It would be ideal if Members took 10 minutes as everybody could then be accommodated.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered defence spending.
May I first thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate? It is much appreciated.
I contend that the UK is making grave errors in cutting defence spending. We need to spend more on our armed forces. In an increasingly uncertain world, we cannot keep cutting if we wish to defend our interests and play a global role. As we approach the next strategic defence review, Parliament must make it clear that defence and security has to be given precedence over other priorities.
It is said that the British seldom read the writing on the wall until our backs are against it. I fear that hard choices will now have to be made if we are not to repeat errors. The need for a strong defence policy is becoming more obvious and urgent almost by the day. The latest increase in China’s defence spending—a 12% real-terms rise—and confrontations in the South China sea and Ukraine remind us that countries not necessarily friendly to the west are increasingly capable and willing to use their military might.
I hope nobody could accuse me of being an interventionist. Having opposed our interventions in Iraq and Libya, the morphing of the mission in Afghanistan into one of nation building and, most recently, the proposed intervention in Syria, I hope my credentials are clear. However, I believe that those entanglements have distracted us, at least in part, from recognising the bigger picture, which is one of increasingly powerful countries elsewhere professionalising and bolstering their armed forces. A willingness to use them illustrates a growing confidence, if not assertiveness. That is significant, because Britain has global interests and needs to remain a global power to protect them. No one can predict—not with any certainty, anyway—where the next substantial threat will come from. As a consequence, our armed forces need to have sufficient capability so that, in concert with our allies, we will be best prepared to meet that challenge.
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that this Essex MP supports what he has just said 100%. Does he agree that we also need to look at what is happening in the Baltic countries and in particular at Russia’s meddling in the air, at sea and on the land along the border?
I completely agree. I will come to this point shortly, but the bottom line is that a strong defence policy is not just about ensuring peace—although that is terribly important, because it has is a dividend—but about sending messages to potential aggressors. That is not just about fronting them, but about supporting allies and like-minded peoples who have a genuine concern and fear about the consequences of the actions of others. It is an extremely important point.
I welcome the debate and I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said so far. Does he agree that although this Government face a difficult financial situation, it is very important that we stay true to our defence commitment to spending at least 2% of our GDP—our NATO commitment and the signal that we must send to our allies?
Yes, I completely agree. If anything, we need to spend more than 2%, but there have been quite authoritative reports, most notably in the Financial Times, suggesting that our defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP will fall below 2%. One of my questions to the Minister—if he cannot answer it in this debate, I am happy to take a written response—is what truth is there in the suggestion that our defence spending will fall well below 2% or, as some figures suggest, 1.8%?
Or 1.7%, as my hon. Friend suggests.
I believe it is particularly incumbent on us to ensure that we have a strong defence policy—more incumbent on us than on other powers, perhaps—because in addition to our global interests and territories, we are highly dependent on maritime trade. The South China sea and the straits of Hormuz may seem far-away places, but I can assure the House that if those sea lanes ever became closed, we would certainly feel the pinch. A shock on the other side of the world, as we all know, can have reverberations here—a rise in the oil price is just one example.
There are many less tangible benefits to a strong defence policy. These include maintaining influence, supporting our defence engineering and industrial base, and global partnerships through defence diplomacy. Despite bruising deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain still rightly sees itself as a global power, at the forefront of diplomacy. It is impossible to do this without the options that strong defence gives us. Furthermore, there are many strands to the special relationship, but the ability to deploy force by land, sea and air is an essential component. If this is not present, we can expect a markedly different relationship, as former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently testified.
I hope we will continue to be close allies of the US. We share common interests and common values. However, we need to play our full part in being a good ally lest our influence and, ultimately, our interests suffer. We should not forget that we would be foolish to depend entirely on the US. Sometimes we may have to act alone. The Falklands is just one example of that. In the absence of US support, we need to ensure that Britain can face the world with confidence, and that will involve strong and credible defence.
Does my hon. Friend agree also that we must do so in the context of NATO, and that it is about time that some of our NATO allies started stepping up to the mark and putting some money into it as well?
Nobody in the House would disagree. It is a sad fact that many of our NATO allies are not pulling their full weight. But that should not stop us accepting what we need to do, particularly given our reliance on maritime trade and our global interests, territories and possessions. If anything, it is more incumbent on us than on many of our NATO allies to wake up and realise that we need to spend more on defence, but I take my hon. Friend’s point on board.
Despite the need for a strong defence policy because of both the tangible and the intangible benefits, we continue to make cuts. The Royal Navy, for example, has been reduced to a mere 19 surface ships. Not so long ago, a strategic defence review suggested the figure should be closer to 30.
I will take further bids. For the moment, though, I will stick with my figure of 30. Have the threats declined since that defence review? No, not since we were recommended to have 30 surface ships. Our aircraft carriers are being built, but there is no certainty that the second one will see service. There is talk about it perhaps being mothballed. The other carrier will have to await fighter jets.
The situation is not much better in the skies. The F-35 fighter is beset with problems. Britain without a maritime patrol aircraft—that is an extraordinary position for an island nation such as ours to be in. We need to try to put that right.
I speak with a vested interest here, I suppose, but it is the Army that has borne the brunt of our short-sightedness. Cost-cutting plans to replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists will create unacceptable capability gaps in the short term and, I believe, false economies in the long term. Unfortunately, my attempt to get the Government to think again during the passage of the Defence Reform Bill fell on deaf ears, although Members of all parties made their views well known. It was, to a certain extent at least, a close-run thing, given the strong three-line Whip.
These legitimate concerns were echoed—in fact, I suggest, amplified—by an authoritative and critical report from the National Audit Office. It provides a list of critical conclusions, so let me read some of them. It states, for example, that
“significant further risks…could significantly affect value for money”.
Another conclusion was:
“The Department”— it means the Ministry of Defence—
“did not test whether increasing the trained strength of the Army Reserve to 30,000 was feasible.”
“The Department’s recruitment targets for reserves are not underpinned by robust planning data.” and:
“Reducing the size of the Army will not alone deliver the financial savings required.”
It goes on:
“The Department did not fully assess the value for money of its decision to reduce the size of the Army.”
These are pretty damning conclusions. Another is:
“There are significant risks to value for money which are currently not well understood by the Department or the Army.”
It then states:
“The Department should reassess its targets for recruiting reserves.”
As I say, this is all pretty damning stuff. I believe that the decision taken in 2012 to cut the Regular Army by a fifth before the replacement reservists were even recruited has not gone well; in fact, it has been a shambles. The NAO has said that it does not believe that the MOD will be able to replace those lost regulars until 2025—a full 10 years away.
I share those concerns, and I shall share another one. I was not originally intending to raise it in my speech, but it is a significant concern. To get to the 30,000 reservists—or indeed 36,000 if we want 30,000 to be deployable—we will be heavily reliant on the existing Territorial Army. If we look at the age profile of the existing TA, we find that it includes regular infantry in their 30s, junior officers in their 40s and senior officers in their 50s. There is a demographic issue within the existing TA; it is not just about new numbers, so there are real concerns there.
The clear implication of the recent and critical NAO report is that the transition to 30,000 reservists may turn out to be more expensive than the steady-state costs of maintaining the 20,000 regulars they are replacing. The plan is complete and utter nonsense. We have seen not just a doubling of the ex-regular reserve bonus, the introduction of a civvy bonus of £300 and the equalisation of pensions, but the introduction of other financial incentives, bringing into severe doubt the financial logic and merits of introducing this plan. False economies loom, as acknowledged by the NAO, when it said that the plans could cost even more. We need to sit up, take note and ask questions. If this ends up costing more in the longer term, I really think heads should roll.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I was hugely with everything he said in the early parts of his speech, particularly on the need to keep up spending on our armed forces and defence, but he is really going over the top here. Whatever one’s view of the NAO report, it did not suggest that it could be more expensive to have reservists rather than regulars. What it queried were some of the cost figures, but it could not possibly be interpreted as suggesting that, man for man, the reserves are more expensive than the regulars.
I think that my hon. Friend should look at the report, because it concludes that there is a real risk that what I have described will happen. I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, and I respect his enthusiasm for the reservist plan—which is clear from his contribution to the debate about it—but I think that he should look at the report extremely carefully.
The MOD went into typical “shoot the messenger” mode. It would not co-operate fully with the National Audit Office, and was not even willing to share its methodology with the NAO. Many questions need to be asked, and I am sure that the Defence Committee, for one, will ask them. I certainly hope so.
