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Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (Amendment of List of Responders) Order 2023

Volume 827: debated on Monday 23 January 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (Amendment of List of Responders) Order 2023.

Relevant document: 24th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this order was laid before the House on 6 December. I think we are all agreed on the importance of improving UK resilience, and the recently published resilience framework illustrates the need for clear responsibilities in order to drive planning activity across the risk life cycle.

This instrument will do exactly that by creating the legal basis for improved co-operation, information sharing and integration between the Meteorological Office and the Coal Authority and the wider list of categorised organisations operating at the local level across the UK. It will deliver these important changes by making both organisations category 2 responders as defined under the Civil Contingencies Act, in turn bolstering the planning activities conducted by local resilience forums in England—a further commitment of the new resilience framework.

This will ensure that these bodies are well integrated within wider emergency planning frameworks and able to collaborate in the development of localised risk assessments and to contribute information and expertise to support local resilience forums in planning for and responding to emergencies. Both organisations hold information and experience that is integral to the process of civil protection. The Meteorological Office is able to support effective management of severe weather risks, and the Coal Authority is positioned to ensure that due consideration is given to the unique risks presented by our industrial heritage.

I was amazed by this: approximately 25% of property across the UK is located on the coalfield, and the Coal Authority responds to a wide range of incidents, including, but not limited to, subsidence, sudden ground collapses, emissions of water or gas and coal tip slips, as well as metal mine pollution incidents, for which it also has responsibility. As we all know, extreme weather and flooding, which we have increasingly experienced, often heighten the likelihood of risks materialising in these areas.

The Civil Contingencies Act, also known as the CCA, was introduced in 2004 following a review of emergency planning arrangements as a result of the fuel crisis and severe flooding in 2000, as well as the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The Act establishes a framework for civil protection in the UK. It imposes a clear set of roles and responsibilities on organisations with a role to play in preparing for and responding to emergencies.

Category 1 responders are organisations that collectively form the core of local emergency preparedness and response. These include emergency services, local authorities, health bodies, HM Coastguard and government agencies. Category 1 responders are subject to the full set of statutory civil protection duties, including assessing risks to inform contingency planning, warning and informing the public, and putting in place business continuity arrangements.

Category 2 organisations, which include the Health and Safety Executive and utilities and transport operators, are co-operating bodies and, although less likely to be involved in the heart of planning work, are heavily involved in incidents that affect their own sector. Category 2 responders have a statutory duty to co-operate and share relevant information with other category 1 and 2 responders. The Act and regulations made under the CCA create the basis for these organisations to collaborate through local resilience forums where all responders can come together to ensure effective multiagency emergency preparation and response.

Regulations made under the CCA also place a duty on responders to help co-ordinate risk assessment at their local level through the production of the community risk register, which ensures that local resilience forum members hold a consistent understanding of the hazards and threats across their area.

The CCA is reviewed every five years. The most recent post-implementation review was laid before the House in March 2022 and proposed the categorisation of the Met Office and the Coal Authority as one of its key recommendations. The Met Office and Coal Authority perform important functions in preparing for, and responding to, risks associated with extreme weather events and the coal-mining legacy. Recent examples include several heatwaves in 2022, a number of floods in recent weeks and, in the past few days, a sinkhole that has, sadly, opened up in Caerphilly. The two organisations have significant expertise and technical knowledge in their respective fields and provide critical support, such as severe weather warnings, hazard assessments, training and response planning.

While these organisations already work closely with local partners, our consultation and engagement indicated that, without their integration within the legal framework, this was taking place in an inconsistent or ad hoc way. Categorising these organisations will ensure that they are able to share information and co-operate with local resilience forums across the UK in a more regulated and structured way. This will ultimately improve the preparedness of local partnerships to respond to incidents related to coal mines or severe weather and strengthen their ability to protect the public and save lives.

