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UK Government Resilience Framework

Volume 832: debated on Monday 4 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the commitment in their UK Government Resilience Framework, published in December 2022, when they expect to publish the Annual Statement to Parliament on civil contingencies risk and performance on resilience.

My Lords, I refer to my role as chair of the National Preparedness Commission, and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the resilience framework set out the Government’s commitment to publishing the first annual statement to Parliament on civil contingencies risk and performance on resilience by 2025. Both Houses will be updated in due course regarding the timing, form and content of the statement, but the Government’s intention is to publish the first statement during this calendar year.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for that assurance. Could she tell the House with regard to that statement, against each of the various risks outlined in the latest risk register, what mitigation arrangements are in place, and do the Government think that they are adequate? What arrangements will be made for both Houses to debate that statement?

The statement is still in preparation. I take note of the noble Lord’s points and thank him for the contributions that he has made, notably on the debate that we had on resilience in January, which was very helpful. The Deputy Prime Minister has committed to giving a statement to Parliament this year. Both Houses will be given the opportunity to scrutinise this, and the Government intend to update both Houses in the appropriate way.

My Lords, the resilience framework statement is full of calls to involve the whole of society:

“we need a shared understanding of the risks we face … We are committed to working with partners, industry and academia from across the UK to implement this Framework … including UK Government departments, devolved administrations, local authorities, emergency services and the private … and community sectors … so we must be more transparent and empower everyone to make a contribution”.

I am not aware of any great public information campaign having started yet. Is that also planned?

I draw the noble Lord’s attention to the developments in openness that there have been. We now have a UK Resilience Forum, which was established to bring together the voluntary and community sectors, emergency responders, business and so on. We have published a very chunky National Risk Register, which is available for public comment—and, of course, we are gearing up the local resilience forums, which are led by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. We have announced new pilots this summer to work out how best to engage local communities, develop community risk registers and so on.

My Lords, I welcome the fact that in June the first ever head of resilience was appointed and the new promised COBRA unit came into being, promised in the integrated review. The first, the head of resilience, of course deals with long-term resilience challenges while the second is more to respond to emergencies, but, after all, these emergencies are usually immediate manifestations of just the same challenges. Why, therefore do these two bodies sit in different reporting frameworks within the Cabinet Office? Is it not sensible that they should be in the same reporting structures and that the best chance of improving resilience lies in encouraging some sort of symbiotic relationship between them?

I think we are very aware of the need for symbiosis and have indeed been thinking about that in the way we have set this up and led the way, with the resilience framework, which has been widely welcomed; with the setting up of the Resilience Directorate under Mary Jones; and with various other measures. Exactly how the Cabinet Office is organised is an internal matter; the key thing is that we should make progress in this area, and I have actually been pleased that, since I became a Minister at the Cabinet Office, I have seen what my colleagues have done to progress this very important matter.

My Lords, does my noble friend think that we ought to be taking far more seriously our dependence on technology? The recent example of the entire national air traffic control system being shut down and people being stranded for weeks is a very good example of that. While all these committees and other organisations are being set up, is there not a fundamental problem that we are so dependent now on technology and therefore very vulnerable?

I think my noble friend puts it extremely well. Of course, it is at the heart of the work we are doing on resilience; indeed, we have set up a new department, DSIT, to focus much more closely on technology and AI—both the opportunities and the risk that it brings. Technology has improved our lives so much, but we certainly need to keep a close eye on things. The NATS case wrecked many people’s holidays and was very unfortunate; I know my grandchildren were all stuck for four days. The case has been looked at carefully: it was not a cybersecurity incident but, obviously, it is going to be looked at independently by the Civil Aviation Authority and there will be a report to the Secretary of State for Transport.

On that topic, the Government should be working constantly to improve the UK’s cybersecurity capabilities against artificial intelligence and state-linked cyberattacks, in particular. This is one of the reasons, presumably, that the Government have agreed to publish an annual statement on resilience, but given reports at the weekend of a very damaging security breach where Russia-linked hackers targeted the MoD, can the Minister confirm that the forthcoming annual statement will indeed set out the Government’s necessary actions, including skills development, to urgently strengthen our cybersecurity?

I have to be careful in commenting on operational matters, and I have already said that the statement is still under consideration, but I very much agree with the noble Baroness’s emphasis on skills and cyber skills. Indeed, I chair a subgroup trying to improve cyber skills across departments in government, because there are a number of professional areas that the tech revolution has highlighted, and cyber is definitely one of them.

My Lords, historically we have not been taking resilience seriously enough in this country—there is no doubt about it. My noble friend Lord Harris has done a lot of work in this area, and I think he should be congratulated on that. We absolutely have to have more focus. It is all very well saying that how this is organised in the Cabinet Office is an interior matter; actually, it is crucial for the nation that we get this right, that we are properly focused and that we take it as seriously as we should. Yes, there are lots of things happening, but I feel that we need to really move on this one, because resilience is probably one of the greatest threats we face to the nation.

Perhaps I can agree with the kind words about the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and the work he has done in this area and continues to do. I have very much valued his advice. I also agree that resilience is incredibly important: it is one of our ambitions to improve this. The Deputy Prime Minister has personally taken this to heart and been very engaged and the whole set-up that we now have, both on shorter-term risks and the more strategic risks, is totally different to what one would have seen five years ago.

My Lords, rather than decry technology, would it not be better to do the opposite: encourage our schools to teach much more science and technology and respond more effectively to technology and the downsides that, like anything else, it will always have?

I very much agree. I have been a great advocate for making sure that children are taught both digital opportunity and digital risk. I will make sure that my noble friend Lady Barran is aware of the noble Lord’s comments, because it is important that the curriculum focuses on not only maths, literature and writing but the tech revolution and how it is changing the world so profoundly, as we all see from our own families.

My Lords, at the risk of all the nice words about me being rescinded, could I follow up the question of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, on public engagement? As I am sure the noble Baroness knows, this is National Preparedness Month in the United States; every state is taking part in initiatives to try to ensure that the general population is aware of and ready to face risks. In Sweden, every household has received the booklet If Crisis or War Comes, which has practical things that they can do. When will the UK Government do something similar?

We learn from abroad, which I am always very much in favour of, but we also do things our own way. Noble Lords will remember that the Government launched and tested the emergency alert service earlier this year and we have strategies such as WeatherReady and “check for flooding”. We also have a local tier of work which I know to be very powerful from my local village; local resilience forums reach down into local communities and some of them communicate very well. Through the pilots that the Secretary of State for DLUHC has pioneered, we must ensure that best practice is replicated right across the country so that citizens are prepared and ready.