HC Deb 04 March 2003 vol 400 cc185-205WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

9.30 am
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

Since the end of the second world war, except during the early years of the cold war, civil defence has been regarded by successive governments as a Cinderella policy issue, perhaps more so since the Berlin wall came down. Emphatically, that must change, and it must change with dramatic speed and intensity and with resources to match.

Throughout the whole of the cold war, even when a nuclear threat hung over the people of this country, I do not recall a single senior politician or security person saying that they considered that an attack with mass fatalities was inevitable. It is a very different situation today. Last year, the Director of Europol said that it was no longer a question of whether there would be a terrorist attack in Europe but, simply, a question of when. In a recent interview on the BBC's "Breakfast with Frost" programme, Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, was asked whether he thought that a terrorist attack on the UK was inevitable. He replied:

I am afraid I think it probably is, but that doesn't mean we aren't doing all we can to prevent it. In a meeting of the Liaison Committee on 21 January, the Prime Minister was asked by the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson) whether he believed

that an al-Qaeda attack on the United Kingdom is inevitable? The Prime Minister replied:

I believe it is inevitable that they will try in some form or other. In the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attack, the Prime Minister gave the starkest warning as to the forms that an al-Qaeda attack might take. He said in the House on 14 September 2001:

We know that these groups are fanatics, capable of killing without discrimination. The limits on the numbers that they kill and their methods of killing are not governed by any sense of morality. The limits are only practical and technical. We know, that they would, if they could, go further and use chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction."—[Official Report, 14 September 2001; Vol. 372, c. 606.]

I do not for a moment suggest that the Government have been inactive on civil defence, but I seriously question whether their priorities are right and whether they have acted with sufficient intensity. Undoubtedly, they have been preparing for the worst case, which is their responsibility. We read in the newspapers that body bags are being stockpiled.The Sunday Times of 17 November stated:

Officials involved have revealed that planners are considering the extreme case of hundreds of thousands of deaths being caused by a biological attack involving plague or smallpox. The same article reported the establishment of a United Kingdom mass fatalities working group and the creation of a strategic disaster mortuaries working group for London, with consideration being given to mobile and modular mortuaries and with the possibility of RAF Northolt being designated to provide, in the delicate phrase ofThe Sunday Times, an "overflow capacity".

I do not criticise the Government for preparing for mass deaths; that is their unmistakable responsibility and duty. However, I am interested to know what the Government are doing to engage in mass life-saving, if the worst should happen and, in particular, if there is a terrorist attack on the UK involving weapons of mass destruction. I spent four years at the Ministry of Defence and in my experience the military have a particularly accurate way of coining terms of remarkable brutality. I read in another press article that, as a result of their planning and the exercises carried out to prepare for a biological attack on the UK, the armed forces will divide the luckless civilians caught in the vicinity of an attack into three categories: walkers, floppers and goners. Little prospect of survival is held out for the floppers and goners.

I, like any number of Members of Parliament with constituencies in London or its vicinity, have countless thousands of constituents who travel into the city each day in the confident expectation that they will return safely at night to their families. I, for one, want to be satisfied—in detail and by the Government—that should my constituents should be so unfortunate as to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when the worst happens, they will not be consigned to the ranks of the floppers and goners and doomed to die.

There are four issues relating to life-saving that I want to raise with the Minister. First, there is the issue of resources and money. The most successful civil defence is a civil defence plan that never has to be employed for real, and that means prevention. Preventing terrorism is linked to a very simple, even primitive, equation: either we get the terrorists first, or they get us. From my time in Northern Ireland, I remember the resources that are required to put just one person under 24-hour, seven-day-a-week surveillance. How many suspects or potential suspects are there in the UK who may represent al-Qaeda secreted cells? Is it hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands? Are there perhaps over 100,000 people who need to be found and eliminated as potential suspects?

Yesterday in the House, we debated an Intelligence and Security Committee special report on Bali. I very much welcome the fact that the Committee produced the report in quick time. I hope that, right now, the Committee is examining other matters equally quickly and will also be making a special report to the House, as fast as possible, on whether the resources being made available to the intelligence services, the anti-terrorist branch and special branches up and down the country are adequate to the task of finding the terrorist cells that are undoubtedly still secreted in this country.

I have said in the House that, in dealing with terrorism, intelligence is the first, and probably the last, line of defence. In the judgment of those in a position to know, such as the Prime Minister and the head of the Metropolitan police, an attack on the United Kingdom is inevitable. That could result in loss of life far greater than that on 11 September, and I say to the Government that resources must be provided to the intelligence services, the police and the anti-terrorist branch to enable them to do the job that they have to do, while there is still time.

My second life-saving issue is the Government structure for effective counter-terrorism and civil defence. The Home Secretary is the Cabinet Minister in the lead, but does he have sufficient authority to deal with all the other Departments whose co-operation and involvement in civil defence is essential? Is he in a position to take an effective lead in, and charge of, the whole of civil defence planning, preparation and organisation in this country? I doubt it. At least six separate Departments and Cabinet Ministers are involved, including the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister. It might be of passing interest to the Chamber to know that when this debate was announced, the first Government Department to get on to my office to ask what I was going to say was not the Home Office but the Cabinet Office. The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are involved, as is the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which has responsibilities for the regions and local authorities. The Department of Health and the Department for Transport are involved, as are the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I may be wrong, but it appears to me that the structure that we have leaves a great deal to be desired if we are to have truly effective and authoritative civil defence planning and organisation in this country. I am not necessarily advocating that we go down the same route as the United States and create a separate Government Department to deal with the issue, although I have been briefed in the United States on its new Department of Homeland Security and I believe that it will prove a very effective answer to that country's civil defence needs. I ask the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, to consider one fundamental question. If the worst should happen and there were a terrorist attack on this country involving mass civilian casualties, would the civil defence governmental structure in place today continue unchanged? If the answer is emphatically no, and it would be changed radically, then I put it to the Government and the Prime Minister that that change should be made now, before that loss of life occurs.

