Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with
(1) further resources, not exceeding £7,167,368,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1152, and
(2) the resources authorised for capital purposes be reduced by £67,644,000 as so set out.—(Jeremy Quin.)
I rise to speak as Deputy Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate. May I pass on the apologies of the Chair of the Defence Committee, Mr Ellwood, who has had a minor operation this week? As we know, he has very strong views on our defence capacity and would probably have wished to express them fairly vociferously in this debate. The defence estimates cover a vast range of work, but I will need to compress my remarks to 10 to 15 minutes to allow other contributions.
This is a dramatic time for defence issues. The agony of Ukraine intensifies, as President Zelensky’s powerful address to us yesterday made clear. The crisis has, of course, been building for a number of years, as Russia has launched successive cyber-attack warfare in the Baltic states and kinetic warfare in Georgia, Crimea and the Donbas. It has now exploded dramatically and tragically in Ukraine. We declare our solidarity with the country, the people and the military forces of Ukraine.
How are we in the UK to react to the dramatic shift in international security relations? Clearly, our Government and Parliament now have to give an urgent and positive response to the long-standing demands of our Defence Committee that we must move towards 3% of GDP for defence spending. The Budget in just over two weeks’ time has to respond positively to that imperative. Colleagues on both sides of the House will speak about detailed aspects of the consequential changes to personnel and to equipment, not least reversing the proposed reduction in numbers of the Army. To leave them sufficient time, I will focus on the broader context.
I thank the right hon. Member, my friend, for giving way. Surely one of the lessons of what we have seen in Ukraine is that a small group of utterly determined trained, or indeed untrained, men and women can use small arms and anti-tank weapons and stop a hugely bigger force. We are therefore just in time to reverse some of the decisions in the integrated review, such as scrapping 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, an infantry battalion that proved its worth in 2009 hugely gallantly.
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention—I think he should have declared an interest. He is absolutely right; the defence estimates and the Budget need to reflect the new reality.
I want to concentrate on the broader context: the ideological battle that is taking place, and the institutional shake-up that is consequently required. Most crucially, we have to recognise the full-spectrum approach of our opponents. Commentators in the west often gabble glibly about hybrid warfare, but in the framework of cyber war as an alternative to kinetic capability, and often in a mechanistic way, rather than understanding the political context and the need for whole-of-society resilience.
The Soviet mindset, of which we are now seeing a resurgence, is quite different. For these people, politics—politik—is everything. All agencies of the state are engaged. For too long we have ignored the multidimensional attack on our society, but that is a luxury we can no longer afford. This also means that the integrated defence review has, to an extent, disintegrated, and requires a major revamp which should start immediately. This necessary intellectual rethink must now focus primarily on state-on-state conflict.
Over many years, I have posed a question a number of times to military figures, defence officials and academics. During the cold war, we based our defence and security posture on our assessment of “the Threat”, with a capital T, and I have asked what the Threat is today. Invariably, I receive the answer that we face a variety of threats, but that is not the right answer, because the question is “What is the existential threat to our nation and society?” It is not terrorism, Islamist or otherwise, ugly and vile though that is. Today we—the people of Ukraine, the people of Europe, and indeed the west more widely—know the answer. It is a revanchist Russia and its desire to re-establish the Soviet territory, although I accept that in the longer term, as the defence review states, a revisionist China may be a more significant challenge. That means that today’s estimates are fundamentally an historical document, as, indeed, is the review.
That is not just down to the violently aggressive attacks by Putin’s Russia, but is also, thankfully, a result of the vigorous response not only from NATO allies but from formally neutral countries such as Sweden and Finland, where for the first time there is a public majority favouring NATO membership. The most seismic public reaction has been in Germany, where the new Social Democratic party Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has rewritten decades of German policy of both parties in his historic speech to the Bundestag. Equally dramatic was the wide political support, including support from the German Greens.
Chancellor Scholz stated clearly that President Putin had created a new reality which required an unequivocal response and a dramatic shift to supply Ukraine with weapons. He also made it clear that making international solidarity possible required new, strong capabilities. Essentially, that means that Germany must invest more in the security of the country. He addressed the readiness crisis in the Bundeswehr, which has been widely publicised and has featured in discussions we have had with our German counterparts. He stressed the need for aeroplanes that can fly, ships that can set out to sea, and soldiers who are optimally equipped for their mission. He has designated a one-off sum of €100 billion to set up a special fund, and has pledged an annual 2% of GDP.
I suggest to the Minister—I should welcome his observations—that we may also need to revise the ideological decision made by his Government, although not by current Ministers, to abandon our bases in Germany. I do not think the indication that we might make some minor return meets the need presented by the current challenge.
This was an imaginative, bold and historic intervention. Scholz clearly, in Bismarck’s phrase, heard God’s footsteps marching through history, and managed to catch on to His coattails as He marched past. I hope that our Ministers see the significance of that intervention, and engage rapidly and deeply with our German colleagues to build on this new reality. I hope they will also engage with our own defence industry. The Financial Times reports that after Scholz’s speech on the Sunday, on the Monday the German Defence Ministry and defence firms were engaged in detailed discussions as to how to ramp up production. The MOD and ADS should take note, because that is the sort of national response that we need. I was talking with the industry yesterday, and this does not appear to have happened, particularly not in the supply chain, which is wondering where it fits into the changed environment.
But this has been happening for many years. These are political decisions that have been taken, and nearly 30% of our procurement is now bought off the shelf from the United States, with no commitment from companies such as Boeing to reinvest to ensure that not only jobs but technology stay in the UK.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is vital to have a well-established industry to be able to respond to a crisis. The Ministry of Defence and the Treasury need to break out of the ideological straitjacket that states that domestic industry does not matter and we can buy from anywhere in the world. That is a hugely important change.
In fairness, I must draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention back to the DSIS—the defence security industrial strategy—in which we fundamentally changed our process of procurement. We have a new partnership with British industry, and in discussions with them over the last few days they have been extremely forward looking, as I know he would wish.
I would welcome a bit more detail from the Minister as to the nature and engagement of those discussions. I was talking to a representative from the industry only yesterday, and they are seeing precious little coming through. It is not happening in any way on the same scale or intensity as in Germany. We could argue that Germany is doing some catch-up, but it is really engaging with its industry. As my right hon. Friend Mr Jones has said, we give away huge orders and get little or nothing in return. Even now, the Minister’s own Department refuses to commit to building the fleet solid support ships in the UK, and his colleagues in the Home Office are giving an order for new Border Force vessels to a shipyard in Holland.
It is worse than that. The Department used to hide behind European regulations, but now we are out of the European Union, we should be free to procure in the UK. I challenged the Minister before Christmas as to whether his Department was going to give a £10 million contract to Damen in the Netherlands for a special naval vehicle, and he said we should wait for the competition. Lo and behold, this week it has been announced that Damen has won that contract for a vessel that could have been built in this country.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we look forward to the Minister trying to give an explanation for that. My right hon. Friend mentions EU regulations. The reality was that no other country in Europe behaved like that, but that was one of the drivers for the British public thinking that the EU was not working in their interests. Had we actually behaved like every other European country, there would have been less anger in this country. Now the Government are claiming that they are bound by World Trade Organisation regulations, but the United States is a long-standing member—indeed, a founder—of the WTO, and it has a “buy American” policy. There is a deep ideology in the civil service, and unfortunately Ministers are afraid to confront it.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a most interesting speech. He refers to countries that are thinking about joining NATO, such as Finland and Sweden, and there has been a sea change, as he says, in those countries and in Germany. I am a great believer in the British public, and I bet that every single Member here today is getting the same message that I have been getting way up at the top of the UK, which is that we need to defend ourselves against the bear, and against the threat. I believe that the public would warmly support us if we decided to reverse the dreadful cut in the size of the British Army. I think that that would give a great deal of strength to the Government’s elbow.
The hon. Gentleman will see that come through in my speech.
I hope this will, if not eliminate, at least reduce the facile attacks on our defence industry and its skilled, unionised workforce. Can we have no more ill-informed pressure on the City and pension funds to disinvest in defence firms, and no more blockades of their factories?
Likewise, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence cannot be mere observers. They have to engage, and the Treasury has to provide the funding to enable that engagement to be meaningful. They should follow the example of the great Ernie Bevin, who coincidentally was born on this day in 1881. He had the strategic genius to create not only the biggest trade union in the country, if not the world, but the NATO alliance. Furthermore, when American Secretary of State George Marshall gave his speech at Harvard in 1947, Bevin seized on a single sentence:
“The initiative, I think, must come from Europe.”
Through his energy and persuasion, Bevin generated a European response of sufficient weight and urgency to Marshall’s implied offer of American support, and the reconstruction of Europe followed thereafter.
Incidentally, Bevin also saw the need to create the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department to engage in the battle of ideas and the battle to counter disinformation—that is a crucial part of the spectrum—not only in the UK but across Europe. Also engaged in that struggle of democracy versus totalitarianism were leading Labour figures in the IRD Denis Healey and Richard Crossman, who had of course also played a prominent role in the wartime Political Warfare Executive. This cause is currently being championed in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly by its president, US Congressman Gerry Connolly, to put at its heart the democratic values on which NATO was founded.
Now we have to make our defence and security architecture fit for purpose for this existential struggle. Some of that is about recreating past capability and restoring our vandalised capacity for watching and understanding the dynamics of the Russian regime and, indeed, of Ukraine —the neglect of that after the fall of the Berlin wall was a scandal—and some of it is about recognising the relentless political nature of this struggle and funding organisations with multiple skills to wage it, while fully integrating our capacity.
I find it unusual, if not extraordinary, that the Chief of the Defence Staff and the heads of the intelligence agencies attend the National Security Council only as and when. Resources are crucial—that is what this debate is about—but mindset and doctrine are also vital.
The right hon. Gentleman and I are both former Armed Forces Ministers. I have sat on the Defence Committee for five years, and he has served far longer than me and is now our excellent vice-Chairman. He can attest to the fact that the Committee has been warning about the increasing Russian threat for several years. Some of us were derided as hawks who always said the Russians were coming. Well, the Russians have now well and truly turned up, so the Committee was basically right. Does he agree that we must now review the entire integrated review, because what happened two weeks ago was a complete game changer in security terms?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his interventions not just in the Chamber but in the Defence Committee on these important issues. This is pertinent to a debate on the estimates, because resources and finances are obviously crucial, but it is the doctrine, the mindset and the organisation that decide the outcome. It is the same in Ukraine, where the morale of the Ukrainian forces, who are fighting for their homeland, is crucial when facing a conscript army who are not sure where they are or why they are there. That is why we have to get this right. We need an increase in the Budget in a couple of weeks’ time, but we also need a reset in our thinking.
