(Urgent Question): I rise to request urgent clarification of the radical reductions in conventional military forces provisionally proposed by the national security capability review, together with an explanation of the reasons for undertaking the review and the financial constraints under which it is being conducted.
In the 2015 strategic defence and security review, the Government identified four principal threats facing the UK and our allies in the coming decade: terrorism, extremism and instability; state-based threats and intensifying wider state competition; technology, especially cyber-threats; and the erosion of the rules-based international order.
As the Prime Minister made clear in her speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet late last year, these threats have diversified and grown in intensity. Russian hostility to the west is increasing—whether in weaponising information, attempting to undermine the democratic process or increased submarine activity in the north Atlantic. Regional instability in the middle east exacerbates the threat from Daesh and Islamic—Islamist terrorism, which has diversified and dispersed. Iran’s well known proxy military presence in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere poses a clear threat to UK interests in the region and to our allies.
Like other Members, I have seen much of the work that our armed forces continue to do in dealing with these threats. It is because of these intensifying global security contexts that the Government initiated the national security capability review in July. Its purpose is to ensure that our investment in national security capabilities is joined up, effective and efficient. As I said in oral questions, since I became Defence Secretary I have asked the Department to develop robust options to ensure that defence can match the future threats and challenges facing the nation. Shortly, when the national security capability review finishes, the Prime Minister, with National Security Council colleagues, will decide how to take forward its conclusions. I would not wish to pre-empt that decision.
Although the detail must wait until after the NSCR concludes, I can assure the House that as long as I am Defence Secretary we will develop and sustain the capabilities necessary to maintain continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence, a carrier force that can strike anywhere around the globe and the armed forces necessary to protect the north Atlantic and Europe; and we will continue to work with our NATO allies. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and I will be doing all we can to ensure that we have a sustainable budget, so that we can deliver the right capabilities for our armed forces.
I thank the current Defence Secretary—[Laughter.] That is not meant to be funny. I thank him for confirming what the previous Defence Secretary told the Defence Committee, namely that the capability review resulted from intensified threats to the United Kingdom. If the threats are intensifying, why has the review provisionally proposed radical reductions in our conventional armed forces, and why is it required to be fiscally neutral, as the National Security Adviser recently told the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy? Who has imposed that financial restriction? The Ministry of Defence? Unlikely. The Treasury? Almost certainly.
If new threats have intensified, is not more money needed, unless of course previous conventional threats have seriously diminished? If previous conventional threats have diminished, why did the National Security Adviser claim to the Defence Committee in a letter:
“Because the main decisions on Defence were taken during the 2015 SDSR, this review is not defence-focused”?
If this review is not defence-focused, and if the 2015 plan therefore still applies, why should thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen be lost, elite units merged or aircraft frigates and vital amphibious vessels scrapped, long before their out-of-service dates?
Finally, is it not obvious that we are bound to face such unacceptable choices as long as we continue to spend barely 2% of GDP on defence? Even after the end of the cold war and the taking of the peace dividend cuts, we were spending fully 3% in the mid-1990s. Defence is our national insurance policy, and it is time for the Treasury to pay the premiums.
I thank the current Chairman of the Defence Committee—I think we are only ever current—for raising those points. In the NSCR, we are looking at the threats that the country faces, and everything that was done in 2015 is relevant today. As I pointed out, the Prime Minister herself has highlighted the fact that the threats are increasing, and we are having very active discussions right across Government about how best we can deal with those threats. There is an awful lot of speculation and rumour in the press, but that is what we expect of the press.
As I mentioned earlier, we need to ensure that we have the right capability, whether that is a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, our special forces, or an Army, Navy and Air Force that have the right equipment and capability to strike in any part of the globe. That is what we have to deliver. I am afraid that I cannot be drawn on the details at the moment, but I will be sure to update the House regularly, as the national security capability review develops, on the conclusions of the review and how we can best deal with them.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question, because Members on both sides of the Chamber have had enough of constantly reading about proposed defence cuts in the newspapers while Government Ministers stonewall questions in the House.
