MPs warn of ‘major hole at centre of government’ after ministers refuse to give evidence on climate change planning

Committee says Cabinet Office is giving the “unfortunate impression” that there are no ministers with responsibility for climate change resilience
Michael Ellis leaving the Cabinet Office in Whitehall earlier this month. Photo: PjrNews/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

19 Jul 2022

The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has raised concerns that there is a “major hole at the centre of government" in adapting to climate change.

MPs have questioned if that there are any ministers with responsibility for the resilience of the country’s national infrastructure to the effects of climate change after Cabinet Office ministers refused to give evidence to the JCNSS committee.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis was asked in March to give evidence but refused in a letter to the committee sent on June 27, saying he was “not best placed to give evidence at the session” because he is only the “convening” minister for the policy area rather than being responsible for it.

While he admitted that he is the lead government minister for resilience and security, and for CNI resilience, he said his attendance could be sought at multiple committees across parliament on almost any topic if he were to given evidence on such “technical and specialist” cross-government matters.

JCNSS chair Margaret Beckett responded with two letters to Cabinet Office ministers, with the full exchange published by the committee yesterday during a heatwave that has caused train and flight disruption.

In one of the letters, written to then-Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay on 29 June, Beckett said: “The unfortunate impression that we are gaining from this exchange is that there are no ministers with responsibility for the resilience of critical national infrastructure to the effects of climate change, nor for cross-government climate adaptation efforts.

“There might be ministers with responsibility for a specific area of CNI, but [Michael Ellis’s] letter suggests that no single team or minister is working on CNI and climate adaptation as a cross-cutting topic, including the significant interdependencies between CNI sectors. Can you confirm that this is the case?”

Beckett said this would be “quite a shocking admission from the government”, and “would suggest a major hole at the centre of government in preparation and planning on a crucial area of national security”.

She warned this might lead to “some quite damning conclusions” in the committee’s forthcoming report on critical national infrastructure and climate adaptation.

Only Roger Hargreaves, head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, attended Monday’s session – the last before the committee writes its report – on behalf of the Cabinet Office.

Ministers and deputy directors at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy also answered MPs’ questions.

Beckett said in a letter to Ellis on 27 June that officials should have appeared alongside a minister from the Cabinet Office who could talk about cross-cutting issues.

“The committee has sufficient questions about your responsibilities alone, yet we are not being offered the opportunity to discuss these with you,” she said.

“Your letter states that you would prefer not to give evidence on this topic at all, despite having already submitted written evidence to the inquiry in your capacity as minister for CNI resilience. If the extent of your responsibilities is as you now suggest, then the evidence should surely have been submitted by BEIS and Defra ministers.”

At the meeting, Hargreaves claimed Ellis missed the session because he was due to appear in parliament at the time the committee session was taking place. However, this does match with Ellis' letter of refusal on 27 June.

Beckett also said Ellis's late refusal to appear, three weeks before the session, “forms part of a pattern of disrespectful behaviour by government ministers towards select committees, including late cancellations and refusals to give evidence—particularly on cross-government issues”.

Recent no-shows have included home secretary Priti Patel last week cancelling a Home Affairs Select Committee session the day before it was due to happen.

A government spokesperson said: “There are robust systems in place to protect critical national infrastructure from the effects of climate change.

“This includes work through the National Adaptation Programme led by Defra, and the National Infrastructure Commission led by HM Treasury.

“The Cabinet Office convenes those departments with responsibilities for delivery. The National Heatwave Plan helps us manage critical events and ministers have been coordinating the response through the tried and tested COBR system.”

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