HC Deb 28 January 2002 vol 379 cc37-63


'Before 1st April 2002, the Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a report specifying the implications of the Government's civil defence review for the operation of this Act.'.—[Mr. Beith.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.23 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 1, in clause 2, page 2, line 24, leave out "2003" and insert "2004".

Mr. Beith

The significance of the date proposed in the new clause is that that is the beginning of the first financial year to which the Bill applies—namely, the coming financial year. Amendment No. I returns to an issue of great concern in Committee—that is, whether the Bill could be delayed for a year while we absorb the lessons and conclusions of the Government's civil defence review.

People outside this place, as well as local authorities, will be surprised to learn that the Bill is not a product of 11 September or of the Real IRA threat, but of the court challenge mounted by the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority that demonstrated the complete legal confusion about the basis on which civil defence moneys are allocated. The authority challenged the whole funding basis.

However, the matter is hardly urgent—unlike some of the issues raised by 11 September. The Bill has been around since last June. Despite all that has happened since then, and despite the fact that the Government have set up—rightly—a major review and consultation process on civil defence and emergency planning, they have plodded on with the measure.

The new clause is sensible and would ensure that the civil defence funding system was designed to fit whatever emerges from the review. It would fit the future pattern of civil emergency planning, which will soon be decided. As long ago as 28 November, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office said of the review that a clear consensus is emerging".—[Official Report, 28 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 1016.] That was some months ago, but the speed of the Bill's progress does not offer an entirely reliable guide as to how soon we might receive a statement from the Government on their proposals.

The consensus was supposed to be emerging on the issues raised in the consultation document that the Government published last August. Since then, several things have happened that might influence the review and the necessary funding arrangements. There were the dreadful events of 11 September, which caused everyone in Britain suddenly to start thinking about civil defence. It is at least partly true—although it may be unkind—to concede that civil defence has a low priority for many people. They see it as something of a joke—as some sort of "Dad's Army"—despite the fact that individuals in local authorities are working hard to maintain a proper emergency planning system and sometimes have difficulty in convincing even their local government colleagues of the importance of that work. No one can ever really know which contingency will require the operation of emergency planning.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that civil defence emergency planning has not been at the forefront of people's minds. It has been difficult for those of us who represent high-risk constituencies to raise the profile of such planning in this place. Why is he arguing for delay in respect of these powers, which clearly stem from a court decision? Would not delay mean a vacuum?

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman must wait a little so that I can develop my argument. I know his constituency area well and I entirely sympathise with him; there is considerable danger of attack on installations in that area and that is why he takes a close interest in the matter. Indeed, I shall refer later to a question that he put recently on the subject.

The measure seems to be putting the cart before the horse, however. If substantial new arrangements for emergency planning are to be devised, we need a funding system that will fit them. Civil defence has not been abandoned since the Merseyside court decision, when an out-of-court settlement brought the matter to an end. The Government have not stopped signing cheques for civil defence, although they have become rather worried at the size of the amount on some of the cheques. That is partly because local authorities realised that recent events required them to initiate more extensive emergency planning work and rightly expected a reasonable contribution from the Government. We are not talking about front-line funding for the fire brigade or the police force, but funding for people back in the council offices. They are not thought about much, but they have to work out contingency arrangements so that the fire brigade and the police force can be deployed with the necessary support from other services. Those things do not happen by accident or by magic; they require planning.

If the Merseyside settlement had brought all that to an end, we should have been dealing with emergency legislation by the next week. The Government have found a way to proceed, and they should continue on that course for a little longer in order to get the arrangements right. That is the basis of my argument.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

As someone whose constituency is very close to Heathrow airport, I would argue that it is better to take time, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. The status quo will continue while the review is being carried out. Does he agree that the effect of the Bill might be to reduce the amount of money available, so the status quo is better than a reduction?

4.30 pm
Mr. Beith

Yes, indeed. That is a perfectly reasonable argument. I shall shortly address the question of whether less money will be available as a result of the Bill, but I return to the basis of my argument for the new clause—at the very least we need to know the implications of the Government's review for the Bill, and it would be better if those new arrangements could be put in place before fitting the funding around them. I was reviewing what has happened during this process.

Let us remember that all this started long before 11 September, and one of the effects of the events of 11 September, as I was saying, was to put in everyone's mind a sense that these are important matters and that they should perhaps be given more time and greater priority than they have been given hitherto. Hon. Members and people in the country started to ask questions about the preparedness of our civil emergency services.

Other events had a similar effect, although they were of a different kind. There was discussion in Committee about flooding and flood emergencies, about which the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) has a particular interest, as do others along the Severn, for example. Their great concern is that the civil emergency planning machinery is brought into play to marshal forces to deal with floods.

In many constituencies, including mine, the foot and mouth crisis vividly brought home the dangers of not having sufficient emergency planning in place. During the foot and mouth emergency, we saw deficiencies and difficulties of all kinds. Many local authority staff found themselves quickly transferred to emergency work for which they had no previous experience. Local authority trading standards departments became the animal movement licensing offices for the system set up for foot and mouth disease, so they probably had to abandon much of their normal trading standards work to deal with unfamiliar work, and some of them worked valiantly.

Even officers from the Inland Revenue were brought in, to help staff round-the-clock operations at emergency control centres. Again, they did unfamiliar work, much of which was not planned. In the north-east of England, which I represent, we did not have our own emergency control centre; we had to rely on that at Carlisle, where resources were already concentrated. Everyone acknowledged that that was a disaster and a wholly unsatisfactory way to deal with the crisis in the north-east of England. No plans were in place to set up an emergency centre in Newcastle, although one was eventually set up with considerable difficulty. That helped to show the need for more emergency planning for the sort of administrative arrangements that need to be created in various kinds of emergency.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says about foot and mouth disease. Clearly, that was a major disaster, particularly in Northumberland, in Cumbria and in the constituency that he represents. However, on the basis that such emergencies occur, we hope, only once in a lifetime—indeed, the previous occurrence took place 34 years ago—what training realistically could be undertaken by local authorities to ensure that staff would not be inevitably transferred from trading standards or other sub-departments to deal with that specific problem, rather than a general emergency issue?

Mr. Beith

We in Northumberland may take some wry amusement from the suggestion that foot and mouth has broken out once in lifetime; it has broken out twice in a lifetime for us. It happened in 1967, when a lot of lessons were not learned, and we want them to be learned this time.

Clearly, every local government officer cannot be trained for every role that he or she might have to take up in an emergency, because the training depends very much on the character of the emergency. A major chemical explosion affecting a large area would give rise to different needs from those involved in closing roads and footpaths in the foot and mouth crisis, or closing off areas because of a terrorist attack. They all give rise to different problems, but devising a mechanism by which people can be put into different posts and trained rapidly is the sort of thing in which emergency planners have to engage, and they do so regularly.

The local authorities with which I am familiar have certainly run emergency planning exercises and conferences for many years, but the reaction to the events of 11 September, and the experience of floods and especially foot and mouth disease, made them all feel that they needed to gear up their arrangements and to have more standard procedures ready, all of which require preparation. Each new wave of staff entering post needs to be familiarised with those arrangements; they cannot be put in place simply. People cannot say, "If we need them, we will go and get them," as they did with the green goddesses for the fire brigade. They must be sure that the new generation of staff are familiar with what they might have to do and with what sort of arrangements have to be made.