When I tabled a written question asking whether there needed to be such a review, I received a complacent answer from the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, Leo Docherty, saying that everything is all right and that we are meeting the current requirements. That answer came on
I thank my hon. Friend for that. This very much shows that a week in politics can be a very long time, but it also reveals, as she rightly says, a complacency about our situation and about the international situation, which was not justified by events.
In conclusion, what we have to question today is: is there the necessary understanding in the Government of the tasks and indeed the opportunities confronting them? Are they willing to rethink and provide the funds to implement urgent and necessary charge? Bevin understood this and seized the moment, and Prime Minister Attlee backed him to the hilt. So the fundamental question today is: are this Prime Minister, the current crop of Ministers and our dysfunctional civil service up for the challenge or even up to the job?
Thank you for calling me early in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to start by talking about a couple of the points mentioned by John Spellar, which I completely agree with, on mindset and attitude towards defence. He was nuanced and careful on that. As everybody knows, I have campaigned on defence issues for a long time. I am no expert on procurement and I pay tribute to this Minister, whom I worked alongside when I was a Minister, for his attitude towards it. I have found that there has been a significant step change there. When it comes to finance and investment the figures are undeniable and show that over about 50 years, roughly through to the 2020s, there was a decline in investment in defence, by Governments of all colours—we have seen that across the pitch. As this Prime Minister keeps mentioning, we have seen small increases between 2020 and 2022, and the projected increases as well, but I really want to get across to Members here today and to other Members that these increases are in CDEL—capital departmental expenditure limits. The problem with that is that our RDEL—resource departmental expenditure limits—which is our spending on people, continues either to flatline or decline. That means that the experience of those serving in the military continues to go down. Despite valiant work by lots of people to try to improve it, the reality is that if we continue to ask our people to do more and more with less and less, that affects the experience and the “elastic band” in the middle that is taken up by people who do it because they are patriots and believe in defence, as many Members of this House do. That is fine, but they get worn out and are then pushed into society, and a new group comes in. If we continue to have that mindset—that we can burn these people out because new ones will come in—we will see a degradation of defence capability, which we have seen, and we will end up with an integrated review such as we saw.
I thought some aspects of the IR were good, but I have said, both in public and in private—even though it is not easy to say—that aspects of it were dishonest. I do not think we can truly focus entirely on our capital spend and say that our defence capability has expanded so much because we have all this high-tech weaponry and suddenly have this huge shift to high-tech warfare, while also talking about contributary pensions in our armed forces for the first time in the UK’s history. Again, we need to look at what that means for people who are serving. I remember some painful discussions about that, and it was quite a lonely experience. Although the capital expenditure is exciting, we have to be really careful on our resource spend, which is incredibly important.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point. A smaller military would find it more difficult to go to train nations such as Ukraine. We have a very good tradition of having people train other nations to defend their sovereignty.
That is a really fair point. That was the whole point of enforcing things such as the Ranger battalions, but it was founded really on something that is not true, which is that mass is irrelevant—it is not. Data, technology and all this stuff is important. But look at what is happening in Ukraine now. Why are the Ukrainians holding out when everybody talked about how they were going to get flattened by the Russians? They are holding out because warfare has fundamentally changed: it has changed from the cold war—this is not the cold war reheated—and it has changed from Iraq and Afghanistan. These are Ukrainians, not Iraqis or Afghans riven by tribal disputes. It is fundamentally different and the technology has changed it. What can be done with an NLAW—a next generation light anti-tank weapon—is so different. When my right hon. Friend Bob Stewart was in the Army, much like when I was, people had to fly an anti-tank weapon—it actually had a wire coming out the back—and basically steer it on to the tank. The chances of doing that in combat were pretty slim—
Perhaps not for my right hon. Friend—I am sure he hit it every time—but I can only speak for myself and I found it pretty hard to hit the target. These new NLAW weapons are fantastic. They require such a low train-the-trainer base that we can teach Ukrainians to do it. According to a study released last week by the United States special operations community, 280 of the 300 Javelins that the US has given to the Ukrainian forces have had mobility kills. That is a ratio that we have never seen before in conflict.
Let me say finally on the capital spend that yes, that stuff is important, but if we do not have the right quality of people to stand and fight, who know that they are going to be treasured and looked after by their nation—I bore everyone with that all the time—warfare does not work. We are seeing how it works now in the Ukrainian system. We need to be very careful in that space.
My hon. Friend, who is my very good friend, has cast aspersions on how good I am with a light anti-tank weapon and, of course, he was correct: useless. The point is that this NLAW, held by men and women who have a basic, infantry-type role, can sort out a Russian attack that is highly technology driven. We have to think again about why, when the integrated review is done, it is done and dusted, finished and stuck. We military people—there are a lot of us around the Chamber—know very well that no plan survives contact with the enemy. It is the same for the integrated review: adjust it. Stop these infantry battalions going, particularly the one that, as my good friend John Spellar said, I was involved with: the Mercian Regiment. I admit to the Minister that I am biased, but for goodness’ sake he has only a few weeks to stop the cuts so that we keep our infantry. They are invaluable in the new kind of warfare.
My right hon. Friend makes a really valid point. Of all the decisions that we make on defence, I will genuinely be stunned if the Government proceed with that reduction in personnel, given what is happening at the moment.
Let me finish by saying something about attitude and mindset. I am obviously going to bring it back to people, but let me talk about what happens if we consistently focus just on technology. I found the IR quite frustrating, because the focus was on not making bad press announcements about the removal of regiments, although we have obviously heard the example of 2 Mercian. If we have this attitude towards capital expenditure and think that we can win wars in essence just by fighting tech on tech and that people do not matter, that trickles down throughout the whole system and we end up in a place where we are prosecuting soldiers in Northern Ireland when they are 80 years old. It is all about attitude and mindset.
I have sat down so many times with Prime Ministers in this place and they have told me, “Johnny, there’re no votes in defence.” But that is not the point, because there are some things that we have to do to keep the nation safe—of course, they may then become prescient when Russia invades Ukraine and things like that—and they are the boring part. It is our job as legislators, MPs, Ministers and Prime Ministers to go ahead, bring people with us and get them to understand why defence matters. Even if they are not interested in the military, there is its long tail through communities such as mine in Plymouth and in defence industries; there is what veterans groups mean in communities like mine; and there is what it actually means for British people to see their 78-year-old grandfathers taken to court in Northern Ireland for fighting for the freedoms and privileges that we enjoy in this place, and how that feels for a whole generation of veterans. It really does trickle down and I urge Ministers to really think about that expenditure.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful speech. He is absolutely right that people claim there are no votes in defence. I would argue that there are no votes in defeat. Sadly, in the past year we have seen a reversal of our interests and influence in places such as Afghanistan and now, sadly, in Ukraine, where deterrence has now turned into defence. Although it may be true that it is not popular to spend money on insurance premiums, the alternative—finding out we are uninsured—is a lot worse.
I defer to my hon. Friend’s operational service in Afghanistan and the bravery shown by our troops on the ground, of whom he was one. It is a fact that, for all the emphasis on technology, NATO was run out of town in the end by what some ill-informed commentators described as a “bunch of country boys”, who did not have submarines, satellites, artificial intelligence and all the rest of it, but who still won. My point is that, yes, we need high technology in warfare, but we also need trained personnel who are able to use it, and an obsession with technology is not in itself enough, is it?
My right hon. Friend is completely right. The whole end of Afghanistan should be a deep inflection point for the west and our attitude to the utility of force and what we can actually achieve in the foreign policy space. What does victory look like? What are victory and defeat actually going to look like in Ukraine?
I am sure that this will come up in the debate, but it is also about retention. We do have a problem in the military, across all the services, in retaining not only the people who are playing a supporting role, but those who are on the frontline. Can my hon. Friend say a few words about that?
Yes, but I will finish here, as my final points are around the people. It really pains me deeply how these people feel after they have spent time in the military. For many of us, it was the most amazing time of our lives. People like me were incredibly lucky and had a great time, but there are many people, including many families, who feel very bitter about it. We have done that by the decisions we have made around investment in their housing, health, and education. They felt it when the Prime Minister decided to take £2 million out of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs.
Clearly, there is a review coming, which I am pleased about, so I say to Ministers that it would be ludicrous not to reinstate what has been cut. I also urge them to please think about the secondary and tertiary effects of how we look after people. It is not just a lonely, boring old song that some of us sing. Those of us who have been right at the tippy end of the spear in this nation’s operations will say that the most important thing to how our people fight and what makes them fight is the moral component. Our decisions in this place and how we advocate with our constituents about defence matter and they make a difference. I urge Ministers to take that with them as they move forward.
I was not convinced that I should take part in this debate, because I am possibly the least expert on defence matters in this Chamber, but I do have some comments to make.
Let me begin by saying that I do not think that asking very, very hard questions about defence spending on behalf of any of our armed forces is in any way disloyal to those who put their lives on the line. In fact, I would suggest the opposite, because, sometimes, it is our responsibility to ask the questions and to shout about the concerns that serving members of the armed forces, for obvious reasons, are not allowed to express publicly.
I wanted to speak in this debate because we can argue—no doubt we will continue to argue—about how much the defence budget should be each year. We have already seen the beginnings of an argument on the Government Benches about how much of that should be spent on small equipment, how much should be spent on major equipment and how much should be spent on people. The reality is that there will seldom be enough to spend as much as we would like to on all three areas. What concerns me is that, for far too long, the huge amounts of public money that have been spent by the Ministry of Defence have not been well spent or well managed. That means that, for the amount of money that is put into the defence budget, we do not get the number of soldiers, sailors and air personnel that we could get. We do not get the equipment that we should get, and if we do get it, we do not get it on time.
I have been looking at recent reports from the National Audit Office and from the Public Accounts Committee, which I have had the privilege of sitting on for the past two years. In June 2021, the National Audit Office published a report entitled, “Improving the Performance of Major Equipment Contracts”, because it was picking up on a catalogue of failures, of late delivery, of equipment being delivered that was not fit for purpose, and of contracts going hundreds of millions—sometimes billions —of pounds over budget. It found that in eight of the 19 major programmes under way at the time, the senior responsible owner, the military person with direct responsibility for delivering on that project rated their delivery confidence as “amber/red” or “red”. In other words, the people charged with the responsibility for delivering those projects were not convinced they could deliver what was needed where it was needed and when it wasneeded.
