HL Deb 23 March 1987 vol 486 cc70-6

7.3 p.m.

Lord Beaverbrook rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 4th March be approved. [14th Report from the Joint Committee]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Civil Defence (Grant) (Amendment) Regulations and Civil Defence (Grant) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1987 be approved.

These regulations—which have been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments—have the common purpose of increasing the rate at which civil defence specific grant is payable in support of staff costs. The Scottish Regulations have some additional provisions applicable only north of the Border. I shall mention them in a moment, but should like to concentrate first on the primary purpose of the regulations.

Under the Civil Defence (Grant) Regulations 1953 —and their equivalent in Scotland—specific grant is payable to local authorities (and to fire, police and water authorities) in support of the expenses they incur in carrying out their civil defence functions. Grant is payable at either 75 per cent. or 100 per cent. The balance between the two rates of grant has been changed over the years and a number of categories of expenditure are fully reimbursed already: principally the provision of communications equipment, expenses relating to staff training and exercising, and the use of volunteers. The proposal now is to add staff costs to that list.

Local authorities have substantial and important responsibilities under the Civil Defence (General Local Authority Functions) Regulations 1983. They must prepare plans on specified subjects, provide emergency centres, train staff, take part in exercises and make use of volunteers. The consistent fulfilment of those responsibilities is vital to the preparedness of the country as a whole. Last year the Government made an assessment of progress so far in the implementation of the 1983 regulations. A number of local authorities have done a great deal, but much remains to be done and the range of achievement between different authorities is great. To encourage further and more consistent progress the Government have issued a planned programme for implementation of the regulations. This is a rolling three-year programme setting broad priorities and providing a framework for systematic monitoring of the work of local authorities. Within this framework there will be annual discussions with individual authorities.

This will mean that the Government's expectations can be clarified, and difficulties encountered by local authorities can be resolved. But no local authority can be expected to respond satisfactorily without an adequate number of staff and it is clear that many do not presently have enough emergency planning officers to enable them successfully to tackle the range of tasks set out in the regulations.

Local authorities must balance many conflicting demands on their resources. There are difficulties in appointing emergency planning officers and maintaining these posts. The Government believe that further help and encouragement is needed to help ensure that crucial emergency planning tasks are properly addressed.

The Government are not simply throwing money at the problem and there will be no uncontrolled explosion of local authority manpower. Under the civil defence legislation prior approval must be sought for all grant eligible expenditure. What is more, the detailed annual discussions with individual authorities I described earlier will allow a very close examination of their staffing needs. The controls are there to ensure that proper value for money is maintained.

I now return briefly to the distinctly Scottish provisions in the draft regulations. The proposed amendment to Regulation 1 is for the purpose of clarification. First, it makes clear that grant is properly payable for the civil defence functions of police authorities. Secondly, it restates in clearer form the circumstances in which civil defence grant is not payable; namely, when the relevant expenses would in any event have been incurred by the authority even if specific civil defence functions had not been conferred on it. The proposed amendment to Regulation 6 will allow grant to be withheld from any local or police authority in Scotland which fails to provide the Secretary of State with information about its civil defence activities at his request. This does no more than put the grant arrangements in Scotland on the same footing as already exists in England and Wales. The objective is to ensure that government can be informed about an area of local or police authority activity supported by specific grant, particularly when the intention now is to support so substantial a proportion of that expenditure with 100 per cent. grant.

Taken as a whole, these regulations constitute a useful boost to central government's support for important emergency planning work in local authorities, fire brigades, police forces and water authorities. That support is already considerable, but in the key area of staffing the Government believe that they can and should do more. I commend these regulations to your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 4th March be approved. [14th Report from the Joint Committee]—(Lord Beaverbrook.]

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am sure that those present in your Lordships' House at the moment will welcome the regulations. Indeed, local authorities outside the House will equally see that the Government are supporting the very essential civil defence work that those authorities ought to do. We pray that they will never have to use those powers in an emergency regarding civil defence. On these Benches we think that the regulations come appropriately and we are glad that full 100 per cent. grants will be made in the circumstances that the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, so clearly explained.

I wish to put a couple of questions. I should know the answer to the first, but I do not. The noble Lord said that at present the two amendments to which he referred in the Scottish regulations were operative in regard to the United Kingdom outside Scotland. I was looking particularly at the regulation that now applies to Scotland which states that grant would not be available where the authority concerned would have incurred relevant expenses in the exercise of non-civil defence functions. Can the noble Lord confirm—and again I apologise for my ignorance—whether this is a regulation applicable outside Scotland; in other words, that the grant is not available where there is the exercise of non-civil defence functions by staff?

