UK Armed Forces

– in the House of Commons at 3:36 pm on 11 March 2024.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 3:36, 11 March 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement on the state of the UK armed forces.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

It is an honour to set out how our outstanding armed forces are doing incredible work around the world, protecting the UK and our allies. That includes operating on every single NATO mission, supporting Ukraine against Putin’s aggression, and tackling Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red sea. We are spending a record amount on defence. That includes an extra £24 billion in cash terms between 2020 and 2025, which is the largest sustained increase since the end of the cold war. The Government fully recognise the growing security threat, which is why we have set out our longer term aspiration to invest 2.5% of GDP on defence when fiscal and economic circumstances allow. We are already spending more than 2% of GDP on defence, exceeding our NATO target. We are delivering the capabilities that our forces need, significantly increasing spending on defence equipment to £288.6 billion over the next decade, and introducing a new procurement model to improve acquisition.

For the Royal Navy, that includes Dreadnought, Astute and AUKUS submarines, as well as fleet solid support ships Type 26 and Type 21 frigates. For the Army, Future Soldier will deliver the largest transformation in more than 20 years, re-equipping and re-organising to be more deployable and lethal. The RAF will become an increasingly digitally empowered force, with the Global Combat Air Programme providing a sixth-generation fighter jet capability, building on that provided by our Typhoons and F-35 fifth-generation aircraft today. Our Defence Command Paper 2023 set out our plan to deliver a credible war fighting force, generated and employed to protect the nation and help it prosper now and in the years to come. We will embody a fully integrated approach to deterrence and defence, including across all domains and across Government, by exploiting all levers of state power, and with allies and partners.

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

I pay tribute to HMS Richmond’s actions over the weekend, defending shipping in the Red sea against a large-scale Houthi attack. Those are the demands that our armed forces face as threats increase.

The Defence Secretary owes the public and Parliament an explanation. He said that we are moving into “a pre-war world”, and ahead of last week’s Budget he wrote to the Chancellor and stated that

“we must take bold action in your Budget to commit to defence spending increasing to 2.5% in 2024. It would re-establish our leadership in Europe.”

But there is a growing gap between the Defence Secretary’s rhetoric and the reality for our armed forces, who are charged with preparing for this new dangerous era. In the Budget there was no new money for defence, nothing new for Ukraine, and nothing for Gaza or the UK’s operations in the middle east. Worse, both the Treasury and the House of Commons Library confirm that the defence budget will be cut by £2.5 billion in cash terms in this next financial year. The 2.5% of GDP, which the Minister referred to, was not mentioned once in the Treasury Red Book; the last time this country spent 2.5% of GDP on defence was in 2010 under a Labour Government.

While Putin wages war in Europe, Ministers are warring with each other. Challenging defence policy in public, the Minister for Security was on TV this morning calling for 2.5% now. That is a serious breakdown in collective ministerial responsibility, but I am most concerned about the serious state of the UK armed forces. What signal does it send to our adversaries when our forces have been hollowed out and underfunded for the last 14 years; when the Public Accounts Committee finds the largest ever funding deficit in the MOD’s equipment plans; when the British Army has been cut to its smallest size since Napoleon; when forces recruitment targets have been missed each and every year for 14 years; and when satisfaction with service life has hit a record low?

I have one simple question for the Minister: where is the plan for better defending Britain? It is clear that our armed forces cannot afford another five years of a Conservative Government.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about HMS Richmond. I am sure that we all agree and pay tribute to our Royal Navy personnel, who are there ultimately to defend not only themselves but freedom of navigation for the rest of the world. We should recognise the importance of the role that they are undertaking on behalf of our Government.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the funding for next year. To be clear, that will represent a 1.8% increase in real terms and not the cut that he suggested. If we spend the money that we expect, it will amount to £55.6 billion—about 2.3% of GDP, which is traditionally how we measure our spending. That is significantly above the just under 2.1% in 2019, so it is a significant increase as a percentage of GDP.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about recruitment, which is an important issue. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Families is doing a lot of work on that and, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, in January we saw the highest number of applications to the Army in six years. A more positive picture is developing, recognising the importance of the mission. We should not talk down our armed forces when we expect people to apply and to want to be recruited into them.

