Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve communications for use in the event of a terrorist incident or other major emergency.
My Lords, I should start by referring to my various interests in the register, in particular my role as UK co-ordinator for the Electric Infrastructure Security Council. I am grateful to the distinguished list of noble Lords who have put their names down to speak.
Less than two weeks ago, Michael Dowden, the London Fire Brigade watch manager for North Kensington gave evidence to the Grenfell Tower inquiry and said:
“For me … to facilitate and change a stay-put policy to a full evacuation was impossible. I didn’t have the resource at that time. We’re looking at 20 floors above the fire … I just don’t know how that could have been done with the resources we had in attendance at that moment in time”.
Tragically, the technology to deliver that message to those waiting in their flats exists and, had it been adopted in this country, could have been used on that terrible night.
I have spoken to Michael Hallowes, who is sitting below the Gallery watching this debate, who tested Australia’s “emergency alert” for just such an emergency at the 37-storey Department of Justice building in the heart of Melbourne back in 2012. He drew a warning polygon on the system’s mapping tool over that building, which detected the presence of 5,736 mobile devices. The location-based SMS alert that followed reached over 90% of those devices within 12 seconds, delivering the alert successfully to people on every floor. The system’s configuration also meant that the alert was kept to just that building. This technology could undoubtedly have saved lives in Grenfell Tower. It could also have been used to reduce the panic and stampedes in Oxford Street last November as people responded to erroneous reports that gunshots had been fired.
We know that social media play a huge role in the event of a terrorist incident or indeed any other emergency. Sometimes, of course, the result is that misinformation is spread, as members of the public caught up in an event and the media try to make sense of what may be a very confusing situation. It is essential that civic agencies are able to provide a swift and authoritative voice during such events.
Three months ago I raised this matter in your Lordships’ House and the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, said that,
“the Cabinet Office has been requested to provide Ministers with … An initial analysis of what a scheme might look like and what delivering a scheme might entail … for May 2018”.—[Official Report, 16/4/18; col. 981.]
In a later answer, the noble Lord admitted that this timetable had been set by him that morning in preparation for my Question in the afternoon—I am grateful to him for doing that. But my questions now are: has that analysis been completed—we are now in July, not May—and when will action be taken?
The legal duty exists in Part 1, Section 2(1)(g), of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which requires category 1 responders to,
“maintain arrangements to warn the public, and to provide information and advice to the public, if an emergency is likely to occur or has occurred”.
This technology was tested by the Cabinet Office five years ago. As I have said, it is already in use in Australia, but also since 2012 in the United States, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Therefore, my questions to the noble Lord are as follows. Which Minister and which government department will be leading on this going forward? Have the police and the other emergency services identified their operational requirements and, if they have not, will Ministers be asking them to do so as a matter of urgency?
I would like to move on to the replacement of the current system for communications within the emergency services. The police, fire and ambulance services must have reliable communications between control rooms and personnel in the field. This is currently delivered by a radio system known as Airwave—a system which the National Audit Office pointed out has served the emergency services effectively in dealing with life-or-death situations—but now it needs upgrading and improving, in particular to enable it to handle data better in addition to voice communications.
In 2011, the Government took a decision to replace this system with what is to be known as the “Emergency Services Network”. Unlike Airwave, it will not have its own exclusive part of the spectrum; instead, it will share it with a commercial 4G network—in this case, EE. This puts all our communications eggs in one basket: it creates a single point of failure. If, for whatever reason, the 4G network goes down, so do the communications for the emergency services.
At this point, we were supposed to be half way through the rollout of the new system, but the NAO pointed out less than two years ago a number of rather significant facts: the ESN is inherently high risk and such an approach has not been used nationwide anywhere in the world; the ESN is “technically cutting edge”; no suitable hand-held and vehicle-mounted devices that will work with ESN existed at the time of the NAO’s report; the ESN requires the percentage of Great Britain’s land-mass covered by EE’s network to rise from 70% to 97%; and, as the NAO said,
“the programme has adopted a timeline for delivering ESN that is very ambitious”.
What could possibly go wrong? Not surprisingly, the programme is running behind schedule. Can the Minister tell us the current timeline for the rollout? What are the extra costs for each month of delay, and, perhaps more significantly, why do so few senior officers in the police, fire and ambulance services seem to feel confident that it will all work as promised?
The present arrangements are based on a series of contracts that expire next year. As I understand it, there are 105 contracts with the emergency services around the country and 307 with other public sector organisations. These will be replaced by one single contract managed by the Home Office. I repeat: one single contract managed by the Home Office—that instantly inspires confidence.
The individual providers will have a call-off arrangement with EE, but this is much more limited than the contract that they currently have with Airwave and gives those services very little direct recourse for poor service. Is the Minister satisfied that a local police force or a local ambulance service will have the leverage they need to get the quality of service required to keep the public safe in their area without recourse to separate expensive investment in back-up facilities?
We all know what it is like using the mobile phone network, particularly at times of high demand. The question that has to be answered is: will emergency services personnel have priority over other commercial users of the network? I am told that software and protocols are being developed to enable this to happen. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how this will work and, very specifically, whether the prioritisation will mean that existing users will be bumped off the service if it is needed by the emergency services.
