We launched our inquiry into the national security machinery and the work of the National Security Council (NSC) because of our concerns about the Government’s preparations for covid-19, the test case of our biosecurity inquiry last year. The end of our inquiry coincided with the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban following the withdrawal of NATO forces. Both issues demonstrate why the UK needs a strong and purposeful NSC in a fast-changing landscape of complex risks, shifting global power and rapid technological innovation. Yet they also exemplify, in different ways, our inquiry’s most negative findings about the ability of the NSC to make and implement strategy and to plan for crises with rigour.
With great regret, we have concluded that recent events in Afghanistan suggest the NSC and the cross-government machinery that supports its work are inadequate to the task. The fall of Afghanistan was devastating on both a human and strategic level. The Government presided over a major review of the UK’s national security that had little to say about the country and our presence there, while its limited preparation for NATO’s withdrawal of troops can only be described as a systemic failure.
More than a decade since the NSC was established in its present form, there remains a troubling lack of clarity about its role and remit, its relationship with other ministerial committees, how it allocates funding for its national security goals, and how it manages the division of responsibilities with the three Devolved Administrations. When a major national security crisis came in the form of covid-19, the decade-old NSC structures were abandoned in favour of ad-hoc arrangements and improvisation—a decision we regard as a serious mistake. Furthermore, while we acknowledge that the covid-19 pandemic was unprecedented in its scale, we are concerned that the Government has proven unable to prepare for and respond to two national security crises simultaneously.
High-quality and timely information is essential to the NSC’s discussions and decision-making. To achieve this in the digital age will require a shift in culture and skills within Whitehall’s national security community. The Government will increasingly need to draw on open-source information and data analysis, maximising the potential of vast volumes of data in combination with human expertise. Routine challenge and external engagement are essential in sharpening policy analysis and guarding against the dangers of groupthink. The Government must also use a range of techniques for thinking about, and preparing for, the many possible futures that lie before us.
We have heard little during this inquiry to assuage the considerable unease we expressed about the Government’s approach to risk management in our Biosecurity report. Witnesses painted a picture of a loose, unstructured cross-government approach, with weak oversight from the centre and unclear prioritisation of risks now that the Government has removed the numbered tiers from the National Security Risk Assessment. We therefore call on the Government to reinforce its risk management processes by establishing a consistent and robust warning function for all national security risks (both threats and hazards), providing notice of near-term dangers and changes in long-term trends—a task which might be assigned to a strengthened Joint Intelligence Organisation in the Cabinet Office. The Government should also re-establish a ministerial committee for national security risks, in addition to identifying departmental Chief Risk Officers for national security, overseen by a single Chief Risk Officer in the Cabinet Office.
As our inquiry drew to a close, the National Security Adviser (NSA) shared with us the outcomes of his review of national security systems and processes. While we welcome the Government’s desire to improve the national security machinery, we consider the NSA’s review to have been narrow in focus and unambitious in its outcomes. We can discern little that is qualitatively different between the ‘integration’ of the Integrated Review and the ‘fusion’ introduced by the last NSA.
Most concerningly, the new model for the NSC risks becoming a halfway house: it is neither a slower-paced forum for tackling the most fundamental questions facing UK national security, nor a weekly meeting of senior Ministers—convened and brokered by the Prime Minister—to tackle the most pressing issues. It is the Prime Minister’s personal investment of time and authority that lends credibility to the NSC and its cross-government structures. Yet under the new system, the Prime Minister will spend roughly 65% less time in NSC meetings than under the previous practice of weekly meetings when Parliament is in session.
In our initial assessment, therefore, this is a retrograde step that suggests a more casual approach to national security. However, we encourage the Government to return to a more open dialogue with us, sharing—in confidence as necessary—the information we need (and have previously received) if we are to make a constructive contribution to the reform of the UK’s national security machinery in this Parliament.