Who does UK National Strategy - Public Administration Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 114-186)

SIR PETER RICKETTS KCMG, TOM MCKANE AND ROBERT HANNIGAN

14 SEPTEMBER 2010

  Q114 Chair: If I can welcome you on behalf of the Public Administration Select Committee and if I could ask you to each introduce yourselves for the sake of the record.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Thank you very much, Mr Chairman. I am Peter Ricketts, the National Security Adviser.

  Mr Tom McKane: I am Tom McKane, Director General for Strategy in the Ministry of Defence.

  Mr Robert Hannigan: I am Robert Hannigan, Director General for Defence and Intelligence in the Foreign Office.

  Chair: Mr Halfon.

  Q115  Robert Halfon: Good afternoon. What is the role of the National Security Adviser?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I would say that I wear three hats, in a way. One is I am the secretary of the National Security Council and I am therefore responsible for organising the business coming to it, making sure that the Council are looking at the right issues at the right time with well prepared papers. Secondly, I am head of the Cabinet secretariat that goes with that, which plays the classic role of a Cabinet secretariat in coordinating advice and thinking among government departments and as part of that at the moment, I am coordinating the National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Thirdly, I have a role as the foreign policy adviser to the Prime Minister and as part of that I am plugged into the network of other National Security Advisers in the major capitals, for example General Jim Jones in Washington.

  Q116  Chair: Sorry, can I just clarify that? So in fact you are the "Charles Powell plus" of the new administration?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Mr Chairman, I would never assume a role like that, but I am as part of my responsibilities the Prime Minister's adviser on foreign policy, yes.

  Q117  Chair: But the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser is a role that existed before. You have additional responsibilities? It is a hat with additional feathers in it?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Yes.

  Chair: Right, thank you.

  Q118  Robert Halfon: Would you describe yourself as a coordinator or an enforcer or both?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Both, in a way.

  Q119  Robert Halfon: How do you do the enforcing?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Well, we are still in the very early days of the National Security Council, but I would see it as part of my responsibility that when the National Security Council is taking decisions, I and my Secretariat are responsible for following those up and making sure that they flow through to departments and action is taken. So we have a progress chasing function as well.

  Q120  Robert Halfon: In the previous evidence session, the Foreign Secretary linked the role of making strategy with the National Security Council. Do you see the NSC having that role or is it primarily there to deal with shorter term threats and contingencies? Does it have a real long term view looking at strategy over the next 20-30 years?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I certainly do think that the National Security Council is the place where the senior ministers in the Government dealing with national security get together and look collectively at the whole range of national security issues. That includes the short term crisis issues, but it also absolutely includes longer term strategic thinking and strategic choices. That will be very much part of what is on the NSC's agenda when they are finalising the National Security Strategy in the coming weeks.

  Q121  Robert Halfon: As far as the officials in the NSC, how long term should their appointments be?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: In the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, they will be the normal Civil Service appointments, so most people would probably do two or three years in their functions.

  Q122  Robert Halfon: What is the best way to ensure continuity and also to maintain a measure of independence, for example?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I am not sure that I recognise the term independence. We are a Cabinet Secretariat function; we are there to serve the Cabinet and the National Security Council and make sure that ministerial decisions are well prepared and then are properly followed through. The Cabinet Office is a mixture of civil servants who make their career in the Cabinet Office and those who come in on secondment like I am myself at the moment; in fact, I have had two secondments to the Cabinet Office. I think that is a good thing. I think the real answer to your question is that we are developing in the Government a cadre of civil servants who have experience of national security work and strategy work and have spent their careers doing that in different departments. I would hope that in the future, as now, we will draw from that pool of staff for the relatively few people we have working in the National Security Council staff.

  Q123  Robert Halfon: The Foreign Secretary in the last session said that he was opposed to a national security Secretary of State. Do you think that the National Security Adviser should be somebody like a modern day Henry Kissinger or Paddy Ashdown type character to ensure that the NSC has the influence that it needs within Whitehall and Westminster?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I am probably the wrong person to pose that question to. The Prime Minister chose me for this job and I assume he did that deliberately. I do not think you need to be a very powerful, independent figure for the National Security Council to have the influence that it needs around Whitehall, because that comes from the fact that the Prime Minister chairs it, that senior Secretaries of State like the Foreign Secretary are part of it. That is where the National Security Council gets its authority from. The model that this Government have chosen is to have a civil servant National Security Adviser who has experience of this sort of work but is not trying to set up some sort of separate centre of power from, for example, the Foreign Secretary.

  Q124  Chair: The conclusion I am coming to is you do not actually do strategic thinking. You are more of a conduit, more of a processor of other departments' information. You do not personally set out to challenge orthodoxy or raise objections or promote the considerations of alternative scenarios; that is not part of your function.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Well I do not think I have said that, Mr Chairman, and I do see it as part of my function to provide strategic thinking.