My understanding is that the prioritisation being offered is that, if it is a choice between the emergency services provider coming on to the system and someone who wants to initiate a call—perhaps to a loved one to say they are all right or are on the train—the emergency service provider will get priority. But what about those people who are already using the system, either making an extended phone call or, more significantly, using a lot of data to stream music videos? Will they be bounced off the system in an emergency? My understanding is that they will not, and I think that is a significant weakness.
All of this assumes that the 4G network is operational and is not disrupted by the emergency itself. At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned the work I do on infrastructure security. I will not go into this at length, but there are a number of “black sky” events that could, for example, produce a widespread power failure. Under those circumstances, the 4G network would be viable for at best two to four hours before the batteries in the cell-site masts run down.
This brings me back to the concerns I expressed earlier about the single point of failure and to the last point I want to touch on: the High Integrity Telecommunications System. HITS is intended to be—again I quote the Minister,
“a resilient communications solution providing a voice and data link to 47 fixed sites across the UK. It is intended to provide failsafe communications in times of national crisis, connecting local responders and the Devolved Administrations with COBR”.
The Civil Contingencies Secretariat says in its information pack that this is a “resilient and independent” network that,
“will still function when the main networks (such as landlines and mobile phones) are unavailable or degraded”.
The collapse of the 4G network is acknowledged as a real risk. The existing contract for this system ends in March. When I asked the Minister about this a few weeks ago, I was told a review was “currently under way”. Is this urgent enough if the contract expires in less than nine months?
Connecting with 47 fixed sites was always a very limited aspiration—I understand it is one for each police force. Originally, this was supplemented by transportable terminals that could be deployed to specific locations in addition to the fixed sites. These were withdrawn at the end of 2013, are no longer available and have not been replaced. I have spoken to those involved in emergency planning around the country and their view is that the existing HIT system is approaching obsolescence and is inadequate for maintaining central co-ordination in the event of the sort of crisis for which it was designed. Can the Minister tell us what the plans are for the future of HITS and when decisions will be taken?
I apologise if some of this speech has appeared to be rather technical, but let me be clear: effective emergency communications in a time of crisis are vital. It is genuinely a matter of life and death, and it is essential that as a nation we get this right.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on three things: first, on securing this debate, which is not an easy thing to do; secondly, on his excellent work on London’s preparedness to respond to a major terrorist incident; and, thirdly, on his speech, in which he has said many of the things that I would like to say but has done so with more eloquence, and so I shall not.
I declare my interest as an unpaid member of the advisory board of the Electric Infrastructure Security Council. In recent decades, the West has become increasingly—and is now totally—dependent on one commodity: electricity, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned in his speech. Everything relies upon it. Water is pumped by electricity; cash machines operate by electricity; money is maintained and moved by electricity. Without electricity, we would have difficulty cooling the radioactive cores of our nuclear power stations and, without electricity, we would have no WhatsApp or Instagram, and all our children would have nervous breakdowns.
If our electricity were somehow switched off by a cyberattack, by an electromagnetic pulse, even by a solar flare or by other means that may not yet have been invented, we would be in real trouble, but the first thing that we would want to restore would not be hospitals or money but our communications. The Cabinet Office, among others, recognises that our communication is the key to restoring order, reassuring the public and allowing the subsequent restoration of health services, government and finances.
We saw in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina that the collapse of law and order can happen in a matter of hours, and looting did happen. So the restoration of communications, bringing explanation, information and understanding, is key to what is needed in an emergency such as we are talking about today—by the way, I am a very gloomy person to listen to about most of this because I am more pessimistic even than the noble Lord, Lord Harris.
However, there is one thing working in our favour; that is, smartphones and mobile computing. That is one of the most widely distributed networks—a national set of independent, battery-powered operations. It includes local computing devices and even torches. It is an amazing network which people have bought for themselves, so the Government do not even have to go out and buy it for them. If we can use that system, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was talking about, in relation to emergencies in a block of system, first, to restore communications and, secondly perhaps, to support the delivery of crisis information, so much the better. If that system could also provide some form of digital emergency toolkit, possibly for personalised disaster communication, localised evacuation suggestions or localised suggestion of where to find resources, that would also be so much the better.
What steps are the Government taking on this? The noble Lord, Lord Harris, has talked about the new emergency services network which the Government say is based on the latest technology delivering secure and resilient voice technology and broadband data services. That is very good, even if it is delayed—I shall not quibble about the fact that it is delayed. But will it work if the electricity has gone off?
I recently asked some questions and received some reassuring answers. The first was that a significant proportion of airwave sites were fitted with additional power resilience to ensure that they could run for a minimum of five days on autonomous power. I have also been told that resilience against extended power outages is achieved using a range of technical solutions that include tow-to-site and fixed generators and batteries. That is good as far as it goes, but, first, what happens if the power outage lasts for more than five days—that is, I am afraid to say in my depressed frame of mind, perfectly feasible. If the power outage struck more than just a small area of the country, the demand for back-up generators and new transformers for things all taking place in circumstances of cascading failure of different parts of our infrastructure, would be very difficult to manage.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned that we were putting all our eggs in one basket. Has thought been given to identifying and then possibly tasking some form of back-up radio ham network across the country that might be able to operate on vehicles and chip in, if the 4G network were not available? On 4G, we are just about to introduce into the country the new 5G network. As I understand it, the existing 40,000 aerials are going to have be expanded to something like 400,000 aerials. I may be wrong about that—but is not that an opportunity for the Government to design an additional degree of resilience into those new aerials, which would be of great benefit to the country?
