Defence Budget — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:27 pm on 4th March 2015.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 3:27 pm, 4th March 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Head of the United States Army’s statement that he is “very concerned” about cuts to Britain’s defence budget.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, we remain a strong and capable defence partner of the United States. We are able to fight alongside US forces anywhere in the world and are demonstrating this once again as the largest partner in the coalition effort against ISIL. We have the second largest defence budget in NATO, are meeting the target of 2% of GDP on defence spending and will spend more than £160 billion over the next 10 years equipping the Armed Forces.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer but have to say that it is horrifyingly complacent. For more than three years now, through the back channels, the Americans—the three services, the intelligence community and those on the Hill—have been expressing concern about our spend and the reductions in it. It is time now to be honest with our nation: our military capability has been cut by 20% to 30% since 2010. That is a huge reduction. Next year, in 2015-16, the percentage of GDP spent on defence will be 1.88%, the lowest for 25 years. There is a generation of leaders who believe that peace is the natural order of things and that wars are inconceivable. However, war drums are beating in eastern Europe, and it is time we sent a strong message of deterrence through our military capability—because military forces deter. Will the Minister talk with the Prime Minister, and ask him to talk with the leader of the Opposition, to maybe come to an agreement that both parties should make a commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence, to take this out of the political arena? I would have suggested having the Lib Dems join in that discussion, but most Lib Dems, I am afraid, with some notable exceptions, want a reduction, rather like the Green Party.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, I will take the noble Lord’s suggestion back to my department, but we will meet the 2% target this year and next. Decisions on defence spending will then be made in the next spending review. However, the Prime Minister is clear that there will be an annual 1% real terms increase in spending on defence equipment. We are committed to ensuring that Britain’s Armed Forces remain among the most advanced and capable, able to protect our security interests across the globe.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the Government’s commitment to a 1% increase on equipment, but he did not make it clear whether this would be a 1% increase on the defence budget. Perhaps he could do that now.

Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat

My Lords, before we dive overboard in pursuit of this gold-braid chorus calling for lashings of extra defence spending, can we stop for a moment to reflect? When the party of the noble Lord, Lord West, was in office, it presided over a £30 billion excess in defence expenditure, which left a black hole that this Government had to cope with. It also presided over some of the most egregious military decisions of our time, in Iraq and

Afghanistan. Surely that would cause us to believe that an excessive enthusiasm in according credibility to these calls is not required at this moment.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My noble friend mentioned the previous Government’s £30 billion defence budget. We now have a £34 billion defence budget and because it has been brought back into balance, we are able to invest in the latest military equipment in the coming decade.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Order. I am sorry to have to get to my feet, but if we are taking it in turns, it is the turn of the Labour Benches.

Photo of Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke Labour

Will the Minister say what assessment has been made in the Ministry of Defence of the costs of the total realignment of our defence capability should we lose the collective security of NATO as a consequence of losing our Trident nuclear deterrent?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, I assume that someone is working on those figures. The Government do not gamble with Britain’s national security. The primary responsibility of Government is the defence of the UK and its citizens. We cannot rule out a future nuclear threat to the UK, and therefore need a credible nuclear capability. Maintaining continuous at-sea deterrence is the best way to deter the most extreme threat to the UK. To clarify my answer to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the 1% is not on the defence budget—it is on the equipment spend within the defence budget.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

Undoubtedly we face a dangerous and uncertain world. I welcome the Minister’s statement. I have more confidence in supporting a Government who have shown the ability to manage the economy and have the best chance of maintaining our level of defence expenditure than I would have if we again found ourselves unable to afford to do it.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I agree entirely with my noble friend. We need a strong economy to have strong Armed Forces.

Photo of Lord Dannatt Lord Dannatt Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that however welcome his message is of a 1% increase in defence equipment expenditure, this does not address the whole defence budget? Does he furthermore agree that we should salute the bravery of Lance Corporal Leakey, who won the Victoria Cross recently? This underlines that it is our military manpower that makes the British Armed Forces what they are, not a 1% increase in expenditure, because when there has to be a cut, it comes in manpower. When I commanded the Army, it was 102,000 strong. Now, four or five years later, it is 82,000.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord and salute the recent recipient of the Victoria Cross. The Prime Minister has made it very clear that he does not want any reduction in the numbers of the Armed Forces below the level at which they are now, and he remains committed to growing the Reserves to 35,000.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Order. If we are taking it in turns, it is the turn of those on the Labour Benches, but there are two Labour Peers seeking to get in.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, the Minister said that it is the primary responsibility of Government to provide for the security and defence of the country. Does he not therefore acknowledge that the defence budget needs as much security in its expenditure as Parliament has already given to its expenditure on international aid?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My Lords, the coalition agreement stated that we will honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013 and enshrine that in law. Those funds are being used for very worthwhile causes. For instance, DfID has contributed £35 million to our efforts to tackle ebola in West Africa.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that although the noble Lord, Lord West, and others are quite right in wanting our Armed Forces to be fully and properly equipped, nevertheless, in modern conditions, large areas of defending the national security and safety of our citizens and the British nation lie outside the classical definition of defence expenditure? Does he not agree that they should be taken more into account, because they are part of the defence of this nation in future—a matter which I am not sure that the American general who spoke the other day fully comprehended?

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My noble friend mentioned hybrid warfare in a question last week, and there is also the very serious issue of cyber warfare, so I entirely agree with him.