Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1480 - 1499)



  1480. You would understand some cynicism perhaps amongst some local authorities, where they have seen an Act come through very quickly on Civil Defence Grant, which some feel has taken money away from them, such as in Durham, for example, and with the promise of new legislation, then it all goes quiet. They respond to a consultation which does not show up very many fundamental disagreements amongst them about things, and then there is going to be another consultation. Is a further consultation just a way of delaying things?
  (Mr Leslie) No.

  1481. So we can hang on before we get another Bill, until you get agreement from Number Ten or whatever?
  (Mr Leslie) No, I think there are a number of points there. The point about local authorities is they did make lots of representations, there was a lot of unanimity in certain areas, not always to do with funding preferences incidentally, there was quite a divided view about a standard spending assessment approach versus grant, but I think these things can be resolved. Any consultations that take place I think need to be pretty rapid and direct in this whole area. I cannot give information specifically about the timing of any legislative programme, that is the nature of Government.

  1482. Why do you need another consultation?
  (Mr Leslie) We have not announced or published any consultation document on the Civil Contingencies Bill process as yet but I think it is important always at all times to not just have a top-down approach to this sort of very, very fundamental legislation. We are talking about a legislative framework that is structured in respect of anticipating hostile attack from foreign powers, this is the context we are talking about, the Civil Defence Act of 1948, and that really does need modernising. I think we have got a duty to involve local authorities, the emergency services and other wider communities in doing that but that need not take an inordinate amount of time.

  1483. Could it take the form of a draft Bill?
  (Mr Leslie) It could well take the form of a draft Bill but then it may not.


  1484. Do not forget us when you are issuing that Bill, we will be most interested. I can understand the need to be very thorough in the drafting of legislation and to consult widely, and we all know that legislation hastily drafted tends to be very imperfect, but it could be a year, 18 months after the crisis of 11 September before legislation is on the statute book and then some time until the different parts of it are going to be implemented. I hope any potential terrorists will be prepared to wait until that time when all of our defences—I know much has been done, please do not think I am not aware of what has been done.
  (Mr Leslie) The point I was going to make was about putting these things in context. The Civil Contingencies Bill is only one measure in a vast array of issues that have already been dealt with, the Terrorism Act, as has already been mentioned, so we are not leaving stones unturned in some sort of sequential arrangement here.

  Chairman: I think you can predict one of our recommendations and that is that it is in the next Queen's Speech. I give you advance warning. This is not a Home Affairs Select Committee leak, this is pretty upfront. Without consulting my colleagues I will tell you that this is going to be a recommendation that this is going to be in the Queen's Speech, not that people may necessarily pay attention. We now come to a more soothing part of inquiry and Mr Jones will resume his questions.

  Mr Howarth: Did you say "soothing", Chairman?

Mr Jones

  1485. Thank you. I would like to ask about the threat from chemical, biological and nuclear attack. I want to ask a broad opening question and then there are some specific questions that I have and Mr Howarth is going to follow up on. What priority has been given to the risk of a terrorist attack using chemical, biological and nuclear devices post September 11. Can I quote what Mr Rumsfeld said yesterday to a Senate Committee which I would welcome your comments on. He said that the US had to recognise that if terrorist networks have relationships with terrorist states with weapons of mass destruction they inevitably are going to get their hands on them and they are not going to hesitate for one minute to actually use them. Would you comment in terms of the general issue and specifically on Mr Rumsfeld's comment about relationships to states which have that technology now.
  (Mr Denham) I do not think I want to comment directly on Senator Rumsfeld's comments yesterday but we obviously know there are certain terrorist organisations that at least have had aspirations to be capable in this area, so we are giving that, I hope, an appropriate level of priority. The question was what level of priority and that is always a relative question. You will understand, Chairman, I do not want to go into too much detail about that but I think I can say to the Committee that the structure that we have enables us to assess both risk and threat, risk in terms of our vulnerabilities, threat in terms of whether there are people out there with the will and the capability to do it, and to judge our response in the light of that. The process that we have set in place enables us to take those decisions. Clearly we have to be making appropriate preparations for the possibility of a chemical, biological or radiological attack.

  1486. Thanks for the non-answer but I understand why it has to be a non-answer. Would it be possible for you to provide us with something confidential that we would not use in terms of the published report to give us some more detail that you would not want to go into in open session?
  (Mr Denham) I think we would want to be as helpful as we can be in providing confidential information to the Committee in this area, not least because I hope that it would provide some reassurance that the process that I have described actually exists and is not something I have dreamt up for the purposes of the Committee this afternoon.

