Joint Committee on Draft Civil Contingencies Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)



  Q1  Chairman: Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for coming today. Could I just remind you that this session is going to be televised, though I am sure that will not affect your responses at all. Can I ask you to introduce yourselves, please. I will not ask for opening statements because time is of the essence in this and we have a fair number of questions to get through, not all of which we will be able to get to. I think you have had prior notice of them and we would welcome written responses to any you are unable to answer orally today.

  Councillor Chalke: I am Peter Chalke and I am representing the Local Government Association. I am presently leader of the Conservative Group on the LGA and Deputy Chairman of the Local Government Association. Until recently, I was Leader of Wiltshire County Council which has, I think, a good record in emergency planning. I am also a past Chairman of the Public Protection Executive of the LGA which has responsibility in this area. I am joined by Tom Griffin, who is Chief Executive of Suffolk Coastal District Council and an adviser to the LGA. Our evidence that you have gives a background to the Local Government Association. We represent nearly 500 local authorities in England and Wales including the 178 principal authorities and fire and civil defence authorities. I have always been a supporter of my council's role in emergency planning; I believe we are one of the better authorities working in partnership with the many agencies in Wiltshire and this is well illustrated in the write-up, a copy of which I will leave for you, of the Chippenham bomb incident when a large part of the town was evacuated for two days to allow clearance of a 1,000 pound wartime German bomb which was found on the site of a new school. The account illustrates that close co-operation with all agencies and the military forces in particular to which I referred. I am aware that not all authorities can match this performance and that there is a need for improvement and training. I want a consistency of quality across the whole of the country and the legislation we are talking about today can start to ensure that this happens. There is no doubt that the public are more aware in these times of heightened tension and threat and are expecting greater response from the authorities in case of something happening.

  Mr Ward: I am Brian Ward, Chairman of the Emergency Planning Society. Our submission was made on behalf of all the members of the Emergency Planning Society. In my other role, I am the Regional Emergency Planning Manager for the North-East Fire and Rescue Services on the New Dimension Programme, CBRN. One of the things that is important—and I will be very brief, Chairman—is, following the events of 9/11, there was very high active media interest in the state of preparedness for the country and I worked very closely with Mr Grannatt from the Cabinet Office in two aspects: (1) ensuring that the public were protected and were assured of the capability and (2) there was no opportunity for any terrorists to think that we were not. I am very pleased to be here today. We have talked an awful lot about the joined-up practice of contingency planning between central government, the regions and local government which is ever so important.

  Mr Griffin: I have nothing to add.

  Q2  Chairman: When answering questions, do not feel obliged to answer if it is clear that your point has been made by one of your colleagues because that will give us time to cover more ground. I am going to exercise Chairman's privilege and ask the first question. Do you think that new legislation to deal with emergencies is necessary and do you believe that the draft Bill's definition of emergency is the correct one? Should it, for example, be drawn narrowly or more widely or incorporate a level of scale?

  Councillor Chalke: We have conducted a survey of all local authorities involved and 94% of the responses are in favour of legislation. We believe the legislation will drive up standards, it will end the piecemeal approach and improve consistency across the country, and I think it is important that all citizens of a country should enjoy the same level of protection and assistance in the event of an incident. We believe that it will facilitate qualitative assessment through self audit and the other suggestions we have put forward and it will increase significantly local authorities' pace, commitment, awareness and workforce training.

  Mr Ward: We, too, are in broad agreement with the definition but what will be important are the trigger points of the events. Perhaps Government should adapt their own phrase from Dealing with Disasters regarding the definition, and that is "an event being on such a scale that the effects cannot be dealt with by the emergency services, the local authorities or other organisations as part of their normal day-to-day activities" to bring clarity of that definition.

  Q3  Mr Bailey: Following on from what you said, the Local Government Association submission states that there should be a trigger level or threshold below which local authorities would not be expected to be responding. How would you define that trigger or threshold?

