Civil Contingencies Act Independent Review Round Table
Here is a summary of the roundtable organised by the National Preparedness Commission (NPC) to discuss the report on the independent review of the Civil Contingencies Act and its Supporting Arrangements and which was chaired by Lord Harris, Chair of the NPC. The report was commissioned by the NPC and published on 24 March 2022.
The round table discussion focussed on the findings of the review, including needing better arrangements to support Parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s resilience-building activities. Participants expressed a strong desire for seeing the report’s principles and recommendations embodied in the National Resilience Strategy when it emerged.
INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF THE CIVIL CONTINGENCIES ACT AND ITS SUPPORTING ARRANGEMENTS
Summary of a roundtable discussion held on Thursday 28th April 2022
Meeting Chair: Lord Toby Harris, Chair of the National Preparedness Commission.
Meeting held via Zoom under the Chatham House rule.
The roundtable was organised by the National Preparedness Commission (NPC) to discuss the report on the Civil Contingencies Act 2020 and its Supporting Arrangements which had been commissioned by the NPC from Bruce Mann, Andy Towler and Kathy Settle, and which had been published on 24 March 2022. The review is available here.
The Review’s scope had been “to review the implementation and operation of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, of the civil protection structures it introduced and its associated Regulations, guidance and key supporting enablers; and to make recommendations for improvements.”
After opening remarks from the Chair, Bruce Mann gave an overview of the key findings of the report. This was a once-in-a-generation moment of reflection on the UK’s civil contingencies arrangements and an opportunity that should not be wasted. Debate could draw not only on the review report but also the report of the House of Lords Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning (discussed at a previous NPC round table), the reports of other Parliamentary Committees, the Government’s Quinquennial Review of the Act and its forthcoming Resilience Strategy, and, especially, the reports of the Manchester Arena and Grenfell Inquiries which would have important lessons on emergency preparedness and response. The review team had also been in contact with the COVID-19 Inquiry about the provision to them of all supporting evidence save for that which interviewees had asked be kept private to the review. It had also identified the COVID-19 specific issues on which detailed evidence had been gathered which could be of utility to the Inquiry.
The Review had looked both backwards (‘has the Act fulfilled the original intent?’) and forwards (‘does the Act and its supporting arrangements provide a solid platform for building and sustaining the resilience of the UK over the next 20 years?’). Drawing on a large and broad evidence base, the review had concluded that the Act and its supporting arrangements had served the country well, although there some areas that need updating. But the UK’s civil contingencies arrangements had suffered from a lack of development over the past decade, in contrast to positive and praised developments in other security areas such as cyber security and counter-terrorism policing, and developments in other leading countries. And, in some areas, quality had been allowed to degrade. Action would be required at two levels to address this “strategic neglect”:
- Improving the quality and sustainability of current arrangements
- Undertaking a step change in the UK’s resilience arrangements, learning from and building on good practice in Resilience Partnerships, other security fields and other countries
The report’s analysis and recommendations had been set against a worsening future risk picture, which had a higher likelihood of more frequent – and hence more concurrent – emergencies, more severe emergencies on a national or ‘catastrophic’ scale, more emergencies with cascading and compounding consequences, and more emergencies which started and developed in the private sector, especially in the regulated utilities given their ageing infrastructure. That increased the importance of tackling risk in all of its dimensions, reducing likelihood through prevention and mitigation with the same seriousness as reducing potential impacts. It also emphasised the need to take a truly integrated ‘whole of society’ approach, fully involving the voluntary and community sector (VCS), businesses and other stakeholders. The COVID-19 pandemic had shown what a truly organic, whole of society response could look like in action and had served as a useful backdrop to the report, showing that good outcomes in such situations can result from the effective mobilisation and co-ordination of a wide range of organisations, people, and their resources on the ground.
Many of the report’s recommendations did not need to wait for the publication of the Government’s Resilience Strategy. Half of all English LRFs had already approached the review team for detailed advice and support on which of the recommendations they could progress now as part of their post-COVID-19 improvement programmes. Some key recommendations, selected from the 117 made in the report, were highlighted as ‘game changers’ and formed the basis of the ensuing discussion.
