HL Deb 14 October 2004 vol 665 cc415-25

(1) Each Secretary of State shall—

  1. (a) from time to time assess the risk of an emergency occurring,
  2. (b) from time to time assess the risk of an emergency making it necessary or expedient for him to perform any of his functions,
  3. (c) maintain plans for the purpose of ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that if an emergency occurs he is able to continue to perform his or its functions,
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  5. (d) maintain plans for the purpose of ensuring that if an emergency occurs or is likely to occur he is able to perform his functions so far as necessary or desirable for the purpose of—
    1. (i) preventing the emergency,
    2. (ii) reducing, controlling or mitigating its effects, or
    3. (iii) taking other action in connection with it,
  6. (e) consider whether an assessment carried out under paragraph (a) or (b) makes it necessary or expedient for him to add to or modify plans maintained under paragraph (c) or (d),
  7. (f) arrange for the publication of all or part of assessments made and plans maintained under paragraphs (a) to (d), in so far as publication is not undesirable, for the purpose of—
    1. (i) preventing an emergency,
    2. (ii) reducing, controlling or mitigating the effects of an emergency, or
    3. (iii) enabling other action to he taken in connection with an emergency,
  8. (g) co-ordinate his actions with other Secretaries of State and in particular with any Secretary of State who may be designated from time to time as having particular responsibility for co-ordination,
  9. (h) co-operate with persons and bodies listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 1 in their performance of their duties under this bill, in particular their rehearsals for dealing with an emergency, and
  10. (i) ensure that persons and bodies listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 1, all other Secretaries of State, and (insofar as it is not undesirable) the public are aware of the role that he will play in dealing with emergencies."

The noble Lord said: Nothing in this part of the Bill binds central government to play their part in civil contingencies, although obviously their part will be absolutely vital. You cannot react at the local level to something that requires national expertise and resources to deal with without having access to the right bit of central government. Some emergencies, such as the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, essentially become matters for central government because they are so widespread. It therefore seems evident that not only must central government be prepared, they must also be properly rehearsed, as must the interface between them and the other agencies likely to be involved in dealing with an emergency.

Someone in each county council has to know who is at the other end of the line when they encounter a particular set of circumstances. They must get to know the person and have worked through the process of understanding what they are capable of and what to expect from the relevant ministry. That is what rehearsal gives you: an ability to respond very quickly to an emergency, but we do not have that in the Bill.

We have a vague promise that the Government will do something. A useful document entitled The Lead Government Department and its role—Guidance and Best Practice sets out what the Government say they will do, although I must say that it is pretty thin on the process of how the lead government department is to be established in any circumstances. It is clear that there will be a long and difficult argument over any question regarding which government department should take this on, which will not be in the best interests of handling an emergency quickly.

Moreover, as a Parliament we do not have an easy way of holding the Government to account for how well central government are doing in their preparations for dealing with an emergency. So far as I can see, nothing has been set out by way of commitments to do anything in particular. Nothing is set out by way of an auditing, monitoring or reporting strategy which we can latch on to, as did my noble friend in his previous amendment when he asked the Government how they would react to a smallpox outbreak started by 200 people scattered throughout the UK.

We can seek this information in a random way by asking Parliamentary Questions, and no doubt the Freedom of Information Act would be helpful. However, it is inevitable that for this to work properly the Government should be playing their full part. If they are doing that, they might as well be tied into the same mechanisms set out in the Bill as everyone else. The position will then be quite clear. I beg to move.

Lord Garden

In rising to support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in his Amendment No. 39, which would be a sensible addition to the Bill, I should like to speak to my Amendment No. 82 grouped with it. My amendment looks at a particular department; that is, the Ministry of Defence. I have singled out that department because we are all aware that the MoD and the armed services have particular capabilities that will be enormously important in the event of any large-scale emergency.

As it is at the moment, we are working on a system that dates hack over many years, one in which we have military aid to the civil power and military aid to the civil community. It dates back to dealing with the sorts of emergencies that build up over a period of time, yet as we have already discussed this morning, things could happen quite fast with the kind of terrorist attacks we are talking about.

The Ministry of Defence White Paper on the preparations that are made refers to fairly limited areas. The Civil Contingency Reserve Force, which is effectively a TA organisation, was described in the previous White Paper as being not yet fully up to strength and its coverage patchy. Can the Minister say whether that situation has improved, particularly given the number of TA personnel now required to be in Iraq rather than ready for an emergency in this country?

Earlier today, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, asked about water purification. The Minister replied that certainly the Ministry of Defence has the equipment for a civil contingency in the UK but its use would depend on military priorities. That is really not good enough. We need to ensure that the Ministry of Defence is fully engaged in all the preparations and that local authorities know what they can expect.

