HL Deb 05 July 1993 vol 547 cc1135-45

7.42 p.m.

Earl Ferrers rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on the 20th May be approved [31st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission. I should like to speak also to the draft Civil Defence (General Local Authority Functions) Regulations 1993. The Scottish regulations are essentially identical in principle to the English ones but allowance has to be made for the different local authority structure in Scotland.

The Civil Defence Act 1948 provides that the designated Minister—in this case, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland—shall make regulations which prescribe what functions each local authority shall have and perform for civil defence purposes.

The existing regulations, which were approved in 1983, were written against very different international circumstances from those which we see today. With the changed situation, it is right that the regulations should he changed in order to reflect the present needs.

Civil defence, in the minds of most people, has been virtually synonymous with protecting the population in the aftermath of a major nuclear attack. In fact it is a much wider concept. It is concerned with protecting the population against any hostile attack. The end of the Cold War does not mean that we should abandon civil defence. As your Lordships will be all too well aware, although the threat from the Warsaw Pact has gone, the world is still far from being a safe place.

The Government believe that it would be wrong to stop all planning to protect the public from hostile acts. But in the absence of specific threats, the right approach—and the one which the Government have adopted—is to assist local authorities to develop arrangements by means of which they can cope with a wide range of eventualities. An advantage of this approach is that it helps the response which a local authority can make to a peacetime disaster. Good emergency planning should concentrate on dealing with the consequences of a disaster, whatever that disaster may be, and not its cause.

We have consulted widely before preparing the new draft regulations. The Government have concluded that the very detailed obligations, which were placed on local authorities by the 1983 regulations, are today no longer appropriate. Those obligations have therefore been dispensed with. It is not often that a Minister can come to your Lordships with proposals to remove obligations and duties from local authorities and to make life easier for them. But I am fortunate this evening to be in the happy situation of so doing. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, scowls. It is a great surprise for him, but let me assure him that that is the case.

The regulations which relate to England and Wales make different provisions for metropolitan authorities compared with those for the shire authorities. In the metropolitan areas, there was widespread support for the idea that the responsibility for the management arrangements in the event of an emergency should lie with the metropolitan districts, the London boroughs and the City of London rather than, as now, with the fire and civil defence authorities. The new regulations make that change. The Government hope that, in practice, the boroughs and the districts and the fire and civil defence authorities will work together in partnership.

The regulations are also drafted in such a way as to allow the nature of this partnership to vary ry from metropolitan area to metropolitan area. This is as it should be if arrangements are to be tailored to the needs of the locality. The Government intend, therefore, to review how the regulations have worked in about 12 months' time.

Because of the proposed local government reorganisation, we thought it unwise to go for major changes in the civil defence functions of other councils. We have left undisturbed most of the functions from the earlier regulations which apply to county councils and to shire district councils—and which in Scotland apply to regional., islands and district councils respectively.

The approach which I have outlined will maintain a local authority civil defence capability. The Government will, therefore, continue to support this through the payment of civil defence specific grant at 100 per cent. The Government have, though, decided that the total level of grant which will be paid to local authorities in England and Wales should be reduced from £20 million this year to £15 million the following year. In Scotland this will be reduced from £2.4 million to £1.7 million respectively.

This decision has, I know, been unpopular with local authorities but I think that two points are sometimes overlooked. First, the new regulations will remove all the old detailed planning duties which were placed on local authorities by the 1983 regulations. Although smaller, the grant will now be available to fund the broadly based planning process of what is a changed situation. Secondly, the Government consider that the grant is a contribution—and a substantial one at that—to local authority emergency planning. The Government expect local authorities to continue to make their own contribution towards preparing for a local emergency.

During our consultations, there was a good deal of support for the introduction of a statutory duty on local authorities to plan for peacetime disasters. We have listened very carefully to the arguments. The Government do not rule this out in the longer term, but we are satisfied that much can be done within the existing legislation. We are, therefore, encouraging local authorities to discharge their civil defence duties in a flexible way. And these regulations will help them to do that.

The Government's aim is to assist local authorities in developing emergency planning arrangements which are relevant to the present situation and which will provide a firm base on which to meet any future civil defence requirements. I commend the draft regulations to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 20th May be approved [31st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Earl Ferrers.)

