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Risk and Resilience: Annual Statement

Volume 742: debated on Monday 4 December 2023

We live in a dangerous and volatile world. The risks are more numerous, more complex, and evolving more rapidly than ever before. The aftermath of the global pandemic, Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, extreme weather events, cyber-attacks, malign AI use cases—all those and more threaten the security, safety and stability of our nation. Protecting people is the first duty of government, which is why resilience is a top priority for this Government. It is quite simply the means by which we seek to prevent risks from becoming a reality.

When I published the resilience framework last December, I promised to provide an annual update to the House on our progress. This statement fulfils that commitment. The accompanying paper sets out in full the progress that we have made, but allow me to detail to the House the key improvements that I am confident have greatly improved our resilience. We have made changes to our structures, such as the introduction of the resilience directorate, COBR unit and situation centre. We have initiated new capabilities, such as the new emergency alert system. We have bolstered our resources towards severe threats, such as through our biological security strategy, underpinned by over £1.5 billion of annual investment, and we are embedding a whole-of-society approach to resilience that reflects the fact that everybody has their part to play.

As Deputy Prime Minister, I am the lead Minister for resilience and I chair a new resilience sub-committee of the National Security Council. The Government need to be ready to respond to any and all risks, so we must maintain the flexibility to respond to whatever confronts us. In the last year, as chairman of the UK resilience forum, I have regularly convened blue light and local responders, industry leaders and representatives from the voluntary sectors with Government. We have continued to play an active role with international partners, including the OECD, NATO and Five Eyes, and bilaterally with our allies. Through the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities we are significantly strengthening the capability and capacity of local resilience fora.

The national risk register published this year is the most transparent ever, because it is vital that we all understand the threats that we face—and when I say all of us, I mean the whole of society, from Government to emergency responders, industry, voluntary and community leaders, and citizens. Last week I was at Porton Down—in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, I believe—to inspect the vital work done there to protect the United Kingdom from chemical, biological and radiological threats. I saw the laboratories where highly skilled staff dedicate themselves to improving our preparedness for future pandemics and to defending our country against malicious attacks such as those we saw in Salisbury.

The people I met at Porton Down and our wider resilience community are on the frontline. They make our people safer and our country stronger. I champion them and pay tribute to them for the work they do. I also pay tribute to the local resilience fora up and down the country, who are there for us when we need them through every kind of crisis, as we saw demonstrated most vividly during the covid pandemic.

Our work to make our country as resilient as possible is a constant endeavour. The resilience framework sets out ambitious plans to continue to strengthen the frameworks, systems and capabilities that underpin the UK’s resilience through to 2030, and we are building on those plans. The Government have a role in bringing all the actors together and giving them the skills they need. Today I can announce that we are developing a new UK resilience academy that will improve the skills of those groups. It will provide a range of learning and training opportunities for the whole of society.

For professionals, there will be a curriculum to build skills, knowledge and networks, and a centre of excellence for exercising. For businesses, there will be greater guidance, with particular assistance on threats to critical national infrastructure and cyber. For citizens, there will be a unified Government resilience website, which will provide practical advice on how households can prepare as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the simple steps individuals can take to raise their resilience.

The covid pandemic demonstrated the overwhelming community spirit of our nation, through the vaccine army, the thousands of NHS workers who returned to the frontline and the millions who, through little acts of kindness, sought to protect the vulnerable and the lonely. There will be a new website to provide a volunteering hub—a one-stop shop to help all those who want to help their communities when crises strike.

We are continuing to develop our approach to chronic risks—the challenges that, if left unchecked, will continue to erode our economy, society, community and national security. Building on the national risk register, we are developing new analyses and a programme of action that we will publish next year. As the covid-19 pandemic showed, shocks have impacts across the whole of society, including imposing significant economic consequences. That is why we have allocated an additional £10 million of new funding for research on risks to the economy and to our public finances, to better factor in the savings we can achieve in the long run by spending on resilience today, ensuring the stability of our economy and supporting the sustainability of our public finances well into the future.

We have made considerable progress over the past year and our focus is now firmly on the months, years and, indeed, decades ahead. We are learning the lessons of the covid-19 pandemic, which shone a light on the importance of resilience, as well as the lessons of the UK’s world-leading vaccine programme, which set us free again and demonstrated the importance of prevention rather than cure. Resilience is our immunisation against risk. These measures are a shot in the arm for Britain and its national security. The world may be more dangerous than ever, but we will be better prepared than ever. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. He is right that resilience is a critical function for the Government, local government, public services, business and society in an ever more volatile world. I congratulate him on surviving the year between the publication of the national resilience framework and the delivery of this statement. That is a rare achievement in a Government in which the principle is that everybody gets to be famous for 15 minutes. I congratulate him on his longevity.

