The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published its Tenth Report of Session 2016–17, , as HC 656 on 16 March 2017. The Government’s response was received on 19 December 2017 and is appended to this report. The Committee is disappointed with the Government’s response given the clear evidence of the need for improvements to public inquiries and Government decision making that the Committee received. It is particularly concerned about the Government’s failure to accept the case for stronger safeguards to ensure proper collective consideration by the Cabinet on decisions of national importance.
The report of the Iraq Inquiry published on July 6th 2016 identified lessons to be learned from the UK’s approach to and involvement in Iraq from 2001 to 2009. As the then Prime Minister noted during his statement to Parliament on the date of publication, the Government recognises that although many lessons from interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan had already been learned and embedded by government, the report identified “lessons that we do need to learn and…keep on learning”.
At the most strategic level, the Government accepted that taking the country to war should always be a last resort and should only be done if all credible alternatives have been exhausted.
It also acknowledged Sir John Chilcot’s finding that formal machinery of government structures to support collective decision-making are vital. The National Security Council was established in 2010 in part learning lessons from Iraq to ensure proper co-ordinated decision making across the whole of Government, including those responsible for domestic security. This Council has the right breadth of expertise in the room with Ministers from the relevant departments, the Attorney General, and advisors and officials including the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the heads of the intelligence services, and relevant senior officials.
The position of national security adviser was established in 2010 with a properly constituted team in the Cabinet Office to ensure that all the key parts of our national security apparatus are joined up. The national security machinery also taps the experience and knowledge of experts from outside Government. This helps us to constantly challenge conventional wisdom within the system and avoid, hopefully, group-think. It is inconceivable today that we could take a premeditated decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging discussion in the National Security Council, on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant departments, with decisions formally minuted.
The then Prime Minister accepted Sir John’s finding that the culture established by Prime Ministers matters too. It is crucial to good decision making that a Prime Minister establishes a climate in which it is safe for officials and other experts to challenge existing policy and question the views of Ministers, and the Prime Minister, without fear or favour. Everyone who sits around the NSC table is free to speak their mind and expected to do so.
The Government also recognised that in taking the difficult decisions to intervene in other countries, proper planning for what follows is vital. The task of rebuilding effective governance is enormous. That is why we created a conflict, stability and stabilisation fund, and beefed up the cross-Government stabilisation unit, so that experts are able to deploy in post-conflict situations anywhere in the world at short notice. The 2010 decision to commit 0.7% of our gross national income on overseas aid which the Government has reiterated has made this possible. Much of that money is spent on conflict-affected and fragile states, not only assisting with post-conflict planning but also trying to prevent conflicts in the first place.
The Government accepted that it must ensure that our armed forces are always properly equipped and resourced. That is why we now conduct a regular strategic defence and security review to ensure that the resources we have meet the ambitions of the national security strategy and why we meet our NATO commitment to spend 2% of our GDP on defence. The Government has also enshrined the armed forces covenant in law to ensure that our armed forces and their families receive the treatment and respect they deserve in ways consistent with the findings of the Iraq Inquiry.
The then Prime Minister committed the Government to learning additional lessons from Chilcot beyond those already embedded. The then National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, conducted this process across the national security community, considering further improvements. A summary of the learning from this process is included as an Annex to this response. The Government fully recognises that ensuring lessons are embedded and properly learned will be a long term and ongoing process, which will also be considered in the ongoing work as part of the National Security Capability Review. To ensure that lessons are implemented, departments are sharing learning and knowledge across the community. Several NSC departments have also developed specific departmental Chilcot lessons learning processes and programmes.
The Iraq Inquiry Report provided a unique window on a decade of decision- making and implementation on a national endeavour. Sir John and his team were able to look at what happened in a way that was not possible for those working on Iraq within Government at the time. The report brings witness testimony and documentary evidence together, enabling the Inquiry team to review it objectively outside the daily practice of Government. The report is a forensic assessment not just of what happened and why, but of the cultures and behaviours that underpinned the process of national Government during this period. Some of these lessons are of wider relevance than the national security community and are being shared with the wider civil service community, through briefings to leadership teams across Government and in the form of an immersive case study through the new Civil Service Leadership Academy.
1.The Cabinet Secretary indicated that the Government would consider further the question of how the Iraq Inquiry could have been carried out more quickly. We urge that this assessment is conducted as a matter of urgency and its findings reported to Parliament, so that both Government and Parliament can take the necessary steps to ensure that future Inquiries, particularly those with comparable scope and scale to the Iraq Inquiry, do not experience such unacceptable delays. (Paragraph 31)
The Government notes the views of the Committee. It will be rare that an Inquiry will have the scope and scale of the Iraq Inquiry. The time it took to report was in large part due to the complexity and scope of the issues it was examining. Sir John Chilcot acknowledged this in his evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of 4 February 2015 when he identified the unprecedented scope of the inquiry as one of the key factors in the time it had taken the Inquiry Committee to complete its work.