  Councillor Chalke: We believe there to be three trigger levels. First, a major incident, and that has been well defined in the past and that is for the multi-agency response which will be at the local level. There is the wider-scale incident which will be a regional response and one can think of accidents at nuclear power stations and things like that which would cross boundaries. The level three will be as   present for emergency powers from the Government.

  Mr Ward: I agree with that too.

  Q4  Kali Mountford: Under regulations, the statutory duty on local authorities includes a provision for central government to direct what contingencies should be planned for. Do you think this is preferable to the present system where local authorities make their own judgments?

  Mr Ward: I do not think that is essential. There are circumstances where I believe central government should direct the activities. Perhaps an example is CBRN, chemical, biological, radiological nuclear events, where their expertise should come in. Within local arrangements, I believe that local authorities are well practised in the emergency planning activities in which they may partake.

  Mr Griffin: I think that is absolutely right, local authorities should make their own judgments but  there will always be circumstances where Government have information or it makes sense for Government to be able to require local authorities as well as looking after their own arrangements to cover specific risks or specific threats and, provided the system operates in that way, the Local Government Association would have no difficulty with that.

  Q5  Chris Mole: The Bill, when enacted, will be supplemented by a series of regulations. How far currently are local authorities able to comment on regulations when they are in draft and do you think there should be a statutory requirement that the GLA and other local authorities should be consulted on emergency regulations that are drafted under the Bill?

  Councillor Chalke: I think we have a lot to offer and we would hope that there would be full consultation on this. Local authorities will be playing a very important part in it and therefore we should be equal partners and we should be consulted fully, but there is of course the role for central government in the major incidents.

  Mr Ward: The regulations are a pivotal part of the process. They are complex and I think it is very important that local authorities and all response organisations have adequate time to consult on the regulations.

  Mr Griffin: Regulations and any guidance which is produced. Government are likely to produce both regulations and guidance and, given that we are among the key responders, I think it is fundamental that local authorities are fully consulted.

  Q6  Lord Archer of Sandwell: Taking up the last answer, that rather presupposes that there will be time for consultation. It is not wholly clear from the Bill which regulations are going to be in place at the  outset of all this and presumably continue throughout and which regulations will be made in response to a particular emergency under the Bill but, if they are made in response to an emergency under the Bill, there may not be much time for consultation.

  Councillor Chalke: I would hope that the risk assessment and the contingency plans Regulations will be in place before the emergency and therefore we will have done that work and we will have consulted on that. I hope that there is time for that consultation because I think we are in danger then of getting it wrong if we are not consulted on it.

  Q7  Lord Archer of Sandwell: Almost by definition, many of these situations will be unpredictable, will they not?

  Councillor Chalke: The risk assessment will show that we have plans for most emergencies. Yes, obviously if it is something we have not planned for, that is a shortcoming on all sides and then we have to react. When we are talking about consultation, we are really talking about consultation in the process we are in at the moment.

  Mr Ward: The benefit of the consultation process is that our expertise is sought in giving advice on the regulations but we require a reasonable period for the consultation process.

  Mr Griffin: Clearly, obviously, we will respond however tight the timescale is.

  Q8  Mr Jones: In terms of the Bill as it stands at the moment, what is it asking you to do differently that you do not do now? Can I just also touch on an issue which is in the Bill, trying to get consistency at local level. To what extent is that actually going to be counterproductive in some areas? For example, in Tyne & Wear, there are five local councils that work very closely together on emergency planning. In the pursuit of consistency across the country, could we not be breaking up some very good local practice?

  Councillor Chalke: I do not believe that we should break up that local practice.

  Q9  Mr Jones: Neither do I, but does the Bill not suggest that that could happen?

  Councillor Chalke: I think it should facilitate that sort of working that has been going on if it has been successful, but what the Bill does do is acknowledge that the present arrangements are discretionary, piecemeal and underfunded and the new strategy duties lead to more comprehensive and consistent resilience. So, we do not want to destroy anything that is working well but we do want to bring the others up to the standard of the best.

