HL Deb 02 December 2002 vol 641 cc965-8

2.57 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Who is responsible for disaster planning at national level.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as the Prime Minister made clear in Parliament on 20th November, responsibility for the arrangements for co-ordinating the Government's response to major emergencies lies with the Home Secretary. A system is in place to support him, headed at official level by Sir David Omand, who is the Permanent Secretary in charge of security and intelligence co-ordination.

In supporting my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, all departments have a responsibility to plan, to prepare, to train and to exercise for handling major incidents and emergencies that might occur within their area of responsibility. It is their Ministers' responsibility to ensure that they are ready to take the leading role on behalf of central government in managing the initial response to a major emergency in their field of responsibility, mitigating its immediate effects and organising the development of a recovery plan. Departments are brought together within three Cabinet committees that are chaired by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, previously when I asked this Question in the House I was told that the Minister did not know who was in charge of emergency planning at national level. Having had a more elucidating Answer today, is the Minister aware that there is incredible disquiet among emergency planning officers up and down the country and that the Government's lack of focus, co-ordination and direction is shameful in the light of what happened on 11th September and since?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, no. I think that that is a totally unfair way of looking at the issue. The NAO has looked at it and said that there has been great improvement since 11th September. Obviously, one can never get to a point where everything that has to be done is done. One has constantly to keep the issue under review. That is what we are doing. In a sense it is an unpolitical issue where we must work together to identify what are the best arrangements.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, what is the remit of General Kiszely—in command of the land forces—in this context?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I understand the matter, General Kiszely is the member of the Armed Services who is in charge of the deployment of those troops engaged in fire service while the Fire Brigades Union is on strike.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that international collaboration is also vital to disaster planning, especially natural disaster planning? Will this organisation he responsible for collaborating with the EU and with the UN system through the international secretariat for natural disaster reduction in Geneva? Is this unit also responsible for collaborating with the UK communities involved in research and humanitarian affairs in this matter?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, obviously it will depend on the precise disaster, but liaison with our EU partners and with the United Nations, both in terms of planning and as to what may happen in relation to an individual disaster, will frequently be vital. That obviously must also be worked out at the planning stage.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when the Greater London Council existed each local member had a very detailed emergency plan which they were asked to guard with their lives and which was highly confidential? Of course when the GLC was disbanded they went. What is the present position? Do regional government members in any part of the country have a similar responsibility now? Is there liaison between national, local and regional departments in co-ordinating any kind of emergency?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I was not aware of the position in relation to the GLC, referred to by the noble Baroness. As to planning for emergencies, obviously a vital aspect is the relationship between central government, local government and the Scottish, Welsh and London governances. It is incredibly important that there is proper liaison between those three levels of government. That is part of the contingency planning arrangements.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister recall that almost every terrorist attack has produced an emergency powers Bill which has chipped away at civil liberties and given more powers to security services, the police and others? If there is to be co-ordination of government departments, does the Minister agree that it would be sensible to have proper parliamentary accountability of what is going on in this area—perhaps paralleling the role of the security service committee, so a committee of senior Privy Councillors could keep an eye on the matter? It is very serious when these matters are taken away into the bureaucracy of Whitehall and when parliamentary probing always gets the, "Well, if only you knew what we knew", answer. There is a need for parliamentary control in these areas. I hope that the Government are sensitive to that.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, in response to recent acts of terrorism, the Government have quite sensibly proposed legislation. The extent to which those particular powers require review was properly debated in this House and another place, and proper safeguards, as required by Parliament, were put in place. What we are discussing at the moment in relation to this Question is contingency planning. That obviously depends on the Government's powers, but it also depends on keeping an eye on those things that one needs to do in order, first, to prevent such a contingency occurring, and, if it does, being able to respond to it adequately. That is what the Question is about.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House which voluntary bodies it is assumed would play a major role in a disaster situation? A few decades ago the WRVS was a very strong organisation with vehicles, cooking implements and so on at its disposal. It played a key role at the time of the east-coast floods at the beginning of the 1950s. Is there any voluntary body in business today with anything like the capability that that voluntary body had a few decades ago? Are we not desperately short of volunteers and voluntary bodies that are well trained to deal with emergencies?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the response to a civil contingency will, depending on the civil contingency, involve a whole range of public, private and voluntary sector bodies. The planning aims to ensure that all those bodies can be mobilised at the appropriate moment.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Minister may he surprised to know that I am about to congratulate him, or to congratulate someone. While sitting in this seat today, I received a communication from the Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod saying that the National Consumer Council has sent me a package with talcum power in it. I should like to commend those who have opened the package for their vigilance.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, my hopes were raised briefly when the noble Baroness said that she was going to congratulate me. She soon diverted from that possibility to congratulate the Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod on spotting that it was talcum power that was being sent. Perhaps I may also congratulate him.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, if there were to be a disaster in Scotland or Wales, who will be ultimately responsible—the United Kingdom Government or the devolved Executive? Will the coordination be any better than it was during the foot and mouth epidemic?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the arrangements for civil contingency planning involve— for example, in relation to particular identified possible civil contingencies—identifying where the lead should be, how it should be dealt with and close co-ordination between the devolved assemblies and central government. Responsibility for particular parts of it may have to be separated depending on the nature of the emergency. But that is what civil contingency planning involves addressing.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, do the Government contemplate among their contingency planning the issue at some stage of gas masks?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, there is a whole range of contingencies, which is what contingency planning seeks to deal with. Of course it will depend on the particular contingency.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, does the Minister recall his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in a previous discussion on this subject at Question Time, revealing the existence of the Emergency Planning Committee for London, on which sat a number of very senior officials, including the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary? When I asked the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in a Written Question how often that committee met, he said he could not say because it was a matter of national security. Can the noble Lord either tell the House how often it meets, or will he accept that—as the more cynical of us may believe—it never meets at all?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I was not aware of the Answer from my noble and learned friend Lord Rooker.

Noble Lords


Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Rooker. I am sorry. I apologise to him for associating him with all those lawyers. I know that he would regard that as a very unwise remark on my part. I do not know how many times it has met. I do not know whether or not it would be appropriate for me to say how many times it has met. But perhaps I may write to the noble Lord in that respect.

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