HL Deb 05 May 2004 vol 660 cc1108-10

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to inform the public about recent terrorist threats and how to react in the event of an emergency.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as part of a deliberate strategy by the Home Secretary, an increasing amount of information and advice is being made available to the public. Since November 2002, the Government have made available information on terrorist threats through three websites, four parliamentary updates and regular speeches and publications. General advice and information on preparing for a possible emergency is included on the Home Office terrorism website.

Advice on actions to take in specific emergencies is provided to the public by a range of organisations and departments, including the police, the Environment Agency in relation to flooding, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on overseas travel, the Department for Transport on UK travel, the fire service and the Department of Health.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, which was very welcome. However, during the Committee stage of the Civil Contingencies Bill in another place, the Government expressed a clear and repeated intention to withhold information from the public in the belief that knowledge creates fear. Therefore, we welcome this change of stance, which reflects our position that knowledge dispels fear.

This move is long overdue, but if the Government are really serious about defending our nation against terrorist attacks, why has the passage of the Civil Contingencies Bill—a Bill intended to prepare us for a civil contingency in the case of a civil emergency—been stalled? Indeed, it seems to have sunk without trace. What are the Government afraid of?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we are not afraid of anything. The Government's first priority. must be public safety, and that must be borne closely in mind in all decisions about public information and warnings. I am not aware that the Civil Contingencies Bill has stalled. We are committed to ensuring that that legislation reaches the statute book because we consider it to be very important and valuable. Our Government brought it forward, and it has been some time since a government legislated on this matter. We take the issues involved in the Bill very seriously indeed.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister not consider that his reply placed an over-emphasis on information being given out via websites? We have not yet reached the situation where people have ready access to websites. In fact, those who do not are often the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Will the Minister consider using more simple and straightforward means of providing information, such as advertising in newspapers and public information films on television, rather than placing an over-emphasis on websites? Does he not think that it would be better to spend money on providing basic information in that way rather than directing a large proportion of much-needed resources at an experimental identity card, which will have nothing to do with countering terrorism?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord's last point, but I shall put that on one side. However, I think that the noble Lord makes a perfectly valid point about sources of information and about where information should be placed. The Government review at all times where they place such information. At some stage, it may well be appropriate to place advertisements in newspapers. It may also be appropriate to produce leaflets and literature, to make other public service broadcasts or to make public information available through radio and television and so on. We keep all those things under review, and we act and take the initiative when it seems to us to be important to do so.

As to the issue of websites, roughly half the population have access to a website and probably even more have indirect access. The websites that have been set up are very popular. I am told that the www.MI5.gov.uk website had approximately 3 million hits on its first day last Friday. I do not know whether that is a record but it obviously seems to have stimulated a great deal of interest.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, is the Minister aware that most of us of a certain age in this House have been vaccinated for smallpox one or more times in our lives but that those vaccinations are now out of date? Given that the Government have the vaccines, will the Minister tell us why they are not making vaccination for smallpox available on a voluntary basis? Again, in the event of a terrorist attack using smallpox infections, why will only a pathetically tiny number of doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers have been vaccinated and thus be able to deal with an emergency of that kind?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an interesting issue, and it is a matter that must be taken very carefully into account when completing a risk assessment. Obviously, at present, the view is that the level of risk is such that vaccination has not become as urgent a priority as the noble Lord believes it should be.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, do the Government believe that the great British public are a pretty sensible lot who take a commonsense view about the completely amorphous threat which may be made by anyone to anyone at any time by any means? It seems to me that what the Government can usefully say on a website or elsewhere is hard to conceive.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord always makes a good point and, on this occasion, he is right. We should be very commonsensical in the way in which we deal with such a situation and that is basically the Government's approach.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the question of the Civil Contingencies Bill. Will the Minister please give me, perhaps in writing, some reassurance that the Bill has not been stalled? Indeed, it left Committee in another place in early February. I remember that during the passage of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill we had to stall all the normal practices and procedures in terms of timings in this House because that legislation was felt to have such a high priority. In contrast, we believe that the Civil Contingencies Bill is being treated by the Government as having a very low priority. and we do not understand why that should be. Given, for example, what happened recently in Madrid. we believe that the Bill should be treated as a high-priority issue.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Ball is obviously a high-priority issue. That is why it was brought before another place. The Bill has not stalled; it is proceeding and it will take its place with all the other pieces of legislation. I am sure that it will reach your Lordships' House and the noble Baroness will have the opportunity to discuss and debate it then.