  Q10  Mr Jones: Does the Bill, as it is outlined at the moment, not actually do that in terms of forcing individual local authorities to take responsibility? I come back to Tyne & Wear where five local authorities pool their responsibility in terms of emergency planning.

  Councillor Chalke: If you look at two-tier areas, there is good co-operation there and that will continue. I would hope that the Bill—and you may comment on this obviously—will reflect the good arrangements of partnership between upper-tier authorities and the Local Government Association will not want to do anything that went against that good practice.

  Mr Ward: Perhaps there may be scope under the 1972 and 2000 Local Government Act to cover the situation in Tyne & Wear where there is devolved responsibility to the central unit, or perhaps there may be a situation where it can be carried out on a consultancy basis, but certainly I would advocate that good practice/excellent practice where it exists, such as in Tyne & Wear, should continue. Referring also to additional requirements that the Bill might impose, if I may refer to our document, there is the promotion of business continuity management, the greater emphasis on risk assessment work, the actual prevention of these emergencies from occurring and warning and informing the public. The only area where one could really say that the latter is satisfactory is in certain areas in the country of where flooding occurs and also where there are top-tier industrial sites. Additionally, there is the participation in the initiatives arising from the new regional tier of resilience. All of these are new burdens.

  Mr Griffin: I wonder if I could perhaps go back to Mr Jones's specific point about Tyne & Wear. There is no reason in principle why the imposition of an obligation on all local authorities should necessarily result in joint and collaborative arrangements ceasing. On the contrary, if all local authorities have similar obligations, there is very good reason why they should work together. I think that if either the Bill or regulations do result or are framed in such a way as to cut across those pre-existing arrangements, then that needs to be changed because there is no reason in principle why it needs to change. There is every reason why we should be encouraging joint arrangements and good co-operation.

  Mr Ward: I would like to endorse that fully.

  Q11  David Cairns: On the same matter, when I was a local councillor, we paid lip service in glowing terms to the importance of emergency planning and emergency planning officers, but the reality in the day-to-day running of a council when you are meeting budgets and running schools and everything else is that it slips down the agenda very often. Is there anything in this Bill or what particularly in this Bill do you think could raise the status and the importance within local councils themselves of the emergency planning staff and the emergency planning officers? Secondly, on the additional requirements, do you think there is an additional financial burden on local authorities as a result of measures in this Bill? I know the answer to this question but, who do you think should meet the cost of those additional burdens?

  Councillor Chalke: I can only speak for my own authority where we saw the benefits of a successful emergency planning department and I only need to look at the recent foot and mouth outbreak to see that with the problems that MAFF had at the time, people were turning to our emergency planning department for information and in fact the Chairman of the NFU and I had a daily phone call to update on it. So, there are authorities that put a priority on emergency planning because we understand the necessity. The Bill starts to put a duty on local authorities that they should produce that. I think that the public are actually waiting and wanting to have the reassurance that, if there is a terrorist attack or a major incident, their council are ready to deal with it. On the funding issue, this is always a problem. The Bill will put extra duties on to local government. Already there is £19 million from central government in grants and that is 50% in real terms of what it was ten years ago and local authorities are putting a further £17 million on top. We think that the £36 million should be the starting point and then, with the extra duties and the agreement in 1997 when it was agreed under the central local government concordat that any extra duties would be funded by central government, we would hope that it would be recognised that, in this time of threat, extra resources should be made available to authorities to do that.

  Mr Ward: May I speak from a planning practitioner's point of view. As regards the two issues, yes, the statutory duty would help inordinately to develop and to encompass all the elements of emergency planning and to have the duty behind us that all organisations are required to plan or required to co-operate in this process—and, as already alluded to, I think for the public to see this occurring would be of great merit. This means that the Government are treating the business we are in with absolute seriousness and I think that is very important. As regards the funding—and I am sure you would expect me to comment on this—we do think it is wholly inadequate. I believe that the top up of £17 million from local authorities should be completely and totally integrated. Why should there be a grant from central government and then it be topped up? Should we not be going from the baseline and asking, how much has this important function actually cost us? Should we not be looking at it from a baseline level and not topping it up from social services or education budgets and putting that imposition on local authorities?

