Strength of the UK’s Armed Forces

– in the House of Commons at 4:14 pm on 14th April 2021.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 4:14 pm, 14th April 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
notes the Prime Minister’s 2019 election pledge that his Government would not cut the Armed Services in any form;
further notes with concern the threat assessment in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, that threats from other states to the UK and its allies are growing and diversifying;
calls on the Government to rethink its plan set out in the Defence Command Paper, published in March 2021, CP411, to reduce key defence capabilities and reduce the strength of the Armed Forces, including a further reduction in the size of the Army by 2025; and calls on the Prime Minister to make an oral statement to Parliament by June 30 2021 on the Government’s plans to reduce the capability and strength of the Armed Forces.

Our thoughts across the House today are with the Queen and the royal family as they prepare for the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral on Saturday. His distinguished wartime career in the Navy was followed for decades by that same dedication to serving his country at the side of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

We have called this Opposition debate for Members from all parts of the House to debate the Government’s defence and security plans as set out last month in the integrated review, the Defence Command Paper and the defence and security industrial strategy. Our starting point is the Prime Minister. He said at the launch of his 2019 election manifesto on behalf of all Conservative Members here:

“We will not be cutting our armed forces in any form. We will be maintaining the size of our armed forces”.

He may take the pledges that he makes to our armed forces and the public lightly; we do not. The integrated review confirms:

“State threats to the UK…are growing and diversifying”, yet the defence review is a plan for fewer troops, fewer ships and fewer planes over the next three to four years.

I am disappointed that the Defence Secretary cannot be here to answer the growing chorus of concerns about his defence plans, but for today we entirely accept his attendance at the NATO special meeting on Ukraine. That in itself reinforces the warnings in the Defence Command Paper, which said:

“Russia continues to pose the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security.”

That heightens the widening concerns about cutting the strength of the UK’s armed forces in the face of growing global threats, instabilities and uncertainties.

There are so many serious flaws in the defence review and the industrial strategy. There is no assessment of current or future capability, no strategic principles or assumptions and nothing about how the Ministry of Defence should be structured or staffed in order to best provide national security. There is no recognition that the UK’s research capacity has been run down over the last decade by deep cuts to defence research and development, and no plan to absorb the £6.6 billion now pledged over the next four years.

There is no system for identifying and supporting the small companies that produce so much of our invention. There is nothing about what defence can get from greater advances in civil industry or what it can provide to civil industry and civil society. There is no explanation of how we will sustain the forward-deployed, front-footed, persistently globally deployed and engaged armed forces with so few ships and transport aircraft. There are no evident contingency plans to replace the losses of key equipment in conflict. There is nothing about mothballing equipment retired from service, like so many other countries do, rather than disposing of it on the narrow grounds that it saves money. I could go on, and I will on other occasions, but for today, our debate and our motion focus on the central concern about decisions to cut the strength of our armed forces in the face of growing threats and in breach of the Prime Minister’s personal pledge at the election.

In view of the interest—I am delighted to see that Members from all sides want to contribute to this debate —I want to make four main arguments and then look forward to what colleagues have to say. First, on numbers, with the threats to the UK growing and diversifying, there is a strong case against, not for, further cuts to the size of our armed forces. The Defence Secretary has announced that the Army’s established strength will be cut by 10,000 to just 72,500 over the next four years. That will be the smallest British Army for 300 years. Ministers can only promise no redundancies because all three forces are already well below the strength that the Government set out was required in the 2015 defence review.

Of course we must develop new technologies in domains such as cyber-space and artificial intelligence, but the British infantry—as the Minister knows better than anyone—has been the foundation on which the defence of the UK has relied for over 350 years. New technologies have always been harnessed to strengthen its capabilities, but they have never replaced entirely the need for boots on the ground.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons)

I have some sympathy for the right hon. Gentleman’s position, because when I was the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, I spent a lot of time criticising the then Labour Government for cutting the size of the infantry and the Army. The clear implication is that the next Labour Government would be spending more than the present Government, so how much more money would a future Labour Government be putting into defence compared to what we are spending, which, of course, has increased already?

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Sadly we are nowhere near another election at this point. We are at this stage in the parliamentary cycle with these plans on the table, and our interest is in the Government getting this right. The decisions taken now will set the shape of our defence forces for the next 10 years. The decisions taken now will be the framework with which a future Labour Government, after the next election, will have to live.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Would my right hon. Friend care to remind the hon. Member for somewhere in Essex—Sir Bernard Jenkin—that one of the reasons there is a big gap is that a previous Conservative Government, in a fit of vandalism, sold off the married quarters estate, costing the Ministry of Defence billions?

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I would, but my right hon. Friend has just done so for me; I am pleased that it is on the record.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I will give way one more time, but then—conscious that nearly 40 Back-Bench Members wish to speak—I will make some progress.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Sir Bernard Jenkin mentioned budgets, but is not it a fact that the defence budget has been cut by nearly 25% since 2010? Even with the increase that has been announced recently, the defence budget is now 5% lower than it was in 2010.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is right, of course. There has been an £8 billion real-terms cut to the defence budget since 2010. That is part of the reason that we have seen 45,000 full-time forces cut over the last decade. I will return to some of those points.

For now, I want to make this point: we can destroy enemy forces with technology, but we cannot seize and hold ground without troops. Drones and robots do not win hearts and minds; they do not mend broken societies; they do not give covid jabs. These deeper cuts now planned could limit our forces’ capacity simultaneously to deploy overseas, support allies, maintain our own strong national defences and reinforce our domestic resilience, as we have seen our troops do to help our country through the covid crisis. Other countries have expanded troop numbers even as they develop technology. They do not see this as a “manpower or machines” question, but as personnel and technology together. Although high-tech weapons systems are essential, highly-trained personnel are simply indispensable, and size matters.

These planned cuts are damaging for four reasons. Let us call them “the four Rs”. The first is resilience. Cutting Army numbers reduces the UK’s national resilience by reducing our capacity to react to unforeseen circumstances at home and abroad—not just major wars, but insurgencies such as Afghanistan, international interventions such as Sierra Leone or Kosovo, and emergency support operations such as post terrorist attacks or during covid.

The second “R” is readiness. The rapid response required to the unexpected also requires highly-trained, adaptable, cohesive combat troops, which even the best reserves, called up as last-minute reinforcements, cannot provide.

The third “R” is renewal. The fewer troops and full-strength battalions we have, the less able the Army is to sustain long campaigns. Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq all required the long-term rotation of troops. We are a leading member of NATO. We are one of the P5 countries at the UN Security Council. We may again be called on to deploy and sustain forces away from the UK. We may not seek a major crisis, but we may well face a major crisis that comes to us.

The final “R” is reputation. The current Chief of the Defence Staff said in 2015 that the ability to field a single war-fighting division was

“the standard whereby a credible army is judged”, yet the fully capable division mandated then, including a new strike brigade, will not be battle-ready for another 10 years according to evidence that the MOD gave to the Defence Committee in the autumn. A former CDS, General Sir David Richards, has said that further cuts to the Army would mean that the UK was

“no longer taken seriously as a military power” and that this would

“damage our relationship with the US and our position in NATO”.

My second argument is that this is not just about numbers. In the face of growing threats and the increasing ambition for the global role that our armed forces will play, there is a strong case against, not for, some of the Government’s short-term capability cuts. Taking two Type 23 frigates out of service in the next two years will reduce the Navy’s anti-submarine strength. Ending the RAF’s E-3 planes will leave a two-year gap in airborne early warning before the E-7 Wedgetails come into service in 2023. The Army is losing nine Chinook helicopters, 14 Hercules transporter planes and 20 Puma support helicopters.

The third argument is one that I am sad to have to make, and it is this: we are faced now with more of the same. After a decade of decline since 2010, which the Prime Minister called an “era of retreat”, the Defence Secretary promised that this defence review would be different from the last two Conservative defence reviews, which weakened the foundations of our armed forces. They were driven by finances, not by threats, cutting full-time forces by 45,000 and cutting critical defence capabilities and upgrades, alongside plans for full capability forces in the future that have not been fulfilled. I fear that this defence review simply makes the same mistakes of the past.

Fourth and finally, in November, when the Prime Minister announced the extra funding as part of a four-year funding settlement, we welcomed it as promising a long overdue upgrade of Britain’s defences, so we are dismayed now by more defence cuts, despite this £16.5 billion boost. But I guess it is not hard to see why. The defence budget was balanced in 2012, and the equipment programme was fully funded, but Ministers since then have lost control. The National Audit Office has now judged the defence equipment plan unaffordable for the last four years in a row and reports a black hole of more than £17 billion over the next 10 years. This black hole in the defence budget has grown by £4 billion in the last year, on this Defence Secretary’s watch. The MOD’s annual report and accounts suggest that the annual marginal cost for 10,000 Army personnel is around half a billion pounds. This deficit alone each year could cover the cost of maintaining Army numbers three times over.

The new defence budget is not all it seems. Ministers talk about the rise in capital funding but not the real cut in revenue funding over the next four years, which means less money for forces’ recruitment, training, pay and families. It means a possible cut of 40% to the budget of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. Worse still, over half this year’s £16.4 billion defence equipment budget is revenue-based for equipment support and maintenance. This revenue cut is the Achilles heel of defence plans. No other Whitehall Department is projected to have a cut in day-to-day spending between now and 2024-25. The Defence Secretary should never have agreed it.

This defence review and the defence and security industrial strategy announce nothing new that Ministers are doing to get a grip of the MOD’s budget failings and to make the most of this big, one-off opportunity from the extra funding. So I say to the Minister: get to grips with the budget, consider the concerns raised, rethink the plans and report back to Parliament before the end of June. Britain was promised better, Britain deserves better and Britain needs better from its Defence Department.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

Before I call the Minister, I should tell the House that there will be an initial time limit on Back-Bench speeches of four minutes, but that will reduce quite soon to three minutes.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 4:30 pm, 14th April 2021

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for the tribute he paid to the Duke of Edinburgh—one with which I very much agree, and I know all of my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence do too. The military are taking great pride in their preparations for his funeral on Saturday, where they hope to give him the send-off he deserves.

I welcome this debate. We live in a new age of systemic competition where information, data and technology shape conflict every bit as much as ships, tanks and fighter jets. Military hardware can be undermined by cyber-attacks or by the severing of undersea cables, while the use of proxy forces and other covert and deniable activities makes it harder to determine when the threshold of war has been crossed. So we have to think about defence differently.

“The Integrated Operating Concept 2025”, published last year, changes the way we think about our response to conflict. No longer can we have a contingent force sat in the UK waiting for the fight. Instead we must be operating persistently around the globe in forging partnerships, building capacity, tackling insecurity and competing with our adversaries. Make no mistake, however: we recognise that we cannot be upstream of every potential conflict and that we must therefore not only be able to operate but able to fight.

We can all be nostalgic over the force structures that won the wars of yesteryear. Undoubtedly there is a comfort in looking out of the window and seeing row upon row of the capabilities that have kept us safe in the past. But as surely as hoof became wheel and sail gave way to steam, we should all be clear that technology is moving on quickly and industrial capabilities will no longer get the job done alone. We have a duty to the British men and women of our armed forces not to indulge in a game of military bingo, obsessed with the metrics of previous conflicts. Instead we must keep adapting to the threat, because the reality is that if we fail to change, we will be defeated.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

My hon. Friend talks about adapting to the threat. We have the technological advantage in Afghanistan, yet Afghanistan has been seen as a failure—something he is more familiar with than many in this House. Now that the United States has declared that it is going to withdraw its troops, could he confirm what will happen to the British troops that are based there?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

As the shadow Secretary of State noted, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not able to respond to this debate in person because he is at the meeting of the North Atlantic Council, along with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The decisions on this are being taken this afternoon in Brussels. I hope that my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not pre-empt that, but I am certain that either the Defence Secretary or the Foreign Secretary will want to notify the House with appropriate urgency if and when such a decision has been made.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

The Minister was slightly dismissive of looking at the arrays of traditional vehicles. What does he think is now massing on the borders of Ukraine as a direct challenge to NATO?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

If the right hon. Gentleman will allow, I will make some progress with my speech, because I had foreseen that such challenge may come.

Over the past 20 years, as we have been engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, our adversaries have been watching and learning from how insurgent forces, hopelessly over- matched in a conventional sense, have still been able to impose enormous costs on our military and the militaries of our allies. There has been no sentimentality in the way that they have accelerated into new domains and experimented with new technologies.

The Defence Command Paper captures that reality. Last November, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister laid the groundwork for the modernisation of our forces by granting defence the most generous settlement since the cold war, with a commitment to spend £188 billion on defence over the coming four years—an increase of £24 billion. Our Command Paper has taken that investment and used it to deliver a more technologically advanced, better integrated and therefore more deadly force that will underpin our nation’s firepower in this new age of systemic competition. Inevitably this has meant some hard choices, but it is worth reminding ourselves, especially given the rather pessimistic view of the inventory set out by the shadow Secretary of State, what is actually still in the inventory.