This plan has had distorting effects on the ground. As I have said, I have a vested interest: the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—which is one of my regiments—is one of the best recruited battalions in the British Army, but it is being scrapped to save less well-recruited battalions north of the border. Everyone in the Army accepts that that is a political decision that was made in the light of the Scottish referendum, and it is a complete and utter nonsense. It will cost more to try to maintain battalions that are not well recruited at the expense of those that are.
Britain needs to increase substantially the resources that it commits to its military capability. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will point out that we have the fourth largest defence budget in the world, but such cries ring somewhat hollow when estimates suggest that, when it comes to actually deploying force in the field, we rank closer to 20th or 25th. We seem to have a policy of hollowing out our armed forces, keeping expensive bits of kit while taking away manpower, which restricts our ability to deploy force overseas.
I believe—and I accept that there will be a keen debate on this—that a defence budget representing 2% of GDP is simply not enough, let alone a budget that will, in the view of the Financial Times, fall below that percentage. I think that our budget should be increased substantially. Given our dependence on the sea, we should, as a minimum, be funding two properly resourced battle groups centred on our aircraft carriers, and troops that we can deploy if necessary.
The military have done their best within the financial envelope that Parliament has given them. These decisions are for us. They are political decisions about who will get what, when, and how. I have no doubt that we will all have our pet subjects when it comes to the question of what could be scrapped if money were required from elsewhere. I voted against HS2 because it involved £50 billion that could be spent elsewhere over 10 years. I also believe that we still have too many quangos—and can anyone justify the fact that people in public sector management receive salaries far higher than the Prime Minister’s?
Abroad, international aid running to hundreds of millions of pounds for countries that can well afford to help themselves, or are corrupt, or both, should be stopped. If that money cannot be given to other countries that cannot help themselves, it should be channelled back to this country. Meanwhile, extravagant European Union budgets need to be cut. The EU is indeed
“too big, too bossy, too interfering”,
and it needs to be cut down to size. There is no shortage of places where money can be found if the political will is there.
We must reverse the trend, and significantly increase our defence spending. This is not a “call to arms”, but a response to the increasingly uncertain world that we inhabit, and with which we are increasingly ill-equipped to deal. Strong defence is a virtue. It does much to prevent conflict, and it can also be cheaper than the alternative: nothing is as expensive or as wasteful as war. However, if we are to change the mind of Government —any Government—Parliament must become more robust in its questioning of the Executive. It must ask more questions about what is going wrong, and about why we need to put it right.
The debate is overdue, but, as might be expected, it has been shunted to the end of a parliamentary week. It should have been in Government time, and we should perhaps have a debate in Government time on defence spending annually, if not more frequently.
The time has come for action. Opinion on the need to increase defence spending is hardening on both sides, yet we keep cutting. Talking the talk is no longer good enough; we now have to walk the walk.
Order. We are now going to be struggling on time, so Mr Baron will understand if he does not get to contribute to the winding-up speeches. If Members take up to, but not over, 10 minutes, we should get everybody in.
I thank Mr Baron for taking the lead in calling for this debate, and I entirely agree that we have far too few opportunities to debate these matters in the House. This debate has been long overdue. Indeed, any defence debate is long overdue, and certainly an opportunity to hold the Executive to account over defence is long overdue. Members might not be surprised to learn that my approach to this debate will be a little different, however, as I wish to look at a way in which the Ministry of Defence has used its budget and resources to avoid addressing a grievance.
Members of the armed forces have no contract of employment or access to employment tribunals, except in respect of equal pay and discrimination. The only other ways in which to redress a grievance are via a service complaint or judicial review, yet more than 1,400 service personnel were wrongly disciplined over a period of three years and the failure to give full answers to parliamentary questions on this issue has prompted me to speak in this debate.
A police caution is a warning given to people who admit to a minor offence. In November 2008, a change to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 meant that police cautions should be considered spent the second that they are issued. With no exemption from the law, the change meant that the armed forces should have stopped disciplining soldiers who had received police cautions. The Army, however, noted the change only in September 2011, by which point about 1,400 personnel had suffered a range of disciplinary actions, including loss of pay or promotion or even discharge from service.
The Times estimated that the cost of compensation would be in the millions of pounds. The MOD responded:
“It is completely untrue to suggest that we have deliberately stalled on alerting soldiers affected by this. A number of options are now being looked at and discussions are ongoing.”
The Army had failed to note a major change in the law and had failed to notify those who were wronged, many of them Afghan veterans, of the options for seeking redress. They took a head-in-the-sand approach, ignoring the problem. A passage from one briefing reads:
“We are offering reinstatement to all soldiers discharged following a caution who make an in time SC”— or service complaint. It continued:
“The longer we take no action the fewer the ‘in time’ complaints about other sanctions there will be. MOD policy may be not to accept out of time complaints on this issue.”
At the start of this year I began asking parliamentary questions about what options the MOD had chosen. I asked what progress the Department had made on addressing its wrongful application of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act measure and was told that the MOD was aware of the issue and was exploring a range of potential options—the same reply as a year previously. I asked how much compensation had been paid and was told that no such compensation had been paid. I asked how many had lost out on promotion and was told that the information could only be provided at a disproportionate cost. I asked what steps had been taken to reverse sanctions and how many people had been sanctioned. No steps had been taken to reverse sanctions and information on the number of serving personnel affected could only be provided at a disproportionate cost.
I asked how many personnel were out of time to make an official complaint. I was told that a service complaint must normally relate to an event that had happened in the previous three months—by now we were over three years into the time in which the Ministry of Defence had realised its mistake. As it is no longer the policy to consider administrative action against serving personnel who are in receipt of a police caution, all personnel who would have been subject to such action in the past would now be out of time.
My parliamentary questions failed, so in April I took my common recourse, as I often do with the Ministry of Defence, and submitted a freedom of information request, asking for copies of the minutes of the Army Justice Board meetings where the issue of administrative action taken against serving personnel after a police caution were discussed. In her reply, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Anna Soubry said:
“Whilst there is a public interest in transparency in the service justice system my officials have determined that on this occasion this does not outweigh the very strong public interest in allowing officials and military personnel to exchange full and frank advice”.
Minutes that were already in the hands of The Times were not to be allowed into the hands of a Member of Parliament. I found that particularly interesting as the Ministry of Defence had managed, in response to another FOI request, to release very quickly other minutes that criticised the Labour Government and the Welsh Assembly. Once the minutes could reveal difficulties in a Conservative Government, however, they were denied to a Member a Parliament.
Despite that, I somehow obtained a copy of the Army Justice Board minutes. Those of October 2012 told me that 1,300 personnel had been cautioned; 246 had received career sanctions; and an unknown figure had been discharged from the military. The minutes also said that anyone not serving will now have to “take us to judicial review” rather than make a service complaint because they will be out of time.
The right to operate a separate military justice system is granted to the armed forces by Parliament. It is a right given to no other Department of State, and yet here we have clear evidence of flagrant injustice and a refusal to provide an MP with information, both of which were argued on the basis of cost. Military justice must be fair and transparent if there is to be no access to an employment tribunal and the only other option is judicial review or a service complaint where a person is deliberately not told of the injustice.
I do not condone whatever minor actions led to the police cautions, but the law must be upheld, even by the Ministry of Defence. Fortunately, the Service Complaints Commissioner agrees with me, because as well as submitting my FOI request in April, I also wrote to Dr Atkins. In her reply to me, she said:
“My stance has been that the just and equitable test does preclude a service from relying on its own failure to inform service personnel of the correct situation”.
So although lack of awareness that someone could make a service complaint may not be sufficient reason, a lack of awareness because a service has failed to inform someone that they may have been, or had been, wronged would be sufficient. The three months in those circumstances should run from the date on which an individual found out the position and was able to make an informed decision on whether to submit a complaint. The armed forces must track down the individuals affected and advise them of their right to make a confidential complaint via the Service Complaints Commissioner setting out the facts of what has happened to them. This wrong must be righted, at whatever cost to the defence budget. I hope that the Minister, in winding up, will confirm that he will ensure that that happens.
May I begin with a double apology? My first apology is for the fact that, unfortunately, as is so often the case, I have committed to addressing a group of people about the workings of the Intelligence and Security Committee. That is at 4 o’clock, so I will not be able to return in time for the wind-ups, and I apologise to both Front-Bench teams and to the House more widely for that. My second apology is for the fact that, having only yesterday stepped off a transatlantic plane, my contribution today may be slightly more incoherent even than usual. [Hon. Members: “No, no!”] On cue, all my hon. Friends rush in to disagree, and I am very touched by that.
