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Emergency Planning

Volume 827: debated on Monday 20 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of the robustness of their system of emergency planning across the country.

The Civil Contingencies Act sets out the framework for emergency planning in the UK, which the Government have a legal obligation to review every five years. The most recent review was published in March 2022, which concluded that the Act continues to achieve its stated objectives, but it also set out recommendations to strengthen the system and its planning. The resilience framework published in December sets out the Government’s wider approach to strengthening our resilience to all risks.

Considering the crisis in local government finance and the ongoing spectre of ambulances queuing at hospitals, how many emergency planning bodies have raised major concerns about our resilience in the event of a major disaster?

As the noble Lord suggests, we have a well-developed system of local resilience through the 38 local resilience forums. I have received no reports myself of particular concerns they have raised on this matter. It is more a matter for DLUHC than for the Cabinet Office, but I will look into it and get back to the noble Lord.

My Lords, what lessons have the Government learned from the failure to anticipate a major pandemic of the sort we have now faced with Covid? Have the Government initiated any new proposals for contingency planning ahead of major predictable crises of that sort?

The Government had the advantage—or disadvantage—of the lessons from Covid, when they were conducting the review I mentioned. Since then, they have published the UK Government Resilience Framework, which shows a lot of frameworks. A completely independent review is also going on, the Covid inquiry, which I am sure will teach us more lessons on what to do in serious emergencies in the future.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. Can the Minister tell us the Government’s assessment of the efficacy of the Serco contract delivering the Emergency Planning College? Can she comment on the future of the Emergency Planning College, given the suggestions that the site is likely to be sold?

This is not a contract that I have had anything to do with. The noble Lord always asks very good questions on contingency planning. I will look into it and get back to him.

My Lords, the response to any serious emergency hinges a very great deal upon the emergency services. What impact does the Minister think the incorporation of Chinese technology and components into police force equipment is likely to have on our own resilience?

The noble and gallant Lord will be aware that we made a Statement before Christmas about the use of Chinese technology in cameras and so on. Obviously, we are putting a lot more resources into security. This is one of the issues that is under careful consideration, and it has of course been discussed during the passage of the Procurement Bill in recent times. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the steps that we have already taken and the way we keep a careful eye on these matters.

I have already described some of the real action that we have taken. I also draw my noble friend’s attention to some of the provisions in Schedules 6 and 7 to the Procurement Bill that is now going through the other House, the debates that we have had here, the debates we will no doubt have again and the careful steps that we are taking in relation to these important issues.

My Lords, the ongoing emergency of sewage despoliation and the death of our rivers and coastlines is something the Government do not seem to be acting on at all. Last year, on 8 September, the then Secretary of State for the Environment—I cannot even remember which one it was—told water companies to produce a plan within 14 days. It is 165 days later and there is no plan. I gather water companies have been told again. When are the Government going to deal with this ongoing emergency?

I share the noble Baroness’s concern about our rivers and, of course, we worked together to amend the Environment Bill on this issue. Now, she is rightly asking about the follow-up. This is not a matter for me but for Defra. However, I can assure her that our national security risk assessment looks at these issues and makes sure that, going forward, plans are right and proper.

My Lords, I declare an interest as London’s Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience and chair of the London Resilience Forum. The focus on skills in the recently published resilience framework on training and exercising is welcome, but it is vital that this provides the skills needed and it is properly resourced. Can the Minister provide further detail on how her plans for the proposed UK resilience academy are progressing and how this will contribute to both prevention and preparedness? Also, have the Government ear-marked funding for a major exercise along the lines of Exercise Unified Response that took place seven years ago? This would provide responders from across all sectors represented on local resilience forums the opportunity to gain valuable skills in advance of needing them.

I agree on the importance of the local resilience and the testing and trialling that the noble Baroness talks about. On actual funding, I will come back to her, but the new approach that has been taken in the resilience reform and in the UK Resilience Forum meeting, that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster presided over himself recently, is on the importance of emergency preparedness. The focus on skills is also a focus in cabinet committee work on these issues. So I hope I have given her some assurance that this is work we are pushing ahead with

My Lords, recently in your Lordships’ House we have had cause to talk about the strategic risk, in various departments, of certain building materials—particularly of certain concrete in schools but which also potentially affects our hospitals. Is that something that is caught by this resilience framework: a risk such as that, which could materialise, that covers more than one government department? If it is not within the framework, is the Minister’s department co-ordinating what the response would have to be across government if that failure of building material unfortunately materialises?

We certainly have a co-ordination role, especially where risks affect more than one department. The work that we have done on the national security risk assessment outlines, each time that it is done, the biggest risks that we see. Having dealt a lot with buildings, I can understand exactly what my noble friend’s concern might be, particularly in relation to schools. We are looking at the risk assessment at the moment, and we will be publishing a new national risk register this year. I will take away the point about schools that she has so helpfully raised today.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should be more proactive in terms of the advice given to households for when there is a major crisis or emergency? We used to very clearly tell households about having batteries, torches, water purifiers and a wind-up radio and the frequencies to listen in on when these emergencies happened. We now have a website, but people are not told. Does the Minister believe that we should actually tell people what it would be useful to have? They do not have to have it but, my goodness me, if anything goes wrong, it is very useful to have those things.

DLUHC is working with the local resilience forums to work out what we should be doing in the light of the latest developments. I agree that the focus on the website is not always great, particularly when websites go down during emergencies, which has been my own experience. I have dealt locally with people who deal with emergencies, notably on Covid. The voluntary effort that comes forth when emergencies take place and all the good things that are done are really impressive. We have to learn from that and put that into the system, as it were, for the future. I take the point about making sure that people know, by leaflets and so on as well as by websites, what they need to do in the case of an emergency.

The noble Lord opposite talked about the website for resilience. For the benefit of noble Lords who are not yet aware of this website, can my noble friend the Minister share the URL for that website so that we can evangelise about it on her behalf?

I will certainly take forward my noble friend’s idea. I have also been impressed by the system that the mobile phone operators have that you can ring if your electricity goes down. These things exist, but the point—as expressed so powerfully on the other Benches—is that we need to make sure that people know what to do when flooding comes or there are other local difficulties. That is why we have put in a new head of resilience within the Cabinet Office and have published the risk framework. We are open to new ideas, both on substance and on communication, as I hope that I have shown.