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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:34 pm on 12 January 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 5:34, 12 January 2023

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Her experience as a shadow Health Minister during the pandemic brought to life the issues we are discussing today, and the debate has been all the richer for her contribution. More generally, this has been an informative debate, and I very much look forward to reading the book by the noble Lord, Lord Rees, which was referred to a number of times.

The report has enabled us to reflect again on our preparedness for extreme risks, including but not exclusively pandemics. The report, as my noble friend Lord Robertson said, has been of considerable consequence already, and that is to be welcomed. It is vital that we, as a country, take the opportunity to reflect and to consider, now that our preparedness has been tested so comprehensively and recently. Obviously, the Select Committee did not consider only pandemic risks, but Covid has shone a much-needed light on the benefits of preparation and on some of our previously unknown deficiencies.

The report emphasised the benefit of being inclusive and as open as possible. Covid showed us that a disaster such as that—a health impact—has consequences far beyond just health services: cascading risks, as we now know to call them. That was brilliantly illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Mair, in his contribution. Every area of life—our economy, education, policing, transport, culture and the way we relate to one another—has been affected. As the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, said in his introduction, if the first time you think about how to respond to a crisis is when you are in it, you are already far too late. We know, as he said, that risk is dynamic and wide-ranging, and we need to learn and to plan in order to be ready. He said, more than once, “A stitch in time saves nine.” He also said that we should avoid groupthink, be flexible, do better at sharing our understanding of the risks we face, and involve the devolved Administrations, mayors and community leaders, which has benefits that we now understand but perhaps did not appreciate so well before.

Responding to national disasters or hostile acts requires a nimble approach to action and a long-term view from the Government—that has come up a few times. Resilience will not be improved by departments working in silos, and my noble friend Lady Twycross made that point very well in her excellent speech. Whether that is about gas storage facilities or structural issues, such as those identified by my noble friend Lord Browne, it is necessary for Governments in future to prepare for risks that may be unlikely to occur during the lifetime of that Government.

The Government seem to have broadly supported the report and agree with many of the recommendations. Since the report’s publication, the Government have said that they will create a new head of resilience role to oversee departments’ emergency planning work and to improve cross-government working. They will grow the Government’s advisory groups made up of experts, academics and industry experts to inform risk planning and to provide external challenge; they will create a new sub-committee of the National Security Council to specifically consider issues relating to resilience; they will create a UK resilience academy, built out from the Emergency Planning College, to make world-class, professional training available to all who need it; and they will strengthen local resilience forums in England by working across three key pillars of reform in the UK’s levelling-up mission: leadership, accountability and integration of resilience.

The Government’s resilience framework outlines three core principles. The first is that a shared understanding of the risks we face is essential and must underpin everything that we do to prepare for and recover from crises. Secondly, there should be prevention rather than cure wherever possible; resilience building spans the whole risk cycle so we must focus effort across the cycle, particularly before crises happen. But I encourage the Minister to consider the remarks of my noble friend Lord Harris, particularly, on this point. Thirdly, resilience is a whole society endeavour—and I think we have heard a few comments along those lines—meaning that we must be more transparent and empower everyone to make their contribution.

Like my noble friend Lord Berkeley, I have some questions for the Minister on the Government’s response so far and I hope that this is still early days and that the Government intend to continue to work on these issues with some energy and focus. In terms of learning from the experiences of the Covid pandemic, the Government’s use of emergency powers for any future national emergency should be addressed. The Lords Constitution Committee recommended that Parliament be consulted on any future draft legislation on a contingency basis to address a potential emergency. Will the Government commit to undertake a full-scale review of emergency powers? Will the Government also commit to an expedited review of the Civil Contingencies Act because that would also allow for fuller parliamentary scrutiny?

I note that so much of what we have learned through Covid rests on the importance of the public being confident in decisions that are being made on their behalf. Should we encounter a similar threat in the future, I think that given the experiences of Covid that is likely to emerge as an issue perhaps sooner than it did last time. The Government introduced a large volume of legislation in response to the pandemic, and by not using the Civil Contingencies Act some argue that the Government evaded the Act’s important constitutional safeguards.

The framework, which was published shortly before the Christmas Recess, was described as

“the first articulation of how the UK Government will deliver on a new strategic approach to resilience.”

Will the Minister confirm when the next articulation—as they are calling it—will be published or may be published in full? Will the Government reconsider the committee’s recommendation that the Government should place a statutory duty on all public and private regulated bodies which operate critical national infrastructure to produce and publish an audited business continuity plan?

The Government confirmed in December—I think it was Oliver Dowden—that they have refreshed the classified national security risk assessment and will update the public version, the national risk register, at some point in the new year, that being just past. Will the Minister please advise the House of a date perhaps when the revised risk register might be published? Can she also tell us what progress has been made in the creation of a new head of resilience role to oversee department’s emergency planning work and improve cross-government working?

When will the new UK resilience academy, intended to established competence standards and learning pathways in crisis management and resilience building, be established and ready to provide professional training?

The Government’s response to the committee report in March—and I appreciate that things have moved on since then—stated that they were

“exploring the idea of a Civilian Reserve cadre … formed of current and former civil servants, with civil service-specific skills, deployed to support government capacity during an emergency.”

At that point, it was suggested that the Government planned to undertake a pilot scheme to establish its viability and value for money. Will the Minister be able to inform the House today whether this is still planned and what progress, if any, is being made in establishing the pilot scheme?

I am extremely grateful to all those who have contributed to this debate. I note the high levels of agreement on all sides, and the desire to support the Government in making progress on this. I note also the helpful comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on the role of faith groups and extending that to other community groups and volunteers up and down the country. We pay tribute to everything that they did throughout the pandemic. We would like to recognise their work, and to understand that it is likely to be repeated in future. We support the Government’s work in this area. This debate has been extremely timely, and I hope the Minister will be able to answer the questions that have been posed by me and other noble Lords. I am grateful to everyone who has taken part.