Size of Armed Forces

Defence – in the House of Commons on 26 June 2023.

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Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

What steps he is taking to end the hollowing out of the armed forces.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

The Government have injected more than £29 billion of additional funding into defence since 2020, investing in Army modernisation, major platforms such as Type 26, Type 31, Challenger 3 and F-35, and restocking of ammunition to ensure that we reversed the hollowing out of our armed forces that has occurred under successive Governments for the past 30 years.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but only recently the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe said that Britain is “just holding on” to its status as one of NATO’s leading members and that our Army is “too small”. A former Chief of the Defence Staff said that all of our armed forces are too small, with the Army having “significant capability deficiencies”. The Government are failing our forces, are they not?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

It is interesting, because of course it was Labour that cut 19 battalions from the Army when I was serving under the hon. Member’s Government. What is important is not just that the Army is the right size but that it is an Army that is properly equipped and able to do its job. Having just numbers and non-equipment leads to the place where we had Snatch Land Rovers in Afghanistan under her Government.

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

I endorse the words of my Defence Committee colleague, Mrs Lewell-Buck. The Secretary of State himself has used the words

“the hollowing out of our Armed Forces”.

Today, the Head of the Army said at the Royal United Services Institute’s land warfare conference that our world is heading back into the 1930s with growing threats. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Treasury’s argument for increasing Defence spending to 2.5% of GDP when the economics improve is not only naive but illogical, because our economy and our national security are one and the same thing? We need to invest in our Army, Air Force and Navy now, not when Britain’s economy improves.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about levels of Defence spending. First, spend on the Army is 20% higher since I started as Defence Secretary, and I have made sure that a greater proportion of that spend is on catching up and modernising the armed forces, which had been neglected all the way back to Afghanistan and Iraq, where we were spending money on urgent operational requirements rather than the core budget to modernise that equipment.

On my right hon. Friend’s point about the Treasury, it has accepted—the Chancellor did so at the Dispatch Box—that Defence will require a greater share of public spending. Part of the big challenge is recognition across Government and in Whitehall that the culture has changed, with Defence requiring a greater proportion of spend if it is to defend these shores and indeed our people. That is how it used to be. I am confident that the Prime Minister’s support for 2.5% and the Chancellor’s position puts us on the right path, and of course that could not be needed quicker.

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

In January, the Defence Secretary admitted that his Government have “hollowed out and underfunded” our armed forces and, in the past week, a string of senior military figures have agreed. NATO’s second-in-command said that the British Army is “too small”, a former Chief of the Defence Staff said

The Army is now too weak”,

and another ex-CDS said:

“The hollowing out of warfighting resilience within the Armed Forces has been the single most obvious shortfall…since 2010”.

Will the Defence Secretary halt this hollowing out in his new Defence Command Paper? Will it be published this month, as he has promised?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Time and again the right hon. Gentleman comes to this House knowing full well that my statements on hollowing out are not about this Government but about successive Governments for the past 30 years. Mr Speaker, I ask you to look at that statement, because it verges on misleading the House. The right hon. Gentleman knows that is a fact; I have consistently pointed out that that is not the case, but he continues to use it in this House.

We have started to reverse through an increase of £29 billion in the core funding of the armed forces. Whatever I have done with that new money, I have made sure that it is there to properly equip and support all the people of the armed forces. There is no point playing a numbers game when men and women could be sent to the frontline without the right equipment. All we see from the Opposition is a numbers game with no money attached.

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

I have the Secretary of State’s exact words here. After inviting me to get Labour’s shortcomings off my chest, he said:

“I am happy to say that we have hollowed out and underfunded.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2023;
Vol. 727, c. 18.]

He boasts about being the longest serving Tory Defence Secretary, but in four years he has failed to halt that hollowing out; he has failed to fix the broken procurement system; he has failed to win fresh funding this year, even to cover inflation; and he has failed to stop service morale reaching record lows. Does he not find it a national embarrassment for Britain to go to next month’s NATO summit as one of only five NATO nations that has not rebooted defence plans since President Putin invaded Ukraine?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

On that quote, I asked if he would admit that Labour had hollowed out during its term of office. How convenient it is to forget that the whole point is that, in the 30 years following the cold war, successive Governments pushed defence to the side and not to the centre. He talks about my defence record; let us look at defence procurement, since he is fond of coming to the Dispatch Box about that. In 2009 under Labour, 15% of armed forces projects were over cost and the average delay was 28%. Now, 4% are over cost and 15% of each project is delayed. We cut the bureaucracy in Defence Equipment and Support from over 27,000 to 11,400. That is value for money. At the same time, we have a real increase in the defence budget and we have injected £29 billion of additional funding.