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Mobile Phones: Public Alert Systems

Volume 797: debated on Monday 13 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the remarks by Lord Young of Cookham on 5 July 2018 (HL Deb, cols 766–770), what progress they have made on the introduction of public alert systems for mobile phones in the event of an emergency.

My Lords, the Government recognise the potential benefits of an emergency alerting scheme that sends text messages to mobile phones. The Cabinet Office has undertaken further work to address some of the technical and operational issues of implementing such a scheme on the UK’s communications networks, and is working across government and with emergency responders to explore the potential benefits and opportunities further.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his Answer, but not a lot seems to have happened in the year since I last asked him about this matter.

It is seven years since Australia adopted a location-based text alert system, since when there have been no bushfire deaths. It is five years since the Cabinet Office published its report on the three successful trials it had carried out of these systems. It is three years since my report on London’s preparedness, which made recommendations in this area. It is two years since the Grenfell fire, when, had the technology been in use, residents in the tower could have been advised of the change in evacuation advice. That would have saved lives. It is two weeks since the Indian authorities sent 2.6 million text alerts warning people in the path of Cyclone Fani, possibly saving thousands of lives. Can the Minister tell us what exactly the problem is in this country, and when UK residents are going to get the protection that is available elsewhere in the world?

I understand the noble Lord’s impatience, and commend him for the regularity with which he has addressed this issue. Ministers have made it absolutely clear that doing nothing is not an option. Two weeks ago, there was a workshop of the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the police to identify more accurately the precise specifications of the scheme that the noble Lord refers to. Later this year, the Environment Agency will be launching a trial scheme using cell broadcasting, and testing the 4G technology to compare it with existing alerting capabilities. The previous trials in 2013 which the noble Lord referred to, were disappointing, but they were based on older technology and the 2G network. Since then, things have moved on.

Finally, the noble Lord referred to the cyclone in India. Most of the existing schemes are used to warn people of tsunamis, flooding and fires. His report used it against a background of terrorism. That raises different issues, in that it is impossible to forecast exactly what is going to happen, and also, in the case of terrorism, the protagonists are also receiving the message alerts. That means that one requires a slightly different approach if one is to use it for those purposes rather than the purposes it is normally used for abroad.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has just said, on 28 October 2016 he launched his report on improving London’s terror preparedness. He recommended the installation of hostile vehicle mitigation barriers and the wider installation of protective bollards in areas of vulnerability around London. Sadly, no action was taken before the terrorist attacks on Westminster Bridge and London Bridge, the first being six months after the publication of the report. Does the Minister accept that any unnecessary delay to the implementation of the recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, regarding the introduction of public alert systems could result in preventable loss of life?

I agree. One of the themes that came out of the debate in July, which the noble Lord participated in, was the importance of getting the message right and of any message coming from an alerting system being compatible with what the BBC, Sky and social media are doing—all of which may have more on-the-spot responses. This is why, as I said, it requires a slightly different approach the schemes that are already up and running. On the issue of the bollards and other obstructions, I will of course take that up with the relevant government department.

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that no alert system will ever be capable of foreign intervention? I know that many Members, in all parts of both Houses, are acutely concerned about this.

One of the advantages of cell broadcasting technology as opposed to SMS texting, which is the alternative scheme, is that cell broadcasting is better proofed against the risks that my noble friend has referred to.

My Lords, is there something fundamentally wrong with this Government? Even when they want to do something, it takes years for them to actually act. Should we not review the way that the Government are proceeding on these issues, so that we do not have ongoing issues that last for years without being resolved?

Again, I understand the noble Lord’s impatience which, for all he knows, may be more widely shared than he thinks. What has changed over recent years is that previous trials were based on an outdated technology, 2G. Now that we have 4G and the arrival of 5G is imminent, it is possible to have a scheme which was not possible three or four years ago. As I said a moment ago, we are testing a public trial of cell broadcasting later this year, which could then be developed into the sort of scheme proposed by his noble friend.

My Lords, one problem which is common to terrorist attacks and environmental disasters is the anxiety of friends and family about those whom they are concerned might be affected. Their phone calls, using mobile systems as well as landlines, put a load on the whole system. That was obvious in 2005. Does the work which the Government are doing take account of the need to ensure that that load is minimised?

Cell broadcasting does not run the risks of congestion on the network that the previous system, SMS, did.

My Lords, confession is good for the soul, even for Ministers. Can the Minister be absolutely precise about whether the workshop to which he referred was planned before or after my noble friend Lord Harris tabled his Question?

I am flattered that the noble Lord thinks that I have such influence that the moment a Question is tabled to me, I immediately ask for a workshop to be established. The workshop was planned before the noble Lord tabled his Question.