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will again be grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the regulations. If my eyebrows rose mildly when he described the regulations as taking away responsibilities and obligations from local authorities, that is not because I am contesting that indeed they do so but because the issue is a good deal more complicated than the noble Earl set out in his opening speech.

Frankly, the issue of civil defence and civil emergencies in this country is a shambles as regards legislation. We are still dependent very largely on the Civil Defence Act 1948, the only Act which provides the funding for civil defence and civil emergencies on a statutory basis. The Conservative manifesto—not in 1992, not in 1987, but in 1983—made a commitment that there would be new legislation on this matter. But that commitment was only partially fulfilled by the Private Member's Bill brought forward by Sir Nicholas Bonsor in another place in 1986. As the Minister of State, Mr. Peter Lloyd, acknowledged in the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments only two weeks ago, it remains the case that there ought to be comprehensive consolidation legislation. It is not good enough for the Minister to be saying in June 1993 that no place can be found in the parliamentary programme for this legislation.

The matter is compounded by the fact that local government reorganisation, to which much of the regulations relate, is a rolling programme over a number of years. Anything we do now in changing the responsibilities between one level of local authorities and another may be all right in the metropolitan areas, which are not affected by the review, but are almost certainly not all right as the work of the local government commission continues.

At the moment nobody knows who is responsible for civil defence and civil emergencies. It is proposed that those functions should now become the responsibility of the London and the metropolitan boroughs which will have the freedom in practice to deal with the fire and civil defence authorities. However, as things change outside the metropolitan areas, it is very difficult to see how those changes can be reflected in a new, enduring and easily comprehensible situation for dealing with civil emergencies.

It is true that civil defence in the old sense, with huge bunkers in which local bigwigs are protected from nuclear attack, is no longer appropriate. But, as the Minister said, the demand for protection against civil emergencies is no less, and almost certainly considerably more, than it has been in the past. The regulations fail to take the opportunity, short of legislation, to deal with the confusion caused.

Perhaps I may give a few examples. Under the regulations it is possible for local authorities to consult each other about the way in which they are going to deal with civil emergencies. As I understand it, and the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, there is no provision for local authorities to consult with the fire services or the police. They are about to undergo reorganisation as well. However, common sense would dictate that it is the local authorities, the fire services and the police, and probably others, who will need to consult together in order to have effective emergency planning.

It is absurd that where civil defence authorities, whether boroughs or special authorities, have income from the use of sites, or other activities, for every £1 they receive in income which would otherwise go to improving civil defence, £1 is taken away from the Home Office grant. That is in the context of the reduction to which the Minister referred in central government funding from £26 million last year to £20 million this year and to £15 million next year. That is a very substantial reduction.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is in his place today. He will recall that on 6th February 1985 he introduced a Motion in your Lordships' House debating this very issue. In it reference was made to the Conservative manifesto promise made in 1983 to amend the Civil Defence Act 1948 in order to enable civil defence funds to be used for peacetime emergencies. The Minister at that time, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, made a soothing reply, but the fact remains that apart from Sir Nicholas Bonsor's Bill, that obligation has still not been fully fulfilled. When the Local Government Bill was going through Parliament in 1985 and also when the Local Government and Housing Bill was going through in 1989, particularly on the latter occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, again made reference to the need for comprehensive, amending legislation. Here again, Ministers tried to be soothing but they did not actually promise that there would be a proper reform.

In accordance with the traditions of this House we are not going to oppose the regulations, but they are a mess. Opportunities have been lost over a number of years to correct matters. I can only hope that there will not be some emergency of the Lockerbie kind—one can imagine many things substantially worse—which will actually reveal the lack of preparedness not so much of local authorities, but of public authorities in this country as a whole. If that were to happen, we and the country would have to say that the Government had not paid adequate attention to the needs of civil emergencies. These regulations cannot be seen as a final solution to the problem.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I too would like to thank the Minister for his introduction of the regulations. Like the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, I have fears which arise from disasters and emergencies not respecting administrative boundaries. It is the view of my party—and here I speak personally as well —that local government at the most local possible level is best. But there are areas of government which require a strategic approach, and I believe that this is one of them.

Perhaps noble Lords will imagine an accident on a pleasure boat on the Thames. There are probably two riparian authorities and various other public sector bodies such as the Thames Water Authority and the Port of London Authority. Noble Lords will recognise that I speak of the "Marchioness" disaster. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, mentioned the example of Lockerbie. Coming as I do from west London, I am aware of the very real fears of people living in that area should there be a similar disaster on an aircraft approaching Heathrow.

