My Lords, we thought we were well prepared. Roger Hargreaves, the director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, told us that our national security risk assessment was recognised very positively by Governments across the world, who regarded it as a gold standard for the assessment of risk. The risk of a pandemic was ranked as a highest-priority, tier-1 security risk. Okay, we thought that it would be a flu pandemic, but we were told that, if it were a coronavirus pandemic, it might lead to up to 100 fatalities. Some 211,000 deaths later, we now know that that was an underestimate. We also know that the initial chaotic reaction to the pandemic, not just in the UK but in other countries as well, showed a lack of preparedness that did not justify what can only be described as complacency. This led the Astronomer Royal, the noble Lord, Lord Rees, whom I am delighted to see in his place today, to approach the powers that be to suggest a special Select Committee to examine the ways in which we, first, assess and, then, plan for all manner of risks.
Ours was not a Covid committee, although we learnt from Covid: the country and the world face many different risks, from climate change to volcanos and from solar weather to the potential collapse of technology. It all sounds rather gloomy, which indeed it could have been—and no one would accuse me of being an optimist. But we considered many respects in which our processes could be improved so that we might be able to mitigate some of the threats that we face.
The committee was drawn from a wide range of different skill sets and experience. I pay tribute to the members of the committee for their expertise, dedication and sheer engagement. I think they enjoyed it—I know I did. We were supported by a superb team of House of Lords staff, to whom we could not be more grateful: Beth Hooper and Alastair Taylor, our clerks, and Sarah Jennings, Rebecca Pickavance and others. Your Lordships are lucky to have the quality of help that we received; our work simply could not have been done without it. We also had the benefit of the wisdom and experience of our specialist adviser, Professor David Alexander, professor of emergency planning and management at UCL, to whom we also owe a great debt.
Having thanked the committee and those who helped us, I should also thank the many people who spent a lot of time giving us evidence, both oral and written. I have not counted how many—let us just say that there were lots. It was high-quality stuff, not least from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, whom I am pleased to see in his place. I declare my interests, as set out in the register, including as chairman of a resilience advisory company and of the advisory panel of Thales UK.
What we found was this. The risks that we face are changing, and changing faster and getting larger day by day. Technological advances have been a great boon to mankind, but they have brought with them a new dependency on things like electricity and the internet and the threat of the malicious deployment of technologies that previously did not exist. But Governments cannot deal with these risks alone, which is why we were, frankly, dismayed to find, in our evidence-taking, a risk-assessment and risk-management process that was secretive, opaque and centralised. It needs to be just the opposite: it needs to involve the whole of society, up and down the country.
The devolved Administrations are, within their territories, the part of government that needs to respond to threats, so it makes no sense that they have the feeling, as they do, that they are excluded from the loop on risk. Businesses are well used to assessing and managing risks. That is what the insurance industry, for example, does as its day-to-day work. The Government should work with the insurance industry to explore mechanisms which allow for the transfer, management and mitigation of risks which are too large for the private sector to address alone.
Voluntary organisations and communities leaped into action when Covid struck, and they would be ready to do so again. We had things to say about local resilience forums, which we felt should be given appropriate resources and brought properly into the process. Scandinavian countries do that well. Sweden, for example, has issued a pamphlet to every household entitled If Crisis or War Comes, with useful information on food, water, warmth, communications and general preparedness. We can learn from, and should work closely with, the international community to improve our resilience. The Swedish pamphlet was well received and well remembered, which counters the fears that British Governments have had of not wanting to worry the people. People will be less worried if they feel better prepared. The British people should not be treated like mushrooms; they are a valuable resource in times of danger.
When I say that the Government cannot do this alone, I mean that, to avoid complacency and groupthink, we found that they should lay themselves open to independent challenge. That is not easy for Governments, but it is essential. It is, in a sense, the whole point of democracy, and in the Ukrainian disaster we have seen the consequences of an absence of challenge to a dictator. For that reason, we recommended the establishment of an office for preparedness and resilience headed by a new post of government chief risk officer. The OPR should have a standing expert advisory council to provide independent challenge, oversight and strategic direction.
All these preparations should lead towards a comprehensive set of resilience plans. If the first time you try to set up a response to a crisis is when it hits, it is too late. If you do not have the tried and tested relationships between the emergency responders, formed over years of planning, training and exercising, it will be much more difficult to deal with the crisis. Last-minute improvisation is the enemy of good crisis response.
The Government’s old approach was too siloed. They examined risks on the basis of their likelihood as against their predicted impact, but did not include in that trade-off the key issue of our vulnerability to a particular risk. They took little account of cascading risks, and even less of those risks that they regarded as low risk, even if their impact would be very great. An example that no one will be surprised to hear me raise is a large solar flare, such as the Carrington Event of 1859, which could have devastating consequences for our electricity grid. If the electricity grid fails, the water system would fail, because water is pumped by electricity, and communications would fail, because the mobile telephone masts would lose their power. I do not know about your Lordships’ families but, without their mobile telephones, all my family would have nervous breakdowns. That would be a cascading consequence.
Is a massive solar flare—which would certainly have a high impact—a low-risk event? Until about 10 years ago, solar flares such as the Carrington Event were categorised as a one-in-100-year risk. Because there has not been one in more than 100 years, the Government recategorised it as a one-in-200-year risk. That seems an odd approach to probability. Nevertheless, there are some things that simply cannot be predicted; solar storms are one of them, because it is not possible to predict in which direction they will travel and whether they will hit the earth. We might have none in 200 years and then two in two weeks. The proper question to ask about low-risk, high-probability events is: if such a thing happened, would we want to be able to survive it? I hope the answer is yes.
This brings us to the next matter: the difficulty of persuading a Government to prepare for things that might not happen. If you go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and say, “We need to prepare for something the world hasn’t ever seen before and may not see for the next 20 years but which sooner or later will happen, and we therefore need you to take money away from schools and hospitals that we know we need now,” you are likely to get a dusty answer. But responsible government requires you to do just that.
All Governments must prepare, not just for the enemy at the gate but for the enemy over the horizon and for things that will happen beyond their term of office. That is the rationale behind the Successor nuclear submarines. It is difficult but necessary. A power station investment rejected 10 years ago on the grounds that it would not come on stream for 10 years could now be helping us through the cost of living crisis. We all have to prepare for the longer term. We need to invest in our pensions, building our resilience and mending our roofs while the sun is shining. A stitch in time saves nine.
One key issue our report identified was the need to develop education, training and exercising in crisis management. That is not to say that we can predict everything that will happen and prepare for it. The one thing we know about government predictions is that they will be wrong. But if you are prepared for one type of crisis, the chances are that you might be better able to withstand another type of crisis. That is more obviously true if the key elements of your preparation, education and training are flexibility, agility and diversity. Diversity in your workforce brings particular benefits in avoiding groupthink. If everyone comes from the same educational background, work experience, gender or even country, they are more likely to think alike and have gaps in their approach.
The Government’s response to our report was positive. They accepted, in principle, the vast majority of it, and the two recommendations they rejected were not central themes. However, rather than go point by point through the Government’s response, it would seem more relevant and sensible to consider the new resilience framework that the Government published last month, something they had been working on during the time of our Select Committee and which took up many of the themes of our report.
The Government espouse three core principles. The first is a shared understanding of the risks we face, which speaks to our demand for more openness. That is a noble aim. The framework, however, is shy about our suggestion of independent challenge. I suggest that, without independent challenge, the risk of complacency remains. Parliament will have a role to play in holding the Government’s feet to the fire and ensuring that the Government’s soft words actually butter some parsnips.
The second government principle is prevention rather than cure wherever possible, because a stitch in time saves nine. It is essential that the Treasury is bought into this model. That is easier said than done, particularly during a cost of living crisis. We need, as we said in our report, to avoid the traditional disincentives to invest against possible risks, especially low-probability, high-impact ones. There is something ominous in the words in the framework:
That is not because value for money is a bad thing—it is not—but because continuance of the Treasury’s approach is not what is needed. We need, for example, an appropriate depreciation register for critical national infrastructure.
The third principle is that resilience is a whole of society endeavour. That is excellent. Look what happened during Covid—the people are willing and able to be involved.
This resilience framework is a start. Actually, it is a good start. But it can get better, and there is work to be done. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the committee’s chair, my friend the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and thank him for his comprehensive and powerful opening speech, and for his adroit and inclusive chairing of the committee. I join him in recognising and thanking the clerks, the staff and our advisers for their exemplary support. I apologise, but if I am to have any hope of getting home today, I must leave before the winding up. I thank the Chief Whip, my own Whip, the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, to whom I have explained my predicament; they all responded graciously and generously to the situation.