May I press the Secretary of State actually to answer the questions posed by the Chair of the Defence Committee about the national security capability review? Is it the case that the defence element of the review is to be hived off? If so, when can we expect that part to be published? We live in a time of deep global uncertainty, and the risks that we face continue to grow and evolve. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the review will carry out a thorough strategic analysis of those risks, and make a full assessment of the capabilities required to deal with them effectively? It is complete nonsense to have a review without also reviewing the funding, yet that is precisely what this Government propose to do.
Although we must develop and adapt our capabilities as the threats that we face continue to evolve, this review must not become a contest between cyber-security and more conventional elements. Will the Secretary of State recognise that Britain will always need strong conventional forces, and that money must be made available for both? He must not rob Peter to pay for Paul.
There is significant concern about cuts to personnel, with numbers already running behind the stated targets across all three services. The Government still maintain that they aim to be able to field a “warfighting division”, but will the Secretary of State admit that this simply will not be possible if the Army is reduced to the levels speculated? What is the Government’s target for the size of the Army? They broke their 2015 manifesto pledge to have an Army of over 82,000, and they have now broken their 2017 pledge to maintain the overall size of the armed forces because, in reality, numbers have fallen.
Finally, will the Secretary of State tell us what specific steps he is taking to stop defence cuts, beyond posing with dogs outside the MOD and briefing the papers about his stand-up rows with the Chancellor? The fact is that we cannot do security on the cheap, and the British public expect the Government to ensure that defence and the armed forces are properly resourced.
I think that all Government Members recognise the importance of making sure that we maintain conventional forces, and the fact that we have to have a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent; but we cannot have one and not the other. We have to ensure that we have that ability so that, if we are in a point of conflict, there is deterrence at so very many levels. That is why having robust armed forces—the Army, Navy and Air Force—is so incredibly vital.
The Government and the Conservative party made a clear commitment in our manifesto to maintaining numbers. We are working to ensure that we get the recruitment methods right, so that we can give many people right across the country the opportunity to be able to join the Army, Navy and Air Force. I have to say that if we are choosing between parties when it comes to who will prioritise defence, and who will ensure that our armed forces and this country’s national interests are protected, I know which party I would choose, and it sits on this side of the House.
I will continue to work with the Army, Navy and Air Force to ensure that we get the very best deal for our armed forces. We have a vision as to what we wish to deliver for this country: a robust, global Britain that can project its power right across the globe. We recognise that that is done not just through cyber-offensive capabilities, but the conventional armed forces. As I said earlier, as the national security capability review starts to conclude, I will update the House on the conclusions and how it will be developed.
There has been speculation over the weekend that the defence element of the NSCR is going to be effectively broken out, and dealt with separately slightly later. Given the immense amount of speculation, will the Secretary of State confirm whether this is true? Is he also aware that if he continues stoutly to fend off the pin-striped warriors of the Treasury, he will have very strong support on the Government Benches and, I suspect, even among the Opposition.
I assure my right hon. Friend that we are working hard across Government and all Departments to make sure that we have the right resources for our armed forces not just this year and next year but going forward. On whether I can update the House, I am afraid that I do not have the ability to pre-empt the national security and capability review, but as soon as its conclusions have been brought forward and it has gone to the National Security Council, I will be sure to update this House as soon as I am able to do so.
Will the Secretary of State answer the question that he has been asked by the Opposition and by Government Members? Is the review being split up into defence and security, is defence expected to come later in the year, and if so, when will that happen? What size will the Marines be by the time this concludes? Does he not agree that given all the speculation, and given that the SDSR is now effectively out of date because we are leaving the EU and because of major currency fluctuations, what is needed is a proper SDSR that he, at least, would be able to get a grip of?