All sorts of difficulties were revealed by the incidence of foot and mouth. For example, sites for the mass burial of carcases were rapidly identified with no proper arrangements for consulting the local community being made. All sorts of problems resulted from that, but local authorities, at least, have learned some lessons. Northumberland has held a county council inquiry to try to fill the gap left by the Government's failure to hold a public inquiry and that useful exercise has brought to the surface some of the lessons to be learned about features of emergency planning. Such experiences have structural implications for the composition of emergency planning teams. The teams may require more permanent emergency planning staff or more staff whose designated duties include emergency planning.

Mr. Miller

The right hon. Gentleman referred to public consultation. Although in some respects I accept his remarks, does he not accept that post-11 September, some of the issues relating to the emergency planning that identifies specified sites are best dealt with outside the public domain?

Mr. Beith

That is most certainly the case. If I had not known already, my experience on the Intelligence and Security Committee would have provided me with many reasons to be aware of that point. It means that local authorities must have staff who are experienced and can be trusted with relevant information that cannot be placed in the public domain. All that requires care, and to do something on an absolutely secure basis often takes a little longer and requires a little more effort and organisation than if it were carried out on a more general basis.

The Bill's original purpose was to allow for a return to a previous level of funding. That was the way that some of us, including my colleagues and those Conservative Members who served on the Committee, saw it. The idea was not dreamed up out of our imaginations, but clearly resulted from the statement of the Home Office Minister who was in charge of the Bill when it was published last June. He said: This short, technical Bill would enable us to return to the funding levels for the Civil Defence Grant. That created a feeling of concern among emergency planning officers, because that would have involved reducing this year's expenditure of about £18.5 million to the £14 million of the previous year.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) has done us a service—admittedly, a planted service, but none the less valuable—in asking a question that extracted from the Government an indication that, for the coming financial year, they do not propose after all to make the cut that was presaged when the Bill was published, but keep expenditure at roughly its present level.

However, the answer was intriguing in that it left doubt as to whether there would be a formula for the figure, and that provides another argument in favour of my new clause and amendment. If the Government cannot decide whether to use the formula that they are creating under the Bill or to continue as they are at present by informal consultation with local authorities, what is the panic and rush? Let us do the job properly by considering the results of the civil defence review.

Having made the decision that resources will not be cut and will remain at about £18.5 million, the possibility emerges that the Government will say, "Will someone please give us a formula that will enable us to distribute this money in the same proportion as it is distributed now?" I do not know how they will do that, so they had better consult the people who were in what was the Department of the Environment who worked out the standard spending assessment. However, that is an entirely facetious suggestion, because I would not let the authors of the SSA loose on any other aspect of government if I could possibly help it.

This case conjures up the sort of mathematical poser in which one says, "This is the answer, now give us the question." If £18.5 million is the answer, will it be distributed in the way that negotiation and discussion between authorities and the Cabinet Office have determined so far or will a formula be introduced so that the same sum of money is distributed to authorities according to new and no doubt excellent principles that would undoubtedly result in less being available to some authorities and more being available to others?

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is something to commend in the findings of the Emergency Planning Society, which has asked the Government to commission an independent inquiry into the appropriate level of costs for the services?

Mr. Beith

We would all feel much more comfortable about such an important matter if we knew that the total amount had been independently determined by another voice. That is not necessarily the only way to achieve an outcome, but I would not complain if the Government chose to take that course. The new clause and the amendment in particular would enable the Government to do that. It would give them a bit more time to maintain the present arrangements, which is, after all, what they have really said that they will do.

I have conjured up the possibility that they might redistribute the £18.6 million according to a new formula, but I suspect that they will simply freeze individual local authority grants at this year's levels. To do anything else would be to invite difficulty, and I shall be interested to hear from the Minister on that. If the Government freeze funding, there is no reason why they should not establish a better mechanism to decide the amount. Again, however, that should be in the light of the civil defence review.

Mr. Wilshire

hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take my criticism of him in the spirit in which I mean it, but he was nothing like rude enough about the SSA approach to spreading money around the country. Does he agree that it is daft to apply that approach to this case, because it implies that the money will be spread around all authorities? My experience of flooding and other disasters is that they do not spread themselves across every county council and borough in the land. Instead, they are focused in an area. Although that area needs a lot of money, others do not need any.

Mr. Beith

I am not sure that I entirely agree with the line of the hon. Gentleman's argument, although I agree that no criticism is sufficient for the SSA mechanism. I merely did not want to stray too far from what is appropriate in the debate. Were the money to be distributed according to that formula, the impact on Northumberland and Somerset, to give just two examples, would be appalling if we consider the disparities in education spending between those authorities and the national average, all helpfully set out in another parliamentary answer last week that reveals the true horror of the SSA.

Areas that face a particular threat will have special emergency planning needs. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to that and it is also relevant to the concerns of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) about Heathrow. In general, however, planning, unlike front-line facilities, such as the police and the fire brigade, needs to take place in every local authority. Any local authority might have to cope with the impact of an emergency. For example, an obscure local authority that never thought that it would face an emergency could find itself coping with a major rail crash caused by a terrorist attack on the railway system, just as police forces that were not geared up for anything so dramatic as terrorism are having to get help from elsewhere to conduct inquiries in their area into a group of terrorists that has disappeared into it. The ability to plan and to obtain help exists in all authorities.

There is no point devising a formula unless we know what it is. As there is little likelihood that the Government will devise one for the financial year 2002–03, what is the urgency of passing the Bill in its present form? If the new clause were included in it or accepted in principle by the Minister, which would not be difficult to do, Parliament and local authorities would at the very least have before them an indication of the implications of the defence review for the funding of emergency planning. Local authorities will have an idea of that when the magical consensus is set out. However, what constitutes that consensus will probably be determined by the Government. Local authorities and emergency planning officers will have to work within that, but they need to know the implications for their funding.

Better still, the amendment, on which we might vote later in our proceedings if we do not get satisfactory answers, would confer the year's delay that so many hon. Members in Committee thought would be a good way to deal with the problem. It would enable us to absorb the full implications of the defence review and to mould a funding formula that arises properly from that. It might be that we can mould a different mechanism—after all, the Government may learn something from the consultation in which they have engaged in the past year.

4.45 pm

That process was described in Committee, in less than flattering terms, as "somebody from the Department getting on the phone to the local authority and arguing over the figures." Nevertheless, the Government may learn from the process that there is an alternative to a formula that imports none of the horrors of the SSA and enables the Government to take account of circumstances in individual areas. Whatever seems appropriate, the result could be much better determined with a year's delay. At the very least, we need to know the implications of the civil defence review before we embark on this financial year.

This is important work. It has been an unglamorous part of work in local authorities and central Government for the happy reason that for several years we did not have to cope with many major civil, military or terrorism-related emergencies. In recent years, we have had to cope with increasing numbers of terrorist emergencies, as well as significant civil emergencies. That has all demonstrated the need to reconsider the way in which we deal with such matters.