At sea, we have the best carriers, air defence destroyers and hunter-killer submarines in the world, and our Navy will be enhanced further by the best anti-submarine warships and new general purpose frigates already under construction at Rosyth and on the Clyde. The Royal Navy’s fleet is growing for the first time since the cold war and, with the renewal of our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, makes us the foremost naval power in Europe.

In the air, we will have updated Typhoons, brand-new F-35 Lightning stealth fighters, new unmanned systems capable of striking remotely and massive investment in the next generation of fighter jets and swarming drones.

On the ground, while our Army will be leaner, it will also be more integrated, more active and more lethal—pound-for-pound the most innovative and effective in the world, able to make the most of new Ajax vehicles, revamped attack helicopters, brand-new Boxer armoured fighting vehicles, state-of-the-art air defence, long-range precision artillery and new electronic warfare capabilities. It has taken far too long to get these updates, but we are going to have the best-equipped Army in Europe by the end of the decade.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I know that the Minister is a friend of Northern Ireland, but recruitment in Northern Ireland has been at its highest level and recruitment to the Territorial Army has maxed out at this moment in time. Can the Minister give an assurance that extra recruitment and places will be made available for Northern Ireland, because more TA soldiers could be recruited?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that Northern Ireland is a rich recruiting ground for people wanting to serve in our armed forces, and especially our reserve. The reserve has an important part to play in the plans the Army, Navy and Air Force have for the future, and I have every expectation that we will be able to extend increased opportunity to Northern Ireland. The detail of that has yet to be confirmed, but I hope that within the next couple of months the hon. Gentleman will get a more detailed answer to his question.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

The Minister has outlined a concept predicated on the armed forces fighting an all-out war—a war where no holds are barred and we use everything. I get that; I understand grey-zone thinking—I am a strategist, too; I read it in great detail at university. However, for 70 years we have never fought anything like such a war; instead, we have had limited operations, we have had counter-insurgency operations, and we have had peacekeeping and peace- making, and this Government are preparing to cut the very people—the lifeblood—that carries out such operations, and that really worries me.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for his intervention, but I do not agree with his analysis. In this part of my speech I am setting out the conventional war-fighting capabilities because the shadow Secretary of State set out a very pessimistic view of what they would be, but the reality is that the key change being made through the integrated review and Defence Command Paper is to enhance the capabilities my right hon. Friend rightly stresses will be in most demand as we address the challenges of tomorrow, and they are the ones that exist below the threshold of conflict. If he will indulge me, in a couple of minutes he will hear some of the things that I think might answer his question in more detail.

That is why we are investing heavily in the national cyber force, bringing together the resources of the Ministry of Defence and the intelligence community to deceive, degrade, deny, disrupt and destroy targets in and through cyber-space. It is also why we have established a new space command that will enhance our military surveillance and communication capabilities from space, assist in the co-ordination of commercial space operations and lead the development of new low and high orbit capabilities.

Moreover, we know that the threats to UK interests, both in space and in cyberspace, are not just from ones and zeroes. Our adversaries are investing in capabilities that put our undersea fibre-optic cables and our satellites at physical risk as well, so we need the ability to protect and defend our interests in the depths of the oceans and in the heights of space.

Nor are we alone in seeking to modernise. Our adversaries as well as our allies are making rapid headway, and some of the most cutting-edge capabilities are now commercially available, meaning that the highest grade technology is no longer the preserve of the best resourced militaries. So we are investing to stay ahead of the curve and recover our technological edge, putting aside at least £6.6 billion for research and development to supercharge innovation in the next generation of disruptive capabilities, from directed energy weapons to swarming drones.

But it is not just about what you’ve got; it is what you do with it. I have already set out the vision of the integrated operating concept, and over the next year or two the Ministry of Defence will be expanding our forward presence around the world as we shift from a contingent force waiting for the fight to one that operates and competes constantly. In the land domain, some of our most effective work is with small specialised infantry teams developing the capacity of partner forces in the parts of the world that cause us concern. We are reinforcing that success through the creation of the special operations-capable rangers and thus doubling the size of our partnering force. Our fighting brigades, meanwhile, will move to higher readiness so that they can deploy and operate more quickly. They will also gain capabilities that allow them to engage their enemy at greater range, thus reflecting the lessons on close combat learned from recent conflicts in northern Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

I need to clarify the difference between what the rangers will do and what our Royal Marines do, because the Royal Marines are concerned that they are being put out of a job. Everything that my hon. Friend has just described could be done by the Royal Marines. Let us take an example in Mozambique. Were we to put this rangers brigade in, who would replace them after five or six months? Where is the endurance capability that our armed forces need to provide?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am afraid that my right hon. Friend is not right in what he thinks the rangers will do. The distinction is that 16 Air Assault, the Parachute Regiment and 3 Commando Brigade, as high-readiness contingent forces who are there to fight at short notice in hostile contested environments such as the ones he describes, still do exactly that from the air or the sea, depending on whether it is 16 Air Assault or 3 Commando. The rangers will be a special operations-capable partnering force designed to train, advise, assist and accompany partner forces in conflicts around the world, not to be a fighting force in and of themselves. That distinction is one that we have observed from the success of the US Green Berets, which have been very successful, and we are looking forward to having that as part of the toolkit for the UK armed forces in the future.

Needless to say, in increasing readiness and being able to operate more quickly, there is still a requirement for war-fighting mass, and that leads to a long overdue revisiting of what we ask of our reservists. I am very much looking forward to the publication of the reserve forces 2030 review, and I am confident that in the discussion that follows we will come out with an exciting proposition of what it means to serve in the reserve and what value that can add as we generate war-fighting mass.

In the air, we have created a joint squadron with Qatar, and we are looking at how this concept can be extended further with other partner air forces, as well as offering world-leading flying training to helicopter and fast jet pilots from our allies around the world. Meanwhile, investment in the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, in the E-7 airborne command and control, in the Protector uncrewed surveillance and strike platform and in a network of airfields from which we can operate the full range of RAF capabilities, enhances our capacity to understand our adversaries, find them quickly and strike them wherever they are, all around the globe.

At sea, we have had forward deployed ships in the Caribbean and the Falklands for a number of years, and I can announce to the House that last week HMS Trent arrived in Gibraltar, where she will now be permanently based in order to service the UK’s interests in both the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Guinea. Later in the year, a further offshore patrol vessel will sail for the Indo-Pacific, where she will also be permanently forward based. The maritime forward presence is further enhanced by the restoration of our high-readiness global carrier strike capability and the new littoral response groups providing an at-sea high readiness amphibious response force on NATO’s northern and southern flanks.

However, let there be no misunderstanding: we are clear-eyed on the realities of geography. We are a Euro-Atlantic power and deeply invested in the security of Europe. NATO is the cornerstone of our national security, so our priority is our partnership with other Euro-Atlantic nations and the security of our own backyard, but it is naive in the extreme to think that that means we can ignore insecurity and instability on Europe’s southern flank in sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east.

The UK interest is threatened by violent extremism in the Sahel, the Lake Chad basin and the horn of Africa, and so too is it threatened by Russian proxies massing in Libya and Syria, but those are not problems that would be solved by 10,000 troops on the ground in any one of those places. The lessons of the last two decades show that we must work intelligently to tackle instability upstream and through regional partners. We simply cannot muscle our way to a solution in those places with all-out hard power. Our contribution on those conflicts in the future must be smarter and must develop a capability that will endure even after our mission is inevitably over.

We should also be clear that meeting our global trading ambitions requires both the capacity and the will to protect our sea lines of communication and the wider UK interests in the Indo-Pacific. The Opposition have wrongly characterised that as a switch in emphasis from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Instead, it is a recognition that we have the capability, the capacity and the political will to flex hard power into a part of the world where the UK’s strategic interest is growing quickly, so that we can strengthen our alliances, protect our interests and promote adherence to a rules-based international system.

The integrated review and the Defence Command Paper represent the boldest change in foreign, defence and security policy for 30 years, and it is entirely right that we are here debating them today. I know that there is disagreement on both sides of the House about some of the judgments that we have made, but the requirement is to produce a force that is credible: one that can actually fight in the complex and highly digitised battlespace of tomorrow. Some capabilities have run their course, and there can be no room for sentiment in keeping them when they simply are not relevant any more.

Ultimately, this all comes down to two key questions: first, are we offering the men and women of our armed forces exciting opportunities and the equipment they deserve; and secondly, and most important, does all this make the UK safer? I have already looked servicemen and women in the eye and explained to them our vision for our armed forces and the way they will operate, and so too have my ministerial colleagues and the senior military leaderships of all three services. Our people get this: they understand the need for change, and they want it. The reality is that they can see, and I can see, that because of this transformation, our armed forces will be stronger, more capable and therefore better able to protect our country in the decades ahead.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence) 4:47 pm, 14th April 2021

I join the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State, John Healey, in paying tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh. I pass on my condolences and those of my party to the royal family, and to those in the armed forces for whom he has undoubtedly been an inspiration, having left behind such a long and distinguished career as a member of the forces. As the Minister rightly says, they will be preparing to give the late Duke of Edinburgh the send-off he rightly deserves, and we wish the armed forces the best in their preparations for that.

Like the shadow Secretary of State, I think it would be normal to decry the fact that the Secretary of State has not responded at the Dispatch Box, but I too entirely understand why he has to be at the NATO meeting on Ukraine. It is worth pausing to reflect on the fact that here we sit, in the north-west corner of Europe, in relative peace, while an ally in the south-east corner of Europe, already annexed and at war, faces a further military build-up on its border. The Scottish National party supports entirely Ukraine’s right to its territorial integrity.

In every defence session we have had—whether Question Time, debates or a statement—all Members across the House have rightly thanked the members of the armed forces who have done so much for us during the pandemic in terms of resilience and, not least in more recent times, the roll-out of the vaccine, which we are all desperate to receive. They have put in some shift, as we would say in Scotland. It is curious that the Government have seen fit to thank the armed forces by telling them that they are going cut up to 10,000 places.

The context here is important, and not just that of the pandemic. Madam Deputy Speaker, you will know—not just as a keen watcher of political events in Scotland, but as a proud Scot yourself—that when it comes to the size of the armed forces, and in particular the things the Government say about them, many promises are made to Scots. That has been the case for quite a few years now, and each and every time, this Conservative Government renege on them. I have mentioned that many times before and I am afraid I am about to do so again.

As the Minister and the Government have confirmed—the Minister reiterated it today—that the cut will go ahead, may I ask the Government to outline to the House, if not today then at some point, and to the people of Scotland, to whom those promises were made, what the impact on the personnel footprint in Scotland will look like? Prior to the independence vote a few years ago, we were promised the permanent stationing of 12,500 Regular troops in Scotland. The Government have never come close to meeting that promise and that target, and it is now obvious that they have no intention of ever trying to, so what will the permanent footprint look like after the cut of up to 10,000 troops is realised?

More broadly on context, it is curious and entirely objectionable as far as I am concerned that the Government would announce such a cut in conventional capability— not just in personnel, but in many of the platforms the shadow Secretary of State mentioned—when they announced their intention to allow an increase in the nuclear weapons stockpile. Now, we could probably have an entire debate on that one issue, but given that this debate is about the armed forces, let me just say this. I am with the Chair of the Defence Committee, whose analysis was spot on. He and I do not agree on the nuclear deterrent and its presence, but he described that increase as an attempt to deflect attention from—indeed, it is a sweetener to allies to cover up for it—the fact that we are having such grave cuts in conventional capability. That is fooling no one.

I plead with the Government to drop the fallacy of trying to play one capability against the other. It is important that we invest in cyber, of course. The new threats that the Minister outlined are real and the Government have our support in trying to meet them, but the shadow Secretary of State was also right: people keep the peace, people deliver resilience, and people put covid jabs into arms—not drones, and certainly not nuclear weapons.

It is curious to see the Government now framing this as though those of us who are against the cuts are somehow old fashioned, and are incapable of assessing modern-day threats and developing an argument on how to meet them. The Minister said earlier that we must not—I think this was the phrase—play “military bingo” when it comes to developing the capabilities needed to meet the threats faced. Well, if it is a game of bingo, like the shadow Secretary of State I would like to read some words from the caller, and the caller is the Prime Minister. During the last election, he said that

“we will not be cutting our armed services in any form.”

During the last general election, he also said:

“We will be maintaining the size of the armed services”.

Why did he say that if he had no intention of delivering? Why did he say it if he knew it would not come to pass? Indeed, the Government have developed that habit when it comes to promises on troop numbers. As I said at the start of my speech, is it not curious that this is how we thank our armed forces after the year they have had, committing themselves to fighting the pandemic?

It is also worth noting that, just after that Defence Command Paper came out, we learned via the media—not via a statement to Parliament or anything we could read in the integrated review paper or its associated documents —that the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is to see a budget cut of up to 40%. It already has a tiny budget—of, I think, around £5 million—and it will be cut. That happened in the same week as the announcement, so why did not one single Minister from a Government who claim to be on the side of veterans come to announce that funding cut to the House? It is also worth noting that that announcement—or the news of the cut, rather, because there was no announcement—came in the same week that the Scottish Government announced that they would spend an extra £1 million on support for veterans who find themselves in Scotland.