  Q125  Chair: But don't you need a measure of independence? Don't you need that measure of independence in order to be able to do that?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Well I am independent from any particular department, but I am not in any sense independent from the Prime Minister and the Government. One of the innovations that I have set up is a meeting of permanent secretaries to prepare work going to the National Security Council, so we have a permanent secretaries' meeting every week, which is a clearing house but also provides me with a challenge opportunity for work coming up from departments on its way to the National Security Council. We did not have that before.

  Q126  Chair: Forgive me for interrupting, but supposing you are preparing a discussion for the National Security Council about what Iran is going to do next and how Britain should respond. Do you prepare a red team of people who role play in private to find out how the people in the Iranian administration are likely to respond to certain situations and scenarios so you can present a menu of choices to the National Security Council? How is that sort of thing done?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I will say again that we are still in our very early months in this. We have not done that yet, but I can see an advantage if we are doing major pieces or work in arranging that sort of systematic challenge function. In the case that you mentioned, we do have experts around the Government on Iran; we have, for example, diplomats who have served in Iran, we have research analysts who have studied Iran; there is a cadre of people who are there who can provide a challenge function.

  Q127  Chair: Where are they?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Some are in the Foreign Office, some may be in the assessment staff in the Cabinet Office; they may be in different functions around Whitehall. But there would be no reason why we could not pull those together.

  Q128  Chair: But Iran has been trying to acquire nuclear weapons for at least 10 years. How often have we done this kind of exercise in government over the past 10 years?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Well I have been in my current role for three or four months, so I am not well placed to say that.

  Chair: But you have been in the Foreign Office for a few years. You were permanent secretary in the Foreign Office.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Yes, I have. As I said to you, I am not aware that we have done a formal red team function on Iran, but there are plenty of places within the Government where you get challenged from people who know about Iran. I was going to come on to say that I am absolutely ready to look at that as part of getting good challenge into the policymaking process. Just to finish what I was saying on this group of permanent secretaries preparing work coming to the National Security Council, it provides a very good place to challenge work coming from departments. If it is not adequate, it is not answering the questions, it is not comprehensive enough or it is not strategic enough, it can be sent back to be redone before it comes to ministers in the NSC.

  Q129  Chair: But a group of senior permanent secretaries seem unlikely to come up with the out of the box thinking, the off the wall thinking, the unorthodox and the challenging thinking. I am afraid permanent secretaries have a reputation for being very orthodox sort of people.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Not always in my experience, but they are also extremely experienced people.

  Q130  Chair: I appreciate the experience and I do not undervalue the experience, but where is the—we are in a world preparing for what we do not expect. We need imaginative people who are not steeped in the culture of orthodoxy. Whitehall tends to be a fairly orthodox environment and people who have spent 20 or 30 years as career civil servants are not likely to be the people who are thinking outside the box, are they?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Mr Chairman, I think modern Whitehall, in my experience of it, is very open to challenge from people not just in Whitehall but from outside. The intensity of the links we now have, for example, between the Foreign Office and Chatham House or IISS or RUSI or a number of the other excellent academic institutions around the country looking at foreign policy gives us an extra dimension.

  Q131  Chair: So what training and education do senior civil servants have in this particular role?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: The role of strategic thinking?

  Chair: Strategic thinking.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: It has been part of the core competencies of senior civil servants and senior diplomats for years. We are marked on it in our annual appraisals and there are courses and training available for it in the National School of Government.

  Q132  Chair: So what does it actually train you to do? What do you understand strategic thinking to mean?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Just to finish—

  Chair: I beg your pardon; sorry.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Before I left the Foreign Office, we set up a specific new initiative to improve the policy and strategic skills of our staff, because we recognise that you need to keep pushing people to relearn and to think again about how to do good strategy. So we now have a set of documents and online tools in the FCO to help people coming to policymaking and strategy making to understand it and to do it well. What I understand by it is that first of all we need to establish clear aims and objectives; we need to know what we are doing and it has to be clear but it has to be achievable. Then we have to organise the ends and the means behind them; we have to avoid setting a goal which is excellent in principle but not achievable.

  Q133  Chair: What is the difference between a strategy and a plan?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: My understanding of strategy is that it is a high level objective and then there are a series of plans or policies which you organise in order to get there.

  Q134  Chair: That sounds like a strategy, but what is strategy as a process?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Strategy making as a process is setting both ambitious but achievable strategies.

  Chair: I think we are going round in circles.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Yes, probably.

  Q135  Chair: The Chief of Defence Staff says we have lost the art of institutionalised capacity and culture for strategic thought. General Newton, in a RUSI essay, "Reclaiming the Art of British Strategic Thinking", wrote about, and I quote, "A form of strategic illiteracy". In fact, his essay starts by saying that the debate about strategy is that there is no strategy. You would dispute that?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I hope that my colleagues will be invited to comment on that as well. I do dispute that; I think that is overstated and I think that the creation of this National Security Council is a real opportunity to do better, because I think you can always do better in strategy setting and then strategic policy thinking. This is a real opportunity.

