The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written Evidence from Sir Peter Ricketts

National Security Adviser position

Q1. Under what powers, by what process and on what terms was Sir Peter appointed as National Security Adviser? My understanding is that Sir Peter is seconded to the post from the FCO.

A1. Sir Peter Ricketts is on secondment from the FCO on a level transfer at Permanent Secretary level.

In terms of the appointment process, this was a managed move. The Cabinet Secretary discussed the appointment with the Prime Minister, having first consulted the Foreign Secretary and the First Civil Service Commissioner. The decision to appoint an experienced Permanent Secretary through a managed move process was taken due to the specialist nature of the role, the seniority of the post, and the need to have a National Security Adviser in place at the outset of the new Government.

Q2. Who deputises for Sir Peter at meetings of the NSC and its Permanent Secretaries Group when he is unable to be in London, for example because he is accompanying the Prime Minister on official travel?

A2. Oliver Robbins, Deputy National Security Adviser for Intelligence, Security and Resilience or Julian Miller, Deputy National Security Adviser for Foreign & Defence Policy deputise for Sir Peter Ricketts when he is unable to attend meetings of the National Security Council and the National Security Council (Officials).

Q3. Sir Peter is the accounting officer for the intelligence agencies. I would be grateful if you could clarify what change this represents compared to the situation prior to the creation of the National Security Adviser post.

Following the creation of the National Security Adviser role, Sir Peter Ricketts took on the role of Principal Accounting Officer (PAO) for the Security and Intelligence Agencies. As PAO, Sir Peter is responsible for ensuring propriety and the efficient and cost effective conduct of business across the three Intelligence and Security Agencies. Prior to the creation of the NSA role, this was undertaken by the Cabinet Secretary. The Cabinet Secretary and Sir Peter agreed that, since Sir Peter’s role brought him into close and regular contact with the Agencies, it made sense for him to take over that PAO function.

NSC organisation

Q4. I would be grateful if you could supply updated information on the structure and size of the National Security Secretariat. In his evidence to PASC, Mr Letwin said that the NSC structure would be reviewed after completion of the SDSR.

A4. The team that was drawn together within the National Security Secretariat to develop the National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Defence and Security (SDSR) Review has disbanded. The National Security Secretariat has therefore returned to the pre-SDSR structure of five Directorates: Foreign and Defence Policy; Strategy and Counter-terrorism; Security and Intelligence; Cyber Security & Information Assurance; and Civil Contingencies. The Secretariat currently employees around 195 staff. An up to date organogram is attached. Further structural changes are underway as a result of a review, which will see a reduction in staff by around 25%, and a reduction in Directorates from five to four.

Q5. I would be grateful if you could confirm that minutes of NSC meetings are being taken; and that NSC minutes and other papers are being treated in the same way as other Cabinet and Cabinet Committee papers i.e. deposited in the National Archives under the 30-year rule.

A5. National Security Council minutes are being taken and are treated in the same way as other Cabinet and Cabinet Committee papers.

Q6. In his submission to FAC’s inquiry, [1] Lord Owen has suggested that the NSC should be placed on a statutory footing, in order to ensure that it "represents a real and sustained innovation and not one subject to the whim of a particular Prime Minister". Is any thought being given to this possibility?

A6. The National Security Council is a Cabinet Committee.  It exists on the same basis as all other Cabinet Committees.  There are no plans to place the Council on a statutory footing.

Q7. Does the National Security Secretariat have a dedicated contact unit in the FCO (and other relevant departments) through which it can request and develop papers for the NSC?

A7. The Policy Unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office coordinates the FCO contribution to the National Security Council.  The National Security Secretariat works closely with the Policy Unit, and also with those in the FCO drafting individual papers.

NSC agenda

Q8. I would be grateful for any further information you could provide on the process by which the NSC’s agenda is determined. The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee on 18 November that he determines the agenda, on the advice of Sir Peter; and that each meeting takes an update on key immediate priorities, plus a discussion of one longer-term issue. Specifically:

a) Of items being considered by the NSC, roughly what share – if any – have been placed on the Council’s agenda as the result of requests from departments?

b) Of items being considered by the NSC, roughly what share are scheduled recurring items (e.g. regular reports on implementation of particular strategies), what share are new or potentially one-off, longer-term, less time-sensitive items (e.g. consideration of particular countries or longer-term issues), and what share are more immediate issues, driven by events?

c) For the purposes of deciding the issues that should be considered by the NSC, where are the boundaries being drawn of ‘security’ as opposed to non-security issues? Is the National Security Secretariat working with a fairly firm set of criteria as to what counts as a ‘security’ issue for NSC purposes (for example, only issues that are mentioned in the National Security Strategy), or is this being handled on a more ad hoc, flexible basis?


a) The NSC forward work programme is discussed in the Officials meeting of the National Security Council and agreed with Departments.  The National Security Adviser then consults the Prime Minister on the forward agenda. Suggestions for future agenda items are often proposed by Departments and have been taken by the Council both in meetings and through correspondence.  As a proportion, this is around a quarter of all NSC agenda items.

b) The Council was briefed on the situation in Afghanistan every fortnight in 2010. This was often accompanied by a policy paper. The Council also took regular updates on Pakistan and counter-terrorism developments. These regular items accounted for about a third of NSC meetings in 2010. This pattern is expected to continue in 2011.