If that is so, I pass to a question in respect of which I do not think I have to apologise for my ignorance. Does it mean that where civil defence staff deal with a local emergency—the kind referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in the past when I have been pleased to support him from these Benches, or the kind to which I have referred when the noble Lord, in his great kindness, has been pleased to support me—there will be a deduction from the grant in regard to expenses paid for staff? I am here referring to staff who have dealt with a local or even a national emergency which does not come strictly within the definition of civil defence?

Subject to those two matters, we, on these Benches, welcome the regulations.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I, too, welcome the regulations and I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked those questions. I wonder whether I may broaden the subject a little. Local authorities are required by law to help protect their people in the event of any serious emergency in war, and indeed, as I understand it, in peace as well, although that comes under different legislation. In these days, peacetime emergencies include industrial accidents, which can occur on a vast scale such as happened at Flixborough in Lincolnshire and at Bhopal in India, where I happened to be last month.

Peacetime emergencies also include the danger of radioactive fall-out from explosions at nuclear power stations, whether on the Continent or in this country. It is a solemn thought that the explosion at Chernobyl, which is well south in Russia, only a few miles north of Kiev and the Ukraine, caused traces of fall-out to appear even in the North-West, the west and southwest of Scotland and in north Wales; so much so that for some weeks farmers from those regions were not allowed to sell their sheep.

It is quite useless for some local authorities to say that they will not worry about fall-out in peace or war and that their areas are nuclear-free zones. That is nonsensical and irresponsible. We have not yet had a major nuclear accident in the United Kingdom but there are now scores of nuclear power stations on the Continent and we may as well be prepared for the worst while hoping for the best.

Civil defence does not cost much. The Government already pay 100 per cent. of the cost of a number of services that have been mentioned and about which I shall say a little more in a moment. They pay 75 per cent. of the cost of the rest. I wonder whether, when replying to the debate, one of my noble friends can confirm my understanding that last year the whole body of local authorities in England and Wales had to find only £4 million towards the cost of what is now called civil protection but is sometimes still known as civil defence—a solecism perpetuated by these regulations. It means only a few coppers per man, woman and child in the whole of England and Wales, and I do not think it costs any more in Scotland.

When these regulations have been passed—indeed, in the coming financial year—local authorities in England and Wales will only have to find £1 million as their contribution towards the much larger cost of maintaining these arrangements for dealing with emergencies in peace and war that is borne by the taxpayer. The sum of 1 million is chickenfeed.

In order to protect our people in the event of peacetime and wartime hazards, there are four essential requirements. First, there must be a professionally efficient but fairly small number of public officers, including various specialists. To the extent that those people are solely performing their functions under the civil defence regulations, their salaries will be met 100 per cent., and so will their expenses. Secondly, we need a large number of volunteers. The arrangements for training and organising volunteers already attract 100 per cent. grant. Thirdly, we need enough of the right kind of equipment, especially communications equipment, for those concerned to use, and that carries 100 per cent. grant. Fourthly, and by no means least, every civil defence or civil protection authority—that is, every county and every joint authority for fire and civil defence purposes—should have a purpose-built operating centre. Most of them have such a centre; some are in mothballs. I do not know what some authorities have done with them, but all authorities need such a centre. Those are the four essentials.

I should like to congratulate the Government for easing the burden on local authorities and their ratepayers to the tremendous extent that they have done already and, in addition, by these regulations. Of course the fact that the burden is now so negligible provides no excuse whatever for any local authority of any political complexion to refuse to carry out the duties laid upon it by Parliament.

I should like to ask my noble friend this question: which local authorities are still not fulfilling their duties? If he is not able to tell us now, I hope that an early opportunity to do so will be taken by the Government in order to inform the public, and in particular the people whom local authorities have a duty to protect, so that everyone knows. My noble friend may not be able to answer my next question yet. although most of us know the answer because it is in the statute. What will be done about those local authorities which fail to do what is required of them?

My last two questions are purely technical and relate to the form of legislation. As I said, civil defence is now becoming known as civil protection. Those working in the field know that. The National Council for Civil Protection, of which I have the honour to be president. changed its name last year from the National Council for Civil Defence. When will the Government put that technically right so that, even if we do not amend the name of Civil Defence Act we at least provide that the regulations are known as civil protection regulations? I cannot expect answers to those questions now because they will have to be considered. They are questions to be answered by the Government in due course following usual, mature consideration. Has not the time come to consolidate these regulations and re-name them civil protection regulations?

7.15 p.m.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, we have had a welcome opportunity to address civil defence issues. I am grateful to the noble Lords who have commented on them. I shall begin with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who asked me whether the arrangements to withhold grant for aspects of civil defence, which would go ahead irrespective of civil defence responsibilities, apply outside Scotland. The answer to that is that they do. This is a separate measure to provide clarification in the Scottish Regulations. However, there is already a power for Scotland, as there is for England and Wales. Thus the present Scottish measure is for clarification only.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Earl. I hope that he will not feel that I am being discourteous. Can he tell me, if not now, by letter, what provision makes that measure applicable outside Scotland? He broadly said that that happens to be the position outside Scotland. Will he refer to the regulation, measure or provision in some statute where that is clearly laid down? I shall understand if he cannot do that now.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I shall write and give him the details, but I can assure him that the matter has been covered for England and Wales.

