inexorably heightened civil defence.

An amendment in the name of a Conservative Member that is, essentially, a no-cuts amendment reminds me of my early days in politics, when the funding, or underfunding, of services was central to national debate. It is charmingly counter-intuitive. I am not sure what Lady Thatcher would say about a no-cuts amendment. Indeed, I wonder whether that particular spending commitment has been cleared with the shadow Chief Secretary, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). Perhaps the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale might like to give a similar commitment on funding for schools and hospitals. This no-cuts approach is enlightening, and I find this new development in Conservative policy very interesting.

There are good principled and technical reasons for opposing the amendment, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Mr. Collins

I am grateful for the Minister's remarks. Without going into the byways of wider public expenditure policy, I point out that he seems determined to retain the right to tell local authorities at the beginning of the financial year, "You may spend X," and in the middle of the financial year to say, "I am terribly sorry, but you may spend a great deal less than X, and we may claw back some of that amount." We are not convinced by his argument and wish to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House proceeded to a Division: Ayes 156, Noes 257.

Division No. 142] [6.24 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Cash, William
Amess, David Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Chope, Christopher
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Clappison, James
Bacon, Richard Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey
Baker, Norman Collins Tim
Baldry, Tony Cran, James
Baron, John Curry, Rt Hon David
Berth, Rt Hon A J Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Bercow, John Djanogly, Jonathan
Beresford, Sir Paul Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Blunt, Crispin Duncan, Alan (Rutland & Melton)
Boswell, Tim Evans, Nigel
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Fabricant, Michael
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Field, Mark (Cities of London)
Brady, Graham Flight Howard
Brake, Tom Flook, Adrian
Breed, Colin Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Brooke, Mrs Annette L Francois, Mark
Browning, Mrs Angela Gale, Roger
Garnier, Edward
Burstow, Paul Gibb, Nick
Burt, Alistair Gidley, Sandra
Butterfill, John Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Cable, Dr Vincent Goodman, Paul
Calton, Mrs Patsy Gray, James
Cameron, David Grayling, Chris
Green, Damian (Ashford) Ottaway, Richard
Greenway, John Paice, James
Grieve, Dominic Pugh, Dr John
Gummer, Rt Hon John Rendel, David
Hague, Rt Hon William Robathan, Andrew
Hammond, Philip Robertson, Hugh (Faversham)
Harvey, Nick Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Hayes, John Rosindell, Andrew
Heald, Oliver Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Heath, David Sanders, Adrian
Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David Sayeed, Jonathan
Hendry, Charles Selous, Andrew
Hermon, Lady Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Hoban, Mark Shepherd, Richard
Holmes, Paul Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Horam, John Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Soames, Nicholas
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Hunter, Andrew Spicer, Sir Michael
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Spring, Richard
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Streeter, Gary
Jenkin, Bernard Stunell, Andrew
Johnson, Boris (Henley) Swayne, Desmond
Key, Robert Syms, Robert
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Tapsell, Sir Peter
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Taylor, John (Solihull)
Lamb, Norman Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Lansley, Andrew Taylor, Sir Teddy
Laws, David Thurso, John
Leigh, Edward Tonge, Dr Jenny
Letwin, Oliver Tredinnick, David
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Trend, Michael
Liddell—Grainger, Ian Turner Andrew(Isle of Wight)
Tyler, Paul
Lidington, David Viggers, Peter
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Walter, Robert
Llwyd, Elfyn Waterson, Nigel
Luff, Peter Watkinson, Angela
McIntosh, Miss Anne Webb, Steve
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Whittingdale, John
Maclean, Rt Hon David Wiggin, Bill
McLoughlin, Patrick Wilkinson, John
Malins, Humfrey Willetts, David
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Wilshire, David
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
May, Mrs Theresa Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Mercer, Patrick Yeo, Tim
Moore, Michael Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Moss, Malcolm Younger—Ross, Richard
Murrison, Dr Andrew
O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury) Tellers for the Ayes:
Öpik, Lembit Mr. John Randall and Mr. Julian Brazier.
Osborne, George (Tatton)
Abbott, Ms Diane Boateng, Rt Hon Paul
Ainger, Nick Bradley, Rt Hon Keith (Withington)
Allen, Graham Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Anderson, Rt Hon Donald (Swansea E) Brennan, Kevin
Brown, Rt Hon Nicholas (Newcastle E & Wallsend)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary
Atherton, Ms Candy Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Atkins, Charlotte Bryant, Chris
Austin, John Buck, Ms Karen
Baird, Vera Burden, Richard
Banks, Tony Burgon, Colin
Barron, Kevin Burnham, Andy,
Battle, John Byers, Rt Hon Stephen.
Benn, Hilary Cairns, David
Bennett, Andrew Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Berry, Roger Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Betts, Clive Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Blackman, Liz Caplin, Ivor
Blears, Ms Hazel Casale, Roger
Blizzard, Bob Cawsey, Ian
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Illsley, Eric
Clapham, Michael Ingram, Rt Hon Adam
Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough) Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead)
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Jamieson, David
Clarke, Rt Hon Charles (Norwich S) Jenkins, Brian
Johnson, Alan (Hull W& Hessle)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Clelland, David Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Clwyd, Ann Kelly, Ruth
Coaker, Vernon Khabra, Piara S
Coffey, Ms Ann Kidney, David
Coleman, Iain Kilfoyle, Peter
Connarty, Michael King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston) Knight, Jim (S Dorset)
Cooper, Yvette Kumar, Dr Ashok
Crausby, David Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Cruddas, Jon Lammy, David
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Laxton, Bob
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Lazarowicz, Mark
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Lepper, David
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) Leslie, Christopher
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Levitt, Tom
Davidson, Ian Linton, Martin
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Lloyd, Tony
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Lucas, Ian
McAvoy, Thomas
Dawson, Hilton McCabe, Stephen
Dean, Mrs Janet McCafferty, Chris
Denham, Rt Hon John McCartney, Rt Hon Ian
Dismore, Andrew McDonagh, Siobhain
Dobbin, Jim MacDonald, Calum
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank McDonnell, John
Doran, Frank MacDougall, John
Dowd, Jim McGuire, Mrs Anne
Drew, David McIsaac, Shona
Drown, Ms Julia Mackinlay, Andrew
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) McNulty, Tony
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Mactaggart, Fiona
Efford, Clive Mahon, Mrs Alice
Ellman, Mrs Louise Mallaber, Judy
Etherington, Bill Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Farrelly, Paul Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Field, Rt Hon Frank (Birkenhead) Marshall—Andrews, Robert
Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna Martlew, Eric
Flint, Caroline Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Flynn, Paul Merron, Gillian
Follett, Barbara Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Foster, Michael (Worcester) Miliband, David
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Miller, Andrew
Galloway, George Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
George, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S) Moffatt, Laura
Gerrard, Neil Mole, Chris
Gibson, Dr Ian Moonie, Dr Lewis
Gilroy, Linda Moran, Margaret
Goggins, Paul Morley, Elliot
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Morris, Rt Hon Estelle
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Mudie, George
Hanson, David Mullin, Chris
Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart) Munn, Ms Meg
Havard, Dai Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Healey, John Naysmith, Dr Doug
Hepburn, Stephen Norris, Dan
Heppell, John O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Heyes, David O'Hara, Edward
Hill, Keith Olner, Bill
Hinchliffe, David O'Neill, Martin
Hodge, Margaret Organ, Diana
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Palmer, Dr Nick
Hope, Phil Perham, Linda
Hopkins, Kelvin Pickthall, Colin
Howarth, Rt Hon Alan (Newport E) Pike, Peter
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Plaskitt, James
Hoyle, Lindsay Pollard, Kerry
Humble, Mrs Joan Pope, Greg
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Stuart, Ms Gisela
Prescott, Rt Hon John Sutcliffe, Gerry
Quin, Rt Hon Joyce Tami, Mark
Quinn, Lawrie Taylor, David (NWLeics)
Rapson, Syd Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Raynsford, Rt Hon Nick Timms, Stephen
Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland) Touhig, Don
Truswell, Paul
Roche, Mrs Barbara Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Rooney, Terry Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Ross, Ernie Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Roy, Frank Tynan, Bill
Ruddock, Joan Vaz, Keith
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Vis, Dr Rudi
Salter, Martin Walley, Ms Joan
Sarwar, Mohammad Ward, Ms Claire
Savidge, Malcolm Wareing, Robert N
Sawford, Phil Watson, Tom
Sedgemore, Brian Watts, David
Shaw, Jonathan White, Brian
Shipley, Ms Debra Whitehead, Dr Alan
Simon, Siôn Wicks, Malcolm
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Wills, Michael
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Winnick, David
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Woodward, Shaun
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Woolas, Phil
Soley, Clive Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Spellar, Rt Hon John Wright, David (Telford)
Squire, Rachel Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Steinberg, Gerry Wyatt, Derek
Stevenson, George
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Tellers for the Noes:
Stinchcombe, Paul Mr. Fraser Kemp and Jim Fitzpatrick.
Stoate, Dr Howard
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East)

