Armed Forces Readiness and Defence Equipment

– in the House of Commons at 11:52 am on 21 March 2024.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Deputy Speaker 11:52, 21 March 2024

Before we start the debate, I should inform the House that while the Chair has no power to impose a time limit on opening speeches, Mr Speaker has made it plain that he expects those speeches to be kept to a maximum—not a minimum —of 15 minutes. In order to assist the opening speakers, I will now put the clock on at 15 minutes.

Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee 11:55, 21 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the First Report of the Defence Committee, Ready for War?, HC 26, the Eighth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Improving Defence Inventory Management, HC 66, and the Nineteenth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, MoD Equipment Plan 2023-33, HC 451.

It is a pleasure to open this debate. There is only one way to start it, and it is how we should start every single debate on defence: with a clear-eyed appreciation of the threat to our country, our allies and our interests. Russia, which the integrated review identified and its refresh reaffirmed as our greatest adversary, has mobilised a war economy, spending nearly 40% of its budget on defence and security. Such is Russia’s rush to rearm that, notwithstanding all international sanctions, the International Monetary Fund has upgraded its economic forecast for the country from 1.1% to 2.6%, which makes it the fastest-growing economy in Europe.

Not only has Russia, through its renewed and devastating attack on Ukraine, shown its willingness to disregard every aspect of decency and international law, but its war machine is feeding an imbalance in munitions in Ukraine which we in the west are shamefully not doing enough to counter. The reality of war is that, ultimately, production lines tell. Notwithstanding the £2.5 billion that the UK is spending on military support this year, we need collectively to be doing more, not just in supporting Ukraine but in transforming our own supply lines. We need to enhance our own readiness to help deter Russia from a wider conflagration.

While the threat from Russia is grave, it is not the only threat we face. In east Asia, from which the Defence Committee has just returned, China has doubled its official spending on defence to $232 billion a year, although the real figure is much, much higher. North Korea is nuclear-armed, dangerous, unpredictable, and in closer alignment than for many years with Moscow. Iran and its proxies are destabilising the middle east, and, via the Houthis, pose a constant threat to shipping through the Red sea. In that regard, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are actively engaged as we speak.

Following our withdrawal from Afghanistan, the willingness of the west to face up to these challenges is being studied by the global south—countries that are vulnerable to destabilisation and worse on the part of our adversaries. Any sense of the west’s being distracted, or unwilling or unable to rise to the challenge, risks encouraging the increasing number of autocratic states to act in contravention of international law. The sabre-rattling in Venezuela over resource-rich provinces of Guyana, a Commonwealth country, is just one recent example.

Has the risk picture changed for the worse in the last few years? Clearly it has. Have we fully risen to that challenge? We have not. Those of us who are old enough to recall the joy of the Berlin wall coming down will also recall that we had, in that decade, been investing more than 5% of GDP in defence—well over twice our current commitment. In 1989, there was a justifiable rationale for reductions in defence spending, but what goes down to match a decreasing threat must assuredly go back up to meet an increasing threat, and that is where we stand today.

In the Defence Committee report, we are robust not only about the professionalism of the armed forces, but about their ability to rise to any challenge. However, they are being run hot continuously, and that has a direct impact on their ability to train for, recruit and retain for, and be equipped to face the toughest challenge imaginable: a full-scale prolonged conflict, alongside our allies, with a peer adversary. That is just one of many challenges that our armed forces are designed to meet, but it is the most significant—the challenge above all others that we seek to deter.

I welcome the extensive engagement of our armed forces in this year’s NATO exercise, Steadfast Defender, but the days when that could be a routine exercise conducted by forces dedicated solely to the preparedness to face the Russian threat are long gone. Our forces’ sheer range of commitments, from global engagements to domestic MACAs—military aid to civil authorities—maintain constant pressure. The impacts are simple: recruitment and retention that is not up to the task; a hollowing out of munition stockpiles and our means to replenish them; and an inability to prepare and train for the worst-case scenario at the intensity required to bolster our allies, and with the confidence to deter adversaries. Our report highlights the urgent need for change.

To enable us to be fully prepared for peer-on- peer warfighting, something must give, be it the scale of operations and engagements or the size of national investment in defence. There is no doubt in my mind about the course that needs to be taken. The global operations conducted by our armed forces have a critical supporting role in our efforts to deter and prevent expansionism by our adversaries. What the UK needs is not a diminution of our ambition, but an increase in our investment.

In saying that, I am acutely aware of the regular charge that additional UK investment in defence is wasteful if the Ministry of Defence does not get its house in order on procurement. The Public Accounts Committee has set out in its report the difficulties faced by the MOD in meeting its equipment plan objectives. Reports over the years, not least from the Defence Sub-Committee under my right hon. Friend Mr Francois, have highlighted where the MOD needs to do better on procurement. I have no doubt that we will hear from my right hon. Friend and others about some of the core weaknesses that these reports have revealed.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

The answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is yes. Could he explain to the House that one of the things that the Committee thought about very carefully was how candid we should be about the weaknesses in our armed forces? After much careful deliberation, we did not include anything in our “Ready for War?” report that we had reason to believe our potential adversaries did not already know.

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

I said we would hear from my right hon. Friend, and indeed we shall. He is absolutely right. We are incredibly careful as a Committee to keep to the right the side of the line. There are a lot of facts in our report that make for very, very unpleasant reading. I do not have time to list them all today, with the clock whirring as it is, but I commend the report. It goes through some of the problems we face in great detail. As my right hon. Friend says, they will be well known to our adversaries. If we do not front up to those problems, we will be fooling no one but ourselves.

Obviously, I have a personal interest in this matter, but I believe that over the past five years we have seen a real determination from the MOD to get better, and there are structural changes that will embed improvement. The defence and security industrial strategy moved the MOD away from competition by default and towards viewing our defence sector as a critical strategic asset. That has proved a timely intervention, placing more emphasis on building sovereign capacity and greater reassurance of our supply chains. DSIS has marked an improvement in the relationship with industry. Companies large and small are more engaged than they have ever been in the early thought processes around capability requirements and specifications. There is better investment in senior responsible owners to exercise control and authority over projects.

When the Department and industry work together—for example, on Poland’s defence expansion or on novel technologies for Ukraine—it is a formidable combination. Baking exports and industrial co-operation into procurement at the earliest stage works for industry and for the UK. Above all, achieving minimum deployable platforms early and allowing for spiral development, if properly invested against, will generate not only routinely upgraded state-of-the-art platforms, but industrial partners that are able to retain and invest in their workforce and their research and development. It means going beyond feast and famine, and towards long-term co-development.

I believe that the Minister’s recently announced reforms are excellent. They institutionalise reforms that really will improve our procurement, but for them to work as they deserve, there needs to be cultural change. Uniformed SROs need to recognise the profoundly different skillset that applies to procurement. They need to be encouraged to seek commercial and legal advice early in order to escalate problems. Above all, they need to be willing to recognise that when a project will not work, they should take the learning and call it a day. If we are focused, as we must be, on cutting-edge solutions, we must recognise that some will not work. For any commercial entity, that is not a sign of failure; it is a recognition that, in a portfolio, some risks will be taken that do not succeed.

In Defence Equipment & Support there are many good people doing a difficult and demanding job, but I believe it is absolutely possible, as part of the current reforms, to instil and reward greater entrepreneurialism and productivity. DE&S has the pay freedoms to do so. With cultural change and proper investment, the reforms will move us from peacetime lethargy, influenced by staccato funding, closer to the urgency and realism that the threats demand.

It is clear that no one on either side of the House should think that we can get to where we need to be against the current threat simply by being a bit better at procurement. As our report makes clear, significant improvements are required in everything from stockpiles to housing simply to retain and maintain the size of our current force structure, let alone increase it, as we should.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I am glad that my right hon. Friend has mentioned accommodation, on which I focused after succeeding him as Minister for Defence Procurement. Does he agree that accommodation is as much a part of operational capability as hardware in the battlefield?

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

I support my right hon. Friend’s point. We had “fix on failure” for too long, although it has changed in recent years. More investment is being put into our housing, but it is needed because we have a crisis in retention and recruitment. As the report sets out in vivid and very scary detail, we are losing far more experienced personnel than we are able to recruit. Housing is part of the offer to our brilliant defence personnel that we need to get right.

While addressing all the issues I have mentioned, we must also increase our fundamental defence production capability. We underwrote commercial military expansion in the 1930s, and we should be prepared to do the same. It is absolutely clear that, although better buying will of course help, it should be alongside, not instead of, sustained, effective and increased investment.

Investment horizons on priority projects must stretch well beyond annual commitments to allow proper planning. We will make savings if the services do not gamble all their chips on the delivery of a perfect platform when it is “their turn,” and they will not do that if they know funding will be there for upgrades. Industry will invest alongside that, will work with small and medium-sized enterprises and will train the workforce we need if it knows that we are marching together for the long term rather than being marched over the edge of a cliff at the end of every order.

The need for increased defence investment would be true in any circumstances when faced by the threats we face. It is all the more vital when the United States’ commitment to Europe is being questioned. Since 2015, this Government have shown themselves to be ready to make difficult decisions, have shown leadership in the early days on Ukraine and have increased investment. In my personal opinion, the Government must now set out their timetable for reaching and sustaining 2.5%.

Although decisions should be taken “capability up” rather than “numbers down”, it is also my view that we are unlikely to be able to meet and deter expanding threats in the longer term for less than 3%, which remains a low level of annual insurance compared with the relatively recent past. However, the sooner the Government commit and invest, the lower the ultimate price likely to fall on this country. By doing so, we might be able to help save all of Europe by our example. Failure to invest could result in a very high price indeed.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 12:09, 21 March 2024

I really welcome this debate, in which five former Defence Ministers are speaking. That is probably a record—certainly in recent years. I very much thank the Chair of the Defence Committee for laying out the global challenges this country faces and some of the capability concerns. Given the expertise in the Chamber, I know that we will hear more about that.

I stand here as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which sometimes feels a bit like the second Defence Committee because of the amount of time we spend examining the vast expenditure that this country makes on defence. Taxpayers give this money to the Government trusting that it will be spent well, but sadly all too often we see that it is not spent as well as it should be. We see money going in but we do not see the capability coming out that we require. The PAC examines that defence spending and the delivery; our job is to look at the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of how taxpayers’ money is spent by Government. As I say, the Ministry of Defence too often falls short on that.

The Committee has huge concerns about the MOD’s ability to deliver projects on time and to budget. This report is only one of our latest on the subject. Just because we have war paint on ships or something is very important, interesting and exciting technology to support our men and women on the frontline does not mean that it should not be treated like any other major project in Government and be managed well and properly. There is no point in having something perfect but late if our frontline personnel need it. As our report highlights, recent global events, which I will not go into, as the Chair of the Defence Committee has outlined them, throw into sharp focus why it is so vital that we deliver on time and that we have the capability, including industrial capability, to ramp up when something, such as munitions, for example, are used apace.

The PAC has examined the annual equipment plan from the MOD for more than 12 years. We have done that throughout the time I have been a member of the Committee, for the past nine years of which I have had the privilege of being its Chair. The defence equipment plan is the 10-year programme for the capability that the MOD says it requires and it lays out how that will be funded, and where the challenges and gaps in funding are. All bar last year’s plan were deemed unaffordable, but the PAC took the view that even in the year when the plan from the MOD came out as affordable, it was based on assumptions that were not realistic, and we did not believe it was fully affordable.

In simple terms, affordability is about the gap between the capability the plan lays out and the money available. As the plan covers 10 years, there have been times when Ministers, including some of the former Ministers present and perhaps even the current Minister, might have come up with reasons for that. They say, “Over 10 years, it is fine. We’ll juggle it a bit. We will balance a bit. We’ll get efficiency savings here and there.” We have seen those arguments and excuses far too often, and the efficiencies do not arrive or issues arise and defence programmes are put off and delayed. By delaying them we see a reprofiling of the costs, but no real reduction in them, and we see those chickens coming home to roost.

This year, the gap between the capability required and what is affordable is £16.9 billion—so it is nearly £17 billion over the 10-year period. We can then add in what the Army would deliver. It is perhaps worth my explaining that for some odd reason—the PAC has taken a strong view on this and even the permanent secretary at the MOD has acknowledged that there was an anomaly—when the Commands and the MOD put in their costs for the programmes, most of them put in the full costs of all the capability required, but the Army puts in only the costs of what it could afford. If we add in the capability that the Army actually requires, we are adding a further £12 billion to that nearly £17 billion, thus making the gap even bigger. There has been a clear deterioration in affordability. It is fair to say that £10 billion of that is because of inflationary costs—we partly know the reasons for that, but I am not going to go into them now—and about £2 billion is to do with foreign exchange costs. Again, the PAC examines those regularly with the MOD and the Treasury, but however we hedge it there will be some challenge on foreign exchange because of the nature of some of our defence procurement.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does my hon. Friend agree that that has been made worse by the MOD’s tendency to purchase off-the-shelf solutions from the United States in dollars, which is now accounting for a huge amount of the defence budget? As she says, even with hedging, this is a deadweight around the defence budget.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

My right hon. Friend raises an important point, and we could almost have a whole debate about that. We do not have time to go into the full detail today, but I will touch on our defence industrial strategy. That is what a lot of this comes down to; if we are buying things off the shelf, it can sometimes be more cost-effective, but we need to be careful and cautious, because the longer those projects are for, the greater the risk of foreign exchange challenges. There is also sometimes a risk to our own sovereign capability and the longevity of some of our defence industries.

We recognise that, with our allies, we work in an international world on this. So there is no straightforward answer, but defence industrial strategy is an area that not only the MOD but the whole of Government should be looking at, as it is vital. Both the Chancellor and shadow Chancellor talk about growing the economy, and our defence industries are based in areas where, if we could up the skills and jobs available, it could provide a major boost to the economy. So there are a lot of opportunities there.

