Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1480
WEDNESDAY 22 MAY 2002
MP, MR BRUCE
DENHAM MP, MR
LESLIE MP AND
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
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 defencesI 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
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",
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
(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
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.
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
(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
viewand this may not be the view of the Committeeis
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
(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.