Ministry of Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:48 pm on 26th February 2018.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 6:48 pm, 26th February 2018

I congratulate Sir Edward Leigh on his introduction to the debate. I agree with him that it is important to secure more such opportunities to discuss defence and how it is financed.

I do not think that anyone who follows the defence world and the way that the MOD has conducted itself over the past few years would conclude that the situation is anything other than dire. It is fair to say that the new Secretary of State realises that as well. There is also, however, a collective sense of acute amnesia, certainly among those who were Government Members in 2010, about how we arrived at this position. It is clear that the mess that the defence budget is in today is a direct result of policies taken by the coalition Government and the present Conservative Government. Seven years of ill-thought-through, rushed cuts and, on occasion, very bad decisions are now coming home to roost. The new Defence Secretary has the unfortunate task of sorting it out—a task that I do not envy him, to say the least. It is therefore worth recapping how we have arrived at this position.

The Chair of the Defence Committee, Dr Lewis, said that these were not political decisions. They were political decisions that led directly to the mess we have today. To ignore that is to avoid the evidence and means that we will not learn the lessons for the future for how we manage our nation’s defence. In 2010, the new Conservative-led coalition implemented a number of deep cuts to the armed forces. Dr Fox, the then Defence Secretary, justified them by claiming that the defence budget had a £38 billion black hole, which somehow meant that rash and direct action would have to be taken straightaway. No one knows how he arrived at £38 billion. I have asked Ministers in this House to explain it on numerous occasions. The NAO and the Defence Committee could not arrive at a £38 billion black hole either, but it was used in every debate as the reason why cuts to our defence budget had to be made.

The Government stopped using the figure after a while, when they realised they could not justify it. I think it came about from a clear misinterpretation of the 2009 NAO report on major projects started under the previous Labour Government. The report was a snapshot of cost increases in 2009 and related primarily to the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, the A400M transport aircraft and the Astute submarine programme.