Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents

3  Government structures

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004

26. The key legislation governing how the UK deals with emergencies is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. The Act was designed to create a modern civil defence framework and respond to criticisms that Britain's emergency services lacked the capabilities and resources to cope with a major terrorist attack.[25] The Act, together with its supporting statutory and non-statutory guidance, provides the framework for civil protection activity by local emergency planners and responders across the country.

27. The Civil Contingencies Act defines an emergency as:

  • an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom;
  • an event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment of a place in the United Kingdom; or
  • war, or terrorism, which threatens serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom.[26]

28. The Act divides emergency responders into two categories and imposes different sets of duties upon them. Category 1 responders are those organisations at the core of the response to most emergencies (for example, the emergency services, local authorities and NHS bodies). They are subject to the full set of civil protection duties and are required to:

  • assess the risk of emergencies occurring and use this to inform contingency planning;
  • put in place emergency plans and business continuity management arrangements;
  • put in place arrangements to make information available to the public about civil protection matters and maintain arrangements to warn, inform and advise the public in the event of an emergency;
  • share information and cooperate with other local responders to enhance coordination and efficiency; and
  • provide advice and assistance to businesses and voluntary organisations about business continuity management (local authorities only).[27]

29. Category 2 responders (for example, the Health and Safety Executive, transport and utility companies) are "co-operating bodies". They are less likely to be involved in the heart of planning work but will be heavily involved in incidents that affect their sector. Category 2 responders have a lesser set of duties and are mainly required to cooperate and share relevant information with other Category 1 and 2 responders.[28]

30. The management of the risks of civil emergencies in the UK is coordinated by the Cabinet Office, working in partnership with other Government Departments and the Devolved Administrations.

Responding to Emergencies

31. The Responding to Emergencies: The UK Central Government Response: Concept of Operations (Conops) guidance sets out the guiding principles and a framework for emergency management.[29] The Conops guidance categorises emergencies into three types:

  • Significant (level 1), for example severe weather;
  • Serious (level 2), for example pandemic influenza and terrorist attacks; and
  • Catastrophic (level 3), for example a major natural disaster (the UK has no recent experience of a level 3 emergency).

    Figure 1: Likely form of Central Government engagement based on the impact and geographic spread of an emergency in England[30]

32. The swine flu pandemic and volcanic ash disruption were classed as level 2 emergencies, requiring a central Government response.


33. In the event of a level 2 or 3 emergency, the central response framework would be initiated and would involve the activation of Central Government's crisis management facilities—the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR). COBR should facilitate rapid coordination of the Central Government response and effective decision-making.[31] Named after a physical meeting place, COBR is a forum of Ministers and senior officials from relevant Departments and agencies, brought together to make decisions on an emergency response. External representatives and experts are invited to attend COBR meetings as appropriate; discussions are confidential.

34. During an emergency, one of two senior decision-making bodies within COBR—the Strategy Group or Civil Contingencies Committee—will usually be activated. The Strategy Group discusses the response to terrorist-related emergencies. For civil (non-terrorist) emergencies, the Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC) will meet. On rare occasions, both the Strategy Group and CCC could meet to consider different aspects of the same emergency. When it is considering civil emergencies, COBR is supported by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) of the Cabinet Office.


35. The Government comprises 19 central Departments and numerous agencies with varying levels of independence from direct ministerial control. In an emergency where a central response is required, a Lead Government Department (LGDs) is appointed. The Cabinet Office maintains a list of LGDs that sets out where the lead should lie in both the response and recovery phases for a wide range of emergencies. Where the UK Government lead is unclear, it is the responsibility of the Cabinet Office to make a judgement and advise the Prime Minister's Office on the most appropriate LGD.[32] The LGD is responsible for ensuring that appropriate plans exist to manage the emergency, for ensuring that adequate resources are available and for leading on public and parliamentary handling. LGDs are also responsible for ensuring they have effective arrangements to access scientific and technical advice in a timely fashion in an emergency.[33] This may involve establishing a Science Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The SAGEs set up during the swine flu pandemic and volcanic ash emergency were a key focus of our inquiry and are explored in more detail in chapter 6 (Scientific advice and emergency response).

36. When we asked Rt Hon Baroness Neville-Jones, the Minister for Security, how the Cabinet Office chooses a LGD, she explained:

Normally, it is not difficult to see to which Government Department the lead should fall. Most topics present themselves with an obvious answer. If it doesn't, [...] then the Cabinet Office will act and it will draw in the Government Departments that are needed to be there in order to handle whatever crisis it is. What we don't intend to do is to end up with the Cabinet Office becoming departmentally responsible.[34]

37. Baroness Neville-Jones explained that the appointment of a LGD "will depend, to some extent, on the analysis of the factors that go into your assessment of likelihood, impact and, therefore, risk, and the nature of those risks".[35] While this is reasonable in itself, it is unclear how a LGD is identified if an emergency occurs when there has been no prior risk assessment or allocation of responsibility to a LGD—this was the case for the volcanic ash disruption.

