Constitutional arrangements for the use of armed force - Constitution Committee Contents

Chapter 2: The Government's internal decision-making process


22.  We have investigated aspects of the Government's internal process for making decisions on the use of force. In particular, we have considered the roles of the Cabinet, the National Security Council ("NSC"), the Defence Council and senior forces personnel. In this chapter we describe what we understand to be the Government's current arrangements, with the aim of shedding light on the processes which are followed and the relationships between various actors.

The Cabinet

23.  On these issues, as on all other matters of Government business, the Cabinet is the ultimate decision-making body within Government. Alistair Burt MP stressed that, though much of the detailed policy formulation and day-to-day discussions about military interventions take place in cabinet committees (including the NSC and, where appropriate, war cabinets), these discussions are advisory in nature, and "in line with the Ministerial Code, formal decisions relating to the commitment to military intervention are taken by the Cabinet."[23] Similarly, though the exigencies of a conflict situation may require the creation of a dedicated war cabinet (or the use of an equivalent cabinet committee) to receive information and make decisions day-to-day, the authority for such a body should be derived from the full Cabinet.[24]

24.  The formal role of the Cabinet may also be significant in strengthening the actual and perceived legitimacy of deployment decisions. Though smaller (and potentially less formal) discussions will always occur around the Cabinet process, these ought not to be at the expense of formal Cabinet procedures for the taking of final decisions. In the context of the decision in 2003 to participate in the invasion of Iraq, for example, the Rt Hon. Jack Straw MP, Foreign Secretary from 2001 to 2006, said:

    "I was uncomfortable … about the informality of decision-making that took place when Tony Blair was Prime Minister … I absolutely stand by the decisions we made on Iraq but, on this issue of legitimacy, they would have been regarded—then and today—as far more legitimate if there had been a much more formal process within the Government over making them".[25]

25.  The Cabinet's role in decision-making in this area is clearly of continuing importance. The need for decisions to be taken at Cabinet level is significant in ensuring both that the principle of collective ministerial responsibility is engaged (thus allowing the Government to be held properly to account for the decision by Parliament and the public) and, as far as possible, that the decision will be recognised as having been arrived at following a proper and robust process within the Government. Though other Government bodies have important roles in advising the Cabinet, preparing discussion there and implementing its decisions, we consider that it continues to be constitutionally important that the full Cabinet is the ultimate decision-maker on whether to use armed force overseas.

The National Security Council

26.  The NSC was created by the current Government in 2010. It is a cabinet committee with terms of reference covering national security, foreign policy, defence, international relations and development, resilience, and energy and resource security.[26] It meets weekly under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister and is attended by senior Cabinet ministers, senior armed forces personnel (including the Chief of the Defence Staff) and the heads of the intelligence services, and is supported by a dedicated secretariat led by the National Security Adviser.

27.  There was consensus amongst our witnesses that the NSC has brought a number of benefits to Government decision-making. Several witnesses emphasised that the NSC allows a cross-departmental approach in a manner which reflects the close connection between foreign policy, security and defence.[27] Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, thought that the NSC "adds a significant element of process and clarity to debates which, in the past, often lacked both these attributes."[28] Alistair Burt MP suggested that the regular, formal and well-informed discussions of the NSC have helped to elicit confidence in the Government's decisions in the areas of security and defence.[29] Jack Straw MP told us that "all the reports I receive are that [the NSC] represents a significant advance in our constitutional arrangements."[30] However, the parliamentary body which scrutinises the NSC has expressed concerns about how it has operated and how influential it has been in practice.[31]

28.  The NSC provides a regular and formal line of communication between senior ministers, senior military figures and the heads of the intelligence services. It allows an "institutional memory" to develop, both through the regular attendance of ministers and through the National Security Adviser and the NSC secretariat. This in turn ought to allow the Cabinet to be provided with high-quality advice to inform its decision making on matters of national security and defence. Further, the NSC's wide terms of reference take account of the increasingly blurred lines between defence, security and diplomacy.