I apologise, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman seems not to have been listening to my previous answers. I am not in a position to comment on his question, but I have promised the Committee that I will update the House as soon as I am able to do so. Quite simply, I am not in a place where I can pre-empt the decisions of the National Security Council, and the national security and capability review is ongoing. As soon as I am in a position to be able to update him, I will certainly do so.
When I joined a conventional infantry battalion in 1969, there were 780 officers and soldiers. Now, in the same conventional infantry battalion, there are just over 500. That is a loss of a third in number. Does my right hon. Friend agree that doing that and still calling something a battalion is a great loss of capability?
My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point, and I will certainly look into it. We want to make sure that battalions are properly and fully manned so that they are able to deliver the right capability with the right equipment and the right resources, but I take on board the points that he makes.
We are meeting all of our operational commitments. We have also made it clear that we want to deliver on the numbers that we outlined in the manifesto in keeping the forces at the levels that they are, and we will be doing everything we can to deliver on that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in some ways this is an unfair question for him, because given everything that he has said, he does not decide defence and security policy, as that has now been upped to the National Security Council and the National Security Adviser? At what point does the influence of the chiefs of staff come in? Is he able to veto any proposals being put forward by the Treasury or other Government Departments?
The Chief of the Defence Staff acts as the Prime Minister’s principal adviser on all defence issues. We will be putting forward our thoughts as to how best to make sure that our armed forces are best equipped to go forward. This national security capability review touches on 12 strands of work. I am keen to make sure that defence gets the very best deal. I will be very vocal in making sure that the interests of our armed forces are properly represented going forward.
Does the Defence Secretary not realise that he has a real opportunity here? Both in the debate on Thursday and today, Parliament is saying that he should go to the Treasury and tell it we will not accept merging the Paras with the Marines, cuts to amphibious warfare capability or cuts to the Army of some 11,000. We are trying to support and help him, so instead of retreating into partisanship, will he embrace what Parliament is telling him, and go and tell the Chancellor and the Prime Minister that we want more money?
I am always incredibly grateful for such cross-party support. In the arguments and the debates about our armed forces having the right resources, the fact that there is a real passion to make sure that they have the resources they need is apparent to everyone, not least me. As I have already said, I have made and will continue to make the arguments that need to be made to ensure we have the right resources to enable our armed forces to fulfil the asks that politicians in this House so often place on them.
First, I commend the Government’s commitment to defence: we spend the largest amount of money on defence in Europe. However, the money must be well spent if we are to deal with the security threat. Does the Secretary of State agree that for the Marines, such as 40 Commando in Taunton Deane, to function at the top of their game, they must have the correct amphibious capability, which includes retaining HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark? I know that he will give this due consideration, because it is very important not just for Taunton, but for the nation.
I will most certainly give that proper consideration, and I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I have just visited the commando training centre, and it is quite clear that exceptionally high levels of training go into preparing every marine, as they do into preparing every member of our services. It is absolutely vital to understand the capability we have—not just the Marines, but 16 Air Assault Brigade and so much more—and the benefits they can bring to and their immediate effect on the field of conflict. We will feed all these comments and thoughts into the national security capability review.
The Secretary of State says that he will not be drawn on the detail, and to an extent that is understandable. Is not the fundamental problem, however, that the review is already constrained in that we know it is fiscally neutral? Would not the best way to proceed be to look very carefully at the extensive range of threats we face as a country and to allocate resource and capability accordingly?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I know that the first thing at the forefront of the minds of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister is making sure we get the right outcome. Everyone is very keen to listen and to look at how to get the right solutions for this country’s needs. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his contribution.
The Liaison Committee was unanimous in supporting the request of the Chair of the Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, to have the National Security Adviser appear in front of the Committee. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that there are precedents for the National Security Adviser appearing in front of the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and elsewhere, and Parliament has never accepted the Osmotherly rules, so will he give permission for the National Security Adviser to appear?
There is danger, is there not, of an ever-diminishing spiral? Governments and political parties say they will have 82,000 or 80,000 in the Army, but fail to recruit that many and end up saying, “All right, there’ll be 75,000”, and then the figure will be 70,000, and so it will go on and on. If we fail to recruit enough and the Government fail to fulfil their promises, this country will in the end be left without sufficient defence.