38. We consider that, more important than having a list of pre-identified LGDs, it is essential to have a flexible and fast mechanism to ensure that the most appropriate LGD is appointed. One of the Cabinet Office's first tasks in an emergency should be to review whether the pre-identified choice is most appropriate. During a long-running crisis where the emergency evolves and the focus of the response may change (for example, from the initial response to recovery phase), COBR should review the lead periodically.

39. We recommend that, in responding to this report, the Cabinet Office clarify how it makes the decision to appoint the first LGD if one has not been pre-identified.

40. One of our case studies, space weather, covers a risk that is currently being assessed by Government for the National Risk Assessment and National Risk Register. A LGD is yet to be appointed. A severe space weather event could have impacts cutting across Departments' responsibilities, and therefore coordination is important in preparation for a potential emergency. We note with concern that the Royal Academy of Engineering has stated "there is little indication of any coordination across Government"[36] and the Royal Astronomical Society told us that:

The major obstacle to provision of reliable, timely scientific advice and evidence has been the fragmentary nature of governmental activity in this area. Indeed, the past experience of the expert community has been that of "pass the parcel", i.e. when a particular body is asked, the responsibility always lies elsewhere.[37]

41. Others suggested that the new UK Space Agency could have a significant role in providing leadership. For example, Research Councils UK pointed out that "the establishment of the UK Space Agency could have significant bearing over the direction of the UK's strategic investment in space weather preparedness and related areas".[38]

42. We recommend that a LGD/LGDs for a space weather emergency be identified alongside the publication of the 2011 National Risk Register.

The scientific advisory system

43. In order to draw upon scientific expertise in general, the Government takes advice from a range of sources. The scientific advisory system includes:

  • Scientific Advisory Committees or Councils (SACs) that are committees of experts independent of Government who are tasked with advising Departments, Ministers, Chief Scientific Advisers, or, in the case of the Council for Science and Technology, the Prime Minister;
  • Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) who are usually eminent scientists or engineers employed by Government on fixed terms, whose job is to ensure that science and engineering underpin policy decisions in their Department; and
  • the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) who is a senior scientist heading the Government Office for Science (GO Science) and advises the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The GCSA is responsible for the network of CSAs and for SACs.

44. There are now over 60 SACs. The current GCSA, Professor Sir John Beddington, and his predecessor, Professor Sir David King, have ensured that there is a Chief Scientific Adviser in almost every Government Department. The only exception is the Treasury, which we consider to be anomalous.


45. A Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is the main mechanism for channelling scientific advice to Government in an emergency. A SAGE's composition depends on the nature of the emergency, drawing in experts from Government, agencies, academia and industry as necessary. In all level 1 and most level 2 emergencies, decisions on activating a SAGE would be taken by the LGD, which would also appoint the chair. In the most complex level 2 and in all level 3 emergencies, decisions on activating a SAGE would be taken by the Cabinet Office in consultation with the Government Office for Science and the LGD.[39] The GCSA chairs or co-chairs SAGE, and should play a key role in ensuring that the composition of the group is appropriate. We examine SAGE in more detail in chapter 6.

25   "Civil Contingencies Act 2004", The Guardian, 19 January 2009, Back

26   Civil Contingencies Act 2004, section 1 Back

27   "Civil Contingencies Act", Cabinet Office: UK Resilience, updated 17 January 2011, Back

28   "Civil Contingencies Act", Cabinet Office: UK Resilience, updated 17 January 2011, Back

29   Cabinet Office, Responding to Emergencies: The UK Central Government Response: Concept of Operations, March 2010 Back

30   Cabinet Office, Responding to Emergencies: The UK Central Government Response: Concept of Operations, March 2010, p 68; GO is an acronym for Government Office in the region. Back

31   Cabinet Office, Responding to Emergencies: The UK Central Government Response: Concept of Operations, March 2010, para 2.2 Back

32   Cabinet Office, Responding to Emergencies: The UK Central Government Response: Concept of Operations, March 2010, para 2.10 Back

33   HM Government, Guidance on emergency response and recovery, April 2010, para 13.4.3 Back

34   Q 392 Back

35   As above Back

36   Ev 148, para 4  Back

37   Ev 113, para 32  Back

38   Ev 128, para 71  Back

39   Cabinet Office, Responding to Emergencies: The UK Central Government Response: Concept of Operations, March 2010, para 3.44 Back

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