A £1bn-plus British conflict, stability and security fund (CSSF) is so secret that a committee of senior MPs and peers meant to be scrutinising it can’t even be told the names of the 40 countries where it is spent.
The problem was raised on Monday with the home secretary, Amber Rudd, by a former Conservative defence minister Archie Hamilton, who said MPs had been told the names of the countries had to remain secret because those that received funds would be embarrassed and those that didn’t would be jealous.
Rudd told the joint committee on national security strategy that the fund was spent on 97 programmes in 40 different countries. “They do a great job in reaching out, addressing UK interests in unstable areas,” she said. “They include groups such as the White Helmets in Syria, who do a great job.” The White Helmets are a volunteer civil defence force that operates in rebel-held areas in Syria.
Lord Hamilton raised the issued with Rudd, who is now chair of the government’s national security council, saying the committee “had discovered the other day that they were responsible to parliament for the CSS fund. We said we would be mildly interested in knowing in which countries this money is spent. They said we can’t be told because it is secret. We feel we are groping around in the dark.”
Hamilton named some of the countries the funding goes to as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Syria and said it “seemed odd” the committee couldn’t be told more.
The committee, which is chaired by the former Labour cabinet minister Margaret Beckett, recently published a report criticising the secrecy about the fund, which meant they could not endorse its operation.
“The lack of information available to us means that the jury is out on whether the CSSF is striking the right balance between the longer-term prevention of conflict and instability and short-term reaction to events,” said the report, which described its objectives, operation and achievements as opaque.
“The government is clearly keen for the [joint committee] to legitimise the CSSF by endorsing the fund’s operation. However, parliament does not have sufficient access to the information that we need effectively to scrutinise the CSSF.
“Without access to the national security council strategies that guide the use of the CSSF, information about the programmes and projects funded by the CSSF and a breakdown of CSSF expenditure, we cannot provide parliamentary accountability for taxpayers’ money spent via the CSSF,” the report concluded. “It is important that the government now bring forward proposals on how the [committee] might access this material while maintaining security.”
The home secretary responded to the complaints by offering to see if there was a way of giving the MPs and peers enough information in a closed session to ensure they had confidence in the fund.
Rudd said she would reconsider whether more information could be shared so that the official response had less of a “Yes Minister” feel to it.
MPs and peers on the joint committee also complained at what they described as a “Home Office stitch-up” of national security strategy and raised concerns that the focus of its implementation would now “bend towards” domestic counter-terrorism rather than international foreign and defence issues.
Rudd replaced Oliver Letwin, who was Cabinet Office minister, as chair of the national security council and the retiring national security adviser, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, is being replaced by the permanent secretary to the Home Office, Sir Mark Sedwill.
The home secretary rejected the accusation, asking that she be judged by results. It was also pointed out that Sedwill had had a long spell as a senior Foreign Office diplomat before joining the Home Office.