HC Deb 13 May 2003 vol 405 cc23-30WH

11 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

In my role as chair of the National Council for Civil Protection, I share the unease felt by many emergency planning practitioners that many of the existing blueprints for emergency planning have been found to be outdated, insufficient in scope, practically unfeasible or, in some cases, absent. An emergency broadcasting system suited to the needs of the 21st century is one of the most notable omissions. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber if they wish to conduct a discussion?

Tom Brake

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We live in different times: the threat has changed and technology has moved on since the time of the cold war. As a community, the UK faces an increase in both natural and man-made disasters, whether as a result of climate change or failing technology. Consequently, we face severe flooding, train crashes and incidents involving hazardous materials, apparently with increasing regularity. Following the events of 11 September, we face the threat of random chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear—CBRN—suicide and conventional attacks by international terrorist groups, rather than invasion by hostile nations.

Maintaining public confidence in authorities has been shown to be instrumental in preventing mass panic and facilitating post-attack procedures. One of the most effective methods of maintaining such confidence is through communication and information dissemination. However, the Government's current guidelines significantly underestimate that vital aspect of managing and limiting damage following an attack or large-scale incident. For example, if there were an outbreak of a high-risk infectious disease such as smallpox, NHS Direct would be the only information service available to the public, apart from, presumably, the UK Resilience website. It is likely that, in the event of such an outbreak, the NHS Direct telephone service would be overwhelmed. It is therefore essential to provide supplementary sources of up-to-date information and advice for the public that can be easily accessed and readily understood.

The Government's website, UK Resilience, contains publicly accessible information on dealing with certain types of attack. However, that is insufficient to ensure the widespread dissemination of information, as it assumes that everyone has access to the web and that those who have will consult the site in an emergency. Although we might want to see 100 per cent. penetration of the internet, that is not the position at present, so the onus must be on the Government to ensure that the public are aware of possible responses to emergencies. The Government must consider a variety of media, as following, say, a nuclear incident or a large explosion, some communication networks, such as the telephone or television, may no longer function or may function only partly. They must also ensure that access to information is available to all sectors of society, not just to those with mobile phones or computers.

Any information strategy should be proactive as well as reactive in its outlook. Therefore, the Government should not rely entirely on post-attack dissemination of information. An informed, prepared public are less likely to panic in an emergency if they are aware of suitable responses that they can make themselves and are assured of an effective response by the authorities. Up-to-date generic advice on dealing with incidents should be made readily available in the form of leaflets and posters, as was discussed during a debate in this place a couple of months ago.

We can and should prepare now for eventualities for which we know that we are ill prepared and barely informed on. A recent episode of the BBC's "Panorama" suggested that many of the routes and modes designated for mass evacuation from London are unlikely to cope with large numbers of people in a short time. The rush hour demonstrates that daily, and evacuation information is not readily available to the public.

It is important to satisfy the vision that the national steering committee on public warning and information has of an integrated public warning and information package across the UK designed to meet local, regional and national needs. It is worth saying that we are not talking about a siren warning system. That was dismantled in 1992–93 and would be inappropriate in this day and age, as well as too costly to roll out. We need—again, in the words of the national steering committee—

a coherent national policy on warning and informing the public … to increase the resilience of the UK". Like the NSC, I acknowledge that public warning and information systems have improved. Parts of the jigsaw are already in place locally and nationally—certainly in relation to flood prevention and response to flood incidents—but the NSC identifies significant issues that remain: the absence of clear, statutory responsibilities for warning the public during many types of incident; the lack of a national culture of public awareness of how to respond to large-scale incidents, an aspect in which the USA is better prepared than the UK; and the ability to warn a static and transient population at all times of the day and night.

For those reasons, in my ten-minute Bill on 1 April, I called for an emergency broadcasting system with the ability to broadcast messages widely across different media and channels. That would save lives. The risk of doing without such an emergency broadcasting system is that information will not be provided, that it will be provided in an inconsistent fashion or that it will be provided to people at different times. That could lead to uncertainty and confusion when what is needed is clarity and confidence.

