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Call for evidence: A call to arms 

July 2021: Phil Trendall comments on the importance of the call for evidence on the National Resilience Strategy and explores the opportunities that could arise from the process.

UK Resilience StrategyThe ‘Call for Evidence’ focuses on six main themes: Risk and Resilience; Responsibilities and Accountability; Partnerships; Community; Investment; and ‘Resilience in an Interconnected World’. Image: Redcatgarik/123rf

Perhaps I have become too obsessed by such things, but I think that I detected a certain collective frisson in the realms of emergency management when the UK Cabinet Office published a call for evidence on the proposed National Resilience Strategy this week. Emergency managers have been fixed firmly in operational mode since the beginning of the pandemic, but this is a first hint that we can be forward looking and influence the nature of emergency management for the next decade.

Caution, born of experience, makes most members of the profession wary of civil servants and Ministers bearing gifts in the form of a public consultation. This consultation is being described as a ‘Call for Evidence’ but there is much here to seize the attention of those who are concerned about how to improve emergency management.

Let’s be clear, the Government is not undertaking a root and branch review of emergency management. That ship never set sail. This consultation is about the creation of a strategy that will operate against a backdrop of decisions already made.  

The proposed strategy sits in the shadow of the document ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ (March 2021). The Review identified the need for a Resilience Strategy and this consultation is the first step. 

There is not much here about what is meant by the term ‘resilience’. Despite an attempt at a definition (that will be disputed by experts in the field) the term is largely used as a catch-all for the emergency management world. The document itself is long and requires a certain amount of patience to penetrate. But this aside, it is an important and worthwhile process.

Getting the future of resilience right is a matter of the great national importance. I am therefore not surprised by the excitement that scents the air of emergency planning units throughout the land.

The ‘Call for Evidence’ focuses on six main themes: Risk and Resilience; Responsibilities and Accountability; Partnerships; Community; Investment; and ‘Resilience in an Interconnected World’.  There is also a very important section on the Civil Contingencies Act 2004

The Government’s vision is to ‘Make the UK the Most Resilient Nation’. I would advise moving on from that statement pretty quickly. While having a vison is vital (although it didn’t do Joan of Arc a lot of good) it is the content of the strategy that will be important to most practitioners. This, as is the current fashion, is intended as a strategy and vision that will take us to 2030.  

It acknowledges the importance of regional inequalities and suggests: 

  • We should understand the risks we face and the impacts they could have; 
  • We should invest in preparation to better prevent and recover from risks (sic); and
  • We should energise and empower everyone who can make a contribution

The third intention will be much supported by the first two if they are discharged properly.

The Strategy’s scope is described in the following terms: “We propose that the strategy will focus on the UK’s ability to anticipate, assess, prevent, mitigate, respond to, and recover from known, unknown, direct, indirect and emerging risks. This will include all types of risk, including: environmental hazards; human, animal and plant health risks; major accidents; societal risks; and malicious attacks.” (p12)

This is ambitious and is good to see.

An interesting emphasis is on the importance of creating new opportunities for gathering data to inform decision-making, both in the context of risk assessment and in the management of incidents.  This is to be welcomed, as is the view that cross sector mechanisms are required to ensure a holistic approach to risk management. Of course, good data is only of use to good decision-makers and elsewhere in the document there are passing references to the importance of training and exercising. 

Mention is made of work to improve the methodology of risk assessments at a national level (for the National Risk Register etc) and it is to be hoped that this will filter down to the local level. Anybody who has spent any time on community risk registers or has read Volume 1 of the Manchester Arena Inquiry Report will know that we have a long way to go before we get this right.

The relationship with the devolved administrations is fudged somewhat in the document and yet it has emerged as a real issue in the pandemic. The failure of the SARS-CoV2 virus to respect national boundaries within the UK has shown that important work remains to be done if consistency is to be achieved in some types of emergency. The document declares: “The new National Resilience Strategy will encompass an all-risks approach, from matters of national security in which powers are reserved to the UK central Government, through to all aspects of civil contingencies which affect communities within and between all parts of the UK.” (p20)

The mix of devolved and reserved issues is one that will prove tricky to resolve and it is an area which will really benefit from informed contributions to the consultation.

An important question is asked about what role the Government should have in assuring that local areas are effectively carrying out their resilience responsibilities. Since the end of the Civil Defence Grant, central Government has been wary of asking too many questions of local authorities and other bodies. Perhaps the time has come, as has been argued in this Journal, for this to change.

The Strategy will address the issues of supply chain resilience and global interconnectivity and again this is a subject that requires expert input.
There is general agreement that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 needs updating. The reasons behind the decision not to use it in the pandemic will be fully aired in the Public Inquiry but, in the meantime, there is an opportunity to comment on how this statute can be improved. 

The Cabinet Office clearly anticipates a large volume of responses and would prefer respondents to answer the questions posed at the end of each section. Some of these could be considered to be inane. I look forward to reading the responses to Q1 p27: “Do you agree that everyone has a part to play in improving the UK’s Resilience? If not, why not?” However, respondents do not need to be constrained by the framing of the questions and can submit freeform replies.

My final point is simple. Ignore my sniping and your own cynicism and respond to this ‘Call for Evidence’ if you have something to say as a professional or as a citizen. This is important. Once the strategy is set, we can all get on with the process of improving the structure and processes of civil protection. 

We have seen fantastic work by individuals and organisations, big and small over the last 18 months. Let’s make sure the Strategy reflects what has been learned through their efforts. This Call for Evidence is actually a Call to Arms for the emergency management profession in the UK.
 

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