Developing Threats: Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMP) - Defence Committee Contents

6  Responsibility in Government

87.  The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee held an inquiry last year into "scientific advice and evidence in emergencies". One of its case studies for the inquiry was severe space weather. Its Report recommended that a Lead Government Department be identified specifically in relation to severe space weather. The Committee suggested this would be announced alongside the 2011 edition of the National Risk Register, which has yet to be published. It noted:

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. [87]

88.  In the course of our inquiry we have found it difficult to establish the lines of responsibility in relation to this matter. The Cabinet Office handles civil contingencies, and its Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) has responsibility for providing "integrated security advice (combining information, personnel and physical) to organisations which make up the national infrastructure."[88] However, the CPNI's website does not list space weather or EMP threats as particular concerns. Energy security as a whole lies within the Department for Energy and Climate Change, terrorism within the Home Office, and the use of and defence against such potentially devastating weapons within the MoD. As a result our witness panels were drawn from several Departments and there was more than usual difficulty in assembling them. We are grateful to those who, like the Chief Scientific Adviser, altered their diaries at short notice to accommodate us.

89.  Asked where responsibility would lie should there be a severe EMP event, Dr Kerridge of the British Geological Survey responded "the difficulty here is identifying a lead Department that would take responsibility for the overall risk. There probably not only one, because it goes across MoD, transport and, for the National Grid, DECC. That is a difficulty."[89] He added:

In terms of the SEIEG [Space Environments Impact Expert Group] we have self-organised and said "this is an important issue", in a sense we need a customer to tell is to do the work. At the moment we are working on the basis of "we think it is a good idea and we ought to co-ordinate". Of course there will be difficulties to the extent to which, say, the private sector remains in something that is not driven in some way by government.[90]

90.  For the Government, asked which Government department would take the lead in the event of a severe electro-magnetic storm, natural or man-made, John Tesh said:

If we are talking about what we would call a level 2 crisis, which is one where the impacts are widely spread, then the action moves into the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms—COBR—and one of the functions of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat would be to advise the Prime Minister on who he should appoint as the lead Government Minister for that crisis. Ordinarily, we would have pre-identified Government Ministers, depending on the nature of the crisis, and the main criterion is where the largest impact falls. So if this was something which largely hit the electricity generating industry and sector, then DECC would probably be the person in the frame. If it was something that affected communications rather more, then another Government Minister would be identified. If it is entirely unclear who should be in the lead, then there is a system for appointing a Minister without departmental responsibility, simply to come in and deal with that particular crisis.

The system is well rehearsed, and usually functions on the basis of pre-identified lead Government Ministers. In the case of space weather, we have yet to get to that point, because we have been doing a lot of work with SEIEG—the group that Sir John Beddington was talking about—to identify exactly what the impacts of a severe space weather event would be. When we have done that work, we will be looking to identify lead Government Ministers either overall or, as is perhaps more likely in this case, for particular aspects of the crisis. Then we will have the whole thing pre-identified. As it is, we will be working off the evidence that we have received so far to identify any Government Minister.[91]

He hoped that a lead Department would be identified "within the next two or three months."[92]

91.  Scientific advice would be co-ordinated by the Chief Scientific Adviser. He said:

In the event that we move to some sort of Cabinet Office Briefing Room response, because it is of that degree of severity, I would put together a scientific advisory group in emergencies, the acronym for which is SAGE. This would involve the appropriate people from within Government, the list of Rutherford Appleton, the Met Office and so on that I referred to, and some of the chief scientific advisers—those from the MoD, DECC and arguably Transport. It would also have some independent scientists from industry and academia, who would be involved. SAGE would then convene and questions would be posed by whoever is chairing COBR at the time, and we would gather in emergency sessions. I would bring the scientific advice, either on mitigation or, if we had an alarm that a problem was coming, advice on how we would deal with it. That mechanism is in place and it is truly cross-Government.[93]

When we suggested that the system appeared chaotic, Charles Hendry, Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, replied "in my experience, this is one of the most seamless examples of Government working, rather than there being any sense of chaos in it".[94]

92.  We are very concerned that there appears to be no one Government Department identified to take immediate lead responsibility should there be a severe space weather event. It is not good enough to say that that will depend on where the greatest impact fell. We support and reiterate the recommendation of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that the Government must urgently identify the Lead Government Department for space weather events as a matter of priority. We expect the National Security Council to play a major role in this.

87   Science and Technology Committee, Scientific Advice and Evidence in Emergencies, para 40 Back

88  Back

89   Q 54 Back

90   Ibid. Back

91   Q 83 Back

92   Q 89 Back

93   Q 84 Back

94   Q 88 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 22 February 2012