I hope that the Minister agrees—I know that he does—that, given recent incidents and events, a strategy for public information and reassurance is needed. How does he see that strategy developing? We know that there is a civil contingencies Bill, and we hope that it will be introduced soon. Can the Minister provide any information on the date when a draft Bill, White Paper or Green Paper will be available for consideration? When the Bill emerges, will it address public warning and information?

The sirens and new technology working group—the SNTG—recommends that the new legislative framework set out which agencies have responsibility for issuing public warnings and that a single national agency be made responsible for strategy and policy. What position does the Minister adopt on that? Does he think, as does the SNTG, that a single local agency should be made responsible for the command and control of public warnings prior to, during or after a major incident?

The NSC has suggested that any national policy needs to be able to respond to a variety of scenarios and that, during a catastrophic event with a short lead time, there is a need to contact a static person in their own dwelling, a static person in their place of work, a traveller on foot, a traveller in a vehicle and a traveller wishing to know about events elsewhere, for example, if they are moving into an area with possible flooding or a remote location with severe weather conditions. It will clearly be difficult to identify a technological solution that can address all those scenarios.

If we are to strengthen UK Resilience, a multi-channel strategy is the only way forward. I wonder whether the Minister agrees that the Government need to take a lead on developing such an emergency broadcasting system using a range of media. If we want national standards and protocols, the dissemination of good practice and a solution to the problem of responding to emergencies, the Government must take the lead. The Government need to help to facilitate the introduction of such systems and may need to legislate to introduce new licence requirements for telecommunications and broadcast media. I wonder whether they are considering the idea and are willing to entertain it.

Finally, if the Minister has free time in his diary tonight, will he be tuning into the BBC 2 programme, "The Day Britain Stopped"? The publicity for that programme describes it as a powerful drama examining a devastating chain of events on 19 December 2003, which, according to the drama, leaves Britain paralysed. The scenario is that we are facing a national crisis because the transport infrastructure is unable to cope with daily traffic volumes. That does not sound like the future—we are already there: our roads are the most congested in Europe, our skies are the most crowded in the world and our rail network lurches from disaster to disaster. In the drama, a combination of events leads to the implosion of the transport system, strikes and an incident involving two planes.

The scenario is clearly alarmist, but the Minister would probably concede that its individual components have occurred and that it is possible to envisage freak circumstances in which they all occur simultaneously. If such circumstances were to arise, does he feel that the emergency planning system is resilient enough to cope? What sort of emergency broadcasting system does he believe would be best equipped to deal with such a catastrophe? He will know that there are various options, which are helpfully set out on a website called www.cell-alert.co.uk, including sirens, public address systems, television, radio, radio RDS, telephone, electricity power lines, SMS text messages and cell broadcasting.

Does the Minister favour any of those systems? I favour the cell broadcasting system, which, if I understand the technology correctly, enables a message to be sent almost instantly to every person who owns a mobile phone. The cells are regional, which allows a message to be targeted on a particular region or regions. That system should be combined with television and radio to cover those people who do not have access to a mobile phone, perhaps because they are elderly or are permanently at home. Have the Government estimated the cost of such a system? A combination of the cell system, television and radio would ensure the simultaneous delivery of information. Has an estimate been made of the time scale in which such a system could be rolled out?

In conclusion, we cannot afford to skimp on emergency broadcasting systems or opt for obsolete technology, and we certainly cannot afford to delay. I hope that the Minister can provide reassurance on all the fronts that I have outlined so that we can avoid the fiction of "The Day Britain Stopped" becoming a reality.


The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

I have listened with great interest to the debate on emergency broadcasting. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing time to debate this important issue. Clearly, it is a subject of national importance, and the Government take it seriously.

On 1 April, when the hon. Gentleman introduced his ten-minute Bill on the subject, he stated: In times of crisis the public need the right quantity and quality of information, and they need to know where to access that information. It must be clear and consistent and it must come from a reliable official source."—[Official Report, 1 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 798.] No one would argue with that view. I am pleased to be able to confirm that a framework already exists to achieve those objectives. It is built on good communications practice and is underpinned by close working relationships with the broadcast and written media and telecommunications companies. It is based on sound, practical experience of what works. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated several times in recent years in a wide variety of real-life scenarios, at local, regional and national levels. In short, we already have an emergency broadcasting system, and we are not in the business of reinventing the wheel.

