The UK's national security machinery Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The National Security Council: how—and how effectively—does it operate?

1.The role of the NSC is to act as the central point of discussion and ministerial decision-making on the UK’s national security strategy. This should reasonably include setting the priorities against which resources will be allocated and holding the rest of Government to account on that strategy’s implementation. (Paragraph 9)

2.We are concerned that the National Security Council’s agenda depends on departments raising topics for attention. This practice runs the risk that issues of strategic importance are not brought before the NSC because individual departments do not see the need for cross-cutting decisions. It also reinforces the departmental siloes the NSC was established to overcome. The Cabinet Office—under the expert leadership of the National Security Adviser—should proactively identify the items for collective discussion by Ministers, instead of being content to follow the lead of the system that the NSC is meant to direct. (Paragraph 19)

3.The NSC and its supporting structures were established in 2010 so that Ministers could “anticipate and decide”, both in setting the UK’s national security strategy and in managing risks. Yet when a major, anticipated national security crisis came in the form of covid-19, those structures were abandoned in favour of ad-hoc arrangements. We regard this as a serious mistake. (Paragraph 28)

4.There is a troubling lack of clarity about the NSC’s role and remit, and its relationship with other ministerial committees. This has important consequences for ensuring clear lines of ministerial authority and accountability, and for enabling robust and predictable processes in preparing for meetings and implementing any decisions. The confused and contradictory evidence we have taken from the Government on this issue has not been helped by its lack of transparency over existing inter-ministerial groups. (Paragraph 29)

5.The Cabinet Secretary should write to us, by the end of November, setting out the protocol or processes through which he recommends to the Prime Minister that topics are assigned for discussion at either the NSC, COBR, full Cabinet, another Cabinet committee or an inter-ministerial group. We also call on the Government to publish the full list of cross-government committees—at inter-ministerial and senior official level—that consider topics relevant to the Integrated Review. (Paragraph 30)

6.The NSA’s review of the national security system and processes has led to the creation of a two-tier NSC system with the Prime Minister chairing only half of the meetings. It is apparent that senior Ministers will spend approximately 30% less time in collective, routine discussion using the NSC structures. The Prime Minister will spend roughly 65% less time in NSC meetings. As such, the new arrangement risks becoming a halfway house: it appears to be neither a slower-paced forum for tackling the most fundamental questions facing UK national security; nor is it a weekly meeting of senior Ministers—convened and brokered by the Prime Minister—to tackle pressing issues. In our initial assessment, this is a retrograde step that suggests a more casual approach to national security. (Paragraph 31)

7.The Government should clarify:

The Government should also explain why it has decided not to designate a permanent Chair of the NSM. This would have positive implications for the consistency of decision-making on national security and their implementation, even though we recognise it may also have awkward political implications for the Prime Minister. (Paragraph 32)

8.The NSC’s activities depend heavily on the day-to-day interests, commitment and capacity of the Prime Minister, which has implications for the frequency with which the NSC meets and the topics it considers. Even strong structures and processes cannot compensate fully for a lack of prime ministerial engagement and the attendant loss of the NSC’s cross-government authority. While the National Security Ministers meeting might be a useful mechanism for a Prime Minister who is willing to delegate authority to colleagues, it is far from optimal. The Prime Minister is the ultimate broker between Ministers and it is his engagement that lends the NSC and its supporting structures credibility. There is also the risk that he may decide to take policy in a different direction, no matter what has been agreed at the NSM. It is imperative that the Prime Minister invests his time and personal authority in the work of the NSC in upholding the UK’s national security. (Paragraph 35)

9.The centrality of the NSA to the effective functioning of the NSC cannot be overstated. The twin challenges of covid-19 and Brexit have dominated the Government’s operational capabilities in the past two years. It is regrettable that this has coincided with a three-year period in which there was no dedicated National Security Adviser. It is vital that the NSA is a full-time, dedicated role, and that there is sufficient forward planning to avoid long gaps between appointees. He or she must also be able to command the confidence of the national security machinery across Whitehall. (Paragraph 39)

10.The revised membership of the NSC may aid its focus but we are concerned by the absence of the BEIS Secretary. This is a serious omission, given his responsibility for UK policy on climate change and energy security, his powers under the National Security and Investment Act 2021, and the inclusion of science and technology in the Integrated Review. It is also curious that the International Trade Secretary has been replaced by a Cabinet Office Minister whose portfolio covers the UK’s relationship with the EU but not the range of international trade matters covered in the Integrated Review. While we recognise that other Ministers will be invited to attend when appropriate, the new membership does suggest a narrow focus for the NSC, which could severely undermine its ability to oversee the implementation of the Integrated Review. We recommend that the BEIS Secretary be restored to the NSC, given the range and relevance of his responsibilities to UK national security and the Integrated Review. (Paragraph 44)

