Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): On the funding implications of the Bill, the Minister explained at the beginning that the Bill was about setting up a mechanism, rather than determining a level of grant. He will remember that when the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), was responsible for the measure, when it was still a Home Office matter, he issued a press release on 22 June accompanying the publication of the Bill, in which he stated:

The explanatory notes provided by the Home Office point out that since the legal case, expenditure in the current financial year is expected to rise from about £14 million to £19.5 million. The comments of the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs imply that the Bill will enable a return to levels of about £14 million a year—in other words, roughly a 25 per cent. cut in the expenditure in the present financial year. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that and tell the House whether he expects, as a result of the passage of the Bill—assuming that it goes through both Houses—that funding would return to the previous levels, as set out by his right hon. Friend in the summer.

Mr. Leslie: I shall deal later in my speech with the hon. Gentleman's points about the current financial situation. Suffice it to say that the Government have not yet made a decision about the next financial year, other than the usual pencilling in of the £14 million referred to in the press release.

There are many different aspects to the subject of emergency planning and civil contingencies activities, ranging from the detection of risk, through prevention, protection and preparedness, to the response and recovery activities following an emergency situation. Spending on preparing and planning for emergencies and disasters at a

28 Nov 2001 : Column 1015

local level—the limited subject of the Bill—is not the same thing as our expenditure on responding to and recovering from disaster.

Let me give the House some idea of the scale of our commitment to the emergency services in England and Wales, which bear the brunt of the work tackling the consequences of disasters. Large sums of public money are being spent on front-line emergency services—for example, more than £9,000 million this year for the police, £775 million on the ambulance service and £1,650 million on the fire service.

As one of the Ministers working closely on civil contingency issues, especially since 11 September, I know that we can take great comfort from the fact that our emergency services are among the best in the world. We have an impressive resource with a track record of dealing with extremely demanding situations in an efficient and professional way.

Of course, much of the public expenditure spent on the blue-light emergency services goes towards preventive planning work. Avoiding and thwarting disaster in the first place is clearly preferable to the task of recovering from it, and the emergency services reflect that in their priorities. That applies also to the work of other protective agencies; for example, the efforts of those involved in coastal and flood defences, with their budget of £377 million this year. Since 11 September a further £30 million has been made available to the Metropolitan and other police forces.

The expenditure on those principal emergency service activities dwarfs the expenditure that we are discussing today on the administration of local emergency planning units, which of course play an important role. However, the House will appreciate that it is necessary to illustrate the bigger picture—the jigsaw—in which the civil defence grant is just one small piece.

To put today's business in context, I emphasise that this small but important Bill is not the Government's only or last word on bringing our civil contingencies arrangements up to date—far from it. As hon. Members may know, following 11 September, the Government set in hand a swift and comprehensive review of all our plans and arrangements to deal with emergency situations. Under the leadership of the Home Secretary in his capacity as Chairman of the Cabinet's Civil Contingencies Committee, significant work is under way to strengthen the resilience to disaster of the whole of the United Kingdom, with particular emphasis on key facilities in the capital and also on our ability to cope with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My hon. Friend will know that I asked a parliamentary question yesterday that was answered today. I asked the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions whether he has any plans to restrict public access to information on major chemical sites held on public registers on security grounds. The answer that I received suggests that those registers will, understandably, be restricted, because of the sensitivity of some of the information. For the benefit of the public, will my hon. Friend reinforce the point that that does not imply that the Government are seeking to diminish those security arrangements, and are indeed increasing them?

Mr. Leslie: I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that the Government are making sure that all our arrangements to

28 Nov 2001 : Column 1016

protect large chemical sites and other areas of hazard are always updated and improved. In the light of the events of 11 September, we have looked again at the information that is available about key areas. Without going into detail, I can tell my hon. Friend that the Home Secretary and others involved in the Cabinet's Civil Contingencies Committee have been looking closely and making sure that extra protective measures to prevent potential attack are put in place at key sensitive sites.