I also welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of the UK resilience academy and the volunteering hub. He is right that, given the chance, the British public will step up to help their fellow citizens. We should have a broad concept of resilience, be it physical, cyber, financial, in supply chains, in the public realm, in our values or in our democracy, so let me ask the Secretary of State about some of that.

The need for greater resilience has been underlined by the recent history of our country. Covid exposed huge flaws in advance planning, which ended up costing the taxpayer billions of pounds, some of which was wasted on dodgy contracts, some lost to downright fraud. Never again should the country be put at the mercy of inside tracks, VIP lanes and special access for those who happen to know ministerial phone numbers. What lessons have the Government learned from the huge degree of waste and fraud in covid contracts, and why has so little taxpayers’ money been recovered compared with the vast amount that was lost in the first place?

The invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis exposed the short-sightedness of getting rid of gas storage, ditching home insultation programmes and being exposed to hugely volatile energy spot markets. Why is the Government’s new policy to roll back on the transition mandated by their own net zero legislation and prolong our reliance on international fossil fuel markets? For those failures, the British public have paid a heavy price.

How will the Government increase resilience in the public estate? Schools’ capital budgets were cut back on the Prime Minister’s watch when he was Chancellor. School roofs are falling in, disrupting children’s education. When will the Government be able to ensure that children do not have to be taught in classrooms in which the ceilings are held up by temporary supports? That should not be too much to ask.

Of course, not all risks are physical, and we have both opportunities and challenges in the development of artificial intelligence. We have seen cyber-attacks in recent years, such as the WannaCry attack on the NHS and the ongoing attack on the British Library. I appreciate that that is a major challenge; the old distinctions between state and non-state actors are blurring. What more can the Government do to protect critical systems from cyber-attacks?

That brings me to perhaps our most important asset: our democracy itself. With an election coming some time in the next year, I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that we need to do all we can to ensure that it is conducted in a free and fair manner. With that in mind, why have the Government been so slow to implement the recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee in its report on Russia, which was published a couple of years ago? The Committee called Russian influence in the UK “the new normal”, citing connections at the highest level with

“access to UK companies and political figures,”

and said that Russia carries out

“malicious cyber activity in order to assert itself aggressively,”

for example by interfering in other countries’ elections. In the face of those findings, how will the Government ensure that our forthcoming election is protected against interference, either from Russia or by any other actors?

Finally, may I ask the Secretary of State about the governance of the strategy? The perennial question for a cross-departmental strategy such as this one is whether it is driven by the Departments or by the centre. Given the traditional strength of Departments in the Whitehall system, how can he ensure that the centre over which he presides is strong enough to enforce preparedness and deliver the national resilience that Members on both sides of the House want to see?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words about my longevity—I very much intend for that to continue, and I will take his comments in the spirit in which I am sure he meant them. He asked about a range of issues and I will seek to address as many as I can, but I will be happy to follow up if I miss any.

First, the right hon. Gentleman talked about the range of risks that we face as a nation. He is absolutely right that one of the principal tasks of the Government and, indeed, my Department is to be across all of those risks, which we have done for many years through things such as the national security risk register. However, what we have done differently since covid is to be much more public about those risks through the national risk register, which sets out the range of risks that the nation faces, their likelihood and their impact. We have put an unprecedented amount of information into the public domain to help people prepare, whether as individuals or in businesses, local government or voluntary organisations.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about covid preparedness. That is precisely why we have introduced the biological security strategy, a £1.5 billion annual investment to prepare ourselves for the whole range of biological hazards we might face. The 100-day challenge is part of that strategy. If we have another pandemic, whatever form it takes, the crucial thing will be getting rapidly from the point at which the disease is sequenced to an effective vaccine. We are boosting our capabilities to enable us to do that within 100 days, because we saw during covid that that was the key to setting people free.

