The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy - Defence Committee Contents

2  National Security Council

Status and membership of the National Security Council

9.  Following the 2010 General Election, the new Coalition Government established the National Security Council (NSC)[9] with its own secretariat based in the Cabinet Office. The NSC held its first meeting on the afternoon of 12 May 2010, the Government's first full day in office, and continues to hold regular weekly meetings.

10.  The NSC is a Cabinet Committee which, in similar fashion to other such committees, derives its authority from, and ultimately has its decisions ratified by, the Cabinet.[10] It is chaired by the Prime Minister and its permanent members are the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Defence, Energy and Climate Change, Foreign Affairs, Home and International Development Secretaries, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Cabinet Office Minister of State.[11] Other Cabinet Ministers are invited to attend if an issue within their responsibilities is due to be discussed. The Chief of the Defence Staff, or his Deputy, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Heads of Intelligence Agencies also attend regularly.[12]

11.  The October 2010 National Security Strategy stated that the NSC had been established "to make sure the government takes decisions properly".[13] In its written evidence to our earlier inquiry into the processes followed in the development of the SDSR, the MoD stated that "The new NSC provides high-level strategic guidance to Departments, co-ordinates responses to the dangers we face, and identifies priorities".[14]

12.  In his evidence to us, the Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon William Hague MP, stated that the NSC was an executive decision making body:[15]

It takes many more decisions and discusses many more issues than the Cabinet would then go over in detail. The Cabinet also discusses security issues and international issues of defence and diplomacy, but not in the same detail as the NSC, which meets at least once a week to go through a range of subjects. It is the effective decision-making body on a vast range of the Government's decisions surrounding these issues. That is why it works, so far.

13.  In its written evidence, the MoD expanded on the work of the NSC and its structures:[16]

The discipline of systematic, weekly consideration of national security priorities in a Ministerial forum chaired by the Prime Minister drives a more coherent approach to collective consideration of strategy across Government Departments. The NSC ensures Ministers consider national security in the round not as separate blocs.

The NSC drives and monitors the implementation of the SDSR and NSS by lead Ministers, officials and Departments. Lead Ministers, accountable to the NSC, take responsibility for coordinating priority areas of work to deliver national security tasks. A series of inter-Departmental committees at senior official level also support and inform the NSC. They report to the NSC(Officials) meeting that meets weekly.

14.  Work is also being undertaken by individual Government Departments through departmental boards that are intended to "provide strategic leadership".[17] These boards are "responsible for developing the strategies for their Departments in line with the Government's overarching strategic agenda".

15.  In our Report on the processes followed in the development of the SDSR, we welcomed the creation of the NSC.[18] This welcome has been endorsed by our witnesses during this inquiry who generally thought that the NSC had been broadly acting in the way set out in the NSS even if they had reservations about certain aspects of its operation. Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham told us:[19]

In principle, the NSC is an extremely sound idea. I have always felt that defence is much too important to be left to the Ministry of Defence and, quite clearly, security is a much more wide-ranging business than purely a military one.

16.  General Sir Rupert Smith agreed, commenting that "for about 100 years, we have organised ourselves on the basis that we can treat defence and security in parallel as separate activities, and we have been able to understand security on the basis of home-and-away".[20] The situation, he argued, had changed:[21]

First, we have not got enough money to do it that way. Secondly, you cannot treat security on a home-and-away basis largely because of the speed, reach and range of global communications. We, of all nations, sit in the centre of the inhabited world, if you see it on a globe, and are utterly dependent in peace and war on our ability to trade. We cannot feed ourselves and we cannot heat ourselves in peace or war unless we trade. We cannot withstand a siege. So it is in our absolute interest to ensure our security on that continuum and not on the basis of home-and-away, as we used to be able to do.

17.  Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, thought "it was quite demanding to ask it, as the very first thing it had to do when it arrived, immediately to redo the National Security Strategy [...] and then to conduct a defence review, which is pretty challenging at the best of times, and particularly so when you do it at the same time as a CSR. The question the National Security Council was asked pretty early on was demanding. I think it did not a bad job [...]".[22]

18.  Some doubt has been expressed as to how far the NSC would be able to break down the departmental-silo mentality of Whitehall. Professor Michael Clarke from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told us:[23]

I think the framework of thinking was more coherent than in previous defence reviews [...] but it is not yet clear whether that has enough traction within Whitehall, because it's quite radical. What the NSS says is a pretty radical re-thinking of the way we should discuss security for a country like Britain in the 21st century. That is easy to say for a group of clever people writing a good essay on it, but it's much harder to push through Whitehall, which is stovepiped for a different sort of security environment. In the next few years, I think we in the analytical community will be looking at how far the NSC and the NSS are able to gain real traction within Whitehall.