More generally, the Cabinet Office is developing tools to provide guidance for those establishing, running and supporting future inquiries. A cross-Government expert group has been established to share best practice and offer advice to those establishing, running and supporting inquiries. This group will inform and develop a guidance paper for sponsor departments and Inquiry Chairs, Secretaries and their teams. Drawing on the expertise of a wide range of officials with experience of inquiries across Government, the guidance will build on the draft internal guidance already in use by departments, and provide a standard for best practice for all inquiries (both statutory and non-statutory) commissioned by the Government.
2.We remain concerned about the lack of mechanisms for meaningful Parliamentary oversight over the establishment of both statutory and non-statutory inquiries. (Paragraph 36)
3.In future, there should be a full debate and vote on an amendable motion, setting out the precise terms of reference, an estimated timeframe and a proposed budget for the Inquiry. Before such a debate, Parliament should establish an ad-hoc Select Committee to take evidence on the proposed remit and to present formal conclusions and recommendations to the House. The Select Committee should also recommend whether the inquiry should be a Privy Council or inquiry Chair. Only then should the remit and the Chair of the inquiry be put before Parliament for final approval, along with a timetable and a budget for the inquiry, so that Parliament can act on the considered recommendations of the Select Committee. (Paragraph 37)
The Government does not accept this recommendation.
The Government recognises the important role of parliament in the administration of public inquiries, and where possible will ensure a full debate takes place on the scope of an inquiry at the outset. For those inquiries set up under the Inquiries Act 2005, the Prime Minister is required to inform Parliament about who will chair the inquiry and its terms of reference. At the conclusion of the inquiry, the Chair will provide his report to the Prime Minister, who will then lay it before Parliament immediately on receipt.
However public inquiries take many forms depending on the circumstances. They will often need to be established quickly to respond to issues of urgent public concern. The Government believes that the current approach to establishing inquiries provides the appropriate balance of responsiveness and flexibility. The creation and operation of select committees is a matter for the House, but the Government’s view is that it will not always be possible or appropriate to follow the proposed format. Select Committees can of course call for evidence from Inquiry Chairs/Panel members/Secretariat which provides opportunity for scrutiny and ensures accountability.
4.The Government is conducting a lessons learned investigation across Whitehall coordinated by the National Security Adviser, into the substantive criticisms of the machinery of government made by the report of the Iraq Inquiry. The Government must provide, in its formal response to this Report, a date when this exercise will be completed. The findings should be reported to Parliament so that PACAC and other relevant Select Committees can scrutinise and comment on the investigation and so that Parliament is able to hold the government to account for the implementation of its recommendations. (Paragraph 43)
The summary of the then National Security Adviser’s Lessons Learned process is appended to this response. It covered not just machinery of Government lessons, but also knowledge management and behaviours and cultures. As the summary makes clear, the Government intends to update Parliament on its implementation of the lessons and recommendations identified in the Summary in its Annual Report on the implementation of the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
5.We reiterate the recommendations of our predecessor Committee, PASC, across its three reports on strategic thinking in government, that the NSC requires far greater capability in strategic thinking and analysis and would greatly benefit from having its own capacity to synthesise assessment and analysis from across Whitehall and elsewhere. We also fully support the recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Committee that the Government should commission an independent review of the National Security Council. The Government should consider how the NSC can promote more collective strategic analysis and assessment as part of its decision-making both within the NSC itself and across Government. (Paragraph 44)
The Government does not accept the Committee’s finding that the NSC lacks the capability for strategic assessment and analysis. Firstly, the Joint Intelligence Committee process provides a formal all source strategic assessment process in support of National Security Council decisions. This process involves Whitehall departments and diplomatic posts but also draws on external sources of information and insight depending on the topic. Every NSC meeting begins with an assessment from the Joint Intelligence Committee Chair. In addition, the NSC draws on strategic analysis from professional bodies within Government, including Foreign Office Research Analysts, the Government Economic profession and specialist analytical centres such as the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre and the Stabilisation Unit. Of course there is always more that government can do to make use of external expertise. The National Security Adviser is developing a more systematic approach to national security community engagement with experts outside Government designed to cover the full spectrum of issues.