The MOD has not credibly demonstrated how it will manage its funding to deliver the military capabilities the Government want. Our latest report says that they need to get “firmer control of defence procurement” because of this very large deficit in respect of the capability requirements needed. The budget has increased, and I am sure the Minister will stand up to tell us how much extra money is going into defence, but this is about not just the money, but how it is managed. The budget has increased by £46.3 billion over the next 10-year period compared with what was set out in last year’s equipment plan. As I said, the PAC has warned that the deficit is even bigger than expected, so that extra budget will be taken up by the deficit if it is not managed down. Part of the reason for that deficit is inflation, but another major impact on it is the costs of the Defence Nuclear Organisation, which is responsible for the vital nuclear deterrent. Those costs have increased by £38.2 billion since last year’s plan.

One of our Committee’s other concerns is that the MOD has been putting off making decisions about cancelling or reprofiling programmes. Reprofiling is not always a good thing, but sometimes we have to trim according to what is necessary. If the MOD cannot afford the plan, it should take a hard decision, but it has optimistically assumed that the plan would be affordable if the Government fulfilled their long-term aspiration to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence each year, despite there being no guarantee that that will happen. Of course, in an election year there is not even a guarantee as to which party will be in government to consider that. We know, and the Defence Committee will know even more than the PAC, how much the MOD is increasingly reliant on the UK’s allies to protect our national interests. That means that we also have to play our part by making sure that we are delivering that.

For all the time that I have served on the PAC— 13 years this year—the MOD has been led by optimism bias, and it is now pressing on based on not optimism but the sniff of optimism, as there is so little left in that approach that will deliver. We must call that out and call a spade a spade, by saying that the MOD can deliver only what is affordable. So either the money goes in or the MOD trims what it is trying to do, because the approach of trying to do everything all at once and not being able to afford it is just not going to work.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying. I have not cast my eye over the report she is speaking about. She talks about the Government or the MOD trimming projects. The lessons of George Osborne slashing the number of Type 45s in half have had a huge impact on naval capability, and of course we have more than 530 Ajax tanks to come. When we say that we must make savings, are we talking about a false economy? In the long run, it is far better to increase the GDP spend than to slash projects and totally undermine how the defence programme was originally laid out.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I am tempted by the right hon. Gentleman to go into all sorts of long discussion about how the PAC looks at these issues. Resetting projects and programmes can certainly be problematic, and sometimes stopping something part way through can be expensive. Equally, however, altering the requirements part way through can add on costs. When I talk to the commands or the centre, one problem I find is that people sometimes want to gold-plate what they are procuring, and we sometimes need to look at doing those things in a different way. Brutally, let me say that the current situation is not affordable, which means we must make hard decisions about whether something is stopped or no longer procured, or more money is made available. As I have said, and as the PAC repeats ad infinitum, if more money is made available, we need better project management.

The MOD is also saying very clearly that it will not make any decisions until the next spending review. As everybody in the Chamber knows, that is supposed to be in November, but a general election is looming. A spending review is usually six months after the first Budget of a new Government, so we could be floating on the fumes of the current spending settlement until the summer of next year. In certain cases, we will still be pouring good money after bad; the Ministry of Defence needs to tighten up on that, because it cannot live on hope alone.

I touched on industry in answer to my right hon. Friend Mr Jones. Industry needs a consistent and certain supply of business to keep the supply chain going, both for resilience and to ensure there is proper investment in the necessary infrastructure. We have seen some of our private sector industries leave equipment and buildings to crumble because they have not had continuity of supply. Some blame lies with them, not just with the Ministry of Defence, but consistency of supply is vital and getting that right provides a potential boon to the economy.

The Committee looks at procurement a lot. For the last decade or more, we have been saying that senior responsible owners need to be in place for far longer. They need to be where their expertise is needed for the right period of time, and then be moved on for the next phase of the project. We need to reward people who stay in those jobs, rather than expecting civil servants or military attachés to roll over on a three-year basis, thinking they just need to keep things ticking over. They need proper ownership and proper reward when they get things right. The MOD is beginning to move in the right direction on senior responsible owners’ skills and longevity, but it still has a lot of work to do to catch up to where it needs to be.

I touched on funding timeframes. The Treasury needs to seriously consider properly controlled longer-term budgets, as it is beginning to do in certain areas with the defence equipment plan. That does not mean giving carte blanche to the MOD; those budgets need to be tightly controlled, as the Public Accounts Committee has made clear. However, controlled longer-term budgets are vital.

Finally, the Public Accounts Committee has access to many areas of Government and all areas of spending, if we choose to look at them. I pay tribute to my fellow Committee members who have never leaked a single piece of information, of whatever sensitivity, in the last nine years. However, the Committee looks at certain issues through opaque glass and it is now time to have full transparency. I want as much information as possible to be in the public domain, but the mechanisms of open, public committees are not always appropriate for certain sensitive areas, including defence.

In our latest report, the Committee recommended that there needs to be a new mechanism and approach that allows Parliament to properly examine such issues in the right, secure context. That might be along the lines of the Intelligence and Security Committee, although we would certainly not be looking at information in that area and not in exactly the same way, because the Public Accounts Committee needs to be more fleet of foot on certain day-to-day spending issues. It is time we had transparency so the British taxpayer knows that every tax pound that is spent, whether on defence or on sensitive matters in other Departments, is being seen and scrutinised by senior parliamentarians who know what they are doing. It is an early thought of the Committee, but important to raise. We need full transparency so that officials and Ministers who are spending taxpayer money in this area of vast expense are properly scrutinised on their work.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Deputy Speaker

Order. Although there are not that many hon. Members present in the Chamber, it is immediately clear that there is a considerable amount of defence expertise present. That means we are likely to have a well-informed debate, which is not always the case. That being so, I will impose a 13-minute limit on speeches. That should enable all Members to have their say, and allow time for a full and proper response from the Front Benches. I hope that will satisfy all Members. It will be a formal time limit, which means the usual injury rules will apply. If Members take interventions, time will be added.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford 12:23, 21 March 2024

May I begin by saying to the Minister for Defence Procurement, for whom I have great regard and who is trying to reform our broken procurement system, that everything I say in the next few minutes is not personally aimed at him? To quote “The Godfather”:

“It’s not personal…It’s strictly business.”

At his speech at Lancaster House on 15 January, the new Defence Secretary now famously said that we are moving

“from a post-war to a pre-war world”.

His words clearly resonated, both nationally and internationally. For example, when I was on a visit to Washington recently, those words were played back to us by Pentagon officials. Shortly after, in an unclassified letter to all Conservative MPs, the Defence Secretary stressed the need for industrial improvements and to rearm, in terms reminiscent of the 1930s.

However, let us consider what that actually means. The head of the MOD, a senior Cabinet Minister, has said, in effect, that we are now likely to go to war. Although he did not specifically state who with—be it Russia, China, Iran or someone else—that one statement, which I fear may turn out to be true if we do not rapidly improve our conventional deterrence, has incredibly serious implications for our entire defence and security posture. The much-vaunted integrated review has now been completely overtaken by events. In a world with increasing Iranian-inspired violence in the middle east, sulphurous threats over Taiwan emanating from Beijing and now the state-sponsored murder of Alexei Navalny, even the most naive liberals surely have to concede that the Defence Secretary might just be right. The integrated review, and its 2023 refresh, are completely lacking in any great sense of urgency in response.

Similarly, the MOD defence Command Paper, which was meant to dovetail into the integrated review, also lacked a sense of urgency, even to the point of retiring a number of key frontline systems, such as radar planes and tactical transport aircraft, in favour of new equipment, arriving much later in this decade. Many analysts expected that to change post Ukraine, but no major equipment decisions were altered, despite Putin’s barbaric invasion in February 2023—something that some members of the Defence Committee effectively predicted in a debate in this House some six weeks before the invasion began.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

The right hon. Gentleman is in the unique position of being a member of both the Public Accounts Committee and the Defence Committee. Does he share my view that it is a bit like groundhog day when hear the words “defence” and “review” in whichever order? I do not know how many such reviews we have had in the last few years, yet we never see the step change necessary to ensure we will deliver the capability our country needs.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

The Chair of the PAC is entirely right, although in the MOD context, if it is groundhog day, “groundhog” sounds like a vehicle that has slipped to the right.

More recently, after a detailed inquiry, the Defence Committee, on which I serve, published a damning report on 4 February 2024, entitled simply “Ready for War?”. I have served on the Committee since 2017 and this is one of the punchiest reports we have ever produced. In answer to the question in the title, the all-party Committee, which includes six former MOD Ministers, concluded:

“Despite the United Kingdom spending approximately £50 billion a year on defence (plus more for Ukraine) the UK’s Armed Forces require sustained ongoing investment to be able to fight a sustained, high-intensity war, alongside our allies, against a peer adversary. ”

In plainer English, and as the subsequent detail in the report starkly points out, despite a considerable outlay of taxpayer’s cash, we could not fight a sustained war with Putin’s Russia for more than a couple of months before we ran out of ammunition and fighting equipment, not least as we have very few tanks, ships or combat aircraft in reserve. The full report can be found online.

Given that it takes years to build a modern warship—a totally ridiculous 11 years in the case of the new Type 26 frigate—and four years to build a Typhoon fighter, if we had to fight what the strategists sometimes describe as a “come as you are war”, one with little further warning, we would have to rely on whatever equipment we had to hand or could rapidly remobilise. We simply do not have enough war-winning kit to win as it is. As the Public Accounts Committee’s report on the 10-year equipment plan illustrates starkly, the difference between what the MOD aspires to buy and the funding it is likely to have available is £17 billion. However, it is worse because the three services account for the plan on a different basis. Without going into all the technicalities, an apples and apples comparison across the three services shows that the gap is £29 billion. Even beyond gaps in capability of our kit, our greatest weakness is now the lack of skilled personnel to operate and maintain the equipment that we do have. Without them—and far too many of them are leaving, as the Chair of the Defence Committee said—even multi-billion dollar aircraft systems simply remain in the hangar.

One perfect example of how dysfunctional the MOD has now become in relation to people is the saga of Capita—or, forgive me, “Crapita”, as it is now affectionally known to the Defence Committee. It has totally messed up the recruitment system for the British Army. A few years ago, its share price topped £4; today, it is barely 13 pence. Everyone in Defence knows that the outsourced contract has been a disaster, yet absolutely no one in the upper echelons of the Department has the moral courage to sack the company. The Defence Secretary recently described the situation in The Times as “ludicrous”. He is absolutely right. Indeed, no doubt he has made a note of his own comments on his own famous spreadsheet, but still nothing actually happens. Capita limps on as the Army bleeds out—with, in some parts of the Army, three soldiers now leaving for every one that Capita somehow, painfully, manages to recruit. If we think we are going to deter the likes of Vladimir Putin in this manner, we are living on a different planet, in a parallel universe, in a fantasy dimension.

Given that we now spend the thick end of £50 billion a year on defence, the British taxpaying public are quite entitled to ask why so little of our defence capability works properly. Why are some of the Army’s fighting vehicles 60 years old? Why do we have hardly any battle tanks that actually work? Why do we have hardly any submarines that are now regularly put to sea? Why do we have aircraft carriers that perennially break down whenever they try to leave port? Bluntly, it is because we now have a Ministry of Defence that has become in recent years a gigantic, sclerotic bureaucracy; constantly hidebound by needless, self-generated red tape; obsessed with process rather than outcomes; in which some senior civil servants are now more interested in wokery than weaponry, endlessly ripped off by some of their own major contractors, such as Boeing, to name but one; and in which key elements of our fighting equipment are so old—and the procurement system for replacing them so broken—that we now cannot fight a major war with Russia for more than a few weeks, as it well knows.

Moreover, as the Red Book clearly shows in tables 2.1 and 2.2, we are cutting the core UK defence budget next year by £2.5 billion and playing “smoke and mirrors” with the donations to Ukraine and with addressing an overspend on the nuclear enterprise from the Treasury reserve in order to pretend otherwise. This act of what the Russians call “maskirovka”, or strategic deception, is wholly unworthy of a Conservative Government. If Members happen to believe, as I do, that the role of our armed forces is determinedly to save lives by convincing any potential aggressor that, were they to attack us, we would defeat them, then we are palpably failing.

This is not an intellectual parlour game. Ultimately, this is about whether our grandchildren are going to grow up in someone else’s re-education camp, but we might not know that if we walked into the current MOD. We can try to blame the military, for instance, for so frequently over-specifying new military equipment, such as Ajax, that it enters service many years late, but in the end the responsibility lies with the politicians who, theoretically at least, are supposed to be in charge.

The Romans had a famous saying about military matters: “Si vis pacem, para bellum”—he who desires peace should prepare for war. Given that the Secretary of State, the man who runs the Department, has told us that we are in a pre-war world, surely we had better start preparing for it, if we are to have any chance whatsoever of preventing it, and we should now do that in earnest, before it is too late.

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

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I know that he is coming towards the end of his speech. Would he care to remark on a couple of slightly more optimistic features of deterrence, because deterrence of conventional forces depends on far more than an equal balance of equipment, even though, as he says, we are nowhere near achieving that? It also depends on our allies and others who will fight in the same cause. Does he not accept that it is not just enough to take our defence spending up to 3% or more, such as the 5% we regularly spent through the cold war, but essential to ensure that our American allies remain totally involved in the deterrence process and that the Ukrainians succeed in fending off Russia, because if they succeed we can contain Russia in the future, as we successfully did in the past?

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I agree with every word my right hon. Friend, the former eminent Chairman of the Defence Committee, just said. My one caveat is that the MOD’s excuse for these capability gaps is that we can rely on allies to fight with us. But they will be relying on us, and if we are unable to support them or they are on wartime tasks elsewhere, things might go horribly wrong.

I say all of this not just as someone who served proudly as a Territorial Army infantry officer in my local Royal Anglian Regiment during the cold war; not just as someone who is still very proud to carry the late Queen’s commission; not just as a former veterans and then Armed Forces Minister in the Ministry of Defence, albeit almost a decade ago; but most of all, as I said at Prime Minister’s questions last week, as the devoted son of a D-day veteran. Stoker 1st Class Reginald Francois died when I was 14 years of age. He told me one night of the carnage—his word—that he witnessed that day, albeit from offshore, on a minesweeper named HMS Bressay. In the afternoon, they were opposite Omaha beach.

Let me quote Shakespeare’s famous phrase:

“This story shall the good man teach his son.”