Finally, I have read the Government’s Civil Contingencies Act Enhancement Programme. When viewed in the light of the possible loss of electricity, I am sorry to say that it leaves a little to be desired. The public are wholly unaware of most of the contents of that document and of most of the things that they should be doing. I suspect that Ministers, too, are pretty unprepared, and I am sure that they are unpractised in dealing with catastrophic events such as the ones that we are talking about. I would hope not only that Ministers would begin to form plans of what to do in the face of major catastrophes—because forming such a plan once the catastrophe has taken place is not wise—but that they should practice that plan from the top to the bottom of government and the top to the bottom of civil society, because a plan that is not practised is no plan at all.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for introducing this very important subject and echo what we have just heard about the compliments about his service.
I accept that my experience is, or was, in Northern Ireland and that that time has passed. However, we may not have had all the technology, but a lot of the same principles exist today. There were occasions when I was on duty in an ops room when there were more than two bomb incidents going on at the same time, so I fully appreciate what happens with communications when a lot of people want to be on them about one subject. It makes a lot of systems very vulnerable—therefore, we have to have the best.
The first and most important principle is that there must be efficient command and control as soon as possible after an incident, and this can be achieved only with the use of communications technology and the complete inclusion within it all of the responding agencies. That is called interoperability, which is defined by the joint emergency services as the extent to which organisations can work coherently as a matter of course. That is very difficult to practise because, as a matter of course, they are dealing with everyday minor events, and we are talking about exceptional events. The foundation stone of all that has to be communications. Luckily, because so much has been said by the noble Lord, I can leave out stretches of my speech—so it will not be quite as joined-up as it might have been.
After Hillsborough, it is very significant that Lord Taylor said that,
“so many previous reports and guidelines must indicate that the lessons of past disasters and the recommendations following them had not been taken sufficiently to heart”.
There is no point in holding inquiries or publishing guidance unless the recommendations are followed diligently. That must be the first lesson. Many of us would feel that that is still going on today. Reviews come out with sensible answers and suggestions, and what happens? They disappear into desks in Whitehall, or elsewhere, and we definitely do not see the results on the ground.
I was going to talk about other communications, but that has been done. One thing was that, of course, they are not always capable. In Manchester, the casualty bureau was seriously hampered by a complete failure of the National Mutual Aid Telephony system provided by Vodafone. What is the future of this means of communication for that service? Again, with the overload of mobiles in mind, we have exactly the questions that were asked previously.
One of the other strategic issues, apart from communications directly, is doctrine. Doctrine involves communications because anything that goes on involves them. Can the Minister tell the House whether there is a common doctrine throughout the UK for reacting to major emergencies? Does he not agree that this is of the utmost importance regardless of the individuality of emergency agencies in different areas? We all feel that there is a bit of empire building and that this is difficult. For instance, some ambulance services have HART—hazardous area response teams, which are allowed to operate in hot areas or warm areas. However, not everywhere has such teams. We have had sad occurrences in Manchester and London, but they are centres of population and thus centres for emergency services. If we get something in more rural areas, the local services will have to be supported by others. I am not sure that I am confident that having reached the area, they will be able to integrate properly. This is about the human side rather the technology aspect. We really should do something about having a national doctrine to cover many of the things that happen.
The police, with their gold, silver and bronze commanders, are not always co-located with their equivalents in other agencies. In Manchester, the fire and rescue service was outside the loop by not being present at the strategic gold command location. That was an example of poor communication and procedures. We simply have to eliminate what are quite clearly errors in human planning, otherwise we cannot rely on our technology. It cannot work if the people are not there. Communication involves people and face-to-face contact as well as what we have been talking about.
The fact that a plan had been practised in Manchester really showed, and Manchester did not go badly; there were just ways of improving it. Another strategic issue is training, which is always difficult because it costs a lot of money. Police forces do not have a lot of money to do realistic training. Coming from Northern Ireland and all the problems and issues we faced over 40 years, I am amazed by and greatly admire the initial responders to terrorist events that we have had in London. They are fabulous and we should give them credit for that. They took out the threat, albeit sadly with civilian casualties, without—touch wood—collateral damage. Having lived in Northern Ireland for so long, I would not have believed that the length of training and preparedness the police officers have had for those events could produce such an effect. Not only are they to be congratulated, but again, it is utterly amazing.
My second issue concerns communications, about which I feel very strongly indeed. Are we briefing the media too much and are they debriefing the terrorists? I have three straightforward examples of this. Around 10 years ago, explosives or terrorist equipment was found in a garage located either in London or the Midlands; I cannot remember the details. The next day, a diagram of where the surveillance cameras and sensors were, along with an account of how the garage was found. In Northern Ireland, down to the lowest rank of policeman and serviceman, there was absolute confidentiality. Instead, they would have said something like: “Three or four children were playing football and one of them hit the ball at the door. It came up, and do you know what was inside?” What the media did in publishing that information and what the emergency services did was to let everything down because it begs the question: how did we know? That gives terrorists an opportunity. Why do we allow that?
