§ House again in Committee on Clause 2.
§ Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 18:
§ Page 2, line 45, leave out "necessary or desirable" and insert "not undesirable"
The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 19. The amendments are concerned with the provision of information to the public and the way that is embedded in the Bill. The first is an attempt, albeit it in rather inelegant English, to turn the emphasis away from keeping things secret to letting things out. Clause 2(1)(f) reads:
in so far as publication is necessary or desirable",
which with Amendment No. 18 would become,
in so far as publication is not undesirable"—
in other words, publication would happen unless there were a good reason for it not to.
That seems an enormously important part of the functions of these organisations. They should be telling people what they are doing and what is going on, unless telling us would in some way put us at risk. Amendment No. 19 enlarges on what is at the top of page 3, where there is a duty to,
maintain arrangements to warn the public, and to provide information and advice to the public, if an emergency is likely to occur or has occurred".
In other words, the person or body will suddenly start talking to us when there is a problem, although they have said nothing to us before.
The amendment seeks to insert in advance of that that they should inform us,
about the arrangements that may be made should an emergency occur"—
in other words, what is likely to happen if there is an emergency—and that they should tell us where we should go to find out information on what to do if an emergency happens, so that we know.
§ Suppose that someone in the Gallery—not that there is anyone there at present—were now to throw a purple condom into the middle of the Chamber, we 1260 would not know what to do any more than the Commons knew what to do three months ago. Why not? Because no one has told us. I presume that someone has plans and such occurrences have been thought about, but such things happen in an instant. We are the ones who have to react, and no one has told us what to do. Who knows what to do? We do not know whom to turn to. From whom do we seek information? Are the Clerks prepared? Is the Minister briefed? Is he the one who is going to stand up and say, "It is a purple condom; therefore you all stay here" or disperse us to Black Rod's Garden?
§ Even if we do not know what to do, we should know who does know what to do, so that we can obtain that information. Suppose we were in session and Al'Qaeda was kind enough to explode a dirty bomb somewhere in the air above London and it suddenly became unsafe to go out in the streets. Who knows where is the door that leads to the tunnels that will take us out through Whitehall up into Holborn and the safety of Hampstead? Does the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, know? I did not know when I was a Minister.
§ If that is what we are going to have to do, we need to know who knows. We need to know where to turn and what are the procedures to follow. That basic preparation is what gives the public confidence that should an emergency occur it will be properly dealt with. There is the beginning of that in the document that we have all received which says that we should listen to the radio. Fine, that is the beginning. but we may find ourselves in the middle of a high street and rather a long way from a radio. We would want to know what were the proper sources of information rather than milling around pointlessly. If the news comes out that there is smallpox in London, who is going to wait for someone to think what to say on the radio? No, we shall head out for the country as fast as we can. We do not want to be the ones who are infected. However, if we know the plans that are in place, should an infection like that occur, and if we know that matters will be properly organised and planned, we may have the confidence to stay where we are and not spread the infection round the country.
§ Information and the knowledge of what to do and what other people are doing is what gives people the confidence to behave properly, and it is absolutely crucial to people behaving properly in an emergency which involves a good deal of uncertainty or personal danger. I want to see the Government embrace what is, after all, the spirit behind the Freedom of Information Act, and should be there because it makes the response to emergencies so much better; that is, telling us all what is going on—and they could start with this House. I beg to move.
§ Lord Garden
While I have some sympathy with the thoughts of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on information, we are talking about an enormous range of different emergencies with very complex responses. In some cases the responses can be completely different depending on the nature of the emergency. Certainly the development of the Government's website in terms of the plans in general is always worth doing, but only a very limited 1261 number of the population will actually spend much time looking at these. It seems to me more important to have the contingency plan that will allow those who are going to deliver the information about a particular emergency to give simple instructions to the population at the time of the emergency.
We could waste enormous amounts of resources on publishing vast amounts of detail about possible contingencies that no one would read. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has received his copy of the document. The post has not reached NW3 for some years now and we have not seen ours. However, I have looked at someone else's copy. We all know what happens to those kind of documents. Some may read them but they will be tucked away and lost by the time the emergency happens. What will be key is to have a set of responses to emergencies that will inform the public at the time when they need the information.
§ Baroness Hamwee
I agree enormously with that comment. I remember that a couple of years ago there was a problem with the Tube and the power was lost. I believe that happened a couple of years ago but one loses track. I believe that lessons have been learnt from that. Certain mayors whom the media wish to interview on air immediately such an incident occurs have a script to which they stick rather than giving a personal reaction. As I say, I believe that lessons have been learnt from that.
I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, read the report of the Committee stage of the Bill in the Commons which took place before the incident to which he referred. There was a good deal of fairly complacent chat about how the House of Commons would know what to do were such an incident to occur.
I wish to use this amendment to make a point and to ask a question about the booklet that has been distributed. How effective do the Government think the booklet has been and what evaluation are they undertaking in order to learn lessons for any future similar exercise? I shall not indulge in a lot of criticism. My noble friend Lord Garden rightly reminded me before today's proceedings began that, frankly, one cannot win on this kind of thing. People will always try to pick it apart.
However, I refer to the languages in which the booklet is available and particularly to the offer regarding those languages. The back cover of the booklet states that it is available in a number of different languages. However, that is not stated in those languages. I have taken part in an exercise in another organisation publishing reports that we wanted to be widely read. It was obvious to us after a little thought that you need to say, in Gujarati, for instance, "This document is available in Gujarati, and this is what you do to get it".
It was also important to assess what languages were required, not necessarily those which are most frequently used by communities whose first language is not English because it may be that within those communities there are some people who speak good 1262 English. One might need some very minority languages to be available. As regards the availability of large print versions, one needs to have pretty good eyesight to be able to see on this booklet that a large print version is available.
I confine my criticism to those matters rather than the contents, but I would be interested to know what the Government are doing—because I am sure that they must be doing something—to see whether that publication was the best way of going about this exercise and evaluating its success.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
This is a useful discussion. It is a difficult area: what information should one put in the public domain? Does one scare and frighten, or usefully advise and inform? How does one strike the correct balance? Who should have what duty in which sets of circumstances? That is a very difficult equation. I dare say that in the end you are "damned if you do and damned if you don't". That also goes for any advice that seeks to warn or alert. It is difficult to achieve.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, wants to reverse the onus in this debate. That is what his amendments would do. Amendment No. 18 probes the limitations on the duty to publish. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves what the Bill does.
