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Ministry of Defence (Statistics)

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2010

I am pleased to have secured this debate on Ministry of Defence regional and national statistics, because as we speak the strategic defence and security review, which is looking at the shape and role of United Kingdom conventional defence policy, is under way in the MOD. Given the extreme financial constraints, we expect to learn about radical changes to the UK armed forces when the SDSR reports before the end of this year. The Royal United Services Institute expects a 20% reduction in manpower and a budget cut of between 10% and 15%. In that context, MOD statistics and facts relating to UK defence are key in informing the SDSR, as well as in holding the MOD and UK Government to account.

Although it is essential that the SDSR be driven by defence, foreign and security policy priorities, it must also be relevant to consider what defence footprint there has been and what there will be in the future. I fear that the SDSR will lead to large parts of the UK having no defence infrastructure, with fewer bases, reduced units and manpower, and severely imbalanced defence spending.

There are reasons to believe that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some English regions will come off worst. That worrying prospect is supported by past regional and defence statistics issued by the Ministry of Defence. In recent years, the MOD has confirmed that more than 10,000 defence jobs have been lost in Scotland and that there has been a defence underspend in excess of £5.6 billion. The defence underspend statistics for Wales and Northern Ireland in the same period are £6.7 billion and £1.8 billion respectively. No doubt, if the MOD provided regional breakdowns for the English regions those would show that other areas have also been badly disadvantaged.

Most shocking of all in an advanced modern democracy is that the UK Government have decided that, rather than explain the impact of their policies, manpower cuts and spending disparities, they will simply stop providing the statistics. I should point out that regional and national defence statistics are available in other countries. With a mouse click, one can access such information down to state level in the United States. In Canada, a nation with close parliamentary and military links to the UK, the Department of National Defence produces similar statistics, both at provincial and constituency level. Those and other countries think that it is right and proper to confirm their employment and spending decisions, and that clearly impacts on their policy thinking. Until recently, that was also the case in the UK, where the Ministry of Defence answered questions relating to regional defence employment and regional spending.

The MOD has confirmed that there are now 10,480 fewer people employed in defence jobs in Scotland than in 1997, which amounts to 1,880 fewer services personnel and 4,600 fewer civilian jobs in addition to the loss of 4,000 jobs that were supported by defence expenditure. Those are MOD statistics. That leaves the current uniformed contingent in Scotland roughly at around 11,000, which is less per head of population than the armed forces of the Irish Republic.

A series of parliamentary questions on defence spending has, until recently, been answered by the MOD making estimates of how much it has spent in each nation of the UK. That has been broken down by service personnel costs, civilian personnel costs, equipment expenditure and non-equipment expenditure, such as utilities and maintenance, and so on.

There is a complete MOD data set from 2002 to 2008 that shows a significant and widening structural defence underspend relative to population in Scotland: it has increased from £749 million in 2002-03 to £1.259 billion in 2007-08, which represents a 68% increase in six years. Between 2002 and 2008, the underspend in Scotland totalled a mammoth £5.6 billion. Between 2005 and 2008 there was a drastic real-terms decline year on year in the defence spending in Scotland: in total, the previous Labour Government slashed defence spending by £150 million in those years. There was a 3% cut in defence spending between 2006-07 and 2007-08 in Scotland. Those are MOD statistics. Widening the statistics to include Wales and Northern Ireland, in the six years from 2002 to 2008, there was an accumulated underspend of £14.2 billion. Looking at the overall trend, in Scotland and Wales in each of the past six years the underspend figure has gone up faster than the overall budget of the MoD, highlighting a situation that is getting progressively worse, squeezing each country more each year.

Although the MOD budget has not increased every year in real terms, figures on the percentage change from 2002 to 2008 show that its budget increased by 24%, but the underspend increased by more than 50%. In each of the past five years, the amount spent in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined has been less than the UK spends overseas. Money spent overseas does not include current operations, such as Afghanistan, and the like. For example, a larger contingent of troops is stationed in Germany than is based in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

These facts are shocking and they pose problems for the MOD to answer. Hansard shows that despite numerous attempts to get Ministers and Prime Ministers to explain the underspend and jobs cuts, no explanation has been forthcoming. Instead, the MOD hit on the novel idea of simply not answering the questions any more. In 2009, tucked away in a report, the MOD confirmed that:

“Ministers have agreed that after this year (2009) the Ministry of Defence (MOD) will no longer compile national and regional employment estimates because the data do not directly support MOD policy making and operations.”

On 6 April, the then Secretary of State for Defence provided what turned out to be the last parliamentary answer on defence expenditure in Scotland. He explained:

“Since 2008 the MOD has not collected estimates of regional expenditure on equipment, non-equipment, or personnel costs as they do not directly support policy making or operations.”—[Official Report, 6 April 2010; Vol. 508, c. 1200W.]

Rather than provide the information, which is readily available in the Ministry of Defence, the decision was taken just to stop providing it. Of course, that decision was taken under the Labour Government. I hope that the rhetoric in the public pronouncements about transparency and new politics by the incoming Government is matched by their openness.