  Q136  Chair: I would be delighted to bring your colleagues in. Perhaps each of you in turn could say how strategy is devised in your department, how it evolves and by what means it is sustained and adapted? Mr McKane?

  Mr Tom McKane: Mr Chairman, in the Ministry of Defence, we have in the past worked from a defence review towards Defence Strategic Guidance, which is a document that has been refreshed periodically over time. More recently, we have produced a document called "A Strategy for Defence" and this was in part a response to comments in a capability review of the Ministry of Defence that said that while the department had been extremely good at focusing on short term objectives, it needed to do more to balance the longer term and the shorter term. The Strategy for Defence was therefore a response to that. We would expect to produce a new version of such a document once the Strategic Defence and Security Review has been completed. As to how these documents are produced, within the department we have the benefit of the Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre, who produce long range views of the world. Their document "Global Strategic Trends" I think you are familiar with. That type of document feeds into the work of the staff at the centre of the department who are responsible for assisting ministers and the Defence Board to think about defence strategy.

  Q137  Chair: So how does your department contribute to UK national strategic thinking?

  Mr Tom McKane: Well, I would say that my department contributes to that, as Sir Peter Ricketts has said, by being extremely closely tied into the work of the National Security Secretariat. We work on a day-to-day basis with his staff and indeed with the staffs from other government departments, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. So we are contributing to the work of producing a National Security Strategy and, right now, the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

  Q138  Chair: So what would you say the fundamental tenets of UK national strategy are?

  Mr Tom McKane: I think UK national strategy has to be an exercise in defining Britain's interests and our National Security Strategy has to address the threats to our security and do so in a logical and prioritised way. That is at the heart of the question.

  Q139  Chair: So how do you assess Britain's national interests as you contribute to strategy?

  Mr Tom McKane: One can assess Britain's national interest by reference to an assessment of the strategic environment within which we operate, of the threats that face us, of the means that Britain has to sustain itself economically and putting all that together, you can devise a view of our national interest.

  Q140  Chair: How often do you produce something that is at variance with policy in order to challenge orthodox thinking?

  Mr Tom McKane: Within the Ministry of Defence, we have used horizon scanning work and we have used experiments within the Development Concepts and Doctrines Centre to look at particular scenarios and to use red teams or different teams looking at the same subject to make sure that we are testing our thinking. We have contributed to work that has taken place led from the Cabinet Office on horizon scanning, which has been used in the past to contribute to work on national security documents.

  Q141  Chair: It is a little sad that the Advanced Research and Assessment Group at Shrivenham was wound up in the way that it was, because they used to produce challenge. Are you aware, for example, that they wanted the National Security Strategy to contain a warning about financial collapse and that that was removed from the National Security Strategy?

  Mr Tom McKane: Well I do not remember the particular detail. I know that the group was closed; it was a decision that was taken by the director of the Defence Academy looking at the many competing priorities he had for the resources available to him.

  Q142  Chair: But as the department in charge of MoD strategy, you didn't have a say in that?

  Mr Tom McKane: We have a role in bringing together the overall plans of the department and that would have formed part of it, but it was, in the first instance, a decision that was taken at a subordinate level in the hierarchy. Although I have to say that it would be inaccurate to suggest that that group was the only group of individuals, either within the Defence Academy or within the Ministry of Defence, contributing to strategic thinking. There are a number of academic staff from King's College who are embedded within the Defence Academy who continue to do work of that sort. Indeed, we used one of them on work earlier this year, which was a piece of challenge work, to think how we were doing.

  Q143  Chair: Thank you, Mr McKane. Mr Hannigan, do you want to have a go?

  Mr Robert Hannigan: Mr Chairman, I am conscious you have just heard from the Foreign Secretary and I do not want to repeat everything he said very clearly about the way he is responsible for strategy—Grand Strategy, as you call it—within the Foreign Office. But perhaps I could add a couple of points, just to expand on what Sir Peter and Tom have said. How do we challenge in the Foreign Office? In a number of ways: we have a huge interchange, as other departments do, with the outside world; with the think tanks, with the Wilton Parks and the Ditchley Parks. We are obviously a key customer and indeed contributor to the Joint Intelligence Committee, which looks at exactly the sorts of subjects that you raised earlier on a medium and long term strategic basis. The Foreign Secretary has encouraged very strongly the kind of challenge that you are talking about. From very early on, he made it clear that as well as well thought out strategy based on the expertise of the geographical area or the subject area, he expected dissenting voices to be registered and he specifically encourages people to say they disagree and for us as officials presenting the strategy to say that these are the dissenting views from other departments or indeed from our own department; from Heads of Mission or whoever. We can always do more, I think, on the challenge, but there is quite a lot already built in within the system and drawing on academics and think tanks.

  Chair: Thank you. Mr Mulholland.