The Bill imposes a duty on category 1 responders to make arrangements to inform the public about civil protection arrangements, which will include—prior to the event—what information should be put into the public domain; the potential for emergencies and risks; the actions that will be taken by the relevant authority if an emergency occurs; and advice about the sorts of things the public can undertake for protection and to avoid harm. The Bill also requires local responders to maintain arrangements to warn the public and provide appropriate advice at the time of an event if an emergency occurs.
The Bill ensures that effective public information provision is built into the civil protection processes. I am not sure that has been the case in earlier legislation. I do not think it has been. In this field we had that interesting publication Protect and Survive, which it would be fair to say was effectively lampooned. We have moved on from Protect and Survive. The current publication, Preparing for Emergencies, goes a long way to offer reassurance and careful and sensible guidance. This time round, perhaps because some of the earlier drafts were given a degree of exposure, I think we have got it about as right as we can do.
It is important to help the public understand the nature of the risks that are prevalent, and how the authorities will respond. We think that will improve public confidence in civil protection processes. It is also important to avoid a situation where information is published simply for the sake of it, or because it is required by the Act. Plans and assessments should be published only where needed. Publishing too much unnecessary information could be counterproductive, 1263 because it could lead to a situation where one loses the interest of the public and they simply turn off. A few simple and effective messages are required which alert the public to the situation confronting us.
The Bill requires only local responders to publish plans and assessments that is "desirable" for various purposes. The amendment would reverse that test so that more information would have to be put into the public domain as a matter of course, unless it was "undesirable". That is the wrong way round.
The Government are working closely with the key stakeholders on this issue—including the National Steering Committee on Warning and Informing the Public—to develop clear guidance on this point. I am not convinced that the amendment would be wise under the circumstances. It could lead us to a situation where we have a surfeit of information which would probably he confusing to the public. I am not patronising the public by saying that. It is sometimes difficult for members of the public to sort the wheat from the chaff and we have a duty to lead and advise. That is precisely what we achieve in the way that we have balanced this matter.
Perhaps it is worth adding that local responders will have a clear role and the Bill provides for that. Clause 2(1)(g) obliges category 1 responders to maintain arrangements to warn, inform and advise the public if an emergency occurs. Clause 2(1)(f) already requires the publication of aspects of plans and assessments. The need to make information available about local risks, response arrangements and sources of warnings, information and advice in the event of an emergency are brought out more clearly in the current draft guidance.
A couple of useful points were made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about the need to ensure that information is available in a range of languages. We agree with that. That is why we propose in regulations under the Bill that when responders provide information to the public, both before and during an emergency, they must have regard to the needs of their local public. That will vary from place to place. In particular, those who do not speak English as a first language or have a disability, where appropriate, large print and other language versions of the information should be issued in a form that suits and is fit for the purpose.
Experience shows that at least one person in most households will have a sufficient grasp of the information that is provided in English. I guess that that is the rationale behind producing this information in this way. The point made by the noble Baroness was well made and I recall that when I was leader of my local authority we were providing leaflets that were a pathway to better information. We ensured that there was a language clue to the information that was behind it.
The noble Baroness made a point about feedback and the design of the leaflet. We shall take note of her comments. We looked at many other examples when we were compiling the current leaflet. A rigorous evaluation is taking place and it will inform future 1264 campaigns and, no doubt, future editions of the leaflet. We have covered that point which was well made and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising those issues.
I doubt whether I have satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, but I hope that I have gone some way towards that. This is a difficult matter to get absolutely right, and collectively we are all right to be concerned about the information that is produced, the way that it is being produced and ensuring that people can access the information—not just in written form, but also through e-delivery and other means—so that we achieve the widest possible sensible distribution of information that is appropriate in the circumstances.
§ Lord Lucas
I thought that was a helpful reply. I am happier when it comes to Amendment No. 18, because we all have access to the information we want under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 anyway. Those of us who want the information will, to the extent that it is publishable, be able to dig it out of local authorities and others and make articles out of it for the newspapers. That means that most of the information will get out there to those who want it, so in practice I will get as far as I want on Amendment No. 18 by other means.
As far as Amendment No. 19 is concerned, I still have an attachment to subsection (1)(g)(b) of Clause 2. There are types of emergency, particularly the sort we might associate with terrorism, where one would want to influence the public's behaviour quickly, whether they should stay where they are or go somewhere or do something in particular. People will not be carrying their copy of the booklet with them. What makes people confident in those circumstances is the knowledge that information will be provided, and a reasonable idea of where it will come from. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, has come from an organisation where one knows just that: in a difficult situation, everyone knows the person who has the information—or at least has to act as if he does—and takes the decisions. That is a great source of comfort, and is one of the main reasons that the Army does what it is supposed to in difficult circumstances. We do not need that sort of discipline in civilian life, but if we want the right reaction from people, they need to know where to turn.
I come back to the example of this House, which the noble Lord has not addressed at all. If someone threw a condom into the middle of the Chamber, who would tell us what to do? There may be somebody, but we do not know who. My first reaction on seeing the condom come down would be to head for the exit, but if I knew the Clerk was going to stand up and tell us what to do, I would wait. That depends on my knowing that there is someone who will tell me what to do, and having a rough idea of who it is. In the case of contamination by radioactive substances or biological agents, we would need to control people's movements, and not by ringing London with soldiers carrying machine guns. The authorities would have to move very quickly to contain a population who all had reserve petrol in their tanks and knew exactly the route they intended to take 1265 out of London in an emergency. However, people will stay contained if they have confidence and are quickly given reason to believe that right things will be done.
Three months after a similar incident down the other end, the noble Lord cannot even tell me what the arrangements are for this House. Suppose one of those people who rushed into the Commons today had created an emergency, in any of the ways a terrorist might. Nobody would know where to turn. It is a ridiculous state of affairs, borne of an obsession with secrecy, and it is entirely self-destructive. Despite the noble Lord's words, I shall hang on to the second part of my Amendment No. 19, and we will doubtless see it again.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I am reluctant to get into a discussion across the Dispatch Box about the arrangements for your Lordships' House, which would be quite wrong, save to say that I am sure there is a well-ordered plan in place. I have great trust in Black Rod, who will no doubt be acting on information from the emergency services, as well as being in direct communication with the Metropolitan Police. I will not fully rise to the bait and go further than that, as it would be an abuse of the circumstances, but I think it important to place those words of reassurance on the public record.
§ Lord Lucas
That does not reassure me at all, of course. The information I have is that the moment an incident occurs, I had better look out for myself, because I have no clue who will tell me to do otherwise. If I knew someone was informed, I would wait for them. That point is crucial, and, as I say, we shall come back to it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ [Amendment No. 19 not moved.]
§ Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 20:
Page 3, line 7, at end insert ", and
(h) consult with voluntary organisations through the development of plans maintained under paragraphs (c) and (d) to such extent and in such manner as a person or body listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 1 shall think fit
§ The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 27, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 36, 42, 79 and 80. At Second Reading there was almost universal support for expressly including in the Bill the contribution of voluntary organisations, which play a crucial role in any emergency. All these amendments relate to the duty to assess, plan and advise regarding contingency planning. The Bill does not currently refer to voluntary sector organisations with regard to consultation. We feel that that is a huge oversight on the part of the Government and have tabled the amendments to urge them to think again.
§ Voluntary sector organisations such as the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance have huge experience in emergency situations. In their briefing to us, they pointed out many of the tragedies in which they have intervened and made a real difference. I hope that the Government will find it instructive if I run through some of them. In February this year, British 1266 Red Cross volunteers were present to comfort the survivors of the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers' tragedy. After the Ladbroke Grove rail crash, St John Ambulance volunteers gave assistance for seven days and ambulances transported many victims to hospital.
§ Many foreign countries recognise the expertise that the voluntary sector has to offer. The aftermath of the tragic events in Madrid showed what a vital role the voluntary sector can play in helping to minimise damage caused and ensuring that all casualties are dealt with as swiftly and sensitively as possible. The statistics of the tragedy speak for themselves. Within minutes of the bombs going off, Spanish Red Cross volunteers were on the scene. Over the next 24 hours and beyond, 900 volunteers provided medical care, gave psychological support and handled inquiries from the public. Fifty-two ambulances and 26 transport vehicles and mobile blood collection units run by the Spanish Red Cross worked in close collaboration with the statutory services. Sixty-one requests for information on missing persons were received from abroad and dealt with through the International Red Cross message and tracing service. The Spanish Red Cross was able to achieve such an exemplary response to the bombings because in Spain the voluntary sector has a formal role in the civil protection framework. It plays an integral part in emergency planning and is designated to be involved in rescue, medical care, information and communication, together with emotional support.
§ In the Bill the Government have a chance to use the voluntary sector in the same way as the Spanish Government. We feel that the Government would be short-sighted not to take note of the statistics and the response provided in Spain, and not to give Britain the same chance to have a first-class response to such an event. The voluntary sector should be properly recognised and involved. Our amendments would mean that the knowledge of the voluntary sector would be put to good use and ensure that they were consulted on planning. We feel that they are good common-sense proposals, and I hope that the Minister will look upon them favourably.
§ Amendments Nos. 42 and 43 relate to Clause 4, on advice and assistance to business. This clause imposes on local authorities a duty to provide to those undertaking commercial activities in their communities, advice and assistance about business continuity management (BCM). We feel that the Government, again, have made a huge omission by not including the voluntary sector in the clause. It means that the voluntary sector will not receive the advice and assistance from local authorities that business will. It is well documented that only 40 per cent of organisations without a continuity plan exist 12 months after a disaster—that is from Continuity Central, 2003. Just 8 per cent survive long term—that is from Safetynet, 1993—and only 58 per cent of larger charities and 43 per cent of smaller ones have a continuity plan, according to PKF in 2003. Few have practical contingency arrangements, but those that do successfully continue, as was shown in New York on 9/11.1267
§ It is also clear that, if a disaster should occur, we would look to the voluntary sector to help out: there is no question of that. I am sure that it would cost councils little extra to include the voluntary sector, so I cannot understand the Government's reluctance to include them in this clause. However, I must also point out that the voluntary sector should not be expected to pay for advice or assistance received under the clauses.
§ I also want to make clear that, although the Local Government Association has expressed some opposition to our amendments, I understand that communication between the Local Government Association and the voluntary associations has now been established. Discussions will shortly take place between the parties and I hope that an understanding will be reached. For our part, the concerns expressed by the LGA to date do not, with respect, diminish the strength of our commitment to the amendments. I also want to remind the Committee that, as I stated on Second Reading, we already have a precedent for that in the Homelessness Act 2002, Section 3(3)(b). In that provision, a similar argument could have been and was raised, and it was decided that the voluntary organisations should be there, clearly in the Bill and their contribution properly recognised. I beg to move.
§ 9 p.m.
§ Lord Archer of Sandwell
I have been asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle to express his regret that he could not stay for this debate. He wished to participate, but he has a commitment elsewhere and he begs that your Lordships will excuse him. So that the noble Baroness will not interpret some of my earlier remarks as being personal, I say at the outset that I support everything that she has just said.
In the interests of saving time, I propose at the outset to speak simply to Amendment No. 20, as the other amendments rest substantially on the same argument. If my noble friend on the Front Bench accepts the principle, we can consider in tranquillity the specific amendments that would follow.
I should make particular reference to Amendments Nos. 41 to 43, because I think that they raise a different issue. That is the question of advice to community activities. But the noble Baroness has covered that completely, and I do not think that the case would be benefited if I added anything specific to it. I may say that I did suggest that it should be treated as a separate grouping but, not for the first time in my career, my advice was not followed.
The amendments were prompted when some of us serving on the pre-legislation committee were impressed by the evidence of some voluntary bodies: notably, the Red Cross, because it acted as the lead department, so to speak. It was concerned that its existence was not recognised in the Bill.
On Second Reading, several noble Lords mentioned specifically four of the voluntary services: the Red Cross, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, the Salvation Army and the St John Ambulance. It was those four services that attended a meeting in this building that I was privileged to chair and they earned 1268 our gratitude for their patient explanations and response to our questions. But they are not, by any means, the only voluntary organisations that have expressed concern. It would be wrong to assume that that concern is limited to those four.
It is true that some voluntary organisations do not wish to be included. But I wonder whether they have misunderstood what is proposed. I appreciate the concern that some of them do not have a presence in every locality and that they would not be able to respond to every obligation that they fear may be placed on them. That would be understandable if it were proposed to include them in the schedules, because then they would be under statutory obligations. I believe that, at one time during the committee's deliberations, such a proposal was ventilated.
The amendments would not include the voluntary bodies in the schedules. They propose to ensure that those bodies are consulted by the schedule providers, and that would not impose on them any burden or, indeed, any obligation to find resources. One could say that it would ensure that they have an opportunity to indicate what they can and cannot do.
