§ 5.9 p.m.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [THE DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Boston of Faversham) in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 [Meaning of "emergency"]:
§ Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 1:
§ Page 1, line 7, leave out "a place in"
§ The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 1, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Before I explain in detail exactly what the amendments propose, I should like to put on record my feelings about how the Government are treating 1207 the Bill. During the Summer Recess, I have been inundated with letters, e-mails and phone calls from concerned members of the public about the Bill. They are concerned about what it will mean and are expressing deep concern about the Bill giving such powers to this or any government. Clearly, this is a Bill which affects people greatly and to which there is much opposition. However, the Government have been treating it as though it is not a controversial matter and as though it does not introduce a huge reform of the power that a government may command at a time of emergency or possible emergency.
§ As I stated at the time, the Second Reading of the Bill was delayed and then finally tabled for late one evening. I can only put on the record that I hope that the Government start to take the Bill as seriously as we do on these Benches. I look forward to a fruitful Committee stage on the Floor of your Lordships' Chamber.
§ I also want briefly to express my thanks to all those who have been in touch with me over the past weeks. There have been far too many to reply to. But there are people out there who genuinely feel that we in your Lordships' House must do all that we can to strike that very difficult balance between ensuring that the government of the day can react quickly and responsibly in the time of an emergency and the need to protect our democracy, our civil liberties and our freedoms. We on the Conservative Benches will certainly do that.
§ All the amendments in the group are to Clause 1 of the Civil Contingencies Bill, which perhaps should be called the "Civil Emergencies Bill". Clause 1 concerns local arrangements for civil contingency protection and details the meaning of "emergency" for Part 1. Perhaps the definition of "emergency" in existing legislation is poorly focused and out of date. To that extent, we are pleased that the Government bowed to the wisdom of the Joint Committee's advice and removed from the definition in the Bill the words "political, administrative and economic stability". However, we still feel that there is much to be discussed regarding the definition, and I tabled the amendments to probe the Government's thinking further and to ask them to explain the current drafting in the Bill.
This group of amendments concentrates on subsection (1) of Clause 1, which tells us that an emergency is,
an event or situation which threatens serious damage to
human welfare, the environment or security,
in a place in the United Kingdom".
Amendments Nos. 2, 4 and 5 would change that phrase to,
in the United Kingdom or in a part or region".
Amendment No. 6 would ensure that the definition of "emergency" was the same for Part 1 of the Bill, which is currently under discussion, as for Part 2. We shall come to that shortly but not, we believe, this evening.
§ Will the Minister please explain why this form of drafting has been used and what exactly it covers? Clause 19 gives the definition of "emergency" for 1208 Part 2 of the Bill and uses the phrase that our amendments suggest. Why have the Government drafted that discrepancy?
§ We should also like to know how areas will be divided in an emergency: will it be by cities, by police boundaries or by regions? The matter was debated at some length in the Commons, and I have to say that we were not satisfied with the Minister's reply. Those responsible for assessing, planning and advising cover all sizes of area. They need guidance front the Bill about the parameters of their remit. Indeed, the Police Federation has made it clear that it believes that the Bill should make clear and unambiguous issues pertaining to jurisdiction, remit, lines of control and lines of communication.
§ What is "a place" composed of, and what is "a place" compared with a part or a region? An example posed during debate in another place to illustrate the point was a train accident, in which there would be possible considerable loss of life and disruption. Would that require a state of emergency? What of a forest fire that swept from one place to another? Are the Government going to explain to us that, in that regard, the Bill is referring to Part 1 or Part 2? Does the Bill, in a sense, augment joined-up planning from place to place? I beg to move.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord McNally
I associate our approach to this matter with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. In some respects, when one reads that the key Act is more than 50 years old and some of the basic legislation is more than 80 years old, it is understandable that the Government want to get a piece of modern legislation on to the statute book. We are obviously dealing with different circumstances, a different age and different technologies.
We can see that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has been very busy over the Recess and has put forward some interesting and probing amendments. We, like the noble Baroness, have been lobbied to quite an extent by various groups concerned that the Government are planning some coup of draconian proportions against civil liberties. Perhaps we shall let our civil liberties experts loose on Part 2 to see just what the Government are proposing.
As I see it, Part 1 consists of framework and enabling measures and, in many respects, prudent preparation. It is certainly in those terms that we shall be examining them, but we fully appreciate the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is probing some of the detail.
§ Lord Waddington
The question is very simple: why must the wording of Clause 19 be different from the wording of Clause 1? Why is a "part" of the United Kingdom not a "place"? It seems to me that there is no real reason why the wording should be different, but I should like to know why the Minister thinks that it is necessary.
§ Lord Hylton
I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said earlier about the timing and the 1209 consideration of the Bill. We need to remember that it began its Second Reading after 8.30 p.m. on 5 July and is now being considered in Committee during the overspill period at a time when the whole House is working under very difficult conditions as regards its premises. I support Amendments Nos. 1 to 6 on the general ground that great chunks of the Bill are far too widely drafted.
§ Lord Lucas
My understanding is that this is a Bill which we can allow to be carried over if we so wish, it having been subject to a Joint Committee of both Houses. So will the Minister assure me that we are not under pressure to finish it in this Session if the discussions, particularly on Part 2, prove to be protracted, as I think they may be?
§ Lord Archer of Sandwell
I have been puzzled. I had not intended to intervene in this debate, but it seems to me that there is a consensus throughout the country that the Government should be organising preparations for the kind of emergency to which the Bill refers. If the Government failed to do that, very properly there would be an outcry.
That being so, I do not quite see what the problem is about Part 1 of the Bill. I can see that in Part 2 the Government are making inroads into individual liberties, and some of us will want to examine those a little more closely later. But Part 1 is simply making preparations in advance of the emergencies, so that everyone knows how they will fit into the machinery for dealing with them. What on earth is the danger?
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
I hope that I shall not be wasting the time of the Committee if I run a little over the background. During my time in local government, I had quite a lot of experience in the evolution of emergency planning. It is an honourable and identified profession in local government. It still exists and has been there for a very long time.
It is as well to remember that this all began after the war with the civil defence preparations made throughout the Cold War. That was where emergency planning had its origins, but the 1951 floods and a major industrial accident in the north-east began to alter the focus very early on with regard to this particular aspect of society. Subsequently, there was a major industrial accident in Seveso and another in Bhopal, in India.
They led to the COMAH regulations—the control of major accident hazard regulations—which required the preparation of emergency accident plans to deal with, and cope with, accidents at every major industrial installation or, indeed, any other installation that might cause such an accident. That was not simply oil refineries and power stations. We have a major plan for a very small factory in a town quite close to where I live that deals in matters of biological hazard. All of these different institutions have individual plans. They are all call-down plans. They say, "If this happens, this is what you do". They are very well prepared.
1210 The question that we have to deal with in the Bill, as has been mentioned by the Liberal Democrat Benches, is how we absorb the existing system into modern society and modern legislative practice as the law is now somewhat out of date. Many of the plans that rightly exist can be used and implemented without "the creation of a state of emergency". What concerns me is that the Bill does not properly clarify the point at which a local disaster with potential consequences for a particular locality, which can be dealt with perfectly properly under the existing system with existing plans, becomes a matter of national emergency that justifies the use of national emergency powers. It is for that reason that the amendments proposed by my noble friend are very important. There are many forms of accident that can cause an emergency that can affect a community. However, the number that could cause the creation of a national emergency will be remarkably small.
We need to work very carefully to make sure that there is a clear and precise definition, which is understandable and relevant to the modern context in which we have to consider the consequences of bioterrorism, as well as proper and secure planning for how one deals with institutions that, through inadvertence, can cause a hazard.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have made a contribution in these opening exchanges on an extremely important and timely piece of legislation. I was particularly pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord McNally, welcoming the fact that we will have a constructive approach to the Bill. In the few minutes that we have been debating the Bill, I have heard comments from all sides of the Chamber and I sense that there is a desire for constructive focus on a Bill that essentially aims to provide consistency of purpose on the subject, with clear responsibilities, a modernised legislative framework and practical civil protection measures. These should be at the forefront of our thinking in approaching the Bill.
I was a touch disappointed by what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, had to say about sensing that the Government do not take the issue seriously. We have taken this issue very seriously. I understand that she is perhaps concerned that the Bill has taken some time to get to this point—we all get a bit frustrated with the parliamentary timetable from time to time—but we have used the time well in preparing for the legislation and in ensuring that, by and large, we take with us organisations and people that are disparate in nature, from Liberty through to the organisation that represent emergency planners, local government, voluntary organisations, ACPO and so on.
When the Bill was published, it received a very broad welcome. I could quote chunks from the editorials of the time. The one that stuck in my mind was in the Times. It welcomed the way in which the Government had approached the Bill and, in particular, the fact that we had given time for pre-legislative scrutiny. That probably explains why the Bill is in good health as it comes into your Lordships' 1211 House. That does not mean that I do not expect the detail to receive robust attention. I am grateful for that too because it will help us.