The report has contributed already to improving UK resilience. The Government acquiesced in all but two of its recommendations and the resilience framework published recently builds upon the work of the committee and its findings, as Oliver Dowden acknowledged in his all-Peers letter. I welcome the Government’s publication of the resilience framework. It is the first step towards the national resilience strategy mandated by the integrated review. Its publication, like this debate, is timely. We face several risks and many threats, all demanding swift and effective response. Russian attacks on Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure serve to underline the importance of looking to our own resilience and ability to respond to such external threats. That is true whether those threats are natural disasters, driven by hostile actors or an unintended consequence of anthropogenic activity.
The major risks are well known. However, the ways in which they manifest are fluid and subject to change. Any coherent resilience strategy must respect this truth: if we are to prevent, mitigate and diminish their impact, our response must be multifaceted and as adaptable as the threats. This requires nimbleness and a data-driven approach in the Executive, as well as better ownership of risk in lead government departments, but it also requires a whole-of-society approach, as suggested by the integrated review.
I regret to say that the Government have, over the last couple of years and an even greater number of Prime Ministers, inadvertently exacerbated the risks we face through structural failures. Shortly before Covid reached these shores, the Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingency Committee of the NSC was quietly and ill-advisedly disbanded. In answer to a Written Question, the then Defence Secretary downplayed this development, suggesting that its functions would henceforth be performed by the NSC itself, and would not mean a loss of capacity but merely reflected
“wider consolidation of Cabinet Committee sub-Committees”.
This sub-committee has been resurrected—a clear acknowledgement that the earlier disbanding of it was a mistake, as our report identifies.
It would be helpful to have a clearer explanation of why this decision was made in the first place, to what extent it compromised our ability to respond to emergent risks with speed and coherence, and how the structural changes that the framework requires can be protected from future, ill-conceived “consolidations” of this sort. We know that data is vital in risk mitigation, but so is institutional memory. If the Government’s approach to resilience is to succeed, institutional memory must be maintained.
What evidence is there that this Government can develop, publish and implement the promised national resilience strategy at the speed commensurate with the seriousness of the risks we face? Soon it will be two years since the integrated review which mandated the resilience strategy. It has taken 18 months for the framework to be published. I welcome the promise that we can expect the strategy to be published in “early 2023”, but I would be grateful for clarity on whether, and which, measures and their implementation are contingent upon other ongoing inquiries, such as the crisis capabilities review led by the Home Office Permanent Secretary. I welcome the creation of a head of resilience, a dedicated resilience directorate and the resurrection of the resilience sub-committee of the NSC.
There is much to commend in the context of accountability, both to Parliament and through risk ownership by lead government departments. The framework promises a real cultural shift. Here, the UK’s determination to embed climate change considerations within the culture of government offers lessons. I should be interested to know if a structure analogous to the Climate Change Committee has been considered. An independent body established by statute, offering external expertise and scrutiny of our approach to resilience, which is then empowered to report to Parliament, would enhance our ability to scrutinise the promised annual statement to Parliament on resilience and provide valuable context for subsequent debates.
While supply chains, global context and societal make up ensure that different nations must mitigate risk in different ways and with different emphases, universal challenges show us that preventive work, on which the framework places a welcome emphasis, can work properly only through international co-operation. I urge reflection on the response of the Centre for Long-Term Resilience to the framework. While commending it, it asks that, in recognition of the global nature of the threats, the Government advocate for a dedicated multinational resilience forum for greater coherence of the efforts of individual nations to protect their people.
In closing, I remind noble Lords of October’s report of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, as well as our own report on critical infrastructure, which was scathing about the Government’s ability to protect it. It called on the Prime Minister to
“get a much better grip”.
I trust that the resilience framework and the strategy that is promised will be a long-overdue step to getting a better grip on national security.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, on the excellent way in which he chaired our committee. I can tell the noble Lord that I certainly enjoyed it, and furthermore I learned a great deal; my compliments also to the staff. I think we never managed to meet in person, but did every session online, which posed some interesting challenges to do with curtains and lights and things like that. It was an extremely well chaired committee.
The noble Lord has set out extremely well the main highlights of our report, so I want to briefly pick on a couple of points. I support the overall conclusion that the culture and practice within government of risk assessment and management of resilience need to change. How we go about that should be through adopting a whole-of-society approach and looking to general resilience more than to individual threats.
Let me begin with box 1, which sets out the threat from climate change. It could have been argued that we did not really need to set out climate change because it was so obvious and over such a long period, but it is interesting to note that we are now a year from COP 26 and already it is slightly beginning to slip down the agenda. For me, it was important to see it in there because, first, the extreme risks that come from it are all going to appear with increasing severity and likelihood on the national risk register, and, secondly, it serves as a lesson of what happens when the enemy at the gate perhaps overtakes the enemy on the horizon. It is a very good example of that.
I would like to draw attention to paragraphs 136 to 141 in the report, where we talk about the devolved bodies. I can do no better than to quote paragraph 137 and Shirley Rogers, director of performance, delivery and resilience for the Scottish Government, who said:
“There is a variable degree of understanding about what devolution settlements look like and what devolved Administrations’ powers are … My observation is partly that there is a tendency to treat us as if we are a department and consult us on the things that people think we will need to know about, rather than the totality.”
Correcting that is central to the Government’s approach.
I would like to comment on how we look at resilience and go about risk management. Currently, risk is looked at as identifying a single threat, rather like on your company risk register, and looking at how it can be mitigated. The risk is seen as a barrier to achievement. However, what I learned in the process of our committee’s deliberations was that extreme risks are not like that; they are things that we cannot avoid, and therefore we have to look at them in a different way. As the noble Lord has already pointed out, this needs a change of culture.
The resilience that we need comes not from looking at the individual threat but at all of the things that cascade together and ensuring that there is resilience in depth. That requires an investment, and that comes back to the Treasury. This is not about a cash spend that is going to be made in-year; this is about identifying something that will be invested in, and resilience automatically implies redundancy. There will be some part of the spend that will never be used, and we have to accept that as being central to what we are trying to do. If we do not understand that, just look at the supply chain and the fact that all the chips were being made in countries that are having grave difficulty, and now we cannot make cars in anything like the way that we would want to.
In the first 22 years of this century, we have had three extreme events: first, a financial crisis which cost us hundreds of billions in support; secondly, a pandemic, which was number one on the risk register but we got wrong, and which cost hundreds of billions in support for the country; and, thirdly, since our report came out, a war in Ukraine which was not particularly anticipated. I am sure we will have three more events in the next 20 years and that they will not be the ones that are predicted, so we have to have resilience to be ready for whatever may come. In that regard, I think the most important thing the chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, said is about getting the Treasury to change the way it looks at these things. We have to try to get the Treasury away from its complacent, cash-book comfort zone and into looking at investment for the future.
Ultimately, in any organisation, risk is the responsibility of the chief executive or the accounting officer. We need to put responsibility for risk higher up. We need a chief risk officer, and for Secretaries of State and the Prime Minister to take the responsibility.
My Lords, I add my tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, for his benign and effective chairmanship of this special inquiry, which illuminated crucial issues that are still underdiscussed. Indeed, we are still in denial about a whole raft of newly emergent mega-threats, which will be the focus of my remarks.
We are increasingly reliant on vulnerable globe-spanning networks for food supply and manufacturing, and novel viruses more virulent than Covid-19, perhaps even artificially engineered, could emerge at any time and spread with devastating speed. Our interconnected society is ever more vulnerable to other scenarios—massive cyberattacks, cascading failures of crucial infrastructure, or even accidental nuclear war—whose likelihood and impacts are rising year by year. Covid-19 must be a wake-up call, reminding us that we are vulnerable. Such worries cannot now be dismissed as flaky doom-mongering.
What does it take to enhance the UK’s preparedness for future threats? The first need is better joined-up government. Covid was primarily a medical catastrophe, but it cascaded into other sectors, including schools and, through its impact on supply chains, manufacturing. We have learned lessons about the trade-off between efficiency and resilience. For instance, there need to be firmer guidelines about who—regionally as well as centrally—has authority in emergencies.
Secondly, we need to optimise the use of limited resources in preparing precautionary measures. For that, we need a more rigorous assessment of what scenarios are most probable. As has been said, the published risk register has hitherto been inadequate. There is little input from external experts and too much secrecy, and no pandemic other than flu was rated a major threat. Moreover, the quoted likelihoods pertain to the next two years, but that is not enough when the threats may be rising year on year, as they surely are for engineered pandemics and massive cyberattacks. We need to plan maybe 20 years ahead.