My third life-saving issue is the need to ensure that emergency personnel are put in the very best position to provide their life-saving services if the worst should happen. I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement yesterday that there will be a major civil defence exercise on the ground in London. It is high time—18 months after 11 September. That exercise should surely have taken place already, and there should be such exercises in other cities and local authorities up and down the country.

I am aware from what I have read in the press that there have been many exercises in COBRA. I spent many happy hours in COBRA as Minister for the Armed Forces, and as the security Minister of State in Northern Ireland. I do not suggest that COBRA exercises are without value, but that value is limited. They are command and control and communications exercises. The only way to get real value is through undertaking exercises on the ground.

The basic principle of exercises is, and has always been, that the closer that one can approximate the exercise to reality, the greater the value of the exercise. In that case, as elsewhere, the United States is well ahead of us. A few months ago, in my hotel room in the United States, I turned on the television and saw a full-scale exercise taking place in the local county based on a simulated anthrax attack. It was played out on the ground, in the streets and throughout the county. At the end, the emergency chiefs were interviewed on television about the lessons learned. One wonders whether any such thing could happen on television in the UK. Mercifully, the United States is a more open society.

One lesson learned, for example, was that the anthrax antibiotic was available only in bulk and that vital lifesaving time would be lost in breaking it down into small amounts that could be quickly and easily made available to victims of the attack. I put it to the Minister that one learns such lessons only by means of exercises on the ground.

There is plenty of evidence for thinking that the level of exercises is seriously inadequate in the UK. Last November, the National Audit Office produced a report that examined the preparedness of health authorities. The report demonstrated that one third of health authorities had not tested their plans under the category: Testing of plans—chemical, biological and mass casualty incidents". When it came to the testing of plans for radiological or nuclear incidents, four fifths of the health authorities had not tested their plans. Only last night, on the BBC television news, Professor Michael Clarke of King's college, London said that at the local health authority level the lack of preparedness was as shambolic as it was two years ago.

I hope that hon. Members will make inquiries in their constituencies about the exercises that have been carried out by emergency services and accident and emergency departments in their areas. They should make the results of their inquiries known to the Minister. There needs to be a dramatic improvement in the level of exercising and training of the emergency personnel on whom the lives of those who may be caught up in a terrorist attack will ultimately depend.

The final issue in my saving of life agenda is the adequacy of the medical treatment policy that the Government are adopting, with reference to an attack with weapons of mass destruction on the United Kingdom. I warmly welcome the decision of the Science and Technology Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) to conduct an inquiry into the scientific response to the terrorist threat. As I have said personally to the hon. Gentleman, the inquiry being carried out by his Committee is the single most important Select Committee inquiry being carried out in this House, and I say that as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I hope that that Committee will make all possible speed with its inquiry and will make the earliest possible report, or series of reports, to the House. I hope that it will cover in its report the medical and scientific response to nuclear and radiological attack, toxic chemical attack and biological attack.

The most urgent medical policy issue is protection of the public against a smallpox attack. It is of the utmost urgency for evident reasons. It is the area where there is the greatest potential to save life because a vaccine is available. In the United States recently, I received a confidential briefing on its worst-case scenario of a smallpox attack in the United States. The results were horrific. I am not able to disclose the details, but I shall refer to one assumption that is common and accepted medical knowledge. In the event of a smallpox attack, every person infected with smallpox is likely to infect a further 10. Smallpox will spread like wildfire, and, as we know, its consequences are normally fatal unless vaccination can be provided.

I, like other hon. Members, was interested to hear the person who was described as a senior Government adviser being interviewed on the "Today" programme yesterday. Sadly, owing to the culture of fear that seems to exist in the public sector, he had to remain anonymous because he expressed views that were critical of the Government's policy. He had grave doubts about the adequacy of the Government's policy for dealing with a smallpox attack; indeed, he said that the Departments involved were displaying a lethargic approach to this vital issue.

There is no doubt that the position that the British Government are taking is different from that of others. In the United States and in France, the Governments have already announced that they will procure sufficient smallpox vaccine to vaccinate the entire population. In the UK, the Government treat as confidential how much vaccine is being procured for reasons that I wholly fail to understand or conceive to be justified. The Government have indicated that the amount of vaccine being procured is less than one per head of population in the UK, which is an extraordinary decision given that in the event of a smallpox attack people are likely to disperse and carry the infection with them. They could disperse to any part of the United Kingdom, even to some of the remote islands in Scotland.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the culture of secrecy owes a lot to the cold war, and that the Government ought to grow up? As he rightly implied, the United States has a far more open approach to this kind of thing. Although it is important for security reasons to keep things under wraps when facing down an aggressor such as the Soviet Union, that does not apply, in particular in reference to our preparations for biological attack, to terrorist organisations.

Sir John Stanley

I agree with my hon. Friend. I see no security reason why information should not be disclosed. It is information that the public, whose lives are at risk, are entitled to have.

The all-important computer programme—which is crucial for the emergency services—to simulate how smallpox would spread in the United States is available and up and running. The Government's anonymous senior adviser told us yesterday that that computer programme had still not been completed and was not available for exercises by the emergency planning authorities here.