My father was a good man. The story that he told me was of a country that eventually, reluctantly, had to go to war against the evil of Nazi tyranny because for years its politicians had been so parsimonious—he actually said “tight”—and so naive that when Nazism emerged, we completely failed to deter it. That is the lesson of the 1930s, but it was also his lesson to me.

My father made me take a solemn vow that, as his son, I would never take living in a free country for granted, because, as he said, too many good men had died to achieve it. Two years after we had that conversation, he was dead. That is why I am here this afternoon. That is why I came into politics in the first place. As a wartime serviceman, my father was a great admirer of Winston Churchill, our greatest ever Prime Minister, who led this country through a war of national survival and then lost a general election for his trouble. When I walked into the Chamber earlier this afternoon, I could still see the damage caused when the Chamber was bombed in 1941. Churchill insisted that it not be repaired, lest we forget, and he was right.

In summary, I may not be my father’s contemporary, that famously courageous MP, Leo Amery, so I cannot claim to “speak for England” on this matter, but I was elected to speak for the people of Rayleigh and Wickford, and so, on their behalf, I issue this stark warning today. The skies are darkening. Brutal dictators with powerful weapons at their disposal are on the rise. The democracies are on the backfoot rather than the front. History tells us time and again, and indeed ad nauseam, that the appeasement of dictators—be they called Adolf Hitler or Vladimir Putin—does not work. We should be increasing the defence budget to at least 3% of GDP—what my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis used to call “at least three to keep us free”—not cutting it, as we now are, and pretending that we are not. The first duty of Government, above all others, is the defence of the realm, and we forget that at our peril. Si vis pacem, para bellum.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley 12:40, 21 March 2024

The debate encompasses a wide range of issues. My colleague on the Defence Committee, Mr Francois, outlined some of them. I will focus on one aspect: industrial capacity, by which I mean not only the big, well-known manufacturing plants, or the well-known prime companies that we often rightly hear from in the national media, but their extended supply chains and material suppliers, and equally their often under-remarked-on workforce—not just the engineers and craftsmen but the crucial production workers, who are vital for ramping up production and our ability to surge in a crisis. We have experienced difficulties with that in response to the war in Ukraine.

Many in that supply chain also sell to the civilian market, including the public sector. Many of the specialist engineering companies in the midlands supply Formula 1, civil aviation and premium vehicles, as well as defence. They need orders from defence and from public sector bodies to maintain their workload and employment, and to train the workforce of the future. That is why—this will be a theme throughout my contribution—a whole-of-Government approach is necessary. Underlying that is the question of whether we are in a new environment or just an oscillation. Basically, is there a war going on? The people of Ukraine certainly know that. The Baltic nations, Poland, Finland and Sweden know that. It does not mean that war is inevitable, but it certainly means that it is now possible, and failure to respond will actually make it more likely.

One has to question whether the commentariat and the British establishment understand that. The Government need to make clear their view on the state of international relations. Do they regard the invasion of Ukraine by Russia as an interlude—a very bloody one—after which the situation will return to something approximating normal, albeit not the status quo ante, or has there in fact been a tectonic shift, and are we at best back in the cold war, although with a hot war going on in Ukraine and the danger of extension elsewhere along the new iron curtain that is descending over Europe? That is clearly understood not just by the politicians and the defence establishment, but by the publics in Sweden and Finland, with a dramatic shift in opinion, after centuries of neutrality, and their historic decision to join NATO and become very active participants.

Even so, across NATO, there is not that sense of urgency, or a clear realisation of the crisis. Only this week, the boss of the Scandinavian ammunition company Nammo was in the press pointing out that societies were still in peacetime mode. He gave the example of its factory in Norway, which needs additional electricity supply capacity in order to expand. A new site for TikTok has been created nearby, but the factory cannot get enough electricity. He rightly pointed out that the defence of western Europe is slightly more important than cat videos on TikTok. He contrasted that with the Defence Production Act in the United States, which was the Truman-era response to the Korean war, based on the Franklin D. Roosevelt War Powers Act. It gives extensive powers to the US Government, and they are using them. That is why they are responding to the weaknesses in procurement and ramping up production capacity, including through several Government-owned and Government-constructed, company-operated plants. Will the Minister indicate whether our Government are looking at that as a possible mechanism?

Do the Government recognise the fragility of the supply situation? Recent crises such as covid, and the situation in the Red sea and Ukraine, have already shown how vulnerable our supply chains are, and many firms and customers are finding that the so-called cheapest option can end up being very expensive. To be fair, that applies not just to the United Kingdom; all around the world, companies are finding that extended supply lines and single points of failure at home or abroad can have very damaging consequences. The discussion has shifted, and now there is much talk about reshoring, near-shoring and friend-shoring. I am not sure how much of that has penetrated the calcified mindset of our Treasury and the senior civil service, but I hope that the Minister will be able to shed some light on that.

This is not a Eurocentric issue; we must also be aware of the increasing tension in the Gulf, particularly arising from the destabilising impact of Iran and its proxies across the middle east and north Africa, as well as the increasingly aggressive attitude of China, which is why deepening relations through AUKUS and with Japan is so necessary and welcome. I hope that the Minister can report on the success this week at the AUKMIN—Australia-UK ministerial consultations—and AUKUS conferences taking place in Australia. We fully understand why the Secretary of State is there today, rather than responding to this debate.

We have to be clear that these problems did not come out of a clear blue sky. They were shown to us some years ago. The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford identified the evidence that we had from an American general. When the Americans conducted an exercise with the British Army about an outbreak of conflict in Europe, we basically ran out of munitions in about 10 days, but nothing was done about it. Even once the conflict started in Ukraine in February 2022, and it soon became clear that artillery would play a major role in it, the Ministry of Defence did not place an order for new shells until July 2023. The Minister cannot complain that I have not given him notice of this issue; I have raised it several times in previous debates, and have never had a satisfactory answer about that delay. We cannot afford that degree of indecision going forward. It is not as though we have not had shell crises before; we had one in 1915, which brought down the Government. I am afraid that there does not seem to be much collective institutional memory in the civil service today.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

We are giving £2.5 billion in the next financial year to Ukraine, and it is money well spent, but we cannot spend the same pound twice, so does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we rightly give that money to Ukraine, we cannot then spend it on Army salaries, British shells or submarine maintenance? In other words, it is for the Ukrainians; it is not part of the UK defence budget, is it?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Well, it is unfortunately scored as being in the UK defence budget, and in the claim that we are keeping up defence expenditure; that masks an actual cut in British domestic defence spending. It is absolutely right that we supply the Ukrainians—I think we should be supplying more—as they are on the frontline and are carrying the fight. We—not just us, but the rest of Europe, the United States and the free world—should be backing them up with matériel. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that trying to slip that into the defence budget, rather than it being part of our national commitment, is the wrong way of handling it.

Even with new production, I am still not clear—perhaps the Minister will clarify this—on what is happening with the increasing capacity for propellants and explosives. Across the western world, very few points—just two or three factories—are capable of making them, and they are stretched to capacity. I understand that difficulty, but I want to know what is being done to create new capacity. I know that the United States is doing it, but what are we doing here and in Europe? In that context, I commend the article from Iain Martin in The Daily Telegraph, in which he says that, whatever our differences with other European countries over the EU and Brexit, we should certainly be working much more closely on maintaining and creating new defence capacity—not just military but industrial as well.

Although I accept that the Government and this House must take the lead, others must follow. If we are, as I have been arguing, in a new defence environment, the City of London and the finance houses must accept their responsibilities. They must make it clear that not only is investment in defence a good investment as it leads part of British manufacturing, but it is their patriotic duty and part of the defence of the free world. However, getting that message across and changing the mindset needs a whole-of-Government approach, not just the involvement of the Ministry of Defence and those of us in the House who are interested in the subject.

As I said to union representatives in the evidence session, the unions have tens of thousands of members in the defence and aerospace sector. They should not stand idly by while mobs try to shut down their workplaces. Only this week, we had demonstrations outside GE Aerospace in Cheltenham, which was, for over a century, the Smiths factory. There have also been protests outside the Leonardo site in Edinburgh, which I presume is the old Ferranti site. I hope that unions are backing not just their members’ employment but the national interest, and will look at whether any funding is going to bodies that are organising to shut those places.

I fully acknowledge the issues facing our uniformed forces, as well as their expertise and commitment. I am pleased that others will highlight their contribution. I regret that the Government have taken their commitment for granted. In any conflict, supply and resupply are crucial. Conflicts are won not just on the battlefield, but—sometimes even more so—in our factories and those of our allies. That is why we need a rethink, a reset and a recovery of lost ground. Will the Government take up that challenge?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire 12:53, 21 March 2024

We face a world of complexity and threat unparalleled in our recent modern experience. Scanning across Europe, south-east Asia and the middle east, we see that this is a world where there are threats emerging, or already in place, to which we as a nation, with our allies, must attend and deal with. We do so in an environment where the most powerful—or almost most powerful—mechanisms affecting our lives are working every day: the effect of technology and changes in price. Their effect is to bring forward new ways of making war that might have been unimaginable two years ago. They have the effect of bringing new actors—private actors, not merely states—into the picture; that might have been unimaginable just a few years ago. We see evolution rapidly occurring in the nature of the threat that we must deal with.

The report produced by the Select Committee, which I was proud to join earlier this year, is in my view not just an exemplary piece of work, but testimony to the Committee’s quality. I speak as someone who sat for five years on the Treasury Committee —no slouch when it comes to quality and expertise—and then chaired a Select Committee myself. I have been deeply impressed by the quality of thought, the experience and the attention that my colleagues and Clerks have brought to these matters. The report is a very good example of that.

Crucially, the report brings out some of the foundational assumptions that have not yet been adequately tested in our defence thinking. It is above all about our readiness; not just our operational and warfighting readiness, but our strategic readiness and our capacity to think ahead to where the escalating, multiplying and developing threat might be in future, and how we can, in a full spirit of resilience, prepare for it. I congratulate the Committee on its work. I have been proud to be associated with it, and congratulate those who made previous contributions to this excellent debate.

We know, because there is ample historical evidence, that democracies can fight wars with an intensity and endurance that is not available to autocracies. However, it has historically taken democratic states time to get moving—time to move public opinion; time to bring the people, the demos, with the politicians and with Government, in order to bring the full resources of a nation to bear. In the modern world, we may not have time to do that; we must start to prepare now—and not just our warfighting capability. It has rightly been highlighted today that we are moving from a post-war to a pre-war world. In that sense, we must give the need for resolution and resilience the profile that it requires among people across the country.

It is not the first time that these matters have occurred, as the House will well know. In the 18th century—a time when this country was more or less continuously at war, with relatively small intervals of peace—there was a period when there was tremendous concern about the effects of commercial society and peace. There was a worry that martial virtue might yield to “luxury” and “softness”, as it was put. We must be aware of that problem; we see it everywhere. I myself was in eastern Europe before 1989. I have experienced what it is like to live under a communist country and in the shadow of Russia. It is nothing that anyone in this House should feel the tiniest appetite to even glimpse, let alone endure or invite our citizens or allies to contemplate. We must be absolutely resolute in thinking about how we can ensure a gradual process—without the loss of our democratic values, and given our constraints—to ready our people for strategic decisions in due course. Everyone in this House prays that it will never happen, but we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that there could be some development for which we are, as yet, inadequately prepared. We must address that as a matter of money, organisation and, of course, talent.

We must fill the strategic gap in our thinking—a gap that is only being accelerated by the rapid growth in artificial intelligence, which threatens to upend not just many of the resources and systems that we use in this country, but much of the strategic thinking that we are bringing to the whole question of what it is to be at war. If Members doubt that, they should look at the work that is being done. My right hon. Friend Mr Francois rightly mentioned maskirovka: the use of AI in mimicry, spoofing and false-flag operations. That is something that we as a country are just beginning to get our head around, even at an advanced defence and security level.

We have an escalating series of security challenges. The solution to them is not more state, as such, but a much more intelligent deployment of the relationship between states and markets; between the public and the private; and between the secret, the grey and the not-so-secret. We have to bring all those resources with us if we are going to be successful, and we have to be more emphatic about the desperate need for competence. That means competence not just in our civil service and our military capability, and of course in the agencies that work alongside them, but in this House. Our political parties have a responsibility to develop, recruit, enable, understand, enfranchise and promote talent, and I put it to the House that no political party is doing that adequately at the moment. We should have chief talent officers in political parties—people actively thinking about where we can find competence, capability, knowledge and experience, and how we can deploy those things in this great Chamber in which we have the honour to sit.

The deep issue here, if I may say so, is not just that we have a civil service that is—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford mentioned—preoccupied with process in a way that is understandable in peace but, I am afraid, inadequate to the preparation for war. It is not just that there is a preoccupation with process over outcome, when outcome is the only thing that matters when we are trying to deliver a capability; it is that we as a nation have not yet made the intellectual, moral, emotional and spiritual shift towards deeply preparing for a pre-war situation. If I may make a party political point for a second, the Government have done a splendid job in starting to take control of a very difficult fiscal situation, which they inherited and was built up through crisis over the past few years, but to what end?

As was said famously by a man nearly 250 years ago in Bristol, we come to this House not as a “congress of ambassadors”, but as

“a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest”.

That interest cannot be sectionalised, including within Government. I say that as a former Financial Secretary; my Chairman, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeremy Quin, is also a former Financial Secretary, and we do not say that the budget for defence should go up because we want to be profligate, nor that there should be anything less than proper constraint and proper scrutiny of the long-term spending of this country, but it must go up. That must be shared across both parties; it must be something that even the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer should bear in mind and account for in this Chamber as if they were preparing for war, so that we can all know that they have come to terms with the compromises, difficulties and challenges that we all face today.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 1:02, 21 March 2024

I begin by joining the Chair of the Defence Committee, Sir Jeremy Quin, in thanking the men and women of our armed forces—we should never forget their dedication. It is often said that the first duty of government is to keep the nation safe and protect its citizens, but we have a Conservative party that has admitted that it has “hollowed out” defence. We have had a return to war in Europe and growing threats around the world, as has been explained, and we now need a clear-eyed vision of what we need to do in defence. It is about deterrence—there has been a lot of talk about warfighting, but the success of defence is in deterring action from happening.