  Q144  Greg Mulholland: Thank you Chair. An interesting paper from the Institute for Government suggested that due to the joint working, that there is now, and I quote, "an embryonic community of strategists". They think that this is being hampered by an absence of joint training, cultural differences in departments and a lack of interchange with outside bodies. To what extent would you acknowledge and accept that analysis, and if you do, what is being done or should be done to address it?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Well I would certainly accept that we can continue to improve our cadre of people who have experience and the right approach for strategic thinking and effective strategic challenge. I think myself that cultural differences are a good thing, because that encourages challenge. If we were all culturally the same, you would get less different angles and approaches explored. As I said, I think Whitehall is already very open to both interchange with people coming from outside government and also making sure that we are plugged into the thinking being done outside government on security and strategic issues, but I am all for continuing to develop a cadre of people who make this a specialisation in their career and develop their skills.

  Q145  Greg Mulholland: If there is going to be that sort of route, do you think there needs to be research? Is there any research being sponsored into strategy, strategy making or strategic thinking? Do any departments sponsor educational courses either at universities or the Defence Academy or the National School for Government? If not, do you think these are things that should be looked at?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I will perhaps ask Mr McKane to talk about the Defence Academy. I think I have mentioned the National School of Government already does provide training for civil servants in strategic thinking. I think there is limited money around in government now for sponsoring anyone to help with research projects, but the FCO research analysts, for example, are very closely attuned to thinking going on in academic and think tank circles on these issues and I think that the connections there are very good. We have had a number of very successful attachments to the FCO from people with strategic skills from outside government; indeed, some have given written evidence to this Committee. So I think that the channels are open. Perhaps Mr McKane can add on the Defence Academy.

  Mr Tom McKane: Just a word on that. Of course, we have within the Defence Academy the Royal College of Defence Studies, which does provide education and training in strategic thinking and strategy making both to members of the armed forces and Ministry of Defence civil servants and one or two from other government departments as well as from overseas. In addition to that, the College of Management and Technology within the Defence Academy provides education courses in strategic leadership and strategic management. So there is a range of education taking place in the Ministry of Defence. I wouldn't say that we are complacent about it; we are always looking to see whether these courses should be refreshed, refined and so on. I should have mentioned, incidentally, in passing—which was mentioned in the memorandum—the Whitehall strategy programme WHISPER, which has been set up by Seaford House, the Royal College of Defence Studies, and does provide a forum for discussion of strategic questions away from Whitehall but involving people from both outside Whitehall and inside Whitehall.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: We should add that the Institute for Government itself is a very useful additional part of the landscape. We all welcome the arrival of the Institute for Government and the cooperation that we have with them.

  Chair: Mr Flynn?

  Q146  Paul Flynn: You have had a very distinguished career with government in the Balkans and are associated with many of the successes of recent history, but also presumably associated as a collaborator or somebody who initiated some of the failures of the recent past in foreign affairs, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Don't you find yourself inhibited in your decision making because of your recent history and your brief future history as you are in the department for only a year? Aren't you there as a caretaker with a whole hinterland that is likely to inhibit fresh thinking?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I would not, I'm afraid, accept all the premises that were built into your question; that, for example, our policy on Afghanistan is a failure. I certainly wouldn't accept that. I am a civil servant and I have carried out the policies of the Government, including the policy of the previous Government on Iraq, to the best of my abilities and indeed I spent a good part of my time in the period of the Iraq war working with the then Foreign Secretary in the United Nations to negotiate new United Nations resolutions in the run up to the war in Iraq. So no, I do not believe that that is an inhibition from this role; I think it does give me a certain experience of different parts of government. I have made it a particular purpose of the last five or six years of my time in government to work ever more closely with other government departments; with the MoD, with DfID, with other departments working in the national security area, and I think over that period that we have improved joint working quite strikingly between the departments that are involved in this and I think there is value here.

  Q147  Paul Flynn: Would you describe the decision in March 2006 to go into Helmand province in the belief that we would be out in three years without a shot being fired at a time when only two British soldiers had died in conflict—the result is that now 335 have died in conflict—as a successful decision?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I think we are departing quite a long way from the topic of this meeting.

  Paul Flynn: You described it as not being a failure. I would regard that as being something that was an abject, dreadful failure.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I do not agree, I'm afraid.

  Paul Flynn: You think it was the right decision to go into Helmand province at that time?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I think the policy of the then Government and the current Government in Afghanistan is one that I personally, as a citizen of the country, can support and I feel that we are making progress in Afghanistan.

  Q148  Paul Flynn: Can we take the current situation and what your job would be in dealing now with the exit strategy which the Government are determined on? What are the considerations and advice you would get and what are the priorities? Is it to form a policy that, as I suggested to the Foreign Secretary, can be an exit that can be spun as a victory for politicians, which is the traditional way of exit strategies being devised?

  Chair: I think the purpose of Mr Flynn's question is more about the process rather than the substance of the policy.

