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New Clause 15 — Defence statistics

Armed Forces Bill (Programme) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 14th June 2011.

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Votes in this debate

‘(1) The Secretary of State for Defence shall publish annual statistics on—

(a) defence spending by each Government Office Region by—

(i) equipment expenditure;

(ii) non-equipment expenditure;

(iii) service personnel costs;

(iv) civilian personnel costs; and

(b) defence spending in each local authority area by—

(i) equipment expenditure;

(ii) non-equipment expenditure;

(iii) service personnel costs;

(iv) civilian personnel costs.

(2) The Secretary of State for Defence shall publish annual estimates of national and regional employment dependent on MoD expenditure and defence exports.’.—(Angus Robertson.)

Brought up, and read the First time .

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

I beg to move, that the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to speak in favour of new clause 15 on defence statistics, which, for some, might appear a dry subject but which, after a strategic defence and security review and during an ongoing basing review, is quite important. It is especially important to those of us who have concerns that the way in which the Ministry of Defence has been managing its infrastructure, manning levels and spending is grossly imbalanced. We know all this because it has consistently provided parliamentary answers that show it to be true. It is true in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in a number of English regions. The worrying prospect is that the result of this basing review will confirm that many of the trends that I have raised repeatedly here, in Westminster Hall and in parliamentary questions will continue.

There are reasons to be worried. For example, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that since the last strategic defence review in 1997, 10,000 defence jobs have been lost in Scotland. We also know that between the last strategic defence review and this current review, the gap between Scotland’s population share of defence spending and the amount of money actually spent on defence in Scotland was £5.6 billion. The underspend statistics for Wales and Northern Ireland during the same period are £6.7 billion and £1.8 billion.

Photo of Gemma Doyle Gemma Doyle Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that if he had his way and Scotland was independent, the MOD footprint would be non-existent in Scotland. He may wish to come to an arrangement with England or with the MOD in an independent Scotland, but he has to assume that all military assets would be withdrawn. Furthermore, he supports the scrapping of Trident so, implicitly, the MOD spend would be less than it is now.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

I am interested in the hon. Lady’s intervention. I am sorry that she did not take the opportunity to support the case I am making. The case about defence statistics is quite important, which is why the leader of her party in the Scottish Parliament, Iain Gray, put his name to a joint submission that used those very statistics, together with the leader of the Conservative and Unionist party and the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament. Incidentally, all those party leaders have hinted at their resignations, having lost in the recent Scottish Parliament elections. None the less, all three leaders, together with the Scottish National party, put their names to that submission.

The hon. Lady wishes to entice me to talk about the advantages of independence in relation to defence, which I am happy to do at any point. I note that she did not take the opportunity to apologise for the loss of 10,000 defence jobs in Scotland while her party was in power. I am more than confident that using our population share of defence spending in Scotland would provide a net increase in spending and manpower, protecting the bases that have been closed by both her party and the Conservatives.

To return to the publication of defence statistics, I would have thought it was a matter of concern to Members on both sides of the House that rather than continuing to provide statistics on these matters, the UK Government have simply stopped answering parliamentary questions and providing the important information. Members who have not looked at the issue might be asking themselves, “Are the statistics that the SNP is taking about available in other countries?” The answer is, “Yes, of course they are.” The Canadian Department of National Defence provides statistics to its parliamentarians across the range of expenditure. In the United States, members of Congress and everyone else can access information on defence spend across the communities and states of the US. Until recently, that was the case here in the UK.

On jobs, we know that when Labour left office there were 10,480 fewer people in defence jobs than there were in 1997. That leaves the current uniform contingent in Scotland at 12,000, which is significantly less than our population share. Looking at the Government Front Bench, I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Defence acknowledged when giving evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee that there had indeed been a disproportionate reduction in defence jobs in Scotland under Labour. However, it must be pointed out that for a number of years we had consistent answers to parliamentary questions on service personnel costs, civilian personnel costs, equipment expenditure and non-equipment expenditure.