Seldom does a decade go by without one realising how brilliantly foresighted George Orwell’s classic political novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was for one reason or another, whether it be on state surveillance, the abuse of linguistics, or—as is relevant to this debate—the constantly shifting conflicts that arise between blocs of countries. Orwell may have had in mind the dilemma of the democracies in the inter-war years, which were torn between confronting Nazism and appeasing it, and between confronting Bolshevism and learning to live with it. Often, the reason why people found that to be such a dilemma was that they felt that they could not do both, and they were not sure which was the greater of the two evils.
These days, one might say that we are in a similar position. The democracies are faced with at least two worrying blocs: the Russia, Iran and Syria axis; and the movement of jihadism on an international scale—this is extremely topical—involving not only the takeover of Muslim countries but the infiltration of non-Muslim countries and the carrying out of terrorist acts there. Whichever side one takes as to which conflict is the more important or which enemy is the greater, the one thing we can all agree on is that we are living in dangerous times indeed. Even the one thing that everybody thought had gone away, namely the traditional cold war threat from the former Soviet Union, has reappeared. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves whether we are spending enough on defence.
I propose to adopt the Speaker Bercow speech essential that has been drummed into me over 30 long years, which is that any speech, in the House of Commons or elsewhere, should preferably have one main point. My one main point is that I want to hear from the Government that as long as this Government and this Prime Minister are in office, this country will never spend less than the recommended NATO 2% minimum.
My mind goes back—that is the trouble; it happens to people when they have been in this place for a long time—to the beginning of 2007, when The Daily Telegraph reported the Conservatives as bemoaning the fact that
“defence spending as a proportion of the UK’s gross domestic product is at its lowest since 1930”.
The article stated:
“Government figures show that 2.5 per cent of the UK’s GDP—or around £32 billion—was likely to be spent on defence in 2005/6 compared with 4.4 per cent in 1987/88.”
Of course, we know what had happened between the late 1980s and the early 21st century. The cold war had come to an end and there had been something called the peace dividend, so obviously defence spending had declined as a proportion of GDP.
In fact, in 2007, when the Conservatives were sitting on the Opposition Benches, we made much of the fact that when the Labour Government of Tony Blair had come into office they had reduced defence spending as a percentage of GDP in successive years. It went from 2.9% to 2.6%, to 2.8%, to 2.7%, to 2.7% again, to 2.5%, to 2.5% again, to 2.6% and so on. The bit we really did not like about that was that within the rough figure of 2.5% at which it settled was included the cost of the two ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, costs that were officially met from the Treasury reserve but that in reality were effectively met from the core defence budget. If the total figure was 2.5%, it did not really matter which budget was taking the cut, as it were, but effectively the real defence budget was much nearer 2.1% or 2.2%. That is where we stand at the moment, including the costs of our current military operational deployments. I must give immense congratulations to my hon. Friend Mr Baron, who has consistently raised that point. As he pointed out, the figures quoted in the Financial Times on
“the UK’s military expenditure will hit 1.9% of the size of the country’s economy by 2017,” which would, of course, be below the NATO target of 2%.
I found it almost incredible that this Government would ever dip below the 2% NATO GDP recommended minimum, so I have been trying to get the Prime Minister to confirm that we would do no such thing. I have not been doing too well. There was an exchange on
“We should encourage other countries to do what Britain is doing in matching our at-least-2% contribution in terms of GDP and defence spending.”
I thought that that was an opportunity for me to be helpful to him, as I like to be when I can, and I intervened and said:
“May I take it from what the Prime Minister has just said that there is then no question of the British defence budget dropping below 2% of GDP?”
His answer was:
“We currently meet the 2% threshold. These things are calculated by different countries in different ways, but I am confident that we will go on meeting our obligations to NATO.”—[Hansard, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 359.]
That sounded reasonably encouraging, but he did not actually say that we were going to keep on spending the 2%, so I tried again on
“confirm that under his leadership this country will never spend less than the NATO recommended minimum of 2% of GDP on defence”,
to which the answer was:
“We are spending in excess of 2% and we are one of the only countries in Europe to do that. The Greeks, I believe, are spending more than 2% but, if I can put it this way, not all on things that are useful for all of NATO. We should continue to make sure we fulfil all our commitments on defence spending.”—[Hansard, 7 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 147.]
My final attempt was on
“It is very important to meet such commitments. We will set our detailed plans in our manifesto, but throughout the time for which I have been Prime Minister, we have kept—more than kept—that commitment”.—[Hansard, 4 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 23-24.]
This is all very encouraging stuff and I like to think that the thing is that we have a NATO summit coming up.
I am talking about trying to get a future commitment. I want to hear that as long as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is Prime Minister this country will always spend the NATO recommended minimum of 2% of GDP on defence. We have not quite had that commitment yet. He might be intending to make that commitment at the NATO summit and to encourage other NATO countries to do the same, in which case I will applaud him. I do not wish to spoil his timing.
I will conclude with this point: it is necessary and understandable that this country’s intelligence services have a policy of “neither confirm, nor deny” in certain areas, but I do not think that that policy will do for this country’s Government when it comes to saying how much, as a minimum, we will spend on the defence of the United Kingdom.
The first responsibility of any Government, as every Member of this House will agree, is the security of their citizens. In order to provide security for our citizens, we need to work in partnership with our allies. The reason for that is that none of us in NATO, with the possible exception of the United States, has armed forces that are strong enough on their own to deter all the external risks we face and, if necessary, defend our countries against them. Even the United States would not want to go it alone, because it is in a stronger position when deploying military assets jointly with allies than when doing so alone.
To illustrate that point, we need only look at our defence assets and capabilities and compare them with those of the alliance as a whole. We have 19 surface warships, as we heard from Mr Baron—my notes said 18, but I bow to his expertise—but the alliance as a whole has 283. We have 330 combat aircraft, but the alliance has 6,531. We have 227 main battle tanks, but the alliance has 13,730. We spend around $60 billion overall on defence, or £33 billion, compared with expenditure across the alliance of $924 billion. Now, £33 billion might sound like an awful lot of money, but it is very much less than we spend on social security, health or education. It makes perhaps one twentieth of all Government expenditure. It is also much less than this country spent in the not-too-distant past.
“We are, of course, still meeting the 2% that NATO countries are meant to meet”—[Hansard, 11 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 556.]
We need him to go further and make it clear to the House that he will not go below 2%. I agree with the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay that we need to spend rather more on defence than we do at the moment.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is dangerous to pursue targets—2% is the minimum target, I know—because surely our duty as a country is to have the armed forces we need to protect our people and dependants and to meet our responsibilities in the event that we have to go it alone? The Falklands war is a classic case. We could not retake the Falklands now, for example.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, with which I agree, in relation to the Falklands. I certainly agree that one should not pluck a figure out of the air and say, “This is the target.” We need to look at the security risks we face and then at how we, perhaps on our own in certain circumstances but more usually in combination with allies, would deploy military force to counter those risks.
Are we spending enough? In the early 1990s, when I was first elected to this House, we spent considerably more on defence—4.2% on average between 1990 and 1994. It is perfectly possible for a Government, with all the pressures for public expenditure in a wide range of important and necessary fields, to spend more than we currently do if they believe that the security risks demand it. Of course, security risks constantly change. The question is whether we and our allies are spending enough, given the security environment that we now face. It is important to talk also about our NATO allies because, through article 5 of the Washington treaty, we have made a fundamental commitment: if we are attacked, they come to our defence, and if any of them are attacked, we come to their defence.
I am certain that defence spending should be on the agenda at the NATO summit in September. In the debate on the Queen’s Speech, I discussed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine and President Putin’s threat to other countries in the neighbourhood with Russian-speaking minorities—the Baltic states and Poland—that he reserves the right to intervene if he in the Kremlin believes that the interests of those Russian speakers are under threat. The action in Ukraine follows the war between Russia and Georgia and, to my mind, tells us that a pattern of action is being established. A Russian foreign policy is being laid down that reserves to Russia the right to intervene and take territory from neighbouring sovereign states if Russia believes that it is in its interests so to do.
I believe that President Putin is testing us. He is biting off a bit of territory and seeing how we respond—whether he can go further or whether he needs to back-pedal a bit. As an alliance, we have to strengthen our position so that we deter further adventurous actions by Russia or anybody else.
It is 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall. During that period, the west has put out the hand of friendship to Russia, helping it to modernise its economy, build stock exchanges and join the World Trade Organisation. As far as we have been able to, we have provided reassurance to Russia that we do not see it any longer as posing a military threat to us elsewhere in Europe. We have to reassess that now. We have to ask why President Putin feels that he can with impunity occupy the territory of neighbouring states. It is partly because his financial means are growing as a result of a petro-fuelled economy and partly because some European countries are not responding as robustly as they otherwise would, as they are too dependent on Russia for oil and gas. Europe as a whole, through the European Union, needs to address that by improving the diversity of our sources of energy.
