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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:52 pm on 12 January 2023.

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Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Labour 4:52, 12 January 2023

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.