  Q12  Lord Roper: The Government, in its consultation document, expressed the wish to achieve consistency of activity across the local response. I have two questions about that. Does the concept of consistency base itself upon the assumption that there is homogeneity of the range of risks and the degree of risks across the whole country? Secondly, do you believe that the measures contained in the draft Bill would create such a consistency even if it were desirable in terms of resources, capabilities and efficacy?

  Councillor Chalke: There is obviously not a similar risk across the whole country as, from Cornwall to Tyne & Wear, you have rural areas and you have industrialised areas. I suspect that the terrorist threat could be a common threat over the country and that is the issue the public are worried about at the moment. We believe that the Bill will drive up standards: it will drive up capabilities and it will drive up the efficiency of emergency planning departments. By introducing measures for performance assessment, we will start to get some comparison and some equality. I stress again that all those are dependent on adequate resourcing.

  Mr Griffin: I think what is more important is that we have a consistency of standard and a consistency of quality rather than homogeneity. I think homogeneity is greatly to be resisted in this context. I come from an area with a couple of nuclear power stations in it and I think that is a slightly different set of risks from some parts. I think it is fair for us to accept that there is not a consistency of quality and a consistency, as Mr Cairns was saying earlier, of effort and priority given to this issue across the country and I think the proposed legislation will help that.

  Mr Ward: That is what we would welcome: the standards to achieve a consistency throughout the country. Also, behind that, that there be performance indicators and a rigorous system of audit to identify what the practitioners are actually doing.

  Q13  Lord Maginnis of Drumglas: Do you believe that similar statutory duties should be placed upon central government and the new regional tier, whatever that might be? If so, what duties do you think would ensure an effective working relationship between central government, the regional tier and local responders in order to facilitate an effective response to an emergency?

  Councillor Chalke: Yes, we do believe there should be statutory duties, especially on the regional tier, but we are worried about the consistency of some government departments and we believe that the duty should be placed on the Government Offices in the Regions and that they should have statutory duties. The duties we propose should be consistent with those proposed for local responders, that is to assess, to plan and to advise.

  Mr Ward: I think the essence behind all this is the Bill's proposal, and that is "to deliver a single framework for civil protection within the United Kingdom". Yes, the Society is convinced that both central and regional arms of government should be subject to the statutory duties in order that we have this single framework throughout the land.

  Q14  Lord Maginnis of Drumglas: As someone who has been fairly new to this, I get the sense that local authorities would like to be encouraged to form amalgamations rather than have something imposed from the top down on that particular point.

  Councillor Chalke: I believe that the nature of incidents potentially now will be greater than local authority areas and that there needs to be a liaison and that is why we are suggesting that the government office should be the agency to liaise. We think the local discretion on delivery of the service is vital and we stress that the government offices, as an arm of Government, should have those duties.

  Mr Ward: That is why the request is that the lead government departments, together with the regional resilience functions, are included in the category 1 status of the Bill. As regards the role for regional government, yes, there is the communication role between central government and the local responders, but also the wider co-ordination role for events such as those which has hit us in the past, for example the foot and mouth and fuel crisis, where regional co-ordination is needed. Perhaps a fine example of this is the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster's New Dimension Project where there are regional teams which have looked at the regional risks and are evaluating and directing regional resources that would be used in response to an incident, not just regionally, but also nationally throughout the United Kingdom.

  Mr Griffin: I think it is important that we get this into perspective because I think Lord Maginnis's point is worth just exploring a little further. We are not suggesting that, in order to achieve effective resilience, willy-nilly there has to be amalgamation of this function. Essentially, there has to be a local response but there will be instances where, in order to get good communication from central government to the local responder and in certain wide-area emergencies, there needs to be some form of co-ordination and to that extent—and I would go so far as to say to that extent only—there needs to be an involvement by the regional offices and I think it is important not to get that out of perspective. If I can make one last point about the question of an obligation on central government, there are a number of central government agencies—a couple that come immediately to mind are the Food Standards Agency and the Health Protection Agency—that have a major role to play in many emergencies and we would argue that any obligations imposed on central government should go on those agencies as well.