The Government should cancel the planned cut in troops, and if that costs more money, so be it. Spend it, invest it. We could come up with a million ways in which the MOD could spend its money better, but I have always said to the Government that when they need more cash from Treasury Ministers and when that is sensible, they would have our support. Indeed, they would have the support of many around the House who do not think that this is a wise way to proceed.

We have talked a lot about how we treat the armed forces, and there is a lot of cross-party agreement on that, but amazingly, we cannot seem to get the Government to act. One thing we should do first is prise from the recruitment process the claws that Capita has sunk in so deeply. It is an expensive mess that does nothing for recruitment. The best people to do recruitment are the members of the armed forces themselves, not the share- holders of Capita, who are growing fat on a failing recruitment system.

Let us have a commission to look at pay and conditions. We know from recent National Audit Office reports that only 45% of serving personnel have any sense of job satisfaction—a staggeringly low figure. We also know that less than half of those living in armed services accommodation are happy with that accommodation. How can it be beyond the wit of the Government or the House to get those two things fixed? We have proposed in the past, and I propose it again today—I am sure you will remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Bill on the subject published in the last Parliament by my hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes—the introduction of an armed forces representative body that could be placed on a statutory footing and represent the interests of members of the armed forces to the Government when it comes to pay and conditions. At the moment, they have no such body. They rely on Members of Parliament so to do, and with satisfaction figures as low as they are, the answer clearly does not lie in lobbying MPs whom the Government are ignoring.

It is right that we are having a debate on the specific issue of cuts in the number of members of the armed forces and in other conventional capabilities. We will have plenty of time to dive into some of the other issues in the integrated review, I am sure. As I made clear when the Secretary of State came to the House for the publication of the Defence Command Paper, there is much in there that we understand and indeed support, but there are some things that we do not and cannot support. Such egregious cuts to conventional capability, especially service personnel, are something we cannot support.

When the Minister winds up, I wonder whether he would clarify two things. First, as the Government seek to pivot, in addition to their geographic pivot to the Indo-Pacific region, and to place more emphasis on cyber and on drones and other unmanned devices in theatres of conflict, and as they seek to do more to protect not just people, but data, which the Government rightly identify as an attack surface, where will be the proper democratic and human oversight? Where will be the ideas from Government on how we lead efforts internationally to design treaties and rules of engagement when it comes to cyber, the use of unmanned drones and the protection of data? That debate is woefully lacking. In fairness, it is lacking not just here but in the entire western democratic sphere. We have not heard much from the Government about how they will seek to put that right, and I think it is incumbent on them to bring forward a strategy on those things.

Lastly, if you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker—this relates more to current events than necessarily to the subject of the debate—might I tease out from the Government a clarification with regard to Ukraine? The Secretary of State is at the meeting of the North Atlantic Council right now, and rightly so. Will the Government clarify whether he intends to give a statement to the House following that meeting, and will he clarify what implications, if any, the current escalation in tensions might have for Operation Orbital, which is ongoing in Ukraine with United Kingdom armed forces?

The Minister said that he was able to look members of the armed forces in the eye and convince them of the merits of cutting jobs and places among them. That is good for him, but he still has a job to do in convincing voters—voters to whom he and his Government made promises, not just in the general election in 2019, but all those years ago ahead of the independence referendum. I am not sure he could look voters in the eye with the same degree of confidence that he came to the House and espoused today. I am afraid this is just one more example of Scotland’s security being ill served by a Government who do not place high regard on their own interests.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee 5:01 pm, 14th April 2021

I will not tire of saying this, but I feel there is a 1930s feel to the world today. The threat picture continues to grow, diversify and become more complex. We live in extremely dangerous times, and the integrated review confirms that—as did the Prime Minister when he answered questions at the Liaison Committee recently. Russia and China will continue to become more assertive; democracy will continue to decline across the world; the new domains of cyber and space pose ever greater challenges to our security, as does the threat from terrorism, not just in the middle east but now in Afghanistan and Africa; and the wider consequences of climate change will only grow.

During the cold war, defence spending was at 4% of GDP. Few would disagree that the threats today are different, but they are arguably more dangerous and more unpredictable, yet we remain on a peacetime budget of just 2.2%. It is simply impossible for the MOD to meet all the obligations spelled out in the integrated review, hence the sweeping cuts that are now taking place across our defence capabilities, something that has not gone unnoticed by either our allies or our adversaries.

The new US Defence Secretary will shortly be in town. I am sure that No. 10 will gloss over General Austin’s decision to visit Berlin and Brussels before London. We should read the signals: our special relationship requires work. General Austin’s public message in London is likely to be: “Well done on the integrated review. We like the global Britain thing and we welcome your investment in special forces, cyber and space resilience.” But in private, he will be more candid and is likely to say something very different: “Your Navy is now too small. Don’t cut your tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and 10,000 troops; you might be needing them sooner than you think. And please don’t reduce the F-35 order from 138 originally down to 48.” Why? Because the next decade is going to become very busy indeed.

Indeed, look at what the integrated review tries to achieve—help shape the international world order and deploy UK soft power; be a force for good for human rights; tilt to the Indo-Pacific; step up in Africa and the Gulf; lead NATO in Europe; stand up to China’s competition and Russia’s aggression, and create a space force and invest in cyber resilience. That is a formidable charge that we simply cannot achieve under a peacetime defence budget of just 2%, so I have huge sympathy with my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is in the invidious position of having to make such tough decisions. We have heard about the impact: cuts to our frigates, with capability gaps because the replacement equipment is not ready in time, and similar effects on our land warfare capability and the RAF.

However we look at it, this is a dramatic cut in our conventional defence posture that will limit the UK’s options in stepping forward to assist in conflict prevention, stabilisation, peacekeeping and nation-building skills—things that we have been so good at in the past. I make it very clear that the real threat will come from China—not directly through going to war, but through our being nudged out from favoured nation status across the world. We need to re-engage with our allies, and that requires force presence and upstream engagement. We can do it only with the kind of hard power and the size of force that we had during the cold war.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale 5:05 pm, 14th April 2021

May I place on record my sympathy for the family of Cheryl Gillan, our colleague? She was not in my political party, but she was somebody whom I both liked and respected.

Today’s debate is very important; I am grateful to my right hon. Friend John Healey for introducing it from the Front Bench. The Minister for the Armed Forces was absolutely wrong to pose it as technology versus the size of our armed forces. That is the wrong calculation to make. It is not about sentimentality, for those of us who have had the opportunity to see our armed forces in operation around the world, in conflict zones and in peacekeeping roles. They do a magnificent job—pound for pound, they are probably among the very best-trained and best operational armed forces on this planet—but they need numbers. We saw that in places such as Sierra Leone, where the numbers of people mattered. We saw it with the rotation of troops in Afghanistan, when our troops came back tired from their tours of duty—too tired, on some occasions. We need numbers there.

To pose the question as being about numbers of Army personnel versus technology is simply wrong. Yes, of course we need investment in the technologies of the future, in cyber, in space and in deep ocean activities, but that does not preclude the need for numbers in our armed forces. The significant reduction that my right hon. Friend pointed out—some 35,000 fewer personnel in our Army by the end of the process—is difficult to comprehend, because it means that we will end up making hard choices.

I put it to the Minister: will those hard choices mean that we cannot engage in a Sierra Leone of the future? Will they mean that our armed forces cannot fill the £17 billion-plus equipment deficit or go into conflict zones properly equipped? Those would be unacceptable hard choices. Will they mean that in future, because of our lack of personnel, we cannot do things we ought to do? As Mr Ellwood said, they are choices that we simply should not be making in this period of enormous uncertainty around the world. I appeal to the Minister to appeal in turn to his Government colleagues to think very hard about these cuts.

At the height of the cold war and as we began to come out of it, one thing we learned was that making the world secure for our armed forces was also making it secure for those whom we saw as our adversaries. President Biden has offered President Putin a summit. I have no truck with President Putin and the malign way in which he operates his Government, but we do have to talk. We have to begin to see whether there is any capacity —there may not be—to revive the treaties on conventional forces in Europe and on nuclear deployments.

In the end, making the world a safer place, at least in those areas of activity, will make a material difference in easing some of the pressures on our armed forces and what they do. That is not a pipe dream and it is not pious; it is common sense to say, “Yes, we need the right numbers in our armed forces and we need technologies, but we also need to work to create a safer and better world.”

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 5:10 pm, 14th April 2021

May I warmly endorse what Tony Lloyd just said about our late, dear colleague Cheryl Gillan?

It is often said, in the military context, that quantity has a quality all its own. That is perfectly true, but it does not mean that the strength of the armed forces should be measured by their size alone. A revolutionary advance in military technology in the hands of a few can defeat almost any number of assailants; think of the Somme and the mass slaughter of troops by limited numbers of machine guns with interlocking fields of fire—only other new technologies eventually broke that dreadful stalemate. After the end of the cold war, the threat picture finally shifted away from Europe and towards expeditionary warfare, based on carrier-strike, which is air power from the sea, and amphibious capability, which is land power from the sea. Such traditional technologies are still essential for those sorts of campaigns against opponents who are no match for us militarily. Yet against advanced peer opponents armed with hypersonic anti-ship missiles, for example, traditional assets such as surface ships are potentially very vulnerable. As we know, the pendulum has now swung back from countering insurgencies and their sponsors to state-on-state confrontation with major military powers.

As has been pointed out, at the root of our defence dilemma is one inescapable limitation: between 1988 and 2018, defence expenditure halved as a proportion of GDP. The most welcome pledge of an extra £16.4 billion spread over a four-year period should fill a “black hole” in the equipment budget and facilitate investment in critical new areas of technology. What it will not do, sadly, is prevent serious cuts in conventional armed forces. An estimated 2.2% or 2.3% of GDP defence budget is well short of the 3% recommended by Defence Committees past and present, let alone the 4.5% and above regularly allocated during the cold war years. Yet, even if all our dreams came true on the size of the defence budget, we would still be at the mercy of nuclear blackmail and attack if we had not voted in July 2016 to proceed with the renewal of the Trident missile submarine fleet. Given that Jeremy Corbyn, a former Labour leader, and I have debated such matters good-naturedly for more than 20 years and he is up next, let me conclude with reference to the Government’s announcement that they will no longer reduce the total of our nuclear warheads from a maximum of 225 to a maximum of 180 by the mid-2020s. Instead, they will set a new overall ceiling of 260. This is predictably being denounced as a 40% increase; but the cancellation of a reduction is not an increase. Most probably, it is a recognition that advances in anti-ballistic missile technology might tempt an aggressor to think—probably mistakenly—that he could avoid a devastating response. Why, then, raise the theoretical maximum from 225 to 260? The Government have not said so, but my guess is that it is to cover any temporary overlap when the current generation of UK warheads are replaced by their successors. We have always followed a policy of minimum strategic deterrence, and long may we continue to keep ourselves safe by doing so.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North 5:14 pm, 14th April 2021

This is an important and obviously very timely debate—timely because of the Government’s review of security needs for the future, and because of the vote in the other place last night on the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. The Government were defeated over issues of ensuring that our political system, our Ministry of Defence, are held to account when allegations of serious offences such as torture or genocide are made against any British forces. We should never put ourselves above the law and should surely support international law, which is what all Governments have said they absolutely do.

The review that has just taken place seems to miss out a number of very important things. But the headline figure was the one about nuclear weapons. Contrary to what the previous speaker has just said, there is an increase in the number of nuclear warheads, which will go up to 260. That is contrary to our obligations under article 6 of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, originally conceived by the Labour Government of the 1960s.

As one of the declared nuclear weapons states, we are required to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. The Government are proposing to move in absolutely the opposite direction—not just by increasing the capacity, the number of warheads and their firepower, but apparently by changing the strategic basis on which they may be deployed. They seem to be moving away from the “no first use” concept towards using them as a threat—or rather, when they believe there is a threat that has to be met.

Surely we ought to be joining the rest of the world in seeking a global ban of all nuclear weapons, rather than this huge expenditure on weapons that everyone obviously hopes will never be used and that, in effect, do not provide us with any credible form of defence on the real security issues that we face at present.

The coronavirus crisis has shown us how dangerous this world is when it comes to contagious diseases and when it is so divided by the poverty of the majority of the populations of the planet against the minority—and, of course, environmental disaster is coming down the line. Surely we need a strategic approach that deals with those issues—one that protects us from cyber-attacks, obviously, and ensures that we look at the causes of war and that we do not cut overseas aid expenditure but instead increase it, where appropriate, to improve developments around the world and cut down on the enormous gap between the world’s richest and poorest. Because the motor behind the conflicts of the past 30 years has often been human rights abuses, political instability and a fight for resources all around the world.

