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Emergency Communications

Volume 831: debated on Monday 26 June 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government (1) when they became aware of yesterday’s fault with the 999 emergency system and (2) what action they are taking to ensure the resilience of emergency communications.

A technical issue with the 999 public emergency call system was reported to us at 9.20 am on Sunday 25 June 2023. This issue has now been fully resolved and the service is running as normal. A full investigation is under way to understand what caused this problem. Ofcom has formally requested information from BT, using its existing powers as the independent regulator. The Government are conducting a post-incident report to identify actions that will strengthen the resilience of the 999 public emergency call service.

My Lords, this is an incredibly disconcerting event. We all rely on the 999 emergency number as our ultimate safety net at times of distress and vulnerability. Any failure in the system will undermine faith in our emergency provision. We are seemingly very fortunate that there was no major incident yesterday morning. Can the Minister inform the House whether this eventuality—the loss of the main 999 capacity—has been tested in any training exercise for major incidents? Are the Government clear on what the potential risks associated with the use of the back-up system are, and what risk there might be to public safety as a result of the system’s failure?

Following the failure of the system, three strands of investigation have been put in place. First, BT is performing its own internal investigation. Secondly, Ofcom is engaging directly with BT, which it is required to regulate. Thirdly, based on the findings of those two, there will be the Government’s lessons learned approach. The combination of all those will allow us to learn lessons to improve future resilience of the system.

My Lords, one of the worrying things about this incident is not the failure of the main 999 service itself—although that is bad enough—but the failure of the back-up as well. The Minister will know that I have raised the issue of the changeover from analogue to digital on a consistent basis, particularly BT’s digital voice changeover. This changeover from analogue to digital creates huge risks. Will the Minister say whether the incident report will also include a wider look at the changeover from analogue to digital? There are huge risks involved in this. This is critical infrastructure, and in the case of emergency, it is even more important that we have an analogue back-up to our digital services.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord’s frequent correspondence with me on this subject and recognise the importance of what he says. I do not want to prejudge the findings of the deep root-cause analysis that will now be going on at both BT and Ofcom level, but I will make sure that that question is at least asked, and asked forcefully.

The Minister must be deeply troubled that not one but two critical technology platforms in our national security infrastructure have failed in a very short space of time—the Border Force as well as 999—and, in each case, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has just said, with no immediate back-up coming into play. Will the Government ascertain whether any deep common causes underlie these failures and, therefore, what other parts of our national technology structure, not just our national technology security infrastructure, may be at risk?

Indeed, I recognise the risk that the noble Lord describes. One of the absolute priorities must be to identify whether there is a broader systemic risk of which the unfortunate events yesterday were a symptom or whether this is isolated; the ongoing investigation will absolutely establish that.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register, in particular that I chair the National Preparedness Commission. As we understand it, this was a failure of the 999 system itself. What consideration have the Government given to circumstances in which there is an interruption in electrical power? That could mean, first, that there will need to be reliance on analogue systems—as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones referred to—but also that most domestic landlines will cease to function and, within a couple of hours, so too will most mobile phones, because masts will no longer have power.

It will be an area covered by the report. I stress that, from the information that I have so far, BT was able to implement its disaster recovery planning and system and return, albeit at a slightly slower pace, to the ability to answer 999 calls. I very much take the point that the wrong combination of catastrophic failures would indeed create a very serious and broad situation.

My Lords, people dealing with a health crisis may call either 111 or 999 and each of those services will refer people on to the other as appropriate. Can the Minister confirm that there are protocols in place such that the operators of each service are informed as soon as one of them goes down so that they can stop referring people on, and whether there are protocols in place for each service to handle the overload if one has gone down?

It is an excellent question; I am afraid the truth is that I do not know the answer at this point, but I will be happy to write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, the Minister would be the first to agree that an event of this kind is really serious. He has told the House when the Government were informed. When did British Telecom first know that there was a problem, how was it communicated to Ministers and—once the inquiry that has now been indicated happens—in what way, and when, will the House be informed of the outcome of it so that we can discuss any of the consequences as a result of what we find went wrong?