We need to recognise how we have got to where we are today. I hear all the calls from Conservative Members for increases in defence expenditure. I do not question those individuals’ commitment or dedication, because I know that many of them are very committed individuals who believe in defence, as I do. However, I find it a little ironic that between 2010 and 2016, the defence budget in this country was cut by 18%. Even with the increase, the defence budget is still 7% lower than it was in 2010, and the Budget on 6 March included a cut in the defence budget. I hear all the stirring cries for increasing the defence budget, but we did not get into this situation by accident.

In 2010, we had a Conservative-led coalition Government who tried to scare the public by saying that they inherited a £36 billion black hole in the defence budget. That was absolute nonsense. The figure came from a 2009 NAO report on the equipment budget that said that there was a £6 billion black hole in that budget, and that if we had flat cash for the next 10 years, the figure would be £30 billion. The spin doctors added another £6 billion to that figure, and it became the myth that was reiterated.

That myth masked what the Government were really up to, which was slashing the defence budget over that period, and we are still seeing the consequences of those decisions. Mr Francois, whom I respect, talked about a 1930s moment. I agree that we are in a 1930s moment—the similarities are there. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Conservative Government cut defence expenditure, including Winston Churchill, who admitted it in later life.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he cut defence expenditure, so there are parallels there, but not the ones that the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford is referring to.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Another key feature of that era was the Treasury’s 10-year rule of basing defence expenditure on the assumption that there would not be a war in Europe within the next 10 years, which rather unravelled at the end of the 1930s.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

It did. If we look back, the common theme —it is a matter of fact, whether people like it or not—is that we have defence cuts under Conservative Governments, and when Labour is in power we maintain or increase the defence budget.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I hope this does not come across as nit-picking—it is important. The 10-year rule, which was a rolling 10 years, was not just a Treasury policy: it was the policy of the entire Government, and it was not rescinded by the incoming Labour Government in the 1920s. It was the policy of the whole Government, and it was only rescinded in the mid-1930s, a few years after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. It is important to get that right.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The right hon. Gentleman has got that on the record. I am not going to get into a history lesson about the 10-year rule—I think the history books tell the story—but we have seen what happened from 2010 onwards.

We have had a cut of 40,000 personnel in our armed forces, and it is not just about numbers; it is about experience. Individuals were made compulsorily redundant. If I had made people compulsorily redundant when I was a Defence Minister, The Sun and the right-wing press in this country would have been shouting from the rooftops, but they did absolutely nothing, and we lost experience. One in five of our ships was removed, as were more than 200 aircraft, and the satisfaction rating among our armed forces personnel is now below 50%. We have had a system over the past few years that has wasted money, as we have chronicled in our report, and we actually now have the £30 billion black hole in our equipment budget that was predicted in 2009, as the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend Dame Meg Hillier, has referred to.

This is not about whether the defence budget is 2%, 3% or 5%. It is about looking at how we have got into this situation, and how we change it—how we face the challenges that confront us today. Whichever party is in government after the next election will have to face those challenges, but we have to get away from British exceptionalism. We have great ambitions to be a global power, like some kind of imperial power. I am sorry, but we are not. We can continue that myth ad infinitum, but unless we link the resource to the ambition, it is not going to work.

For the past few years, we have had the nonsense slogan of “global Britain”—some pre-imperialist view of what we are doing around the world. I am sorry, but it is absolute nonsense. We have to look at what we can do to protect our own defence. The idea that we are going to be a major player in anything that happens in the south-east of the South China sea—that having two offshore patrol vessels based in Singapore is going to deter the Chinese—is nonsense. If anything happens there, frankly, any commitment that we could give is like a gnat on the backside of an elephant compared with what the Americans would be able to do. We have to be realistic about that.

What do we need to do? We need to look at what we must deliver as part of our NATO commitments. We also need to get away from the myth—and it is a myth, in our Army in particular—that we will deliver a force of divisional strength under any NATO commitment. We cannot do it now, we have not been able to do it for quite a few years, and we just need to be realistic about that. We need to sit down with NATO and look at what we can contribute to European defence. Clearly, the nuclear deterrent is a key part of that. However, do we, for example, need a full spectrum Army? No, we do not. We need to plug into our NATO allies, and ask what we can deliver well as part of the overall defence against the threat coming not only from Russia in Europe, but increasingly from China in the north Atlantic as we get global warming and the opening of sea lanes.

There is an idea that we will be sending aircraft carriers around the world. No, we will not. We need to commit them to NATO, and that means some very tough decisions. It also means that we need a mindset change. We have to be honest with the public about this, and say that we will not be able to do everything. There are then some hard decisions to be taken about the armed forces. For example, we should say to the Army, “We’re not going to be doing that, but we are going to do this very well. We will dovetail that into NATO commitments, and actually make a real difference.” There are big decisions that will have to be taken by any Government, whoever gets in after the next election.

Please let us get away from the myth—and it is a myth—that we will be going around the world and intervening in every single conflict. For example, look at the air strikes on the Houthis in the last few weeks. We have contributed four aircraft because we want to be seen to be alongside the Americans, but I would ask: what is the strategy for doing that? There is no strategy. Okay, we have bombed the Houthis, but is that going to resolve the situation? No, it is not. Does it show that Britain is a global power? No, it does not. Frankly, we do not have the resources, unless someone will say that the defence budget is going to be 3%, 4%, 5%, 6% or 7%, but no Government are going to commit to that.

I say to Conservative Members and the commentariat in our right-wing press that they should just be honest with the British people about what we can do. We can and do have a valuable role to play in NATO and we have willing partners that want to work with us. I am certainly very excited about Sweden and Finland joining, although we need to make sure that we actually get those commitments. As I say, some hard decisions have to be taken and there are some home truths for our armed forces. As the Chair of the PAC said, there are capabilities that we will just have to get out of. We will have to say, “We’re not going to do that, but we’re going to do this and we’re going to do it well, and we are going to contribute,” and that will maximise our influence.

On China, people ask: do we just forget about the South China sea? No, we do not. We use our strong diplomacy, and our great and fantastic abilities with technology and other things in those areas, but it is not about deploying people or equipment out there. Frankly, the sooner we get the reality of such a wake-up call, the better. I will always call, and I have always called, for increased defence expenditure, but I will not do so if it is just to try to plug a vision that will never ever be achieved. We need to make sure that we spend that money well.

That leads on to the point about skills raised by my right hon. Friend John Spellar. We need to see any defence expenditure as potential growth in our economy. However, we are not doing that if we are giving contracts to the United States, or to Spain for fleet solid support ships, and not thinking about growing our defence industries here. I accept that there has to be international collaboration, but we must have give and take. The idea that the French would ever give an FSS ship contract to a Spanish shipyard, frankly, is just—

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

It is laughable, as my right hon. Friend says. We need to make sure that we actually invest, because this is about skills and about ensuring that we have the workforce.

We have seen the effects when we just pull out of such work. We cannot look at our skills base as a tap, which we turn on when we want it and turn off again when we do not. We cannot do so, because we have seen the costs of that—for example, on the Astute programme. To be political, it was again the Conservative Government who stopped building submarines, so we had a gap in skills, and it has taken all the effort recently to rebuild that skills base and ensure we get it back. We must have such a skills base continually, and that has to be done by working with our European allies. Whether the zealots of Brexit and the anti-Europeans like it or not, if we are talking about things such as stockpiles, we do have to work with allies and make sure that we can deliver them through the supply chain we have.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

No. I am sorry, but I do not have the time.

I now come on to what will happen after the next general election. Is there going to be a massive increase in defence expenditure whoever wins the election? No, there is not. We know that, so let us just tell the public that. What we need to ensure is that we get the maximum effect from what we do spend. My right hon. Friend John Healey, who speaks for the Labour party on defence, will—if he gets the job—have a big task facing him if we are successful at the next general election. My heart sinks a little when he talks about reviews. Yes, we need to have a review, but we also need action straightaway.

It is now critical that we take some key decisions, and there are very difficult discussions to be had, not just with the British people about where Britain is realistically in the world today, but with some of the members of the armed forces and the chiefs, in saying, “We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it well, and we’re going to make sure we are safe as a nation.” Is that defeatism or saying that Britain is finished? No, it is not. I think we have a proud future, and we have some great military and diplomatic assets, including in the way we do things. However, we should not delude ourselves that we will be going back to some pre-Suez or pre-second world war global Britain as an imperialist power. We are just not going to be able to do that, and I think we have to be honest with the British people.

There also now has to be speed. As my right hon. Friend John Spellar said about munition shelling, we cannot have a situation in which it takes a year for munition stocks to be replaced. The tempo has to be increased, so action will have to be taken very quickly. I am all in favour of a review and a study of policy—in the last few years in this country we have lacked any thought-out policy work or strategy, and we need that—but we also need action.

It is a daunting task that will face any Government after the next general election, but let us be proud of the members of our armed forces, who work on our behalf to keep us secure. There is an impression that defence is somehow a Conservative issue; I am sorry, but it is not a Conservative issue. A lot of the men and women in our armed forces come from the poorest and most deprived communities in our country, but they are proud to serve their country, and I think we should be proud of them. We should give them the clear commitment that they have our backing, but be clear with them that we must be realistic about the tasks we ask them to do to keep us safe.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes 1:17, 21 March 2024

It is an honour to take part in this debate. I pay tribute to the Defence Committee and the Public Accounts Committee for what I agree are exceptionally good reports. I echo my right hon. Friend Jesse Norman on that point.

This is possibly the most important speech I will give as an MP, and I do so on behalf of the military in my constituency of Devizes. I have the honour to represent the garrison towns of Tidworth, Bulford, Larkhill and others. I went up on Salisbury plain recently with Colonel Matt Palmer, the commander of the Army in the south-west, who showed me with the sweep of his arm where 20,000 of our armed forces live and work. As my right hon. Friend said, we are not here just as ambassadors for our constituencies; I am going to speak in my role as an MP about the essential imperative of national security.

I will, however, first make another local point. In the Devizes constituency is the site of the battle of Roundway Down, which was the most successful battle in the royalist cause in the English civil war, in that it gave the south-west to the King for the next two years. I mention the battle of Roundway Down, because it was that defeat of the parliamentary forces that spurred the reform of the parliamentary army. That led to the creation of the new model army, which of course went on to win the civil war, and transformed the way in which the military in this country and across Europe was organised for decades to come. The lesson of the new model army and the reforms that happened in short order in the 1640s was not about a major new doctrine of warfighting, but about the imperative of having a well equipped, well trained, well led army that is innovative, agile, professional and with high morale. We need that again.

I mention that because it is on my mind, having yesterday had the pleasure of attending a session at the Royal United Services Institute organised by the New Bletchley foundation led by Brigadier Nigel Hall. It is issuing a report with input from a galaxy of distinguished former generals and other experts. Sir Richard Barrons was on the panel, as were Professor Michael Clark and others. They put forward a short report that Members can find online on a proposal for a reconfigured Army. The point the panel made—it has been made repeatedly in this debate—is simple: we have to be ready to fight the war we wish to deter. That means really ready, not just ready on paper or ready plausibly in a way that might convince someone on a doorstep that we are making sufficient investment in the Army. We need to know that we are ready, and crucially our enemy needs to know that. I echo the points made by the Chair of the Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeremy Quin and by my right hon. Friend Mr Francois that our enemies know what our capabilities are. They will not be deceived by spin from a press officer in Whitehall. It is essential that we are ready to fight the war.

The sad fact—there is no point sugar-coating it, given the point I have just made—is that we are not ready to fight the war we wish to deter. The reports make that plain. I have great respect for Ministers on the Front Bench, and I recognise the genuine investments going into parts of our armed forces, which are extremely welcome in my constituency, but the fact is, as General Barrons said yesterday,

“we are back in a moment of existential risk in an era of great power confrontation”.

Laying aside the fantasies of the post-cold war world of our being somehow beyond war and in an era of minor peacekeeping operations, we are back in a sense in the mid-20th century, with the crucial difference of the high-tech domains with which we are now coming to terms. Unlike the mid-20th century, we have hollowed out our Army over the past 30 years, and I echo the powerful points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford made drawing a comparison with the 1930s—that “low dishonest decade”, as it has famously been called. We now have three decades where we have suffered disinvestment.

While I acknowledge the major funding commitments being made to the armed forces, I highlight that they are insufficient at the moment. I recognise that abstract percentages of GDP are in a sense secondary to the real question of how we spend money and where it goes, but those figures are important, and the basic fact is that we need to be spending more than 2% or 2.5%, and at least 3%. If we consider the worst coming to the worst, and the US withdrawing its NATO commitments, as we hear threatened from time to time, across the NATO alliance we would all be needing to reach at least 4% just to maintain NATO’s current strength.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

A recent meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly that I attended assessed that it would need to be an increase of 5% of GDP on top of current spend, were the Americans to pull out.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. These figures seem extraordinarily large to us, but if we consider the worst coming to the worst, and our being in a hot war in Europe, we would be back to spending significantly more. It was 50% of GDP in world war two, so the figures we are talking about are essentially marginal in light of the potential.

The point has been made—it cannot be made enough—that before defence gets more money, it needs to spend its own money better. I echo the points made about the importance of procurement reform. The Public Accounts Committee report is damning. There is a £17 billion deficit between the MOD’s budget and its official capability requirements, which is perhaps an underestimate, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford said, given how these numbers are calculated. I am concerned about that.

To make a quick point in passing, I would be interested in the Minister’s thoughts when he winds up about the nuclear budget. There is real concern about how Trident’s replacement will be accounted for. There is a danger that if that is just part of general MOD capital expenditure, it could end up cannibalising conventional weapons. It is important, given the long-standing tradition, that we keep nuclear separate from conventional weapons budgets.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Given what the hon. Gentleman has just said, does he agree that it would be good to have tighter scrutiny of that spending, which might mean a new system set up so that we can look at sensitive matters?

