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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 12 January 2023.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Conservative 5:03, 12 January 2023

My Lords, I declare my insurance and legal interests as set out in the register. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the Government’s resilience framework and its focus on building our understanding of risks and preparation. We have seen in recent times, particularly during the pandemic, how interconnected and complex our world has become. Having a common and comprehensive framework to build resilience and mobilise the whole of society around resilience is a significant step change in addressing the issues we face.

Many congratulations to my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot and his colleagues on this committee for producing what I feel, having now read it several times, is one of the best reports of its kind that I have ever scrutinised. As the report rightly observes, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed significant shortcomings in our national emergency planning. The considerable resilience that was displayed was all the more remarkable given those shortcomings. I do not know how many of my colleagues watched the film “Contagion”: if only we had paid a bit more attention to some of the episodes in that film, we would have been better prepared. Anyway, it is going to take many years for a definitive report on our response to the pandemic to appear, but it is, in my view, never too soon to start probing the ashes and thinking about what worked and what did not.

I do not think that anyone foresaw the profound disruption to the lives and education of students and pupils, many of whose vital exam years were horribly affected by the pandemic across three academic years—enough to blight a student’s entire time at university. The decades-long policy of reducing the number of beds in the NHS also began to look rather questionable, as those field hospitals were rapidly set up just in case the pandemic ran out of control.

Once again, the exemplary response of our Armed Forces was a model of its kind: brisk, efficient and to the point. As we look forward to future resilience planning, I think—as my noble friend pointed out in his opening remarks—that there is one aspect which is somewhat under-represented at present. A couple of days ago, we debated the Financial Services and Markets Bill, and I called for a closer partnership between government and our formidable financial services industry. My focus then was principally on the potential benefits for the industry and, streaming from that, for the UK economy. I think that the Government could gain too by drawing more upon the very considerable expertise that the private sector has to offer in the field of risk assessment.

I know very well from all my dealings with the insurance industry, particularly when I chaired the British Insurance Brokers’ Association, that the accurate assessment and quantification of risk is bread and butter for that industry. As the report rightly points out, the Government tend to focus disproportionately on higher-likelihood risks at the expense, in particular, of potentially high-impact risks that are believed to have a relatively low likelihood. The insurance industry, not least through its experience with climate change and, before that, long-tail industrial illness and asbestos-related claims, has learned the dangers of such an approach. I hope that colleagues on all sides will consider drawing more on private sector expertise in risk assessment and risk management.

Biosecurity, energy security, and food security—the very foundations of our social, economic and political order—are under severe threat. If we still believe, as I certainly do, that prevention is better than cure, then calmly, coolly and sensibly, I hope we shall follow the wise advice in this report and look to the future, not through rose-tinted spectacles, but in the light of the cold realities of 2023 and beyond in the longer term, using all the expertise at our disposal.