This instrument is being made using powers set out in Section 13(1) of the Civil Contingencies Act, which allows a Minister of the Crown to amend the list of categorised responders. It will add the Meteorological Office and the Coal Authority to the list of responders under the Act. Importantly, these amendments do not add significant financial burdens to the Meteorological Office or the Coal Authority as these organisations are already equipped to perform these additional duties under their current budgets, with a de minimis impact assessment having been completed in December 2022.

These provisions will be implemented across the UK, and we have consulted officials from the devolved Administrations throughout the process. We also formally notified each Administration via ministerial letters of our intention to lay this instrument. Noble Lords will be glad to hear that all devolved Administrations were supportive of the inclusion of these agencies as categorised responders for the whole United Kingdom. I therefore thank each Administration for their engagement and collaboration. I hope that colleagues today will join me in supporting the draft regulations. I commend them to the Committee and beg to move.

I thank the Minister for her helpful introduction to this statutory instrument. It is an excellent proposal to include the coal providers and the meteorological service as category 2 responders. The actual legislation is barely half a page. The rest of the documentation, both the Explanatory Memorandum and the evidence base, are extremely helpful in explaining how the emergency provision is supposed to operate in practice and the difference between the responsibilities of a category 1 and category 2 responder.

I want to raise an issue about how well that is working in practice—and I declare an interest that my grand-daughters were born very prematurely and very small and, this time five years ago, the smallest of them had been allowed home from hospital only after the first eight months of her life, with a ventilator to operate when she was asleep at night and during the day. Nobody was allowed to look after her who had not been trained by the hospital because, if the ventilator failed, there would obviously be very serious consequences. They also provided a heart monitor. At the time, my son and daughter-in-law were told to let their utility supplier know that they required emergency support in the event of a power cut. There was one such power cut—and, when you have a sick baby home from hospital for the first time, you are watching the minutes ticking by and knowing that the battery on your child’s ventilator and heart alarm is going to run down fairly swiftly.

My son rang the utility emergency number, which confirmed that they were on the register, that it was only their estate in south London that had gone out and that, in due course, a generator would be brought to them. An hour and a half later, the story was still the same. My son had to take the decision to remove my granddaughter and all her kit—which filled the car—and bring her to us, where we did have power and were able to ensure that she was safe. I therefore have a particular interest in the emergency supply of electricity, not just for vulnerable people but for those whose lives depend on it.

When there was concern in the autumn about possible blackouts this year, no matter how unlikely, to make sure that the arrangements under the CCA would work for this small group of people, children and adults who have to rely on literally life-saving equipment to keep them alive I asked Energy Ministers and Health Ministers about the registers, which are still held by the utility providers, which are category 2 providers. Disabled groups have also been asking about them. Grant Shapps gave evidence at a BEIS Select Committee meeting that arrangements are there but these individuals need to make emergency arrangements for themselves, which has not been the case in the past and which I found quite extraordinary. For clarity, the register is called the priority services register. That is the one for all vulnerable customers, but it does not distinguish the level of emergency need—and therein lies the problem. In the event of mass power cuts, it is clearly impractical for any energy supplier to provide electricity generators to lots of people at short notice, but asking residents who fall into that category to make that provision for themselves is a further problem.

What has become more worrying, and the reason why I raise this now, is that utility suppliers are telling these individuals that they need to talk to their doctors, who have absolutely no role in this at all. It is clear to many people that the utility suppliers do not understand their role in managing the register. I have also talked to two directors of public health, who are key players on any health issues in local resilience forums and have a particular role in a civil contingency situation, such as a major power cut. They say that they cannot get the right information from the energy suppliers about who it is who needs that extra care. All the focus is on the vulnerable elderly who might get cold. The particular group of people that I refer to seems to fall through the net.

Can the Minister investigate for me how this is meant to work and confirm whether the Secretary of State for BEIS was correct in his assertion in the autumn that the responsibility now lies with the individuals concerned—which seems extraordinary? Can she also confirm whether it is clear to local resilience forums what they should be doing and where they should get their information from regarding this particular group of people?