The next incident was the tube bombings. One of the terrorists did not blow himself up and went to Italy, where he was captured. Two days later he was captured with mobile phone technology. It was remarkable: an off-duty policeman went on holiday in Italy and, lo and behold, he saw a face that he knew. We cannot afford to be like this—that is the honest truth.
More recently, for the bomb on the tube that did not go off properly, we knew within 24 hours why it had not gone off. That is ridiculous, because a bomb has to be put together with many things. I got into trouble in the ops room in Belfast because an ATO came in one day and he told us why a bomb had not worked. I put it on the nightly report in code; it was secure. It was something to do with silicon over bared wires. I leave the rest to noble Lords’ imagination. I was seriously reprimanded for doing that, even though it was secure.
We must be confident. There must be a good cordon and it must be secure. This chatter must stop. They are getting full details of the incident when we say that the bomb partially exploded. We are informing them of what went wrong. We are saying where the emergency service response came from and how. It is potential identification of intelligence. We have to get away from that—it is seriously not good at all.
Why do we not adopt the Northern Ireland policy to provide a watered-down version of events? Conceal methodology and make up a device. Do not release in detail why it failed to go off. Most importantly, we should develop a code of conduct with the media. We have to do this. We have to get out of our boxes and do it, because we cannot put up with things as they are. This would save lives. If you have a bomb, you set it and you do not know why it has not gone off—it takes an awful lot of rebuilding and trying to find out why it did not. If all you have to do is go to the TPU—time power units—you will have the answer and someone will die the next time round. We need that absolute confidentiality. This is about communication. I realise that that is not quite what the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was talking about, but it is very important, if not vital.
My Lords, I contribute to this debate with diffidence. Others speak with far greater authority and have had direct experience of and responsibility for dealing with terrorist incidents, or, more generally, with infrastructure failures that could cause disruption and social breakdown. I pay tribute to the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to these issues. He has emphasised particularly that enhancing the resilience of the electricity grid is surely a priority.
I will focus rather less on the communication medium than on the messages that need to be communicated in a context where we can expect far larger-scale and more catastrophic breakdowns and terrorist attacks that we have had up to now. Cities would be paralysed without electricity. The lights would go out, but that would be far from the most serious consequence. Within a few days, our cities would be uninhabitable and anarchic. We know what even an intrepid maverick with cyber skills can do, and there have been warnings from senior officials in this country and the US of how devastating and long-lasting a highly organised cyberattack could be.
Our high-tech and interconnected world is vulnerable in other ways. We depend increasingly on elaborate networks: air traffic control, international finance, globally dispersed manufacturing, biothreats and so forth. Unless these networks are highly resilient, their benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic, albeit rare, breakdowns. Social media can spread panic and rumour, and economic contagion, literally at the speed of light.
Not enough effort goes into minimising these risks, nor, for the focus of this debate, into preparing for how to cope with the aftermath of catastrophic events. There are two reasons for this underpreparation. First, we are in denial. We respond rationally and proportionately to fire risks, for instance, because, even though the chance of our home burning down is small, we have frequent reminders of fires and the damage they can do. We can estimate their probability and therefore the risk.
However, catastrophic events are rare—perhaps unprecedented or newly emergent—so we do not have this experience. We are lulled into believing that they will never happen so we are underprepared. It is an analogue of what is happening in the financial world. Gains and losses are asymmetric; many years of gradual gains can be wiped out by a sudden loss. Likewise, in cyberdisasters and those that might be caused by bio-error or bioterror, the risk is dominated by the rare but extreme events. The magnitude of the worst potential catastrophe is growing unprecedentedly large. Too many people are in denial about this; it needs to be higher up in public policy and attention.
The second reason for underpreparation is political reluctance to spend money in ways that may prove nugatory, as is likely to be the case for any low-probability but high-consequence scenario. For instance, in some years when a flu epidemic has been predicted, the Government have prudently stocked up on the appropriate virus but then been unfairly criticised for waste if some was not needed. We must overcome that mindset if we want to prepare for these extreme events. It is reassuring that the Government have given priority and resources to cyberdefence, where there is an arms race between the attackers and the defence and it is unclear whether the defence will always win.
It is surely not scaremongering to raise concerns about human-induced risks from bio-error or bioterror. We know all too well that technical expertise does not guarantee balanced rationality. The global village will have its village idiots, and they will have global range. The spread of an artificially released pathogen cannot be predicted or controlled. The rising empowerment of tech-savvy groups, even individuals, by biotechnology will pose a growing intractable challenge to governments and aggravate the tension among freedom, privacy, and security. Most likely, there will be a societal acceptance of a shift towards more intrusion and less privacy.
Before closing, I want to focus on nuclear threats. Even a stalwart establishment figure such as William Perry, the former US Defense Secretary, has expressed concern about scenarios involving terrorist nuclear weapons. Be that as it may, there have already been nuclear incidents that involved not explosions but serious radiation release. Such nuclear accidents hold lessons about the appropriate response—evacuation versus staying put, for instance—and messages that should be sent. In 2011, the Japanese tsunami claimed 30,000 lives, mainly through drowning. It also destroyed the Fukushima nuclear power stations, which were inadequately protected against a 15 metre-high wall of water and sub-optimally designed. For instance, the emergency generators were located low down, and were inactivated by flooding.
