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Westminster Hall

Thursday 15 September 2011

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

Scientific Advice (Emergencies)

[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 498, Government responses HC 1042 and HC 1139, and oral evidence of 15 June 2011, HC 1059-i]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)

2.30 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, and to be opening the first debate that the Select Committee on Science and Technology has held in Westminster Hall during this Parliament. The occasion is tinged with regret, shared by all Committee members, because it is the last time we will have with us our excellent Clerk, Glenn McKee, who has served the Committee brilliantly. We wish him well in his new career. I think it is a punishment that he has been sent to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, but that is another matter.

This is a particularly important report. It was published in March 2011 and it looks at the Government’s use of science in emergency preparation and response at a national level. We built on two of our predecessor Committee’s reports—one written in 2006 entitled “Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making”, and one entitled “Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy,” which was published in 2009. This is a complex area and we tried to consider four different case studies: looking backwards over two events that have occurred, looking forwards at one event that is certainly going to occur, and looking at an event that has a potentially high impact but low probability. I will cover those events during my contribution.

In the first case, we looked at the 2009-10 H1N1 flu pandemic, otherwise known as swine flu. In the second case, we looked at volcanic ash and the disruptions that occurred to our air space last April. Looking forward, we considered the potential for cyber-attacks, which are a very real threat. The event that has potentially high impact but low probability is the occurrence of solar flares, which are caused by adverse space weather and have the potential to disrupt electrical systems. Again, I will cover some of that later.

Hon. Members might wonder why we chose those four case studies. Obviously, the first two—swine flu and volcanic ash—were the most recent emergencies that the UK had experienced and were very high-profile events, both here and abroad. In addition, both events relied heavily on science and engineering to provide answers to very important questions—for example, who should be vaccinated against swine flu or how much volcanic ash an aircraft can fly through safely.

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We then chose the other two risks that could lead to an emergency in the UK. People are obviously more familiar with cyber-attacks than with the space weather event. Fortunately, we have not encountered either on an emergency scale. However, the name of the game is to be prepared; we wanted to see whether the Government were prepared and what they were doing to be ready for potential events.

I would like to make a couple of personal observations. I welcome the degree of co-operation that we had from Government officials, particularly those from the Cabinet Office, the lead Department. I have been involved with issues to do with information assurance and the cyber security world for a number of years, so I found it very refreshing that there was an acceptance that such matters had to be dealt with on a much more collegiate basis than was historically the case.

These things do not just belong to Cheltenham and the dark arts down there; there are serious issues and we must engage every citizen in looking after their personal data and their security. A cyber-attack could clearly be targeted at something such as a bank or a utility, which could have a serious impact on the nation state. We are not talking about a traditional warfare target, but such an attack could nevertheless be very effective.

It is clear to me that the Government take planning for emergencies seriously and recognise the need to draw in scientific advice. However, it is never safe to say that there is no scope for improvement. Our inquiry identified some weaknesses that we regarded as serious. I will start at the beginning of the emergency planning process: the national risk assessment. That is a comprehensive and, in some parts, classified assessment of the most significant emergencies that the UK could face over the next five years. Its counterpart is the national risk register, which is the unclassified bit that gets into the public domain.

There are broadly three stages to the risk assessment: the identification of hazards, the assessment of risk, and risk comparison. If I were a fly on the wall in some Departments, I imagine that I could hear some very interesting discussions about what is scientifically plausible and what ought to go into the realms of science fiction. As Chair of the Select Committee, I get all sorts of letters from people who postulate things that do not quite add up to the laws of physics as I understand them, so I guess that the Government face the same problems.

For every risk that makes it on to the national risk assessment—whether we are talking about attacks on the infrastructure or pandemic disease—the Government produce a reasonable worst-case scenario, which is a prediction of the worst that might realistically happen, rather than a prediction of what will happen. Unsurprisingly, that is a difficult concept to convey to the public and the media.

The House must take seriously its responsibility to communicate issues of risk to the public and should work with communities to help to improve public understanding of what risks really are. Certainly, some of the red tops are not exactly famed for being proportionate and level headed in these circumstances—indeed, some of the broadsheets are not immune to criticism about being sensationalist when it comes to reporting risk. My first plea, to the broader community, the science community and journalists, is for there to be an improved and responsible way of communicating what risks actually are.

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I will give an example of where the worst-case scenario can fall down. During the flu pandemic in 2009, the Department of Health held a press briefing. The media immediately reported the worst-case scenario—that there could be up to 65,000 deaths in the UK. At that time there had been 30 deaths, and at the end of the pandemic the total number was just over 450. That was a terrible tragedy for anyone involved, but the irresponsible communication of information by some journalists had the potential to cause panic. The result was a sense that things had been exaggerated by the Government.

No Minister, and no one else in a responsible position, could have withheld the 65,000 figure. The then Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), was provided with the data; he could not have withheld that information from the public, but we must ask ourselves whether there was a better way of communicating it. Focusing on the most likely scenarios might give us a better way of doing that. Yes, a Minister must say, “These are the extremes”, but we need to persuade reporters of the most likely scenario rather than the extreme possibilities.

It was not just the communication of the reasonable worst-case scenario that was the problem. The reasonable worst case was a 2% fatality rate, which meant that 2% of those infected would die. That was based on evidence from the 1918 Spanish pandemic. However, avian flu—bird flu—has an alarmingly higher fatality rate. We heard that it was simply not possible for the NHS to plan for such a scenario, so 2% was used. Our Science and Technology Committee was greatly concerned that the reasonable worst case was based not on the best available evidence, but on the need to determine how much to spend on planning.

I am pleased that the Government agreed that more could be done and that a review is under way to consider the reasonable worst-case concept. I hope that the Minister will tell us when we can expect the conclusions of the review and how the Government plan to try to develop the concept so that it becomes an accepted way of working aimed at reducing panic and concern when such events occur, as they inevitably will.