The Public Accounts Committee picked up on that report and took further evidence from the MOD, and our report was published in November 2021. We identified, for example, that the contract for four Astute-class attack submarines was more than £1 billion above budget and the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers were £2.75 billion over budget. It is easy to look at those numbers in the context of the total MOD budget and say that none individually is a huge percentage, but when we think what £3 billion, £4 billion or £5 billion could do to improve the accommodation that service personnel are living in, for example, and what that would do for morale, that waste of public money is simply inexcusable.
“We are deeply concerned about departmental witnesses’ inability or unwillingness to answer basic questions and give a frank assessment of the state of its major programmes.”
In other words, there was a cultural problem at the highest levels of the MOD and they were not convinced that the Public Accounts Committee, on behalf of this House, had the right to ask such questions.
Johnny Mercer said that he regarded parts of the integrated review as dishonest; I must say that some of the financial planning documents that the MOD continue to publish could well be given the same descriptor, because they simply do not give an honest and frank view of the challenges it faces in being able to afford some of its plans over the next 10 years. I mentioned improving accommodation for service personnel, and that was not a random example.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about some of the decisions made by the previous Labour Government, particularly in relation to the aircraft carriers, although I would not describe having those two aircraft carriers as a waste of Government money. They are an extremely valuable addition to our defence and have an extremely good job to do. I take issue with the idea of any document produced by the Department being, as he was implying, dishonest. We have an equipment plan now that has not been deemed unaffordable by the NAO. For the first time in many years, we are balancing our books and delivering on our programmes.
I am glad the Minister mentioned the affordability of the equipment programme. I think that plan is dishonest if it describes itself as affordable, for reasons that I will come on to later.
The hon. Gentleman missed the best bit of the November report, which was that the cross-party Committee concluded that the UK’s defence procurement system was “broken”. Does he agree that we are not going to deter further Russian adventurism with a £4 billion light tank that not only does not work, but deafens its own crew?
I think the right hon. Gentleman will understand that there are far too many examples for me to quote them all. I want to leave some for him. I have no doubt he will bring his much greater knowledge to bear on the example he quoted.
I wish I had not let the right hon. Gentleman intervene, because he has just stolen my thunder, but never mind—“It’s nae loss whit a freen gets”, I think is the phrase we would use in Fife.
The single living accommodation, at the time the NAO started looking at it on
I am sorry, but I really do need to make progress. I could talk until 7 o’clock, if the right hon. Gentleman wants me to, but I think other Members wish to speak.
The Public Accounts Committee reported that the Commands—the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force—planned to use some of the £16.5 billion of additional funding to address the backlog in maintenance and repairs of that accommodation, which at the time was estimated to be about £1.5 billion. The Committee reported at the same time:
“However, this extra funding seems to have already been spent more than once before it had even arrived with the Department”.
As I am sure many hon. Members are aware, if we listed the number of times that Ministers or civil servants told us that an MOD funding problem would be fixed by that additional money, welcome though it is, it would certainly add up to many times. Perhaps that is why they are a wee bit coy about giving us a detailed breakdown of exactly what the money will be spent on, because once they do that we will find out that it will not go nearly far enough.
I have been carrying out a bit of an inquiry into Annington Homes, which owns a lot of the MOD estate. The MOD is currently leasing 7,230 vacant homes from Annington Homes. Given the refugee crisis and the fact that we have 11,000 to 12,000 people in bridging hotels, would it not be worth investing in those homes and bringing them up to standard, so that they could be used to rehouse people who have now been languishing in hotels for more than six months, not least because many of them served with our armed forces?
The hon. Member makes an important point, and she reminds us that if accommodation is lying empty, it should not matter which Department or public body has its name on the title deeds; houses are there for people to live in, so whether they are evacuees and refugees from Afghanistan or anyone else, it should be possible to give them the kind of accommodation they want.
I will go through some of the findings of the NAO report, “The Equipment Plan 2021 to 2031”. I think it is dishonest to state as a matter of fact that the equipment plan is affordable, because in order for it to be affordable, as the NAO report states in paragraph 2.7, £3 billion of financial risk was not included. For example, a future combat air system had an estimated cost in its business case up to 2031 of between £10 billion and £17 billion. The equipment plan allocates £8.65 billion, so that one project alone is, at best, underfunded by £1.35 billion, and at worst it has possibly been allocated barely half the money it will cost.
Paragraph 2.17 refers to £7 billion of what the MOD terms “Planned Cost Reductions”—I think this is what the right hon. Member for Warley was referring to. At the time, according to that report, the top-level budget holders had plans to deliver less than half of the £3.1 billion. Some £2.6 billion of it needed to be achieved by 2025, within the first four years, and the first of those first four years is up in three weeks’ time. As the right hon. Member mentioned, the MOD has a dismal track record, assuming it will make massive savings all over the place and delivering very little of it. It cannot afford to get it wrong this time, but I think we all know that the chances of it getting it right and delivering that £7 billion, if its past record is anything to go by, are very slight. It is yet another hole in the affordability of the equipment plan.
Paragraph 20 of the NAO report picked up on an issue that the MOD does not like us to talk about but that I think is very important. It states that the top-level budget holders were
“deliberately spending more slowly on projects to keep within their budgets”.
In other words, they were given a budget to have something delivered and ready to use in 10 years’ time, but they spend the budget in 10 years and then the equipment is not ready until after 12, 13 or 14 years. There can be unforeseeable delays in the procurement of defence equipment, but if the MOD has assessed that the military will need that equipment in 2031, and then someone in the MOD deliberately delays procuring it for any amount of time, simply to make it look as if they are sticking to the budget, I do not see how that can possibly be acceptable.
Elsewhere, the NAO estimated that about £12 billion of savings built into the equipment plan were not savings at all, but were based on spending the money after the period of the equipment plan. They were based on delaying getting this vital equipment to our service personnel. An independent assessment carried out by the MOD’s cost assurance and analysis service, looking at projects that make up about 58% of the current year’s plan—although clearly there will be bigger expenditure on some of them later—reckoned that those projects alone were likely to cost £7.6 billion more than was assumed in the make-up of the defence equipment plan. It goes on and on. The NAO’s conclusion in paragraph 23 is that
“There is a real risk that, despite the additional funding it has received, the Department’s ambition outstrips the resources available to it.”
In layperson’s language, despite the MOD saying it has an affordable equipment plan, there is a very real risk that it does not.
Finally, the affordability of the equipment plan depends on getting an inflation plus 0.5% budget increase every year up to 2031. The Treasury has said it is comfortable with that, but given what has happened recently to public finances, the cost of living and inflation, I question whether it is still realistic to assume that is guaranteed. It is possible that it will be delivered; if it is not, that is yet another hole in the affordability of that plan. I make no apology for saying that where the equipment plan says that it is affordable and does not put all those caveats against it, it is a dishonest document for anyone to have published. It makes statements that are patently not justified, even by the information that was made available to Members of Parliament and, indeed, members of the public.
We can argue about whatever amount of money is allocated to the Ministry of Defence in this year’s budget or next year’s, or in any year coming, but we are failing our service personnel. The Government, this Parliament and the MOD are failing our service personnel, first because they are not being open and honest with them about the financial challenges they continue to face, but most importantly because surely, when somebody signs up and is willing to put their life on the line—let us not forget that two young men from Glenrothes lost their life fighting an illegal war in Iraq, and would probably be here today if they had had the best possible equipment available—the very least they are entitled to is living accommodation that is fit for human habitation, and to be given the best possible equipment available to defend themselves from enemy attack. I do not have confidence that this Government, or any future Government in this place, will genuinely honour those commitments.
That is why, whatever budget is set for the MOD through the due process, there needs to be a complete root-and-branch review of financial management—far too often, financial mismanagement—within the Ministry of Defence. It is costing billions and billions of pounds that the MOD simply cannot afford to waste, and there will be times when it risks costing the lives of our service personnel.
Not for the first time and, I am sure, not for the last time, the House has cause to be grateful to John Spellar for reaching across the party divide in support of the strongest possible defence of this country and the strongest possible support for NATO. It is in that spirit, as a former Chairman of the Defence Committee, that I acknowledge the stalwart support he has given to successive holders of that post. This is an opportunity for defence-minded parliamentarians to give some initial reaction to the colossal and extraordinary events of the past fortnight in the context of what Britain was going to spend on defence, and what it should spend on defence in future.
In June 1950, five years after the end of world war two and following a time of mass demobilisation, the Korean war broke out. The effect of that conflict, quite apart from the terrible consequences for the people living in Korea, was to cause a huge reassessment of the amount of national effort that must be invested in defence in the United Kingdom. That led to a reconsideration of the level of defence expenditure, and I suggest that the seismic events of the past two weeks should lead to a similar reassessment of what we are prepared to invest in defence in the United Kingdom in the 21st century. We cannot conduct this debate as if nothing serious has happened to transform the situation in the past two weeks.
Although it is very early and the outcome of the conflict is still very much in doubt, I suggest it is possible to come tentatively to about half a dozen conclusions, and I will run through them very quickly. First, I think we can say that the advanced public messaging by the United States, NATO, the United Kingdom and other allies has been outstanding. It has prevented President Putin from seizing the narrative. By predicting accurately in advance what he was going to do, it has completely undermined his potential disinformation campaign. Every pronouncement that we hear from the Kremlin is so ludicrously at odds with reality that it cuts no ice at all, except with those totally indoctrinated.
Secondly, the events of the past fortnight dispel any illusions we might have had about the nature of our Russian adversary. As has been said rightly many times by those on the Front Bench, that is not the Russian people, but the people in control of that great, but benighted country. We must remember that people such as President Putin are the direct descendants of the regime whose ideology led them to kill millions of their own people in the decades in which Leninism and bolshevism held sway. Although the communist doctrine has collapsed, the mindset, the imperialism and the brutality have not. I have previously described President Putin in uncomplimentary terms, and I think it is worth repeating them. This man is a cynical, sneering psychopath. He does not care how many people he kills, as long as he gets his own way. Anyone thinking that there is a way to reason with these people, rather than deter, contain or, if necessary, defeat them, is living in a world of fantasy.