19.  In evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Rt Hon Baroness Neville-Jones, former Security Minister and NSC member, commented that another potential problem was the way budgets are allocated on a departmental basis:[24]

Perhaps I might say that the one thing that has not happened—the party canvassed this in opposition—was the notion of a single budget. There is indeed the single security account, but there is no wider pooling of moneys, as they are still departmentally allocated. We need to see how that works out in practice. The previous Government tried the experiment of pooling, which I do not think worked terribly well, and there is of course a constitutional problem, which is that parliamentary committees want to see accountability to them, so perhaps this Committee may be able to do something in that area. It is a fairly difficult one and it is not easy to see sweeping solutions that are compatible with a Secretary of State's responsibilities. But we need to devise some measure of flexibility so that we can allocate resources at mid-term or according to need, if it arises. That is because one thing that a national security concept should be able to give us in policy-making is greater flexibility than perhaps we have had in the past.

20.  In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir Peter Ricketts, National Security Adviser, commented "that the NSC can be an influence to make sure that the top priorities that are set are then funded." He gave the example that cross-departmental discussion of the SDSR in the NSC had probably enabled Ministers "to find £650 million for cross-Government cyber-work which wouldn't have fitted into any single budget". However, he thought that the "great majority" of Government security spending would continue to be done through departments.[25] Also in evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rt Hon William Hague MP, Foreign Secretary, noted that there was 'good scope for interdepartmental budgeting' and that 'through the National Security Council we are able to take a broader view across Government of where our resources are being directed'.[26]

21.  We repeat our welcome for the establishment of the National Security Council and its taking the strategic lead for defence and security issues. It must continue its work to break down the silo-mentality and departmental rivalry in Whitehall. We recommend that the Government, when responding to this Report, should identify appropriate areas for interdepartmental budgeting while maintaining proper accountability and not increasing levels of bureaucracy. The Government should provide us with further information on how it envisages the role of the NSC in terms of the prioritisation and allocation of resources.

National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review

22.  Although its foremost priority was Afghanistan, an early task for NSC was the development of a new National Security Strategy and undertaking a Strategic Defence and Security Review. In our earlier report on the SDSR process in September 2010, we regretted that the NSS had still to be published, although it was clear from briefings we received from the then MoD Permanent Secretary that it existed in substantial outline and we understood it had been the Government's intention to publish it before Summer 2010.[27] It was subsequently published on the day before the SDSR. In response to our Report the Government stated:[28]

The NSS and SDSR were developed together and were both coherent and consistent. Crucially, the strategic approach of the NSS and its priorities fed directly into SDSR decisions. Clearly both the NSS and SDSR had to make hard choices about which capabilities to protect, which to enhance, and which to cut back, and therefore they both had to be developed in close coordination with the Spending Review. It thus made sense to publish them in October when their shared strategic approach could best be demonstrated.

23.  During our inquiry we explored the contribution of the NSC to the development of the NSS and SDSR. At our first evidence session, Professor Michael Clarke commented on the linkage between the NSC and the NSS and SDSR:[29]

If you are talking directly about the NSC, I would say that that encapsulated quite a lot of good thinking in the NSS. It certainly was relevant to the SDSR, but the SDSR itself had to be handled in such a truncated way because of the time problem that I am not convinced that the NSC had the sort of input to the SDSR that it would have wanted, or that certainly the Ministry of Defence would have wanted it to have. The NSC and the NSS are very closely connected, but the NSC and the defence review are less connected than they should have been.