  Paul Flynn: Indeed, yes. Who will advise you? Where will be the independent people outside—the think tanks—and where will be the political pressure on you?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I think I will leave ministers to address the policy on Afghanistan. My objective and my purpose as the National Security Adviser will be to make sure that the National Security Council is well placed to consider good strategic advice from all the departments around Whitehall and take decisions that will then guide our work in Afghanistan. Indeed, they have done that and we went through a very intensive period of strategic discussion in the National Security Council in the first weeks of the new Government, including a session with a series of outside experts on Afghanistan, who came to Chequers and had a joint session with the National Security Council, challenged the current policy, challenged the officials and military advisers who were there with ministers, and in the light of that the National Security Council took decisions on British policy. So I thought that was a textbook example of the National Security Council taking the time to do some detailed strategic thinking.

  Q149  Chair: May I interject, Mr Flynn, for a second? Does that mean you are in a position to inject alternative views and alternative scenarios and indeed that is your obligation; to make sure the National Security Council gets dissenting opinions as well as the Foreign Office view, the Ministry of Defence view; that all the uncomfortable truths are put in front of the National Security Council with their ramifications and limitations and possibilities?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Yes, absolutely. I assume that I have been put there because I do have an experience and I think it is part of my role to make sure that ministers have all the facts and all the angles before they make decisions.

  Chair: Mr Flynn?

  Q150  Paul Flynn: At which point do you expect your reports, and in what detail, to be published? I am assuming they will go to ministers now and be confidential, but if you are in a situation where Parliament—and Parliament might well decide on whether we go to war in Iran—will all your reports, do you think, be available in full detail to Parliament?

  Chair: Good try.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: No.

  Q151  Paul Flynn: There is little chance of that? You don't take transparency too far when it comes to deciding on going to war is what you're saying, is it?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I think the National Security Adviser owes a duty of confidentiality when he gives advice to the Prime Minister and I think the papers that come to the National Security Council will tend to be classified, although in due course everyone will be able to read them.

  Q152  Paul Flynn: You would applaud the precedent for the fact that we went to war in Iraq based on a Parliamentary decision that was influenced by a lie; a major lie that was told to Parliament. Would you defend that decision? If Parliament had known the truth on Iraq, we would not have joined Bush's war in Iraq; there would have been a majority voting against, I believe. But you would support partial truth being given to MPs in future?

  Chair: I think the constructive question here, if I may, is what can we learn from that experience that institutionally we would do differently now, rather than trying to revisit the decision itself?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I think that it has to be for ministers to take decisions and then to come to Parliament and be accountable for the decisions. I think my role is to make sure that they take those decisions on the basis of the best possible advice, the widest range of advice; official, non official, where necessary having red team, having challenge, having outside experts come to give ministers a different perspective, but when ministers have taken their decisions in the National Security Council, I think it then has to be for them to come to Parliament to defend that.

  Q153  Paul Flynn: There is a likelihood that future wars in decades' time will not follow the traditional pattern about land or ideology or religion, but they will be wars that will be based on the conflict that arises from an increasing world population and diminishing resources; we would be fighting over wheat, water, food and other substances and the whole of the nature of the conflicts and the planet will change. Who would give you advice on those; on the prospect of that and how we prepare for fighting wars of those kinds?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Yes, of course you are right that we need to look at the whole range of different factors that will apply. The Government have already been in the habit of publishing a national risk assessment which at least looks at the domestic risks that the UK faces and as part of the National Security Strategy, we have done some quite systematic and deliberate national security risk assessment; in other words, looking at all the various national security risks that could arise, at least over a reasonable timeframe, perhaps 10 years. We will be drawing on that in the National Security Strategy that we publish later in October and I hope that that will trigger a wider debate with opinion outside government that will allow us to continue to look at all those risks in the horizon scanning that we do in government but is also done very effectively outside government.

  Paul Flynn: I am grateful to you. Thank you.

  Q154  Chair: Do you have enough thinking capacity at your disposal in order to be able to deliver that?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: One could always do with more, Mr Chairman.

  Chair: I'm glad you said that.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: But in constrained resource times, we have some and we can draw on the collective capacity around government but also outside government.

  Chair: Charlie Elphicke.

  Q155  Charlie Elphicke: Thank you, Mr Chairman. First, we heard from the Foreign Secretary and the First Secretary of State about his culture of openness; anyone could send him an e-gram, an email, to have input if they did not agree with the official view. Is that new or was that the case when you were the permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I have always found FCO officials pretty ready to challenge ministers when they don't agree. I have never found it difficult to get my colleagues to come in with different views and to have a good argument, so I am delighted that the Foreign Secretary said that. I do think that is part of the culture of the FCO.

  Q156  Charlie Elphicke: Then why is it officials seem to do valedictory telegrams and things like that?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Why is it that they—

  Charlie Elphicke: Officials sometimes do valedictory telegrams where they set out more deeply their inner thoughts. Why do they do that at retirement?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: When I came in as permanent secretary, I found that one or two people were saving up their choicest thoughts for the day they retired, leaving them behind for us. I encouraged them at that time not to do that, but to let us have them on the first day, in the middle and at the end, and in my experience they did. I suppose it is natural that people want to draw a balance sheet at the end of their careers, but I encouraged people and indeed they were very willing to fire in their thoughts at all stages of their ambassadorial career.