Let us make it absolutely clear: the reason we are looking so clearly at how we go about our recruitment is to make sure we meet the target and fully recruit, and that is why we are changing our approach. As is often said, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” We are trying to look at how to do this differently, so that we hit our numbers and get the right people who want to serve our country, and that is why we are going to do things differently. We have already seen a 15% increase in applications, and I hope that that will continue to rise.
I hope very soon, so that I do not have to sound quite so evasive. I hope it will happen in the very near future, but I am not yet at liberty to name a date.
Pursuant to a point made earlier, I would say to the Secretary of State that the appearance in the newspapers of briefings, which I am certainly not suggesting hail from him, is something that greatly irritates Members of the House. It is therefore very much to be hoped that before the conclusion of the review, there are no further such briefings. If there are, I rather imagine that I will be confronted with further requests for urgent questions, and I will feel unable, and in any case disinclined, to resist those requests.
On that point, I stand here as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant. The reality is that the leaks to papers are undermining morale and the confidence of families, and sending completely the wrong message to our allies. We need answers and we need them now, if only for the people who are serving. They need to know whether they will be serving in Plymouth, or be moved to Colchester.
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point on morale in the armed forces. To read speculation in the newspapers is not good for anyone. That is why I hope we can conclude the national security capability review at the earliest possible moment; then, we can make clear some of the options and what we want to do to take our armed forces forward and to make sure that they have the right investment, so that they continue to be the successful, vibrant organisations in which so many people take great pleasure and pride in serving.
We will continue to do everything we can to fulfil our commitment. I confess that, probably like all Defence Secretaries, I am a little greedy: I would always prefer to have larger numbers in our armed forces. In the coming months, we will do all we can to drive up the numbers through the new recruitment campaign. We hope that will attract significant uptake and an increase in the number of people joining our forces.
Had the Secretary of State been able to join us last Thursday, he would have heard across the House a cry for reassurance. Many of us here are also members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and represent this House and this country across the NATO alliance. I have to tell the Secretary of State that that cry for reassurance, that demand to know that we are able and capable and have the people, the personnel and the equipment to defend the NATO alliance, is shared by our allies. They are also desperate to hear the results of the national security capability review. Are the Secretary of State and the Government aware of that and of the need to reassure our allies?
Yes. We need to reassure our allies that Britain will continue to play a pivotal role not only in the defence of Europe, but in actions in every part of the world, where we bring unique capabilities—the ability to make a difference, as we have done throughout our history. I am as keen as the hon. Lady to bring the national security capability review to a conclusion, so that we can set out our clear vision for our armed forces. They are the best in the world. We have to continue to invest in them. We are increasing the amount of money we spend on our armed forces, and we need to make sure that the whole world understands our commitment to delivering a global Britain.
The Secretary of State took over in a difficult situation, because there were a lot of vacancies in the armed forces. I was pleased to hear him say that he wishes to bring the totals back up and that that is mainly a recruitment problem, which he thinks he may be able to resolve. Does he have the money in the budget if all those people come forward?
With Russia on the rise, our allies under threat and our northern flank vulnerable from Russian naval power, the threat from the Russian great bear is clear. Does the Defence Secretary understand that there is no support from any part of this House for any further cuts to our Royal Navy and our Royal Marines or for mergers that reduce the capabilities of our armed forces?
The threat that the hon. Gentleman talks about is what prompted the security capability review, and that is why we are looking at how best we deal with that threat going forward.
I am proud that we are one of the few members of NATO to actually maintain the 2% of GDP and exceed it. What can we do to ensure that other NATO members actually pay their fair share?
That point has been echoed by not just myself but the US Administration. We need to make sure that everyone understands that every country in NATO has to contribute towards the collective security of Europe and that that is not something that can be outsourced to another nation.