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

I defer to those on the Front Bench on what transparency is appropriate, but I recognise the point made in the hon. Lady’s Committee’s report and I think in the Defence Committee report about the difficulty of getting the information that the Committees need to do their work. I recognise that nuclear is identified as a separate line in the budget and is protected in theory, but I am concerned about what might be a marginal increase in this enormous budget. It is around a quarter of our total defence spending. If that increases even marginally and the shortfall has to be made up from our conventional defence budget, that entails a significant reduction in that conventional spending, which is so important at the present time.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

According to the MOD’s own figures in the latest supplementary estimates, the amount we are spending on what it calls the defence nuclear enterprise is now gusting towards 20%. Everything my hon. Friend says about the risk of that gradually eating everything else is entirely correct.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. If we managed to get the genuine increase in defence spending that is needed, the question then arises of how to spend that and where the money should go. I say this not just on behalf of the 20,000 or so defence personnel in Wiltshire, but because it is the right thing to do: we need to put people first. I recognise that there has been a significant step change in the doctrine of defence policy in recent years towards the recognition that an army is fundamentally about its people, and I respect that. The fact is, probably because of the many decades of disinvestment, that we have problems of low morale, low pay, often poor housing and a shoestring training budget, all of which contribute to the recruitment crisis we have in the armed forces that my right hon. Friend mentioned.

The PAC report makes clear that we are losing people faster than we can recruit them, and that is entirely unacceptable. We have to improve recruitment. The Public Accounts Committee heard that for every five people recruited to the armed services, eight are leaving. That is a national security crisis. It is not just a problem for recruitment, but a profound security risk.

I recognise the point that Dame Meg Hillier made that we have had too many reviews, so I hesitate to use the word—if I could think of another word, I would use it—but we need a quick total review of the people issue in our armed forces. It could be done quickly and all it probably entails is an amalgamation of all the work done by others, but I would like to see that with a great degree of urgency. It should look at recruitment, terms and conditions, families—crucially—and onward progression in all three services, so that we can with the urgency required turn around the recruitment crisis.

Having made the general point about the importance of investment in people, I come quickly to the major services of the armed forces, and first is the Navy. It is important that we invest in all five domains, including in the grey zone and sub-threshold activity, which are so important. Our principal specialism in the United Kingdom historically and now remains our sea power. It is a good thing we are moving towards a maritime strategy. I recognise that is the Government’s priority, and I say that as a representative of a land-locked county with all these soldiers in it. Nevertheless, we need significant investment in the Navy. We would all like to see these things, but let us actually do it and have more submarines, more escorts and more minesweepers. We need seabed warfare vessels. On that point, I call the House’s attention to a report from Policy Exchange a month or so ago talking about western approaches and the significant threat we face in these islands and across Europe to undersea infrastructure. It is fundamentally our responsibility on behalf of Europe to protect that.

I have mentioned the new model army and the New Bletchley report, and I would like to see a real commitment to a reformed and modernised Army. We have to recognise the point made by the former Chief of the Defence Staff Nick Carter when he said that the Army is the weakest of the three services. That is a sad state of affairs. I suppose one has to be the weakest; I am sorry it is the Army. There are big questions over our ability to field a division in Europe, as promised to NATO. According to a senior US officer, the UK cannot even be called a tier 1 power. I understand that the Committees were told by a former commander of joint forces command that our Army will not be ready to fulfil its NATO commitments until the early 1930s. Indeed, that was the assumption of the integrated review, so in a we are sense back to the 10-year rule, which is not how things should be. [Interruption.] Did I say 1930s?

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

I think we are up to speed on that— the 2030s.

The case for investment in the Army is obvious, and the good news is that it is easier, quicker and cheaper to refit and upscale the Army than it is the Navy, because kit is smaller and cheaper. However, we do not just need the same Army but a bigger one. We need a medium-sized Army that is bespoke for the job that will be done—Mr Jones made the right point about the sort of Army we need. The Army needs, in a resonant phrase, to defend these islands, but it also needs to act in partnership with other services and with our allies in the west. We do not need another great new major continental army such as the one the Poles are building. We need a rapid reaction joint expeditionary force that is agile, mobile, and able to do the job that is required, in partnership with our allies.

On the sphere of operations, ultimately our commitments need to reflect the threats we face. In a sense, those are classified, and I recognise the challenge that the Committees have had in identifying what our capabilities are, and the tasks that Ministers set for them, because we cannot always know exactly what those threats are, with defence planning assumptions now classified. Nevertheless, I echo a point made by the right hon. Member for North Durham: I am delighted about AUKUS, which is a tremendous step forward in our international role and a great thing for British security. I am not averse to those global arrangements—they are absolutely right. I loved the deployment of the Queen Elizabeth and the carrier strike group to Japan.

Fundamentally, however, we are, and should be, committed to the defence of the Euro-Atlantic area, and for that purpose we must restore the mass of our own armed forces and Army. That means growing our capabilities here at home. We need more regulars, and to get back towards having 80,000 or 90,000 regular forces. We must significantly grow the reserve force because 30,000 is not enough, even if that figure of 30,000 is real, which I do not believe it is. The campaign to grow our reserves is necessary not just for its own sake, but as a great exercise in communication to the public about the imperative for us all to step up and play our role in the defence of our country.

There is a great deal of concern, which I think is misplaced, about the attitude of the British people to fighting. We had that in the 1930s, with lots of people saying that the British would not fight, but of course they would, of course they did, and of course they will if they have to answer their country’s call. That is young people in particular. They will do it with irony, and certainly with memes, but they will do it and sign up if they need to. This is not an abstraction. We have already seen in the past year or two what war in our region means. It means inflation—imagine that tenfold if a war breaks out in which our country is directly involved—and cyber-attacks on a terrible scale.

We are now at a turning point, as so many Members have said, and it is time for all of us as a country to step up. There is an opportunity and an imperative for us to strengthen our nation. It is about industrial resilience and our own food supply; it is about our supply chains, and our steel and manufacturing capacity. There is a huge opportunity, as Dame Meg Hillier said, in the importance of the industrial supply chain. This is a time for us all to do what is needed.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am getting concerned because although I do not have a problem with interventions, some of the speeches have been not 13 minutes but 16 minutes, and that means we then have pressure for the Front-Bench speeches to be shorter than we hope them to be. If colleagues take interventions, I ask them to please still try to keep within the limit. Another debate is due to start at 3 o’clock, and I must get as near to that as I possibly can.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 1:33, 21 March 2024

I echo the positive words that have been spoken already this afternoon about the reports from the Public Accounts and Defence Committees, and it is timely that we get all this out into the open. In the Budget earlier this month, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that defence spending “will rise to 2.5% as soon as economic conditions allow.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2024; Vol. 746, c. 846.]

What indications has the Minister had from the Prime Minister and Chancellor about when economic conditions might allow? What are the conditions that might allow, and when might they be met?

This week the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Dame Meg Hillier, gave an interview to the i newspaper, in which she described “big nasties” facing public spending. She talked about “slow politics”, where decisions are made with a long-term strategic perspective at the forefront. That is especially pertinent when it comes to defence capabilities. As we are entering a period of global uncertainty, it is concerning to read in the PAC report that there are glaring discrepancies around how spending is identified for single services. For example, the report highlights the way that planned spending is reported. Whereas the Royal Navy includes all costs in its plans, creating an on-paper deficit of more than £15 billion, the Army includes only what estimates it can afford, resulting in a running deficit of about £1.2 billion. Had the Army followed the same procedures as the Royal Navy, its deficit would soar to over £13 billion. Such inconsistency in budget reporting is, I am sure, not a deliberate lack of transparency, but it can bring about distrust when it comes to planned defence spending.

The Defence Committee’s “Ready for War?” report stresses the need to replenish our much depleted munitions stockpiles. It highlights that there has been a “hollowing out” over the past 14 years—we have heard that talked about, including from the Dispatch Boxes—but that has been brought into sharp relief by an emboldened, aggressive, nationalist Russian state. If we cannot co-ordinate defence spending in a clear manner, we risk weakening the perception of our defence capabilities. The issue of the budget deficit goes further, with the Committee highlighting a £16.9 billion deficit over 10 years, due in part to rising inflation. We know that defence inflation is greater than other measures of inflation, partly because a lot of our defence equipment is imported from overseas, particularly the United States.

There is a 62% increase in spending on the Defence Nuclear Organisation, and the report states that defence spending would need to increase to around 2.5% of GDP to plug that gap. Ministers are entrenching the uncertainty around budget planning, meaning that important projects risk being deprioritised. At present, the defence budget is thought to be about 2.1%, and some measures try to include our defence commitment to Ukraine, so that it might rise to 2.25%. The MOD said that the difference between 2.25% and 2.5% of GDP is about £6 billion or £7 billion. There are important reasons why that increase might be necessary. Although we spend 2.1% on defence as a whole, around 6% of that goes to fund our nuclear capabilities. Prior to 2010, the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent was kept out of Ministry of Defence spending measures and held centrally, whereas now it is all included in the defence budget, meaning that our conventional spending has seen a great deal of squeeze over the last decade-plus.

By failing to invest in our armed forces over a sustained period, we have heard cries of operational readiness being affected, and people crying about overstretch. I recall that word from my own service about 20 years ago, when people were declaring that the armed forces were running hot and that they were overstretched. That is why it is essential for Governments to know how much they can commit their armed forces. That comes back to what we used to call the defence planning assumptions about how many operational overseas deployments might take place simultaneously. Up until 2015, those defence planning assumptions were published, but since 2015 they have not been published and have been very much held behind a cloak. I see no real reason from a security perspective or from the point of view of what our adversaries might think, for keeping those withheld. As was pointed out to the Defence Committee, our adversaries probably know our capabilities well, and they will be analysing our intentions. It is arguably better to be transparent about those defence planning assumptions if that means a reduction in the call on the armed forces by other Departments of Government.

In recent years, we have seen that a lot, with Departments having sought to use the armed forces for military aid to the civil authorities, whether for ambulance strikes or to cover for the fire service. The armed forces have been pulled in for those roles and taken away from training, which is essential to their mission. Transparency is very much required.

When that is combined with the persistent issues of repeated cuts and reductions in personnel, our armed forces could be in an even more challenging place than is currently suggested. We really need to sort this out. Mr Francois referred to the recent speech by the Secretary of State for Defence about moving from a post-war period to a pre-war era. I was alarmed to hear that speech. I am an advocate for the Roosevelt phrase,

“speak softly and carry a big stick”.

In talking about moving from post-war to pre-war, I felt that he was doing quite the reverse: investing no new money in defence while speaking with a rather loud mouth.

It strikes me that the Defence Secretary is not doing enough to advocate for spending in private, because he is doing it in public through leaked letters to the Chancellor, as reported in The Daily Telegraph. His predecessor, Mr Wallace, did the honourable and decent thing by stepping away from his Cabinet role when he could no longer tolerate Cabinet collective responsibility in relation to defence spending.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does the hon. Member agree that the strategy the Defence Secretary is employing has nothing to do with defence but is possibly to do with a future bid to become leader of the Conservative party?

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I grateful to the right hon. Member. While I will not speculate on the Defence Secretary’s intentions, I certainly think that has had the effect of putting him out of step with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister such that he is no longer engaged in collective responsibility.

It seems to me that by talking up increases in the defence budget in cash terms rather than real terms, the Government are hiding behind recent high inflation. I will give the House a specific example. Following the publication of the PAC report on 8 March, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, who was asked to respond to that report, replied:

“We are ensuring that we have the largest defence budget in history”.

That is so much spin as to be like a vortex—it is way off to suggest that. As we heard from Sir Julian Lewis, during the cold war, defence spending was north of 6% of GDP. I am not advocating for defence spending to return to anything like those levels, because I recognise that we were dealing then with an eastern Europe in the grips of Russia and very much surrounded by and part of the Warsaw pact, with all its contributions assisting the Warsaw pact inventory, whereas now our spending is very much contributing to NATO’s defence of Europe and the deterrence of Moscow. I would understand the phrase “as soon as economic conditions allow” if we were talking about an absolute cost—for example, the cost of a frigate or a platform, with a price tag—but we are not; we are talking about a relative cost. The Government need to set out what those economic conditions are.

Finally, I turn to land. As we have heard rehearsed in the House many times, the Army is being reduced from 82,500 to 73,000 soldiers. Earlier, Mr Deputy Speaker talked about the considerable expertise in this place, but the greatest defence experience is probably in the other place. Those who rose to the top of their professions in the armed forces now speak with the greatest wisdom on defence. I would therefore like to quote from some of them, starting with three former Chiefs of the General Staff.

In January, Lord Richard Dannatt said:

“The bottom line is numbers do matter… It is a fact that at 73,000 the British Army has never been smaller”.

In March 2021, Lord David Richards said that “mass still matters”. In May 2022, General Sir Nick Carter said that

“in the order of 80,000” soldiers are required to ensure that the UK could field a full division as part of a combined NATO force.

Although the current Chief of the General Staff is somewhat restricted in what he can say while in post, in June 2022 he said that the UK was facing a “1937 moment”, and that

“it would be perverse if the CGS was advocating reducing the size of the Army as a land war rages in Europe”.

I firmly advocate for the Army to be restored to that 83,000 figure. When will those economic conditions be met so that we might see 2.5% spent on defence?

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell 1:46, 21 March 2024

I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Jeremy Quin for leading the debate with his report. On the first Thursday back in January 2022, six weeks before Russia further invaded Ukraine, many hon. Members currently in the Chamber were here for a debate about the need to increase defence spending. There was an argument about whether we were in a cold war scenario, which came back to the same thing: it is all very well talking about increasing spending, but where do the threats lie?

The mea culpa from my point of view is that, right up to 22 February 2022, I was saying that I did not believe Putin was going to invade Ukraine. I thought he was testing the borders and seeing where the strengths were. That day, I learned the important lesson that politicians often use the word “think” when they should be using “hope”. Much of the debate is based around what we want to see happen and what we hope will happen.

We may say, “I think perhaps we don’t need to expand the military as much as that. Perhaps the money is better off being spent elsewhere. Are we really going to go nuclear? Is he really going to do that?” We talk about development in the High North and maritime. Perhaps we need more Navy, because that will become a much more critical area in our security, our trade and our defence, but we hear the same thing: it is highly unlikely that there will be a surface warfare battle. Well, nobody thought there would be a tank battle in Europe. Since the second world war, nobody thought there would be an armoured vehicle and troop battle with trench warfare in Europe again, but that has happened.