I note the range of comments about the 2.5% and want to make several points. The first is that the right hon. Gentleman said that we had not spent that percentage since Labour were in power. Well, something extraordinary happened at the end of their time in power: they crashed the economy, we had a full-on banking crisis and a letter was left for our Government saying “there is no money.” It is no surprise that we had to take difficult decisions, but despite that we have shown our commitment to the armed forces.

When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister approved the largest ever increase in defence spending since the cold war, and there has been further money since then in the Budget. Of course, we are committed to 2.5% when the circumstances allow. For all the right hon. Gentleman’s bluster, he has not even committed to matching our current spending on defence, let alone 2.5%; we challenged him on that at Defence orals and he was not able to give any commitment whatever to spending.

The public know where we stand: 2.3% in the year ahead and 2.5% when the economics allow. We do not have a clue where Labour stands.

Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

I agree with the Minister that we have extraordinarily capable armed forces whose productivity is second to none. However, as is set out in “Ready for War?”, our Defence Committee report, they are extremely engaged globally and have a great deal to do, much of which is invaluable. At the same time, they are having to prepare for the “pre-war” phase to which the Defence Secretary referred. In that context, does my hon. Friend agree that the timing of the 2.5% target—that is very welcome and a very good first step—needs to be determined by the level of threat as a priority expenditure, rather than as economic conditions allow?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I do not think that we can commit to levels of public expenditure or tax cuts, for example, without being confident that the economy can support them in a prudent fashion—an entirely reasonable and rational approach. However, I totally agree with my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Defence Committee. We all recognise that we are living in a more dangerous world—the Secretary of State has alluded to the threats we face not just in Ukraine but in respect of other adversaries around the world—and I totally understand why there is the wider debate on what we spend, but we already have a significant budget, and we must ensure that it is spent well and delivers value for money. That is why a key priority for me is reform of our procurement system so that we can ensure that our armed forces can prioritise effectively. Ultimately, it is the capability that we have now that will determine our ability to warfight.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

I congratulate the shadow Defence Secretary on securing the urgent question and join him and the Minister in remembering those on HMS Richmond.

On Friday, the Public Accounts Committee’s found that the

“MoD is increasingly reliant on the UK’s allies to protect our national interests. NATO membership deters hostility, but the report warns such deterrence can only be effective if our Armed Forces are credible.”

To paraphrase the report, given that many of our allies face similar capability challenges, is the Ministry of Defence developing mitigations for dealing with the risk of allied support being curtailed or withdrawn if, critically, there is a change of Administration in Washington come November?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he makes an important point about the importance of alliances. NATO is fundamental to the defence of our country, the wider western world and our allies beyond. Critically, to put this in context when we talk about the state of the armed forces, which is what the urgent question is about, and the alliances that he referred to, let us remember that we have just launched Steadfast Defender, which is one of the largest ever NATO exercises, involving 96,000 personnel, of which almost 20,000 are from the UK. I believe that we make up 40% of the land forces. That is an extraordinary contribution by the UK. We also offer our nuclear deterrent to NATO. We are supporting our allies, we stand together under article 5, and we should all do everything possible to support NATO in its 75th year.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

May I commend to anyone interested in the historical context a report produced by the Defence Committee in July in 2019 called, “Shifting the Goalposts? Defence Expenditure and the 2% Pledge: An Update”, HC 2527? It shows that for the last 20 years of the cold war this country spent between 5.6% and 4.1% of GDP, calculated in the same way we do today, on defence. Does that not show both sides of the House that we have an awful long way to go now that there is a hot war in Europe before we match what we used to do when there was a cold war in Europe?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My right hon. Friend put that eloquently, and he speaks with great passion and expertise on the cold war and our recent history. As he knows, in the cold war era we had the working assumption that an invasion—or certainly a confrontation—could be launched on the border in Germany very quickly. We had a huge number of forces deployed, and given that threat we spent, understandably, a higher percentage of GDP on defence. Since then, we thought we had a more peaceful era. Those illusions have been shattered by Putin, and we have all had to wake up to that. That is why we have done so much to support Ukraine and, yes, why we will do everything possible to support our armed forces.