President Putin may also feel that way because the United States has signalled that it is rebalancing its defence posture to pay more attention to the Pacific—it needs to, as there are real risks there, but the implication is less attention to Europe. There are also the defence cuts that so many alliance countries, including ours, have made since the banking crisis in the late noughties. Putin has also probably recognised a decline in public appetite or support for military action in many alliance countries.
Since 2008, Russia’s defence spending has increased by more than 10% each year—more than 50% over the five-year period. As we heard from the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay, China is significantly increasing its real-terms defence spending too. Over the same period, defence spending by NATO’s European allies has been cut by almost 10%. According to the UK MOD defence budget plans, the departmental expenditure limit has fallen from £34.2 billion in 2010-11 to £30.7 billion in 2015-16—a fall of 8.2%. I asked the Library to deliver figures about defence expenditure rather than budgets, and those figures show a rather greater reduction. According to the public expenditure statistical analysis, our defence spending has fallen in real terms, at 2012-13 prices, from £39.1 billion in 2009-10 to a projected £30.7 billion in 2015-16—a fall of just over 18%.
It is absolutely essential that defence spending is on the agenda for the NATO summit. It is also essential that the Government give a commitment before the summit not only that our spending is at 2% but that it will remain at 2%. As some Members have pointed out, far too many of our allies spend considerably less than 2%. We need to persuade them to spend more, but we are in a weak position to do so if we are cutting our own expenditure. We would be in a much stronger position if we said: “We have reassessed the risks we face. We in the UK will spend more, particularly as a growth dividend enables the Government to spend more, and we expect others in Europe to do the same.”
I am well aware that my No. 1 obligation in my new role in the Defence Committee is to sit down quickly to let other people speak who know a great deal more about the subject than I do. I will therefore, very rapidly, give a sense of what the Defence Committee has been working on for the past 15 years directly relating to defence spending.
Over the past three or four weeks, I have had a happy time going through an enormous number of Defence Committee reports; as one can imagine, after 15 years they fill almost an entire room. The central theme in everything the Committee has done is to argue that defence spending should be determined, above all, by our assessment of the threats we face and the strategy we have to deal with them—that it is not good enough to base a defence strategy, or defence spending, on what we have spent in the past or on what kit we have had in the past that we wish to replace.
Over the past 15 years, the Committee has identified three types of threat: state-on-state threats, threats from humanitarian catastrophes, and threats from terrorists. Today, in 2014, we face all these threats simultaneously—in some cases, in a more extreme and aggressive form than we have ever seen them before. First, on state-on-state threats, there is Russia. I have here the Committee’s 2008 report, in which Mr Jones participated as a member, “Russia: a new confrontation?” As Hugh Bayley said, Putin’s actions in Crimea suggest a very dangerous type of threat—a type of threat that the Committee was beginning to point to in 2008 and has finally come to fruition. It is the threat, as proved in Crimea, of Putin’s ability to deploy unconventional measures almost without a shot fired.
This is traditional spetsnaz or GRU activity whereby he is able to annex part of a neighbouring state without the deployment of full conventional forces. Another type of threat is represented by last year’s so-called Zapad 2013 exercises, which suggested that Russia is practising an airborne invasion of the Baltic and is able to follow this up with a maritime blockade and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.
The second type of threat is evident in Syria, where the challenge of humanitarian intervention can be seen at its most extreme, with 150,000 people killed and millions of refugees created.
Thirdly, on terrorism, we face in western Iraq almost the sum of all fears from the past decade. We have there exactly the problem that the global war on terror was supposed to solve for ever: an entire territory controlled by a jihadist group that now, in Mosul, controls a city of 2 million people. Unfortunately, that represents a real challenge to the west.
The question is what we—Britain and our allies—can do and what additional resources we would require to deal with those three threats. If we look at it on the surface, we will see that it is pretty depressing. It does not seem, looking at it directly, as though there is much that Putin would be worried about if he was contemplating chewing off a corner of Latvia. We need to be clear about the decline in our capacity and planning over the past 20 years. We have not been exercising for this phenomenon, nor have we designed troops for it. The kind of man who likes to go fishing with his shirt off might well be tempted to try to humiliate NATO. The chance of that happening might be 0.1% or 1%, but it does not matter how unlikely it is: the question is whether we are ready to meet it. Do we have the kinds of plans in place to make that article 5 defence credible? In particular, when we talk about tripwires, do we have a population prepared to use nuclear weapons to support a NATO member state?
On humanitarian intervention in Syria, the entire debate in this House showed the problems of us responding to that situation. On the subject of terrorism, the failure, ultimately—four years later—of the deployment of more than 100,000 American troops and $120 billion of expenditure to achieve a lasting settlement to the Sunni insurgency in western Iraq suggests that we will face a very considerable problem doing it again.
Nevertheless, on the basis of my very early superficial reading of what the Defence Committee has been saying for the past 15 years, I would suggest that the answer, ultimately, is more hopeful. What the Defence Committee has argued again and again is that to answer these kinds of questions we need to begin fundamentally with strategy. That means that we as a country need, bluntly, to get more serious. We need to invest far more in our thinking capacity and to rebuild a hollowed out Defence Intelligence. We need to rebuild the hard questions that were regularly asked in NATO planning meetings throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
We need to focus on where we have got it wrong. If we are to win the public back again—if we are to win back public confidence in intervention and action, which we must—we can do so only if we are honest about our failures. We will not be able to carry the public with us if we try to pretend that everything we have done over the past 15 years has been absolutely perfect and all gone swimmingly; that nothing is our fault, but the fault of the United States or the local government; and that Britain has no lessons to learn. If we take that attitude, we will not be able to carry the public with us.
We must focus on what we can do. We can address these threats. We showed for 60 years that NATO knows how to contain the kind of threat posed by Putin—we have proved it again and again, year in, year out, and it is the greatest achievement of our civilisation. We achieved that peace in Europe and we can do it again. We have shown—my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart showed this in Bosnia—that we know how to do humanitarian intervention. We have proved it clearly and we can do that again—perhaps not on the scale of Syria, but that is not a reason for despair. Finally, on counter-terrorism, we have shown for the past 12 years that we have effectively prevented a repeat of a 9/11-style attack on the homelands of the United States or Europe, and we have done so without winning the counter-insurgency campaigns, creating rule of law and governance, or nation-building under fire.
As we go into the NATO summit, these lessons from the Defence Committee over the past 10 years need to be taken forward: investment in strategic thought; a focus on what we have got wrong and on what we can still do; and absolute leadership in NATO on the subject of the 2% spending. That leadership is essential to protect ourselves and to encourage other NATO countries to meet their obligations. Above all, we need a commitment to that level in order to show Russia that we are not bending or moving away and that we are determined to maintain the hard-won peace of the past 60 years.
If we can get that right and connect strategic thinking to defence spending, we can make this NATO summit in Wales a chance to say, finally, that Britain understands that if we cannot always do what we pretend, we can do much more than we fear.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Baron on securing this important debate. It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, who made an excellent speech. I want to declare an interest: I have served in the Territorial Army for a few years, and I am currently in the process of joining the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment.
The year 2014 is one of commemorations, with the centenary of the beginning of the first world war and the 70th anniversary of D-day. In an increasingly unstable world, those commemorations are timely reminders that freedom is not free. This year, we have seen the results of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the renewed insurgency in Iraq, and we are facing a growing threat from jihadists around the world. It is therefore more vital than ever to ensure that we spend enough on defence, and it is crucial to have the political will to defend our freedom and our interests. As the former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said,
“weakness is provocative. Time and again it has invited adventures which strength might well have deterred.”
It is not mere coincidence that after the US President failed to enforce his red lines in regard to the Syrian civil war and, specifically, the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, we saw Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine a few months later, with the chaos and bloodshed that has followed. I believe that a major factor in the US President’s failure to enforce his red lines was this House’s refusal to back military action in Syria, and we all have to take some responsibility for that.
NATO is the cornerstone of British defence and security policy, and it is vital for our and our allies’ collective security, as hon. Members have said. It has secured the peace in western Europe for nearly 70 years. I want to make a few points about the importance of our allies’ defence budgets in relation to NATO. We expect—and we need to demand—that NATO members that want to benefit from the security of the alliance should fulfil their obligations on defence spending. In 2006, the member countries of NATO agreed to commit a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence spending, as hon. Members have said. Such a commitment clearly indicates a country’s willingness to contribute to the alliance’s common defence efforts, and it has an important impact on the overall perception of the alliance’s credibility, so why, according to NATO figures for 2013, have only Estonia, the US and Greece—alongside the UK—invested 2% or more of their GDP in their defence budgets?