Lastly—this is not inconsequential—the United States President has, rightly, gone public and said that he will have a smallpox vaccination. In this country, the Prime Minister considers the information about whether he will take that precaution to be highly classified, and No. 10 yesterday made the ludicrous suggestion that it is a personal matter for the Prime Minister. It is a matter of utmost public importance and interest to know whether the Prime Minister is taking all necessary steps to ensure his survival in the event of a smallpox attack. He should have a smallpox jab, but the Government are inhibited because they think that if people know that the Prime Minister has been vaccinated, millions of them will ask why they cannot also be vaccinated. That is a reasonable question for people to ask and the Government should answer it.

Dr. Murrison

Does my right hon. Friend agree that after the MMR debacle, the Prime Minister might be forgiven for being queasy about getting involved with jabs?

Sir John Stanley

I take my hon. Friend's point, but this is a different issue. The Prime Minister should ensure that he is able to survive a smallpox attack.

I hope that the Government are prepared to take on a public debate—I welcome the fact that it has started in the media —on what their policy should be on preventive smallpox vaccination.

On the "Today" programme yesterday two different views were expressed. Professor Alastair Geddes of the Public Health Laboratory said that the advantages of preventive smallpox vaccination of the civilian population outweighed the disadvantages. We also heard the reported views of the chief medical officer that such vaccination is unnecessary and that the Government's policy of waiting until a smallpox attack has happened and then following a programme of ring vaccination would suffice. I question that view. Ring vaccination is uncomfortably redolent of the foot and mouth fiasco and I hope that the Government are not assuming that British civilians caught up in a smallpox attack would conduct themselves in the same way as cattle and meekly stand around waiting to see whether they are culled by smallpox.

There is no doubt in my mind that if such an attack took place, people would do everything possible to break out of the cordons, whatever the so-called quarantine cordons that the Government intend to erect, surrounded by police and armed servicemen apparently equipped with baton rounds. There will be infected people among those who escape, and the infection will spread to all parts of the United Kingdom. Against that background, it is incumbent on the Government to consider very seriously the possibility of enabling the people of this country to have smallpox vaccinations on a voluntary basis.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

On the question of the Prime Minister, but going beyond him as an individual, may I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the Home Secretary's words in the House of Commons yesterday? He said: Given that politicians are not held in high esteem and trust is not readily given, politicians, including me, will not seek vaccination against smallpox unless the vaccine is made generally available to the population."—[Official Report, 3 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 591.] Does my right hon. Friend agree that although that might explain Government policy, it clearly implies that the vaccine is not to be made available to the population?

Sir John Stanley

That was the policy view expressed on behalf of the Government by their chief medical officer on the "Today" programme yesterday. That policy should be subject to detailed scrutiny. I question it strongly, and I hope that it will be one of the issues immediately dealt with by the Science and Technology Committee, and the subject of a report to the House.

On all the evidence available, the UK civilian population is at more serious risk of large-scale fatalities than at any time since the end of the second world war, including the worst period of threat to this country from the IRA. Civil defence should be at the very top of the Government's agenda. It should be on the desk not only of the Home Secretary but of the Prime Minister, and it should be on his desk repeatedly. I fear, however, that civil defence in this country is still under-resourced, under-prepared and under-led. I urge the Government to ensure, with the utmost immediacy, that civil defence has the resources, the preparedness and the leadership required before for some—perhaps a horrendous number—it is simply too late.

10.2 am

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)

I am surprised by the relatively poor attendance at this debate. I think that our constituents are most exercised by this issue, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) on bringing it to the attention of the House.

The Library has put together an interesting collection of newspaper clippings which reflects the importance of the subject to the fourth estate and the people whom we represent. I shall touch on one or two important issues, and I draw the Chamber's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I am a reservist and could therefore be involved in the contingencies that the Government may put in place to deal with a terrorist attack on this country.

When I was serving, I came across some interesting characters called emergency planning officers. They are usually middle-grade ex-servicemen, tasked by local authorities with drawing up plans for emergencies in their localities. It is probably true to say that at that time, they were grossly under-resourced and usually a bolt-on added extra—put away by local authorities in a side room until they came out for their yearly exercise, if that. I remember thinking that the sector needed to be developed and properly resourced. In my area, the south coast of England, they were perhaps better resourced than they otherwise would have been because of the close proximity of the military and the problems that could arise from a nuclear accident. I suspect that, across the country, those resources were even thinner than those that I experienced in the south of England.

In recent weeks, we have seen the Government give a little more attention to emergency planning, which I welcome. However, I am left wondering whether it is too little too late and whether we need a culture change, similar to the one that the Americans have had, to protect our civil population.

I was recently in correspondence with a hospital in the south of England, which wishes to remain anonymous, in which we discussed the preparations that it had made for the possibility of a terrorist attack. It is probably true to say that any preparations were centrally driven, and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments on what direction has been given to health authorities to protect their people and to assist the civil population for which trusts are responsible in the event of an attack.

From what I was told, it seems that provision is fairly inadequate and, in particular, the protective suits with which personnel in the casualty department have been provided are second rate and liable to fall apart with minimal usage. Inadequate thought has been given centrally to what NHS trusts may need in the event of an attack. I fully appreciate that the Minister is not directly responsible for that, and I shall go on to explain why we may need an overarching method of pulling together the various strands to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling referred. I would appreciate some comment from the Minister on the preparedness of the NHS to deal with the issues that we have been discussing.

A chemical attack on the population of this country would be tragically and devastatingly obvious. An attack with biological agents would not be so obvious because there is an incubation period and it would take considerable time for the ill effects to become apparent. There are ways of detecting agents before they become clinically apparent, so it would be interesting to hear from the Minister what preparation he has made for early warning of the presence in the atmosphere of novel biological agents.

