– in the House of Commons at 5:54 pm on 7 May 2024.

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Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence 5:54, 7 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered defence.

In recent weeks, our armed forces have been required to use force to protect international shipping and to protect our allies. Our armed forces are the best of us; we increasingly need them, and we are increasingly asking more of them as well. When the threat picture changes, the first duty of Government is to respond, which is why this Government have committed to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030, the biggest increase in spending for a generation.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I will just make a bit of progress first, keen as the right hon. Gentleman is. That will result in a £75 billion cash boost to our nation’s defences over six years from a flat cash baseline. Although we have had a long-held commitment to hit 2.5% when financial conditions allow, delivering that commitment now involves choices.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

If the Secretary of State is serious, can I ask him why next year, if we exclude the Ukraine funding from the defence budget, the core defence budget actually goes down?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

No, it does not. The outcome from the defence budget, which must be the basis upon which the right hon. Gentleman is judging last year’s, includes supplementaries. In particular, it now includes the additional half a billion, which I can tell the right hon. Gentleman I chose to send to Ukraine as an active decision, rather than it coming into our main budget; I feel that that would have the support of the House. When we include all that, the budget increases. In any case, it already increased by 1.8%.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I know that the right hon. Gentleman wants to continue this debate, but the fact is that it does as soon as we include the supplementaries.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I will not for the moment, because this point has been discussed ad infinitum. In any case, we are offering another £75 billion in cash terms, which I note that the Labour party has yet to do because the funding requires a determination, in our case, to get the civil service back to pre-covid levels and to help pay for the expansion of our defence. It requires sound economic management and, above all, an understanding that an investment in deterrence today is wiser and less painful than paying to fight a war tomorrow.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Has the Secretary of State not just confirmed that the amount of money in the budget designated for the British armed forces has, in fact, gone down?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

No, I still have not confirmed that because, before the extra half a billion, if we take the outcome from last year and the amount that was pledged for this year—including supplementaries, to be clear, which is the same basis as last year—it is an increase of 1.8%. However, this is rather beside the point, because since the time we debated this question at the Select Committee on Defence, we have committed to putting in another £75 billion in cash terms from the baseline over the next six years.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I think the right hon. Gentleman will want me to complete this section. I would be interested to hear him apply that commitment to his own Front Benchers, because this Conservative £75 billion rise in defence spending is highly significant. It is precisely what our armed forces need to respond to axes of authoritarian states that are trying to reshape the world in their image, and it is the right thing to do.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

Rather than Labour Members trying to poke holes in this commitment, would it not be better if they committed to doing the same thing?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend has pre-empted a passage a little later in my speech, in which I suggest that those right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches who want to see more money go into defence might first persuade their own Front Benchers to follow our lead and ensure that we get more money into it. I am very concerned about the apparent failure of the Labour party to match our funding commitment. Labour Members are being incredibly evasive about funding. In addition to not confirming whether they will do the 2.5% in the next six years—we look forward to hearing whether they confirm that—they are also promising, or perhaps I should say threatening, a review of defence. Our enemies will waste no time in putting the UK in their sights if they think that the next thing that would happen is a multi-year review—a waste of time and money that should instead be spent on our brave servicemen and women. Labour’s apparent refusal to follow our lead and back our fully funded spending plans would decimate our armed forces by cutting up to £75 billion from defence.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

Why does the Secretary of State think that Paul Johnson, in an article on Monday 29 April, said:

“What annoyed me was not the commitment…”— to the 2.5%—

“It was all about the misleading and opaque way in which the additional spending was presented. When it wanted to make it look big, the Government claimed it would boost spending by £75 billion;
when it wanted to appear fiscally responsible… It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes, or even the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, to see that there might be something not quite consistent about these claims.”

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that the way this is presented is entirely the usual way for the Treasury to present increases in spending. If I take him back to the previous cash boost for defence—I think it was £24 billion and it was described, I think, as being over five years—it was presented on exactly the same basis, and I do not remember the hon. Gentleman making the same point then. Regardless of the numbers, surely the point is this: will the Labour party commit to this timeline?

Labour Members said that they wanted to get to 2.5%, and that they would do it when conditions allow. We have now said that we know conditions will allow because of the management of the economy. Will they follow us, or will they send their Back Benchers out to criticise an increase, even though their own Front Benchers will not match it themselves? Perhaps we should not be surprised, given that the Leader of the Opposition, not once but twice backed Jeremy Corbyn—sorry, Jeremy Corbyn—to be Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition proclaims his support for our nuclear deterrent, yet he has stacked his Front Bench with anti-nuclear campaigners—I counted 11 who voted against Trident—while he goes up to Barrow and claims he is all in favour.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The Secretary of State is doing, like last time he came out on this debate, his used-car salesman act. The fact of the matter is clear: the only way we get to £75 billion is if we freeze the defence budget for the next six years. Is he going to do that? Given what he announced last week, will he explain first where the money is coming from, and secondly what is the proportion of resource departmental expenditure limits and capital departmental expenditure limits? There is no detail at all. It is just an empty promise and a political slogan that he is batting around as his usual avuncular self.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The way the right hon. Gentleman tries to represent it is simply not true. If it were meaningless, why has his own party not taken the difficult decisions to get to the £75 billion which, to be clear, is the amount additional to what is currently programmed in? He is right that defence budgets may have increased over time, but £75 billion is still the additional figure. If it is so straightforward, why doesn’t he encourage those on the Labour Front Bench to do it? I think I know the answer. He asks how it will be paid for, and it will largely be paid for by cutting the civil service back down to pre-covid levels. Labour Members do not want to cut 72,000 from the workforce of the civil service so that it goes back down to pre-covid levels, and because of that they will not follow us in our commitment. That shows where their choices lie.

Labour Members say they want 2.5% and are keen to see that, but they are not willing to put in place the difficult decisions to reach that. By failing to take those decisions, they will be failing to fund our armed forces if they were to come into office. That would leave our nation more vulnerable, and play directly into the hands of our adversaries, including Putin.

In January, I set out a comprehensive case for increasing defence spending in response to what I described as “a more dangerous world”. After all, Putin is on the march, pursuing wars in the east of Europe while backing greater political influence and assassinations in the west. China has certainly become a lot more assertive in recent years. Russian mercenaries, Islamic extremists and military strongmen have overrun democracies and societies in Africa.

As Iran has nourished and manipulated its proxy militia and groups around the middle east, the Islamic republic itself has for the first time carried out an aerial assault on a democratic near-neighbour, Israel. Its Hamas terrorist allies brought mass murder to Israelis on 7 October, and they have brought pain to the Palestinians—both before and since—with the Hamas approach to running that area. Meanwhile, one of Iran’s other key allies—the Houthis—continues to hold global trade hostage in the Red sea. So, from Moscow to Tehran and from Beijing to Pyongyang, a network of authoritarian states is pressuring allies and our interests. Working together, they are more connected than they have ever been before.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

The Secretary of State is making a really important point. Without sounding too academic, do we actually know what war is nowadays? Clearly, there is conventional war, which we recognise, but what he is talking about is proxy war. Earlier, we were discussing cyber-attacks, China’s and Russia’s role in this sort of hybrid war, and the integration of military and non-military means, which is behind military doctrines in an increasing number of countries. Are we joined up enough to be able to fight these modern conflicts, which are part military and part non-military? Do we actually understand what conflict is in this century?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

It is true—my hon. Friend will know this as well as or better than me—that in each generation the world relearns what it is to have conflict. We have seen that with Russia, we are seeing it at the moment in the middle east, and we have seen it, as discussed, through various cyber-activities, which are in fact entirely continuous; it is just that most of them do not succeed.

The world has changed, the defence reviews and the refresh looked to try to learn those lessons. One of the things, not least because of Britain’s forward-leaning approach to the war in Ukraine, has been that we have been at the forefront of learning some of those new lessons with drones and other technologies; indeed, we have been speeding up the introduction of new technologies such as laser weapons. It is important that we think about this as a whole rather than just through the traditional eyes of three armed services. We now have to think about space and the domain in cyber, and that is what our strategic command does.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

The Secretary of State is making a good case. Does he agree that, as this extra money is available, we should ensure that more of it is spent on procuring weapons and military requirements here in the United Kingdom, because we cannot be properly defended unless we can make our own military vehicles, our own steel and our own explosives? We are short of capacity.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is incredibly important that we develop—or, rather, further develop—our own domestic defence industrial base. That is one of the reasons why we have spoken about putting that industrial base on a war footing, and it is one of the reasons why—this is not, as has been suggested, some sort of cheap gibe—it is important that the Government, or indeed the Opposition if they want to be the Government, set out the path in order that that investment can take place. That base will not be able to invest unless it knows what is happening on a multi-year basis.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I have been quite generous; I will make a little bit of progress.

That is why this Conservative Government will act now. We are going to deliver the greatest strengthening of our national defence since the cold war. Some will argue that the threats we face are perhaps not imminent or existential. They may claim that increased defence spending is not a good use of money, which perhaps should go on other commitments—there are many to discuss—but I argue that we have seen the consequences up and down the country of the more dangerous world that I described in that Lancaster House speech.

In recent years, we have suffered terror attacks. We have also suffered cyber-attacks on business, on Government, as we were just talking about, and on critical national infrastructure. They were mostly not successful, but the amount that it costs to get around them increases all the time none the less. We have suffered intellectual property theft. We have seen Hong Kong protesters dragged into the Chinese consulate in Manchester and beaten. We have seen Iranian journalists threatened and stabbed in London. We have seen former Russian military officers assassinated in hotels in Mayfair and poisoned in suburban homes in Salisbury and, just last month, British citizens charged with setting fire to Ukrainian-linked business units in east London, apparently on the instructions of Russian intelligence.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire

My right hon. Friend has compellingly described the current situation as moving from post-war to pre-war. Does he share my concern that the people of this country, as a whole, are not yet in a place to understand the seriousness of the problem, that there is in some sense, therefore, the beginnings of an issue of consent, and that it is harder than it should be for young people to get excited about joining some of our big contractors and supporting the work we are doing for our armed forces on diverse fronts around the country? If that is true, does he think that there is a specific role for the Ministry of Defence to lead the process of building consent across the UK?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One issue we face is that if you are not Iranian or Russian and living in the UK, you may believe that this does not affect you too much. My entire argument—indeed, the argument I made at Lancaster House—is that this is not just something that impacts on foreign nationals in the distance; we are all, in effect, under attack. For evidence of that, we can see up and down the land the direct impact on every single family as Putin drove into Ukraine. Every single household budget in Britain was under attack. Remember, the winter before last we were paying up to half of the average family’s energy bill. This really does matter back home. It is again why I stress that defence is the cheapest version of looking after ourselves, not the most expensive one. That is why it is so important that, with Putin inflicting that inflation on British households and British business, we wake up to that fact and understand it. I actually think the British people do understand. They do want us to do more. It is popular to make sure that we properly defend these isles and defend our interests overseas. That is why this party has been proud to bring forward this big boost to our national defence.

As was mentioned earlier, this year I have—because this battle is so very important for all of us, not least our Ukrainian friends—provided another half a billion pounds of aid to Ukraine. That will take our total 2024 military package to a record £3 billion, which is the most we have provided in any year. Previously, it was £2.3 billion and £2.3 billion. It brings our total support overall to £12.5 billion, in addition to other aid. In addition, to help Ukraine repel Russia’s mounting attacks, we gave, a couple of weeks ago, the largest tranche of military gifting assistance to date.

It is worth reiterating the size and scale of that, because I fear that with the announcement of the 2.5% and the trajectory—I think all Members believe that Ukraine’s win is absolutely existential and important—the scale of the gifting was perhaps not noticed. It included 4 million rounds of ammunition, 1,600 key munitions, including air defence and precision long-range missiles, all our remaining AS-90 artillery platforms, 60 combat boats, 400 armour-protected and all-terrain vehicles, and hundreds of bombs for Ukraine’s new fleet of F-16 combat aircraft. Just as we initially provided our Ukrainian friends with trained troops, anti-tank missiles, main battle tanks, missiles and so many other firsts, we will now ensure that the aircraft we cannot provide for them—we do not fly F-16s—are properly provided with munitions.

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

I know that the Secretary of State’s personal commitment to Ukraine is second to none. Does he agree with me that if Putin is seen to fail in Ukraine, the threat to western Europe, the United Kingdom and NATO countries will recede for a generation? If Putin is seen to gain any sort of victory in Ukraine, the opposite will happen.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. That is precisely the point, and that is exactly why it is right to invest in Ukraine. I do not want to make this a political speech—

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

It’s the way you tell them.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

This is a serious issue, and I am surprised by that sort of attitude. I want to ask, because it is a serious point, whether the Opposition are now ready to commit to that extra £500 billion if they were elected, because I have yet to hear that confirmed, and that is an important issue for our Ukrainian friends. I accept that the Ukrainians have the Opposition’s support, but they also need the pledge of money and the certainty that this House will provide it, come what may.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

If I heard the Secretary of State correctly, a few minutes ago he said that we have now gifted all our AS-90 howitzers to Ukraine. We are buying 14 new Archers. We are then buying a completely different system based on Boxer, which will take some years to come into service, and our multiple-launch rocket systems are being refurbished. What is he doing to ensure that the British Army is not left without heavy artillery for the next few years, because what he is talking about is a dangerous risk?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

As my right hon. Friend will realise, it is not a move I have taken easily. There is a balance to be struck between where the weapons can do the most good and the extraordinarily difficult fight that our Ukrainian friends are in right now. I thought, believe and think that that warrants the provision of further AS-90s. The new equipment, as I do not need to tell him, is vastly superior and will be in our hands quickly, not least because of the excellent work of the Minister for Defence Procurement, who has sped up the acquisition of new equipment through his brilliant integrated plan.

I want to be entirely clear with the House: there are choices to make when we do this gifting, and we have to make the choices as to where we think the equipment will be most useful and how quickly we can replenish it. One of the very good things about this significant boost in defence spending, as my right hon. Friend Mr Francois will appreciate, is that it will enable us to replenish not only equipment but, crucially, munitions, which have been a real concern of his and many others.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I will make a little progress, if I may.

We have pledged this half a billion pounds extra, so we are at £3 billion a year. The crucial point—it has perhaps been lost, or perhaps I have not said it from this Dispatch Box—is that over the course of the next Parliament, this party in government would provide £15 billion of guaranteed aid to Ukraine. When I speak to President Zelensky or my opposite number, Minister Umerov, they make it clear that the certainty of that funding is the most important thing we can do right now. I implore and invite other parties to suggest that they would follow that pledge, in order to provide that certainty to the Ukrainians right now. It matters now that the Ukrainians have certainty that that aid will be there, come what may and regardless of electoral cycles elsewhere, even though we will still be here.

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

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to defence and the extra money for the budget. I know that he is very committed to the defence sector in Northern Ireland, and we want to encourage that. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is doing an inquiry on defence procurement for Northern Ireland and is suggesting that there should be a regional hub, because that will encourage more companies from Northern Ireland to be involved and be part of that spend for defence over the next couple of years. First, is the Minister aware of what the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is doing on procurement? Secondly, other firms such as Nitronica, an electronics manufacturing firm in Ballynahinch, wish to be part of defence procurement but have not had the opportunity. It is important that we all play our part. I think the Secretary of State will agree with me, but I am curious to hear whether there is a plan.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I certainly do agree: all parts of the United Kingdom have a very important role to play, especially Northern Ireland, where missile production, ships and electronics are particular skills. It is important for people there to have a level of certainty that we intend to invest and will carry on investing. Today we can outline exactly how much we would spend each year in the future. By doing so, it is worth them investing. It is cheaper for them to invest. The cost of capital to build and maintain factories falls when we provide that certainty. I therefore hope that the Labour party will match our long-term pledge to Ukraine and to defence spending, because there is no way that warm words about defence spending make a difference to the frontline; the difficult choices have to be made. We have made our choices and we will reduce the size of the civil service back to pre-covid levels. Labour can make its own choices, but I encourage it to join us in the defence boost pledge.

There is no more important element of defence than our nuclear deterrent. Again, it is good to hear that both sides of the House now seem to back the nuclear deterrent, but that cannot be done without backing the money to support it.

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

It is true that both sides of the House strongly back the nuclear deterrent at the moment, if my right hon. Friend is talking about the Labour Opposition. However, with recent talk of the prospect of a hung Parliament, one could find oneself in the same situation as the Cameron Government in 2010, when John Spellar and I were begging for a vote to be held to renew the nuclear deterrent, but because of the coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats, that vote was postponed, at great expense, for four years until 2016. We would like to hear assurances from both Front Benches that no such situation will ever be allowed to arise again.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I am pleased to reassure my right hon. Friend from this Front Bench that no such delay would be countenanced. Just in the last few weeks we have issued the defence nuclear enterprise Command Paper—[Interruption.] I thought the Opposition Front Bench knew that there was a coalition Government, but perhaps they missed it. Perhaps they also missed the point that my right hon. Friend was making.

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

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I can offer him the assurance that the Liberal Democrats embrace the continuous at-sea deterrent with four submarines. What is more, the strategic environment in which we were operating in 2010 was very different from that which we see today: the Liberal Democrats made the right call then, and we have made the right call now.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

You heard it here first, Madam Deputy Speaker. I warmly welcome that commitment, which was not available under the then coalition Government. It is an important moment, and I welcome that commitment from the hon. Gentleman, as I welcome it from Labour.

I gently remind the House that 11 Opposition Front Benchers have voted against the deterrent in their time here, including three members of the current shadow Cabinet, including the shadow Foreign Secretary, the shadow Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary, and the shadow Deputy Prime Minister. The House is right to ask, and the country will want to know, whether that commitment is as firm as we now hear it is from the Liberal Democrats. It will also want to know, even if the commitment is said to be firm, whether Labour is prepared to fund it. Again, it comes back to the 2.5%.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Can we be clear that, as was kindly referenced by Sir Julian Lewis, that situation was the result of a failure of political judgment and will by David Cameron? He could have said to the Liberal Democrats, “This is a matter of strategic national interest. If you don’t like it, you can give up your jobs and walk out of the Government.” They would have bottled it. The fact was that we lost six years and a huge amount of money, and we are putting CASD at real risk with enormously elongated tours of duty for our tremendous submariners.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The right hon. Gentleman wants to relitigate the past, but I think we all agree that we cannot do anything about it. I want to talk about the future, and the future is that those on his own side have yet to commit to the 2.5% that is required to ensure that our nuclear deterrent can deliver on time. In March the Prime Minister and I published the defence nuclear enterprise Command Paper, setting out our long-held and unshakeable commitment to our own independent nuclear deterrent.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s desire to look forward rather than back but, just for the record, does he remember, as I do, that at one point the Liberal Democrat policy on Trident was to maintain the submarines but to send them to sea without any missiles?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I will be as diplomatic as possible: the Liberal Democrats asked us to investigate a range of options, and I am very pleased that the one we ended up with was the four-submarine continuous at-sea deterrent.

