Since its introduction earlier this year, the Government's draft Civil Contingencies...

Since its introduction earlier this year, the Government's draft Civil Contingencies Bill has been met with a mixture of excitement and concern, says Gemma Rogers

Risk management and business continuity planning have been creeping up the corporate agenda for some time now. But since 9/11, widespread concern has been expressed about the UK's lack of preparation to deal with a large-scale incident, and the Government has recognised the need to reinforce the ability of authorities to deal with such civil emergencies.

The Bill is intended to provide a range of resources to deal with a variety of emergency situations, such as terrorism and environmental disasters, as part of strengthening the resilience of communities in such emergency situations. It widens the definition of an 'emergency' to cover such areas as disruption to the political and economic stability of a particular region, or a security threat. Situations such as the recent foot and mouth outbreak would also be included. A single framework to deal with all such situations is intended to maximise efficiency, and the draft Bill was open to public consultation for some time.

Although many organisations within the public sector have been seeking to improve and strengthen their risk management strategies to deal with emergency situations, it is recognised that there is still much room for improvement. The UK's resilience in dealing with civil emergencies has been an issue for many years, but recent catastrophic events have brought it to the forefront of everyone's attention.

ALARM is the leading public sector risk management organisation in the country, and is dedicated to improving the ability to identify and manage risks within public sector organisations. Says chairman Bob Cope: "ALARM believes that any proposals seeking to establish closer integration between risk management, emergency planning and business continuity planning, in developing strategic partnerships within the public sector are laudable, if executed properly.

"Nobody can deny that the Bill has the potential to ensure efficient risk management and organisational stability in the face of adversity, but there are also fundamental concerns about the implications of the Bill in both strategic and operational terms. Thus far, there is a lack of clarity about the allocation of roles and responsibilities as part of the arrangements, and it is consequently unclear how a coherent and co-ordinated approach will be developed. ALARM believes that unless some over-arching protocol is introduced, which clearly establishes responsibilities, the proposals are in danger of being unworkable."

The funding arrangements flowing from the proposals are also cause for concern - at this stage funding details are missing in the draft and there is uncertainty as to what this will mean in practice. If the additional costs are not sufficiently provided for by central Government, there is justified concern that its implementation may cause problems for front-line service delivery.

Such funding issues also extend into the realms of the training requirements and how those costs will be met. The current civil defence framework has been in place since the 1950s - and implementation of the new Bill will take considerable time and resources. Public sector staff are already under immense financial strain in seeking to develop and deliver existing local services, and clarity is required in terms of whether the new arrangements are to be funded locally, regionally or nationally and at what level.

The draft Bill incorporates a revision of the Government's range of emergency powers, which are wide in scope and may be called upon to achieve many outcomes, running across a range of policy sectors. They could include suspending statutory requirements, which may inhibit response/recovery work, and could restrict travel, evacuation and decontamination procedures. Obviously this would not be considered unless absolutely vital, but there is a very real fear that a wrong decision could be made and unnecessary chaos caused.

There is no doubt that the proposals would impact on all public sector risk managers in some way, and local authorities in particular will be required to promote business continuity planning for their domestic and business communities. Regional resilience will be enhanced through a proposed 'regional civil protection tier' and local and regional authorities such as councils and emergency services will be required to draw up detailed catastrophe management plans. A clear regional role will ensure consistent activity across all tiers.

Bob Cope comments: "Risk management organisations such as ALARM have been trying to get authorities to carry out this work for years, in response to the plethora of risks that public sector organisations face. Recent studies have proven that many public sector organisations still do not have adequate risk management strategies in place, so any proposals which encourage them must be welcomed, provided it is clear exactly what it will entail for all parties involved.

"ALARM is one of the supporters of the principle of the Bill and believes that, if executed properly, it will aid those public sector risk managers toiling to increase awareness of risk management and make people realise that it is a vital tool."

It is still early days for the Bill, but robust plans for dealing with a catastrophe are needed. Local authorities shying away from risk management will feel more confident in devising appropriate strategies and will feel more prepared to deal with an emergency. Caution is inevitable until some more questions are answered, but no one can deny that spreading the risk management word will better prepare everyone.

Gemma Rogers wrote this in association with ALARM, Tel: 01395 223399,