I recognise, of course, that we have much more to learn and that improvements can always be made. We are anything but complacent. Each time the system is used, it is evaluated; each time it is evaluated, arrangements are reviewed, lessons are learned and arrangements are accordingly strengthened. The framework has the scope and flexibility to incorporate increasingly sophisticated technologies as they become available and offer new opportunities. In that sense, it is and will continue to be a work in progress for the Government, but we are already in a position to deliver clear and consistent information to the British public.

The hon. Gentleman might find it helpful if I explain more about the nature of the existing arrangements. Long-standing protocols exist for warning the public in the event of a major incident. The emergency services warn and advise those who are in the immediate vicinity of an incident. It is vital that the people who are immediately affected receive and respond to instructions that are tailored to the precise nature of the event in question. Hon. Members will be familiar with examples of large-scale evacuations in recent years in central Manchester and at the Aintree race course, which have demonstrated the effectiveness of such arrangements.

The public who are further away from the incident will be advised in line with the Government's "go in, stay in, tune in" doctrine. We have standing arrangements with the media to transmit detailed warning advice and guidance to the public through TV, radio, teletext, Ceefax and websites. Such arrangements enable swift and comprehensive coverage of the population, appropriate to existing and anticipated threat levels.

The hon. Gentleman sought leave on 1 April to introduce a Bill to require the Secretary of State to co-ordinate the provision of a multimedia broadcasting system, but such co-ordination already exists. As such, there is no need for legislation. The Government Information and Communication Service in the Cabinet Office leads on behalf of central Government in this area and maintains close working relations with all branches of the media. It agrees formal protocols that are based on the tried and tested arrangements that are already in place. The protocols will guarantee that information that the public need can be quickly processed and validated by the media to ensure its authenticity.

GICS works closely with the Media Emergency Forum, which is a national body that brings together the media, emergency planning experts from the blue light services, local authorities and industry. It has been a productive relationship. A study was produced and published on the UK Resilience website of the lessons to be learned in the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September. That was followed up with detailed examinations of particular issues such as the important matter of media accreditation. Recently, an exercise was conducted to challenge the resilience of the wide array of communications equipment that the Government and the media would need to deliver information to the public at a time of crisis.

GICS also works closely with the national steering committee on warning and informing the public. That committee provides advice on the range of technical mechanisms available both for the delivery of information and for alerting the public. GICS plays a key role in co-ordinating the provision of that information from within the Government. It runs the news co-ordination centre in the Cabinet Office, which ensures that the Government can deliver the clear and consistent information that the public need at such times. For example, over recent years it has supported the response to Y2K, foot and mouth, and, more recently, the firefighters' strike and the war in Iraq.

It is important to keep in mind the scale of the threat that we face. The threat from terrorism remains real and serious. We are maintaining a state of heightened readiness in the UK and the public should remain alert, but not alarmed. With the single exception of a wartime missile attack, for which the national attack warning system was designed, one size of advice rarely fits all the circumstances. Even for an event on the scale of 11 September, different advice would be needed in different parts of the country. Many areas would simply need to be told that they were not in danger, but that they should avoid calling the affected areas and overloading the telephone system. Those closer to the incident may need more detailed advice and those directly affected would be under direct instructions from the emergency services on site.

The value and effectiveness of local broadcasters, particularly local radio, has been amply demonstrated. For example, during recent major flooding, BBC Radio York was able to run a 24-hour news and information service keeping local residents up to date and offering up-to-the-minute advice and support to those affected by the flooding.

I would like to reinforce the praise given by the hon. Gentleman in his speech on 1 April to the BBC initiative "Connecting in a Crisis". The introduction states that the initiative is designed to achieve a shared state of professional readiness between local broadcasters and emergency planning communities. It was brought about with input and support from the Media Emergency Forum in general and from GICS in particular. It is a very valuable contribution to the development of expertise and understanding across the English regions.

The initiative is about warning and informing in the interests of public safety. It concentrates on delivering essential information quickly and is not about wider issues of news reporting. It highlights good practice and innovative partnership ideas from around the country and encourages joint planning and preparation.