As we have heard, the Government’s recently announced national resilience framework is welcome. It proposes a new institutional architecture to raise the profile of resilience within government and Parliament, with, as we recommended, a head of resilience equal in rank to the National Security Adviser; an annual parliamentary statement on resilience; a new national resilience academy to train up a new generation of risk-management professionals across relevant sectors; and a national exercising programme, embracing both military-style and virtual reality exercises to test our resilience to a range of risks. This measure was, incidentally, forcefully advocated by the two former Defence Secretaries we were lucky to have on our committee.
The credibility, acumen and perseverance of the first person appointed as head of resilience will be a crucial determinant of where the scheme as a whole ends up by fostering practical and effective action of the kind that our committee recommends. Also crucial is whether the Chancellor signs up to spending whatever sums of money—probably quite modest—are needed to implement the framework’s proposals. Given these prerequisites, we would be on the verge of making real progress.
However, cross-party consensus on the institutional framework is essential if we are to properly address measures that stretch far beyond the timescales of a single Administration. A good start, already signalled by the shadow Paymaster-General, would be a manifesto commitment to nominate a Cabinet-level Minister with full-time responsibility for resilience. Moreover, the Opposition could add a series of substantive points not fully covered in the framework—in particular, establishing a statutory, independent resilience institute on the model of the Climate Change Committee or the Office for Budget Responsibility that can report to Parliament on the reality or unreality of the claims for resilience being made by relevant Ministers. That again was recommended by our committee. The UK should lead campaigning for the international co-operation that is needed to minimise the extreme threats, which are global—as most are.
If the Government vigorously implement their new framework, and the Opposition push more vigorously in these directions, then our democracy will be working as it should to protect society from catastrophe.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful for the Select Committee’s work in tackling such an important subject and, in particular, I concur with the authors’ recognition that,
“the UK must move away from a risk management strategy which … often ignores or fails to appreciate the interconnected nature of our society”,
and that we must instead,
“produce a risk management system that ties all sectors of society together.”
Interdependence is a fundamental part of human nature and policies that follow the grain of that nature are far more likely to succeed.
I was disappointed, therefore, that although the report advocated for a whole-society approach, no reference was made to the role of faith groups in emergency planning and response. Faith groups and leaders across the country were an integral part of the response to Covid-19. A 2020 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, based on research with local authorities, found that faith communities were instrumental in local responses by offering buildings, running food banks, information-sharing, befriending, collecting, cooking and delivering food, and providing volunteers for local authority programmes. Accordingly, the APPG found that local authorities developed a new-found appreciation for the agility, flexibility and professionalism of faith-based organisations, and that local authorities were keen to continue and build on those relationships in the future.
When I consulted with my own local public health team, I heard a similar account. In Leicester, throughout 2020 and 2021 there was a fortnightly faiths engagement group that brought together public bodies with faith leaders to co-ordinate how to translate and disseminate important messages about the virus itself and the associated restrictions. Our city’s director of public health, Professor Ivan Browne, told me: “I would argue that any strategic document that in any way considers a community response to a crisis must consider the role of community and faith groups.” Another example would be the 2016 floods, when Khalsa Aid, a Sikh charity, together with groups of Muslim volunteers, spent weeks in the affected towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, serving thousands of hot meals and helping with the clean-up.
Across the UK, when there have been terror attacks or explosions, churches have opened to offer shelter and hospitality for those affected and places for emergency services to base themselves. Of course, there is also the Salvation Army, which as well as being a Christian denomination is one of the world’s largest providers of social aid and humanitarian assistance, frequently on the front lines of the response to earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis across the globe.
Even as we speak, faith-based organisations are responding to another national emergency, which might not require flashing blue lights or daily briefings, but is shocking in its scale nevertheless. Across the country, and for several years now, churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues have been hosting and supporting food banks and community pantries. Faith groups may appear to be superfluous stakeholders to government departments responsible for risk assessment and planning, but the children of God in need of food parcels may tell a different story.
Faith groups also have a distinct contribution to make in the face of crises. Beyond meeting material needs alone, they are often central in reinforcing a local sense of identity and the connections that comprise a community’s social fabric. The gift of our common life together can easily be disrupted by disaster or conflict yet cannot be maintained or mended by a statutory service, no matter how well intentioned.
As well as their institutional presence, most faiths have an other-centredness at their core that prepares their members to be willing, as well as able, to help. Week in, week out, most people of faith are working to grow in patience, generosity, temperance, wisdom and, most importantly, compassion.
With this in mind, I suggest that the Select Committee’s report should go further when it speaks about the role of education in building our society’s resilience. We should also consider how our education system can build what psychologists identify as the five pillars of resilience: self-awareness, mindfulness, self-care, positive relationships, and a sense of purpose. These are the building blocks of a resilient citizenry.
If the Civil Contingencies Act is to be updated, as the Select Committee recommends, to reflect the importance of several societal organisations not recognised in the current legislation, might I suggest that faith groups and faith-based organisations are also included?
My Lords, I should declare my interest as chair of the National Preparedness Commission and as a visiting professor of resilience at Cranfield University.
I start by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and his colleagues for producing such an excellent report. In the interests of transparency, I should point out that he and the noble Lord, Lord Rees, are both members of the National Preparedness Commission, and that I and another eight commission colleagues, including my noble friend Lady Twycross, were all witnesses in one capacity or another.
This debate is particularly timely. The UK Government Resilience Framework has just been published and I plan to focus on what it says, given the context of the committee’s report. As the framework says,
“We live in an increasingly volatile world”,
where the UK will face far-reaching crises
“greater in frequency and scale … than we have been used to.”
It is therefore right that, when it looks at the local level, local resilience forums are to be strengthened and better resourced. These require genuine partnership between central government and local services, but crucially must also work with local voluntary and community sectors and local businesses.
Within the framework, there are many references to partnership, but the Government need to recognise that this is about much more than simply communicating risks. Organisations need relevant, actionable information. A sophisticated approach is needed, so that these are genuine partnerships of equals that recognise the strengths and assets that the different sectors bring.
The framework is also somewhat weak on the role of communities. Again, partnership here should work both ways. This will require investment in voluntary and community sector infrastructure to enable proper engagement with the local statutory sectors.
The framework places a great emphasis on prevention and preparation. That too makes sense, but there needs to be an acceptance that this will not always be successful. Indeed, it is necessary to plan for failure, and it is irresponsible to encourage false belief in the myth of 100% mitigation. Then there will be risks, threats and crises that have not been foreseen or previously encountered.
The framework promises an annual statement to Parliament on national resilience. Again, this is sensible. However, there is a risk that over time this could become formulaic and not a hugely informative exercise. As a minimum, there should be an annual debate on this statement in both Houses, and consideration needs to be given to charging the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy—or possibly a new Joint Committee on national resilience—with monitoring and scrutinising progress.
The report of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, was a call to arms. We need to make every level of government, every organisation and every community more resilient. If we do that, we will create a sort of herd immunity for a society better able to address future global crises—another pandemic, a massive cyberattack, climate change or whatever else it might be. However, this will require a mindset shift: a change from a “just in time” approach that we have been following for the last 40 years to one where “just in case” is given priority.
This is a generational mission: resilience and preparedness must be built into society’s fabric, designed into government at every level, into our cities and communities, and into all our businesses and organisations. Sir Oliver Letwin, who was Minister for National Resilience, writing for the commission last September, warned that he had seen,
“at first-hand how short-term political pressures and the dynamics of Whitehall can combine to prevent serious efforts to improve our resilience”.
Other noble Lords have made similar points in their remarks today. He called for a national resilience Act, modelled on the Climate Change Act, saying:
“Without a mechanism of this sort to focus the mind of government on national resilience, we can be sure that Britain will remain singularly ill-prepared to meet a range of crises”.
The generational mission has to embrace us all. In all our interests, the new resilience framework must be the first step in delivering that generational shift. This Government, and their successors, must see building our nation’s resilience as central to their mission. The task of Parliament is to hold them to it for all of us, for our children and our grandchildren.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, on his skilled and very patient leadership in this important committee of inquiry. I join him in thanking and commending the staff who carefully listened to our deliberations and to the evidence presented, and who distilled, with such skill and mastery, an account of our conclusions. We are immensely lucky in this House to have people of such talent working for us.