Thirdly, in light of Ukraine’s decision to give up—admittedly it was not a system it could operate at the time, but given time it could have done so—the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, which it inherited from the former Soviet Union, any lingering doubts about the wisdom of the United Kingdom continuing to possess a strategic nuclear deterrent as long as Russia does so have finally been put to bed.
I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene, because I know his party has a problem with this issue, but I do not intend to let it dominate my speech.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we do not have a problem with the issue; we have a problem with nuclear weapons. Is he not aware that as a matter of international law, as a successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia was the legal owner of those nuclear weapons? It was entitled to take them away. Ukraine would have been in breach of the law to try to hold on to them.
Yes, and I am also aware that as a result of Ukraine’s decision to give up those nuclear weapons, Russia guaranteed the security and the borders of Ukraine. If the hon. Gentleman is going to throw international law at me, all I can say to him is that, if he thinks that those sorts of manoeuvres and unilateral renunciations are the way to stop someone being attacked and destroyed by a ruthless adversary, it should be a long time indeed before he and people who think like him have any influence on the way in which we choose to keep the peace—by deterrence—so that we do not end up in a situation like Ukraine.
Fourthly, this horrible situation should establish whether and to what extent economic sanctions can force an aggressor to desist. It is often said that the world has become more interdependent. We will never see a more extreme example of democratic countries seeking to use economic pressures to force an aggressor to desist. If that fails to work in this instance, it will be a further argument for increased investment in hard defence capability, because that particular aspect of hoping to be able to turn war into an outmoded concept will, sadly, have been disproved. I hope that it does play a part in stopping Russia from proceeding, but I am not holding my breath.
Fifthly, the conflict has exposed the folly of fuel dependence on hostile countries and raised questions about the wisdom of a policy of unilateral net zero targets by democracies regardless of what much larger countries, that are not democracies, do. I am not seeking to pick an argument with the environmentalists; I am merely saying that there is a parallel with the question of unilateral or one-sided nuclear disarmament, because if we achieve net zero at tremendous cost to ourselves while much larger hostile countries simply flout the commitments that they have given, we will have taken that pain for no benefit to anyone. Targets must be multilateral if they are going to do anything other than weaken our ability to protect ourselves.
The last of the six lessons is that the conflict has killed the idea that conventional aggression by one state against another is an outmoded 20th-century concept. Time and again, people such as the right hon. Member for Warley on the Opposition Benches and my right hon. and hon. Friends present on the Conservative Benches have raised the question of what an appropriate level of defence investment should be, only to be told from on high, “You’ve got to realise that there are new forms of warfare. The next war will not be fought much with conventional armed forces. It will be fought in cyber-space or even in space itself.” Of course, there are new and serious threats—potentially fatal threats—in those two newer areas of conflict, but they are additional threats. They are not substitutes for the threats that we have always faced and continue to face from conventional armed forces.
I thank my right hon. Friend—who is a good friend and is gallant, because he was a midshipman once—for allowing me to intervene. One thing that the Russians are showing is that to take territory, people have to put boots on it. But, guess what? We are chucking our boots out. That is appalling and we must reverse that decision.
Order. Before Dr Lewis comes back, I think it is important to let hon. Members know that I will have to impose a time limit when he has finished, otherwise we will simply not get everybody in. The time limit will probably be around six minutes, depending on how long he takes.
There are one or two other lessons from the current conflict. One is the impact of mobile phone cameras and psychological ops on the way in which a country communicates with itself and the world, and I think we could learn from that. I think we have lost a lot of the skills that we had in the second world war and when we were facing the Soviet Union, and this is one area we need to look at.
I quite agree with both my right hon. Friend Bob Stewart and my hon. Friend.
Bearing in mind your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will conclude with one point about the budget itself. During the period in which I chaired the Defence Committee, we produced two reports—one in 2016 called “Shifting the goalposts?” and the other an update to that report in 2019—with the purpose of setting very firmly on the record what the proportion of GDP spent on defence had been historically on a like-for-like basis. It is a fact that, in the aftermath of the Korean war, defence spending as a proportion of GDP at one point was as high as 7%. In about 1963, it crossed over with spending on welfare at 6%. That was all a long time ago, but as recently as the 1980s the spending on health, education and defence was roughly the same at just over 4% of GDP.
My right hon. Friend, I and probably everybody present in the Chamber have been calling since we have been Members of Parliament for much higher defence spending. I think that is accepted. However, does he agree with me that once that higher level of spending is determined, we should not necessarily link it to GDP, because economies can go up and down? There have to be real-terms increases once that higher figure is decided, otherwise the armed forces will not know where they are and it will be difficult to plan.
I do agree with that point; using GDP percentages has always been only a very rough and ready guide.
What was absolutely shocking was the way in which, given that even within half a dozen years of the downfall of the Berlin wall—as late as 1993-94—we were still spending 3.1% on the old method of calculation and 3.6% on the new method of calculation, whereby the MOD is allowed to include certain things we never used to include, it then became an argument as to whether we would even manage to achieve 2% of GDP. Our expectations have been managed down so far that when, even in recent times, a number of us have called for 3% to be a target, it was regarded as being completely out of reach. It should not be out of reach. The sort of effort we put into defending this country is the most important investment we can make, so 3% of GDP should now be seen not as a target or as a minimum, but as a stepping stone on the way to a realistic investment to meet the threat that never really went away, the reality of which in Ukraine has now been proclaimed for all the world to see.
I shall try to be helpful and keep my contribution relatively brief. Typically of such debates, it is very good in some ways and not so good in others. It is very good in that I sense that on all sides of the House we are singing from the same sheet. That is good for our armed forces personnel, because they are hearing a message supportive to them. It is bad in that most of my speech has been covered.
However, I have read the December 2021 House of Commons Defence Committee report “We’re going to need a bigger Navy” with the very greatest of interest, and I congratulate the right hon. and hon. Members on the Committee on putting it together. It is sobering reading, and I will draw just two facts out of it. I will do this because my grandfather served with the Royal Navy at a time when the Royal Navy really did rule the waves: it was the biggest navy in the world. For the interest of the House, I will point out that my grandfather trained at “Britannia”, as it was known, in the very same two years as somebody called the honourable Reginald Drax, who is in a photograph with my grandfather—our ancestors were there together.
I would pull two things out of the report. The Type 45 destroyers having their engines repaired, which meant that so few of them were at sea, is a disgrace. We cannot have that happen. They are now projected to be re-engined or repaired by 2028. That is not good enough. We need these state-of-the-art warships at sea as soon as possible—right away—and if that takes extra money, so be it.
The report also contains a reference to the Type 31 frigates, and an eloquent argument is put forward that we will probably need more than the five that are planned. The national flagship idea has its attractions, but—I have made this point before—if we are to build the ship at roughly the same cost as a Type 31, would it not be better as a Type 31? We could have internal alterations to accommodate Her Majesty, civic leaders, or whatever we want to do with it, but we should have it as a warship, rather than as a national flagship that will, in turn, have to be escorted, I fear, by another warship.
I will end where I began: the size of the British Army. I cannot compete with the august gentlemen on all sides of the Chamber who have served in the armed forces, but many years ago I was Private Stone in the mortar platoon of C company of the Second 51st Highland Volunteers. That battalion was set up in such a way that if—perish the thought—something happened in Europe and the bear began to growl, I would give up my day job and be whizzed right off to Germany. That was what we were intended to do. We knew that and we knew it was part of the job spec. I am also bound to say that Russia—the USSR as it then was—knew that that was how those battalions of the British Territorial Army would be deployed in the event of a deteriorating national situation.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the size of the British Army and the need to return to the numbers we have lost over the past few years—Bob Stewart referred to that. In Northern Ireland, we are able to recruit above the norm of what we are allocated. The Minister will be aware of that. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that extra numbers of recruits should be set aside for Northern Ireland for full time, but also for the Territorial Army and the reserves?
I would, of course, endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said, and having had two brothers-in-law who served in the Ulster Defence Regiment, I know a little about it.
I do not want to mislead the Chamber. I do not want the impression to be abroad that Private Stone, doubling forward by half section with his Carl Gustaf, made a huge contribution to the defence of the realm. But what I am saying is that I knew a bit about how things were done back then, and it was about credibility and our potential opponents seeing that we were serious about defending this country. Finally—then I will sit down, Madam Deputy Speaker—the point is well made about having numbers of armed forces personnel to train our friends, such as has been happening in Ukraine. I have said this many times before and I say it one last time: if we take the British Army below a certain size, it will not be such an attractive career choice for the brightest and best who we need to employ to defend our nation.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. As always in this debate, there are good things and bad things. I am pleased to see that the UK remains the biggest European NATO spender, second only to the United States, but there are also bad things and hon. Members have particularly mentioned the cut in the British Army.
I see my right hon. Friend is nodding, so perhaps he will not intervene on me, having made that point. But there is another point on that—the strategic investment that the Royal Air Force will be making, which I will come back to. I am very conscious that it is not just us increasing spending now but countries such as Germany and Denmark. I encourage them to increase their spending further.
Before I come to the Royal Air Force, let me say a word about the Navy. Before the crisis between Russia and Ukraine started, I got the Navy’s leading expert on Russia to come to speak to my delegation to the Council of Europe. Hon. Members may ask why I got a naval expert to come to a delegation that has said it has nothing to do with the security apparatus of Europe. The reason is that I do not buy that argument and actually what the rear-admiral concerned said filled us with a tremendous amount of horror. He pointed out Russia’s interest in the Baltic passages in particular and, more generally, how ill-equipped we were to be able to deal with that. I therefore ask for more investment to be made in that area.
Something like £2 billion of strategic investment is to be made in the Royal Air Force. I think that that should be increased. If Russia has taught us anything, it is that investment in tanks is not a very good investment. If we look at Ukraine, a huge amount of anti-tank missiles are there already and something as fleet of foot as the Royal Air Force is to be commended. I do not want to set a hare running, but I hope that the Minister can confirm that bases such as RAF Benson are not earmarked for closure. They play a vital role and Benson does in particular in looking after the helicopters that we use all the time in our Air Force. They also have another use; they provide training.
I had the privilege of visiting RAF Benson just a couple of weeks ago and I reiterate my hon. Friend’s comments on that base’s contribution to training the next generation of helicopter pilots and supporting the wider RAF and, indeed, the local community. I echo his remarks and hope that the Minister will confirm that Benson is not earmarked for closure.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and support. I was going to mention some of that training—and, indeed, some of the training that I have gone through there. Benson is home to CAE, a company that provides a tremendous amount of simulator training for the RAF. He will no doubt be pleased to know that I flew a Chinook and a Puma on the simulator so successfully that I did not crash them. I think that is a tribute to the success of the training, rather than to my dexterity at the controls of two very large aircraft.
