Ministry of Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:06 pm on 26th February 2018.

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Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling 6:06 pm, 26th February 2018

I want, first, to say something about spending and then to say a bit more about some of the points that can be made from the actual estimates. I think that that would help the defence debate. I will refer to historical defence spending but, whatever the rights and wrongs of that argument, let me say this: there is no disguising the fact that this country is not spending enough on the defence and security of the realm. I have said that before and I will say it again. That is the frank reality. That is the truth. That point has been heard—loud and clear.

My advice to the Minister is that he and the Defence Secretary use the power of this Parliament’s voice to go to the Prime Minister and tell her that we, the elected representatives, by and large do not think that we are spending enough on the defence and security of the country. As the Chair of the Defence Committee said, it is no good generals, admirals, national security people or whoever is responsible telling secret meetings that there is a real problem, and then, in three weeks’ or three months’ time, trying to tell the British public that £x million or £x billion more is needed and expecting them just to click their fingers on the basis of, “If you only knew what we knew.” It is not good enough and it is not satisfactory.

I have said at many meetings that the whole of Government need to shift their attitude and be clear what we are talking about. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) will make this point in a different way. The tables are available from the House of Commons Library. Hon. Members can go back to when they want. One paper goes back to 1956, showing the percentage of GDP spent on defence at 6%. It is now at 2%. We can see the ups and downs within that time but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the table is clear.

Let me give Members one stark reality. The out-turn figure for the defence budget in 2009-10 was £45 billion at 2016-17 prices. These are not my figures; they are the Library’s. If the Government think that they are wrong, they should tell the Library. The 2016-17 out-turn figures, at 2016-17 prices, were just over £35 billion. There are some notes at the bottom which, quite frankly, I do not properly understand: they talk about changes in accounting practices, and counting this or counting that. However, there can be no doubt that it is a huge reduction. I totally agree with the Chair of the Defence Committee that we are now in a position where we all need to say that more should be spent and more has to be spent. The drop in the figures in that table is frankly astonishing.

Let me ask a couple of questions of the Minister that I really want answered. One of the big things that came out of the defence debate that we had a few weeks ago was that the national security adviser said that anything he found—it did not matter what it was—had to be fiscally neutral. The Chair of the Defence Committee said, and I agree, that the state-on-state threats are much greater and more intensified than they were. But apparently that does not matter: it has to be fiscally neutral. Can I ask the Minister a direct question? If the modernising defence programme says that the Government should be spending billions of pounds more to secure the defence of this country, is that whole programme predicated on a fiscally neutral position, or is it predicated on the Government funding what their modernising defence programme tells them?

As the Chair of the Defence Committee said, the defence threats are not reducing but intensifying. It is not acceptable to me, or, I believe, to this House, to say that as we are now facing a greater state-on-state threat because the terrorist threat is apparently not quite as big as it was, we will take some money from this budget and move it to that budget. That is not good enough, because we do not know what will happen in three, four, five or six years’ time. We cannot take money from a capability that is not necessarily needed quite as much at this time in order to pay for something else. It is the methodology of madness.