I am very pleased to be able to speak as part of this debate. I declare an interest as London’s Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience, in which capacity I chair the London Resilience Forum, and as a member of the National Preparedness Commission, as are, I understand, quite a few noble Lords. I was a witness to the inquiry and gave evidence to the committee.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, for enabling this debate. This is an important and significant issue that concerns the whole of society, not just this House. The report reminds us of the need for government to be better prepared, saying
“the UK must be better at anticipating, preparing for and responding to a range of challenging scenarios, including those which it has never experienced before.”
Humans learn through experience, and we are naturally inclined to try to prevent the recurrence of something we have already gone through. We are less good at recognising risks or preparing for risks that we have not yet faced ourselves. It is a failure of our collective imagination. It would be wrong to prejudge anything that may come out of the Covid inquiry, but this human trait is arguably why the UK was better prepared for repeats of a flu or swine flu pandemic than for a SARS coronavirus-type pandemic, because we had not felt the full force of one previously.
Were the Government to take on the recommendations in the report and adopt an all-risks approach, it would go a long way to improving the UK’s resilience. In my view, this is particularly key in relation the complex and cascading risks which have been referred to throughout this debate, including on climate change. The extreme heat last summer represents the thin edge of the wedge of what we can see on climate change. I concur with speakers throughout this debate on a number of issues in relation to cascading risks.
I shall make two further points in the remainder of the time I have in the debate. The first is that the Government need to demonstrate that they are taking the risk to the UK’s resilience seriously. I was disappointed that, rather than the long-heralded resilience strategy, we saw the resilience framework in the week before Christmas, at the point at which we were told to expect the strategy to be published. The strategic approach that it promises must not be instead of a strategy. It would be useful to get some clarity on when the forthcoming strategy is likely to be published and how the framework will be funded. The previously expressed vision of making Britain the most resilient country in the world should not be lost, nor should the potential for risks to be seen in the round, or the cascading impact of risks to be carefully considered and planned for be missed.
Clearly it would be ludicrous for home departments with expertise not to be involved in risk planning, but risk planning for hazards and civil contingencies, whether short shocks or long-running chronic incidents, is an area of expertise in its own right. Effective management of extreme risks cannot be fulfilled from a silo approach within departments, and this is where the proposals made by the committee in the report for an office for preparedness and resilience could make a massive and positive difference. This would require commitment and funding but, as the report also points out, and as has been noted in this discussion, prevention is significantly cheaper than cure.
My second point is one that I made to the committee, which is that there is a duty on local resilience forums to warn and inform their partner agencies and the public. There is no such duty on government, and the ludicrous level of secrecy has already been noted. There are many occasions when LRFs are asked to plan for risks but do not get access to the planning assumptions to which the Government are working nor, when they do, to the basis which those assumptions are made. This level of secrecy damages the country’s resilience and cannot be right. Government departments should also have a statutory duty to share information, not least with those tasked to prepare for and respond to risks to our country’s resilience.
There is much to commend in the report. I only regret that the Government have not taken up more of the recommendations as yet, and I look forward to clarification from Ministers on when the resilience strategy will be forthcoming. I hope that they will also ensure that the Government accept the points made by Members of this House during this debate and act on them and the recommendations in the report as a matter of urgency.