While decisions on national security issues are taken at National Security Council meetings, the process of supporting that decision-making is a much more iterative policy process using the whole of the Whitehall system. Increasingly, cross-Whitehall country, region and thematic strategies help cohere different parts of Government to work to common purpose on an agreed set of priorities and outcomes. The role of the National Security Secretariat is to ensure that the whole government system supports that work, asking the right questions, developing a broad set of options underpinned by a wide set of evidence and recognising the risks involved. While the Government does not accept that the National Security Council, a Cabinet Committee, should be subject to independent review, it has recently reviewed the National Security Secretariat to ensure that it remains as agile, collaborative and responsive organisation providing the best strategic advice possible to support National Security Council decisions.
The Government notes that having the right machinery of government, proper processes, culture and planning comprehensive strategic advice on all the key issues and learning lessons from previous interventions does not guarantee success in military interventions. This is not a failure of strategic capability. The challenges of intervention are formidable. We are realistic that we can have the best prepared plans but in the real world things can go wrong. In volatile, dynamic and evolving situations, it is not always possible to work out in advance exactly how others will respond or events unfold. Intervention is hard. War fighting is not always the most difficult part. We are fully aware that the stabilisation and reconciliation processes that follow are a much more complex challenge. However, just because intervention is difficult, it does not mean that there are not times when it is right and necessary. The Government remains committed to taking difficult decisions to protect its people and meet its responsibilities to global peace and security as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security council.
6.It is no longer acceptable that the present arrangements should continue without stronger means to prevent key ministers, or even the whole Cabinet from being sidelined. Beyond making representations to Ministers and to the Prime Minister, short of resignation, the Cabinet Secretary does not have any formal recourse to object to a Prime Minister’s chosen course of action in the event that he or she wishes to disregard the procedures for decision-making set out in the Cabinet Manual. We are in no doubt that the absence of safeguards cannot persist. (Paragraph 53)
The Government does not agree with the Committee’s finding that there is an absence of safeguards on decision-making within Government. It is very clear in the Cabinet Manual that the Cabinet Secretary’s role is to ensure that Cabinet Committees provide effective collective Government and are not bypassed, and that sub-committees are set up to deal with issues that require a more intensive focus. As the Cabinet Secretary told the Committee in his evidence on 14 September 2016, the Cabinet Secretary has responsibility for making sure that Cabinet Government is working properly, that Cabinet Committees meet with the right people in them to take the key decisions, and that issues are dealt with in a proper way. Cabinet Secretaries and National Security Advisers take their responsibilities very seriously in enforcing this. This is backed up by practice. Neither the Cabinet nor the National Security Council has been bypassed in the decision-making process since the establishment of the NSC in 2010. In particular, when decisions on military intervention have been taken, the NSC and its sub-committees and officials groups have prepared decisions fully and there has been a full discussion of the issue in Cabinet before decisions were taken.
7.PACAC recommends that the substance of the proposal of the Better Government Initiative should be adopted. There should be a mechanism of written Ministerial direction, similar to that used by Departmental Accounting Officers, reflecting the responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary and other senior officials to ensure that proper procedure is followed as set out in the Cabinet Manual. If a senior official requests such a direction, it should be at his or her discretion whether this direction should be made immediately known to Parliament, through PACAC or the relevant Select Committee, or placed in the public archive for delayed release. As an alternative, the official should also be to notify Privy Counsellors. Such a mechanism would dispel any doubt about the Cabinet Secretary’s direct responsibilities. Furthermore, it would make clear to Ministers the vital importance of following proper procedure and of taking proper advice on matters of procedure. (Paragraph 57)
As part of the then National Security Adviser’s lessons learning process the Government considered the Better Government Initiative’s idea for a formal Ministerial direction to be given, if Ministers decided to go ahead with a policy against the advice of officials. In the case of Ministerial direction for financial decisions, Permanent Secretaries (as Accounting Officers for their departments) have a clear personal responsibility for the propriety and value for money of the public finances for which they are responsible. In this role, they are directly accountable to the Public Accounts Committee. The Ministerial notification and direction process is activated if a Minister is considering a transaction which the Accounting Officer believes would breach the requirements of propriety, regularity or value for money, and if the Minister decides to proceed against the written objections of the Accounting Officer. This process enables the Public Accounts Committee to see that the Accounting Officer does not bear personal responsibility for this action. It is not an instrument which is engaged purely because a Minister decides to act against the advice of an official, but when a Minister decides to spend public money in a way that contravenes the role of the Accounting Officer.
