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Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is something to commend in the findings of the Emergency Planning Society, which has asked the Government to commission an independent inquiry into the appropriate level of costs for the services?
I have conjured up the possibility that they might redistribute the £18.6 million according to a new formula, but I suspect that they will simply freeze individual local authority grants at this year's levels. To do anything else would be to invite difficulty, and I shall be interested to hear from the Minister on that. If the Government freeze funding, there is no reason why they should not establish a better mechanism to decide the amount. Again, however, that should be in the light of the civil defence review.
Mr. Wilshire: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take my criticism of him in the spirit in which I mean it, but he was nothing like rude enough about the SSA approach to spreading money around the country. Does he agree that it is daft to apply that approach to this case, because it implies that the money will be spread around all authorities? My experience of flooding and other disasters is that they do not spread themselves across every county council and borough in the land. Instead, they are focused in an area. Although that area needs a lot of money, others do not need any.
Mr. Beith: I am not sure that I entirely agree with the line of the hon. Gentleman's argument, although I agree that no criticism is sufficient for the SSA mechanism. I merely did not want to stray too far from what is appropriate in the debate. Were the money to be distributed according to that formula, the impact on Northumberland and Somerset, to give just two examples, would be appalling if we consider the disparities in education spending between those authorities and the national average, all helpfully set out in another parliamentary answer last week that reveals the true horror of the SSA.
Areas that face a particular threat will have special emergency planning needs. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston referred to that and it is also relevant to the concerns of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) about Heathrow. In general, however, planning, unlike front-line facilities, such as the police and the fire brigade, needs to take place in every local authority. Any local authority might have to cope with the impact of an emergency. For example, an obscure local authority that never thought that it would face an emergency could find itself coping with a major rail crash caused by a terrorist attack on the railway system, just as police forces that were not geared up for anything so dramatic as terrorism are having to get help from elsewhere to conduct inquiries in their area into a group of terrorists that has disappeared into it. The ability to plan and to obtain help exists in all authorities.
There is no point devising a formula unless we know what it is. As there is little likelihood that the Government will devise one for the financial year 2002-03, what is the urgency of passing the Bill in its present form? If the new clause were included in it or accepted in principle by the Minister, which would not be difficult to do, Parliament
Better still, the amendment, on which we might vote later in our proceedings if we do not get satisfactory answers, would confer the year's delay that so many hon. Members in Committee thought would be a good way to deal with the problem. It would enable us to absorb the full implications of the defence review and to mould a funding formula that arises properly from that. It might be that we can mould a different mechanismafter all, the Government may learn something from the consultation in which they have engaged in the past year.
That process was described in Committee, in less than flattering terms, as "somebody from the Department getting on the phone to the local authority and arguing over the figures." Nevertheless, the Government may learn from the process that there is an alternative to a formula that imports none of the horrors of the SSA and enables the Government to take account of circumstances in individual areas. Whatever seems appropriate, the result could be much better determined with a year's delay. At the very least, we need to know the implications of the civil defence review before we embark on this financial year.
This is important work. It has been an unglamorous part of work in local authorities and central Government for the happy reason that for several years we did not have to cope with many major civil, military or terrorism-related emergencies. In recent years, we have had to cope with increasing numbers of terrorist emergencies, as well as significant civil emergencies. That has all demonstrated the need to reconsider the way in which we deal with such matters.
The Government have recognised that and have acted by initiating a consultation process. Their action on funding should be part of that, not a rushed attempt to cobble something together simply because the old funding system could no longer be sustained on legal grounds. The world has not come to an end, and emergency planning has not stopped, as a result of that legal settlement. We could continue on the present basis for another year and, in the meantime, absorb the results of these important discussions.
Mr. Mark Field: There is little doubt that, since 11 September, many parts of the country have been on a heightened alert. However, many local authorities, particularly those in central London such as the City of London and the city of Westminster, which I represent, have been able to cope relatively well and with relatively little upheaval for much of the residential and large tourist populations because the world did not change to such a great extent. Over the past 30 years, people have become accustomed, particularly in mainland Britain, to confronting the terrorist threat. Important as these provisions are, we should not operate on the pretext that the world has changed for ever.
Mr. Miller: I shall not get drawn too far into that discussion, Madam Deputy Speaker, or you will rule me out of order, but I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The nature of warfare has changed since 11 September, and I suspect that the Intelligence and Security Committee, on which the right hon. Member for BerwickuponTweed sits, has been discussing that in great detail.
Our constituents are affected by many circumstances other than that change. The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the effects of foot and mouth disease in his constituency. I respect those observations because, fortunately, my constituencyindeed, the whole of north Cheshireescaped the ravages of that terrible disease. I also respect his observations about flooding: although in the past 12 months we have had a few localised incidents in which many residents faced severe problems, they were nothing compared with the floods in Worcester and elsewhere. However, a recent series of incidents centred on chemicals sites in and around my constituency illustrates the need for continuous review of the nature of the planning process in each area of risk.
The nature of the risk changes constantly. In my constituency, that change is due in part to the actions of businesses in changing their product mix. Huge advances in chemicals safety have been made in the past 20 years, but even though the risk has become more remote, one must always pose the series of questions that start, "What happens if?" Another factor that comes into play is the increase in air traffic in the north-west.
Last year, two incidents occurred that might well have sparked the need to put emergency services on full alertindeed, they were partially mobilised. The first resulted from the actions of fuel protesters who blocked the entrances to one of Britain's major hazard sites, with the result that the fire authorities could not gain access. Emergency planners started to consider the options. Some months later, animal rights protesters playing the same game tried to blockade Ellesmere Port's Stanlow refinery.
Opposition Members might have found some weak excuses to support the fuel protesters, but I suspect that they would not have supported the animal rights protesters. The Opposition cannot have it both waysboth incidents caused the same sort of emergency.