The official in charge of the government’s paused defence and foreign policy review has told MPs that the landmark project will retain a skeleton staff to keep it ticking over and consider the impact of Covid-19 on its work.
Alex Ellis, who was appointed deputy national security adviser in January after serving as a director general in the Department for Exiting the European Union, told members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the pause would also mean its requests for briefings would be placed on hold.
Echoing the sentiment of prime minister Boris Johnson, who announced the review was being scaled back last month, Ellis – who is a former British ambassador to both Brazil and Portugal – said the government had a pressing need to focus on Covid-19, noting that the pandemic “would, of course, have significant international implications”.
“This pause on the integrated review will mean that the consultation and engagement that we had planned with external stakeholders and parliament, including private briefings, will be placed on hold until the review is resumed,” Ellis said, referring to the review by its shortened title. The exercise’s full title is the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy.
Ellis continued: “Similarly, the government will respond to the committee’s calls for written evidence once the integrated review resumes. We cannot say yet when that will happen, but the government will of course keep parliament updated.
“We are retaining a small core capacity to think about the long-term effect of Covid-19 and issues expected to be covered in the integrated review. This team will be very limited in size and function, but its tasks will include following the progress of the committee’s inquiry and to be ready for resumption including re-engaging with the committee when appropriate.”
When the government kicked off the defence and foreign policy review in February, the prime minister was clear that the process would “go beyond” previous exercises and look at how the whole of government could be structured to look at global challenges.
Closer to home, Ministry of Defence procurement was also confirmed by No.10 as a key target area, underscoring the interest of Johnson’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, in shaking up the way the department operates.
In addition to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee's inquiry into the integrated review, other panels of MPs had launched calls for evidence on the exercise in the four weeks between its start date and the pause.
Former Foreign and Commonwealth Office permanent under secretary and past national security adviser Lord Peter Ricketts had already given evidence to the Defence Select Committee’s inquiry when the entire exercise was placed on hold.
He told CSW last month that while he supported the decision to pause work, the review was now unlikely to be finished until 2021.
“It seems to me that the government is going to be doing nothing but this crisis until the mid year, probably. And so it would be sensible to give themselves another six months, nine months… They needn’t be precise about a time when they delay it,” he said.
When the integrated review was launched in February, the government said it expected the “main bulk” of its work would be completed later this year, in line with the Comprehensive Spending Review.