HC Deb 09 January 2002 vol 377 cc530-1
5. Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)

What the role of his Department is in responding to civil emergencies. [23446]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The role of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office is to co-ordinate efforts across government to improve the effectiveness of civil contingency and emergency planning.

Joan Ryan

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he comment on the role of local authorities in dealing with civil emergencies and tell us whether he has had any contact with them on this issue since the tragic events of 11 September? Furthermore, will he comment on the resource issue that would face a local authority dealing with a civil emergency?

Mr. Leslie

This is a useful opportunity to pay tribute to the many emergency planning officers who work extremely hard in local authorities throughout the country to make sure that our emergency plans are up to date and are regularly exercised. They do a fantastic job. In the light of the events of 11 September, we have updated our guidance and are making sure that we are in regular discussions with local authorities and, in particular, with the Local Government Association.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

For those of us living in Devon, the foot and mouth crisis in the past year came pretty close to a civil emergency. Will the Minister today agree to the Government holding a full public inquiry into the disease so that lessons can be learned for the future, and if not, why not?

Mr. Leslie

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, a number of inquiries are under way into foot and mouth. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat seeks to ensure that all the different Departments that take a lead in tackling such emergencies have improved co-ordination so that we can be more effective in future.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Will my hon. Friend look carefully at the advice that the Civil Aviation Authority has given on overfly zones, in particular on the incidence of aircraft that have been held in holding patterns over high-risk sites? I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that there are more appropriate places to hold aircraft, even though our airspace is very crowded.

Mr. Leslie

I shall certainly discuss with officials the point that my hon. Friend makes. I know that the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has been considering the issue of aviation and the possible vulnerability of key sites, especially major chemical sites, for example. We have to be vigilant and ensure that we reduce vulnerability wherever possible.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)

The Minister may not be aware of a recent incident in Sandy in my constituency when a package that was suspected of containing anthrax caused a full-scale public emergency—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is far too much noise.

Alistair Burt

In the course of dealing with the necessary decontamination and the obvious personal aspects of that, no woman officer was available in the emergency team, which caused understandable distress. Will the Minister liaise with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that there is a solution to that problem, so that women officers are present whenever possible to deal with women who have been evacuated and need decontamination?

Mr. Leslie

This is an extremely important point. The guidance issued to reflect the chemical and biological risk that was perceived to be a problem in respect of postal services needs to include the way in which emergency services respond. There is no specific credible threat at present to the postal service in general, but the Cabinet Office is always reviewing the adequacy of our advice to the authorities on such matters.