We shall rely in general on a pick-up by general practitioners and epidemiologists, so the problem will be one for public health. It would be useful to know and to be assured that everything is being done to pick up cases early. If we could do that, it would, as the chief medical officer said, be possible to vaccinate exposed populations and provide prophylactic antibiotics, which would reduce the toll.

It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the forthcoming report from the Select Committee on Science and Technology on the scientific response to terrorism, but it is probably true that the creation of a department for homeland defence is one of the topics that will be discussed. The United States, in its inimitable fashion, has pre-empted us and created such a department. It clearly feels that the threat to its population justifies that. It will be interesting to hear whether we shall proceed down that route. The problem is multi-departmental, and I have every sympathy for the Minister having to come here to discuss the issue, when he is probably ill placed to speak on behalf of the multifarious Departments that touch on civil defence. There is a danger that Departments will pull in different directions without co-ordination, and in this situation, that is precisely what is not required.

We are told that our reserve forces have embarked on something called a civil contingencies reaction force that will augment civil powers in the event of an attack on this country by a terrorist organisation. We know little about that, so it would be useful if the Minister gave us a few words of wisdom on the subject. How will the force be constituted? What will be its size and its functions, and, crucially, what training will it receive? It would be useful to know, for example, whether it will take part in the exercise planned for London in a few days.

That exercise will be a worthwhile use of our reserve forces. We hear that members of the reserve forces are having difficulties with the concept of an attack on Iraq. Such an attack is not homeland defence, nor is it territorial in the usual sense of the word, and a homeland task would be more in tune with the usual tasks of the Territorial Army. It would be useful if the Minister explained the function that he anticipates for the civil contingencies reaction force. Will he reassure us that no one in the reserve forces will be asked to carry out tasks for which they are not adequately trained?

10.10 am
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I thank the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) for introducing the debate, and speaking authoritatively and clearly on what he sees as the priorities.

I was reflecting on how much the issue had become the subject of public discussion in a way that we could not have anticipated two years ago. The right hon. Gentleman made that point very well. Five or 10 years ago, civil defence and emergency planning was seen mainly as a response to unusual meteorological events, such as floods, hurricanes and drought. The people involved in civil defence were regarded as minor players. They were regarded as Cinderellas, and not taken seriously. They were perceived as a dad's army adjunct that existed in shadowy form giving a few drugs to a few people that one did not need to know much about.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, things have changed fundamentally. It is important that Parliament ensures that the country puts a structure in place as quickly as possible to respond to the sorts of attack that are possible today that were not possible 50 years ago.

This is the third recent debate on the subject of which I am aware. A debate on emergency planning was initiated in the House of Lords by my noble friend Lord Roper on 4 December. Lord Filkin provided a response on behalf of the Home Office. On 12 February, a debate was initiated in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who had a particular interest and concern about transport security. That debate was answered by the Minister of State, Cabinet Office. During today's debate, a Home Office Minister is present. I am happy that he is here, but it reflects the fact that the Government are still undergoing a journey of development on accountability. Of course, the issue cuts across a range of departmental responsibilities. I accept that the Home Secretary has principal Government responsibility on the matter and the Government have made that clear, but there is still some uncertainty about who fits in where.

I do not want to repeat things said by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing; I want to add two or three matters of concern. I speak as a London Member of Parliament, and one in a team of people in my party who shadow the Home Office. I declare a third interest. My hat is in the ring for our party's selection for mayoral candidate. Later this week, I may have that additional responsibility. In that capacity, I will be ready and willing to participate in the debate about such issues.

Yesterday's written statement by the Home Secretary was welcome, but I was surprised that it was not an oral statement. The statement is significant, and because it was so important there were references to it, and the Home Secretary commented on it, in the debate about the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (Continuance in force of sections 21 to 23) Order 2003, which is a linked but separate issue. There would have been considerable interest in an oral statement. I know that there will be other opportunities, but I ask the Minister of State to take back to the Home Secretary a request that such a statement be the basis of an early opportunity to question the Home Secretary and Ministers, and to have on the Government Front Bench other available Ministers as well.

Sir John Stanley

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it was particularly regrettable that there was no oral statement, not merely in view of the importance of the issue and the large number of right hon. and hon. Members who might have wished to put questions to the Home Secretary on it, but as the business of the House finished early last night and there was, therefore, no shortage of time yesterday for an oral statement?

Simon Hughes

That is certainly true. As somebody who participated in the first of the debates, I reflected that it would have been sensible and logical to take the three issues together. We had the anti-terrorism renewal order debate and the debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee's report on the Bali bombings. The logic would have been to take this debate with those. I regret that that was not done. It means that we have not had an opportunity to probe important issues, some of which have been raised today.

In addition to the points made by the right hon. Gentleman, I want first to mention the question of resources. I have not done the arithmetic, but I am reliably informed by colleagues who have, including my hon. Friends the Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), that local authorities' budgets for the coming year do not show an increase in real terms for civil defence and emergency planning. If that is the case, it is extraordinary, given the extra demand for those matters and interest in them and the extra expectations that will be placed on them. We must be clear, and the public must be clear, how much money in the national budget is allocated to those matters, how much is in the regional budgets—London is an obvious example, because the Greater London authority has responsibility for these matters, among others—and what the local budget is? Our constituents would be reassured to know that money was allocated for these matters and would be properly deployed and spent. There would not be any criticism if money were raised and spent on that area of public protection.