The last thing I shall say in the few seconds I have left is that instead of reducing the numbers of uniformed servicepeople, as we are, we should be looking at their pay, conditions and treatment over the past 10 years and recognising the enormous work that they have done in peacekeeping operations, as others have pointed out, as well as dealing with crises such as the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, where they performed heroically. Surely real strategic thinking is about making the world a more peaceful and safer place.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset 5:18 pm, 14th April 2021

Defence reviews and the subsequent spending priorities are not abstract events but relate to identifiable threats. Today the most serious threat to British and European security is posed by Russia. With the main aims of its modernisation programme over the past decade largely met, and with a sophisticated and ruthless cyber-capability and a huge nuclear arsenal, Russia is militarily stronger today than it has been for many years. Just as importantly, with its intervention to support the Assad regime in Syria, its continued occupation of Georgian sovereign territory and the brutal and illegal annexation of Crimea, with its continued threat to the security and sovereignty of Ukraine, there can be little doubt about the Kremlin’s willingness to deploy its military strength in pursuit of its national agenda.

If, in the face of that threat, we are to have a nuclear deterrent, as I believe we must, it must be credible. The increase in the warhead cap to 260 needs to be seen in the context of the French having declared numbers of around 300, the United States 3,800 and Russia some 6,800. I congratulate the Defence Secretary and his ministerial team on having the courage to take this decision.

Russia’s gangster regime under Vladimir Putin has poisoned and murdered opponents on its own territory and overseas, including on UK soil. It carries out a range of hostile activities, including information warfare and cyber-attacks aimed at democratic western states. In July, the United States, Britain and Canada accused a Russian hacking group linked to Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service of trying to steal covid-19 vaccine research. So it is right that we increase investment in our own cyber-capability. However, cyber-attacks are the tip of the iceberg in Russia’s persistent attempts to penetrate western security, institutions and infrastructure, and it is sadly aided and abetted in some of its strategy by the policy of some of our own allies. I refer in particular to the German attitude towards the Nord Stream 2 project. That pipeline is a Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security. As President Biden put it, Nord Stream 2 is “a bad idea” for Germany, for Ukraine, and for our central and eastern European allies and partners.

We face many other Russian threats, including to undersea cables, that we simply do not have time to consider today, but the most urgent is the continued Russian aggression towards Ukraine. Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine in 2014, which was planned in advance, resulted in around 10,000 fatalities and over 23,000 people wounded, according to the UN. Over 1.5 million residents of Crimea and Donbass are now internally displaced persons after being compelled to leave their homes—and this on the edge of Europe. Today, large Russian military movements towards the eastern Ukraine border have been widely reported, including the movements of Iskander short-range missiles.

We must act with our allies now to stop Russian aggression before the situation spins out of control, as it so easily could. That is what our political, economic and military strength is for; that is what the Government’s priority must be.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley 5:21 pm, 14th April 2021

First, may we record that on this day 70 years ago the great trade union leader, Labour Foreign Secretary and patriot Ernest Bevin died? Along with Prime Minister Clement Attlee, he created NATO, the Marshall plan and Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent—all, of course, opposed at the time by the ultra-left, in and out of the Labour party. That is why it was so welcome today that the speech introducing the motion was made by my right hon. Friend John Healey, getting back to those Labour values, not ultra-left communist and Trotskyist delusions but real Labour values—supporting the defence of our country, demanding proper wages, conditions and equipment for our brave men and women in our armed forces, and supporting our own defence industry.

It is a shame that the Secretary of State is not here today, because frankly, his response to some of the criticisms recently has been rather petulant, and I was hoping we were going to get a reset back to a more reasoned debate. We do, of course, understand why he is not here—because of the crisis in Ukraine. Russia, in full soviet mode, is massing armour on the borders of Ukraine, having previously undertaken similar exercises on the frontiers with the Baltic states, and a massive re-equipment and militarisation of Kaliningrad. We also have to recognise, in some of those esoteric arguments that take place about quality versus quantity—we had some of that from the Minister—that mass has a quality of its own, and therefore we undermine that at our peril.

Yet in the face of this, the Government are running down our defences, both in armour and by cutting the number of troops, and also in other platforms, as was rightly identified by Dr Fox. At the same time, we have to recognise that previous Conservative Governments have had form in this respect. In the interwar period, the 10-year rule of anticipating no conflict in 10 years, driven by the Treasury, ran down our defences. That not only reduced our equipment and the number of troops, but sent a message that we lacked resolve, so we were lacking resources and resolve. Under Options for Change, we had a massive rundown of our forces. Soldiers were actually made redundant—an appalling problem, which took a long while to redress.

The removal of HMS Endurance from the Falklands—the withdrawal of resources—sent a very clear signal to the Argentine junta that we lacked resolve, and we know the consequences of that. We had the withdrawal from Germany. My right hon. Friend Mr Jones and I pointed out to Ministers at the time that they would not save any money, and now they are having to go back there. They are taking the forces for granted and running down their facilities.

We all recognise the need to review the increasing requirements for operating in the grey zone and for tackling challenges in cyber-space, but in the earlier stages of the review it was posited that changes had to be cash-neutral, so that dealing with those problems had to be at the expense of conventional military capability and of upgrading. That was a mistake and it should be redressed now.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons) 5:25 pm, 14th April 2021

I very much share the concerns expressed by John Spellar, but I very much hope that we maintain minimum recoverable capability in all these fields, because the new capabilities that have been brought in by the integrated review are equally or more important than the reductions in the overall size of the armed forces that we have seen. The big surprise in the review was the announcement of the increase in the warhead cap.

I want to reply very directly to Jeremy Corbyn. May I remind him that, on 18 July 2016, when he was leader of the Labour party, the Government got through the House the maingate of the renewal of the Trident submarines on a vote of 472 to 117? There is no doubt, therefore, that the strength of consensus in this House does not reflect the views of the then leader of the Labour party.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

The hon. Gentleman will recall that that vote was taken about five years later than it should have been because of dithering by his own Government.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons)

I think the coalition had something to do with that. I warned David Cameron about that before we even went into that coalition.

The right hon. Member for Islington North accuses his own country of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, and suggests that we are somehow escalating our numbers, but he does not even mention the fact that, as my right hon. Friend Dr Fox said, Russia has—what was it?—6,800 nuclear warheads. They are modernising every single weapons system that they have got. They are in breach of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. That is escalation, and the right hon. Member for Islington North has nothing to say about that whatsoever.

We all know that the British people will support the United Kingdom’s continuous at-sea deterrent for as long as other nuclear weapons states are keeping their weapons and there are other proliferators around. We just need to remind ourselves what extraordinarily good value the continuous at-sea deterrent system actually is. The Library produced a report last month, pointing out that the annual cost of our continuous at-sea deterrent is just 1% of the cost of social security and tax credits—just 1%. So the idea that this is a Rolls-Royce system that we cannot afford is mythical. Nothing could buy us the security and influence that the continuous at-sea deterrent gives us.

The doctrine of deterrence is just as valid as it ever was. Has the right hon. Member for Islington North ever asked himself why major state-on-state warfare stopped in 1945? Well, I can tell him why: it was because nuclear weapons were invented and that kind of warfare became too costly, too destructive, to contemplate. Does he want to go back to that world by getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether? I hope not.

We just need to remind ourselves that our continuous at-sea deterrent can attack any target at any time, so it is always ready to respond to threats. Its location is unknown so it cannot be pre-empted. It does not require to be deployed at a time of international tension and crisis. The technology is tried and tested. It is not in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; it is completely compliant. It is a sovereign capability, which, if we had to use it, we would. No alternative system could possibly provide all these benefits at such good value, and that is why we should reaffirm our commitment to our nuclear deterrent.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons) 5:30 pm, 14th April 2021

The British military is currently engaged in its biggest ever—[Inaudible.]

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons)

[Inaudible.]—proving once again that they are the ultimate emergency service.—[Inaudible.]

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

Order. I am sorry, but we will try to come back to the hon. Lady later, because the sound quality means that we cannot hear what she is saying.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan 5:32 pm, 14th April 2021

The additional £24 billion in the defence resource needs to be recognised and comes after a number of years of challenging Budgets, not forgetting the £30 billion black hole legacy left in 2010. Along with the Defence Command Paper, it serves the vital need to respond to the ever-changing threats, ensuring a stronger and more secure Union. As a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, I can confirm that it has been received very positively by our international allies.

The motion tabled by Labour expresses concern about the size of the Army. Having listened closely to the shadow Secretary of State, John Healey, I would say that he can play his part, too, if he is genuinely committed in his support. I want to bring the House’s attention to a very local difficulty that the MOD is having in securing the long-term future of the St Athan base in my constituency. The Welsh Government are the landowners and have refused to extend the lease, in favour of a business park.

I ask Labour Members to influence their colleagues in the Welsh Government with regard to supporting the MOD’s plans to house a major Army unit at the site. I am concerned that the Welsh Government do not show the same interest in defence as the right hon. Gentleman does, and I ask for his help. John Spellar talked about those on the left coming in and out of the Labour party, but it seems that they are alive and kicking in Wales.

The site has been subject to several initiatives. All have failed to materialise. The Red Dragon hangar, completed in 2005 at a cost of £113 million, for maintaining fast jets, was abandoned immediately on construction. The multibillion-pound private finance initiative tri-service technical academy was later cancelled on value-for-money grounds. Several plans to base a number of major Army units there have failed to materialise. To give credit to each Secretary of State since 2010, they have recognised the need to secure the future of that. The defence estate review in 2016 identified St Athan as their key site in Wales. The Welsh Government refused to extend the lease and anyone with local knowledge will know that the alternative sites suggested are wholly unsuitable. The result is that unless the Welsh Government negotiate with a common goal, the future of this base is precarious.

I wanted to get this situation on the record because I am concerned about the serious risks to the St Athan base. The site is hugely valuable to the armed forces and to the community that it is keen to support. In that spirit, I ask the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne, and his team to influence the Welsh Government. If they do that, they will, at the same time, improve the footprint of the Army and underline the fact that all parts of the UK play a prominent role in securing our Union.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central 5:34 pm, 14th April 2021

Our withdrawal from the EU, the rise of China and the threat posed by Russia has meant that the strategic context in which our armed forces operate has shifted hugely in the decade since I left. The professionalism, resilience and adaptability of those who still serve has not. The Defence Command Paper rightly describes our servicemen and women as “our finest asset”. It is therefore incongruous for the Government to be stripping back the British Army to a level not seen for 300 years.

While the number of service personnel is set to reduce, it appears that what they are expected to achieve will not. The integrated review does not suggest that we will draw down on any of our commitments. The UK will remain the leading European partner in NATO and maintain our responsibilities in the middle east and Africa, while at the same time expanding our role in the Indo-Pacific. In my experience, trying to do more with less rarely works. When the Prime Minister pledged to maintain the size of our armed forces, he was right to do so. We are now being told that size no longer matters because the threat has changed, but as I put to the Secretary of State last month, if the threat has changed so much, so quickly, what is to say that it will not change again? In response, I was told that any future proposals to increase manning would be supported, but of course, it is not that simple.

Retaining talent is far easier and more inexpensive than recruiting it—a principle that is especially true when applied to our service personnel. We would do well to remember that technology evolves; the one thing that remains constant is people. We should also remember that our people are among the very best in the world. They are our ultimate insurance policy. Recent history is littered with examples, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, when technological superiority did not bring about success. Kit and equipment will never be an adequate substitute for strategy and leadership.

To conclude, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaders and experts predicted a new period of global peace and prosperity that never materialised. Thirty years on, the world is now more complex, more dangerous and more unpredictable. No one can say with any confidence what it will look like in another 30 years. We live in uncertain times. There are no easy answers, only difficult questions, but now more than ever, Britain must aspire to show leadership. Cutting the one thing that, above all else, gives us our edge—our people—will be to the detriment of our national security and our standing in the world. This decision is short-sighted—

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We have to leave it there; I am sorry, Dan. We will now return to Marie Rimmer.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Opposition Whip (Commons) 5:37 pm, 14th April 2021

The British military are currently engaged in their biggest ever homeland military operation in peacetime: the battle against covid-19. For the past 12 months, they have set up testing sites and vaccine centres and even administered the jabs themselves. Our armed forces have proven once again that they are our ultimate emergency service. I do not wish to pre-empt the inquiry into the covid-19 crisis, but I imagine that there will be a lot of praise for our armed forces. They are logistics and crisis experts—the best we have as a nation. The Government should always draw on this expertise, yet under the defence review, numbers are being cut. Not only are the Government reducing numbers; they are giving our troops a real-terms pay cut.

Since 2010, our armed forces have been reduced by 45,000. The recent defence review cuts come on top of this decade of decline. The size of the Army will be at its smallest since 1714, despite our population being 10 times bigger than it was then. The Prime Minister and Defence Secretary have laid out their reasoning for these cuts. I support modernising our forces, particularly the investment in cyber, and I am glad that the new centre will be based in the north-west, but we do not need to do these modernisations at the expense of armed forces personnel. The Government can invest in future technologies while maintaining the size of our Army. The Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and all Government Members stood on a manifesto that committed to not cutting the armed forces in any form, but, quite frankly, what was the point? Promises and commitments are broken on a regular basis.

The world is a dangerous place: Russia has amassed close to 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine; Myanmar is under military rule and innocent citizens are being butchered by the state; China is becoming increasingly bullish towards its neighbours; and the covid-19 crisis and economic woes that go with it have the potential to topple democracies. Maintaining armed forces numbers is essential to our security at home and abroad.