On the relationship with companies that provide equipment and larger things to the military, over the years I have tried to put across to the Minister’s Department the idea of a conflict avoidance board for such projects. They work incredibly well in industry. People who are skilled in mediation sit on them and their aim is to stop something becoming a conflict. As we all know, all projects have such problems during their lives and conflict avoidance boards are good at ensuring that we can avoid such conflicts. What is the benefit of that? It goes straight to the heart of the budget. Doing that is much cheaper than spending vast amounts of money going through the courts, with QCs and whoever else is needed to settle a particular argument. I urge the Minister to look at the scheme again for his larger projects. The feedback that I got was closer to a kick in the teeth than anything else, yet I think the boards have tremendous potential. On that note, I will finish and allow somebody else to take over.
I thank my right hon. Friend John Spellar for opening the debate. He is right that our thoughts today are with the people of Ukraine and the brave servicemen and women, and civilians, who are resisting the might and cruelty of Putin’s war machine. As Dr Lewis said, that focuses our minds in our debate on defence.
We need to ask how we have ended up with the smallest Army in our history. That has not happened by accident; it is a political choice. In 2010, a Conservative party came into power, in the coalition Government, that had argued before the election for more spending on everything in defence, but then, suddenly, they got into a programme of austerity, under the cloud of a mythical £38 billion black hole that the bad Labour Government had left them. That never existed and we know that because within two years, it seemed to have disappeared, given what the Government said.
That Government cut the budget by 16% because the Treasury wanted money out of that budget. Johnny Mercer asked why this was about people—well, it was about people because that is how to get money quickly out of a budget. The Government did things such as making people take compulsory redundancy and losing people with vast experience, and it was absolutely shameful. If a Labour Government had done that, frankly, there would have been an outcry.
My right hon. Friend is right, but these measures were not about that. They were about the Treasury making austerity cuts. We now have a situation where the present Government—who, again, talk in slogans—talk about the biggest cash injection ever. The budget will still be lower in real terms than it was in 2010. The fact is that, like the right hon. Member for New Forest East, I would agree with increasing the defence budget, but we have to recognise how we got to where we are today.
Interestingly, there is clearly some thinking going on in the MOD, because I asked a parliamentary written question last week, which I tend to do, as the Minister knows, on whether the cuts would be reversed. I would have expected to get a reply within days, but last night, I got a holding reply saying that the question of whether the MOD would reverse the decision on reducing the Army to 73,000 personnel could not be answered in the normal timescale, so I suspect that a lot of work is going on in the MOD on that. It has to look at that, because everyone who has spoken in this debate has said that, although we can have enough equipment and the concepts of war, at the end of the day, we need people. That is key.
As Members know, I have always been an advocate for defence and I would argue for more defence spending, but I think that argument will fall on deaf ears a lot if we look at the way that this matter is being managed internally in the MOD. The NAO report is a bit like groundhog day: every year it comes back with a catalogue of delays and overspends. Whatever the Minister says, I am sorry, but he should just read the report. The budget is not in surplus. It misses things out and looks at efficiencies. But it has been like this for the past 10 years, and efficiencies have never been achieved and never will be.
It is important that we use defence expenditure, if we actually get it, to generate capacity in the UK defence industry and ensure that we get the equipment we want. I welcome things like the national shipbuilding strategy, but I am appalled that, even this week, the MOD has given a £10 million contract to a Dutch yard for a vessel that could have been built here. Philip Dunne has done a very good report that says that we should take social value into account when awarding contracts. I have asked the Department and now the National Audit Office to tell me what the formula is for that.
We are buying off the shelf from the United States and others, without any commitment to supporting our native shipbuilding and defence sector. I am one of the people arguing for more on defence, but I want to ensure that there is a proper defence industrial strategy behind it, not only to deliver for our armed forces, but to ensure that we get jobs and prosperity here. I see no evidence of that at the moment.
The last thing I would like to talk about is the nuclear deterrent. As the House knows, I have always been an advocate for our continuous at-sea deterrence, and these times have brought its importance into sharp focus. It will be important for the Department to ensure that the programme not only has finance behind it, but is actually on target. People have talked about the guarantees that Ukraine was given; whatever Putin guarantees is completely worthless, but the one guarantee that we have behind us is the nuclear deterrent. It is important that we maintain it.
These are dark times. We will hear a lot of instant judgments about what is happening in Ukraine, but we cannot have armed forces without people, and we have to invest in those people. It is not just about numbers, but about making sure that we have the right skillsets and that they continue. Frankly, the IR is now redundant and has to be revisited. And can we get away from the slogan “global Britain”? It is a great slogan, but it suggests that we are going to rule the waves and send power around the world. We will not, on our defence budget, and we never will again.
We have to ensure that we invest in what we are good at. It might be unpalatable for some Government Members, but we have to work with our European colleagues in NATO to ensure that we deliver a deterrent effect—I was going to say “on the Soviet Union”, and actually there is not much difference between that and Putin’s ideology and the way he is doing things. We have to ensure that that happens and is done in a coherent way. We have to get away from the rhetoric. Let us have a proper defence budget that is not only in balance, but puts the investment where it counts.
I will break the habit of a lifetime and agree with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, who has just come back into the Chamber: we have to invest in people. We can have all the best equipment in the world, but without the people, the skillsets and the right mix, we will not get a deterrent effect or treat our people right, as they deserve.
It is quite clear that since we ran down our defence establishment following the cold war, events have proved that we need to spend a lot more on defence. One thing about the cold war was that it froze a lot of conflicts in the world, because it involved the two great powers. Since we ran down our defence spending in the 1990s, we have been committed for years and years to several conflicts, firing in some and peacekeeping in others, so there has been a tremendous strain on the military budget over a long period.
The strength and value of our defence establishment is in the leadership, training, tradition and morale of its people. Our services have quite often been deployed with kit that is older or is not that good, but because of the quality of those men and women, they have been able to fulfil their task. What is coming out clearly from this debate is that we need more boots in the military, because that gives us a lot of options.
One thing we know is that while Ukraine has a defence establishment of about 200,000, it has 400,000 veterans in the Donbas, it has militia and volunteers and there are probably several hundred thousand people with Kalashnikovs running around, which is why the Russians are having a terrible problem. Being armed with modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles adds a little bit of edge to that.
I think we need to revisit the integrated defence review, and I think we will need to spend more on defence. If Members disagree with that, they should talk to their constituents, because I think most of our constituents realise that this is one area in which we have to get it right. We need only look at a country where, in blocks of flats, schools and hospitals, children are being killed to realise that our own first duty as a country is to defend our realm—within NATO, but we must also have the ability to do this ourselves, because ultimately it is our responsibility to protect our fellow citizens.
This is, I think, a wake-up call for us, and I am sure that the Government will listen to what people are saying. The only question is whether we end up at 3% quickly or slowly, because I think that that will be the direction of travel. We need new kit, but it is it is clear that unless we increase the defence budget, we will not retain the personnel and secure the equipment that we need to remain a substantial military power. There are items in the review that we were going to do without for a while, such as AWACS—the airborne warning and control system—and I think that that is very short-sighted.
Let me say to the Minister that I think the Ministry of Defence will receive substantial support, from some Opposition Members and certainly from many Conservative Back Benchers, for a review of where we are now and where we are going to go. History does repeat itself. Sometimes we think it will not because no one will be stupid enough to do what people have done before, but we need only look at the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939-40 to see many parallels with what is taking place now.
This country has much to be proud of in its support for Ukraine. I would not particularly like us to be fighting tanks at the moment, because I suspect that we are rather short of anti-tank missiles—I hope the Minister is ordering new ones just in case—but the simple truth is that we need air power, we need more power in the form of ships to support our aircraft carriers, and we need more of our Army personnel.
As I said to my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, people have been training the Ukrainians for seven years, and some 22,000 have now been trained. I am sure they are putting that training to very good use at the moment in fighting for their survival. The British Army, even when it is not fighting, can help our friends by using its skills and abilities to ensure that the military in other countries gain the benefit of our experience. Of course, we have been at the other end of wars, driving along roads when people have shot at us, and we have learned many lessons over the years that we can impart to our friends.
I also think—my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis understands this—that we should take on the lessons about psychological ops, propaganda and putting one’s own side of the story. Communicating with people is very important, and the Ukrainians, whatever their military skills, have the support of the world because they were quick to do that. The Russians may be just a Soviet tribute act, but they are behaving in exactly the way the Soviets would have behaved, spreading disinformation and not being honest with people. I have been amazed at the bravery of ordinary Russian citizens who, although they do not get the full truth from their media, have been willing to demonstrate and to be arrested and beaten. I wonder how I would behave if, living in Moscow or St Petersburg, I opposed an invasion. Would I be brave enough, or would my family be brave enough, to demonstrate in the same way? People show courage in tremendously different ways. You can be brave on the battlefield, but not quite so brave when you think you are going to be beaten over the head by a policeman or chucked into jail.
I think that the direction of travel in defence has to be more resources. We have to look at the integrated defence review. There will be a great deal of support from Conservative Members for moving from 2%—however the figures were added up—towards 3% or more. As a rich nation we can afford to do that, and I think we would be foolish not to do it, because at the end of the day everything else is trivial if people are in the situation that the Ukrainians are in.
I want to start the wind-ups at 6.30 pm, and I have four speakers left. That means that I will have to reduce the time limit to five minutes per speaker.
I will try to be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was struck by a letter in The Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago from Lieutenant General Sir James Bucknall. It is short, and it should be required reading for all Members. His final paragraph ends with the line:
“There needs to be an honest, unvarnished appraisal of our current capabilities.”
As has already been said by my right hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart, plans do not survive first contact, and in these instances we need to review them, and to do so at pace.
There are just four points that would like to make in this debate, because I suspect that all the other points I would have made have already been made far more articulately and far better than I could have made them. The first is on recruitment, which my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer mentioned. It is extraordinary that the stats for the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army are all higher. In the 12 months running up to
As I said earlier in my intervention on my hon. Friend, the concern I have is about outflow and retention. Even the briefing document we were given for this debate talks about the fact that there is a problem with staffing and retention in the Defence Nuclear Organisation, and it is not just limited to that area. It also occurs in the Army and the Air Force, and in some of the places where we really want to have our staff because there is a national security need for it. This needs to be addressed immediately, and I hope that the Government will be able to give some clarity in their summing up.