  Q15  Chris Mole: Is the problem with this that we have a lack of regional government? There is no accountability to local people at a regional level and it is okay to suggest that we have a regional tier, but de facto that is operating under the control, as you have said, of national government departments at present. How can we look at ensuring that there is more accountability to local people at a regional level and how does it work at the moment?

  Councillor Chalke: The accountability is through the local authority and I am not personally a supporter of regional assemblies, so I am not going down that route. We believe that the government offices are best placed for that.

  Q16  Chris Mole: But there is no accountability—

  Councillor Chalke: It is a liaison role and it is a risk assessment and monitoring role. The actual services will be delivered in most cases by the local authority who are democratically accountable.

  Mr Ward: If I may just amplify from the practitioner's point of view. In all counties, there are emergency planning officer forums attended by the emergency planning officers who write and develop the plans and who carry out the exercising and the testing of those plans. These offices represent local authorities, the emergency services, the utilities and a number of other response organisations. This is very much at a practitioner's level. Above that in each country stands the senior co-ordinating group made up of the chief officers—the chief executive, chief constable and chief fire officer. It has more of a strategic overview of the functions of emergency planning within the county. The important part here will be the links between these groups and regional government and also the responsibilities of regional government, because we have well-established hard-working tiers which will have a greater emphasis with a statutory duty, I may add that with this regional role of co-ordination for events that I have just described, I believe the formation of the regional government will bring regional accountability.

  Q17  Chris Mole: At present, under the proposed structure of the Bill, am I right in saying that there is no elected politician responsible at a regional level for a whole raft of quite powerful measures that are contained within the Bill?

  Mr Ward: Yes.

  Q18  Chris Mole: Could I ask a quick question about military co-ordination at a regional and local level. What do you think the Bill has to say in terms of co-ordinating a military response in terms of planning? Would you like greater roles for local authorities and indeed do you think there is a regional approach that we should be adopting to co-ordinating military activity?

  Councillor Chalke: I think that the military authorities should be involved in the regional resilience forums and I speak from a county which probably has a greater military presence than many others and I can say that the willingness from the military to be involved is very much appreciated and the incident that I have left an account of will show the enormous amount of help we had from the military in that sort of position. Yes, they have the facilities but we accept that it cannot be expected at all times because they will have other priorities sometimes that they have to pursue, but there is a willingness from the military to be involved and I think we should encourage that.

  Mr Ward: In my own area, we have Catterick which has a very high military presence. There is a role for the military in supporting the local authorities in a wide range of areas but one must remember that, unlike the Fire Service example, they are not a first responder. What they can supply in terms of resources in longer-term types of incidents is excellent, but we must realise that the first response is at the local level. In the north east, I am pleased to say there is a very high commitment for the military to be involved in our planning arrangements.

  Q19  Lord Lucas: Looking at the other end of the scale, do you see scope for involvement by individuals on the pattern maybe of the Lifeboat Service, people who participate in training, have relevant skills and know in an emergency what it is they are meant to do at a very local level?

  Councillor Chalke: Many local authorities are involving at a parish level, where they have them of course, a number of volunteers who are very happy to come forward and I think that there is good practice around and we would want to encourage those volunteers to get properly trained in order that they can help to respond.

  Mr Ward: I think that the role of the voluntary organisations is vitally important and, from my own area, I have one particular allegiance with the WRVS who are absolutely superb in providing an excellent service in the back up to the emergency services. Yes, they have a very important role but they do need the training. I know a lot of areas where the local authority has taken on this task as a sub-group of its emergency planning officers forum to indicate to them, quote "We do value you and what training do we now need to give you to support us in the various areas?" In a number of areas, we have volunteers' plans to ensure that each of the primary responding agencies understands which voluntary agency would back them up during an incident.

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