The Council has also devoted significant time to discussion of longer-term strategic issues, for example the National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

c) The Council has considered a broad range of issues relevant to national security. The National Security Strategy provides a good guide to the risks which we would regard as falling within the scope of the NSC, although it will be important to retain the flexibility to consider other issues if necessary. 

Q9. According to the SDSR, the NSC is to approve integrated, FCO-led cross-government strategies for particularly important bilateral relationships. Has the NSC yet approved any such strategies? If not, when do you expect the first such strategy/strategies to come before the Council, and which countries do you expect it/them to cover? Given that, as I understand it, the aim of such strategies is to include ‘domestic’, non-security departments such as health and education into the UK’s bilateral relationships, why would the NSC be the appropriate forum for such strategies to be approved, rather than the full Cabinet?

A9. The NSC sub-committee on Emerging Powers chaired by the Foreign Secretary has already approved strategies on China, Brazil and South-East Asia.  Other strategies are scheduled to be submitted in 2011 including on the Gulf, Japan, Turkey and African emerging powers.  The NSC is also scheduled to take a paper on Russia in early 2011.

Members of Cabinet who are not members of the NSC or its Emerging Powers sub-committee are invited to attend meetings covering policy decisions that will affect their departments. 

Sub-NSC bodies

Q10. I would be grateful if you could provide any further information available at this stage on two new bodies mentioned in the SDSR, with particular reference to their implications for the FCO and its budget:

a) At p 46, in the section dealing with instability and conflict overseas, the SDSR says that the Government will "establish a single cross-government board to deal with conflict overseas", replacing "three separate structures dealing with conflict, peacekeeping and stabilisation." The SDSR goes on to say that "lead responsibility for delivering results" in this field will be given to overseas posts.

b) At p 55, in the section on counter-proliferation, the SDSR says that there is to be a new committee, chaired by the Cabinet Office and reporting to the NSC, to ensure that "UK counter-proliferation priorities are reflected in our wider relationships with international partners." The Committee is to oversee a new common funding stream, the Critical Capabilities Pool.


a) The SDSR sets out the Government’s initiative on Building Stability Overseas, with an emphasis on effective upstream work to prevent conflict and tackle emerging threats to the UK. The Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development are designated as Ministerial co-leads for this work, reporting to the NSC as necessary.  The FCO’s Director-General for Political Affairs and the Department for International Development’s Director-General Programmes are designated as lead officials jointly responsible for supporting the two Secretaries of State and leading work across government and with partners.

As set out in the SDSR, the detailed work on conflict prevention (including Conflict Pool programme activity), peacekeeping and stabilisation will be overseen by a Director-level Whitehall Board bringing together FCO, DFID and MOD, with Cabinet Office and others in Whitehall as necessary.

One of the key work streams the Director-level Board will oversee is the drafting of a government strategy for Building Stability Overseas which will be published by Spring 2011. This strategy will provide a framework of practical guidance for staff in Whitehall and overseas to drive a more effective, coordinated approach in priority countries including the use of Conflict Pool programme funds. It will also ensure that we have methodology in place to measure success and the value for money of our integrated approach. The aim is that through a more rigorous focus on prioritisation and delivering results the Government will ensure optimum value for money. The FCO will need to report separately to the FAC on the implications for their budget.

b) The NSC Officials Committee on Counter Proliferation (NSC(O)CP) is chaired by Julian Miller, the Deputy National Security Adviser. Directors General are invited from those Government Departments and Agencies involved in counter-proliferation activity. The FCO is represented by the Director General for Defence and Intelligence and the FCO performs the secretariat function, helping prepare the agenda and papers for the Committee. FCO geographical Directors will be invited to attend on an ad hoc basis to ensure that counter-proliferation is considered in wider foreign policy objectives. The Committee held its first meeting in January 2011, when it, among other things, agreed terms of reference.

The Critical Capabilities Pool (CCP) was created to protect, and improve central co-ordination of, a range of capabilities central to the UK’s counter-proliferation work, yet spread across Government. The CCP was agreed by the National Security Council as part of the SDSR. Since then, officials have worked to identify how the pool would be resourced. That work is nearing completion. The NSC(O)CP will make a decision on its composition and governance early in 2011.  In the meantime the FCO is working with other Departments to ensure that critical national counter-proliferation capabilities are not eroded as individual departments make decisions about spending.  

14 January 2011