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

The Secretary of State said he wanted to ensure that

“our entire defence ecosystem is ready” to defend, but here is the reality of our armed forces under this Government: capability delays and shortfalls, stockpile shortages, losing personnel, woeful recruitment levels, a £29 billion black hole in finances, and, as of last week, no real boost to the MOD’s budget. The Secretary of State is failing, isn’t he?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

When the hon. Lady talks about procurement and delays, I would have thought she could at least recognise the support we have given to Ukraine, where we have procured an extraordinary amount of ordnance into the country to help Ukrainians to defend themselves. Much of that has been at great pace, not least from gifting, for example, our AS-90s, a whole range of munitions, and 300,000 artillery shells. Had it not been this country’s role, I think we can safely say that Russia would have been successful.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

Whether it be covid, the war in Ukraine or the middle east, it is clear that our world is becoming more dangerous, not less. Many of us in the House have been calling for increased defence spending and for a recognition of the symbiotic relationship between our economy and security. That has been illustrated by what has been going on in the Red sea. That is why we need to spend more, but how might we spend it? Will the Minister consider a defence review, because Ukraine continues to illustrate how the character of conflict is changing? On that note, will he agree that the biggest international security threat is Russia as it moves to a war footing? We have done well to slide across £12 billion of support, but unless more is done, the tide will turn in Ukraine and that will change the economy and security of the whole continent.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My right hon. Friend, as ever, makes some excellent points. He is right to mention how we spend the money. It is one thing to talk about GDP figures and spend, but what are our priorities? As Procurement Minister, and as I set out in my recent statement on the integrated procurement model, I want much greater use of data, particularly from the frontline in Ukraine, to inform our own defence industry so that we can bring forward at a much greater pace those technological innovations, whether in uncrewed systems or complex weapons, that will truly help strengthen our defence. As for a review, he will appreciate that is a matter for the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, but he makes an excellent point.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

We have the smallest Army since the Napoleonic era, so can I press the Minister on this? Was a cut of £2.5 billion in cash terms announced in the Budget last week?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I hear this point about Napoleon many times. If it is the Labour party’s position to significantly increase the size of the standing Army, that is a massive financial commitment. The hon. Gentleman needs to have a word with the shadow Defence Secretary and the shadow Chancellor, because as yet they have not once committed to current spending levels, let alone 2.5% when the economic conditions allow.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

I strongly support my hon. Friend’s powerful commitment to defence in general, but I am rather disappointed by his tepid promise about moving to 2.5% of GDP. I also find myself in the career-wrecking position of strongly agreeing with the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, who put the arguments extremely well. The fact of the matter is that last week’s Budget reduced both kinds of defence expenditure by £2.5 billion, and we are not facing any kind of move towards 3%, which no less a figure than the former Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend Mr Wallace, publicly called for last week. Two serving Ministers have said how disappointed they are by the Budget. By what possible arithmetic does the Minister conclude we are in fact increasing defence spending, when every expert in the world says that we patently are not?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who always speaks with such expertise on defence matters. First, on 2.5% being tepid, we have to be able to sustain that. If it was a one-off, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force would not be able to plan accordingly. It has to be an investment that we can sustain and, thereby, the economy of the country has to be able to sustain it. Forgive me for sounding like I am still in my previous job at the Treasury, but the country has to be able to afford it, and we need to be prudent in the commitments we make on public expenditure, not least so that they are sustainable in the long term and not a one-off, which would be the worst thing we could do.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

The Minister keeps saying we should not talk down our armed forces, but we are not; the armed forces are doing a splendid, brilliant job. What we are doing is running down what the Government are doing, which is not enough—let us put it that way. We have the greatest threat since the cold war. We have war in Ukraine, the middle east in disarray and China increasing its spending. The real blame for the situation with defence lies with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Does the Minister think, in these circumstances, that most reasonable people would have thought it okay not to put extra resources in the Budget for defence?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

When the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he oversaw the biggest increase in spending since the cold war. The current Chancellor significantly increased defence spending in the previous Budget for the years ahead. We are not cutting defence spending. As I said, if the hon. Gentleman takes the figures in totality, it will rise by 1.8% in real terms. If we spend what we expect to next year, we will spend 2.3% of GDP on defence—around £55.6 billion.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

May I make a suggestion to my hon. Friend? It is perfectly clear that the MOD wants to increase defence spending, as does the Opposition spokesperson, John Healey, if we are to take his criticisms at all seriously. Is the right question to ask whether we are spending enough to prevent a war, not to fight a war? How much more do we need to spend to be an effective deterrent, which we do not appear to be at the moment?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

