HL Deb 14 February 2002 vol 631 cc1188-94

11.39 a.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This is essentially a Money Bill. As such, it replaces Section 3 of the Civil Defence Act 1948 and maintains the link between civil defence and peacetime emergency planning, by including reference to the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986. The overall effect of the Bill will be to enable Government to return to the practices that existed until a couple of years ago. That was when a loophole was uncovered in the existing legislation and the Government accepted that they would be acting illegally by cash limiting civil defence grant.

Local authorities are provided with civil defence grant under the Civil Defence Act 1948. That ensures that they have the funds necessary to carry out their civil defence duties—that is, to plan a defensive response to hostile attack. The Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986 provided for local authorities to use their civil defence resources for peacetime emergencies.

For many years, the Government distributed grant according to a formula. However, in the summer of 2000, the Merseyside Fire and Civil Defence Authority challenged the Government's ability to cash limit this grant. The authority obtained leave to move, but refrained from further action on the understanding that its application for more than its formula allocation would be reconsidered. The matter was settled out of court.

That left the Government in the unenviable position of being unable to budget and manage civil defence grant properly. Instead of the Government being able to allocate grant according to a formula, we had moved to a demand-led system. So from a grant level of £14 million in 2000–01, costs rose to an estimated £18.6 million this year. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, in another place, has decided to retain grant at this level in view of recent events. However, the pressure is on for costs to increase further if this Bill is not enacted. For instance, the Local Government Association and the Emergency Planning Society both estimate that emergency planning should be funded to a sum of between £35 million and £70 million—an increase of 88 and 275 per cent respectively. My honourable friend in another place is, rightly, not convinced that that very substantial increase in the level of this particular grant is justified at present.

The question of funding should, however, be seen in the wider context. The Bill provides for how local authorities in England and Wales will be funded to carry out their emergency planning. It is estimated that approximately £18.6 million will be spent this year. However, that is just a small part of what the Government are spending overall on preparation for emergencies. Large sums are being spent on frontline emergency services: more than £9,000 million for the police, £775 million for the ambulance service and £1,650 million for the fire service. We should also include funds for other work such as flood defences, which has a budget this year of £377 million. Many local authorities also provide funds from their SSA allocation to their individual emergency planning services, which the Local Government Association estimates to be approximately £9.9 million in England this year.

So this Bill relates only to a small, but not insignificant, part of the Government's total funding for response to disasters and emergencies; namely, the Government's support of emergency planning officers working in local authorities in England and Wales. The Government know that we need to spend money in those important areas. I should like to express our appreciation to all those involved in preparation and response to emergencies for their commitment and hard work in making the UK a safer place for us all to live and work in. They give us the reassurance when faced with disaster that things will not be as bad as they would have been without them.

Much has happened recently in the world of emergency planning. We have been subject to a series of unexpected events—flooding, fuel distribution crisis, foot and mouth, and 11 th September and all its subsequent fallout. The Government had already recognised the importance of preparing a response to such unlooked for incidents by conducting a comprehensive, wide-ranging review of the emergency planning arrangements in England and Wales.

This review was announced in December 2000, and the public consultation period took place from August to October 2001. The Government are currently considering the implementation of the recommendations of the review. It has been the most comprehensive review of emergency arrangements in this country for years. It has also resulted in much valuable information and feedback which will inform the Government's next steps.

One of the two proposals in the review, which met with almost total approval, was to introduce new emergency planning legislation. It was widely recognised by respondents that the current legislation, which this Bill amends, is anachronistic and needs to be replaced, However, that is not something that can be done overnight. We need carefully to consider the review findings and how best they can be implemented and legislated for.

Last autumn, in the aftermath of 11th September, the Government briefly considered rushing through emergency planning legislation, but we rightly concluded that that really required further consideration and reflection in the cold light of day. It is human nature to focus on the last battle fought, as it were, rather than the whole war. We need to ensure that new legislation is broad enough to cope with every eventuality, not just an 11th September.

The Bill, therefore, is not the Government's last word in emergency planning. It is a Bill that will bridge the gap between the exposure of a financial legal loophole in existing legislation, and the introduction of fully rounded modern emergency planning legislation. Your Lordships might ask why we should bother. The answer is simple: we currently have a situation which is demand led, in which the costs could spiral year on year if the Bill—which will enable costs to be contained within Government-set budgets—is not enacted. It is an essential measure to contain costs in the period between a financial loophole in current legislation being exposed and new, modern emergency planning legislation being introduced. We are not ready to bring in fresh emergency planning Legislation; we need to take full stock of the consultation to ensure that we fully consider all of its different aspects. We also need to ensure that we do not just bring in legislation to deal with the last major event: we need wide-ranging, all-embracing legislation that will encompass all eventualities, both anticipated and unanticipated.