The Government have recognised that and have acted by initiating a consultation process. Their action on funding should be part of that, not a rushed attempt to cobble something together simply because the old funding system could no longer be sustained on legal grounds. The world has not come to an end, and emergency planning has not stopped, as a result of that legal settlement. We could continue on the present basis for another year and, in the meantime, absorb the results of these important discussions.

Mr. Miller

I appreciate the tone in which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) spoke to the new clause. I followed his arguments in part, but I disagree with his conclusion.

Paragraph 4 of the Bill's explanatory notes says: A Review into … emergency planning is under way, the result of which is likely to be emergency planning legislation. The right hon. Gentleman seeks to pre-empt that review and force out several of its results, whether or not it is ready, by 1 April. He made the point that there are continual changes in the nature of potential civil emergencies. On the threat from terrorists, it is acknowledged that the entire world changed after 11 September.

Mr. Mark Field

There is little doubt that, since 11 September, many parts of the country have been on a heightened alert. However, many local authorities, particularly those in central London such as the City of London and the city of Westminster, which I represent, have been able to cope relatively well and with relatively little upheaval for much of the residential and large tourist populations because the world did not change to such a great extent. Over the past 30 years, people have become accustomed, particularly in mainland Britain, to confronting the terrorist threat. Important as these provisions are, we should not operate on the pretext that the world has changed for ever.

Mr. Miller

I shall not get drawn too far into that discussion, Madam Deputy Speaker, or you will rule me out of order, but I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The nature of warfare has changed since 11 September, and I suspect that the Intelligence and Security Committee, on which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed sits, has been discussing that in great detail.

Our constituents are affected by many circumstances other than that change. The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the effects of foot and mouth disease in his constituency. I respect those observations because, fortunately, my constituency—indeed, the whole of north Cheshire—escaped the ravages of that terrible disease. I also respect his observations about flooding: although in the past 12 months we have had a few localised incidents in which many residents faced severe problems, they were nothing compared with the floods in Worcester and elsewhere. However, a recent series of incidents centred on chemicals sites in and around my constituency illustrates the need for continuous review of the nature of the planning process in each area of risk.

The nature of the risk changes constantly. In my constituency, that change is due in part to the actions of businesses in changing their product mix. Huge advances in chemicals safety have been made in the past 20 years, but even though the risk has become more remote, one must always pose the series of questions that start, "What happens if?" Another factor that comes into play is the increase in air traffic in the north-west.

Last year, two incidents occurred that might well have sparked the need to put emergency services on full alert—indeed, they were partially mobilised. The first resulted from the actions of fuel protesters who blocked the entrances to one of Britain's major hazard sites, with the result that the fire authorities could not gain access. Emergency planners started to consider the options. Some months later, animal rights protesters playing the same game tried to blockade Ellesmere Port's Stanlow refinery.

Opposition Members might have found some weak excuses to support the fuel protesters, but I suspect that they would not have supported the animal rights protesters. The Opposition cannot have it both ways—both incidents caused the same sort of emergency.

Mr. Collins

Given his earlier remarks about petrochemical plants in Cheshire, the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that when my office contacted the Cheshire county emergency planning officer to ask his views on the Bill, he raised precisely those points. Does he, as a Cheshire Member, agree with that officer that the grant mechanism that the Government should draw up should take into account the different degrees of threat affecting local authorities, and should not simply he per capita or based on acreage?

Mr. Miller

If I can do so without stepping outside the context of the Bill, I will deal in some detail with that argument because there are some important points to be made.

As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, we are shifting from an arcane formula that was subject to challenge—one that I understand resulted in an out-of-court settlement—and now we need stability pending the implementation of a new system. That new system must emerge not from the Bil—it would be unreasonable to expect that of the Government—but from the emergency planning review itself. I support the concept of the Bill as a means by which to deal with the here and now, not the long-term future.

The long-term future needs to take into account all the outcomes of the review. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give an assurance that the review will include consideration of the ways in which public resources can be used more effectively cross-departmentally so that we do not have the sort of nonsense that is set out in a letter from the Civil Aviation Authority, which tells me that it is all right for aeroplanes to circle the Stanlow refinery in a holding pattern because that is a convenient area in which to hold them. Holding them out on Liverpool bay would be considerably safer. I see the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) laughing. I think that he agrees with my observation. We need that sort of joined-up thinking from the Cabinet Office after the review. Heads must also he knocked together to some extent.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point that if a long-term review is about to come out, it is sensible to get all our ducks in a row, as it were. But what has he to say about the fact that the Ministry of Defence, in the short to medium term, is producing an extra chapter for the strategic defence review arising out of the events of 11 September? That will come through quite quickly. Is not the proposal of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) sensible, given that the conclusions of the MOD study will become available in the extra year, even if we have to wait longer for the final results of the long-term review?

Mr. Miller

I am glad that there is some recognition among Opposition Members that my earlier point was correct, and that the events of 11 September changed things.

Many of the risks are real, as is shown by the incidents that have occurred:foot and mouth, floods, the serious explosion at Associated Oxtel, a leak from GATTX, and the actions of fuel protesters and animal rights activists. These are real issues that affect my constituents.

A new dimension will have to be considered. I suspect that part of it will have to be dealt with by the Committee that is chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed with a high degree of confidentiality. As I have said, I am dealing with the here and now.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

The hon. Gentleman refers to the here and now, and we all understand that. I accept that there have been changes since 11 September. However, reviews are taking place that take into account responses since that date.

Are we not putting the cart before the horse? I take the hon. Gentleman back to what was said in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) asked: As part of the wider review, is it possible that the new system that will be implemented by the Bill will be abolished and reviewed again?"—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 11 December 2001; c. 23–24 The Minister replied, "That is possible". Is not what we are now doing a waste of time and money, if in a year's time we may find ourselves considering these matters all over again?

Mr. Miller

I think—I believe that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed agreed with the observation—that we do not spend enough time considering potential civil emergencies. Even if the Bill has a short life, I consider that it is necessary in the context of the here and now. It would be far better to get the issue out of the way by focusing the attention of the entire House, including Members with military expertise and those with expertise in agriculture or river systems, for example, on it. The same goes for industrial experts who can deal with potential chemical risks. We must work together to try to find a consensus on the right way forward.

5 pm

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)

Would not capping the amount of money that goes to civil defence, as the Government propose, make it more difficult to decide how much money there should be for, say, safeguarding installations?

Mr. Miller

I told the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) that I would come to that and its relationship to the standard spending assessment. Before doing so, I shall conclude my point about why we need to introduce the Bill, then consider how to join up facilities better.

I shall give a simple example. The Highways Agency needs to engage in such debates. A few years ago, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), a swing bridge on the A56, which passes over a canal, was scheduled to be repaired. I remind the agency, through my hon. Friend the Minister, that it is still scheduled to be repaired. At the time, a foam tender located at a fire station could not have covered emergencies to the east on the motorway network, so there were discussions about whether it should be moved further from a chemical plant, which would delay its response to emergencies there. Such an absurd situation begs the question why all the agencies do not co-ordinate to ensure that they take the best decisions, not the piecemeal decisions of the past.