It may be that some of the priorities of Ministry of Defence action ought to be centred on providing capabilities that could be rapidly deployed throughout the country, given that it has available the protective equipment, the manpower and, particularly, the helicopter transport. It is not good enough to say that it will provide whatever happens to be available on the day. For that reason, I would particularise the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in terms of specifying that the Ministry of Defence should be one of the agencies involved in this.

Baroness Buscombe

I support both amendments. The Bill as currently drafted requires us to take too much for granted in terms of what the Government are supposed to be doing.

Lord Condon

I support the spirit and the motivation behind both amendments. On Monday of this week I spent a full day with the Chief Constable of Kent, the Chief Fire Officer of Kent and the Chief Ambulance Officer of Kent to remind myself of the state of preparedness on these issues. There is a real sense of urgency in the blue light services to improve their preparedness.

As the Minister said earlier, there has been real progress recently in equipment, preparedness, training and so on, but there is still a hole in the provisions. I do not think that there is yet enough reassurance that the Government themselves have the mechanisms to reassure people of how they have made progress and their urgency in relation to these issues.

As a member of the Joint Committee involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, I was reassured by much of the government evidence that we received. But on the issue of the Government's own responsibility to be prepared, there is still more scope for reassurance. There is a danger that the Government try to say that the debate is all or nothing: either you have a homeland security department, which they reject, or you rely exclusively on the status quo.

There is room for a middle ground. There may not be a need in this country for a department of homeland security, but there is scope for the Government to be put into a framework of some kind which builds on and enhances the current provisions, so that not only your Lordships' House and another place but the country at large can have more confidence in the preparations that are being made. I invite the Minister to give some reassurance about how the spirit and motivation behind these two amendments will be remade to this House.

Lord Elton

I support the two amendments for the reasons already given and because many of the potential emergencies that threaten will have trans-regional effects. There is a real need for a central co-ordinating initiative from the Government themselves.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Garden, I was surprised to see no reference to the Armed Services under the emergency services because the Territorial Army is, in effect, such a service on occasion. The noble Lord mentioned that the TA is partly engaged in Iraq and, indeed, in Afghanistan. What he did not mention is that key personnel of particular ranks were taken out for this purpose and that what is left behind is not a regiment or a battalion but a cadre. Therefore some attention has to be paid to the effectiveness of the capability and the chain of command in those Territorial Army units which will be called up for use as emergency services in support of the civil power.

1.15 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

I, too, support the thrust of these amendments. I hope the Minister will not fall hack on the fact that, at this stage, we are dealing with what I would call small-scale emergencies which are more local and more susceptible to local planning, which is the effect of this part of the Bill.

It is absolutely fundamental that there should be a clearly understood relationship between those who produce the emergency plans. This, perforce, will involve, if not central government departments directly, certainly central government departments which are largely devolved across the country in any event. They may well be directly affected, not only by the plans but also by the events giving rise to the plans.

It is essential that this relationship is clearly understood. It has always been clear to me that the Government have a considerable executive responsibility in this field, but the relationship is certainly not clearly spelt out in the Bill.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

This has been a useful debate because it enables me to spell out how we see the role of central government and, importantly, the relationship that the arrangements have with the MoD and its part in the overall picture. I was particularly grateful for the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Condon, who said, quite accurately, that we have made a great deal of progress in this field over the past few years.

In part, that has been in reaction to the fact that we have had a number of national situations which have required a national response to different kinds of emergencies. Flooding, the particular problems with oil distribution and, of course, foot and mouth placed contingency pressures on the way in which the Government worked. That has forced us to think anew about how the structures interrelate to each other and how they pull together. Important lessons have been learnt from that and we have been assessing how we can continue that programme of improvement.

The amendments go very much to the heart of the crucial issue of how to ensure that central government pulls its weight in an emergency. For the reasons I shall outline, the Government cannot accept these well spirited amendments. However, because of the way in which we have set up our systems and the way in which they work and will develop, Clause 2 sets out the civil protection duties the Bill will impose on local respondents. These amendments would extend those duties to central government departments.

Amendment No. 39 would also add additional duties on central government to ensure good internal co-ordination, good co-ordination between central government and local responders, and also to inform the public about its role in relation to emergencies. Obviously I am aware that there is support for a formal duty on central government to be included in the Bill and that there is a perception that central government need to raise their game on emergency planning and to communicate better what its role is. We can all agree with that aim and that objective.

But I would argue that it is not necessary to use legislation to achieve that. Although I see and understand the direction in which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in particular, seeks to take us, 1 am not sure that it would be possible to craft a meaningful duty to this effect.

It is right that I should first address the issue of necessity. We can all agree that by the end of the 1990s, central government planning arrangements were not what they should have been after a decade or so of relative freedom from the kind of major national emergencies that were so much more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. Arrangements were exposed by the major flooding of 2000, by the fuel crisis and by the foot and mouth epidemic.

