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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 12 January 2023.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 4:35, 12 January 2023

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.