Ministry of Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:27 pm on 26th February 2018.

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Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield 6:27 pm, 26th February 2018

The scale of the cuts we have experienced in defence are genuinely endangering our ability and the Government’s ability to protect our nation.

I maintain the point that I made earlier. It is tremendously disappointing that the Secretary of State is not here to respond to the debate. I take the Minister’s point about the fact that the Secretary of State is meeting the Prime Minister. I am sure she is a busy woman and he is a busy man, but, given how much we read about how extensively the Secretary of State is supposed to be lobbying for defence spending, it would have been good if he had been here.

I have been in the position of being on the Front Bench and having people complain about the fact that I am the one responding. It is meant as no insult to the Minister. In my opinion, he might make a better Secretary of State than the one we have at the moment, but I do not mean to undermine his career by saying so. I would prefer it even more if my hon. Friend Nia Griffith was the Secretary of State. I say again, it would have been good if the Secretary of State had been here.

I repeat the point made by my hon. Friend Mrs Moon: it would be a tremendous shame if the Minister was forced into a position where he felt he had to resign because of the level of cuts to the Ministry of Defence. He would be a loss to the Government. I know how seriously he takes his position and what an agony it would be for him if he had to do so, so I hope he is not placed in that position.

The truth is that this Government have presided over a scale of cuts and over the failure of armed forces recruitment that we have seen. The Government have presided over huge cuts—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State’s arrival shows the power of my speeches. Not only have the Government broken their 2015 manifesto pledge to retain a standing Army of 82,000, but we continue to see more people leaving the Army than joining it, and under this Government military housing is in a disgraceful state.

The Government have announced numerous unfunded spending commitments, which are estimated by the National Audit Office to have left a £21 billion black hole, and they have achieved their commitment to continue spending 2% of GDP on defence by including things that would never previously have been included. I have to say—I am sure my hon. Friend Mr Jones, who was previously on the Front Bench, would repeat this with feeling—that if any Labour Secretary of State for Defence had presided over such a record, the right-wing press would be demanding their head on a platter in a way that defied anything previously seen in the press.

The moment is arriving when the Government must decide what their story is. We are hearing that the country faces very significant new threats. The scale of the threat from Russia has grown to its greatest extent at any time since the cold war. Brexit means that a not insignificant element of our key partners’ defence response will take place through an institution that we are no longer a part of. There is an urgent need to scale up our cyber and hybrid warfare capabilities. We have observed the extent of Russia’s upscaling of its capabilities, and we need to take action to ensure that we are responding. We are also seeing regular incursions by Russian aircraft and submarines into UK space, and an increasingly aggressive posture by Russia and Putin. If all those things are true—I believe they are, and we have heard from credible sources that they are—it is unconscionable for defence spending to have such a low priority in the apparent strategic approach of the wider Government.

As my hon. Friend has said, the roots of the current defence spending crisis lie in the disastrous 2010 SDSR, and the Government must be held to account for their performance. The real-terms funding cut in the departmental expenditure limit since 2010 is almost £10 billion. As my colleagues have said, this is an extraordinary amount out of a budget that was about £40 billion back in 2010, and this at a time when inflation in defence equipment and skill shortages has grown substantially. It is therefore impossible to take seriously the suggestion that the Prime Minister is presiding over a Government who have our nation’s future safe in their hands.

I have long feared that the announcements made in the 2015 SDSR on future defence procurement bore no relation to the budgets set for it. I thought that the 2015 SDSR was a considerable improvement on what had gone before—that may be setting a low bar, but it was an improvement—and it is important to recognise that. However, if the budgets from the Treasury for the Ministry of Defence do not bear any relationship to what is promised, it is incumbent on all of us to highlight that. The NAO figures showing a £21 billion black hole demonstrate that I was right to be suspicious.

The Government should come clean. I am absolutely calling on the Government to bring forward more money, but if they are not going to do that—if the Treasury is not willing to come up with the amount of money required to fill the black hole—the Government must be candid with Parliament and with the people about which of the spending commitments made in the SDSR are not going to happen.

The Government will get so far in bridging the gap by putting off decisions and allowing timescales to slide, such as with the commitment on the Type 26s. There is now a commitment—or a theoretical commitment—on Type 31s, but I suspect the actual development of the frigate will continue to be pushed into the long grass. Each of these delays both undermines the ability of our armed forces to respond and increases the demand on the servicemen and women on the existing platforms.

