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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:47 pm on 12 January 2023.

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Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 4:47, 12 January 2023

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.