In fact, there is a complete dataset from 2002 to 2008 showing a number of important but very worrying facts. It shows that the defence underspend increased from £749 million in 2002-03 to £1.2 billion in 2007-08, a 68% increase in just six years. Between 2002 and 2008 the underspend on defence in Scotland under the Labour Government was a mammoth £5.6 billion, contributed by Scottish taxpayers to the MOD but not spent on defence in Scotland. Between 2005 and 2008 there was a drastic real-terms decline year on year in defence spending in Scotland.

I note that Gemma Doyle is not seeking to intervene to explain why the defence underspend was so large under Labour. There was actually a 3% cut in defence spending between 2006-07 and 2007-08, a shocking indictment of the previous Labour Government. If we widen the scope of the statistics to include Wales and Northern Ireland, we see that in the six years from 2002 to 2008 there was an accumulated underspend of £14.2 billion. In the same period in which there was an underspend of £5.6 billion in Scotland, there was a staggering £6.7 billion underspend in Wales and a £1.8 billion underspend in Northern Ireland. I point out to right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches representing constituencies in England that regions across England similarly have significant issues of defence underspend.

What the statistics show is shocking enough, but just wait for how the Ministry of Defence chose to deal with this! Did it make policy choices to deal with the underspend or make decisions to remedy the fact that there were these cuts in defence manpower? No, it did not. In 2009, tucked away at the end of a report, there was an “important note” entitled “Cessation of National & Regional Employment Estimates”, which stated:

“Ministers have agreed that after this year (2009) the Ministry of Defence…will no longer compile national and regional employment estimates because the data do not directly support MOD policy making and operations.”

I thought, my goodness, surely there is some mistake—that could not be the case. Then, on 6 April last year, the then Secretary of State for Defence provided what turned out to be the last parliamentary answer on defence expenditure in Scotland, confirming that it was not a mistake, and that rather than dealing with the policy challenges the MOD was going to get rid of the proof:

“Since 2008 the MOD has not collected estimates of regional expenditure on equipment, non-equipment, or personnel costs as they do not directly support policy making or operations.”—[Hansard, 6 April 2010; Vol. 508, c. 1200W.]

The information is still readily available within the Ministry of Defence, but the decision was taken not to provide it to Parliament.

This has happened since the time of the last Labour Government. Given the public pronouncements about transparency, new politics and the respect agenda that we heard from the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition allies, I hoped that their rhetoric might be matched by openness. I have not been encouraged by much in the coalition agreement, but it says on page 7:

“we”— that is, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats—

“are both committed to turning old thinking on its head and develop new approaches to government. For years, politicians could argue that because they held all the information, they needed more power. But today, technological innovation has—with astonishing speed—developed the opportunity to spread information and decentralise power in a way we have never seen before. So we will extend transparency to every area of public life.”

Section 16 of the agreement, entitled “Government transparency”, continues:

“The Government believes that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account. We also recognise that this will help to deliver better value for money in public spending, and help us achieve our aim of cutting the record deficit. Setting government data free will bring significant economic benefits”.

There were two specific commitments. First,

“We”— the Government—

“will require full, online disclosure of all central government spending and contracts over £25,000”; and secondly,

“We”— the Government—

“will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public”.

Aha! I was encouraged. Surely, given those commitments, we would see the information. I am delighted that the Minister for the Armed Forces is able to join us at this stage, because what I am about to say relates directly to him.

I was delighted to hear similar claims of openness from the new ministerial defence team in the House of Commons debate on the strategic defence and security review on 21 June. Hansard records that the new Minister for the Armed Forces said:

“Hon. Members—and everybody else—have the opportunity to contribute and make whatever representations they wish to make. If there are hon. Members who feel that they are under-informed, and want more information to inform representations that they might make during the review, they need only let us know. Ministers have an open-door policy, and Members are welcome to any further information that they feel they need.”