In the case of policy, the role of officials is to provide advice and for the politicians to take decisions and be accountable to parliament for them. As the Cabinet Secretary explained to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) on 14 September 2016 and, as the Government has made clear in its response to the recent Foreign Affairs Committee’s Review of Libya policy, senior officials can best ensure that their views are expressed, and that their advice is fully reflected in policy formulation, through the NSC process. An additional process risks introducing a degree of unnecessary antagonism between officials and the Prime Minister on matters of collective decision-making. The NSC fosters a culture where alternative views are sought, and its membership, including senior officials, has been designed to ensure that Ministers benefit from the best advice and challenge as they take decisions. Different views are heard and recorded in the minutes. The senior officials present at both Ministerial and Officials NSCs are all confident in their own authorities. Under the Ministerial Code, Ministers have a duty to give fair consideration and due weight to informed and impartial advice from civil
servants, as well as to other considerations and advice in reaching policy decisions. As the then NSA’s summary of lessons learned makes clear, we continue to make improvements to ensure that Ministers receive the widest range of policy advice and evidence possible and that officials at all levels are empowered or supported to challenge effectively in pursuit of the best policy outcomes. Disagreement between Ministers and officials over the best course to pursue in uncertain or volatile international circumstances is part of the policy- making process. It should not be confused with a contravention of processes and procedures.
The policy-making process is being strengthened at all levels. The FCO is embedding the Chilcot checklist by including it in the induction of all new entrants and new joiners, and embedding Chilcot lessons through the Diplomatic Academy, including in specific modules on Challenge and Strategy. The MoD continues to deliver a range of reforms including on diversity and challenge. The virtual National Security Academy Senior Faculty course on strategy at the RCDS also includes lessons from Chilcot. Participants on talent schemes have also received briefings on the lessons from Chilcot and, through the new Civil Service Leadership Academy, a 24-hour immersive Chilcot case study for senior leaders across Government will explore issues of accountability and help participants identify risks in the policy-making process.
8.In future, when the Cabinet is being asked to support significant decisions, such as whether the UK Government should commit to military action, which are based on legal considerations, the Cabinet Manual should be clear about proper procedure. The Cabinet Secretary should be under an obligation to ensure the Cabinet receives comprehensive legal advice, and he or she should have recourse to the proper mechanism of written Ministerial direction we recommend above to ensure this happens. (Paragraph 67)
The Government accepts that it is important that Cabinet and its Committees including the NSC has access to proper legal advice as part of its decision- making process. The Ministerial code now includes a section making clear that the Law Officers must be consulted in good time before the Government is committed to critical decisions involving legal considerations. The Code also makes clear that when written advice from the Law Officers is included in correspondence between Ministers, or in papers for the Cabinet or Ministerial Committees, the conclusions may if necessary be summarised but, if this is done, the complete text of the advice should be attached.
As the then NSA’s Lessons Learned Summary makes clear, we have also strengthened mechanisms to ensure that legal advice relating to NSC matters is prepared with the fullest understanding of the context.
A regular senior legal officials meeting has been established to reinforce and systematise legal work across Government in support of the National Security Council, particularly the Attorney-General’s contribution as a full member of NSC, by providing strategic oversight of the legal advice being developed, informing NSS and NSC(O) about legal issues, commissioning work and receiving commissions as needed. Following the completion of a pilot period it is now a formal part of the NSC architecture providing assurance to NSS that relevant legal issues are being identified promptly and addressed coherently; improving the breadth and depth of the briefing available to the Attorney- General; and adding significant recognisable value to the work of its participants, particularly by providing a close, contextualising connection to the work of NSC.
9.We recommend that the National Security Adviser conducts an analysis of meetings of, and around the National Security Council (NSC), to establish what makes meetings effective. This might include considering how to promote openness and candour within meetings, and an atmosphere of trust, as well as the use of briefs that synthesise cross departmental analysis and assessment, rather than the normal departmental briefs. The Government should report on the NSA’s findings to PACAC, in confidence if necessary. (Paragraph 68)
As the then NSA’s Lessons Learned Summary explains, the NSC (O) committed to exploring more diverse approaches and mitigating the cognitive biases and heuristics that all groups of experts possess as part of its lessons from Chilcot. It has set up a diversity and inclusion network which has been working with the NSC (O) to look at more effective meetings. This has resulted in changes to the ways that the NSC (O) runs meetings. As part of the commitment in the Strategic Defence and Security Review to improve diversity and inclusion across national security, the NSA has requested greater challenge of the papers that are presented to it, including using the Chilcot checklist for policy makers (see Annex A of the NSA’s Lessons Learned Summary appended to this response) and establishing a Shadow Board, which is a group of junior officials that meet regularly to discuss subjects that are presented to NSC (O). The NSA is introducing additional reforms to the NSC process to ensure there is sufficient time to effectively debate the priority issues.