Consequently, radioactive materials leaked and spread. The surrounding villages were evacuated, but this was done through unco-ordinated messages and in an unco-ordinated way. Initially, just those within three kilometres of the power stations were evacuated, then those within 20 kilometres and then those within 30, with inadequate regard for the asymmetric way in which the wind was spreading the contamination. Some evacuees had to move three times and some villages remain uninhabited, with devastating consequences for the lives of long-term residents. Indeed, the mental trauma and other health problems, such as diabetes, have proved more debilitating than the radiation risk. Many evacuees, especially elderly ones, would be prepared to accept a substantially higher cancer risk in return for the freedom to live out their days in familiar surroundings. They should have that option. Likewise, incidentally, the mass evacuations after the Chernobyl disaster were not necessarily in the best interests of those displaced.
In Japan, it was the tsunami itself, not the nuclear accident, that caused the major death toll. The public fear of radiation is enhanced by a special dread factor and a feeling of helplessness. As a consequence, all nuclear projects are impeded by disproportionate concern about even very low radiation levels and the cost is raised by overstringent clean-up requirements. To offer a specific recommendation, were a city centre to be attacked by a dirty bomb—a conventional chemical explosion laced with radioactive material—some evacuation might be needed, but, just as in Fukushima, there is a risk that present guidelines would mandate a response that was unduly drastic, both in the extent and the duration of the evacuation.
The immediate aftermath of a dirty bomb incident is not the right time for a balanced debate. That is why this topic needs a new assessment and wide dissemination of clear and appropriate guidelines of the risks to different categories of people. We need discussion of a proportionate response and how to communicate it.
Finally, it is clear that such threats are growing in their variety and severity. We need to devote more resources to reducing our vulnerabilities, planning the optimum response and communicating it. The past is a poor guide to the future when fast-changing technologies are involved. There is a salutary mantra: “The unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable”.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, for asking his Question. With the leave of the House I would like to speak in the gap. I apologise: I omitted to put my name down to speak, but it is just as well because I misinterpreted the Question on the Order Paper.
Many noble Lords touched on the need for electricity in modern society. My understanding until recently was that to restore power in the case of a total blackout across a large portion of the country would take several days—we have already talked about that today. That would be whatever the cause, whether it was a cyberattack, or a couple of power stations and a large substation being taken out simultaneously. I always thought that each thermal power station would have the ability to black start from cold and with no external assistance from the grid, and, most importantly, that it would have the ability to synchronise its frequency with the rest of the grid. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, is shaking his head: I suspect he thinks that that is not the case—that it would not have the ability. I think it should. So can my noble friend the Minister write to me and tell me what is our capability of black starting thermal power stations? I think they all ought to be able to black start and synchronise their frequencies relatively easily. My understanding is that it is very difficult to do and that is why it would take several days to restore the power, with the attendant, very serious consequences.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, for giving us an opportunity to discuss these very important issues. Perhaps I should declare an interest: when I was a senior police officer I was trained as a gold commander to deal with the kinds of incidents we are talking about. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, talked about Grenfell and the difficulty of changing the established policy of “stay put” to one of evacuation, and not being able to communicate it. He is right: this technology does exist. It has been discussed, yet no progress seems to be made. Clearly, there are circumstances in which it could be extremely useful. Of course, false reports have resulted in, for example, the Oxford Street stampede—false reports of a shooting took place, as the noble Lord said. Such misinformation being spread can actually come from official sources. I shall come back to that by way of example shortly.
Clearly, there are very serious concerns about the replacement for Airwave, the emergency services network, relying on a commercial 4G network rather than a dedicated emergency service and other public service system. Any reassurance the Minister is able to give on that would be welcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, talked about the importance of practising for such emergencies. The noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, talked about underpreparation for catastrophic events. Certainly, in my time as a gold commander, I spent many a happy weekend with other emergency services, local authorities and even representatives of the media, regularly exercising for these sorts of emergencies. I would be surprised if that does not continue to this day.
On 7 July 2005 I was in my office at Scotland Yard, having a meeting with the health service. My staff officer came in and said there had been a serious incident on the Underground. I thanked her but she insisted on me abandoning the meeting. I went to the first floor of Scotland Yard where a commander was in charge of a public order event at that time. The first information that we were given by London Underground was that there had been a power surge on the Underground. That was misinformation but it was the information that we were given. As I was talking to the commander, the explosion happened on the bus and I said, “Power surges do not happen on buses”, and we realised that we were under terrorist attack.
I agreed with the gold commander that I would do the press conferences for the Metropolitan Police. I went to the press bureau on the 13th floor and agreed with the head of public affairs that that would be the right course of action. We went to see the commissioner in his office. Although the commissioner insisted that he should do the media, I can remember his staff officer coming in and saying, “COBRA says the commissioner is not to do the media”, and the commissioner saying, “Tell COBRA I’m doing it”. Why did COBRA insist on this? Because in the immediate aftermath of such an incident—on 7 July, a series of catastrophic incidents—there is confusion and it is very easy to say, with the authority of the country’s most senior police officer, something that turns out not to be true. The “swift and authoritative voices” that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, talked about are not always possible to deliver in the immediate aftermath of such incidents.