A whole of society approach to resilience relies on multiple actors working in true cross-sector partnership. But at present the phrase was more of a cliché than operational reality. The report made both strategic and sector-based recommendations to improve this position. The former covered moving to needs-based emergency planning, an approach currently adopted by some third of LRFs. That would in turn allow discussions about which organisation, from whatever sector, was best placed to meet the identified needs. At sector level, the report concluded that the ‘have regard to’ formula covering the VCS was ineffective and should be abolished, in favour of VCS organisations being treated as partners in meeting people’s potential needs. Their potential contributions should be captured in a ‘capability matrix’ of the type developed by some LRFs. Good practice should be captured in a new Resilience Standard. Similarly, the relationship between business and Government on resilience issues needed to be radically improved by creating a proper partnership. Early priorities for joint work included the sharing of much fuller information on risks, their consequences and government plans (which businesses could use in their organisational resilience and business continuity planning), and the development of a capability matrix capturing the contributions which businesses were prepared to offer in the response to a major emergency.
Appropriate and accessible training and exercising, involving VCS and businesses alongside statutory bodies, was essential for making sure that those arrangements would work when needed. That could form a part of the fundamental reboot of the training ecosystem, which was needed, including an accompanying reboot of the Emergency Planning College. Both of those activities should be tied to the long overdue development of a Competence Strategy and Competence Framework and could form part of the work of the Centre of Resilience Excellence proposed in the report to drive learning and improvement.
Public attitudes and expectations were a key factor in shaping future resilience, and weakly researched – the NPC could play a significant role here. The concept of responsibility with regard to resilience and preparedness is embedded in the complex nature of the social contract between Government and the public. Actions taken to act as a ‘safety net’ in times of need create a cognitive dissonance with expectations on the public to play an active role. Much more needed to be done to explore roles, responsibilities, and expectations – of Government, each other and ourselves.
It was, however, already very clear that much more, and more accessible, information needed to be provided by the government, supported by LRFs, on risks and their consequences, to allow the public and communities to prepare effectively if they wished to do so. However, the review had identified that the most significant obstacles to the successful spread of community resilience across the UK was resourcing and the seriousness with which the activity was taken, especially in local government. In an era of limited resources, it was unsurprising that it had not received attention and investment. Given the extraordinarily high value of community action in a crisis, well evidenced in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the report made recommendations on both issues, including the establishment of a new legal duty to promote and support community resilience.
Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) are a primary and vital component of the UK’s civil contingencies arrangements, but their collective success has been undermined by historic under-resourcing (now starting to be addressed) and, especially, the lack of drive and support from central government. Although they were individually doing great work, this meant that the development of resilience in the UK had stalled and was now lagging best practice and progress in other countries. There was no case for LRFs having legal status. They should continue as a partnership of bodies with their own legal responsibilities, although the government should introduce stronger arrangements for administrative escalation and, if necessary, intervention where the effectiveness of an LRF was being undermined by the actions of one partner. But LRFs were clearly fulfilling a bigger role than envisaged in 2004, and central government’s expectations had also grown significantly. Emergencies were becoming more frequent and longer in duration. The role of LRFs was likely to grow further in the years ahead as the UK moved into a riskier future, so it was important to set out what their future role should be and the government’s expectations, and to resource them appropriately.
In that context, maintaining the concept of subsidiarity was important. LRFs need to have the ability to act in a manner which reflected local needs and circumstances. Delivering resilience in a small village was a much less complex and more easily definable task that doing so in a city; it required different types of action and investment. So over-prescriptive plans and operations directed from central government were unlikely to be successful. Central government should focus on outcomes rather than prescribed structures and actions and provide more leadership and support to LRFs in the development of resilience rather than seek to micro-manage.
