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Parliamentarians criticise failures in government security planning

The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has said that there are serious weaknesses in the workings of government structures that deal with national security, as exemplified by both the pandemic and recent events in Afghanistan.

A new report by the committee concluded that these two events had illustrated, in their separate ways, the most negative findings of an inquiry about the ability of the National Security Council, created in 2010 by the then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, to make and implement strategy, manage risk and plan for crises with rigour.

The report, The UK’s National Security Machinery, described the government’s structures and processes for national security as inadequate and has made several recommendations to improve the situation and called on the government to give further evidence on their implementation, including through an annual report to Parliament.

The paper claims that a review of that machinery by the National Security Adviser – the Prime Minister’s top aide on national security, Sir Stephen Lovegrove - that was intended to improve the system, was in fact a retrograde step that had suggested a more casual approach. Under the proposed new system, the Prime Minister would spend roughly 65 per cent less time in National Security Council meetings than under the previous practice of weekly meetings when Parliament is in session.

Ministers are now urging the Prime Minister to invest his time and personal authority in the National Security Council’s role of upholding the UK’s national security. It also ays that a re-invigorated National Security Council should have a distinct remit with clear lines of responsibility and accountability, a role in allocating funding for national security priorities; and procedures for routinely engaging with the Devolved Authorities (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Dame Margaret Beckett, chair of the committee, said: “The whole point of the National Security Council is that it is supposed to prepare for, and act upon, a long-term view of our national security risks. It should be above the hurly-burly of daily concerns. But when two events – the Covid 19 pandemic and Afghanistan - demonstrated yet again what a dangerous world we now live in, weaknesses in the structures of the National Security Council were exposed.

”I pay tribute to the medical and military personnel, and the civil servants who have worked so hard to respond to these two most recent crises. But their brave efforts cannot mask the fundamental need for the centre of government to get a grip on national security planning.”   

The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy took evidence from former prime ministers and both current and former ministers and senior officials.

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