The combined wealth of the non-US allies, measured in GDP, exceeds that of the United States. Historically, the US has always spent more on defence, as we know. However, non-US allies together now spend less than half as much on defence as the United States. The US spent 4.4% of its GDP on defence in 2013. NATO members are clearly over-reliant on the US, which is under the same pressure as other nations to reduce its defence spending. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has recommended that US forces should be shrunk by 13% by 2017. We know that the US is increasingly focused on the strategic challenge from the Pacific, and expects us in Europe to take more responsibility for our own defence.
Today, US defence expenditure effectively represents 73% of the defence spending of the alliance as a whole. I therefore agree that NATO is over-reliant on the US for the provision of essential capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air-to-air refuelling, ballistic missile defence, airborne electronic warfare and carrier strike responsibility.
According to NATO figures this week, we in the UK put 2.4% of our GDP into the defence budget in 2013, even though our Government were faced with sorting out one of the largest fiscal deficits in our history. Along with France and Germany, we represent more than 50% of the non-US allies’ defence spending in NATO.
Given their strategic position and their 20th-century history, what is particularly surprising about NATO’s figures for the estimated spending on defence in 2013 is that Latvia and Lithuania, who joined NATO in 1999, respectively spent only 0.9% and 0.8% of their GDP on defence. Luxembourg, the home country of our friend Mr Juncker, is estimated to have spent only 0.4% of its GDP on defence last year; the figure fell from 0.7% when Mr Juncker became Prime Minister of Luxembourg to 0.5% when he left office. Other NATO allies that spend 1% or less of their GDP on defence are Belgium, Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Spain.
The NATO Secretary-General said in May last year to the European Commission:
“If European nations do not make a firm commitment to invest in security and defence, then all talk about a strengthened European defence and security policy will just be hot air.”
“You cannot expect to have the insurance policy but ask others to pay the premiums.”
It is vital that all NATO members share the burden and responsibility of our collective security. We in the UK are playing our part in NATO and maintaining our commitment. I urge the Government, at a minimum, to maintain the GDP spend on defence and, as others have said, to increase it when the financial conditions allow.
Finally, two years ago I was privileged to be invited to the unveiling by the Queen of the Bomber Command memorial in Green park. My grandfather served with Bomber Command in world war two, first as a rear gunner and then as a navigator. I found one inscription on the memorial particularly poignant. It was a quote from Pericles:
“Freedom is the sure possession of those who have the courage to defend it.”
We must do so.
Order. We have four or five Members left to speak. Mr Brazier, do you wish to speak in the debate? I am sorry to ask, but it will affect my calculations.
I will set the time limit at six minutes. You will probably get six minutes, Mr Brazier, but it might be a little less. I will advise you when we get there. There is now a time limit of six minutes on all speakers to allow time for the responses.
I welcome this timely debate. It is healthy that on a Thursday when there is a one-line Whip, there is such pressure on time because of the number of Members who wish to contribute. That reflects the importance of the subject.
As always, it is right to begin by paying tribute to the professionalism and courage of our armed forces and the sacrifices that they so often make. We owe them our thanks.
The world in which the armed forces and the British Government operate is changing. We have rightly talked about the changing nature of the threats, but another way in which the world has changed is that our financial resources are not as great as they were. I am sure that even Mr Baron understands that. He mentioned by how much China is increasing its defence expenditure. I quickly looked up the figures of the International Monetary Fund on gross government debt as a percentage of
GDP. China’s is only 22%; ours is 90%. That is a risky financial situation and is one of the reasons why we must have good fiscal discipline.
Otherwise, we might end up in the same situation as some of our NATO allies. Italy’s gross government debt as a percentage of GDP is 126%. Greece’s is 158%. If they allow that to continue, we all know what path they will have to go down—they will have to cut all sorts of expenditure, not least defence expenditure. If I had to speculate as to why Greece is one of the few countries within NATO that is achieving the 2% target for defence spending as a percentage of GDP, I would suggest that it is less to do with skyrocketing defence expenditure than with plummeting GDP.
That is one reason why we have to be a little careful about using such absolute percentages. If we were spending just above 2% and we had a good year in which GDP grew unexpectedly, we might fall below 2% mathematically without cutting our defence expenditure. If that happened temporarily, we would all regret it, but we must not fixate too much on the absolute percentage. Nevertheless, I agree with the broad thrust of the many contributors who have said that we need to encourage other NATO partners, when they can afford to do so, to step up to the plate. I certainly agree with Jack Lopresti that we cannot guarantee that America will continue effectively to subsidise the defence of Europe. We have seen the risk of American isolationism in the past and it may well raise its head again.
I do not have much time to talk about how we can economise on our defence, but I emphasise that we are still spending £38 billion in 2014-15, giving us one of the best-equipped and most technically advanced military forces in the world. It is still arguably the fourth largest defence budget in the world—it depends on whose figures we use, but I think the worst estimate that I have seen is that it is the sixth largest, which is still substantial for a country of our size—and we are over the 2% of GDP target for NATO members at the moment. We are constructing the two largest aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy’s history, and we are planning a fleet of destroyers, a new fleet of both nuclear and conventionally armed submarines and, further ahead, the joint strike fighter and the Type 26 frigate.
That will all put intense pressure on our defence budget, so we have to consider ways in which we can make it more cost-effective. That is not just about budget cuts—it is a great tribute to the Secretary of State for Defence that he has put such emphasis on efficiency and better management. He may have been slightly disappointed not to have become Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the outset of the coalition, but the Treasury’s loss has been the gain of first the Department for Transport and then the Ministry of Defence. He protected investment in transport infrastructure, and he has been good at prioritising more efficient defence spending and procurement. Both the 2010 strategic defence and security review—the first for 12 years, it has to be said—and more recently the Defence Reform Act 2014 have emphasised the strengthening and reform of defence procurement, perhaps saving as much as £1 billion a year. That compares with the last year of the Labour Government—
The best way to reduce defence expenditure is to reduce the need for it, and the current Government have signed up to the international arms trade treaty and have an important strategy of building stability overseas. Such things, which contribute to peacekeeping and the reduction of threats, are quite important, but inevitably we have to face up to some threats. It is right to look at Ukraine, and at Russia’s posture, and be concerned about it, and that should be reflected in our defence strategy. However, it is also right that we look at the different nature of the threat that we face now from that during the cold war. There is increasing need for flexibility and adaptability, and the Future Force 2020 strategy, with more emphasis on the reserves, is right. We can examine the potential for more co-operation with NATO and EU partners, and there are good models, such as Operation Atalanta, the anti-piracy operation.
Of course, I have to finish by pointing out that continuous at-sea deterrence, currently run in the same way as it was at the height of the cold war, offers some opportunity for savings. Only Liberal Democrats have really emphasised that opportunity, but I close by commending it to the Minister.
I pay my thanks to, and express my huge respect and admiration for, our armed forces, who continue, as they always have, to serve this country with courage and dignity.
There is one thing worse than weak armed forces, and that is a weak economy, because without a strong economy we cannot have strong armed forces. I realise that, and it would be foolish not to. I pay my respect to my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister, who I know does not like sitting here listening to Back Benchers, certainly those on the Government Benches, talking about our armed forces—no Ministers do, because they, like us, want to support our armed forces. I am sure that, in their hearts, they would like to spend more money on them.
Expenditure on our armed forces must surely be a matter of priority. The priority for us in this House is the defence of our country, our island, our dependants, our people and our many responsibilities around the world. I will raise the elephant in the room—or one of them—which is expenditure on overseas aid. I totally support help for the third world and everything that it implies. Unfortunately, by setting targets for those things we tie ourselves to perhaps unreasonable expectations, particularly when our own country is suffering economically.
Yes, I have heard that and I am sure there is an element of truth to it. I argue, however—I do not want to go too far down this road—that if a country cannot grow crops, for example, we should send them not billions of pounds but a farmer: we teach them how to do it. That is the way to help people help themselves. If we give them billions or millions of pounds, the money tends to disappear down a plughole or, worse, into some despot’s back pocket and a new fleet of Mercedes-Benz.
I wonder whether some politicians in the House—dare I say, perhaps the more modern politicians—really understand what our armed forces are about. I mean no disrespect to them, but they have not served. I do not say that because I and other Members of the House have served that we are any better, or even any better informed, but I believe we have an instinct—a gut feeling—that the armed forces in our country are the very backbone of the United Kingdom because of our history, and we ignore our history at our peril.
