What is a 'national emergency' - and can it help flood victims?

Image source, Christopher Furlong
Image caption,
The village of Fishlake, near Doncaster, has been one of the areas worst hit by the flooding in South Yorkshire

Amid the devastation caused by floods in the north of England, a political row has broken out over whether the government should declare a "national emergency".

Hundreds of homes have been flooded and more than 1,000 evacuated after a month's worth of rain fell in a single day in several areas last week.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired an emergency Cobra meeting on Tuesday before announcing he would send in the Army and give extra funding for local councils affected.

Jeremy Corbyn called the response "woeful" and Labour and the Lib Dems have urged Mr Johnson to declare a "national emergency".

So what is a national emergency and what would declaring an emergency achieve?

Have governments declared 'national emergencies'?

During World War One and Two the government was given wide-ranging emergency powers which were then repealed after the wars ended.

Industrial action after World War One prompted new legislation to give governments the power to deal with such situations.

The Emergency Powers Act 1920 was then used 12 times, according to a House of Lords report published earlier this year - the last time being the coal miners' strikes of 1973-74.

Today, the government has a definition of what constitutes an "emergency", under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 but it does not use the phrase "national emergency".

Such an emergency can be declared when "an event or situation threatens serious damage to":

  • Human welfare - involving loss of life, illness or injury, homelessness, damage to property or disruption of a supply of money, food, water, energy, communication or health services
  • The environment - involving the chemical, biological or radioactive contamination of land, water or air or the disruption or destruction of plant life or animal life
  • Security - involving war or terrorism

Cabinet Office guidelines, published in 2013, offered more detail about when the government might need to respond.

It outlined three different levels of emergencies. They are:

  1. Significant - events which need some government support, such as particularly severe weather-related incidents
  2. Serious - events which need sustained government co-ordination, such as the swine flu outbreak in 2009 and the 7 July 2005 London bombings
  3. Catastrophic - events which need immediate central government direction and support, such as a major natural disaster or a "Chernobyl-scale industrial incident"

What effect can declaring an emergency have?

The 2004 act was designed to ensure that there are protections in place to thwart major risks.

It has two parts: local arrangements and emergency powers.

The first part forces public bodies - including councils, the emergency services and the Environment Agency - to prepare for worst-case scenarios. The idea being that they will then be able to act swiftly if such scenarios do arise.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Hundreds of people in Fishlake have fled their homes

The second part gives the government extra powers to pass temporary legislation - without taking the usual steps - to tackle the emergency, provided this is appropriate and proportionate.

These can include confiscating property (with or without compensation); the power to order people to leave or remain in an area; and the power to make certain behaviour illegal - punishable by a fine or prison sentence.

However, these powers should only be used at the highest level of emergency (level three), Cabinet Office guidelines state.

What has caused the latest political row?

The government has not declared a national emergency over the floods.

Mr Johnson has said the situation "is not looking like something we need to escalate to the level of a national emergency".

Cabinet minister Michael Gove told the BBC flooding was "certainly an emergency" that "deserves a national response - and that's what we've had". However, he stopped short of calling for emergency powers to be invoked under the terms of the act.

But opposition leaders are still urging the government to do more.

Media caption,
Election 2019: Flood criticism, a cyber-attack more from Tuesday

Mr Corbyn blamed part of the flooding on a lack of investment in flood defences and cuts to emergency services. "Flooding isn't a natural disaster," he said. "It's human-made."

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson also called on the government to declare a "national emergency".

She said declaring one would "open up the ability [for the UK] to apply to the EU for the emergency funds that are available at times of extreme floods."

The party has since said Ms Swinson was talking in "broad terms".

Could declaring an emergency release extra EU funding?

Member states can apply to the EU for extra funds from the bloc's Solidarity Fund to help tackle natural disasters.

But member states do not have to make any declaration over an emergency beforehand.

For regional emergencies, the amount given depends on the scale of the damage and cost of the operations. It is capped depending on the size of the area's economy. In theory the government could apply for up to for €509m (£436m), on behalf of South Yorkshire, the EU says.

In total the UK has received almost £200m from the fund - making it the fourth largest beneficiary after Italy, Germany and France, according to the EU.

After the 2016 floods, one minister told MPs that while the UK had received £52m in aid - the actual benefit was closer to £500,000 due to various offsets, costs and rebates.

What role does Cobra play?

Emergency Cobra meetings are called to help formulate the government's response to specific issues, but the fact that the meeting is happening doesn't mean an emergency has been declared under the 2004 act.

Ministers meet with civil servants, police, intelligence officers and other agencies to co-ordinate a response.

They take place in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A inside Whitehall, hence the name Cobra. Ultimately it is down to the prime minister, who often chairs this meeting, whether an emergency is declared.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement about drafting in the Army and the promise of more funding for local councils to tackle the most recent floods came after he chaired Tuesday's meeting.

What he didn't do was declare an "emergency" under the terms of the 2004 Act.

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