Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

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Mr. Leslie: The local authorities in question, with which I am not familiar, have no doubt considered contingencies in respect of, for example, incidents of aircraft activity. The Bill does not specify sums allocated to particular authorities, but simply allows those at central Government level to consider whether authorities need extra resources or whether formulas should reflect particular needs in particular areas, such as coastal erosion or weather hazards. Having a national formula is good financial practice. Local authorities and central Government must also be able to plan ahead. All parties agree that managing expenditure is a normal part of budgetary processes.

I shall address several of the points that have been raised. First, I have had several discussions with members of the Local Government Association, both with the central local partnership and with individual councillors who specialise in this area. After 11 September, we took a fresh look at the provision. The Government believe that the measure must be on the statute book in time for the next financial year, to ensure good financial discipline as well as the application of the national strategic framework to emergency planning.

Mr. Oaten: I am interested by the Minister's comment that the matter has been re-examined in the light of 11 September. Has that review assessed the costs that local authorities have incurred in the past three months in implementing civil defence operations?

Mr. Leslie: Local authority emergency planning units have not been asked by central Government to undertake specific or significant new duties, but we need to remain flexible. That is why we are looking at levels of funding—an issue that the Bill does not directly address—through negotiations across government, in the usual way. We are considering the precise allocation and estimates for the next financial year.

Mr. Collins: The Minister said that local authority emergency planning units have not been asked, since September 11, to undertake any significant new work. That is an extremely important statement, and I should be grateful if he would elaborate on it. One is led to ask why they have not been asked to do so, given the Home Secretary's formal designation of the position, what the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers have said about the enhanced threat to this country since 11 September and the widespread public concern about the possibility of further acts that try to maximise the number of innocent civilians killed. Does not the Minister think it curious that local authority emergency planning units have not been asked to do more work? Does the Cabinet Office expect to issue new guidance to them soon? Even if the Minister thinks, for whatever reason, that the units do not need to do further work, many people on the ground may believe that they do. Surely it would be better, for all the reasons that he himself has advanced, if that were done in the context of a national framework rather than just in a higgledy-piggledy fashion?

Mr. Leslie: As the hon. Gentleman knows, local authority emergency planning units have wide-ranging plans to respond flexibly to a number of different emergencies, regardless of their nature, and have relevant arrangements in place. They did not start from scratch after 11 September; their plans were already fairly robust and well-worked at that time. My comment about no significant extra work having yet been requested of the emergency planning units referred to the fact that no new functions have been undertaken—although there has been a dialogue with local authorities about, for example, the situation following 11 September and the potential chemical and biological hazard. This is not a new function. Local authorities already have the capacity to respond through their local emergency planning units.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): I understand the Minister's argument, but does he not agree that co-ordination between the different bodies is vital to civil defence? If we do not defer the measure, will the Minister tell us when the review of civil defence will be conducted, so that we can see the whole picture? During the foot and mouth crisis, there was a lack of co-ordination, and if I said that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Army were almost at war with each other in Exeter, you will understand my concerns. We must ensure that local authorities are properly funded, and that the funding fits into the overall picture. You have not convinced me yet.

The Chairman: Order. I do not have responsibility for the Government, but the Minister will now respond for them.

Mr. Leslie: You have certainly convinced me, Mr. Griffiths, if I needed convincing.

I was coming to the point raised by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) about the emergency planning review. It was started in August, although most responses were submitted after 11 September. They have now been collated, and I am waiting for an initial report, which is imminent. The review is being conducted in tandem with our civil contingency arrangements post-11 September, to which I alluded on Second Reading. It would be difficult to go into much detail about the processes for central protection and co-ordination, which will be driven by the secretariat at the Cabinet Office.

Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister said that the work is being conducted in tandem with civil contingency arrangements. Why can that not be done in tandem with the measure?

Mr. Leslie: This measure, which is discrete and specific, is needed to implement a formula for the next financial year for local authority emergency planning units. It is necessary to re-establish the principle of formula allocation on a national basis, which is a prerequisite for strategic planning for the next financial year. However, as I said on Second Reading, we are examining separately the whole approach to supporting and financing local authority emergency planning units. Indeed, the emergency planning review has consulted on whether we should eventually move towards a standard spending assessment allocation process through the normal revenue support grant mechanisms. We are examining those issues in the wider context of emergency planning, not the specifics of local authorities.

Mr. Oaten: That is a fascinating comment, and I will draw this conclusion from it. As part of the wider review, is it possible that the new system that will be implemented by the Bill will be abolished and reviewed again?

Mr. Leslie: That is possible, but for the next financial year the Government need the powers to institute a formula with a national and strategic basis. If we do not have that, we will have to continue with the random and haphazard system of the demand-led approach.

Mr. Luff: The Minister just used the word random, which triggered a thought in my mind. The nature of emergency planning is that we have to deal with random events. In Worcestershire, we have had to cope with random events following not only 11 September, but the foot and mouth outbreak, which the hon. Member for Teignbridge mentioned. We have suffered catastrophic flooding, which is becoming more regular, and cases of tuberculosis in the human population that required the emergency planning service to step in. More and more random and serious events are afflicting Worcestershire at the same time as the Government are talking about cutting the money available for planning to deal with such events. The Minister is making a powerful case for the amendment, and I thank him for doing that.

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman should surely recognise that to protect the nation from hostile foreign attack and potential internal disasters and emergencies, we need the ability to plan at a national and central level. It is not good enough to have a series of disconnected, local emergency planning units, all working on their own discrete arrangements. We need to consider whether certain parts of the country require particular attention. The Bill returns to the formula which operated relatively uncontroversially until the legal challenge.

Richard Younger-Ross: I come back to the Minister's answer to my hon. Friend. He said that perhaps in the overall review the provisions relating to local authorities will be reconsidered. If prudence is a good friend of the Minister's, does he agree that it is a waste of time and effort to put local authorities through the enactment of this Bill if its provisions are to be reviewed in a few months' time?

Mr. Leslie: No. It is never a waste of time or effort to put in place a national formula that reflects national priorities, even if the review applies to the next financial year. That is what we are here to do. We must have a national strategic planning process. The Bill is important in that respect.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked how long the emergency derogation might last, and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire asked when it would end. As they know, that is impossible to specify, but in arguing that the Bill should be contingent on another they make a false analogy, which is a bad approach to statute making. We must focus on local emergency planning units. Their work covers a wider scope than terrorism. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill is concerned with our enemies to a great extent, whereas this Bill concerns our friends, the local authority emergency planning units. To line the two provisions together is to make a false analogy.

Mr. Collins: I shall make the obvious point and then ask the Minister a question. Our contention is that we should be providing adequate resources to our friends to plan for anything that our enemies choose to do to us. Will the Minister give us an assurance—which would be greatly welcomed on both sides of the Committee and by those outside following our deliberations—that should the Bill be passed, no individual local authority will receive less in grant for planning for emergencies in the next financial year than it does currently? After the events of 11 September, such an assurance would be welcome and appropriate. I believe that most of us would find our objections melting away. If the Minister cannot give us such an assurance, then we have a continuing problem.

 
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Prepared 11 December 2001