We are investing £41 billion in our next generation of the Dreadnought fleet, and investing in our replacement UK sovereign nuclear warhead as well.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

The Secretary of State mentioned the Command Paper. Page 89, in paragraph 10, refers to

“protecting ourselves…against attack from the skies”.

We know from what has happened in Ukraine, and more recently in Israel, how important our air defence missile system is. The Command Paper continues:

“To counter these threats, we will step up our efforts to deliver an Integrated Air and Missile Defence approach.”

Can the Secretary of State tell us where we are with that?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I should point out that there are a wide number of differences for us, because within Nato—this relates to article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty—we are in a different region from, for example, Israel, which was recently attacked. We have a number of layered approaches to defending our skies, including the quick reaction alert. However, the hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that we are working with our European friends and allies on a European sky shield to do something along the lines of what he has described. It should be understood, however, that there are considerations regardless of which direction we take, because, again, the money can only be spent once, and we would have to consider what else we were or were not going to achieve in defence. So we use a layered approach, but we are actively working on exactly what the Command Paper describes.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I am a little concerned about not giving others an opportunity to contribute, but I will allow the right hon. Gentleman one last intervention.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Was the Secretary of State not a member of the Government, and indeed chairman of the Conservative party, during the period we are discussing when the Government did not renew Trident?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I think the right hon. Gentleman will now understand why I was so pleased to trounce the Liberal Democrats when it came to that election—to squeeze them out of government and ensure that we could get on with Trident as we always wanted to. I encourage his party to join us in that commitment, backed up with money—not just photo-opportunities in Barrow, but money to deliver the nuclear deterrent.

I now want to make some progress. I want to talk about Putin’s war, and the way in which it has underlined the vital role of conventional forces. From the Red sea to the skies over Iraq, our armed forces are already doing incredible work globally in protecting and advancing our interests every day. In the ongoing Exercise Steadfast Defender, they are currently making up 20% of this year’s NATO exercise, itself the largest since the cold war. I have been to visit some of them in Poland.

We are investing £8.6 billion in Army equipment during this decade to make our ground forces more integrated, agile and lethal. That includes the new Boxer and the long-awaited Ajax armoured fighting vehicles, as well as the new Challenger 3 tanks, of which I saw the second prototype come off the production line in Telford just last month—the first British-made tank for 22 years.

Our United Kingdom is at its strongest when we stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies, and therefore our commitment to NATO will only ever increase. That is why it is so important that we have been prepared to set out how to get to 2.5%. At the 2014 NATO summit at Newport in Wales, we set a target of 2% to be reached by this year; we are now extending that to 2.5%, and we invite other countries to join us.

NATO has become stronger because of Putin’s actions in Ukraine. It has added members: two new members have joined us, and we therefore outgun Putin on every single metric. We have three times as many submarines and fighter jets, four times as many tanks, helicopters and artillery pieces, four and a half times as many warships, six times as many armed vehicles, eight times as many transport carriers and 16 times as many aircraft carriers. But it is important that NATO works together and sticks together. It is also important that we send a signal to NATO that the second biggest spender in absolute terms intends to increase that expenditure—that has been widely welcomed by other NATO members that I have spoken to in the past couple of weeks.

The importance of that iron-clad alliance is the third lesson of Putin’s war. Since 2022, we have worked hard with our NATO partners to enlarge the alliance and bolster its eastern flank. We have also worked hard with our closest partners on a range of top-end procurement programmes, from sixth-generation combat jets with Italy and Japan to cutting-edge nuclear-powered submarines with Australia and the United States.

The fourth lesson of Putin’s war is that the battle in Ukraine has needed ever more innovation—new tech, new drones. As we ramp up our defence spending to 2.5%, we will put high-tech innovation right at the heart of our plans. I recently visited the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and we agreed to ringfence 5% of the defence budget for research and development over the next year, and to improve our strategic defence research.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

As I am sure my right hon. Friend knows, the Royal Navy’s radars are made in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Can we please have a radar strategy for a new generation of radar, and not just for the Royal Navy but for the RAF and ballistic missile defence?

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

Before the Secretary of State comes in, I am slightly conscious that 13 Back Benchers have indicated that they wish to make speeches, so there will be an impact on the length of those speeches if we are not careful.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I will be less generous with interventions and will rattle through the remaining important content for our military services.

We are building on the recent defence drone strategy and our £4.6 billion investment in uncrewed technologies over the next decade. As we discussed earlier, AI and other tech advances are transforming the way warfare is fought, and our pan-defence procurement reforms have enabled a speeding up of our ability to deliver new technology. I have mentioned DragonFire several times at the Dispatch Box, and it will be delivered five years early.

Fifthly and finally, Putin’s war in Ukraine has underlined the need for all NATO allies to rebuild their stockpiles and grow their defence industrial base. To keep our defence production lines running, we have reformed the procurement process to prioritise exportability from day one. That is now an accredited part of UK production when we make procurement decisions. Our £75 billion boost for defence includes an additional £10 billion to produce even larger stockpiles of munitions over the next decade. That gives certainty to industry and boosts our regions.

Defence supports hundreds of thousands of jobs across the UK, and the boost for defence will provide even more opportunities—opportunities for apprentices and for seasoned engineers. Those jobs would be at risk if the path to 2.5% were not followed, so it is very important that we give that commitment to our defence personnel. We undertake to do that, but we will go further: we will also invest £4 billion in military accommodation, because we recognise that retention, as well as recruitment, is so important. That £4 billion would not exist without the increase to 2.5%. We are also ensuring that there are wraparound childcare services for service families and the service pupil premium.

I thank—as I know the whole House will—the committed, professional and courageous members of our armed forces for everything they do for us in more difficult times. They keep us safe. We are backing them with more money and, in a more dangerous world, I think that is the right thing to do. As I go to Washington with the Prime Minister for the NATO summit in July, we will be saying to other NATO countries, “Follow our example. Follow us because it is the right thing to do and because it is cheaper and more effective than waiting for wars and conflicts to break out.” I encourage other Members of this House to follow us.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 6:35, 7 May 2024

I welcome this defence debate in Government time. The defence and security of Britain is an increasing public concern in this country. You said that 13 Members had put in to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I look forward to each and every one of those contributions. We have pulled in some of the very best in this House on defence for this debate.

I start by paying tribute to our UK armed forces, who are in action defending international shipping in the Red sea, reinforcing NATO allies on the Russian border and protecting all of us in Britain 24/7. Our forces are respected for their total professionalism worldwide. They have a right to expect our full support, on both sides of this House, and in this defence debate they will get it.

This is an era of increasing threats to our UK security, our prosperity and our values. To deal with this more dangerous world, we need a new era for UK defence to deter threats, to defend the country and to defeat attacks. Over the next decade, we face an alliance of aggression from autocrats who have contempt for international law and freely squander the lives of their own people. With Putin’s war in Europe now into its third brutal year, the Ukrainians, civilians and military alike, are fighting with huge courage. They have regained half the territory taken by Putin and disabled his Black sea fleet, but Russia shows resurgent strength, with its economy now on a wartime footing and its Government spending 30% of their total budget on the military.

I am proud that the UK is united for Ukraine. In response to the Secretary of State’s invitation, the Opposition give our full backing to the Government’s increased UK military aid for this year and following years, as well as to the long-term UK-Ukraine security co-operation agreement. Let us take the politics out of this country’s backing for Ukraine. As my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer said to President Zelensky in Kyiv, while there may be a change of Government at the election, there will be no change in Britain’s resolve to support Ukraine, confront Russian aggression and pursue Putin for his war crimes.

That is because the first duty of any Government is to keep the nation safe and protect our citizens. The defence of the UK starts in Ukraine. If Putin wins, he will not stop at Ukraine. I say very clearly that Labour will always do what is needed and spend what is needed on defence. When Labour was last in government in 2010, Britain was indeed spending 2.5% of GDP on defence, the British Army had over 100,000 full-time troops and satisfaction with service life was at 60%.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

Alex Sobel has done really good work with me on the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine, and I pay him credit for that. Whenever we take folks to Ukraine, we try to take as many from the Opposition side of the House as from the Government side. The right hon. Gentleman says that he will do whatever needs to be done, but expenditure requires long-term planning, so I just want to confirm for the record that he is saying that he will meet the £15 billion of expenditure that the Secretary of State has outlined and the £75 billion of expenditure the Secretary of State has outlined for the growth of the armed services budget.

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

I will come on to the £75 billion in a bit, but the hon. Gentleman asked about Ukraine. The Government’s increase in military aid for this year and following years has Labour’s full support. Every commitment of UK military aid since Putin invaded has had Labour’s fullest support; that will continue.

We in the Labour party have deep roots in defending this country. Throughout the last century, it has been working men and women who have served on the frontline, fighting and sometimes dying for Britain. It was Labour that established NATO and the British nuclear deterrent—commitments that are unshakeable for my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras as Labour leader and for everyone who serves on the Labour Front Bench.

We are a party with deep pride in forging international law and security—the Geneva conventions, the universal declaration of human rights, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty were all signed by Labour Prime Ministers—and we are a party with deep respect for the serving men and women of our armed forces. Theirs is the ultimate public service. They defend the country. They are essential to our national resilience at home.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I endorse what the right hon. Gentleman is saying and echo his support for the Government’s backing of Ukraine. Does he agree that perhaps over the last 25 years, across both sides of the House—I will take my own share of responsibility for this—and maybe across the west as a whole, we have been complacent about the post-cold war situation and about the fragility or vitality of our defence of western liberal democracy?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one way to demonstrate that we have understood that we are now in a different place is to reverse the cuts to our armed forces? Backing our soldiers—our men and women who put themselves in harm’s way—involves backing them with the resources to increase their numbers and to get the size of the Army up to, say, 100,000, so that we can demonstrate to the rest of the world that we are serious about standing shoulder to shoulder with our NATO colleagues and defending democracy and freedom around the world.

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

I agree with the hon. Gentleman only to a point. In his speech to the House, the Defence Secretary set out the range of increasing threats that this country and our allies now face. Those threats are very different from those of 14 years ago, so it is not simply a question of reversing the cuts that we have seen in recent years; it is a question of matching the requirements needed for the future with the threats that we face.

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

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman that defence has to be a consensual matter. All the work I have done with the Labour Front-Bench team has been very consensual, because they have talked a great deal of sense. Every single thing that the shadow Secretary of State has said this afternoon could easily have been said by a Conservative Secretary of State—there is nothing wrong with it whatsoever. Will he therefore continue that worthwhile cross-party consensus by agreeing to match our defence spending commitment of 2.5% of GDP?

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

We share the ambition to hit 2.5%. Our commitment to 2.5% is total. We will do it in our own way and we will do it as soon as we can. I will come on to the flaws in the plan set out by those on the Government Front Bench.

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

The right hon. Gentleman is extremely generous to give way again. There is a very important difference here. Ours is an absolute 100% cast-iron guaranteed pledge to spend 2.5%. Will he match that?

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

I am afraid there is nothing cast-iron about the figures, the plan or, indeed, the proposals for paying for it. I will come to that in a moment.

Before I took the first intervention from James Gray, I wanted to pick up a final point that was made by Tim Farron on the question of reviewing what we need to face the threats that we now face. The Defence Secretary is dismissive about the need for a strategic defence review, despite the fact that his own Department is preparing for exactly that, whatever the result of the next election. That was confirmed in the House last month by the Minister for Defence Procurement. He also made the point a month before, when Mr Ellwood talked about a defence review and the Minister for Defence Procurement said,

“he makes an excellent point.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2024;
Vol. 747, c. 27.]

The problem for the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who was involved in the five years of coalition government after 2010, and the problem for the Conservative Front-Bench team, who have been in government for the past 14 years, is that people judge Governments on what they do, not on what they say.

The Defence Secretary mentioned his January speech at Lancaster House, and he is right when he argues that what we do on defence sends signals to the world. What signal does it send to Britain’s adversaries when our armed forces have been hollowed out and underfunded since 2010, as his predecessor admitted in this House last year? What signal does it send to our adversaries when defence spending has been cut from 2.5% under Labour to 2.3% now, when day-to-day defence budgets have been cut by £10 billion since 2010, and when the British Army has now been cut to its smallest size since Napoleon?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The present Defence Secretary was chair of the Conservative party until 2016. Is it not also a fact that, when the Conservative party was in coalition government, it cut the defence budget by 18% and not only reduced the size of the Army but made people compulsorily redundant? Had a Labour Government done that, we would have heard howls and cries from Conservative Members.

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

I said a moment ago that Governments and Ministers are judged by what they do, not by what they say. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and independent Library figures confirm that 18% cut in defence spending over the first five-year Government led by the Conservatives after 2010.

What signal does it send to our adversaries that defence procurement has been condemned by the Public Accounts Committee as “broken,” that at least £15 billion of taxpayers’ money has been wasted through MOD mismanagement, and that procurement delays to Ajax and Wedgetail are putting our NATO commitments at risk? What signal does it send to our adversaries when forces’ recruitment targets have been missed each and every year for the past 14 years, when satisfaction with service life and morale have fallen to record lows, and when military families live in damp housing and use food banks to get by?

Even after Putin invaded Ukraine, this Government cut a further 4,000 troops from the British Army, took 287 days to sign a new contract to replace the NLAW anti-tank missiles to restock our armed forces and, according to the National Audit Office, created a £17 billion black hole—the biggest ever—in the defence equipment plan this year. It is no wonder the Secretary of State wants to talk about the future, not the past. This is the Tory record of 14 years of failure on defence. Our armed forces simply cannot afford another five years of the Conservatives.

Let me say again that people judge Governments by what they do, not by what they say. The Defence Secretary now thinks he has the answer to every problem—a magic wand, a get-out-of-jail-free card—but the Prime Minister’s announcement last month that the Conservatives will raise defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030 is of course the same level that this country spent with Labour in 2010. Boris Johnson made the same promise two years earlier, and the Conservatives have not delivered it in any of the five Budgets or autumn statements since. None hit 2.5%, none reversed the real cuts in resource spending and none matched Labour’s record.

Everyone recognises that defence spending must rise to deal with increasing threats. We share the same ambition as the Government, and we are totally committed to spending 2.5% on defence. We want a plan that is fully costed and fully funded in Government budgets. Our armed forces deserve no less.

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

I will give way to two of his colleagues who have not yet intervened on me, and then I am sure I will come back to Bob Seely.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

Governments should be judged not by what they say, but by what they do. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Wedgetail. If Labour were in government, would it specifically commit to going back to the original five Wedgetail AEW aircraft, rather than the three that are now on order? Is that what Labour would not say, but do?

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

The right hon. Gentleman knows the difficulty of serving in this House and debating defence issues from the Opposition Benches. He knows we simply will not have access to the classified information on threats, the capabilities we need, the state of the armed forces or even the true state of public finances until we open the books. Those are the sort of decisions that we will make in a strategic defence review within the first year of a new Labour Government. That is the way that we will balance the requirements for national security with the responsibilities for sound public finances.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

Is there not a simple problem here, though? Labour may be committing to a defence review, but that review will take nine or 10 months—maybe a year. That simply means that it avoids spending or matching those increases for a period of at least 18 months. That is a significant problem.

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

I think the hon. Gentleman needs to have a word with those on his own Front Bench, because the Department is at the moment planning a fresh review, whatever the outcome—[Interruption.] Yes, it is, whatever the outcome of the election. The problem for the hon. Gentleman is that the 2030 target is not in the Government’s financial plans; it is in a press release. We cannot rebuild the UK’s armed forces, let long-term procurement contracts, deter those who threaten us or defeat Putin with press releases. If this 2030 plan had been in a Budget, it would have been independently checked, openly costed and fully funded, but it is not and it was not. There are more holes in the Defence Secretary’s numbers than there is in Emmental cheese. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has called the £75 billion figure “essentially meaningless”. The Institute for Government has said that the Conservatives’ 2.5% plan does not add up, and that cutting 70,000 civil servant jobs will get nowhere close to delivering the savings needed to fund 2.5%.

To produce his fake figure of £75 billion, the Secretary of State has invented a zero-growth baseline for the next six years, unlike and in contrast with the Treasury’s official 0.5% real annual growth baseline. To get 2.3% as a different baseline for the annual increases in his plan on page 20 in the annex of his report, which he likes to parade, he has added all the one-off spending this year to the defence core budget—that is £3 billion for Ukraine, £1 billion for the nuclear contingency, half a billion pounds for operations and £300 million for ammunition, all in the figures for each of the next six years. Finally, the Secretary of State has used a trick that the Government tried before, in the 2015 defence strategic review, when Ministers pledged to cut 30% of MOD civil servants just to make their spending plans add up. However, after 2015 and that plan, civil service numbers in the MOD of course did not go down to 41,000; they went up to 63,000.

The new promised increase to defence core budgets will not start until April next year. For the next 10 months, day-to-day budgets in real terms are still being cut, the Army is still being cut and recruitment targets are still being missed. Nine out of 10 of the veterans promised a veterans ID card by the end of last year are still missing out, and around 500 veteran households are being made homeless every three months.

Our armed forces cannot afford another five years of the Conservatives. With threats increasing and tensions growing, we must make Britain better defended. Labour’s plan for defence will reinforce homeland protections with a new strategic review. [Interruption.] It will fulfil NATO obligations in full, with a NATO test on our major programmes.

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

I am finishing off now; the hon. Gentleman will have his chance to speak.

Labour’s plan will renew the nation’s contract with those who have served through an independent forces commissioner. It will make allies our strategic strength, with new French, German and EU defence agreements, and renewed UK leadership within the AUKUS alliance. It will direct British defence investment first to British jobs with deep procurement reform. Labour is the real party of defence. With Labour, Britain will be better defended.

Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee 6:56, 7 May 2024

As both Front Benchers have made clear, we are all in this place indebted to the hard work of our armed forces personnel. Alas, we live in a dangerous world. The optimism that followed the fall of the Berlin wall and China joining the World Trade Organisation has proved illusory. The Defence Committee is currently investigating the grey zone: the gathering of intelligence, the manoeuvring for advantage, the pressurising of independent states, the disruption of democratic processes and the deployment of proxies. Into that category can be placed the hack of the defence payroll discussed earlier today, which follows the hack of our electoral data.

However, those are simply symptoms of a much wider pattern of step-by-step aggression. If, at a future date, our adversaries were to step over the threshold into kinetic warfare, no one could argue that we had not been warned. For any who believed that the modern world was too sophisticated, nuanced and interdependent ever to consider the brute force of state-on-state aggression, least of all in Europe, their delusions were shattered in February 2022. As we speak, in Ukraine hundreds of thousands of people are engaged in the gallant defence of their homes and families from an autocratic aggressor operating on the simple mantra that “might is right”.

