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Ministers Seek Sweeping New Emergency Powers

By Joe Churcher and Trevor Mason, Political Staff, PA News

Ministers must be given sweeping new powers to deal with terror attacks and other emergencies if Britain is to be protected from 21st century threats, MPs were told today.

Cabinet Minister Douglas Alexander said the Civil Contingencies Bill would replace outdated legislation "not designed with the needs of modern society in mind".

Opening second reading of the legislation, he reassured MPs that allowing ministers to by-pass Parliament and issue urgent orders would not over-ride human rights legislation.

He conceded that the Government's move to water down the proposals under pressure from civil liberties groups had improved the legislation.

And he also disclosed that agreement had been reached with Buckingham Palace that the Home Secretary could use the powers without the Queen's express consent in exceptional circumstances.

Mr Alexander said that the Bill was not simply a response to the September 11 terror attacks and work had first started on it following the disastrous floods of the previous summer.

As well as the emergency powers, the Bill aims to improve co-ordination between central and local government and other organisations responsible for public safety, and make clear their responsibilities in the case of a disaster.

The responses to disasters and emergencies such as the King's Cross fire, the foot-and-mouth outbreak, recent rail crashes and the fuel crisis had also proved the need for fresh legislation in that area.

The Minister told MPs that the present laws for local responses were the "final vestige of cold war civil defence architecture" that only dealt with "hostile attacks".

And central Government powers were brought in following the national police strike of 1919, he pointed out.

Neither set of legislation took account of "the significant cultural, technological and constitutional changes that took place in the second half of the last century".

Telecommunications and IT networks were not included, for example, he said.

"The Bill sets out a new definition of what constitutes an emergency appropriate to the times in which we live and incorporates new risks and threats not anticipated in the 1920s, including contamination of land following a biological or chemical terrorist attack and loss of electronic or other communications systems on which we now depend."

The definition of an emergency in the Bill was changed after a joint committee of MPs and peers set up to scrutinise it warned it would allow a future Government to invoke the powers simply to protect its own existence.

Originally including threats to the "political, administrative or economic stability", an emergency is now defined more tightly as "an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare, the environment or the security of the United Kingdom or a place in the United Kingdom".

This could still cover a wide range of disasters from a terror outrage to major flooding, catastrophic storms, outbreaks of animal or human diseases, oil-spills, disruption of fuel supplies or even a serious attack on the Internet.

Mr Alexander said the wide consultation on the legislation had made "a real difference" and promised to involve the public further before making specific regulations.

He also set out the strengthened "triple lock" that was the "key safeguard" included in the Bill to ensure that emergency powers are not invoked without good reason.

Ministers would have to be sure that a serious problem had occurred or was about to occur, show emergency regulations were necessary to deal with it and show measures taken were proportionate to the threat.

The Bill retains the power for ministers to amend any Act of Parliament, but states that any emergency regulation issued by ministers must be approved retrospectively by MPs within 30 days.

The Government also agreed that directions issued by a minister in an emergency should lapse after 21 days unless approved by Parliament during that time.

Mr Alexander said that agreement had been reached that if the Queen was unable to approve use of the powers "without serious delay" a senior minister could make the regulations alone.

The power would be "rarely if ever used", he said.

For the first time, the Bill allows the declaration of a state of emergency in a particular region of the UK.

It also makes it possible for the state to take control of major financial institutions or declare a bank holiday to protect the markets from massive fluctuations in the wake of a disaster.

Challenged over whether the powers would allow the Government to suspend the Human Rights Act, he said: "If the Government made emergency regulations which did not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights the Government would be committing an unlawful act in making them."

Press reports that human rights would be suppressed were wrong, he said.