Retired British generals have said that further Army cuts mean that the UK is no longer taken seriously as a military power, and that it would damage our relationship with the US and our position in NATO. Worse still, Lord Richards—former Chief of the Defence Staff—has warned that we almost certainly would not be able to retake the Falklands or prevent genocide like we did in Kosovo.

The next pandemic or crisis that our nation faces could be much worse. The Government should not abandon expertise when we do not know what is around the corner. Now is—

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 5:40 pm, 14th April 2021

It is galling that time and again we hear from the Secretary of State and his Ministers that our people—our forces personnel—are our best asset, yet when there is an opportunity to look after them, the Government cut and freeze their pay, deplete their numbers, and neglect their mental and physical health needs as well as their housing and welfare needs.

The cuts to our Army, Navy and Air Force come at a time of increasing global instability, emerging threats and increasing risks on the back of a decade of decline. There is an urgent need for strong defence, strong strategic direction and strong relationships with our allies—all of which this Government are failing on. Cuts are weakening our defences. The integrated review has rightly been derided by many as contradictory and incoherent, and this Government’s actions are distancing us from our allies. I completely understand the need for us to invest in cyber and new technologies because warfare is always changing. But in this ever-changing landscape, the one constant in warfare throughout history has been—and always will be—our brave forces personnel. To diminish their numbers would be a grave mistake. After all, it is people who will be needed to operate and monitor these new technologies. If not, the technology will be more susceptible to attacks. This is not sentimentality; it is plain fact.

Just yesterday in the Defence Committee, we heard that the integrated review’s promise of identifying, developing and deploying these new technologies and capabilities faster than our potential adversaries is unrealistic, because, as one of our witnesses stated, they “do not see” from this Government

“the pace and level of investment to live that statement”.

We have a Government who have not acted with sufficient pace regarding emerging technologies and cyber at the same time as they have depleted our existing capabilities, leaving us dangerously vulnerable.

Cuts do not strengthen our defence capabilities. Unclear direction does not strengthen our defence capabilities. Acting in ways that increasingly distance us from our allies does not strengthen our defence capabilities. Our forces’ strength lies in their people. That is why we are asking Members on the Government Benches to show today that they share our unwavering respect for and value our forces personnel just as much as we on the Opposition Benches do.

Photo of Damien Moore Damien Moore Conservative, Southport 5:43 pm, 14th April 2021

I welcome today’s debate, but I want Members in this Chamber, particularly on the Opposition Benches, to remember that it was the Labour party—MPs sat on the Opposition Benches, including the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition—that wanted to make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister, so no doubt those Members supported his world view. It was a world view that included abolishing the Army, scrapping Trident, withdrawing from NATO and casting doubt on our world-leading intelligence services.

Ironically, we have heard something different today from the shadow Secretary of State, who is much more positive about the armed forces. I really welcome that, but one of his colleagues on the Front Bench wanted to replace our armed forces with human security services, which would have made our defence policy not a statement of intent, but quite literally just a written statement. I cannot stress enough how important the safety and security of the United Kingdom and our people are. I pay tribute to the hard work of our armed forces, which keep us safe every day.

History has demonstrated that where we do not meet the changing nature of security with equal, robust and pragmatic changes in policy, we leave ourselves vulnerable and open to attack. In the current climate, must we consider not only the threat of newly emerging powers, requiring nuclear weapons, but that of non-state actors, who have shown their intention to cause atrocities on our streets. We must consider the changing nature of these demands. We must adapt to this change. We must ensure that our constituents are kept safe.

I welcome this Government’s commitment to spend £188 billion on defence over the next four years. It shows commitment and that we are protecting our people. We are building new ships for our Navy and new jets for our RAF. The funding will enable the Ministry of Defence to prioritise more than £6.6 billion for research on those new threats. We do not want our armed forces to be technologically disadvantaged. We want to build partnerships that sustain our economic advantage, our strategic advantage and our defence advantage. Right across the United Kingdom, our communities are benefiting from billions of pounds-worth of defence spending. Across this nation, I am proud that our investment in MOD spending is supporting more than 400,000 jobs and providing huge opportunities across British industry for our future.

It is only this party—the Conservative party—that can be trusted to keep our country and our people safe, and I pay tribute to this Government under my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary. They have reaffirmed our commitment. This Government are committed to ensuring that our armed forces have the strength to protect our country.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 5:46 pm, 14th April 2021

In 1962, Dean Acheson, the former Secretary of State, said:

Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.”

In the 1960s, we concentrated our efforts in defence and foreign policy on protecting western Europe during the cold war and on our commitments to NATO. The integrated review was billed as a way of the Government defining what was meant by global Britain. The review is ambitious, but in a lot of ways, it looks backwards to an age with a certain amount of sentimentality and a rose-tinted view of Britain’s place in the world, without the resources to meet the ambition it outlines. In the maritime space, for example, we have a situation where global Britain is going to be projected by only 19 capital ships, and possibly fewer than that, throughout the mid-2020s. In order to have credibility, global Britain will also conduct operations in areas of the world in which we have never done operations before. We cannot do that without resources and without the people to do that.

I just ask the Government to be honest with the British people. If this integrated review is to be enacted, it needs the resources behind it, but I am concerned that in the race for the Government to meet this nostalgic view of Britain’s place in the world, they will take their eye off the real ball, which is our commitment to NATO and the north Atlantic and the main threat, which everyone agrees is there today—we have seen it today in Ukraine—which is from Russia. We cannot do that without the resources or the people.

Given this Government’s track record in coalition and in Government, the integrated review did not come from a standing start; it was from a start that has seen cuts to the defence budget that mean it is 5% lower than it was in real terms in 2010.

I will finish by saying this: we are all proud of our men and women in our armed forces, but we should not make them empty promises that we cannot deliver. We certainly should not have a situation where we ask them to do things without the resources and the capabilities that they rightly deserve.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Second Church Estates Commissioner 5:48 pm, 14th April 2021

The strength of our armed forces does not just rest in the capability of our military hardware. It relies on the skills, dedication and years of experience gained through the training and deployment of the men and women of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. We do not just need to recruit enough of them to serve in our battleships, armoured personnel carriers and aircraft; we need to retain them for long enough to benefit from the experience and training, which in the case of highly skilled personnel, will have cost millions.

Those brave men and women love their country and the jobs they do to protect us and keep us all free, but they have families who are often massively impacted by the work they do. While service families take enormous pride in the work of their serving family members, it also the case that military personnel put their families through more separation, relocation and danger than any other public servant.

On top of that, when we add into the mix accommodation that is not always of the standard it should be, disruption to children’s education, health services that do not keep up with their frequent moves and the inability of their spouse or partner to keep their job as the result of frequent relocation, many service personnel, although wanting to stay in the armed forces, are not prepared to continue to put their families through those difficulties, so they leave, taking all their experience with them and often leaving major capability gaps as a result.

That is why I was so delighted to be asked by a previous Secretary of State for Defence to write a report on what could be done to improve life for armed forces families. Professor Walker, Dr Misca and I published the report, “Living in our Shoes”, last summer, with 110 recommendations. I am delighted that, at the end of last month, the Government accepted 86 of them in full and 20 of them in part, while only rejecting three, with one being for the armed forces charitable sector to respond to. The report and the Government response are both on gov.uk.

Overall, we called for the whole nation to take its responsibilities to the armed forces families more seriously, and we called for the Prime Minister to make the care and wellbeing of armed forces families a national priority. I am delighted that the Government have accepted that challenge—

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:51 pm, 14th April 2021

I want to make two simple points. The work done by the armed forces during the pandemic was welcomed by all of us. In my constituency, the same as in everyone else’s, they did a great job on testing and vaccination, and I am deeply grateful. Talking to armed forces personnel, they told me how much they had enjoyed the work, and they felt they were fighting a real good battle against the virus. I also know, from my own limited service in the TA, that in armed forces life there is a lot of training and an awful lot of waiting, and doing something different can really make life a lot better. Indeed, the SNP spokesman, Stewart Malcolm McDonald, talked about the satisfaction of that. I also know that those armed forces personnel who helped rescue refugees found it very satisfying.

So my first point is this. In doing these jobs, the armed forces are actually indirectly saving other arms of Government spending money. I suspect—no, I am certain —that what is being suggested to us by the Government today is of course money-led. It is about the revenue budget. However, I would ask the Government to take a wider look at what is going on here, because I think what the armed forces are doing when they are not actually defending the country is saving other budgets.

In the time available, my second point is this. The shadow Secretary of State, John Healey, spoke of four Rs. There is a fifth R, which has been touched on, and it is recruitment, but I would like to look at it from a different angle. In my working life, and indeed more recently, I have had a close connection with the oil and gas industry, and one of the biggest problems the oil and gas industry faces is recruitment. Why? Because, unfairly or not, it is seen to be a sunset industry, and young people are not particularly interested in joining as they think there are better careers elsewhere. If we reduce the armed forces by the numbers being suggested, we will take their number below a critical mass. That means people—the brightest and the best, the most capable, the fittest—who might otherwise think about joining our armed forces will think twice and go elsewhere. That would be a tragedy, and it would be the start of a downward spiral leading us on the high road to a very dark place indeed.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I ask Members who are participating remotely to keep an eye on the clock and have an independent timer as well just to make sure, as it is a bit messy when I have to cut them off, but I will cut them off to get more Members in.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine 5:54 pm, 14th April 2021

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I will endeavour not to be cut off.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which has been very interesting. It is actually a very thoughtful motion that we are considering—much more so than some of the other Opposition day motions we have been used to considering of late. Maybe that is why it has had such a sympathetic hearing from so many of my hon. Friends. We only have to look at what is happening on the Ukrainian border to see that even today, despite all the advancements that we have in technology, mass still matters.

Yet I cannot support the motion, primarily because of the very last sentence where it talks about the Government’s plans to reduce the capability of the armed forces. Unfortunately, that is simply not true. They are reducing the size—the overall manpower—of the armed forces but they are not reducing the capability. In fact, the £24.1 billion investment—the biggest increase in defence spending since the cold war—should be welcomed. The investment in new technologies and in accommodation, supporting forces’ families, is also something that we should all welcome. It is especially welcome in Scotland, where the review and settlement cement the armed forces footprint north of the border, guaranteeing the presence of the armed forces on the Clyde, at Lossiemouth and elsewhere across the country, investing in our shipyards by placing orders for 20 warships to be built on the Clyde, and providing jobs across the country in our world-leading defence industry sector at companies such as Leonardo in Edinburgh, which is providing the UK-led future combat air system.

I thank the Opposition for putting forward a very thoughtful motion. This has indeed been a very interesting debate with good contributions from all sides. However, because of the simple truth that we are not reducing the capability of the armed forces, I cannot—

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I am sorry to have to disagree with my very good friend. We are reducing the capability of our armed forces. We are reducing their capability to do peacekeeping, limited operations, counter-insurgency and peacemaking. We have not got the men to do it. That is what we are doing.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend—my very good friend—for his intervention. I would never seek to disagree with him on matters of defence, but on this issue, although not wrong, I think that the investment that we are making in technology will allow this country to be at the forefront of expanding our capabilities as a country in doing all the things that he spoke about, which we are very proud that our armed forces do for us and for our allies around the world. That is why I cannot support this motion.

Photo of Mohammad Yasin Mohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford 5:57 pm, 14th April 2021

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this very important debate.

I wish to urge the reconsideration of the decision to cancel the Warrior capability sustainment programme. Doing so in favour of the German-manufactured Boxer will have a devastating impact on our nation, my constituents, and the men and women in our armed forces. It is crucial that we provide our armed forces with only the very best protection. The Warrior upgrade would have been a significantly enhanced fighting vehicle equipping British Army infantry soldiers to be supported in the most demanding of battlefield environments. The Warrior is the only vehicle specifically designed to provide fire support, and because of its new 40 mm cannon it boasts unique close combat capabilities. The Government must outline what capability trade-offs will be made with the transition to the Boxer and how this may affect our soldiers on the frontline.

Not only are our armed forces put at risk by the Government’s decision, but our economy as well. The production of these armed vehicles would have brought an estimated £1 billion to the UK economy, with the supply chain being made up of 80% British companies. The contract itself would have secured nearly 2,000 jobs. The investment would have boosted the UK economy after covid-19. But instead these vehicles are now to be replaced by Boxer, which is produced by a German manufacturer. I am greatly concerned that this will not bring the same prosperity as Warrior would have done and will only result in a disastrous loss of income and job opportunities for the UK.

More locally, Lockheed Martin provides employment to about 900 skilled workers at its site in Ampthill, as well as offering apprenticeship opportunities to young engineers. The cancellation threatens the viability of this site. It has already been announced that up to 158 people will lose their jobs in the wake of the Government’s decision. The skills lost owing to job losses in this sector will take many years to rebuild. The Warrior programme represented significant investment in some of the UK’s best technology and it advances our capabilities as a military force. I am hugely disappointed by the cancellation of that programme. I am troubled by the damage that might do to our armed forces, the limits it could place on economic growth and the number of jobs at risk. I urge the Government to reconsider this appalling decision.

