The Case for a New National Resilience Committee
On Liz Truss’ first full day as the new UK Prime Minister, work now begins on tackling a challenging in-tray, not least the cost of living and energy security crisis. In this article, Sir Oliver Letwin urges the new Prime Minister to consider creating a new National Resilience Committee supported by a National Resilience Act, to ensure the UK can be better prepared to meet a range of national crises and risks.
We know that climate change is happening. We also know that the short-term demands of democratic politics can often make it difficult for the UK government to implement the long-term policies that are needed to reduce carbon emissions. This is why we established an independent Climate Change Committee fifteen years ago, with a remit to set out what government needs to do, and to hold government to account for whether it is doing it.
This system, backed by legislation, has stood the test of time. It has acted as a shield, providing governments of differing political complexions with a high degree of political protection against opportunistic attacks from opponents when they take the often unpopular decisions necessary to bring UK net carbon emissions under control. Because both the government and the Opposition are signed up to the Climate Change Act (2008), the Opposition doesn’t have much to say when the government takes the long-term measures recommended by the Climate Change Committee, even if those measures incur short-term unpopularity.
But climate change isn’t the only danger that the UK faces. As Covid-19 should have shown us, public health emergencies are also a major threat. And it doesn’t stop there. As we have seen repeatedly in recent years, the financial system, the communications system, the energy system, the transport system, the water system, and the food-supply system are all fragile, and subject to an array of risks.
If we want the UK to be resilient in the face of these risks, we need to do two things:
- Identify long-term measures that will provide something close to continuity of normal life, even when the first lines of defence are breached.
- Find some means of maximising the chances that successive governments (of whatever political complexion) will implement those long-term resilience measures, even when they have unpopular short-term consequences.
If we didn’t already have the Climate Change Act (2008) and the Climate Change Committee, it might be necessary to do some deep thinking about what new structures might achieve these desirable results, and thereby increase our national resilience. But we do already have the Climate Change Act (2008) and the Climate Change Committee; so why spend time trying to reinvent the wheel? Why not just enact a National Resilience Act modelled on the Climate Change Act (2008), and thereby establish a National Resilience Committee modelled on the Climate Change Committee?
Without a mechanism of this sort to focus the mind of government on national resilience, we can be sure that Britain will remain singularly ill-prepared to meet a range of crises.
How do I know this? Because I was the Minister for National Resilience for five years (from 2011 to 2016) — and I have seen first-hand how short-term political pressures and the dynamics of Whitehall can combine to prevent serious efforts to improve our resilience.
To give just one salient example amongst many, when Covid-19 came along, we did not have a unit scanning the horizon for signs of viruses heading our way. And this was because the unit (comprising only a couple of officials), which was established in the Civil Contingencies Secretariat of the Cabinet Office for horizon-scanning after the Ebola crisis in 2014/2015, was disbanded when ministers and senior officials became preoccupied with planning for Brexit in 2016. Brexit was happening – pandemics were not happening. Clearly, they (falsely) reasoned, we should put our resources into dealing with the crisis we have, rather than into dealing with a crisis we don’t have and may never have.
The lesson of this story, and of many other similar instances, is that the short-term political necessity to deal with current crises will always tend to displace efforts to improve long-term national resilience against crises that aren’t currently happening. The only way to counteract this tendency is to create some effective mechanism outside Whitehall and therefore outside ministerial control. Only such an external body, backed by statute, can exert the necessary counter-acting pressure to make governments take long-term resilience seriously.
Of course, the institutional Treasury — under any Chancellor of any political persuasion — will argue vigorously against the establishment of any such National Resilience Committee because the institutional Treasury is viscerally opposed to the establishment of any organisation which will create immediate additional spending pressures. However, tri-partisan unity on the Climate Change Act (2008) overcame those Treasury objections in the early years of the millennium; and similar tri-partisan unity could be built today, to overcome Treasury objections to a National Resilience Committee.
History shows that, once the new Committee has been established by statute, the Treasury will heroically adapt itself to the new reality. The HM Treasury Green Book will be rewritten to justify the long term expenditures on improved resilience, just as the present value calculations on climate change were recast following the Stern Review (2006). In other words, the establishment by statute of a National Resilience Committee outside government will gradually create a new orthodoxy inside government — which is precisely what is required if we are to improve our national capacity to withstand exogenous shocks.
No doubt, the doctrine of ‘unripe time’ will be advanced by some sceptics: “Ah yes, minister, a splendid idea; but is this quite the time to be doing it?”. The response to such scepticism is not difficult to formulate: if the 2008 economic crash, Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and this summer’s drought are not enough to make this the right moment to start taking resilience seriously, when is? We should hope that a new Conservative administration under Prime Minister Liz Truss will recognise that this is exactly the time to act and seize the opportunity of a refreshed government to seek the necessary political consensus for a National Resilience Act that establishes a National Resilience Committee with real teeth. And, if it doesn’t, we must hope that Sir Keir Starmer will seize the opportunity instead. What could be a more appropriate way for the Opposition to demonstrate its capacity to think about the long term good of the country and hence to burnish its credentials for taking over as the government of the country?