In that context, I ask the Minister formally to give me an answer today to the proposal that I put to the Minister of State in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister who has responsibility for London planning and chairs the Cabinet Sub-Committee. I asked whether, not just in London but throughout the country, people could receive with the mailing that is about to go through their letterboxes, containing their local government precept, charges and information, the maximum information about what they should do if there is an emergency and a civil response is needed.

On one key issue I reflect the point made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing about the fact that ours is a secretive society compared with, say, the United States. The public are asked to go to all sorts of different places to find different pieces of information. The more central the location of the information and the more clearly the public can be pointed towards it, the better. To his credit, the Minister of State said that he would reflect on that idea, which he thought was a good one. I had the impression that public dissemination of that kind might be made through the letterboxes in the next few weeks.

Dr. Murrison

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, particularly about the simplicity of including that information in mailshots that are going out anyway. However, does he not agree that it is important to do a risk assessment first, particularly as people may be alarmed by the material? We should perhaps target the advice on conurbations, where the risk is larger, and spare people in parts of the country where the risk is low from receiving what might be quite disturbing information.

Simon Hughes

I understand that. It is a difficult judgment. I think that the best advice can be given by those elected to represent people in the local authorities and areas in question—the leaders of the local authorities and Members of Parliament. Different types of information may be given. I am not arguing that the only place where people can look for information is in a brown envelope that comes with their council tax bill, but that seems a way of giving them authoritative, up-to-date information. There are other ways, of course. The Government have made it clear that they expect the media to be the prime source of information, and that is understandable.

However, taking as an example the smallpox case, there still seems to be an expectation that GPs will inform themselves by going up the line to the local health authority, local trust or public health laboratory service, rather than that such information will come down the line to them in advance. It is confusing for people to have to go to various website addresses for information about health issues, protective clothing or the person to whom they should turn for instructions. Such information should be in one place, regardless of whether the police, health service or reserve forces are responsible.

A national police service, which is led by the special branch of the Metropolitan police, deals with such matters. The Minister has heard me say before that it would be reassuring, rather than the opposite, to the public to know that even though, technically, the Metropolitan police special branch is leading—I understand that the police are the lead authority among the emergency services—an umbrella of cover is provided nationally in order to achieve maximum integration and minimum waste and duplication of resources. It would be useful if the specialism of the police were seen as available throughout the country. The Minister might be kind enough to discuss the arrangement between the different forces and the Met, which has taken the lead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked about maximising the improvement of security at our ports and airports. The matter was discussed by Lord Carlile in his report. He pointed out that small airports and ports are much less well protected than the public would wish. It would be helpful if the Minister would tell us whether a response has been made to Lord Carlile's recommendations and whether there is a plan to recruit more people for the border force, thereby making controls at our major airports more effective. I have previously mentioned that desks are unstaffed other than at core hours, and that checks are not made, for example, on behalf of the Customs and Excise because no one is available.

It is still possible for a temporary member of staff who has not had proper security vetting to go air side, even at Heathrow. We must resolve that issue, because everyone who works in a vulnerable location—ports and airports must count as such, as well as places such as the London underground—should be subject to security vetting.

In an earlier debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) discussed the need to ensure that our information systems had the capacity to deal with the demand that will be placed on them in the case of a terrorist threat. In old-style military attacks, one would seek to take over the airport, control tower and radio station. It is no secret that someone who wanted to disable society now would try to interfere with radio and computer communications. We all know what happens periodically with mobile phones and similar technologies. Can the Minister reassure the public that arrangements are in hand, if not yet in place, to ensure that such systems are better protected so that, if suddenly there is mass use, the systems will not go down just when everyone most needs to use them?

Lastly, I wish to pick up on the topical issue of vaccinations and link with it that of the provision of protective clothing. 1 do not pretend to be an expert and I understand the concerns, but it seems to me that there should be a policy of having enough vaccine for everybody. I am not advocating that we should vaccinate everybody now. I know that contingency planning has taken place and that supplies have been pushed out through the national health service. However, the public would be reassured if they knew two things: first, there is, or soon will be, vaccine available for everybody, should it be needed, and secondly, there is, or soon will be, protective clothing available. To pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), perhaps such clothing should be available in conurbations first, rather than generally. Those things would mean that there would be personal protection in the event of a terrible chemical, biological or nuclear attack.

There is a huge set of issues. The debate is welcome, because it will take those issues further. The knowledge that there will be a civil contingencies and civil defence Bill in the summer, which was firmed up by the statement yesterday, is also welcome. I hope that, using that as a backdrop, there will be an opportunity in the near future for the Home Secretary to come to the House to answer questions; that there can be other, informal occasions when parliamentarians can have a discussion and be briefed, and, most important, that the public can have clear and simple routes of access to the maximum amount of information, as soon as possible.

10.26 am
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing the debate. He brought to his very considerable speech his immense experience and stature within the area of defence and security. He made some of the issues that beset us starkly real. He started by reminding us of the public statements made by the Prime Minister and others about the very real possibility of this country being subject to some form of terrorist attack. He did not say so, but the possibility of that happening is considerably higher than the possibility of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) becoming Mayor of London.

My right hon. Friend also reminded us of the importance of ensuring that all local authorities and health authorities have sufficient resources to fulfil not only their obligations under the present legislation, but the greater responsibilities that they will have as a result of the Bill that we will have later in the year. I venture to suggest, bearing in mind the risks to which my right hon. Friend referred, that regardless of whether authorities have the responsibilities, the resources should be there already. That would enable authorities to take discretionary action, even if they are not obliged to so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) spoke wisely on health issues. He referred to his sadness about the attendance, but, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, this is the second debate on the subject in a month. However, I share the view that more hon. Members should perhaps have taken an interest. It is interesting that in the three weeks since the previous debate a number of new issues have arisen, on which I want to touch.