24.  When we put this possible lack of connection to Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, he responded "I am not entirely in agreement that they are completely divorced from one another".[30] He added that a "connection strategy is an ends, ways and means product. The National Security Strategy itself, as a paper, gave us the ends. The ways and the means were connected through the publication, or the formulation, of the SDSR. I didn't necessarily say [...] that all the consequences are perfect".[31]

25.  Professor Hew Strachan, Professor of the History of War, Oxford University, commented on the "amount of misplaced effort that occurred because the NSC was not able to produce a National Security Strategy in enough time to co-ordinate what was happening in the defence review process".[32]

26.  We put it to Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup, former Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) and attendee at the NSC, that the complexity of defence issues meant that the NSC inevitably took some time to become familiar with them, and to begin to address the most pressing problems. He acknowledged that there was a knowledge gap when the NSC was established and that it had undergone a learning curve which was still continuing when he stepped down as CDS. He commented that the gap was "not so much defence, but the complex issues of the security issues facing the UK". He added: [33]

The NSC spent a great deal of time in the early days focusing on Afghanistan—I would say quite rightly—and on gathering evidence from a variety of people and on developing its thoughts and understanding of the challenges of Afghanistan. That did not leave much time for other parts of the world, but of course one has to prioritise. An area that we then needed to turn to—and had done only partially by the end of my time—was Pakistan. That is a hugely complex issue and a very difficult area, but of great importance to our national security in the UK. There are many others besides. The NSC got to grips with the issues as quickly as it could, and prioritised them rightly. However, they are so many and so complex that it was inevitably going to take time.

27.  The NSC was, in our opinion, right to prioritise operations in Afghanistan. But we are concerned that the NSC did not appreciate the complexities of defence and security issues and had to undergo a steep learning curve. As a result we are not convinced that the NSC provided, at an early enough stage, the guidance and input that were necessary for formulating the SDSR, particularly given a truncated review period running alongside the Comprehensive Spending Review. We note that the next SDSR is due to be held shortly after the General Election in 2015. We recommend that steps should be taken to ensure that the lessons learned by the NSC and its secretariat are not lost.

Whitehall structure

28.  Following the 2010 General Election, Rt Hon Baroness Neville-Jones was appointed to the Government as Security Minister, based in the Home Office, and a member of the NSC. At the same time Sir Peter Ricketts KCMG, a former Foreign Office Permanent Secretary, was appointed to the new position of National Security Adviser.


29.  During our inquiry, we considered the Whitehall structure for addressing security issues, including the possibility of the establishment of a separate Department for National Security to break down the departmental-silo attitude when dealing with national security issues. Ministers argued that the NSC had meant that Ministers worked collectively and had not tackled issues just from the point of view of their department. Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, told us:[34]

May I add something as the outsider, observing the various Departments? What has really struck me is that we have gone through many discussions in the National Security Council on a wide range of issues and you cannot predict in advance "the Foreign Office view", or "the Defence view", or whatever. This is not operating as a series of departmental silos with their own views. We genuinely have a discussion about how we want to move forward on any given question and what resources we have available to us. At that stage, people talk in terms of what their Department can contribute. Without you being there, I can't adequately convey this to you, but I have been enormously impressed by the extent to which simply having this form of meeting, the fact that it is continuous—as well as having the meeting discuss many things, rather than just one set of things—makes it the case that people stop thinking of themselves simply as departmental Ministers. They don't come and read out briefs from their Department. They really engage together—we engage together—as a manifestation of the Government trying to solve a national problem.

30.  We do not propose the Government should establish a separate Department for National Security. This would be a major change, particularly when UK Armed Forces are committed on two major operations and given the current economic situation. However this should be kept under review as part of a continuous assessment of the effectiveness of the NSC, particularly as new and unexpected threats emerge.


31.  Witnesses generally welcomed the appointment of a National Security Adviser, but also raised doubts about whether this should be a senior civil servant. They argued that the role needed to be filled by a political heavyweight with the prominence to take the lead on the national security agenda and with the leverage to resolve disputes between departments.[35] Some suggested that a senior official could then be appointed as Deputy National Security Adviser.[36]

32.  We put the suggestion of a Cabinet Minister for National Security to the Foreign Secretary who replied:[37]

Maybe it is beyond our pay grades, but it is something that we have discussed in the past. I discussed it with the Prime Minister, particularly before we came to power. We take the view that a Minister for Security in the Home Office is the right way to have a Security Minister, which is what we have, and that Minister is a member of the NSC. To operate satisfactorily, Ministers with responsibilities in these areas need the presence in a Department and the leverage and weight in Whitehall that comes from membership.