The Ayes to the right 257, the Noes to the left 156

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Have I been given the correct information? Will the Tellers come to the Table, please?

We will have the result again.

Mr. Kemp

The Ayes to the right, 156; the Noes to the left, 257.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Ayes to the right were 156, the Noes to the left 257, so the Noes have it, the Noes have it.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is furthest from my mind to challenge your ruling in any way, but I am intrigued to know what reason you had to believe that the Tellers were not giving correct figures. Presumably, it is for none of us to judge who may have gone through the Aye Lobby or the No Lobby. I accept that you were using your judgment at the time you stopped the declaration of the result of Division in mid-flow, but is there any precedent for doing so? On what basis did you see fit to challenge the figures given by the Tellers?

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Furtherto that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When you respond to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I hope that you will explain to him that this is as great a triumph as the Conservatives are going to have in this Parliament.

Mr. Wilshire

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Yes, although the point of order is beginning to peter out.

Mr. Wilshire

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will take the comments of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) as frivolous. The point of order deals with a serious matter and a clear explanation would be of enormous help, because a result was read out by a Teller. This has never happened in my 14 years in Parliament. Is the result the one read out by the Teller, or that read out from the Chair?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It was apparent to me that something was irregular. The winning Tellers, who traditionally stand on the right, were reading out something that did not correspond with their position. They noticed that and a correction has been made. I am advised that this is by no means the first time that such an error has occurred.

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