On the national risk assessment, we were disappointed to discover that the Government chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, had not been directly involved with the NRA, and had not had much involvement with the horizon scanning activities building up to it. We found that surprising; it appeared that the guy appointed to co-ordinate the best available science policy for the Government was not being brought in at the early stage of such an important field of activity. Of course, the co-ordination involves every scientific discipline; it is not just pure science. It involves statistics, engineering, behavioural science and a whole range of other issues. Science should be central to identifying, assessing and comparing risks.

Risk assessment must be informed by many sources of scientific advice, but clearly the Government’s own chief scientist should be part of the process at a high level. We came down quite strongly on this matter and proposed ways of increasing his involvement with the Cabinet Office and, specifically, the NRA. We have had partial success in getting our recommendations accepted by the Government.

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As I said, the NRA is classified and not available to the public, so we ourselves cannot see how well science is being used. That was one factor influencing our recommendation that an independent scientific advisory committee on risk assessment should be set up to review the NRA. That would make Parliament and the public more confident that the process is as evidence-based as possible. At our follow-up evidence session in June, we heard from the Government that there will indeed be such a committee. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what progress has been made in forming that committee.

Risk assessment is the foundation underpinning a good emergency response. What happens when that foundation is missing was unfortunately demonstrated by the 2010 volcanic ash emergency; that took the Government by surprise, because it had not been considered a likely emergency and therefore little or no preparation had been done. It was not part of the NRA, and in fact the risk of disruption to aviation from natural hazards was removed from the NRA in 2009.

I have not been able to find anyone who admits to taking responsibility for that, but just a year later there was quite a serious emergency. That will tie back into some of the things I will be saying later about the need for greater transparency. Having spoken to a lot of earth scientists with expertise in the Icelandic area, I am certain that they would have been knocking at the Minister’s door as soon as they saw that such events were taken off the register. Within the earth science community, it has been an accepted fact that there was the potential risk of massive explosions in that area.

Once such information was in the public domain, I would have expected the Civil Aviation Authority to tie it together and come up with some conclusions and advice for the Cabinet Office. However, something went wrong. I do not suppose that I have to ask the question; I bet the Minister will not be leaving the issue off the NRA again. I suspect it will be there in the next published register later this year.

As a consequence of the lack of planning, airspace over the whole of the UK and many parts of Europe remained closed for a whole week while engineers figured out what was acceptable and what ash concentrations were safe for planes to fly through. At the time, the only available guidance was to avoid the ash: “If it is visible, do not fly through it”—hardly scientific and hardly a comforting policy for people sitting nervously in planes. It was a very expensive mess that cost airlines millions of pounds and stranded Britons all over the place all over the world.

When we were again disrupted by another unpronounceable Icelandic volcano in May, more specific guidance and protocols were in place to deal with it. That was a testament to the work of the CAA, which led to work within Europe to update the requirements for operating in and around volcanic ash.

Before I turn to how the Government respond to emergencies, I want to touch briefly on the issue of space weather. Changes in the sun’s atmosphere affect the space environment near to Earth. Events could involve injections of plasma—particles of radiation from the sun. Solar activity changes according to a cycle of approximately 11 years. Many scientists believe that we will have a solar maximum next year, coinciding with the Olympics. There is long probability, but there

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would be high impact if something went pear-shaped. If a small event occurs, taking out a few transformers and, just as the starter’s gun for the 100 metres is being fired, no transmissions occur from any broadcaster in the UK, we would be somewhat embarrassed. That is clearly a long probability event, but one of enormous political and economic significance. We cannot simply ignore these events.

One problem is that when one looks back at the history of similar events, comparisons are a little difficult because we have become so much more reliant on electrical gadgets and devices. I do not suppose there is anyone in the Chamber who does not have a mobile phone with them, and nobody in the Chamber who is not entirely reliant on electronic technologies. In 1989, an event caused Quebec to lose its power grid for approximately nine hours. That was a serious event, and one that could easily happen again.

The earliest well-documented event took place in 1859, recorded as the Carrington event, when telegraph systems were taken out. It disrupted systems all around the world, and that was before we became so reliant on electricity-based technologies. We do not really know what the effects of another Carrington event would be on, for example, the national grid, satellites, the global positioning system, computer chips or avionics. It is reasonably well known that some satellite technologies are built to higher standards now. I suspect that most of the military technologies that I have looked at have the capacity to be taken out of harm’s way, or are sufficiently well shielded, but an awful lot of infrastructure is not.

The Committee’s interest in space weather coincided with work that the Government were doing. Sir John Beddington had started work almost at the same time. Our inquiry kept being told that this was work in progress and that we should expect space weather to appear on the 2011 national risk assessment register. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether that has happened.

No matter how good an assessment is, we cannot prevent some emergencies from occurring. In any emergency that requires scientific input, a scientific advisory group in emergencies is set up—its acronym is, appropriately, SAGE—to advise Government and Cobra, central Government’s crisis management committee. SAGE should be the funnel for scientific advice from all sources—I stress all sources. The membership of each SAGE committee will vary according to the emergency, but most members will be scientists. The Committee felt that improvements could be made in the pre-identification of possible SAGE members, at least for every risk that is on the current risk register. We felt that that could save valuable time in bringing the right people together should an event occur. Indeed, that recommendation was accepted by the Government.

SAGE is a relatively new mechanism. With every emergency for which a SAGE committee was set up, lessons have been learned and improvements made. Things are moving in the right direction. It was disappointing to find, at the start of our inquiry, that information on the SAGE committees for swine flu and volcanic ash was more or less hidden from public view. That does not help us learn lessons. We have to be totally transparent, returning to the points I made earlier. It is also quite odd, when you consider the

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importance of communication and openness in an emergency, that SAGE committees have not worked in an open manner.