On that occasion, the information given by the commissioner was that there had been five incidents on the Underground. In fact, there had been three; two had happened midway between two Underground stations and people were evacuating from both ends of the train, making it look as though there had been more incidents than had actually taken place. I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, that actually it was the attempted bombings two weeks later on 21 July when none of the bombs exploded and all the perpetrators managed to flee, rather on 7 July, when all the suicide bombers died.
It is essential that the emergency services are seen to be in control and to speak authoritatively about what has happened. In the initial stages, as a more junior officer, I prefaced everything I said in every press conference I did in the immediate aftermath with “from what we know at this time”. Such an approach means that when the smoke clears, the most senior police officer in the country can be seen as completely trustworthy and the reassurances he or she gives can equally be trusted.
Even a day or so later, what we believed to be the timings of the bombings on the Underground were proved to be wrong. They had actually exploded simultaneously, at a prearranged time agreed by the bombers. One of the bombers did not follow the plan and got off the Underground but when he realised that his fellow bombers had carried out their murders, he detonated his bomb on the bus, with devastating consequences.
I tell this story to emphasise that, while it is important that there is communication with the public to provide advice, guidance, instruction and reassurance, initially and for some time afterwards, it is not always obvious what has happened and therefore the advice, guidance, instruction and reassurance we can give are limited.
In addition to having mechanisms to get messages to the public quickly, it is important that we ensure that the information is accurate. Thankfully, the scenario that we are very wary of—that the initial explosion is perhaps designed to push people into areas where other devices are about to explode—did not happen in the Manchester Arena attack. If there was confusion, as the noble Viscount said, between the fire and rescue service and the other emergency services during the Manchester incident, it showed how important it is that such initial confusion is not communicated erroneously to the public, thereby undermining public confidence in the ability of the emergency services to deal effectively with such outrages and hampering a return to normality, which is the best response we can have to attempts by terrorists to disrupt our way of life.
On Saturday it will be exactly 13 years since the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, was doing press conferences and I was awarded my PhD. It turned out to be quite a day for both of us, although not in the same way. I was on the Tube, due to travel via Aldgate to Mile End for the PhD ceremony. For reasons we now know, the Tube was suddenly evacuated. I was one of the lucky ones not only to get off the Tube unaffected but to be able to use my phone to reassure my other half, who was also travelling that way, that both of us were alive and safe.
In different ways, it was a surreal day. What slowly dawns on one is the absolute horror of what has happened, the number of deaths and injuries—and there is also an awareness, even at that level, of the amazing response of all concerned: Transport for London; the emergency services; the taxi driver who took pity on me; Queen Mary University of London, which turned out food, beds, help and advice to parents and graduates; and a host of others whom we know of now and who were centrally or peripherally involved.
As I said, I managed to use my phone just before it went down. What I then watched, of course, was the students arriving, ready to be gowned up, and the parents ready with their cameras to beam down with pride on their children. In the absence of mobile phones there were terrible gaps: some parents arriving but not the graduates, some graduates arriving but not the parents. As we finally sat down, there were gaps on many seats. Given our proximity to Aldgate, our alarm is easy to understand. Fortunately, we learned—although not until the next day—that nobody, despite where we were, had been affected by that.
Of course, at the time, little did I know about all the issues of the attack, which we now know far more about—nor about the wise words and the content of the report of my noble friend Lord Harris. By the way, I knew him when he was getting ready for his first degree—supposedly, anyway, but I think he spent rather more of his time then as chairman of the Cambridge Fabian Society than studying, as he should have been. However, he has grown a lot since then.
I did not mean—well, when you are in a hole, stop digging.
Both my noble friend’s report and his speech today gave us much food for thought—or indeed gloom, if I may use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot. I will highlight two issues. The first is the robustness of the infrastructure and governance of the systems now emerging. The other is the public. This issue has been touched on already, in all the various scenarios.
On infrastructure, my noble friend’s questions leave one slightly less reassured than is good for one’s blood pressure. I do not know whether he was trying to discomfit us, but the more he spoke, the more I realised the size of the unanswered questions. As he spelled out some of those, it made one realise the seriousness of what we are doing.
As my noble friend Lord Harris says, unlike Airwave the proposed new emergency services network will not have its own exclusive part of the spectrum but will share it with the 4G network—putting our communications, as he said, in one basket, with a single point of failure. He hopes that the 4G never goes down. I also hope—like the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee—that we never have a widespread power failure.
It is not, however, just the noble Lord, Lord Harris, or indeed the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who have concerns about this. The NAO pointed out the high risk, given that the ESN approach has not yet been used nationwide anywhere in the world and there are currently no suitable handheld and vehicle-mounted devices that will work with it. Some reassurance, therefore, is needed today, provided that it is genuine and not just warm words. That would be appreciated.
How people’s own mobiles work in an emergency is also crucial, as is the question of whether they will give way to emergency personnel with higher priority than a mere member of the public—as I was in those days. As we have heard, emergency personnel may have priority over new calls from the public while still allowing heavy-usage calls already in progress to continue unabated. That was the question posed by my noble friend, to which we look forward to an answer.
