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Defence Spending — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:32 am on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney 10:32 am, 16th July 2019

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan on her passionate advocacy on all occasions and on the very valuable and insightful points that she made.

In the 1990s, we saw a supposed peace dividend. I suggest that was illusory then and, in the face of a revanchist Russia, is folly now. We live in a world of great power threats, where there are diversifying, multiple non-state actor threats, too. It is right that we invest properly in our armed forces.

We tend always to have this debate in the context of kit. I welcome the fact, as the Minister will probably remind us in due course, that we are due to see two new aircraft carriers coming on stream, and the F-35s too. Of course, we need enough to make sure that we can operate both carriers, but that may be a point for another day. I welcome the Poseidons coming on stream; the first British-marked example flew only last week. I very much value that, but we must not just see all those as expensive baubles that are signature-tick projects to show we are investing in defence. We need a holistic approach to our armed forces.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend mentioned deterrence—she is quite right—but she will realise, as I am sure most hon. Members do, that we need layered defence deterrents for them to work at all. It is no good simply relying on the nuclear deterrent, because that is devalued hugely if there are not the layers to support it. What we have done in the past is simply to salami-slice the defence budget—chop a programme here and a capability there, in order to make ends meet. That simply will not do. We need a strategic assessment of the threats we face and what kind of power we want to be: do we want to be a full-spectrum tier 1 power? If we do, we need to fund our forces appropriately for the threats we wish them to defend.

We have to see the value of the kit beyond just the capability it provides. I always refer to the glory of the 1960s aviation industry in this country—multiple companies producing wonderful multiple aircraft—but that world simply does not exist anymore. We could buy cheap, capable kit off the shelf from the Americans. That is one philosophical approach we might take, although I do not think we should and I doubt many of us do, because we would lose our sovereign capability and investment in industry.

We have to accept, therefore, that if we want sovereign capability, it requires the Government to invest not just in money but in strategy. In the past, we have taken neither approach; we have bought a bit of kit; we have invested in some kit; we have built some kit ourselves; we have collaborated in other kit, but with no overall holistic approach. My view is unequivocal: we should have that sovereign capability for reasons of national defence and because it employs hundreds if not thousands of people in our industries. We are very good at it, and it provides the skills that our young people would like, but it requires Government investment in planning.

I very much welcome the shipbuilding and combat air strategies but, as has been referred to, we need plans for a number of other things, including autonomous capability, helicopters, transport tankers, carriers and training—there are probably others. Above all, we need the Treasury to recognise the value of defence and not the cost. I see that when representing RAF Brize Norton. It is difficult to expect bright young people to serve if they cannot get a hot shower in the middle of winter, or if they see that their accommodation is nowhere near as good as what their friends have in the private sector. Those bright young men and women do have options.

I will just make a plug with the Minister for the REEMA sites at RAF Brize Norton, which need redevelopment—I know it is not his fault. We have brownfield sites there. It is having an effect on west Oxfordshire’s housing stock and on the young men and women who serve at RAF Brize Norton. I appreciate that is not the Minister’s fault but the Treasury’s. The Treasury must see the value, not the cost. It needs to revalue the Green Book and see defence not as a cash drain but a net gain to the UK economy.