I have been asked recently, “Are we going to have world war three?” It is an interesting question. How do we define world war three in the 21st century? Will it be the nuclear armageddon that people think? I do not believe that—I will come back to that. Will it be several instances of wars and armed conflicts in several areas that affect our country directly? Yes, and I believe that is where the world is moving to, especially when we look at the supply chains around the world. That affects not just this country, and it will lead to other investments having to be made.

There is a famine taking place in Sudan because of what is happening in the Red sea, where there is a reduction in supplies getting through. When these events take place, they have consequences in many areas of the world. We can talk about whether there is a world war and whether we will be involved, but we are—we are in the Red sea and we are giving support to Ukraine and other areas, which is building up.

We should not look at Ukraine as an individual thing that Putin is talking about and that ridiculous interview he did with Tucker Carlson in which he said, “Well, I haven’t got any intentions to invade anywhere else.” He literally wrote it down in July 2021. It takes about half an hour to read, and he lays it out line by line—“Not only do we need to rebuild the Russian Empire, but we need to reunite the historic Russian-speaking people”. We heard all of this in another book 100 years earlier, and we all know where that led, so we all know the consequences of us not preparing for it.

Something about NATO has been forgotten and overlooked. Everybody talks about article 5—that an attack on one is an attack on another, and we come to the rescue—but everybody forgets article 3, which says that members must be able to defend their borders first and foremost. There are only 14 articles in the actually very well-written Washington treaty, and article 3 makes it clear that members have to be able to defend their borders and that article 5 is a reinforcement that can take up to three weeks to arrive.

Do we believe that if Putin invades the Baltic states, that is where the effect on NATO will be? That would be tactically daft of Putin. It is more likely, if he decides to invade NATO territory, that he will want to tie all the NATO allies up to start with. There is good news and bad news. There is good news in what China has said to Putin because of their trade with India, South America and southern Africa. The Chinese especially have made it crystal clear that if Putin was even to demonstrate his ability to use a nuclear weapon—say, in the middle of the Black sea—they would say, “That’s it, we’re gone; we are not dealing with you.” That has probably taken the nuclear weapon issue off the table, especially with strategic nuclear weapons.

By the way, I do not want the House to get excited and think I am saying that we do not need to renew Trident, because there are still plenty of places around the world that are pushing that territory. As we always come back to, Trident is a deterrent weapon; it is not a weapon to be used. If it were to be launched, quite frankly we would not be arguing about it anyway. This does mean that we are in a far weaker position if nuclear is off the table, because we know, and Putin knows—he is doing it right now—that he can outproduce us in shells, tanks and people. Russia is paying €2,000 a month to people coming in from the far-flung areas of the country. People from some of these places do not earn that in a year. They have no shortage of personnel or cash.

Therefore, we have to start being honest with our questions. Do we need to build more capital equipment? Do we need more personnel? Yes, we do need more capital equipment, and we are going down that route, but we also need the revenue budgets to run that. To follow the fiscal rules and say “Look how much money we are putting into defence” is great, but it has to be capital, because they have not given the revenue. It is a case of: “Let’s line up all our shiny ships, but we can’t fuel them, maintain them or crew them.” It is the same in the Army and the Air Force. There must be a fundamental change at the Treasury in how the money is spent.

As Mr Jones said, let us have some honesty in this Chamber. We can sit here and say, “We need to go to 2.5% or 3%, or maybe 4% or 5%.” What Government and which politician will stand up in this House and say, “That 3% reduction in GDP since the end of the cold war has gone into the health service and the Department for Work and Pensions, so we will cut the health service and DWP by 3% to invest in defence”? Who will stand up here and say that? Who will put that in their manifesto? Let us not pretend that that will happen, but the money does need to be spent more efficiently.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement has done an excellent job with the integrated procurement model, which talks about things that he has worked on for a long time, I believe—for example, spiral development. We are very fond of talking about where we were in the 1920s and 1930s, but I want to take us back even further, to the 1910s, when the Dreadnought model was brought out. HMS Dreadnought was the most incredible ship ever built in terms of firepower, but it hit the reset button by making every other ship irrelevant. It could sink all of them, so there was an arms race. Within eight years, HMS Dreadnought was useless. HMS Iron Duke, which was still a Dreadnought class, was a totally different ship, but it had been part of the design process as it went on. Bear in mind that we were still only producing four Dreadnought battleships a year when we were chucking all our efforts in leading up to 1914 and beyond.

I recently spoke at a dinner, and a young person in their early 20s asked me, “What do you think about this comment from General Sanders about conscription? Because there’s no way I would be conscripted to go and fight for this country. Why should I bother? I am not going out to get killed. It’s not worth it. You spend all this money and waste money there. What are you offering me? It’s not worth it.” I said, “Well the problem is that you are looking at this in the society you live in today. If you are going to get conscripted, it is because our cities will lay in rubble. You only have to look at Kyiv. Forget wanting to sit at home and watch Netflix or play Xbox or do whatever you want, there is no electricity. There’s no water. There’s no gas or heating. There is starvation.” That is happening in Europe today.

How does one stop that happening? The word is deterrent. I have never met senior military personnel who are not at heart pacifists. They understand what warfare means. They understand the death and destruction that it brings and the decades it takes to recover. They do not want to go to war. I have never met anybody in the military who wants to go to war. This all takes investment. The honest fact that we are not going to cut health services or the DWP—some of our biggest spending budgets—and spend the money on defence means that we have to work with what we have. Yes, we can grow the economy and take more tax revenue. We can do all that, but that has not really happened in the 21st century. The 21st century has roughly been 50/50 between the Government and the Opposition. Even when the economy has grown, it has been around the margins. There has to be an honest conversation.

The procurement strategy my hon. Friend the Minister has produced is the right way forward. We are aware of the costs. I will say one more thing, almost directly contradicting myself. The war in Ukraine has shattered its economy. Forget the spending to fight the war; the loss in GDP of being able run an economy and export when at war is significantly bigger than an increase of 2% or 3%. Be under no illusion: if Putin wants to invade NATO territory, it will not be tanks rolling over the line up in the Baltics or maybe in east Poland, and we will have to go out there; it will be a full-scale NATO attack, and we will have to work out what we do.

The best way we can stop that is to make sure we have the deterrent. Our nuclear deterrent has always been valuable because they have no idea when or where we would strike back from. That has made it a useless weapon to use, but we have to have that weapon. If we say that is cancelled out, because of the attitude of China and Russian allies towards Russia were it to use one, then we have to accept that our conventional weapons are not going to counterbalance Russia and what is happening.

Nobody in this Chamber, in the military, at the MOD or in Europe, and probably anywhere in the western world, wants to go to war and see death and destruction on the scale we are seeing in too many areas of the world. We see famine and humanitarian crises taking place. Yes, we are going to have to spend more money, but we need to spend it more efficiently, and we need to make sure that when the increases come they will be used effectively. We need to remember that this is an investment so that we do not have to use the deterrent. If we do not have it, we will have to end up using something we do not actually have.

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Workers Party, Rochdale 1:58, 21 March 2024

On that surreal note, let me quote Rudyard Kipling:

“We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too!”

There is plenty of jingo, but the ships, the men and the money are more difficult to find. I genuinely hope that some of the fantasy talk in this debate is widely seen by the general public. It was a Gilbert and Sullivan performance as Members first conceded that our weaknesses are such that we had to conceal the extent of them in the report—that is what Mr Francois said in an intervention.

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Workers Party, Rochdale

No, I will not. I am mindful of Madam Deputy Speaker’s injunction that she is fast running out of time, and I do not intend to take my whole 13 minutes. The right hon. Member should not worry—I will make sure that people see his performance. He said that we need to conceal the extent of our weakness, then he adumbrated our weakness. If that was not our total weakness—if there are weaknesses that he concealed from that list—I ask myself, why on earth are these people pirouetting in this Parliament about which enemy they are going fight, and in which theatre of war?

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will keep this brief. For the record, the gentleman has traduced me. He has said directly the opposite of what I actually said, as Hansard will show.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that point of order, which he has used to make his point. Let us return to George Galloway.

Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Workers Party, Rochdale

Pomposity, but not a point of order. The right hon. Gentleman said that we were careful to conceal some of our weakness, and then he adumbrated those weaknesses. If there are more that he concealed, we are in very big trouble. My point is this: we haven’t the men, we haven’t the ships and we haven’t the money, so why are we picking enemies? I have lost count, in the course of the debate, of the number that we are either already fighting or may have to get ready to fight. That is the absurd “Alice in Wonderland” nature of this debate.

We cannot retain even the low numbers of people we recruit. Why? We ought to know why: the lions do not much like the look of the donkeys who lead them into war after war, which they later disown and admit should never have been fought. You know to what I refer, Madam Deputy Speaker. I had a debate at the Oxford Union; the then Defence Secretary ran away and did not turn up. I had to deal with his subordinates, but I made the point there. I was a boy soldier: Royal Artillery Battery 2, Army Cadet Force. I trained with the Royal Marines for weeks in Poole, in Dorset. I am in no sense a pacifist. I want to defend our country. I want our soldiers to be properly paid, properly housed, properly clad, properly trained and properly armed.

I have picked up Tommy Atkins, stricken with addiction, from Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester, just out of Strangeways, addicted to Spice and abandoned by the politicians who gayly sent him off to one needless, pointless, fruitless war after another. Don’t come here and say you’re standing up for Tommy Atkins. The donkeys who sent him to wars that even the donkeys now disavow are the reason that people do not join our armed forces. They do not trust those people over there not to send them to another Iraq or Afghanistan, and they are right not to trust them.

The truth is that our country is in very real danger of falling into the same trap as Mussolini: going around the world, threatening people with Germany’s army. Our politicians go around the world threatening people with America’s army, but there is a big change coming, and they do not like it on either side of the aisle. President Trump is coming back in November, and he does not much fancy their NATO. He does not intend to send American soldiers to die for Kupiansk or for the Zelensky regime in Kyiv. He has no intention whatever of continuing its war in Ukraine.

I heard a senior Member of the House say, “If America withdraws from NATO, we will have to increase our contribution to 5%, 6% or maybe 7% of GDP.” Do these people seriously imagine that they will continue in NATO without the United States of America? What kind of NATO would it be—it really would be Gilbert and Sullivan—unless we devote not £50 billion of our public treasure but hundreds of billions on defence? Have any of these people seen the state of the public realm in Britain? Have they seen the state of the national health service? Have they seen the state of our streets, public buildings and public transport? Have they seen the wage packets earned in this country? Have they seen pensioner poverty and fuel poverty in action? Have they met people who have to choose between eating and heating? These fools want to spend not £50 billion but hundreds of billions on weapons of war, which we will fight with an Army that could fit into Villa Park—70,000 soldiers can fit into a single football stadium.

For some time, I was the Member of Parliament for a naval shipbuilding yard, Yarrow’s on the Clyde—producers of excellence. I wrestled—not physically—with our late and lamented friend Alan Clark when he was the Procurement Minister, and I won. I got all five of the Type 23s procured at that time. I want us to have a good Navy, and a good Army, but not so we can sail it to bombard the natives in the Red sea or send a Gilbert and Sullivan squadron to the South China sea, like a peashooter firing at an elephant—or a whale in the case in the Chinese navy. I do not want us to send our 70,000 soldiers and our aircraft carriers that break down and have to be glued together, or our destroyers that crash into each other in the Solent.

I do not want us to pretend that we are a Rudyard Kipling-era imperial power. That is the key problem. Some of these people still think that we are in the 19th century and can send gunboats up the Yangtze and not have them sunk, and that the natives in Yemen are the natives we used to push around for a century or more. The empire strikes back, and the empire is bigger than us now. We owned India; now the Indians own us. Shall I take that metaphor further? There is an idea that those in this little country of ours—this dear green place, with all its problems and enfeeblement caused by our economic decline and the rapid and massive economic advance of others—are still in a position to stand in this Parliament making dispensations to this battleground or that, or that we can still slice our diminishing national wealth in a way that allows us to pretend to be an imperial power.

I have time only for one last point. I was startled by Dame Meg Hillier, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, when she told us that £2 billion of our defence budget is going on foreign exchange costs, meaning that not only are we spending 50 billion of British taxpayers’ pounds, but that we are spending it in foreign countries. We are allowing foreign companies and yards to build our defence infrastructure in a way, as Mr Jones pointed out, that France would never dream of doing. Whatever we are going to spend, spend it in Britain, spend it in British yards, spend it in British factories. You’ll save £2 billion in foreign exchange costs at the very least.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 2:10, 21 March 2024

I genuinely will not take 13 minutes for my contribution, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Our armed forces give it their all every single day for our protection. Their level of commitment and courage is, sadly, not matched by this Government. Worse, as our Defence Committee report and the reports from the Public Accounts Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Dame Meg Hillier show, the Government have presided over reductions in personnel, depletion of kit and delays in new capabilities. When it comes to the biggest threat of all, war, there is not a single service that is fully ready. This did not happen overnight. This is a culmination of, to use the words of the former Defence Secretary, Mr Wallace, the “hollowing out” of our forces over the last 14 years. The new Defence Secretary rightly said that we are in a pre-war world. But to acknowledge that and then do nothing about it is negligent.

The world is in turmoil: war in Ukraine, conflict in the middle east, fear of conflict in the Indo-Pacific, an aggressive Russia and an unpredictable China, as well as our armed forces responding to humanitarian missions and MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—requests, as they did throughout the pandemic. This all makes a pre-war footing all the more urgent. This is not an exhaustive list, but when it comes to our Royal Navy there are delays to the Type 26 frigates, issues with the availability of SSNs, delays to Dreadnought and an over-reliance on RFA Fort Victoria. Our Royal Air Force has a shortfall in fixed-wing transport aircraft numbers, insufficient numbers of maritime patrol aircraft and Wedgetail airborne early warning systems, a lack of air-to-air refuelling, and a lack of ground-based air defence systems or an anti-ballistic missile capability. Our Army lacks infantry fighting vehicles, multiple launch rocket systems, Challenger tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

We have rightly committed ammunition to Ukraine, but the £1.95 billion announced to replenish stockpiles was not ringfenced. We have heard that the Ministry of Defence is potentially using it to help offset funding shortfalls, instead of using it to restore our warfighting ability. Our lack of industrial capacity is also causing problems with replenishment in particular, as many companies, both at prime and sub-prime level, are facing challenges in scaling up. A failure to address supply chain issues represents a significant risk to production. As the PAC report from my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch on the MOD’s equipment plan found, there is no credible Government plan to deliver the desired military capabilities.

