Boris Johnson has been accused of having a “more casual” approach to Britain’s national security in a highly critical report by MPs which claims the government is unable to cope with more than one major crisis at a time.
The Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, which is made up of senior MPs and peers, said the fall of Afghanistan had revealed the current system was “inadequate to the task”.
In the report, they said the lack of preparation for the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan could “only be described as a systematic failure”.
It also said reforms to the National Security Council (NSC) will mean Mr Johnson would cut the time he spends leading its meetings by around two-thirds.
Former prime minister David Cameron established the NSC in 2010, with weekly meetings uniting senior ministers and defence and intelligence chiefs.
The committee said a review into how the NSC operated, by national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove, found it would result in Mr Johnson chairing only around half its meetings in the future.
It described the move as “a retrograde step that suggests a more casual approach to national security”, which would put the NSC at risk of 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,” the report said.
The report said there was a “troubling lack of clarity” about the role and remit of the NSC, with witnesses describing “a loose, unstructured cross-government approach, with weak oversight from the centre and unclear prioritisation of risks”.
It noted that its structures were quickly abandoned in favour of “ad-hoc arrangements and improvisation” when the COVID-19 crisis broke – a move the committee said was “a serious mistake”.
It said that when the crisis in Afghanistan occurred over the summer, the government was “unable to prepare for and respond to two national security crises simultaneously”.
One expert witness warned of a one-in-six chance of an “existential catastrophe” over the next 100 years – from extreme climate change scenarios to nuclear conflict.
The committee wrote that there was an urgent need for reform.
Dame Margaret Beckett, the committee chair and former foreign secretary, 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.”
She continued: “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.”
A government spokesman said the national security machinery was being strengthened following its integrated review of foreign and defence policy earlier this year.
“The prime minister is clear that the first duty of the government is to provide security for the people of the UK, which he is absolutely committed to delivering,” the spokesman said.
“The prime minister and his government have just agreed on a unique trilateral defence arrangement with Australia and the United States.
“The national security machinery is being strengthened in response to the integrated review as well as events such as COVID and Afghanistan as necessary.”
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