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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): As someone whose constituency is very close to Heathrow airport, I would argue that it is better to take time, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. The status quo will continue while the review is being carried out. Does he agree that the effect of the Bill might be to reduce the amount of money available, so the status quo is better than a reduction?

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4.30 pm

Mr. Beith: Yes, indeed. That is a perfectly reasonable argument. I shall shortly address the question of whether less money will be available as a result of the Bill, but I return to the basis of my argument for the new clause—at the very least we need to know the implications of the Government's review for the Bill, and it would be better if those new arrangements could be put in place before fitting the funding around them. I was reviewing what has happened during this process.

Let us remember that all this started long before 11 September, and one of the effects of the events of 11 September, as I was saying, was to put in everyone's mind a sense that these are important matters and that they should perhaps be given more time and greater priority than they have been given hitherto. Hon. Members and people in the country started to ask questions about the preparedness of our civil emergency services.

Other events had a similar effect, although they were of a different kind. There was discussion in Committee about flooding and flood emergencies, about which the hon. Member for Mid–Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) has a particular interest, as do others along the Severn, for example. Their great concern is that the civil emergency planning machinery is brought into play to marshal forces to deal with floods.

In many constituencies, including mine, the foot and mouth crisis vividly brought home the dangers of not having sufficient emergency planning in place. During the foot and mouth emergency, we saw deficiencies and difficulties of all kinds. Many local authority staff found themselves quickly transferred to emergency work for which they had no previous experience. Local authority trading standards departments became the animal movement licensing offices for the system set up for foot and mouth disease, so they probably had to abandon much of their normal trading standards work to deal with unfamiliar work, and some of them worked valiantly.

Even officers from the Inland Revenue were brought in, to help staff round-the-clock operations at emergency control centres. Again, they did unfamiliar work, much of which was not planned. In the north-east of England, which I represent, we did not have our own emergency control centre; we had to rely on that at Carlisle, where resources were already concentrated. Everyone acknowledged that that was a disaster and a wholly unsatisfactory way to deal with the crisis in the north-east of England. No plans were in place to set up an emergency centre in Newcastle, although one was eventually set up with considerable difficulty. That helped to show the need for more emergency planning for the sort of administrative arrangements that need to be created in various kinds of emergency.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says about foot and mouth disease. Clearly, that was a major disaster, particularly in Northumberland, in Cumbria and in the constituency that he represents. However, on the basis that such emergencies occur, we hope, only once in a lifetime—indeed, the previous occurrence took place 34 years ago—what training realistically could be undertaken by local authorities to ensure that staff would

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not be inevitably transferred from trading standards or other sub-departments to deal with that specific problem, rather than a general emergency issue?

Mr. Beith: We in Northumberland may take some wry amusement from the suggestion that foot and mouth has broken out once in lifetime; it has broken out twice in a lifetime for us. It happened in 1967, when a lot of lessons were not learned, and we want them to be learned this time.

Clearly, every local government officer cannot be trained for every role that he or she might have to take up in an emergency, because the training depends very much on the character of the emergency. A major chemical explosion affecting a large area would give rise to different needs from those involved in closing roads and footpaths in the foot and mouth crisis, or closing off areas because of a terrorist attack. They all give rise to different problems, but devising a mechanism by which people can be put into different posts and trained rapidly is the sort of thing in which emergency planners have to engage, and they do so regularly.

The local authorities with which I am familiar have certainly run emergency planning exercises and conferences for many years, but the reaction to the events of 11 September, and the experience of floods and especially foot and mouth disease, made them all feel that they needed to gear up their arrangements and to have more standard procedures ready, all of which require preparation. Each new wave of staff entering post needs to be familiarised with those arrangements; they cannot be put in place simply. People cannot say, "If we need them, we will go and get them," as they did with the green goddesses for the fire brigade. They must be sure that the new generation of staff are familiar with what they might have to do and with what sort of arrangements have to be made.

All sorts of difficulties were revealed by the incidence of foot and mouth. For example, sites for the mass burial of carcases were rapidly identified with no proper arrangements for consulting the local community being made. All sorts of problems resulted from that, but local authorities, at least, have learned some lessons. Northumberland has held a county council inquiry to try to fill the gap left by the Government's failure to hold a public inquiry and that useful exercise has brought to the surface some of the lessons to be learned about features of emergency planning. Such experiences have structural implications for the composition of emergency planning teams. The teams may require more permanent emergency planning staff or more staff whose designated duties include emergency planning.

Mr. Miller: The right hon. Gentleman referred to public consultation. Although in some respects I accept his remarks, does he not accept that post-11 September, some of the issues relating to the emergency planning that identifies specified sites are best dealt with outside the public domain?

Mr. Beith: That is most certainly the case. If I had not known already, my experience on the Intelligence and Security Committee would have provided me with many reasons to be aware of that point. It means that local authorities must have staff who are experienced and can be trusted with relevant information that cannot be placed

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in the public domain. All that requires care, and to do something on an absolutely secure basis often takes a little longer and requires a little more effort and organisation than if it were carried out on a more general basis.

The Bill's original purpose was to allow for a return to a previous level of funding. That was the way that some of us, including my colleagues and those Conservative Members who served on the Committee, saw it. The idea was not dreamed up out of our imaginations, but clearly resulted from the statement of the Home Office Minister who was in charge of the Bill when it was published last June. He said:

That created a feeling of concern among emergency planning officers, because that would have involved reducing this year's expenditure of about £18.5 million to the £14 million of the previous year.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) has done us a service—admittedly, a planted service, but none the less valuable—in asking a question that extracted from the Government an indication that, for the coming financial year, they do not propose after all to make the cut that was presaged when the Bill was published, but keep expenditure at roughly its present level.

However, the answer was intriguing in that it left doubt as to whether there would be a formula for the figure, and that provides another argument in favour of my new clause and amendment. If the Government cannot decide whether to use the formula that they are creating under the Bill or to continue as they are at present by informal consultation with local authorities, what is the panic and rush? Let us do the job properly by considering the results of the civil defence review.

Having made the decision that resources will not be cut and will remain at about £18.5 million, the possibility emerges that the Government will say, "Will someone please give us a formula that will enable us to distribute this money in the same proportion as it is distributed now?" I do not know how they will do that, so they had better consult the people who were in what was the Department of the Environment who worked out the standard spending assessment. However, that is an entirely facetious suggestion, because I would not let the authors of the SSA loose on any other aspect of government if I could possibly help it.

This case conjures up the sort of mathematical poser in which one says, "This is the answer, now give us the question." If £18.5 million is the answer, will it be distributed in the way that negotiation and discussion between authorities and the Cabinet Office have determined so far or will a formula be introduced so that the same sum of money is distributed to authorities according to new and no doubt excellent principles that would undoubtedly result in less being available to some authorities and more being available to others?

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