In response to the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale and for Taunton, the creation of the SSA resulted in a series of rank absurdities. Members who can remember that far back will know that the SSA was introduced at the same time as the unified business rate and coincided with the poll tax, which got all the headlines. Areas such as mine suffered a net loss because of the loss of rates from the chemical industry, and faced serious financial problems. Opposition Members who look carefully at the arguments on the SSA made by counties like Cheshire will acknowledge in hindsight that it was not smart to penalise authorities that had savings or to shift resources without considering the special requirements of some parts of the country.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to find a long-term formula in the review that moves away from the presumption in the SSA. Its replacement, which, we hope, will soon come out of the review, should refund moneys spent on emergency planning to local authorities and be commensurate with the realities on the ground, which vary. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed pointed out that foot and mouth has affected his constituency twice during his time in Parliament. However, equally long-serving Members who represent other parts of the country have not experienced such things. He will never experience in his constituency some of the risks and incidents that have occurred in my constituency. Flexibility must therefore emerge from the review, but we must be wary of making a premature response. Opposition Members would rightly chide my hon. Friend the Minister for the obvious weakness if the Government simply said, "This Bill is the here and now and also the long-term future."

However, we need to find a mechanism to achieve a stable situation so that a proper debate on shifting to a more rational basis for the formula can take place. I therefore urge the House to reject the new clause and amendment No. 1. I shall not repeat the arguments, but I hope that the House develops a consensus around a more sensible way to proceed well before 2004.

That begs the question whether there is such a mechanism. The answer, of course, is yes. A review is being undertaken and we are told, without ambiguity, that it is likely to result in emergency planning legislation. It is difficult to assume that any such legislation would not have money implications, so the logic of pushing decisions related to the Bill further into the future does not stand detailed examination.

Against that background, although I urge the House to reject the new clause and the amendment, I ask the Cabinet Office to listen seriously to my arguments and those made from both sides of the House about the funding mechanism that will emerge from the review. Important issues will affect a significant number of constituencies up and down the country and events can occur as a result of the entirely unforeseen. Despite all the defence expertise of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), he could not have foreseen the events of 11 September. Equally, issues surrounding foot and mouth, flooding and human error could not be foreseen and affected areas that, traditionally, were not high risk.

I hope that the Government provide reassurance that, in considering long-term plans, we shall move from piecemeal operation, with Departments acting in isolation, to a more responsive formula that takes the known risks into account, but provides enough flexibility to allow for the unknowns that are, sadly, with us.

I hope that the Bill becomes law in approximately this form and that we get it on the statute book as quickly as possible. We must then focus the attention of the whole House, not just the handful of Members here, on the important longer-term issues.

Mr. Wilshire

I shall focus on amendment No. 1 and I hope that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) does not press ahead with the new clause, because that might prevent us from voting on the amendment. I hope that there is a vote, because the amendment is the important measure.

All the key decisions about the review and the Bill appear to have been taken before 11 September. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) expressed surprise that Opposition Members agree with him that 11 September is important. I am pleased that he agreed with us that 11 September was important. The significance of the Bill for me is that it had its origins before 11 September, which was not that long ago. The implications of those events were so enormous that taking until at least 2004 to conduct a review will be the reality, not just what we ought to do.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

Is not there a contradiction in the hon. Gentleman's argument? The implications of 11 September for emergency planning were profound. Some of the assumptions that underpin such planning may have shifted and the threat of terrorism may have upped the ante, so we need to act quickly. It is right to close loopholes and undergo reviews, and we may want to consider other issues in the future, but to argue that we should wait until 2004 when we may want to deal with some profound issues quickly is perhaps contradictory.

Mr. Wilshire

If that were the case, the hon. Gentleman would be right, but I do not accept that there are loopholes. If there are, this measure seems to close only one by ensuring that there cannot be any more money. In fact, there will not be as much.

Mr. Collins

My hon. Friend may have noticed that the Government, in their explanatory notes, say: The Government believes the effect of the … Bill will be to prevent unexpected increases in costs". It is quite clear that that is what the Bill is about.

Mr. Wilshire

My hon. Friend is right. I agree with the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) that other issues will need to be addressed, but my argument and that of the Liberal Democrats is that, while we are addressing the issues that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about, we should maintain the status quo. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said, as a result of the Bill we will have the money we need—rather than less money—while we examine the loopholes.

The then Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), told a conference in 2000 that in the Government's judgment £14 million was enough. That was a long time before 11 September. If £14 million was adequate then, it patently is not adequate now. The Bill will drive us back to the standard spending assessment approach. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made it clear that that approach was wrong, but it is the only approach that we will have for the moment. If we go back to the old way of doing things while the review takes place. we will adopt an SSA approach to a system that even the Government accept must be replaced. They are busily trying to come up with a new way of distributing money. It is self-evident that we should wait until we have a new way of distributing money before we proceed with any measure that will limit the amount that we spend on civil defence.

The stupidity of the SSA system is notorious, and there are a thousand and one examples of why it should be scrapped as quickly as possible. I can give one such in my county of Surrey. The SSA allocates money to the fire service throughout the country, but it takes no account of the length of motorway in each county. Surrey has a huge chunk of the M25, including sections that have the most accidents, yet no account of that was taken in the allocation to the fire service, which was expected to provide emergency cover for road accidents. If that is the way the SSA works, heaven help us if we go back to applying it to civil emergencies on the scale of the events of 11 September.

I know that cash is a finite item, and I accept the argument that we should not spend money that we do not have, but one of the realities of civil disasters and emergencies is that they demand large spending immediately. We should not take a cash-limiting approach and say, "This is how much we have got, so if, God forbid, a vast number of people are killed we can clear up only so much and not the rest because we will have run out of money." I do not believe that such an approach would commend itself to the British people, let alone to the House of Commons.

Jim Knight

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could help me. I agree with his comments on the SSA. The Dorset SSA is appalling, and I am sure that we would all argue that our own SSAs do not work because the system is a bit of a joke. However, nowhere in the Bill does it say that the Government cannot increase funding. It just says that the Government should determine the aggregate amount of grants to be made". That does not restrict the Government, but the important point is that it does not deliver a blank cheque to local government and everyone else. We need to close the loophole that currently allows a blank cheque to be written. The hon. Gentleman, who may have memories of being in government himself, will surely accept that that is dangerous.

5.15 pm
Mr. Wilshire

I accept the principle that it is necessary to be very careful with blank cheques. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale will deal with instances in which money will be cut. I can only say, on the basis of my experience of local government—for instance, on a fire brigade committee—that there may sometimes be an argument for, as it were, a limited blank cheque. From the moment that a disaster occurs, we cannot afford to sit down and say "We will respond, within the limit made available by the Government." That is not the way in which disasters should be handled, but if I understand the Bill correctly, it will force us into such a position, at least until the Government have completed their review of SSAs.

Mr. Miller

With respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the Bill. It is about the planning process. No one is saying—no Labour Member has ever argued, and the hon. Gentleman's party never argued when in government—that local authorities faced with serious emergencies such as those that he cites should not respond adequately to meet public needs at any given time.

Mr. Wilshire

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Perhaps the Minister will tell us that the Home Office view—expressed in 2000—that £14 million was enough has now been scrapped. Perhaps he will tell us, in that case, how much more will be provided. Until I hear how much more will be made available following 11 September, however, I will take it that £14 million is all that is available, and that is not adequate.

