Examination of Witnesses (Questions 114-186)|
RICKETTS KCMG, TOM
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
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
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,
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
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
Q119 Robert Halfon: How do you do
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
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,
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
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
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
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 thewe
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
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
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
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
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 strategyGrand Strategy, as
you call itwithin 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
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
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
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 passingwhich was mentioned
in the memorandumthe 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
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
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 conflictthe
result is that now 335 have died in conflictas a successful
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,
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
Chair: I think the purpose of Mr Flynn's
question is more about the process rather than the substance of
Paul Flynn: Indeed, yes. Who will advise
you? Where will be the independent people outsidethe think
tanksand 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
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
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 Parliamentand Parliament
might well decide on whether we go to war in Iranwill 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
Paul Flynn: I am grateful to you. Thank
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
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
Sir Peter Ricketts: Why is it
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 upSHOUT,
FISSIONin 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.
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 feelingI
don't know whether Cat would agree with thisis 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
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
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
Q171 Kevin Brennan: How long do the
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
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 Strategywhich we are doing at the momentor
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
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 visionI'm not going to use that worda
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
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 extensivealthough no doubt
shrinkingassets 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
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
Sir Peter Ricketts: Thank you,