I want to turn to the issues that have been raised, deal with the amendments in turn and explain, as best I can, what we seek to do with different parts of the Bill. It is only right that we start with definitions. The definition of "emergency" underpins Part 1 of the Bill and it is intended to give local responders a clear picture of the types of events and situations for which they should be preparing. It is crucial that we get it absolutely right. I welcome the discussion that the amendments have provoked, even though I am unable to accept them. The definition of "emergency" in the Bill and, in particular, the thresholds within it were discussed in some detail in another place, as I am sure all noble Lords are aware, so it is perhaps worth setting out our intentions in a little more detail.
The overarching objectives of the Bill are to modernise local arrangements for civil protection and the emergency powers framework. In doing that, we have developed a new, updated definition of emergency that reflects the challenges of our times. It is the Government's intention to develop a single, consistent approach to defining an emergency. Thus, the definitions in both parts of the Bill follow the same pattern. The Bill defines an emergency as an event or situation that threatens serious damage to human welfare, the environment or security and lists the type of event that that may constitute. However, Part 1 and Part 2 of the Bill serve very different purposes. Part 1 establishes a new legal framework for local civil protection activity and sets out a clear set of roles and responsibilities for frontline responders at a local level. Part 2 establishes a mechanism for taking emergency powers for dealing with disruptive challenges that are of such a scale that extraordinary legislative measures are required.
These amendments would make the definitions in Part 1 and 2 the same, as the noble Baroness has explained. However, there is no reason why the duties imposed under Part 1 should apply only in the same circumstances in which emergency regulations may be made under Part 2. The Government's intention is that the duties under Part 1 of the Bill—risk assessment and emergency planning—should apply in relation to more localised events and situations whereas the scale of an event or a situation may be much greater before emergency powers can be invoked under Part 2. That is why the thresholds contained in the definition of emergency in each part of the Bill are different.
In Part 2, an event or situation must threaten serious damage to human welfare in a part of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales—or a region. In Part 1, an event or damage must threaten serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom. I can understand why the noble Baroness might think that the prospect of an event that could cause serious damage in a place in the United Kingdom, which might be as small as a town, a village or even a street, might not seem sufficiently serious to require local responders to undertake risk 1212 assessments or to prepare emergency plans. Some people have even asked whether a fire in a single house might be enough to trigger the duties.
Members of the Commons Standing Committee commented that the term "place" also seemed a little vague. Oliver Heald particularly focused on that point. In Committee, he commented that the term "place" seemed a little vague. That was an issue that the Joint Committee helpfully raised. In response to its report, we introduced into the Bill a clear threshold for the scale of event for which local responders should be planning. Clause 2(2) makes it clear that the civil protection duties apply only in relation to an event or situation which,would be likely seriously to obstruct … [the responder] in the performance of his … functions",or in relation to which the responder cannot respond in an appropriate way,without changing the deployment of resources or acquiring additional resources".5.30 p.m.
Clause 1 must be read in conjunction with Clause 2(2). Taken together, the provisions make quite clear the sort of events that local responders should and do prepare for. A single residential fire could easily be dealt with within existing arrangements, but a large industrial fire in a densely populated area could well require detailed multi-agency contingency planning. This is an objective test. However, the result may well be different, depending on the capacity of local responders and local geography. For example, a local authority in an area that is prone to flooding may be able to respond to a minor flood without changing the deployment of resources or requiring any additional support. However, another local authority that has not traditionally suffered from flooding and is perhaps less well prepared may well need to change the deployment of its resources.
This approach reflects current practice and is enshrined in Dealing with Disaster, the Government's key guidance for local responders, which practitioners know and understand well. This threshold also reflects the nature of civil protection—one size, as I am sure we all accept, does not fit all. To change the threshold in the way suggested in the amendments would be inappropriate. It would mean, for example, that the Hillsborough disaster, the Potters Bar rail crash and the Kings Cross fire would not have been emergencies for the purposes of Part 1 of the Bill. I venture to suggest to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that that would not be right.
The definition of "emergency" is fundamental to the way that Part 1 of the Bill works. That is why we have worked closely with practitioners and why they have worked to ensure that we get it right. It is in sympathy with their thinking that we have defined it in the way in which we have. The definition therefore has the support of the civil protection community, the Joint Committee—even the Plain English Campaign. While we may in this House from time to time stumble with definitions and understandings, the wider community 1213 that is more practically concerned with the Bill seems to agree with us that, having listened to their views and their challenges on the issue, we have got the balance about right.
I hope that that has dealt with the core issues raised by the noble Baroness and others in this short debate.
§ Baroness Buscombe
I thank the Minister for his very full response to the amendments. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, that I do not apologise for raising questions about the definition of emergency. This goes to the very heart of the Bill.
§ Lord Archer of Sandwell
I was not questioning what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said about the definition of "emergency"—that may be a very useful topic of conversation. I was questioning the general tone of a number of noble Lords opposite, who suggested that the Government were somehow imposing a dictatorship on this country.
§ Baroness Buscombe
In that case, I beg to disagree with the noble and learned Lord's interpretation of what was said. What we are attempting to do, and will attempt to do throughout the passage of the Bill through this House, is to ensure that the right balance is struck and that all those practical necessities are put in place in a responsible way by the Government of the day.
However, at the same time we need to respond to the concerns that are being raised all over the country on a daily basis with regard to the true import of the Bill. I hope that noble Lords will agree that we must not feel constrained, notwithstanding the fact that there has been pre-legislative scrutiny, in our efforts to ensure that we properly scrutinise the many important aspects of the Bill. I hope that noble Lords will be given sufficient time to do so.
It has been worthwhile having this debate on the amendments. We have had a number of concerns about the true definition of the terms "place", "part" and "region". These questions were raised in the Commons. There was also my concern with the Explanatory Notes, which state that the definition differed and that in Part 2 the situation must threaten serious damage in the United Kingdom or in a part or region, rather than a place.
The more we seek to understand the differences between the wording—"place", "part" or "region"—the better. Indeed, something happened, of which some noble Lords may not be aware, this afternoon in another place. Certain individuals broke into the Chamber of the House of Commons. That is breaking into a small place, but it is also a powerful breach of security in the Houses of Parliament. The definition of emergency could so easily apply, in terms of a "place". That is why we need to discuss and debate what we are talking about when we refer to the parameters within which the Bill works to ensure that all the necessary 1214 contingencies are in place to enable us to respond to a state of emergency. I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 2 to 6 not moved.]
§ Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 7:
§ Page 1, line 16, at beginning insert "severe"
§ The noble Baroness said: I rise now to speak to Amendment No. 7 and in so doing I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12. The definition of "emergency", as I have already said, is crucial to the Bill. However, there is little reference to scale or geographical extent as parameters within which the Bill seeks to protect and introduce methods for dealing with contingencies. We are still considering Clause 1 of the Bill, but have moved on to see what clarification the Minister can give us in other areas. We have tabled these probing amendments in order to have a clearer idea of why the Bill has been drafted in the way that it has and to put forward what we hope are helpful suggestions and improvements.
§ Clause 2 details the kinds of events or situations that may threaten to damage human welfare, the environment or security. Our amendments add greater detail to the list or take wording away to develop these criteria. As there are a number of amendments in the group, I hope that the Committee will bear with me while I outline what each does.
§ Amendment No. 7 would insert the word "severe" into Clause 1(2)(d), so that it would read "severe damage to property". We feel that this paragraph needs clarification. Exactly what damage to property would qualify as an emergency? How much damage does there need to be and are there categories of property? Does there have to be damage to the extent of that caused in Florida by two successive hurricanes this summer? The Bill is focused on human welfare and the Joint Committee has reiterated the point many times. If that is the case, why is damage to property regarded as an event as severe as loss of human life? I look forward to what the Minister has to say on that amendment.
§ Amendment No. 8 leaves out of Clause 1(2)(e) the word "money". We feel that a disruption to the supply of food, water, energy or fuel would be an obvious threat to human welfare and we wanted to sound out the Government on why they have included "money" in this provision. What will constitute a disruption of the supply of money? Will it be a matter of a certain number of cash machines not working, or of banks being targeted by terrorists? Are local authorities equipped to deal with any disruption of money supply, other than for their own accounts? Surely this is a job that might involve the Bank of England.
§ Amendment No. 9 would amend Clause 1(2)(f), substituting "any" for "an electronic or other". This is designed to deal with concerns expressed by the Law Society and British Telecom. They are collectively concerned that the disruption of an electronic system of communication on its own should be left alone. After all, what does "other" mean?1215
§ British Telecom believes that if there were disruption to its system by itself rather than as a by-product of a more serious incident, then it is best equipped to deal with any problems that arise. British Telecom has also questioned why the disruption to an electronic communications system such as the one it operates should involve local councils or other responders.
Amendment No. 10 would add another paragraph to subsection (2) using the words,
spread of fire leading to circumstances damaging to human welfare".
We feel that fire is not well covered in the Bill and that this is a dangerous omission. Many people in this country live in areas which are surrounded by dense woods or forests. The devastation which can be wreaked by a fire in such areas is well documented on television news broadcasts. Fires which have been started deliberately, as acts of arson, in places such as Australia or California, can be horrific. Why have the Government chosen not to add fire to the list in Clause 1(2)?
Amendment No. 11 is designed to probe what the Government have in mind for transport in Part 1 of the Bill. The amendment would leave out "transport" and insert,
air, rail and sea transport and major roads considered vital to human welfare for the purposes of subsection (1)(a)".