As I said, it is important that we engage in the key capability questions. It is one thing to talk about spending more, but what capabilities would we purchase, and where are our shortcomings? It must be a new development at the heart of defence to have a constant feedback loop of data on integrated warfighting and what is happening in Ukraine, with the armed services and with industry, so that we know what capabilities will make the difference. To give one example, we have seen the extraordinary impact of uncrewed weapons in Ukraine. We have made assumptions about technologies in our equipment plan, which are probably far more expensive than those options. We need to look at this from a warfighting point of view. To support deterrence, the important thing is to back our armed forces. That is why we have our spending commitment, but it has to be balanced against the ability of the economy to support it and sustain it in the long term.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

The Times recently illustrated that the British Army will shrink in size to 67,000 within the next two years due to the current recruitment and retention crisis. Our senior and close allies, including the US, have expressed their grave concerns, and even senior Conservatives have conceded that our armed forces have been hollowed out since 2010. As threats to the UK increase, why have the Government shrunk our Army to its smallest size since Napoleon?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman talks about a crisis in recruitment but, as I said, January saw the highest number of applications to join the Army for six years. That is an important and positive development. On the size of the armed forces, we should talk about not just the number of soldiers, but the amount of accommodation to support them, and the platforms, the weapons and the capabilities. That is an extremely expensive undertaking. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is the right thing to do, he needs to lobby his colleagues on his own Front Bench, because they have not committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence, let alone 2.5%.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

As a former Armed Forces Minister, I pay high tribute to His Majesty’s armed forces but not to His Majesty’s Treasury. The Red Book—the Budget Bible—shows clearly in tables 2.1 and 2.2 that next year’s core defence budget has been cut by £2.5 billion. That is true. It ill behoves any Government—let alone one that purports to call themselves Conservative—to use one-off payments to Ukraine or overspends in the nuclear budget from the consolidated fund and pretend that they are part of the defence budget, when everyone in this House knows that they are not. As the son of a D-day veteran, I say to the Government—if not to the Minister, for whom I have great regard—more in anger than in sorrow that what they have done is deeply dishonourable, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My right hon. Friend was a Defence Minister, and I respect his great passion about all things related to the armed forces, particularly because of his father. When we spend on the nuclear deterrent or on supporting Ukraine—purchasing weapons and providing ordnance, ultimately to help defend ourselves—that is legitimately described as defence expenditure. After all, how else are we to pay for that, and from which budget? Compared with last year, there is a real-terms increase of 1.8%, which if we spend what we expect will amount to £55.6 billion and 2.3% of GDP.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian

Many citizens will be rightly concerned about the use of the phrase “pre-war world”. What requires clarification is not simply the scale of the British military in years to come, but where the armed forces are currently deployed, and what they are doing. Are British servicemen firing weaponry in Ukraine, as suggested by German ministerial sources? Are British forces assisting Israel in its genocide through the provision of military intelligence? Knowing the answer to those questions is fundamental to our security, and indeed to our knowing whether the UK is upholding international law, never mind it being a basic democratic right, and something that our citizens are entitled to know.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman knows that we do not comment on speculation, particularly on sensitive operational matters relating to the armed forces, and that is the right approach. Yes, we have a duty of candour, but we also have to protect those serving on the frontline.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

The fighting in Ukraine proves that size matters. The Minister should reconstitute the Territorial Army, which demonstrated that, with economy, quantity had a quality all of its own.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My right hon. Friend has a quality all of his own, as shown in how he puts his questions. He makes a very good point. We tend to talk about the Regular Army, but we must remember our reserves. They are incredibly important and we pay tribute to them. Ukraine has shown that this country is able to make an extraordinary contribution. This is speculating, but it is likely that if it had not been for the contribution we made, Ukraine would not have been successful in repelling the Russians as far as it has done.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Social Care)

