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 Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence) 8:02 pm, 18th December 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. I share many of the observations that the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, made in the last moment or two. This is the second time that I have heard the Statement, because I took the opportunity to go and hear it when it was first delivered in the other place. I have to confess that hearing it twice has not improved it, in spite of what I anticipated being the mellifluous tones of the noble Earl, for whom I have the greatest respect. Looked at in the round, the Statement could easily have been made at any time in the course of its nine months of gestation. It contains a whole list of promises but is largely silent about how the promises are to be delivered.

When we examine some of those promises, we see that they reflect things which the Ministry of Defence should be doing now as a matter of course. Surely we are currently enhancing,

“efforts with our allies and partners”.

Indeed, one would think that the very possibility of Brexit would surely make that an even more urgent requirement. Are we going to “act independently”? For example, if independent action in defence of an overseas territory were required, surely we would be capable of doing that at the moment. Why are those two issues focused on in that way that they are in the Statement?

Nor is there any mention of the immediate challenges that face the Ministry of Defence, such as the gap of billions of pounds in the equipment budget—an issue that the noble Earl will recall I have raised with him on two recent previous occasions. How will that gap be filled? I will return to the question of financial support in a moment or two, because the Statement contains a couple of sentences that justify careful reading and interpretation.

There has already been reference to the fiasco of Army recruitment. How will that be remedied? Is the company that has responsibility simply to be sacked? Why not go back to the previous system, which, as far as I recall, was effective? Was the idea of letting it out designed to save money? If it was, it has certainly not been successful in the sense of producing the promises that were made in respect of it.

Finally, there is the question of the continuing fall in and erratic nature of the value of the pound. How is that affecting the ability of the Ministry of Defence to continue with its programmes of acquisition? What steps, if any, has the Treasury offered in order to assist if necessary because of these fluctuations?

Perhaps the most important passage is the one to which I referred a moment ago and said that I would come to. Two consecutive sentences say:

“We also need to create financial headroom for modernisation. Based on our work to date, we expect to achieve over the next decade the very demanding efficiency targets we were set in 2015, including”— here there is a typographical error—

“through investment in a programme of digitally enabled transformation”.

I know of no government programme of “digitally enabled transformation” in the recent past that has proved anything other than more expensive than intended and with delivery several years after it was originally projected. It is a pretty optimistic tool to use in the issue of finding headroom in defence spending. I suspect that that tells us that the Ministry of Defence is not expecting any more increase in expenditure.

In advance of today’s Statement and the publication of the report, there was an apparently well-sourced leak that the Secretary of State for Defence was going to announce that one of the ambitions would be to raise defence expenditure from 2% of GDP to 3% annually. That did not appear in the Statement. When the question was put to him specifically in the other place by the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, he very neatly sidestepped it. I suspect that that might well be an ambition of the department—but I equally suspect that the Treasury has made it pretty clear that that ambition is not capable of being resolved.

It is also a pity that we have had the Statement and that the publication of the report did not take place in sufficient time for it to be considered as a whole. I very much hope that the noble Earl will, through the usual channels, be willing to commit to endeavour to have a full-scale debate on the terms of the report. That is a much fuller indication of what the Government’s intentions are—albeit, so far as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and myself are concerned, that the report and the Statement leave a great deal to be desired.