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Mobile Telephones: Public Emergency Alert System

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in introducing a public emergency alert system using mobile telephones.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are developing a cell broadcast alert system to enable people whose lives are at risk in an emergency to be rapidly contacted via their mobile phone. We are currently at the testing phase and, subject to successful progress, we hope to launch a service soon.

My Lords, the Cabinet Office successfully tested the use of emergency text alerts in 2013. Last month, according to the Daily Telegraph, a cell broadcasting system was trialled in Reading, 12 years after the technology was adopted in Australia and subsequently by many other countries. Can the noble Lord tell us whether this long-awaited further trial, which surprisingly he did not mention, was regarded as a success? Progress in rolling out a cell broadcast system nationwide is welcome but is not flexible enough for every emergency. France is to have a hybrid system using locality-based SMS as well. This would, for example, have better protected residents of Grenfell Tower and told them that the evacuation advice had changed. The successful tenderer to roll out a nationwide service could provide a hybrid system. Is that under consideration?

My Lords, I gave the noble Lord a brief response and will reiterate the point. The project is at the stage where plans for public trials are now being drawn up. We are ensuring that the timing is carefully aligned with the Covid-19 strategy, to avoid any confusion.

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for pursuing with such vigour the recommendations of his report published nearly five years ago. I recall some difficult times at the Dispatch Box trying to answer his questions. Since the report, we have had 4G, and now 5G, more people have mobile phones, the terrorist threat has not gone away, and the pandemic has identified new uses for this initiative. Can my noble friend give us a target date for when it will be rolled out in this country?

My Lords, I cannot give a specific target date, for the reasons I have given. I said that we are ensuring the timing is carefully aligned with the Covid-19 strategy to avoid confusion. However, my noble friend is absolutely correct: technology advances. Our anticipation is that somewhere between 60% and 80% of phones may be contactable by this system when it comes in. As he and the noble Lord opposite said, we also have to be aware that anything which is broadcast is also able to be received by terrorists.

My Lords, given the imminent obsolescence of the country’s analogue PSTN system, what assessment have the Government made of the impact their plans will have on the rollout of a voice over internet protocol technology and other communication systems, such as the red button alarm which is relied on by so many elderly people?

My Lords, the system that is envisaged would be complementary to, and would not eliminate, other existing means of contacting people in danger and emergencies.

My Lords, of course a public emergency alert system is very important, but so too is a prompt response from the ground to any crisis. In the light of the pandemic, has the time come to update the national community resilience framework, which is, after all, just a framework, to a proper network, perhaps with the creation of a civilian reserve?

My Lords, I again agree with those who have spoken that the ongoing response to Covid-19 demonstrates the value of a whole-community approach when responding to emergencies. As envisaged in the framework, to which my noble friend referred, we have seen how collaboration between local government and central government, statutory responders, businesses, volunteers and community networks have all been critical to the response. While there are no current plans to review the 2019 framework, we continue to learn lessons and evolve processes and guidance as appropriate.

But, my Lords, as we have heard, this has been going on for years. Meanwhile, the Government have been caught unaware by Russian poisoners, by floods and by the Grenfell disaster, not to mention the pandemic. What is causing the dithering and delay?

My Lords, I do not acknowledge myself to be a ditherer or a delayer. So far as I am concerned, I am satisfied that progress is being made, since I am answering to your Lordships. I repeat what I have said: we hope to make an announcement on public trials very soon.

My Lords, I was the telecoms Minister when this issue was first raised, so I am delighted to see the Cabinet Office take all the blame for the dither and delay. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who has indeed campaigned on this issue for many years. I am delighted to hear that we are making progress. Does my noble friend agree that it is very important that we get the protocols right for when this system is used? It is a concern of the operators that it is not used with gay abandon, but assiduously and carefully.

I agree with my noble friend and pay tribute to him, and all those who have spoken, for their interest in nudging—I guess that is the word—this forward. My noble friend is quite right to say that alerts must not scare or alarm people. The Government intend to launch a nationwide public information campaign to support the rollout of the service, to familiarise people with the look, sound and feel of the alert, and to inform them when it will be used and how it works.

It is great to have a public information system, but we do not know what it is for. This issue is so important because it is about managing risk. One of the problems at the moment is that it is not always clear where, in government, that responsibility lies. On 3 March, the Government said that they were actively

“reviewing where responsibility for biological security and the strategy sits within Government.”

The Minister said today that he understands the seriousness and urgency of these issues, and that he is satisfied with the progress, so can he update the House now, or write to me if he does not know, on whether a decision has been made and where that issue sits within the Government? If not, when can they tell us?

The intention is for this to be a cell notice. There will be no charges for receipt of this service. The noble Lord makes a point about penetration and the capabilities of different telephones, and some people do not have or want a telephone at all. I assure him that the Government are taking all those matters into account.

My Lords, in light of the recent record, can the Minister assure the House that the Government will now proceed with the implementation of a public alert system for mobile phones, which could have an important use in any pandemic and emergency, now that we have 4G and will soon have 5G technology?

My Lords, I have given that assurance to the House. As I said in my Answer, the timing has to be carefully aligned with the Covid-19 strategy to avoid confusion. The proposition is for a cell message that drops down and does not collect any personal information from those who receive it. It is a specific approach.

My Lords, it is extremely important, if we have a public emergency alert system, that it works in rural and upland areas, as well as elsewhere. I am excited that we can now piggyback mobile phones on to emergency services. Will my noble friend take this opportunity to ensure that mobile phone connectivity is improved by, for example, piggybacking on North Yorkshire Police and other emergency services, so that such a system of using emergency alerts works across the country, in rural as well as urban areas?

My Lords, that is slightly wider than my responsibility, but the Government are committed to extending coverage as far and as fast as they possibly can. On the specific question, emergency alerts will be available for the whole United Kingdom. Telecoms is a reserved matter, but the Government intend to work with the DAs to enable them to use this new capability within their own jurisdictions to save lives in an emergency.