There is also the example of a television tower which is the subject of a terrorist bomb attack and perhaps at the corner of four London boroughs—Croydon, Southwark, Lambeth and Bromley. I speak of Crystal Palace. As we have this discussion I feel that I should ask noble Lords to touch wood, but it is real discussion and I use examples of real places to give a little more vividness to the concerns which have been expressed.

The transport of chemicals and nuclear waste is a further example. Reading the regulations, I can only think that this is yet another instance where the internal market is to be the market which will apply. An internal market in emergency planning may not lead to the best arrangements. I fear that it will lead to patchwork funding and perhaps to a patchwork of standards. Certainly, with the patchwork of administrative boundaries which we have—for instance, with the boroughs, health authorities and police organisations—that must be a real concern.

The fire and civil defence authorities have a liaison role. But are their specific tasks merely to be supportive without a real, meaningful role for co-ordination? After a disaster, a lack of coordination, among other things, inevitably attracts criticism. I speak again about London, but it is quite a task to get all 33 London authorities to undertake planning in a co-ordinated fashion. It is not realistic to expect that there will be co-ordination unless it can be orchestrated. Responses to disasters have to be at several levels depending on the area affected and the complexity of the resources needed. It may not be enough for the response to be at local level. Perhaps we should be asking the Government to think again about taking a lead in defining the standards which they expect emergency plans to attain. All local authorities prepare civil defence plans, but I believe that the Government have never managed to prepare regional civil defence plans or to release details of draft emergency legislation.

These two statutory instruments are based on wartime legislation—or rather on legislation which directs itself to possible wartime problems. This may be an opportunity for the Government to protect public safety by transferring money to peacetime planning. Government responsibilities are fragmented between departments and the only money which is paid direct to local authorities for emergency planning is earmarked for preparations against hostile attack. That money can be spent "secondhand", so to speak, on peacetime planning if an authority decides to do so but, as we have already heard, that function is. inadequately resourced.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to the reduction in funding, as did the Minister. It will be reduced from £26.9 million in 1992-93 to £15 million in 1995-96. If the Government continue on that course, the reduction in funding will have been 43 per cent. in cash terms, or almost 50 per cent. in real terms, since the general election. The Minister said that that is partly because detailed planning duties have been removed. We all welcome a reduction in bureaucracy, but from the Minister's introduction I really do not believe that it is bureaucracy that is being reduced but, I fear, the real provisions for dealing with emergencies.

The Minister also said that the grant is only a contribution and that local authorities will be able to make their own contribution. We have had many debates about the ability of local authorities, in their current circumstances, to fund what they would wish to fund so that may be another problem on our hands.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, also referred to the duty to consult other bodies and organisations which local authorities consider appropriate. That duty appeared in the original draft regulations, but has now been removed. I should like to add two questions to those already asked by the noble Lord. What has been the response of the other emergency services, such as the police and ambulance services, to the draft regulations? Finally, what is meant by the term "civil defence purposes" which appears in the regulations? What do those purposes comprise? There were 12 detailed planning areas in the 1983 regulations, but those are being revoked and there does not appear to be anything of substance on the statute book to replace them.

The Government rightly designate lead departments to deal with different types of emergency because emergencies cross departmental boundaries. They seem to recognise the need for co-ordination in Whitehall, so I should like to see them leading the way and facilitating local authorities to do the same. As I said, these are peacetime regulations, riding on the back of wartime legislation. I wonder whether it is the correct use of a statutory instrument. I welcome the Minister's reference to a 12-month review and hope that the regulations will be kept under review. The Local Government Commission does not plan to finish its work within the next 12 months, as I understand it, and is having a somewhat stormy ride at the moment. Clearly, that will need to be kept under careful and constant review.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I, too, must thank my noble friend Lord Ferrers for introducing these regulations. It is not often that the House gets an opportunity to discuss civil defence or civil protection in this way so what my noble friend said is valuable. His speech was valuable not only for what it contained but also, I am afraid to say, for what it did not contain, and those are the points that I should like to address although many have been touched on already by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.

We heard enough in those two speeches to leave us in some doubt about whether the powers and duties of local authorities and, indeed, of central government are up to the task that they face. The impression that has been created —and I share the concern—is that the powers and duties are fragmented and, in some cases, disorganised. To some extent, they are also confused. I am sure, however, that many people are working extremely hard to try to ensure that they are properly organised.