The second issue is the public’s access to a network, or to information, during an emergency. That draws on the examples of Grenfell and Oxford Street and of other countries’ experiences—in Nice, Belgium and elsewhere—as well as 7/7. We must recognise people’s need to contact friends and relatives, and for reliable information at such times. I was particularly struck, in the Cabinet Office’s Civil Contingencies Act enhancement programme’s comments on communicating with the public, not simply about the guidance on warnings and providing advice in a timely manner—though that was a strong recommendation—but about the need to provide such information not just at the beginning but throughout the emergency, and at its conclusion. The latter point—something I had not realised or thought about—is crucial: it can be very easy to wind down at that stage and forget that other people do not know that the emergency is over.
The Cabinet Office research also demonstrates the importance of understanding people’s drive to maintain family contact: it is an important issue. We also need to prepare and understand the public’s mindset when faced by such events, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rees. Research and understanding of that area is crucial to a successful emergency system. That understanding should be built into all the systems planning and rank high with the relevant leadership at each event. I am not referring to the kind of highly confidential information described by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, but to the information that people need at that time to know what to do.
Clearly it is easy to say that, but difficult questions arise over priorities—not only in access to communication systems but in the ranking of who gets told what and when. Those are issues for government, so I would also like to know who leads on it. I also ask the Minister for some assurance that even if the public as a whole cannot be involved in the planning and design of such systems, then civil society, consumer groups or communications experts are part and parcel at every step, so that the public’s needs are not an add-on, too late to influence the decision-making infrastructure and management system. I also ask that professional expertise on how to communicate—as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rees—is central to the planning, and not left to people who do not understand such ways of communicating. It is vital that it is built in throughout the planning system: the pre-warning and the training, whether we are talking about outward alerts from the police to mobile phones—really, the equivalent of what I remember as sirens when I was little—or the other issues. I hope that this will be built into our development of new systems and their governance.
These are serious issues and we already have a lot to be thankful for in what is being done in this way. I hope that today’s debate might serve to nudge the Cabinet Office to move a little faster on this vital issue and that my noble friend Lord Harris might be further involved, given that he seems to know rather more about this than I ever wanted to have to know about it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for the Question that he has asked about improved communications in the event of a terrorist incident or major emergency and for focusing, as he did at the beginning of his remarks, on the progress on public-alerting technology. I also commend his wide-ranging review of London’s preparedness for a major terrorist incident to the House, which a number of noble Lords referred to and which I read with great interest when he asked an Oral Question a few weeks ago. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. This has been an astonishingly well-informed debate, with expertise from a wide variety of interests focused on it.
I understand the real anxiety that we should get decisions right. Major decisions are confronting us and it is crucial that we take on board some of the questions and concerns raised in this wide-ranging debate. I want to focus on communications—I am conscious that I will not be able to answer all the questions—and particularly on the subject of mobile alerting, championed by the noble Lord. When he asked me about this on 16 April, some noble Lords were concerned about the speed of progress being made. I am now able to report that we are making headway on the very topic of using mobile phones for alerting citizens to a major incident.
Doing nothing regarding an alerting system is not an option. It is absolutely right that the Government should take every step possible to reduce harm to citizens when faced with emergencies, such as the terrorist incidents that recently afflicted major cities in the UK. But the evidence linking use of an alerting scheme for emergencies to the actual saving of lives needs further work, especially given the nature of risks in the UK. To move matters forward, the Cabinet Office recently commissioned work to provide an insight as to what is happening elsewhere in the world, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and to gain a wider appreciation of the technical issues behind a scheme. It is right to do this exploratory work to help understand how we get the best value out of the system. The matter is currently under active consideration by Ministers.
These days, a very large proportion of society—some three-quarters—owns a mobile phone and it seems appropriate to use phones as a vehicle for sending alerts to citizens. However, their wide appeal hides complexity in using them in an alerting scheme. It seems prudent to explore the situations where a scheme would stand the best chance of successfully reducing harm, which is where the police have a major role to play, especially in fast-moving terrorist incidents. There are already a number of schemes in the UK and internationally with very different objectives, delivered in different ways at different costs.
The sort of scheme that the Government have in mind should build upon arrangements already in place, such as the very successful flood warning scheme run by the Environment Agency. To have additional value and reach the maximum number of potentially affected people, our desirable characteristic for a scheme is one which addresses emergencies in general and is of national stature since emergencies do not respect administrative boundaries, as demonstrated in recent years. Importantly, we believe such a scheme should not involve citizens having to take any action to receive a message, such as having to install an app on to their smartphone. As such, we envisage it to be rather like a reverse 999 scheme. By using such a scheme only for real emergencies, thereby keeping the threshold for use high, a scheme will hopefully attract the same level of importance within society as calling 999 or 112. We also see any scheme as being as inclusive as possible by delivering messages to as many citizens as we can reach and to mobile devices that are not necessarily of the latest technology.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot and the noble Lord, Lord Rees, focused on how crucial it is to get the message right. That point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. The noble Lord, Lord Rees, helpfully suggested some guidelines for the sorts of messages that go through. Traditionally, alerting schemes address slow-burn incidents such as flooding. In these, the hazard is understood, the location is increasingly known and the evolution of the situation is by and large readily comprehensible. In comparison, fast-moving terrorist incidents probably require a different response. The response could be both temporal and geographic, with a timely low-content alert in the immediate vicinity of the incident and different content sent more widely to advise people entering the affected area on foot or in vehicles both public and private. As a consequence, in-depth work needs to be undertaken at both a policy level in the Home Office—to answer some of the questions about where responsibility initially lies—and operationally with the police to see how an alerting scheme fits with existing response arrangements for major incidents, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.