As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey pointed out, a different Minister is replying to today's debate. I am delighted about that, but it raises the issue of overall responsibility. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing quite rightly and properly said that he was not sure that we needed a whole Department, akin to the Department of Homeland Security in the United States. However, I am concerned that we do not have a single Minister who is ultimately responsible for the issues. The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, who replied to the previous debate, rightly said: The Home Secretary has overall responsibility for the safety and security of the citizens of the United Kingdom. He is in charge of security and also supervises all current counter-terrorist and resilience work by Departments".—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 12 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 305WH.] That is an important job, but the Home Secretary is also responsible for the asylum chaos, our passport system and our police and law enforcement mechanisms. The amount of time that he can devote to this important matter must be extremely limited, which is why we retain the view that a Cabinet Minister should be responsible only for considering and co-ordinating home and security.

Yesterday, the Minister appeared as the Minister for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear coordination, as he was described in a document published by the Home Secretary on civil contingency planning to deal with a terrorist attack. He said that he had been in the job since the turn of the year, which is fine. Having worked with him for around 18 months, I have huge respect for him and I am not criticising him, but it demonstrates yet again that another Minister with an important responsibility—

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety(Mr. John Denham)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that yesterday was not the first time that it was stated on the parliamentary record that I hold those responsibilities. I held them when, among other occasions, I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence last year. The hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) may have overlooked that, but other parliamentarians may not have done.

Mr. Paice

That is interesting and I am happy to accept the Minister's word, but the statement yesterday was certainly the first time that a number of us had heard of that.

The issue concerns co-ordination and whether it is possible for a disparate group of Ministers, each with different responsibilities, to co-ordinate. At least two of us in the Room have been in the same sort of position as the Minister. He will say that there are committees to do that, but those of us who have sat on Cabinet Committees and Sub-Committees know that it is easy to convince oneself that one is doing a grand job when hindsight often shows that matters of urgency and priority are never top of the agenda.

I shall not repeat all the issues that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey reminded us about, but I hope that the Minister will address airport security in his reply.

Much of this morning's debate has concerned public information. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury suggested that we should worry only about areas of dense population, which is a reasonable and valid proposition. My view is that the biggest cause of fear is lack of knowledge of the issues. We should be less patronising in the way in which we treat the public concerning threats and the actions that can be taken against those threats.

There has been much jocularity about the old "Protect and Survive" leaflet of the 1970s and 1980s, which, with hindsight, we might say was absurd, but at that time it provided an element of information to the public and we should not throw out the principle because, with hindsight 20 or 30 years later, we can rubbish that document. Perhaps nowhere is that more important than with vaccination, although that will arise in other matters that I want to raise.

As my right hon. Friend said during his opening speech, vaccination, particularly smallpox vaccination, is important. The statement published by the Home Secretary yesterday referred to the establishment of a United Kingdom reserve of a national stock of vaccines and antibiotics. Last night, the BBC news said that 20 million doses were available, but I am not aware of any public statement on that, so perhaps the Minister will confirm it. The Home Secretary said in the debate in the Chamber that Ministers will not seek vaccination against smallpox unless that is made generally available to the population. When he was then challenged at the Dispatch Box by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the Home Secretary said: I do not believe that there is a problem with people approaching their general practitioner for the smallpox vaccination."—[Official Report, 3 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 596.] Those two different statements, made by the Home Secretary in the space of a few minutes, are misleading and could give rise to considerable confusion. Of course, anyone is entitled to go and ask their GP for a vaccination, but whether the facilities are available for them to have it is another matter. I hope that the Minister can clarify that point. I argue strongly that anyone should be able to have a smallpox vaccination if they feel that that is necessary for their and their families' safety. We definitely do not want the sort of confusion that, I suggest, has now arisen.

Sir John Stanley

My hon. Friend referred to the lack of public information leaflets put out by the Government to help people to deal with civil defence and emergency issues. Is he aware that the Australian Government have already put out an interesting and comprehensive leaflet entitled "Preparing for the Unexpected"? If the Australian Government have concluded that it is necessary to put out such information in their very large country, surely we should be doing likewise, with great speed, in this tightly packed country where the risk of mass fatalities is that much greater.

Mr. Paice

My right hon. Friend introduces the next page of my speech perfectly, and saves me from making some of my points.

I turn to the websites referred to by the Home Secretary in yesterday's published statement. He mentioned ukresilience.info and the forthcoming Home Office site on terrorism. I do not think that anyone would describe the UK resilience site, which I spent some time studying yesterday evening, as user-friendly. It is very much a technocrats' website and does not provide large quantities of helpful public information from UK sources. For example, I searched for the word "smallpox", which I should have thought was reasonable on such a site, and four items came up. Three were simply extracts from newspapers and the fourth was on the medical effects of smallpox. None gave information about the terrorist implications, or about measures that people can take to minimise their personal risk from smallpox.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary said in the House that he would not produce guidelines along the lines of the "Protect and Survive" leaflet, but that the Home Office was developing a terrorist website to provide information. If one goes into the UK resilience site, as my right hon. Friend has, one finds links. Like him, I found the link to the Australian Government document "Preparing for the Unexpected". With the slight proviso that that is designed for an entirely different type of country, it is an extremely helpful, clearly written, explanatory document. It is not written in technical language, nor is it scaremongering. It provides the general public with a straightforward series of fairly simple advice.