When I was serving in the 1980s we had the Falklands war. Many of my friends went down there and served with great distinction, as did they all. Expenditure then was more than 5% of GDP, and I understand we had more than 60 warships. Expenditure is now 2% of GDP, and we have 19 warships. I do not understand what has changed in the intervening years.
The shadow Minister says technology, and I agree that technology has changed. However, if we have one superb aircraft carrier and 10 Chinese submarines, and those submarines sink our superb aircraft carrier, we have nothing left. Technology is great, but it can be in only one place at one time, although it has a role to play.
Let me mention the list of responsibilities and wars that we have been involved in—I just literally scribbled them down. I asked what has changed, and my answer is “nothing”. The list contains Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Russia—as we heard from my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, Russia is flexing its muscles, not least in the northern approaches with its submarine fleet and in the air—as well as piracy on the high seas and the Pacific. We as a country have other responsibilities. Northern Ireland has not gone away, and—God forbid it ever happens again—let us not forget that we had 35,000 troops at the height of the troubles. The list goes on: Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus, the Falklands, Belize, and now Kenya and getting our citizens out of that country if it implodes. We also have NATO commitments, aid to the third world and disaster relief. Those are just some of the vast array of the United Kingdom’s responsibilities.
We are a tiny country with a small budget compared with many others, but we have had and still have huge responsibilities because we stand up—as we have always done—for freedom, democracy and the rule of law. To do that we need some muscle behind us in the event it all goes wrong. As sure as eggs are eggs and history is history it does go wrong, and the Falklands war is a classic case in point. As I have said, we would be pushed to retake those islands were they to be taken now, with no aircraft carrier and no air cover.
I also wish to touch on rumoured reports on the cuts and expenditure. A report of
My father and grandfather served in the Royal Navy with great distinction. My grandfather would be turning in his grave. My father is not in his—a long way from it, God bless him—but he is certainly not a happy man. As Admiral Lord West said, the state of our Royal Navy now is a national disgrace. Freedom comes at a price and we must be prepared to pay it.
Mr Stewart, are you standing? The reason I ask is that you are on my list as wishing to speak, but I have not seen you standing. I want to make sure you get the opportunity to speak.
Sigmund Freud suggested that denial can be a psychological defence mechanism by which a person, faced with facts too uncomfortable to accept, rejects them and instead suggests such matters are simply not true, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I saw such denial when, as United Nations Commander, I reported genocide in Bosnia during 1992-93. Many international politicians preferred to ignore the clear evidence given to them and avoid facing up to the fact that something had to be done.
I fear the dangers of denial are at play once more. We are consistently reassured that our armed forces are operationally fit for purpose. They are not, despite the fantastic bravery, quality and efforts of our service personnel in their various ships, units and squadrons. It is now clear that the 2010 strategic defence and security review is not working well enough. It has gone wrong in some parts at least, yet the Ministry of Defence persistently maintains that all is well when it is clearly not. I am not being personal here. Friends of mine run the Ministry of Defence and I know them to be deeply honourable, patriotic and decent. I understand when they say they must listen to current advisers, not voices from the past or people who are not involved in defence directly. I might say the same if I was in their situation. I have never held high office, but I wonder whether people in such positions can escape the shackling political requirements of their responsibilities. In the MOD, for both senior civil servants and generals, I suspect it could easily be career suicide to suggest that a plan is going wrong. In the battle of Whitehall bureaucratic politics, it is always safer to give the boss good, rather than bad, news. As a military commander, almost every single plan I carried out went wrong from the start. Is it not a well-known military truism that plans do not survive contact with the enemy, and need constant tinkering and revision from the moment they begin? Have such adjustments happened to the SDSR 2010? I do not think so, but I urge that such adjustment is necessary.
Let me end by talking about what I think is the direst manning situation in our armed forces—within the Royal Navy. The Navy’s manning overstretch is manifestly affecting its operational capability. For instance, highly trained and highly motivated people are simply leaving the service, because in their view they have no choice. The 2020 plan for our Navy is that it should be about 24,000 strong, with two aircraft carriers and about 19 frigates or destroyers. Admiral Jellicoe had 80 destroyers at Jutland! In the circumstances, I just cannot see how we are truly going to be able to man, equip, sustain, protect and fly from one aircraft carrier, let alone two.
Last year, HMS Bulwark, second of the Albion-class assault ships and currently flagship of the Royal Navy, was on operational deployment for 272 days out of 365. When she returns to her home port, many in her crew are required to stay on board to carry out essential maintenance. I recently spoke to two female petty officers, both highly qualified and trained engineers aboard the ship. They told me that even when they were given leave, the chances were that they would be recalled, sometimes to fill crewing gaps in ships other than their own. They said they had very little chance to have a social life, let alone get married and have a family, which they both wanted to do. As a consequence, they had no choice but to leave the Royal Navy.
The Royal Navy simply does not have enough sailors for the commitments it has to fulfil. My firm belief is that the Navy must increase its size by at least 6,000 service personnel, putting it back to roughly the same size it was before 2010. The undeniable truth is that we are simply not spending enough on defence, and our sailors, soldiers and airmen are suffering in consequence. As one defence attaché put it to the Select Committee on Defence two days ago, in defence terms the United Kingdom wants a champagne lifestyle but has a budget only for beer. We not only have to sustain spending on our armed forces at 2% of GDP; we should increase it, if we really wish to have the very best sailors, soldiers and airmen in the world.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker.
As I think everybody has said, defence of our country must be the No. 1 priority for the British Government. The use of the military is an important tool in finding political and diplomatic solutions. After all, when diplomacy goes wrong, we need to start using our military and some of its might.
In previous speeches I have paid particular tribute to our servicemen and women, particularly in my Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency, which has 3 Commando Brigade, 29 Commando, the Royal Marines and, of course, the Royal Navy base that is the home to the refuelling and deep maintenance of our nuclear submarines. I remind the House that Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport continues to play a large role in defending our country. I also remind my hon. Friend the Minister that 25,000 people in Devonport’s travel-to-work area depend on defence for their livelihoods.
It is appropriate that we should be having this debate this month, because on
In my SDSR submission, shortly after my election in 2010, I made it quite clear that, this being an island nation, the Government should focus on protecting our trade routes. Britain is our island story, and we expect our Royal Navy to perform critical humanitarian operations, as well as providing our nuclear deterrent. However, I should point out that although the Conservative part of the coalition Government is fully committed to retaining four continuous-at-sea submarines and the nuclear deterrent, the Liberal Democrats, I am afraid to say, are less happy with that.
To reduce the deficit, this Government had to take some difficult economic decisions. The last SDSR took place in that context, with every Department, with the exception of Health and of International Development, facing real financial cuts. My SDSR submission recognised that the Government had to work within a limited financial envelope, but I named spending on defence and long-term care for the elderly as my financial priorities. I argued in my submission to the 2010 SDSR that in order to do that, defence spending needed to rise to around 3% of GDP. Expenditure has hovered around 2% to 2.5% since 1997, which is surprising, given the significant amount of other stuff that our armed forces have been asked to do, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Somalia.
I very much welcome the investment in new ships, with the Government’s decision to keep some of the Type 23 ships at Devonport, rather than moving them to Portsmouth. I also look forward to the completion of the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, which I hope will be used, the six Type 45 destroyers and, most importantly, the Type 26 frigates, which I hope the Government will base-port in my constituency. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for making sure that since
Looking at today’s security threats, I am pleased that investment is to be made in unmanned aerial vehicles and is set to increase over the next decade. Those have the capability to give us a powerful global defence reach at a considerably reduced risk to life. I urge the Government to put some effort and funding into cyber-warfare as well. There would be nothing worse than for one of our submarines or, more importantly, one of our aircraft carriers to be off some piece of land where somebody was playing around with the software in order to try to fire missiles, for example. It is imperative that the Government take this threat seriously and allocate sufficient investment to ensure that we are properly protected against cyber-warfare.
We need to make sure that when people leave the services, they go to another job. We must also make sure that we look after their mental health. It is incredibly important that when people transfer their skills, those are recognised in the commercial work space. My father left the Navy having been a lieutenant commander signalman, and he ended up by becoming the head of outside broadcasting for Rediffusion Television. That was possible in those days because the qualifications were fully recognised.
Earlier this month the Chancellor came down to Plymouth and looked at Hasler unit. I hope he learned some lessons and will include them in the autumn statement.
Finally, next Wednesday the Military Wives choir is coming here to sing in Portcullis House, and I would be grateful if the Minister and his whole team attended. All these things can ensure that we have that great Nelsonian tribute that used to be played on board ship. We need to make sure that we give confusion to the enemy and make that a reality.
I, too, congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend Mr Baron on obtaining this debate. I, too, believe that 2% is an absolute and probably inadequate minimum for defence spending.
