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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

The government - criticised from all parts of the lords for lack of clarity on its plans for strengthening services to tackle civil emergencies, especially in the wake of 11 September - revealed it is to give more resources and responsibilities to its own regional offices.

Home Office minister Lord Filkin, replying to the lords' debate, said the government had spent time over the past 12 months considering who should be responsible for coping with emergencies. Clarity of command and responsibility was fundamental. At local level, if there was a disaster or emergency, the police were responsible. Across government, to achieve clarity of command, the home secretary had the clear leadership role, accountable to the prime minister.

There was also a need to give a clear statement of which government department would lead on each situation.

Lord Filkin said the government was aware that a disaster could occur in several local authorities at once or across several local authorities. Local government minister Nick Raynsford said London local authorities, the Metropolitan Police and other bodies had spent time considering the arrangements in London, which was a potential prime target.

The minister continued: 'A considerable amount of detailed work has been done to consider how we need to strengthen our preparedness. That has led us to the conclusion that, above all, we need to reinforce the role of the commissioner of police, clarify the local government lead role at chief executive level and recognise that we need robust cross-local government arrangements to deal with potential incidents.

'Our conclusion from that is that we need a strengthening of regional capacity across the country. That is why we are signalling that it is important that, in the first instance, the government offices for the region are strengthened with an additional team capable of giving leadership and testing that capacity'.

Lord Filkin added: 'None of that takes away for a second from the importance of local authorities. The county emergency service is crucial in that respect, but it will not be able to deal with issues that span wider than an individual county, nor would we expect to do so'.

He said the government believed some form of performance management testing was needed for central government, the emergency services and for local government and the police service. It may have to develop national standards and an audit process.

The civil contingencies Bill should be published in draft next spring.

The minister continued: 'There is a leadership issue for local authority members and chief executives and the LGA itself. They should not wait for the Bill to tell them to prepare effective plans - by themselves and with others. They should be doing so. It is as plain as the nose on one's face that the world is different from what it was two years ago, and they should act in that context'.

Liberal Democrat Lord Roper, who initiated the debate, said he was impressed by some action by central government, by London authorities and some other councils, but there were real gaps in the country's preparedness and significant variations in performance between different areas.

He questioned what resources were being devoted to training people involved in emergency planning and asked whether the former civil defence college at Easingwold, North Yorkshire, had been given a new training role. The promised new link between the Territorial Army and civil emergency services was vital, but not yet operational.

Lord Roper said high level exercises should be undertaken throughout the country, and the public kept informed of what was being done. The LGA, he said, believed new legislation was essential.

He criticised government funding, saying: 'The figures announced today of only£19m for all our local authorities means that effectively expenditure in this area will have been static for seven years. Emergency planners are convinced that that is not enough. It is a ridiculous amount. The increase for each local authority for next year will be all of£386. That does not seem to be a serious way to address the issue'.

Liberal Democrat Baroness Harris said people needed to know that government departments, local authorities, voluntary organisations, emergency services and the armed services were not only meeting together and creating co-ordinated plans, but were training together and being given the resources they needed.

She said during the Great Heck train disaster in North Yorkshire excellent multi-agency arrangements were in place, involving seven police forces, four ambulance services and four fire services. A concern at the time, however, was that the role of regional government was 'an irritation and was not really a helpful channel of advice or support'.

She sought assurances that the new role of the government offices would not simply be another layer of bureaucracy getting in the way of local determination of emergencies.

Baroness Blatch, Conservative deputy leader in the lords, - who revealed she had been approached to become president of the National Council for Civil Protection - said Cambridgeshire CC was one of the first authorities to develop an all-hazards approach, because Cambridge City Council was a nuclear-free zone. It did not matter whether it was a wartime or peacetime emergency.

In the 1970s and '80s many councillors attended courses at Easingwold and there was a constant raising of awareness in local government of the importance of emergency planning issues.

She quoted from a document - but did not reveal the source- which said we [the government offices] were 'bidding for resources which would permit the recruitment of additional staff in the Regional Co-ordination Unit and GOs to allow them play an active role in contingency planning, regional preparedness, communications, training and manpower planning'.

Baroness Blatch said the memo added that the Emergency Planning Review - 'which review', she asked - 'uncovered a gap in arrangements between local and central tiers of government. The consultation exercise undertaken as part of the review pointed to a significant lack of clarity about central government planning as it impacted on the regions and about roles and responsibilities at regional level'.

The memo concluded that each regional office would have a small team to exert strong influence in co-ordinating strategies and plans and represent the centre effectively in the regions'.

Baroness Blatch commented: 'We need some answers to that and certainly the county council planning officers will also want some answers'.

She said some local authorities were to receive smaller emergency planning grants than last year. More importantly, the grant was still being handed out without any clear idea as to what level of funding was necessary. She supported local authorities who wanted an urgent review of the 1948 Act.

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