  Q157  Chair: Can I just pose a hypothetical? Supposing a group of ambassadors in the Middle East decided it is time for the UK to open formal talks with Hamas. That is not policy and if they suggested it in public, it would be a very heinous offence. They can suggest it in a telegram to the Foreign Secretary, but where is their capacity to draw upon resources to develop a whole range of scenarios of what may or may not occur or opportunities that may open up or difficulties that might arise? Where is the resource that they would need in order to have a proper conversation with the command chain about an alternative policy? It is all very well saying, "Send in your ideas", but it is very different from having people with capacity to think things through from soup to nuts.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I should let Mr Hannigan respond, but in my experience, a good idea for looking again at a policy when it is well timed will always secure attention from an open minded Foreign Secretary and I gather that is what the Foreign Secretary was saying to you. I do not think you need necessarily to have a parallel staff who can work up alternative ideas in distinction with current policy in order for people well placed around the system to inject an idea that gets people's attention and gets them thinking.

  Q158  Chair: So Mr Hannigan, you have all these scenarios at your disposal ready to deploy in advance of an idea at the particular moment it suddenly becomes relevant? In the heat of the moment.

  Mr Robert Hannigan: Mr Chairman, I am not going to pretend that every single scenario on every subject is covered, but if you take the example you have just given, it is the job of the Director of the Middle East Directorate in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to do exactly that sort of strategy making and indeed he does and does it very well. He does draw on outside voices and he does draw on our network of ambassadors and Heads of Mission in the region, who talk to each other regularly anyway. So I think that does go on.

  Q159  Chair: But it is not his prime role, is it? His prime role is to advance the policy of the Government, because he is in the command chain.

  Mr Robert Hannigan: His prime role is to provide advice to the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Secretary is very interested in exactly the sort of question you just asked about Hamas. So it is therefore his job to have that sort of advice ready for the Foreign Secretary; he cannot have the advice ready unless he has gone through a process of making strategy and drawing on all the people who might contribute to that strategy, including those who dissent.

  Chair: Mr Elphicke, any further questions?

  Q160  Charlie Elphicke: Are you familiar with Cat Tully, Sir Peter?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: She worked during my time as permanent secretary as, I think, the number two in our strategy unit.

  Q161  Charlie Elphicke: Because my sense is we have been hearing about how there is WHISPER and FUSION; no doubt there will be other acronyms and other things set up—SHOUT, FISSION—in due course and about how all expertise is shared, it is all integrated and all the rest of it. It all looks like a wonderful purring machine which is well considered and organised, but Cat Tully seems to indicate a different view, that this is not quite the smooth machine and it is more an ad hoc thing thrown together at the last moment and the wheel is reinvented and it all just depends on the individuals who happen to have involvement in a particular organisation on a particular day. Is that fair?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I think Cat Tully was an extremely effective secondee who came and worked in the FCO and helped us to get better at strategy and her role was very appreciated.

  Chair: But?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: No, not but. She saw a part of the picture and she helped us get better. I actually think that there is more cooperation between the departments than that sentence suggests and indeed I think Cat, who worked with DfID and the MoD closely in her job, saw some of that. I am sure she is right that this can be done better and if it is ad hoc now, it needs to be more systematic. I see she also welcomes the arrival of the National Security Council, which she thinks gives better top-down direction to the strategy making process, and we now need to use that to drive the culture and the process that means this is no longer a series of individuals but becomes part of the system. So I think she identifies where we can do better, certainly, but I personally believe that Whitehall has moved on a bit further already than she suggests.

  Q162  Charlie Elphicke: So you would appreciate the independent minded view of a secondee who was not necessarily in full agreement with the department view?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Absolutely.

  Q163  Charlie Elphicke: Would you say that existing government analytical resources across the board are under utilised in strategy making as she says, or do you think that is an old fashioned view that is no longer the case?

  Chair: Isn't the difficulty that the MoD strategists, the DfID analysts and the FCO research analysts are all working in different silos and they are using a slightly different language and talk at cross purposes? There isn't a common culture of strategic thinking across Whitehall.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: As I said, my own view is that different cultural approaches, different backgrounds, different experiences from different departments is a good thing because it brings a richer diversity to the making of strategy, provided that they are all tasked in a more joined up way and applied to the objective.

  Q164  Chair: How should that be done?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I think the arrival of the NSC since the time when Cat was with us helps with that, because it is clearer now, I hope, when ministers collectively want an issue looked at strategically then you are more likely to get the best resources of the three departments applied to it. If I could just add one more sentence, my own feeling—I don't know whether Cat would agree with this—is that Whitehall has got a lot better at working together and collective effort. It works up to, but not including, the point where money becomes involved, because departmental budgets and the tradition of accounting officers to this Parliament and departmental responsibility for the money can be a real obstacle to genuinely joined up work. There are ways round that with pools and so on but I have to say that I found that more of an obstacle as a permanent secretary than a culture or difference in staff.