In the Government's original paper dealing with disaster, the role of the voluntary organisations was recognised and discussed. In the consultation paper of June 2003, they were forgotten, and in the Bill they have sunk without trace. Now, they rate a passing nod because, in responding to the report of the Joint Committee, the Government said that they will encourage Part 1 providers to consult the voluntary services. Some of us are troubled that their recognition should depend on whether providers respond to that encouragement. We believe that they should be given a statutory right to be consulted, subject of course to the right of the Part 1 provider to decide which bodies are appropriate to be consulted. That is why Amendment No. 21 is drafted in the way that it is.
I support the noble Baroness for two reasons: one is a matter of principle; the other, pragmatic. Since I usually find that pragmatic reasons are more persuasive than reasons of principle, perhaps I may speak to that first.
In this country, we have a treasury of skills and experience in the voluntary services. They include people who give their time not only to serve the public but to undergo training for that purpose, and in many cases the training is to a very high degree of expertise. Sometimes there is available to the statutory bodies no equivalent resources. That is true at the cutting edge, and it is true at the management level. A number of examples were quoted at Second Reading, and the noble Baroness has just quoted two others. Perhaps I may add one from an area which I was once privileged to represent in another place.
On the evening of 10 May 2003, an industrial depot in Tipton caught fire. On the premises was a store of liquid petroleum gas, which formed the subject matter of an intervention by a noble Lord earlier in our debates. There was fear of a serious explosion. Mercifully it did not happen, but that did not reduce 1269 the danger at the time. It was necessary to evacuate homes in the surrounding area. It was not the most convenient time to concentrate resources: it was a Saturday evening. The council services requested the help of the West Midlands branch of the Red Cross. Fortunately, a rest centre was available in the local community centre. The Red Cross responded at once. Within a very short time, 120 people had been evacuated to the rest centre. Some were able to make other provision for the night, but 60 people had to spend the night at the centre.
The Red Cross branch mobilised local members to form an emergency response team. They provided food, covering and other necessities; they provided emotional support for those who were distressed; and they provided an ambulance equipped with medical provisions. People remained at the centre until 10 o'clock the next morning. The statutory services were in no way negligent, but they could not provide a 24-hour response of that magnitude.
Perhaps I may add in passing that, in the recent flood disaster at Boscastle, the Salvation Army provided food for victims and for the emergency workers, and St John Ambulance made 12 vehicles and 40 helpers available.
The amendments imply no criticism of the statutory services. They have an impressive record of which this country may well be proud. But we are discussing situations where there may be a sudden tidal wave of disaster and where the need cannot be channelled over a period of time so that every call can take its turn. Every resource may be called on simultaneously, and it may be vital to supplement the statutory services. It may be essential to integrate every resource which can be called on. That will need to be planned for and rehearsed so that there is a joined-up response when the time comes.
Of course, it goes further. At Second Reading, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry reminded us that the victims and their families may well have emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. That is not to say that the statutory services do not have sensitivity but they may be fully extended with other functions and, in any event, they have a rather different training.
These amendments ask simply that that expertise may be recognised, involved and integrated at the planning stage. Of course, the majority of local authorities are well aware of the value of that resource. They know about working with the voluntary services. Officials in the two sectors are frequently on terms of personal friendship. But there are two dangers in those rare cases where that does not happen and where common sense is in short supply. First, there are some local government officials who do not feel the need to consult. At various times, we have all encountered them. They know what to do and they do not need advice from those whom they regard as amateurs. If a voluntary organisation is needed, they will tell them when that need arises.
1270 The point about consultation is to consider what action may be needed before there is an emergency so that it may be included in the planning. If a requirement to do that is enshrined in statute, it may prevent local self-importance getting in the way.
The second danger is that the advantages of consulting the voluntary sector may simply be overlooked by busy councillors and officials. They may not intend to ignore the asset that is available. In a busy life, they may simply forget. We sometimes fail to appreciate that the important advantage of including something in a statute is that it is there on the list of things to be done. In a letter that I recently received from the Local Government Association, it referred to the possibility of a statutory duty and said:We believe that such a duty is unnecessary and would in fact demonstrate a lack of commitment by both central and local government to the 'compact' way of working".I believe that it would do precisely the opposite. It would demonstrate that central government, with the concurrence of local government, takes the compact way of working seriously. I am confirmed in that view by a letter that I recently received from the NCVO, which said:In summary, we believe that the proposed amendment could be helpful for voluntary organisations and would also reinforce the Government's commitment to the Compact and in particular the requirement to consult with the sector".I do not know whether that was the letter to which the noble Baroness was referring but the NCVO is pretty clear about its view on the subject.
I said that there is also a reason of principle. In this country, we have a tradition of enlisting and recognising the merits of the voluntary sector. Many, if not most, of our statutory services grew out of initiatives by the voluntary sector. They should not been seen as the junior partners, dependent on such recognition as the statutory services choose to accord them. Their inclusion should not be subjected to the discretion of the statutory services. They are part of our national community. An essential part of belonging is the right to be called on to serve. Paradoxically, there is a right to share an obligation.
It cannot be often that the Government receive such a willing offer. Nothing is more likely to evaporate a spirit of co-operation than waiting for a telephone call that may or may not come. All that these amendments ask for is an assurance that it will.
§ Lord Luke
I support my noble friend's amendments very strongly indeed. I would almost say that I would like to start by quoting the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, in its entirety because I agree with every single word he said. He really covered the ground. So what I am going to say will be very short indeed.
I have some experience. I was commissioner of St John in Bedfordshire and, subsequently, commander. I also had two weeks' service in the then WVS during the floods in 1952 so I have heard about it a little. In an emergency, all kinds of things happen. The depth of injury to be dealt with depends on the kind of emergency.
1271 St John and the Red Cross will deal with the superficial situations that may arise. However, if there is a really serious disaster with hundreds dead and lots of injured and glass flying about all over, there will be quite a lot of what I would call minor injuries—although no injuries are really minor. Where there is a tremendous call on the statutory services to get people to hospital as quickly as possible, St John or the Red Cross can cope with those minor injuries in the short term. That is one of the most important things.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Also important is the back-up during the recovery period afterwards, when all the people have been taken away—to hospital, one hopes. If there has been a bomb, there is a building to be cleared up. There are lots of people, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said, who may be in schools being looked after on a temporary basis. That is when the WRVS particularly comes into its own, as well as the others—the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and St John—providing the continuous back-up services that are needed as the emergency slowly becomes a clear-up operation.
