Charities denied crisis plan role

The British Red Cross and Salvation Army have accused the Government of hypocrisy over its refusal to ensure that the voluntary sector's contribution to emergency response planning is built into legislation.

In the same week that the Government promised the new Draft Charities Bill would "boost the impact" charities have on people's lives, it refused to accede to sector requests to amend the Civil Contingencies Bill.

MPs from all parties spent two hours discussing the bill at its third reading in the House of Commons, but threw out the amendments by 283 votes to 141.

The changes desired by the Red Cross, WRVS, St John Ambulance and the Salvation Army would have placed a legal duty on local authorities and the emergency services to consult with the sector in planning responses to major crises such as terrorist attacks.

The charities have been lobbying MPs furiously to secure the amendments, but it is believed that local authority planning officers and the Association of Chief Police Officers have been lobbying to preserve the status quo, fearing that a legal requirement to consult with the sector would place an extra burden on them.

The Red Cross's director of UK services, Virginia Beardshaw, said the debate was positive, despite the vote. "We are making an impact, pushing the issue up the agenda. I think the sector's role will be much clearer and stronger, no matter how the legislation is eventually framed."

However, the charities say ministers' position is at odds with rhetoric about boosting the role of the sector in delivering public services. Beardshaw said: "We are politely but firmly pointing out that this is inconsistent. Government can't claim to have warm, embracing feelings about the sector in one breath and then in the next tell us they don't want us as partners in key civil protection work."

Salvation Army public affairs officer Jonathan Lomax agreed. "We have been heartened by the Government's rhetoric on the voluntary sector with regard to statutory-service delivery, but it really doesn't square with its refusal to put the sector on the face of the Civil Contingencies Bill. They want us involved and then they don't want us involved. We are getting very mixed messages."

Beardshaw said the sector's campaign had not finished, and the charities will host a briefing for cross-party peers when the bill goes to the House of Lords for consideration later this month.

The reason given by Home Office minister Hazel Blears was that "the voluntary sector is so diverse that it would be invidious to try to single out particular organisations for involvement".

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