Integrated Review - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:04 pm on 17th March 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 7:04 pm, 17th March 2021

My Lords, I start with my usual caveat about what a shame it is we are not hearing the Statement in full. It might be a relief to the Leader, but it would be good to hear Statements as important as prime ministerial ones repeated.

Two significant developments since the last Statement on the integrated review provide a new optimism: first, the success of vaccines against Covid-19; and secondly, the election of the new US President. President Biden’s recent speech on America’s place in the world highlighted that his Administration are different in style, values and substance from that of his predecessor. In redefining how the US views its place in the world, he said:

“we must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

At a time when challenges have never seemed so complex or diverse, the power of this change of approach should not be underestimated. Now, our Prime Minister has to decide how the UK will meet those same challenges.

We need the integrated review to succeed to keep our citizens safe and to secure Britain as a moral force for good in the world. But it is against a backdrop whereby the two previous reviews, as well as recent actions taken by the Government, have weakened the foundations. There has been an £8 billion cut to the defence budget and a reduction of 45,000 in Armed Forces personnel. Our reputation as a defender of the rule of law has been damaged by the Internal Market Bill, and now, there is the decision to break the legal commitment on international aid. After an “era of retreat,” as Boris Johnson previously described the last 10 years of Conservative Governments, this review cannot repeat the mistakes of the lost decade for Britain’s foreign and security policy.

The number one priority for any Government is national security, and security has to begin at home, as we have seen during the pandemic. That is why announcements of a national resilience strategy, a counterterrorism operations centre and greater partnership with business are all encouraging.

The threats to our national security are proliferating and the traditional certainties are less stable; while we welcome that the review recognises the threats of space and cyber, the conventional risks have not gone away. Our commitment to NATO must be unshakable, our support for nuclear deterrence must be non-negotiable and our obligations to international law, human rights, multilateral treaties and organisations must be enshrined in policy and practice.

Today’s review accepts that the events of March 2018 in Salisbury indicate that the threat from Russia remains acute. Yet the recommendations of the Russia review 18 months ago remain just that—recommendations. I hope the Leader can today assure us that the legislation to counter state threats will address this and the Government will now set about implementing the outstanding recommendations with some sense of urgency.

Ambiguity in relation to China must also be addressed. Given the importance of security to our national infrastructure, can the Leader explain why the Government have spent years encouraging Chinese Government-backed companies to invest in sensitive areas such as nuclear power and 5G?

Our ambition must be to enhance Britain’s reputation abroad with a foreign policy that appreciates that our values and the national interest are indivisible. We need to build deeper political and economic ties with new and emerging powers, including, as referenced in the review, within the Asia-Pacific. But we also need the anchor of strong, effective relationships with Europe and the US and a defined role in the global institutions we helped to establish. This means providing leadership at NATO to counter threats and aggression, including from Russia. It means being a competent and coherent voice at the G7, leading the global economic recovery—as we did in 2008 with Gordon Brown—and using our position on the UN Security Council to call out human rights violations, even if it is inconvenient.

To realise those ambitions, we have to be consistent and we have to earn trust. It is not enough to refer to Yemen as the worst humanitarian situation in the world, and then continue to sell arms that can be used in the conflict there. It is not enough to host COP 26 if plans to open a new coal mine are then pushed through. It is not enough to talk about a value-driven trade policy, but then reject human rights protections in the Trade Bill.

The decision to cut £5 billion from foreign aid and abandon our commitment to 0.7% of GNI undermines that ambition. The Government say that cut is temporary, but it was this Government who enshrined that commitment in legislation. Why do that if, at the first challenge, that commitment is just abandoned? When will Parliament be able to vote on this? Because the Government need to find a way to make their own actions lawful. On a not unrelated matter, if the Government are serious about our role as a soft power superpower, as the review suggests, surely they could not even contemplate ending funding for VSO. I hope the noble Baroness will address these issues.

I also raise a specific matter about the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, which the review talks up as expanding our science and technology base for strategic advantage. The Government’s press release says that the Business Secretary will have powers for

“directing the agency to cease collaboration with certain hostile actors”.

I am genuinely puzzled about this. Why would the agency be collaborating with hostile powers in the first place? Perhaps the Minister will shed some light on what this actually means.

Despite this being billed as the “strategic defence review”, there are many questions that will have to be addressed in the defence Command Paper. It has been reported that the Army will be cut by 10,000 personnel and armoured vehicles scrapped. If the strategy wants to

“deploy more of our Armed Forces overseas more often and for longer periods of time”,

how will these cuts assist in achieving that?

While our support for the nuclear deterrent is non-negotiable, serious questions remain about the hike in warhead numbers, which breaks the commitments of successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative. Since the Prime Minister was unable to address this when he was asked in the other place, can the noble Baroness explain something about the strategic purpose of this decision? In his Statement, Mr Johnson describes the US as “our closest ally” and “a uniquely close partner”. Given that President Biden has expressed a different approach, was this decision discussed with the US?

In the past year, we have all witnessed the resilience of the British public, particularly but not exclusively those working in our health and care services. The pandemic was a threat that few expected and that, for a whole host of reasons, we were inadequately prepared for. It has brought home how, in future, our preparation against threats and risk has to cover many bases. To effectively prepare for such risks, it is not a question of using headline-friendly rhetoric, getting through the latest crisis or finding warm words for each occasion; it is about careful, strategic planning, listening to wise counsel, diplomacy based on principles and values and delivering the resources that our military, our agencies and our public services need. The test of that is not for today, but it will be judged in the months and years ahead.