To end on a happier note: my granddaughter no longer uses a ventilator at night—it took three years—and I must say that all the support that she has had from everyone has been brilliant. But we are a family who really understand the consequences of a major power cut and how life-threatening that can be for a small but very vulnerable group of people.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for this. This comes in the midst of strong negative comments across the House about the way in which Ministers are now handling too many SIs and too much delegated legislation. This seems to be a model of how it should work, and I compliment the Minister.

I am most acutely interested in the flood prevention area. As the “Saltaire” in my title suggests, we live on—happily, above—the River Aire. Indeed, the weekend before last, we walked down to see just how high the river had got. We well remember when, four winters ago, it was higher than it had been for over a century. All of us in Yorkshire who live below the Pennines are now conscious of the increasing flood risk which we all face and how much of a problem this becomes in terms of the multiagency response when floods happen. Happily, we are not in the Yorkshire coal-mining area, and lead mining is more of a legacy problem in the Dales, but I am conscious that in the acute wet weather last summer, there were potholes in the limestone region which filled up with water for the first time in nearly a century. Clearly, we are in exceptional circumstances and the potential for danger, loss of life and loss of property is now higher than it has been.

I have a few brief questions. In the consultation, were other agencies considered for addition to the list of category 2 responders? How good are the links between Defra as responsible for the countryside, the Environment Agency as responsible for drainage and the various LRFs and others concerned with flood risk? We are all aware, particularly those of us who live in the shadow of the hills, that how you look after catchment areas relates very clearly to the degree of flood risk that is involved. As the climate changes, that is something that needs broader attention at local, regional and national level. Are the Government happy that local resilience forums work well? The Minister will also have noticed the growing chorus of unease about the overcentralisation of England and the weakening power and finances of local authorities and local agencies. Local resilience forums are very important in areas such as this—these are people who know the ground; they know where the coal mines were and where the other local hazards are—and I hope that they work well.

Finally, my noble friend Lady Brinton raised electricity supply as one of the factors in dealing with disasters. I am conscious that we are moving in a direction in which electricity will increasingly become the only source of power supply for a growing number of homes. As it happens, at present my wife is in dispute with BT, which is trying to remove our landline and give us phone access only by broadband. That means that when and if there is an electricity problem, we are likely to run out of juice with which to make phone calls fairly rapidly. That is an extra hazard that we are moving into because one of the utilities wants to get rid of the costs of maintaining landlines. I hope that the Cabinet Office has also considered this as an important risk factor in case of emergency.

Having said all that, I welcome this order and I repeat: this is a model SI in the way it is being scrutinised—unlike many others.

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister’s introduction to the SI. Certainly, it is one of the least controversial ones that I have ever dealt with, so I will not labour the point too much.

I would like the Minister to comment on how well the CCA five-yearly review works. Bearing in mind that, on Radio 4, the Environment Agency’s comments on the risk of river flooding were so closely aligned to the Meteorological Office’s warnings, I wonder what difference this statutory obligation will make. Will it have added value? The two things here that have come out of the review are so logical that one wonders why this was not done before. Will the department add other elements of the review? Are there elements that will still require action?

Certainly, there can be no reason for not adding these two bodies as category 2 responders; I am sure that both are currently working to provide information and support. The Minister said that they will not perform additional duties; they are already performing the duties, so there will be no additional cost, but I would like to know how this statutory responsibility will add to the benefit of their work.

With those few comments, I support the order and wish it well.

I thank noble Lords for this short and very positive debate. It is nice to be able to celebrate delegated legislation that is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, particularly given that, in another world, when I was a poacher rather than a gamekeeper, we used to ask questions about these things together. I thank him very much; it has made my day.

I will respond briefly to some of the helpful points made. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised the very important question of how the legislation works in practice for vulnerable people such as her granddaughter, whom I am delighted to hear is now off the ventilator. A bit of good news is that there are additional recommendations in the CCA review of the legislation—the PIR—which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to, which look to strengthen the requirement on the local resilience forums to consider vulnerable people, and a dedicated BEIS-led programme on power supply.