What will the role of local planning be for transport? Will air travel, which this amendment mentions specifically, require a national rather than a local response, especially in light of what happened in New York on 11 September 2001? What level of emergency are the Government expecting local authorities to plan for?
§ Amendment No. 12 would alter paragraph (h) to read, "disruption of services and impediment of persons concerned with preservation of health". This is another probing amendment. It is designed to deal with what would happen in the event of destruction of hospitals or the blocking of ambulances, doctors, nurses or other health staff trying to get to hospitals. That would clearly constitute a threat to human life and consequently, possibly, national security. Also, anything that prevents a doctor or nurse doing their job constitutes a threat to human welfare. We wish the Minister to clarify why there is so little definition in the Bill.
§ I thank the Minister for his patience while I have explained the amendments to the Committee. I look forward to his answer. I beg to move.
§ Lord Waddington
I am not quite sure that these amendments should be described as merely probing. I think that they are of considerable importance. In a moment or two, I may even persuade the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, that there is a read-across from Part 1 of the Bill to Part 2.
Obviously, it is Clause 19, not Clause 1, which sets out what is an emergency sufficient to trigger the emergency powers obtainable under Clause 22. But Clause 1 and Clause 19 are very similar; the Minister described them 1216 as following the same pattern. In fact, the situation is slightly different, because Clause 1(2) and Clause 19(2) are not simply similar; they are actually identical. If we accept Clause 1(2), it will be very difficult, when we come to Clause 19, to argue seriously against the wording of Clause 19(2). So we had better look here and now at Clause 1(2) very carefully and ask whether it is proper that the definition of emergency be drawn so wide when the existence of an emergency or the threat of one is the gateway to the use of the truly draconian emergency powers set out in the clauses after Clause 22.
A whole lot of matters should worry this House. In clause 1(2)(d), should the threat of any damage to property constitute an emergency? Should the threat of any damage, however trivial, constitute an emergency? I beg to doubt that. That is dealt with in Amendment No. 7. I do not look upon it as a probing amendment. I think that it is wrong that any threat of any damage to property should enable somebody to decide that there is an emergency.
Look at Clause 1(2)(e). Should the threat of the disruption of any supply of money constitute an emergency—any money, any amount of money, any supply of money, however trivial? Should that really enable somebody to come to a conclusion that there is an emergency?
Look at Clause 1(2)(g). Should the threat of the disruption of facilities for transport—an everyday event, I suggest, as an honourable Member in the other place also suggested—constitute an emergency? I beg to doubt that. That is dealt with in Amendment No. 11.
Look at Clause 1(3)(c). Should the threat of the disruption or destruction of plant or animal life constitute an emergency? I beg to doubt that.
All these could be serious threats. Equally, they could all be completely trivial. Is it not the duty of government to find a form of words in a Bill such as this which excludes trivial threats and includes real threats? Therefore, I am extremely worried about the wording of Clause 1(2) and Clause 19(2), which are identical.
I also point out that Clause 1(5) provides that the most junior Minister in government can, by order,provide that a specified event or situationconstitutes one of these threats. I say the most junior Minister, because "Minister", as provided in Clause 1(5) clearly cannot be a senior Minister within the meaning of Clause 20(2), and the definition of senior Minister in Clause 20(3) covers pretty junior Ministers. It covers, for instance, Whips, who are otherwise known as Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury.
Let us make no mistake about this. This Bill enables the most junior Minister in government to conclude that a very trivial threat of the interruption of transport could, if Parliament were stupid enough to approve the order, constitute an emergency. So let us look seriously 1217 at the wording of Clause 1(2) and ask the Minister to go away and try and find a form of words which excludes trivial threats.
§ Lord Archer of Sandwell
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he appreciate that what is elaborated in subsection (2) are the matters which constitute human welfare? Under Clause 1, an emergency is an event which threatens "serious damage" to human welfare. So these matters cannot be trivial because Clause 1 prohibits that.
§ Lord Waddington
I am afraid I beg to differ. If I get a cold, my welfare is, to some extent, prejudiced. You could have some quite ordinary threat which nobody would imagine should lay the foundation for the assumption of emergency powers. You could get some very small threat which could be said to interfere, to some extent, with the welfare of the human being, but nobody in his right mind would say that it was a threat which should lay the foundation for the declaration of an emergency. So I do not think that the noble and learned Lord can really rely on Clause 1 to justify even the most trivial damage to property being included within Clause 1(2). Let us stick to the wording of Clause 1(2).
I suggest again that the Minister should find a form of words for Clause 1(2) which excludes trivial damage to property. It would be perfectly simple: one could just add the word "severe". My noble friend Lady Buscombe has made a number of suggestions as to how trivial threats could be excluded in that way. I do not commit myself to the precise words of my noble friend's amendments, but she does point the way towards excluding, as they should be excluded, truly trivial threats. That is of considerable importance for the reasons which my noble friend mentioned. Many people are very unhappy about the Bill because it appears to give the Government powers to order that a whole range of events and threatened happenings can be treated as an emergency and then to make regulations which give them powers which they never thought necessary in the darkest days of the war.
Let us get the Bill right from the beginning. We should not leave it until Clause 19. We should look closely right now at the wording of Clause 1(2) and exclude trivial threats.
§ Lord Archer of Sandwell
I fear that if the noble Lord were to write in an intermediate law examination what he has just said, he would never make the pass list. Let us look again at the structure of Clause 1. Subsection (1) states:In this Part 'emergency' means an event or situation which threatens serious damage to",and it then lists three categories, the first of which is human welfare. Subsection (2) defines "human welfare". Its effect is that something is an emergency if it threatens serious damage in any of the ways it lists. 1218 The picture that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, painted is out of Alice In Wonderland. "Serious" covers everything that he has just been talking about.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
There is a difficulty that we need to face. Part 1 concerns "local arrangements for civil protection". We have contingency plans for all those "events" already. They all exist. They are not emergencies—Heaven help us—but they are part of normal life most of the time. They are dealt with by existing law and practice.
We have a problem in that the Bill repeals existing law so we have to put something in its place. We then have a further problem, because Part 1 and Part 2, which deal with emergency powers, both use the same word: "emergency". The real difficulty is that Part 1 does not deal with the word "emergency" in anything like the same context as Part 2, yet the word is identical and inseparable. The Government need to address that issue.
When I looked at the categories of damage to human welfare that are listed in Clause 1(2), I understood "loss of human life", "damage to property" and so on, but I had some difficulty with "disruption of a supply of money", particularly in this electronic age when money seems happily to slip out of one's wallet in the form of a little piece of plastic which goes into a machine. I would be slightly more concerned about the loss of electronic communication than about money, because most people seem to manage quite happily with minimal quantities of money a night. If we had to go back to the cash society, the provision would have some meaning, but money is very peculiar. However, the supply of water, food and energy are certainly fundamental to society and their interruption has properly to be dealt with.
I return to the basic flaw in the Bill, which is that it does not make the necessary distinction between "local arrangements for civil protection"—as Part 1 is headed—and the emergency powers with which Part 2 deals. However, both parts begin with "meaning of emergency". It cannot be right to have the same wording for those two, very different scales of problem.
§ Lord Hylton
I agree that these are important amendments that go beyond just probing. I say that because I take it—I may be wrong—that Clause 1, in defining emergency, triggers Clauses 7 and 8, whereby any Minister of the Crown, however junior, only has to think that the matter is urgent before he starts issuing directions. The directions do not even have to be written; they can be oral. While we all get on rather well with the present Government, we cannot foresee who are going to be Ministers in future governments.
As to the rest of the wording of Clause 1, the phrase "may cause", in line 12, is too loose and should be tightened up to something such as "be reasonably foreseen to cause". Clause 1(3)(a) lists "oil" as a qualifying form of environmental damage. We all know that a number of tankers have gone aground and broken up in places such as Milford Haven and the Cornish coast without a national emergency being 1219 declared. We also know that wrecks can cause pollution to the sea, again without national emergencies.
Clause 1(4)(a) contains the word "war", which we understand pretty accurately on the whole, but also "armed conflict". What is the meaning of that phrase? Does it mean just a gun crime that happens somewhere or does it include school massacres in the Dunblane style? The wording is generally unclear and I support the thrust of the amendments.
§ Lord Lucas
Could the Minister help me with some definitions? Where the Bill refers to "property", is that a wide definition of property or does it mean merely buildings? The wider definition is perhaps what we should be considering. The potential for our life to be disrupted by the disruption of data, relating to all kinds of aspects of our lives and not just money, is quite considerable. We live in an electronic society without a great deal of back-up. One does not have to attack just the money supply to cause an enormous amount of inconvenience to our ordinary lives. If one starts destroying government records—the records about us which permit us to go about our ordinary lives and give us our standard permissions to travel—and the records that businesses hold that allow them to operate, one is causing a considerable disruption. A successful virus attack might come into that kind of category. Those kinds of things should be prepared for under the Bill.
Does "communication" cover broadcast media, for instance, and newspapers? In this general planning part of the Bill we ought to be planning for that kind of disruption of communications. Since we are relying on the radio to tell us what to do if things go wrong, as part of Part 1 of the Bill, are we planning against the disruption of our broadcast radio communication network? My question is whether in this wording we are excluing parts of the structure of our society which we ought to be considering in the context of emergency planning.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville
One rarely has an opportunity personally to illustrate a speech by a noble friend, but perhaps I may make a highly personal intervention arising out of the speech of my noble friend Lord Waddington, with whom I had the privilege of serving in the Government Whips Office in another place in the early days of the first administration of my noble friend Lady Thatcher.