As for our personnel, the Haythornthwaite review in 2022 found a net outflow of 4,660 per year from our armed forces. There are significant pinch points in cyber, digital and AI skills. Those who serve in our forces are exceptional people, but they are constantly being asked to do more with less. The result has been significantly lower morale, with recruitment and retention issues across our services and across the reserves. Our Defence Committee report notes:

“Either the Ministry of Defence must be fully funded to engage in operations whilst also developing warfighting readiness;
or the Government must reduce the operational burden on the Armed Forces.”

These are difficult decisions to make, but it is obvious that the Government are not going to make them as they are limping towards electoral oblivion. Frustratingly, the Government hindered our inquiry considerably by not sharing with us the information they hold on readiness—information that used to be available. Worse still, they were unable to explain to us why this information has become classified. Bearing in mind that our allies and countries at greater risk than us share theirs, it is fair to conclude that the reason the information is not being shared is because readiness levels are far worse than even we conclude in our report.

Our conclusion, bluntly speaking, is that we are not ready for war. The recent Budget saw no increase for defence, and that is after the cuts referred to by my right hon. Friend Mr Jones. Just this week, ex-defence and security chiefs said we must prepare genuinely for war. But we do not have the personnel or the kit to be ready for war. Far worse than that, we do not have the right Government in place to be ready for it either.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, let me just say that the Front-Bench contributions in this debate are longer than normal, but we will be able to finish the debate by 3 o’clock as I had indicated. The SNP will have 10 minutes, the Opposition 15 minutes and the Government 15 minutes.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence) 2:16, 21 March 2024

Well, this was a debate that certainly went in directions I never thought it would go.

It is always a privilege to follow Mrs Lewell-Buck, who may be in a different party but is a very good friend on the Defence Committee. I commend the report from the Committee, of which I am once again a member. There are a few things we do not agree on, but on the vast majority of issues we do agree. That brings me back to the old Scottish nation’s motto, which is “In Defens”. I am very much akin to that. I also share some of the issues raised by George Galloway on how we do not push ourselves into conflicts that are unnecessary. I may come back to that in a few moments.

I want to come back to the points made by Mr Francois on background and family. I have said umpteen times in the Chamber that my brother served in Iraq and had two terms in Afghanistan as a reservist. I will come back to the specific point on people in the armed forces later. The right hon. Gentleman talked about his dad. My dad is 99. I am lucky my dad is still here. He survived the worst aerial bombardment these islands have ever seen. It was only after about 75 years that the Government recognised that it was the worst aerial bombardment the UK had seen during the second world war. Last Wednesday, I was able to attend, as I try to every year, the 83rd commemoration of the Clydebank Blitz, which took place on 13 and 14 March 1941. I also stood at one of the mass graves in Clydebank on Saturday to lay a wreath on behalf of my constituents. I do so with privilege and in honour of our family of survivors.

I want to pick up on three points relating to readiness in terms of people, partnership and position, and how they link critically to the word resilience, which I think I heard some Members mention. The right hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Warley (John Spellar) are probably sick to death of me talking over several years about resilience, but it is inextricably linked to what readiness should be all about. Let me talk about people first and how resilient are the armed forces.

It is a pity that Sarah Atherton cannot be here today—I did tell her that I would mention her today—because she chaired a sub-committee on women in the armed forces, which exposed some of the most profoundly difficult questions and scrutiny in Parliament about recruitment and retention that the armed forces have ever had to face. I hate the term “ordinary ranks”. What does “ordinary” mean—people on the frontline who have to go over the ditch? There is nothing ordinary about that. As I said earlier, my brother did it as a reservist, but the report exposed dreadful questions about women and members of black and ethnic minority communities. Why are we not retaining or even recruiting them? Why, moreover, are young men not wanting to join up? This returns me to the issue of terms and conditions, which I have often talked about.

I remember arguing with a former Chair of the Defence Committee—he is not here, but I see that Sir Julian Lewis has turned up—who was also a former Minister. He had said that members of the armed forces were not employees or workers. That may be the case in law, but they still deliver a service. If we want to retain people, it is critically important that we copy what so many of our NATO allies do in recognising the value and worth of members of the forces—whether in the Royal Navy, the Army or even the Royal Air Force—and recognising their rights, one of which is the right to representation. My party and I have always said that we believe the armed forces require a representative body like the Police Federation.

The kingdom of Denmark, for instance, which paid the blood price in Iraq and Afghanistan, has a very robust armed forces representative body. The problem there is not about recruitment, but about how in God’s name you persuade people to leave the armed forces in Denmark, because it is such a good—wait for it—employer. They are still willing to go over the ditch and take up the cudgels on behalf of their country. That brings us to the question of how we should deal with people here in the UK who may be over-reliant on charitable organisations, which, of course, are very well-meaning and committed.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I think that there must be a real, radical revolution in the way in which the armed forces not only recruit but employ people. The number of 18-year-olds is falling. We are going to need more flexible employment models enabling people to leave, come back in, have career breaks and so forth. Unless we do that, we will not be able to persuade them to join our armed forces.

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

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I am glad that his party has joined mine—I think; I am not sure whether this is still a Labour manifesto commitment—in recommending the introduction of an armed forces representative body. However, a critical issue is how the skills that already exist can be utilised. I cannot believe that I am going to use the word “emulate” when speaking of the United States, but that flexibility is emulated by the United States and also by many of our other NATO allies.

When it comes to readiness and having people on the frontline in the physical armed forces, I am not going to play the numbers game, because this is a political and philosophical issue. It is about how we retain and recruit. I think that fundamental rights for members of the armed forces should be enshrined in law. They should not need to go to those very well-meaning charitable organisations to receive assistance with housing, with their mental health, and even with their physical health. Members of the Danish armed forces who have suffered an injury do not go to a special unit; they go to a Danish national hospital like every other Danish citizen, because there they will benefit from the delivery of a robust public service.

That, in turn, brings me to the way in which the armed forces and, critically, the Army in particular have been challenged during the pandemic. Some former members of the Defence Committee who are not present today kept going on about the need for the Army to step up to the plate in dealing with resilience. The right hon. Member for North Durham has heard me talk about resilience in Committee. It is not, in my view, the role of the Army to pick up civilian action. During the pandemic, the Army in England and Wales had to do that in respect of the Nightingale hospitals, not just in terms of logistics and design but in terms of the actual physical infrastructure. Why was that? It was because most parts of the NHS procurement processes to build the Nightingale hospitals had been privatised years ago. We had taken a very physical state ownership of that civil structure of resilience and readiness out of the hands of the Government and the NHS and given it to private contractors, who have made billions on the back of it.

Let me give a Scottish example, the Louisa Jordan Hospital. The Army stepped up to the plate in helping with the logistics, but they were not required to build the internal structure of the Louisa Jordan. Most of it was in the Scottish conference centre. That internal structure was built through NHS Scotland procurement, because it was fit for purpose and ready to play its part. When we are talking about people, we should bear in mind that readiness is not just about members of the armed forces; it is also about the larger civilian infrastructure.

The right hon. Member for Warley is not present now, but he and I—along with, I think, the right hon. Member for New Forest East—travelled to Washington some years ago with the Defence Committee. Part of our purpose was to understand where our infrastructure was. How, for example, do we transfer, through partnerships between states—critically, within the continent of Europe —a division, or tanks, across bridges and roads which, since the end of the cold war, are no longer equal in terms of weight or infrastructure? How difficult is it to move a tank from a port to, say, technically, the eastern front if that is required? Partnerships of that kind have been allowed to disappear in the post-cold war era.

However, there are other important partnerships, such as the United Nations with its peacekeeping role. It was disappointing that not only the United Kingdom but other countries have had to pull out of Mali, at the instigation of the Malian Government, in the last couple of years. That peacekeeping role is a crucial part of the infrastructure of maintaining international order grounded in the rule-based system. I was also disappointed by the Government’s decision to postpone, or put into abeyance, their investment and funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Palestine on the basis of a very small amount of information, or accusation, from the Government of the state of Israel in respect of the conflict in Gaza. I hope that the Government recognise the value and worth of that partnership in trying to quell some of the many big problems that are faced in that part of the world.

I think I have had my 10 minutes, but let me end by saying a little about the European Union in relation to partnership and position. I was glad to hear that the official Opposition may now be considering an improved relationship with the EU. We in the Scottish National party believe it is important to have a mutual defence agreement with the EU. As for the question of position, I am a Euro-Atlanticist, and I think it important for us to reposition ourselves, away from the issues of the Indo-Pacific.

I agree with Danny Kruger about the nuclear proposition. I think that the hon. Member for Rochdale and I are the only Members present who oppose nuclear weapons, but I think there is general agreement on the need to take the deterrent into another budget heading so that we have a full understanding of what that two-point-whatever percentage of GDP is. I hope that the Government will be able to respond to that in the debate today.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 2:27, 21 March 2024

I started by knocking a glass of water over when I came into the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I have finished by doing so.

I thank all Members for their contributions today, but I also thank the armed forces, as we all should, for everything that they do to keep us safe. Our UK armed forces are essential not just to the defence of our nation but to the members of our NATO alliance, and also to our UK role in upholding international law. We respect, as the world does, the professionalism with which they do their job.

I welcome the further AUKUS agreements that that are being signed this week between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. This is our most important strategic defence alliance outside NATO. It is so much more than a big submarine building programme. It demands UK national endeavour and UK national leadership, and it has the complete support of the Labour party.

President Putin claimed 88% of all the votes in last week’s Russian poll. It was a total sham of an election, but a serious moment for UK defence. Over the next decade, we will face Putin and an alliance of aggression from autocrats who have contempt for international law, and who squander freely the lives of their own people.

The Chair of the Defence Committee, Sir Jeremy Quin, opened the debate by saying that we should start where all defence debates should start—with the threats that we face. The threats that we face will only increase, which is why we need a new era for defence, why these reports are so important, and why this debate is so important.

Madam Deputy Speaker, before you took the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker said of this debate that it promised to be one of the best informed on all sides, and he was right. The right hon. Member for Horsham brought his experience not just as a former Minister, but as the Chair of the Defence Committee. I pay tribute to him, because we now agree that it is right to move away from competition by default and to see the defence sector as a “critical strategic asset”, as he called it, which is a reflection of the work that he has done.

My right hon. Friend John Spellar asked the right question: what are we doing to create new industrial capacity in the UK and in collaboration with close allies?

My hon. Friend Dame Meg Hillier said that she has seen the arguments and excuses, yet no efficiencies arrive. That was captured not just in her report, which is the subject of this debate, but in other reports that her Public Accounts Committee has undertaken into defence procurement since 2019, and in nine National Audit Office reports looking at the same problems.

Mr Francois made a very moving speech about his father’s D-day experience. I particularly enjoyed the emotive part of his speech, where he got stuck into the Government and the MOD.

Danny Kruger was quite right to say that we are now in a moment of existential risk, because we are not ready to fight the wars that we may face. It is a theme that picked up by Jesse Norman, who said that we should be looking at not just our operational readiness, which is the subject of the Defence Committee’s report, but our strategic readiness. Part of that is about taking responsibility as a nation to develop greater resilience and, interestingly, greater talent, including in our political parties and in this House.

My right hon. Friend Mr Jones made a very strong argument for defence plans that are based on reality and on honesty about the UK’s role in the world, and especially the priority that we must give to our role in NATO. He, too, said that we must see defence investment directed first to benefiting the UK’s economy.

Sir Alec Shelbrooke has been a Defence Minister too, and he leads the NATO parliamentary delegation from this country. He was right to remind us that for NATO member nations, article 3, on the obligation to defend their own country, is as important and fundamental as article 5, on the obligation to defend each other.

My hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck spoke in some detail about the equipment shortfalls that the Defence Committee’s report lays out, and rightly spelled out the concern that the MOD is covering up the scale of the problems by not providing information to the public or Parliament. That was echoed by Richard Foord, who said that operational planning assumptions, which were published up until 2015, are no longer published.

George Galloway was right to talk about the concealment of truth about the state of our armed forces, but in fairness to the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford, that is exactly what the Defence Committee—he played a leading part in producing its report—is arguing the Government are not doing. Defending our people and our allies is not “Alice in Wonderland” or Gilbert and Sullivan; it is what people have a right to expect of their Government and Parliament.

Finally, we heard from Martin Docherty-Hughes, who speaks for the SNP and has great experience on defence. I followed his three P’s, and I was particularly struck by his discussion of people. There is a requirement to do better in recruiting and retaining members of the armed forces. He argued that it is not just about numbers and that our forces must better reflect the diversity of the people they serve to protect.

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

I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for making those points, but I would push him on the issue of an armed forces representative body. Is it something that he and his party remain committed to?

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

No, it is not. We have a much better solution, which is to legislate for an independent armed forces commissioner, like there is in Germany. They will be a voice for armed forces personnel and the families who support them, and will report to Parliament, not Ministers. In that way, we can reinforce the accountability of our military to this House and the public, as well as making it more responsive to those who serve. I will come to some points on that, if I may.

I pay tribute to all contributors to this debate, particularly those who are members of the two Committees on whose reports it is based. As they know, there are deep and long-running problems across defence, but I want to marshal my remarks into three main areas of findings in both reports: first, the hollowing out and underfunding of our armed forces; secondly, defence mismanagement and waste; and thirdly, the increasing lack of openness that we have seen recently from the Ministry of Defence.

On hollowing out and underfunding, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields reminded us that it was the last Defence Secretary, Mr Wallace, who told this House last January that the armed forces have been “hollowed out and underfunded” over the last 14 years. These reports reinforce that sobering assessment of our UK military power and readiness.

