Lack of post-Brexit defence planning put politics over security, says committee

Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy says lack of Brexit planning "indicated the prioritisation of political interests above national security,"

By Matt Foster

11 Jul 2016

MPs and peers have said they are "surprised and disappointed" that the implications of Britain's decision to leave the European Union were not included in last year's major review of UK defence and security policy.

The latest National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review was published at the end of 2015, with the weighty, 96-page document designed to give a five-year overview of security policy and provide reassurance over the resources allocated to key defence projects.

But a new report by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy lambasts the government for failing to include Brexit contingency planning in its work, pointing out that the document devoted just one paragraph to the then-upcoming referendum.

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"When the NSS & SDSR 2015 was published in November 2015, the prime minister’s renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the European Union was still under way and the date for the referendum had not been set," the report says.

"Nevertheless, it was known then that the referendum was due before the end of 2017 and therefore within the five-year period covered by the NSS & SDSR 2015.

"Despite the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations, we expected the government at least to set out what action would be required in the short term following a possible vote for the UK to leave the European Union."

The joint committee says it considers it a "failing on the part of the government" that security implications of a Leave vote were not included in the SDSR, and say that the new government "must address any such security implications of the UK’s changed place in the world as a matter of urgency".

"The failure to outline a plan to address that contingency indicated the prioritisation of political interests above national security," its report says.

"If the National Security Strategy is to be credible, it must prioritise the maintenance of national security above political expediency. Planning for a new security review, starting with a detailed analysis of the changed security environment, should begin immediately."

Admiral Lord West, the former head of the Navy who is also a member of the joint committee, said earlier this month that a lack of contingency planning for Brexit had left key defence officials "running around like headless chickens".

"I am shocked that the MoD didn't have a plan of action, the MoD and the agencies and everyone else, for Brexit," Lord West told CSW's sister title The House magazine.
"Instead of them saying 'right the worst has happened, this is now what we do', they didn't have a clue what they were going to do. They had no Plan B. The military always has a Plan B. They also have a Plan C. That's what we're good at."

Foreign secretary Philip Hammond last week defended the government's decision not to instruct civil servants to plan for Brexit, saying that such work could have been interpreted as "scaremongering".

He told MPs: "I think if we had sought to engage departments of state in preparing evidence of the likely consequences of a leave vote and that information had found its way into the public domain that would have been seen as an unwarranted intervention in the course of the campaign."

30% staff cut questioned

Elsewhere in the committee's report, the group of MPs and peers question the MoD's decision to cut its civilian workforce by a further 30% over the course of the current parliament. 

Last year's strategy said the MoD would reducing civilian staff numbers to 41,000, as part of plans to make the ministry "leaner and more efficient".

But the committee says it is "questionable whether this scale of efficiencies can be made without reducing the MoD’s capacity to formulate and deliver policy".

"There is a risk that the planned 30% reduction in the MoD civilian headcount by 2020 could undermine the Ministry’s ability to deliver the NSS & SDSR 2015," the MPs and peers say.

The group calls on the ministry to review the impact of the proposed cut "on policy formulation and delivery" and says the MoD should then "place its analysis in the public domain".

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