33.  On 9 May 2011, Rt Hon Baroness Neville-Jones, Minister of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism in the Home Office and a member of the National Security Council, stepped down from the Government. James Brokenshire MP, an existing Home Office Minister, was appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Crime and Security, but without a seat on the National Security Council. On 24 June, the Prime Minister announced that the tenure of Sir Peter Ricketts as National Security Adviser would end in January 2012 when he would become the UK Ambassador to France, having held post for 21 months. His replacement was announced as Sir Kim Darroch, currently the UK's Permanent Representative to the EU.[38]

34.  We welcome the appointment of a National Security Adviser as a major advance. However we believe that a dedicated, powerful and independent long-term voice for national security should exist within Government and recommend that the Prime Minister appoint a National Security Minister, separate from the Home Office, to act as National Security Adviser with a seat on the National Security Council.


35.  The NSC is supported by a National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. The Secretariat has been created largely from previously existing structures in the Cabinet Office. The National Security Secretariat is headed by the National Security Adviser. Meetings of the NSC are prepared by a weekly meeting of officials at Permanent Under-Secretary level (NSC (Officials)), chaired by the NSA. The MoD's written evidence stated that "[the NSC (Officials)] meeting coordinates Government policy across a wide range of national security issues and assesses how significant policy questions should be presented to Ministers [and] also coordinates the NSC forward work programme, which is agreed with the Prime Minister".[39]

36.  The organisation of the NSC secretariat was reviewed after completion of the SDSR. The team that had been brought together to develop the NSS and SDSR was disbanded and the secretariat reverted to the pre-SDSR structure of five Directorates: Foreign and Defence Policy; Strategy and Counter-terrorism; Security and Intelligence; Cyber Security & Information Assurance; and Civil Contingencies. The secretariat currently employs 195 people.[40] Concern has been expressed that the NSC secretariat does not undertake its own analysis or commission research. Professor Hew Strachan commented:[41]

I think the crucial question is the composition of the Secretariat and how you wish to put it together. Professor Clarke has just spoken about the inputs and the way the Secretariat can draw things together, but we should think about how it can generate its own inputs if there are areas it feels it should look at, rather than be reactive to things that have been put into it. How far can it create a demand? How far can it generate its own demands?

37.  We recommend that the NSC secretariat be given the resources to undertake its own analysis and commission research, with appropriate precautions put in place to avoid duplication of work already being undertaken by individual Government Departments and increased bureaucracy.


38.  It is intended that in times of emergency the NSC sets the strategic direction and priorities, and COBR deals with the day to day planning of operations to meet these challenges. This was made clear in the Prime Minister's statement to the House of Commons on Libya and the Middle East on 28 February 2011 in the context of the evacuation of UK citizens from Libya:[42]

The Government will continue to focus on ensuring that our citizens are safe. Cobra has met regularly to co-ordinate the effort, and I personally chaired three meetings over the weekend. The National Security Council is looking at the overall strategic picture, and it met last Friday and again today, not least to look at other risks to British citizens in countries in the wider region.

39.  We agree with the separation of responsibilities and roles between the NSC and COBR in respect of emergencies and recommend that measures be put in place to guard against any blurring of this in future.

Parliamentary scrutiny of the National Security Council

40.  The MoD's written evidence told us that the NSC's effectiveness is:[43]

[...] assessed by the Cabinet through the routine reporting of Council conclusions at each meeting. NSC discussions can also be elevated to Cabinet when issues require the broader collective attention of Cabinet or when outcomes of discussions are relevant to a wider audience. This has taken place on a number of occasions including before publication of the SDSR.

41.  In our Report on the SDSR process, we stated that we had concerns regarding how effective Parliamentary scrutiny of the National Security Council would be carried out.[44] The National Security Strategy included a commitment to parliamentary scrutiny in the form of an annual report of progress of implementation on the SDSR and the NSS for scrutiny by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy.[45] In addition, in its written evidence, the MoD stated that:[46]

Oversight of policy operation, including of decisions reached by the NSC, is undertaken by Parliamentary Select Committees such as the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS). [...] As Secretary to the NSC, the National Security Adviser (NSA) has provided evidence to a number of Select Committees on the effectiveness of the NSC.