The Defence Committee found that there are

“capability shortfalls and stockpile shortages” across the forces, that resilience has been undermined by reductions, and that there is a

“crisis in the recruitment and retention of both Regulars and Reserves”.

Our armed forces are

“losing personnel faster than they can recruit them.”

The hollowing out and underfunding is getting worse, not better.

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

The Minister can have his say later.

The Defence Committee report says that capability gaps are growing, reliance on allies is increasing, and we now have the largest ever deficit in the MOD’s equipment plan, at £16.9 billion. The PAC concluded that there is an “unmistakable deterioration” in the MOD’s financial position.

Like the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford, I have brought along the Red Book. I have studied tables 2.1 and 2.2. The Treasury and the House of Commons Library confirm a reduction in defence budgets, which will be cut by £2.5 billion in cash terms for the next financial year. These are the budgeted baseline figures on which defence can plan, procure, deploy and develop capabilities—not the one-off add-ons for specific purposes, such as nuclear or Ukraine, which are the figures that Ministers too often use to inflate the figures on total spending and disguise the real budgets. This is where the country is left after 14 years of Conservative failure on defence, and the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford said that this is wholly unworthy of a Conservative Government. I say it is wholly unworthy of a British Government.

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

I will not. The Minister has 15 minutes in which to make his point. [Interruption.] Okay, I will give way.

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

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I have a specific question: does he support our target of 2.5%?

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

As has been pointed out in this debate, 2.5% is an aspiration for when economic circumstances allow—there is no timetable, no plan and no credibility. The last time this country spent 2.5% of GDP on defence was in 2010, under a Labour Government.

I turn to mismanagement and waste. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch said that mismanagement and waste runs widely across defence. The PAC report found that only two of the 46 MOD equipment programmes are rated as “highly likely” to be delivered on time, on budget and on quality. Many defence procurement programmes are being delayed and are over budget. Ministers are failing British taxpayers and British troops but, most concerning of all, they have no plan to fix this. My hon. Friend said that one of our major concerns is that the MOD is putting off decisions—serious threats, serious problems and a serious lack of action from the Government to fix them.

The third area I want to mention is transparency. Civilian authority over our UK military involves accountability to elected civilian Ministers and elected Members of this House. Reducing MOD transparency is a theme that runs through both reports. The Defence Committee says it is “unacceptable” and the PAC says the MOD has refused even to publish a full equipment plan this year—that is the Minister’s responsibility—despite

“undertaking the same depth of financial analysis as in previous years.”

That should worry all Members, and it has been a growing concern of mine for some months. Whether it is Royal Navy ships’ days at sea or MACA agreements struck with other Departments, data that had previously been published and released to me is now being withheld. Instead of responding to my questions, Ministers are now saying, “We will write to you instead.” I am currently awaiting 26 letters, some of them dating back as far as December.

There are, of course, legitimate security reasons why some information cannot be released, but there are also obvious political reasons why a Government nearing an election would not want some of this information to be made public.

The Defence Committee expressed an important and clear warning in its report. Threats are increasing, just as concern is increasing about the state of our armed forces not just from the members of these Committees and from Members on both sides of the House but from Ministers, too. The Minister for Security, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, and even the Defence Secretary are publicly challenging their own Government’s defence policy in the press. The Defence Secretary is making arguments in the Daily Mail that he failed to win with the Chancellor. I feel for the Minister for Defence Procurement, who is almost the last man standing by the Government’s defence policy.

Labour will always do what is required to defend the country. If we win the confidence of the British people at the next election, our pledge is that Britain will be better defended under Labour. First, we will reinforce the protection of the UK homeland. Secondly, we will ensure that our NATO obligations are met in full. Thirdly, we will make our allies our strategic strength. Fourthly, we will renew the nation’s moral contract with those who serve. And fifthly, we will drive deep reform of defence, and we will direct defence investment first to British jobs and British business. This is how Labour will make our country secure at home and strong abroad. We will consult across the House in doing so because we want our plan to be not just Labour’s plan but Britian’s plan to be better defended in future.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 2:42, 21 March 2024

I am grateful to all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions, and I thank all those on the Defence Committee and the Public Accounts Committee for their thorough reports on armed forces readiness, defence equipment and inventory management.

I have a lot of time for Mr Jones, but I think he said that our armed forces are a gnat on the backside of an elephant.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

No, I did not. If the Minister had actually listened, what I said is that our contribution in the event of a crisis in the South China sea would be a gnat on the backside of an elephant. That is very different from what the Minister said.

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

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s clarification. Either way, I think we can all agree that it is important that we understand the extent to which our armed forces are ready and are out there serving the country as we speak.

Our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent is entering its sixth decade of service, and our armed forces have helped us to become Ukraine’s most front-footed ally. We have trained more than 60,000 Ukrainian military personnel since 2014, and we are delivering more than £7 billion of military aid to Ukraine within our overall aid package worth almost £12 billion. That support is unwavering, with the recent announcement of our latest £2.5 billion package of military support for Ukraine being a £200 million uplift on the previous two years. Beyond our support for Ukraine, our armed forces are participating in every single NATO mission.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. I did not apply to speak in this debate because I could not be sure that I would be here at the end. Will he impress upon the House how our aid to Ukraine is vital because, if Ukraine successfully thwarts Russia, all those dread scenarios about an attack on NATO will not happen? Similarly, although President Trump is a worry, it is at least a relief that he has begun to say that, provided Europe does its bit, he will continue with America’s support for NATO, should he be elected.

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

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. George Galloway accuses us of imperialism in how we deploy our armed forces, but the whole purpose of our support is precisely to help Ukraine resist the imperialism of the Kremlin that he has shamefully supported while condemning what he calls the “Zelensky regime”. We heard him say it, and it is absolutely shameful.

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

The hon. Gentleman did not give way to anyone so, if he will forgive me, I will continue.

My right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis made an excellent point that we have heard a change of tone from Donald Trump in recent days.

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

The Minister says it is important to understand how ready our forces are, so can he tell us why key information on readiness is no longer published and why none of it was shared with our Committee?

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

I am happy to engage with the Committee, as I did during the week on artificial intelligence. There will always be a balance to be struck between what we can share and where we have to recognise the sensitivity of defence.

From the High North to the Mediterranean, we are deploying 20,000 service personnel from our Navy, Army and Air Force on the NATO exercise Steadfast Defender, which is one of the alliance’s largest ever training exercises. It is a valuable opportunity to strengthen interoperability between us and our allies.

I am happy to report that, as the right hon. Members for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and for Warley (John Spellar) said, overnight we have had confirmation that a new defence and security co-operation agreement has been signed with Australia, which will make it easier for our armed forces to operate together in each other’s country. It will also help facilitate UK submarine crews to visit Australia as part of AUKUS.

A large number of points have been made in this debate, and I will try to take as many as I can. The Chair of the Defence Committee, Sir Jeremy Quin, and several others, particularly the right hon. Member for Warley, talked about the importance of industrial resilience, and I totally agree.

The right hon. Member for Warley made an important point about finance. We must not forget the private sector’s role in investing in defence. We have seen commentary on environmental, social and governance, on which he wants to see cross-Government work. I am pleased to confirm that, with my Treasury colleagues, we held a meeting at Rothschild’s in the City to see what more we can do, and I am confident that we will be saying more on this important point about how we make the case for investing in defence as a way of investing in peace.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

On ESG, there have been many references to the second world way today. Is it worth reminding the House and the country that, if we had not had a defence industry building Spitfires and Hurricanes in 1940, this debate would not be taking place? In fact, this place would no longer exist.

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

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It shows why I want to see us supporting our sovereign capability, because where the Spitfire was there in the 1930s, we hope that the global combat air programme will be there in the 2030s.

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

As my right hon. Friend has already intervened, I hope he will allow me to make some progress and refer to comments from colleagues.

Obviously, there has been particular debate about spending. The shadow Secretary of State was unable to answer whether Labour would match the figure of 2.5%, but a number of my colleagues wanted us to go further and faster. This point was put well by Richard Foord. The Chair of the Defence Committee and others have suggested that we should look back to the sort of GDP figures in the cold war, although they did not necessarily say that we should go to exactly those amounts. However, as was said by the hon. Gentleman, who I believe was in military intelligence, in those days almost all of eastern Europe was an armed camp full of Soviet divisions, whereas now those countries are in NATO, so the situation has changed profoundly.

As was rightly said by my right hon. Friend Sir Alec Shelbrooke—one of my predecessors as Minister for Defence Procurement—if we increase defence by a significant amount, the money has to come from somewhere. An increase from the current level of about 2.3% to 3% equates to £20 billion, which is not a small amount of taxpayers’ money. Even an increase to 2.5% equates to an extra £6 billion. So it is Government policy to support that but to do so when we believe the economy can support it on a sustained basis.

My right hon. Friend Mr Francois made a passionate speech about how there had, in effect, been a cut to defence spending in the Budget, and several other Members said the same. I do not agree, although I accept that there is a debate about it. It is about the difference between the main estimate and the supplementary estimate, and some people have said it is about the inclusion of nuclear. To me, the nuclear deterrent is fundamental to defence, so of course it should be in the defence budget. We are not going to take out GCAP or frigates, and we are certainly not going to take out the nuclear deterrent, which is at the heart of the UK’s defence.

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

I like a lot of what the Minister is saying. It is right to say that we have, in Poland, Finland and Sweden, allies in NATO that produce great capability in terms of dealing with the threat from Russia, but since 1989 China, now one of the two biggest economies in the world, has gone on to be spending £232 billion alone on defence—and that is just the official number. We also now have a nuclear armed North Korea, with Iran making its way in the same direction. The world picture is darkening. That may not necessarily “directly impact” us, to use the words of other hon. Members, although I think it does, but it has indirect impact on some of our allies and on where they need to place their resources. It is a real concern and we should not forget that.

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

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. It shows why I have repeatedly said that we need to reform defence procurement because of the need to stay competitive with our adversaries.

I agree with the Chair of the PAC, Dame Meg Hillier, and my hon. Friend Danny Kruger, that we cannot just look at what we want to spend and at the future aspiration; we have to look at how we spend the money that we have better. That is why on 28 February I announced our new integrated procurement model, to completely overhaul our approach to acquisition. I said in my speech—and I stand by this—that the current delegated procurement model, under the Levene reforms, has created an inadvertent tendency towards over-programming: as soon as there is financial pressure on the equipment plan, such as we have had through inflation, the single services compete to get their capability on contract. By contrast, the very definition of our integrated approach is pan-defence prioritisation, as we are seeing in practice in our pending munitions plan, which will address many of the concerns of right hon. and hon. Members about getting our industry up to spec in terms of missiles and other key munitions. Let me be clear that such prioritisation would be challenging even if we went to 2.5%, such is the nature of defence.

A particular priority of our new acquisition model, as was referred to by the Chair of the Defence Committee, is spiral development: accepting 60% or 80% of requirements rather than 100% exquisite. The key to that is ramping up our engagement with industry, so we have held far more engagement events with industry at a secret level. Just this week, for example, we have held engagement between the strategic command and industry about cyber and electronic warfare—at a secret level, because we want to empower industrial innovation.

I have also said that exports are a key part of getting our industrial base as resilient as possible. So I am delighted to confirm the overnight news that BAE Systems will partner in Australia to build its nuclear-powered submarines. This is a major moment for AUKUS, and the collective submarine-building will support 7,000 additional British jobs across the programme’s lifespan.

My right hon. Friend Jesse Norman and Mrs Lewell-Buck, who this week chaired the Sub-Committee on AI, both rightly stressed the importance of technology. To see that, one need only look at the situation in Ukraine and at the extraordinary propensity of electronic warfare, which underlines how the battle space has changed. So a key part of our system will be about learning the lessons from the frontline as rapidly as possible, as we spiral our own developments in response. We are learning those lessons. For example, as part of its drive to incorporate autonomous platforms flying alongside crewed fighters, the RAF is now progressing to procure drones to overwhelm an adversary’s electronic warfare defences. That underlines an important point: that advantage in future warfare and uncrewed combat, will not necessarily be gained by individual platforms and technologies; it will be their smart integration, across crewed and uncrewed systems, that will enable us to develop a force fit for the future. That is why I believe we need an integrated approach to procurement.

To conclude, the brief snapshot of military exercises that I have outlined today does not do justice to the breadth and reach of our armed forces. They are more than ready. They are out there, deployed all over the world, keeping us safe and defending our interests. Meanwhile, the reforms we have made to procurement will help us adapt to emerging threats and evolving technological possibilities. That is a key lesson from Ukraine and from our Defence Command Paper.

This Government will continue to back our armed forces with record levels of defence spending, an ambitious 10-year equipment plan and by forging a new partnership with industry to co-develop cutting-edge capabilities. It is a plan that will ensure that our defence industrial base is more resilient and our armed forces are better equipped. It is a comprehensive strategy for our national security, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee 2:55, 21 March 2024

Madam Deputy Speaker, as the shadow Secretary of State said, your predecessor in the Chair at the start of the debate complimented the hon. Members standing, saying that he anticipated the debate would be rich in facts and high in quality. Almost universally, he was absolutely right. It was an excellent debate.

There is an almost universal view, on both sides of the House, that our brilliant armed forces are simply running too hard against all that is demanded of them to meet essential commitments. A war is taking place on our continent. As the Defence Secretary has said, we are in a pre-war phase. Our Select Committees have an essential role to play in highlighting difficult issues, as we have been doing this afternoon. I endorse what the Chairman of the PAC said in relation to finding more ways in which Select Committees can scrutinise the most sensitive of defence programmes. That is important for Parliament and helpful for the Government.

We have to rise to the significant challenges set out in the two reports, on the readiness of the armed forces by the Defence Committee and the equipment plan by the PAC. I welcome what the Minister said about AUKUS. I did not expect him to answer all the questions that were raised in the reports, but he must work on it because I know the Department will work on it. We have our job to do. It is our duty to raise these difficult concerns, and I know both Committees will continue to do so.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the First Report of the Defence Committee, Ready for War?, HC 26, the Eighth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Improving Defence Inventory Management, HC 66, and the Nineteenth Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, MoD Equipment Plan 2023-33, HC 451.