The difference between my noble friend and myself is that he was a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury and I was the most junior Whip in the office. Because my late noble kinsman and my late noble relative were both serving in your Lordships' House at the time, I regarded myself as profoundly junior to the most junior Whip in the Upper House and therefore as the most junior Minister in the entire Government, which was the example which my noble friend gave as being somebody who would have been able to trigger this legislation.
1220 Indeed, because my noble friend Lady Thatcher reshuffled—I personally prefer the word shuffled—her administration much less frequently than is the current vogue, I was the most junior Minister in the administration for a whole 21 months. If I may coin the phrase ab interiori, it concentrates the mind enormously to think that for 21 months I might have carried the responsibilities to which my noble friend Lord Waddington referred.
It was a quite sufficient challenge in the Whips Office to be given the job of manning the office on the Friday night of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in order to field calls from the great British public about what the Government's position was arising out of that disaster. I can remember having to field a call from a man in Birmingham who asked why the Paras had not gone in already. An inquiry whether he had looked at a map before he asked me the question elicited the reply that he believed the Falkland Islands to be just west of the Hebrides, which of itself is an interesting demonstration of what knowledge of our great nation emerges during a crisis.
My noble friend has conjured the destruction of the entire administration and therefore these matters falling to the most junior Minister. As someone who did the job for quite a long time, it makes me profoundly nervous in retrospect that that possibility might ever have existed.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I believe that these amendments have provided the opportunity for a useful discussion. I am grateful for all the contributions. I shall try to respond as best I can to the different points. I do not want to go over the issue which we dealt with under the first set of amendments concerning the different types and levels of emergency. I believe that I set that out fairly clearly. I was grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, for his support on that point during his intervention. His understanding is my understanding and that of the Government. I thought he explained the matter very clearly. He clearly followed what I said when we debated the matter with the first group of amendments.
Clause 1 sets out a clear definition of an emergency under Part 1 of the Bill. As I believe I said earlier, the definition underpins the framework of duties for local responders and ensures that we have a clear picture of the range and scale of events they should be preparing for. It defines an emergency as,an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare…, the environment…or security of a place in the United Kingdom".It then sets out what we believe is an exhaustive list of the kinds of events or situations that may constitute a threat to human welfare, the environment or security such as loss of life, contamination of land and terrorism.
It is worth reiterating here that this is not something that we have conjured up from nowhere. This definition has been very carefully drawn up in close consultation with a wide range of practitioners such as those who have to deal with these situations. They 1221 include the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Chief Fire Officers Association, the Emergency Planning Society and the Local Government Association.
The list reflects the diversity of situations those practitioners have to deal with. These range from localised flooding that we have experienced in places in my part of Sussex to a full scale chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack—which thankfully we have not suffered—and from flu pandemics to large-scale industrial accidents of which we have more experience.
This group of amendments proposes alterations to the range of events and situations that threaten human welfare. Subsequent groups of amendments probe the list of threats to the environment and security. These groups of amendments raise some interesting issues, but I strongly believe that the definition is robust, clear and helpful. It certainly seems to be to those who have to tackle the problems on the ground.
Debates were held at length in another place. It was a useful exchange of views and made us think about these matters again. As a consequence, it is worth setting out for the Committee in a little more detail why I believe the definition holds good. I shall work through each amendment in turn.
The effect of Amendment No. 7 is to provide that there must be severe damage to property before an event or situation can be treated as threatening human welfare. That is fair enough. Clause 1(2)(d) as currently drafted, requires only that there be damage to property. I certainly agree that for damage to property to constitute an emergency and to trigger civil protection duties it ought to be of a certain scale. I do not believe that we would lose much sleep over that.
However, I believe that the Bill provides for that. To meet the definition of "serious" in Clause 1(1) the threat to human welfare must be serious. These two provisions need to be read together. Thus the Bill already provides that damage to property will be an emergency only if it poses a threat of serious damage to human welfare. Furthermore, for an event to trigger the civil protection duties, it must also meet the thresholds set out in Clause 2. I shall go through that. It is described as an event or situation which would be likely seriously to obstruct the responder in the performance of his functions, or in relation to which the responder cannot respond in an appropriate way without changing the deployment of resources or acquiring additional resources. I believe that that covers what the noble Baroness seeks. We do not believe that the words of the amendment add anything further.
Amendment No. 8 proposes that the disruption of a supply of money should not be treated as a threat to human welfare. I hope that we can all agree that money is pretty fundamental to all our lives, whether in plastic or cash form, and a disruption of its supply can threaten human welfare; certainly it threatens mine if I do not have enough of it! Disruption to the supply of money has the potential to undermine the mechanisms 1222 of production, distribution and exchange. As I am sure noble Lords appreciate, this could have serious implications for human welfare and for the economic wealth of our country.
One could argue that a disruption of the supply of money would always have one of the effects mentioned in Clause 1(2), namely, the disruption of the supply of food or fuel, and is therefore not a threat to human welfare in its own right. But that will not always be the case. One can think of circumstances in which the disruption to a supply of money could disrupt access to food or fuel without disrupting its supply per se.
Furthermore, listing disruptions to the supply of money as a contingency that local responders should be planning for will be a useful clarification for local responders who may be required to deal with the consequences of such an interruption. One scenario might be a large-scale disruption of the electronic systems of banks. This could prevent consumers from access to cash via ATMs or the bank's electronic records and prevent consumers from using credit and debit cards. It is difficult to predict what can happen in these circumstances, but special arrangements might need to be put in place by the Department for Work and Pensions in co-operation with local authorities to issue vouchers or credit notes. Furthermore, there may be public order implications. I think it is right that we list it there. It is something for which we need to have contingency arrangements in place.
Amendment 9, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, proposes, would remove express reference to electronic systems of communication. Again, this would remove a helpful clarification for local responders. Electronic systems of communication have become more and more important to the way we lead our lives: I refer to banks, shops, accessing government services online and firms conducting their businesses electronically. Electronic systems are therefore pretty crucial to human welfare and will only become more so, I suspect, in the future. While other forms of communication—telephone and mail—are also key, I think there is merit in making express reference to electronic systems. That we can do that is part of the benefit of new and modernised legislation.
Part of what we are trying to achieve with the Bill is a mind shift or culture change: getting local responders to think more widely about the range of risks we face in modern society, and to ensure that we are well prepared for it. It is not difficult to think of a scenario where a serious interruption of electronic systems would trigger the duties to assess risk and plan. For example, a possible attack on a social security computer system would require local authorities to ensure that it had alternative means of administering benefits to vulnerable people. How will they know who is eligible? How will payments he processed? The Bill would require local authorities to assess the risk of this occurring, and plan for this contingency if it was appropriate.
It should be noted that the purpose of including disruption of an electronic system of communication in the Bill is not to require or enable local responders to play a role in the recovery of the electronic system itself. That, of course, is for the service or system 1223 provider. But the failure of an electronic system may have wide ramifications right across the community. Local responders should be prepared to deal with those broader effects of disruption of the electronic systems of communication.
In Amendment No. 10, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, proposes specifically adding the,spread of fire leading to circumstances damaging to human welfare",as a threat to human welfare. I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that preparing for fires is clearly important. We have had some important debates during the passage of several recent Bills on fire and rescue services; I suspect that that is recognised across the Committee. It is important, but the threat is adequately provided for in Clause 1(2)(a) and 1(2)(b). A fire would threaten human welfare because it threatens loss of human life or damage to property; there cannot be much doubt about that. No other provision in Clause 1(2) relates to the cause of a threat to human welfare; they all relate to consequences. To include a specific reference to fire would be awkward. Why mention fire, but not other sources of disaster such as an outbreak of an infectious disease or extreme weather 1conditions, flooding, severe storms and so on? That is the logic we have followed in drawing that particular clause together.
Amendment No. 11 makes it clear that disruption to certain forms of transport—namely, air, rail, road and sea—are covered by Clause 1(2)(g). I am not clear, on reflection, that this adds anything to the definition. It could actually weaken the definition. Does it mean that the disruption of travel by river, for example, is not covered? Nor is it necessary to refer specifically to vital transport. Disruption of a facility for transport would not necessarily, in itself, be an emergency. Noble Lords might recall that any disruption must, in addition, constitute a threat of serious damage to human welfare before it would be counted as an emergency.
Finally, Amendment No. 12 attempts to give clarity to the definition by ensuring that disruption of activities of health protection workers would be a threat to human welfare. I can certainly see the thrust of the amendment. The work undertaken by our health service—doctors, nurses, ambulance staff and so on—is clearly fundamental to the nation's welfare. But the amendment does not add much to the current drafting. If the disruption of the activities of health protection workers were to constitute a threat of serious damage to human welfare, it would presumably be the case because it had caused a disruption of services relating to health.
I take the point that it is difficult to strike a balance in the definitions of "emergency", and the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I suppose, was picking away at that point. The noble Lord raised the issue of definition; I think we have got it right on balance. We have separated two definitions. I have explained that very clearly. They do relate to each other in some circumstances. Obviously, the definition, although different in Part 1 and Part 2, will cover the same, or very similar, events. But we do not think, to take the 1224 point of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that trivial threats will be caught. As I said earlier, the point of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, was well made, in exactly understanding the nature of the emergency.