That prompted me to intervene and ask:

“During the previous Parliament, the Labour Government provided statistics on employment and expenditure throughout the nations and regions of the UK. Will the new coalition Government give a commitment to continue producing those statistics?”

The Minister replied:

“Yes. Whatever information right hon. and hon. Members need in order to make representations to the review—” but to be doubly sure, I interjected:

“Is that a yes?”

The Minister answered, unambiguously:

“That is a yes. Hon. Members need only ask for any information that they need.”—[Hansard, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 132.]

Naturally, I was delighted.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 9:15 pm, 14th June 2011

Our position then, as today, was that we are only too ready to share with hon. Members any information that we have and that we compile. As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, the previous Government ceased to compile that information, and frankly for very good reason. It was unreliable information being measured against an old and out-of-date baseline. No defence decisions were being made in the light of that information. It is several years since that information has been compiled. We are happy to share with him any information that we have in this regard, but we do not have that information any longer.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

I am terribly sorry, but I just do not think that is good enough. I know that the Minister has just arrived, and no doubt he has come from an important engagement, but before he arrived I was making the case that there are very good reasons to continue to have this information. It seems to me that the very good reasons in the MOD for stopping the publication of these datasets is that, frankly, they are so embarrassing.

I return to the turn of events, which it is important for Members to understand. Having received those assurances from the Minister for the Armed Forces in this Chamber, I wrote a grateful letter to him:

“I wanted to thank you personally for your unambiguous commitment during this week’s debate on the Strategic Defence and Security Review that the new Coalition Government will continue to publish both employment and defence spending statistics for the nations and regions of the United Kingdom… Towards the end of the term of office of the last government it was proving difficult to secure these important statistics and I am appreciative that you have given such a clear assurance that they will continue to be published.”

In the blink of an eye—I assume it was written as soon as my letter arrived in the Minister’s private office—I received a letter back saying much the same as he has just said from the Dispatch Box. In an instant, the Ministry of Defence reneged on a promise made in the House of Commons and in the coalition agreement that there would be openness and transparency. There are also vital clues that should concern everybody who cares about the defence footprint across the UK. Apparently, the Government think that there is

“no clear defence benefit to be gained” from collating statistics by region and nation, and national and regional data do not

“directly support MOD policy making”.

That will come as a shock to many people, not least the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has said publicly in terms that economic considerations will form part of the basing review. How on earth can we have an informed debate when the Government do not even provide the statistics?

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Conservative, Central Devon

I am not clear whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing that there is some value to the MOD in exercising its duty from collecting this dataset. Is there a value or not? If there is, what is it?

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman because that is the crucial question. The information was viewed as essential by previous Governments. Why? Because it informed us about the impact of MOD policy making on the nations and regions of the UK. That was why the figures were collated in the first place and why the answers were provided to MPs. Members asked questions about the information because we thought it was important, and the Hansard record will show that those questions were asked by MPs of all parties.

The information is not just important in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales but should be a matter of concern to people throughout England, too. They need to understand what impact MOD policy making is having on their part of the country. The figures should inform us of that. Should they lead all decisions? Of course not, but they should inform policy decisions.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

We are talking about the publication of information and statistics that were previously published and are published elsewhere across the world. Such statistics are published on other matters, not just defence. Surely no one can argue against the hon. Gentleman’s central theme, which is that we should know the impact that this vast area of expenditure has on the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

The right hon. Gentleman makes a point that everybody should understand. Providing the information is not difficult. Governments here have done it, and Governments elsewhere around the world do it. Frankly, we would be in dereliction of our duty as parliamentarians if we did not try to inform ourselves of how the Department that we are trying to hold to account is spending our constituents’ tax money. How that informs our political priorities is a totally different matter, but the coalition parties made an express commitment to everybody in the United Kingdom that they would seek and deliver transparency. When it comes to defence statistics, they have reneged on that.