The Bill enables the Government to regain control of funding for emergency planning. It enables us to return to the situation pertaining a couple of years ago, when we had a set budget for emergency planning and allocated the grant according to a formula. That is the essence of this Bill. At present, we are in a situation in which we are unable to cash limit grant. Local authorities can therefore bid for whatever they want, and the Government have to give it to them. We would like to be able to stand here and say that local authorities can have all the money that they would like, but we must live in the real world. We have budgets and we have limited resources. The Government do not have bottomless pockets. Therefore, we must ensure that the Bill is passed through this House.

The Bill is a short, two-clause measure. The first clause is in two parts. The first part replaces Section 3 of the Civil Defence Act 1948 in so far as it applies to local authorities in England and Wales. This enables grant payments to be made under primary legislation, rather than under secondary legislation, by regulation. The second part of Clause 1 maintains the link between the Civil Defence Act and the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986, ensuring that civil defence resources can continue to be used for peacetime emergencies.

The details are as follows. New Section 3(1) confers on the designated Minister a grant-making function as regards every authority which has civil defence responsibilities. Section 3(2) requires that the Minister determines the aggregate amount of grant each financial year and the amounts of grant for each authority. It also requires the Minister to publish those amounts and the formula and other criteria used to determine them. Section 3(3) allows the Minister to use different criteria in relation to different authorities, and to vary individual determinations.

New Section 3(A) allows the Minister to pay discretionary grant to any authority with civil defence functions. New Section 3(B) provides for the Minister to determine when grant is paid, allowing, for example, for payment by instalments and for payments not to be restricted to the financial year for which the grant is made. This section further allows for payment of grant to be conditional and provides for the recovery of any over-payment of grant.

The second part of Clause 1 is a consequential drafting amendment that was introduced by the Government in the House of Commons. It ensures continued linkage between the Civil Defence Act 1948 and the Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986, whereby grant paid under this Bill, rather than by regulation, can also be used for peacetime purposes, as well as civil defence.

The second clause deals with the title, starting date and territorial coverage of this measure. Clause 2(1) sets the title by which the Act shall be known. Clause 2(2) determines the financial year of its introduction—that being 1st April 2002 to 31st March 2003—and its application to subsequent financial years. Clause 2(3) provides for the Act to extend to England and Wales but not to Northern Ireland. Those provisions allow the Government to return to the practices that existed, and with which most authorities were broadly content, before the Merseyside judicial challenge.

As I have indicated already, the Bill is not the Government's final word on emergency planning. It should be seen in the context of current outdated legislation and of anticipated modern emergency planning legislation, which we in government intend to introduce in Parliament at the earliest opportunity, when parliamentary time and competing priorities permit. We are committed to ensuring that emergency planning is set on a surer foundation and a more certain statutory basis.

I look forward to the Bill's consideration in your Lordships' House and to further comprehensive emergency planning legislation. In the mean time, we need to ensure that this Bill proceeds to Royal Assent, so that emergency planning can be funded coherently and consistently across England and Wales from the next financial year. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. (Lord Bassatn of Brighton.)

11.51 a.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, this is of course a money Bill and noble Lords have no power to change its contents. However, I remind noble Lords of the reasons why my party opposed the Bill in another place and voted against it. The first and probably paramount reason is that the proposal to cut back on civil contingencies spending is not appropriate in light of the events of September 11th. My party is opposed to capping and, arguably, to reducing the money available for civil defence.

The Home Secretary laid great stress on the need to be prepared for all eventualities, terrorist or otherwise. The move to restrict funding for civil defence is incongruous with other areas of current government policy. The Minister said that we are awaiting further information on legislation relating to civil defence, following an extensive review process. Many organisations expressed their desire to see legislation in other key areas pertaining to civil defence, and reform of the civil defence grant cannot be viewed as the highest legislative priority at this time.

The Bill presented the Opposition in another place with the first opportunity to vote on a matter relating to civil contingencies, following last year's floods. It was felt that at that time the Government failed to provide adequate support to local authorities, which were left to cope with the devastation that was caused by flooding in their areas. This capping of their grant will leave those local authorities all the more vulnerable.

The Minister referred to the announcement by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, that this year's level will be £18.6 million. That contrasts with the figure of £70 million, which was mentioned by the Minister and which was suggested in a letter from the Emergency Planning Society. Did Mr Leslie's response to a Written Question, which appeared five days after the letter was written, take account of that letter and, in light of that, are the Government minded to increase the level of grant?