There has, as is commonly agreed, been a change in the quality of contingency planning in central government since 2001. The Government have put in place exactly the sort of arrangements that I think the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is seeking. A clear operational centre has been established within the Cabinet Office to ensure coherence and co-ordination across government in both planning and response. That operational centre is supported by horizon scanning risk assessment and capability.

Individual departments take responsibility for planning for response to emergencies which occur within their field of responsibility. The division of tasks between departments is clearly set out in the Home Secretary's statement on lead government departments. This is consistent with our position that, in principle, responsibilities in relation to emergencies should sit with those organisations which have general policy responsibility. For example, if the DTI has responsibility for oil and gas supplies on a day-to-day basis, we believe that it is best placed to build in contingency plans and has the maximum expertise, should something go wrong. This approach ensures that we are mainstreaming resilience as an issue within all government departments.

We have also taken steps to ensure that departments all fulfil their responsibilities. That is why The Lead Government Department and its role—Guidance and Best Practice was published by the Cabinet Office in March of this year. That document describes the key processes and disciplines necessary in planning for and responding to crises for which they are either the nominated lead or have key responsibilities to act during the progress of a crisis. It also describes how these processes will be monitored and, to take up the point of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, audited in order to achieve a uniformly high standard of planning and preparation.

To ensure that their contingency planning arrangements are robust, the Government have put in place a co-ordinated cross-government exercise programme. The programme tests systematically the range of lead government department responsibilities, including the devolved Administrations, the regional tier and local responders. The programme covers a wide range of contingencies—not just terrorism but also accidents, natural disasters, and human and animal diseases. All this has been achieved without a duty but with the strong commitment of Ministers.

I can see why it might be argued that in the future another Government might attach a lower priority to this issue unless they could usefully be bound by a clear legislative duty. In theory, while this might appear attractive, it is in practice, we think, unworkable. While there are precedents for imposing high-level duties on central government, the Government do not consider that it is possible to do so in this particular case.

Central government exercise a huge range of functions, ranging from legislative functions, delivery of essential services, management of the public finances and advisory services. Each department has different functions and exercises its functions in a different way. As a consequence of central government's diversity, any duty would have to be extremely broad.

We solved this problem in relation to the local response through a heavy reliance on regulation and guidance. There is sufficient commonality between the functions exercised by local responders that it is possible to impose a single statutory duty on all of them. But if we apply the same principle here, central government could be regulating and guiding themselves. Essentially, a future government would be free to take a narrow interpretation of any such duty on themselves. So, as is the case now, the key factor in terms of central government's efforts would not be the shape of any duty but the level of ministerial commitment. That is why we do not believe that a meaningful contingency planning duty—one that would actually change behaviour—could be imposed on central government. Nevertheless, we are considering what options there might be to offer more reassurance to Parliament and to the wider public that the performance of central government will continue to improve.

I hope that that explanation offers some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on his amendment.

I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Garden. Again, this does not cover the Ministry of Defence category 1 responder, and we are not drawn to it. The emergency services will deal with almost all emergencies within normal response arrangements. I think that we can all accept that. Where an incident stretches the resources and personnel of the emergency service, it can request military assistance under the well established military aid to the civil authority arrangements.

The Armed Forces' organisation, skills, equipment, training and flexible command and control structure make them an extremely valuable national resource. They have a long and well rehearsed record of providing support to the civil authorities during emergencies. The fire dispute, flooding and foot and mouth are examples of the assistance that military personnel give to the local authorities and civil authorities and where they provided aid. However, it is important to keep sight of the limited role the military play in dealing with those civil emergencies. The MoD plays a supporting—not leading—role in emergency planning and response. It is not at all clear why it should have the full range of civil protection duties the Bill imposes on front-line responders. That goes to the heart of the issue about proportionality, something on which the noble Lord has reflected in previous amendments.

We have a well established and entirely proper principle in the UK of civil primacy. The Armed Forces are not—and, I argue, should not be—the first responder to incidents. We have many more specially trained, specially equipped personnel in the emergency services. The Armed Forces may have a role to play in a small number of incidents, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of emergencies are dealt with by the civilian services without recourse to military assistance. Let us not play down the excellent work and high standards of those civilian local responders.

We need to remember that, where required, existing military aid arrangements are well established and work well. The Armed Forces are closely linked into civil resilience arrangements and the Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter enhancements, like the creation of the civil contingencies reaction forces, will enhance their ability to respond in the event of an emergency.

The MoD is fully integrated into the national exercise programme and regular and reserve forces participate in a range of exercises with emergency services to test joint working arrangements. Ultimately, this engagement must be on a flexible basis—the same flexibility which is one of the great strengths of the Armed Forces.

This is not a case of the Armed Forces shirking their role on the home front, as all the evidence points to their active engagement wherever necessary. It is a more a reflection of their limited engagement and the competence of civilian responders.