In our last defence debate, I called on the Government to recognise the current threat by setting out a clear path to increasing the UK’s defence investment to 2.5% of GDP. The announcement of just that trajectory is most welcome. I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence on that achievement and on the vital additional support to Ukraine. It is all the more welcome that that increase was not achieved by some hockey-stick projection of what will happen in five years’ time, but is being realised on a linear basis, with a step up each year. That provides credibility and certainty of delivery, and will send a message to our adversaries and a clear message to British industry that we need it to invest in capital equipment, skills and innovation.

The announcement also sends a powerful message to another critical group: our NATO allies. We are celebrating 75 years as the most effective and successful defence alliance the world has known. As the Secretary of State referenced, it remains the case that NATO enjoys, on paper, a substantial overmatch in matériel against Russia. That is well and good, but NATO must constantly up its game. Russia has shown itself oblivious in its tactics to the human cost of its devastating war in Ukraine. Against that backdrop, it is essential that we maintain a substantial conventional overmatch, especially in deep fires and ensuring air superiority, with the stockpiles to maintain it. We need to continue to do so, notwithstanding Russia spending eye-watering amounts to replace their losses in Ukraine with more modern equipment.

NATO also needs to ensure that military capabilities recognise the new geopolitical realities, namely the close relationship between China, Russia and other potential aggressors: North Korea, with its nuclear capability, and Iran, with its regional proxies looking to seize opportunities from the distracted west. A clash, were it to come, could come simultaneously from multiple quarters. Europe must recognise the implications of that and pull its weight.

When I spoke last, I said that I found it hard to believe we would not end up feeling the need to invest up to 3% of GDP, but that any such decision should be based on a bottom-up analysis of necessary capabilities. It will also be influenced by one other critical factor, which is that the increase in our commitment should be noted not just by our adversaries and our industry, but by our allies. NATO must set a new benchmark of 2.5% to reflect the new realities. That additional £140 billion of defence investment across the alliance would go a long way to reassuring us all that defence is receiving across this continent—a continent in which a live war rages—the greater priority it demands.

This debate is a general debate on defence. Members may wish to tackle a whole range of issues, each of which would be worthy of a parliamentary debate in its own right. To name but a few such themes, there is the balance, given the announced new investment, between the current equipment plan and innovative weapon systems emerging from the Ukraine war; the role of the Royal Navy, the balance of its current commitments, the shipbuilding programme and the continuous at-sea deterrence; the modernisation of the Army, particularly its armoured components; the increased prevalence of unmanned aerial systems, the importance to the Royal Air Force and the industrial base of the global combat air programme, and our future role in the space domain; and our home defence, to which Derek Twigg alluded earlier. When I asked the Prime Minister whether, post the failed Iranian attack on Israel, we would be reviewing the need for a multilayered UK air defence, that was because I believe we should. Increasingly, citizens will be vulnerable not just to land-based missile or drone attack, but from the same from vessels at sea, with limited warnings.

These are all valid areas of debate, but I want to restrict my remarks not to those internal defence debates, important though each is, but to the wider issue of how, in a much darker world, defence needs to be working with our allies across Government and with broader society as a whole. Arguments are being made that, in the circumstances, our full focus and commitment must be to Europe. Strengthening our ability to play what would be a vital role in that theatre is of course necessary, as the Committee’s report “Ready for War?” set out. However, we have strong continental allies with land-based and land-focused forces, and the contest of the future will be determined not by a stand-off in eastern Europe alone; as in earlier eras, the search for resources, for critical minerals and for dominance of sea routes will remain.

We have influence and we are trusted in many parts of the world. We have genuine friends, a concept unknown to our adversaries. Our role in supporting our allies—for example, in competing with an expansionary China—may lie not in the South China sea, but on the coasts of Africa, in the Gulf and in the high north. We should not lightly neglect the assets we have. In particular, our history has provided us with geographical reach and a position that our adversaries would love to usurp. As senior US military and naval officers are not slow to remind us, UK bases overseas remain absolutely vital, not least Diego Garcia. We must be deeply protective of assets with so much strategic value in protecting the free world, including supporting regional allies.

There is also how defence is viewed inside Government. For anyone who has had the privilege of the serving as a Defence Minister, and I am delighted to say that there are many of us on the Defence Committee, the picture is familiar: the darkened room, probably Cobra, with the ominous description of whatever dire visitation is expected, be it fire, flood, plague, strike or even the failure of security baggage checkers, and all faces turn in our direction. There will always be a requirement for MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—requests and the military will always rise to the task, but it should not be called upon as often as it is. Our armed forces must be training and preparing for their tasks, and their rest and recuperation time is critical if we are to retain and recruit. Departments must be more resilient in peacetime, and must have in place plans for worst-case scenarios, including war, as was once the case, and these should be checked and should be exercised.

Lastly, there is defence working alongside society. In the quarter of a century in which our own national defence appeared to be assured, our ability to think holistically about the strategic interplay between all aspects of our society and how that can help keep us safe has atrophied. Defence cannot be put into a discrete box; we need to think clearly about long-term national plans and how they support our resilience.

I will name just a few examples. The skills agenda on nuclear is commendable. With no disrespect to our Liberal Democrat friends, these are very long-term commitments—we cannot play the hokey-cokey with nuclear. It is a long-term endeavour, so that skills agenda is incredibly important, but are we doing enough to set out exactly what cash will be invested in upgrading our scientific capability? Are our plans for small modular reactors being driven at the pace we require, not just to minimise costs but to appreciate swiftly all the implications that that new technology may unleash? Given the undoubted brilliance of UK research, are we doing everything we can to ensure we are spotting the crossover opportunities? We can be certain that our adversaries are using every possible avenue into that UK research. When ideas move from research to production, are we calling out those who make—often cavalierly and without proper consideration—trite judgments on what may be ethical or unethical investment, and in doing so are undermining our ability to live in a society where such a debate can even take place?

There has been some commentary in the press about peacetime conscription. While I welcome the honesty of sharing worst-case scenarios and the focus on increased investment in defence that that has brought, I personally view the idea as misplaced, but I would make an observation. In the coming decades, we risk skill pinch points in critical areas of defence. They are the very areas that are at the forefront of technology, and therefore at the forefront of demand in the private sector. Are we doing enough to identify brilliant young men and women, and setting out a specific and unique path for them to enter His Majesty’s armed forces for a limited period post university? Some may wish to stay longer term; others may join the reserves. That would require a different approach. The Government would have to consider a whole raft of inducements, including financial ones, but we should not overlook the willingness of young people to accept fascinating challenges and to serve if called on to do so. Done well, that cadre would be recognised by industry as having been hand-picked as the leading lights of their generation, and with among the most sought-after of skillsets, they may even provide the impetus to the zig-zag careers proposed by the Haythornthwaite review.

We need to invest: in innovation, in capital equipment, and in the men and women of our armed forces. I am pleased that the Government are doing just that. It is vital, it is timely, and every penny must be well spent.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence) 7:07, 7 May 2024

I am glad to be in the Chamber for this debate. It is an important debate; those of us on the Defence Committee would probably say that we do not have them often enough.

I wanted to pick up on a point made by the right hon. Members—my right hon. Friends, I hope—for Warley (John Spellar) and for North Durham (Mr Jones) about the reduction in defence spend, and the discussion we had at the Select Committee recently. As is our duty as a Committee, we challenged the Secretary of State on expenditure, and I wanted to pinpoint one specific issue, which relates to people—at least for us on the SNP Benches, people are the bedrock of a defence policy and posture—and to concerns about defence infrastructure and security, especially for those of us who live around nuclear defence infrastructure. We might not necessarily agree with it, but it is there, so we would hope it is secure at all times.

Coming back to the point that my right hon. Friends made, I wanted to look at some specific concerns about the Ministry of Defence police budget. In 2010-2011, the defence police budget was £154.8 million, equating to £226.78 million today when adjusted for inflation. Right hon. and hon. Members may correct me if I am wrong, but I think there was a Labour Government at that point. However, the budget in 2022-23 was £161.3 million. Leading back to the question posed at the Committee, that is a real-terms reduction of about £65.5 million in the defence police infrastructure over the past 12 years. That is something that Ministers might want to come back to later on.

The shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey, made some comments about the £75 billion, and I share his concern. Like me, he understands that the assumption from the Government is based on a baseline of spend, as a percentage of GDP, that is frozen in cash terms, so without borrowing or extra debt, it comes nowhere near £75 billion. I wish the Government well on that point.

I would maybe want to have a wee bit more of a conciliatory approach to this. There will be at least some consistency from the SNP Benches, which I am sure the Minister will appreciate. Although he and I have different views on the nuclear deterrent, we are at least consistent. It was quite interesting to see someone else getting taken over the barrel for that—it makes a change. On the commitment to Ukraine, the Minister can take it from the SNP that, whoever the Government happen to be this year or next year, say, we will also be steadfast on the support for Ukraine. The right to defend national territory, and the right to national self-determination, are elements of human dignity for any modern nation state and alliance. As I said, the gist of my remarks is in three things: people, place and our partnerships.

Let us talk about the ordinary ranks. That is a term that I find quite problematic. I come from a services family. My brother was a sergeant, and my nephew is in the forces as well—in the “ordinary ranks”. There is really nothing ordinary in serving.

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

I think the term is “other ranks.”

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

Let me come to that in a second, but in common parlance, I think they are always called the “ordinary ranks”—[Interruption.] The Minister may want to listen for a wee second. Whether it is “other” or “ordinary”, that type of terminology says nothing about the men and women who served in Iraq, such as my brother; in Afghanistan; out in the Red sea, no matter what happens there—and there is concern that there might be mission creep—or in other deployments such as the joint expeditionary force in Estonia, which I know, as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Estonia, that the Estonian Government welcome.

Those ranks deserve more from us—not just from the Government and the official Opposition, but from all of us as parliamentarians. They deserve it that we take them more seriously in the structure of how we support and pay them, and in their entire terms and conditions. I know that there is probably profound disagreement about my approach, which would be an armed services representative body. Although I am saddened that the official Opposition changed their position, if they form the next Government, the SNP would support their new approach, which we think is at least a step in the right direction.

However, I do not think that having a Government appointee represent the armed forces personnel is the right step forward, because the lived experience of members of the armed forces who have been on the frontline needs to form part of an understanding, as with any engagement on terms and conditions with a trade union, for example—although an armed forces representative body from this party is not a trade union and does not have the right to strike our proposals. We have to say to those ranks that we believe they can come together as a collective and have critical engagement with Government and, more importantly, with Parliament more broadly. We need to have that discussion with them; they need to be part of defence policy and posture. They are people we want to send to the frontline to fire a gun or a missile, but technically we are saying to them that we do not believe they have the capability of coming together to discuss and debate collectively their terms and conditions. I find that slightly bizarre.

If we do not engage with those ranks in a more robust fashion, as equals, we will go around a consistent revolving door of reports, as we have seen for years in Committees, especially the Defence Committee. I am mindful of the report produced by the Women in the Armed Forces Sub-Committee—I intimated that I would mention them—which was chaired by Sarah Atherton, who is not here today. That report was profound. Do I think that if we do not have real engagement with the frontline, there will be substantial change? I have grave concerns that there will not be.

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

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that close engagement with the other ranks. He might well benefit from serving on the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, where he will discover that all of our time is spent with the other ranks.

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

I am grateful for that opportunity, but I have previously declined it for various reasons. I will get into that in a wee bit more detail and, although the hon. Member may not agree with me, I may want to reflect on some of the profound experiences that we saw in that report. I am afraid that we would not hear those things talked about on the armed forces parliamentary body. I am talking about ordinary service personnel, in private meetings with parliamentarians as part of a Committee inquiry, talking about the dreadful conditions that they suffer because of their gender, sex, sexuality or ethnicity. Some of it has been like a revolving door.

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

I spent 27 years of commissioned service in the British Army. The hon. Member does the British Army a disservice.

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

I recall the hon. Gentleman chairing the Armed Forces Bill Committee during the pandemic, when we heard some really profound and challenging evidence. I do not think that he and I would disagree that it was challenging. The report from the hon. Member for Wrexham, a former reservist, was challenging. It was the bare reality of what many members of the armed forces had to go through. I am sure that he was in the Chamber when members of Pride were here to hear the Prime Minister’s apology to LGBT members of the services. That happened; it is not a figment of the imagination. It does not say anything about the abilities and capabilities of the vast majority of the armed forces.

To me it is more about the structure. How different it would be if we had a body in which members of the armed forces, elected by their peers, could engage with any Government in the future. We would then be in a far better position to have that debate and to actually target support where it is needed. I have not yet heard a convincing argument against that.

I am glad that the official Opposition have a policy on this matter. It might not be one that I think is appropriate, but it is a reflection that the time has now come to have some type of body to take up that physical challenge. I believe that their example is from Germany, but I am also mindful of the example of the Kingdom of the Netherlands—one of our closest military allies—where a member of the armed forces could also be the general secretary of a trade union. Having a distinct armed forces trade union does not stop them carrying out their duties as members of the armed forces.

One or two of our NATO allies have unions and actually have the right to strike, although that is not somewhere I would be going in terms of policy. I just think that having such a union is critical, given some of the conditions that members of the armed forces and their families have faced over many years. We have heard about them in Select Committee reports, in debates on housing and in statements. My friend Mr Francois talked about Capita and some of the profound problems that members of the armed forces face on a daily basis. I honestly believe that they would be in a far better position to deal with these challenges if they were able to come together and deliberate and engage with whoever the Government are.

It is important to reflect on some of our Scandinavian allies when it comes to a more coherent approach to how we go forward as parliamentarians, because this is not just about members of the armed forces; it is about the role of Parliament as well. I have heard Members talk about having a more collegiate approach. Were we to follow the Danish or Swedish examples—this could be done whether or not the Government have a huge majority—it would mean that for an entire parliamentary term we could have an agreed military defence posture and an agreed budget. We could bring the main parties together and make a collective parliamentary decision.

The Nordic-Scandinavian model means that there is a good foundation to create a robust defence posture, with full parliamentary support. Even we in the SNP would agree to that. We may disagree on the nuclear deterrent, but Parliament has voted for that. But on the vast majority of issues I think the vast majority of parties in this place could agree and support a Government, which is critical given that the times in which we live need a coherent approach and full and robust parliamentary support.

I do hope that both the Government and the official Opposition will consider that if and when the next election is called, and whoever should form the next Government. That brings people together. It is also about us as parliamentarians taking our responsibilities appropriately, and about creating transparency and openness. Even in the United States, there is far more transparent and robust engagement with the Government on Capitol Hill by the Armed Services Committee. Of course, our Defence Select Committee has no such powers, in any shape or form, but if we had more open and transparent engagement at parliamentary level, we could hopefully overcome a lot of that.

The other thing I want to talk about, in bringing my remarks to a conclusion, is partnership. I am really glad that the shadow Defence Secretary mentioned some partnerships in bringing his speech to a close. Since 2016, we on the SNP Benches have been pushing for a more coherent mutual defence agreement with the European Union. He will need to correct me if I am wrong and that was not a part of what he said in his concluding remarks. The reason for that is not to replace NATO, but to understand that some of the complexities that EU members face—for example, when it comes to logistics, road design and bridge weights—could be tackled far more easily through the EU in partnership than, say, through NATO. That is because if we are trying to move a tank from the west to the eastern front, it has to get across France, Germany and so on. [Interruption.] I will conclude my remarks in a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I say that as a Euro-Atlanticist. It is really important that we create defence relationships with people who share our common interests here in the Euro-Atlantic area, because, as others have mentioned, we face a crisis of retention, a crisis of recruitment and unfathomable black holes that I would not wish on any Defence Secretary, whether the present one or anybody who wants to be one. The next Government will face unimaginable tasks, but if we put people, place and partnership at the heart of that, we in the SNP—although with our differences on the nuclear deterrent—would certainly be willing to support that.

Several hon. Members:


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

Order. Before I call Mark Francois, I remind colleagues that there is a certain pressure on time, which I am sure will be borne in mind.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford 7:22, 7 May 2024

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to participate in this important and timely debate on defence. It comes at an exciting time for defence, following the Prime Minister’s welcome announcement that we will now increase the UK’s defence spending from a little over 2% of GDP at present—more if we include Ukraine —to 2.5% by the end of the decade. Moreover, that welcome increase is linear in nature, rather than the traditionally back-loaded version, so it provides a solid path against which both our armed forces and our defence industry can appropriately plan.

As ever with these announcements, my colleagues on the House of Commons Defence Committee will want to scrutinise in detail the Secretary of State’s claim that that represents an additional £75 billion for defence over the period. A lot seems to depend on where we draw the baseline in making the calculation. Nevertheless, the declared increase to 2.5% indisputably represents billions of pounds of extra investment over the six years in question, which helps to send a powerful signal both to our allies and to any potential aggressors that the United Kingdom is prepared to defend itself, its values and its interests, both across the globe and at home.

Allied to that, we also had the recent announcement by our very proactive Minister for Defence Procurement of a wholescale reform of how the UK plans to procure its military equipment in future. The new system, known as the integrated procurement model, was announced in February. If I were asked to characterise it in one sentence, I would say that it represents moving from a bureaucratic peacetime model of procuring equipment to a much faster wartime model. Indeed, in Poland the Prime Minister spoke powerfully about putting the UK defence industry on to a war footing. That is very much in keeping with the Secretary of State’s speech at Lancaster House in January, in which he said that we are now moving from a post-war to a pre-war world—about which I fear he may yet be proven right.

Taken together, this suggests that after years of concentrating on wars of choice—in Iraq or Afghanistan —we are now again focusing on the possibility of having to fight a war of necessity, and perhaps even, ultimately, a war of national survival against an adversary on the scale of Russia and/or China.

For someone who has always believed that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm, I warmly welcome what one might call this new type of clear-eyed realism, which now seems to be infusing our defence planning in a way that, at least with regard to wars of necessity, has arguably been absent for many decades. For instance, we are now recreating across Government a national defence plan, akin conceptually to what was considered everyday normal business during the cold war.

I hope that I am not betraying a confidence when I tell the House that the Minister for Defence Procurement and I, and others such as my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin, who is in his place beside me, have discussed several times the need not just to change policy in terms of procurement, but crucially to change culture if the reforms are to have real meaning.

I note that the dynamic head of Defence Equipment and Support, Andy Start, when speaking at the Royal United Services Institute recently, explained that the reforms began in March and that the operating model will reach what he calls a “minimal viable product” by the autumn, with the whole programme in full flow by next year. As someone who has previously expressed a great deal of frustration about the bureaucracy and tardiness of our procurement system, I can only wish the Minister for Defence Procurement and the head of DE&S Godspeed in implementing these reforms as fast as possible, particularly as the international outlook continues to worsen. We urgently need a sense of urgency, as it were, and it appears that, finally, we are starting to develop one.