§ I would like to add my view that I find it extraordinary that the voluntary bodies are not mentioned in the clause. They must be brought into the clause, so that they are brought into all consultations at local and central government level, because they can do an enormous amount of good.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
I am pleased to support the amendments, which aim to include the voluntary organisations in the clause. It is important that the appropriate voluntary organisations are involved at the planning stage. I would like to give two recent disasters as examples. The first is the tragic events at the school in Russia, where there seemed to be a lack of any planned organisation to help find injured children divided from their families, amid chaos in a terrible situation. In Madrid at the time of the bombs on the train, there was good organisation of voluntary help, as the Spanish Red Cross had been involved at the planning stage. That helped in a terrible and dangerous situation.
I cannot understand the Local Government Association not seeing the value of having well planned, well trained volunteers to help in disasters. Is it a sort of professional jealousy, or just a matter of not wanting to be bothered to work with them? As a longstanding, or perhaps long-sitting, member of the Red Cross, I know volunteers can be most useful if they are well organised, well trained and there is a lead organisation that knows whom to contact for help.
If the volunteers are to be useful, they will have to know what they are to do and to whom to report. Without a system in place, there will be a waste of much-needed help. Surely that means planning at local level. We need to be prepared—one never knows when there will be a terrorist attack of horrific dimensions, or a disaster such as floods or fire or anything that threatens human welfare. One never knows what is round the corner.
1272 Volunteers give their time freely. Does the Minister not think that they should feel valued? Also, I feel that information should be freely available, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, in speaking to Amendments Nos. 18 and 19. Volunteers could help to disseminate this. Volunteers deserve to be recognised.
I hope that the Committee will be able to realise this as the Bill proceeds through your Lordships' House, with the help of the Minister.
§ Baroness Emerton
I agree with all that has been said in support of the amendment. I should also like to add my thanks to the Minister for his communication following Second Reading in July and for arranging the briefing meeting afterwards. However, I wish to express concern with regard to the Bill's exclusion of voluntary organisations from planning and practice for emergencies.
I have a specific concern. At the risk of repeating what I said at Second Reading, I am concerned that the voluntary aid societies have not been recognised alongside the voluntary organisations. The voluntary aid societies have a specific responsibility, as recognised by the Government, following the Geneva Convention. It is very important that that is recognised and remembered. I declare an interest as a former chancellor and chief commander of St John Ambulance. I have been involved in local county and national emergency planning for years.
Mention has already been made of the Boscastle emergency, which happened during the Recess. I should like to illustrate what happened in relation to the ambulances which were mobilised. It appeared that the local statutory agencies were in desperate need of 4x4 vehicles. Four of those were provided by St John Ambulance, plus seven further ambulances and one support vehicle. That was in addition to 33 members being mobilised, and a medical officer responded immediately. That would not have been possible had they not been involved in the planning beforehand, because speed is of the essence in such a situation and volunteers, who are probably engaged in full-time employment, need to be aware of what is required of them when called.
The modern fleet of ambulances is maintained to the European standards. All the crews are trained to the level of ambulance technicians, but not all are of paramedic standard. All have up-to-date qualifications and have reached appropriate levels of competences. The fleet of ambulances brought into service in St John Ambulance since 1999 exceeds 1,000 up-to-date vehicles, which I think is the largest number of vehicles owned by a voluntary organisation. Not only are they used for private commitments, they also support the statutory services.
Closely following the Boscastle disaster, a grandstand collapsed at a Grapevine event in Lincoln on 29 August. St John Ambulance members were already on site, but a major incident was declared and the 12 members, with their three vehicles, treated and transported casualties to hospital at the request of the Lincolnshire Ambulance Service, another example of 1273 partnership working and the confidence that the statutory services have in the voluntary services. The two incidents in the past few weeks indicate what has been repeated year after year—the Ladbroke Grove disaster, for example, and the other incidents which have been mentioned this evening.
This afternoon, outside the Houses of Parliament, St John Ambulance members and ambulances were mobilised; they had been involved in the planning for what was to happen this afternoon. I am afraid that I have not been able to get the details of the numbers, but they were definitely there.
Most voluntary organisations are actively involved at county level in emergency planning, and county major incident practices are a regular event. In Surrey, for example, voluntary organisations are involved in the Gatwick major incident plan.
As has already been said, volunteers are highly trained and give their time and expertise freely, but they appreciate being valued for the contribution that they make to society. If volunteers are not thought to be important enough to be included in emergency planning, it will inevitably have a tremendous effect on the recruitment of future volunteers.
It is strange that there seems to be so much opposition to the inclusion of voluntary organisations in the planning and practice for emergencies when the Government have given volunteering such an important place on their agenda.
During the past year, I served on a Department of Health working party chaired by Nick Young, the chief executive of the British Red Cross, which has produced a policy document entitled Making Partnerships Work: A Strategic Agreement between the Department of Health, the NHS and the Voluntary and Community Sector. The document is to be launched next Monday by the Secretary of State, John Reid. The strategic agreement sets out a robust approach to partnership between statutory agencies and the voluntary sector. Like other Members of the Committee, I was therefore surprised to receive a letter from the Local Government Association which stated that it did not support the inclusion of the voluntary sector in planning for emergencies because of its not complying with the compact. Surely central government are committed to fostering partnership arrangements. The statement made by the Local Government Association is counterproductive to moving forward.
While I have declared my interest in St John Ambulance and mentioned the part it played in recent events, in no way do I exclude the British Red Cross and St Andrews Ambulance Association, which form the two other voluntary aid societies, or the other appropriate voluntary organisations, which offer such a wide range of humanitarian aid in times of emergency.
I urge the Minister to give urgent consideration to the amendments, which would include the appropriate voluntary organisations in the planning and practice for emergencies. That would demonstrate central government's support for the Making Partnerships 1274 Work strategy and give recognition to the voluntary sector, especially as 2005 will be the Year of the Volunteer.
§ Baroness Thornton
Before asking the Minister a question that has been whirling about my head as our discussion has gone on, I pass on the sincere apologies of the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, for not being in the Chamber to support the amendment. He was at a major conference today and he was not able to get away.
I thank the Minister for making sure that we received the draft guidance confirming the role of the voluntary sector prior to our discussion. I have not had the opportunity to discuss it with my colleagues in the voluntary sector, but it looks quite good. However, be it the best guidance in the world, how do the Government intend to make those recalcitrant local authorities and emergency planners which do not want to talk to the voluntary sector take it on board? That is the question that lies at the heart of the amendment and it reflects the concerns that voluntary organisations have.
The voluntary organisations that have been so exercised by this issue throughout the passage of the Bill could not possibly be labelled as troublemakers. Those organisations exist to serve. If they have persisted in their concerns, the Government need to take them very seriously indeed and find a way through.