I accept the great seriousness of the situation. The event that caused the platform to go down occurred at 6.30 am on Sunday. The Government were advised of the event at 9.20 am, so just under three hours later. I understand that the Government were informed as quickly as was practically possible. One area that the inquiry will look into is whether that should or could have been faster. As regards when and how the findings will be presented to the House, let me think about the best way of doing so; I will commit to sharing that in the most appropriate way.

My Lords, the major response seemed to be to continue to dial 101. What worries about me about that is that at the moment the average waiting time for people to get through on 101 is five minutes, which is already hugely too long. If other calls go into that system, then the call time can only get longer, and it cannot discriminate between emergency and non-emergency calls.

I have some worries in relation to announcements. First, there was no announcement that the script that the call handlers were using had been changed. Often people were trying to problem-solve on the phone rather than just finding out what needed to happen and then despatching resources if necessary. Secondly, I heard nothing about officers or ambulance people getting out of offices so that people could go to find them, if that was possible. That is what happens with paramedics at the moment: they park up in certain places, provided that those places are identified for people to go to.

Thirdly, is it not time that we started having joint call handling? At the moment we have three separate forces, and the only reason why BT needs to take the call is that the ambulance service, the fire service and the police have to take them independently. You have to make a call to BT to declare which service you require, often at a time when you do not actually know which one you need. Why do we not answer them together? Why do we not remove the cost that BT imposes on the whole system, since it appears that it has not worked very well on this occasion?

There are a range of important questions there. First, BT provides the service of call handling directly to the communications providers. The CPs then act as they are required to, as regulated by Ofcom.

On the question of the script, call handlers were required to update their script because, once the disaster recovery system had kicked in, it no longer provided geographical information and therefore the script required them to ascertain the location of the caller, which is normally done automatically. I forget some other parts of the noble Lord’s question, but if he would like to contact me for follow-up then I will be happy to answer them.

My Lords, given the serious nature and the longevity of the system failure, was there a COBRA meeting about this incident? If so, when did it meet? If it did not, is that because it was a Sunday?

To my knowledge, there was no COBRA meeting—I imagine because the disaster recovery system kicked in and was able to meet the emergency requirements.

My Lords, I am sure that specific recommendations will come out of the inquiry, but there should also be systematic ones that apply to other areas of national infrastructure. This is not the only single strand of infrastructure that is put in the hands of one private sector company that keeps people’s services alive. Will the Minister undertake that those systematic lessons are applied across the piece and across government?

I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the inquiries. If they determine that there are systemic issues that need to be addressed, then we will put in place a plan to address them.

My Lords, I ask this question as an ex-police and crime commissioner. What assurances have Ministers sought from the emergency services that there were no serious issues as a result of the failure of the 999 system? Secondly, have they asked for confirmation of that from both BT and the relevant emergency services?

My Lords, a number of noble Lords have already warned about potential failures of other technology and a lack of resilience. I shall add one more, referring particularly to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about the switchover from analogue to digital. There is concern in some quarters about the impact that will have on monitoring devices, especially for people receiving social care or healthcare in their home. Could the Minister update us on the conversations going on within government to make sure that, when that switchover comes, either the devices that no longer work will be replaced or a way will be found to use those devices on the digital network?

I recognise the importance of those questions, particularly with respect to our ambition to provide technology that is available to all at all times. The questions will also quite rightly be an important part of the ongoing inquiries.

My Lords, yesterday the northern part of the UK experienced very heavy, intense thunderstorms. Communities rely on the emergency services; they also rely on access to the 999 telephone service to access those emergency services when there is flooding and other, associated incidents. Will that level of resistance be built into the inquiry to ensure that future systems operate in the best possible way to achieve the best possible outcomes for all communities throughout the UK?

I recognise the value of what the noble Baroness is bringing out. The scope of the inquiry must remain: what went wrong, what were the impacts and what do we therefore need to fix? Questions about the future improvement of the overall telecommunications network in the country are also, no doubt, critical, but I do not believe that they are part of the scope of this investigation.

I recognise the question, but we are entering an area of technicality that is, I am afraid, slightly beyond my knowledge. I am happy to write to the noble Baroness on that point.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether BT, a private company, has been subject to a minimum service level requirement? If it has been deemed to fail that minimum service level requirement, what sanction will it face?

How can I? BT is required by Ofcom to answer 95% of calls in five seconds or less. As to how many of those have been missed at this point, subject to the ongoing inquiry, I do not know.