We found other problems. The independence of SAGE from Government was ambiguous. Scientific advisory committees really should be independent of Government to ensure that their advice is impartial. We also heard concerns from some scientists who were members of SAGE committees. They felt unable to talk to the media, thus depriving the media access to the real experts. There are problems in communicating some of these issues, and some experts are very good at communicating risk to the public. All in all, the Committee was pretty unclear about the rules governing SAGE. Our recommendations can be summed up in two points: be more transparent; and publish guidance on how SAGE should operate and stick to it. That way we will know what to expect. We were told that guidance would be produced this summer; the Minister might like to update us on progress. Putting those concerns aside, overall SAGEs have been a useful mechanism for getting scientific advice to Government quickly. Adjustments need to be made, but we were not calling for a major rethink. Sometimes a subtly different approach is needed for different events.

Nine days after our report was published, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the north coast of Japan, causing massive loss of life and severe damage to infrastructure. Japan will be dealing with the consequences of that tragedy for some considerable time. An immediate concern was the integrity of the Fukushima nuclear power station and the risks it posed to human health. We watched with interest as the UK Government and a new SAGE committee swung into action to assess whether there was a need to evacuate British nationals. This time—this relates to the point I made about lessons learned—the SAGE committee had a higher public profile. Sir John Beddington was very prominent in briefing both the media and Britons in Japan via teleconferences. A few months down the line, it is clear to me that the UK’s reaction has been proportionate and evidence based. SAGE played a crucial part in that. I would like to think that our work influenced the positive way in which the Government and SAGE worked during that emergency.

My final point is on cyber-attacks. We were slightly limited by the classified nature of some information, but we took some fascinating evidence in this case study. It was the only risk examined that could be the result of malicious human activity. The Stuxnet worm, which targeted Iran’s uranium-enrichment programme, was a real-life example of how organised and structured cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure could succeed, and cyber-technology, unlike some conventional weapons, can be copied.

Cyber-security has received a huge amount of attention recently, with the publication of the Government’s 2009 “Cyber security strategy of the United Kingdom”. The subsequent formation of the Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance was welcome, because so many public and private bodies are tasked with ensuring our security in cyber-space. However, tasking a body with providing direction and co-ordination is pointless if it has no powers and insufficient funding. We recommended that the Government clarify the funding

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and powers of the new office. Again, we have not yet received a response and would welcome comments from the Minister.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): I apologise for my fleeting visit to the debate. I am on a Public Bill Committee this afternoon but, as a member of the Science and Technology Committee, I thought it important to support the debate.

In terms of cyber-security, so much of the UK’s national infrastructure is dependent on the private sector, so one of the key tasks of the OCSIA is to work with those private sector defenders and providers of our national infrastructure, to ensure that they are well protected. One of the issues in Committee was what powers the OCSIA had to oblige those private sector providers to look after their cyber-security. Perhaps that is an area on which the Minister might enlighten the Chamber later.

Andrew Miller: I thank the hon. Gentleman who, in Chester, is my neighbour. He is always posing me challenging questions, but he makes a fascinating point. The threat to national security from cyber-attack is clearly as serious in the private sector as it is in the public sector, and probably more so. That is a great challenge. We cannot have a world in which everyone who worked in a bank would be security cleared to the level that the Minister’s staff are—that is not realistic and it could not be done for every utility. That is why extensive sharing of expertise across boundaries is necessary in the sector, to ensure that lessons from the public sector are learned in the private sector, and vice versa, including sharing information with academics.

The hon. Member for City of Chester must recall one academic witness, a man who was held in extremely high regard by the current Government because he was party to writing a paper for them, when they were in opposition. He said that he did not want to be security cleared, so there are some interesting dichotomies. The Minister needs to contemplate that problem and, I hope, answer the challenging question posed by the hon. Gentleman. In that complex world, without becoming obsessed by security clearance for everyone on the planet, how do we improve information sharing and expertise in and out of and across the boundaries between the private and public sectors?

Soon after the second volcanic ash event, when we were reflecting on the report and talking about some of the information, communication and technology issues, one of the officials said in a meeting I was at that, when the second volcano erupted, they reached for the Select Committee’s report to see how to handle things. I know that that was intended to butter me up a little—I welcome it—but, all in all, the Committee has done a sound piece of work which I hope is taken on board by the Government.

I hope that Members will agree that our inquiry on “Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies” continues to be pertinent to how disasters and emergencies, here or abroad, are handled by the Government. Last winter we had a resurgence of swine flu cases, and we are currently approaching the peak flu season this year again. This May there was another volcanic eruption,

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which affected our airspace briefly in Scotland and northern England. Severe weather is occurring more frequently, and last winter we had extraordinarily low temperatures that I do not recall having before. Also, as I said earlier, we are approaching the solar maximum. I do not want to scaremonger and create panic. What I want to do is to highlight the fact that the issue is live.

With the right processes in place, and good use of scientific advice and evidence, emergencies can be planned for and effectively managed and information can be communicated to the public. We all in the House would agree that it is our responsibility, collectively, to handle situations such as the ones I have described in a manner that crosses the political divide. I hope that the Minister will agree that we can all learn lessons from each other and we need better ways of working with outside agencies, whether that is people responsible for communicating information to the public or experts who can provide information. I hope that the House will take note of our report and that the Government will act positively on the outstanding issues I have listed.

3.7 pm

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I do not intend to speak in as much detail as our Chair, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), because I cannot hope to match his expertise. I want to discuss risk, and how we identify it, assess it, manage it and, in particular—this is the subject which I will start with—communicate it to our constituents.

We should acknowledge some real difficulties in communicating. There is a difference between the scientific community, which has a key role in identifying and assessing risk, and the public and how they understand such matters. There are differences of nuance—often, the situation is complicated, with all sorts of different variables coming together, and we will never succeed in communicating that level of complexity to the general public, so there has to be a fairly simple message which can be clearly understood. If we take our example of a reasonable worst-case scenario, the potential flu pandemic, scientists tend to look at the impact on populations as a whole, but the general public are interested in the risk to them as individuals and to their immediate family members, friends and neighbours.

One of the things that was clear from the evidence presented to us was the significant degree of uncertainty and the way in which the figures on the reasonable worst-case scenario evolve rapidly over a period. Although that was absolutely correct from a scientific perspective, the way in which it was communicated to the general public simply fed a sense of uncertainty and might have undermined people’s trust in the figures. One week people were told one figure was the likely outcome, but a few weeks later that figure had changed dramatically, and there is a risk that such things can undermine confidence in the whole process.

