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: I wish to use an analogy that might ring true for many hon. Members who are present: we are all
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members of voluntary organisations in that we are members of political parties. I am sure that many hon. Members will share my experience of the anger and frustration that can arise on our part and that of volunteers when the latter have indicated that they were willing and eager to carry out functions such as knocking people up on election day or delivering leafletssuch jobs might be highly relevant at the moment with local elections in the offingbut, because of the nature of the voluntary organisations in which we operate, no one co-ordinated them when there was a desperate need for the service that they offered. In such circumstances, there can be anger on both sides.
Although the activities that we are discussing might involve voluntary action, they must be performed thoroughly professionally. We cannot possibly have a standard of delivery that falls short of that level or approaches anything like the functioning of a political party as hon. Members have experienced ithence the strength of the amendments and the new clause, which take the huge contribution and professional services of the voluntary sector and seek to include them in the consultation and planning phase.
I pointed out in an intervention that we take such an approach as a matter of course in relation to the delivery of international aid. The NGOs and organisations such as the Red Cross are included in the planning of the delivery of aid in all sorts of disaster situations. That is part of the basic consultation and planning process. While we are prepared to take that approach in the delivery of international aid for disasters, I suggest that, given the expertise that is available to us, we should do the same as a matter of course with regard to the delivery of relief for contingencies. That seems perfectly sensible, and I look to the Minister to come up with a plausible argument as to why we should not take such an approach, given that we do so in international affairs.
The House will recall that, when the additional chapter was delivered to the defence reviewit was published before 11 September and did not, by the Government's own estimate, deal adequately with the question of asymmetric threatsits big idea was the civil contingencies reaction force, but the reality is that it exists on paper only. It simply is not adequate for the task. Even if it had been established as was proposed, the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark would have been necessary but, in its absence, they are even more so.
Ms Blears: We have had a wide-ranging, interesting, constructive and challenging debate about very important issues concerning the role of the voluntary sector and about whether it should have a statutory presence in the Bill in terms of consultation, and about the slightly separate but related issue of creating an emergency volunteer force. The matters are interrelated, but each has distinct issues around it.
I am sorry to say to hon. Members that the Government cannot accept the amendments. None the less, they raise some interesting questions about the role of the voluntary sector in contingency planning and its position in the Bill. It is worth setting out the Government's position in some detail, as hon. Members have asked me to do, and trying to provide some
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reassurance about how the central role of the voluntary sector can be encapsulated in the Bill as it stands, taken with the guidance that we propose to develop over coming monthssomething that, as we have already indicated, we will do in full consultation with all the parties involved, including the range of voluntary organisations that have been mentioned, as well as those that have not been mentioned. It is clear that there are many more voluntary organisations than have been named in the debate.
The Government particularly encourage membership of voluntary organisations and their engagement with key responding organisations. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) who said that this Government have a proud record of involving the voluntary sector not only in this area, but in a range of public service delivery contexts. I think that that is one of the significant differences about this Administration: we have not been afraid to say that the voluntary sectorthe third sector or not-for-profit sectorshould have an increasingly important role in the delivery of mainstream services. That position has not always been popular across all organisations, but it is a key issue for the Government, whose support for the voluntary sector is certainly acknowledged.
Helen Jackson: That was indeed the point that I made. Given those views, how will my hon. Friend mitigate the considerable disappointment and puzzlement felt by parts of the voluntary sector about the idea that they might not be brought into the planning as fully as they want? Is she prepared to have further meetings with them to mitigate that disappointment?
Ms Blears: I hope that my hon. Friend, as well as the voluntary organisations, will not be disappointed when they have heard all that I have to say today. I do not think that not naming those organisations in the Bill for one moment works against their importance and centrality in terms of planning or the delivery and support mechanisms that they provide. I have no doubt that there will be further meetings, discussions and negotiations as we develop the guidance that will supplement and underpin the Bill.
The work that is undertaken by voluntary agencies is crucial. It may, for example, include supporting the local ambulance service by providing first aid at casualty clearing stations and first aid posts. Voluntary aid societies also give valuable support to local authorities and the police by befriending and offering information to people in rest and reception centres following an incident. I pay tribute to the well-known and long-standing contribution that voluntary organisations have made to the effective response to civil emergencies. One need only think back to the response to the Potter's Bar and Ladbroke Grove rail crashes to appreciate what a valuable contribution volunteers can make to emergency response. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) mentioned the recent accident in Glasgow and the incident in Morecambe bay and highlighted the contribution that volunteers were able to make in those very distressing circumstances.
I am surprised that no hon. Member has mentioned this document that I have laid my hands on, which is entitled "Dealing with Disaster". It is in its revised third
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edition and is the seminal work on the relationship between the authorities and local responders, including civil protection, at a local level. I refer hon. Members to chapter 6, which, as I was heartened, although not surprised, to see, covers in great depth the role of the voluntary sector in relation to a whole range of issuesnot simply acting in a supportive, befriending role once an event has happened, but planning at the outset and being involved in all the aspects that the statutory agencies will consider. As the document acknowledges right at the beginning,
"Major emergencies can overstretch the resources of the emergency services and local authorities."
Mr. Brazier: Will the Minister explain why she objects to amendments suggesting that there should be a statutory duty to consult them? Will she also say from where, within the existing set-up, the Government expect to get, in a hurry, expertise in the nuclear, biological and chemical spheres if the incident does not happen to occur close to a regular Army base?
Ms Blears: If the hon. Gentleman will have a little patience, I will come to why the duty to consult should not be in the Bill. The voluntary sector is so diverse that it would be invidious to try to single out particular organisations for involvement, and there are practicalities involved in where to find the people who are able to help us in the dreadful circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes.
Mr. Hancock: As the Minister says, that document spells it all out. She did not say, however, that it also acknowledges that despite the existence of all these different groups and responsibilities, there are two problems: first, the lack of anyone with sufficient knowledge of the co-ordinated approach; and, secondly, how one readily brings all those people together when they are needed. That is the failure that we are trying to address and which is expressed in the document.
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