The civil contingencies secretariat, now located at the Cabinet Office—which explains why I am introducing the Bill—has been engaged in the co-ordination of efforts across all Government Departments. That is a top priority and good progress is being made in reviewing and improving systems. Simultaneously, we have pressed ahead with the emergency planning review launched by the Deputy Prime Minister with a consultation document issued at the beginning of August.

The Government believe that we will need a new statutory framework for dealing with civil contingencies to replace the Civil Defence Act 1948. Responses to the consultation are being analysed following the closing date at the end of October, and a clear consensus is emerging.

In drawing together the results of the emergency planning review and the wider ongoing exercise to strengthen our civil contingencies capabilities, the Government intend to consider how best to apply the lessons learned in a new piece of legislation. Naturally, I am not in a position today to anticipate the legislative programme or timetable, but the Government are looking at reform and modernisation for the longer term. Today we are primarily focused on an interim measure dealing with a small but still significant part of our much wider effort to deal with emergencies.

Local authorities currently carry out emergency planning services under the Civil Defence Act 1948, which was introduced after the second world war and imposed on local authorities the statutory duty to plan a defensive response to hostile attack. That Act was supplemented by regulations, most notably in 1953 and 1993, which outlined more details on expenditure and provided for changes in local government and the creation of new types of local authorities. The Civil Protection in Peacetime Act 1986, which had been a private Member's Bill, provided for local authorities to use their civil defence resources not only in response to hostile attack, but for peacetime emergencies. It is now generally recognised, however, that that legislation is anachronistic and that new legislation is required. As I said, it is anticipated that the emergency planning review will recommend a way forward and that new legislation will be introduced when parliamentary priorities allow.

The civil defence grant enables local authorities to fulfil their civil defence duties by formulating multi-agency plans to respond to any eventuality that may arise. Local authority emergency planning officers liaise with their local emergency services counterparts, other local authority departments, local NHS trusts, the Environment Agency, local business operators, voluntary organisations, faith and community groups and others in order to prepare arrangements for responding to emergencies. Thus, the civil defence grant is spent by local authorities on staff salaries and expenses, office accommodation and service costs, telephones, emergency planning team support costs, training and exercising.

28 Nov 2001 : Column 1017

The civil defence grant does not pay for equipment for responding to emergencies or for the response itself. Local authority costs incurred during an emergency can be reimbursed under the Bellwin scheme, which is named after Lord Bellwin, the Minister in the Department of the Environment, as it then was, who introduced the system in the 1980s. The scheme allows for reimbursement at 85 per cent. for anything more than 0.2 per cent. of a local authority's annual budget. All responsible authorities will have some funds in reserve and they should be expected to utilise them, but the Government are prepared to assist them with extra costs. During the floods last year, exceptional payments were made at 100 per cent. under the Bellwin scheme. In the light of recent experiences, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has announced that the Bellwin scheme is being reviewed.

The Bill contains only two clauses. It substitutes new provisions for section 3 of the Civil Defence Act 1948 in so far as it applies to authorities in England and Wales. New Section 3(1) of the Act confers on the designated Minister—currently, that is the Home Secretary—a grant-making power to every authority that has a civil defence function. New section 3(2) requires that Minister to determine the aggregate amount of grant each financial year and the specific grant for each authority, and to publish those amounts and the criteria by which they have been calculated. New section 3(3) allows the Minister to use different criteria in relation to different authorities and to vary determinations.

New section 3A of the 1948 Act allows the designated Minister to pay a discretionary grant to any authority with civil defence functions. New section 3B provides for the Minister to determine when grant is paid, ensures recovery of any over-payment of grant and allows conditions to be applied to the payment of that grant. Those provisions are very similar to measures contained in sections 46 and 47 of the Police Act 1996, but as the amounts of grant involved are not on the same scale, those provisions have not been replicated. We hope that the Bill will have effect from the next financial year, which would allow the Government to return to the position that we were in before last year's legal action.

Next Section

IndexHome Page