So there we have it: President Putin will be ordering his officers to stop sabre-rattling with the west because the British are changing their procurement rules! The reality is that the Minister cannot fight the war he wants to fight with the capability he has. He will be presented with the conflict that develops, and we need the capability and resilience to meet threats that emerge. What assessment has he made of the threats to the United Kingdom, and how will he meet those threats with the armed forces he has?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman’s rather trite comment on procurement is a total failure to understand how the military works. He wants to talk about the deterrent; everything from our nuclear submarines right down to small arms is part of the procurement system. They all have to be procured. My priority is ensuring that we have a procurement system that is agile, gets equipment to the frontline as fast as possible, and can engage with the latest technological developments; think of lasers and uncrewed systems. Technology is moving at an extraordinary pace. We have used technology to support Ukraine so far. We have provided 4,000 drones and will increase our support to around 10,000. We are doing everything possible to support Ukraine. All that is done through the procurement system—if I may say so, highly effectively.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

I join my hon. Friend in commending the professionalism of our armed forces, and in pointing out that Labour has not committed to an increase in defence spending, but may I remind him that the first duty of any Government is to ensure that defence spending primarily reflects the threat, rather than the ability to pay? We have a war in Europe. We have an increasingly belligerent Russia. I chair the defence committee of the 1922 committee. Conservative Back Benchers are very much behind the idea that we need to increase defence spending. What does the Minister think it will take to increase defence spending?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

First of all, we have increased defence spending. Crucially, the last spending review saw the largest allocation of spending to defence since the cold war. Yes, we have set an aspiration of 2.5%, and the answer to when that will happen is: when economic conditions allow. It would be imprudent to commit to such a level of spending if we did not think it could be sustained. The worst thing would be to have that spending for maybe one or two years, and then have to go backwards because we did not think it was sustainable. This is about balancing affordability against commitment, but we need to be absolutely clear that at over £50 billion, this is the most we have ever spent on defence. There is an extraordinary effort in support of Ukraine, and we have highly capable armed forces who are making an extraordinary contribution to NATO, including through the latest NATO exercise, and will continue to do so.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I do not want to make too much play of your earlier remarks, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I was born on the night the House was bombed and this Chamber was burned out. As I have listened to the Minister, I have been saying to myself—I hope that he will recall this—that he represents the party of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, but now that the world is more dangerous than I can recall it being in all my years, we are not able to defend the country adequately. I say to Members on both sides of the House that this is a wake-up call; we must act now.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I pay respect to the hon. Gentleman’s longevity and seniority, and to the fact that on the day he was born, the House was bombed, during whichever war it was—I think it was the second world war. He said that we are unable to defend ourselves, and I totally and utterly reject that claim. If Putin had succeeded in his invasion of Ukraine, yes, we would have been looking at a situation similar to that in the late 1930s, but that invasion has not succeeded. The reason for that is the involvement of this Government, who took extraordinary steps to train Ukrainians; provided vital munitions, such as next-generation light anti-tank weapons, before the war started; ensured that we were the first country to provide tanks; and encouraged other nations to provide enormous amounts of arms. Without that, the world would be an even less safe place, but I accept that it is becoming more dangerous, which is why we are supporting our armed forces, and why we are playing such a massive role in NATO’s Steadfast Defender exercise.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Mr Sheerman referred to Members on both sides of the House. Is there not a clear distinction between Members on either side of the House, namely that from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor downwards there is a commitment and an agreement to defence spending amounting to 2.5% of GDP, while in stark contrast Labour Members, while suggesting that they are a Government in waiting, are not prepared to commit themselves to 2.5%, or even to our current spending commitments? There is unity on the Conservative side, and complete disunity on the other.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

In my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I had the pleasure of visiting recently, there are many defence interests, and he has hit the nail on the head. We have heard all the theatrics, but the fact is that we have not a clue what the Opposition will spend on defence. Labour Members have not even confirmed that they will spend the existing 2.3%, let alone 2.5%.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

The conflict in Ukraine is a stark reminder of why we must take our defence incredibly seriously. The Minister has just said that the world is becoming a more dangerous place. Does he therefore agree that his Government’s decision to cut our UK troops to 10,000 was irresponsible, and will he commit himself to reversing those cuts and ensuring that the British Army is the requisite size to defend the United Kingdom and its allies?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

As I have said, we have just committed 40% of the land force personnel to the Steadfast Defender exercise. NATO is the key to the defence of this nation, and indeed the whole continent, in conventional terms. We should recognise the enormous contribution of our armed forces, and the fact that we have increased spending significantly. However, I hear what colleagues are saying, as does the Secretary of State. We have set out the case for 2.5%, but we want that 2.5% to be sustainable, so that the economy can afford it over the long term, and that will be possible through growth and sensible measures on fiscal policy.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