On housing, a number of Members have touched on the idea that we must ensure that our armed forces personnel are given the best services and that they have the equipment they need. That point also stands for their families and for the housing and accommodation they are given. I am proud that I have the Britannia Royal Navy College in my constituency, as Private Stone said earlier, but we occasionally have a problem there when we find it difficult to staff people who are coming down to train future recruits, and to put them into suitable housing within the vicinity. We have been fortunate in that we have always managed to get through those difficult situations, but the problem is going to become greater, because house prices in coastal areas such as mine are shooting through the roof. I respectfully ask the Minister to refer to some points on housing for armed forces personnel, because this is going to come up time and again.
I think I have been very clear in my time in this place about my support for international development and the aid budget. One of the things that came up when we were having the debate around foreign aid was whether we should look at certain reforms, and if we return to 0.7%, I would really like us to look at ways in which some of that money could be spent through the Ministry of Defence to support our armed forces to undertake humanitarian missions. There is real value in those sorts of things—
The right hon. Gentleman is shaking his head. Fine, but I think there is real value in having the ability to unilaterally send in humanitarian forces using our defence budget.
The last point I would like to make is that our military academies have extraordinary export value. We attract an enormous number of foreign students who come through them and pass out, and we should cultivate that further. I am particularly pleased that the current captain of the Britannia Royal Navy College, Captain Roger Readwin, has done a fantastic job in attracting cadets from all over the world to pass through this historic college. More of that would not only give us the ability to learn from other countries but ensure that we strengthened our defence relationships with countries around the world.
Mr Jones says that he does not like slogans. Well, I like “global Britain”, but I think it needs to be fleshed out. If we are going to talk about global Britain, we have to prove it in the things that we do. I have said before that this is about the four pillars of trade, defence, diplomacy and development. If we can ensure that our defence is linked with other countries around the world and that we can help to train people in this country, that will send a strong, positive message and provide us with armed forces that are able to respond to some of the problems we are facing. The fragility of the world is more apparent than ever. If we are to play a part in global Britain and if that is to have real meaning, we must adapt as well as update.
I would be inept if I did not praise our Ukrainian friends and allies who are fighting with such courage against such appalling odds with little more than the kit we have given them and their training. It really is awe-inspiring and humbling to see what is being done by them, their population and their President, who spoke so movingly in this Chamber.
I thank the members of the Defence Committee, on which I sit. They all do a fantastic job, including the right hon. Members for Warley (John Spellar) and for North Durham (Mr Jones), who are passionate about the defence of our country and ensuring it is properly paid for.
I also praise the Minister, with whom I have had many dealings. He is an honourable man of great integrity, and he wants to do the best he can for our armed forces. I hope he will take everything we have said back to his boss.
In 1981 or 1982, when I was a soldier, I was taken on a top-secret mission to be shown where we would fight the Russians if they came west. When I asked the general in charge how long we would have to live, he said, “On the moment of contact, when the artillery falls on your position, you have about 40 seconds.” I thought, “Well, that’s time to say a few prayers, and that will be it.” We all felt it was surreal. Yes, we were professional soldiers, but to us it was a day out and it could not possibly happen, could it?
Forty years later, we face an aggressive Russian bear that is taking on a democratic country, taking it over and subjugating it. Like many colleagues and many people to whom I have spoken, I fear Russia will not stop there. Mr Putin’s dream is to have the Soviet Union back in its original shape. My fear is that he will next go south to the non-NATO countries, based on the fact we have done nothing militarily, except to offer military help, following the invasion of Ukraine.
I am not saying that we should get involved in Ukraine. I think we have adopted the right stance. Obviously, as I have said before, if Russia takes one step into a NATO country, we will have to fight, but with what? The cupboard is threadbare, in my humble opinion. I have sat on the Defence Committee, and I served my Queen and country for nine years, so I know what has happened to our armed forces.
I am particularly concerned about the Army. Jamie Stone mentioned my esteemed grandfather Admiral Drax, who sadly passed away many years ago. If he were alive today, I am sure he would be in this Chamber right now, or being kept out by force, to tell the Minister that the Royal Navy—the senior service, as my grandfather and father, who also served in the Royal Navy, always called it—needs more ships and more equipment, and all the rest. I absolutely concur.
The evidence I receive from those serving in the Army, including many sons of friends, is that the battalions have been hollowed out to save cap badges, because it would be politically embarrassing if we again saw regiments amalgamating or disappearing. This would be quite unacceptable if, God forbid, the Russian bear puts a foot into a NATO country and our young men and women are sent to fight in perhaps not a world war but certainly a huge war in Europe. A full, properly manned battalion represents years of history, fighting and experience. Hollowing out the battalions now for political expediency is totally unacceptable.
When I joined my battalion in Bahrain in 1969, it was 750 strong. When I commanded it in 1991, it was 525. It is now less than that, but it is still called a battalion.
Absolutely, my right hon. Friend makes my point.
Before I sit down, may I just refer to my hon. Friend John Howell, who touched on tanks? It is worth pointing out that we must not be fooled about them. One hears that they are a thing of the past and they are vulnerable to anti-tank missiles and so forth—to the Ukrainians’ great credit, they are showing that. However, one has to remember that the Ukrainians are in a defensive position, in trenches, fighting a defensive battle against armour that is coming at them. Fortunately, the Russians are proving themselves to be inept in using their armour, which is vulnerable to this sort of defence. But where the tank is vital and will still be needed, despite the fact that I understand that we have only two such regiments left, is if we have an offensive operation or if defence requires an offensive element. We will then need an armoured vehicle with a big gun to hold ground. Helicopters and drones cannot do that, but a tank can. All I would say is: don’t forget the poor old tank. It still has a place on the battlefield, although I quite accept that warfare is changing. Let me make a final point to the Minister. Mention has been made of the Special Boat Service and its aquatic centre. These are our special forces, they want a proper aquatics centre, so can they please have one?
It is a pleasure to rise to speak in this debate. I have been nearly five years in this place, and every six months or so—periodically at least—we come together to discuss defence. Usually, it is the same old voices and the same points being made, and we all go away saying, “It is good to hear a unified Chamber all speaking as one asking for more to be spent on defence and for more interest to be shown in the defence community or the armed forces in general.” Undoubtedly, we would hear a polite and eloquent response from the Minister at the Dispatch Box—I am expecting no less from today’s Minister—espousing the great extent to which the UK Government were investing more in the armed forces and where it was being spent. The difference today is that we are conducting this debate at a time when images are being shown on our television screens of events happening in Europe now that we thought we would be witnessing only in history books or documentaries—a Europe of 1942, not of 2022. That puts this debate into context. We are talking about defence spending and the estimates, so the debate gives us the chance to interrogate the MOD’s expenditure and to look at wider defence spending. As I was mentioning those on the Treasury Bench, I must pay tribute to the excellent work that Ministers, specifically those in this Department, have been doing over the past few weeks, keeping us all informed, carrying the message to the British public about what we are doing to support the Ukrainian people and ensuring that the Ukrainian armed forces got the training and the equipment that they need to stop Russia and to stop Vladimir Putin doing what he is doing.
I wish to make two points. The first is on the continual debate about percentage spending. We should always remember that 2% is the minimum we are expected to spend on defence by NATO. We now need to look very much at what that 2% is. What does the 2% mean when it comes to UK defence spending? A 2016 report by the Defence Committee called “Shifting the goalposts?” showed that now the 2% includes war pensions, contributions to United Nations peacekeeping, pensions for retired civilian MOD personnel and MOD income, among other things. Fair enough, if that is to be included in defence spending, that is to be included in defence spending, but we should not for one minute assume that if we are saying we are spending 2% of GDP on defence, it is being spent on defence equipment or on personnel; it now covers a far bigger, wider range of things than it used to when we were calculating what we were contributing to the overall NATO budget.
The report also said:
“The 2% pledge, while necessary, may not be sufficient. We believe that the focus should not be merely on a headline figure, but on whether this expenditure can possibly provide a sound defence for the UK.”
Never has that been more true than today, given what we are witnessing in Europe. As has been said time and time again, mass still matters. When the integrated review was published last year, I welcomed much of it. I think we do need to invest in cyber and psy-ops—psychological operations—and we need to spend more on the Royal Navy, in a period when our need to be in charge of the seas, to protect freedom of navigation, especially in the South China sea, with our allies over there, is very important. But it is absolutely true that, as so many Members have said today, a plan survives only until first contact with the enemy. We must now look at the assumptions made in the integrated review, because they are simply out of date. I am not saying we should review the review—goodness me, we all know how much time and effort is taken by defence reviews in general—but it is essential that we look at what we are currently doing and at where we will spend money in the near future.
It is simply inconceivable that we are about to reduce the size of our Army by 10,000 personnel. At a time when allies of ours are being invaded by an aggressive foe, it is simply untenable for us to send the signal that we are reducing the size of our armed forces. That has to be looked at again. I echo the words of so many of my colleagues when I say that we really must increase spending on defence. Defence is not a luxury item, a “might have” or an addition; it is essential to who we are and what we deliver for our allies around the world. We do deliver for our allies around the world, but we need to ensure that we do so in the most efficient manner possible.
As we have heard time and again today, we need to spend more on defence. This really could not be a graver time for the world. I do not think any of us in the House imagined that we would be in such a position, discussing this issue in these circumstances. Sadly, I think our armed forces are going to have a lot more to do over the coming years so we need to make sure that we fund and equip them appropriately. As a House we need properly and diligently to shoulder that massive responsibility.
One thing on which people have not yet focused very much but which I fear will be very much the focus of discussion in the coming years is just how difficult an economic situation the world is going to be in. Because of the sanctions and everything that has been going on in respect of our not wanting to engage with Russia and its exports of energy, materials and agricultural products, there is going to be massive food-price inflation throughout the world and in some of the world’s poorest areas, including the middle east, central Asia and north Africa. I am afraid that will almost certainly cause grave circumstances for the people who live in those areas, meaning we will be called on to help in all sorts of different ways, including from a humanitarian point of view and from a climate point of view. There will undoubtedly be lots of disputes and arguments about such matters over the coming years. We need to be clear-eyed about the economic damage that is going to be done to the world and to our economy because of this situation. As a result, we need to look at absolute numbers in respect of what we need to invest in defence to achieve the things we want to achieve: we must not be hung up on a particular percentage-of-GDP target, because that is going to be a moving feast and I think we will, unfortunately, be in a fairly major recession before too long.
