Keeping Britain Safe: An Assessment of UK Homeland Security Strategy

By Davis Lewin


Executive Summary and Recommendations

The Security Environment

  • In an interconnected world of networks, with the citizens as the referent object of security and new threats that can cascade to cause huge systemic disruption and in many cases blur the distinction between traditional threats to the state on an external basis and domestic security, it is clear that effective Homeland Security must play a vital part in the overall picture of keeping Britain safe. The UK Government understands this new security environment well, as evidenced by the progression and refinement of the concept in successive National Security Strategies. The concept which guides the Government in responding to the challenge of keeping Britain secure in the 21st Century – the idea of building and promoting ‘Resilience’ – is an appropriate and generally well conceived strategic framework through which to ensure a secure UK homeland.



  • Terrorism continues to be a primary threat to UK Homeland Security requiring urgent and sustained attention. In response to the rapid emergence of this threat, the United Kingdom has built one of the world’s most respected counter-terror apparatuses at an impressive speed. This process eventually saw the Office for Security and Counter-terrorism (OSCT) emerge as the preeminent point of oversight and implementation of the UK’s counter-terror strategy (CONTEST). Well funded and of genuine consequence for Britain’s security, the OSCT has thus proved a powerful force inside government.
  • Serious questions were raised however both over constituent parts of CONTEST as well as the OSCT’s role in shaping and delivering the strategy. A major focus of concert were disagreements over strategies against radicalisation and resultant decisions over the parameters government should adhere to when identifying community groups and external actors for engagement, as well as calibrating the wider rules of participation in public debate by those whose stated aims are not conducive to social cohesion and our homeland security.
  • These concerns focus in particular on the Preventing Violent Extremism part of the CONTEST strategy where there exists a deep gulf between the current and previous governments in approach. The Home Secretary’s new guidelines, which call for a shift in focus from combating extremists who engage specifically in violence only to a much broader conception of the threat of extremism to the UK both from UK citizens and residents as well as from foreign visitors, is a welcome and overdue development. Other parts of the strategy are also in the process of being streamlined, though it is too early to pass judgement on their resultant calibration.
    • The Coalition Government’s new approach to Preventing Violent Extremism  is a constructive adjustment to CONTEST policy. The Government must ensure that these directives are adopted and implemented throughout the relevant departments and must further ensure that all personnel leading, or engaged in, the development and delivery of CONTEST are acting in line with its directives.
    • The Government must finally tackle the serious problem of radicalisation on university campuses with utmost urgency. The situation that has been allowed to develop is unsustainable. It endangers our security at home and has international implications that are serious enough to threaten our alliance relationships. We are concerned that despite damning evidence of a problem, little progress has been made in developing an effective programme to address this issue.


The National Security Strategy

  • The National Security Strategy (NSS), whilst improving year on year since its inception in 2008 can at best be considered a work in progress. The 2010 iteration makes important headway on the shortcomings of the previous versions but still falls far short of what an NSS should be. The latest version builds on previous iterations to offer an accurate assessment and understanding of the cross-government effort required to ensure UK homeland security in this context, which is now deeply built into government thinking. It further addresses one major criticism of previous versions in offering a methodology for the prioritisation of threats.
  • However, the document is still mostly concerned with the organisation of government and whilst there are many welcome initiative in it stated with great fervour, both the NSS and the Strategic Defence and Security Review are woefully low on detail on virtually every initiative and resolution contained therein. Ultimately the documents fail to provide any coherent strategy – giving specific desired outcomes but instead opting for broad, bland statements of intent that are mostly welcome in principle, but largely meaningless without detail – and ultimately do not amount to a strategy.
    • In light of the shortcomings of the 2010 NSS and SDSR, the Government’s pledges on the monitoring of its implementation are welcome. However, the Government should resolve to shorten the five-year review period the NSS and SDSR stipulate. The current strategy documents are not a satisfactory basis for the UK’s Homeland Security strategy for the next five years. The Government should consider mandating a bi-annual National Security Review, and in the meantime must use every opportunity, formal and informal, to furnish further detail on the many initiative the 2010 NSS and SDSR contain.
    • The process through which the 2010 NSS and SDSR emerged was deeply unsatisfactory. Too much was done in too little time, consultations were not extensive enough and it presents a lost opportunity for a sophisticated debate about the internal and external defence of the United Kingdom, something reflected in the weakness of the published document which amount less to a strategy than a vague plan. The Government must ensure that future reviews of National and Homeland Security Strategy are conducted with the requisite time, breadth and authority so as to finally produce a document fit to truly give detailed direction on the strategy employed to protect the United Kingdom.