The noble Lord also asked me about staff involved in peacetime emergencies. There is no financial provision. The Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986, in which my noble friend Lord Renton played such a useful part, allows civil defence resources to be used for peacetime emergencies. The provision is aimed at expenditure that would be incurred by local authorities with no civil defence responsibilities; for example, the basic cost of maintaining a fire brigade. A fire brigade would be useful in war but it would be needed in any case in peacetime.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am being a nuisance and I apologise for intervening, but these matters are of some importance. The Minister is being his usual helpful self. I asked whether members of staff, who are being paid for by a 100 per cent. grant by the Government in the civil protection department, and who are called out on a civil emergency and spend, for example, three days out of one week dealing with that civil emergency, would have their salary for the three days, which is not civil defence, deducted for the purpose of grant? It would seem to be absurd if that were the case. That was the question I was asking.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I appreciate the point that he makes. The financing of an example such as he gave comes out of the rate support grant. I shall of course draw his comments to the attention of my right honourable friend.

I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton. It may be helpful if I give some figures. Local authority civil defence expenditure for 1986–87 is expected to be about £19 million, of which £16.9 million is for England and Wales. That is 33 per cent. greater than for 1985–86 and 118 per cent. more than the expenditure level in 1981–82. It reflects a steady improvement in the level of civil defence preparedness and confirms the Government's commitment to civil protection.

A report on local authority preparedness was made available last July and a copy is in the Library. It makes it clear that, despite encouraging progress in many areas, a great deal remains to be done.

I am not aware that any local authorities with nuclear-free zones are actually refusing to meet their statutory obligations. A planned programme for implementation, and monitoring will help ensure that all local authorities fulfil their responsibilities. We see the way forward as a partnership between central and local government. There is a vital role for local councils to play.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I am reluctant to interrupt my noble friend. From my local knowledge of East Anglia, I am aware that the borough of Cambridge and the town of Peterborough are still calling themselves nuclear-free zones. I cannot say to what extent they are refusing to fulfil their responsibilities. There is non-co-operation to the extent that they have failed to provide proper control centres.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The areas that he mentioned and others continue to take that line. However, the Government are confident that the present measures—the PPI and the regulations—which provide improved grant, will see a greater level of co-operation than has perhaps been evident until now. Local councils have a vital role to play in an emergency. They have resources which they could put to good use and a host of useful contacts with local bodies, communities and voluntary organisations, all of which would have a central function to fulfil. It is for central government to provide encouragement, guidance and support. This we have done and are continuing to do.

We have made additional resources available since this Government came to power, and expenditure is now running at about £100 million a year, with some £19 million of this spent by local authorities, as I mentioned a moment ago. This local authority spending has been supported by civil defence grant and with your Lordships' approval of the draft regulations before you the major part of local authority spending on civil defence will enjoy full Exchequer support.

I believe that the regulations will be welcomed by those authorities which have taken their responsibilities for civil defence seriously in the past and which will continue to do so with the continued support that we propose to offer. I hope that other authorities which may not have been committed to the extent we believe necessary will be encouraged to implement more progressively the civil defence functions that Parliament has laid on them. I have already expressed this hope to my noble friend Lord Renton.

That is the purpose of the planned programme for implementation of the civil defence regulations to which my noble friend Lord Beaverbrook referred in his opening remarks. There are encouraging signs that local authorities are now looking constructively at the state of their preparedness and how this can be improved. We shall be watching the situation carefully in the future to see how we can ensure that work is taken forward and that we get the best value for money in terms of the protection of the public. The additional support for staffing to which these regulations would give effect is particularly important for the preparation of civil defence plans, which we see as a major priority for action to remedy the deficiencies in our present situation.

There are many benefits to be secured from this additional encouragement. Not only shall we be better prepared to help the population in wartime—which is the principal objective of civil defence grant—but these civil defence preparations will also help to provide civil protection to deal with peacetime emergencies. Civil protection in peacetime is not, however, an alternative to civil defence against hostile attack. The one is bound up with the other. The resources which are provided for civil defence can be used to protect the population in a peacetime emergency, and the plans made for civil defence can be prepared in order to cater also for peacetime emergencies.

This approach to emergency planning—which is known as the "All Hazards Approach"—was made possible by the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act which my noble friend Lord Renton introduced to your Lordships last year and which received Government support as well as a sympathetic response from all sides of this House. I believe that these regulations, which provide further encouragement to local authorities in their civil defence functions, should enjoy the same measure of support. I commend the draft regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.