All that said, I would like to highlight one area in which I believe we still remain both operationally and strategically vulnerable: the realm of air defence. Given the concentration, over more than 20 years, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we effectively disinvested in the air defence of the United Kingdom relative to other priorities. I am pleased to note that in the last few years we have reinvested in some of our radar stations in Scotland and along the east coast, which I warmly welcome.

Nevertheless, the experience from Ukraine strongly suggests that if it were ever to come to a shooting war with Russia, which has made great use of mass cruise missile strikes, most of those fixed radar sites would likely be lost to cruise missile attack in the first 24 to 48 hours of hostilities, in addition to threats from ballistic missiles. Against that eventuality, we retain a small number of mobile radars—the number is classified, but it is small. It is true that we might also be able to rely to some degree on NATO assets or other specialist assets from elsewhere, but certainly in terms of fixed NATO radar stations they might also be subject to the same cruise missile attacks, and the precious NATO airborne early warning and control system—AWACS—aircraft could be tasked elsewhere in war.

In terms of fighter aircraft for the defence of the UK, the Royal Air Force currently possesses 137 Typhoon aircraft in three tranches, the oldest of which—in tranche 1—are, on present policy, due to be retired in the spring of next year and either cannibalised for parts or sold off to foreign buyers, likely for a pittance compared to their initial acquisition cost. Considering that the Russian air force still possesses thousands of combat aircraft, that would be an act of absolute folly, and one that I personally have likened to selling off our Spitfires prior to the battle of Britain. As I was told by BAE Systems executives on a visit to Warton a few years ago, because of the extremely complex supply chain that goes into the manufacture of Typhoons, it would take at least four years to build one from scratch, or three years if, as they put it, we hurried it all up in an emergency. If, therefore, the UK were to fight what some strategists describe as a “come as you are” war, in which people have to fight with equipment that is immediately available or can be reconstituted at short notice, there would be no prospect of building additional Typhoons in time to fight.

Moreover, both Russia and China have had a long-standing policy over many decades of putting older equipment into a war reserve that can be drawn on in times of conflict to replenish stocks. That is exactly what the Russians did in the Ukrainian conflict, when they pulled mothballed tanks out of depots from as far away as Siberia, to make up for the very large number of losses of more modern fighting vehicles at the hands of very spirited Ukrainian defenders who, one might add, were armed in many cases with British manufactured NLAWs.

Conversely, the UK Ministry of Defence has virtually no concept of a war reserve, although events suggest that we should rapidly be developing one. As a comparator, the US keeps thousands of retired combat aircraft, some very recently retired, in a giant desert boneyard, as it is known, in the Mojave desert, in hot and high conditions where aircraft do not rust. The Americans regularly rehearse taking aircraft out of the stockpile and refurbishing them to return them to the frontline. It therefore seems to me that it would be madness to sell off over 20% of our fighter force. Surely it would make much greater sense to put those aircraft into storage, either in the UK or in the Mojave desert, to begin to constitute a warfighting reserve of our own.

Not only would that come at very little expense, but it would constitute a reserve air wing of up to three squadrons in time of war, not least as the Tranche 1 Typhoon, armed with advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles and advanced short-range air-to-air missiles, is still more than a match for Russian long-range bombers, which might attempt to assault the UK via the back door over the north Atlantic, carrying multiple long-range cruise missiles.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Is it also the case that these aircraft have considerable aircraft life left in them? It is not as though they are approaching redundancy.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

The right hon. Gentleman, a former Armed Forces Minister like me, is absolutely right. Many of them still have half their so-called airframe life remaining. As I have said, they are more than capable of intercepting and shooting down the threat aircraft that they would have to match. That is all the more reason to keep them against a rainy day, rather than flogging them off or breaking them up for parts. Crucially, creating such a war reserve would demonstrate a sign of intent to any potential aggressor that after many years of doing the opposite, the UK is now preparing to fight a sustained conflict with a peer enemy, should that become necessary. Hopefully, in so doing, we will make that eventuality far less likely.

Linked to the vulnerability of our radar stations and the shortage of fighter aircraft are the extremely worrisome delays in airborne early warning. The Royal Navy’s early warning aircraft, Crowsnest, is many years late. It has only recently entered service for the air defence of the fleet. For the Royal Air Force, the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft were withdrawn shortly after the integrated review was published in 2021, leaving us without a mainstream airborne early warning aircraft. The E-3 was meant to be replaced shortly thereafter by the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail, but the programme has been subject to multiple chronic delays and is still not in service.

The RAF is clearly embarrassed by this and is attempting to deploy chaff between in-service dates, when the aircraft could take off the runway, and an initial operating capability, when the aircraft might actually be ready to fight. The latest information I have is that the ISD could now be in autumn 2025, whereas the IOC could be in the first or even the second quarter of 2026, which is still two years away. That leaves a critical gap in our air defence capability for which the MOD, and Boeing in particular, must be held robustly to account. Moreover, the initial buy of five Wedgetail aircraft was inexplicably cut to three several years ago by ministerial fiat, even though we were contractually obliged to buy all five radars, which themselves were very expensive.

In short, the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail is rapidly becoming the RAF’s equivalent of the Army’s Ajax programme—a procurement disaster that has gone on year after year at vast expense to the taxpayer, without actually entering operational service, as Ajax still has not. The Defence Committee, alarmed by that, has invited the head of Boeing Defence, Space and Security, Mr Ted Colbert, to appear before the Committee at Westminster to provide an explanation, although we are still attempting to finalise a precise date for his personal appearance.

Boeing is an organisation in crisis after the sad deaths of more than 300 people caused by the two crashes of its 737 MAX aircraft. We have seen further serious safety incidents, most recently in January when a door flew off an Alaska Boeing 737 MAX 9 in mid-flight. That incident was followed by a number of so-called whistleblowers, involved either at Boeing or in its supply chain, coming forward with very serious allegations about failures in the way the company builds its aircraft. No doubt partly as a result, Mr Dave Calhoun announced that he will step down as chief executive at the end of the year. In the first quarter of this year, Boeing reported a net loss of more than $350 million, and it is still experiencing serious production problems across a range of aircraft, both civilian and military, of which the UK Wedgetail is but one example. The US Air Force also has numerous issues with Boeing, not least in its much-troubled KC-46 air tanker programme.

For many years, Boeing as a company has done extremely well in winning major multibillion dollar procurement orders from the MOD, in return for which it has placed very limited amounts of work on those programmes with the defence industry in the UK. To give specific examples, according to the MOD’s recent figures, on the E-7 Wedgetail, the estimated UK content is around 10%; for the AH-64 Apache, it is only 7%; for the P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft, it is barely 4%; and for the original CH-47 Chinook helicopters, it was just 2%. According to the answer to a written parliamentary question I tabled, the UK content for the new order of CH-47 extended-range Chinooks for our special forces will generate a UK workshare of about 8%. Taken together with the purchase of the Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic reconnaissance aircraft, for which no workshare figure is publicly available, that represents some $10 billion of business for Boeing from the UK MOD for which the UK workshare has been 10% at best and 2% at worst. Boeing has done incredibly well out of the UK MOD, while UK industry has done incredibly badly out of Boeing.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is also bad news for the defence budget? Those contracts are in dollars, and the dollar exchange rate puts huge pressure on the defence budget.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

Another former Armed Forces Minister is right, and he will know that the effect of the dollar exchange rate on buying so many big off-the-shelf items from the US has cropped up time and again at both the Defence Committee and the Public Accounts Committee.

The problem does not apply just to air platforms. Boeing had a major logistics contract with the MOD called the future logistics information system, or FLIS, which was due to run until late 2020. However, as was evidenced by the Public Accounts Committee, in late 2020 the MOD signed a five-year contract extension called “Bridging the gap”, worth £515 million to Boeing, which was not even competed. That raises questions about the degree to which the MOD seems to be mesmerised by Boeing as a company, to the detriment of value for money for the UK and for our industrial workshare. Indeed, the PAC subsequently reported:

“We are…concerned to hear that the MoD awarded the contract for this £515 million programme to a large defence prime contractor without a competitive tendering process.”

That is all the more surprising given that in the 1990s, the standard policy of the MOD was to ask for a 100% offset in major off-the-shelf procurements of military equipment from abroad, especially from the US. For instance, in the late 1990s, for the purchase of the C-130J Super Hercules, Lockheed Martin was required to place work to the equivalent of 100% of the multibillion-dollar contract value with UK industry. The work could take one of two forms: direct offset, which is work on the aircraft platform itself, such as propellers or undercarriages or logistics support, or indirect offset, which is other high-quality work to be placed with the UK defence industry over the life of the programme, but not necessarily directly related to the platform itself.

Under the Blair Government, for whatever reason, the policy was quietly dropped. That has allowed a situation to develop whereby the MOD has bought a number of big-ticket items from the US without receiving any legally binding guarantees of compensating workshare for the UK industry. I therefore suggest to the next Government, of whatever political colour, that if they are reviewing defence, they might want to look at reintroducing the concept of 100% offset for any further major offshore procurements.

In some cases, it is operationally the right thing to buy something off the shelf from the US. I would argue that Wedgetail—at least when it was five aircraft, anyway—was the right decision, but I do not think it acceptable that we hand out such handsome contracts to foreign suppliers without UK industry being given its fair share.

In conclusion, a cynic might say that Boeing is a company increasingly in crisis, which is falling apart even more rapidly than the aircraft it purports to build. That is serious for us in the UK, as like it or not, Boeing is one of our major defence suppliers and is responsible for supporting key equipment in service. We do not want that company to fail. Therefore, we can only hope that the incoming management will take a firm grip of the situation and turn it around—the sooner, the better.

Lastly, it is very good news that we are reversing the downward trend in defence spending and are now investing more, rather than less, in the defence of the realm. That is very much to be welcomed, but it is a question not just of how much we spend, but of how well it is spent. I very much hope that with the new integrated procurement model and perhaps a couple of humble suggestions that I have been able to offer this evening, we can put more of that money to good use to ensure that we, our people and our allies remain safe in an increasingly dangerous world. Si vis pacem, para bellum.

Several hon. Members:


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

Order. There are 10 Members still seeking to speak. There is considerable expertise in the Chamber tonight—I appreciate that—and I am sure that all Members will want to make a succinct contribution. Frankly, the Chairman of the Defence Committee confined his remarks to 12 minutes, and I hope and expect that other colleagues on both sides of the House will do likewise.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley 7:42, 7 May 2024

I am mindful of your dictum, Mr Deputy Speaker.

May I start by following up on the comments of Mr Francois about Boeing, because it is about not just getting the contract right in the first place, but enforcing it afterwards? Even when Boeing and other companies have given assurances and agreements, they have not been held to account for them. I fear that the MOD will find a similar problem relating to the hack of the accounts of our personnel, in that the Treasury adamantly, stubbornly refuses to take past performance into account when assessing future contracts. That has to change. For heaven’s sake, I thought that one of the supposed advantages of Brexit was that we could take back control. By the way, our European competitors have been able to do that within the confines of the EU, but we have an ideological battle within the civil service, and Ministers have to take it on across Departments.

May I also apologise for—as is quite obvious—having a cold? It was acquired in good service, as the results in the west midlands last week showed, which colleagues will have noticed. I was hoping that the Minister for Armed Forces, Leo Docherty would respond to the debate and that he would at least acknowledge, if not welcome, that the council for the home of the British Army is now run by the Labour party, with its excellent leader, Keith Dibble. There is a lesson in that for us. Keith Dibble has been on the moderate side of the Labour party—pro-defence, pro-good sense—for many years and has built up a Labour group that can actually relate to the good people of Aldershot and Farnborough. That is also true in the wider sense for the Labour party. At certain stages in our history, Labour in opposition has been less sound on defence. That is not just a correlation, but a causal factor. Indeed, when Labour is sound on defence, as we always have been in government, the British people have confidence.

This year, we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of NATO—an organisation set up by the Attlee-Bevin Government, who also developed Britain’s nuclear capability. Throughout the changes of Government over that period, we have had a continuous at-sea deterrent. I have to say that Conservative performance has quite often not matched up to their rhetoric—we heard quite a lot of rhetoric from the Front Bench today.

At the end of the cold war, we had “Options for Change”: taking the peace dividend, cutting recruitment, running down equipment, and withdrawing our forces and armour from Germany. It looks as though we are going to have to remedy that at great cost.

We spoke earlier about the nuclear submarine renewal. In March 2007, under the Labour Government, this Parliament agreed to a motion moved by my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Beckett on the principle of the renewal of the nuclear deterrent submarine programme, with the gateway stage to be further decided between 2012 to 2014. At that stage, David Cameron declined to do that, having allowed himself to be blackmailed—I say he allowed himself, because I do not think the Conservatives would have broken up the Government and given up their jobs, as California was not beckoning at that stage. We have therefore suffered considerable extra cost. Workforce teams have been broken up, the rhythm of submarine manufacture up in Barrow has been lost, and there has been an effect on the crews and our equipment. That is a real worry.

I also have a worry about our current submarine programme. I absolutely agree with the principle of the nuclear national endeavour, but I am very concerned about some of the detail. On the nuclear skills taskforce, the Government say:

“we are investing to increase our intake of nuclear sector graduates to around 2,000 in the next four years”.

When I posed a question to the Department for Education, I was told that there are 65 undergraduate enrolments in nuclear and particle physics courses and 190 postgraduate enrolments—a total of 255. I do not think they will all go into the defence industry, and I have found it hard to get data about how many of them are actually British citizens. Given the security requirements—if those who issue security clearance can get their act together—the Government are seriously underestimating the need to expand those courses and prioritise British students in our nuclear national endeavour programme.

On expenditure, I know from previous debates and from the Defence Committee that many Government Back Benchers agree with the critique and recognise that the dead hand of the deadbeat Treasury—not just recently but over the past 100 years or so—has seriously undermined Britain’s defence capability time and again. In the inter-war period, there was the infamous 10-year rule—defence expenditure was based on the assumption that there would not be a war for 10 years—and in 1915 there was the shell crisis.

It concerns me that, while history may not repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. Back in July 2021, the Defence Committee had General Hodges, the head of the United States Army Europe, giving evidence. He reported on the 3rd Division participating in an American warfighting exercise in Texas. The British Army ran out of every bit of important ammunition in about eight days of exercises. Nothing was done about it.

That was known, yet, when the Ukraine war started in 2022 and it became clear very early on that it was going to be very much an artillery war—there are newer drones and missiles and so on, but artillery plays a crucial role—it took from early 2022 through to July 2033 for the MOD to sign an agreement with BAE to produce the extra shells. There is not that sense of drive and urgency, especially when we are dealing with a country such as Russia that has put its whole economy on a war footing. Even now, we have only two artillery shell plants: Durham and Glascoed. Glascoed recently had demonstrations outside it by people trying to close it; why they are trying to stop them producing shells for Ukraine is another matter, and I certainly hope the union representing those workers will be taking up the case.

The United States has recognised that it cannot have single points of failure. In Glascoed there was recently an explosion; if it had been more serious, what would that have done to our capacity? The United States is building new, Government-owned, company-operated sites. It is not worried by the complaints about nationalisation; indeed, the powers given to the president to command industry are considerable. Yet we are still going through the same old, same old, relying on the companies putting in their cases. We do not have the luxury of that time.

I have been critical of Ministers and senior civil servants, but the senior military must bear responsibility for the situation as well. Year on year, they have focused on platforms rather than munitions or accommodation, and the costs of that are being seen in report after report from our Committee and indeed in the media. We must recognise that we now have a shortage not just of matériel, but of industrial capacity, plant, supply chain, skilled and production personnel, and any capacity to surge. We also have numerous single points of failure. I have mentioned the United States. France is commissioning a new explosive plant costing half a billion pounds, again recognising the shortfalls and the critical weaknesses in the system.

I am very pleased that although there has been a lot of focus on the nuclear pillar 1 in the discussions about AUKUS, in pillar 2 there is a lot of work on creating industrial capacity. I credit the Government with the work they are doing there on creating industrial capacity, but I stress that that cannot just be focused on the high-tech end. In many cases, our munitions and platforms depend on industrial skills and basic engineering, which are crucial to ensuring that they are maintained and that they work. We must recognise that we need that industrial base.

As the allies showed in world war two, we can shift domestic industry, plant and personnel to war production; Russia is demonstrating that today. Short-term cost-cutting, identified by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford, will not do. Companies need workflows to create the workforce and the cash flow and to provide training opportunities for the workforce of the future. The Barrow submarine yard demonstrates the perils of running down the workforce. However, this is also about a pool of labour. For example, in the context of submarines there has been a great deal of talk about ensuring that people are trained in welding, but if other industries in other sectors are not also training welders, then—particularly if there is any drop in the workforce—they will go off and work in the oil and gas industry. Indeed, that is exactly what has happened, and incidentally it has also happened to parts of the United States shipbuilding industry.

We need a much more holistic approach across Government, because if people are being trained in one industry, it is impossible to control the flow out if there are opportunities elsewhere: there must be pressure on other companies to train as well. I have to say to the Minister that that is why the decision to offshore the commissioning of the fleet solid support ships is so incomprehensible. Given the need to maintain a workforce in certain yards and hence to maintain the skill base, shipping that out to Spain is scandalous. Furthermore, no other country, inside or outside the European Union, behaves in this way. The dead hand of the Treasury is dictating a policy that runs down our industry and ends up being much more costly in the long term.

The Ukrainian crisis has also revealed the need for effective collaboration. As the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford pointed out, we used to negotiate proper contracts of shared benefit, but going for “cheapest is best”—allegedly—has driven that into the ground. We need to work with other countries, which will include, as we have seen in the provision of munitions for Ukraine, working with European companies and European Parliaments. There will be no necessity to create new structures, but work will need to be done, and I suspect that there will be some willing partners in a number of the major European industrial countries, and that will mean a need for more real rather than financial engineers.

Finally—for I accept your strictures, Mr Deputy Speaker —I want to touch briefly on the subject of hybrid warfare and the so-called grey zone, on which our Defence Committee is conducting an inquiry. I do not want to pre-empt its findings, but I do want to urge the Ministry of Defence and the wider Government to take a broader, societal approach. The opponents we are facing, in Russia, China and North Korea, have the Soviet, Leninist methodology and ideology, across government and society. We have shown our ability to counteract that in previous conflicts, both hot and cold, but I think particularly of the Political Warfare Executive and the actions of the United Kingdom and the United States during the cold war. Sometimes the debate becomes a bit too focused on technology and techniques without an understanding of the political and ideological underpinning of conflict.

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

One of the points that we have made previously in the Defence Committee concerns support for the Russian military archive, which was eventually moved to Shrivenham. Is it not about time the MOD took that archive far more seriously, given that it provides all the benefit of what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

What the hon. Gentleman refers to was just a manifestation of the running down of our Russia-watching capacity, in that context but also much more broadly within the system. I think there has been an attempt to repair it, but this should be a salutary lesson.