Mr. Miller

I refer the hon. Gentleman to what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said about a written answer that I was given last week.

Mr. Wilshire

I look forward to reading what was said.

Mr. Collins

My hon. Friend will doubtless agree that Labour Members are making an extremely powerful case for amendment No. 2, which proposes that only increases can constitute in-year alterations to legislation. We look forward to their support in the event of a vote.

Mr. Wilshire

My hon. Friend has a great deal more courage than me. Although I was aware of amendment No. 2, after 14 years I have learned that those who stray on to an amendment that is not in the group under discussion are rapidly told off. I may say something about amendment No. 2 later.

A review is being conducted, and is not yet complete. The civil contingencies committee, heaven help us, has set up 10 working groups. I gather that a while ago it had managed to examine 300 plans, with plenty more to go.

I think that I understand the way in which the official mind works, and the way in which the official machinery grinds away. Ten working groups will probably take until at least 2004 to finish their work. If such groups are set up to review all these issues, it is only sensible to let them finish before changing legislation.

Another factor that is causing confusion, which provides yet another reason for delay and for supporting amendment No. 1, is the transfer of Government responsibilities from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office. What little evidence I have been able to find suggests that that is causing difficulties. I mean no criticism, but when a complicated issue is being transferred between Departments, it seems eminently sensible to let that be completed, and to allow time for the whole process to be researched and bedded down, before legislating.

Let me give an example of the current difficulties. In my constituency, one upshot of 11 September was that Heathrow airport suddenly found that many people were stuck there because aircraft over the Atlantic had been grounded. Thousands of people had to spend the night at the airport. It was not long before every hotel in the area was full; it was not long before every hotel in the region was full; and it was not long before Heathrow Airport Ltd made a request to Hillingdon borough council, because the terminals are in Hillingdon. Heathrow estimated that at least 2,000 extra beds were needed urgently, over and above what was available; otherwise, it was the park benches or the uncomfortable seats in the terminals at Heathrow.

The best that Hillingdon could do within its planning arrangements at the time—again, I mean no criticism of Hillingdon—was to find 150 beds. It did the obvious thing: it contacted neighbouring authorities, my own included. That yielded another 150 beds. In the end, a number of my constituents got involved. When there were no more beds to be found and the emergency planning system could not find any more, my constituents and other people's constituents around the airport said, "Come and sleep in my spare bedroom." Ultimately, that was how the crisis was solved.

Given the fact that the Government are changing Ministries to handle such a situation, and that councils have not had any experience of that scale of disaster, it seems sensible to wait for all the reviews, including the ones that local authorities must carry out, to finish before passing legislation of this sort.

Mr. Mark Field

My hon. Friend has given a very good, practical and specific example from the past few months. Does he agree that if this whole process is to be, as it is at the moment, demand rather than needs-led, we need at this juncture to have an entire rethink, which will inevitably take some time? It is particularly important to gain a sense of perspective beyond what has happened just in the past four months and look towards getting some pattern—inevitably, it will be a flexible pattern—into place for the years ahead to ensure that we have the right formula.

Mr. Wilshire

My hon. Friend is right. He may be amazed to discover that the Government agree with him. They set up their 10 working groups to carry out exactly that process. He is right to say that it should be completed before we embark on legislation of this sort.

As I have said, I am not sure that new clause 1 commends itself to me that much, but I want to support amendment No. 1. I sincerely hope that we will have the chance to do that. I make only one criticism of it; it is in the same spirit as my previous criticism of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I consider that 2004 may be too soon and that the date should be later but in the absence of a chance to vote for an even later date I would be happy to support him.

Jim Knight

Like most hon. Members here, I have concerns about emergency planning. I sit on the Select Committee on Defence, which as I am sure the House is aware, is reviewing the defence and security of the United Kingdom and emergency planning. The civil contingencies secretariat is very much part of that review but I support this legislation because it is right to end the blank cheque to local government.

With all due respect, amendment No. 1 is bizarre. It says in effect that, in 2004, the Government will be able to limit spending by making an assessment but in the meantime the loophole remains and local authorities can spend what they like: we will just have to foot the bill as the Government.

Mr. Beith

I think that the hon. Gentleman slightly misunderstands the present situation. He is surely not suggesting that the Government are allowing local authorities to spend whatever they like. In fact they are engaged in regular consultation with local authorities to try to ensure that the funding that they provide is appropriate to an authority's needs.

Jim Knight

Different people have given me different interpretations of the system. I have spoken to some people who are basically saying that currently it is so confused that they can go ahead and spend and Government will have some obligation to reimburse.

Mr. Flook

It is not as simple as that. The first £25,000 is paid for by the local authority, and if that is a shire district that is a substantial amount. Under the Bellwin system, above £25,000, only 80 per cent. is clawed back, so local authorities are responsible for large elements of the money.

Jim Knight

I accept that, but there is a danger that if we leave open the loophole, local authorities—seeing 2004 on the horizon—will have a spending bonanza, buying everything that they need to cope with a threat.

Mr. Mark Field

The hon. Gentleman takes a cynical view of local authorities. I suspect that, like me, he has been a member of one and remembers the mad dash in the 11th or 12th month of a year to see which road-widening scheme, for example, is required. I can appreciate that the Government, understandably, take the view that they want to cap expenditure, to an extent, and do not want it to spiral out of control. But does not the hon. Gentleman see that given that the average over the past three or four years has been around £14 million, and is to be nearer £18 million for this year, and given all the disaster and emergency planning that has had to be planned for during the past 12 months, most people outside would think that a relatively small increase from £14 million to £18 million was reasonable—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. Interventions should be much briefer.

Mr. Field

Does the hon. Gentleman feel therefore that—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I call Mr. Knight.

Jim Knight

I shall try to pick away at what the question might have been. I would not be happy to see funding continue at £14 million and I am happy to see that increase.

Mr. Wilshire

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jim Knight

I have been generous in giving way and I would like to make progress. However, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has such a pleading face.

Mr. Wilshire

I am only asking the hon. Gentleman to extend to me the courtesy that I extended several times to him. I warn him that I may have several more interventions to come. I thought that I was cynical but I have heard a level of cynicism from him that I could not surpass. His suggestion that local government will have a spending spree over the next couple of years if we pass the amendment, and will stoke up natural disasters so that it can put in bills, is the sort of cynicism that I am surprised to hear.

Jim Knight

I have spoken to the chief fire officer in Dorset and to chief executives of local authorities, and they have a number of concerns relating to various threats. My constituency office is on a site that is regulated by the nuclear installations inspectorate which, in turn, is policed by the nuclear police. They have concerns in terms of biological, nuclear and chemical threats. If every authority thought that it needed more suits, showers or other things, the bill could get out of control. We may need an assessment of where the risks really are in order to balance the priorities. That is not total cynicism, but I know how strapped for cash local authorities can be. If they see a window and a chance to get what they need, they might leap through it without looking first.

I have concerns about the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), which are along the same lines as those expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). The amendment tries to anticipate the review and does not deal with the Bill. I agree with my hon. Friend that the Bill is about the here and now and deals with the problem that arose in Merseyside. After 11 September, the review is vital for England and Wales. We desperately need it, and we must look also at statutory powers and the levels of funding that underpin those powers. We will need legislation; perhaps not just one Bill, but others.