It is a sovereign decision as to how we spend our money on our armed forces, and that decision should be made purely in this country. However, we have worked, and we continue to work, with the French, as we do with the United States, and they are important partners in ensuring we have the stability and security in Europe that benefits every European nation.
I am pleased the Secretary of State is focusing on recruitment. May I put a plea in for the cadets? Many of our cadets go on to serve in the forces they support. However, many cadet units have disappeared from our schools, which is a tragedy. May I put in a plea that the cadets are not left out when we are considering recruiting people into our armed forces?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in her analysis of the important role that cadets play. Some 20% of our armed forces served in the cadets. That is why the Government are committed to opening 500 new cadet forces in schools right around this country. Cadets are so incredibly vital for our armed forces, but they also make sure, in communities right across the country, that our armed forces play such an important role in the life of those local communities.
The Secretary of State has referred at least twice to the manifesto commitments on numbers that he and all his colleagues were elected on. He has been slightly vague about this, so will he be absolutely specific that it is the Government’s policy, under the manifesto he stood on in 2017, that the British Army will not go below 82,000?
On Saturday, together with my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant, Ruth Smeeth and several other colleagues, I had the honour to be at the laying-up of the colours of 3 Mercian, the Staffords, in Lichfield cathedral. It was a great privilege to be there and to recognise their service, but at the same time it was a reminder of the difficult decisions that had to be made. I agree with colleagues that 82,000 is an absolute minimum for the Army, and we must go higher—possibly to see the return of 3 Mercian—and certainly not lower.
I would very much like to reintroduce the Staffordshire Regiment as part of any changes, and that is something I would like to look at going forward—I may have some more battles to win before I get to that stage. However, I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments, and I am very conscious of the important role that the armed forces—especially the Royal Signals—play in Stafford, of how they are so involved in the local community and of how important the money we spend on our armed forces is to the economic prosperity of Stafford and Staffordshire.
The Secretary of State listed areas that would be protected, including aircraft carriers. Could the red line be extended to the amphibious assault ships—the Albion-class ships—and may I respectfully point out that a reduction in our amphibious capability would fundamentally diminish our ability to carry out humanitarian missions?
We need a broad range of capabilities, and I will certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We must maximise our capability, make sure it is affordable and give our armed forces the right training and equipment for them to do their job right around the globe.
Many of us are sympathetic with the Secretary of State in his battle royal with the Treasury—after all, we are down to our last 13 frigates and six destroyers—and think that we should be spending 3% of gross national product, not 2%, but how many of us will support the Treasury when, having achieved our aims and we do spend 3% of GNP on defence, we cut the budgets of other Departments?
We have seen how British forces have been consistently able to deploy effectively around the world using land, sea and air. That requires a broad range of capabilities. We have to look at new ideas: how do we fight differently; how do we get different equipment; how do we get more efficient and capable equipment? That is why we are doing a national security and capability review—to see whether we can get answers to some of those questions—but I am afraid that I cannot be drawn on specifics.
What assessments are being undertaken as part of the review on the savings that could be made by home basing Welsh regiments in Wales, which would help with recruitment and post-service medical care?
The Principality of Wales plays an important role in all we do in defence—it would be great to see national Armed Forces Day taking place in Wales. We are always looking at how to ensure an even distribution of resources in terms of the Army, Navy and Air Force—RAF Valley is an important part of our training capability for the Royal Air Force based in Wales—but we will always look at how we can do more in Wales. It contributes so much to everything we do in our armed forces—the Royal Welsh Fusiliers are currently serving in Estonia—and I am sure that that important role will only increase going forward.
We all understand why the Secretary of State cannot comment publicly, but there is a human element to all this: good men and women up and down this country and their families want somebody to come out and publicly refuse the proposals that have come forward. Will the Secretary of State agree that now is a good opportunity to get a grip on this process and lay out a broad vision for UK defence post Brexit?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We need to draw these matters to a conclusion as swiftly as possible and make sure that people have a clear idea of our intent—how we are going to develop our armed forces and make sure they have the right resources to deliver everything we ask of them. That is what we aim to do. We have the best armed forces in the world; and we have to maintain that. If we want to ensure that Britain remains a global nation that can project power in every part of the globe, we need an armed forces with the resources and manpower to do that. That is what I aim to deliver.