The Cyber Security Strategy

  • The UK Cyber Security Strategy is, on balance, on the right track. New, specific funding has been allocated to tackle this urgent threat. However, as with the NSS in general, there is an acute lack of detail in the SDSR about the planned initiatives and how they will interoperate. Whilst work is evidently underway to address this, it is clear that stakeholders remain unsure of the strategy’s detailed roadmap.
    • We urge the Government to continue to provide more information on the details of the new initiatives now under way to protect UK Cyber Space. This is especially crucial in ana area that is acknowledged to depend on a wide range of stakeholders, not least in the private sector. Particular attention should also be paid to the realities or interoperation between the various components of the government apparatus dealing with this area, by way of monitoring its overall effectiveness. It is important that the next update on the Cyber Security Strategy  provides the details behind the policies set out in the NSS and SDSR and the consultations currently underway.
    • The Government should further consider the creation of a senior role overseeing Cyber Security with requisite authority to oversee the integration of its new initiatives and ensure this crucial issue area enjoys the leadership it requires.


The Organisation of Government

  • The new Government has conducted a far-reaching and extensive reorganisation of the apparatus dealing with national and homeland security at the top of government. The creation of the National Security Council (NSC), as well as the streamlining of various bodies under the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office represent potentially good architecture. They constitute an attempt to create a structure appropriate to the challenge, which both retains the Lead Government Department model the United Kingdom has long executed in regard to Homeland Security, but combines this with a strong centre that is intended to set and co-ordinate policy across government.
    • As with any reorganisation of government, questions have arisen over the practical realities behind the newly created structures. There is some concern that the NSC, though involved in all major relevant parts of the policy process, has not established as much authority as intended and fulfils its coordinating role without much input into the overall policy direction. We urge the Government to put sufficient political support behind the new structure to ensure they establish themselves as the central authority on security matters they were designed to present. It is additionally important that the capacities for strategic assessment and analysis intended to be embedded in the new structures are fully developed and integrated in line with the vision the Government has set out.


The Armed Forces

  • We welcome the Government’s intention to create a permanent homeland security armed forces capability but are concerned at the lack of detail contained in the NSS and SDSR to that end.
    • The Government must urgently clarify the exact nature of this capability and ensure that its implementation is devised to facilitate maximum integration between the civilian and military homeland security capabilities.



  • Legislation relevant to Homeland Security is an on-going concern. Those witnesses tasked with protecting the United Kingdom all agreed that sufficient powers were in place to be effective against the relevant threats, but there was widely noted unease about the misuse of legislation and the associated corrosion of public trust.
    • We commend the Government for having taken immediate action in this regard by conducting a high-profile review and introducing new legislation, the calibration of which appears well conceived in principle, both with a view to reassuring the public as well as in terms of enabling the continued safeguarding of the UK. It is vital that the changes and the measures necessary are explained with an effective and credible campaign of public messaging. Public confidence is paramount to the Government’s efforts and it must do everything in its power to retain it.


Academia/ Industry

  • There is an evident problem of engagement on Homeland Security policy between government and other actors.
    •  The Government should investigate ways to formalise Academia’s input into the policy process by revisiting high-level structures such as SAPER (Scientific Advisory Panel for Emergency Response) which have seemingly been abandoned in favour of an ad hoc approach. There appear to be little coherence or funding to any Government strategy for engagement with Academia in the context of Homeland Security. Vague pledges in the 2010 SDSR will need to be followed up with concerted action to utilise out capital in the form of academic excellence to its full extent.
    • Similarly, the Government should improve its efforts to engage with Industry. There is too little elucidation of the wider constituent problems underlying Government requirements and too much fragmentation in procurement.
    • The Government should consider setting up a forum on a broader basis than the current liaison through the Home Office to interface with Industry. This could also play a vital role to serve as a rapid reaction convention during a serious emergency.
    • Business resilience is a serious concern and the Government’s vague initiatives are unlikely to address the factors behind this problem. We urge the Government to work with Business to devise a more comprehensive strategy to address this problem.


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