I do not have a problem, as Conservative Members seem to, with the notion of closing a loophole, finishing a review and proposing legislation that arises out of the review.

5.30 pm

For example, I was sent a letter by the chief executive of Purbeck district council regarding local authority responsibilities in relation to marine pollution. I am responsible for most of Poole harbour. Let me correct myself; happily, I am not responsible for it personally, but most of Poole harbour lies within my constituency, as does the Wytch Farm oil plant, which is run by BP and located in a highly sensitive area that has just been granted world heritage status by UNESCO.

The authorities concerned with these sites, including the Environment Agency and the county council, should agree a joint memorandum of understanding about the responsibilities assigned to them in the national contingency plan, but, because they have no statutory powers—and they certainly have no finances with which to produce such a memorandum—they have not agreed to sign it. A recent emergency planning exercise in the harbour—entitled Poolespill—examined the possibilities of major oil pollution on the world heritage coast. That exercise revealed all sorts of problems that need to be addressed, and I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will listen carefully to Opposition Members, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and me, when we argue for more finance as a result of the review.

I hope that the Minister will also consider the powers that the various authorities hold. The fire authority does not have the power to deal with anything other than putting out fires at the moment. It is still covered by out-of-date legislation, which needs to be updated to deal with the threats that have arisen following 11 September, and with other forms of accident response.

I am sure that many hon. Members have attended many pleasurable party political conferences in Bournemouth, and I hope that all parties will continue to return to Dorset for their conferences. My guess is that those conferences represent the biggest risk of large-scale terrorist attacks for Dorset, and it is worth reminding the Minister that, although the police are reimbursed for the cost associated with political conferences, the fire authority is not. The fire authority incurs significant extra costs related to the running of the conferences in Bournemouth—two were held there last year. The Department of Health has now contracted fire authorities to carry out the necessary decontamination in the case of a chemical or biological attack, but I do not know whether they would be reimbursed for that work.

I am grateful for your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to run through some of the reasons that I would like more statutory powers and more finance to come out of the review. The Bill is needed to close the loophole revealed by the Merseyside case. We need the legislation now, without further delay, but I am looking for a commitment from those on the Front Bench that proper resources and statutory powers will come out of the emergency planning review.

Mr. Collins

New clause 1 has enabled us to have a useful discussion about the current status of the Government's civil defence review, which, of course, started long before the events of 11 September but has no doubt been greatly informed by them. I have some questions for the Minister about that. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), however, that amendment No. 1 has the stronger case behind it. It is similar to points that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I raised at earlier stages of the Bill's consideration, and were it to be pressed to a Division, we would be inclined to support it.

I strongly endorse the tributes paid—on both sides of the House, I am delighted to say—to the work of the emergency planning officers. They are not the most glamorous of our public servants, and they do not have television series such as "London's Burning", "Casualty" or "The Bill" made about them. None the less, they play a very important role in the provision of emergency services in this country. Whether they are involved in military operations or emergency responses, it is the logistics and the pre-planning—the work done in advance—that can make all the difference to the effectiveness of the ambulance men, fire service personnel or police officers on the ground, and it is important that we should all pay tribute to their work.

It is also worth noting that since we had a bit of a discussion between the parties about the level of the Government grant—the Minister is smiling now—we have seen an interesting example of a rare but not entirely extinct event in British public life: Parliament working. The Minister appears to have listened to the representations that were vigorously made to him by the Opposition parties, both on Second Reading and in Committee, that he should not continue with the policy, which he inherited from his Home Office colleague, of reducing the grant from about £19 million to about £14 million in the coming financial year.

I do not know whether the Minister had a tussle with the Treasury or whether it was simply an easy conversation with an old pal, but we congratulate him on having succeeded. That is why we are not expecting a 25 per cent. cut, as we were at an earlier stage.

However—the Minister would not expect such an encomium to conclude without at least one "however"—there are still a few points on which it would be helpful to have clarification. When the Bill was introduced, the explanatory notes said that expenditure in the present financial year was expected to be about £19.5 million. Last week, however, in the welcome parliamentary answer to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), it was said that in the next financial year expenditure would be roughly the same as in the current financial year—£18.6 million.

When the House decides whether it should support amendment No. 1, which would postpone implementation of the Bill, it would be helpful to know whether £18.6 million is a revised, updated and more accurate assessment of expenditure in the current financial year, or whether we are still facing a reduction. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) rightly said, it would also be helpful if the Minister clarified the basis on which that figure was calculated. Parliamentary representations are a splendid basis on which to take public expenditure decisions, but they are not always the most stable and predictable indicators for local authorities, so it would be helpful to know how the figure was produced.

Secondly, will the Minister confirm that even if spending in the current financial year will be £18.6 million rather than £19 million, the Government's proposed grant for the next financial year, although not a swingeing cut, as was at one time feared, is still a freeze? There certainly will not be an increase, so it is difficult to say that changes have been made in response to the events of 11 September.

In that context, does the Minister recognise that the reason why many people outside the House would think it appropriate for the Bill to be passed only if a delaying amendment such as amendment No. 1 were made is that there will be incredulity at the idea that the Government are introducing legislation on emergency planning and civil defence that is not wanted by emergency planning officers at this stage, and which makes it possible for the grant to be capped, at best, if not reduced in real terms?

Is the Minister aware that I have seen a copy of a letter sent to him a couple of weeks ago by the honorary secretary of the Emergency Planning Society, who wrote from the emergency planning unit of Hampshire county council: The overall effect of floods, fuel supply problems, foot and mouth and the increased terrorist threat have demonstrably increased the workloads of local authority emergency planning officers … We believe there is now a significant shortfall in the numbers of personnel required to prepare and maintain plans, provide adequate training and respond to emergencies of an increasingly more frequent nature". In other words, there is considerable concern among the professionals who have to deal with emergency planning about the amount of grant that the Government provide even now—although I repeat that £18 million or so is obviously preferable to £14 million or so.

Mr. Miller

As the hon. Gentleman is praying in aid that letter, with its reference to fuel supply problems, will he now condemn the people who sought to create emergencies in my constituency?

Mr. Collins

I am not sure whether we should go too far into who was responsible for what in connection with the fuel shortages in September 2000. I shall take the hon. Gentleman's attack on successive Labour Budgets in the spirit in which it was intended.

I suspect that the most the Minister will be able to say is that the Government have, on reflection, decided to keep spending roughly at present levels. However, it is notable that even at present levels of funding, there are difficulties. For example, the county emergency planning officer of Oxfordshire says that internal funds have been spent on planning for the countering of a toxic chemical threat. In other words, the local authority had to transfer resources from other areas of its expenditure to deal with that crucial and worrying aspect of the post-11 September threats, because present funding levels were not adequate. Similarly, the officer for Gloucestershire is worried that many members of the public assume that there are large numbers of men in suits, as he puts it, ready to deal with threats of toxic or chemical warfare, when in fact there are not.