Experience had shown that the decision not to place the same duties on central government as had been placed on Category 1 responders through the Act had been a mistake. It had contributed to the weak performance of government departments in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It had also, with other more recent factors, contributed to a growing sense of a ‘them and us’ culture between central and local levels. Correcting these issues was important, as was building the capabilities of government departments in readiness for the more difficult world ahead. The report proposed that central government should have the full suite of duties under the Act.
The report also proposed placing the full suite of duties on current Category 2 responders. The decision to place a lighter set of duties on them in the Act had been taken with good intentions. But, although the contribution and performance of some of the regulated utilities remained good, in some sectors it had weakened seriously, usually as the consequence of a deliberate disinvestment decisions by the Boards of the companies concerned who did not expect legal challenge to their actions. That had generated a clear and growing sense of Category 2 responders being ‘second class citizens’ around the LRF table. Correcting this decay, and the attitudes that lay underneath it, was also important, especially given the increasing likelihood of risks starting and growing in the private sector. The regulated utilities had a vital role in building and sustaining UK resilience, and weaknesses in their capabilities had a real impact on people and communities, as had been seen in the response to recent severe weather incidents. It was noted that the review had had limited input from regulators, but that their role was important in building and assuring a key aspect of UK resilience. A separate, focused review here would be useful.
The proposed changes to risk assessment processes, to reduce pointless overhead and digitise, allowing a greater focus more on value-added prevention, mitigation, and preparedness activity, and to significantly improve methodology (including taking up the recommendations of the House of Lords Select Committee) were very welcome. There was a significant opportunity to do better, in particular by adopting the recommendation to go back to having two separate (but mutually-informed) risk assessments covering 5- and 20-year time horizons, the latter being a vital underpinning to longer-term prevention and preparedness activities. There was also a need to reduce secrecy and invite a wider scrutiny of assessments, and experience had shown the need to bring vulnerability alongside likelihood and impact in risk assessment, as a good guide on how, why and where to prepare. As a nation, the UK was well behind the international curve in terms of placing risk reduction and prevention activities on the same footing as emergency preparedness, although there were shining exceptions to this in the areas identified in the report.
The review had identified a serious issue in the widespread hesitancy shown by a wide range of organisations in sharing personal data during the COVID-19 pandemic, which had had a serious impact on the provision of support to those in need. The report therefore proposed that the next round of data protection legislation, on which consultation was under way, contain a specific exemption to allow for the sharing of personal data in cases of urgent humanitarian necessity.
The meeting concluded by reflecting on the arrangements which should be put in place to sustain development and assess performance, and especially to detect and correct drift and decay. It was noted that a lot of good practice existed that could be built upon. This included the concept of ‘accountable officers’ seen in the NHS and some public safety fields. The report proposed that this be formally extended to all organisations with duties under the Act (including government departments), and that a senior official in the centre of government should, in line with UN DRR practice, be designated the UK Chief Resilience Officer. It was noted that there had been strong support from LRFs for the introduction of arrangements to provide for the independent external review of the work of each LRF. In keeping with the spirit of collaboration and shared responsibility which is at the core of building UK resilience, such assessments should be supportive in nature and improvement focused, with results published to aid local scrutiny. The report proposed that reviews against resilience standards should be conducted every three years. The report addressed a serious weakness in arrangements for the individual and collective training of senior leaders who were likely to be core members of SCGs in the response to major emergencies, an issue which was likely also to be addressed by the Manchester Arena and Grenfell Inquiries. And better arrangements were needed to support Parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s resilience-building activities, including the provision by the Cabinet Office of an annual Resilience Report to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy or an associated sub-committee.
There was consensus that the best way forward continued to lie in a collaborative approach built on a spirit of true partnership, both at local level and between local and national levels – but that collaborative action needed stronger leadership and guidance and a professional ‘wrapper’ provided by central government so that effort was targeted, aligned and optimally effective. The meeting was reassured that the review had shown that a strong, cross-sector consensus existed on the main areas where development and improvement was needed, and that the recommendations were cost-effective and deliverable. Participants expressed a strong desire to seeing the report’s principles and recommendations embodied in the National Resilience Strategy when it emerged.