On 18 July the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which has responsibility for oversight of the Cabinet Office and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, held a scrutiny session looking at the test the government carried out in April of its new emergency messaging system. This is a welcome development, but greater action is needed to improve thinking and delivery of government’s wider contingency planning
The system PACAC looked at is designed to allow the government to send an alert to all phones in areas ranging from the size of an electoral ward up to the whole of the UK, in the event of an emergency. It can only be used if certain criteria are met, such as if lives are at risk and if there is a clear action that the public can take. 24 https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/13522/pdf/ - Q34 At 15:00 on Sunday 23 April, the Cabinet Office tested it on all UK phone networks, with a success rate of 80%. 25 https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2023-04-25/hcws740 The government reports the system is now fully operational but that there may be further, smaller tests in the future. 26 https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2023-04-25/hcws740
The risks from large disruptive events are increasing
The impetus behind the new phone alert system is the growing likelihood of emergencies. The UK has just experienced the effects of a global pandemic first hand, and the risk of another such crisis remains high if not imminent. The frequency and potential severity of other ‘high-impact events’ – from floods to cyber attacks – are most likely rising as well, driven by factors including increasing urbanisation, rising international interconnectedness, technological change and environmental degradation.
The effects of climate change in particular are increasingly being felt in the UK, with heatwaves and flash floods becoming more frequent, as well as internationally – as the scenes of forest fires in southern Europe attest. The findings of the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are clear: these will only increase in the near future, making effective preparations from national governments more important. 27 https://report.ipcc.ch/ar6/wg2/IPCC_AR6_WGII_FullReport.pdf - Chapter 13 The IfG, too, has called on government to improve its approach to how it prepares for extreme risks.
Greater parliamentary scrutiny would help government prepare for such risks
Governments internationally and in the UK have struggled to prioritise preparedness and resilience work in the face of immediate pressures, making external scrutiny all the more important. Parliament has an important role to play in pushing government to prepare for future risks and in scrutinising and exposing where risks are not being addressed. 28 https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Managing-extreme-risks.pdf page 33 When it comes to the emergency messaging system, for example, Roger Hargreaves, director of the COBR unit at the Cabinet Office, told the committee that a lack of financial commitment had contributed towards delays. 29 https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/13522/pdf/ - Q46
Greater public scrutiny of the rollout of the project at an earlier stage could have helped to propel its development by maintaining public interest and monitoring progress. The same could be said of updates to the government’s National Risks Register – last published in 2020 – though vague assurances have been given that an updated version will come out “later this year”. 30 https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2023-02-06/140332
Despite increasing focus on preparedness and resilience in the wake of the pandemic, of which the long-running Covid-19 Inquiry is a part, there has been relatively little formal scrutiny of government plans to improve resilience beyond the 2022 House of Lord’s special inquiry, ‘Preparing for extreme risks: building a resilient society’. Its report was produced by the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, a special inquiry committee. The committee has since dissolved, and while the government accepted most of its recommendations, there is now no parliamentary oversight of their implementation.
PACAC’s work should be the start, not the sum, of parliamentary scrutiny on emergency response
In our 2022 report we argued that “parliament should go further in beefing up its approach to scrutinising risk preparedness. Departmental select committees should focus more on risk, and parliament should also create a new cross-cutting joint committee – drawing on the work of relevant committees – to hold the government to account”. 32 https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Managing-extreme-risks.pdf page 33 These changes are still urgent. So while it is important for PACAC to look at these issues, the scope of the action required on preparedness could detract from other important responsibilities facing the committee: instead, parliament should create a new joint committee to hold departments to account for their preparations – and ensure that the right action is taken to mitigate the future risks the UK faces.