In keeping with other members of the committee—especially those of us with some experience in these fields—I say that this special committee was a true eye-opener for all of us. To see in some detail just how ill-prepared our country and our people are for the kind of grave risks prevalent in today’s very dangerous—and increasingly dangerous—world was itself alarming, to say the least. Our study was both significant and timely, and it is possible to say that this is perhaps one of the most consequential reports that this House has produced in many years.
The fact that, in their response, the Government accepted all but two of our highly critical recommendations is evidence enough of the traction that we have created. The appearance in late December of the brand new UK Government resilience framework shows just how timely our report was and the effect that it had.
Of course, the Government’s position—I anticipate what the Minister will say—is that many of the recommendations that we made were already the subject of internal governmental consideration and action. That is easily said but if that was the case and the government machine was aware of the deficiencies in its risk processes, it did not actually say that during the time that the committee was conducting its inquiry.
We took evidence from the then Paymaster-General—then the Minister in charge of the national risk register—and her successor to give a view, and from neither, nor from the civil servant advisers, did we get the impression that the kinds of issues that we were confronted with were being treated with the appropriate degree of urgency. However, the new resilience framework begins to show that, however belatedly, Ministers have woken up to the nation’s vulnerabilities and are seeking to remedy them, and mainly in the ways that we proposed—better late than another grave disaster.
Time is limited in this debate so I will confine myself to making a couple of points that the committee identified. However, I would like the report itself to state its case. It merits reading and rereading widely, because a wider audience than this needs to know what we found and are now concerned with; our conclusions are so relevant and so important. I know that Professor Andrew Morris has already promoted our report to the Scottish Parliament in its post-Covid deliberations. We should make no mistake that our report was hard-hitting and highly critical and, frankly—I say this candidly—that not all of the deficiencies are to do with the last 12 years. Some of us who held government positions related to risk management must share at least some of the blame for historic vulnerabilities.
The main weaknesses in the current system that we identified were an overbearing and unjustified element of secrecy in the whole process and a lack of external challenge to internal government thinking. Both these problems have been addressed in the new resilience framework, and Parliament must be vigilant to see that its sentiments are translated into action.
The experience of Covid-19 has shone a bright light on the way that we look at the grave risks to this country’s safety and security. If we are to avoid the kind of cascading damage that we have seen over the last two years, we need more than fine words in a little-noticed framework document. We need to see its provisions put into effect, and quickly.
My Lords, I express my own thanks to our chair, the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, not only for his excellent introduction today but for his superb chairing of the committee, especially given that meetings had to be conducted remotely almost throughout. I support his thanks to our terrific staff and advisers, and to my fellow committee members for their stimulating company and insights.
I joined the committee encouraged by some of the writing of the noble Lord, Lord Rees, especially in his excellent book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, in the hope and expectation that we would grapple with how best to anticipate and mitigate some of the extreme and existential risks we face in the UK, particularly those arising from new technologies such as artificial intelligence.
However, the fact is that, in risk terms, we have rarely been thinking beyond a two-year timeframe, let alone a parliamentary term, and we found that our system is completely deficient in assessing and planning for chronic or long-term risks and has a bias against low-likelihood, high-impact risks. In his evidence to us, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, chair of the National Preparedness Commission, rightly questioned whether the current political system, with short parliamentary terms and ministerial postings, allows for the proper consideration of risk. Sir Patrick Vallance, who it is clear will be playing an important role in government reforms in this area, was even blunter, saying:
“If you take a two year outlook, you get the wrong answer.”
We discovered that it was not just generational risks where risk assessment and planning were inadequate, such as with climate change or AGI—artificial general intelligence—but that we failed even when it came to the medium term. As we have heard, the great irony is that, prior to the onset of Covid-19, the UK’s approach to risk assessment and management—as the Institute for Government pointed out in its report Managing Extreme Risks—was admired. It is clear, however, that there are both cultural and institutional flaws in planning, assessment, mitigation and prevention. The time is never right for expenditure on prevention and mitigation, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees, says—another plug for his book—in his new introduction.
The risks we face are changing. As we say in the report:
“Technological advances have raised the threat posed by the malicious deployment of technologies which could be used for good or ill, while traditional threats such as those from nuclear or chemical warfare remain.”
We also found that the Government’s risk assessment process through the NSRA looks at only discrete risks and is unable to encompass the complexity of risks facing the UK. It has failed to account for interconnected or cascading risks, which go far beyond the failure of one part of a system.
In his prologue to his book Apocalypse, How?, one of our witnesses, Sir Oliver Letwin, posits a national emergency where the internet goes down, electricity supply fails across the country and no analogue communications backup is available. Given the way that BT’s Digital Voice programme to replace copper telephone lines with fibre seems to be taking place without any assessment of the impact on national resilience, it looks like we are heading for an emergency of exactly that type. Robert Harris, author of The Second Sleep, illustrated this graphically in his evidence:
“Sophisticated societies do collapse. Every civilisation collapses. You cannot think of one that did not face some terrible crisis, partly because they became so sophisticated.”
We further found that the central government risk assessment process has developed a culture of secrecy that impedes thorough scrutiny, expert consultation and information sharing with key partners, as experience with Exercise Cygnus and the DHSC’s more recent report on learning Covid lessons are already showing.
I welcome a great deal of the Government’s response and the new resilience framework, particularly the adoption of the overarching three principles adumbrated by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and action relating to local resilience forums and the voluntary sector—and, indeed, relating to the development of skills. But how will the resilience directorate and the new head of resilience be
“providing leadership for this system”?
It seems there will not be any teeth in terms of challenging lead government departments.
Then we have the lack of a statutory duty regarding critical national infrastructure threats, which could be the Achilles heel of our risk planning. How does this square with the commitment to deliver resilience standards in the private sector? What does action to “refresh” the NSRA mean? What methodology will be adopted? Why is there no commitment to looking more than five years out? These proposals all aim to ensure that we have a much better handle on the future. As Professor William MacAskill says in his recent book, What We Owe the Future, sacrifices can actually be win-wins for posterity. I hope the Treasury takes note.
My Lords, I declare my insurance and legal interests as set out in the register. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the Government’s resilience framework and its focus on building our understanding of risks and preparation. We have seen in recent times, particularly during the pandemic, how interconnected and complex our world has become. Having a common and comprehensive framework to build resilience and mobilise the whole of society around resilience is a significant step change in addressing the issues we face.
Many congratulations to my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot and his colleagues on this committee for producing what I feel, having now read it several times, is one of the best reports of its kind that I have ever scrutinised. As the report rightly observes, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed significant shortcomings in our national emergency planning. The considerable resilience that was displayed was all the more remarkable given those shortcomings. I do not know how many of my colleagues watched the film “Contagion”: if only we had paid a bit more attention to some of the episodes in that film, we would have been better prepared. Anyway, it is going to take many years for a definitive report on our response to the pandemic to appear, but it is, in my view, never too soon to start probing the ashes and thinking about what worked and what did not.
I do not think that anyone foresaw the profound disruption to the lives and education of students and pupils, many of whose vital exam years were horribly affected by the pandemic across three academic years—enough to blight a student’s entire time at university. The decades-long policy of reducing the number of beds in the NHS also began to look rather questionable, as those field hospitals were rapidly set up just in case the pandemic ran out of control.
Once again, the exemplary response of our Armed Forces was a model of its kind: brisk, efficient and to the point. As we look forward to future resilience planning, I think—as my noble friend pointed out in his opening remarks—that there is one aspect which is somewhat under-represented at present. A couple of days ago, we debated the Financial Services and Markets Bill, and I called for a closer partnership between government and our formidable financial services industry. My focus then was principally on the potential benefits for the industry and, streaming from that, for the UK economy. I think that the Government could gain too by drawing more upon the very considerable expertise that the private sector has to offer in the field of risk assessment.
I know very well from all my dealings with the insurance industry, particularly when I chaired the British Insurance Brokers’ Association, that the accurate assessment and quantification of risk is bread and butter for that industry. As the report rightly points out, the Government tend to focus disproportionately on higher-likelihood risks at the expense, in particular, of potentially high-impact risks that are believed to have a relatively low likelihood. The insurance industry, not least through its experience with climate change and, before that, long-tail industrial illness and asbestos-related claims, has learned the dangers of such an approach. I hope that colleagues on all sides will consider drawing more on private sector expertise in risk assessment and risk management.
Biosecurity, energy security, and food security—the very foundations of our social, economic and political order—are under severe threat. If we still believe, as I certainly do, that prevention is better than cure, then calmly, coolly and sensibly, I hope we shall follow the wise advice in this report and look to the future, not through rose-tinted spectacles, but in the light of the cold realities of 2023 and beyond in the longer term, using all the expertise at our disposal.