Photo of Darren Jones Darren Jones Chair, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Chair, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee 6:00 pm, 14th April 2021

I will focus, perhaps slightly unusually in the debate, on the impact of climate change on our national security and, therefore, the resource allocation in the MOD. We know that, so far, the world has not made climate action plans bold enough to limit global temperature growth to 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels. Obviously, we support the COP26 President, Alok Sharma, on achieving that at COP26 later this year, but the reality is that climate change will affect our national security irrespective of whether we hit the 1.5° C target. That will translate into a number of issues, ranging from significant global climate migration and shortages of food and water to new conflicts around the world and, potentially, a vastly different geopolitical order.

On some projections, if global warming reaches 3° C we will have a world in which most of the United States, and indeed China, as well as other countries along and near to the equator, no longer survive in their current form due to desertification. Russia could become the largest food-producing country in the world. If we turn our minds to Russia’s approach in leveraging oil and gas to meet political objectives, we can imagine what that would look like in a world in which Russia had a monopoly of fertile land for food production. The future management of the Antarctic, following the lapsing of the current treaty in 2041, and presumably with habitable land following the melting of the polar caps, would become a high-risk flashpoint in a desperate world. All those outcomes present risks to Britain’s national security, the rules-based order and the allocation of our defences.

I wish to focus on the Arctic circle because melting caps produce newly navigable seas. For trade, shipping goods from China to Europe through the Arctic region, as opposed to through the Suez canal, would reduce shipping time, fuel consumption and cost. On security, only last week it was reported that Russia is further expanding its military presence in the polar region, testing air missiles and utilising nuclear submarines to break through ice, and is continuing to build military bases along its Arctic coastline.

On access to natural resources, many countries are trying to claim legal jurisdiction in the area, for drilling purposes. The integrated review says that we will seek to maintain high co-operation and low tension in the region, ensuring the safe, sustainable and responsible management of natural resources. Although I support those ideals, I fear the Government are not fully anticipating the escalation of tensions in our own neighbourhood, not least because so little reference is made to the Arctic circle in the integrated review.

That is, of course, an issue for Scottish independence, because England needs Scotland as much as Scotland needs England in being able to respond quickly to threats in the Greenland-Iceland UK entry point to the north Atlantic. I do not wish to be pessimistic, but I fear that all the climate change signs point to an escalation of risk and to tension in the Arctic circle, yet little attention is paid to that in the integrated review and defence statements, or indeed Government policy. I hope that those on the Treasury Bench might give us more insight to their thinking on the issue later this evening.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 6:03 pm, 14th April 2021

It is a great privilege to speak in this key debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, although the concept of strength of the armed forces happens to be a misnomer. First, military force will only ever be as good as the way in which it is deployed. The long asymmetric campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, were indicative of attrition, force protection and technology, more so than outright military power, but times have changed, even over this short period, and as the integrated review has made clear, we are now fighting in an era of “persistent engagement” against multiple threats, on multiple fronts and in new domains. It might be that conventional force, far from being the historical solution it was, is now just a solution.

Secondly, the word “strength” is in itself confusing. It is often used to describe disposition or size, so I would agree with the Opposition’s argument that our UK armed forces have shrunk, but that ignores the fact that “strength” can also mean availability of force, utility and, above all, potency. So, I would argue that reducing the size of our armed forces does not necessarily mean that the application of military force is any less credible. Let us be clear that the vast reduction in our armed forces since the second world war is not just a Conservative problem. It is something for which successive Governments must take responsibility.

I shall outline some facts if I may. In 2009, after over a decade of Labour government, there were 46,000 fewer service personnel than in 1997. Over the same period, the three services ended up 6,500 personnel short of the MOD’s trained requirement, a figure that is larger than the delta today. The reality is that HM forces fell in size by at least a fifth under Blair and Brown.

Before I am accused of being blindly partisan, let us not forget that the Conservatives did something similar in 2010. I spent a miserable two years in Andover doing my bit to cut the size of the Army from 102,000 to 82,000, and there were sweeping cuts, too, in the RAF and Navy.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I remember that in 2010 we cut the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers hugely, and said we would do the job through civilian personnel. Then, in 2015, we cut those civilian personnel. Who will keep all these highly technical things going if we do not have the people?

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend, as a Corps man myself. It is imperative that we retain these specialist capabilities so that we can prosecute force using the logistical and engineering support we need.

A decade on, there is no doubt that the Government are serious about investing in defence in a way that has not been seen for years. The massive £24 billion boost over the next four years brings the total to over £188 billion before 2025. This is about military power and strength, particularly in the prosecution of force at range, and when the risks of becoming embroiled in another attritional campaign on land can be mitigated, whereby striking at the heart of enemy command and control is so important.

I am concerned about the 72,000 figure for the Regular Army. Every unit has its challenges with under-manning, the training margin, wider commitments and absence from work due to sickness, compassionate leave or maternity, and my sense is that the Army probably needs an establishment of 82,000 to mobilise a strength of 72,000. I am not convinced that the Army can generate a deployable division with those numbers, and I urge the Minister to do his estimate. However, that is the only note of real caution for me and I welcome the publication of the integrated review—an excellent bit of work.

The dilemma for me and for all of us in this place is whether our focus on coalition operations, higher dependence on technology and the perceived peace dividend since the second world war justify the risks of ever smaller armed forces. But none of us can predict the future—not even politicians—and only time will tell whether this is again a bridge too far.

Photo of James Wild James Wild Conservative, North West Norfolk 6:07 pm, 14th April 2021

I welcome the Opposition’s shift in wanting to have a debate on the strength of the armed forces that focuses on enhancing them rather than weakening them. It would perhaps have been better if the shadow Secretary of State, John Healey, had been up front about the £38 billion black hole in the defence budget that the last Labour Government left behind—a shortfall that meant painful cuts were required in the 2010 review. I advised the then Defence Secretary on the 2015 strategic defence and security review, which was about investing once again with a budget that was growing. The integrated review and the Defence Command Paper together build on those reforms and highlight the intensifying threats we face, and the need to continue to modernise and adapt our forces, backed by a budget that matches the ambition.

Contrary to the motion, the plan strengthens our defence capabilities and the power of the armed forces, with major investments across the five domains. Opposition Members have spoken about election pledges, and it is fair to say that we have changed our plans. Instead of increasing defence spending by 0.5% above inflation every year, we are going further by committing to an additional £16.5 billion over the next four years on top of the existing plans. That extra funding is welcome to help to put the budget on a sustainable footing, because for too long MOD spending has involved short-term financial management and delays or deferrals that simply increase the budgetary pressure in future years. However, the opportunity to strengthen our armed forces that this multi-year commitment provides does not remove the need for choices, and how could it? The UK cannot do everything, and focusing on what we do best and working with our allies is at the heart of our global Britain approach.

During the debate, there has been an understandable, if slightly misplaced, focus on the arbitrary numbers in the Regular Army, given the changing picture of threat. In my experience, military chiefs are more interested in the ability to generate and deploy forces rapidly, and a more agile Army with technological advantage can have greater effect with fewer people.

This significant increase in defence spending provides an opportunity to deliver for our servicemen and women, as well as taxpayers, and there now needs to be a clear focus from the Ministry of Defence and the commands on implementing these plans. That means a more agile approach to procurement, with better control of costs and programmes. It means addressing the recommendations of the recent Public Accounts Committee report and having robust plans to deliver efficiency savings. Finally, it means an improved offer for everyone who serves our country, and their families.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 6:10 pm, 14th April 2021

I rise to support the motion on the Order Paper, not least because I believe that Conservative promises made to protect our armed forces have sadly been lacking and ring hollow now that they are in government, as is the case with so many of their other promises. At the same time that Ministers want to cut the size of our conventional armed forces, they propose to increase by 40% the UK’s nuclear stockpile. I ask the Minister, what is the strategic reason for that decision? How much will it cost? How will the UK be safer with 260 nuclear weapons compared with 180?

Breaking international law and treaty obligations sacrifices our moral authority when we are dealing with regimes such as Iran’s that threaten our allies in the middle east. Indeed, in 2015 Ministers promised that the strength of the Army would not fall below 82,000. In truth, we will never meet that target, with the Army’s strength standing at 76,350 soldiers. Since 2010, the Conservatives have overseen a reduction in the strength of our armed forces of a quarter, with 40,000 fewer full-time troops now compared with 10 years ago. The Government will weaken the Army further, reducing numbers to 72,500 by 2025.

In 2012, the MOD partnered with private outsourcing contractor Capita to deliver a £1.3 billion recruitment project. I am glad that the contract was not for a new sight for the Army’s rifle, because the number recruited since Capita’s involvement has not hit the target in any year since the contract was awarded. We should be angry about that wastefulness. Every pound lost in profit squeezed out of a failing contract means fewer soldiers, poorer equipment and fewer opportunities for people to make a career in the services.

Technology is important, but having spent time with veterans as a trustee of the newly formed East Durham Veterans Trust, I must agree with the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Nicholas Houghton, who said:

“I would argue most strongly that it is our people that give the United Kingdom’s armed forces our qualitative edge”.

We have seen our military in action over the last year during covid, from reinforcing frontline services to building hospitals, delivering vital equipment and running test centres in my constituency. I know that there are Government Members who care passionately about the armed forces, and I ask that they work cross-party to ensure that our armed forces—

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton 6:13 pm, 14th April 2021

Mr Deputy Speaker,

“I hear it a lot on the Tory benches, this idea of a country that ruled the waves. Rule Britannia… I think that’s given way to a nostalgia rooted in the history of the Second World War that somehow says that we’re a small island nation that goes out punching above its weight, without ever really stopping to ask why on earth it is that we’re punching at all.”

Those are the words of the shadow Foreign Secretary, Lisa Nandy, praising a pamphlet that called for the abolition of the Army, its replacement with a gender-balanced security force and the abolition of our submarines.

This volte-face to become the tub-thumping, flag-waving party of our armed forces is about as Damascene as a conversion can be. Not all that long ago, Labour Members were abstaining on giving legal protections to our service personnel while on overseas operations—those who did not actively vote against that. So today’s motion again has the whiff of insincerity about it.

I grew up on JHQ—the joint headquarters—in Rheindahlen in the 1980s, and the size of the forces and the nature of military operations then was light years away from where it is now. At the time the Berlin wall was standing, the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical threat and in 1983 the film “WarGames” depicted the science fiction scenario of an automated weapons system being hacked for a nuclear strike. Today, China joins Russia as a pre-eminent threat, the longest remaining section of the Berlin wall forms part of the East Side Gallery, several members of the former eastern bloc are now in the EU, and cyber-warfare is conventional.

The simple fact is that the world has changed; the nature of warfare has changed and therefore the way in which we configure our military must inevitably change. We do not have cavalry officers charging into battle on horseback, swords drawn; the needs of the forces today have changed.

What has not changed is the Government’s commitment to ensuring the men and women who keep us safe have the best support in terms of training, equipment and logistics, and it would be breaking faith with them for them to be under-resourced by adhering to a model designed for decades past. But we are going further, because the comprehensive review rightly focuses on the UK military’s single most important asset, its people. We are enshrining the armed forces covenant into law, we are making improvements to the justice system, and we are delivering a pay and career review to ensure military careers are as competitive as those in the private sector.

Labour stood on a hard-left manifesto which would have seen us led by a man who wanted to scrap Trident and leave NATO altogether. Its nationalist neighbours on the Opposition Benches still want to scrap Trident and wanted to tax service personnel more than in any other part of the UK. Our forces deserve our gratitude and our assurance that their Government will work to the geopolitical realities of the day, not the carping rhetoric of a bunch of crypto-Stalinists dragged up as flag-waving patriots in an attempt to hide the fact that they are hopelessly out of touch with the people whose votes they ignored for so long.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North 6:16 pm, 14th April 2021

One really positive advance that we have made this century has been our recognition of the obligations that the state and wider society have to the members of our armed forces for the work that they do for us and the sacrifices that they make. It was the Labour Government who first acknowledged the necessity of an armed forces covenant, although the Conservatives chose not to bring it into law.

Warrington North is the proud home of the 75 Engineer Regiment, based at the Peninsula barracks in Orford, as well as two historic RAF bases at RAF Burtonwood and RAF Padgate, a hugely important part of our town’s heritage and our nation’s success in defeating fascist tyranny in world war two. This morning I was pleased to meet with the Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Association for the north-west of England to discuss how I can sign the covenant as an armed forces-friendly employer myself. We should all do what we can to support the military that defends us and our armed forces communities.

However, the Government plan yet another real-terms forces pay cut: a lance-corporal in the Army will see a cut of £445 and a sergeant in the RAF will lose £610. And, unfortunately, while we have seen this progress in society, the Conservative Government have undermined our military capability, marching us back over 300 years in terms of the size of the Army and now proposing still further cuts. Despite assurances that decisions should be driven by threat analysis rather than budgets, this is the third time that the Tory Government have chosen to reduce our capability, breaking the Prime Minister’s election promise that he would not be

“cutting our armed services in any form.”