Furthermore, scientists trying to establish a causal link between two things will say that X led to Y only where there is clear proof that that was the case. However, many of us tend to rely on intuition and to suspect causal links, even when the same standard of proof has not been reached. There are, therefore, real difficulties around communication.

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Page 28 of the report says that the Government’s definition of a reasonable worst-case scenario

“is designed to exclude theoretically possible scenarios which have so little probability of occurring that planning for them would be likely to lead to disproportionate use of resources…They are not predictions of what will happen but of the worst that might realistically happen, and therefore we would expect most pandemics to be less severe and less widespread than the reasonable worst case. By planning for the reasonable worst case planners are assured that they have a high probability of meeting the demands posed by the hazard should it occur.”

It was clear from the evidence presented to us that there are a number of problems with the Government’s approach. First, Professor Ferguson, the director of the Medical Research Council, told us that

“the term ‘a reasonable worst case’ is, by definition, not an objectively definable term; it is a subjective term. One could take the other extreme, and I remember David King and Sir John Beddington challenging what we were doing by saying, ‘Well, if you look at bird flu, that has a 60% case fatality rate’”.

I have already talked about the figures changing, and we heard clear evidence about that in our inquiry. We were told that as more and more data arrived, the initial figure of 65,000 came down and down.

There was a real issue with time lags, which the Government must look at. Professor Ferguson told us there was

“a three to four week lag between the group I was involved in coming up with new reasonable worst cases, and then coming into the public domain in terms of getting through the DH”—

the Department of Health—

“and Cabinet Office approval process.”

As a result, what the public were told was a reasonable worst case was already three to four weeks behind the evidence that was building up.

There is a serious issue about the potential damage to the chief medical officer’s reputation. The Phillips inquiry after the BSE crisis highlighted a number of clear lessons, one of which was that the public’s trust in the chief medical officer is precious and should not be put at risk. The chief medical officer told us:

“Even a back of the envelope calculation that I did suggested to me that we would get no more than a thousand deaths, but that was not the scientifically agreed figure. So I could hardly dissent from the bigger figure.”

As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has said, the chief medical officer gave a press briefing on 16 July. The press reported that 65,000 people could die. At that point, 30 had died, and the eventual death toll from the pandemic was 460. It must be a real cause for concern that the chief medical officer was using a figure in which he clearly had no confidence, because he did not believe it was anywhere near what was likely to happen. The review of the UK response to the pandemic, which was chaired by Dame Deirdre Hine, said:

“There was some unease about how reasonable the ‘reasonable worst-case’ scenarios were…. There was general agreement that the term was unhelpful”,

because it implied that the scenario was likely to occur.

I therefore strongly support the Committee’s recommendation that the Government should look at the concept of most-likely scenarios. On that point, the Government response was helpful. The Government said they would look at the conclusions of the Blackett review. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has said, it would be interesting to hear from the

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Minister if that has been completed and what it had to say. It would also be interesting to know whether the concept of a reasonable worst-case scenario was used when British citizens in Japan were given information about the risks posed by the Fukushima incident a few months ago.

I want briefly to touch on two other issues raised in the report in relation to risk. One is the extent to which the Government use scientific advice not only when an emergency happens, but when they formulate the national risk assessment. That raises the issue of the chief scientific adviser’s involvement in the process, and the Government’s response on that front was encouraging. They agreed that the chief scientific adviser should become more formally involved, and it would be useful, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has suggested, to clarify the exact nature of that involvement.

The other issue is the idea of a scientific advisory committee on risk assessment. I want to end with another quote from the report, which illustrates the issue more strongly than any of the evidence that we received. Speaking of volcanic ash incidents, Dr Sue Loughlin, the head of volcanology at the British Geological Survey, told us:

“It wasn’t particularly a surprise to the volcanology community that something like this would happen, but somehow that message hadn’t got through to Government.”

The Geological Society stated that

“some Earth scientists report that they have been warning Government and others of the potential for major disruption due to Icelandic eruptions for a number of years, but feel that little notice has been taken of these warnings.”

It is important that the Government pay more attention to scientific advice in drawing together the national risk assessment, rather than just waiting until a particular incident occurs. They should also look at the basis on which they communicate risk to the general public. I in no way underestimate the difficulties involved in that, and I have tried to touch on them in my speech—those issues are sensitive, and they are not easy to communicate—but the Committee’s work illustrates that there are some real problems with the Government’s approach. I hope that Ministers will give us more detail about how they wish to take those issues forward.

3.17 pm

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.

Just after midnight, on Sunday 21 March 2010, the BBC website reported:

“An Icelandic volcano, dormant for 200 years, has erupted, ripping a 1km-long fissure in a field of ice…sending lava a hundred metres high.

Icelandic airspace has been closed, flights diverted and roads closed… 500 people were moved from the area”.

Three weeks later, the same BBC website reported:

“All flights in and out of the UK and several other European countries have been suspended as ash from a volcanic eruption in Iceland moves south…4,000 flights are being cancelled with airspace closed in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark”,

as well as in the UK. It noted that the EUROCONTROL group had said that the problem could easily persist for at least the following two days.

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Over the next weeks, the problems persisted and there was great debate about whether it was safe to fly. Could ash bring down planes? What sort of ash was it? People were stranded all over Europe and the rest of the world. They had no way of getting home. Millions of pounds were spent on alternative hotel accommodation and on travel. There was absolute travel chaos around the world.

On 23 April 2009, the first cases of the H1N1 virus—the swine flu virus—were confirmed in Mexico and the US. Four days later, the first cases appeared in the UK, in a couple in Scotland. The Government announced that the stockpile of antivirals would be increased from 33.5 million to 50 million doses.