The present transformed security landscape requires money, manpower, mindset and matériel. We have to move further, and we have to move faster.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government 7:58, 7 May 2024

I very much welcome this defence debate in Government time but, as we run out of time, I am reminded that we used to have five debates every year on different defence topics. Trying to cover the whole waterfront of defence in one debate is proving very taxing.

I will concentrate today on defence policy, which determines how we spend defence money, and indeed how much we decide to spend on defence, so that we are best prepared for whatever may occur—both the threats we can foresee and the events we cannot anticipate—including deterring and containing our adversaries, preferably without conflict. Incidentally, it is far cheaper to use defence money to prevent wars than to save money that then has to be spent on fighting a war.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to spending 2.5% of GDP, which clearly sets defence as a higher priority. I fail to understand how this can be tempered by “as resources allow” or “as conditions allow.” The cyber-attack we discussed earlier underlines that we are already at war, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s attempts to put us more on a war footing, which means being able to rebuild munition stocks and create resilient supply chains, but it also means increasing our pace and creating a sense of urgency across Government.

We can no longer look forward to an era of global peace. We must jettison what might be termed the peacetime mentality that led my colleagues in Government to accept the restraint of the Liberal Democrats on renewing our strategic deterrent. I was shadow Defence Secretary opposite Geoff Hoon, and I remember that the sound defence review under George Robertson was never fully funded. The proportion of GDP spent by Government on defence fell and fell, and so did the size of the armed forces, the number of ships, the numbers in the Army and the number of aircraft. There are lots of pots and kettles in this Chamber.

I welcome the new consensus—although the Opposition have not quite put flesh on its bones—that we are going to increase money for defence. I respect the aspirations of the shadow Secretary of State, but I fear he may be restrained by the same kind of Treasury mentality that he says afflicts this Government.

This shift to a wartime mentality demands a shift in culture, not just in the MOD but across Government, led from the centre by No. 10, the Cabinet Office and the National Security Council, to create a national defence plan that must cover, as has been noted by other participants in this debate, a far wider spectrum of policy—not just cyber-security but energy security, food security, border security, technological security, economic security and even climate security.

The Liaison Committee, which I chair, is shortly to report on how Select Committees can better scrutinise and promote national strategic thinking and national strategy across all areas of Government policy. I hope the House will be interested in that report.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has proved beyond doubt that we live in a world of hyper-competition between the democratic world and the autocracies that show no sign of self-restraint. There are no boundaries, which we expect of civilised countries, that they will not cross. The democratic world is only just waking up to the threat that presents.

I will make three further points that are relevant to this debate. First, there are lessons to be learned from delaying the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. Defence is not something that can be switched on and off, depending on how we feel about what is going to happen next year. The defence capability of our Trident submarines, which are a very expensive, long-term platform, reflects a failure of judgment by the coalition Government in not making that maingate decision much earlier, as John Spellar said. This presents a threat to our capability, as we run the life of the submarines longer and longer, and has escalated the cost.

Secondly, I want to underline the importance of UK leadership in NATO and in the support of Ukraine. We really have led from the front on Ukraine. We have had a delicate relationship with the United States, to encourage them along, but in terms of European NATO we are certainly in the lead. That underlines the importance of the role the United Kingdom plays in the world. We are not just a small country—a little north-Atlantic power—but an opinion-forming country of great influence, which is why we must step up to our responsibilities in defence.

The third point I wish to make is about not so much defence policies but the integrated procurement model, which I very much welcome. As my right hon. Friend Mr Francois said, that is putting us on to a war footing in terms of procurement. It mimics what we have learned from the successful urgent operational requirements programme and will, I hope, lead to a cultural shift to which my right hon. Friend also addressed himself—a shift in attitude and behaviour, which is what we mean by a change of culture.

To achieve that shift in attitude, and to get a sense of urgency, we need to identify the attitudes and behaviours in the Ministry of Defence and in the procurement world that militate against the integrated procurement model, we have to root them out, and we have to identify the right attitudes and the right behaviours, which means changing hearts and minds in the MOD. How do we do that? Cultural change is very difficult in a large organisation, and previous defence reforms have disappeared into the sand like water in a desert, because there has not been a sufficient emphasis on a cultural shift.

Now, there are three kinds of people in any organisation such as the Ministry of Defence. When confronted with a demand for cultural change, there are the few enthusiasts who say, “At last! The leadership get it and are going to do something and change things”; most will have seen change programmes come and go and will want to comply, but may be rather cynical about it; and there will be a few resistors, who feel that it is an attack on their integrity, their way of doing things or their own personality. I am afraid the resistors have to be rooted out. They have to be taken out of the equation.

It has to be shown that people who resist cultural change will not prosper. That means that everyone at all levels must be taught and trained in the new procurement system, so that there is no misunderstanding about what it means. Previously I have recommended privately to the Secretary of State, and to the Minister for Defence Procurement, that there should be a defence course at Shrivenham called the integrated procurement model course. It should be like the higher command and staff course. Everybody should go on it and anybody involved in defence procurement should sign up to the new philosophy.

Finally, such a change programme requires leadership. It requires the leadership in the Ministry of Defence—the Ministers, the officials and the armed forces leadership—all to be absolutely united behind pursuing the change in attitude and behaviour across the whole MOD, and they must lead by example. The way they prove that is by making sure that nobody gets rewarded or promoted who does not demonstrate that they have adopted the new attitudes and behaviours. Otherwise, the minute the wrong person with the wrong attitudes and the wrong behaviours is promoted, everybody will say, “There you are: it does not matter. You get promoted anyway.” This is a very urgent part of the transformation of defence in this troubling period, and I hope very much that the Government will take up my suggestions.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton 8:08, 7 May 2024

We are obviously living in a much more dangerous world and preparing for a potential war in Europe, which might involve our personnel at some point, not least, of course, in the support of Ukraine in her continual fight against Russia and Putin. All this adds up to a very serious situation.

I want to spend a couple of minutes on the point that we need to argue more forcefully for why the defence of our democratic, liberal way of life is so important, whatever shortcomings there might be in democracies. We need to reinforce the central tenets of free speech, liberty and the rule of law, as opposed to the alternative of dictatorship, gangsterism, brutal violence and the suppression of opposition that we have seen in other parts of the world. That is what we have to defend and fight for. We need to get our whole population prepared to play a part in ensuring our security and defending democracy and the basic principles that our great country stands for. There needs to be a change in mindset.

I think the Government and Parliament need to do a lot more to say why we need to spend more on defence and why we need to be prepared to deal with some very challenging situations, and possibly war. That is where we have failed to some extent, so we need to be much more up front with the British people. We know the threats and potential threats from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, and the destabilising activities going on in the middle east and parts of Africa at the moment by some of those countries, and they are causing serious concerns. This is why we need to set out to the British public why defence needs to be properly funded and our armed forces supported in a much more systematic way. We did know Russia’s intentions, and its intentions in invading Crimea in 2014 clearly told us that times had changed. We thought that had all disappeared with the cold war, but it had not. However, we did not prepare for this, having cut spending, and we must be prepared to provide the resources needed for our armed forces, because if we want to maintain peace, we have to do so from a position of strength.

The first duty of Government is to defend the security of our country, and I want to look at this Government’s record. The path pursued over the past 14 years has led to a weakening of the capability of our armed forces to warfight over a sustained period, and of course of their resilience. We have heard from the previous Secretary of State, Mr Wallace, about the “hollowing out” of our armed forces, and we could not even put a warfighting division in the field at present. The Government’s failure to properly fund and the decision to cut the size of our armed forces, as well as the failure to stem the outflow from the armed forces and a defence procurement system that is broken, are putting the security of this country at risk and not preparing us for the threats, some of which I have outlined. If peace remains our goal, and it must be, we must be prepared to buy those resources.

Figures have been provided to me by the House of Commons Library. We have heard about cuts in defence expenditure during the coalition Government, but if we look at the whole period from 2010-11 to 2023-24, in both cash and real terms, the House of Commons Library figures show that spending has fallen by 1.2% at 2023-24 prices. So over the period of this Government, the record is that defence funding has actually fallen, no matter what they are doing now. It is just by coincidence that there is a general election coming up, and they have suddenly committed to a 2.5% increase.

Aside from the £3 billion that the Government have committed to military support for Ukraine, it is not clear exactly what the additional £5.4 billion of funding represents, because it has not yet been approved by Parliament or listed in any detail. On defence equipment, the increase in planned spending has been outstripped by a £65.7 billion—27%—rise in forecasted costs, which totalled £305.5 billion as of March 2023. This equates to a £19.6 billion funding shortfall based on central estimates, although the MOD estimates that the true shortfall could range from £7.6 billion to £29.8 billion if all the risks materialise. The National Audit Office scrutinises the equipment plan and publishes its own report alongside the MOD’s, and in recent years the NAO has assessed successive plans—I stress, successive plans—to be unaffordable.

I want to go into the size of the armed forces and the cuts that are taking place. Between January 2010 and January 2024, the size of the full-time UK armed forces decreased by around 50,000 personnel. The Army is now at its smallest, as some have said, since the Napoleonic wars. Both the RAF and the Royal Navy/Royal Marines are below target, by around 3,000 personnel and 1,500 personnel respectively.

The House of Commons Library has sent me a note on UK defence personnel, and it sets out that, in 2023, there was a 1% reduction in the number of personnel leaving the UK regular forces compared with the previous year, but there was also an 8% reduction in the number of people joining the armed forces. Overall, there was a negative flow of personnel, with 5,460 more personnel leaving the forces than joining. This compares with a net increase of 4,660 personnel in 2022. Voluntary outflow accounted for 60% of trained outflow from UK regular forces in 2023. The voluntary outflow rate is the number of trained personnel voluntarily leaving as a proportion of the average trained strength in the period. In 2023, the voluntary outflow rate was 6.4%, up from 6% in 2022. In its commentary published alongside the personnel statistics, the MOD says:

“There is no single reason why personnel leave on Voluntary Outflow, but the personnel who completed the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey indicated reasons for leaving the Armed Forces included the impact of Service life on family and personal life and opportunities outside the Armed Forces.”

Again, the Government have no real plan to address this really challenging problem.

I want to refer briefly to the state of the reserve forces, which is a really serious concern at the moment, particularly where we get specialist grades coming into the reserve forces from civilian life. We have a real problem with recruiting and retaining those reserve forces. In January 2024 the total trained and untrained strength of UK reserve forces was 32,650—a decrease of 665 personnel, or minus 4.9%, compared with the year before. Outflow was higher than inflow for Army, maritime and RAF reserve forces in 2023. The number of reserve personnel continued to decline from a peak of around 37,400 in April 2021.

I know that the Minister has previously been questioned about this issue by my right hon. and hon. Friends, but we cannot get the information about pinch point grades that used to be available. Those are the specialist grades that are so important to maintaining the sustainability, competency and fighting power of the armed forces, and we are still trying to get more information about them. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body said in a 2023 report that

“there could be insufficient personnel with the right skills to deliver the outputs envisaged by the Integrated Review. We would welcome more data from MOD relating to these pinch point areas and what interventions MOD is planning to employ to address the issues.”

We in this House would welcome that data as well.

Our armed forces are running hot and being asked to do ever more without the resources they need. Resilience is a growing concern, not just for personnel, but for the ability to maintain and replenish losses in a Navy and Air Force that are much smaller in terms of ships and aircraft. The Defence Committee’s “Ready for War?” report said:

“It is a matter of national pride that whenever the Armed Forces are asked to carry out a task, they will find a way. It is to the credit of the Armed Forces that they have sustained this effort for so long. But overtasking has both a personal cost for service personnel and an opportunity cost for the UK. The increase in global instability has coincided with a period of decreasing recruitment and reduced industrial capacity, which requires sustained, long-term investment. The Government risks being unable to build true warfighting and strategic readiness because of the sheer pace of operations, which could threaten the security of the UK.”

We cannot continue like this. As I have said, we live in a dangerous and increasingly unstable world, and we need to move quickly to 2.5% of GDP being spent on defence. The Government have still not set out how they intend to get there: they have not given the details, and the figures they have quoted so far have been rubbished by independent analysis, as we have already seen. The fact remains that over the past 15 years this Government have put our security at risk through their underfunding of the armed forces and their cutting of personnel. That is another reason why the current Prime Minister and this Government need to go.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 8:18, 7 May 2024

Earlier this afternoon I counted over 50 right hon. and hon. Members of the Labour party alone packing the Opposition Benches for the urgent question on the middle east. Sadly, though predictably, by the time we got to this important debate we were down to the usual suspects—the usual stalwarts, about half a dozen to a dozen Members on each side of the House. That difference in the numbers is relevant: the reason for it is that an actual war is going on in the middle east, so people are very focused on it, now that it is too late to prevent it. Our purpose in holding debates such as this one should be not to get to that situation.

I have some reservations about the constant references to us being in a pre-war world. I know what the Secretary of State and others mean when they refer to that, but it can be taken as meaning that we are in a situation where war is inevitable, and it is not. We have to behave as if we were going to have to defend ourselves in a real war, because if we make those preparations adequately, we will, through a policy of deterrence, prevent the war from happening in the first place.

This close to a general election, it is perhaps inevitable that we will hear people on both sides of the House, but on the Front Benches in particular, quibbling over percentage points of GDP being allocated to defence expenditure. But I have to say that 2.5%, 3% or even 4% would not be anything like adequate if a war actually broke out—44% is probably more like what we would have to spend. This is not just about a loss of treasure; even worse, it is about the human suffering and loss of life that would happen if we fail to invest adequately in peacetime to prevent that from ever coming to pass.

The economist Roger Bootle recently explained:

During the Second World War, we spent roughly 50% of GDP on the military and slightly more than this in 1916 and 1917, during the First World War.”

So for goodness sake, let us be serious about this. No Government can be exonerated for the Kool-Aid that they drank after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

During the 2015-17 Parliament, the Defence Committee spent a bit of time trying to establish what had happened to defence expenditure in the post-war era. What we found was this: in 1963 we spent similar sums—about 6% of GDP—on both welfare and defence; and by 2017, after the study was carried out, we were spending six times as much on welfare as we were spending on defence. Similarly, it was found that in the mid-1980s we had been spending similar sums—about 5% of GDP then—on education, health and defence. By 2017 we were spending 2.5 times as much on education and nearly four times as much on health as we were spending on defence.

At the height of the cold war confrontation, and every year from 1981 to 1987, we spent between 4.3% and 5.1% of GDP on defence. From 1988—when the cold war began to evaporate—until 2014, defence spending almost halved as a proportion of GDP. Of course, there was a reason for that: it appeared that the threat from Russia had gone away. Well, now it is back. The question is this: are we prepared to revert to the sort of investment in defence in “peacetime” that we made so successfully during the 50 years of the cold war, which prevented an outbreak—a terrible further global conflict—between the then superpowers, both of which were armed with nuclear weapons?

I revert to what I said in an intervention on the Secretary of State when he was opening the debate: everything depends on what happens in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Let us be honest that when the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine arose in early 2022, not many people—hardly any in this Chamber, I suspect, myself included—predicted that Ukraine would be as successful as it has proved to be in resisting the might of the Russian invasion. I suspect that what had made that possible was that the shock that they had experienced in previous years over the loss of Crimea, which, if I remember correctly, was taken over by the Russians quite easily, focused their minds, their efforts and their investment upon the dire possibility that Russia might come back for more. That is why Ukraine was so much better prepared, with the covert assistance of other countries, not least this one, to resist the second Russian invasion when it happened.

I cannot stress too strongly that Ukraine’s battle is our battle. If Putin is seen to be unsuccessful in Ukraine, then the threat to us and to the rest of NATO will recede for a generation. However, if he is able to claim some sort of success, by ending up with significantly more territory at the end of the process than he had under his control in February 2022, then it will only be a matter of time before he comes back for more.

I want to say a few words about the middle east, but they are not actually my words; they are words from a remarkably perceptive article written by a Member of the upper House, the noble Lord HagueWilliam Hague, to us. He outlined his reaction to the atrocities of 7 October in an astonishingly perceptive way in The Times within 48 hours of that attack. I want to set some of what he said on the record, because he raised the question of why on earth Hamas should have undertaken such an action when they must have known it would provoke a horrifying response. He asked the question:

“Why, as well as murdering hundreds of defenceless young people at a rave, parade dead bodies as evidence of the atrocities? The answer is that their objective is uncontrolled rage. It is to make Israel lash out in a way that starts a conflagration. To start a war so intense that it spreads, igniting an explosion of violence in the West Bank and bringing in Hezbollah from Lebanon in the north, with Israel fighting on multiple fronts. To see so many Palestinians killed that the Israelis lose the moral high ground of defending themselves against mass murder. To use the fate of hostages, with maximum cruelty, to intensify a frenzy of hatred whenever that seems to be abating.”

That is still going on now. We heard reference to the Israeli soldiers recently killed in a Hamas artillery strike close to the one entrance where aid was coming into Palestine. Guess what happened? The Israelis immediately closed that entrance, thus intensifying the crisis. The Hamas strategists clearly know what they are doing. It is horrible—devilish— but there is a cruel logic to it.

The heading that Lord Hague—or his sub-editor at The Times—used for that article was:

“Hamas has set a trap that Israel must avoid: Iranian-backed attacks are desperate attempts to halt growing collaboration with Saudi Arabia and the UAE”.

The only element that was missing in the article was that that strategy, promoted by Iran, was also extremely beneficial to Russia, because now we spend rather more time considering what is happening in Israel and Gaza than we spend considering what is happening between Russia and Ukraine, despite the fact that what is happening between Russia and Ukraine cannot be emphasised too often because it is of crucial significance to the future peace, or lack of peace, of NATO countries vis-à-vis the Russian threat.

I will close with some remarks about the nuclear deterrent, which has been touched on a few times. One of the votes took place under Labour, as we have heard, on 14 March 2007, when there was a substantial majority for the deterrent. Parliament voted by 409 votes to 161 in favour of proceeding with the initial gate for the renewal of the Trident submarine fleet; but even that huge majority of 248 was eclipsed on 18 July 2016, when under the Conservative Government—free from the coalition—the majority rose to 355 when MPs voted for the decisive main gate stage to proceed. That vote was won by 472 votes to 117.

That shows near unanimity in the House for the maintenance of our strategic nuclear deterrent—and all that happened before the various crises that we have been concentrating on today. Let us hope that unity prevails. I, for one, welcome the comments of the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, who said that his party is now committed to four submarines and to the maintenance of the continuous at-sea deterrent, which presumably means with the use of Trident missiles. I say “use” because they are used every day of the week. Their use is as a deterrent. If ever—heaven forbid—they had to be fired, they would fail in their purpose.

