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6 pm

Mr. Collins: The Minister will know that emergency planning officers will pore over these proceedings with particular interest, so will he clarify two points? First, if it turns out that the figure of £18.6 million is slightly below actual expenditure in the current financial year, will he assure us that whatever formula the Government use will ensure that the finance available in the next financial year will be varied accordingly? Secondly, will he tell us which financial formula he has used to work out the figure? That question was asked by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and it is nice that the Minister has come up with a formula that appears to be almost identical in cash terms in one financial year after another. What is the basis for it?

Mr. Leslie: As I was trying to explain, we now know that payments of £16.7 million were made in October, which is 90 per cent. of the likely total. That brings us close to the figure of £18.6 million. However, that does

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not mean that we have a formula for the next financial year. That is what we are working on now, and that is the purpose of the Bill. I have referred to the aggregate grant level and, in seeking to resolve the question of finance, the figure of £18.6 million is likely to be the same as for this financial year.

Mr. Beith: Is the formula, whatever it is, designed to preserve roughly the distribution that authorities have now or is it likely to lead to a redistribution of the £18.6 million figure between authorities?

Mr. Leslie: As I was saying, we must consult on the formula that we intend to use. We intend to use a formula to distribute the grant and that is why we are trying to pass the Bill. If we move beyond this legislative stage, I will be able to consider which formula to use. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the emergency planning review is considering whether the standard spending assessment is the best way of distributing the money and we have considered the representations that have been made. He winces and I take that as one such representation.

We should use an approach similar to that which existed before the Merseyside legal dispute, and I shall consult the Local Government Association on that. We could discuss formulae until the cows come home, but I am not sure how feasible or realistic it would be to base the formula not on acreage or on a per capita assessment but on, as has been suggested, the threat assessment for each authority. I should like to use something that is similar to, and that could build on, the approach that was used previously.

We are not so close to the next financial year that we cannot establish a formula approach. It is important that we have equity and fairness so that all local authorities believe that the system for allocating the grant is transparent. Shortly after the Merseyside legal challenge, local authorities were notified that new arrangements for 2002-03 were our target. The Government's intention has been plain from the outset.

I hope that I have dealt with most of the points raised in the debate. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Beith: I may be able to help the Minister in one respect if not in another. He asked me why I was the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the Bill. In addition to my happy duty shadowing the Deputy Prime Minister—although not in all his travels—it was thought that I should take on the rest of the Cabinet Office responsibilities that are nominally his. That is why I have a role on this Bill.

Reading between the lines, the Minister made it pretty clear that the figure of £18.6 million will be retained for the coming year and that he will devise a formula that will probably not disturb the distribution between authorities. In other words, the Government will probably invent a formula that fits the facts that already exist. If that is so, we do not need a formula and there is no problem with waiting until the following year in the way suggested by amendment No. 1.

Such has been the wide support expressed in the House for amendment No. 1 that I will ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to agree to a Division on it at the appropriate

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stage. I wish, however, to withdraw the motion on new clause 1, because the Minister expressed his intention to keep the House informed on the progress of the review. I would have been happier if we could be absolutely certain that that would happen. None the less, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1

Civil defence: grants

Mr. Collins: I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 21, at end insert—

'only in respect of an increased determination'.

The debate on the amendment will enable the Minister to place on the record the Government's view of a point on which many local government emergency planning officers have sought clarification. The amendment would add a few words to proposed new section 3(3)(b) and would limit the powers that the Bill otherwise gives to the designated Minister to

so that, in the words of the amendment, that could be done

There is much understandable concern among emergency planning officers that the Government may choose, on what local authorities may perceive to be wholly arbitrary grounds, to reduce a grant allocation in a financial year and after local authorities have begun to spend money on the basis that they would receive a certain level of grant to underpin it. At various points, the Minister has been at pains to assure Members of the House and members of the Committee that considered the Bill that such unworthy thoughts would not even cross his mind and that he would never want to do that.

The matter was discussed in Committee and I pay tribute to the Minister for writing to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). In the letter, which was copied to members of the Committee, the Minister was at pains to say that it was highly unlikely that the Government would ever consider cutting local authorities' grants in the middle of the year. The only reason that they needed the power would be to take account of unexpected contingencies in which he implied the Government would seek to provide additional help.

That formulation caused considerable interest in the emergency planning department serving Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Its emergency planning officer wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and, in an interesting choice of words, said that the copy of the letter to the hon. Member for Winchester was extremely interesting. With a degree of irony, the emergency planning officer added:

That struck me as an extremely good question. If there has merely been an oversight on the part of the parliamentary draftsmen, it will be easy for us to correct the matter on Report to ensure that the Bill fully reflects

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the Minister's intentions. Therefore, I genuinely hope to hear the Minister tell us that, on reflection, he accepts the aims of amendment No. 2. Even if he feels for some reason that escapes me that the amendment is technically defective, I hope that he will agree to the issue being reconsidered in another place.

However, on a crucial matter of emergency planning, I certainly do not wish to hear that the Government plan to retain the power to cut a grant in the middle of the year. Local authorities incur expenditure on the basis that they will receive a certain level of grant and that grant should not be cut in a way that they cannot possibly foresee, so I hope that the Minister will not oppose the amendment on anything other than the most narrow technical grounds. If he does, we should like to know why, contrary to the view of many emergency planning officers, he believes that it would be sensible for him to have such a power.

It is important to reflect on the fact that local authority emergency planning officers are already extremely worried about the consequences for staffing levels, for funding provision and for their ability to conduct operations on the current basis, let alone on what might come into effect if the Bill is introduced without amendment No. 2. Does the Minister agree with the Emergency Planning Society that we are talking about "an increasingly important service"? Does he also agree with it that local authorities across the country are increasingly having to subsidise their emergency planning functions from other elements of the council tax and other resources that are available to them? Is he aware that a number of local authorities have said that current funding levels are so difficult to predict and inadequate in their scope that some of them may have to pay for up to 50 per cent. of all their emergency planning functions from their own resources?

I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government will at least reflect carefully on the strong views that have been expressed by many county emergency planning officers who are genuinely and powerfully concerned about the flexibility that the Government are taking for themselves in proposed new section 3(3). A large number of local authorities believe that that is the heart of what they describe as negative legislation and that it will have extremely damaging consequences for them.

On Second Reading, the Minister specifically stated that he believed that the merit of the Bill was that it offered stability for local authorities. I see that he is nodding to confirm that that remains one of the objectives. I am sure that he would therefore agree that, in terms of stability for local authorities and their ability to plan ahead, it would be far better to tell them that if there are to be any changes in the amount of grant that is allocated to them for a particular financial year, between the start of that year and its end, they will only be by way of extra resources that are provided in case of unexpected and worrying developments. They need to know that they will not face a reduction or even a clawback of a grant allocation that has already been made available.

Local authorities are worried. That concern has been expressed by, among others, the chief emergency planning officers of Cumbria, Cheshire, Essex and Durham. There are large-scale worries. Will the Minister address the merits of the amendment? In particular, if he is not prepared to limit his power to cut a grant in year, so to

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speak, will he explain the precise circumstances in which he will use the power? If he insists on retaining it, there will be widespread concern in local authorities that he could simply use the power arbitrarily. It would be helpful if he agreed to publish a code of practice under which ministerial decisions exercising such a power would be limited or preferably removed altogether.

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