11.The Integrated Review sets a bold and ambitious direction of travel. However, it is unclear how this process has informed funding allocations under Spending Review 2020 or how it will guide SR21 for those departments that did not benefit from a multi-year settlement last November. (Paragraph 51)

12.It is regrettable that the Integrated Review did not take place alongside a multi-year spending review due to the covid-19 pandemic. As our predecessor Committees have highlighted, the two processes should take place in parallel and iteratively, with the Government’s ambition ultimately matched by affordability. Instead, the credibility of the Integrated Review’s broad commitments is undermined by the lack of associated funding for most departments. Severe—if temporary—cuts to the aid budget further bring the strategic sense and affordability of the Integrated Review into question, with limited discussion of how and why aid expenditure will be prioritised across themes, geographies and funding channels. (Paragraph 52)

13.The Government should return to the practice of holding its reviews of national security strategy in parallel with multi-year spending reviews in future. It should also use the opportunity of the Spending Review 2021 to explain how its funding allocations are consistent with the Integrated Review, and to identify any changes to its goals as a result. (Paragraph 53)

14.There are some attempts by the Cabinet Office to coordinate funding bids across departments and to guide the Treasury’s subsequent decision-making. Nevertheless, the final allocation of funding is frequently the result of a battle of wills between individual Secretaries of State, Number 10 and the Treasury. It is far removed from any clear-headed assessment of the Government’s key national security priorities, the level of resourcing required to achieve them, and collective agreement among senior Ministers of the final allocations. (Paragraph 54)

15.There is a pressing need for strategic direction over cross-government resources dedicated to national security. We recommend that the NSC be given a formal role in reviewing departmental settlement decisions relating to national security and assessing whether funding has been spent as allocated. Its collective view should then be circulated across Whitehall to inform funding decisions by individual Secretaries of State.
(Paragraph 55)

16.The Integrated Review was unfortunately published by the Government before it had reviewed NSC structures, raising the question of whether sufficient thought was given to its implementation as it was drawn up. There is limited qualitative difference between the ‘fusion’ introduced by the previous National Security Adviser and the ‘integration’ sought by the incumbent and demanded by the Integrated Review. (Paragraph 58)

17.It is unclear what role, if any, the NSC and NSM will now play in overseeing the Integrated Review’s implementation. We are gravely concerned that the failure to appoint a permanent Chair of the NSM will undermine accountability for, and oversight of, implementation of collective ministerial decisions on national security. (Paragraph 59)

18.NSC and NSM meetings should be conducted in a way that enables Ministers to monitor progress towards national security goals and to use that information in shaping their decisions, especially in the absence of the Prime Minister’s personal authority. As such, we recommend that:

19.We agree with Michael Gove, the Minister responsible for the Union, that a break-up of the United Kingdom would pose a fundamental risk to national security. If UK national security is to be served effectively, the Government must ensure that the voices of all three Devolved Administrations are heard within UK decision-making structures. Yet despite the emphasis on the Union in the Integrated Review, the Devolved Administrations have been side-lined in UK-wide national security structures, and they were not considered as part of the NSA’s review of internal processes. (Paragraph 69)

20.We recommend that the Cabinet Office undertakes a review of the role of the Devolved Administrations in national security strategy- and policy-making, with consideration given to:

21.We would welcome a briefing, in confidence, from the Government about its plans to make the Union a strong foundation for national resilience. Furthermore, noting the previous Government’s failure to prepare for a potential Scottish secession in 2014, we would also welcome assurances—in the event that a second Scottish referendum is called—that the Government has in place detailed and rigorously tested contingency plans for a break-up of the Union, including its implications for wider national security priorities. (Paragraph 71)

22.There are advantages to putting the NSC on a statutory footing, such as ensuring that there is a shared sense of ‘mission’ across Government, that the NSC’s purpose is clear, and that it meets with regularity. However, these could be achieved through stronger structures and sustained commitment from Ministers, without the risks of inflexibility inherent in creating a statutory body. We will continue to monitor NSC activity, including through the reporting requirements proposed later in this report, and will revisit this issue in future if necessary. (Paragraph 77)

What does the NSC need to fulfil its role effectively?