If I understood her correctly, the noble Baroness referred to co-ordination procedures in central government. That is a particularly important point. Some aspects of the hazards that are faced as peacetime emergencies are acted upon by some departments, and some by others. Perhaps I may give just two examples. The Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards Regulations, which were implemented under the Seveso directive in 1982, meant that that operation was the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive and thus the Department of Employment. Following the Chernobyl incident, the Government introduced the concept of having a lead department to be responsible for the Government's response to major disasters. Nuclear emergencies, for example, were the responsibility of the Department of Energy, but are now the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry unless the radiation is from overseas when they are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment or, if nuclear weapons were involved, when they become the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. To me that sounds very confusing. I could give other examples, but I shall not weary the House by repeating them.

In that regard, I have two specific questions for my noble friend. When recommendations are made by an inquiry as part of the Government's response to a particular disaster, what mechanism exists for ensuring that those recommendations are acted upon? Is there some co-ordinating body which enforces them? To the best of my knowledge, neither the civil contingencies unit in the Cabinet Office nor any other bodies have the responsibility for oversight and co-ordination. I should be most grateful if my noble friend could reassure me on that point.

I turn briefly to the question of funding, which also has been referred to. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, drew attention to the very substantial reductions in cash terms that are to be made over the next few years as the Government reduce the total emergency planning funding even further. I regard that as a particularly depressing piece of news although those involved have been aware of it for some time.

It is all very well to talk of a peace dividend as many do, but as my noble friend himself acknowledged, we live in particularly uncertain times. We live in uncertain times not only from a strategic point of view, but also because of the way in which we find ourselves open to the sort of emergencies which inevitably and sadly occur from time to time. It was only last year that the tragic accident in Amsterdam provided us with an example, just across the Channel, of the sort of tragedy that can befall people literally out of the blue. Therefore, the responsibility of trying to transfer some of the funding in the way that has been suggested—that is, away from what was essentially post-war and militarily derived expenditure on civil defence towards the "all hazards" approach with which my noble friend Lord Renton indoctrinated me several years ago when I took over at the Home Office from my noble friend Lord Elton —weighs heavily on local authorities and others. I hope that some way can be found for those dealing with the emergencies to benefit from the funds which until now have been available solely for civil defence.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Glenarthur for enabling me to shorten my speech in some respects, especially with regard to what he said about funding. I am also grateful, for once, to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for the same reason, because of what he said about the legal position. I need not speak for as long as I had feared. Peacetime and wartime emergencies are now acknowledged to have much in common. They overlap. Preparations for dealing with them overlap by roughly two-thirds. One must not try to be too mathematical, but they overlap by more than a half.

The most damaging of peacetime and wartime hazards is nuclear fall-out, as Chernobyl showed us. It is the most damaging, the most widespread and the most difficult of all nuclear hazards with which to deal when we are trying to protect our people. I must ask my noble friend the Minister this first question: if there were another Chernobyl incident—assuming that it was a peacetime one—on the Continent, is he sure that we should not be taken by surprise and that we would have the facilities to deal with it immediately and on a wide scale?

The legal position is of course utterly absurd. However, I am relieved to know that it will be reviewed, if I have understood my noble friend the Minister correctly. A review is long overdue. As to the regulations, as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said, we have no option but to accept them. They have already been approved in another place. I must ask my noble friend one more necessary and relevant question that arises from the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986 which I had the honour of piloting through your Lordships' House. That Act gave power for civil defence funds to be used to prepare for peacetime emergencies. I should be grateful if my noble friend would tell us how much money has been used under that Act in the latest year for which figures are available and for what preparations they have been used. If it is possible to say, I should be interested to know, as I believe would other noble Lords, which type of local authorities have mostly taken advantage of it. Is it the metropolitan authorities and the urban authorities in London, or has it been out in the country where there has so often been better preparation for emergencies than we find in the urban areas?

People expect the Government and local authorities to protect them against disasters in peacetime and wartime. That is at least as important to the people as the greater relief of poverty and the provision of better education. If we are thinking in those terms because of the necessary financial approach, we should realise that the people expect to be protected and to have their moneys spent on their protection.

Finally, perhaps I may pay a tribute to my noble friend the Minister because he has had these responsibilities for some years. I should think that he has sometimes had a tremendous battle behind the scenes. I hope that in future he will receive the support inside Whitehall that he deserves and that is needed.

