HC Deb 15 July 2003 vol 409 cc146-8
20. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

What assessment he has made of contingency planning for emergencies in North Yorkshire. [125455]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

North Yorkshire has had recent experience of dealing with contingencies after the extensive flooding of previous years. Direct assessment of emergency planning at the local level is carried out through bodies such as the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary as part of their wider assessment work.

Miss McIntosh

I thank the Minister for that reply, but is he aware that during the floods of autumn 2000 there was a breakdown of communications, particularly at silver command level, in the city of York? Are he and his Department convinced that every aspect of the new contingencies will be examined, including vital communications in the midst of a flood?

Mr. Alexander

I can give the hon. Lady the assurance that flooding is one of the contingencies anticipated in the draft Civil Contingencies Bill. Communication between local respondents is obviously important, and we believe that the Bill's approach reflects the fact that collaborative work with a wide range of local responders is often—as in the example that she provided—necessary.

Hugh Bayley (City of York)

Speaking as someone who sat in the silver command meetings during the crisis of the York floods—where I met people from the Army, the fire service, the police, the utilities and other agencies working together, as well as people such as councillors and Members of Parliament who were invited in—I should like to say that the system worked extremely well. Will the Minister join me in congratulating all the emergency services on their response to that crisis, and, indeed, to the Selby rail crash? Does he recognise that it is because more resources are going into those services that they are able to train for emergencies, and that the Conservative policies of cutting public expenditure would ruin—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Alexander.

Mr. Alexander

My hon. Friend raises several important points. First, the local respondents acted extremely effectively in those emergencies, and I would also like to pay tribute to the BBC, which, through its local radio service in Yorkshire, was able to communicate a range of important pieces of information to the community at a very difficult time.

My hon. Friend also raises the important question of resources. It would benefit the House if I made it clear that during the last spending review, we allocated extra funds, bringing a real growth average of 8.6 per cent. a year in respect of flood warning and defences. That amounts to a total of £564 million by 2005–06. Of course it is important that local respondents work effectively, but they need resources to do the job, which is why we have committed those extra funds.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

The Minister has been very interesting on flooding, but will he turn his attention to other disasters that might engulf North Yorkshire? He will be aware that the head of MI5 recently warned about radiological, biological and chemical attacks. He will also be aware that, in the event of such an attack on Sellafield being successful, more than 44 times the amount of radioactive material that came from Chernobyl would certainly engulf the whole of Yorkshire. Will the Minister tell us what specific contingency plans exist for North Yorkshire in the event of such a disaster?

Mr. Alexander

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position on the Opposition Front Bench in respect of Cabinet Office questions. I have a couple of points to make. First, Sellafield is not in North Yorkshire. Secondly, of course there is the potential for a real disaster for North Yorkshire—the re-election of a Conservative Government. However, it is important to recognise that a serious threat level remains. If specific intelligence and information come to the Government's attention about a specific threat, that information would be brought, without hesitation or delay, to the attention of the emergency services and the British public. The draft Civil Contingencies Bill covers North Yorkshire and will specifically ensure that duties are laid on local authorities and other local respondents to build on the success already achieved in recent years in respect of developing resilience capability.