23.The NSC needs high-quality information and analysis to make its decisions. All information provided to the NSC should draw on the best possible sources for the topic under discussion—which, in many instances, will be open-source information and data analysis, supplemented as necessary by diplomatic reporting and secret intelligence. The Government must make the necessary organisational and technological changes that would enable it to bring insight from data together with human expertise. (Paragraph 103)

24.Diversity of thought and exposure to challenge are critical to better decision-making on national security, sharpening policy analysis and guarding against groupthink. The NSC structure should be in regular and constructive contact with external experts, including with academia, think tanks and those potentially involved in the delivery of the national security strategy—for example, relating to cyber security and biosecurity. In light of previous, unfulfilled commitments to improve external engagement and challenge, we recommend that the Government updates us on progress against this recommendation in six months’ time, and then on an annual basis. (Paragraph 104)

25.It is vital that the NSC is exposed not only to near-term assessments of risks, but also to longer-term ‘futures thinking’, using a range of tools and techniques such as strategic foresight and horizon-scanning. Such practice is not about predicting the future. Instead, it recognises the reality that the future will not play out as we expect, and so we must be prepared to respond to many possible contingencies. The civil service is already undertaking this work in isolated pockets of best practice, but the Government should consider strengthening this function within the Cabinet Office and giving it a more prominent, routine role in informing NSC discussions. This will better enable Ministers to stress-test their decisions, challenge their underlying assumptions and identify which additional capabilities might best protect the UK’s national security in the long term. (Paragraph 105)

26.We recommend strengthening the Joint Intelligence Organisation at the centre of Government, ensuring that its remit incorporates providing assessments of the full range of threats and hazards. The Government should also consider tasking it with providing the formal warning function for all national security risks, in the near and longer term. It is essential that the JIO has the capacity to perform this function well and the Treasury should prioritise funding accordingly. The JIO should also ensure that its reporting maximises the volume of open-source information available. (Paragraph 106)

27.The Government should have informed Parliament that it had removed the tiers from the 2019 National Security Risk Assessment during our biosecurity inquiry in 2020 or in its response to our Biosecurity report. (Paragraph 116)

28.We are seriously concerned by the apparent downgrading of risk management in central Government. There is still not an NSC sub-committee dedicated to the management of risks. Central oversight and governance of risk management across departments remains under review. It is also unclear how the Government is prioritising its efforts and funding now that it no longer uses tiers to categorise risks in the National Security Risk Assessment. (Paragraph 123)

29.Risk management across government is loose, unstructured, and lacking in central oversight and accountability at both the ministerial and official level. The centre of Government continues to maintain a relatively hands-off approach, rather than actively holding ‘lead departments’ to account for preparedness. In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic and the weaknesses it has exposed, this approach is demonstrably inadequate in managing the nature and scale of the threats and hazards we face today. (Paragraph 124)

30.We recommend that the Government:

The Government should also consider establishing an external audit function for the assessment and management of risks where appropriate. The Government should update us on its progress against this recommendation when it informs us of the outcomes of its review of the NSRA methodology and/or the biosecurity governance review. (Paragraph 125)

31.We welcome the Government’s plans for a College for National Security in principle. It is essential to create a shared mission, language and understanding of threats and opportunities. It is also critical that Whitehall develops new skills and policy knowledge relevant to the digital age: the use of data in policy-making and understanding of the impact of technological change should be instinctive among civil servants—rather than being the preserve of the expert few within Government. A College could also build networks and relationships between key stakeholders within and outside Government, helping to diversify the voices contributing to our national security. However, its ability to succeed depends on the clarity of its relationship with existing bodies such as the Diplomatic Academy and the Royal College of Defence Studies; commitment from senior leaders from across the sector; and sufficient resources to deliver the level of technical capabilities required for current and future national security challenges. (Paragraph 129)

32.It is vital that the NSC receives intelligence and policy options informed by a high-performing civil service with advanced capabilities, but there must be a willing and reliable customer at the end of the national security ‘supply chain’. We agree with the former Paymaster General, Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, that the attitude and experience of Ministers are essential factors in effective policy- and decision-making, and that some form of ‘training’ is indispensable. We therefore welcome the Government’s plans for a National Exercise Programme in 2022 and look forward to hearing more details, including which Ministers will participate. (Paragraph 132)

33.Transparency and accountability are key building blocks of effective decision-making and implementation in national security, increasing opportunities for challenge and connecting the public to national security decision-makers. Inevitably, there will be some issues that require discussions to take place behind closed doors. However, greater openness is essential in an environment in which citizens are subject to national security threats on a daily basis and, as such, are central actors in building national resilience. There is no reason why the NSC and its machinery should not aspire to be part of the wider open-data movement within Government, using open protocols and the best open-source tools available. However, integrating these effectively into policy-making will require a shift in culture and skills. (Paragraph 142)

