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8.9 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I begin by apologising to the Minister for missing the first few minutes of his opening speech. I serve on a Select Committee, and even with all the modern technology of the 21st century, one cannot be in two places at once. I came hot foot to the debate, but missed the first couple of minutes. I served for seven years in the Territorial Army, including in a home defence role, and I shall bring a little of that experience to bear on the debate. I shall directly address the Bill later, but begin by putting the debate into an historical perspective.

The emphasis on civil defence has broadly been declining since the second world war, at the end of which Britain had formulated a highly efficient civil defence system. During the battle of Britain, the courage of pilots in the air was matched by that of those serving in the civil defence network on the ground in units such as the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Royal Observer Corps. Without such people the effective defence of the UK from attack would not have been possible. Even to this day, we continue to owe them a great debt for helping to defend freedom.

With the advent of the cold war the emphasis in civil defence planning changed, in particular to reflect the new nuclear era. Considerable effort was expended on adjusting civil defence planning to cope with the prospect of nuclear attack on the UK by the Soviet Union. A series of emergency bunkers was created and both national and local government officials trained for the eventuality, however difficult it might have been to contemplate. It transpired that the democratic west won the cold war and helped to bring freedom to eastern Europe, as well as to Russia itself to some extent. All those who were part of that apparatus played an important role, in their own discreet way, in that most welcome extension of democracy.

I pay tribute in particular to the members of the Royal Observer Corps. For many years, ROC volunteers trained to help Britain to deal with aerial and ultimately nuclear attack. Those who served in the ROC were highly trained to deal with perhaps the worst of all imaginable events: a nuclear attack on their country. From their series of posts and bunkers around the country, they would have been responsible for plotting the nature and extent of any such attack and informing the Government of the extent of the damage. They trained for all that in the knowledge that they might have to continue to operate even after their own families had become casualties.

Thankfully, with the end of the cold war the possibility of such an all-out assault receded. The corps was disbanded as a result. It is always difficult for members of a unit or organisation who have worn their uniform with pride, as the volunteers of the ROC certainly did, to accept the order to stand down. However, they have the satisfaction of having done an important job quietly and

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thoroughly. The ROC performed a valuable service for this country for many years and I pay tribute to its members.

The end of the cold war did not necessarily entail the end of all threats to the security of the UK—far from it—but that point was not fully appreciated by the new Government in 1997. The 1997–98 strategic defence review had important implications for civil defence planning in the UK. It switched Britain's planning assumptions towards a largely expeditionary strategy: the concept was one of greater flexibility and mobility and the ability to project forces to trouble spots around the globe. As the then Secretary of State for Defence George, now Lord, Robertson put it at the time,

That had implications for resource allocation and the switch towards expeditionary warfare was made at the expense of home defence, including civil defence. Not only was the Territorial Army severely cut, which I believe was a great mistake because the TA has great potential in times of domestic emergency, but the civil defence infrastructure was further run down, to the point where many professionals working in the field were becoming increasingly alarmed and, at the same time, demoralised by the low priority that the Government appeared to attach to their work. It is that overall trend of running down domestic defences that provides the background to the Bill.

When professionals in the field began to protest about the low priority given to their work, some accused them of crying wolf. The atmosphere was almost such that people voicing concerns and asking questions about civil defence in a post-cold war world were regarded as alarmist. That led to the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority feeling obliged to take the Government to court for failing to meet their statutory obligations. The Government declined to contest the case, and that led to the introduction of the Bill. It is important that our debate is seen in that context.

All that took place before 11 September. Since then, there has been a great deal of discussion about the possibility of so-called asymmetric attack on the UK by terrorist groups of the type whose actions people in the United States have had to suffer. In the debate on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill a few days ago, Ministers took pains to argue that the UK faced a genuine national emergency,

as a result of events in the United States, and that the serious risk justified our derogation from certain aspects of the European convention on human rights that were inconsistent with some of the measures in that Bill.