On 1 May, the first case of human-to-human transmission in the UK was confirmed. On 15 May, agreements were made to secure another 90 million doses of pre-pandemic vaccine. On 16 July, as we have heard, the chief medical officer announced that 65,000 people could die from the swine flu virus, in the worst- case scenario. On 10 September, the four UK Health Departments released critical care strategies to cope with the expected increase in demand during the second wave of the pandemic, and on 21 October vaccination programmes began with front-line health care workers and their patients in at-risk categories. Plans were laid to keep the supply chain operating and the shops were stocked. Key workers were identified; there was the potential for chaos.

On Wednesday 14 November 2012, at 6.15 pm, satellite channels start to flicker and go offline. Intermittent power cuts affect large chunks of the south-east of England. Planes are told to adopt holding positions as radar and global positioning systems start to malfunction. Mobile phones and computers develop faults and cease working. The internet goes down and trains stop running. A state of national emergency is called and an announcement is made that the UK is experiencing a coronal mass ejection—space weather—although no one is sure who is listening.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon in 2015, cash points cease working. The problem is believed to be local, but reports are surfacing that the complete ATM system could be affected. Technicians are working on it. There are suggestions in the media that it could be a complex cyber-attack on infrastructure. More systems fail and the banking system seizes up. Shops cannot take payments. Suppliers go unpaid. Wages and benefits do not get paid. Benefits are not paid. There is chaos as the whole economy seizes up.

Those scenarios sound like the seriously dodgy synopses of some bad B-movies, and I have been over-dramatic and used a dollop of artistic licence, but they highlight some of the risks that we and the Government face. As we have heard, it is the way we identify and plan for those risks that will determine how well we cope with them.

I am often asked by people what the relevance of the Select Committee on Science and Technology is to the people of South Basildon and East Thurrock. I always refer them to our investigation into how the Government use scientific advice and evidence in emergencies. I explain how seriously the Committee and the Government take the need to know how we might keep the lights on,

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or the shelves at Tesco stocked, in an emergency, and that provides a great example of how something that seems not to affect people’s day-to-day lives can affect them seriously.

I do not want to frighten anyone. My introduction may have been a little alarmist and I do not want anyone to have nightmares, but the volcanic eruption in Iceland caused chaos. It cost the economy many millions of pounds and inconvenienced many people, but there was more than inconvenience. A lot of business was not done, and many people missed important events. As we heard, part of the problem was that on that occasion the Government were playing catch-up—certainly for the first part of the crisis—as the eruption had not been identified as a potential risk. It was on an earlier version on the national risk assessment, but, for whatever reason, it had been taken out.

I accept that the H1N1 swine flu outbreak never became a pandemic, but it might have done. It is not inconceivable that in the foreseeable future we shall have a pandemic, in which large numbers of people fall sick very quickly, jeopardising our ability to keep our vital private and public services operating. The question is how we will cope with that, and what we can put in place to mitigate the effects.

In addition to considering two historic events, the Committee looked at two potential risks of the future—space weather and cyber-attack, both of which sound like fantastic straplines for “Doctor Who” or “Torchwood”, but have the potential to pose a real threat. Perhaps they are not quite as dramatic as I have stated, but we did, in 1859, experience a bout of severe space weather, known as the Carrington event. Its impact was recorded as serious at the time. As the Committee Chairman said, we are now totally dependent on electricity—on electrical devices of all sorts: satellites, GPS, mobile phones and computers. Because events such as the Carrington event do not happen often, it is difficult fully to anticipate the effects.

We have all experienced attack by computer viruses and know how devastating they can be when they affect just our personal computer. At best it is inconvenient, but at worst the whole machine can be fried. If we imagine that happening on an industrial scale, or a widespread attack on PCs to harvest personal data, we can see that there could be a real problem.

Those are just some of the challenges that the Government need to prepare for, and to prepare strategies to mitigate, while keeping within the bounds of reality. That is a key issue: identifying the risk in the first place. Who do the Government listen to and talk to? What are the risks and financial implications?

To find the answers we must first identify the risk. The Committee was reassured by the fact that there is a national risk assessment. That project is charged with identifying threats and undertakes the important role of horizon scanning. However, I was surprised, as I think we all were, to hear from the chief scientific adviser that he does not have a formal role in approving what goes on to the national risk assessment. That highlights the need for the Government to make better use of scientific advice and evidence—and not only during emergencies, but prior to them—and to use the skills available to them now, to develop the NRA further and ensure that robust contingency plans for all events are in place.

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The Committee considered that the Government reach for scientific advice after emergencies, but do not integrate it well enough beforehand. I should like to hear from the Government that their chief scientific adviser will now have a more formal role in the national risk assessment, and sign off on the NRA only if he is satisfied with the scientific input.

Another issue, which the Committee Chairman outlined and my Committee colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), discussed, is how we should communicate risk to the public, and what risks the Government should prepare for. Those are not necessarily the same thing. We heard a lot about the reasonable worst-case scenario. I understand that that is an attempt to identify and prepare for a serious event, without going into flights of fancy, even if that scenario is very unlikely.

The Committee believes that the Government should also prepare for the most likely scenario—one that can easily be communicated to the public, and entailing a risk that they can understand and take simple precautions against. An example might be better information about always using the latest virus protection software on home computers, or password protecting wireless networks. However, that does not negate the need to prepare at Government level for more serious, if unlikely, events: to work with power companies to explore ways to minimise the impact of space weather; to ensure that the banking system understands potential threats; or to work with business to ensure that the supply chain would continue to function in a flu epidemic.

It would be useful to hear from the Minister, in the light of what I and other hon. Members have said, how he sees the role of the reasonable worst-case scenario, and how the Blackett review that is now under way is progressing. When may we hear some of its results?

It struck me that in several cases the Government were, if not complacent about potential risks, coming at them perhaps a little late. The establishment by the Government of the Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance, which we have heard about, and on which there have been questions, is very welcome—but it is a new office, established to assess a risk that has existed for many years. I am therefore interested to hear how it is progressing and what its findings are, as well as what other new offices may need to be created following a vigorous horizon-scanning exercise. Horizon scanning seeks out as yet unknown and unidentified threats, so that we can at least start to think about their impact, and how to deal with them. It would be useful to hear confirmation from the Government that they want to identify those threats, and that they want fully to explore all the risks, regardless of whether they are too expensive to deal with or too complex to plan for. Risk should be dismissed from the national risk assessment on the basis of scientific advice and evidence.