I am immensely proud of the UK’s commitment to the aircraft carriers. They are a piece of collateral that the whole nation should take pride in. It was a really important announcement—initially by the previous Labour Government and subsequently by the coalition Government —to commission and then to build them. However, the scale of the current cuts calls into question the amount of resources required by the aircraft carriers. In 2009-10, when the idea was initially put in place to go forward with the aircraft carriers, the Government were spending, in today’s terms, about £45 billion a year on the armed forces. With a Government who are now spending £35 billion, it is a different decision, and it has to be placed in the context of the scale of subsequent Government spending cuts to the MOD.

The Government appear to have a strategy of not going forward with more Type 26 frigates, but of having a greater number of Type 31s instead. That means we will have less capable ships, but they can be in more different places at the same time. As I have said, this calls into question the amount of resources—both financial resources and personnel—that the aircraft carriers will be consuming. Whether the Government would have commissioned two aircraft carriers if the scale of the subsequent cuts had been known about at the time is an important question.

I asked the Minister for the Armed Forces a parliamentary question about the scale of current recruitment and retention performance, and almost all the major arms of the Army lost more people last year than they recruited. The Royal Regiment of Artillery lost 170 more people than it recruited; the Royal Engineers, 130; the Royal Corps of Signals, 270; the infantry, 750; and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, 100. There was a similar picture for the reserves, which we were told would make up some of the deficit. In the Army future reserves, the Royal Engineers lost 50 more people than it recruited; the Royal Corps of Signals, 20; the Royal Logistic Corps, 200; and REME, 160. Right across the Army, more people have left the service than have been recruited.

This reduction is to an Army that is already significantly under the numbers promised in the Conservative party manifesto of 2015. I believe I am right in saying that a standing Army of 82,000 is no longer the policy of the Government, although they have never officially come out and said that. It is very clear that a significant commitment was made in the 2015 general election—it was a very popular commitment—and they should be held to account for delivering on it.

Soldier numbers in our Army, which were stable throughout the previous Labour Government—they actually went up during the last five years of the Labour Government—have fallen from 98,340 in 2010 to 73,870 now. It is interesting that while there has been a fall of 25% in the number of soldiers, there has been a fall of only 15% in the number of officers. It is an interesting development for a Government who pride themselves—or claim to pride themselves—on defending the frontline that we have seen a bigger decrease in the ranks than in the officer numbers, and that is significant.

There is clearly a significant funding element to the fall in Army numbers, but there are also a number of other reasons why they are in such a distressing state. Morale among members of our armed forces continues to be challenged both by the demands placed on them and by issues such as pay and pensions, the quality of housing and the number of times that they have to go repeatedly on different kinds of deployments because of the shortage in numbers.

There is also real fear among our armed forces regarding this place’s commitment to actually using the Army. Our 2013 debate about airstrikes in Syria, which was referred to a great deal in the response to the urgent question immediately before this debate, called into question this place’s commitment to keeping an Army and being willing to use it. I get a strong sense from my responsibilities on the armed forces parliamentary scheme that there are people in our Army who think it is legitimate to question what we in this place actually see as their role and our willingness to deploy them.

Mr Francois made a strong point about the outsourcing partner’s performance on recruitment and demanded that it step up or ship out. He did not quite put it like that—I am paraphrasing—but he was absolutely right. As I have said in previous debates—I do not apologise for saying so again—it would be beneficial if the Government published the number of people in each constituency who are recruited to the armed forces, so that we can take pride in our constituents. That would also enable us to hold to account the outsourcing company for its performance with regard not only to the overall numbers that it recruits, but to where it is recruiting them from and the extent to which it is achieving its aims.

I thank Sir Edward Leigh for introducing the debate. I say to the Minister and to the Secretary of State, who popped in but has popped out again—[Interruption.] I apologise: I expected him to be on the Front Bench. He has popped back, not popped out. I say to him that he can be absolutely certain that there is a real commitment among Members to strengthen his arm in his negotiations with the Treasury. We wish him every success and he can be absolutely certain that he will have our support if he is able to get from future spending reviews the resources that our armed forces need and deserve.