I am very pleased to be able to speak as part of this debate. I declare an interest as London’s Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience, in which capacity I chair the London Resilience Forum, and as a member of the National Preparedness Commission, as are, I understand, quite a few noble Lords. I was a witness to the inquiry and gave evidence to the committee.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, for enabling this debate. This is an important and significant issue that concerns the whole of society, not just this House. The report reminds us of the need for government to be better prepared, saying
“the UK must be better at anticipating, preparing for and responding to a range of challenging scenarios, including those which it has never experienced before.”
Humans learn through experience, and we are naturally inclined to try to prevent the recurrence of something we have already gone through. We are less good at recognising risks or preparing for risks that we have not yet faced ourselves. It is a failure of our collective imagination. It would be wrong to prejudge anything that may come out of the Covid inquiry, but this human trait is arguably why the UK was better prepared for repeats of a flu or swine flu pandemic than for a SARS coronavirus-type pandemic, because we had not felt the full force of one previously.
Were the Government to take on the recommendations in the report and adopt an all-risks approach, it would go a long way to improving the UK’s resilience. In my view, this is particularly key in relation the complex and cascading risks which have been referred to throughout this debate, including on climate change. The extreme heat last summer represents the thin edge of the wedge of what we can see on climate change. I concur with speakers throughout this debate on a number of issues in relation to cascading risks.
I shall make two further points in the remainder of the time I have in the debate. The first is that the Government need to demonstrate that they are taking the risk to the UK’s resilience seriously. I was disappointed that, rather than the long-heralded resilience strategy, we saw the resilience framework in the week before Christmas, at the point at which we were told to expect the strategy to be published. The strategic approach that it promises must not be instead of a strategy. It would be useful to get some clarity on when the forthcoming strategy is likely to be published and how the framework will be funded. The previously expressed vision of making Britain the most resilient country in the world should not be lost, nor should the potential for risks to be seen in the round, or the cascading impact of risks to be carefully considered and planned for be missed.
Clearly it would be ludicrous for home departments with expertise not to be involved in risk planning, but risk planning for hazards and civil contingencies, whether short shocks or long-running chronic incidents, is an area of expertise in its own right. Effective management of extreme risks cannot be fulfilled from a silo approach within departments, and this is where the proposals made by the committee in the report for an office for preparedness and resilience could make a massive and positive difference. This would require commitment and funding but, as the report also points out, and as has been noted in this discussion, prevention is significantly cheaper than cure.
My second point is one that I made to the committee, which is that there is a duty on local resilience forums to warn and inform their partner agencies and the public. There is no such duty on government, and the ludicrous level of secrecy has already been noted. There are many occasions when LRFs are asked to plan for risks but do not get access to the planning assumptions to which the Government are working nor, when they do, to the basis which those assumptions are made. This level of secrecy damages the country’s resilience and cannot be right. Government departments should also have a statutory duty to share information, not least with those tasked to prepare for and respond to risks to our country’s resilience.
There is much to commend in the report. I only regret that the Government have not taken up more of the recommendations as yet, and I look forward to clarification from Ministers on when the resilience strategy will be forthcoming. I hope that they will also ensure that the Government accept the points made by Members of this House during this debate and act on them and the recommendations in the report as a matter of urgency.
My Lords, it was a privilege to be a member of this House’s Select Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning under the expert and excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot. We all welcome the Government’s positive and constructive response to our report, accepting most of our recommendations. We also welcome the publication last month of the UK Government Resilience Framework, already referred to in this debate by a number of noble Lords. Much of this embraces the key principle of strengthening our national resilience that we emphasised in our report. I will speak on the essential need for preparedness and resilience in the context of our critical national infrastructure, emphasising the crucial role of new technologies and data in achieving this.
We all rely hugely on electricity and the internet, but we are vulnerable to cascading failures that could proliferate rapidly and cause widespread devastation. Important interdependencies that exist across risks have been identified by the Royal Academy of Engineering in its influential 2021 report, Critical Capabilities: Strengthening UK Resilience. Understanding these interdependencies is crucial and calls for systems thinking. Where infrastructure systems fail, the effects often cascade, knocking out critical services. An example is the flooding of Lancaster during Storm Desmond in 2015, which led to the loss of electricity supply to 61,000 properties, the situation returning to normal only after six days. The loss of electricity resulted in loss of communications and internet signal. The hospital had back-up generators and fuel for 14 days, but A&E became the first port of call for many when access was lost to 111, GPs and pharmacies. Other care facilities such as nursing homes did not have back-up generators. Schools closed and faced a challenge of communication with parents. Retail was disrupted, with only a few ATM machines working. Water and sewerage were disrupted in the more modern buildings, since they also relied on electricity. This case illustrates just one example of the vulnerability of infrastructure and society to loss of electricity and the resulting cascading effects.
In its Global Risks Report 2020, the World Economic Forum places the failure of critical infrastructure among the top 10 risks to the global economy. There are tragic examples of the risks caused by deterioration of infrastructure and lack of maintenance. The I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collapsed in 2007 without warning during evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145, involving over 100 cars. The bridge was only 40 years old. The Morandi Bridge in Genoa, which was only around 50 years old, collapsed during a summer rainstorm in 2018, killing 43 people. Both bridges badly needed design checks and maintenance. Neither bridge was equipped with sensors to give warning of deterioration or change in behaviour. Availability of such data would almost certainly have prevented the collapses.
Closer to home, there was a major infrastructure incident at the Toddbrook Reservoir in 2019, when a period of heavy rainfall triggered a partial collapse of the dam spillway. A complete breach would have presented a grave threat to life for those in the nearby town of Whaley Bridge. Some 1,500 people were temporarily evacuated from their homes. Professor David Balmforth, who led an independent review into the incident, gave evidence to our committee. He concluded that the dam spillway failure was due to both poor design and incomplete maintenance. The incident was clearly a near miss and highlights the need to quantify the progress of infrastructure degradation and prioritise spending accordingly. Our report recommended the creation of an appropriate depreciation register for critical national infrastructure that identifies ageing infrastructure. Will the Minister confirm that the Government support this recommendation?
The emphasis on risk assessment should increasingly be on preparedness and resilience. In the context of critical national infrastructure, innovative technologies now exist for obtaining the necessary data to achieve this. We are in a digital revolution. Fibre-optic sensing and wireless sensor networks, together with imaging from drones and satellites and the use of AI, provide rich sources of data on the engineering performance of key parts of our infrastructure, especially where it is ageing. This is particularly applicable to nuclear power stations, dams, flood defences, water and gas pipelines, railways infrastructure, tunnels and bridges. Combined with good modelling and “what if” experiments, such technologies are a much-needed, cost-effective investment to improve the degree of preparedness and resilience relating to our critical national infrastructure.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mair, who is one of the most eminent engineers and experts in this field I have come across. I very much welcome this report and the work that the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and his team have done. It is very persuasive, in part because of the amount of evidence gathered from so many different people.
My concern is about the Government’s response. I know that we have the resilience framework, but when one reads the response and finds that all but two of the recommendations are accepted, it is easy to say, “That’s fine; let’s sit back and do something else”. But when you look a bit further, you can see that the response is saying, in my words, “Yeah, we’ll talk about it a bit more and not do a great deal”.
One of the most important responses is to the second recommendation, on an office for preparedness and resilience, et cetera. It is interesting, but then the Government qualify it by saying:
“It will be important for any change to strengthen and complement existing and well tested accountability structures and to avoid unintentionally diminishing the accountability of those most responsible for managing risk.”
To me that means, “We are going to carry on as before and just pay a bit of lip service to some new organisation”. That is really worrying.
I declare an interest as living in probably the lowest property in relation to sea level in this country, on the island of Bryher in Scilly. We look at the waves, the high tide and the storms—this week is not a bad example —and wonder, “How long is it going to last?” There are many other examples around this country—not just sea, water or floods, as the noble Lord, Lord Mair, and others have said.
My concern is that it has taken the committee and the Government about two years to get this far, but what will happen next? As many noble Lords have said, the threat is changing very fast and widening. How will we monitor—independently, as the noble Lord said—the progress, or lack of?