We have come a long way and we have made a lot of progress. It is just as well that we are united, given the way in which the international scene has darkened, but both Front Benches have a long way to go if they are to reach a stage where we are making the sort of investment, the sort of insurance and the sort of effort that has to be made to deter an aggressive Russia and to ensure that Ukraine prevails.

Several hon. Members:


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

Order. I will have to put a 10-minute time limit on speeches after the next speaker to get everybody in. That is not an invitation, Mr Jones, to speak for more than 12 minutes.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 8:32, 7 May 2024

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I begin by putting on the record the whole House’s thanks to the members of our armed forces for the service they give selflessly to protect us all? It is often said that the first responsibility of a Government is to protect the nation, keep it safe and protect its citizens. I think we need to look at what has happened over the past 14 years.

My hon. Friend Derek Twigg said in his contribution that the armed forces are being “hollowed out”—not his words or mine, but those of the former Defence Secretary, Mr Wallace. Have we got to that situation by accident? No, we have not. That has been a deliberate policy over the last 14 years, including the 18% cut in the defence budget up to 2015-16. Today, the defence budget is 7% lower in real terms than it was in 2010. As my hon. Friend said, we saw our armed forces personnel cut by nearly 50,000—they were not only cut; there were compulsory redundancies. If a Labour Government had done that, every national newspaper would have had a lot to say about it. One in five ships in the Royal Navy has been taken out of service. We have 200 fewer aircraft in the RAF now, and satisfaction ratings for service life are at an all-time low of 50%.

Is it a time for serious policy and serious money on defence? Yes, it is, but we have not got that from the Government or from the Prime Minister’s announcement, which is the usual smoke and mirrors. It is about soundbites that can be sold at the next general election. The Defence Secretary could sell snow to the Eskimos in his confident sort of way. I am not sure they would come back and buy more snow from him once they discovered what they had actually been sold.

If we look at what has been announced, an extra £75 billion is the headline. That will be repeated by every Conservative candidate in the general election, but we know they only get that figure if the defence budget would have been frozen for the next six years—something the Defence Secretary fails to admit. Also, where is the money? If my colleagues on the Labour Front Bench had announced this, straightaway people would be saying, “Where’s the money coming from? Where’s the detail?” There is no detail; it is just an aspiration—that is all it is. There is no separation between how much will be spent on resource and capital departmental expenditure limits. What we have from the salesman that is the Secretary of State is a whole shopping list of everything that will be put right by the supposed huge expenditure he has announced. It is pretty hollow.

Let us deal with facts. The Secretary of State does not like dealing with facts. It is like when he came before the Defence Committee. If we take the money to Ukraine out of the budget, the defence budget for next year—this was confirmed by the strategic finance director of the MOD—falls. The question that people need to ask at the next general election is: where is the money coming from? Why are our armed forces in such a dire state? We know the answer to that. It is because of the past 14 years.

We need to concentrate on three things: the defence of our homeland and the contribution to NATO, which has been mentioned; the capability of our equipment and how it can be delivered; and putting weight behind British industry and skills. The Secretary of State said earlier that the announcement meant a huge boost to UK defence expenditure, but Mr Francois demonstrated what we have seen over the last 14 years: contract after contract given to the United States, without any commitment to UK skills. My right hon. Friend John Spellar mentioned the case of the fleet solid support ship given to a Spanish shipyard. That would never happen in any other European nation. We must ensure not just that we have the right equipment and procurement procedures, but that decisions are taken to boost our armed forces and to help UK plc.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a balance? Clearly, one would like everything for the military to be produced in this country to support our industrial base, but at the same time we complain about procurement scandals when the kit turns out to be so much more expensive than elsewhere. We need a balance. When we can realistically produce stuff in this country, we should be doing so—obviously, I will make the case for radar on the Isle of Wight—but if we try to do everything in this country, we will need to increase the defence budget just to pay for poorer quality procurement. He does not seem to be addressing that point.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman seems to be talking down the UK defence industry. He talks about radars in the Isle of Wight, which are some of the best radars in the world, but what are we doing? We are not giving long-term commitments to those capabilities. We are buying off the shelf from the United States and other nations. We are not just talking about buying British; it is about co-operation with our allies as well. The problem is that if we take a short-termist view, which is what has happened over the past 14 years, we do not get the commitments and the flow through of orders, nor the R&D, investment and certainty, that people on the Isle of Wight need.

The Secretary of State said that the UK is now on a war footing following this announcement. Why, then, did it take the Government nearly two years to procure the order for 155 mm munitions? That is not a war footing; that is a slow snail’s pace of procurement. We need to ensure that we get not only the finance and the increase in the defence budget, but that rapid throughput of work. That cannot be done just by placing one order this week and then leaving it for several years, thinking that somehow the defence contractors will still be there with their skills.

We need a thorough defence policy. One thing that has been missing in the last 14 years is a coherent defence industrial strategy. Even when the Government do come up with a strategy, such as the shipbuilding strategy, what do they do? The main argument for that strategy was that we needed to have a throughput of work at UK yards, so what did the Government do? They made an order where most of the work will be done in Spain. No other European nation would do that.

As has been said, this is a very worrying time, and I agree totally with my hon. Friend the Member for Halton that we need to make the case for defence. I have been doing that for 23 years in this House, as have others across the House. We need to make that case to show that the democracy that we take for granted is delicate and needs to be protected. We can protect it only if we invest in the capability to do so, because there are those, even beyond the immediate threat we see from Russia, who would happily see the precious democracy that we cherish snubbed out, not through argument and debate, but through violence and war.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research 8:41, 7 May 2024

When you took the Chair some time ago, Mr Deputy Speaker, you observed that the House was stuffed full of defence expertise, and that has been demonstrated amply in the debate that has followed your taking the Chair. Once or twice, I felt that I had inadvertently stumbled into a private meeting of the Defence Committee, since most Members who have spoken so far—though not all—are either present or previous members of that Committee. I pay tribute to their huge expertise, particularly on defence procurement. They know what they are talking about in immense detail and I fear that I simply do not, so I will not try to compete with them on that.

However, it has been a very important debate for this reason: this is the first occasion, I think, on which the Government have given us a debate in Government time on the subject of defence. I have banged on for many years, trying to persuade the Government to do that, but this is the first such debate, and I hope it is the first of many. We used to have five every year, so I hope very much that we will have a significant number of debates over the years to come.

The important point about these debates is that, as a number of people have commented, we live in exceptionally dangerous times, in an exceptionally dangerous world, and we simply do not know what is going to happen next. There could be all kinds of warfare and trouble to come. It is therefore very important that the House as a whole—not just the Defence Committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee, but the House as a whole—should have a serious understanding of defence and foreign affairs. It is terribly important that debates such as this are used towards the better education of all our colleagues across the House.

In that context, I am particularly proud of the work I have done for quite a long time to seek to educate better Members of Parliament across the House. I have used two mechanisms. Many Members here will be familiar with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which this year has seconded 64 MPs and peers in uniform to the three armed services. As of this year, thanks to an initiative by Luke Pollard , we have introduced a fourth course, namely the strategic command course, which has been widely enjoyed. There are 64 people altogether, four of whom go to the Royal College of Defence Studies—the ultimate in thinking in the armed services.

That seems to me an extremely important contribution that we have made over the last few years. I am glad to say that this is the 10th anniversary of the revived version of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which I have chaired, and I pay tribute to the people who run it for me. Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Longbottom, in particular, has done great work over those years. The scheme has made a huge contribution to the better understanding of defence by people in this place.

Alongside that, I also chair the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, which holds two or three events a month, very often downstairs. Again, that is widely enjoyed by a large spectrum of people from across the Chamber. It enables the Ministry of Defence to get its messages over to ordinary Members of Parliament in a way it would not otherwise be able to do. We have laid on various welcome home events when people come back from overseas deployments and laid on individual meet-and-greets in Speaker’s House and the occasional breakfast.

I remember in particular the Fighting With Pride breakfast, which moved us all a great deal through the things it brought to light. I did not know before that about the appalling things we had done to LGBT soldiers, sailors and airmen until 2001. Certainly for me and a number of other Members, that breakfast gave us a determination to do something about it. I am glad to say that at the end of a year’s campaigning, we did achieve something of that kind. The APPG does an extraordinarily useful job, and I am proud that I chair it. I pay tribute to Amy Swash and Sophie Lane in my office who run it for me. It is a great organisation.

The reason I am proud of all that is that sometimes when people talk about defence in this Chamber they talk about the role that Parliament might have in the event of our going to war. They come to an entirely false conclusion that we should therefore have a debate and a vote in this House on the deployment of troops overseas. This important matter has been troubling me for many years now. Of all the 175 wars we have fought since 1700, only two have had a substantive vote in this House before deployment. The first was in 2003, when Tony Blair sought top cover by insisting on votes on the invasion of Iraq. The second was in 2013 when David Cameron again sought top cover in seeking to retaliate against Syria for using chemical weapons. On the first occasion, we voted in favour of it—what a mistake that was, and I am glad to say that I abstained—and on the second occasion we voted against it, and we did not go to war with Syria. Most people would now say that much of what has happened in the middle east since then would have been different had we done so.

On both occasions where the House of Commons has voted on a matter of deployment, we have got it wrong and done the wrong thing. On all the other occasions where we have gone to war, it has been done by the Prime Minister and the Executive under the royal prerogative and we have tended to get it right. Our role then becomes scrutiny of what it is that the Prime Minister and Executive have done. We can stand here, ask questions, call debates and do all sorts of things to scrutinise how the Prime Minister has done what he has done. That is an important role for Parliament to play. If we are being asked to vote for something, as Labour Members were forced to vote on a three-line Whip in 2003 in favour of the Iraq war, we cannot then turn around and criticise it. Our job here in Parliament is to scrutinise and criticise what the Government have done, not to give them top cover for it.

It is therefore important that, whatever may be about to befall us in this world—who knows what that might be—we do not once again fall into the easy truism that on such vital matters we in the House of Commons must be given a vote. No, we must not. That is to emasculate us as Members of Parliament and to prevent us from holding the Government to account. It presumes that we have the secret intelligence, legal advice and all the other things one needs to take that kind of decision. We must not do that. We are ordinary Members of Parliament; we should be better informed about defence, which is why I welcome debates such as this, and we should know what we are talking about, as well as we can in this place, but the notion that that should lead us to conclude that somehow or other we have Executive power over what the armed services do is, I fear, entirely fallacious.

I very much hope that we will use these debates, the armed forces parliamentary scheme—or the new scheme that will be launched shortly—and the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces for the better education not of the specialists who we see around us in this debate this evening to whose great expertise I pay tribute, but of the generality of Members of Parliament and the generality of people who look into these things, feel concerned, but may not have the detailed expertise that we have seen demonstrated in the Chamber this evening. I want to see Parliament a better informed place about defence and foreign affairs, and I hope that those two organisations will play some part in doing that.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 8:48, 7 May 2024

It is an honour to follow James Gray, and I pay tribute to him as the chair and lead of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces. He hosts lots of highly experienced, very senior strategic thinkers from the armed forces as part of that APPG.

I welcome this opportunity to debate UK defence policy at greater length. I have been struck that so far many of the speeches have been about defence capability and equipment, but I was particularly impressed by the comments about the strategic environment. The most senior military personnel in our kingdom talk about strategy in terms of ends, ways and means. It would be a mistake to spend all our time talking about means when they expect the Government and Parliament also to think about ways and particularly ends—the end state that the UK is seeking to bring about. I will focus my remarks more on the strategic environment and the wider security context, and towards the end I will talk a bit about cuts to the regular Army. I will also comment on the suggestions that have been knocking around recently about a citizens army.

I was impressed by the remarks of Sir Julian Lewis about the strategic environment. I am glad that in the west we seek to take the peace dividend when we think it is available to us. One thing that stands out about democracies is that when the security environment allows, we try to invest in health and education. It is absolutely appropriate to champion that, but we should also be realistic enough to recognise when times do not allow for that.

We have talked today about continuous at-sea deterrents and the role of the coalition Government in having a Trident alternatives review, which is not to be regretted. In the security context of the time, when Obama was talking about a reset button and we signed a strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia—New START—it was appropriate to be thinking along the same lines as in the 1990s, when the west and the Soviet Union were mutually trying to reduce the threats from our nuclear weapons. As it happens, the events from 2014 onwards plainly proved that we absolutely need to be as strong as possible.

The Prime Minister’s remarks a fortnight ago were interesting. He talked about a new defence partnership between the UK and Germany. I welcomed the fact that he made the announcement in Berlin and the idea that we should have greater interoperability with our allies, but he then fell into this business of talking about putting the defence industry on to a “war footing”. Indeed, that chimed with the Defence Secretary’s statement that we are entering a “pre-war era”. When we throw such remarks around, we need to qualify what we mean, because we know that our adversaries listen carefully to what we say. We do not need belligerent tones and a mismatch between our rhetoric and our capability; instead, we should speak quietly while making ourselves as strong as possible. That is of course what the armed forces are for. “Bello te praepares” was the motto of the Army training regiment when I was there as a platoon commander. We were very much about preparing for war, but we were doing it quietly. It would be sensible for the Defence Secretary to make those preparations as ardently as possible but not in a showy fashion.

If the Defence Secretary’s motivation is genuinely to send a message to Ukraine that we are in this for the long haul and that there is certainty, he will not want to make this a party political issue or suggest that Opposition parties are somehow less supportive of Ukraine. He asked earlier whether we would match the £500 million uplift per year for Ukraine. Yes—we recognise the characterisation of Russia’s westward expansion as a threat to all Europe, so Ukraine can be assured that, regardless of a change of Government later this year, it will continue to receive £3 billion in support from the UK.

The Foreign Secretary said last week, when he was in Ukraine, that Ukraine is free to use long-range Storm Shadow missiles over the border into Russia. I am surprised that that has not come up in our discussion today. That may be because such things should not be done on the Floor of the House, and I very much welcomed the approach of the former Defence Secretary, who would share with Opposition parties, well in advance of the debate, the urgent question or the statement, what he intended to say through his special adviser. That was a way to have such conversations not on the Floor of the House or in such a public fashion. As it is, the strategic communications people in NATO will now have to work all the harder to counter the false narratives and lies that Russia pumps out about Ukraine somehow being a threat to the Russian people, or even Russia being threatened by NATO itself.

From an operational standpoint, that use of missiles makes good sense. Clearly, main supply routes, arms dumps and fuel depots will now be brought within range, but we should remember that the centre of gravity here is the Russian people and their willingness to fight. We know that the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan after 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed. To encourage Russians not to sign up, we need to persuade them that the state of Russia is not threatened by Ukraine or, indeed, by NATO.

On the cuts to the regular Army, I was interested by the remarks of Jesse Norman about recruitment and consent. I would point to the issue of consent when we talk about parliamentary approval of military action. I do not believe that Governments were merely seeking top cover when they had a debate in Parliament on the intervention in Iraq in 2003 or on the intervention in Syria in 2013. Rather, they were genuinely seeking to engage with us as representatives of the people to try to get support.

Finally, I come to a proposal that was leaked to a journalist, David Parsley, at the i a couple of weeks ago about a 20,000-strong volunteer force that could potentially train a 200,000-strong volunteer Army. I do not expect the Minister to comment on that or any other leak, but if that is the response from the Government to the pressure they have been under on cuts to the Army, it would not be a sensible approach. The plan talks about an annual spend of some £500 per recruit in training allowances per year for the initial 20,000 ex-forces personnel during peacetime. That amount would not go very far. Service personnel would suppose that the MOD was once again budgeting to withhold blank rounds in favour of commanders asking trainee soldiers to shout “Bang!” We cannot have an Army on paper that does not exist in reality. We need a regular Army of 82,000. We need to reverse the cuts that we have seen in recent years, and we need to build credible armed forces so that we are strong not only in our rhetoric, but in our capability.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke 8:58, 7 May 2024

My constituency lies at the heart of one of the largest clusters of defence and aerospace manufacturing in Europe, namely the south-west region. I am also very proud that Abbey Wood, the home of the MOD’s procurement agency, is based in my constituency. Companies such as Rolls-Royce are playing a key role in developing the Tempest fighter jet as part of the global combat air programme, or GCAP, a next-generation programme that will provide the Royal Air Force and our allies with capability fit for the future. Last month, I was delighted to welcome my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to open the FutureWorks at Rolls-Royce in Patchway. The lift fan for the F-35 is built in the same plant. The engines that power the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales aircraft carriers have also been built by Rolls-Royce at the same plant in Patchway.

This Friday, I will join Boeing at the opening of their new offices—the third time I have opened an office for Boeing in my constituency.

A few weeks ago I was pleased to join Rheinmetall, who as we all know will be building the new Boxer and the Boxer RCH self-propelled artillery for our military, at the opening of its new offices in my constituency. MBDA in Filton is developing future technologies and expertise, which even today help the Storm Shadow and Brimstone missiles that are making such a difference to Ukrainian efforts to defeat the Russians and kick them out of their country.

Airbus builds the wings for the RAF A400M transport aircraft, and the Wing of Tomorrow facility in Filton represents a significant investment in our future aerospace and defence expertise. Just over the road is the new GKN technology centre. I have recently visited Elbit Systems—a company with a growing footprint in my constituency, which demonstrated some of the capability it is developing to help our armed forces. I regularly meet senior members of civilian and military staff at DE&S Abbey Wood, who have been masterminding the UK’s effort and rallying support for our international partners to support Ukraine, as well as running the MOD’s procurement for our armed forces.

The defence and aviation sector in my constituency employs more than 30,000 people, with a significant supply chain across the south-west. Indeed, a significant number of jobs in the south-west are connected to the defence sector—an additional 17,600 according to latest industry data, although I am minded to think it is probably a lot more. Apprenticeships are key to a wider effort to enable us to train the scientists and engineers of the future, to ensure that we continue to enhance our sovereign defence manufacturing capability, as well as being a vehicle to promote social mobility and opportunity. The MOD is committed to invest at least £6.6 billion in its funding for research and development over the next four years, which will help the apprenticeship programmes.

The most recent statistics relating to the defence sector, published just last week by the United Kingdom Defence Solutions Centre, show that over 406,000 full-time jobs are directly supported by that sector. When I was co-chair of the all-party group on apprenticeships, I produced a report, after chairing an inquiry into MOD apprenticeships, which underlined the fact that the MOD is the largest provider of apprenticeships in the country. Apprenticeships provide fantastic opportunities for our young people, and they keep training and increasing the expertise for our industrial base.

The announcement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made last month to raise the level of our defence expenditure to 2.5% of GDP is a welcome demonstration from this Government to underpin our commitment to our NATO allies, and our friends and allies around the world. The message is clear: the United Kingdom is leading the way as the largest defence spender in Europe, in addition to demonstrating that we are a reliable partner and ally.