The House learned from the defence debate on Thursday that one of the cruxes of the issue of defence budget pressures is the fact that the defence rate of inflation is considerably higher than the national rate. Year on year, it erodes the purchasing power of defence. However, the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury stopped measuring the defence inflation rate last year. As part of the review, will the Secretary of State commit himself to reinstating measurement of defence inflation, and, in order to be truly fiscally neutral, will he ensure that the annual defence budget increases are pegged to the defence rate of inflation?
That is a very important comment. Foreign exchange rates have had an adverse effect on our ability to buy equipment such as the F-35 fighter. We will always be happy to look at suggestions such as the one made by the hon. Gentleman, and I will certainly raise it with the Treasury, but I cannot guarantee the response.
History, sadly, has shown us that politicians are all too easily tempted to cut our armed forces in order to spend money in other areas. May I urge my right hon. Friend not to do so? We are leaving the European Union, and I believe that our commitments and responsibilities will grow, not least because by the time 27 other countries have decided to do something, it will be too late.
That is why the Government are committed to growing our efficiency budget from £36 billion to £40 billion, increasing the amount of money that we spend on equipment by 0.5% above inflation every single year. These are important points. The first duty of every Government is the defence of the nation, and that is why this Government take it so incredibly seriously.
Much has been made of the Secretary of State’s relative youth in comparison with that of their predecessors. With that in mind, I was reminded of a quotation from Dante at the weekend, when I was reading about their predicament. “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood where the direct way was lost.” Can the Secretary of State enlighten the House about the instructions on the map showing the way out of the “selva oscura” in which he and his Prime Minister now find themselves?
Probably not. I have not read much Dante. I am more of a Burns fan. I have felt a great deal older over the last two months, since starting this job: I think that it ages people an awful lot.
I believe that we are all simply committed to ensuring that we get the very best for our armed forces, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be four-square behind our delivering it.
Martin Docherty-Hughes is of a notably literary turn, as is becoming increasingly apparent in the House. I expect that we will hear further expositions in due course.
On Friday I visited Nos. 10 and 101 squadrons at Brize Norton in my constituency, and I could see how hard they were working. This morning my constituents were out providing tanking support for the Typhoons that were investigating the latest Russian reconnaissance. Does my right hon. Friend agree that now is the time when we need to match spending with the size of the threat, rather than scaling down our response to that threat in order to fall into line with spending?
The review is very much about examining the threats and ensuring that we have the right resources, and that we deliver for the security of our country. Wherever we go, all around the globe, we so often see my hon. Friend’s constituents playing a vital role in ensuring that our armed forces are able to function in every part of the world.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. This must be like opening a box of chocolates and realising that all your favourites have gone and there is just a strawberry cream left. However, I am glad that my patience has won out.
Earlier, the Secretary of State mentioned the changing nature of our security challenges. Does he agree with the Minister for Security and Economic Crime that the big tech companies must do more, and that they may face a special tax levy if they do not do more to help with combating terrorism?
The hon. Gentleman really should not do himself down. I have every expectation that the people of his constituency have been listening to the entirety of these exchanges principally for the purpose of waiting to hear him.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for taking this point of order now, but the Secretary of State has a couple of times used the words “Islamic terrorists.” I think he meant “Islamist terrorists”; I am certain he did, and it is important that we make that distinction in this House, as I am sure he would want to, and I just want to give him the opportunity to correct the record on that.
I know of course that it is a very proud nation that contributes so much to our armed forces. I am not that great on my Welsh history, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows a lot more about it than me, but I think it has been referred to as a Principality for hundreds of years, but I could well be wrong.