I am a member of the Built Environment Select Committee in your Lordships’ House. We took evidence this week from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which all noble Lords probably know. I will not tell your Lordships what the chief executive said because it is probably still confidential, but if one looks at its annual report, which came out I think a few months ago, one will see that it now has a process for monitoring all the different projects that it chooses on their cost and progress and whether they are likely to succeed or fail. It publishes a sort of traffic light system. I always worry that it publishes this thing, but who in government takes any notice? The worst one I have discovered from about 150 projects on the list—noble Lords will be glad to hear that I will not read them all out—is one that we are probably all aware of: the emergency services mobile communication programme. This has been on the traffic light list for nine years, and it is still not working. This is emergency services communication, which of course will be fundamental to many of the crises that may happen in future.
I am sure the Minister will not be able to tell us why this has happened or whether that programme will work next week and so on, but it seems to me that something such as this, with the IPA keeping a monitoring role over all the recommendations from the committee and reporting regularly, would be a useful adjunct to whatever happens next. I will be pleased to hear the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Adult Social Care. I was also health spokesperson for my party from January 2020, when my leader said that there was not much on the health agenda, and I retired from that post at Christmas. It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and his very practical speech—I have just deleted a large section that I had about the strategic nature of support in the Government’s response because there is no point repeating it. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and his committee on this extremely important report, on the evidence they heard and the recommendations they have made. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, said, it is an exceptional report.
For those of us who have been on councils through elective office or had Front-Bench responsibilities, or been in business, having full risk assessments and risk preparedness plans reviewed and updated on a regular basis is an absolute must, even if it is not business as usual to manage the unusual. My thanks also go to the Cygnus Reports organisation website, run by Moosa Qureshi, an NHS doctor who uncovered many other pandemic exercises in the run-up to 2020 that were not published.
The key lesson in both the report and our experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic is that cultural change to partnership working is needed across government, especially but not only with those who have a statutory responsibility to provide responses, whether or not to extreme risks. My noble friend Lord Thurso also highlighted this risk.
From these Benches, it is much regretted that there is not a clear commitment by the Government to the office for preparedness resilience or to a chief risk officer. The Government’s saying
“fold into … reform for our internal risk management structures” can be read in a number of ways. Will the Government undertake to create both the office and the role of chief risk officer? Too many of the Government’s responses to recommendations use the words “agreeing with this principle”. I am afraid that would allow the Government to dilute these recommendations.
Pandemic planning is a perfect illustration of what went wrong in early 2020. The Government appeared to follow only Exercise Cygnus, which was for influenza. What was not mentioned is that in the preceding seven years there were seven exercises and reports, and that it took Dr Qureshi a series of legal challenges to government to be able to see and publish them. The first, in March 2015, was a report on Ebola preparedness. The second was Exercise Alice on MERS, published in February 2016. Then there was Exercise Northern Light, published in February 2016; a report on Exercise Typhon, a Public Health England command post exercise in 2017; an Exercise Broad Street high-consequence infectious disease report in 2018; Exercise Cerberus, a Public Health England national exercise, also in 2018; and a report on Exercise Pica, the NHS primary care preparedness and response to the influenza pandemic, on
The UK became aware at the end of 2019 of the emerging infectious disease that became known as Covid-19 from Wuhan, but it really took until March for actions to start, not least in advice to the public. As the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, outlined, that was a real problem. In February, as the health Front-Bencher for the Lib Dems, I talked to the Local Government Association and to directors of public health, who were already trying to manage cases arriving back in the UK after the February half term, especially those who had been to northern Italy for skiing.
Directors of public health were asking for help and strategic support from Public Health England and NHS England, and they moved ahead fast, with local partners, to set up volunteers to help those who were at risk of isolation and the reorganisation required inside councils to ensure that priority services worked. Yet, entirely separately, the Department of Health and Social Care suddenly announced its own nationally recruited volunteer scheme—there was much confusion all round.
I talk about the need for a change of culture because this is still happening. Ministers ran campaigns this summer to encourage autumn vaccination in preparation for winter illness surges, including influenza and Covid. But it appears that, despite knowing that all the experts were warning that this would be a very tough winter—it is already tough, and we have not even got to what is usually the worst time of year—resilience arrangements were unfortunately not put in place for strep A, for example, until there was a very public shortage of antibiotics. Why were they not ordered in excess this year? Children are ending up in ICU and, sadly, losing their lives much earlier in the winter season than expected. An Ebola response report from 2015 said that a review of surge capacity would be required around paediatrics.
In addition, this week the Secretary of State talked about the high number of influenza and Covid patients in hospital. Many of those patients acquired Covid in hospital, which was probably not unassociated with the extraordinary government decision to relax the mask mandate. During the outbreaks of diphtheria—a notifiable disease under the Public Health Act—and scabies, there were notable delays to the Home Office engaging, first, with the UKHSA and with local directors of public health. I remind the House that directors of public health have a statutory duty under the Public Health Act to start working immediately on any notifiable disease. It took too long for that to happen.
The large number of reports that I outlined earlier showed that the department, Public Health England and now the UKHSA were fully aware of the risks of a rapid spread of highly infectious diseases, including Ebola, Lassa fever and influenza, but they did not follow this. Are all these previous reports being used to assess in the current review inside government—assuming there is one—how to handle the pandemic, which is not yet over, by the way? We also have 9,000 Covid cases in hospital; many of them are the very vulnerable people who were asked to shield during the pandemic. The problem with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care saying that the pandemic is over and we have all learned to live with it is that arrangements have not been made for this group of people, who remain extremely vulnerable.
The excellent book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, by Laura Spinney, notes in its final chapter that excess deaths continued for some years afterwards—some were due to flu, but they were mainly due to lung disease and heart disease. The most worrying part is that, within three years, most public bodies were back to business as before, and all of the lessons were lost.
Comprehensive risk planning and assessment, with a dedicated team that is not distracted by changes of Ministers, general elections, et cetera, are not just vital for a future pandemic: organisations that plan effectively for high risks can adapt plans for unseen and unpredicted extreme risks. When I was a group leader on Cambridgeshire County Council in the late 1990s, we had severe flooding, chemical leakages and other crises. Our bunker came into use, and the local resilience forum got under way. When foot and mouth disease hit in 2002, the LRF was able to swing swiftly into action for the county on a totally unexpected pandemic, this time with animals.
The noble Lord, Lord Rees, my noble friend Lord Thurso and others were right to say that the Treasury should provide proper resources for that, and not treat it as part of an annual budget which can be cut when times are tight. Covid has shown us over the last three years that, to save a modest amount in extreme risk planning, billions of pounds have been spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost.
However, I want to end on a positive note, because the Government’s creation of the resilience framework is an encouraging first step. We hope that, above all, it lays the foundation for a new way forward and that the Government will also accept the two outstanding recommendations, not least because that is the only way we will get the cultural change we need.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Her experience as a shadow Health Minister during the pandemic brought to life the issues we are discussing today, and the debate has been all the richer for her contribution. More generally, this has been an informative debate, and I very much look forward to reading the book by the noble Lord, Lord Rees, which was referred to a number of times.
The report has enabled us to reflect again on our preparedness for extreme risks, including but not exclusively pandemics. The report, as my noble friend Lord Robertson said, has been of considerable consequence already, and that is to be welcomed. It is vital that we, as a country, take the opportunity to reflect and to consider, now that our preparedness has been tested so comprehensively and recently. Obviously, the Select Committee did not consider only pandemic risks, but Covid has shone a much-needed light on the benefits of preparation and on some of our previously unknown deficiencies.
The report emphasised the benefit of being inclusive and as open as possible. Covid showed us that a disaster such as that—a health impact—has consequences far beyond just health services: cascading risks, as we now know to call them. That was brilliantly illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Mair, in his contribution. Every area of life—our economy, education, policing, transport, culture and the way we relate to one another—has been affected. As the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, said in his introduction, if the first time you think about how to respond to a crisis is when you are in it, you are already far too late. We know, as he said, that risk is dynamic and wide-ranging, and we need to learn and to plan in order to be ready. He said, more than once, “A stitch in time saves nine.” He also said that we should avoid groupthink, be flexible, do better at sharing our understanding of the risks we face, and involve the devolved Administrations, mayors and community leaders, which has benefits that we now understand but perhaps did not appreciate so well before.
Responding to national disasters or hostile acts requires a nimble approach to action and a long-term view from the Government—that has come up a few times. Resilience will not be improved by departments working in silos, and my noble friend Lady Twycross made that point very well in her excellent speech. Whether that is about gas storage facilities or structural issues, such as those identified by my noble friend Lord Browne, it is necessary for Governments in future to prepare for risks that may be unlikely to occur during the lifetime of that Government.
