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

Memorandum submitted by the Local Government Association (SAGE 43)

1. Introduction

  1.1 The LGA is the single voice for local government. As a voluntary membership body, we are funded almost entirely by the subscriptions of over 400 member authorities in England and Wales. We lobby and campaign for changes in policy and legislation on behalf of our member authorities and the people and communities they serve.

  1.2 The LG Group is made up of six organisations—the Local Government Association, Local Government Improvement and Development, Local Government Employers, Local Government Regulation, Local Partnerships and the Leadership Government Leadership. Our shared ambition is to make an outstanding contribution to the success of local government.

  1.3 In an emergency that requires national coordination the roles and responsibilities of key agencies, including the LGA, is set out in the Central Government's Concept of Operations (CONOPS). Since 2006, the LGA has attended meetings of the Civil Contingencies Committee, colloquially known as COBR, on an ad-hoc basis. We believe that there needs to be a presumption that the LGA should be invited to attend COBR to represent the views and interests of councils and their communities during times of national emergency.

  1.4 The following submission is based upon the experience of LGA Lead Members and officers involved in the national response to recent emergencies and comments received from local authority officers in their capacity as advisors to the LGA Group. It concentrates on the three issues identified as being of interest to the Committee in the letter sent to the LGA on 11th November.

2. How local authorities receive information from central Government and whether the process is felt to be satisfactory

  2.1 The majority of communications from central Government on emergency planning come via Regional Resilience Teams based in Government Offices, who forward information to the secretariats of Local Resilience Forums (LRFs), who then pass the information on to local responders including local authorities. One of the primary sources of information is the Resilience Gateway, which is essentially an email from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) in the Cabinet Office which is circulated to RRTs, who then pass this on to LRFs.

  2.2 The disadvantage of the current cascading approach is that it frequently results in significant delays in the communication of information from central Government to the local level. This indirect approach relies on the recipients at the regional level being available, having sufficient understanding of the issues and up to date contact lists, which is not always the case. This is of particular concern in times of emergency when it can result in delays of several days before local authorities receive top-line briefs and requests for information on local and impacts and issues, which means that the information is often out of date or difficult to respond to. There is a need for a more direct, targeted approach which would ensure that critical information is communicated in a timely manner to those who need it during emergencies.

  2.3 There is also concern that the RRTs make judgements about what information they need to pass from central Government to LRFs. While this may be done with the intention of reducing the burden on LRF secretariats, there is the danger that this filtering process may result in LRFs not receiving all the information that they need from central Government.

  2.4 The disbandment of Government Offices in March 2011 will have implications for Regional Resilience Teams and we understand that the Government is currently considering options for support for resilience activity at the sub-national level. There is a need for the Government to consult with local government and other responders on future arrangements and how these might impact upon communications relating to emergencies.

  2.5 The Government has promoted the National Resilience Extranet as a quicker and more effective means of communicating and sharing information with local authorities and other local responders at times of emergency. Due to concerns about the cost of NRE subscriptions and the value of the information currently available through the NRE, not all local authorities have subscribed to the NRE. As a result, the LGA is concerned that if the Government were to use the NRE as the primary means of communicating information with local authorities during an emergency, a significant number might not receive important information.

  2.6 The LG Group has played a key role in communicating key national messages to local authorities during recent emergencies, including the 2001 and 2007 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreaks and other subsequent animal disease outbreaks, the 2007 floods, the 2009 swine flu pandemic and the severe weather in the winters of 2008-09 and 2009-10. The LGA is able to assemble and disseminate essential information and guidance to local authorities very quickly via its website and database of emergency planning contacts in all local authorities in England and Wales. For example during the swine flu pandemic the LGA set up a dedicated policy unit, drawing on resources from across the LGA Group and implemented a set of regular briefings and tailored guidance for councils. Key outputs included:

    — A special LGA Group swine flu briefing event in Birmingham in July 2009 aimed at sharing lessons learnt from the first wave.

    — A special swine flu guide for elected members which helped other parts of the country gear up for the second wave.

    — A survey sent to all emergency planning officers across England and Wales. The final report was published in December 2009.

    — Online advisory notes on the human resource implications of swine flu.

3. How local authorities contribute to the development of the National Risk Register and whether the process is felt to be satisfactory

  3.1 In theory the development of the NRR is a two way process. The risks identified in the publicly-available NRR should inform the development of Regional Risk Registers (RRRs) by the RRTs and the Community Risk Register (CRRs) developed by LRFs. In return the risks identified in RRRs and CRRs should be fed back into the classified National Risk Assessment which informs the NRR.

  3.2 In practice the process is very top-down and provides very little opportunity for local authorities to input. While local authorities usually have the opportunity to contribute to CRRs via LRFs, the NRR is rarely informed by issues identified at the sub-regional and regional level. The two-way process is hindered by the fact that the NRR and RRR use different criteria from CRRs for assessing risks. There is often pressure to include national risks identified in the NRR in CRRs which may not be relevant in a sub-regional context.

  3.3 There is also concern and frustration amongst local authorities that officers with security clearance do not have access to the classified information in the National Risk Assessment, which makes it difficult to assess how the threats identified in the National Risk Register will impact on local areas and how local authorities should manage these through their emergency planning arrangements.

4. Whether local authorities feel they have adequate access to scientific information for making risk assessments, understanding information from central Government and for emergency management

  4.1 In general local authorities tend to rely on local contacts with key agencies or partners in LRFs to share relevant scientific information and provide advice needed for risk assessment and emergency planning at the local level. In the event of an emergency the primary source of scientific advice to local authorities tends to be the Science and Technical Advice Cell formed collectively by local responders to advise the Strategic Co-ordination Group of the LRF.

  4.2 Experience of accessing scientific information held centrally varies across local authorities and different types of emergency, with some local authorities reporting a good flow of scientific information from central Government Departments and agencies, but many citing concerns about delays in distributing information similar to those highlighted in relation to the circulation of more general information on civil contingencies.

  4.3 Some authorities have also highlighted that scientific advice from central Government often does not provide a clear view on key issues which have implications for the emergency planning, for example in relation to planning for excess deaths resulting from emergencies.

Local Government Association

22 November 2010

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