There is some confusion here. On the one hand, the Government have said that they will not publish a leaflet in the form that has been seen before, but on the other, their own websites provide access to other countries' similar leaflets, which are helpful, but not designed for British circumstances. That seems highly contradictory. It is also worth making the point that one can access similar sites in the United States, Canada, France and New Zealand, all of which are far more helpful than the UK site.

Nowhere is that point more starkly illustrated than in an article that appeared inThe Sunday Times. I am not a great one for quoting the press because we all know that accuracy cannot be vouched for, but that article raised particular issues so I shall end by quoting from it and challenging the Minister to say exactly what is going on. The article, which was published on 23 February, stated: HOUSEHOLDERS are to be given guidance on how to survive in the face of a catastrophic terrorist attack. The guidance, which Ministers intend to reach all 24m homes in Britain, will include a shopping list of items that should be bought before a possible biological, chemical or nuclear strike". The Cabinet Office said: It is not clear yet how advice will be issued nationally. In the meantime, local authorities are entitled to adapt the Australian guidance. It goes on to describe the Australian guidance entitled "Preparing for the Unexpected", to which we have referred.

There is confusion. Westminster Hall is, by convention, a less antagonistic Chamber than the House, but I want to draw to the Minister's attention the widespread confusion about what the Government are planning to do about informing the public. I say with sincerity that the public are entitled to have information similar to that being provided in other countries that face similar threats. It is patronising to suggest that the public will be panicked into an absurd reaction. That may be true of certain individuals, but that should not affect the wider issue. At the end of the day, the British people are a sober and realistic people who will take the information at face value, and they should be trusted.

I hope that the Minister will answer some of our questions—we have given him a lot of time so he has no excuse for not answering all of them. We should like him to answer those questions that his colleague did not answer at the end of the previous debate, and those that have arisen today. The debate has been useful and constructive, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend once more on securing it.

10.42 am
The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety(Mr. John Denham)

I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir John Stanley) on securing this Adjournment debate. It has been a useful debate, and the right hon. Gentleman was able to bring to it his considerable experience, not only as a former Minister, but as a Minister who dealt with a relevant Department. I am grateful to him and to the other Members who spoke.

A wide range of issues has been raised. I shall attempt to deal with them as fully as I can, but in 17 minutes I may overlook some, in which case I shall endeavour to write to hon. Members and follow up issues outside this debate.

Civil defence is an important topic; the Government take it seriously and have recognised it. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a written statement on civil contingency planning to address terrorist attack. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). among others, asked whether an oral statement would not have been better. I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. However, difficult judgments have to be made on a lot of issues. In the current climate, there tends to be the belief that there must be a reason for choosing the particular date on which an oral statement is given, and the event may be given a significance that is out of proportion to the event itself. The intention of the written statement was to update the House. I ask the Chamber to accept that it is difficult to judge whether an oral statement will be interpreted by some sections of the media as meaning that the Government know something. Those are the judgments that we are wrestling with all the time in trying to get our communications right.

Simon Hughes

I completely understand. As we now know that there will be legislation later in the parliamentary year, it might be helpful if there were a periodic opportunity to speak on the matter so that it would not look like a panic response. We could all prepare for that, and the public would expect it, as a matter of regular updating.

Mr. Denham

I note what the hon. Gentleman says, and I note that we are discussing the matter for the second time in three weeks. Perhaps we are getting used to the idea of such debates.

I shall deal first with the question of structures and accountability, and then go on to some of the more specific issues. It is worth mentioning that the Government moved to strengthen the arrangements for emergency planning and civil protection immediately after the 2001 general election before the events of 11 September. In August 2001, the Government published a comprehensive discussion document on the future of emergency planning arrangements. At that time we concluded that the Civil Defence Act 1948 no longer provided an adequate framework for modern emergency planning. Its provisions relate to the organisation and protection of the civil population at a local level in response to a hostile attack by a foreign power.

The immediate concern was that since the 1980s, emergency planning had effectively concerned itself with preparations for responding to a wide variety of peacetime hazards in accordance with the policy of integrated emergency management. Since the mid-1980s, assumptions about the nature of potential threats to this country have changed dramatically, and the attacks of 11 September 2001 certainly brought that home to us. Planning began before 11 September and we have sought a clear structure for civil contingency planning overall, as well as the specific responses that have to be made to the threat of terrorist attacks, including the possibility of CBRN attacks.

The Home Secretary has overall responsibility for the safety and security of the citizens of the UK. He is in charge of security with direct responsibility for the main elements of the work to counter the current threat from terrorism: the intelligence work of the security service, counter-terrorist policy and building resilience against the terrorist threat. He supervises all current counter-terrorist and resilience work by Departments in his capacity as a member of three relevant Cabinet Committees. One oversees the work to strengthen our defences against terrorism, the second works to build the UK's resilience and ability to manage the consequences of major emergencies and the third meets to oversee lead Department management of major emergencies once they have taken place.

I was appointed Minister for CBRN co-ordination, reporting to the Home Secretary, at the end of 2001. We are supported in this work by Sir David Omand, who was appointed the Government's security and intelligence co-ordinator and permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office last summer. That new post was created to enhance the capacity at the centre of government to co-ordinate security, intelligence and consequence management matters and to deal with risks and major emergencies, should they arise. He is supported, as is the Home Secretary, by the civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office.

In reply to the argument that one person should be in charge of the whole response, I would argue that it is essential that, in their usual work, the major Departments of State have ownership of, and responsibility for, those aspects of our response and resilience to terrorism that come under their responsibilities. It is tempting to feel that, for example, airport security should be taken away from the Department for Transport and given to someone else, but in practice it is essential that those who are responsible for our airlines, airports, railways and the underground actually build into their day-to-day responsibilities an understanding of what is needed in the running of those major services so that we can respond to emergencies. We expect them to be able to do so should there be, for example, as unfortunately there have been, major, catastrophic train crashes. We cannot separate events that might be the consequences of terrorist action from those that happen by simple accident or act of God.