34.We agree with Professor John Bew, who led the Integrated Review for the Prime Minister’s Office, that Parliament has a crucial role to play as a forum for strategic debate on national security. To that end, we recommend that the Government commits to an annual report to Parliament on national security and the Integrated Review, including notable updates to the trends outlined in the document, an update on the overall threat and opportunity picture, and progress against the Government’s national security objectives. Recognising the Committee’s proper role in scrutinising the NSC and its products, we also call on the Government to return to a more open relationship. To support our vital scrutiny work, we ask that the Government submits to us annually (in confidence, if needed):

a)Priority Integrated Review deliverables and progress against them;

b)NSC and NSM agendas, showing agenda items, paper titles and the name of the department or agency submitting them;

c)Attendees at each NSC and NSM meeting;

d)Reasons for any meeting cancellation or delays;

e)An update on external engagement (e.g. with policy experts) throughout the year, to inform NSC and NSM papers; and

f)An update on the work of the College for National Security, if it is established, detailing the training provided and the numbers of participants, broken down by department, agency and type of external organisation. (Paragraph 143)

The NSC and Afghanistan

35.The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is devastating on both a human and strategic level. Given both the timing of this crisis—which came after we had finished taking evidence for our inquiry—and the secrecy of NSC discussions, we are left with a number of outstanding questions about the Government’s handling of Afghanistan and the role of the NSC in key processes. We will call the National Security Adviser to provide oral evidence and a private briefing at the earliest opportunity after the conference recess. (Paragraph 149)

36.By 18 October, the NSA should write to us to answer the following questions:

a) At what point did the Government give its consent to the February 2020 Doha Agreement negotiated by the United States and the Taliban? If it did not agree with this decision, why did it endorse the agreement at the UN Security Council meeting on 10 March 2020?

b) Why did (some parts of) the UK Government only begin planning for the withdrawal of NATO troops and its potential consequences, including the increased likelihood of the Taliban coming to power, in April 2021?

c) What was the role of the NSC and the Afghanistan NSIG in overseeing planning for the implementation of the Doha Agreement? On which dates did the NSC meet to discuss Afghanistan since April 2021?

d) What action did the Government take to anticipate and prepare for the second- and third-order effects of the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan?

e) On which date did the NSC—or another ministerial committee—last revisit the Government’s plans for an urgent evacuation of Kabul, including the processing of asylum seekers (if, indeed, such a plan was in place)?

f) Has the NSC met to discuss the strategic implications of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban? If not, when will it do so?

g) Why is there so little reference to Afghanistan in the Integrated Review? At what point will this be revisited by the NSC, and will the Government be drawing up a new strategy on Afghanistan?

h) What are the implications of the United States’ approach to Afghanistan in the past two years for the future of NATO, and for the viability of the Integrated Review, which is based on assumptions of a globally engaged US?

i) Do events in Afghanistan suggest a US withdrawal from intervention elsewhere (for example in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sinai and Mali); and what are the implications for the UK’s ability to pursue its own objectives in relation to counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and conflict resolution?

j) What are the implications of the Taliban victory for the UK’s relationship with Pakistan, including the terrorist risk emanating from that country, and the attendant risks of terror attacks in the UK?

The Government should use an annex to the NSA’s letter to provide information that cannot be put into the public domain. (Paragraph 150)

37.There are hard questions for the Government to answer about what appears to be either a failure to understand fundamental elements of the situation in Afghanistan—specifically, the strategy and strength of the Taliban and, as importantly, the fragility of the Afghan Government and its security forces without NATO support—or a failure to respond effectively to the information available, or possibly both. (Paragraph 154)

38.It is impossible for us to draw conclusions from the fragmentary reporting and speculation currently available in the public domain. Nevertheless, the Government must establish where the root of the problem lay, assessing whether it was one or a combination of:

The NSA should outline his initial assessment of these matters in the confidential annex of his letter to us. (Paragraph 155)

39.The key to preparing for an uncertain future is to plan in detail for multiple possible scenarios. While no plan survives contact with reality, it is the act of rigorous planning that enables the Government to adapt and respond in a more coordinated way as events unfold. (Paragraph 156)

40.We urge the Government to revisit how it plans for major domestic and
international crises, including the possibility of simultaneous crises—
as has happened with covid-19 and Afghanistan. As events in Afghanistan have shown, it is essential that the Government has up-to-date and detailed procedural plans for a range of potential scenarios, which both assign tasks and responsibilities across departments, and inform exercises involving Ministers and officials. These plans should cover a range of highly serious, anticipatable contingencies—such as the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones and fragile countries, the emergence of a new infectious disease, a prolonged, wide-area electricity outage, a major global financial crisis and the withdrawal of NATO security guarantees by key Allies. The Government should update us in confidence on its progress against this recommendation in six months’ time, and then on an annual basis. (Paragraph 157)

Published: 19 September 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement