All I want for Christmas: Better Oversight

by | Dec 22, 2008

Last year I argued that: a quadripartite parliamentary select committee on national security should be created – bringing together existing select committees that focus on UK national interests, security and defence policy. The good news is that this idea is currently being toyed with in Westminster and Whitehall. The bad news is that I’m not sure our politicians are really up to overseeing such a complex system and ensuring it is made accountable to the British public.

I’ve been trawling through the uncorrected evidence of a session on national security and resilience. The evidence session was undertaken by the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence. In the hot seats were Rt Hon Bob Ainsworth (then a Minister at the MoD), Admiral Lord West (Minister for Security and Counter-Terrorism), and a range of senior officials from Government departments. I don’t think I have ever read a more thoroughly depressing, lightweight, evidence session, which not only fails to ask the important questions but largely fails to hold Ministers and officials to account. Below are the more amusing questions and exchanges from the session.

No.1: Know your brief (Ministers)

Chairman: National Security Strategy, who owns it?

Mr Ainsworth: The lead department for national security in the United Kingdom is the Home Office.

Mr Jenkin: (HCDC):  Does not the Home Office lead inevitably lead us to a rather narrow definition of what a National Security Strategy is, given that, for example, our foreign policy is crucial to our national security?

Lord West: If I could just clarify – the Home Office does not lead on the whole National Security Strategy. We are responsible for the counter-terrorist aspect of it and specific Home Office duties.

Mr Jenkin: That would explain why the NSS is a bit of a Christmas tree because there is no single minister responsible for creating coherence in the National Security Strategy?

No.2: Losing the war on terror.

Mr Holloway: You have got doctrines, plans, committees, initiatives, X, Y and Z and of course it all sounds absolutely marvellous, but the reality is that we are not winning the war on terror. Do you not think we could be doing rather more in terms of dealing with the drivers of radicalisation and be a little more sensitive in our foreign policy because it might actually make your job rather easier?

No.3: ‘Overarching title’ – what a great title!

Mr Jenkins: When I heard the term “overarching strategy” I thought that is a great title, a great term. Within that do we have different departments reporting, like stovepipes, up to the top, or have the departments changed their policy, and are they working closer with each other so there are departments working at every level? How has that approach changed the operation of the MoD; and has the MoD felt its role in working through the Home Office is somewhat restrained; or is it quite happy to do that; or would it like more contacts, please?

No.4: Mum’s the word

John Smith: Without giving away any secrets, can you say hand on heart that this new joined-up approach to the national security threats on our country has actually prevented or deterred actual threat of attack or security threats against us, since you have been taking this new approach?

No.5: The Government’s ‘dilusional’ talk

Mr Holloway: Admiral, I worry about this because I think some of this talk is possibly dilusional. If you talk about having a joined-up approach in Afghanistan, which I know a tiny bit about; I lose faith in everything else you are saying about what else is happening behind the scenes. As a military man you and, I guess, I, in my pathetic military career, were always told if you wanted to win an insurgency you did not need coordination forums, focus groups, secretariat, yet more self-licking lollipop process; we were told that you had to have unity of command and unity of purpose. Do we have either in the UK at the moment on this – unity of command and unity of purpose?

No.6: Where is this coordinator?

Mr Jenkin: We have mentioned Robert Hannigan a few times and he is this coordinator. Why is he not here answering for the government on this?

No.7: Red teaming for beginners

Mr Holloway: Do you have groups of people who sit around working up potential scenarios of things that terrorists might do, areas that are vulnerable?

No.8: Spot the question

Mr Jenkin: My question follows on from this which is that we all know from the polling evidence that the public does not really like being stirred up about this subject. It makes politicians get accused of trying to frighten the public for some sort of political reasons and it is regarded with great suspicion. Is there a danger that, because we all want to avoid doing that, we are actually not giving this the profile in government that it really deserves and that we do not want to have a national security minister in the Cabinet because that would add to the anxiety of people and raise people’s suspicions more, but have we actually not got to face it and have we also not got to recognise that the public need to be made aware of these dangers because, the more aware the public is of these dangers and risks, the more alive they are to those risks and in fact the safer we will be?


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    Charlie Edwards is Director of National Security and Resilience Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to RUSI he was a Research Leader at the RAND Corporation focusing on Defence and Security where he conducted research and analysis on a broad range of subject areas including: the evaluation and implementation of counter-violent extremism programmes in Europe and Africa, UK cyber strategy, European emergency management, and the role of the internet in the process of radicalisation. He has undertaken fieldwork in Iraq, Somalia, and the wider Horn of Africa region.

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