HEALTH (WALES) BILL & CBW THREAT – 9 January 2003

[Chris Grayling: … This week, we have seen the first example of a chemical threat being discovered in this country. The PHLS (Public Health Laboratory Service) has been predominantly responsible for providing information to the public indirectly and to the NHS directly on the nature of that threat, on what treatments are available, if any, and on how medical practitioners should try to identify the possible appearance of symptoms that ultimately might represent a chemical or biological attack on or threat to this country.

After 1 April, the HPA (Health Protection Agency) will be responsible for such tasks. It will be at the heart of our security apparatus in defending this country and providing information to practitioners and the public on the risks that we might face. Therefore, as we consider the Bill and set in place new structures in Wales for public health information, it is fundamentally important that we understand the relationship between the HPA and the new bodies, especially the Wales Centre for Health.]  

Dr Julian Lewis: I support the argument that my hon. Friend is making. Will he accept from me the assurance that terrorist groups always try to think one jump ahead? Given that so much has been said in anticipation of a terrorist attack on London as the capital of the United Kingdom, terrorists thinking one jump ahead may be considering the capitals of Scotland and of the Principality precisely to take us by surprise. Is not that a particular reason for bodies in Scotland and in Wales having the extra representation for which he is arguing?

[Chris Grayling: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments, because he is driving at the nub of the reason for our laying the amendments on the Table for, I hope, the Minister's acceptance.]

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Dr Lewis: I thank the hon. Lady [Julie Morgan] for giving way, with typical courtesy. Surely she recognises, however, that a terrorist chemical or biological weapons threat would require a national lead from central Government? Does she not agree that if any subject under the sun requires such a lead, it is that subject?

[Julie Morgan: The hon. Gentleman is making important points sincerely, but I do not think that the Welsh body we are creating should be compelled to liase with another body. Moreover, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the arrangements in Wales differ from those in England. The Assembly will retain some responsibility for emergency planning.]

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[Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Wales Office, Don Touhig:  … I can reassure Members, however, that the Wales Centre for Health will not duplicate the expertise that the HPA will provide in Wales.]

Dr Lewis: I do not think that people are worried about the Welsh body duplicating the work of the national body. What worries them, I think, is the possibility that the Welsh body will not consider the role of the national body sufficiently. It is, surely, a crucial defence role, albeit a civil and domestic defence role. It makes no more sense for the Welsh Assembly to consider the work of a body with a national defence role of that sort than for it to consider other important aspects of defence policy and say, "These should be a matter for us". Surely the Minister can see that we are discussing an overall national danger, and that national defence measures are therefore required.

[Mr Touhig: I hope that the remarks that I am about to make will reassure the hon. Gentleman so far as that point is concerned. We need to distinguish between the roles of the Wales Centre for Health and of the Health Protection Agency. The HPA will bring together specialist expertise at a UK level against microbiological, chemical and radiological hazards, and terrorist threats. The WCH is in support of public health in Wales, so the two bodies have two distinct roles.]

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[Mr Touhig: I do not think that we want the legislation to prevent the WCH from providing any information to any national body such as the HPA, if that were thought appropriate. I see no reason why the WCH should not do that if it has something to contribute, but we need to understand the two separate roles of the HPA and the WCH.]

Dr Lewis: We are getting to the heart of the matter. The Minister is saying that the WCH would not be prohibited from contributing, but the amendment would ensure that the WCH could contribute, make useful statements and enable important measures to be taken in the event of a terrible attack of this sort. He is not really reassuring us that, without the representation for which the amendment argues, the new body in Wales will be able to take effective action in the event of a terrorist attack.

[Mr Touhig: Perhaps I should again make it clear that the bodies have two separate roles. The HPA will bring together specialist expertise at a UK level against microbiological, chemical and radiological hazards and terrorist threats. The WCH is in support of public health in Wales. … I have no doubt that, if the WCH wanted to make a contribution, it would be able to do so through proper collaboration – which will come – between the two bodies.]