The House of Lords Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee was appointed in October 2020 to “consider risk assessment and risk planning in the context of disruptive national hazards”. The committee was reappointed at the start of the 2021–22 parliamentary session.

On 3 December 2021, the committee published its report, ‘Preparing for extreme risks: Building a resilient society’. The report examined hazard-related risks to the UK that had the potential to cause significant human, economic, environmental and infrastructure damage. It also looked at a range of issues, including:

  • the national risk identification and assessment process
  • governmental risk ownership
  • planning for emergencies
  • emerging and unknown risks
  • international cooperation

The chair of the committee, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom (Conservative), is scheduled to lead a debate on the report in the House of Lords on 12 January 2023.

1. What were the committee’s findings?

In its report, the committee criticised the UK’s current risk assessment and management system. It said that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK’s approach had been “internationally commended” and viewed as “rigorous”. However, the committee found that the pandemic had “exposed” the UK’s risk management system as “deficient” and “too inflexible to provide the protection our nation needs”. It also stated that the pandemic had offered a “unique opportunity” to “take stock of the UK’s risk assessment and risk management process”.

The committee also noted that the UK had recently faced severe supply chain disruption and threats to its fuel supply. It argued that this had raised concerns within the committee about the “fragility of the just-in-time networks on which our food, fuel and essential services rely”. Additionally, the committee said that the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in 2021 had “raised alarm” about the security of the region and heightened the threat of global terrorism. Therefore, it said that the government “must be able to identify lessons from all crises quickly and ensure it can translate them into real change”.

Concluding, the committee said that the UK “must be better” at anticipating, preparing for and responding to a range of scenarios, including those it had not experienced before. It also argued that the government’s current strategy of “centralised and opaque risk assessment […] fails to make adequate preparations” and has left the UK “vulnerable”. This included expressing “significant concerns” about the government’s risk assessment and planning system, which it described as “veiled in an unacceptable and unnecessary level of secrecy”.

2. What recommendations did the committee make?

The committee made several recommendations. This included calling on the government to:

  • Re-establish the threats, hazards, resilience and contingencies subcommittee of the national security council (which was disbanded in 2020), or an equivalent cabinet committee, ahead of the production of the next national security risk assessment (NSRA). The NSRA is the government’s classified assessment of the national security risks facing the UK or its overseas interests.
  • Establish an office for preparedness and resilience headed by a newly created government chief risk officer. This office would be responsible for producing an independent analysis of UK preparedness. It would also produce assessments of the country’s resilience, set resilience standards and conduct audits of UK preparedness.
  • Act under a “presumption of publication” and publish the content of the NSRA, except where there is a direct national security risk.
  • Commit to a biennial publication of a brochure on risk preparedness. This brochure should inform the public on general resilience principles, outline how individuals could improve their preparedness, provide guidance on what to do in an emergency and signpost further information on resilience.
  • Establish a forum comprising representatives from trade associations and professional bodies, which would meet in advance of and following the production of the NSRA or twice a year, whichever is more frequent. The forum would be used to gather information about business sector capabilities, inform business and industry of risks which may require a response on their part and allow the government to seek out best practice.

Additionally, the committee argued that parliament had been “too passive” in its responsibility to scrutinise the country’s preparedness for risk. As part of this, it called for a debate on the NSRA to be held annually by both Houses of Parliament.

3. How did the government respond?

The Boris Johnson government published its response to the committee’s report on 17 March 2022. The government said that it “agree[d] with the spirit” of the report, recognised the “importance of the committee’s findings” and welcomed the recommendations.

The government noted that many of the recommendations proposed by the committee were actions that the government had identified through its own internal exercises and from recommendations made in other reports, for example, the National Audit Office’s report into the government’s preparedness for Covid-19.