It is sobering to think that exactly 100 years ago in June 1914 the eyes of this country were firmly fixed on the threat of civil war in Ireland. The prospect of a major war on the continent had crossed very few minds. Just a week before the Falklands war, most people in this country had no idea where the Falklands were on a map. Only three months before the war with Saddam Hussein, the Ministry of Defence had firmly ruled out the possibility of ever sending tanks into an operation outside the NATO area. So of all the threats that we appear to face, the gravest may be one of which we are barely aware. Given how many we face, that is sobering.
I make just three points, two of which are echoes of earlier speakers. The first is an echo of comments made by my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, the new Chairman of the Defence Committee, in an excellent speech. The man who had risen in just five years from being an obscure academic to become the youngest brigadier in the second world war was asked what he thought should be our highest priority when the Berlin wall came down and defence cuts were made. Enoch Powell replied that above all we had to keep the armed forces’ thinking capability—the ability to operate staff at the highest levels and the ability to develop doctrine together.
The point has already been made. It is critical. We must redevelop—because we have lost it—a facility that combines the lessons of history with the very good work on ongoing doctrine, and we need to make sure that we keep the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters and the other ones and that they are staffed not just by regular officers; as both Monty and Bill Slim said in their memoirs, we need a broader range of people involved in them.
The second point is an echo of the comments that my hon. Friend Bob Stewart put so well: the situation of the Navy is parlous, and rebuilding that, including maritime reconnaissance within the Air Force, must be the highest priority.
On the third area—the only one where I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay—I must respond to what was said about the reserve forces.
The practical fact is that modern regular manpower is very expensive. I suspect that all of us present in this Chamber want to spend more on defence, but when it comes to any affordable defence budget we must learn from our allies: America, Canada, Australia, even New Zealand have a much higher proportion of reserve forces.
This is not just a question of a boutique decision, and it is not just a question of the Army. America and Canada do not throw away the skills of pilots who have spent half a career with the regular armed forces; instead, those pilots go on and serve in the air guard or the auxiliary squadrons of the Canadian air force. Those countries thus get two bites out of the expensive costs they incur. Across all our English-speaking counterparts, a large proportion of the ground crews and others are provided by reservists.
Even more importantly, we are in serious danger after two deeply unpopular wars of losing public support for defence altogether. The only adult uniformed presence in 350 communities in this country is through our reserve forces. It is essential for us to build up this capability and its connection to the nation.
Finally, I am immensely proud of our forebears—we have heard plenty of examples of them from around the Chamber—who fought in the two world wars. I hope to God that my two sons in uniform will not face the same thing. The first duty of Government, however, must be defence of the realm. There is nothing magic about a particular number, but the strongest message the Prime Minister could send to the NATO meeting he will chair is that while he remains Prime Minister Britain will be committed to 2% for defence.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for proposing today’s debate and Mr Baron for introducing it. We have heard 11 contributions on the broad theme of the level of defence expenditure, while some of the new and developing threats to our nation have also been highlighted.
The debate is timely in light of last week’s National Audit Office report on Army 2020. I have seen many NAO and Select Committee reports over the years, but I have to say that this one has to be the most damning and critical I have ever read. The report is important, because it sums up all the shortcomings that characterise this Government’s position on defence. It also shows how the Defence Secretary simply failed to do his basic homework when it came to the Army 2020 reforms.
On page 7, the report says:
“The Department did not test whether increasing the trained strength of the Army Reserve to 30,000 was feasible”.
On page 8, it says:
“The Department did not fully assess the value for money of its decision to reduce the size of the Army.”
On page 19, it goes on to say:
“The Department…did not have a mature workforce model or good data to help it accurately assess how long it would take to recruit the required number of reserves”.
This is not rocket science—these are basic things that the Secretary of State for Defence failed to do in putting forward this defence reform.
Is it any wonder, then, that recruitment to the reserves is stalling? As of April 2014, the trained strength of the Army Reserve was 19,400 personnel, which has actually fallen in number since the plan was announced in 2012. That means that the reserves have recruited 67% fewer personnel than was planned for at this stage, and it is clear exactly how that has been allowed to happen. A series of preventable IT blunders were made because Ministers failed to follow through on their contractual obligations to Capita, the company selected to manage Army and armed forces recruitment. As a result of that basic incompetence, the taxpayer has incurred additional costs of around £70 million, written off an extra £6 million and, on top of all that, is spending an extra £1 million a month until the problem can be solved.
Since his first day in office, the Defence Secretary has prioritised the Treasury bidding and the need to ensure that the MOD meets the Chancellor’s deadline for cuts above all else. It is clear, and the NAO confirms, that there is only one element of the Army reforms on which the Government are making steady progress. It will not surprise Members to learn that, according to page 9 of the NAO report,
“The Army is ahead of its target to reduce its military staff…and deliver the staffing savings required by its reduced budget.”
Last week 1,000 more servicemen and women were made redundant, in addition to the thousands who had already lost their jobs. If Ministers had put as much effort into the detail of the Army 2020 reforms as they are putting into the issuing of P45s, Army 2020 might not be in its present parlous state.
One sentiment has featured very largely in all the speeches that we have heard this afternoon. Obviously, much has been said about the 2% figure to which we aspire, but a deeper theme has emerged. It has been pointed out that modern politicians are often subject to short-term pressures, but these are, in fact, very long-term issues. I say that as someone who comes from a dual cultural background. When I speak to people in the east, they tend to say that we do not often have the stomach, the commitment or the long-term view to tackle these issues head on.
This is not about a long-term plan; it is about basic competence, which the NAO report has clearly called into question. The report warns that there are “significant risks” to the Army’s operational capability because of the Government’s incompetence in handling these reforms. That is why we have called on the Government not to proceed with their redundancy programme until they have seen evidence that the recruitment of reserves has increased enough to fill the gap.
Defence Ministers have developed a habit of returning to a small number of stock phrases and sound bites, usually when their record is under pressure, and I look forward to the Minister’s trotting out a few of them today. No doubt we shall hear—as this has been their mindset from the start—that the Government had no choice but to make these reductions, because they had inherited a £38 billion “black hole” from their predecessors. Let me, for the umpteenth time, quote from the National Audit Office’s 2009 report. It states:
“The size of the gap is highly sensitive to the budget growth assumptions used. If the Defence budget remained constant in real terms, and using the Department’s forecast for defence inflation of 2.7 per cent, the gap would now be £6 billion over the ten years”
—not the one year that has been cited by some Government Members. No doubt the Government do not want to talk about the fact that the “black hole” has now increased to £74 billion because of the 9% spending reduction in 2010. No one seems to know where they got the £38 billion figure. I suppose they think that if they repeat it for long enough, people will actually believe in it.
Remarkably, it was the former Secretary of State, Dr Fox, who first claimed, in September 2011, that he had eradicated the “black hole” in less than a year. Six months later, the present Secretary of State claimed that he had plugged the gap. Perhaps the Minister will tell us who exactly should be credited with this feat. Those two individuals have clearly missed their vocation: if they can make a £38 billion “black hole” disappear in less than 12 months, they should have gone to the Treasury rather than the Ministry of Defence.
At a time when the Government are sacking highly skilled, experienced and brave servicemen and women and scrapping key elements of defence equipment, Ministers must be honest with our forces and the public about why they underspent their 2012-13 budget by almost £2 billion. They also tell us that the UK still has the fourth largest defence budget in the world. That may be true, but we on the Opposition Benches believe such a statistic has little meaning if the allocated budget is not actually being spent, and it is on this count that the Government have failed spectacularly. They gave us aircraft carriers without aircraft. They scrapped the Nimrod programme when three of the aircraft were almost 90% complete, leaving the MOD reliant on Twitter to counter the maritime surveillance threat. They have also sacked regular soldiers before waiting to see whether increased reserve numbers would be able to meet the shortfall.
As the NAO report summarises, the Government
“did not fully assess the value for money of its decision to reduce the size of the Army.”
If the Minister reads the report, he will see that the fact of the matter is that recruiting reservists will be more expensive than having regulars, and that cost will have to be picked up by the Treasury some time in the future. I refer him to page 8 of the report if he wants to read that later.
It is clear that when deciding the future size of the Army, the Government decided on cost savings as their first principle, rather than any strategic underpinning of their decision. The NAO report makes clear on page 6 that
“The future size of the Army was determined by the need to make financial savings”— an approach which has characterised the MOD under this Government.
