What is a ‘national emergency’ – and can it help flood victims?


An aerial image of flooding in the village of Fishlake

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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.

But critics, including opposition parties, called the response “woeful” and urged Mr Johnson to declare a “national emergency”.

So what is a national emergency? When is one declared? And what would it achieve?

What constitutes a ‘national emergency’?

A state of emergency has been declared in the UK on 12 occasions, according to a House of Lords report published earlier this year.

These were for industrial disputes, including the 1984 miners’ strike, while emergency powers were also invoked during World War One and World War Two.

Today, the government has a definition of what constitutes a “national emergency”, under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

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 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.

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PA Media

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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 political row?

The government has not declared a state of 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”.

He was supported by cabinet minister Michael Gove on BBC Breakfast on Wednesday. Mr Gove said the flooding was “certainly an emergency” that “deserves a national response – and that’s what we’ve had”. However, he stopped short of calling for an emergency to be declared.

Opposition leaders are urging the government to do more.

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

Labour leader Jeremy 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.”

On Tuesday, Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson also called on the government to declare a “national emergency”.

She said that 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 that Ms Swinson was talking in “broad terms”.

Could it release extra EU funding?

It can do – but the EU says extra funding is not dependent on the UK declaring a national emergency.

The EU offers funds through its Solidarity Fund, which allows member states to apply for financial help to tackle natural disasters.

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. For South Yorkshire it is about €509m (£436m), the EU says.

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

However, there has been some dispute about how much the UK actually received after various deductions.

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?

Cobra meetings are called to help formulate a Government response to specific issues.

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

The meetings – first convened in the 1970s – take place in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (or Cobra for short) inside a large government building in Whitehall.

In recent times, Cobra meetings have been called to co-ordinate responses to issues such as the 2011 UK riots and the Iran tanker seizure row.

The meetings are usually chaired by the prime minister, who is the person who decides whether or not to declare an emergency.


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