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Mr. Wilshire: I shall focus on amendment No. 1 and I hope that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) does not press ahead with the new clause, because that might prevent us from voting on the amendment. I hope that there is a vote, because the amendment is the important measure.

All the key decisions about the review and the Bill appear to have been taken before 11 September. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) expressed surprise that Opposition Members agree with him that 11 September is important. I am pleased that he agreed with us that 11 September was important. The significance of the Bill for me is that it had its origins before 11 September, which was not that long ago. The implications of those events were so enormous that taking until at least 2004 to conduct a review will be the reality, not just what we ought to do.

Jim Knight (South Dorset): Is not there a contradiction in the hon. Gentleman's argument? The implications of 11 September for emergency planning were profound. Some of the assumptions that underpin such planning may have shifted and the threat of terrorism may have upped the ante, so we need to act quickly. It is right to close loopholes and undergo reviews, and we may want to consider other issues in the future, but to argue that we should wait until 2004 when we may want to deal with some profound issues quickly is perhaps contradictory.

Mr. Wilshire: If that were the case, the hon. Gentleman would be right, but I do not accept that there are loopholes. If there are, this measure seems to close only one by ensuring that there cannot be any more money. In fact, there will not be as much.

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend may have noticed that the Government, in their explanatory notes, say:

It is quite clear that that is what the Bill is about.

Mr. Wilshire: My hon. Friend is right. I agree with the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) that other issues will need to be addressed, but my argument and that of the Liberal Democrats is that, while we are addressing the issues that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about, we should maintain the status quo. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said, as a result of the Bill we will have the money we need—rather than less money—while we examine the loopholes.

The then Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), told a conference in 2000 that in the Government's judgment £14 million was

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enough. That was a long time before 11 September. If £14 million was adequate then, it patently is not adequate now. The Bill will drive us back to the standard spending assessment approach. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made it clear that that approach was wrong, but it is the only approach that we will have for the moment. If we go back to the old way of doing things while the review takes place, we will adopt an SSA approach to a system that even the Government accept must be replaced. They are busily trying to come up with a new way of distributing money. It is self-evident that we should wait until we have a new way of distributing money before we proceed with any measure that will limit the amount that we spend on civil defence.

The stupidity of the SSA system is notorious, and there are a thousand and one examples of why it should be scrapped as quickly as possible. I can give one such in my county of Surrey. The SSA allocates money to the fire service throughout the country, but it takes no account of the length of motorway in each county. Surrey has a huge chunk of the M25, including sections that have the most accidents, yet no account of that was taken in the allocation to the fire service, which was expected to provide emergency cover for road accidents. If that is the way the SSA works, heaven help us if we go back to applying it to civil emergencies on the scale of the events of 11 September.

I know that cash is a finite item, and I accept the argument that we should not spend money that we do not have, but one of the realities of civil disasters and emergencies is that they demand large spending immediately. We should not take a cash-limiting approach and say, "This is how much we have got, so if, God forbid, a vast number of people are killed we can clear up only so much and not the rest because we will have run out of money." I do not believe that such an approach would commend itself to the British people, let alone to the House of Commons.

Jim Knight: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could help me. I agree with his comments on the SSA. The Dorset SSA is appalling, and I am sure that we would all argue that our own SSAs do not work because the system is a bit of a joke. However, nowhere in the Bill does it say that the Government cannot increase funding. It just says that the Government should

That does not restrict the Government, but the important point is that it does not deliver a blank cheque to local government and everyone else. We need to close the loophole that currently allows a blank cheque to be written. The hon. Gentleman, who may have memories of being in government himself, will surely accept that that is dangerous.

5.15 pm

Mr. Wilshire: I accept the principle that it is necessary to be very careful with blank cheques. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale will deal with instances in which money will be cut. I can only say, on the basis of my experience of local government—for instance, on a fire brigade committee—that there may sometimes be an argument for, as it were, a limited blank cheque. From the moment that a disaster occurs, we cannot afford to sit down and say "We will respond,

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within the limit made available by the Government." That is not the way in which disasters should be handled, but if I understand the Bill correctly, it will force us into such a position, at least until the Government have completed their review of SSAs.

Mr. Miller: With respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the Bill. It is about the planning process. No one is saying—no Labour Member has ever argued, and the hon. Gentleman's party never argued when in government—that local authorities faced with serious emergencies such as those that he cites should not respond adequately to meet public needs at any given time.

Mr. Wilshire: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Perhaps the Minister will tell us that the Home Office view—expressed in 2000—that £14 million was enough has now been scrapped. Perhaps he will tell us, in that case, how much more will be provided. Until I hear how much more will be made available following 11 September, however, I will take it that £14 million is all that is available, and that is not adequate.

Mr. Miller: I refer the hon. Gentleman to what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said about a written answer that I was given last week.

Mr. Wilshire: I look forward to reading what was said.

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend will doubtless agree that Labour Members are making an extremely powerful case for amendment No. 2, which proposes that only increases can constitute in-year alterations to legislation. We look forward to their support in the event of a vote.

Mr. Wilshire: My hon. Friend has a great deal more courage than me. Although I was aware of amendment No. 2, after 14 years I have learned that those who stray on to an amendment that is not in the group under discussion are rapidly told off. I may say something about amendment No. 2 later.

A review is being conducted, and is not yet complete. The civil contingencies committee, heaven help us, has set up 10 working groups. I gather that a while ago it had managed to examine 300 plans, with plenty more to go.

I think that I understand the way in which the official mind works, and the way in which the official machinery grinds away. Ten working groups will probably take until at least 2004 to finish their work. If such groups are set up to review all these issues, it is only sensible to let them finish before changing legislation.

Another factor that is causing confusion, which provides yet another reason for delay and for supporting amendment No. 1, is the transfer of Government responsibilities from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office. What little evidence I have been able to find suggests that that is causing difficulties. I mean no criticism, but when a complicated issue is being transferred between Departments, it seems eminently sensible to let that be completed, and to allow time for the whole process to be researched and bedded down, before legislating.

Let me give an example of the current difficulties. In my constituency, one upshot of 11 September was that Heathrow airport suddenly found that many people were

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stuck there because aircraft over the Atlantic had been grounded. Thousands of people had to spend the night at the airport. It was not long before every hotel in the area was full; it was not long before every hotel in the region was full; and it was not long before Heathrow Airport Ltd made a request to Hillingdon borough council, because the terminals are in Hillingdon. Heathrow estimated that at least 2,000 extra beds were needed urgently, over and above what was available; otherwise, it was the park benches or the uncomfortable seats in the terminals at Heathrow.

The best that Hillingdon could do within its planning arrangements at the time—again, I mean no criticism of Hillingdon—was to find 150 beds. It did the obvious thing: it contacted neighbouring authorities, my own included. That yielded another 150 beds. In the end, a number of my constituents got involved. When there were no more beds to be found and the emergency planning system could not find any more, my constituents and other people's constituents around the airport said, "Come and sleep in my spare bedroom." Ultimately, that was how the crisis was solved.

Given the fact that the Government are changing Ministries to handle such a situation, and that councils have not had any experience of that scale of disaster, it seems sensible to wait for all the reviews, including the ones that local authorities must carry out, to finish before passing legislation of this sort.

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