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This debate is titled “Britain’s place in the world”. I would argue that our armed forces in the UK are a cornerstone in defining our place in the world. I put on record my thanks, and I think the thanks of the House, to the men and women who serve in our armed forces to keep us safe 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
It was quite surprising that there was very little about defence in the Gracious Speech. There was a single line —that the
“Government will continue to invest in our gallant Armed Forces”— and yesterday, the Prime Minister re-announced the £2.2 billion that was announced a few weeks ago in the spending review. Our armed forces and our defence budget face a financial crisis. There is a morale crisis among members of our armed forces, and a strategic drift on the way forward for them. That should have been addressed in the Queen’s Speech, but it was not.
Since 2010, the coalition Government and the Conservative Government have cut the defence budget by between 16% and 22%. That has led to aircraft carriers without aircraft and no, or little, capability for anti-submarine warfare, for example. We have an Army of 72,000—the smallest since 1850—and a Navy that has been cut to 30,000 personnel. We have ships that can no longer take to sea because of a lack of personnel. We are told that that £2.2 billion will somehow fund our future needs, but if we look at that announcement, we see that £700 million of it goes straight away on under- funded pension contributions and that a large chunk of it is the drawdown that was already there for the nuclear deterrent, so it does not really address the financial crisis that we face.
We can add to that the National Audit Office report from November last year, which said that the equipment plan is unaffordable by £7 billion over the next 10 years, rising to £14.8 billion if the funding is not brought forward. More importantly, 84% of the identified challenge with the equipment plan falls within the next four years.