Moreover, the MOD is transforming itself to be ready for whatever lies ahead. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke about this being a “pre-war era” in his Lancaster House speech earlier this year. I was glad that he was able to see some of the work done at Abbey Wood when he visited just a couple of weeks ago. The announcement that at least 5% of spending will be ringfenced for research and development from 2025-26 onwards, with an increased focus on dual-use technologies, received a positive reception in my constituency. There was also the announcement of the overall defence spending increase of £75 billion over the next six years.

I have visited Ukraine six times in the last 12 months, and will soon be going again to attend the International Defence Industries Forum and the Yalta European Strategy Conferences. Moreover, I have promoted the work of many British defence manufacturers, as well as making the case for them to do more in terms of operations and manufacturing in Ukraine. I have met senior members of the Ukrainian Government, and been told of their frustration at the delays that seem to be occurring in setting up meaningful collaboration between British and Ukrainian defence manufacturers. That is against a backdrop where Russia has increased its military spending by 68% to 7.5% of its GDP. Putin claimed recently that more than 520,000 new jobs have been created in the Russian arms industry, which now employs an estimated 3.5 million people.

On those visits I have met senior Ministers in Ukraine, such as Oleksandr Kamyshin, the Minister of Strategic Industries, as well as the Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, the Chairman of the National Security, Defence and Intelligence Committee, and many others. I have been to the front lines in Zaporizhzhia to see British-made artillery in action—the AS-90s, most of which seem to have come from one of my son’s Army regiments, 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. Michael is currently deployed in Estonia on exercise, deterring the Russian threat.

In addition, I work constantly to bring together defence manufacturers from across the United Kingdom, and I have arranged meetings with the Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend James Cartlidge. I have had meetings here in London and elsewhere. The benefits of increased trade in all sectors, but especially in defence matériel, are evident and in the national interests of Ukraine and the United Kingdom, as well as some of the surrounding countries, particularly Poland and Romania. For us in the United Kingdom, we defend our own sovereignty and critical national infrastructure. Russia has already proven that it can conduct cyber-warfare against the west effectively, and has been only emboldened in this by its ever closer relationship with China. For Ukraine, it is armed with the best of British kit and equipment. Coupled with Ukraine’s world-leading expertise in drone technology and standards, this could quickly produce high-quality military equipment, for Ukraine has a keen interest in establishing partnerships with defence companies based here in the UK and across Europe, in order to rebuild its own defence industrial base and help to win the war, as well as to invest in deterrence post victory as Ukraine moves towards NATO membership.

Over the course of a recent visit to Ukraine, I produced a report, at the Prime Minister’s request, about the challenges in setting up manufacturing bases in Ukraine and how to unblock the bureaucracy that is proving an impediment to doing so. It is reassuring that the Prime Minister has joined me and others throughout the Chamber in calling for the UK’s defence industry to be put on a war footing. This will enable our defence manufacturers and the wider supply chains to plan with confidence and to invest in the capabilities that we will need to fight the wars of the future and provide an important deterrent to our enemies.

First, though, we have to unblock the bureaucracy and try to make it as easy as possible for companies to collaborate together, particularly those from the United Kingdom and Ukraine, given our special relationship and the support we have given them, over and above most nations. As our Ukrainian friends say, we must build the arsenal of the free world together.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:06, 7 May 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Jack Lopresti, and others who have spoken exceptionally well.

James Gray has now left the Chamber, but many of us have had the opportunity to be involved in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which he now chairs. I know the people who previously ran the scheme, which I did for four different terms, and I must say that I learned a lot from it in each and every case.

I put on the record my thanks to all those who serve in the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. In my constituency of Strangford, the tradition of service is one that I am always amazed by—many people have joined up and served, and their families have served, over many a year—so I am really pleased to contribute to the debate.

I want to focus on Northern Ireland in particular, on defence procurement and on how we can do better. In the 2023-24 financial year, the UK spent some £54.2 billion on defence. That is expected to rise to £57.1 billion in 2024-25, which is a 4.5% real terms increase. As a member of NATO, we are committed to meeting our defence expenditure targets, so it is great to discuss the importance of these matters and to underline them.

Our defence industry is so important in the United Kingdom, as has been shown time and again in the assistance offered to support Israel and Ukraine over the past few years. In addition, it is fantastic that Northern Ireland can play its role in the UK’s defence industry. There are so many businesses that go above and beyond to provide support. For example, I know that everyone is well aware of Thales and the NLAW shoulder-launched anti-tank devices that have been used with great success against the Russians in Ukraine. Thales is based in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Gavin Robinson, who tells me that the largest number of the workforce comes from my Strangford constituency. Whether in respect of service in uniform or service in the defence sector, I am honoured, pleased and privileged to be the MP for Strangford and to know that my constituents can do such a great job.

Strangford has another section of Thales, the missile section, down in Crossgar. It is producing fantastic military products to combat Russian tanks and aeroplanes both in captured parts of Ukraine and across Russia. With a 30-year heritage of world-class engineering in Strangford, Thales employs some 500 people and contributes £77 million to Northern Ireland’s GDP.

There is also an ecosystem of suppliers. Ninety-one per cent of our local procurement in Northern Ireland comes from small and medium-sized enterprises. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is holding an inquiry into procurement in the defence sector, and we hope that Northern Ireland can become a bigger player, but we do not have a regional hub, which should be one of our recommendations. Many companies have come to make representations to the Committee.

The Prime Minister recently announced that defence budgets will increase in 2024-25, and I am incredibly encouraged and pleased that the Secretary of State spoke about ensuring a focus on allocating those funds towards defence budgets in Northern Ireland. I am sure the Minister for Defence People and Families will repeat that in his summing up, as I know every Minister does, but Northern Ireland does not have the proportion of defence contracts that it should have relative to other parts of the United Kingdom, such as the north-east or south of England.

Companies such as Spirit AeroSystems, Harland & Wolff and Thales need to be offered contracts to help Northern Ireland to contribute towards further supporting the UK. We want to play our part. We have companies with the skilled workforce, the opportunity and the eagerness. Nitronica, an electronic manufacturer in Ballynahinch, is one of the companies that we are very keen to be involved in defence procurement contracts. One way of making that happen would be to have a regional hub, and the quicker we have it, the better.

There is certainly a reason for us to have a conversation about cyber-security and how the defence budget can support online protection. The Secretary of State made a statement earlier on the defence data hack. We have a commitment to cyber-security, and my understanding is that the skills we have in Northern Ireland, whether in Belfast or Londonderry, are equal to those down south or in England.

The defence industry is economically important to many areas of the United Kingdom, and our defence policy must be consistent with an industrial strategy that promotes jobs and skills throughout all the regions and nations of the UK. I am proud to be British, and I am proud to be a member of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but we need to see it working physically. In his summing up, will the Minister give us some encouragement by telling us how we can do better? We want to do better, because we believe in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In ensuring that the data breach is not repeated, and with national security being at the forefront of our priorities, it is clear that more steps need to be taken to preclude any future incident. In the years since the Good Friday agreement was signed, Northern Ireland has become a hotspot for cyber-security innovation. The cities of Belfast and Londonderry are to the fore in exhibiting high technology specialists and consistently attracting domestic and overseas investment. We are proud of that hub, and we feel that it should be leading the way. Although it is important that our aerospace, communications and arms sectors are offered further defence contracts, our cyber-security sector is just as important and must also be given recognition.

It is always encouraging to hear about the Secretary of State’s intention to boost defence spending. Whenever I ask him questions in the Chamber, he always replies by mentioning Thales, Spirit AeroSystems and Harland & Wolff as examples of where we are doing better, but we need a regional hub—that is my request in this debate —to ensure that we have the means to help ourselves.

We in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have a fabulous defence industry, an incredibly skilled workforce, and opportunities to grow and maintain our defence procurement across the whole nation. We must ensure that the boost in spending is offered through contracts to local businesses that go above and beyond to support us. Our commitment to apprenticeships, through those three big firms, shows how we can do better.

National security has no price, so it is great to hear the Minister’s commitments, but perhaps he might clarify how he intends to ensure that the devolved nations can continue to play their role in supporting the wider United Kingdom defence industry, to make this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland even greater. If it is even greater, I would be very proud to be part of it.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 9:16, 7 May 2024

It is a great privilege to speak in this debate. I am not a Minister—to echo the remarks of my hon. Friend James Gray—but I am a former serviceman, and I hope to bring some value, as a practitioner, to what we are discussing.

We know that the first duty of any Government is the defence of their people—that is quite clear—so the need to keep people safe is non-discretionary. Right now we have war raging across Europe, not too far away, and multiple threats are proliferating right across the globe. Given that the international landscape now is probably more dangerous, unstable and incendiary than it has been at any time since world war two, defence spending is absolutely essential. Voters care about their security, and many are nervous about what is happening across the world. Most importantly, it is our duty as politicians to keep them safe.

That is why the Government’s commitment to a defence budget equal to 2.5% of GDP by 2030 is so important, both strategically and politically. As a member of the UN Security Council, the UK’s continued role as a bastion of global rights and democracy can be underpinned only by hard power. It is a reality of history that we may yet be called upon to protect our own security and that of our allies. We know that the Defence Secretary has recently increased military aid to Ukraine, securing an extra £700 million and thereby taking Britain’s total contribution beyond £3 billion—that is a lot of money—so we are doing our bit.

On the 2.5% target, it is extra money, but the issue is what we do with it and how we spend it—that is important—so I advocate for a capability audit right now. The reason I say that is that the extra injection of funds means that we need to work out what we can now do. When I was working at Northwood permanent joint headquarters many years ago, we had this thing called the JOECR—the joint operational estimate of capability and readiness. In my view, with the extra money that we have now, we should be turning all those capabilities that are flashing red to green—in other words, we should plug the capability gaps—and not just on land, at sea and in the air, but in space and cyber. Yes, state-of-the-art platforms are fine, and yes, we must procure weapons that we know can beat our adversaries, but it is also about spending wisely and smartly where necessary.

My second point on the 2.5% is that we need to better operate what we already have so that every part of our lexicon works. We must not rely on the exquisite exclusivity that we have spoken so much about; we must ensure that all our platforms work and can be sustained across the battlespace.

In terms of equipment generally, as one part of capability we need to procure what we need and nothing more. It is about strategic lift as well as exquisite exclusivity. If we do not have the ships—the roll-on roll-off ferries—or the strategic lift, including C-17s and A400Ms, to get equipment and people right across the globe, there is no point having the kit in the first place. It is therefore about enabling expeditionary reach. We cannot put boots on the ground if we cannot get the boots there. Plus, Minister, it is about logistic tail, spares, the supply chain, sustainment, defence contractors, delivery and munitions. We must be careful to ensure that if we buy it, we will be able to use it and then fight it through, and it must be sustainable and enduring.

“Platform” is an interesting word. It means the platform on which a capability sits, but what is put on that platform also matters. I therefore favour a modular approach for future equipment programmes, whereby we can apply different degrees of mobility, firepower and protection, but it is the kit that is bolted on and bolted off that really matters, and that is the battle-winning equipment for me. For me, this is about a commonality of platforms, about spares, about logistics, about interoperability and about cannibalisation. If we run out of something, can we get it? With complex platforms and complex supply chains, we cannot, so let us please go for modular and for commonality.

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

Is the hon. Member aware of the Supacat range of vehicles, which operate in much the way that he has described?

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

I am very aware of Supacat. I have visited the company, which is in the hon. Member’s neck of the woods. It is a very impressive British company. Yes, we need to do more to ensure that it produces and builds what we need. Let us work with it a bit more on that. As the hon. Member suggests, this is about fewer variants, an easier supply chain, and not having equipment that is too complex to use or to maintain. That is very important: we should keep it cheap, simple and easy.

Let me say a little about NATO. As we know, it is the only show in town. It is the umbrella for European security in the north Atlantic. It now consists of 32 countries, and that is to be welcomed. It has responded magnificently to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. It has galvanised the alliance since the invasion, in a way that Putin could not possibly have conceived. In many ways, it is much stronger because of what has happened. Article 5 is the prize for NATO membership. It has defined Putin’s actions in Ukraine, in that so far he has not attacked a NATO country. Why? He is worried about article 5, and that strategic uncertainty underpins our security in Europe.

However, there are issues with NATO. First, only 18 of its 32 member countries are currently committed to 2% of GDP, and that is not enough. In addition, the five non-EU members—the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey and Norway—contribute 80% of the operating budget, which is outrageous, with 96% of the EU effectively reliant on NATO for its security. That is a stark contrast. Europe must therefore become much more responsible for its own security, and that is non-discretionary.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman share the concerns that some of us have about Trump’s comments? He has said that if he is the next president of the United States—he may not be—and if NATO members do not up their commitment to 3%, the United States will withdraw and reduce its own commitment. Is Trump a danger?

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

It is not for me to endorse Trump in this Chamber, but what I will say is that to a certain extent he is right. It is absolutely right that Europe must take on more responsibility for its own security, to allow the United States to worry about parts of the world that NATO will not necessarily worry about. It is important to ensure that the United States is not overly committed in Europe for the same reason. We know that NATO in Europe massively overmatches Russia, but we need to reach a point, strategically, at which Europe itself overmatches Russia, leaving the United States to focus on the parts of the world on which it needs to focus.

Another important point that I would like the Minister to note is that the UK has a global footprint that extends beyond NATO. We have discussed NATO a great deal this evening, but it is not just about NATO. East of Suez, where we have not had a presence for quite some time, we now have bases in Bahrain, Diego Garcia—we have always had one there—and of course Oman. If the UK is to be a bastion of global democracy, it is important for us to have that reach across the far side of the globe. We also have operating bases in Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Falklands, Ascension and Diego Garcia. I mention that because it is really important for us to look after those bases. Were we to withdraw from Diego Garcia, for example, that will be a part of the world that we can no longer cover with our strategic reach. We therefore need to be very careful what we wish for politically.

It is imperative that the UK is able to fulfil its global commitments: in the middle east with carrier strike, as well as in the Falklands, west Africa, the Red sea, the Caribbean, the Baltic and the north Atlantic—the list goes on. We are not just focused on NATO, so it is really important that our defence capabilities extend beyond the north Atlantic and fulfil our global responsibilities. We need only look at where UK forces are deployed right now to realise how important that global footprint is. Dean Acheson, the former US Secretary of State, famously said that

“Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.”

Well, we clearly do have that role. We have seen that this evening in this debate, and it is very important that we are resourced and funded to be able to fulfil that role in perpetuity.

Lastly, what numbers should the armed forces consist of? There is a lot of debate about the Army being cut and whether 72,000 is enough, the size of the Navy and the state of the RAF, but the answer is that the forces must be big enough to do the job with which they are tasked. The answer therefore lies in defence tasks. The idea of having an Army or Navy of a certain size is pie in the sky. We know that we have to be able to resource them, but the important thing is that our forces have to be able to meet defence tasks. We know that we do not have enough ships—we need more frigates and more destroyers. Quantity has a quality all of its own. We have state-of-the-art equipment in the RAF, including the C-17, A400M, P-3, F-35B, Typhoon, and Tempest to come, but do we have enough of those platforms?

As for the Army, I keep being told by constituents, “Well, Mr Sunderland, the Army cannot fight Russia.” Of course the British Army is unlikely to be fighting Russia on its own—it is called NATO. We know that NATO has approximately 3 million troops to call upon, and we also know that NATO overmatches Russia in Europe. We need to play our part in NATO, not necessarily being perplexed about what we used to be able to do. The UK needs to be able to retain autonomous and unilateral forces to support NATO and its other tasks, as we have mentioned, so we cannot afford to be harder on numbers.

In conclusion, 2.5% is the right thing to do, but that number must keep rising to meet the threat. Do we need more ships? Yes, we do. A bigger Army? Perhaps. Is NATO fundamental to our future? It absolutely is. Trident? Unequivocally yes—we need to invest in it and reinforce it. It gives us a seat on the UN Security Council, which is really important. Do we need to focus on autonomous and remote platforms? Absolutely, yes. With cyber and space, we now have five domains, not three; we need to invest much more in those, as we saw today. We need to invest in precision capabilities. We need to have better training, better activity, more training, more exciting activity, and opportunities that keep people and attract them to stay. Richard Branson famously said, “We need to train people so well that they can leave, but treat them so well that they do not want to.” With the Minister in his place, I urge him to think about wokery—not too much of it in the armed forces, please; we still have a job to do. Dumbing down of standards? Absolutely not; we have to set the bar and maintain it, because discipline depends upon it. The divisive new accommodation model? No, thank you.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 9:28, 7 May 2024

It is a genuine pleasure to follow my hon. and gallant Friend James Sunderland. I want to develop some points that he and my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis made. I will make a few points about deterrence, and about the type of warfare we are facing. I will say a little about procurement, about Ukraine, and whether we are in a pre-war era and how useful that idea is.

The point that my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East made about deterrence was profound: the fundamental problem of the past century is that we failed to deter. We fought two world wars and just about won them both, so to us they are glorious things. Actually, both were catastrophes, in terms of power and in terms of lives lost. Half of my grandparents died: my German grandmother was killed by the Soviets, and my British grandfather, a colonel, was slaughtered while leading his regiment in north Africa. Winning wars is appallingly expensive; losing them is a catastrophe, clearly. But even fighting them when we can deter instead is a huge strategic error. Fighting two world wars effectively destroyed the British empire, which I think was in many ways a force for good—but let us not go there at the moment.

My right hon. Friend made the point that even spending 10% on deterrence is potentially much cheaper than spending 50% of our GDP to fight an existential war for our future, which is what Russians are being dishonestly told that they face. Around the Solent—of course he knows this—are Palmerston’s follies, the forts to protect the fleet at Portsmouth, on the Isle of Wight and on the south side of Hampshire. They are seen as a colossal waste of money because they were never used, but I think Palmerston’s follies were wonderful because they were never used. It was about deterrence. We do not know whether they deterred anybody, but the fact remains that they were there and that fleet was not attacked, and we lived through decades of peace from the end of the Napoleonic wars through to world war one. I will come on to this in a second, but we are potentially entering a new period of great instability.

The Secretary of State talked about types of warfare, which is critical. If this £75 billion extra is simply going to buy another half dozen frigates that will survive an extra three minutes in the middle east, in the Red sea, before they are destroyed by swarm drones, there is little point having the additional kit. If there is any lesson of not only the Ukrainian war, but the Azerbaijani-Armenian war—the first war where cheap drones destroyed expensive Russian kit from above—it is that cheap mass kit is very good at destroying much more expensive kit.

As a power that seeks to use conventional force and that does not tend to think like revolutionaries, as the Russians or the Iranians do or as terrorist organisations do, I am concerned about the type of war we are planning to fight. If we are just going to buy more expensive kit that does not survive the battle, there is no point having it. We need to invest in the stuff that will not only protect destroyers and aircraft carriers, but enable us to turn the tide—to do as the Ukrainians are doing and to think like a nimble adversary facing a greater power, perhaps using mass drones ourselves to destroy larger forces in future, be they Chinese, Russian or others. It is a question of the type of warfare we are fighting.