The Government seem to have broadly supported the report and agree with many of the recommendations. Since the report’s publication, the Government have said that they will create a new head of resilience role to oversee departments’ emergency planning work and to improve cross-government working. They will grow the Government’s advisory groups made up of experts, academics and industry experts to inform risk planning and to provide external challenge; they will create a new sub-committee of the National Security Council to specifically consider issues relating to resilience; they will create a UK resilience academy, built out from the Emergency Planning College, to make world-class, professional training available to all who need it; and they will strengthen local resilience forums in England by working across three key pillars of reform in the UK’s levelling-up mission: leadership, accountability and integration of resilience.
The Government’s resilience framework outlines three core principles. The first is that a shared understanding of the risks we face is essential and must underpin everything that we do to prepare for and recover from crises. Secondly, there should be prevention rather than cure wherever possible; resilience building spans the whole risk cycle so we must focus effort across the cycle, particularly before crises happen. But I encourage the Minister to consider the remarks of my noble friend Lord Harris, particularly, on this point. Thirdly, resilience is a whole society endeavour—and I think we have heard a few comments along those lines—meaning that we must be more transparent and empower everyone to make their contribution.
Like my noble friend Lord Berkeley, I have some questions for the Minister on the Government’s response so far and I hope that this is still early days and that the Government intend to continue to work on these issues with some energy and focus. In terms of learning from the experiences of the Covid pandemic, the Government’s use of emergency powers for any future national emergency should be addressed. The Lords Constitution Committee recommended that Parliament be consulted on any future draft legislation on a contingency basis to address a potential emergency. Will the Government commit to undertake a full-scale review of emergency powers? Will the Government also commit to an expedited review of the Civil Contingencies Act because that would also allow for fuller parliamentary scrutiny?
I note that so much of what we have learned through Covid rests on the importance of the public being confident in decisions that are being made on their behalf. Should we encounter a similar threat in the future, I think that given the experiences of Covid that is likely to emerge as an issue perhaps sooner than it did last time. The Government introduced a large volume of legislation in response to the pandemic, and by not using the Civil Contingencies Act some argue that the Government evaded the Act’s important constitutional safeguards.
The framework, which was published shortly before the Christmas Recess, was described as
“the first articulation of how the UK Government will deliver on a new strategic approach to resilience.”
Will the Minister confirm when the next articulation—as they are calling it—will be published or may be published in full? Will the Government reconsider the committee’s recommendation that the Government should place a statutory duty on all public and private regulated bodies which operate critical national infrastructure to produce and publish an audited business continuity plan?
The Government confirmed in December—I think it was Oliver Dowden—that they have refreshed the classified national security risk assessment and will update the public version, the national risk register, at some point in the new year, that being just past. Will the Minister please advise the House of a date perhaps when the revised risk register might be published? Can she also tell us what progress has been made in the creation of a new head of resilience role to oversee department’s emergency planning work and improve cross-government working?
When will the new UK resilience academy, intended to established competence standards and learning pathways in crisis management and resilience building, be established and ready to provide professional training?
The Government’s response to the committee report in March—and I appreciate that things have moved on since then—stated that they were
“exploring the idea of a Civilian Reserve cadre … formed of current and former civil servants, with civil service-specific skills, deployed to support government capacity during an emergency.”
At that point, it was suggested that the Government planned to undertake a pilot scheme to establish its viability and value for money. Will the Minister be able to inform the House today whether this is still planned and what progress, if any, is being made in establishing the pilot scheme?
I am extremely grateful to all those who have contributed to this debate. I note the high levels of agreement on all sides, and the desire to support the Government in making progress on this. I note also the helpful comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on the role of faith groups and extending that to other community groups and volunteers up and down the country. We pay tribute to everything that they did throughout the pandemic. We would like to recognise their work, and to understand that it is likely to be repeated in future. We support the Government’s work in this area. This debate has been extremely timely, and I hope the Minister will be able to answer the questions that have been posed by me and other noble Lords. I am grateful to everyone who has taken part.
Let me start by thanking my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom for proposing this debate, and I give my thanks to all noble Lords for their excellent contributions. I have, as ever, appreciated the quality of debate today on a matter of great significance, which will impact our children and grandchildren.
The report of the committee, Preparing for Extreme Risks, fathered—or perhaps grandfathered—by the noble Lord, Lord Rees, is of the highest quality, as we have come to expect of the House of Lords. It has the sure touch and elegant thinking of my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot, and, as he said, of the high-quality contributions he received from Members, staff and those Lords and others who gave evidence. As the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, said, the report was eye-opening. It was eye-opening to me as a new Minister, and incredibly useful, timely, and influential—three very big things.
The risks are many and varied. We have had mention of unpredictable solar flares, malicious deployment of technology, the supply of silicon chips, risk to biological security, the collapse of central infrastructure. It is a long list, and we are not even starting. My own list includes international risks: Russia and Ukraine, but also China, Taiwan and Iran. I worry about the failures at home, as others do—for example, the electricity system—and, which is highly unlikely but worrying and I think not mentioned, the failure of the Gulf Stream, which makes our British nation and climate what it is. If that was to fail, that would be exceptionally serious.
Because of the panoply of extreme risks and their serious nature, we are all agreed on the importance of improving UK resilience. This has to address our plans and assessments looking forward and ensure an effective and flexible response to disasters as they occur. Of course, it is not possible to plan for everything.
I had a lot of questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington. We are working on these issues. Those include the training, about which she and I would both be very enthusiastic. We have appointed a head of resilience, and we published a review of the Civil Contingencies Act on
Did the Minister say that they have appointed a head of resilience?
I always like to be the bearer of good news from the Dispatch Box.
We are going to be updating the risk register, as everybody has talked about. I cannot give an exact date, but I can say that we are working on these issues with energy. I am delighted to be working now in this area, and obviously very keen to make progress. I do not think that I can say anything today about the very important issue of powers. Because I was on the Back Benches during all the Covid measures, I very much understand the points that have been made. We have got a Covid inquiry that is taking place, and there has to be some sort of interaction between the Covid inquiry and what we do for the future.
I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot for his positive comments on the resilience framework. I am pleased that he recognises elements of his committee’s recommendations within it—in fact, nearly all the recommendations were accepted in whole or in part. My noble friend rightly raised transparency and challenge. We set out our commitment to both in the framework and are already working to embed the principles across my departments, and across others. As an example, the national risk register, when it is published in the coming months, will include more detailed risk information and guidance than previous iterations, and it follows the new classified version of the national security risk assessment.
Noble Lords will be pleased to know that the development of the latter involved a great deal of external challenge this time, and the NSRA is more robust as a result. My colleague the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be chairing the next UK resilience forum in February—just one way in which we are incorporating more independent challenge and expertise from outside government. I hope that further work on resilience this year will demonstrate more progress, and we will update Parliament through our inaugural annual statement on resilience.
The noble Lord also raised the committee’s recommendation, as others did, for an office for preparedness and resilience, and the accountability issue was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who sadly had to slip away. It is a key factor in the framework and, while we have not chosen to establish a new body, we are taking steps to address the spirit of the committee’s recommendations. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on the need for culture change—a point that she rightly often makes—and that is already happening.
The strength and function at the centre of government build on the approach that we have got under way on things like procurement and infrastructure, and I am sure that it will lead to much better coherence and accountability in the resilience system. We are also strengthening the lead government department model of risk ownership and are establishing a sub-committee of the National Security Council to enable Ministers to focus on national resilience, because ministerial involvement is important in getting things effectively progressed. I need hardly say that the Government also agree with the report’s emphasis on training, conducting exercises and performing dummy runs as a fundamental part of our collective resilience.
We are not just going to carry on as before, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, rather mischievously said, and I look forward to giving evidence to his Built Environment Committee on infrastructure next week and to discussing the improved way we now monitor the progress of hundreds of infrastructure projects.
I am sorry that it has been over a year since the committee’s report was published, but the Government, as I have already outlined, have taken a number of steps to address the points that were raised. It is worth reiterating three key themes. On finalising a new classified national security risk assessment, the changes were informed by recommendations from the committee, but also by an external review from the Royal Academy of Engineering in September 2021. The intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Mair, showed the importance of bringing in the engineers.
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister but one of the key points is about the methodology adopted for the NSRA, and one of the key issues that appears to be emerging is that the Government do not seem to be committing to go beyond a five-year horizon. What assurance can the Minister give about the methodology that is going to be used, and whether we are going to be looking further into the future?
I think the noble Lord is right that the main focus is on the next five years, but I will perhaps come back to him to discuss that point further. It is clear from what I have been saying that we are looking at extreme risks, and they are not necessarily going to arrive tomorrow, so I understand and sympathise with the point he has made.