Finally, I refer noble Lords to a survey of local authority emergency planning authorities, which was carried out on 23rd and 24th January of this year by my honourable friend Mr Tim Collins, who is shadow Minister to the Cabinet Office. Of the 31 county emergency planning officers who were surveyed, 29 affirmed that the funding they received from central government was inadequate and did not allow them to provide the service that they should and which the public deserve. Some expressed dissatisfaction in light of the petrol crisis and the foot and mouth epidemic, which some of them had only just survived. Should a further major emergency arise, they simply would not have the capacity to deal with it. They variously described themselves as "grossly under-funded" and in "an abysmal state". They pointed to the continuing cuts with which they have been faced over the past decade, and the incompatibility of those cuts with the ever-increasing expectations that are placed on them. Many of the respondents referred to the startling reductions that they would be forced to introduce. Moreover, 100 per cent of respondents reported that they had received no further funding from central government in the aftermath of the events of September 11th. Seven of them said that no guidance whatever had been received after that event. In only one case was local authority guidance relating to the events of September 11th said to have been received.

The Minister said that the Government would like to give local government all that is required but there has been a serious lack of communication between central government and local government over this issue. With the transfer of responsibilities from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office, I hope that that will improve.

We have no power to change this Bill, but I hope that the Government will bear these real concerns in mind when they bring forward further legislation on civil defence, which I gather is in hand.

11.55 a.m.

Lord Roper

My Lords, as has been said, this is a money Bill over which this House has relatively little power. My first reaction to it is to suggest that the main theme of our debate might be that whatever the pressure on the legislative timetable, time is always found for legislation to reassert Treasury control. This piece of legislation will do just that, in view of the loophole that was discovered.

As has been said, in view of recent events it is clear that the Bill has to be seen as part of the wider picture of our proper planning for civil defence. Apart from the question of further legislation, to which I shall refer in a moment, I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government will watch very carefully the demands arid requirements of civil defence planning, and that if it is necessary to increase the £18 million figure to which he referred appropriate adjustments will be made. We should have a heavy responsibility on us if we had not made appropriate plans and a serious disaster occurred.

I should be grateful for more information on the Government's plans for further comprehensive legislation. Although that should not be done too quickly, it should be done in reasonable time. What opportunity is there within the Government's legislative programme for us to consider that Bill during this Session? If there is no such opportunity, would it he possible for this House to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny on that Bill? If we did that, it might be possible to proceed with the substantive legislation a good deal more quickly during the next legislative Session.

As I say, this is a Bill to reassert Treasury control and therefore not one on which this House can comment.

11.58 a.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords for their comments on the Bill.

I gently remind the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, that we have paid close attention to the needs and pressures in the emergency planning field, which have been assessed by local authorities. There has been consultation, and my honourable friend in another place had meetings with the Local Government Association and the Emergency Planning Society last October. I believe that in late November he spoke directly to the lead councillor responsible for those matters.

Most of the concerns that noble Lords expressed were not about the Bill—we all agree that this is a money Bill that establishes the proper processes and procedures for the allocation of funds—but about the level of grant. The noble Viscount drew attention to my point about the survey. Views about the level of appropriate spending in any field of government will vary. I am greatly impressed that the noble Viscount thinks that the amount of money should be increased—that is exactly what the Government have done. Over the past year, effectively there will have been a 28 per cent increase compared with the amount of money from central government only two years ago. That is why we were happy to confirm that we would provide funding to the tune of £18.6 million for the next financial year. That is a significant rise in both real and cost terms.

Prior years had seen the level of grant settle at around £14 million. I believe that most Members of your Lordships' House will recognise that the level of funding is not unreasonable, given, in particular, that we have moved on from the days of the Cold War. Of course, we have had to take some account of the events of 11 th September. In that context, I believe that the review of emergency planning started in the previous year has been most useful.

As I said earlier, I cannot be precise about when new legislation will be brought forward. After all, that legislation will be the fruit of consultation. I consider that to be proper because we want to ensure that we are in tune with the wishes and needs of the emergency planning services and in tune with the pressures as seen at local level.

We shall consult and shall continue to consult. We want to get the matter right. We recognise that the world has changed since 11 th September, and a substantial increase has been made in the level of emergency planning funding. As I said, there will always be disagreement as to what that level should be. But the review is well under way and I trust that we shall have legislation which is fit for the purpose and which will take us forward.

I hope that those comments have answered the points raised by noble Lords.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.