One or two other questions were asked. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked what was meant, in the context of this debate, by "armed conflict". The inclusion of the reference to armed conflict will bring situations where these conditions are not met—for example, armed conflict involving a non-state entity—into the definition of "emergency". It would also obviate the need, in our view, to determine whether, as a matter of common law, a state of war exists between two states. This can, on occasions, be difficult. To put his mind at rest, I can say it will not cover gun crime.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked whether "communication" would include press and radio. The answer is yes, although to constitute an emergency the disruption would have to threaten serious damage to human welfare. It is quite possible to argue that, although perhaps difficult. I suspect it will also cover disruption to e-commerce. I think I covered the point the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raised about damage to property. But, to add to that, I think we would see this as meaning that the damage would have to be severe and widespread before it would constitute an emergency. Of course, it is possible, in some circumstances, to conceive of cases where minor damage to a single property may be treated as an emergency. An example of that might be minor damage to a nuclear power station: the damage itself might be minor, but the consequences could be more severe. Such matters will depend very much on the circumstances.
We have covered this fairly. If I have missed a point, then I will try to come back to it.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Lord Lucas
May I take the Minister up on one of the illustrations he used, which is a disruption of the social security system? Suppose that I, as the terrorist, manage to destroy the underlying data in the Department for Work and Pensions, rather than disrupting any communications system—mind you, the department is quite capable of doing that for itself. Under what subsection of Clause 1(2) does that fall?
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
The noble Lord has virtually taken the words from my mouth. I am not satisfied that the Minister has answered the point about the distinction between an emergency in Part 1 of the Bill, in Clause 1, and in Part 2 of the Bill in Clause 19.
Some of the Minister's comments concerned me. For instance, he said, using the illustration of the local social security office that loses its computer, that the local responders—which means the local authority—might have some responsibility to pick up the situation and do something about it. Well, if the computer of my bank, which probably has far more customers than the local social security office, goes on the blink, it is the bank that is responsible. Surely the first responsibility for the social security communication and information 1225 systems does not lie with the responder under this Bill? It lies with the social security service itself. So I was a little concerned that one might suddenly begin to extrapolate and say that the responders under the Bill have actually got some responsibility for that sort of service provision in a particular situation.
A Minister of the Crown, acting under Clause 1(5), may provide that,a specified event or situation … is to be treated as falling, or as not falling, within any of paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (1)".I do not need to quote it all. What is the distinction between that sort of emergency action and the emergency action implied by the emergency powers under Part 2?
There is a very clear distinction in my mind and, indeed, in practice, in emergency planning, between local arrangements for civil protection and those other arrangements. The arrangements for civil protection are clearly one thing, and the system works. I accept that those arrangements go all the way up to a minor accident at a nuclear power station. It could include, because the plans exist, the consequences of a major accident at a nuclear power station. The Minister will be aware that there should be plans for an emergency all the way along the south coast, in case something goes wrong, because there are 11 nuclear power stations on the south shore of the Channel—with the prevailing wind running as it normally does. If those plans do not exist, there is something seriously amiss.
The question of distinction is what I am talking about. A junior Minister acting under Clause 1(5) is performing precisely the same function as a Minister might perform in making emergency regulations under Clause 20. There is no distinction made—and yet there is a huge distinction. On the one hand, one is dealing with something that is local and can be dealt with simply, easily and straightforwardly on a local basis and, on the other, one is dealing with something that might be a serious national emergency. But the wording is the same.
I am sorry that the Minister has not explained the provisions in words that I can understand. However, we need to recognise that the solution to the sorts of problems that might arise, which could cause "a local difficulty", is not exclusively for the emergency responders. It involves the individuals who own the property, the banks and government services with their responsibility, and so on. The Minister began to imply that all those responsibilities fell on the responders. In so far as the responders are involved and are responsible, that may well be; but there are a lot of others who have responsibilities, some of whom will simply be co-operating with the emergency services—and that is as it should be. A large number of voluntary bodies are involved in all these systems, although they have not been mentioned yet. They are ready to participate in the consequences of such an event.
1226 I still have the problem that I cannot make a distinction between what the Minister says is involved in Part 1 and what the Bill says is involved in Part 2. There needs to be a clear distinction between the two things, because they are very different.
§ Lord Waddington
I wonder if the Minister could help me on the question of Clause 1 (5), because I am not sure that he has dealt with it. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that there does not have to be a situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare. What there must be is a Minister of the Crown who is prepared to make an order providing that,a specified event or situation, or class of event or situation, is to be treated",as threatening serious damage to human welfare. That is the point.
Is the Minister really happy that there should be such a subjective test in the hands of the Minister involved, so that he does not have to show that there is a serious threat but can deem that a situation is one that poses a serious treat?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I am grateful for the supplementary questions. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, the disruption of the administration of business was the point being made within the definition of "emergency". I believe that the noble Lord referred—I am sure that he will tell me if I am wrong—to the local administration of benefits, and I suppose by implication to the functioning of the government department administering benefits.
In itself, such a disruption would not constitute an emergency; it is really the consequences that flow from that disruption that is important. When the disruption can be seen to threaten human welfare, because it threatens the supply of money—benefits—then it may well do. Looking at the Bill, I suppose that one would then rely, strictly speaking, on subsection (2)(e), because that is where the threat would be felt. I believe that that answers his point.
In many respects, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, was understanding and describing what he understood to be emergencies in different situations. It is difficult to wrestle with the two definitions, and how they interface with each other. I understand his search for a clear distinction; in most situations, I believe that there will be one. The key issue is not the content of the definitions; as a number of Members of the Committee have said, they are similar in most respects. The key issue is the triggers. I have already explained that the triggers are very different.
Clause 2(2) focuses Part 1 on local major incidents. The triggers in Clauses 19 and 21 focus Part 2 on national emergencies. I hope that that explanation helps to add some clarity, because it is very important. There will be times when a situation meets the Part 1 definition of an emergency but, as it develops and expands, it also meets the Part 2 definition. The situation will move on and change and, no doubt, the response will have to change to meet a different scale of 1227 threat. These situations are grounded in what actually happens and, obviously, we shall have to take account of them.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, further questioned me about ministerial involvement and what Ministers deem to be an emergency. Clause 1(5)(a) enables a Minister of the Crown to provide by order,that a specified event or situation, or class of event or situation, is to be treated as falling, or as not falling, within",the definition of emergency in subsection (1). An order under Clause 1(5)(a) cannot amend the definition of emergency in Clause 1(1), nor for that matter can it amend subsections (2) to (4). Thus such an order could not be used to make a provision that is contrary to subsections (1) to (4). In other words, the scope of the power is limited to those provisions.
The purpose of the power is, in part, to enable a Minister of the Crown to specify more precisely whether a particular event or situation or a particular class of event or situation falls within or outwith the definition of emergency. That is the responsibility that rests with the Minister. I hope that that explanation helps the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. He probably had to deal with such situations in a former life, and perhaps he understands the matter better than I do as a consequence.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Buscombe
I thank the Minister and all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. The debate on the amendments has helped to illustrate the extent to which it is sensible that we carefully scrutinise the Bill, because so many questions are being raised about the meaning of "emergency" in Parts 1 and 2. Perhaps one of the problems is that the title of Part 1 is "Local arrangements for civil protection" and it then goes straight into Clause 1, "Meaning of 'emergency'"; while Part 2 is titled "Emergency powers" and, again, "Meaning of 'emergency'" is the heading of the first clause under Part 2.
There is no question that there has been extensive consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, but there remains in the mind of many Committee members and people in the world outside a great deal of uncertainty and a fear that there is a sufficient lack of clarity to cause concern. The Minister accepts that certain examples that noble Lords have suggested or raised are possibly—using his words, if I may—"difficult to wrestle with"; or that it is possibly difficult to argue whether, for example, a broadcasting communication breakdown could amount to an emergency.
Our perspective in Committee has tended, as illustrated by my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, to focus on the extraordinary responsibility of a person who may be an extremely junior Minister of the Crown to be able to respond sensibly, quickly and unequivocally in the event of an emergency, be it under Part 1 or Part 2. We have been trying to seek some clarity as to the parameters within which any Minister of the Crown should, would and could respond.
1228 I agree with my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith that copious provisions are in place in current legislation and regulations to deal with localised problems for civil protection; in which case it is right that we probe with some vigour the need for the provisions in the Bill. I take on board my noble friend Lord Waddington's concern that I have raised the concerns this evening only as probing amendments and that perhaps I have not gone far enough in expressing our determination to ensure that before the Bill reaches the statute book there are clearer definitions and a clearer view of what will be the meaning of "emergency" and of the occasions when sometimes extraordinary measures will be introduced.
It is also right that we focus on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that the problem rests with a very junior Minister and in almost all cases the need will be to respond quickly but the approach is totally subjective.