§ Lord Hylton
I agree with almost everything that has been said in support of the amendments. Only for the sake of completeness, I mention, first, the role as a focal point of councils of social service in emergencies and, secondly, the vast amount of property that is owned by churches and community organisations, which can be essential when people are displaced from their homes.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
The notion of such organisations as the Red Cross, the WRVS and the Salvation Army being trouble makers is a delightful one. But they have a role to be that and they have exercised it jolly well in getting us to focus on the issue. In view of the briefing which clearly many noble Lords have received from the Local Government Association, which refers to compacts between governmental and other agencies and the voluntary organisations, I should declare an interest as a member of the NCVO's Compact Advocacy Advisory Group.
The case will not be improved by anything I can say. I hugely support the points which have been made and in particular those by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell. I welcome the discussion which now appears to be under way to which the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, referred. We need a way of getting the best and not increasing the burden on anyone. The noble Baroness ended her speech by saying that the contributions of the voluntary organisations should be properly recognised. I put it this way: we need to make sure that we do not fail to 1275 take advantage of their expertise and the Treasury of their experience and skills to which the noble and learned Lord referred.
I am not at all comfortable at taking a position against, as it may appear, the Local Government Association when I so often support what it says. I hope that we shall end up without taking sides on this because we should not.
§ Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville
In the interests of the hour, I shall be extremely brief. I shall not repeat but I do echo everything that has been said in earlier speeches. One is normally daunted when confronted with 18 amendments in a group. This evening and as far as I am concerned, one is totally undaunted because of the consistency of the language and the motivation of the 18 amendments as one reads them one by one.
On what normally would be a maximum of 72 names, with 18 amendments with four names each, 59 names were put down. As in a one-day cricket international, most of the runs were scored at the top of the order in Committee and those were the names put down on the original Amendment No. 20. No adverse reflection attaches to those whose names appeared less often because of the limit of four names to each amendment. But on every single amendment appeared the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, and in my view great credit attaches to him for that. The other three names on Amendment No. 20 are those of my noble friend Lady Buscombe, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry and the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Their names appeared, give or take an amendment, on two-thirds of the 18 amendments. They form a powerful all-party alliance.
My own name does not appear on any of the amendments and neither did I speak in the debate at Second Reading. But I did speak several months ago in a debate on international development, which was moved by my noble friend Lady Chalker. At that stage I made a paving speech for tonight in alluding to the subject that we are discussing in this group of amendments. I compared it to the interest of the development NGOs which, however good their relations with DfID and the Foreign Office, would wish to develop a statutory proactive relationship which would integrate them too into the Government's international aid and emergency plans. A statutory relationship of the sort which we are developing in this group of amendments will inevitably come one day. It would give the best of starts to this particular legislation if this were the occasion when the new statutory link were to be established. I hope that the Minister can speak encouragingly in that regard.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I suppose, in following the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, I am at the bottom of the order. That probably makes me a "tailender". Whether I shall be as big a hitter as some tailenders are, I very much doubt, and I offer that in modesty. It is nice to know we share such an interest in cricket.
1276 I want to say first—because I believe in being direct about such matters—that these are not amendments that the Government can accept, and I have to resist their inclusion in the Bill. That is a pretty bold start, but I do think it is right to say that and to be very clear from the outset. That is not to say that I do not recognise the value of the arguments that have been made, nor the force with which they have been made, nor the sincerity with which they have been made. Nor do I fail to recognise the very valuable contributions that all participants in this debate have made, in drawing out the immense value of the voluntary sector and voluntary aid organisations.
Two things I take from the comments that have been made are that a statutory location is important to elements of the voluntary sector as they see it, because it underlines and gives expression to the value that they feel they bring to our society. I happen to believe that it is not necessarily the case that it is needed to underpin their role in statute or on the face of the Bill. We do recognize—and recognition is the other point—the value of the voluntary sector in this field, as we do across government. The noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, made the point very well, that, from her perspective, this Government have been very supportive indeed of volunteering. I make the bold claim that this Government have been rather more than that, and have been positively encouraging, probably investing more than any previous government in ensuring that the activities of volunteers are well supported, well appreciated and well resourced. The debate raised some interesting questions about the voluntary sector in contingency planning, and took us forward a stage or two from the valuable debate we had at Second Reading.
My response is going to be long, because the issue deserves to be dealt with thoroughly. I want to go over the points that have been made very carefully. The Government encourage membership of voluntary organisations and their engagement with key responding organisations. We fully recognise the important role they can perform, particularly in the field of humanitarian support for individuals and families affected by emergencies. The recent Boscastle emergency, as a number of speakers said, gave full voice to that, and was a very powerful example of the way volunteer support and organisation can be very well directed and well used. That is greatly appreciated. Indeed, I pay tribute to the well known and long-standing contribution that voluntary organisations have made to the effective response to civil emergencies. Reference was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, to the role played at the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster. I cite, too—in aid of her point, if you like—the response to Potters Bar, and others referred to the tragedy at Morecambe Bay with the cockle pickers.
There is no question of the valuable contribution that volunteers can make to emergency response. This critical work will go on whether or not there is reference to the voluntary sector in statute. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, made reference to the Government's key commitment and 1277 understanding of their role in dealing with disaster: a document setting out guidance for local responders, which recommended joint planning with voluntary groups and the setting up of voluntary sector co-ordinating groups at the local level to ensure and facilitate co-operation between the statutory services and local voluntary organisations. So we are already there.
Most local multi-agency co-ordination groups and local resilience forums under the Bill have a voluntary sector liaison group. A very significant amount of work is done by local authorities and others in training volunteers for their roles in cases of emergency, involving them in multi-agency exercises.
However, it is important that we are also clear about the limitations of the voluntary sector. With one or two notable exceptions such as the RNLI or mountain rescue, the voluntary sector is not a first responder and only ever acts in support of statutory bodies. There are few reported problems with the current, permissive system. The briefing note issued by the voluntary sector in advance of this session provided evidence of how the voluntary sector is playing an important role. But it is limited in terms of the resources it can bring to bear, in comparison with the statutory services.
