Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.45 pm

Many people who have contacted me or my office—including professional emergency planning officers—have stressed the importance of the Government rapidly introducing what they describe as "positive legislation". Those people regard the Bill as a negative measure. They do not think that the timing is appropriate—that is why amendment No. 1 has so much to commend it.

I am thinking in particular of the words of Patrick Cunningham. He is the chief emergency planning officer for Durham and Darlington, but he contacted my office on behalf of the Emergency Planning Society. He said that the figure of £18.6 million—the increased figure that the Minister may be about to tell us reflects the seriousness with which the Government have approached the problem—

28 Jan 2002 : Column 58

the Government—

The hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) drew attention to the possibility that, without legislation or if the legislation were delayed, as it would be by amendment No. 1, local authorities might go on a spending bonanza. Mr. Cunningham, who understands precisely how the system works at present, points out:

The point is that at present the officers can apply for funding only for precise and specific purposes and it must, in most cases, be negotiated with the Government in advance. That is why it would be more appropriate for the present arrangement to continue until the international situation is clarified and the overall Government review of the relevant legislation is concluded.

Mr. Miller: Will the hon. Gentleman give us an insight into the view of the official Opposition on which formula might replace the current one? That might enlighten our debate.

Mr. Collins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, although I was under the impression—perhaps mistakenly—that all my remarks clarified the view of the official Opposition on these matters.

As the hon. Gentleman will recall from my comments in Committee, our position is that while Her Majesty's Government say that the scale of the international crisis facing our nation is such that the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 must be suspended—for reasons that the Home Secretary has explained and which I do not question—it is inappropriate to introduce legislation that would at best cap in real terms and at worst reduce in real terms the amount available for the vital national function of emergency planning. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, we are talking not about billions or tens of billions, but about a few million pounds.

I hope and believe that we are also talking about a short time frame—months rather than years. It would thus make more sense to us—as it does to the Liberal Democrats—if the Government paused and reflected on the fact that emergency planning officers overwhelmingly do not want the measure now. They are saying clearly, "Please bring in overarching, positive legislation to put things on a proper basis before you make changes to the operation of the funding formula that will not be regarded with enthusiasm."

I close my speech simply by saying that we hope that the Government's review will be completed speedily and that the Minister will make it clear that much more positive legislation will be introduced, ideally in the current parliamentary Session, but certainly no later than next Session. In particular, as we have been discussing the review, I press the Minister to tell the House whether he can guarantee that legislation to restructure the Civil Defence Act 1948 will be introduced before this Parliament is concluded.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): We have been debating new clause 1 and amendment No. 1 for some time and many

28 Jan 2002 : Column 59

issues have arisen. I shall try my best to address many of them, not least because certain hon. Members seem a little confused about the Bill's purpose, so I should like to elaborate on it and perhaps remind them of the debates that took place in earlier stages. It is interesting that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) now speaks for the Liberal Democrats on the Bill, given that the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) did so in Committee, and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on Second Reading, so there may have been a reshuffle.

Mr. Beith: There has.

Mr. Leslie: I missed it. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on his new position. I am sure that the usual courtesies will apply in future debates.

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman may care to predict who will handle the debates on any Lords amendment to the Bill on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Or even on Third Reading.

Mr. Leslie: Or even on Third Reading, as my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Mark Field: Perhaps the Liberal Democrats have the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) in mind as a replacement in the next reshuffle.

Mr. Leslie: I am afraid that I cannot recall that constituency at the moment.

We need to focus on the Bill's purpose. It primarily deals with the consequences of the Merseyside legal challenge, which prevented the Government from following the normal practice of local government expenditure—instituting a formula to distribute money across all 179 different authorities entitled to receive the grant, which led to the demand-led system that we discussed a little earlier. It seems strange that there is a reluctance, especially among those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, to apply a formula for the distribution of grant. Various tests certainly have to be considered, and local authorities cannot make unreasonable demands. Even so, I had hoped that the right hon. Member for Berwick–upon–Tweed would have considered previous debates in which we explained the necessity of having a nationally strategic approach to the distribution of money to ensure relative fairness and equity across the country in the way that the grant—a relatively small sum—is distributed between those local authorities.

Mr. Beith: Of course, I carefully read the reports of the proceedings in Committee and on Second Reading, and I referred to them in my remarks, as well as to the forecast made by the Minister's predecessor, who was in the Home Office, that the Bill would enable a reduction from £19 million to £14 million in the amount spent. However, does he not recall the answer given to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) in which it was not made clear whether any formula would be applied in the coming financial year? It merely said

28 Jan 2002 : Column 60

that £18.6 million would be the approximate figure. The Government have clearly not decided whether to use a formula in the year that we are discussing.

Mr. Leslie: Of course, I recall the answer that was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller)—I gave it. The right hon. Gentleman wonders whether we intend to impose a formula for the next financial year, but that is essentially the entire purpose of the Bill. As I shall say in discussing amendment No. 1, we need to have a framework for the next financial year, so that we can ensure that the money is distributed fairly. Without that framework, we shall continue with the haphazard, demand-led system, which is not compatible with a nationally strategic approach to distributing the grant.

As hon. Members on both sides of the House seem to acknowledge, the Civil Defence Act 1948 is relatively anachronistic; it was drafted after the second world war and focuses primarily on hostile attack. We acknowledge that there is now a need for significant reform, and it is perfectly fair to discuss new clause 1, under which the Government would have to publish the report by April, in the spirit in which it was tabled—to maintain the momentum to publish that report—but I would not want it to be enshrined in legislation for obvious reasons.

The discussion document on the emergency planning review was published in August, and the consultation ended on 31 October, although some of the comments that have been made in the Chamber today are entirely relevant for consideration. More than 260 responses to the consultation have been received, and I have been considering them, the funding mechanisms that we have been discussing, the co-operation that we can achieve between the different authorities and how we can aim for greater consistency of approach between them—the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston.

The consultation exercise has been extremely useful and has yielded a lot of new information. We have held discussions with our European counterparts, as well as internationally, about which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) asked. I hope that, in so far as we can, we can comply with the code of conduct on consultations and publish the responses in the usual way. We now intend to set up a project team in the civil contingencies secretariat to work on the next steps and to consider the strong duty of partnership that we seek to develop—about which my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) asked—and further, deeper reforms and legislation may be required. I cannot give specific commitments on the timing of any legislation or on what parliamentary time is available, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale knows. We will have to discuss those matters, and we shall make an announcement on when and if we can do so.

We shall continue a dialogue with all the stakeholders involved, particularly the Emergency Planning Society and the Local Government Association, and I shall certainly report to Parliament on the progress in due course. There is no need for a formal, imposed primary legislative duty to be placed on me to report. I shall try my best to keep my word and to inform and update Parliament. That is why new clause 1 is unnecessary, and I urge the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion.

28 Jan 2002 : Column 61

Under amendment No. 1, the Bill's implementation would be delayed for a year. The Liberal Democrats tabled a very similar amendment in Committee, which was voted down on that occasion. Amendment No. 1 is essentially contrary to the Bill's purpose. It would prolong the demand-led system and prevent a nationally strategic approach from being introduced. The emergency planning review is, of course, extremely important, but the civil defence grant needs to be paid for ongoing work in the next financial year.

We cannot ignore the fact that the next financial year is approaching relatively swiftly, and we need to ensure that our house is in order before then. We need to return to good budgeting practices as soon as possible, and sticking with the haphazard, demand-led approach would be an abdication of our national responsibilities. We have to act responsibly and maintain discipline over public expenditure, however small the sum involved. I intend to publish the Government's plans for a formula shortly, following the consultation that I intend to undertake. The formula is likely to be similar to earlier approaches that have been used.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked about money. As has been mentioned earlier, on 23 January I announced that, subject to the Bill being passed, we intend to maintain the total grant at this year's level—currently estimated at £18.6 million. Representations have been made for more money—a natural phenomenon, which we have noticed in many other circumstances elsewhere—but it is fair to say that a 28 per cent. increase on last financial year is reasonably generous and should be welcomed as far as possible.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned a technical point in relation to £18.6 million sum. I shall try my best to explain why that is the right figure, even though £19.7 million was mentioned in the explanatory notes. He may recall that, in Committee, I talked about the practice of paying 90 per cent. in September or October, and 10 per cent. for accounting purposes in the subsequent financial year. We now know that the 90 per cent. figure comes to £16.7 million, so the rough estimate is that the final figure is likely be £18.6 million. The figure remains an estimate but it is as near as possible to the final figure.

Next Section

IndexHome Page