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Defence Spending — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:41 am on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence) 10:41 am, 16th July 2019

It is always good to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I sincerely congratulate Anne-Marie Trevelyan on securing the debate and the fine way in which she opened it.

The hon. Lady invited us to consider the issue of defence spending in its purest sense. How does one fund a public service, the most critical public service that the Government can fund and preside over? In her opening remarks, she urged us to consider not just the sum of money spent on defence but how that money is spent across the Department. As we say in Scotland, there has been a fair kick of the ball on that issue here today, but we again find ourselves with the Defence Minister—it is always good to see him on the Front Bench—and not with a Treasury Minister. For those who are new to defence debates, although most of us here are regulars, that is something we have yet to use our collective ingenuity to achieve.

When considering defence spending, in my mind there are three clear elements that the process should contain. The first is to analyse the threat picture. It has been mentioned this morning that it is increasingly complex, fast-changing and differing day to day, hour to hour. There is then a decision to be made on the capability that is required in order to meet the threats that we face. The third step is to fund, fund and fund that necessary capability.

There is an entirely legitimate political debate to be had—indeed, the public would expect no less—over how well served we are by the current set-up. It is a debate about which Members here today, certainly those in my party, have tried to encourage some thinking outside the box. At the moment, we have a Department that is constantly chasing its tail and is ill-served by political posturing, some of which regrettably has been on display here this morning; there are warring political factions in the governing political party and Government Departments are set off against each other.

Indeed, Mr Francois said that the Treasury do not understand the Ministry of Defence. I will come back to that, but he said something even more revealing: he asked us to go to the bank with a promise from Boris Johnson, the likely next Prime Minister, that he would fund defence fully. Well, he is hardly going to say he will fund defence partially. The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford might run to the bank, but we need detail, and we have not had that from either of the prospective Prime Ministers, despite the warm words.

If we go back to the first step in how I see devising how much is spent and how it is spent, we need a greater, more robust and more sophisticated discussion in the House about the threat picture that we face. When we get on to how we fund the capabilities required, we need a shift to multi-year defence agreements—something I raise in just about every debate we have.

There have been interesting and subtle shifts in the language used, particularly by Conservative Members when they talk about multi-year arrangements. I have asked previously if the Government are looking at bringing in proper multi-year defence agreements, similar to the model used in Denmark, for example. The previous Minister for Defence Procurement, Guto Bebb, said that was being looked at; the current Minister for Defence Procurement says that is being looked at. I ask the Minister, when can Parliament expect to hear some more detail? I think that would lead to the end of tin-eared design and outcomes, such as the closure of the Royal Navy base in Rosyth, which is the only Royal Navy base in the north-east of these islands.

I disagree vehemently with other Members about nuclear weapons; look at how they have done nothing but haemorrhage money as though it were going out of fashion. That is before we get to other issues, such as submarine decommissioning, that I know the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has an interest in. We would have an end to National Audit Office reports, detailing a black hole of up to £15 billion in the equipment plan.

People are the greatest asset the Ministry of Defence has; they are the real deterrent. When she opened the debate, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed adumbrated the need for a long-standing SNP policy—perhaps she did not mean to—of having an armed forces representative body to better represent those in the armed forces, veterans and their families, and so get better outcomes for them. It is often said that defence does not win votes, but it can certainly lose them. I fear that collectively this House is getting that wrong.

Last, I encourage Members to read an excellent academic paper called “Military Strategy of Small States: Responding to External Shocks of the 21st Century” before they come to the next defence debate. It is written by three Swedish academics, and it is about the relationship between the threat picture, the money that is spent and the political discussion, which needs to be more sophisticated in this place.