The title "Local arrangements for civil protection" masks the introduction of the wide-ranging powers that may be invoked. Therefore I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I hope that the Minister will take on board and reconsider some of the questions that noble Lords have raised before coming back on Report. While it is important that the perspectives of those involved in responding to emergencies have been able to take part in forming the view that the Bill is in some ways adequate, it is also important to consider it from the perspective of noble Lords and those who will have to make such difficult decisions once the Bill is passed. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 8 to 12 not moved.]
§ Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 13:
§ Page 2, line 2, after "biological," insert "noxious,"
The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 14. We feel that it is important to consider situations that threaten to damage the environment. Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 make particular reference to subsection (3), which details events and situations that will be held to threaten damage to the environment. One such category is if the land is contaminated with,
harmful biological, chemical or radio-active matter".
Amendment No. 13 would insert the word "noxious" after "biological".
Amendment No. 14 would add a new sub-paragraph:
(iii) any controlled combustible substance".
We feel that it is important to underline the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threat and its effect on the environment. The Project Unicorn report states that,
To the public at large the CBRM threat is undoubtedly the most frightening aspect of the new terrorism: it is also the one that the Government say the least about. It is little surprise, therefore, that the media fills the vacuum and the public assume the worst".
§ Therefore, we would like the Government to accept Amendment No. 13 to insert the word "noxious", as it underlines the fact that this is an extraordinarily dangerous matter. Amendment No. 14 has been tabled to allow a discussion on combustible substances. Large-scale oil and petrol spills or the use of highly inflammable substances, either as a terrorist weapon or as a spoiling device—for instance, by animal rights or other movements—would threaten the environment as well as the welfare of anyone who became involved.
§ I look forward to the Minister's answers to the questions we have posed by tabling the amendments. I beg to move.
§ Lord Lucas
I would like elucidation of the meaning of some of the words in the Bill. To whom or what does the biological or chemical matter have to be "harmful"? If a farmer sprays a field with herbicide, that would be harmful to the weeds; it destroys a substantial amount of the environment including many insects that depend on the weeds. That would seem to fall within the Bill's definitions. I think that we are talking about harmful in a more restricted way; but in what restricted way? What gives us our understanding of what sort of events are to be planned for and not planned for under this category?
Contamination with oil can be temporary and cause little long-term damage to an ecosystem, as we have seen when various tankers have contaminated the shores: there is a period when things die and then everything comes back pretty straight. Is such contamination harmful or not? It probably destroys rather less than the deliberate acts of our average farmer.
What is meant by "harmful biological" material? How can we contaminate land with harmful biological material? What sort of flooding are we talking about that is to be the subject of regulations but does not come under Clause 1(2) because it threatens human welfare; and does not come under Clause 1(3)(a) or (c)? Surely any flooding that is not already covered by those clauses does not constitute a disaster of any description.
§ Lord Monson
The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has made a good case for her two amendments but I should like, if I may, to raise another point in connection with Clause 1(3). Subsection (3)(b) refers to "flooding", but what about fire? Clearly, fire that threatens residential or commercial property will be covered by subsection (2), but what about forest fires? We are not habitually threatened by the sort of forest fire that plagues the south of France, Spain, Portugal and Australia to name just a few countries, but with climate change it is not impossible that this may start to happen. What about, for example, stubble fire? Nowadays, of course, stubble burning is banned but a stubble fire can easily be started accidentally. Supposing that it spreads, it could threaten a very large acreage. So far as I can see, this is not covered at all in the Bill as it stands. Although 1230 I am not generally in favour of extending the remit of this Bill, quite the opposite, I would be grateful if the Minister could consider the point that I have made.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
As I mentioned in relation to an earlier group of amendments, the definition of "emergency" goes a long way to underpin the framework of duties which are set out in Part 1 of the Bill, which gives a clear picture of the range and scale of events for which we should be providing.
As the noble Baroness explained, it is proposed through Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 to alter the range of events or situations that constitute a threat to the environment. We have worked very closely with the stakeholders to get this definition right and listened carefully to environmentalists and, no doubt, the Environment Agency and others, to ensure that our thinking is sound. We have finessed the measure in response to their thinking.
I turn to Amendment No. 13. Clause 1 provides that contamination of land, water or air with,harmful biological, chemical or radio-active mattermay constitute a threat of serious damage to the environment. What the noble Baroness proposes would expressly provide that any chemical matter must be noxious to constitute a threat to the environment. The Bill already provides that biological, chemical or radioactive matter must be harmful to constitute a threat to the environment. That covers the term "noxious". I suggest that those things would be noxious in any event. I am not sure that the amendment would add anything. I ask the noble Baroness, what does it add to the definition?
As regards Amendment No. 14, to my mind it is very difficult to think of a threat of serious damage to the environment that would not be covered in the Bill as drafted. However, the noble Baroness suggested adding controlled combustible substances to the list. The noble Baroness is absolutely right to note that combustible substances pose a threat. However, in so far as they present a threat to human welfare, we believe that they are covered by Clause 1(2), and their threat to the environment will either be caused by the chemicals they contain or the impact they have on plant or animal life. We believe, therefore, that they will be covered.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked what we meant by harmful. We mean by that harmful to human welfare. The noble Lord asked how serious the harm and the floods must be. The provision explains what kind of event may threaten the environment, so we mean harm to the environment: plants, water, animals and so on. As I said, Clause 1(2) deals with threats to human health. The trigger mentioned in Clause 2(2) will apply. The event will engage the civil protection duties only if it overwhelms the day-to-day resources of the responder. As an old local government lag I suspect that events such as the floods in Uckfield or Lewes would trigger the legislation. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, has more experience of this than I because he can no doubt remember the Essex floods of the early 1950s. I was just born at that time— 1231 I am rather pleased that I was—but I have little doubt that the legislation would cover that situation. I hope that answers the point which has been raised. I believe that I have covered the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. If I have not, perhaps he will remind me of it and I shall return to it later.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I not sure that the noble Lord was present but I covered the fire point earlier. We believe that the definition is broad enough to encapsulate that and we do not think that it would be right to specify it on the face of the Bill. I explained that very carefully for the benefit of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe.
§ Lord Lucas
I think that the noble Lord has satisfied me on paragraph (a) but I still have a difficulty with paragraph (b). As I said, for this measure to be useful a flood has to pose no threat to human welfare because otherwise it would come under Clause 1(2); it has to pose no threat to the contamination of land because otherwise it would come under paragraph (a); and it has to pose no threat to plant life or animal life otherwise it would come under paragraph (c). So what kind of flood that has no such implications is a disaster which local authorities should spend time and money planning for?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I shall think about that. I believe that the noble Lord sees a difficulty that I do not, but I shall think about it.
§ Baroness Buscombe
I thank the Minister for his response. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and my noble friend Lord Lucas for posing questions with regard to the need for more clarity. Indeed, I refer the Minister to a comment he made in response to my Amendment No. 9 in which he stated that in drafting the legislation in this manner the Government were seeking to encourage those involved in civil protection to think more widely. The Minister gave the example of using the word "electronic" but not specifying other kinds of communication, in which case surely these amendments that I have tabled are consistent with what the Minister said with regard to the need to have a more extensive, clear explanation of what is and is not included.
I hear what the Minister said. In proposing these amendments we are seeking to alter that which is already in the Bill. However, we are also trying to add to what is already in the Bill in order to assist those involved in civil protection who will often have to act quickly, and also when they are assessing and trying to he strategic about their civil protection measures so that they focus on as many of the kinds of situations to which they will need to respond as possible. We have had a good debate on these amendments and, for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 not moved.]
§ On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ Lord Lucas
I have no rooted objection to Clause 1 standing part of the Bill. However, my noble friend Lord Waddington and others have put me very much in mind of the thought that we need some way of differentiating Part 1 and Part 2 because the use of "emergency" as the operative word in both parts—I agree with my noble friend—is in danger of confusing ordinary readers of this Bill. It requires one to hold in one's mind two definitions of the same word—a very crucial word in the same Bill. That is probably undesirable. I should like to propose that in Part 1 we substitute the word "disaster". First, this is a word that is well used by the Government in their publication, Dealing with Disaster.
Secondly, there is a difference between "disaster" and "emergency" which applies well to these two sections. "Disaster" is something that, when it happens, is dealt with well because we have planned for it and organised for it and everything clicks into place. That is what Part 1 is about; it is making sure that when a disaster happens we deal well with it.
"Emergency" is more of a Corporal Jones incident—"Don't panic! Don't panic! Help!"—rushing about frantically trying to scramble things together to make sure that we hold human life and limb together in the way that seems impossible on day one. The tenns are different; the consequences are different. We deal with a very different attitude to these things. Part 1 is all about planning; Part 2 is all about extraordinary powers for the Government to deal with extraordinary situations.
If we change the language in Part 1, it would be enormously helpful in the end to the world outside in appreciating the difference between the two terms.
§ Lord Waddington
I remain deeply worried about Clause 1(5). I know that the Minister did his best with a note that was passed to him, but I wonder whether he will just try again. Clause 1(5) reads:A Minister of the Crown…may by order provide that a specified event or situation…is to be treated as falling…withinsubsection (1)(a). That paragraph refers to an event which threatens serious damage to human welfare.
When one therefore reads together Clause 1(1) and 1(5), Clause 1(5) now reads:A Minister of the Crown may by order provide that a specified event or situation is to be treated as (a) threatening serious damage to human welfare".Is that not a very serious power to put in the hands of any Minister?
§ Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville
The question I want to ask does not follow immediately on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, but may touch on it. I would have asked this question had we debated Amendment No. 15, but my noble friend Lord Lucas has given us the opportunity of asking it 1233 under these circumstances. I am delighted to have this opportunity. However, my question does refer back to Amendment No. 15.
Although the Explanatory Notes to the Bill say that subsections (2) to (4) of Clause 1 "specify exhaustively" the kind of events that the Government have in mind that,threaten damage to human welfare, the environment or security",it could be said that Clause 1(2) and (3) might be regarded as exhaustive, as the Explanatory Notes say. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, of which I am a member, in our 25th report, concurred that Clause 1(2) and (3) could be regarded as exhaustive, but did not do so in regard to Clause 1(4). The report simply said, in paragraph 5:Clause 1(4) provides a list as respects security".It did not include the word "exhaustive". I would like to verify whether in the Minister's mind Clause 1(4) is exhaustive—as the Explanatory Notes say.
I mention incidentally that the example given by my noble friend Lady Buscombe in an earlier debate, relating to the events that have recently occurred in the Chamber of the other place, would not, as I understand it—since it was not presumably an act of terrorism—fall within the purview of this clause. I simply cite that as an example that has occurred in the course of this debate.
My late noble kinsman, to whom I alluded in my last speech, had a constituent called Miss Compton Collier who used to go round photographing the families of great houses. If you go round those families you will see photographs by her on side tables. Because she was my late noble kinsman's constituent, we got to know her quite well. She said that she took no newspaper; she did not own a radio; she did not watch television; she relied entirely for news of the world on her bank manager. Her bank manager, not unreasonably, said: "I shall need some guidance, Miss Collier. If I am to provide you with news of the world, could you give me examples of what you mean?" "Oh, yes", she said, "it is perfectly simple. I mean the death of the sovereign or the outbreak of war".
There are enormous virtues of simplicity in that, especially—as was mentioned earlier in the debate—given the reluctance of governments of all colours to allow additions to lists in legislation, in Committee, in the way that we might be debating now. But I would like confirmation from the Minister, as the Explanatory Notes imply, that Clause 1(4) is meant to be exhaustive.
I, too, have had doubts about the effect of Clause 1(4). The use of the word "terrorism", just as it stands, could mean terrorism that has actually taken place, whereas we should be providing against the possibility of it being threatened. That is why Amendment No. 15 would have been of some help. I do not understand why it was not moved. But I support 1234 what has been said by my noble friend Lord Brooke and by others that we have to be very cautious indeed about the effect of Clause 1 and especially of subsection (4).
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for providing me with a solution to my dilemma, of the need to distinguish between Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill. I am most grateful to him for the possible use of the word "disaster". I would join him in inviting the Minister and the Government to consider that possibility very carefully. It would make the distinction between those two parts of the Bill much clearer.
As regards my noble friend Lord Waddington's concern over Clause 1(5), I think subsection (5) is tautologous. The meaning of the word "disaster" applies to situations which should be properly treated under Part 1 of the Bill. I have tried hard to think of something that a Minister of the Crown or a Scottish Minister might, by order,provide that a specified event or situation, or class of event or situation"—be treated as falling within that, which does not already fall in it. I would be interested to hear if the Minister can provide some examples of events that are not going to have the effects of subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 1, which a Minister might require to order to include. I have the greatest difficulty in seeing that. We would be on much safer ground if subsection (5) were not in the Bill. But that is for another day.
§ Lord Hylton
What the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said about Part I being relabelled as dealing with disasters was extremely helpful. Perhaps he and your Lordships would like to consider whether "disaster" might usefully be expanded to include major threats and risk to the public. If that proved to be acceptable, the duties of Ministers—particularly under Clauses 7 and 8—should be essentially to co-ordinate national and local efforts to either prevent or remedy a given situation.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I am grateful to noble Lords for the opportunity to respond to some of their additional points. I will try to deal with them in turn. In general, we have had a helpful debate on Clause 1. I can see that confusion still remains in the mind of some noble Lords. That is probably my fault, but there has been some useful clarification.
I shall start the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. The definition of "emergency" in Parts 1 and 2 is not the same. There is a distinction. The key issue is that of scale and effect, and that is why those two definitions are there. We started with that point and, in a sense, I finish with it. I am not attracted to the noble Lord's use of the word, "disaster". It is an overused word, and I am not sure that it would greatly help us. Sometimes my son uses the word to describe Brighton and Hove Albion conceding two goals before half-time. It may be a disaster for him, but it is not necessarily a disaster for all the other teams in the Football League. We start to get into difficulties with the use of a word which is not part of the language used 1235 by the practitioners. It is the practitioners who have to respond to the situations we are talking about. It is starting to use terms that the practitioners are unfamiliar with and avoids careful definition.
We have discussed this; we have worked with practitioners, and there has been a long consultation on the matter. They are not confused by the definitions nor their workability. That is the key issue here. Certainly, the descriptions relating to "emergency" that are itemised in Clause 1 will be well understood by responders who have to deal with those situations.
I can tell that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is exercised and worried by Clause 1(5) and ministerial responsibilities. But I believe that Clause 1(5) stands, and I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that it is tautologous. It will be important for a Minister of the Crown, acting on information, to be in a position to specify by order the situations that need to be dealt with. No doubt that will be important.
I cannot recall precisely all of the responsibilities held by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, when he was a Minister, but I have little doubt that during that time there may well have been situations where a Minister of the Crown was called upon to determine whether or not a certain situation was to be treated as an emergency in the terms which we have described. We certainly had events like the great storm and the impact that that had on local services across a wide part of the country and the desire, certainly in local government, to trigger the Bellwin rules and so on, to ensure that local areas could recover from the effects of that storm. It may well be that an order needs to be put in place to cover that sort of eventuality.
Of course, between now and Report, we will reflect further on Clause 1(5) and, if it helps, I am happy to—
§ Lord Waddington
The Minister will recognise that one of the reasons I am raising this is that, again, this clause is mirrored in Clause 19. It is worth bearing in mind that Clause 1(5) and Clause 19(5) are identical. I am raising that at this point so that no one can say later, "Well, the matter was not canvassed at the earliest possible opportunity".
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that clarification, and I hope that I have helped him by explaining the situation.
The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, asked whether the list described in Clause 1(4) regarding threats to security was exhaustive. I think that it is. We have given the matter a great deal of thought. In order to be absolutely certain, we will look again at the drafting, because I would not wish us to miss anything. This is too important for that. I am happy to write to the noble Lord on that point between now and Report. Of course I will gladly share the fruits of that correspondence with all other noble Lords who have been involved in this debate. In that, we can pick up the point made by other noble Lords about terrorism. So I am quite happy to ensure that we do that and provide some further clarification, because I accept that there is some unease—although I believe that the clause works well enough.
§ Clause 1 agreed to.
§ Clause 2 [Duty to assess, plan and advise]:
§ Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 16:
§ Page 2, line 27, leave out "from time to time" and insert "every three months"
§ The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 17. Both relate to Clause 2, which addresses the duty to "assess, plan and advise" with regard to contingency planning.
The Bill requires,
A person or body listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 1"—
namely, a county council, a district council, a London borough council, the Common Council of the City of London and the Council of the Isles of Scilly, to—
assess the risk of an emergency occurring",
from time to time assess the risk of an emergency making it necessary or expedient for the person or body to perform any of his or its functions".
Our amendment would change that to ensure that that rather vague phrase "from time to time" should be replaced by, "every three months".
§ That is a reasonable interval to review current risks. We are all aware how quickly situations can change. The threat of terrorism can change overnight. What was the Government's thinking when they drafted the words "from time to time"? What sort of timescale were they envisaging'? How will it be possible to ensure that each council reviews its plans enough if the Government will not set a timetable? The Bill covers many bodies, and it is feasible that one police area will look at its emergency planning every three to six months, while another may look at it every five or so years. Do the Government think that the latter would be enough to keep up with the threats that modern society now faces?
§ Health authorities may be extremely well prepared, because they have emergency problems of their own to deal with. How often will they carry out systematic reviews of their procedures? Will it not be a temptation for such bodies to put off any reviews until it is too late? Local government associations will also have to think about budgets. If there is no pressure on them to ensure that they have adequate planning in place, will there not be a temptation to spend the money on other services?
§ I look forward to hearing the Government's view, and I beg to move.
I agree with the comments of my noble friend Lady Buscombe about the expression, "from time to time". That could mean scarcely ever. Given the type of serious threat that might have to be dealt with, including the words, "every three months" places an obligation on authorities. I should tell my noble friend that I would have preferred the amendment to say, "at least every three months", because there may be more than one occasion for reassessment within those three months.
1237 So, although I hope that the Government will accept the amendment, we should insert the words, "at least" on Report.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
I should have thought that, "from time to time" was too vague, but that, "every three months" was too rigid. Why not have some words such as, "when necessary"? It might be that the situation would have to be reviewed every few days—or, in some cases, not every three months, but longer. I suggest that, "necessary" would be better.
§ Lord Lucas
No, we are off in a completely different direction, and I shall pick them up in their place on the list.