It is worth noting what St John Ambulance said in its own submission to the Joint Committee. It said:
We strongly agree with the statement in the Consultation Document that voluntary organisations are not included in the Duty … Even with over 23,000 adult volunteers trained in First Aid and 1,300 vehicles (including the largest single ambulance fleet in the country), St John Ambulance is unable to guarantee a particular level of provision of emergency aid in all of the 42 counties where we have offices and management structures. The type of response we can provide and the amount of support we can offer varies on a geographical basis … Some of our volunteers (including 1,500 Doctors, Nurses and Paramedics) are unavailable to St John Ambulance in times of emergency, as they will be required to respond by their full-time employers … Whilst the roles and activities undertaken by St John Ambulance will (at the very least) support and complement activity of Category I or 2 Responder members, we agree that … we are unable to guarantee a consistent standard and level of support nationwide".Statutory stakeholders also have real reservations. Much has been said about the Local Government Association and its response, but it is worth putting on the record. The LGA said:The LGA would … not support amendments to place a blanket, specific duty on local authorities to consult voluntary agencies. This objective can equally well be achieved by the inclusion of the matter in Guidance, thus avoiding the need to resort to further bureaucratic regulation and maintaining the independence of the voluntary sector. It would also allow each local authority to respond to the nature and requirements of the sector in their local area. The LGA believes that the existing procedures and arrangements work very well (indeed no voluntary organisation has expressed to the LGA any dissatisfaction with the current level of consultation or involvement in contingency planning at local level). The LGA certainly would not wish to see any changes that might adversely affect arrangements that work well as they are".Members of the Committee also commented on international comparisons. I have seen the presentation, too, and there is no doubt about the excellent work which the Red Cross undertook in response to the Madrid bombings. But in Spain it is 1278 rather different: the Red Cross has a key role in emergency response, which partially or wholly displaces the statutory role of the local and health authorities. We should bear in mind that in the United Kingdom those roles are performed by the statutory services, and adopting a similar position here would involve a switching of government resources from the statutory to the voluntary sector.
It is also the case that the voluntary sector has a far from simple relationship with the statutory services. Many voluntary bodies have no involvement or interest with civil protection. Of those that do, the relationship tends to be a mixture of "real" voluntary provision and "commercial" contractual relationships. It is this very set of complications which lends itself to the permissive approach.
We should also be clear about what the Bill already provides. There is nothing in the Bill that will prevent voluntary organisations from remaining fully engaged, and we will continue to encourage local responders to engage the voluntary sector wholeheartedly in local multi-agency planning and response through the guidance supporting the Bill. We will use the guidance supporting the Bill to make this vision into a reality. Indeed, we have encouraged the voluntary sector to engage in the open and inclusive process we have set in train to review the draft regulations and develop guidance under the Bill. I understand that a senior representative from the National Voluntary Aid Societies Emergency Committee is taking a prominent role in that work. We have also made available the draft guidance to a wider community of interested parties, and the response has been extremely positive.
I do not wish to undermine the role of the voluntary sector; I simply wish to make it clear that this is far from an open and shut case and it is important that we consider the views of all stakeholders, not simply the major voluntary sector bodies. It is fair to say that we all have the same aim: the effective engagement of the voluntary sector in emergency planning and response. The essential disagreement is not about the ends but the means; how we achieve that objective.
I am going to deal with two sets of amendments because I want to concentrate on those rather than go through each amendment, which would be unwise in view of the hour.
§ Baroness Thornton
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but before we leave the guidance I want to return to my question of how we can be sure that this excellent guidance will be carried out locally. What is there in any part of the Bill that will ensure that that will happen?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I was not intending to overlook the point. I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing me back to it. Perhaps I should deal with it here and now so that we can focus on it. The question is, what force does the guidance have in relation to the voluntary sector? Under Clause 3(3) responders must 1279 have regard to guidance. That is not the same as being bound by it, but guidance under the Bill is exactly that: it will indicate the best way to proceed. A responder must ensure that they look at the guidance; they have no real reason to diverge from it. There is no way that they can disregard it altogether.
We have to trust guidance. We trust it in all other aspects of legislation and I know that we have this debate in many different guises, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned. Guidance is important. It would be wrong of statutory bodies to ignore it and they will not be able to do so. We will ensure that they take it carefully on board and fully engage with voluntary organisations at a local level. That is the expectation and they will be encouraged to do that from the centre. That is how we see the issue proceeding.
Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 cut to the heart of the debate. They would impose—
§ Baroness Emerton
At the risk of interrupting again, all that the Minister read out about the St John Ambulance being in support is correct. There is not a standard service across the country. It is important that what there is is there to support the statutory services. Unless they are recognised and involved in the planning they cannot be there to back up the statutory services when there is an emergency.
Let us take the examples of the King's Cross fire and Ladbroke Grove—I am taking London as an example because it is a good example—where the London ambulance service relied on the London district St John Ambulance to provide cover for the 999 calls because there are paramedic staff on the ambulances. If they are not involved in the planning—as they were for this afternoon's episode outside—they cannot be mobilised.
Unless the volunteers are statutorily recognised by government, guidance can mean all things to anyone. It is important that they are there as a statutory requirement.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I understand the point that is being made but we rely on guidance, which has force and value. All that is said about the importance of having the volunteer sector involved in planning at the outset is right. It is our intention to ensure that that will happen. No one has yet regaled me with example after example of where the voluntary sector has been cut out of the planning process with the statutory sector. I have not been given examples of that. We do not have experience that that is the case.
I turn to the detail in the amendments as the amendments are in themselves very important. Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 would impose a duty on category 1 responders—the emergency services, local authorities and so on—to consult with voluntary organisations in the performance of their duties under the Bill while leaving the manner and extent to which they are consulted as a matter for their own judgment. By virtue of Amendment No. 80, the definition of "voluntary organisation" is extremely broad, 1280 capturing any body other than a public or local authority whose activities are not carried out for profit, including many organisations which do not undertake activities relating to civil protection.
Of course I agree that where it is appropriate statutory responders should consult and involve voluntary sector partners to the fullest extent in the planning process—the very point on which the noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, touched. Statutory responders absolutely accept that. Voluntary sector bodies are already engaged very closely in multi-agency planning. It is already happening. We propose to include in the guidance supporting the Bill a clear and unequivocal statement of the expertise and resources that the voluntary sector can offer. We also expect there to be a clear statement that local responders should involve the voluntary sector in civil protection work. Furthermore, we will give clear and helpful guidance on how this can be done, for example, by engaging the voluntary sector in the planning process and ensuring that it is represented in multi-agency planning arrangements. As I said earlier, we are working closely with a whole range of stakeholders, including the voluntary sector, in working up the content of this guidance. That in itself has been applauded already. It is difficult to see what the amendment would add to that approach. The merits of imposing a legal obligation on responders to consult the voluntary sector where the responder itself decides who must be consulted, the extent of the consultation and the manner in which the consultation takes place, must be doubtful. This is particularly true when the duty to consult is so wide. Local responders must "have regard" to the guidance we propose and cannot set it aside without good reason.
