HC Deb 01 April 2003 vol 402 cc798-9 12.37 pm
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to co-ordinate the provision of a multi-media broadcasting system to provide information to the public about emergencies and potential emergencies. Since 11 September, the UK has been put on a heightened state of alert, and the war against Iraq has ensured that that state of alert remains in force. The very visible presence of armed police officers at St. Stephen's Entrance is proof of that. To respond effectively to emergencies and potential emergencies a number of measures must be in place. They include having the right people and equipment available, with the people properly trained of course, a robust legislative framework, detailed and tested action plans, and accurate information that can be delivered rapidly and reliably.

There is not sufficient time today to consider whether all those prerequisites for an organised reaction to a threat have been satisfied. I should like to highlight one point that gives me genuine cause for concern—the abandonment of the emergency planning exercise that was due to take place on Sunday 23 March. The reason given for postponing the exercise was the international situation. Surely that is exactly why a test is needed.

My Bill focuses on the provision of information to the public through an emergency broadcasting system, or EBS. In times of crisis the public need the right quantity and quality of information, and they need to know where to access that information. It must be clear and consistent and it must come from a reliable official source. We can no longer rely on the air raid sirens of world war two, which are long gone. We need an emergency warning system or broadcasting system suited to the 21st century. We have entirely new ways of communicating with people via the internet, e-mail, mobile phones, television, radio and so on. The system must therefore be a multi-channel one using existing technology, and would link land-line and mobile phone operators, TV, radio and internet service providers.

I confess that I have not made a detailed assessment of the cost of such a system, but the emergency broadcasting system would rely on existing technology. If Members have a mobile phone, an e-mail address or a fax machine, they already receive many unsolicited messages, probably tens daily, offering anything from an unsecured loan to Viagra-one to pay for the other, perhaps. The facility to broadcast system-wide messages already exists. Indeed, the BBC has the technology, and I shall give a couple of examples. "Connecting in a crisis", a very good BBC initiative, helps to ensure that the public have the information that they need and demand in a civil emergency. The initiative sets out to encourage emergency planners to work more closely with broadcasters in the preparation of strategies for communicating essential information. A similar initiative, "U R @ Risk", is a joint Environment Agency and Met Office scheme to provide the UK's first integrated multi-media system for severe weather and flood alerts, and ensure that people in flood areas receive warnings by text message, e-mail and even their television. There is also the national steering committee on warning and informing the public, which is working on pulling all of that together.

The technology is there, and the research has been done. It is simply a case of pulling together the technologies and integrating them, not creating anything new. Integration could be achieved manually—key individuals would be identified with responsibility to broadcast officially sanctioned messages—or electronically using tried and tested technology and interfaces. The use of an EBS would not necessarily be limited to emergency planning. There is no reason why, for instance, it could not be used in child abduction cases, as happens in the US. The first hour in which a child is missing is the critical period.

Having the ability to broadcast messages widely across different media could indeed save lives. The risk of doing without an emergency broadcasting system is that information will either not be provided at all or, perhaps even more dangerously, will be inconsistent and delivered at different times and in different ways to various places in the country. That is clearly a recipe for uncertainty and confusion—what is needed is clarity and confidence.

I am grateful for the support that the Bill has received from Members on both sides of the House, and if I obtain leave to introduce it today, I will seek even wider support for its aims. I contend that we cannot do without an emergency broadcasting system, which is a key component of any emergency planning response and would safeguard our homeland at a time of crisis. My Bill is designed to provide that safeguard, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by

Tom Brake, Simon Hughes, Mr. Don Foster, Mr. Paul Keetch, Vera Baird, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Richard Allan, Mr. Hugo Swire, Mr. David Heath and Mr. Edward Davey.