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I do not accept that there is a failure of co-ordination, but I do accept that we need to improve our response in this changing world in which we live, where the threat is becoming much more serious than ever before. I certainly would not want to caricature as a failure the response of many good and able voluntary organisations, together with the statutory services. It
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would be wrong to talk down our services in that way, and I pay tribute to them for the contribution that they make.
Mr. Djanogly: The Minister has referred extensively to a document that no hon. Members appear to have seen or heard about, and which none of the voluntary organisations referred to in their written submissions. Perhaps it should be disseminated a bit more widely.
Ms Blears: I was made aware of "Dealing with Disaster", although I did not have the advantage of serving on the Committee. I am sure that other hon. Members have a much deeper and wider knowledge than I do of the seminal nature of that document, which is, I am sure, available from the Library. Indeed, it is a Cabinet Office publication, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could get access to it.
Patrick Mercer: Chapter 6 is familiar to me, as is the whole document. I am intrigued, though, by what the Minister is saying about the integration between the voluntary sector and, for want of a better phrase, the blue light services. I am heartened by her remarks. As she, more than anyone, will be familiar with the new threats that are evolving, will she be kind enough to outline the Government's plans to equip the voluntary organisations with personal protection equipment?
I should emphasise that voluntary sector liaison groups will be involved at the local level through the local resilience forums that are envisaged in the Bill. Local authorities already do a significant amount of work in training volunteers for their roles in emergencies and involving them in multi-agency exercises. The document highlights the need for joint training, joint exercises and joint involvement at every stage. Certainly, the voluntary sector is being involved to a very great extent in areas that have been visited by officials in recent months.
There is nothing in the Bill that prevents voluntary organisations from remaining fully engaged, and we will continue to encourage local responders to engage the voluntary sector wholeheartedly in local multi-agency planning and response through the guidance that supports the Bill. We will use that guidance to turn that vision into a reality.
Amendment No. 11 would impose a duty on category 1 responders such as emergency services and local authorities to consult voluntary organisations in the performance of their duties under the Bill, while leaving the manner and extent to which they are consulted as a matter for their own judgment. Under amendment No. 20, the identification of voluntary sector organisations would be a matter for the individual responder. Of course, I agree that, where appropriate, statutory responders should consult and involve voluntary sector partners to the fullest extent in the planning phase. Statutory responders accept that and are already so engaged. It is difficult to see what the amendment would add to this approach. It is of doubtful merit to impose a
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legal obligation on responders to consult the voluntary sector if the responder itself decides who must be consulted, the extent of the consultation, and the manner in which the consultation takes place. Moreover, I wonder how such a duty would be monitored and enforced. A legal duty that says to the person upon whom it is imposed that it is for them to choose whom to consult, when, how and to what extent is very fragile, and I cannot see what it adds to our current position.
Helen Jackson: I suppose that what hon. Members want to hear is that the proposals that may come out of the guidance, together with the Bill, will recognise in a new and more significant way the role of voluntary organisations across the board. Does my hon. Friend think that including the voluntary organisations in the guidance notes will strengthen their role? They have yet to be convinced of that.
Ms Blears: I hope that I can convince them. I accept the spirit of my hon. Friend's amendments and I believe that it is shared. Although I am loth to praise the hon. Member for Huntingdon, he said that he wanted the nation's full contribution, not only that of the state, to be brought to bear, and that sums up our attitude in general. For civil contingencies, we are considering not simply statutory organisations but civil society. Renewal of civil society is the passion of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and the golden thread that runs through many Government policies. I emphasise to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough that a legal duty is currently unnecessary because the guidance will help to put the voluntary sector much more at the heart of our planning proposals. I hope that she will realise that.
Amendments Nos. 12 to 15 and 17 would enable regulations made under the Bill to require category 1 responders to collaborate with the voluntary sector, delegate functions for which the measure provides to the sector, or have regard to or adopt the work carried out by it. Clause 2(5)(d) already permits such regulations to be made and the amendments would therefore have no practical effect. Amendments could be tabledI do not want to mislead the Housebecause we do not yet propose to use the regulation-making powers in that way, but they exist, should their use become necessary. The amendments that we are considering are unnecessary to grant us that legal power.
Amendment No. 16 would enable a Minister of the Crown to require a category 1 responder to share information with a voluntary or humanitarian organisation. The Bill currently enables a Minister to require provision of information only between responders, not to voluntary organisations. Although I acknowledge the need for category 1 responders to share information with voluntary organisations when they are engaged in the planning process, it is not necessary to make provisions that require them to do that.
The voluntary sector plays a supporting role in emergency planning and response. It is inconceivable that, when a statutory responder chooses to make use of the resources and expertise of a voluntary organisation in its planning work, the information required to fulfil
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its role would not be provided. I cannot imagine for one moment that, if a local authority asked the WRVS to take care of people at an emergency reception centre, for example, the local authority would not give the organisation details of the location of the centre. Providing such details would involve the voluntary organisation in the planning at an early stage.
Mr. Brazier: I wonder whether the Minister has thought about her comments. Does she genuinely believe that, throughout the country, bureaucracies will get it right every time? Will they always anticipate whom they may need in crises, consult each of them and include them in their plans? Surely it is a good idea to tell authorities that they must release the information, not least because many organisations may be able to contribute in ways about which local authorities do not know.
Ms Blears: We could hold an interesting debate on bureaucracy, especially in the light of the comments of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I am trying to find the best way in which to achieve the result that we all want: good, well prepared, effective plans that can be implemented quickly without necessarily tying up organisations in a plethora of regulations that militate against our being able to act promptly and to a high and professional standard.
Amendments Nos. 18, 19, 76 and 77 would extend the duty on local authorities to provide business continuity advice to community organisations. Clause 4 tries to minimise the economic impact of an emergency and its focus is therefore on commercial activities. That does not mean that local authorities could not extend, if they wished, their business continuity advice to the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors. However, the provision is aimed at keeping the economy moving in the event of an emergency. It is therefore inappropriate to accept those amendments.
I want to consider new clause 1, which would establish an emergency volunteer reserve. I have spoken at length about the outstanding contribution that volunteers throughout the country make to contingency planning and response work. We must consider the arguments of the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) in favour of some form of voluntary reserve force in that context and try to balance the benefits and the costs. Such a force would not be cost-free, and I share some of the concerns that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst expressed.
Existing voluntary organisations already employ a permanent cadre of staff and have permanent structures and an infrastructure. For example, I understand that the British Red Cross employs 3,000 permanent staff to facilitate its volunteers' work. Setting up a new emergency volunteer force could prove costly. There could also be other costs. Long-standing, tried and tested voluntary organisations could be undermined. Organisations such as the Red Cross, the WRVS, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, volunteer medical staff or retained firefighters, with proven track records, are already embedded in existing planning frameworks. I was therefore intrigued by the debate between the hon. Members for Newark, for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who was trying to tease out what "overlap" and "integrate"
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meant. They discussed whether the provision would establish a new force or strengthen existing forces. We did not get to the bottom of that.
Setting up a new force would be burdensome and bureaucratic and could undermine existing voluntary organisations. I agree with all hon. Members who said that people in this country rally round in an emergency and want to make a contribution. Our task as a Government is to make it as easy as we can for people who have the skills and want to volunteer to get involved, use their talents and make their contribution, without necessarily establishing a new organisation in the way that the hon. Member for Newark suggests.
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