Turning to covid contracts, I gently point out to the right hon. Gentleman and the Opposition that at the time of covid, Opposition Members were constantly calling for us to go faster and look at a wider range of suppliers; I think at one point we were urged to seek the services of costumiers and football clubs. Since then, we have recovered huge amounts of money by establishing the Public Sector Fraud Authority, which has recovered double its target in the first year.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned energy resilience. This Government have invested in renewables. We have not only the world’s largest offshore wind farm, but the second, third, fourth and now the fifth largest, with many more in the pipeline. I am in constant contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, and we continue to work to ensure the resilience of our energy networks this winter.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the risks around cyber. As I have said to the House previously, it is undoubtedly the case that the risk landscape around cyber continues to increase, not just in this nation but around the world, year in and year out. That is driven by a range of factors, not least, as he highlighted, the grey zone between hostile state actors and cyber-criminals. Against that backdrop, we continue to increase our resilience, including through the creation of the ministerial cyber board and the National Security Council’s resilience committee, which I chair.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned democracy and how we will prepare ourselves for forthcoming elections. Elections will happen not just in this nation but in many others next year—indeed, in this nation, it could be the year after. That is why we have instructed the defending democracy taskforce to make sure we are fully resilient.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman talked about governance. For many years, including when he was a Minister, we have been governed by the lead Government Department model, in which each Department takes responsibility for the risks set out in the national risk register. However, this Government have created for the first time a specific committee of the National Security Council—the resilience committee, which I chair—whose task is to hold those Departments to account. That is precisely what we are doing.

I remind colleagues that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members are hoping to participate in the next debate. As such, it would be very helpful if questions were brief, so that the Deputy Prime Minister can be concise in return.

How would a future pandemic be different from the previous ones in terms of strategic stocks of protective equipment, and vaccine research, manufacture and distribution, should we be visited with such a disaster by a Chinese wet market or even a laboratory?

My right hon. Friend tempts me to talk about the origins of covid. I will simply highlight that the World Health Organisation continues its investigation, and we are very much supportive of that.

As for what we are doing differently, the key thing is to move from the establishment of the disease to the vaccine with the 100-day taskforce. We have also overhauled our governance structures. For example, we have split the long-term risks and the short-term risks by creating a totally separate unit that deals with long-term risks, which is headed by a head of resilience. That will enable the Government to deal with the long-term risks but also focus on the short-term challenges. When I was at Porton Down last week, I saw the kind of investment that the UK Health Security Agency is making in precisely this area, whether in capacity to test vaccines’ effectiveness or to test the testing equipment. I am confident that while there is more to do, as I set out in my statement, we continue to improve our performance.

The Deputy Prime Minister has talked about resilience, and the requirement that the whole of society steps up and assists. I appreciate and agree with the whole-society approach that he has described; it is right that everybody—every individual, public service and charitable organisation—should assist at times when there are massive public issues, such as during covid.

However, we have had 13 years of austerity and a constant squeeze on the public sector. The public sector is crying out for more help and support, charities are screaming that they can no longer cope with this austerity, and individuals are struggling more than I have seen in my 16 years as an elected representative. I have never seen people struggling to such a level, yet the Deputy Prime Minister is asking them to step up. How can he have the gall to ask them to step up and assist others when they have nothing left to give? It is within the gift of the Government to help and support people, but they are refusing to do so, instead requiring those people to take it upon themselves. How can the Deputy Prime Minister ask that of people today, when I am seeing more people having to choose between heating and eating than I have ever seen before, and more people who are suicidal coming through the doors of my surgeries than ever before, and this Government have it within their power to help people?

The hon. Lady’s characterisation is simply false. First, it was because of the discipline the Government showed between 2010 and when the pandemic struck that we had the resources that enabled us to intervene in an unprecedented way, through the covid recovery scheme and other measures, to help over 10 million people keep their jobs. We would not have been able to do that without the fiscal discipline this Government showed.

On measures to support people, we have: the boost to the winter fuel payment of an additional £300 per household; the pensioner cost of living payment of £600 that will help with heating costs over the colder months; a £150 rebate on winter electricity bills through the warm home discount; and I could go on. We are providing support for the vulnerable.

The website and other measures facilitate people’s ability to volunteer and help their communities, so I find it odd that the SNP is set against that.

The reports of disruption at the British Library, and reports in The Guardian today that computer systems at Sellafield may have been hacked by foreign actors, are an alarming reminder of how digitally dependent we are and the potential huge risks associated with cyber-security. What single thing since the Deputy Prime Minister’s last annual report has changed to make us a more cyber-resilient country?

Since the last report, through the ministerial cyber board we have for the first time mapped the risks across all of Government, and held Departments to account for improving their performance. On the point raised by my right hon. Friend about Sellafield, I assure the House that many of the issues are historical. The regulator has for some time been working with Sellafield to ensure that the necessary improvements are implemented, and we are expecting regular updates on progress.

The Environment Agency estimates that the number of homes at risk of flooding could double by 2050 due to the impact of climate change. This means that the recent devastating floods in my constituency will become only more common. What are the Government doing to prevent that increase in flood risk and to build defences that will withstand not the current rain levels but the deluge that is anticipated by 2050?

That is exactly why we are investing over £5.2 billion for the period 2021 to 2027, which is double the previous amount. That has already resulted in more than 60,000 properties being better protected, and there is a large pipeline of work arising from that unprecedented investment.