It is utterly inconsistent for one set of Ministers to argue in the House that the UK faces a genuine domestic emergency, and other Ministers to argue a few days later for legislative powers to reduce spending on civil defence. Either we face such a threat or we do not. We should allocate our resources, including funding for civil defence, accordingly. I happen to believe that more must be spent in that respect, so I deprecate the spirit of the Bill, which would facilitate precisely the opposite.

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Mr. Miller: Nonsense.

Mr. Francois: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Bill. New section 3B(4), on payment, states:

If the Bill is designed to enhance the resources given to civil defence, why is it necessary for the Government to include a clawback provision? No Labour Member has defended that point so far.

This country has survived many threats to its security down the centuries. Now, we face a new and in many ways more invidious threat than we have faced hitherto. We need to guard against the threat of terrorism and asymmetric warfare, just as we have guarded against all other threats. That means spending more on civil defence, not less. When the total allocated to local authorities for civil defence last year—£20 million—is around half the cost of a single Eurofighter aircraft, we have got the balance of our planning wrong.

The first duty of Government, above all others, is defence of the realm. We forget that at our peril. From what I have heard today, I believe that we are in real danger of forgetting that tonight.

8.18 pm

Mr. Collins: With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We have had a useful and constructive debate. If the Minister is unable to deal with all the points raised now, perhaps he will write to those who have spoken.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) made an extremely important point about the need to clarify what different siren sounds mean. He was entirely right to draw that to the House's attention. I also strongly endorse his comments on the importance of no-flying zones. He will understand why the matter is of no small concern to my constituents, one of whom recently pointed out to me, using a somewhat morbid phrase, that his home at Windermere was only 25 miles "as the radiation flies" from Sellafield. Greater clarification would be appreciated, although I should say that the measures already taken by the Government in that respect are most welcome.

My hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) all paid important tributes to emergency planning officers, which I am sure will be supported by all hon. Members on both sides of the House. We should applaud the officers' work.

The hon. Member for Bath was entirely right when he said that we all accept that legislation of some sort to deal with funding matters in this context is needed at some stage, but as he said, the Government's timing is dreadful. He said that he looks forward to introducing amendments when the Bill is considered in Committee to delay its effect. He will have the support of the official Opposition in doing so, and perhaps we can work together on that. I look forward to that because his party and mine have recently taken joint control of Cumbria county council, and are doing a great deal better there than the previous Labour local authority.

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The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) made, perhaps unintentionally, a slightly entertaining speech. He tried to argue that the Government were not about to cut civil defence funding. For the Minister's benefit, he went on to announce that new legislation would be brought forward in the next two years. The Minister was a little less certain than the hon. Gentleman about that. However, it was an interesting contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire rightly said that heroism works only when there is proper co-ordination behind the scenes. I am sure that he is right to say that it would have made a great deal more sense to address finances as part of an overall framework of legislative reform, and not on their own. I am sure that he was right to pay tribute to the work of his local district council. I was taken by the quote that he provided from Worcestershire county council, which described the proposed legislation as draconian and entirely unnecessary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) made a typically constructive contribution. He spoke of the need for utilities to be brought within a proper legislative framework. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who is a great expert on these matters as the chairman of the National Council for Civil Protection, made a helpful and positive contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh, whose expertise in these matters as a former member of the Territorial Army is important, was right to pay tribute to the work of the Royal Observer Corps. His tribute was entirely appropriate and well informed, and it should be endorsed by everyone in the House who loves freedom. It was interesting that he referred to the words of Lord Robertson, who said some years ago that the war would no longer come to us. Sadly for the citizens of New York, it came to them. That must influence the way in which we approach these matters.

The Opposition genuinely believe that the Government have got this one wrong. It is the wrong Bill at the wrong time. It is a misguided response at a time of national emergency, to use the Home Secretary's words. That is why we shall be voting against the Bill. We ask the Government to reconsider the measure.

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