  Q165  Chair: You are talking about overall departmental budgets, not just the money available to research analysts?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: No, I am talking about overall departmental budgets tending to drive the direction of work within particular departments.

  Q166  Chair: Wouldn't it be nice if all the MoD, all the defence analysts, all the foreign policy analysts and all the security analysts could be in the same room and agree what the policy, what their advice on division of resources should be? But they cannot if they are in separate departments.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: But you also want them to be in separate departments to provide different viewpoints as part of achieving a properly challenged strategy function. But joined up-ness among departments pursuing a single objective can be disrupted by the budget structure.

  Chair: Mr Brennan.

  Q167  Kevin Brennan: Is fire fighting part of the NSC's job?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Yes, it will be, I think. When we have a national security crisis, I would expect the National Security Council to be at the centre of handling it.

  Q168  Kevin Brennan: So it does both the National Security Strategy and then fire fighting at a time when there is an emergency. It will do both?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Yes, I think so. We need to see how it will develop, but I think that group of senior ministers will have to be ready to do both, yes.

  Q169  Kevin Brennan: What would happen under the circumstances where the national strategy appears to conflict with the febrile facts you are facing at a particular time? If we think back to the mid-1990s, the national strategy of the Government at that time would have said, "Let's stand aside and allow genocide to go on in Kosovo because it's not in our interest to intervene" and indeed did say that at that time. Is there a real conflict between having these two very different tasks within this one committee, which is what it is, really, isn't it; a committee with a grand name?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I am not sure that it will ever be possible to separate out those two. I think government is constantly having to both set longer term strategic goals and cope with events that keep coming up day by day, whether you are talking about national security or in any other sphere of government. Ministers are constantly having to juggle between those two, but I think a good strategy sets you a course in a direction which then allows to you cope with the fire fighting and the crisis management day by day without losing your overall sense of direction. If you find that events are pushing you so far away from your strategic direction that it is no longer relevant, then you have to revisit your strategic direction. But I think the Government has to have a sense of where it is trying to go above and beyond the day-to-day crisis management.

  Q170  Kevin Brennan: Can you just tell us, without revealing any information that is classified, what actually happens at these meetings? What is the format of them, where are they held, who attends and how often do they meet?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: The membership of them is published, because this is a committee of the Cabinet and Cabinet committee memberships are published. The National Security Council has met weekly since the Government was formed; I think it may have missed one week in August, but otherwise it has met every week in which the Government has been there. The Prime Minister is the chairman, the Deputy Prime Minister is the deputy chairman—

  Q171  Kevin Brennan: How long do the meetings last?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: They last typically between an hour and two hours. They take one or two issues each time and as I say, the membership is available on the website and they are a genuine collective discussion of the issue of the day.

  Q172  Kevin Brennan: Is a paper presented by somebody?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Yes.

  Q173  Kevin Brennan: Who does that? Is it a minister or an official?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Gosh. Sometimes the Cabinet Office provides the paper, sometimes it will be a departmental Secretary of State.

  Q174  Kevin Brennan: It seems like an awfully current timetable for a strategic body to be meeting on a weekly basis. Isn't this inevitably going to descend not into a strategic thinking body but into a fire fighting body?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I think I have just said that something like the National Security Council has to be able to do both. There will be urgent national security issues that need attention, like Afghanistan, but there will also be long term strategy setting issues like developing and agreeing a National Security Strategy—which we are doing at the moment—or overseeing the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which are, by their nature, long term 10 year horizon issues. I think it is in the nature of government that minsters are having to do both.

  Q175  Kevin Brennan: We are not the Foreign Affairs Committee, we are not the Defence Committee; we are the Public Administration Committee and we are interested in a broader vision—I'm not going to use that word—a broader definition of strategy than simply National Security Strategy. Is it in your committee where that broader definition and thinking about the country's national strategy to pursue its own interests in the world, not just in the defence and foreign affairs sense, is going to be developed?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: No, I think in that broadest level it would have to be the Cabinet, because even though we are meeting weekly, there are limits to how many issues a National Security Council can take. The economic prosperity of the country is clearly a very strong national interest for the country, but it is not something that the National Security Council deals with. So our National Security Strategy is only one part of the Government's overall strategy and I think the only place where that comes together finally is in the Cabinet.

  Q176  Chair: This is where I have a real difficulty. The Cabinet is a decision making body. Does it have the capacity to do strategic thinking? If it is presented with a range of thought through options, it can decide between them, but it cannot do the iterative process of strategic thinking. Where is the body of strategic thinking done in Whitehall that is beyond security? Because national security is not the same as the national interest.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: No, and I think you probably are ranging into the territory where Gus O'Donnell, my counterpart, would be better equipped to answer.

  Chair: He has a strategy unit too.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Yes, well Number 10 have a strategy unit linked to the Cabinet Office. If you are looking at the overall strategy of the Government as a whole, rather than just the national security component, I think the most senior body where that is submitted to is the Cabinet and the Cabinet Secretary.