Of course, on behalf of my constituents, I am particularly looking forward to seeing the Scottish equivalent that the BBC is currently preparing. I can reassure colleagues that the BBC is working on editions for Wales, Northern Ireland and the Asian network. I understand that the aim is to complete the series by the summer.

The BBC and GICS, through the Government news network, are together holding a series of seminars in the English regions to raise awareness of "Connecting in a Crisis" and the good practice that it advocates. The programme will be complete by the end of May.

The development of the initiative has grown alongside the introduction of a regional network of media emergency forums. They will mirror the function and range of interests of the national body, but be able to apply the lessons learned on a smaller scale and tackle issues that may be of particular relevance to specific localities.

GICS operations staff work closely with the national steering committee on warning and informing the public. They provide a secretariat for its meetings and host the committee website alongside UK Resilience. Lord Macdonald of Tradeston and I had a most useful meeting with the chairman, David Hay, and the chairs of his three working groups just before Easter. I would like to take this opportunity to record the Government's thanks for all the hard work and guidance that the committee has provided to us over the years on the development of a national warning strategy.

Tom Brake

The Minister may be about to come to my point. He mentioned the national steering committee. Does he recognise that it has concerns, to which I referred, about the absence of clear statutory responsibilities for warning the public, the lack of a national culture of awareness among the public, and the inability to warn a transient population at all times of the day and night?

Mr. Alexander

I fear that the hon. Gentleman anticipates the remarks that I am about to make on some of the committee's specific proposals.

The committee's advice has provided an essential part of the building blocks contributing to the evolution of Government policy in the area. In particular, the committee has done a substantial amount of work on alternative delivery methods for public alerts. Its sirens and new technology sub-group envisages a very limited role for sirens in a much broader integrated warning system. Sirens are currently used in some areas that are prone to flooding and on major industrial sites subject to major accident, hazard and radiation regulations. However, the committee's report in September 2002 stated:

The Sirens and New Technology Working Group believes that the current threat status, and the extreme installation, annual maintenance, and management costs do not warrant the implementation of a new national siren system at present". Many developments in technology may, in due course, be built into the existing framework of arrangements, but their incorporation may not be as straightforward or cost neutral as has sometimes been suggested. The hon. Gentleman referred to text messages, e-mails and faxes and was right to say that a huge amount of unsolicited material is sent daily by some of the media. I would argue that therein lies a key challenge. At present, such material is easy to produce and difficult to authenticate, so it carries limited credibility. Without credibility, it would have no value for the purpose that we are discussing today. Such problems will, I am sure, be solved eventually, but no quick fix is available at the moment and it is important that work continues. Both the City of London police and the Environment Agency have run trials of messaging systems that deliver information to individuals who subscribe to that service. Private sector companies are offering similar subscription services commercially. Validity is dealt with by "opting-in", but I would argue that comprehensive cover, as described by the hon. Gentleman, is lost under the system operating at present.

The City of London police operate a scheme whereby security and crime-related information can be relayed, via pager or text message, to businesses in the City. It was launched in 1993 as a major incident early-warning system, but the scope of the scheme has expanded and is now a valuable means of communication between the police and the business community. The scheme is now being extended to the Metropolitan police area in London. The Government take seriously their responsibilities for ensuring that effective systems are in place for warning and informing the public. We have the mechanisms for doing that, and since 11 September the emergency arrangements for warning the public, both nationally and locally, have been reviewed and, where necessary, enhanced. Tailored local warning systems are in place in areas such as those subject to flooding or close to major chemical plants. Sadly, a long period of fighting terrorism in this country has ensured that the police have well-practised procedures for handling local incidents, particularly in urban areas.

The Government recognise that simple, robust and widely available systems, particularly local radio, have an important role to play in supporting communities during an emergency and relaying official advice and information. The Government have fully supported the BBC's recent initiative "Connecting in a Crisis" to encourage closer links between its local radio stations and other local services for emergency planning and disaster management. The GICS has arrangements in place to warn the public in the event of emergencies with a potential national impact. Those arrangements closely involve the police and include broadcasters. Existing agreements and systems will ensure the dissemination of public warnings through the whole range of radio and television services, including Ceefax, teletext and websites. I do not believe that we need to create an emergency broadcasting system because we already have one.


Sitting suspended until Two o 'clock.

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