Not all risks are confined to individual nations. Some present a global threat, and it is important to work across borders with other countries. We must continue to participate in and play an active role in collaborative programmes, such as the European Space Agency’s space situational awareness programme, so that we are better prepared for a space weather emergency. Again, will the Minister confirm our commitment, not only to that programme, but to the wider concept, and tell us whether other collaborations are taking place?

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In conclusion, it is vital that we do not overstate the risks. We must not frighten people, or provide headlines for the red-tops, but we must not underestimate them. We must assure the public that the Government have a sound and robust process in place that assesses any threat using proper scientific evidence and advice and that the Government have put in place contingency plans to deal with risks based on the advice of experts. If that is done calmly, although we will always live in an unpredictable and changing world, we can be sure that whatever is thrown at us the Government will be able to help us collectively see our way through any challenge, and that we will emerge, if not unscathed, better than we might otherwise have done.

3.32 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) on the excellent work that he and his Committee have done on this thorough report. They must have spent hours and hours listening to appropriate evidence in drawing up their conclusions. I have learned a lot from studying the report, and I very much enjoyed today’s contributions from my hon. Friend and from the hon. Members for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) and for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), as well as the short contribution from the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley).

We all hope for the best, but while doing so we must prepare for the worst. Even understanding what we mean by the worst, and what the difference is between the worst-case scenario and the most likely scenario is skilled work in itself, as we have heard this afternoon. The Committee studied national risk assessment in detail, and one of the report’s main findings is that although there is good use of scientific back-up during the response and recovery stages of emergencies, that is not always the case with preparation.

What has been done to put sound scientific advice at the heart of Government policy making? In 1997, Lord May, who was then the Government’s chief scientific adviser, published the first edition of “Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making” to show how Departments should obtain and use scientific analysis. They were updated in 2005 and 2010, and we now have more than 60 scientific advisory committees, which consist of independent experts who advise Departments, Ministers and the chief scientific adviser.

In 2002, the “Cross-Cutting Review of Science and Research” recommended that all Departments that rely on science should have science and innovation strategies, and departmental chief scientific advisers. By the time Labour left government, there were such advisers in every Department except the Treasury. Their presence enhances scientific input throughout departmental action. For example, a group of chief scientific advisers reviewed the draft Gallagher review on biofuels, and they made the final report more scientifically robust than it might otherwise have been.

In 2003, the Labour Government introduced science reviews for each Department to improve the use of science within Departments. In 2004, the science and innovation investment framework, which was designed to last for 10 years to 2014, was published.

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In 2006, the joint public-private energy research partnership was launched to provide leadership for UK investments in energy research and innovation, which also contributed to Government initiatives, including the renewable energy strategy. In July 2007, the Government Office for Science was created within what those of us who are old enough to remember or were here then was the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

It is obviously important to keep science at the heart of Government policy. Before we left office, we created and published the principles of scientific advice to Government to ensure a proper working relationship between the Government and scientific advisers and advisory bodies. In 2005, we revised and updated the Government’s arrangements for emergency response.

One conclusion of the report before us focuses on scientific advisory groups in emergencies. The Committee recommended that the SAGE guidelines should address independence, transparency, confidentiality and the conduct of those involved. In this day and age, it is vital to draw on all expertise worldwide, and we should not shy away from seeking expert advice. An emergency is not a time to hide away, or to avoid bringing in the very best help that might assist us in resolving matters more effectively because of a stubborn wish not to admit that we might appreciate help, or that there could be people out there with greater expertise than our own. With the necessary safeguards for matters of national security, what can the Minister tell us about Government plans to make the operation of SAGEs more transparent?

I am responding to the debate, but the Minister is from the Cabinet Office. He will be aware that my shadow Cabinet Office colleagues are in Committee discussing the Public Bodies Bill, which is close to the Minister’s heart. The report links to the spirit of that Bill, and the Government’s response says that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation

“will be reconstituted as an independent committee of experts to the Department of Health. The reconstituted committee will have a similar remit to that of the current committee”

and will “retain its independence and” continue

“to consist of independent experts.”

Why is a committee being disbanded and put back together with a similar remit? What sort of musical chairs is that? Will the Minister explain why a simple change cannot be made to the current committee? The dogma of the Public Bodies Bill—tearing up everything and reinventing the wheel when gaps become apparent—is mad.

I also want to ask about the Health Protection Agency. One minute we seem to be about to abolish the Health Protection Agency a month before the Olympics, and the next minute that seems to be not such a good idea. Will the Minister reassure us on the agency’s functions?

Will the Minister explain exactly what the Government will do to ensure that Department chief scientific advisers play more of a leading role in the preparations for emergencies? I emphasise “preparations”, because that is what the Committee was so concerned about. What is the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills doing to improve the Government Office of Science and the chief scientific adviser’s influence across the Government? What are the Government doing to ensure

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that good quality scientific advice is put at the heart of all Government policy, including scientific advice in the technical sense and social and behavioural science advice? How do the Government intend to improve parliamentary and wider scientific scrutiny of the decisions that they make in emergencies? When do the Government expect to fill the posts for chief scientific adviser that are currently vacant in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Transport and, in the light of the 2012 Olympics, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? Will those posts be filled by people who are appropriately qualified, and are the Government satisfied that each Department has the necessary expertise?

As a Welsh MP, I would be grateful for the Minister’s reassurance that appropriate channels are in place to ensure the smoothest possible joint working with devolved Administrations in any emergency, and that any changes to the system will be properly communicated to those responsible in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

As highlighted in the Pitt report on flooding, local authorities are key to an effective response to an emergency. Will the Minister ensure that local authorities have the necessary expertise and access to training, and that appropriate mechanisms are in place to allow them to work with other authorities to maximise efficiency in an emergency?