  Q177  Kevin Brennan: But the thinking that informs that would be done by the Number 10 strategy unit.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: And the Cabinet Office under the Cabinet Secretary.

  Q178  Kevin Brennan: Right. And the National Security Council?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Well, I am part of the Cabinet Office and so national security is my bit, but Gus O'Donnell and the other parts of the Cabinet Secretariat and the policy unit and the strategy unit and the other bodies that are available to them are where strategic thinking would be done in preparations for decisions.

  Q179  Chair: It sounds like one of those organisation charts you see on a PowerPoint projector in Shrivenham Defence Academy where everybody is trying to work out what everybody else is doing in order to be able to reach a decision, but it is quite difficult for us to hold to account, isn't it?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Well I can only speak for the national security part of this operation.

  Chair: We are grateful for that.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: The creation of the NSC provides a clear organisational focus for thinking at the most senior level in government and decision making. I think Parliament has had a joint committee in this area; I don't know whether that will be re-established in the new Parliament, but there are a number of select committees as well, of course, who have interests in this area. I think for strategy as a whole, Gus O'Donnell is probably the person who could provide the most effective overview of that.

  Chair: Mr Brennan, have you finished? Thank you very much indeed. Mr Flynn?

  Q180  Paul Flynn: Would you expect that the National Security Council will have as big an influence on government action as the Daily Mail does?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I would hope so.

  Paul Flynn: We perhaps should come back to that later.

  Q181  Chair: Can I ask finally, what would you like to bequeath to your successor in order to strengthen the capacity of what you do?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: First of all I hope that the role will be seen to be a natural part of the system, because I think it does bring something useful. Secondly, I hope people will see that this new structure has improved the quality of the papers that come to ministers, that the decisions that are prepared for them so that they can make genuinely better decisions on national security issues. I think that would be very important. I do hope that it will further entrench the collective habit of working together between departments, which is something that is dear to my heart. I think the fact that we are now meeting together at Cabinet minister level, at Permanent Secretary level and a whole range of working groups every week across Whitehall on national security issues is helping to grow this.

  Q182  Chair: So you see yourself as strengthening the cross departmental strategic thinking capability?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Absolutely.

  Q183  Chair: But you stop short of perhaps dreaming of a more central organisation with a director and its own staff and its own independent capacity to monitor and assess what other departments are generating in terms of policy and strategy so that you can properly support not just National Security Strategy but national strategy; Grand Strategy. Wouldn't that be nirvana for your successor?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I am not personally an empire builder and we are living in the days where all the pressures on government are downwards, including on the Cabinet Office, which is going to be subject to some very powerful downward pressures. So I am very happy with the concept of having a small central team drawing on the extensive—although no doubt shrinking—assets of departments to produce that strategic thinking, because I think that is going to be the most effective.

  Q184  Chair: But surely, of all the functions of government, national strategy is the one that we should not do on the cheap.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Absolutely.

  Chair: Mr Elphicke?

  Q185  Charlie Elphicke: Given we live in an era of openness and valedictory statements are not needed anymore, is there anything that you can tell this committee that you think should be particularly taken heed of over the next five years?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I am not feeling particularly valedictory, I have to say.

  Chair: He has a little way to go.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I am intending to be here for a good time yet. We are at the outset here of a new approach, which I am sure the Foreign Secretary talked to you about and which I have tried to talk to you about, where I think we have real opportunities to draw on the strengths of all the departments across Whitehall and capitalise on the determination of the new ministerial team to work collectively. I think the fact that we have met so frequently and so intensively and looked at this wide range of issues in the first three or four months is already a very impressive start. I hope if we can continue that and spend the next period implementing what we will set out in this National Security Strategy and the SDSR, then we are well launched and I hope that five years' later that will be seen to have been a good innovation.

  Q186  Paul Flynn: Sir Peter, can I challenge you on this? You have had a brilliant, distinguished career and the way of progressing in the Civil Service is to agree with government policy, which you have clearly this morning said you do. The abiding, overarching rule in the Civil Service is the unimportance of being right. Those people who challenged government policy in past governments will be out of the Civil Service now; they would not have been appointed by one government for someone who served in another government. You are an establishment figure with establishment thinking. Are you really the right person to launch a critical, inventive, creative strategic review?

  Sir Peter Ricketts: I find myself again, Mr Flynn, not being able to agree with some of the premises of your question. I may be an establishment figure, but I disagree that civil servants get on in their careers by agreeing with ministers. In my experience, civil servants get on in their careers by giving good advice to ministers. It will be in private, so you will not know where ministers are being agreed with or disagreed with, but I think civil servants are expected to give good, honest advice. Ministers get pretty impatient with people who just agree with them. So I am afraid I do not agree with the premise of your question.

  Chair: Sir Peter, I think you will find this committee is an admirer of the Civil Service and grateful for the public service that civil servants give this country. I am certainly grateful, as the Committee are, for your evidence this afternoon and to Mr McKane and Mr Hannigan. Thank you very much indeed.

  Sir Peter Ricketts: Thank you, Mr Chairman.





 
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