I welcome the greater transparency that my right hon. Friend has brought to the threats facing the country. Can he assure me not only that there are robust plans in place to deal with the highest impact risks, but that they are regularly tested through tabletop and proper exercises, including with Ministers? How will the new resilience academy enhance that capability?

My hon. Friend speaks from experience, having previously worked in the Cabinet Office, and he is absolutely right to highlight the importance of exercising. Indeed, we conducted Exercise Mighty Oak, a major national exercising programme in relation to power outages, earlier this year. We are currently developing the forward programme for national exercises, and I will be able to provide an update shortly on our progress. Indeed, it forms part of the national resilience academy to train people in that kind of exercising.

One big driver of flooding risk from our waterways is raw sewage pollution, which has not improved since 2016. When I was starting out as a maths teacher, it did not take me long to realise that letting some of my classes mark their own homework was quite a naive approach and did not drive performance. When will the Government learn the same lesson and recognise that the current self-reporting regime for raw sewage discharge simply is not working?

The Government have introduced an unprecedented package to address sewage discharge. On resilience more widely, we have put £150 million into the flood and coastal resilience innovation programme to ensure that, as we develop flood defences, we also look at how we protect against, for example, coastal erosion and wider risks to seawater.

I welcome this statement. Although prevention is of course vital, resilience is also about how we respond to crises and fight back. That was well illustrated in the help given by agencies during the massive recent cyber-attack on Gloucester City Council, when not only were our services restored, but our enemy was disrupted. Local authorities are a big target of hackers and ransomware seekers, so will the Deputy Prime Minister look carefully at the suggestion made by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy that he emulate his predecessor Oliver Letwin’s Flood Re scheme with a new “Cyber Re” to insure those who cannot be insured by the market and provide local authorities with the resilience and the finance to withstand any such attack?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. First, I pay tribute to the National Cyber Security Centre, which helps councils up and down the country deal with these cyber-attacks when they hit. I am discussing insurance with my right hon. Friend the Security Minister, and we are keeping an open mind. There are arguments for and against it, not least that we do not want to create incentives whereby local authorities and others will not undertake the necessary measures, but there may well be a case for doing so and we are continuing to explore that.

I welcome, as others have, the recognition that resilience will be crucial if we are to withstand another pandemic or major incident, and that the one thing we have learned is the danger of complacency. However, my constituents in Edinburgh West also want to know what is being done to improve our resilience to those events that hit us every year, such as flooding, heavy snowfalls and storms. Will that be a high priority for this resilience group?

The short answer to that is yes. That is why, for example, we have for the first time introduced cold weather warnings, working with the Met Office, which we have not done before. I have already outlined to the House the unprecedented level of funding we are putting into flood risk prevention. Indeed, when we look at the risks that may face us, the most common risk is likely to be related to severe weather in this country, and it is a big focus for the Government’s efforts.

Whether it is fraud, threats to cyber-security or the emergent risks of new technologies such as AI, the greatest defence we can have is better education and awareness so that individuals and businesses can better protect themselves, and that is especially true for our children. Could my right hon. Friend talk about how the new academy can play into the curriculum so that children can protect themselves against threats of misinformation, disinformation and criminal attacks, and about how that will help children and families?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this. As he says, AI will increase the threat landscape vis-à-vis cyber risks; I hope that we can also apply AI to reduce those risks. We are already working with the National Cyber Security Centre to develop products to inform individuals, and the new academy will work to provide education material. If everyone acted straight away when they got one of those annoying alerts to run the updates on their mobile phone, it would be the single best thing we could do to increase this nation’s cyber-resilience.

I very much thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and the answers—every one—that he has given. On encouraging businesses to build resilience in a broad range of operations, I believe we must consider the risks in relation to the cost of energy, and others have asked similar questions. What discussions has the Deputy Prime Minister had with devolved Administrations—for example, on ensuring that businesses are able to build resilience on net zero targets and energy commitments—to ensure and secure prosperity for the future for everyone?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this. Under this Government, we have seen a 68% reduction in carbon emissions, which is faster than the EU, the United States of America and others. We are world leaders in many technologies, not least offshore wind and, I hope shortly, in the next generation of carbon capture and storage. We continue to work very closely with businesses to help them build that resilience[Official Report, 16 January 2024, Vol. 743, c. 10MC.].

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and for responding to questions.

Bill Presented

Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Steve Barclay , supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Oliver Dowden, Secretary Alister Jack and Secretary David T. C. Davies, presented a Bill to make provision to prohibit the export of certain livestock from Great Britain for slaughter.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 17) with explanatory notes (Bill 17—EN).