The second step is strengthening the crisis and resilience structures in the Cabinet Office with the creation, as I have said, of the resilience directorate and the COBRA unit. We are responsible for resilience planning and national crisis response, working closely with departments which have sectoral responsibilities. This includes identifying, planning and preparing for risks, and building capacity to respond effectively. The changes to how it is organised will help to ensure that the Government have the capacity and capability to respond to emergencies, which is obviously particularly important in the wake of Covid-19.
Thirdly, we are working to improve our resilience to chronic risks and vulnerabilities, such as climate change—which was emphasised by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso—and artificial intelligence. We have recognised that this type of risk poses continuous challenges over time to communities, the economy and security, and requires a different type of response to more acute risks, such as flooding or terrorism.
The scale of the risks we face has required a new strategic approach to resilience. That is why we published the UK Government Resilience Framework in December, which previously had the working title of “national resilience strategy”, to respond to a point made by several noble Lords. It is a new strategy which is already being implemented across government. It reflects our ongoing commitment to resilience which we made in last year’s integrated review, and the new strategic approach will be reflected in further publications this year, with the refreshed national risk register, the updated biological security strategy, and the update to the integrated review itself, which has also been promised.
The noble Baroness has given us some good information about progress being made but, as the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, said in his introduction, this is all a question of when it is going to happen and having some independent monitoring of progress. Does she not think that it would be a good idea to have something independent, rather like the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, as I mentioned? I can quiz her further when she comes to meet our Select Committee next week, but I would really rather hear it now.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention, and I will reflect further on the best way of satisfying him.
I emphasise that the framework is important and strategic. It strengthens the systems, structures and capabilities which underpin the UK’s resilience to all risks and those that might emerge. It is based on three key principles. The first is a shared understanding of the risks we face. The second is a focus on prevention rather than cure, wherever this is possible, as several people have mentioned. Some risks can be predicted or prevented, but it is more difficult to do so for others. The third principle is of resilience as a whole-of-society endeavour. Everyone seems to agree on the importance of that. We are more transparent, and we want to empower all parts of society to make a contribution, so I was glad to hear from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester about the possible role of faith groups and volunteers of all kinds. He is right about the contribution they make in crises, as I know from the work of the churches in my own local area of the Nadder Valley. Faith groups are also part of the local resilience forums. In London, for example, we have a voluntary, community and faith sector sub-group—but the key message is about resilience as a whole-of-society endeavour. Covid taught us the value of that.
Nobody has mentioned this, but central to delivery on those three principles is improving the communication of risks and impacts. We want people to better understand what they may actually experience, and what they can do to protect themselves, their families and their communities. We must drive early action on risks; that is at the core of the framework.
Some noble Lords will have looked at the framework, which sets out our ambition to 2030. It includes improved risk communication by growing the Government’s advisory groups to bring in experts, academics and industrial partners. We are strengthening local resilience forums, which has included extra DLUHC funding to improve multi-agency planning. I should say that my husband is chair of a parish council, so I know that resilience systems already assist in great detail in towns and villages, and how important that was in marshalling voluntary effort during Covid. We need to build on those sorts of strengths. The measures include delivering a new UK resilience academy built up from the Emergency Planning College, thereby making world-class professional training available to all who need it. I have a lot of material on that, if noble Lords are interested. We are also establishing a new Cabinet sub-committee of the National Security Council. I suspect that we will have many more debates, because we are introducing an annual statement to Parliament on civil contingencies risk and the UK Government’s performance, which I hope will help noble Lords to hold us to account.
Excuse me, but the noble Baroness used the phrase “the civil contingencies risk”. That is contained throughout the new framework. Can she explain what exactly that excludes, and why?
I must make progress. If I can answer, I will do so—otherwise, I shall speak with or write to the noble Lord.
It is important to remember that data cuts through everything that we do—supporting innovation by helping us be more dynamic and spot risks early. At a local level, data enables us to support mutual aid between different areas to provide additional capacity where it is most needed. Data is also informing our approach to how we can use artificial intelligence to flag up areas of vulnerability or concern. We have strengthened our effort with the joint data and analysis centre in the Cabinet Office, as well as with the impressive National Situation Centre, which is providing real-time insights about what is happening across a plethora of urgent and high-priority topics and bringing data to crisis management.
We have to be realistic. There is much in life and politics for which we can neither plan nor prepare. While prevention is a key principle, it cannot replace careful and effective management of emergencies as they occur. For that reason, the framework also proposes actions to improve response, including in areas such as cyber and preparation for risks, and to ensure that partners throughout the system are able fully to play their part. There is a shift away from simply dealing with the effects of emergencies. It is fair to say—the framework shows this—that there has been a step change in ambition. We have the structures and focus we need to do much better.
I thank my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral for kindly bringing his expertise to this debate and I very much agree with much of what he said about the cold realities and challenges. The Government’s risk-assessment approach must draw on best practice from the private sector and we have made progress on this, as I have said. The framework commits the Government to creating a process for future iterations of the NSRA that invites challenge from industry, as well as from academia, the international risk community and others. Partners from the financial services are important. In the light of what my noble friend said, we will review opportunities to better engage the insurance industry, recognising the critical and practical role that it obviously plays in forecasting extreme risk and dealing with national insurance.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, raised the model of the Climate Change Committee, as did the noble Lord, Lord Thurso. It is the Government’s view that the existing committee system is the most effective means by which departments can be held to account for this responsibility. We will provide an opportunity for an overarching conversation on resilience through our new annual statement. The noble Lord also mentioned the report by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy on critical infrastructure and climate adaptation. The framework sets out how we will continue to strengthen resilience across both public and private sectors.
The noble Lord, Lord Mair, drew attention to some very interesting examples. I do not think we can commit to setting up a register of critical infrastructure as he suggested, but I will keep that suggestion under review. We are very much focused on investment in ageing infrastructure and all departments are expected to monitor this, so I would like to bring his expertise to the piece in some way.
The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, questioned whether the Government are providing enough money and resources. The lead government department model for individual risks means we have clear accountability for individual risks, with risk owners responsible for ensuring investment in their areas and the Cabinet Office supporting. However, the framework will ensure that resilience is considered as an integral aspect of almost all policy-making. There is devoted funding for some specific areas, such as local resilience forums, and we have achieved systematic change by ensuring that investment in resilience is embedded into decision-making across government. It is always a difficult area, but the commitment, the framework and the new Cabinet committee will make a considerable difference to prioritisation.
The noble Lord, Lord Rees, talked about biological security. Our refreshed strategy will strengthen Euro-Atlantic security. It will stimulate R&D in the life sciences sector and underpin the UK’s international leadership and advantage across the life sciences and applied data science.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised many questions in a wide-ranging speech, mainly about health. I will look at what she said and see if I can add anything to what I have already said about the progress we are making.
The Government have already taken on board many of the recommendations of this report with individual actions, and the resilience framework goes even further. Building resilience is truly a whole-of-society and national endeavour. We are determined to work together to be better prepared for the challenges we face. I thank the committee warmly for its important contribution to this task. I look forward to further discussion in this House on these important issues and to bringing the immense expertise to bear in making our country more resilient and better able to deal with the crises that, sadly, from time to time emerge.
My Lords, the hour is late, so I shall be brief. It has not been an apocalyptic, or even a particularly gloomy, debate—he says with a rather sad look on his face. The Minister has been very helpful in making plain that there is further thinking and further work to do. I hope and am sure that this excellent debate will inform that further thinking and work. I want to pick up just one or two points.
I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mair, about a register for critical national infrastructure. If you do not have a register and a depreciation register, you do not know when it will be necessary to spend money on critical national infrastructure, which might be rather necessary rather soon.
The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, made the excellent point that resilience implies redundancy. We had a lot of military input into the work of this committee. General Sir Richard Barrons has said that efficiency is, or can be, the enemy of resilience. The Treasury needs to recognise that.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester took the committee to task for failing to mention faith groups. He made a fair point. That brings me on to the importance of communities. We do not get resilience without strong communities and faith group are right at the heart of strong communities.
That brings me on to my final point, which relates to the issue of “whole of society”, the third principle of the Government’s framework. Elisabeth Braw gave evidence to the committee, and she said in a Times article a couple of weeks ago that while she welcomed the framework in general, it barely mentioned the public. She described it as an enormous missed opportunity. The opportunity is now; the people are ready. Let us bring them in and fire them up and set them free.
House adjourned at 6.10 pm.