Preparing for Extreme Risks (RARPC Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:08 pm on 12 January 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Conservative 4:08, 12 January 2023

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:

HM Treasury will continue to ensure that the UK Government is making investment decisions which represent the best value for money.”

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.