42.  We note the Government's commitment to an annual report of progress of implementation of the SDSR and NSS for scrutiny by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS). We request more information on the format and status of this report. We will also continue to undertake scrutiny of the implementation of the NSS and SDSR. We also recommend that an annual debate should be held on the annual report on progress of implementation of the NSS and SDSR. This should be in Government time and held in the main House of Commons Chamber.

43.  We recognise the willingness of ministerial members of the National Security Council and the National Security Adviser to appear before select committees, other than the JCNSS, and expect this to continue. We also expect the Government to explore with the JCNSS and other parliamentary committees ways of improving the National Security Council's accountability and transparency.


44.  In January 2010, the Prime Minister, when Leader of the Opposition, stated that the "NSC will be responsible as a de facto 'War Cabinet' for the conduct of the UK contribution to the mission in Afghanistan" and that "if elected, we will invite the leaders of the main opposition parties to attend the war cabinet on a regular basis so they can offer their advice and insights".[47] At our evidence session on 9 March, we were told that the "Opposition had been invited to meetings of the NSC" and that Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, when acting Leader of the Labour Party, had attended a meeting in the early summer.[48] Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, explained that invitations would continue to be issued by the Prime Minister from time to time "if there was a particular issue on which he thought there was likely to be a huge national advantage in doing so".[49] We understand from the Cabinet Office that since our evidence session, Rt Hon Edward Miliband MP, Leader of the Opposition, attended a meeting of the NSC on 12 April 2011.

45.  We commend the Prime Minister's initiative of inviting the Leader of the Opposition to attend the NSC. We hope that such invitations will become more frequent and that the Leader of the Opposition will accept them.

9   Three sub-committees were also established: Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies; Nuclear; and Emerging Powers Back

10   Q 50 Back

11   Ev 129-131; When the National Security Council was established, the Security Minister in the Home Office, Rt Hon Baroness Neville-Jones was also a member. However when Rt Hon Baroness Neville-Jones left the Government on 9 May 2011 she was not replaced on the NSC (See also para 33). Back

12   Q 52 Back

13   HM Government, A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy, Cm 7953, p 5 Back

14   Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2010-11, The Strategic Defence and Security Review, HC 345, Ev 13  Back

15   Q 58 Back

16   Ev 124 and Ev 129-131 Back

17   Ev 124 and Ev 129  Back

18   Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2010-11, The Strategic Defence and Security Review, HC 345, para 4 Back

19   Q 452 [Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackman] Back

20   Q 302 Back

21   Q 302 Back

22   Q 402 Back

23   Q 4 [Professor Michael Clarke] Back

24   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy on 4 July 2011, HC (2010-12) 1384-i, Q 2 Back

25   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2010-12, The Role of the FCO in UK Government, HC 665, Qq 207-210  Back

26   HC (2010-12) 665, Q 288 Back

27   Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2010-11, The Strategic Defence and Security Review, HC 345, para 15 Back

28   Defence Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2010-11, The Strategic Defence and Security Review: Government response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2010-11, HC 638, p 5 Back

29   Q 3 [Professor Michael Clarke] Back

30   Q 176 Back

31   Q 177 Back

32   Q 3 [Professor Hew Strachan] Back

33   Q 260 Back

34   Q 109 [Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP] Back

35   Qq 452-453 and Ev w9 [Nigel Hall] [Note: references to Ev wXX are references to written evidence published in the volume of additional written evidence published on the Committee's website] Back

36   Qq 452 [Professor Julian Lindley-French] Back

37   Q 57 [Rt Hon William Hague MP] Back

38   "Senior Diplomatic Appointments", Prime Minister's press release, 24 June 2011 Back

39   Ev 124  Back

40   However, following a review, the NSC structure would see a reduction in staff of around 25% and the number of Directorates reduced from five to four. See Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2010-12, The Role of the FCO in UK Government, HC 665, Ev 137-138 & Ev 140. Back

41   Q 5 [Professor Hew Strachan] Back

42   HC Deb, 28 February 2011, col 24 Back

43   Ev 123 Back

44   Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2010-11, The Strategic Defence and Security Review, HC 345, para 8 Back

45   HM Government, A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy, Cm 7953, para 0.21 Back

46   Ev 124 Back

47   Conservative Party, A Resilient Nation: National security Green Paper No.13, January 2010 Back

48   Q 62 Back

49   Q 63 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 3 August 2011