HL Deb 05 November 2001 vol 628 cc4-6

2.43 p.m.

Lord Watson of Richmond

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there is a co-ordinated civil defence for London; and, if so, who is in charge of it.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, a range of contingency plans to protect London's infrastructure are being co-ordinated through a sub-committee of the Civil Contingencies Committee. The Civil Contingencies Committee is chaired by the Home Secretary and the London Resilience Sub-Committee is chaired by the Minister for London. Operationally, the co-ordination of any response to a major incident in London is the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but I think that he will agree that its details are not well known to the general public. In the past, London has faced high danger and high risk without panic, but the price of calm is clear evidence of co-ordination in advance of anything happening. Does the Minister therefore see it as a high priority to communicate simply to Londoners the chain of command and areas of responsibility, and in particular to clarify the role of the elected mayor?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I hope that there is no doubt. To translate the final sentence of my Answer, the police are in charge. That is the Question that the noble Lord asked. By and large, the public have confidence in that state of affairs. London is well prepared, mainly because of our experience in the past 30 years, compared with other capital cities. The Civil Contingencies Committee now has three new sub-committees. The Prime Minister is due to answer a Question on that in the other place; he has probably already done so. The London Resilience Sub-Committee is chaired by the Minister for London. The mayor of London has a full role to play in that aspect of the committee's deliberations. There is a key role for the mayor in communicating the issue to Londoners. He is already doing that with some distinction.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is important that the Civil Contingencies Committee should be able to form ad hoc committees relating to any major urban area in the United Kingdom?

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords. The Civil Contingencies Committee now has a separate subcommittee for UK resilience, as well as the London Resilience Sub-Committee. The third sub-committee deals with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents. The Question was directed specifically at London, but there is a high state of co-ordination among emergency planning officers in all the large cities around the country. Things have changed since 11th September, but our plans were well prepared before then because of the situation that we have faced for the past 30 years.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that co-ordination in London among the various different and very powerful bodies is not generally regarded as a classic text book example to follow? People will be slightly cynical. Who will be the most senior person? The mayor is obviously a powerful person. Is he subordinate to somebody else?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, operationally, the police are in charge. Let us get that clear so that there is no argument about it. The mayor has a key role in communicating and speaking for the people of London. He plays a central part in the London Resilience Sub-Committee and will communicate the issues to Londoners. There are 32 London boroughs, as well as the City of London, making 33 authorities. There are separate emergency services, with a London Emergency Services Liaison Panel. The plans of all the emergency planning offices are being reviewed at the moment. That work is ongoing. There is the issue of the utility undertakings as well. There is a lot of co-ordination going on. Exercises take place, although they are not always advertised. In June last year there was a major exercise in London called Operation Trump Card, based on a chemical incident. Many lessons learnt from that have been put into the existing plans.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, will the Minister kindly explain the relationship between the Civil Contingencies Committee and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority whose powers go back to the Civil Defence Act 1948? That authority would certainly consider that it had a significant role to play.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the Civil Contingencies Committee is a committee of the Cabinet. There are other liaison arrangements, but they are all co-ordinated from the centre. No one is going off doing any freelance work; otherwise we could not ensure co-ordination among 33 local authorities, plus the emergency services—the police, the ambulance service, the British Transport Police, the fire brigade and others. There is good co-ordination between all the relevant authorities and the emergency services, as well as the utility providers. They had been broken up over recent years but are now brought within the loop. There are no turf wars. I have tried to explain the situation as clearly as I can.

We are talking about emergency preparations. In the normal course of events, civil defence would mean defence against a hostile attack from a power. We are not talking about that. We are talking about possible terrorist attacks. That is where the Civil Contingencies Committee and the emergency planning come in.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, does the Minister agree that some of the speculation in parts of the media in the past few days about potential attacks on nuclear facilities and others borders on the downright irresponsible? Does he agree that careless talk not only costs lives but also sows seeds of doubt in the minds of many people and can therefore sap national morale? Nothing is to be gained by that kind of speculation.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. However, we must also take on board, and it is worth repeating often, that, in terms of preparation for possible terrorist attacks, things have changed since 11th September. Preparations and plans are being made in the light of what happened on that date.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, can the Minister say who exactly is in the lead for disaster and emergency planning?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, from a political point of view and in relation to co-ordinating the Government's response, it is the Home Secretary, as chair of the Cabinet Civil Contingencies Committee. That committee now has three sub-committees, which are designed specifically to examine London resilience, UK resilience, and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear issues. Operationally in London, it is an issue over which the police have charge.