Published On: April 27, 2022

In this article, Rt Hon Lord James Arbuthnot comments on the Government’s response to a report by the Special Select Committee of the House of Lords on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning on building UK societal resilience, including key areas of alignment with its recommendations.

In December 2021, the Special Select Committee of the House of Lords on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning issued a report, “Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society”, highlighting that the UK is vulnerable to extreme risks for a range of reasons.

The UK relies on just-in-time networks, fragile technologies and systems that are all too often under-considered, under-resourced and under-exercised. The Committee concluded that the Government needed to be less secretive about its risk assessment and management processes, and to engage the whole of society in building resilience to the many and growing threats that we face.

In March 2022, the Government responded to our report. There had been positive engagement between Government and the Committee during our deliberations, and we were already aware that a commendable re-evaluation of the resilience of the UK was underway. Indeed, the concept of national resilience formed a major plank of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published last year.

The response to our report confirms that Government and the Committee are very much on the same page and that it accepts, at least in principle, the vast majority of our report. Given the amount of other work that is progressing in this important space, it is not surprising that some of the detail of the Government’s approach has yet to be worked through. However, our report had clearly added texture to the discussion. One example of this is agreement to our recommendations for a number of detailed changes in the production and use of the National Security Risk Assessment. Demonstrating a nuanced understanding of the recommendations, these include adding vulnerability as a threat assessment factor to the current assessment of threats, in terms of impact and likelihood.

Our recommendations spanned across consideration of what is being done, and also how things are being done. One of the key requirements in risk assessment is the avoidance of “group-think”. We recommended varying levels of challenge, including an Office for Preparedness and Resilience, supported by a standing expert advisory council. The Government accepted this in principle, but understandably wished to avoid unintentionally diminishing the accountability of those most responsible for managing risk. It accepted our proposal of an annual debate in Parliament on the National Security Risk Assessment, to provide an important point of reflection and challenge.

Another vital area is the need to bolster skills in risk management. This recommendation was accepted without demur, and the response referred to the creation of the National Situation Centre; the Government’s intention to establish a UK Resilience Academy; and the Government’s agreement to an intensive residential course on national security, resilience, and defence for rising leaders in the public and private sector.

In an increasingly globalised world, most of the risks we face in the UK are international in nature. The Government accepted our recommendation that it should work closely with international partners on such risks, including establishing a global surveillance scheme for disease.

During the Committee’s work we heard evidence that local resilience forums, devolved administrations, the voluntary sector, and many businesses felt under-informed and under-involved in the process of assessing and planning for risks. This was despite often being on the front line of the response to those risks. In response, we proposed an enhanced degree of communication and involvement between those bodies and the Government. This would require the Government to move towards sharing information by default, rather than keeping information close to its chest.  Pleasingly, the Government accepted the principle of this recommendation.

While there were one or two matters on which the Government did not accept our recommendation (for example in relation to the payment of volunteers), the focus of the former members of the Committee will now turn to keeping a close eye on how the Government develops its thinking.  Will “agreement in principle” effectively mean that our recommendations are diluted or kicked into the long grass? We hope not. In the light of the tragedies of Covid-19 and Ukraine, there is a strong appetite for better national preparedness. We must not waste our chance.

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