Fleur Anderson MP: As Britain Burns, The Government Is Asleep At The Wheel

Labour's shadow Cabinet Office minister says her party would ensure the country could cope with extreme weather.
The dried-up ground in Parliament Square as the recent spell of hot weather continues.
The dried-up ground in Parliament Square as the recent spell of hot weather continues.
Dominic Lipinski via PA Wire/PA Images

If the past two and a half years has reminded us of anything, it’s that the world is a dangerous, unpredictable place.

The threats we face are myriad, imminent and interdependent. Flooding, storms, terrorist attacks, the climate emergency, power outages, industrial accidents, supply chain issues, financial crises, as well as future pandemics.

And now the heat. The temperatures we are due to face this week are a very real and severe threat to life and infrastructure.

But once again, the government is asleep at the wheel. It is a familiar story.

Given how slow they were to respond in the months preceding the pandemic, and with the Tories currently preoccupied with yet another internal leadership contest, the public will have no confidence in this zombie government to respond swiftly and decisively to this latest national emergency.

It has been ten months since the government closed their National Resilience Strategy consultation. But we have seen no plan whatsoever.

We have had no assurances from ministers that the necessary mitigations are urgently being put in place ahead of the skyrocketing temperatures. So far all we have been told to do is wear a hat and drink water. This is a serious threat to national health, not a summer school trip

Vulnerable workers facing working in unbearable conditions in the coming days have been met with silence. We need action on guidance for safe indoor working temperatures, and the government to ensure employers allow staff to work flexibly in the heat.

It is a government’s primary responsibility to ensure the UK is resilient and prepared.

The last Labour government understood this.

We introduced the Civil Continencies Act in 2004 in response to emergencies such as the mass flooding and fuel price rises of 2000 and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001.

The Act put in place clear systems, processes, powers and responsibilities at both the national and local level needed to respond effectively in the event of an emergency. It also established Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) - multi-agency partnerships made up of representatives from local public services - which have become a vital part of our resilience infrastructure.

And up to 2010, it worked and worked well. It has since been left to gather dust and deprioritized by successive incompetent Conservative governments.

Projections suggest that this heatwave is just the first of many. Our government cannot be so unprepared that our homes and workplaces are too hot, our rail tracks melt, and our ambulances are on critical alert.

A future Labour government will never again leave the UK with such a soft underbelly. When crisis hits, we must have a clear and well-rehearsed answer to the fundamental question:

When the public is threatened, who does what, and when?

This is Labour’s three-point plan for a more resilient Britain:

First, we would fix the system of government problem that the pandemic had already exposed. The pandemic and the dangerous temperatures this week show that central government was and still is not ready for a whole-system emergency – that is, emergencies that are so broad that they engage the entire system.

There was chaos and panic at Whitehall, rather than calm and confidence. No-one knew what they were supposed to do.

We will place formal responsibility and ownership for preparedness and resilience policy with a new Cabinet Subcommittee on National Resilience, conduct an urgent review of COBRA, strengthen the role of the Cabinet Office to ensure other departments are ready and appoint a minister for resilience.

Second, we will overhaul the Local Resilience Forum infrastructure. We will breathe new life into these vital partnerships that the last Labour government established by introducing a formal inspection and quality assurance standards framework, better accountability and a new training standard for LRF officials.

Third, we will create a resilience culture at the heart of society. The pandemic taught us that we are all in this together, and resilience starts in the home. Labour will deliver a whole-of-society approach to resilience.

We will harness the enormous contribution of the voluntary sector and the innovation and drive of business by formally bringing them into the resilience framework, introduce a programme of education to ensure individuals and families are better prepared for national emergencies and place legal responsibility for providers of key services to have resilience measures built into planning permission and contracts.

When Conservative governments face the heat, they melt. The last Labour government had a coherent plan to keep the public safe. The next Labour government will too.

Fleur Anderson MP is shadow Cabinet Office minister

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