Amendment No. 1 has particular merit, in that the context in which such decisions are being taken will presumably be much clearer in a year's time. A number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members have made the case for a delay for reconsideration, because we are still in a position of flux. When the Bill was originally introduced, the events of September 11 had not occurred. When the Bill had its Second Reading and was then considered in Committee, the war in Afghanistan was at an earlier stage. We still do not know the exact nature of the external threats facing our country after the successful and wholly admirable actions taken by the United States Government in Afghanistan draw to a close. However, we do know that in some respects the position is even more worrying than before. I do not wish to dilate at any great length on the discovery of British citizens in Afghanistan who had been serving with Taliban forces. It is simply enough, for these purposes, to recognise that the Government, in drawing up the Bill, cannot have been aware that there would be a number of British citizens, normally resident in this country, prepared to support a terrorist threat from that quarter. That is necessarily a matter of concern.

I do not propose to go into the matter in any further detail, beyond using it as an opportunity to ask the Minister if he could address some of the issues relating to the review and the territory that it will cover. The review is intended to be fairly broad and all encompassing. The emergency planning officers who are deeply sceptical about the Bill are strongly in favour of the Government's review and hope that it will be undertaken swiftly.

When does the Minister expect to conclude the review? When do the Government propose to introduce legislation on the back of it? It is clear that a strong consensus exists in central and local government that new legislation will be required comprehensively to overhaul and replace the Civil Defence Act 1948. Have the Minister and his colleagues had full and detailed consultations with other Governments about the conduct of the review? Has he sought the views of Tom Ridge, who has been put in charge of homeland defence by the United States Administration? Is there not an important European Union dimension to this? We are clearly facing common threats and there may be a case at least for pooling experience if not for a joint response.

I should like to add my congratulations to those expressed earlier in the debate to the people who worked as trading standards officers and emergency planning officers at the height of the foot and mouth crisis. My county of Cumbria was the worst affected in the country. About half the cases in the United Kingdom were in Cumbria, and an awful lot of people worked extremely hard. Can the Minister tell us, either now or later—I appreciate that he may need to write to some of us—whether the Cabinet Office's review of emergency planning will be closely linked with the work being done by the various Government-established inquiries on the lessons of the foot and mouth crisis? In particular, will the Cabinet Office ensure that there is a published contingency plan in the event of a further outbreak of foot and mouth?

How will the review address the post-11 September concerns that many right hon. and hon. Members will have on behalf of their constituents who live near nuclear power stations? Sellafield is not in my constituency but it is in my county and—as one of my constituents rather chillingly pointed out—only 25 miles away as the fall-out flies. In the light of the events in New York a few months ago, what will the review have to say in respect of air and other defences for such facilities?

5.45 pm

Many people who have contacted me or my office—including professional emergency planning officers—have stressed the importance of the Government rapidly introducing what they describe as "positive legislation". Those people regard the Bill as a negative measure. They do not think that the timing is appropriate—that is why amendment No. 1 has so much to commend it.

I am thinking in particular of the words of Patrick Cunningham. He is the chief emergency planning officer for Durham and Darlington, but he contacted my office on behalf of the Emergency Planning Society. He said that the figure of £18.6 million—the increased figure that the Minister may be about to tell us reflects the seriousness with which the Government have approached the problem— was set in March, and does not take account of the increased workload of emergency planners due to foot and mouth, flooding, more recently the increased terrorist threat … The Bill is particularly disappointing for practitioners after all that has happened this year. There is 100 per cent. support for positive emergency planning legislation arising out of the emergency planning review, but we are told that it may take three or four years to get that … We are crying out for positive legislation but instead they"— the Government— are insisting on pushing through this piece of negative legislation. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) drew attention to the possibility that, without legislation or if the legislation were delayed, as it would be by amendment No. 1, local authorities might go on a spending bonanza. Mr. Cunningham, who understands precisely how the system works at present, points out: The legislation sends the wrong message at the wrong time and suggests that they mistrust emergency planning officers by saying that if we are allowed to apply for funding we will apply for too much. The point is that at present the officers can apply for funding only for precise and specific purposes and it must, in most cases, be negotiated with the Government in advance. That is why it would be more appropriate for the present arrangement to continue until the international situation is clarified and the overall Government review of the relevant legislation is concluded.

Mr. Miller

Will the hon. Gentleman give us an insight into the view of the official Opposition on which formula might replace the current one? That might enlighten our debate.

Mr. Collins

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, although I was under the impression—perhaps mistakenly—that all my remarks clarified the view of the official Opposition on these matters.

As the hon. Gentleman will recall from my comments in Committee, our position is that while Her Majesty's Government say that the scale of the international crisis facing our nation is such that the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 must be suspended—for reasons that the Home Secretary has explained and which I do not question—it is inappropriate to introduce legislation that would at best cap in real terms and at worst reduce in real terms the amount available for the vital national function of emergency planning. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, we are talking not about billions or tens of billions, but about a few million pounds.

I hope and believe that we are also talking about a short time frame—months rather than years. It would thus make more sense to us—as it does to the Liberal Democrats—if the Government paused and reflected on the fact that emergency planning officers overwhelmingly do not want the measure now. They are saying clearly, "Please bring in overarching, positive legislation to put things on a proper basis before you make changes to the operation of the funding formula that will not be regarded with enthusiasm."

I close my speech simply by saying that we hope that the Government's review will be completed speedily and that the Minister will make it clear that much more positive legislation will be introduced, ideally in the current parliamentary Session, but certainly no later than next Session. In particular, as we have been discussing the review, I press the Minister to tell the House whether he can guarantee that legislation to restructure the Civil Defence Act 1948 will be introduced before this Parliament is concluded.

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

We have been debating new clause 1 and amendment No. 1 for some time and many issues have arisen. I shall try my best to address many of them, not least because certain hon. Members seem a little confused about the Bill's purpose, so I should like to elaborate on it and perhaps remind them of the debates that took place in earlier stages. It is interesting that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) now speaks for the Liberal Democrats on the Bill, given that the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) did so in Committee, and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on Second Reading, so there may have been a reshuffle.

Mr. Beith

There has.

Mr. Leslie

I missed it. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on his new position. I am sure that the usual courtesies will apply in future debates.

Mr. Wilshire

The hon. Gentleman may care to predict who will handle the debates on any Lords amendment to the Bill on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Or even on Third Reading.

Mr. Leslie

Or even on Third Reading, as my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Mark Field

Perhaps the Liberal Democrats have the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) in mind as a replacement in the next reshuffle.

Mr. Leslie

I am afraid that I cannot recall that constituency at the moment.

We need to focus on the Bill's purpose. It primarily deals with the consequences of the Merseyside legal challenge, which prevented the Government from following the normal practice of local government expenditure—instituting a formula to distribute money across all 179 different authorities entitled to receive the grant, which led to the demand-led system that we discussed a little earlier. It seems strange that there is a reluctance, especially among those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, to apply a formula for the distribution of grant. Various tests certainly have to be considered, and local authorities cannot make unreasonable demands. Even so, I had hoped that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed would have considered previous debates in which we explained the necessity of having a nationally strategic approach to the distribution of money to ensure relative fairness and equity across the country in the way that the grant—a relatively small sum—is distributed between those local authorities.

