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 Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:02 pm, 18th December 2018

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their questions and comments, which, in some respects, have covered similar ground. I will endeavour to reply to as many of the points as I can.

It is a little unfair to level at the Government the accusation that we have been doing very little since we came into office. Chapter 1 of the report spells out the wide range of investment and procurement that the Government have taken forward since 2015 in particular. That programme continues on a rising budget, as is often overlooked.

The noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Campbell, asked about the additional money we were granted in the Budget. The first thing to say is that the additional money granted to us this year and next will enable us to proceed with programmes that we are clear are priorities. One of these is our defensive cyber programme; another is stockpiling and spares. A further priority is the work we are doing at pace on offensive cyber. The money will also enable us to proceed with a more cost-efficient profiling of payments relating to the dreadnought programme. More generally, the money is excellent news for our modernisation programme in a number of areas. The report spells those out. Some would say that the significant thing about the Budget settlement is that we are not anywhere near making or talking about the kinds of cuts to military capability that some commentators were predicting earlier in the year. That sends an important message.

Both noble Lords asked about the circumstances in which we might act independently. I would not want to place too much emphasis on that part of the Statement. In the vast majority of situations we plan on the basis of working alongside our allies in NATO—the cornerstone of our defence—or as part of some other multilateral force, hence the emphasis in the report on the theme of international by design, which was a key strand of policy articulated in the SDSR. We are the lead nation in the JEF, for example. We lead the framework NATO battalion in Estonia. However, the nation would expect that we should, in exceptional circumstances, be able to act independently, not least in defence of the realm and our overseas territories, and to respond effectively in disaster relief and humanitarian operations that our allies might not necessarily wish to take part in.

As far as the modernisation of defence practices goes, we in the ministry are aware that there is ample scope for more automation and digitisation in back-office functions more broadly. This is covered quite well on page 17 of the report. It is about instilling a culture in defence built on leaner structures and less cumbersome reporting lines, not least when it comes to our relationship with industry.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked what the practical difference was between the innovation fund and the transformation fund. Both are about improving our capability. The transformation fund will add to our ability to pursue promising new projects, technologies or equipment at the pace required to counter the threats. It will focus in particular on opportunities to increase our lethality and mass. The innovation fund, which of course emerged from the SDSR, is a 10-year programme. That is much more about seeing how new ideas can transform defence and testing the utility of those ideas at an earlier stage of their development. It is also about pump-priming good new ideas.

Both noble Lords asked me about the people programme and, in particular, about Capita and our recruitment and retention. We accepted the conclusions and recommendations of the recent NAO report. We await the PAC report before replying formally, but I will just say that the tone of the final report is disappointing and provides only limited acknowledgement of the work that the MoD has undertaken or has planned. The NAO recommendations largely address areas in which work is already under way or planned. As regards Capita, we accept, of course, that the recruit partnering project has not performed to the satisfaction of the Army or, indeed, Capita itself. Significant time and resource has been invested to improve that situation. Part of the problem is that the defence recruiting system let us down. Significant additional Capita resource has been deployed to improve the DRS performance and, while there continue to be issues, I can tell both noble Lords that performance has improved significantly.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the strategic net assessment. Strategic net assessment is an intellectual discipline. It looks across all dimensions of military competition and assesses how the choices of both friends and foes may play out over the short, medium and long term. Its conclusions can be used to develop more nuanced and better-informed defence strategy so that we can better anticipate our adversaries’ actions and counter them more effectively. That will be closely co-ordinated across government to ensure coherence.

My time has almost expired, but I want to answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, about the funding gap in the equipment plan identified by the NAO. The NAO report reflects the unlikely situation where all the equipment plan financial risks materialise at the same time. We are confident that we will deliver the equipment plan within budget this year, as we did last year. We recognise the financial challenges that our programmes pose: they are ambitious and complex but we are addressing these after securing the financial boost arising from the Budget and reducing forecast costs through efficiency savings. We have taken steps to enable longer-term affordability by improving financial management of the plan. A new executive agency has been established to lead on procurement and in-service support and decommissioning of all nuclear submarines, as the noble Lord is aware. It is important to understand that the MoD manages a £5.1 billion equipment plan contingency and a £1.1 billion nuclear contingency within the £186 billion allocated to the plan precisely to manage those cost pressures.

As for the value of the pound, I believe that I have said on previous occasions that we benefit from being able to engage in hedging operations to shelter the fluctuations in sterling against the dollar, in particular. I will write to the noble Lords on those questions that I have not had time to answer.