The Minister conceded earlier that funding for Ukraine and the escalating nuclear cost were at the expense of restoring the viability of our frontline readiness, but deterrence is a lot cheaper than war. Surely our support for Ukraine and the deterrent should be a charge on the general fund, rather than further hollowing out our conventional armed forces.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I do not believe I made that point about nuclear. The right hon. Gentleman has said that these factors are at the expense of the frontline, but nuclear is the frontline. We have had the continuous at-sea deterrent patrolling in defence of this country every year since 1969, as I recall. We have had it for a long time, and it is fundamental to our defence. The idea that that is not frontline spending is extraordinary.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Looking at the figures for resource and capital departmental expenditure limits, it looks like there is a 7%—£2.5 billion —cut for this coming year. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that defence spending will be flat as a share of GDP. With Russia’s expenditure on its military at 40% of its total economy, why did the Secretary of State accept the reduction from the Chancellor and the Prime Minister?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I have explained why we do not believe that there has been a reduction; we believe that there will be a 1.8% increase in real terms. The hon. Gentleman says that spending as a percentage of GDP is flat. I point out that in 2019, it was 2.08%—just under 2.1%. We believe that if we spend everything we expect to in the next financial year, that will be 2.3%, which is a significant increase.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

I am sure that the Procurement Minister is aware of Survitec in my constituency, which has provided equipment to the armed forces for decades. He will acknowledge that the last few years have taught us the importance of having secure UK supply chains, and of getting good jobs to the whole country through the power of procurement. I invite him to come and speak to Survitec, so that he can hear directly from the company about its frustrations with the procurement process.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

Before I was injured playing football for Parliament versus the Army, I always used to enjoy playing five-a-side with the hon. Gentleman. I would be delighted to accept his invitation to visit, because small and medium-sized enterprises and businesses are absolutely critical. As the Minister for Defence Procurement, and having run an SME, I believe that we have to have an environment that encourages investment in defence and supports our domestic supply chain. A key part of that is exportability. I look forward to discussing these matters with the company that he mentions.

Photo of Alistair Strathern Alistair Strathern Labour, Mid Bedfordshire

The shocking state of Army accommodation is a big driver of the recruitment and retention challenges that we face, so it will not come as a surprise to hear that I am yet again raising the issue of the shocking standard of accommodation at the Chicksands base. When I catch up with serving personnel over a pint or two at our local pub in Shefford, there is a growing sense of resignation about the future of the base, but there is real concern that its planned closure will mean that the situation goes unadjusted, and that really poor accommodation units are not improved. To do right by those personnel, will the Minister commit to revisiting the Government’s decision not to upgrade either of the two service bases in my constituency, where hundreds of beds fall into grades 3 or 4?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

We engaged with this issue in the hon. Gentleman’s Westminster Hall debate on accommodation, in which I announced our plans for Chicksands. I entirely accept that this is a matter on which there should be engagement with the local community, and that there will be a range of views. I emphasise that we have put an extra £400 million into accommodation, which has allowed us to deliver our winter plan highly effectively. There has been a massive increase in the number of properties in the defence estate benefiting from damp and mould packages, but also from new doors and so on, to deal with long-standing issues in the estate, and I am keen to do more.

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

I thank the Minister for his answers to the questions posed to him. There can be no doubt that the Government must do more to increase defence spending, given that a large portion of our defence budget has rightly been spent on assisting Ukraine. However, we must ensure that other issues are not left behind. Unfortunately, there was no mention in last week’s Budget of an additional funding increase for our armed forces. Will the Minister increase our defence budget, so that we can ensure that our actions speak louder than words, and so that promises are kept, and our armed forces can keep us safe?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

As ever, we have saved the best till last. I think the hon. Gentleman has attended every urgent question or statement I have ever been involved in, and I pay tribute to him for that, and for the way that he represents his constituents in Northern Ireland, particularly those who serve in the armed forces. They have always been a huge part of our British military story. I have always paid tribute to them and the industry—for example, Thales—for their contribution. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting representatives of a brilliant SME from Northern Ireland that is supporting the Royal Air Force. I have been clear that we had the largest increase in defence spending since the cold war at the last spending review, further funding in the Budget thereafter, and a commitment to spending 2.5% of GDP when the economy can support that.