Commentators and the Select Committee agree that, blindsided by the desire to achieve savings above all else, strategic considerations have been sacrificed in favour of reductions in personnel and capability. Unfortunately, some people are having to carry the can for this—unfairly,
“I remember the genesis very clearly. It was a financially driven plan. We had to design a new structure that included the run-down of the 102,000 Regular Army to 82,000, which is pretty well advanced now, to follow a funding line that was driven by the austerity with which everybody is very familiar…It triggered the complete redesign of the Army.”
I have written a reply to that report because I do not agree with it, but all the report says is that there are extra costs associated with recruiting for the next year and a half until the new system is in place, and it also queries some of the figures the MOD has put forward, but it nowhere actually suggests that a man or woman who is employed only for 40 days a year could cost more than a regular soldier. It—
The hon. Gentleman should read chapter 11, on page 8 of the report.
We believe the approach adopted is damagingly short-sighted and plays fast and loose with our nation’s security.
I would do, but unfortunately I do not have the time.
Our approach is clear. Instead of having the Treasury-led SDSR conducted by this Government, we believe the UK needs a defence review that is genuinely strategic as well as financially viable. For us, these two factors are two sides of the same coin. This country needs an SDSR that provides strategic leadership and asks the most fundamental questions of all in terms of defence: what do we want our armed forces to actually do? As the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker, outlined in his Royal United Services Institute speech, we have got to be ambitious, but we also believe that to withdraw from the rest of the world as though it is not part of our problem is neither desirable nor possible to achieve. We are also realistic and know there are no gains to be made from promises that cannot be delivered; we saw too many of those at the last election by the Conservative party.
It is only by asking these questions and delivering the strategic leadership this Government have signally failed to offer that we can do our armed forces and the British public justice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Baron on securing this important debate. Seventy years ago this month saw the success of Operation Overlord. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the allied forces who crossed the channel on D-day and who were quite rightly commemorated at events in Normandy recently. Not least of those was former Royal Navy Lieutenant Bernard Jordan who slipped away from his care home to join his former comrades, but thanks to a comprehensive information-operations campaign, assisted by the national press, he mitigated the potential wrath of both Mrs Jordan and his care home on his return. I am sure that the House will want to join me in wishing him well on his 90th birthday, which falls this week.
On Tuesday, I was privileged to attend a memorial service for those members of the 7th Armoured Brigade who lost their lives in their recent tour of Afghanistan, reminding us all in this House that our armed forces continue to exhibit the upmost courage and bravery on our nation’s behalf.
Finally on personnel matters, I understand that my opposite number, Mr Jones, is getting married next week. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I wish him all the best for the future, but I must caution him that this key decision may have important budgetary consequences in the long term.
Having paid tribute to our personnel, both past and present, I wish to focus now on the Ministry of Defence’s capital programme, which is the largest in Government, accounting for some 20% of total capital spending this year. Our equipment programme comprises some £164 billion over 10 years, and is already published in our defence equipment plan. This will ensure that the Royal Navy continues to be one of the premier navies in the world by procuring and supporting, among other things, two new 65,000 tonne aircraft carriers, with HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of class, due to be floated up next month in Rosyth; seven Astute-class nuclear attack submarines; six Type 45 destroyers, plus the beginning of the transition from the Type 23 frigate to the new Type 26 global combat ship, which will maintain a force of 19 frigates and destroyers, but with other surface warships as well, including a strong amphibious capability led by HMS Ocean. That amphibious squadron will be able, arguably, to transport the most effective maritime infantry force in the world, the Royal Marines, who celebrate their 350th anniversary this year.
Crucially, we are also making full provision for the successor deterrent system, providing the ultimate guarantee of our national security, and a re-elected Conservative Government will continue with that programme. In mentioning this, I pay tribute to all those who have supported the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrent and who have made sure that since April 1969 the Royal Navy’s ballistic missile boats have not missed one single day on patrol.
Turning to the Royal Air Force, we are investing to enhance the Typhoon via tranche 2 and tranche 3 upgrades to maintain its battle-winning edge, and to procure the new F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, placing this country as the only level 1 partner with the US in this key programme. We will further extend our global reach via a highly capable air transport fleet represented by the C-17 and C-130 aircraft, which are now being reinforced by Voyager, as well as the new Airbus A400M Atlas, the first of which is due to enter service before the end of the year. Combined, that will provide us with one of the largest and most modern air transport fleets anywhere in the western world. In addition, we have just taken delivery of the first of 14 new heavy-lift Chinook Mark 6 helicopters at RAF Odiham, which means that the UK has the largest Chinook fleet in Europe.
As part of the next strategic defence and security review, we will be examining the question of a maritime patrol aircraft to see what, if anything, can be done about this area of capability. We will do that as part of the SDSR, and I know that my hon. Friend Bob Stewart has taken a particular and longstanding interest in this subject.
As an ex-soldier, I should also add that we are ensuring that the Army remains well equipped. We will: upgrade the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle and also the Challenger 2 main battle tank; expand our fleet of battle-proven Foxhound armoured vehicles; upgrade our fleet of Apache attack helicopters; and procure the new Scout specialist reconnaissance vehicles.
Furthermore and importantly, we are significantly increasing our investment in cyber security—a point well made by my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile—ensuring that our armed forces are equipped with cutting edge capabilities across all environments. That investment is not only securing the best possible military capability, but helping to secure UK jobs and growth to help complement our long-term economic plan.
I will give way in a moment. UK defence exports in 2012 were assessed to be £8.8 billion, up from £6 billion in 2010, which is the second highest by value in the world.
I turn to overall defence spending and the defence budget. The defence budget this year is £33.6 billion, which makes it the fourth largest budget in Government. Defence spending will be a key issue at the NATO summit in Wales this September. My understanding is that the agenda has not yet been finalised, but we will certainly make the point that despite the fact that we have had to constrain UK public spending, UK defence spending has consistently met and exceeded the NATO target to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. That point has been mentioned by almost every contributor to the debate. Indeed, we are one of only four NATO nations that currently meet that target. According to NATO, the UK has the second largest defence budget in NATO and the largest in the EU.
The Chair of the Defence Committee pre-empts me. On current plans, defence spending will continue to meet the 2% target this year and next year. Decisions on public spending after financial year 2015-16 will be taken in the next comprehensive spending review, but that applies to all Departments and not only to the Ministry of Defence. I hope that that is a clear answer to his question.
At this juncture, it is important to recall that in 2010 we inherited a financial situation in the Ministry of Defence which was, to say the least, distinctly sub-optimal. It was exacerbated by a culture of short-term decision making, prevaricating over big decisions, slipping everything to the right and storing up costs over the long term. As Nye Bevan—that is Bevan, not Kevan—told the Labour party conference in 1949:
“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism”.
If that is so, there was a pretty atheist period when the Labour party last ran the Ministry of Defence. We inherited a financial shambles, which we have had to deal with for four years. The defence programme is affordable over 10 years after some difficult and painful decisions, and as a result of our better financial discipline, the Treasury has allowed us to roll forward recent in-year underspends to supplement our future plans. We are continuing to examine a package of additional investment, including on equipment and cyber. The details of that are currently being finalised, and they will be announced soon.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I must say something about reserves, because I suspect that that is what he wants. I have four points to make on reserves. First, we are aiming for a trained Army reserve of 30,000 by April 2019. Secondly, we have gripped the problems regarding the IT recruitment systems and we have reduced bureaucracy in the process. Hon. Members know that we are investing £1.8 billion over 10 years to make the programme work. Thirdly, our target of a net additional 11,000 trained reservists for the Army is the equivalent of slightly more than 16 additional reservists for each parliamentary constituency, and I have to believe that that can be achieved. Fourthly, and crucially, we have halted 18 years of decline in our reserve forces; for the first time since 1996, the total strength of our reserve force has increased. Our forecast for the trained strength of the Army reserve was 18,800 by the end of quarter 4 last year. We have exceeded that forecast and there are a total of 19,400 in the trained strength of the Army reserve, which is 600 reserve soldiers ahead of the forecast. That is a five-year programme, not a five-month initiative, and as a former Territorial Army officer I remain confident that we can do that.
I was not going to ask about reservists. Only time will prove us right in the end, but we need that time to pass. Briefly, will the Minister return to the 2% question? One hears what he says about the comprehensive spending review in two years’ time, but that should not preclude the Government from committing now to 2% of GDP, whatever that GDP is in two years’ time.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I have already attempted to give a clear answer on the position.
I referred earlier to D-day, which resonates with me because my father was at D-day on a minesweeper. He taught me a valuable lesson, which was never to take living in a free country for granted. I think he was in a good position to be able to say that. Yes, we must live within our means, but equally we must not shirk on our nation’s insurance policy. My father taught me that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm, and I will always remain conscious of that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered defence spending.