I will write to the noble Baroness with more information about that, but she is right that we should be improving things for vulnerable people across the board. I will liaise with my noble friend Lady Bloomfield, and between us we will see what we can do about the point that the noble Baroness raised about electricity and, indeed, the more general question about vulnerable people. We have a new resilience framework, and we are very keen for it to think more about the user and to have more of a whole-society approach. The noble Baroness’s point is an excellent example, if we can crack it, of what we should be doing.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked what other agencies we thought of adding to category 2. Obviously, it is important to ensure that structures are efficient and effective, and balance is critical in making sure that those important to local planning and preparation are included but do not overwhelm the system. Noble Lords will remember that I used to work in the supermarket industry. We always thought that our role was very important but, in fact, we were not category 2 responders, although we were involved in assisting in the event of terror attacks, flooding, and so on. The honest answer is that other organisations and agencies did not make the cut in terms of benefit versus burden, but if I have any more information, I will pass it on.

The point about phone use and the move to the internet is something I have experienced where I live when I am in London. Exactly the same thing has happened with Virgin Media: we have moved from having a home phone to it now being linked to the wi-fi. I think the noble Lord raises a good point; I do not know what is being done about it, but I will make some inquiries.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about outstanding commitments from the review. As he probably remembers from previous debates, I am very keen on post-implementation evaluation. There are two other potential legislative changes. The first places a reporting obligation on categorised responders to set out publicly how they comply with their statutory duties under the Act. However, we think that may require primary legislation, so it will not be done overnight. The second removes the legacy role of regional nominated co-ordinators in Part 2 of the Act; the regional government offices in England were closed in 2010. That also requires primary legislation, although it is probably less urgent, given its nature.

There were also some non-statutory recommendations. We have committed to placing the national resilience standards, which set out expectations of good and leading practice for local resilience forums, on a statutory footing. We have committed to updating the statutory and non-statutory UK guidance that accompanies the Act. The requirement to produce a community risk register is to be strengthened, with a requirement for responders to consider community demographics, particularly for vulnerable groups, in preparing their community risk register. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will be delighted to hear this and it might be relevant to her point. The multiagency preparedness activities conducted by local resilience arrangements require enhanced accountability, which is being given further consideration as part of DLUHC’s reform programme of the local resilience forums. Noble Lords may remember from the debate on extreme risks the other day that I explained that those forums had got more support and are regarded as very important.

In addition, assurance of the preparedness activities conducted as part of local resilience arrangements needs to go further than the current voluntary assessments and peer review. Obligations on central government departments to improve information sharing and planning between national and local, such as through a statutory duty to co-operate and information sharing paralleling what we have with category 1 and 2, should be considered; there are various options that could be looked at. That needs further consideration, but I hope noble Lords can see that that work is in hand.

The recent crisis, including the increasingly eccentric weather—it was -7C in my part of Wiltshire this weekend, which is extraordinary—means that we need to do more in these areas. I hope we have made it clear that that is exactly our plan. It is one of the reasons that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster put out a major document within the last month.

Finally, what difference will the SI make? I make it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that the intention of this intervention is to improve the civil protection framework and ultimately to increase the level of preparedness of relevant organisations to respond collectively to emergencies. The “collective” is as important as anything. As I said in my opening remarks, the new categorisations will increase responder understanding of severe weather, climate change and mining-related risks, and better inform our work to prevent, prepare, respond and recover, thereby improving resilience and reducing adverse impacts.

I believe that the Civil Contingencies Act delivers a strong framework for civil protection in the UK. These two additional responders will strengthen it. I hope that colleagues will join me in supporting the regulations, which I commend to the Committee.

I thank the Minister very much for her generous response. When she writes to me—perhaps we might even be able to meet on this—could she draw a distinction between the general category of vulnerable people and those who are highly impacted by whatever the emergency is? In the case I gave it was utilities.

Indeed. The noble Baroness made it very clear in her contribution that that was exactly the problem: vulnerability comes in different clothing and different categories. We should look at that as part of our resilience work; otherwise, there will be repeated disappointments of the kind she helpfully brought to the attention of the Committee.

Motion agreed.