Risking it

Toby Harris on ensuring the UK is better prepared for the consequences of an increasingly volatile and unstable world

Many of us will – to our cost – have realised that putting a task on your ‘TO DO’ list is not the same as actually getting it done. We will also have sat in meetings where the risk register is the final item on the agenda, rushed through in the last few minutes as people are packing up their papers and getting ready to leave.  Indeed, it sometimes feels that organisations think they have dealt with a potential problem through the act of putting it on their register. But surely a government wouldn’t behave like that?

The latest version of the UK’s National Risk Register was quietly published on 18 December, on the UK equivalent of “Take Out the Trash Day”, as Parliament rose for the Christmas Recess.

To be fair, the 2020 Register is more substantive than its predecessors. 140 pages summarise 38 major risks facing the country, with a ranking by both impact and likelihood.  These range from pandemics (inevitably), cyber-attacks, flooding, widespread power failures, terrorist incidents, and widespread public disorder. The Register identifies some things the public should do to prepare, such as signing up for first aid training and keeping basic supplies at home. And against each of the major risk categories there is a list of initiatives being taken or planned to mitigate the consequences of what might happen.

I chair the newly established National Preparedness Commission which brings together the government with representatives of UK business, academia, and civil society; and aims to promote better preparedness for a major crisis or incident. 

In November, at our first meeting, we were warned that the world is increasingly volatile and unstable. A series of global trends are likely to impact directly or indirectly on the UK in the coming years: climate change, increased competition for natural resources and supply insecurities, and a changing world order. At home, meanwhile, we face the vulnerability of our ageing critical infrastructure plus a reliance on ever more complex and interconnected systems that are susceptible to cascading failures.

The published Register focuses on what could happen in the next few years. Inevitably, perhaps, the risks that are still developing do not get the attention they might deserve – even where our effective management of such issues may require action now.

But is enough being done to deal with the risks that are considered?  Tomorrow in the House of Lords, I will be asking the government if it will report to Parliament each year on the state of our national preparedness for the top-tier risks in the national Register.

There will, of course, be some preparations that it would not be in the public interest to disclose. For example, we would not wish to tell a would-be terrorist what measures are being taken to thwart an attack that they might be planning. The Intelligence and Security Committee exists so that such matters can be disclosed and discussed.

Other information, however, can and should be in the public domain. Is the £5bn programme of spending on flood defences sufficient and proportionate to the risk of flooding? Is the civil nuclear sector’s regulatory framework enough to minimise the risk of a serious accident at a plant, and are the plans for responding to such an event adequate? And so on. 

An annual report would allow the relevant parliamentary committees to scrutinise the plans in detail, including calling for witnesses and evidence. Above all, it would raise the level of public awareness of the need for better preparedness, and that in turn may mean we are all better equipped to deal with crises – whatever they may be and whenever they arise.

Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is Chair of the National Preparedness Commission and a Labour Peer. He tweets @LordTobySays 

Published 2nd February 2021

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