I wish to focus on one procurement issue that, in the context I have set out, we need to accelerate: the procurement of the medium-lift helicopter requirement that was identified in the defence review. It has been put out to competition, but the context has changed—we are not in Kansas anymore—and we need to accelerate the procurement process and demonstrate to the world how the UK can procure in a more agile and nimble way than it has done in the past. In particular, if we want to get the helicopters into service by 2024, and given the various stresses on global supply chains, it makes sense to get a decision as soon as possible.
May I quickly make the point that competition is still important, because experience has shown us that, when there been no competition, we have ended up with poor procurement?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it is also important that that happens in a timely fashion. A capable machine is proposed to be made in my constituency. Leonardo’s AW149 is not only the best helicopter for the military purpose, but the best in terms of delivering jobs and delivering on that strategic asset that we have in the UK, through Leonardo’s facilities in Yeovil, for end-to-end helicopter production. It is also the only candidate for that requirement, which will deliver exports and jobs into the future. We do need to get that done as soon as possible and to support our people with the best possible equipment.
I wish to thank John Spellar for securing this debate. It is an important debate, focusing as it does on the state’s ability to defend the people of these islands, albeit under the current constitutional arrangements. Sovereignty is the precious prize that elevates countries from the ignominy of sub-state status. We see the value of that with the brave actions of Ukrainians, fighting with everything at their disposal to protect their sovereignty, their independence and the freedom of their people, and all power to them in that battle.
Value in defence terms can be for some an abstract concept, especially in times of prolonged peace at home, but in so far as that has generally been the case for the past 75 years, we should wake from that complacency now, as democracy fights for its very survival in the cities of Ukraine. We see in that conflict the criticality of having the right equipment at the right time in the right place. That necessarily turns the spotlight on the institutionally incompetent defence procurement dynamic with which the UK is encumbered. Even the Treasury does not trust the Ministry of Defence to manage its finances effectively, and categorises it in the third quartile of Government Departments for financial management and capability. I can only assume, therefore, that there is nobody in the fourth quartile.
Any one of the MOD’s headline failures would represent a multi-billion pound betrayal of the taxpayer, but the Ministry of Defence has a veritable conveyor belt of these debacles, from Nimrod to Chinook, through Warrior to Ajax. There will be a lot more said about Ajax tomorrow, but it really takes the biscuit in terms of absolute dysfunctional defence procurement. Creative accounting with rose-tinted projections, which plan for undetermined savings to accrue to the MOD’s balance sheet at some unspecified point in the future, is the culture that manifests claims that we will see the plan come in £4.3 billion under budget—no detail, no plan.
The National Audit Office report on the equipment plan states that the MOD has been
“over-optimistic in their assumptions…of targeted savings” and has identified a number of costs savings that have no plan as to how they will be achieved—£4.2 billion of extra spending that the MOD has not included. The MOD’s own Cost Assurance and Analysis Service produced an independent assessment of the cost of projects making up 58% of the plan’s costs this year and concluded that they are likely to cost £7.6 billion more than projected.
It is expected that the Dreadnought programme—the largest one in the plan—which is already delayed by six years, will cost an additional £2.6 billion. Early business cases for the new medium-lift helicopter and Future Commando Force show that those programmes are currently underfunded. In the case of the new medium-lift helicopter, Industry primes are currently waiting for the MOD to behave like a procurement organisation that has a clue about what it wants, or even when it wants it—but that is in vain. Despite the taxpayers’ large budget increase to the Ministry of Defence, the equipment plan will go over budget in the next few years of the plan. Ministers are fooling nobody when they discuss how they will make savings somewhere, somehow, over the next 10 years.
On personnel, currently the Army’s target strength will be cut from 82,000 to 73,000 by March 2025, and other top-level budgets must make savings by 2030 equivalent to reducing their count by 6,350, while the cost of the MOD’s civilian workforce needs to be lowered by 10% by March 2025. That finger-in-the-air cost cutting is consistent with neither basic resource management principles, nor the new threat environment faced by the west. The Department’s financial plans once again assume further unspecified workforce cuts of £2.5 billion by 2030, but it has not yet announced how it intends to achieve that, and that almost certainly does not take into account inflationary pressures on either pay or costs of remaining staff.
Armed forces housing is in a shocking state, as other right hon. and hon. Members have stated. Of the armed forces members inhabiting single accommodation blocks, just under half are satisfied with their accommodation and 36% live in poorer-grade accommodation. Despite that, the MOD has failed to invest in adequate housing, and the NAO described its planned investments as not sufficient even to prevent further deterioration in the estate, much less to improve conditions for personnel. If the MOD truly wishes to make the Army smaller but more efficient, it needs to invest in making it a more attractive destination for potential recruits, and shabby accommodation is not a particularly good place to start.
Scotland currently has 2,000 fewer soldiers stationed there than we could expect given our population share, which is doubtless a function of the recruitment issues facing the Army. The range of causal factors is not limited to accommodation, but includes remuneration. Scotland’s progressive tax system mitigates that to some extent, with rank and file often paying less tax in Scotland, while those who live off estate in Scotland pay less council tax on average, and of course they all benefit from free prescriptions.
The financial chaos leading to flip-flopping on base closures and disposals, selling off land at RM Condor in my Angus constituency and then back-pedalling on that, is not helpful either. What is the future for Redford barracks, Fort George and HMS Caledonia, and how long will the MOD stick with today’s vague disposal plans? This culture leaves communities reeling from uncertainty and saving plans that are volatile and not credible.
Scotland has 32% of the UK’s landmass and 63% of its maritime area, yet only 7% of the defence personnel, and no surface warships are stationed in Scotland. That means that when Russia comes knocking on Scotland’s door, the Royal Navy is busy at the other end of this island and takes fully a day to engage.
I have been containing myself during the hon. Gentleman’s speech, because I know there are other contributions to get through before I have my own go, but I cannot let him say what he has just said about the Royal Navy. It is there to protect the whole of the United Kingdom and our interests overseas. We have a huge commitment to the High North going on as I speak. We will also have the whole of our submarine fleet based in Scotland in the future, including our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, which is so vital to our interests right now.
There is a lot of chest-beating about the nuclear deterrent, but much less discussion about the cost of it. We have heard from hon. and gallant Members how much they would like to see numbers in the Army go up, but they do not talk so much about the cost of the Defence Nuclear Organisation, which is 50% higher than that of the next department, the Army. They are not so focused on that cost. Incidentally, I note the Minister in his intervention did not point out which surface warships there are in Scotland, because there are none.
That is not a surface ship. The UK’s breakneck pivot away from the European domain has been dramatically overtaken by recent events in Ukraine. The mercifully long period of relative stability in Europe is under threat in a way not seen since the war, so it is clearer than ever that the top defence priority on these islands is, and must always be, ensuring peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, as we on the SNP Benches have long argued. The MOD must re-profile its equipment plan, troop numbers and finances accordingly. In conclusion, this debate affords an excellent and very necessary opportunity for Ministers to reformulate the MOD’s finances, the force numbers and the equipment plan.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. There are breaking media reports of a Russian artillery strike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol, which unfortunately has resulted in a large number of casualties. I understand that the Prime Minister has condemned this as depraved. Bearing in mind the subject that we are debating, if anything that has only focused our minds. This is a tragedy that should be condemned by the whole House.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As I am sure he realises, it is not a matter for the Chair, but he has put his point on the record.
I thank Mr Francois for raising that point of order. If anything proves the heartlessness of Vladimir Putin, it is that news. I join the Prime Minister, as I am sure everyone in the House does, in condemning that action.
I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend John Spellar for opening this timely debate. Like him, I wish the Chair of the Defence Committee a speedy recovery from his minor operation. In this debate we have also witnessed the unique sight of my right hon. Friend Mr Jones finally finding some common ground with Johnny Mercer—those of us who know both of them will know that that is an amazing sight. Both spoke of how spending decisions affect the morale of our troops.
The management of MOD spending, our equipment and the numbers of our armed forces are always important, but in the current international climate there is no room for mis-steps. The Government must respond to the threats to the UK and to European security that a Russian invasion in Europe poses. Just as Labour reassessed defence spending after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers, we expect the Government to bring forward a budget boost when the Chancellor comes to the House in exactly two weeks’ time.
Other European allies have already made this move. In the light of Russia’s invasion, Germany has announced an increase in its defence spending, including a €100 billion fund to upgrade its armed forces. Denmark also announced at the beginning of the week that it will significantly increase its defence budget. I welcome these announcements. European countries have been quick to respond to Russia’s actions, recognising that they threaten the security of Europe. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley mentioned, Germany’s recent decisions have reversed defence and foreign policy positions that have been held for decades. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as
“a turning point in the history of our continent” and made it clear that, in order to ensure the freedom and democracy of Europe, an increase in defence spending is needed.
I want to be clear that if the Government act to increase defence spending in the next Budget, they will have Labour’s full support in doing so.
I was in the House when the shadow Secretary of State made that announcement during the Defence Secretary’s statement earlier today. If we are to move the dial on defence spending, we need the support of both sides of the House. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that when the official Opposition ask for that increase in defence spending, it will not be just a one-off? It has to match our interests’ requirements, but it has to be sustainable.
I think the hon. Gentleman has just written my speech for me. If he will allow me, I will develop that argument further.
Any increase in defence spending would benefit the UK economy. If done well, taxpayers’ money can be spent in a way that enables more apprenticeships, the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises, and for the UK to be a world leader in design, innovation and engineering. However, mismanagement and delays of contracts, or contracts being awarded to foreign companies, will damage the UK defence sector. Unfortunately at present, public money is not being used in a way that brings the most benefit to the UK. Without steady investment and supply of contracts, British shipyards, British aerospace and, ultimately, British jobs will suffer.
When I speak with industry representatives, they tell me they want fairness, not favours; all they ask for is a level playing field. UK bids are competing in a race to the bottom with international companies that enjoy state backing. The feast and famine cycles of defence contracts leave British companies unable to prepare, or to sustain investment in apprenticeships and jobs over a long period of time. If these companies suffer, we lose our domestic defence manufacturing sector.
Labour supports the UK defence industry, which is why we believe in a “British built by default” approach to defence procurement. Our shipyards and our steel industry are national assets, and we need to see a clear plan from the Government on how we enhance these capabilities.
