Time for Legislative Reform?
Updated: Apr 5
At the University College London Institute of Disaster and Risk Reduction (UCL IRDR) 10th Annual Conference yesterday I had the opportunity to question the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, during a keynote interview, on the need for civil contingencies legislative reform in the United Kingdom.
The primary legislative drivers of emergency preparedness, resilience and response in the United Kingdom are the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) and the linked Contingency Planning Regulations (2005). Whilst there are are others, for example in the NHS the Health and Social Care Act (2012) and the NHS Act (2006) as amended make some provision towards emergency preparedness, the CCA 2004 remains the core piece of legislation that supposedly drives emergency planning, preparedness and management activity.
For any readers who are less familiar with the The Civil Contingencies Act (2004), referred in common parlance simply as the ‘CCA 2004’, the Act has two Parts. Part 1 of The Act categorises responders into two broad families. Category 1 (Core Responders) and Category 2 (Co-operating Bodies). The Act’s Contingency Planning Regulations (2005) subsequently details a set of duties that each group of responders must perform. Part 2 of The Act details the emergency powers that can be taken by the UK Government and Ministers. Additionally, The Act defines an Emergency for the UK.
In short it sounds quite good, doesn’t it? Alas. COVID-19 and other recent emergencies have demonstrated that the CCA 2004 and associated guidance are in dire need of reform. The world we live in is ever more complex than it was in 2004 when The Act was passed.
As Philip Trendall points out in his recent submission of evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Inquiry into the Response to Covid-19 and the Coronavirus Act 2020, which I would recommend reading, the fact that separate legislation was required to enable emergency powers for COVID-19 demonstrates an immediate red-flag for the usefulness of the CCA 2004.
The CCA 2004 Contingency Planning Regulations (2005) present a good set of legislative duties that responders must perform. The Act even goes on to make provisions for Ministers of the Crown to require responders to provide information on action taken or not taken with respect of The Act. Furthermore, there is provision for Ministers of the Crown, or other persons listed in The Act, to take action in court against other persons listed in The Act for non-compliance.
Despite this, however, there is no body in the UK who is responsible for regulating or inspecting the civil contingencies landscape and for ensuring that responders are actually carrying out their duties. Helen Turner and I wrote about this gap in 2018, calling for an official Disasters Inspectorate following the tragedy of Grenfell.
Colleagues who know me well will not be surprised to hear me make reference the the mechanisms that the NHS in England use to regulate emergency preparedness. The NHS England EPRR Core Standards detail anywhere from 50 to 260 Core EPRR Standards, depending on the type of NHS organisation, which are reviewed annually as part of the NHS England EPRR Assurance process. Each year there is an additional ‘Deep Dive’ set of standards that do not impact an organisations overall assurance rating, but allow us to examine a specific area of business in more detail.
Organisations are rated against each standard, based on self-assessment, evidence, and meetings with Accountable Emergency Officers. Compliance levels range from Non-Compliant through to Fully Compliant, and where organisations have an overall rating of Non-Compliant or Partially Compliant, regular improvement meetings are scheduled to support their progression.
The NHS England EPRR Core Standards are not perfect, but they provide a mechanism for regulation of an otherwise unregulated but legislated activity. Any review of the CCA 2004 needs to include discussion on the value and potential function of an inspectorate or regulator for emergency preparedness and response.
Whilst such a body would not have the capacity to reach into as much detail as the NHS assurance process demonstrates, it could provide leadership to standards (of which the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat have been moving forward some positive work) and provide a mechanism of assuredness and support to the discharge of legislative duties amongst responders, including the investigation of disasters to ensure lessons are identified, recommendations adopted, and practice improved.
Returning to my question of Mr Benn, his reply (which you can listen to by clicking here) indicated that being an advocate of lessons learned processes and with an inquiry pending, if the evidence through those means came to suggest that the legislation was indeed found wanting then it should fall within the scope of reform. Mr Benn also articulated the need for blameless inquiries in these instances, which I would agree is crucial.
This response provides me with some hope and I look forward to following the progress of the inquiry as and when the Government formalise it.