The Defence Council and senior armed forces officers

29.  The Defence Council is the body which provides the formal legal basis for the conduct of defence in the UK through a range of powers vested in it by statute and Letters Patent.[32] It is chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence and comprises other ministers, senior military officers and senior civil servants in the Ministry of Defence.[33]

30.  We heard evidence that, though the Defence Council possesses considerable legal authority, its practical role in the UK's defence arrangements is very limited. Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff 2006-10, told us, "[the Defence Council] is a legal entity but it does not meet regularly as a grand body, as it were."[34] General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff 2003-06, clarified that the Defence Council is not involved in executive decision-making.[35] The practical significance of the Defence Council was summarised by the Rt Hon. Andrew Robathan MP, Minister for the Armed Forces: "put it this way: I do not have an appointment for the Defence Council in my diary."[36]

31.  Our witnesses were clear that the practical role of advising the Prime Minister on the armed forces falls to the Chief of the Defence Staff, in consultation with his senior colleagues. Field Marshal Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, Chief of the Defence Staff 1997-2001, explained the process which was followed during his time in office:

    "Before I saw [the Prime Minister] I held a meeting with the other chiefs of staff so that we could get what we thought our line was. Obviously the Chief of Intelligence was there, as were various other people, including the Permanent Under-Secretary [of the Ministry of Defence]. I would chair the meeting, hear what had to be said and then tell the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State [for Defence]".[37]

32.  Lord Stirrup added: "clearly the Secretary of State [for Defence], the ministers and the Chief of the Defence Staff are all involved very closely in formulating advice for the Prime Minister. The decision … is essentially taken by the Prime Minister in Cabinet."[38]

33.  The provision of military expertise and advice to the Prime Minister is delivered by the Chief of the Defence Staff, in consultation with other senior military officers, ministers and officials—many of whom are members of the Defence Council. Although the Defence Council possesses potentially significant legal powers, it is not in practice a meaningful part of the decision-making apparatus of the Government as regards the use of armed force overseas. In terms used by Bagehot, it could be seen as a dignified, rather than efficient, part of the constitution.

The Cabinet Manual

34.  Taken as a whole, the Government's formal internal arrangements for deciding on whether to use armed force overseas seem to us to be appropriate. The arrangements allow for the provision of detailed advice on the security, defence and political considerations involved in authorising the use of force, through expert individuals such as the Chief of the Defence Staff and specialist bodies such as the NSC, whilst preserving the Cabinet as the forum for taking the final decision within government.

35.  We are concerned, however, that the Government's internal mechanisms in this area are not well understood. In particular, we note that the Cabinet Manual does not contain a detailed description of the processes we have set out. Lord Wallace of Saltaire told us that, when the Cabinet Manual next undergoes a revision, the Government will consider including a fuller description of the NSC.[39] We welcome this; however, it would be clearer and more transparent if the Cabinet Manual covered the whole advisory and decision-making apparatus described in this chapter. The Government should amend the Cabinet Manual so that it includes a detailed description of their internal arrangements for advising and deciding on the use of armed force.

23   Q57. Back

24   Q10. Back

25   Q41. Back

26   Q55. Back

27   See, for example, Q26 (Field Marshal Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, Chief of the Defence Staff 1997-2001). Back

28   Q8. Back

29   Q56. Back

30   Q41. Back

31   Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, The work of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy in 2012 (2nd Report, Session 2012-13, HL Paper 115, HC 984). Back

32   The Defence Council was established by Order in Council in 1964 under the Defence (Transfer of Functions) Act 1964 and replaced the Defence Board. The Admiralty Board, the Army Board and the Air Force Board sit under the Defence Council and are charged with the administration of matters relating to the naval, military and air forces respectively. Back

33   Its full membership is: all ministers at the Ministry of Defence; the permanent secretary, chief scientific adviser and director general for finance of the Ministry of Defence; the Chief of the Defence Staff and his deputy; the First Sea Lord, the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff; and the Chief of Defence Materiel. Back

34   Q29. Back

35   Ibid. Nigel Inkster shared that view (Q8). Back

36   Q55. Back

37   Q27. Back

38   Ibid. Back

39   Q57. Back

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