  1487. Can I go on to one well publicised specific response to biological threats. We had Dr Troop before the Committee a few weeks ago and she certainly got the Committee's top award for evasion of answering questions. We will perhaps ask some of the same questions to you, Minister, and see if we can get the same answers. It is around the decision to procure smallpox vaccine. I understand that you chair the sub-committee of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat on this issue.
  (Mr Denham) Yes.

  1488. Why did an open tendering exercise not take place to procure this vaccine like it was in the United States?
  (Mr Denham) The structure of the decision, the decision to purchase vaccine, was one on which I and a number of other Ministers should have been consulted, ie the principle —

Mr Howarth

  1489. Sorry, could you speak up a bit?
  (Mr Denham) Sorry, yes. The principle of whether vaccine should be purchased was one on which I and, indeed, a number of other Ministers, I imagine, were consulted. The decision about how to conduct the procurement and precisely what type of vaccine to procure was a decision for the Department of Health in line with the philosophy discussed earlier of there being lead departments with lead responsibilities in this area.

Mr Jones

  1490. I got a response on a written question to Mr John Hutton on this subject and he said "Ministers took the decision to proceed to purchase the smallpox vaccine on 11 March". Which Ministers were they, was it the Health Ministers or the Health Department?
  (Mr Denham) The decision on the actual procurement on that particular date would have been Health Ministers.

  1491. Not the Committee that you chair?
  (Mr Denham) No, the sub-committee does not take detailed, as it were, operational decisions, it has an overview of a range of different scenarios, different possibilities that could happen which we test against the planning mechanisms and the contingency plans that we have got in place. It is not a centralised decision making committee on issues which are properly the responsibility of departments to carry through.

  1492. Can you explain to me what the relationship is between the decision to take it by Health Ministers and your committee, how does that actually work in practice?
  (Mr Denham) What we would do in our committee is, amongst other things, review the information that we have received regarding the possibility of, in this case, a biological attack, the capability of distributing biological agents and the strategy that should be put in place for responding to that. That is our committee and that enables us to range across all of the different people who might play a role, those who might be responsible for detecting that something had happened, those that might be responsible for moving in to decontaminate an area, which might be the emergency services, those who might be responsible for treatment programmes and for working with the public. What we do specifically is look at whether the arrangements which run across different services and different departments are properly co-ordinated. Within that, of course, there are a whole host of individual decisions that have to be taken. The procurement of equipment, for example, is not one that would be taken by my committee, that would be taken by the appropriate emergency service within their decision making structure because they have that specific expertise and that is the way that it operates.

  1493. So clearly this is not just one meeting; it is obviously taking place over a number of months?
  (Mr Denham) Yes.

  1494. In terms of the decision, though, that we needed smallpox vaccine and the "threat", is that your committee's decision or the Health Department's decision, that there was a threat and it needed to be responded to, or was it MoD's decision?
  (Mr Denham) The information which is received from the security services and other sources enables people to make an assessment to which ministers then have to respond. We are ultimately accountable for this system.

  1495. What a lot of us found very difficult is that we actually raised this issue about possible biological threat in our report, and I think the response was on 7 March. When we actually got it, there was no reference to the fact that this decision had been considered or had actually been taken, say, four days later, which is why it came as a little bit of a surprise to this Committee that in its response the Government did not actually see fit even to say that this type of work was going on.
  (Mr Denham) I do not know whether that response was a private or a public communication, Chairman.

  1496. It was public.
  (Mr Denham) Right. I have to say, Chairman, that my view—and this may not be the view of the Committee—is that it is not generally desirable that the details of these matters are in the public domain, and that is because we are looking at a process in which revealing in detail the extent to which provision has been made could indicate to people who are not friends of this country a whole amount of information about what we might think we know or do not know, or they might think we know and so on, that we would rather not be in the public domain. I think that was an important part of the security process.

  1497. So what is the difference between our approach and the Americans' approach, which is a quite different approach in terms that they are not just procuring vaccine but actually that they went out to public tender? Why does America feel that it does not need this level of secrecy that we have?
  (Mr Denham) I think that is something that you would have to ask the American Government. Our view here is that in terms of giving details of contingency arrangements that are being made across a range of these issues, it is not a simple thing of saying, "Let's keep it all secret because it's easier that way." It is difficult. The public has a great interest in these matters and would like to know, but we also think that we have to be careful about not, through giving details of the planning we have made, revealing more than we would want to about what we know or think we know, which might both reveal where we are right and also reveal where we are wrong.

  1498. So you do not think it should have been made public at all that we had actually secured or procured this smallpox vaccine?
  (Mr Denham) I think there are other questions about procurement which actually I am not best placed to answer, for the reason I gave about the procurement process.

  1499. I appreciate that.
  (Mr Denham) In general, I would not criticise my colleagues for seeking to make provision without actually revealing the detail of our planning in the public domain.

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