Therefore, the government said that it had accepted, or accepted the principle of, many of the committee’s recommendations. The government outlined its actions in its response:

  • Re-establish the threats, hazards, resilience and contingencies subcommittee of the national security council, or an equivalent committee. The government said a new sub-committee had been established for this purpose. The government also noted that the newly established committee was an additional route to the national security council for “collective agreement and oversight on resilience issues” and would be chaired by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
  • Establish an office for preparedness and resilience. The government stated that it would commit to further consideration of the recommendation once the outcomes of an internal crisis capabilities review led by the permanent secretary at the home office Matthew Rycroft and the public inquiry into Covid-19 have been published. It also said that it already monitored government and UK preparedness for risks through its horizon-scanning process.
  • Publish the contents of the NSRA. The government said it agreed with the principle of “sharing as much of the NSRA as possible”. In addition, it stated that the ambition of its ‘National resilience strategy’ (section 4.1) would be to improve transparency in the way the government communicates risk.
  • Commit to a biennial publication of a brochure on risk preparedness. The government also agreed with this principle and stated that it would consider the methods it uses to do so through work on the national resilience strategy.
  • Establish a forum comprising representatives from trade associations and professional bodies. The government agreed with the principle of this recommendation and committed to delivering it through a new business sub-group.

However, the government also said that it had not accepted two of the committee’s recommendations:

  • Firstly, it did not agree with the recommendation to place a statutory duty on all public and private regulated bodies who operate critical national infrastructure (CNI) to produce and publish an audited business continuity plan. The government stated that lead government departments for the critical sectors already worked closely with owners and operators to ensure they are planning for relevant risks and encouraged the production of business continuity plans. Therefore, the government stated that it “does not consider it necessary to place a further statutory duty” on CNI operators.
  • Secondly, it did not accept the recommendation to pay volunteers for days of work missed through participation in any coordinated response to risk events. It further stated that the national resilience strategy would consider how all parts of society could be “empowered to play an effective role in UK resilience”. The government also said that, in line with a commitment in its ‘Integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy’ (published in March 2021), it had planned to undertake a pilot scheme to “establish the viability and value-for-money” of a “civilian reserve cadre”.

4. What recent developments have there been?

4.1 National resilience strategy

In its integrated review, Boris Johnson’s government committed to developing a national resilience strategy. In the review, the then government stated that its priority actions would be to:

  • establish a “‘whole-of-society’ approach” to resilience, to ensure that individuals, businesses and organisations could play a part in building resilience across the UK
  • consider threats and hazards, to ensure that the government could build national resilience across the diverse range of risks facing the UK
  • develop more capabilities, including people, skills and equipment, that can be used across a range of scenarios
  • review its approach to risk assessment
  • strengthen its analytical, policy and operational tools, including the collection and use of data, to “better assess cross-cutting, complex risks”

In July 2021, the government ran a consultation on developing the national resilience strategy. The consultation sought to understand current perceptions of risk and resilience, gather evidence on where improvements could be made and “gauge the UK’s appetite for change”.

In December 2022, the government led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak published the ‘UK government resilience framework’.

The government said that the framework was the “first articulation of how the UK government will deliver on a new strategic approach to resilience”. It explained that the framework focused on the “foundational building blocks of resilience, setting out the plan to 2030 to strengthen the frameworks, systems and capabilities which underpin the UK’s resilience to all civil contingencies risks”. The framework proposed measures and investment to enable the UK’s resilience system to prevent risks manifesting or crises from happening, or to improve the response to these risks.

The government stated that the framework was based on three core principles which characterised its strategy for resilience:

  • Firstly, a developed and shared understanding of the civil contingencies risks that the UK faced, which it described as “fundamental”.
  • Secondly, “prevention rather than cure wherever possible”, with a greater emphasis on preparation and prevention.
  • Thirdly, the government stated that resilience was a “‘whole of society’ endeavour”, and that it “must be more transparent” and “empower everyone to make a contribution”.

4.2 Upcoming publication of the national risk register

The national risk register (NRR) is the public-facing version of the NSRA. It provides information for the public on the “most significant risks” that the government has assessed could occur and which could have a wide range of impacts on the country, such as terrorist attacks or natural events like flooding. It also details how the government is identifying, assessing, preparing for and dealing with such potential emergencies.

The first NRR was published in 2008, fulfilling a commitment made in the 2008 national security strategy. The most recent edition was published in December 2020 to cover a two-year period to the end of 2022. At the time of writing, the government has not made a statement indicating when a new edition of the NRR will be published.

5. Read more

Cover image by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash. This article was updated on 10 January 2023 with information on the UK government resilience framework, in section 4.1.