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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:24 pm on 12 January 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 4:24, 12 January 2023

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.