For him, apparently, a cut to the Army of 10,000 does not count—a worse use of 10,000 men, and indeed women, than the grand old Duke of York.

Ministers say that money is better spent on new technologies. Shiny new tech may be exciting, but leaving aside their repeated failures to deliver over the past decade and to have a procurement policy for defence spending that supports British jobs, tech cannot counter all challenges. In addition to the military threats that we have heard discussed today, in recent years we have needed our armed forces and their expertise as we have coped with increasing floods caused by climate change, and, yes, the covid pandemic as well. Are these strategic threats that Ministers think are either less likely in future or can be addressed with new kit? The first duty of Government is keeping their citizens safe, and reducing our capabilities by this level does the exact opposite.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle 6:18 pm, 14th April 2021

Hull and east Yorkshire has always been a high recruitment area for the armed forces and I give my thanks to each and every one of them for their service, particularly those who have gone over and above during the covid pandemic. Yesterday I attended a meeting of the all-party group on apprenticeships and we heard about the number, breadth and variety of defence apprenticeships offered. Hon. Members will therefore understand my sincere disappointment at hearing of the 10,000 cut to armed forces personnel, denying people the opportunities that so many of my local residents have had previously.

Hon. Members will also understand why I found that particularly hard after the news of the closure of the BAE Brough site. The first aircraft factory was created in Brough in 1916. The site entered the service of the Royal Navy in 1959. It continued in active service with the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF over 30 years. It is best known for manufacturing the Hawk, seen the world over being operated by our fantastic Red Arrows aerobatic team. The Hawk T1 training craft is currently being retired, and Britain’s aircraft fleet has shrunk to its smallest in RAF history. Fewer F-35s are being ordered to replace those lost aircraft.

I must convey to the House the sincere disappointment that 104 years of aircraft manufacturing came to an end on Christmas eve 2020, under this Government’s watch. One hundred and four years of aircraft manufacturing; it kept going through both world wars, through continuous change and through Governments of different political persuasions, only to end on Christmas eve 2020. The only positive from this sorry tale is that I can give my thanks to Unite the trade union for the work it did in mitigating redundancies and saving people from losing their jobs during the pandemic. I give particular thanks to the Unite rep Jarrod Rex for the work that he did.

I ask the Government to do the right thing and learn a lesson from BAE, which was able to mitigate some redundancies by allowing people to be remote-based. It allowed people to be officially employed at various other sites around the country while still living in Hull and East Riding, because they could continue to work from home and be registered as employees. That helped save jobs, and BAE is now working with the trade unions to look at the future way of working and see whether more jobs can be offered as more permanent remote opportunities. I urge the Government to look into that in detail, because if it were expanded, it could bring more much-needed high-skilled jobs to areas such as Hull West and Hessle.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge 6:21 pm, 14th April 2021

The strength of our armed forces is in the people who serve in them, and of course this Government’s commitment to them. Any armed forces should seek to reflect the character of the nation, and ours do. They reflect our values of peace and protecting international law, they seek to deter aggression and maintain peace, they help people worldwide with aid at times of crisis, and they protect our trade links, with our Navy protecting shipping from modern-day pirates. Our armed forces fly the flag for UK interests. They reflect our huge soft power as a nation, not just our physical strength.

The discipline and professionalism of our forces is recognised throughout the world as second to none. The British Army has helped train armed forces all over the world, and countries have sent their future officers and leaders to our military training centres for hundreds of years. That ensures that our nation’s values are shared across the globe. That is the strength of our armed forces.

Defence is an ever-changing landscape, with battlefields no longer in trenches but in artificial intelligence technology and cyber capabilities. Importantly, as we face one of the UK’s biggest strategic landscape shifts—leaving the EU—as global Britain, our armed forces will again take the lead. That is not a nostalgic view.

The recent defence review is the widest-ranging and possibly the most significant since the end of the cold war. The review ensures that we will exceed our manifesto and NATO spending commitments. It is a modernisation programme that encompasses the new areas of cyber and space defence, reflecting future threats and future battlefields. It is a symbol that the UK has a global role and a global ambition. It represents a Government—this Government—that understand the nature of the world in which we operate, all backed by a £24.1 billion boost in defence spending, helping to create a stronger, more secure Union.

Compare and contrast that with Labour’s position. The last Labour Government oversaw the Territorial Army’s being cut by almost 40%. Opposition Front Benchers want to replace our armed forces altogether with human security services. I am not sure they respect or have any understanding of the importance of our armed forces. That is not forgetting that Labour had planned shamelessly to use our flag and our veterans to gain votes—it is shameful that it was using our armed forces as a campaign tool, while refusing to take our nation’s defence seriously.

This Government do take the nation’s defence seriously, and they have a proud tradition of protecting their people. Those values are the foundation of our security and prosperity. I thank all those who serve to protect and defend, particularly those from my constituency, for their sense of duty, and of course those I sit alongside on the Government Benches. The armed forces of this great and United Kingdom are one of our finest assets and one of our greatest strengths. Long may they continue.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 6:24 pm, 14th April 2021

It has taken just 16 months for the Prime Minister to break his election promise not to reduce the size of the UK’s armed forces. For a party that likes to think of itself as strong on defence, it makes no sense for the Tory Defence Secretary to have announced last month that the Government are cutting the size of the Army, this time by 10,000. That comes on top of the 45,000 cut from the whole armed forces since 2010.

It is a slap in the face for our armed forces personnel, many of whom are recruited from working-class areas like Jarrow, here in the north-east. Under the Conservatives, our armed forces have seen a decade of decline. Forces personnel and their families have been forced to live in substandard accommodation while receiving below-inflation pay rises for the past seven years.

Hidden within the Government’s defence plans is a 2.7% cut in day-to-day spending over the next four years. That translates into a pay cut of £445 for a lance-corporal, with a sergeant in the RAF losing £610. Armed forces personnel deserve so much better. They have helped the country through this pandemic and played a key role in building Nightingale hospitals and assisting in the vaccine roll-out. At one point, 95% of mobile testing centres around the country were run by the military. We owe them a great deal.

There is no doubt that the threats that we face as a country have changed in modern times and that spending needs to be focused accordingly, but as the pandemic has highlighted, highly trained personnel are indispensable. On a wider industrial point, I agree with Unite the union’s response to the Government’s integrated review: the UK already has the skills, capabilities and ambition to be developing the cutting-edge technology needed to meet both today’s and future challenges; the only thing holding it back is a lack of vision, ambition and support from Government.

The Government must produce a long-term plan to boost Britain’s foundation industries, in steel, shipbuilding, aerospace and cyber-security as national assets. That is essential because the defence of the nation is linked with the defence of our national economy. The Prime Minister said in November that he was ending an era of retreat regarding the defence cuts made by previous Tory Governments. But after the integrated review and the defence Command Paper, yet again there appears to be a vast difference between what the Government say and what the Government do.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 6:27 pm, 14th April 2021

I get the idea of grey-zone warfare. I studied strategy; I realise that we cannot fight the next war as we fought the last war—I get that, too. The real problem is that we are going to have to do the next war in a different way. I get that. But we have not fought a total war as envisaged, and on which the integrated review is predicated, for over 70 years. Instead, we have fought limited engagements. We have done counter-insurgency, peacekeeping and peacemaking. Some 99%—almost 100%, actually—of all operations have required us to put soldiers on the ground. Suddenly, we are saying that everything should be predicated on grey-zone warfare, and that leaves little else.

Having commanded men—and women, by the way—on peacekeeping missions, I can tell hon. Members that there is a real argument in favour of having enough of them. We are going to cut our Army by 12%. That is an enormous loss. I understand that tanks can be taken out from over the horizon. The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict showed that: the poor devils in those tanks didn’t know what hit them. We have to redesign how we fight and where our tanks go—I get that. But it does seem odd that we are saying tanks are somehow obsolete when we have aircraft carriers that are 500 times bigger and marked from space by a red dot that an intercontinental missile could take out very fast.

I will end by saying how disappointed I am that my Government have cut the regiment I commanded in Bosnia, without even telling me about it in advance—not even one little word. It was dreadful, and it hits me personally. So if I am talking with emotion, so be it. The 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment did not deserve that, when you think that, per head of population, each Scot has three times as many battalions as each Englishwoman or Englishman—the Scots have three times more infantry battalions than we do in England.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

And they’re all Fijians.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

And indeed, as my good friend says, they are Fijian. Increasingly, those battalions will have to be manned by Englishmen.

I will end on that point. I understand the logic; I disagree with the result.

Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley 6:30 pm, 14th April 2021

It is a privilege to be called in this debate, particularly because Burnley and Padiham have a very long and proud history of service in the armed forces.

Our starting point with any defence review should always be the threats that we face. I have a huge amount of respect for my right hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart, who just spoke, but threats have evolved quite significantly in recent years. The grey zone is real, and it does require a very real assessment of what those threats are and how we need to address them. We need to move towards a much more agile, smaller type deployment. That is why it is positive to see in the defence Command Paper and the integrated review such things as the Army ranger regiment: small groups of better trained people who can detect, deploy and deter aggression. That is what we are seeing our adversaries do. That is what we are seeing the Russians do with increasing frequency, be it in Ukraine, Syria or other such locations.

There are two big capabilities advancements in the defence Command Paper that deserve a particular welcome and credit to the Government. The first is the National Cyber Force, because cyber-warfare is only going to increase. I am sure you will join me, Mr Deputy Speaker, in agreeing that placing it in the north-west is a very welcome development. The second thing that the Government deserve specific credit for is Team Tempest and investing in the next generation of combat aircraft. If we know one thing, it is that if we do not invest in aerospace manufacturing skills—I say this as a Member of Parliament who represents a proud aerospace manufacturing area—we will lose those skills forever. Tempest gives us the ability to work with allies across the world, currently Sweden and Italy, to develop an aircraft that will put us at the cutting edge of warfare and allow us to deploy manned aircraft surrounded by unmanned assets, building on those small deployments of Army rangers or special forces.

We have heard quite a lot in this debate about what is being cut, but I actually do not think the defence Command Paper and the integrated review are reductions in capabilities. They are actually new capabilities. The National Cyber Force is a totally new capability. Tempest is a totally new capability. The multi-role ocean surveillance ship is a new capability. Type 83 is a new capability. Artificial intelligence is a new capability. So if we are going to have a debate about what force structure we need in the armed forces in the next 20 or 30 years, we should do so.

I will end with the US—

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Education) 6:34 pm, 14th April 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate; I was not entirely sure that I would get the opportunity.

I am pleased that Bob Stewart spoke today. His valued comments were missed in our last debate on the subject: it was a real shame not to hear from him on that day, although I cited him in my speech. It was also good to hear from the right hon. Members for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and James Sunderland, all of whose voices I value greatly for the knowledge, expertise and experience that they bring to these debates.

It is not my specialist subject at all, but I have real concerns about where this is going. I have been extremely concerned for a couple of years now about recruitment numbers in our forces. I think that Serco has been managing it—it was almost as if it were being managed such that the numbers would fall, anticipating the Government’s position.

As I mentioned in the last debate, we are talking about an Army that will be as small as the US special forces. We are talking about the British Army! I once considered joining it, and I would have been very proud to represent the country. The notion that the UK could have a smaller force than the US special forces is quite extraordinary.

I hear the point about new technologies, but let us think back to the advent of the aeroplane and the birth of the Royal Air Force, or the introduction of tanks. Did we cut our forces then because of the new technology? No, we built on what we had. We have some fine forces and expertise, and we are well respected and well regarded around the world for them.

My point on this topic the other week was about peace-keeping and the importance of having people who can make the case, who can win hearts and minds, and who are actually trusted, as we saw in Sierra Leone, the Balkans and elsewhere. That is why we should be maintaining our forces and building on them with new technologies. We have to pay for our security—it is as simple as that. The threats are different from 10 or 15 years ago. We must invest in the new technologies, but keep what we have.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 6:36 pm, 14th April 2021

I thank the Opposition for securing this important debate in which I have much interest—it is a matter of great concern to me. When I asked the Prime Minister in November about the physical forms of war and recruitment, his answer referred to our being “full spectrum capable”, so I want to speak briefly about capability.

What the news reports are saying is that the fat is cut and now we are cutting bone, as I believe The Economist put it. If that is what we are arriving at with the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, we have a real problem. I understand the need to focus attention on technological warfare; that is common sense. Our armed forces have the reputation of being the best of the best, and that has stayed true because of the bravery and intelligence of our personnel, but also because we are always moving forward and looking for better ways with less loss of life and more effective plans. But in my opinion, to allow our trained operatives’ numbers to fall is—I say this gracefully to the Minister—folly. If they determine that they will slog on without enough staff to carry out their workload, in time they will fail. Our armed forces are not a department in which we can accept failure.

I have also read, and defence sources have acknowledged, that the air force cuts would reduce logistics and supply capacity. If I have read it, others have read it. Our enemies will have read it and will be rubbing their hands, whether they be in Russia, China or wherever else in the world. I have great concerns about that.