Most of the schemes around the world tend to broadcast messages to phones that are in the vicinity of a mobile phone mast—a scheme aptly called cell broadcast. There is an alternative that looked very attractive in the trials that the Cabinet Office reported on in 2014 where text messages are sent to phones in a specified area, much like cell broadcast, but since the phones are uniquely identified they can receive subsequent messages even if they leave the area of danger. That arrangement could have been useful in Salisbury, for example, where a nerve agent was used in an attempt to murder the Skripals and people in the area at the time needed to be contacted later.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the tragedy at Grenfell, where a facility of this kind could have meant that people in the tower could get information on their mobile phones that could not otherwise be communicated. That is a compelling case for making faster progress. These schemes all involve having a message involuntarily pushed to a mobile phone in a specified area. By keeping the threshold for use of a scheme high—for real emergencies where lives are at risk—we hope that recipients would not see it as intrusive and that the benefits would outweigh concerns over privacy.
A real challenge for all alerting schemes in terrorist incidents is that the protagonists will also receive the messages. Getting the content of the message right is absolutely crucial so it does not play into the hands of those who seek to cause harm. As a consequence, there is work to be done to shape the content of the message—that has been a theme coming out of this debate—so that it stands the best chance of getting the behavioural response sought, while not risking the recipient’s safety. That is a difficult call to make since bland messages would be rather like a news service, and we have plenty of those on social media.
The introduction of a scheme is not without considerable cost, but there may be an opportunity to contain the cost to the public purse. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is transposing Article 102a of the European Electronic Communications Code into law before we leave the European Union. The code makes provision for reverse 112, which is an alerting scheme by a different name. As part of the transposition, consideration can be given to whether the costs should lie with those who own and operate our mobile phone systems in much the same way as occurs for 999.
On mobile alerting, I can tell noble Lords that the Government take it seriously and are adopting a considered approach to explore how a scheme may be introduced that reduces harm to citizens alongside wider work to keep people safe in emergencies.
I shall try to answer some of the questions raised during the debate. I am conscious that I may not be able to do justice to all of them. One of the themes introduced by my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot and developed by other noble Lords was about the resilience of the electricity system. The national grid is extremely resilient to mass failure and has not completely failed since it was wired up from the regional companies in the 1930s. Plans are in place to restore the grid in the event of a catastrophic failure—the so-called black start arrangements. I accept my noble friend’s invitation to write to him in more detail about that. We are currently reviewing the preparedness for a major power outage, and I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is actively involved in those discussions.
There was concern about the replacement of Airwave with ESN. It is designed to be as resilient as Airwave on coverage and hazards such as power outages. Priority will be provided for the emergency services. They will have pre-emption and, if circumstances demand, they can kick off members of the public, but it is being designed to have adequate capacity in the event of emergencies, and 4G has been substantially rolled out in recent years.
On putting all our eggs in one basket, I understand the point being made, but Airwave is no different from ESN in that both are stand-alone networks. ESN is leading technology, although I understand that South Korea is ahead of us. Airwave was a pioneer. It was the first system of its type and will remain in place until ESN is proven. ESN handsets are currently available and have been demonstrated since the spring. Capacity on 4G is very much greater than it was on the 2G system in use during the 7/7 incident, and it is very different from 2G from a technical perspective.
I was struck by the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, about the media. It was a subject that I had not thought about before: the way an incident is reported can give assistance to terrorists. I take very much to heart the point he made that the media should be responsible in how they report the discovery of certain incidents. There is a lot to be gained from the experience in Northern Ireland when, as he said, a police officer in plain clothes would miraculously come across a cache of weapons, thereby not revealing the real source of that information.
We must continue to learn lessons from the emergency services about the recent Manchester Arena attack. The noble Viscount made the point that we should learn lessons, and we are looking at lessons across all the incidents that took place in 2017 and this year. The Kerslake review was broadly positive about the emergency services’ response and preparations, although there are lessons to be learned, and some noble Lords touched on some of them. We have improved interoperability during major incidents through the joint emergency services interoperability principles— JESIP—and we will continue to improve it. More than 12,000 emergency service commanders and control room managers have already been trained, alongside their peers.
I see that the clock is ticking and I am conscious that I have not done justice to the very important speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rees. On Vodafone and the issue of enhancement of helpline services, the Home Office immediately acted on the problems with this service during the Manchester Arena attack, and has firm assurances and confirmation that robust arrangements are in place to prevent it happening again. It is an important service to ensure that the concerned public can contact the police.
As I said, I will write to noble Lords and thank them again for a very interesting and well-informed debate, which I know the Government will take seriously as they take the decisions referred to during this discussion.
House adjourned at 7.38 pm.