It is inconceivable that statutory responders would not want to use all resources available to them and to ensure that those bodies they did work with are fully integrated into their plans. We believe that civil protection professionals on the ground are best placed to decide which voluntary organisations they consult or engage with. While the emergency services and local authorities do not support this amendment, they do, however, recognise the need to work in partnership with the voluntary sector and wholeheartedly support the use of guidance to help to make sure that happens systematically. I refer the Committee to the comments that I read out earlier from the Local Government Association.
These amendments would enable but not require—that is an important qualification—regulations under Part 1 to require responders to consult the voluntary sector. We think that the amendments are unnecessary. Clause 2(5)(d) already enables regulations to require responders to consult any person or body or class of person or body in the course of performing their civil protection duties. It is difficult to see what specifically referring to voluntary bodies will add to that.
Amendments Nos. 41, 42 and 43, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, constitute a slightly separate subject. They would extend the duty on local authorities to provide business continuity advice. The 1281 Bill currently requires them to provide advice to members of the public who carry out commercial activities within their area. These amendments would extend this duty to cover organisations undertaking "community activities". Local authorities would not be allowed to charge for such advice, even on a cost recovery basis.
By virtue of Amendment No. 79 "community activities" are interpreted very widely as including organisations such as parents' associations, tenants' associations or recreational clubs throughout the country. I certainly recognise that the provisions of the Bill do not cover all the activities of voluntary organisations. However, the purpose of the duty in Clause 4 is to minimise the economic impact of emergencies. It is for that reason that the focus of local authorities' efforts must be on commercial activities. Furthermore, through two public consultations there was certainly not a strong call for the voluntary sector to be included in the duty despite the high profile of the Bill with parts of the voluntary sector and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. That is not to say that individual local authorities could not or should not extend their advice to voluntary organisations where they feel it would be appropriate. Much of local authorities' work in this area would be light-touch, awareness-raising activity, with websites containing advice, for example, which would be open to all organisations.
We have established a number of working groups to review the draft regulations and develop supporting guidance to accompany the Bill. One of these working groups is looking at BCM promotion. While its work is at an early stage, it is likely that the guidance will emphasise to local authorities that there are a large number of bodies, which, while not undertaking commercial activities, do provide services of importance to the community. The representatives of the practitioners which would deliver the service—namely, the LGA—also support this approach.
To conclude, I listened with great respect and carefully to what has been said in the Chamber this evening. It has valuably underlined the importance that everybody sees in the voluntary sector playing a pivotal role in emergency planning and response. But I have tried to indicate that the voluntary sector has its limitations, too.
The Bill and supporting regulations and guidance will help ensure that the close engagement of voluntary bodies in emergency planning work continues and develops. The guidance under the Bill provides an excellent opportunity for the Government to give a clear statement of the role of the voluntary organisations in civil protection arrangements. I am delighted that the guidance in its draft form has attracted support and been welcomed. The guidance sets out very clearly how it expects the statutory responders to engage with the voluntary organisations. Cabinet Office officials are working closely with key figures in the voluntary sector to ensure that that happens.
1282 I go back to the words of the Local Government Association and its briefing note that sums it up. The LGA says it will not therefore support amendments that place a blanket specific duty on local authorities to consult voluntary agencies. That objective can be equally well achieved by inclusion of the matter in guidance. The LGA does not want to have changes made to the arrangements where those arrangements work well.
The arrangements work well at the moment. Everything that has been said about the LGA working closely in concert to establish a memorandum of understanding with the voluntary sector has a value. We want to see that voluntary approach continued. That is what we seek to achieve in the way in which we have worked out our policy and the way the Bill is drafted. Guidance is where it is best left.
I understand the strength of feeling, but it is contingent on all of us—not least me and certainly all those who have been critical of our position—to reflect hard on the important points made from the Government's perspective in this debate. I think there is more merit in our argument than perhaps has been given credence. That is not to say that we do not value highly—because we do—the important, pivotal role that the voluntary sector will have to play in civil contingency preparation.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
We have not got examples of voluntary bodies being cut out as this legislation is not yet law. We want to ensure that that will not happen. How can the Minister ensure that the guidance will be adhered to? What happens if voluntary bodies are cut out?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
That is a similar question to that asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. As I explained at the outset, it is clear that we will have an expectation that local authorities in particular, through their emergency planning preparations, will engage with the voluntary sector—as they do now. I am not aware that, as a matter of course, those involved in emergency planning are ignoring, or failing to work with, or not co-operating with, or not receiving or absorbing the advice and information that come valuably from the voluntary sector.
As I said in conclusion, the Cabinet Office—which has the central responsibility through its officials—is working closely with the voluntary sector to ensure that it can be enabled to work very closely at a local level with those who have the responsibility. That, and the obligation that will be placed upon local authorities to engage with the voluntary sector, will ensure that the arrangements which largely work well now, will continue to work well and develop further.
§ Baroness Thornton
I am really sorry to have to say this, but I feel, given that the Minister quoted the LGA briefing at length, that the discussion that has taken place in the past 24 hours since the briefing was 1283 received has revealed that, in fact, the LGA did not discuss the briefing with the voluntary organisations before it was published, even though it had been requested to do so. I had hoped that I would not have to say that and it is important to put that on the record. So, while the LGA may want the compact to be the way forward, in fact it did not follow its own guidance about how a compact should work.
§ Baroness Buscombe
I shall be brief. I thank the Minister for his reply but it was deeply disappointing. Indeed, if I were a Minister in government I would have refused to make that speech.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, is correct. We are talking about a treasury of skill. This is no criticism of the statutory services, but all that noble Lords have said about the contribution and the crucially important role that the voluntary organisations make should be recognised on the face of the Bill. The voluntary organisations need to be involved in the planning process, as the noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, has said.
In all my experience, whether it is at the local fete or at the biggest pop concert that I have attended in my life, I have always noticed that St John Ambulance volunteers are always there. They are already on site. So many times they are the first to respond because 1284 they are there. All noble Lords have made very powerful speeches in support of the amendment. Guidance is not good enough.
The Minister wanted to make a bold start. I shall make a bold finish. In your Lordships' House we have a powerful all-party alliance. I want the Minister to think carefully about our amendments between now and Report, because if the Minister feels unable to return with similar government amendments then, I shall divide the House on these amendments and we will win. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.
§ House adjourned at three minutes after ten o'clock.