Concerns have been raised by the National Audit Office, the Defence Committee and the Public Accounts Committee about the running of the MOD. Now more than ever, at a time when European security is most under threat, Ministers must ensure that the deep-rooted problems in the MOD are urgently addressed. As the NAO suggests, the Government’s new equipment plan still fails to ensure that our armed forces will get all the equipment they need. Sadly, value for money for the British taxpayer is not being guaranteed. Then, of course, there is the Ajax-shaped hole at the heart of the British Army’s future, which I am sure we will hear more about in the coming days.
In 2020, Labour welcomed the Government’s extra £16.5 billion investment in defence spending, with more scope for high-tech research and development, but the Government’s plan only papers over the cracks in the MOD’s budget. Too much of that new money will be swallowed up by the MOD’s budget black hole. The National Audit Office also states that too little has been done to reform the MOD’s controls in order to deliver this plan on time and on budget. There is also no plan to deal with massive MOD waste, despite at least £13 billion of taxpayers’ money being wasted through MOD mismanagement or misjudgment since 2010, with £4 billion wasted in the past couple of years alone while the present Defence Secretary has been in post. Unfortunately, it all points to the conclusion that the MOD is a uniquely failing Department.
If wasted expenditure had been avoided or reduced, funding would have been available to strengthen the UK’s armed forces. There would have been no need for the cuts to troops, planes, ships and equipment forced by financial pressures. For example, in last year’s integrated review, the Government cut main battle tank numbers by a third. Restoring the Challenger fleet to full strength would cost an estimated £430 million, equivalent to the money wasted by the MOD.
As ever, I am listening closely to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and we believe the £4 billion figure is wholly spurious. I seem to recall that, when we cut assets, the document called it waste, and when we invested in assets, that was also waste. It is a very odd document.
I am very pleased and quite proud that the Minister has looked into that document so well—it shows his due diligence. However, many of the figures in the waste dossier he refers to came from the National Audit Office’s figures. I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee for five years, and sat through many of those uncomfortable hearings with Defence civil servants. It is not just land capabilities that have suffered: last year’s defence Command Paper announced that the entire fleet of Hercules aircraft would be scrapped. At a cost of about £150 million per aircraft, the fleet of 14 would have cost £2.1 billion, comparable to the amount of money that the MOD has wasted on write-offs since 2010.
I am sure Government Members will ask, “What would Labour do differently?” In Government, we would commission the NAO to conduct an across-the-board audit of MOD waste. We would also make the MOD the first Department subject to our proposed office of value for money, with a tough regime on spending decisions. The Public Accounts Committee concluded last year that the MOD’s procurement system is “broken” and “repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money”—those are the independent Public Accounts Committee’s words, not mine. With any spending announcement on defence, a similar announcement must be made outlining the methods for tackling waste.
As the Minister refers to, Labour’s dossier on waste in the MOD between 2010 and 2021 found 67 officially confirmed cases of waste, the cost of which could have been reduced by better management. All defence projects carry a degree of financial waste, but the level of waste in the MOD goes far beyond this. Some examples that Labour has uncovered are simply embarrassing, such as £64 million wasted on admin errors. When waste on this scale is occurring alongside cuts to our armed forces and cancellations of, or reductions to, armed vehicle projects, Ministers must ensure the chronic mismanagement within the MOD is immediately addressed. Can the Minister guarantee that our troops will get the right kit when and where they need it, and does he accept that defence spending plans are forcing further cuts to our personnel?
Given the threat that Europe now faces from Vladimir Putin’s aggressive regime, it is clear we must do all we can to halt the cuts to our armed forces. Now is the time to reassess our defence spending. We must ensure that our armed forces have the equipment they need, when they need it. We must build a strong defence industry and use public money effectively. We must respond to the new threats in Europe. Labour stands ready to support an increase in defence spending, support our NATO allies, and—above all—support the brave men and women who are serving in our armed forces.
It has been a fascinating debate, ably kicked off by the Deputy Chairman of the Defence Committee, John Spellar. He, like so many of the Labour contributors to this debate, is part of the respectable wing of his party. It is, I think, a great relief to the country that we have my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson as our Prime Minister at this time, rather than the proposition presented to us by the Labour party at the last election. The leadership he is showing in these difficult circumstances is exemplary.
This has been a fabulous debate, and it is a sadness to me that the time allocated is in no way sufficient to reflect the passion of the contributions and their quality, the huge admiration we have for our serving personnel, or the vital importance of what my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, referred to as this critical insurance premium for our country.
As my hon. Friend Andrew Bowie said, and as my right hon. Friend Mr Francois referred to so poignantly in his point of order, it is so shocking that we are debating these issues while war rages in our own continent—that ghastly barbarity to which my right hon. Friend alluded.
Like so many speakers this afternoon, I pay tribute to the extraordinary defence of their country that has been mounted by the Ukrainian forces and civilians. Last summer, I was privileged to attend the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s freedom celebrations and saw President Zelensky among his own people. I would never have imagined then the emotional scenes we saw yesterday in this House. As the integrated review recognised almost a year ago, the view that post the Berlin wall coming down we would enjoy a perpetual peace dividend could not and should not be assumed. Old aggressors have been reanimated and new dangers have arisen, requiring a forward-leaning and agile armed forces. We need to be prepared to defend and deter threats emanating from Russia and from states that violate international law in such reprehensible and egregious ways.
We have seen in Mariupol today what the Russians are truly capable of. We must now deter further adventurism. On that point, will the Minister conduct an urgent review of the operational availability of all our equipment? Where things need to be brought up to scratch quickly, will he issue urgent operational requirements—UORs; he knows what I am talking about—to do whatever we need to do to have all our equipment on top line, should we need it, and can we start with Type 45?
I reassure my right hon. Friend that we are absolutely focused on making certain that we have proper operational availability. On Type 45, as he may be aware, Dauntless has come out of the power improvement project and is now on sea trials. Daring has gone into Cammell Laird. We are looking at ways we can advance that process, but I would say that we have two Type 45s out on station doing their job even as I speak.
As the integrated review and defence Command Paper set out a year ago, Russia poses
“the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security.”
The IR also emphasised the need to strengthen NATO, which is critical to preserving our security and prosperity in the Euro-Atlantic area.
I thank my very good friend the Minister for allowing me to intervene on him. The point is that the IR is broken. We clearly need more people in our armed forces, particularly in the infantry. If there is a message from the House, which seems to be in agreement, it is that we need to spend more on defence—up to 3%—and to reverse the cuts, before it is too late, to the infantry. I declare my interest as an ex-Mercian Regiment officer.
I recognise what my right hon. and gallant Friend says and his particular interest in the 2nd Battalion the Mercians. I will not repeat everything that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary said in his statement today, but I ask him to bear in mind what we have done over the past two weeks to show our commitment from the eastern Mediterranean, to the high north, to Estonia. By land, sea and air, we have proved our ability to act fast to maintain deterrence alongside our NATO partners.
To reassure my hon. Friend Sir Robert Syms, one aspect of the IR was the importance of continuing to train and look after the forces of other friendly nations outside of NATO. He is absolutely right that 22,000 Ukrainian troops are defending their nation now, having had the benefit of training with the British armed forces. As the House knows, we have continued to provide defensive weapons to their support. In reference to the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, having defence assets is one aspect, but as he rightly alluded to, having intelligence to inform our actions and showing leadership are the multipliers that enable us to play an even greater role within our alliances, of which our support to Ukraine is a prime example.
We are aware of that growing threat. This Government provided defence with a four-year settlement and a £24 billion increase in the defence budget. That money, which takes the annual defence budget to more than £47 billion for 2022-23 and our equipment plan to more than £238 billion over 10 years, enables us to modernise and improve the defence enterprise. The International Institute for Strategic Studies independently confirmed that the UK maintained its position as the second largest defence spender in NATO and the largest defence spender in Europe.
Consequently, to reassure Jamie Stone and his Carl Gustaf, in the coming years, the Royal Navy will have new ships as our fleet increases beyond the 19 frigates and destroyers that we already have, with the steel cut for our first Type 31 frigate, HMS Venturer; HMS Glasgow in build on the Clyde; and consideration already beginning of the Type 32s. That will be underpinned by the doubling of investment in the shipbuilding sector over the life of this Parliament to more than £1.7 billion a year.
To the point made by my hon. Friend John Howell, we are continuing to invest in the RAF and particularly in cutting-edge capabilities such as the European common radar system mark 2, which is a fantastic radar system, to meet the operational threats of the future. We are also investing more than £2 billion over the next four years in the sixth generation future combat air system.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly given hon. Members’ comments, the Army is receiving significant investment. It may be leaner but it is more agile and will have greater lethality. We are modernising the Challenger main battle tank; my hon. Friend Richard Drax is absolutely right that there is a role for tanks on the battlefield of the future and we recognise that. There will be 50 new Apache attack helicopters on top of the investment of more than £3 billion over the next decade in the accelerated procurement of Boxer to help to modernise our fleet and ensure that our Army is better integrated with its NATO allies.
We have established the National Cyber Force. We are spending an additional £1.4 billion over the next decade on space. If anyone believes that investing in those new domains is discretionary, it is not: only last November, in an act of dangerous irresponsibility, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile. We all know how much we depend on space and space intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Critically, thanks to our defence Command Paper, we have reversed a long decline in research and development expenditure, which has been ongoing since 1989, with £6.6 billion ringfenced for R&D over the next four years. On procurement, I know that hon. Members support the Government’s commitment to maintaining the nuclear deterrent, as shown by the overwhelming majority of this House who voted to renew it in July 2016.
We remain the leading European NATO ally, clearly exceeding our 2% of GDP defence spending target. We will ensure that the extra £24 billion that we have to invest in defence is spent wisely and appropriately. We will also ensure that, as we made clear in the IR, with that £24 billion of extra investment in defence, we will have the armed forces that we require to deter and defend. We are equally determined that our defence investment continues to match the threat of the future. I commend these estimates to the House.
With the leave of the House, tonight the Minister has heard a clear message. The peace not only of Ukraine but of Europe and the wider world is under threat and we must restate our commitment to our collective security through NATO backed by our nuclear capability. We must also have a reset of our plans and budget; our defence procurement process; and our doctrine, intelligence and messaging. I hope that that message has been heard loud and clear not only by the Minister but by the Treasury. The first test of that will be in the Budget debate at the end of the month. Can the Minister convey that message clearly to the Chancellor?
Question deferred (
The Deputy Speaker put the deferred Questions (