I hope that, having heard that explanation, the noble Lord will feel convinced that we have a flexible series of arrangements that have been successful in the past—I do not think there is any argument about that in terms of giving support to the civil powers—and that we try to exercise that reaction and response, integration and involvement, on a proportionate basis. For those reasons, we are not drawn to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Garden, today.

Lord Garden

I am not terribly satisfied with the Minister's answer. We are talking about new arrangements for new emergencies rather than the same old system. I shall not score cheap debating points over whether the firemen's strike, the fuel tanker strike or foot and mouth needed the Army to sort them out—we all know that they did. But those were different. We are talking about the possibilities of a large-scale terrorist attack within these emergencies.

It is quite clear from reading its publications that the Ministry of Defence does not see that as one of its leading or even important tasks. It has made two sets of provisions. One is the civil contingency reserve force which, as we have said, is incomplete and has some problem in responding rapidly. The other is the standby of air defence aircraft against a possible hostile incoming commercial airliner, which is important.

We have a unique resource in the military which could provide capabilities against these contingencies, the assessment of which is that the risk is low but the consequences are high. I am seeking to have a duty put on the Ministry of Defence to provide some capability that could be used. Although I shall not press the amendment today, I shall come back to this issue later.

1.30 p.m.

Lord Lucas

I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Garden, about the position which the Government are asking us to accept. It is not an adequate response to the challenges that face us. I do not draw much comfort either from the Minister's response to me. Although I see that nothing is to be gained by going straight ahead on this matter, the comfort that he offered by undertaking to look at how Parliament would be given some input was extremely thin.

Would the Minister's department be prepared to look constructively on the suggestion that an annual report be made to Parliament on these matters? We really need to know how well the Government are rehearsed and how seriously they are taking these issues. An unrehearsed government department, however full it is of expertise, is absolutely useless. As we saw in the foot and mouth outbreak, it did not know what to do at the beginning. When it finally got around to doing something, it was far too late. If it and other government departments had been rehearsing, they would have known what the Army's capabilities were and they would have known to bring them in earlier. The whole outbreak would have involved much less death and disruption than it did.

Lord Elton

Parliament has a duty to see that these defences are in working order. One way of doing that is by putting that duty into statute. That would save an awful lot of parliamentary time, because, otherwise, Parliament will have to monitor the risks year by year, either by some formal process, such as my noble friend has just suggested, or by some even less adequate system that is dreamt up on the hoof when one Member of this House or the other decides that it is time to have another look. We are discussing the lifeblood of the nation. It has to be protected; we are the people to see that it is done. We are asking the Government to convince us that the machinery is in place to see that it is done without our constantly looking at it.

Lord Lucas

I should like to know before Report what information the Government envisage will be routinely available to Members of Parliament and the public about the operation of this process within central government. The other consequence of not including this kind of clause in the Bill is that it is unclear what rights local authorities and others have when they wish to tie in government departments to their rehearsals.

Let us suppose that a local authority is rehearsing an outbreak of some new and virulent disease of wheat and it decides that it needs to destroy 10 square miles of crops. Who does it ring up? What does it ask for? One obviously has to rehearse that. Understanding what one has to do involves the entire approval mechanism set out in Part 2. One must have the right, if that is what one decides to rehearse, to require central government to play a part in that rehearsal. It is not enough for Defra, for instance, to say, "No, we can't be bothered to help you. Look at the letter we sent to some other council 15 months ago giving them a rough idea of what we might do if we are ever asked about something like that". A duty has to be placed on central government to play a part. Many emergencies will involve their information resources, especially if that emergency requires a Part 2 response. One of the reasons why Part 2 is so widely drawn is that it provides a rapid response to all kinds of situations.

Every local authority will have to know how to use Part 2; that is, in which circumstances it applies; to whom it should apply; what information it needs to provide in support; how the whole thing works. To provide an effective response to that kind of application, central government have to rehearse. Unless a clear duty is placed on government to play their part in rehearsals, how will a local authority get them to participate when it needs them to do it?

If the Minister cannot respond now, I should like him to write to me before Report. On the question whether the Bill will have the time that it needs, which was raised by my noble friend Lord Jopling, can the Minister confirm that, if required—because the Bill has the right—the Government will apply to carry over?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I will not speculate about carry-over, but we are committed to ensuring that your Lordships' House has more than adequate time for active consideration of the Bill and those discussions continue through the usual channels. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has moved on from duties to a discussion about accountability, reporting and informing. I respect his concerns. That is an important debate on its own. I shall certainly reflect on his suggestion about the reporting mechanism and whether some system of annual reporting on preparedness should be established. We shall reflect on that issue between now and Report.

Lord Lucas

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Triesman

I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving the Motion perhaps I may suggest that the Committee stage begins again not before 2.36 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.