8.15 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for the welcome, so far as it goes, given to the regulations. There is no doubt that everyone is concerned, particularly more recently, about disasters that can occur across the world and in our own country. I understand my noble friend Lord Renton when he says that people expect to be protected in peacetime and in wartime. They do, but they also expect to be educated, to have facilities provided by the NHS, to have houses and to have many other things. The difficulties that all governments face is to ensure that they have as much as they reasonably can have without the Government running foul of their economics. While I understand the great desire to ensure that plenty of money is aimed at these objectives, all objectives have to be considered within the total parameter of government spending.

I agree with a great deal of what your Lordships have said about civil defence being our concern in the past. When I first took over responsibility in the Home Office, the great aim was to encourage local authorities to deal with civil defence and to protect, as my noble friend Lord Renton said, the people for whom they were responsible against the possible result of nuclear fall-out. We now see a great change. We are now aiming more at peacetime disasters, notwithstanding the fact that other disasters can occur. We as a country have to prepare ourselves, and local authorities have to prepare themselves, to deal with any disaster, whenever it occurs. One can never be sufficiently satisfied that whatever disaster occurs we shall be able to cope because one never knows what disaster is around the corner or what form it will take.

All noble Lords have said that they wished the legislation could be updated and that civil emergencies did not just, as it were, ride on the back of civil defence regulations. I agree that there is a strong argument in favour of that approach. There is a credible argument for producing legislation which would combine the needs of both wartime and peacetime. While the Government do not rule out the possibility of legislation in the longer term, there are obvious difficulties in introducing legislation which would affect the duties of local authorities at a time when local government organisation itself is in prospect.

The Government do not think that the time is right to introduce such legislation, although I understand its desirability. A great deal can be done within the existing legislation. We believe that this is probably the best thing to do for the time being, while we of course do not rule out the possibility of introducing legislation at a later date. The changes I have described will bear substantially on the arrangements for civil defence.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, asked about the position of local authorities which sold various pieces of capital equipment and lost a pound of grant for every pound raised by the sale. Officials are looking at ways in which local authorities can retain any income generated, and we shall be making a further announcement on that subject shortly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that she was keen to see everything devolved to the locality. But she then said that we should have a patchwork of standards and planning and that the different local authorities will produce plans which are not common.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl and I thank him for giving way. I said—and I hope that the record bears this out—that, while I believe that local government is best carried out at the most local level, there are matters which require a strategic approach and I believe that this is one of them.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am sorry if I misunderstood the noble Baroness and I apologise to her. She has a valid point. Local authorities are responsible for dealing with such matters as housing, burying people and so on. They must have the responsibility for planning. We wish to see that that planning is adequately and properly co-ordinated.

The noble Baroness was surprised to hear me say that the responsibilities have lessened. Of course they have lessened because we have removed all the planning duties which were in the 1983 regulations. The noble Baroness asked also what was the response of the other emergency services such as the police. The response has been a general welcome. The emergency services were consulted in England, Scotland and Wales.

The noble Baroness questioned also what were the civil defence purposes. Civil defence includes any measures not amounting to actual combat for: affording defence against any form of hostile attack by a foreign power or for depriving any form of hostile attack by a foreign power of the whole or part of its effect". That is a quotation from Section 9 of the Civil Defence Act 1948.

My noble friend Lord Glenarthur was concerned that the powers and duties were fragmented, which was similar to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend gave some examples. He wondered how all these matters would be co-ordinated. That was addressed by the civil emergencies adviser, Mr. Brook, and he has issued a document called Dealing with Disasters. That has been greatly welcomed by local authorities and deals with that very point. We hope that there will be co-ordination of effort by local authorities, all of which will receive a copy of that guidance.

My noble friend Lord Renton asked whether I was convinced that, if there were another Chernobyl, we should not be taken by surprise. The Chernobyl experience was terrible and one hopes that it will not occur again. However, the Department of the Environment has set up a radiation incident monitoring network which has been improved considerably since Chernobyl.

My noble friend asked also about the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act, how much money had been used and which local authorities had made use of it. I cannot give my noble friend those answers because local authorities do not have to provide that information. Therefore, I am sorry that I cannot be more forthcoming.

I hope that your Lordships will now be good enough to approve the order and I commend it to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.