I will conclude by putting on the record my thanks to the armed forces medics in Northern Ireland for their help during the most pressurised hospitalisations due to covid. Over the years, we in Northern Ireland have had 30 years of conflict. The past few months have indicated that unfortunately the shadow of conflict is never far away from both sides of the community. It is more important than ever, as the police force is put under pressure in Northern Ireland, to know that we have a British Army that we can call upon; Bob Stewart, who served in Northern Ireland, said that as well. I seek that assurance from the Minister today.

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Conservative, Bury South 6:39 pm, 14th April 2021

Let me start by paying a few tributes. If my hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe was in her place today she would certainly mention the long history of the armed forces, especially the Accrington Pals, in Lancashire. Indeed, one of my proudest moments as an elected representative was in my role as a councillor in Pendle when we gave the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment the freedom of the borough.

Members from all parts of this Chamber respect our armed forces—I do mean that sincerely—and we have a long history of doing so. We may differ on what we think is needed at a particular time, but we do have a strong respect for the defence of this nation, and rightly so, because that is one of the oaths that we make when we come to this place.

As has been said by many Members—I will try not to repeat what has been said—the nature of warfare is changing; it is constantly evolving. Every time we find a new defence, someone will find a new method of attack. The problem is becoming more global, more cyber and much more biological in its intent, so do we need the same number of forces as we once did? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Forgive me for intervening yet again, but may I point out that, on most of our operations, we cannot win hearts and minds with a drone, with artificial intelligence or with a precision-guided missile? We must have men and women who talk to people.

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Conservative, Bury South

I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for his point because it leads me on to what I was about to say. The nature of our armed forces has very much become part of our soft power in international realms, in that it is a peacekeeping force. We go out to offer support across the world when there are natural disasters and when it comes to peacekeeping in areas that need extra support, and we are proud to carry on doing so.

When we look at the support that we offer across the globe, I hope that we can consider maintaining that 0.7% in international aid. That is a very powerful tool in preventing some of these issues from arising in the first place. With peacekeeping, yes, I agree that we do not necessarily need drones, but we do need to find a way to attack some of these powers that are coming forward and that are increasing in their own nature of warfare. Whether we consider the cyber-attacks from Russia or Iran or the biological weapons from elsewhere, it is clear, unfortunately, that some of these places are not safe to send our soldiers. We must consider the safety of our armed forces. For many years, Governments of whatever party have not got that right. I am thinking specifically here of the war in Iraq.

It is right that we are considering this matter. Warfare is evolving and we need to change to keep up with that. We are increasing our expenditure on the armed forces, more than we have done since the cold war, and it is right to do so. It is right that we consider the safety of our nation, but we need to do so in a technological, biological and evolving way, which is why I will not be supporting the motion as it is today. I say that as a proud Member representing a regimental town. The armed forces have a long history there; long may that continue. It is very unfortunate that, again, we are debating not a motion of opposition, but a motion of opportunism. With elections coming up, I wonder why. We are proud of our armed forces on this side of the House, and that will continue for many years to come.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Defence) 6:44 pm, 14th April 2021

I associate myself with the remarks and tributes made by the shadow Defence Secretary, the Minister and other Members of this House to the Duke of Edinburgh, who was a great friend of Portsmouth, the heart and home of the Royal Navy.

Let me start by echoing the contributions from across the House that have recognised and honoured the continuing commitment and service of our armed forces. From the imminent departure of the Carrier Strike group from my constituency in Portsmouth to supporting frontline services across the UK as they tackle the pandemic, our armed forces have risen to the unique operational challenges presented by the past year, and which continue to present themselves, with courage, integrity and resilience—something that I know we all admire.

We are here today as a direct result of this Government’s broken promises to our armed forces, and this has been an important debate. My right hon. Friend John Spellar reminded us of a catalogue of examples of successive Tory Governments running down our defence numbers and capabilities, a point echoed by my hon. Friend Ms Rimmer. The Chair of the Defence Committee, Mr Ellwood, also described sweeping cuts and the impact these will have in the busy decade ahead with new threats, and my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis said so eloquently—as he always does—that retaining talent is so important, and that despite changes to threats, people remain constant.

This Prime Minister promised to end Britain’s “era of retreat”, and that no further cuts would be made to our armed forces. Instead, he has further eroded our fighting strength. Some 45,000 personnel have been cut since 2010; now, the integrated review and Command Paper have confirmed that the Army will be further reduced to just 72,500 by 2025, smaller than at any time since the 1700s. As many Members of this House have already said today, this will sever the historical and prosperous links our armed forces have with communities across the UK and reduce services and pay for those serving, points well made by my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). Andrew Selous also stressed the importance of supporting those who serve.

As ever for Conservative Governments, it is cuts today, with the ever-seductive, seemingly undeliverable promise of jam tomorrow in the form of new technology. There can be no doubt that our forces need to modernise, but that leaves our national defences concerningly vulnerable in the medium term. This is particularly worrisome at a time when the integrated review has identified a growing number of sophisticated threats to our national security. While these threats are undeniably evolving and increasingly operate in the grey zone, Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border is a timely reminder of the need to maintain strong conventional capabilities today as well as to invest for tomorrow. However, the Government also remain silent on any future co-operation with European partners through the common security and defence policy.

As we have heard today, it is not just raw people power that the Army is set to lose; it is set to lose capabilities. Conservative cuts to the conventional strength of our forces with a promise of pioneering technology are nothing new. Tory Ministers promised the same thing in the 2010 and 2015 reviews, yet they failed to deliver. In 2010, they promised a future force by 2020, and in 2015, promised a warfighting division with a strike force by 2025. That is now being promised in 2030. In 2015, the Chief of the Defence Staff said that the ability to field a single warfighting division was

“the standard whereby a credible army is judged.”

However, a recent Defence Committee report on the Army’s armoured vehicle capability says that the division would be “hopelessly under-equipped” and “overmatched” by adversaries.

The integrated review has placed particular importance on carrier strike groups as a platform to project global Britain, yet at least two of the Type 23 frigates that will escort them and specialise in hunting submarines are due to be phased out before the replacements are built, as continued ambiguity around the number of F-35 fighters the Government will order means that we do not have nearly enough to fill both of our aircraft carriers, leaving them vulnerable to missile and drone attacks. In the meantime, as the Royal United Services Institute has pointed out, these sweeping cuts mean that the UK can no longer call itself a tier 1 or full spectrum military power. Despite the Prime Minister’s welcome injection of £16.5 billion in capital funding after a decade of decline, many of the decisions in the integrated review seem to have been driven by finances, as opposed to threats.

It is no secret that successive Conservative Governments have chronically mismanaged the MOD’s budget. The National Audit Office reports a black hole in the defence budget of up to £17 billion, and we are still not clear on how much of the extra money will be swallowed by the deficit in current programmes. After a decade of short-sighted, last-minute decision making and poor procurement practice, our capabilities have fallen behind our allies and potential adversaries, and it is our forces on the ground who will be vulnerable. As right hon. and hon. Members across the House have pointed out, all of this comes at a time when the threats we face are immediate, growing, and complex. My hon. Friend Darren Jones reminded us of the threat that our nation’s security faces from the climate crisis.

Defence of the realm is the first priority of any Government. From the publication of the integrated review and the Defence Command Paper, it is clear that this Government have not only broken their promises on fighting strength but taken a significant gamble with our national security in the medium term. Our adversaries will exploit the continuing holes in our capability, but Labour is determined to ensure that our country can protect itself properly now and in the future. The Government talk up their commitment to our armed forces, but the truth is that they have failed at every turn. Members from across the House have the opportunity to place their concerns on record by voting for this motion, and I hope they will consider our service personnel, still the core of our fighting forces, when they come to vote this evening.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence) 6:50 pm, 14th April 2021

It has been an interesting debate. As you well know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I thoroughly enjoy any debates in the House on military or veterans matters, and today has been another one. There have been some enthusiastic contributions, which is fantastic to see. Some of them were slightly light on detail and facts, but I am not going to work through correcting all of those because I understand the premise of the debate and I will respond to a couple of the points that have been made.

I would just gently say that we must never treat our service people in this country like they are stupid. For Members to claim that everything under a Labour Government has been okay and that the Conservative Government have slashed and burned the military is to treat people who serve and people in this country like they are stupid. It is fundamentally untrue. There have been challenges over the years, and the really uncomfortable and embarrassing truth for Opposition Members who are so loud is that I was actually fighting in the compounds in Afghanistan when Mr Jones was a Minister in the Department, and I can tell the House that it was a deeply unpleasant experience that was made more unpleasant by the management and leadership of the Department at the time. So I will take no lessons in party politics when it comes to what has happened with defence.

We all agree that strong armed forces are essential to the wellbeing of our nation. As the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend James Heappey, mentioned, the reforms we have set out in our integrated review and in the Defence Command Paper will enhance, rather than reduce, the strength of our military to meet future threats. One of my hon. Friends who is no longer in his place talked about the strength of the military and what that strength actually is. I think it was someone rather unpleasant who said that mass had a force of its own, and I am not going to deny that. To deny it would be to scream at the weather.

I have huge sympathy with my right hon. Friend Bob Stewart, who I have had deep feeling for over a number of years. I have huge respect for his service and for what he did during his time, but it is a truth—a truism—that our people are now more capable and we can do more at reach for a longer period of time with greater strategic effect than we could 20 years ago. That is a truism of global conflict. I totally understand the frustrations, and I apologise to my right hon. Friend that nobody spoke to him before the decision was made on his sub-unit. I will go and investigate what happened there. But it is a truism that we can be more capable and achieve more with fewer individuals in uniform now.

As for the idea that the military is being cut, we have to be honest with the British people. Yes, there are going to be fewer people in the military, but we can now deploy at a far faster rate and at a far greater global reach, and that is what matters today. So yes, mass has a force all of its own, and you will find no Minister in the Defence Department who does not want more money for the Defence budget and more people in the military, but the reality is, as the Secretary of State has said a number of times, that we have to operate within the envelope of our ambition in this country when it comes to the military. In that context, it is a very good and exciting review, and I will come on to talk about the people, because I know that a number of Members raised issues around how people are treated.

I will, if I may, briefly pay tribute to some of the contributions. My right hon. Friend Dr Lewis spoke on his traditional theme of CASD. The commitment of those who maintain the continuous at-sea deterrent is extraordinary, and it is a commitment not only from them, but from their families. If we think about what it means to go away on those boats for a prolonged period of time, we realise that separation without any contact is extraordinary, and their commitment endures year after year. We owe them a huge debt for the ongoing security they provide in this country.

John Spellar again went on about all the mistakes Tory Governments have made over the years. I have addressed that. I think it is disingenuous, and I am not going to say any more on that. My hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin again talked about CASD and the commitment—

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will take your advice, but is it in order to call a Member disingenuous?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

If I had heard anything that was out of order, I would certainly have called it into order. It is part of the debate.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am getting used to it now.

Dan Jarvis made some really important points. I know that he spent a long time on such operations, as I did, and he actually made a really critical point, which is that there are no easy answers to these debates. None of them is binary: they are calibrated decisions about where the threat is, how we are going to meet it, and what equipment or people we are going to meet it with. I appreciated his contribution.

When it comes to armed forces families, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew Selous for the important work that he consistently does in the family space and the people space. On that one issue, I can tell the House unequivocally that this review process has put people at the heart of defence. For the first time, we have produced a document that outlines what the offer is to attract and retain this country’s most talented individuals to a career in defence. I would encourage all Members of this House to go and read that, understand the opportunities that are now available, and then go and speak to the people who are serving.

While we will all have a view on defence—based on what we have been briefed on and what intelligence and secret information we have privileged access to—we will all have a different view, including those who have retired. I respect all those who have retired of senior rank and so on, but the crucial things is to go and speak to the people who serve and ask them what they think about the opportunities that are going to be afforded to them with careers in cyber, space, technical training and operations of the sort that were conducted by a very small specialist cohort in the military only 10 or 15 years ago. It is important to speak to them about the opportunities afforded by the future accommodation model or about mental health care now, where they can access a single front door and be totally confident that they will have a secure and coherent care pathway through NHS mental health services.

These lines—these campaign lines—are trotted out, and I understand that. I understand how this place works, but I am afraid I will draw the line when it comes to saying things that are simply not correct about our military, because we already have enough challenges. Everybody knows that I have come to this place to try to reset the relationship between the military and the nation, so I will be honest with colleagues when that line is broken, but this review puts people at the heart of defence. It is a good piece of work, and I am proud of it. I think we can honestly look young people in the eye today in all of our constituencies and maintain that defence remains the No. 1, premier choice of career for our young and talented people in this country.

I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate today. As I say, it has been very interesting and very passionate, and there were a lot of fair points. There is not one school of thought on this, but we do have to operate within the envelope we have been asked to operate within. In that respect, it is a good review. We should get behind it, and be proud of the UK’s armed forces, which remain the finest armed forces in the world.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I am now going to put the Question, and you will be expected to vote the way you are shouting. Clearly, if I hear one audible and persistent voice, you will have a vote, and a vote is expected.

Question put.

Division number 251 Strength of the UK’s Armed Forces

Aye: 255 MPs

No: 358 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

The House divided: Ayes 256, Noes 357.

Question accordingly negatived.

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.