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Senior parliamentarians criticise failures in government security planning

19 September 2021

A Parliamentary committee concerned with national security strategy says there are serious weaknesses in the workings of UK Government structures that deal with national security, as exemplified by both the covid-19 pandemic and recent events in Afghanistan.

A new report by the committee concluded that these two events had illustrated, in their separate ways, the most negative findings of an inquiry about the ability of the National Security Council – a Cabinet committee of senior ministers - to make and implement strategy, manage risk and plan for crises with rigour. The report described the government’s structures and processes for national security as inadequate. 

The embargoed report by the Lords’ and Commons’ Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS) published today – The UK’s National Security Machinery – made several recommendations to improve the situation and called on the government to give further evidence on their implementation, including through an annual report to Parliament.

The National Security Council - a Cabinet committee of senior ministers - was created in 2010 by the then-Prime Minister, David Cameron. It was designed to be the central government body for discussion and ministerial decision-making on the UK’s national security strategy. 

The committee report released today followed an inquiry by the JCNSS which took evidence from former prime ministers and both current and former ministers and senior officials.

The JCNSS report welcomed the government’s desire to improve the architecture of the security machinery. But the report said a review of that machinery by the National Security Adviser – the Prime Minister’s top aide on national security, Sir Stephen Lovegrove - that was intended to improve the system, was in fact a retrograde step that had suggested a more casual approach. Under the proposed new system, the Prime Minister would spend roughly 65% less time in National Security Council meetings than under the previous practice of weekly meetings when Parliament is in session.

The report pointed out that the National Security Council’s activities depend heavily on the day-to-day attention and capacity of the Prime Minister. The Committee therefore urged the Prime Minister to invest his time and personal authority in the National Security Council’s role of upholding the UK’s national security.

The report found that the centre of government needed a fundamental overhaul with a re-invigorated National Security Council (NSC). The NSC, it said, should strike a deliberate balance across strategic and operational decision-making, and between matters of foreign policy and other aspects of national security. 

The NSC, the report further recommended, should have:   

  • a distinct remit with clear lines of responsibility and accountability;
  • a role in allocating funding for national security priorities;and 
  • procedures for routinely engaging with the Devolved Authorities (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). 

Today’s report concluded – in addition to the above issues regarding strategic decision making - that national risk management across government is loose, unstructured, and lacking in central oversight and accountability. 

To illustrate the magnitude of the issues at stake, the JCNSS report cited a risk expert who told the Committee there was, very roughly, a one-in-six chance of an existential catastrophe taking place in the next one hundred years. This could arise from extreme risks including pandemics, extreme climate change scenarios or nuclear conflict. 

The Joint Committee on National Security Strategy report made several further recommendations, including:

  • re-establishing the ministerial committee for managing risks and resilience, which should have a strong connection to the NSC;
  • creating greater clarity of responsibility for risks by designating Chief Risk Officers for national security in each department and agency, overseen by a Chief Risk Officer in the Cabinet Office; 
  • strengthening the team of analysts in the Cabinet Office that make up the Joint Intelligence Organization so its remit includes feeding to the NSC assessments of, and warning functions for, the full range of threats and hazards; and
  • ensuring external and diverse input into NSC discussions, to guard against ‘groupthink’. 

The Parliamentary committee report welcomed the government’s plans to create a College for National Security to nurture professionalism in the management of threats and hazards. It was important, the report said, to encourage civil servants to build and retain subject knowledge relevant to the NSC in the coming decade – including on data, science and technology – and for this ‘institutional memory’ to be incentivised. 

Chair's comment

The Chair of the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, Dame Margaret Beckett MP, said:

“The whole point of the National Security Council is that it is supposed to prepare for, and act upon, a long-term view of our national security risks. It should be above the hurly-burly of daily concerns. 

“But when two events – the Covid 19 pandemic and Afghanistan - demonstrated yet again what a dangerous world we now live in, weaknesses in the structures of the National Security Council were exposed.

”I pay tribute to the medical and military personnel, and the civil servants who have worked so hard to respond to these two most recent crises. But their brave efforts cannot mask the fundamental need for the centre of government to get a grip on national security planning.”   

Further information

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