We have sought to create a structure supported by a strong central secretariat, in which individual Departments and Ministers are fully aware of their responsibilities in the overall picture, but in which the Home Secretary and the senior ministerial committee that he chairs ensure that there is an overall strategy and that people are held to account for their contribution to it. That is the essence of the structure that we have evolved.

One sometimes has to anticipate debates of this kind, so, depending on the issue that is likely to be the subject of such debates, there is no contradiction in the fact that the Minister who appears may be different. If the debate were to concentrate on, say, airport security, a Minister with responsibility for transport might respond. If the debate were considering our general structure for contingency planning against a variety of civil and terrorist emergencies, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office might respond. In anticipation of the likely thrust of today's debate and given my responsibilities for CBRN, I am answering on behalf of the Government. It is an illustration of strength rather than weakness that a number of different Ministers can respond to hon. Members on this matter.

Mr. Paice

I want to make it absolutely clear to the Minister, and to put it on the record, that he is countering an argument that no one has put. No one—certainly not me or my party—is suggesting that all those responsibilities should be extracted from individual Departments. The point that I have made repeatedly is that co-ordination is such a major issue that it should be the responsibility of a single Minister.

Mr. Denham

Co-ordination lies within the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, supported in CBRN, the current issue of concern, by me. We are supported in that both by the specialist teams in the Home Office and, in terms of coordination across the Government, by the civil contingencies secretariat. However, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman accepts at least I think he does—that it is not as odd for different Ministers sometimes to answer different debates as he suggested earlier.

I had hoped to touch on developments that are taking place in those structures, and particularly to make two points. I shall do so only briefly now. First, we recognise that, to support activities locally, we need a strengthened regional tier for emergency planning and resilience building. The development of that is under way as we speak. Secondly, I confirm that we intend to publish the proposals for a civil contingencies Bill in the summer during this parliamentary Session, so that it can be subjected to further scrutiny. It is important to stress that the development of that Bill has not delayed essential work on emergency planning structures at local and regional level, but a new legal framework is necessary.

Resources were mentioned a couple of times. Last year there was a 30 per cent. increase in the dedicated central Government resource to emergency planning, a rather narrow and limited area. That is an increase that we wish to maintain. However, that £19 million represents only a small part of the resources devoted to emergency planning. Overall, the spending review of 2002 has resulted in additional spending on prevention, including a 6.4 per cent. increase in real terms on national security and intelligence agencies. We are expanding our investment in health, police and other major agencies. The statement issued by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary yesterday indicated some but not all of the areas of additional procurement of equipment and training carried out since 11 September.

For obvious reasons, the question of smallpox was raised a number of times during the debate. While we are always criticised for not giving information to the public, when we do give out information, no one reads it or acts as if we had made it available. It is worth stressing that we published our interim plan for smallpox in December 2002. It had input from the national health service, the Public Health Laboratory Service and other specialist agencies. We set out the three components in the Department of Health's preparation for a response to a possible smallpox emergency—improved vaccine stocks, a plan of action and a cohort of immunised staff who can deal safely with any potential smallpox cases. All those components are being developed as part of the Government's preparedness to respond to a deliberate release of a biological agent.

It is worth stressing that we are the only nation other than the United States and Canada to have published a smallpox plan. We are also, however, working with the European global health security action group on preparedness for smallpox and we hosted an international modelling workshop in November that examined the models underpinning the action group's planning requirements. It is always interesting and entertaining to listen to people on the "Today" programme who will not speak in their own voice and who say they are senior Government advisers. I stand to be corrected, but I am not aware of anybody who could be described as a senior Government adviser having made representations to Ministers that were reflected on "Today" yesterday morning. If I am wrong about that, I shall inform the hon. Gentleman and the House.

It is important to stress that the strategy of containment and ring vaccination first, which is at the heart of the Government's smallpox strategy, is consistent with World Health Organisation advice. If there were more time, I would read out some supporting quotes, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the strategy has been drawn up in line with WHO advice.

Sir John Stanley

Time is running out. Does the Minister really believe that, given the length of time that it will take to vaccinate people inside the ring and for the vaccine to be effective, ring vaccination is a medically viable answer to a significant smallpox attack on the United Kingdom?

Mr. Denham

When I and my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health are advised by the chief medical officer and the World Health Organisation that our approach is the correct one, unless we have detailed scientific knowledge ourselves, I would rather not second-guess that.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) raised some related questions. In the debate yesterday my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary mentioned the figure of 20 million full vaccine doses. We are not—this needs to be stressed and it is also on the chief medical officer's advice—encouraging mass vaccination. Of course people should go to general practitioners if they want advice, but because of the risks associated with the vaccine, which can produce a severe reaction in one in 600 people, the CMO is not advising a mass vaccination campaign, nor are we proposing to launch such a campaign. However, the overall strategy has been set out in the interim plan for smallpox, which has been published.

I have two minutes in which to try to respond to a number of other issues, which I shall struggle to do.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey asked about the policing arrangements. Clearly the role played by the police in responding to an emergency situation through the gold, silver and bronze command is different from that of, say, the special branch or the specialist terrorism services led by the Metropolitan police, but the overarching body is a sub-committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which looks at all policing activities in relation to counter-terrorism.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who raised some important points. Towards the end of the year the Territorial Army reserve forces should be in place and able to offer military assistance and civil power under the normal rule. I shall write to him about the other points that he raised.

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