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The noble Lord said: My Lords, there are some occasions when an oral direction is better than a written one, this being one of them. There are others when it is the other way around. I am delighted that the Government have converted themselves to the same point of view as myself, and I welcome them. I beg to move.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 32 and 37 in this group. It is clear that the Government have tabled very similar amendments to mine on this point, which achieve the end that we were all aiming for in Committee. I say "all", but I mean those who spoke against the Government. I thank the Government for listening to the debate and realising that we had a good point.
These clauses detail what will happen in the most urgent of situations in England, Wales and Scotland. The current drafting of the Bill allows a Minister to make emergency provisions either orally or by written instructions. We feel that in emergency situations, it is best practice to write directions down. We very much appreciate the need for swift action, and I want to put it on record that we in no way want to slow the response to an emergency. There is a real danger, however, that if oral directions are given, they are open to misunderstanding or misinterpretation.
Taking time to write something down also allows a little time for reflection on one's actions. Writing something down will also help those who are looking at the exercise of any such powers by a Minister after the emergency is over. If his orders are written down they are there, in black and white. Memoriesparticularly those in the grip of an urgent situationare not always reliable, even if the person recalling the incident is completely well meaning.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, rarely has such generosity been expressed across the Floor of your Lordships' House. I rise simply to speak to the government amendments. The purpose of our amendments is well understood, but I shall put it on the record.
Both the government amendments and the opposition amendments aim to remove the possibility of directions under Clause 7, or in Scotland Clause 8, being given orally. Understandable concerns were expressed by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee about the need for oral directions, and that point was pressed in Committee. Our amendments remove the possibility of directions being issued by oral means and should entirely meet opposition concerns on the point.
"REPORT TO PARLIAMENT
The Secretary of State shall make arrangements for an annual report to Parliament on the preparations made by government in relation to civil contingencies and on the performance of the persons or bodies listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 1 in respect of their duties under this Act."
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I apologise to the Front Bench of the Liberal Democrat PartyI regard this sort of amendment as their territory. Indeed, I voted for an amendment like this in yesterday's debate on the Pensions Bill. Sadly, I was just in the minority. If anything along the lines of the amendment proves attractive to that Front Bench, I would be delighted if they would bring it back at Third Reading and I shall support them then.
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The purpose of the amendment is to hold the Government to a promise that they made in Committee. They promised that they would consider how government would report to Parliament on the performance of their duties in return for their not being given any duties under the Bill. I look forward to the Government's response. I beg to move.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, annual reports are a popular amendment in your Lordships' House, and I can well understand why opposition parties seek to move them. Annual reports have that feel to themas if to say, "We're jolly well going to hold the Government to account. Make them report annually to us. Have things placed on the record. Ensure that we extract every last piece of information from them, and then we'll move on and do something else". But what does this amendment seek to prove? It proves nothing. It would achieve very little.
We already have a clear and convincing strategy in place for developing our counter-terrorism and resilience capabilities. We know that we have robust contingency planning and exercising arrangements in place. Local responders understand how they fit into the wider picture. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, develops the theme simply by seeking to introduce a mechanism to ensure that the Government are transparent about their civil contingencies work. However, we are transparent. We have made clear what we are doing. We have set out our plans. There are more than ample opportunities for your Lordships' House and another place to debate and consider how we are working.
I understand why people call for annual reports to be presented to Parliament, but we make regular Statements on the issues that will undoubtedly be covered by an annual report. The Home Office regularly reports on these issues. The Home Secretary has made many Statements to another place on them. When an emergency has arisen in the past, account has regularly been made to Parliament. We do not see any need at all for an annual report in the form in which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is requesting it. Plenty of mechanisms are already in place in Parliament for reporting on the detail of the quality, quantity and robustness of contingency planning.
We provide maximum public information. In our earlier debate about providing advice and information, I thought that our comments were received well and our reassurances were to some degree accepted by Members of your Lordships' House. We are trying to be as open as we possibly can about our counter-terrorism and resilience arrangements. We have made available a large amount of practical and helpful information to businesses, voluntary organisations and individuals about emergencies. I believe that the regularity with which we report on these matters to Parliament gathers respect. We set out our plans and thinking in these matters in a whole range of documents that are appropriate to the issue. I am sure that most people would agree that, despite all the difficulties in this field,
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Parliament already has access not only to information about the Government's approach, but also to the tools to hold them properly to account.
I can understand why the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, might want to have an annual and regular report. However, I suspect that, in the end, like all such matters, it will get lost among all the other annual reports in various guises that amendments down the years have proposed in order to hold government to account for the detail of their activity.
I do not think that the amendment is necessary. I think that we already have sufficient reporting mechanisms. We have transparency on the issue. That would be a far more effective and, ultimately, flexible way of dealing with this. If the issue is important enough for the Government to be held to account, then that needs to happen not just annually but at regular intervals and on occasion when there is a real cause to hold the Government to account for their activities in this field.
As much as I respect the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for proposing the amendment, I do not think that it takes us forward in any particular direction. I think that, ultimately, it is inflexible in its extent and operation.
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