One of the report’s main conclusions is of concern:

“We have been left with the impression that while science is used effectively to aid the response to emergencies, the Government’s attitude to scientific advice is that it is something to reach for once an emergency happens, not a key factor for consideration from the start of the planning process. We conclude that scientific advice and an evidence-based approach must be better integrated into risk assessment and policy processes early on.”

It is vital for the Government to take on board that advice from its critical friend, the Science and Technology Committee, and I urge the Minister to ensure that scientific advice shapes the thinking and actions taken in preparation for emergencies, and is not a bolt-on, afterthought or optional extra. This matter is of national concern to us all, and we want to work cross-party and be as supportive as we can where the Government are making the right decisions. If, however, we feel that adequate measures are not being taken, we will point that out so that things can be done better for the sake of us all.

3.42 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): I am grateful to all Members who have taken part in this important debate for its tone and the many helpful insights that they have provided. I commend the detailed work of the Science and Technology Committee. It was undertaken in an appropriate spirit of interrogation and challenge, and contains measured and thoughtful conclusions which, for the most part, the Government have accepted.

It is important to start by saying that it is unlikely that any Government will ever get this issue completely right. The nature of emergencies means that they are unpredictable; their likelihood may rise or fall, and we do our best to estimate that, but their effects are unpredictable and we can only prepare as best we can and try to manage the risks in a sensible and proportionate way. My family motto is, “Hope for the best while confidently expecting the worst.” That is not entirely a

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basis on which one can prepare for emergencies because, while we hope for the best, we must plan for the worst outcome.

There is always an incredibly difficult balance to strike between underestimating a situation and appearing complacent about its malign effects on communities and the economy if we do not prepare sufficiently—although we should always err on the side of caution—and investing many resources in preparing for outcomes that are wholly unfeasible but could mean that damage is imposed on the economy or disruption on people’s lives. The nature of emergencies makes it unlikely that that balance will be achieved exactly, but it is important that we strive to get it right.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate, but I was engaged in activities elsewhere in the House. The Minister makes a good point. At times, medical scientists may offer advice that would be hard to deliver in terms of social science. There could be a conflict between pieces of advice that are properly given by two proponents of the same profession.

Mr Maude: My hon. Friend is right, and in the end we have to make a judgment and try to prepare in a proportionate way based on the best evidence available, while acknowledging that that evidence will not always be conclusive. The process set in place through SAGE will try to distil the best view, which is important.

A number of Members have raised points about the communication of risk, which is an important issue and difficult to get right. When communicating risk to the public, it is important not to scaremonger, make people agitated or cause them to behave in a way that is not reasonable. Nor should we devote resources to something in a way that cannot be justified. At the same time, we must never be complacent.

I have thought about the concerns raised in the report and by hon. Members during the debate about the concept of the reasonable worst case. It is difficult to get the form of words right. If the word “reasonable” is inserted, it sounds as if it is a situation that we think will happen. In fact, “reasonable worst case” is not what we believe likely to happen; it is the worst case possible if we remove situations that are absurdly improbable. Pitching that statement correctly is quite difficult.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the Blackett review that will be published in the next few weeks, which we will obviously consider. The Blackett panel looked at the concept of reasonable worst case, which it believes—as do the Government—that it is essential to consider when planning and building capability. It believes, however, that we must think about the use of that concept in communicating risk because it may be that the concept of the most likely case is more useful.

Governments will always be anxious about having a figure in their possession that they have not shared. That was the case with swine flu, and I understand the concern of the Health Secretary at that time. The Government did not want to suppress a figure that might have been arrived at properly, even though it proved to be way off beam. These difficult issues need to be tackled in a serious and measured way and it would be useful to have further discussion and debate once the Blackett panel has completed its review. We must get this issue right because, when emergencies

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happen—as they will—it is important to have some kind of shared understanding across the political spectrum, and between the Government, Parliament and the media, about the way the concepts in question have been used and the need for responsibility when dealing with facts and estimations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who could not stay for the end of the debate because he had to be elsewhere, talked about the figures changing in the course of the swine flu epidemic. The truth is that in an emerging epidemic, there are very few cases on which scientists can make assessments; there is very little epidemiology to go on. Arguably, it is better to be honest about the possible worst case and plan for the worst; and then if events turn out very differently, at least that is better than their turning out much worse than predicted. I was asked whether we had used the reasonable worst case approach for the Fukushima event. The answer is yes, that did happen.

On the difficult issues about trying to get right the communication of risk, I am grateful for the Select Committee’s insights. The Blackett panel will produce its conclusions in due course, and we will share them and continue to have discussions and debates.

I was asked what progress had been made in response to the concerns that the Select Committee raised, which I understand, about the role of the Government chief scientific adviser in national risk assessment. Work is under way to set up an independent scientific advice group for the NRA, which will be in place in time for the 2012 NRA. The draft 2011 NRA has been sent to the Government chief scientific adviser, and he will respond to me and my officials in due course. Obviously, it is important that that assessment has the benefit of his detailed scrutiny. We are taking the conclusions and recommendations in the Committee’s report seriously and acting on them.

The Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), asked when SAGE guidance would be published. We are aiming for later this year. We are building in steps that are being taken in the light of the inquiry and the reflections in this debate.

I was asked about transparency. We agree that SAGE should operate on the principle of openness and transparency. The membership, minutes and key scientific advice papers for all three recent SAGE activations, which were in relation to the Japanese nuclear event in and around Fukushima, the volcanic ash eruption and the swine flu epidemic, have all now been published online. Everything is being taken forward, I hope, in the right spirit.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) asked about international collaboration. We work closely with international organisations—the European Union, the UN and so on—and with global leaders in this field. For example, the Singapore Government are a serious leader in this area, and we work with them. We also work with other countries with which we share risks. For example, we work closely with the Netherlands on the risks associated with North sea flooding. There is also ad hoc joint work and research on community resilience and behavioural issues. We work on that with the United States, Canada and the Australians. International collaboration is therefore

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very important. There is a huge amount of expertise, and it is in the interests of all countries that we benefit from one another’s knowledge, expertise and assessments.

