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Defence Spending (Commitments)

Volume 508: debated on Monday 29 March 2010

6. What recent assessment he has made of the balance between UK defence spending and UK defence commitments. (324451)

In our planning rounds, we ensure that our plans deliver defence capability, that they are sound and that resources are allocated in line with defence priorities. I announced the main elements of the 2010 planning round on 15 December 2009. This included a package to spend £900 million more over three years on enhancements to support operations of the kind that we conduct in Afghanistan, on top of operational costs paid for by the reserve. In taking this decision, however, we had to prioritise rigorously and recognise that tough choices were required better to match the defence programme to the available resources.

Given that the Treasury claims to scrutinise every capital project and reserves the right to intervene in such projects, may I ask who was responsible for the £1.4 billion cut in the helicopter programme? Was it the former Secretary of State for Defence, or was it the former Chancellor of the Exchequer?

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to decisions made in 2002-03 or 2003-04. He must accept that those decisions were made by the Ministry of Defence, not by the Treasury, and also that the position then was very different from the position now. We had 400 troops in Afghanistan at that time, and they were in the relatively benign area of the north, not in Helmand province.

When my right hon. Friend speaks of defence procurement, is he bearing in mind our defence industrial strategy? Can he promise the House that, as far as possible, we will always secure supply in this country in order to maintain our skills base and the sovereignty that we require?

I cannot go as far as that. The aim of our defence industrial strategy is to ensure that elements of defence supply are secured in this country when we consider that to be important to the maintaining of our sovereign capability, and to ensure that we are able to continue to produce those elements. What I will not do is sacrifice, on a wider basis, capability and value for money when to do so is not appropriate, and is not justified by a clear need for that sovereignty.

On 17 March, the Prime Minister said that UK defence spending had fallen in real terms on one or two occasions. I think that “once or twice” was the term that he used. According to everyone else, it has certainly fallen twice, and has possibly fallen three or four times. Was what the Prime Minister said about its having fallen “once” true?

Defence spending has risen substantially during the present Government’s time in office. It has risen in real terms by 10 per cent.—just short of £1 billion a year, on average—which contrasts markedly with the massive reductions that took place during the last two years of Conservative government.

In the light of the agreement between Russia and the United States last weekend as part of the strategic arms reduction treaty, would this not be an appropriate time at which to reconsider the strategy of replacing the Trident nuclear missile system, which would both contribute to nuclear disarmament and save us all a great deal of money?

My hon. Friend and I disagree in one fundamental respect. I believe in multilateral nuclear disarmament: I think that we should make every possible effort to bring about the reduction and, hopefully, the eventual elimination of nuclear arsenals throughout the world. I do not, however, believe in unilateral nuclear disarmament, and I do not believe that if we did as my hon. Friend suggests, we would add greatly to efforts to reduce nuclear armaments at this time.

Last week the Chancellor committed more than £4 billion from the Treasury reserve for operations in Afghanistan. Given the increasing number of urgent operational requirements driving equipment spending to its highest level yet, what discussions has the Ministry had with the Treasury about eventual recovery of UOR funding, and what effect will that have on the longer-term defence budget?

We have not had to repay moneys granted to us for urgent operational requirements. [Interruption.] We have not had to do that in any year. The full costs of operations—not just urgent operational requirements—are paid from Treasury reserves which are in addition to our budget.

Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a contradiction between the arguments of those who say that not enough money is being spent on defence while also saying that the break clauses in the contract for the aircraft carriers must be examined? [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I note that my view is supported by Opposition Members.

May I also ask whether the Secretary of State has received any communications from either of the main Opposition parties stating whether they will support the Government’s proposal to proceed with the next stage of the Type 26 shipping order, and whether he thinks that the placing of that order was excellent, very excellent, or simply magnificent?

It is clear that there are dilemmas in the Conservative ranks, and that they run wider than just the carriers and naval capability. Conservative Members say on the one hand that we are behaving in a profligate manner and signing contracts unreasonably, and, on the other, say that we are underfunding defence. They cannot have their cake and eat it; they must come clean about their policies and proposals.

Order. May I very gently say to the Secretary of State that we must, of course, stick to the subject of Government policy?

On 15 March the Secretary of State told the House that £5 billion was earmarked for Afghanistan next year, but on Budget day the Chancellor said that there was £4 billion from next year’s reserve to fund operations in Afghanistan. Why the difference?