Mr. Beith

Of course, I carefully read the reports of the proceedings in Committee and on Second Reading, and I referred to them in my remarks, as well as to the forecast made by the Minister's predecessor, who was in the Home Office, that the Bill would enable a reduction from £19 million to £14 million in the amount spent. However, does he not recall the answer given to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) in which it was not made clear whether any formula would be applied in the coming financial year? It merely said that £18.6 million would be the approximate figure. The Government have clearly not decided whether to use a formula in the year that we are discussing.

Mr. Leslie

Of course, I recall the answer that was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller)—I gave it. The right hon. Gentleman wonders whether we intend to impose a formula for the next financial year, but that is essentially the entire purpose of the Bill. As I shall say in discussing amendment No. 1, we need to have a framework for the next financial year, so that we can ensure that the money is distributed fairly. Without that framework, we shall continue with the haphazard, demand-led system, which is not compatible with a nationally strategic approach to distributing the grant.

As hon. Members on both sides of the House seem to acknowledge, the Civil Defence Act 1948 is relatively anachronistic; it was drafted after the second world war and focuses primarily on hostile attack. We acknowledge that there is now a need for significant reform, and it is perfectly fair to discuss new clause 1, under which the Government would have to publish the report by April, in the spirit in which it was tabled—to maintain the momentum to publish that report—but I would not want it to be enshrined in legislation for obvious reasons.

The discussion document on the emergency planning review was published in August, and the consultation ended on 31 October, although some of the comments that have been made in the Chamber today are entirely relevant for consideration. More than 260 responses to the consultation have been received, and I have been considering them, the funding mechanisms that we have been discussing, the co-operation that we can achieve between the different authorities and how we can aim for greater consistency of approach between them—the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston.

The consultation exercise has been extremely useful and has yielded a lot of new information. We have held discussions with our European counterparts, as well as internationally, about which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) asked. I hope that, in so far as we can, we can comply with the code of conduct on consultations and publish the responses in the usual way. We now intend to set up a project team in the civil contingencies secretariat to work on the next steps and to consider the strong duty of partnership that we seek to develop—about which my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) asked—and further, deeper reforms and legislation may be required. I cannot give specific commitments on the timing of any legislation or on what parliamentary time is available, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale knows. We will have to discuss those matters, and we shall make an announcement on when and if we can do so.

We shall continue a dialogue with all the stakeholders involved, particularly the Emergency Planning Society and the Local Government Association, and I shall certainly report to Parliament on the progress in due course. There is no need for a formal, imposed primary legislative duty to be placed on me to report. I shall try my best to keep my word and to inform and update Parliament. That is why new clause 1 is unnecessary, and I urge the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion.

Under amendment No. I, the Bill's implementation would be delayed for a year. The Liberal Democrats tabled a very similar amendment in Committee, which was voted down on that occasion. Amendment No. 1 is essentially contrary to the Bill's purpose. It would prolong the demand-led system and prevent a nationally strategic approach from being introduced. The emergency planning review is, of course, extremely important, but the civil defence grant needs to be paid for ongoing work in the next financial year.

We cannot ignore the fact that the next financial year is approaching relatively swiftly, and we need to ensure that our house is in order before then. We need to return to good budgeting practices as soon as possible, and sticking with the haphazard, demand-led approach would be an abdication of our national responsibilities. We have to act responsibly and maintain discipline over public expenditure, however small the sum involved. I intend to publish the Government's plans for a formula shortly, following the consultation that I intend to undertake. The formula is likely to be similar to earlier approaches that have been used.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked about money. As has been mentioned earlier, on 23 January I announced that, subject to the Bill being passed, we intend to maintain the total grant at this year's level—currently estimated at £18.6 million. Representations have been made for more money—a natural phenomenon, which we have noticed in many other circumstances elsewhere—but it is fair to say that a 28 per cent. increase on last financial year is reasonably generous and should be welcomed as far as possible.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned a technical point in relation to £18.6 million sum. I shall try my best to explain why that is the right figure, even though £19.7 million was mentioned in the explanatory notes. He may recall that, in Committee, I talked about the practice of paying 90 per cent. in September or October, and 10 per cent. for accounting purposes in the subsequent financial year. We now know that the 90 per cent. figure comes to £16.7 million, so the rough estimate is that the final figure is likely be £18.6 million. The figure remains an estimate but it is as near as possible to the final figure.

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Mr. Collins

The Minister will know that emergency planning officers will pore over these proceedings with particular interest, so will he clarify two points? First, if it turns out that the figure of £18.6 million is slightly below actual expenditure in the current financial year, will he assure us that whatever formula the Government use will ensure that the finance available in the next financial year will be varied accordingly? Secondly, will he tell us which financial formula he has used to work out the figure? That question was asked by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and it is nice that the Minister has come up with a formula that appears to be almost identical in cash terms in one financial year after another. What is the basis for it?

Mr. Leslie

As I was trying to explain, we now know that payments of £16.7 million were made in October, which is 90 per cent. of the likely total. That brings us close to the figure of £18.6 million. However, that does not mean that we have a formula for the next financial year. That is what we are working on now, and that is the purpose of the Bill. I have referred to the aggregate grant level and, in seeking to resolve the question of finance, the figure of £18.6 million is likely to be the same as for this financial year.

Mr. Beith

Is the formula, whatever it is, designed to preserve roughly the distribution that authorities have now or is it likely to lead to a redistribution of the £ 18.6 million figure between authorities?

Mr. Leslie

As I was saying, we must consult on the formula that we intend to use. We intend to use a formula to distribute the grant and that is why we are trying to pass the Bill. If we move beyond this legislative stage, I will be able to consider which formula to use. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the emergency planning review is considering whether the standard spending assessment is the best way of distributing the money and we have considered the representations that have been made. He winces and I take that as one such representation.

We should use an approach similar to that which existed before the Merseyside legal dispute, and I shall consult the Local Government Association on that. We could discuss formulae until the cows come home, but I am not sure how feasible or realistic it would be to base the formula not on acreage or on a per capita assessment but on, as has been suggested, the threat assessment for each authority. I should like to use something that is similar to, and that could build on, the approach that was used previously.

We are not so close to the next financial year that we cannot establish a formula approach. It is important that we have equity and fairness so that all local authorities believe that the system for allocating the grant is transparent. Shortly after the Merseyside legal challenge, local authorities were notified that new arrangements for 2002–03 were our target. The Government's intention has been plain from the outset.

I hope that I have dealt with most of the points raised in the debate. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Beith

I may be able to help the Minister in one respect if not in another. He asked me why I was the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the Bill. In addition to my happy duty shadowing the Deputy Prime Minister—although not in all his travels—it was thought that I should take on the rest of the Cabinet Office responsibilities that are nominally his. That is why I have a role on this Bill.

Reading between the lines, the Minister made it pretty clear that the figure of £18.6 million will be retained for the coming year and that he will devise a formula that will probably not disturb the distribution between authorities. In other words, the Government will probably invent a formula that fits the facts that already exist. If that is so, we do not need a formula and there is no problem with waiting until the following year in the way suggested by amendment No. 1.

Such has been the wide support expressed in the House for amendment No. 1 that I will ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to agree to a Division on it at the appropriate stage. I wish, however, to withdraw the motion on new clause 1, because the Minister expressed his intention to keep the House informed on the progress of the review. I would have been happier if we could be absolutely certain that that would happen. None the less, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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