I was asked about volcanic eruption as a risk. I assure hon. Members that the possibility of volcanic eruption is certainly not being omitted from the 2011 NRA. There are two risks in the risk assessment, one of which is a severe, gas-rich volcanic eruption that could reach toxic levels at both ground level and flight altitude. Obviously, that is less likely to occur but would have very significant impacts. We acknowledge that the volcanologists are saying that the likelihood of further volcanic eruptions is higher. We are obviously taking that into account. There is a higher likelihood of a much less severe volcanic ash-rich eruption. A great deal of knowledge was gained from the experience of the eruption last year, and a lot of action has been taken on the back of that.

Andrew Miller: Before the Minister moves on, I am curious to know how information held in other Departments is brought in. Obviously, there is a significant role in some Departments through the Civil Aviation Authority and so on, but the Ministry of Defence also has enormous expertise. Years ago, I was in the Caribbean with the Royal Navy when the volcano on Montserrat blew. The helicopter pilot at that time said to me, “Mr Miller, you can’t get any closer to take photographs because these things fall out of the sky if they get the slightest bit of dust in their engines.” There is a huge amount of information that is very old, but that we have failed to centralise. What is the right hon. Gentleman doing to shake up other parts of the machinery to get all that information together?

Mr Maude: That is a very good question. Are Government always perfect at ensuring that all the information and knowledge is harvested and garnered from all parts of Whitehall and well beyond, including all the agencies and organisations? No, not by any means. A big part of the role of my officials in the civil contingencies secretariat is to try to ensure that we bring that body of knowledge together as best we can. One would hope that in an event like the volcanic ash eruption, the Ministry of Defence would be intimately involved—I am sure that it was—in assessments and decision making. However, it is a perfectly good question. It will not always be perfectly answered, but we are conscious of the need to maximise the bringing together of all the knowledge on this front.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock and others talked about space weather. That is potentially a big hazard with really serious impacts. We need to deal with it in a thorough way. The truth is that more work is needed to understand what the wide range of impacts would be from a serious event. The Department of Energy and Climate Change is engaged with National Grid, the energy emergencies executive committee and the British Geological Survey to consider the implications of a severe space weather event for the electricity system as a whole, including the potential impacts on generator transformers and further consideration of the transmission network. We in the Cabinet Office will continue to work with other sectors

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that could be impacted to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the vulnerability. Work on that issue continues.

The only other time when there was a major event was in 1859—the Carrington event, which has been mentioned. That was a very different world. There have been other events, but they tend to be localised. The likelihood of such an event is therefore not high, but it is real and we need to address it in the best way we can.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock asked whether we were participating in the European Space Agency’s space situational awareness programme, which runs until 2012. We have subscribed to it. It defines the steps that need to be taken on space surveillance and space weather. The UK Space Agency will engage with the potential space weather user community and data service providers to assess the relative priority of funding space weather activities within the ESA space situational awareness programme. That will obviously need to be reconciled with competing demands for other programme opportunities and existing financial commitments, but no clear conclusion has yet been reached. However, we are very aware of the risk, and a great deal of work is going on in relation to it.

I turn to the question of cyber security, which is obviously a serious matter. It was identified in the strategic defence and security review as a high risk, and a significant budget has been attached to the national cyber security programme; as Minister responsible for the Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance, I have oversight of that programme. Our approach is to ensure that we invest in building capability, as capability is relatively scarce. We have an affordable centre of excellence and expertise at GCHQ.

This is a question not only for the Government but for the whole economy. We discern a marked range in the degree of preparedness of private sector companies on cyber security. Some are highly developed, but it is not only companies focused on internet activities that are vulnerable; it goes much more widely than that. Some companies that ought to be concerned about cyber security do not take it as seriously as they should. Over the coming months, we will be encouraging them to address it seriously. It should be on the agenda of every risk and audit committee, to ensure that it is properly understood and dealt with.

In a few weeks’ time, I shall be publishing the Government’s cyber-security strategy and I hope that it will receive attention and be debated by the House. These are most important matters, and we must do our best to get them right.

Andrew Miller: I am fairly confident, following Sir Edmund Burton’s report on the missing Royal Navy laptop, that part of the Government’s response will be about awareness and the training of personnel. Will the Minister confirm that that will happen throughout the civil service machinery? It is no good saying that it belongs only to permanent secretaries or techies in the back room, because it affects us all. There has to be a serious campaign in the public sector to ensure that people understand how serious these challenges are.

Mr Maude: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I do not dissent for a second. Most of it is about being reasonably alert and aware, and taking common sense steps, but higher levels of vulnerability to cyber attack

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and cyber crime require a highly sophisticated response coupled with great awareness and agility. Information assurance and not allowing data to go amiss are mostly to do with basic standards of care and alertness.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to respond to the Committee’s thoughtful and serious report. It has been good to ventilate these matters. I assure the House and the Committee that we continue to take these matters seriously. We will continue to engage and interact with the Committee as we take these matters forward.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): We have had a full and frank debate. I am informed that it can continue for another five minutes if the Committee Chairman wishes to raise any other matters.

Andrew Miller: I am grateful to all who contributed to the debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), the Opposition spokesperson, and the Minister.

To a great extent, this area transcends party politics. Frankly, given some of the surveys published today on the public’s perception of Members of Parliament,

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people might reflect on the fact that, just occasionally, we work in a collegiate manner towards a common goal. In this case, the common goal is improving safety and security for our citizens. It engages the best scientific brains, both here and further afield, and all political parties are committed to it as a serious priority. I hope that we can continue to work in this positive manner, and address some of the big questions and “what happens if” challenges thrown up by the national risk assessment.

A few detailed questions remain. Once the Minister has seen the transcript of our proceedings, I hope that he will do us the honour of providing a more detailed reply—something that is a little challenging in this environment. I hope that his reply will form the basis of a continued dialogue between the Committee and the Cabinet Office on this important work.

Question put and agreed to.

4.7 pm

Sitting adjourned.