Modernising Defence Programme - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:02 pm on 18th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport) 8:02 pm, 18th December 2018

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. When I first read it, I thought it was the sort of statement Pepys might have made—and probably with better reason. It is essentially a classic “We will try harder” statement. Let me illustrate. I was reading through it and trying to find something substantial, and I tripped over the phrase,

“the MDP has identified three broad priorities”.

I thought, “Well, that is different”. I went on to see what they were:

“We will mobilise, making more of what we already have ... We will make the most effective use of them … We will improve the readiness and availability of a range of key defence platforms”.

The noble Earl’s party has been in power for eight years. What has he done in the previous seven years, if not these sorts of motherhood-type things? It does say something tangible: namely, that,

“we will reprioritise the current defence programme to increase weapon stockpiles”.

I feel that “reprioritise” must have a specific meaning: to take from somewhere and give to somewhere else. One can hardly criticise increasing weapons stockpiles to more sensible levels—but can the Minister tell us where the money is being taken from to be reprioritised in weapons stockpiles?

Later in the Statement is the sentence:

“And, where necessary and appropriate we will make sure we are able to act independently”.

We are in the gunboat business again. What sort of independent missions does the noble Earl have in mind? To make that statement, defence must have developed a series of scenarios. Where does the noble Earl feel that acting independently would be a sensible thing for the United Kingdom to do?

Turning the page, the Statement says that,

“we will modernise, embracing new technologies to assure our competitive edge … targetting priority areas”.

This is 2010. Surely a good Administration who have been in power for eight years should have been doing that all along.

It is really only on the second page that there is anything new. We are going to have a “defence innovation fund” and a “transformation fund”. Can the Minister set out in detail what these funds are intended to do and what the difference between them is? The Statement reads:

“I will ring-fence £160 million of MOD’s budget to create this fund”,

and then talks of further funding. Previously, it speaks about “£50 million” in the “next financial year”. That is £210 million—a little over 0.5% of the defence budget. This is nothing like the amounts of money required to make a significant impact. Later, it says:

“We will embrace modern business practices”.

What are they? Why have they not been embraced before? I like this phrase:

“We will develop a comprehensive strategy to improve recruitment and retention of talent”.

Is that code for, “We are going to fire Capita?” It comes from such a low base that surely getting rid of it and having the MoD doing its own recruitment would be the way to go. Is it not true that, with Capita’s help, we are losing net numbers of trained personnel?

The Statement goes on to say something that might actually be meaningful—that a permanent net assessment unit will be established. That could mean a radical change in how the MoD makes its decisions. It could mean a movement towards the centre or it could mean that it is just some unit that passes comments. Can the Minister spell out what structural changes will be made to make this net assessment unit meaningful?

Earlier, the Statement reviews how the threat has become more significant in a whole series of areas and talks about £1.8 billion of extra money. I think that all this money has been announced before—I will be happy to be corrected on that. But can the Minister set out in some detail where and when the money will be spent? I have an uneasy feeling that it is just about enough to keep up with the increased threat.

The only glimmer of hope in the Statement is in the last paragraph:

“There is more work to be done as we move towards next year’s Spending Review”.

I hope that that is code for defence setting out to try again to get some more resources. The programme hinted at in the Statement—let us it call it “SDR 2015-plus-plus”—is unaffordable without cuts or more money, or are we going to muddle on yet again overpromising and underdelivering?