This is an opportunity for both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members—and Labour Members if they have found their conscience on the issue—to understand that this is an important problem that is easily remedied. The new clause would allow that to happen, as it would force the MOD to provide and publish the statistics that we all deserve. That is why, unless the Minister agrees to publish the statistics, I will force a Division on this important issue.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Having listened to Angus Robertson, I have to say that I thought his indignation was completely synthetic. What is important is how the money is spent, not how statistics are gathered, and I will put on record what we feel.

The Ministry of Defence has no plans to reinstate the publication of annual estimates of regional defence spending or the employment effects of that expenditure. The Department decided to stop the compilation and publication of those statistics three years ago. Although the statistics were valuable in giving national and regional employment context to defence spending, the data did not directly support MOD policy making and operations. Furthermore, the compilation of the series depended on external sources that had not been updated for some years. The MOD had been struggling to maintain the quality of the statistics even to a basic level. To reinstate their compilation would cost the Department about £500,000 in the next four years.

The purpose of the defence budget is to maintain the armed forces so that they can contribute to our nation’s security—a nation that includes, I am glad to say, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Every pound that the MOD spends must contribute to the security of the United Kingdom, and it gets doled out not on a regional basis but on a defence-needs basis.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

I stand as a member of a Unionist party in Northern Ireland that is proud to be part of the United Kingdom, but this is not about being part of the UK. It is about the information that is available to Members of Parliament and the public. Surely the Minister should recognise that distinction.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Information on employment is quite readily available with a little bit of hard work, but I am afraid that we must consider the cost of compiling inaccurate statistics. The previous Government took their view, and we support it. Decisions on where personnel are based and which contracts are let to which firms are based solely on what is best for the armed forces and the defence of the realm. It is the duty of Government to ensure that the defence budget is spent wisely, maximising the resources available on the front line and ensuring that every pound counts.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

The Minister points out that because a caveat in the coalition agreement suggests that the publication of some statistics is more expensive than the publication of others, he has a get-out-of-jail card in respect of publishing statistics on defence and the MOD.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is being deliberately obtuse. The point is that the Government do not have all the statistics to publish, and compiling them would be extremely expensive—and, as I just said, they are becoming increasingly inaccurate. We do not compile statistics on everything.

Those estimates were difficult and intensive to maintain. They relied on analytical tables produced by the Office for National Statistics that have not been updated since 1995. As I have explained, the statistics did not support the MOD’s decision making. I have looked into how much it would cost to reintroduce the estimates and the cost is higher than the benefit to defence. My main focus, and our main focus, must be on doing what is best for the armed forces.

I note from previous debates on this subject that the hon. Gentleman is concerned that the cessation of those statistics will mean that a gap emerges in information on defence, particularly with regard to Scotland. It should be noted that assessments of the employment effects of MOD expenditure will continue to be undertaken for individual defence projects, and as part of the regional impact assessments that are conducted to inform MOD base closures. For instance, we know how many people are employed at specific bases—that is quite straightforward—but we do not compile huge tables of statistics that are of no great value. Decisions and policy in these areas will continue to use evidence about the employment impacts.

In the light of that, I hope the Committee rejects new clause 15.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader

I pointed out that the coalition parties made a pledge on transparency in their agreement. They said that they would provide all information on contracts of more than £25,000. I am sorry to say, however, that the Minister has suggested at the Dispatch Box that, somehow, the coalition does not have to live up to that commitment in defence matters. The commitment that the statistics would be provided was also given to me in this Chamber, but it has been reneged on. More importantly, Members of Parliament should have those statistics as a matter of course. The fact that the outcome of those statistics is unfortunate for decision makers in the MOD is no reason not to publish them. That is why I press new clause 15 to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 10, Noes 282.

Division number 292 Armed Forces Bill (Programme) (No. 2) — New Clause 15 — Defence statistics

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 282 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.