Armed Forces Personnel

Defence – in the House of Commons at on 25 March 2024.

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Photo of Keir Mather Keir Mather Labour, Selby and Ainsty

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

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to much that I said in response to the readiness question earlier, but the key point on this issue of enablement is that it is the unglamorous stuff that needs to be invested in first. There is no point buying more tanks until we have more tank transporters. The Government are seized of that, and are doing exactly that. This is an opportunity to place on record, in addition to my gratitude to the armed forces, which I have mentioned, that tens of thousands of hard-working MOD civil servants in the MOD main building and around the wider enterprise are hard at work on this problem right now, and I am grateful to them for their efforts.

Photo of Keir Mather Keir Mather Labour, Selby and Ainsty

Like other colleagues, I thank the Minister for his years of service. Since 2010, the size of our armed forces has decreased by over 43,000 personnel; the number of Royal Navy warships has decreased by a fifth; more than 200 aircraft have been removed from service in just the last five years; and recruitment targets are being missed year on year. Which of those legacies of 14 years of Conservative Government is the Minister most proud of? What actions could he undertake to do better?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

The thing that I am most proud of, beyond the exceptional operational output of His Majesty’s armed forces every time they are called on, is that the Government have increased the defence budget to more than £50 billion a year for the first time. The hon. Gentleman, whose interest in defence is very welcome indeed, should be enormously concerned about the shadow Chancellor’s repeated refusal to commit to anything more than the 2% NATO floor for defence spending. If his concern for defence is to last, he should immediately be concerned about the fact that unless his party changes policy urgently, it will equal a £7 billion cut in defence spending on day one of a Labour Government.

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

The question of whether our armed forces are fit for purpose should centre on whether they can carry out the defence tasks set by the MOD, and I believe that they can. If I may carry on in the same vein as the previous response, does the Minister agree that Labour’s failure to commit to spending more than 2% of GDP on defence presents a much bigger risk to UK security than any objective debate on this side of the House?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

Absolutely. We should urgently achieve 2.5% of GDP; the fiscal situation is improving, and the Conservative party has made that commitment. As the Secretary of State rightly said in an interview the other day, both main parties should strongly consider a further increase in defence spending in the next Parliament.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Shadow Minister (Defence)

As the former Defence Secretary, Mr Wallace, told the House last January, the Government have “hollowed out and underfunded” the UK military over the last 14 years. That is in large part due to their total failure on armed forces recruitment, and damning new figures show that over the last decade, 800,000 people who were willing to serve and defend their country simply gave up and withdrew their application. The current Defence Secretary says that the recruitment system is “ludicrous”, and the organisation running it got called the wrong name by Mr Francois, but where is the plan to fix this? It is not working.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

The right hon. Lady is conflating two separate issues. The former Secretary of State for Defence and I, and everybody else who has served on the Government Front Bench since we have returned to the prospect of state-on-state war, have referred to a hollowing out of the force. That is a consequence of decisions made not just by this Government, but by Governments since the fall of the Berlin wall, because the force that we maintained for the cold war and all its enablement was not necessary when we were fighting counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is what is meant by hollowing out. The sooner the right hon. Lady starts to deal with that issue, rather than conflating it with others to make political points, the sooner she will start to contribute to an important debate.

As far as recruitment goes, record interest has been shown in joining our nation’s armed forces, and there is no hiding from the fact that we need to rapidly accelerate the time between expressing an interest and being in training.