§ Baroness Hamwee
In that event, I am not happy. The Minister and I have had almost exactly this debate on the Housing Bill within the past three or four days. This amendment might suggest that a "tick-box" exercise was to be undertaken at a set period. I am comfortable with the phrase "from time to time", which, to me, suggests keeping under continual review. However, I note that it does not mean that to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, whose legal experience is far longer and deeper than mine, nor to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, with her background. Still, whatever the traditional phrase, a reference in the debate on the Housing Bill to "keeping under review" seemed—forgive the pun—o fit the bill. The point is to look at the issue, not "tick-box exercises". A different amount of time and a different quantity and quality of attention will be required, depending on the context and the circumstances.
I picked up on a reference to "ring fencing" in the noble Baroness's speech. We on these Benches would be cautious about too great a degree of ring fencing. The Government already do enough of that with their grants—too much, in fact. Local authorities should be treated as responsible bodies: they need to judge what the requirements are. I cannot see any of them taking a view that they do not need to take emergency planning seriously.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
I have some sympathy with my noble friend on the Front Bench on this matter. It seems awfully casual to assess the risk "from time to time", whereas it needs to be a continuous rolling process. However, I have to admit that I have some difficulty with "every three months", because there are so many separate emergency plans in the county of Essex that it simply would not be physically possible to review them that often, unless one had the most enormous staff.
The plans do not need reviewing every three months, but they certainly do whenever circumstances change. That might mean changes in access, or developments in a particular industrial installation that increase the scale of the risk. It could even be the other way round: 1238 that an oil refinery finds it does not want a part of its installation to work at all, which might reduce the level of risk. All those things go on. There is, in fact, a process of rolling review.
We need to think about the wording. The existing wording is not adequate, but I have not heard wording that I prefer. Will the Minister look at this issue, and see if he cannot come up with something that more nearly fits the situation? As it is, the emergency planners I am aware of try to keep everything under more or less permanent review. Of course they prioritise the different areas of their work, because they know the local circumstances and can make that judgment. While a three-month period provides a proper stimulation in one direction, there are circumstances where it would be completely inappropriate. Equally, a situation might develop where a review would be necessary more often. It is a question of practice.
The wording ought to be better, although I have not put my mind to what it should be. Since I regard myself as an amateur draftsman where Bills are concerned, and usually compose wording simply for amusement and fun—thoughalways with a serious intent—it would be much better if the Government would grasp the nettle and do the drafting for us.
§ Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville
I apologise if my question is unduly simplistic, but one of the disadvantages of the looseness of "from time to time" is that it is not immediately clear whether the phrase in subsection 1(b) of Clause 2 is the same "from time to time" as in subsection 1(a). In other words, whether the person or body is obliged by statute to perform the two functions coincidentally, or whether, although statutory, it is also permissive in allowing them to do so at different times. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that when he rises to respond.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I always like the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville's, interventions. They always add a note of levity, but with a serious purport behind them, and it greatly enlivens our proceedings.
I want to start with the point I have made several times so far this afternoon. We have developed our framework in a very open way. It would be fair to say that it has been one of the longest consultative processes we have ever engaged in. I am probably going off at a tangent here, but we have had two major public consultations on this issue, we have received some 400 plus different responses, and we have given the framework a great deal of thought. To take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that the use of the expression "from time to time" was rather casual, we have not approached this issue in a casual way at all.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
I certainly would not wish to imply that the Government's approach was in any way casual, and I hope that was not read into what I said. However, we are dealing with the wording of the Bill, and that is what we have to get right. I am prepared to 1239 accept that the Government have been assiduous in trying to get the Bill into a reasonable form, but the fact is that, when it then comes before this Chamber, it is our function to improve it if we can.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I am grateful for that support. I welcome the fact that the noble Lord believes the Government have been assiduous, because I think we have.
These amendments deal with the issue of risk assessment, which is critical in ensuring that the effort, resources and protection go where they are most needed. The Bill imposes a duty on all category 1 responders to assess the risk of emergencies occurring, and to use that to inform the emergency planning. I do not accept the need to require local responders to conduct risk assessment every three months. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, half made the point for us: the way in which that particular amendment is drafted would in the end impose something of a bureaucratic straitjacket, and I do not think that is the spirit behind it. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is trying to ensure that there is a necessary regularity to risk assessments. There is a problem there, though: the amendment provides too constrained a timeframe, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said, is probably unnecessary. We want to retain the use of the expression "from time to time" within the legislation.
The purpose of the duty to assess risk will be to ensure that each category 1 responder is aware of the kind of level of risks they may face, so they can maintain plans to respond to them. They should assess the risk of an emergency happening as often as necessary to maintain the right level of preparedness. Local responders prepare and respond to a wide range of events, ranging from flooding to flu, from train crashes to terrorist attacks. I am sure the noble Baroness will appreciate that some aspects of risk assessment for emergencies need to be undertaken more frequently than others. It will depend, ultimately, on the range of change in the risk environment—for example, the type and volume of traffic at an airport or on a railway. Assessing the risk of terrorism in a major city may need to be done almost on a daily basis. At the other end of the spectrum, assessing the risk of a building or a bridge collapsing will need to be done a lot less frequently.
Accepting the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness would mean that, in some circumstances, risk assessment would be carried out too frequently, causing waste of valuable resource, and in other circumstances local responders might not review risks sufficiently frequently to inform effective emergency planning and ensure that robust plans are in hand.
The current wording, "from time to time", recognises the time-consuming and resource-intensive nature of risk assessment. It also recognises that the risks faced by local responders are diverse and need to be assessed and reviewed against different timescales. Local responders support that approach. I received a letter yesterday from the Local Government Association in which it makes 1240 plain, in the fourth paragraph, where it sits on the argument. Its views on the matter are very important because it will have a major role to play. It says:The Bill requires responders to assess the risk of an emergency occurring from time to time. The LGA is aware of an amendment to be moved at Committee stage which aims to require such assessments to be carried out every three months. We believe that the wording of this clause should not be changed, as ideally good practice demands that plans should be under continual review. "From time to time" allows the flexibility to assess a rsk as and when information suggests a potential change in that risk".That letter makes the argument for us. For that very important reason, we wish to retain the current wording.
We need to empower local responders to make the right judgment about the frequency of risk assessment. The Government will produce helpful and practical guidance to help responders make informed decisions. We are committed to working with the practitioners that matter—ACPO, the Emergency Planning Society, the Association of British Insurers and the Association of Local Authority Risk Managers—to ensure that we get it right.
The current draft guidance emphasises the importance of reviewing risk assessments often enough to ensure that they are fit for purpose. It recommends a wholesale review of assessments, and their implications for plans, every three years, with a continuous process of review. This guidance, to which local responders must have regard, would ensure that the duty was pitched at the right level.
For those reasons, although I understand the concern expressed, I cannot accept the approach. We are happy to rest with the current wording in the Bill.
Before the noble Lord sits down, will he bear in mind that "from time to time" could mean every year or two, which is utterly inappropriate?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
As I have carefully explained, risks vary and some emergency events occur less frequently than others. The wording enables flexibility. Fortunately, a bridge collapsing is a very uncommon experience in our society, so it would be mad to assess that risk three-monthly. On the other hand, there are other more frequent occurrences in society; therefore, we need the flexibility to respond to them more rapidly and to ensure that our plans are robust enough to ensure that the public have the highest level of protection available.
The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, asked whether responders need assess the risk of an emergency occurring at the same time as they assess whether they would need to respond to it—that is what the Clause 2(1)(b) duty implies. The answer is no; they are different duties. The risk of a particular event happening may change, which would necessitate a review of the risk assessment under Clause 2(1)(a). Alternatively, the functions of a responder may alter, which might necessitate a review of the kind of risks to 1241 which a responder will need to respond under Clause 2(1)(b). That should answer the noble Lord's point.
§ Baroness Buscombe
I thank the noble Lord, for his response, and all Members of the Committee who have taken part in the debate. I should say straightaway that the note passed to the Minister from the Local Government Association is quite instructive. It suggests that the strategy, the ability to assess and the local civil protection measures should be under continual review. That makes my point very well, in the sense that continual review is very different from "from time to time". As my noble friend Lord Renton has said, "from time to time" can mean scarcely ever, whereas continual review could be just what the Minister suggests the Bill does not intend: that is to say, create a bureaucratic straitjacket. We are trying through our amendment to encourage local authorities and others to think about the situation regularly, to reflect the often stark changes experienced in the world perhaps over a shorter period than we might have reflected upon even five years ago.
I take on board the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we do not want a situation of tick-boxing, with which those involved in local government, the police and others are already hugely burdened. We are talking about crucial measures that can affect human life. We are trying to create a situation whereby we inject management of civil protection in a way that is meaningful but not too onerous.
Perhaps we have not got it quite right, and every three months is too often. But, given the suggestions that all Members of the Committee have made, I urge noble Lords to join me in the coming weeks in thinking about other wording that we might use instead of "from time to time" or "every three months". I reassure the Minister that I heard the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, say that the wording itself, as opposed to the Minister's response to the need to consult, was casual. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 17 not moved.]
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Simon)
Amendment No. 18 is tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
§ Lord Lucas
I do not know whether the Committee wishes to carry on the debate now. I warn noble Lords that I am likely to take 20 minutes-plus on this group.
§ Lord Triesman
I beg to move that the House do now resume, and that the Committee stage begin again at approximately 8.30 p.m.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.