To those of us who have read Russian doctrine, the first characteristic of modern conflict is the integration of military and non-military tools—information, spying, cyber or economic. This is the world of the 21st century, and the Secretary of State was right to point out that each century or each generation redefines war. This is a redefinition of conflict for our own era, and we are seeing it from China. The Russians are very conflict-minded, but so far the Chinese place less emphasis on physical, conventional force and more emphasis on the tools of economy, using Huawei, cyber-attacks and so on.

Even with China, however, if we are entering a pre-war phase, we see a build-up towards a potential attack on Taiwan in the next few years. How are we thinking about the type of warfare that the Taiwanese will need to fight to defend themselves? They will need not only cyber, to survive the first minutes of mass cyber-attacks, but mass drones to shoot down and destroy Chinese ships and aircraft if they attack.

That brings me to procurement. I am sure the Secretary of State was going to answer this, but did not because the Deputy Speaker cut him off when I was asking about radar on the Isle of Wight. Our procurement has to be smart. We have an absurd debate in this country: one minute we say, “Why, oh why, isn’t everything made in the UK?”, and the next minute we say, “Why, oh why, does everything cost so much more?” We have to get the balance right. We have to invest and sell stuff into export markets where we have that lead—in submarines, potentially in radar and in other really good things where we still have the cutting edge—and we have to be much smarter about what we do and how we do it.

Most airmen and most people in the armed forces would tell us that the A400 is a pretty disastrous piece of kit. Maybe they have ironed out those problems in the past few years, but most people in the armed forces would much rather have kept the Hercules and run it with, I think, the C-14 or the Galaxy—[Interruption.] The C-17, sorry. It is a beautiful plane—gorgeous. They would rather have the Herc and the C-17. We had a better build deal with the Herc in this country, but for political reasons we bought the A400, which is deeply unpopular and cannot do much of the work, especially in the more rarefied ends of the military, that the Hercules could do. It is about smart procurement—not necessarily committing to buy everything British, but committing to do as much as possible British, as long as it is also delivering value for the taxpayer. That is an important distinction.

Moving on to Ukraine, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bracknell is right that it is shameful that the US is doing so much of the heavy lifting; it is appalling. He is also right about how little Europe is doing. Russia is gaining ground and gaining in confidence, which is a significant problem we face. An old friend, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, is doing great work highlighting some new tactics on the eastern front, probably the most important of which are the use of glide bombs and CS gas. As a chemical weapon, CS gas is low level, cheap and less offensive to humanity than sarin. By using it on the frontline, the Russians are forcing Ukrainian troops out of their bunkers and their positions, so they become more vulnerable to wave attacks by Russian troops and to mortar and artillery fire.

We know that the artillery ratios at the moment are something like 10:1, so for every shell the Ukrainians fire, the Russians are firing 10 back. That will soon even out to 5:1 or maybe 3:1, but the use of CS gas is still proving to be a highly significant threat. A question I would like to put to the Secretary of State is, although I know we are being generous and doing lots of great things with kit, can we supply gas masks to the Ukrainians? Can we enable British companies that produce gas masks to sell them more quickly to the Ukrainians? They need that kit. From what my friends in the Ukrainian armed forces tell me, the Soviet-era gas masks are not fit for purpose and are costing lives.

On UK supply and support to Ukraine in relation to artillery shells, I do not want to keep banging on about this point, but the more there is transparency of supply, the more the Russians will see that we are in this for the long term. The Gucci kit—the high-end kit—is important, but the stuff that is going to enable Ukraine to hold its positions and not allow a Russian breakthrough of the kind we saw in Kharkiv is going to be the supply of 155 mm artillery shells, preferably with fewer types of western kit. The Ukrainians are running 17 different types of artillery kit that use a variety of shells, which is causing massive logistical issues. It is a remarkable achievement that the Ukrainians are even doing that.

I am delighted the AS-90s have gone. As my right hon. Friend Mr Francois said, that raises the question of where that kit is, but it has been put to good use. However, those barrels do not last. There are only two or three retooling plants in Europe, so why have we not opened one? The war has been going on for two years. Why do we not have a production line for artillery shells? Why are we not re-barrelling or offering to re-machine kit? If we are, can we say so? That kit is so important; it is the bread and butter of this war.

I was going to make another point, but I will not; I will wind up there because I am running out of time. Finally, on messaging, people think it is a waste of time trying to message the Russians, but I wonder if we should be trying to do that more. If we look at the number of people who are actively supporting this war in Russia, as opposed to people who simply accept Putin’s power, there are lots of people in Russia who seem to be sitting on their hands. If we can try to manipulate Russian public opinion, it would be to our benefit.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Shadow Minister (Defence) 9:38, 7 May 2024

May I begin by welcoming the debate? As the hon. Members for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and for North Wiltshire (James Gray) said, we used to have more of these debates, but it is very good we have had one in Government time. While Sir Julian Lewis said we are down to the usual suspects, it still has been a high-quality debate. There were excellent speeches from the Labour Benches by my hon. Friend Derek Twigg and by my right hon. Friends the Members for Warley (John Spellar) and for North Durham (Mr Jones); from the Government Benches by the right hon. Members for Horsham (Sir Jeremy Quin), for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and for New Forest East, and the hon. Members for Harwich and North Essex, for North Wiltshire, for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely); and from other Opposition parties by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord). It has been an excellent debate.

The first duty of any Government is to keep the nation safe and protect our citizens. From deployments abroad and the response to the invasion of Ukraine to deployments at home during the covid-19 pandemic, our armed forces are essential to our national defence, our national resilience and meeting our NATO obligations. Labour is deeply proud of our armed forces personnel, veterans and their families, and of the contribution that they make to our country. Theirs is the ultimate public service, and their professionalism and bravery are rightly respected across the world. We thank them.

Labour is committed to strengthening our national defences and supporting our armed forces. Strong national defence is a secure foundation upon which Labour’s mission-driven Government will be built if we are fortunate enough to win the general election when it comes.

Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakeable. We are the party of NATO and Labour’s values of democracy, freedom and peace are embedded in its founding treaty. Article 5 is the cornerstone of Labour’s commitment to Britain’s security. Labour’s support for nuclear deterrence is total. We will upgrade the UK’s deterrent and build the new submarines needed at Barrow. We believe that defence procurement can strengthen UK sovereignty, security and economic growth.

There has been much talk about the commitment to 2.5% of GDP, so I wish to make it clear that Labour is totally committed to 2.5%. In fact, the last time defence spending was at 2.5% was under a Labour Government in 2010. The current Conservative Government have cut defence spending. It has never been 2.5% in any of the past 14 years of Tory Government and we have seen the Army cut to its smallest size since Napoleon. My right hon. Friends the Members for Warley and for North Durham and my hon. Friend the Member for Halton made those points very well in their contributions.

Labour will always do what is needed to defend Britain and we will always spend what is necessary to deal with the threats that we face. That is why we are committed to getting back to 2.5% as soon as we can in a responsible way. We will set out a credible plan to do so if we win the general election. It is why we will hold a strategic defence and security review if we do get into government to look properly at the threats that we face and at what we are already spending. It is simply not credible to claim, as the Government do, that it can be done by firing 72,000 civil servants, as the Secretary of State set out. The last time that this Government promised to make their defence plans add up by firing MOD civil servants in 2015, the number of civil servants in the MOD increased, so it is hardly credible now to claim that that will do the job.

In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary said that people will judge the Government on what they do, not on what they say, and that is absolutely right. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said that the Government’s promises were all smoke and mirrors and soundbites for the next general election, and it is hard to see them as anything else when they have been left so late in this Parliament to be announced.

The Institute for Government has said that the Government’s plan does not add up and is not credible. It says that cutting 70,000 civil service jobs will get nowhere near close to delivering the savings needed and that, even when using our research and development budgets as well, it will leave questions about how the rest will be paid for. The House welcomed the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford saying that the Defence Committee—the Chair of which is also in his place—will be scrutinising the £75 billion figure. I look forward to hearing what it has to say when it has done so.

The truth is that the Conservatives have failed on defence over the past 14 years. They have cut spending and they are still doing so. They have hollowed out our armed forces. Since 2010, the Conservatives have reduced our armed forces by more than 43,000 personnel, one in five ships has been removed from the Royal Navy, and more than 200 aircraft have been taken out of service in the past five years alone. They have cut the British Army to its smallest size since Napoleon, while the threats are increasing and NATO is boosting its high-readiness forces from 40,000 to 300,000. Ministers now plan to cut the Army further. Those are the facts.

Recruitment targets have been missed every year, so the Government have not even been able to recruit the numbers they want, and retention rates are dropping. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton referred in his remarks to the “outflow” and the state of reserve forces in respect of some research that he has been doing into the numbers. Therefore, the past 14 years have corroded the nation’s contract with those who serve, and we must do better. The Government have left personnel living in damp and mouldy housing and, perhaps not surprisingly, morale has fallen, as has retention. Is it any wonder, when we leave people living in the conditions that we have seen in some of our forces accommodation? Nearly half of all serving personnel live in the lowest grade single-living accommodation and more than 4,000 personnel live in accommodation so poor that the MOD is forced to reduce or scrap collecting rent altogether. Contractors hired by Ministers missed 21,000 maintenance appointments between April 2022 and February 2024.

The report of the independent Kerslake commission on armed forces housing entitled “Homes unfit for heroes” has called the state of forces housing

“a tax on the goodwill of service personnel and their families.”

During the cost of living crisis, the numbers of personnel and veterans on universal credit are rising, and some troops are even using food banks to get by.

In government, Labour will renew the country’s commitment to those who serve, set new standards for service accommodation and legislate for an armed forces commissioner to act as a strong independent champion for our forces and their families to improve service life. We will fully incorporate the armed forces covenant into law, fulfilling the moral contract that our society makes with those who serve. I noticed that Martin Docherty-Hughes, who speaks for the SNP, said that he wanted a representative body but was willing to support some of Labour’s proposed policies.

On procurement, the Conservatives have wasted over £15 billion of taxpayers’ money through mismanagement of defence procurement programmes, with over £5 billion wasted since 2019 alone. Forty-six of 52 major projects are not on time or not on budget. Ajax was supposed to be in service in 2017, and £4 billion has been spent so far, but there are no deployed vehicles and it will not be in service until the next decade. It is no wonder the Secretary of State is not listening and is too busy chatting—he does not want to hear about the failures of defence procurement on his watch, or the Government’s cost-saving cuts to E-7 Wedgetail, which are cutting the number of planes from five to three, with taxpayers footing 90% of the original cost to get only 60% of the planned capability.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I am very critical of Wedgetail, but, just as a fact, on Ajax, the initial operating capability for the first vehicles is at the back end of 2025. That is next year, not in the next decade.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Shadow Minister (Defence)

I accept that fact. If I said the next decade, that was not what I meant to say.

The Public Accounts Committee has described the defence procurement system as

“broken and repeatedly wasting…taxpayers’ money.”

My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley was right that we need an industrial base and that short-term cost cutting will not do. He said that we need to speed up procurement, especially of administration, when it comes to making these decisions.

The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford said that we need a change of culture as well as reform in procurement, as did the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex, who set out his ideas about how best to change culture in organisations that can be quite resistant to change. I accept that that will be a difficult job, but I think there is acceptance across the House that it needs to be done.

At the moment, it is fair to say that the Government have been wasting taxpayers’ money hand over fist, and that is not just waste in procurement. Parliamentary answers show that the Department has lost £927 million to fraud since 2010, with £619 million of that since 2019—that would be enough to pay for 170 Challenger 3 tanks—yet the average length of time for Fraud Defence to conduct an investigation has increased from 519 days in 2019 to 742 days in 2023. Why? The Government seem to have stopped focusing on good administration.

A Labour Government will do better. Under a future Labour Government, we will drive deep defence procurement reform inside the MOD to reduce waste and ensure that our armed forces have the kit they need to defend Britain.

Labour is committed to strengthening our national defence and supporting our armed forces and their families. We will always do what is necessary to defend the country, and we will always spend what is necessary to deal with the threats that we face. Britain will be better defended under Labour.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 9:49, 7 May 2024

First, I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

This has been a typically excellent debate. Across the House I think there is an understanding that, after two or three decades of relative tranquillity, we are living with the threat of proximate warfare. The price of freedom is of course eternal vigilance, and that is generally agreed across this House, as evidenced by the contributions made, such as that of my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis. I think my right hon. Friend was arguing, slightly cheekily, for defence spending of 44% of GDP, although that was probably in the event of total war, which of course we all want to avoid. His proposition was that we should never have taken a peace dividend post the cold war, but I think that is a little harsh on our predecessors. However, plainly the situation has changed, and we must change with it. I hope very much that Europe will follow our 2.5% commitment, meaning £140 billion more for our collective defence against the primary aggressor. I would have been very disappointed had my right hon. Friend not rehearsed the arguments for a continuous at-sea deterrent, which of course is 16,000 tonnes of eternal vigilance.

The right hon. Members for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), who speak for the Opposition, I think gave us the commitment we were seeking, which is to match the Government’s cash spend. However, the right hon. Gentleman was a bit flaky, if I may say so, on the 2.5%, or at least on when it would be achieved and how they would pay for it. That became clear from the intervention by my hon. Friend James Gray, for which I am grateful.

The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne is indeed an honourable man and I like him very much, but I am bound to point out that his assurances that Labour is the party of defence run contrary to its management until very recently by a right hon. Member who had very different ideas indeed. The right hon. Gentleman was very keen to recommend Jeremy Corbyn to the British public in 2019 as the Prime Minister of this great country and to serve under his leadership for nearly five years, but heaven loves a sinner brought to repentance. I am also bound to point out that defence is not short of reviews, and another review would mean obfuscation. I suggest that is the very last thing our armed forces need right now. At best, it would introduce a huge measure of uncertainty when we simply cannot afford it.

The Chair of the Select Committee on Defence, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeremy Quin, rightly reflected on what 2.5% across the NATO alliance would mean. Where Britain leads, our European allies must follow: we are not in this on our own. He gave a magisterial romp around the geopolitical, societal and economic contribution of the whole defence enterprise.

Martin Docherty-Hughes got tied up with nomenclature. There are other ranks in the Army and the RAF and ordinary seamen in the Navy, and I think that was the essence of his confusion. Either way there is nothing ordinary about the men and women of our armed forces, and either way he was rightly concerned about the junior ranks. I recall a previous conversation we had in this place during which he confused a pay award this year for them, which is 9.7%, with the 5.5% for senior officers; I assume he is happy with that. He wanted more Europe in defence, which I think means more European Union. He may have missed, for example, the Lancaster House treaties, the attendant A400M programme and unmanned aerial vehicles, and he may also have missed the joint expeditionary force. We are indeed co-operating wherever we can with our European friends and neighbours.

My right hon. Friend Mr Francois gave a very detailed and authoritative account of kit, majoring on air defence. He catalogued some of the procurement issues that have historically bedevilled the defence enterprise, but he resisted reference to his favourite defence contractor, for which we are very grateful. I know that he supports the integrated procurement model announced in February.

John Spellar, to whom I always listen with a great deal of interest, rightly highlighted industrial skills. I have said it before but I will say it again: the Ministry of Defence is this country’s No. 1 employer of apprentices, and we are exceptionally proud of that. He rightly implied that the men and women of our armed forces—both civilians and people in uniform—have a choice. Of course they do, and they very often exercise it; our economy is the better for it. I make no apology for injecting trades and skills into our armed forces and our defence enterprise; it benefits us all. The trick is retaining those people and then perhaps pulling them back in at some future date. He will be familiar with that, because he has read the Haythornthwaite report.

My hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin rightly highlighted the perils of coalition, but to be fair we have got the Liberal Democrats to commit to CASD, and maybe even CASD with missiles—for that, Richard Foord has done us a great service today. The points that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex made about leadership were extremely well made.

Derek Twigg spoke about the recruitment and retention issues that the armed forces certainly have, in common with just about all our allies. Meanwhile, we deal with all our defence commitments. We are rightly proud of the men and women who serve.

Mr Jones was fighting a bit of a rearguard action on defence spending, which the Opposition Front Benchers now say they support. If he wants to disregard the costs for Ukraine, he needs to have a word with his colleagues. Given that I need to face down Putin’s naked aggression, he might as well carve out other parts of the defence budget and say that they do not count either. I am sure he would not want to do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire spoke about votes in Parliament and about warfighting, and I agree with his analysis. We forget—do we not?—what a grave mistake the Iraq war was. Having been heavily involved with the Etherton process, I entirely agree with his remarks about LGBT people and I salute the role that the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces played early on in that process.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton spoke about a variety of subjects. Interestingly, at the end of his remarks he committed his party to, I think, a regular Army of 82,000. I am not quite sure where that figure came from, but I assume we will hear about the attendant spending pledge in due course—or maybe not.

My hon. Friend Jack Lopresti talked about apprentices, defence-related jobs and R&D. That is not surprising given that Abbey Wood in Filton puts his constituency at the beating heart of the defence enterprise; he is a constant advocate for both.

Jim Shannon is a strong advocate for the defence enterprise in Northern Ireland, and his part in particular. He rightly highlighted the further opportunities in Northern Ireland, which I know about full well as a former Northern Ireland Office Minister and Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

My hon. Friend James Sunderland spoke of enablement and logistics—of interoperability, modularity and plug and play—from a position of real expertise as a former senior logistics officer. My hon. Friend Bob Seely rightly highlighted the changing nature of warfare. Mass matters, but so does tech, as we can see with potential game changers such as DragonFire. I am not sure I agree with him about A400M, but we can perhaps have a debate later over a cuppa or some such.

In our more dangerous world, the Government believe that spending 2.5% of GDP on defence must become the minimum NATO benchmark as Putin ramps up his wartime economy as part of a network of authoritarian states that are attacking our allies and interests. NATO must respond, and I am proud that the UK is leading among European allies through our defence reforms and our 2.5% commitment, verifiable against NATO rules, our £75 billion cash boost for defence from a flat cash baseline, and our additional package of support for Ukraine.

As Putin lays waste to his military and recklessly exposes his strengths and weaknesses to general view, we watch, we learn and we act. Our defence reforms are making our industrial base stronger. Our investment in our conventional forces, stockpiles and innovation makes us more capable and more lethal. Our investment in our alliances is making us and our friends more secure. Our investment in our independent nuclear capability will always make adversaries back off.

I finish by paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces. They are the best of us, and as we enter a new age of high-tech warfare we need to remember that, day in, day out. It is our people and those who support them who put the great in Great Britain. On that at least I hope we can all agree.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered defence.