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FEATURES - PANIC STATIONS

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Emergency powers are being brought up to date. Tony Reynolds explains...
Emergency powers are being brought up to date. Tony Reynolds explains

Emergency planning legislation is in dire need of revision. It is rooted in the political and economic climate of the early years of the Cold War.

The Civil Contingencies Secretariat within the Cabinet Office is preparing a Civil Contingencies Bill, which it is hoped will produce an overarching framework to tackle all forms of the myriad threats to society, and councils are being consulted on the best way to develop this legislation.

Council leaders met earlier this week to discuss a range of issues around emergency planning at a conference organised by the Local Authorities Radiation Network.

The conference provided a forum to discuss current issues in emergency planning such as what happens after a nuclear accident, regulations on public information and councils' responsibilities when faced with a major incident.

The network was originally set up in 1988 to support and advise councils on monitoring radiation in the environment and responding to emergencies in the light of the Chernobyl disaster.

LARNet chairman Aubrey Poberefsky says: 'On 11 September, the world changed. No council is immune to a Chernobyl-type incident whether accidental or an act of terrorism and we should all be prepared.'

Before the attacks of 11 September, the Home Office had sent guidance to councils about how a terrorist attack using chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological weapons would be dealt with. That is being reviewed and updated by central government with representation from local government.

Several issues have been identified which will form the basis of the Civil Contingencies Bill including a need to bring together all activities which fall within the definition of civil protection. For example, there will be no separation between civil defence and emergency planning.

The bill aims to provide a long-term structure for the future of emergency planning in the UK.

Responsibility for setting up temporary morgues and public information points would be clearly defined under the new legislation.

Emergency powers are being reviewed to make them more applicable to modern circumstances. Civil defence arrangements are being revised to reflect the latest planning arrangements and bring them within the wider civil protection framework.

It is hoped the new legislation will go some way towards addressing the worrying verdict of a recent House of Commons select committee report, which was concerned that 'a great deal of effort has been expended without clear strategic direction'.

The LARNet conference provided a clear direction for emergency planners and its website includes news updates as well as a national monitoring database and the ominously titled emergency page. This page will be continually updated in the event of a nuclear incident or emergency, providing up to the minute details and advice.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin recently made political capital out of the haphazard arrangements for emergency planning, citing an e-mail sent to a dozen councils in the Yorkshire and Humber region as evidence of the 'government's amateurish approach to terrorist threat'.

Mr Letwin said: 'The government's plans for dealing with a major terrorist incident are ameteurish and disorganised.'

Those in charge of emergency planning at central and local level are keen to dispel this sort of criticism and the work of LARNet and the Civil Contingencies Bill will go some way to reassure people that all possible precautions are in place.

www.larnet.org.uk

Tony Reynolds

LARNet officer

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