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International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill — Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:30 pm on 27th February 2015.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 12:30 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, the amendment has the effect that in the event that the ODA’s expenditure is greater than 35% of spending on defence, the provisions of the Bill will not apply for the following year. Noble Lords will have worked out that that percentage corresponds to the UK’s international target of 0.7% of GNI and the UK’s NATO defence spending commitment of 2% of GDP. The provisions offered by the amendment seek to ensure that commitments on international aid do not hamper the United Kingdom’s military capabilities.

It must be obvious by now to everyone in this House and those who have been following our debate that the Bill is a piece of public relations. The arguments put forward by the Minister this morning and by the sponsor of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, just a few moments ago are all about how it will give us international standing and enable us to take a lead. As my noble friend Lord Lawson pointed out, there is quite a lot of catching up to do by other member states on their commitment.

If we take that as a principle and take it as read, I should have thought that the promoters of the Bill would find the amendment extremely attractive. It takes exactly the same argument in respect of our commitment to development aid and applies it to our commitment in NATO. I believe that the first duty of any Government, above anything else, is the defence of its people and the security of the country. Therefore, that 2% commitment to NATO is to my mind far more important than the 0.7% commitment in the Bill.

It is striking, and it is important that we address this issue, that our ability to meet that NATO commitment depends on us having the money and making it a priority. The effect of the Bill is to give overseas aid priority over defence. That seems wholly wrong and inappropriate—particularly in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today.

I am looking forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord West, and others who are far more experienced and knowledgeable about defence expenditure than I. I had hoped that I would get a glimpse of the extent of the challenge from the speech which the Chief of the Defence Staff was going to make at Chatham House on Monday but, for reasons that are completely mysterious, apparently he was told by the Government that he could not make that speech. I find that quite extraordinary. Was that because, at a later stage, the Defence Secretary wishes to take credit for the situation that we are in, or was it because people are nervous at this sensitive time about what is happening to defence expenditure? There is an opportunity through the amendment to reassure those of us who believe that we absolutely must meet that NATO commitment. Of course, I can claim as a strong ally in that respect the Prime Minister himself, who has been telling other members of NATO how they must meet the 2% commitment for expenditure.

Having said that, I think that the only country which will spend 2% of GDP on defence in the fiscal year 2015 is Estonia. Again, there is a parallel in the position on overseas aid. I expect those Members—such as the noble Lord, Lord Davies—who have argued in this House with great passion that we need to take a lead, fly a flag and send a signal on overseas aid to support the amendment, because we need to send a signal on defence expenditure as well.

I just highlight a couple of issues which explain my very strong feeling that we should make that commitment. The United States is spending 3.8% of GDP on defence. Having scrapped the Nimrod programme, our Navy is very vulnerable to submarine attack. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord West, will be able to reassure me that that is correct. I read in a newspaper the other day that a periscope was spotted in the Irish Sea and the MoD had to ask our ally forces to come to its rescue with their own military marine patrol assets.

In the SDSR 2010, the number of battle tanks was reduced by 40%, as a Ukraine-type conflict was not anticipated to take place. In 2001—long after I had left government—we had 33 frigates and destroyers. It is now down to 19. The RAF has seven fast jet squadrons; it had 33 in 1990. It is true that we have taken on an order for the F-35 joint strike fighter, but that is a few years away. Despite the fantastic efforts being made in Fife, at present we do not have an aircraft carrier capability. The Harriers which operated from the aircraft carriers which were decommissioned have been sold to the US for spares, leaving us in the position where, in Libya, the Typhoons are having to fly much further and get refuelled in the air.

Let us consider troop numbers. Our Army will be down to the smallest since the Boer War at 82,000, cut from 110,000, the Navy service will be down by 5,000 to 30,000 and RAF personnel will be reduced by 5,000 to 33,000. General Richard Shirreff, who is Deputy NATO Supreme Allied Commander, says that,

“the sort of defence cuts we have seen … have really hollowed out the British armed forces and I think that people need to sit up and recognise that”,

and that it is,

“one hell of a risk”.

President Obama, who I know has a few supporters in this House, earlier this month called on the Prime Minister not to let the figure fall below 2%. I have reservations about hypothecation, which I have spent a great deal of time arguing about. However, if we are to have hypothecation for overseas aid and if that is because the Government want to take an international lead and believe that we have a moral duty to do so, we need to have hypothecation for the commitments that we have made in respect of our defence. The highest duty of government is to defend our people. I beg to move.