Synthesised briefing and analysis has always been an important component of NSC meetings and related mechanisms and the Government is committed to ensuring the best quality briefing and advice supports NSC decision-making.
10.We believe that the ongoing issue of Parliament’s access to sensitive information underpins the need for an open conversation between Government and Parliament on this matter, so that Parliament can be confident of its full ability to scrutinise Government decisions. We agree with the Iraq Inquiry that the Intelligence and Security Committee should play a key role in strengthening the checks and assessments on intelligence information when it is used to make the case for Government policies. We also recommend that the Government considers how to bolster the independence of the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee. It would be more independent if its place in the career structure were altered. It should be a matter of policy that those appointed to the role should not also be seeking promotion to a more senior role. We recognised that this may mean upgrading the post to the equivalent of Permanent Secretary in order to attract the necessary quality of individual. (Paragraphs 71 and 77)
The Intelligence and Security Committee already has substantial powers to access and scrutinise sensitive information. The Justice and Security Act 2013 reformed the ISC, making it a committee of Parliament, providing greater powers and increasing its remit including oversight of operational activity and the wider intelligence and security activities of Government. In addition to oversight of the three intelligence and security agencies, the ISC examines the intelligence related work of the Cabinet Office. This includes intelligence related work produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Assessments Staff working in the Joint Intelligence Organisation and the National Security Secretariat. The Committee also provides oversight of Defence intelligence in the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism in the Home Office. In addition, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy increasingly has access to closed briefings on sensitive national security issues to ensure that Parliament.
The Government recognised the need for the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee to be above and beyond influence in response to the 2004 Butler Review into Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. The Government response to the Butler Review, published in March 2005, noted that ‘The Prime Minister made clear to the House on 20 July 2004 that the Cabinet Office would set about making a permanent appointment to the Chairmanship of the JIC…and that this would be done in accordance with Lord Butler’s criteria. Every JIC Chair since the appointment of Sir Richard Mottram in November 2005 has been at Permanent Secretary level.
11.PACAC agrees with the assessment that alongside our criticism of the procedures of government in relation to the decision to go to war in Iraq, and together with our consideration of how the machinery of government can be improved to safeguard against such failings in the future, there is a further task. We, as Parliamentarians, must also reflect upon how Parliament could have been more critical and challenging of the Government at the time. This, we believe, is a vital consideration, not just for the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Defence Committee but for every Committee of this House. It is a lesson of which we must be consistently mindful, throughout all aspects of our work and scrutiny of Government. (Paragraph 79)
The Government notes the Committee’s conclusion.
12.Dr Glen Rangwala’s report makes a case, drawing from evidence presented in the Chilcot report, that the former Prime Minister, Rt Hon Tony Blair deliberately misled the House of Commons in advance of the decision to go to war in Iraq. We acknowledge the seriousness of Dr Rangwala’s conclusions and recognise that his report supports the view held by many members of the House. We note, however, that Sir John Chilcot believes that there was no personal and demonstrable decision by the then Prime Minister to deceive Parliament or the public. This Committee is not in a position to take up and investigate further Dr Rangwala’s conclusions. Should further evidence, beyond the Chilcot report, come to light that supports Dr Rangwala’s arguments, the House may wish to refer this matter to the Privileges Committee to take further. (Paragraph 81).
The Government notes the Committee’s conclusion.
13.We note with approval the Government’s efforts to improve cross- departmental coordination through the National Security Council and through the growth of permanent cross-departmental ‘joint units’. However, these alone are insufficient for improving cross-departmental coordination for the delivery of complex policies. We agree with the recommendation of the Iraq Inquiry that a senior Minister with lead responsibility should be appointed to manage cross-departmental issues when they are of a scale and importance comparable to UK post-conflict engagement in Iraq. The present Government can be seen to have done exactly this by appointing a lead Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. The Government must also set out how it is going to encourage a positive attitude amongst officials towards joint departmental working, to promote the right behaviours that support cross-departmental coordination. (Paragraph 90)
The Government welcomes the Committee’s endorsement of the approach it has taken on joint units. As the Government set out in the 2016 Annual Report on the SDSR 2015, it continues to embed a whole-of Government approach to dealing with national security policies. Bringing expertise together from across Government in new issue-focussed teams drawing from multiple Departments has allowed us to consolidate the relevant knowledge and experience, coordinating policy more efficiently, and giving scope for removal of duplication. To date the government has established the following policy- making and delivery Joint Units identified in SDSR 2015 to promote the right behaviours to support cross-departmental coordination:
We remain committed to exploring the establishment of further joint units where there is a good case to do so.
The Government also welcomes the Committee’s endorsement of the approach it has taken on Exiting the European Union.
9 January 2018