On page seven of the coalition agreement, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister say:

“we are both committed to turning old thinking on its head and developing new approaches to government. For years, politicians could argue that because they held all the information, they needed more power. But today, technological innovation has—with astonishing speed—developed the opportunity to spread information and decentralise power in a way we have never seen before. So we will extend transparency to every area of public life.”

Section 16 of that agreement, which is entitled “Government Transparency”, says:

“The Government believes that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account.... Setting government data free will bring significant economic benefits”.

Two specific commitments are mentioned. The Government say that, first:

“We will require full, online disclosure of all central government spending and contracts over £25,000”;

and secondly:

“We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.”

That is good. Given those clear, unambiguous commitments, I was delighted to hear similar claims of openness from the new Defence ministerial team during the House of Commons debate on the strategic defence and security review a few weeks ago. Hansard records that the new Armed Forces Minister, whom I welcome to the Chamber, said:

“Hon. Members—and everybody else—have the opportunity to contribute and make whatever representations they wish to make. If there are hon. Members who feel that they are under-informed, and want more information to inform representations that they might make during the review, they need only let us know. Ministers have an open-door policy, and Members are welcome to any further information that they feel they need.”

That prompted me to intervene, saying that the previous Government had provided this information and asking whether the new coalition would do so. He replied:

“Yes. Whatever information right hon. and hon. Members need in order to make representations to the review”.

I intervened to make doubly sure, asking,

“Is that a yes?”

The Minister answered unambiguously,

“That is a yes. Hon. Members need only ask for any information that they need.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 132.]

Naturally, I was delighted and impressed, and I wrote a grateful letter to the Minister. I received a reply on the same day. In the blink of an eye, he wrote:

“I regret that I may have given you a misleading impression on what information the Government can provide… I am sorry to send you what I know will be a disappointing response”.

In an instant, the Ministry of Defence reneged on its promise to the House of Commons and, by extension, the Government reneged on their coalition agreement on openness and transparency.

There are other vital clues that should make everyone who is concerned about a defence footprint across the UK examine the matter closely. Apparently, the UK Government believe that there is

“no clear defence benefit to be gained”

by collating statistics by region. Apparently, national and regional data do not directly support MOD decision making. Frankly, that is code for there being no benefit to the Government from being open, honest and transparent about their policy decisions and how they impact on the nations and regions of the UK.

In recent years, UK Governments have cut back manpower, amalgamated regiments and closed facilities in Scotland. Since the last strategic defence review, defence jobs in Scotland have been cut while numbers have risen elsewhere in the UK. A mammoth multi-billion pound defence underspend has opened up and we hear from the SDSR that serious cuts are pending. Despite Scotland having fewer airbases and aircraft than our Scandinavian neighbours of comparable size, the SDSR is considering base closures. Despite only three Army battalions being based in Scotland, there are fears that Scottish-recruited units could be further cut and barracks closed. Despite the reduction in the number of conventional naval craft to a handful of minesweepers on the Clyde, there is an option to cut them still further.

The hon. Gentleman clearly knows his material and will be aware that published Ministry of Defence statistics show the vital role that the shipbuilding and refitting industry plays in many regions in Scotland. He will know the devastating impact that cancellation of the second aircraft carrier would have on the Scottish economy. Will he join me in congratulating the Labour and Scottish National party leaderships on Fife council, who have put aside their political differences, such is the importance of the shipbuilding and refitting industry to Fife and elsewhere?

I am delighted that SNP-led Fife council and the Labour Opposition are working as colleagues, because the matter is one of concern in Fife and on the Clyde, as well as in other parts of the country where a defence footprint remains. That is all the more reason why we need as many facts and figures as possible to understand the current situation and what it might be in future. The areas that I have mentioned are not the only ones to be affected; there are also questions involving military command functions that have recently been downgraded in Scotland, and apparently a further downgrading is being considered.

A real danger in the defence review is a further geographical concentration of the UK defence footprint away from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and some English regions. Hon. Members should look where the current service headquarters are, where the main operating bases and garrisons are, where the main training facilities are, and where the defence budget is being spent, and ask whether the trend of geographic concentration will continue.

The Government may believe that they can hide the consequences of their centralising priorities and policies by refusing to publish key statistics, but it will be hard to avoid the facts on the ground. UK Governments have been content to recruit young men and women from across these islands and often to send them into harm's way. At some point soon, the MOD must ask itself whether it is acting in the interests of the whole UK. Defence policy is not just about strategic and foreign policy considerations, which must of course drive any review; it is also about the defence footprint, about where our personnel are stationed and about where defence resources are spent.

The UK Government must end the secrecy on regional and national defence statistics and the SDSR must consider the impact of its deliberations on the nations and regions of the UK. If it is good enough for other countries to do, it is good enough for the UK Government to do; if it is what is in the coalition agreement, it is what they should deliver on; and if it is what was promised in the House of Commons, it should not be reneged on.

Ministry of Defence national and regional statistics may sound a fairly obscure subject for a debate, so you can imagine my astonishment, Mr Amess, when I walked into the Chamber and found it packed to the rafters. I thought that there must have been some misunderstanding, and it was soon cleared up when hon. Members trooped out. Nevertheless, I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on raising the matter, which is clearly one about which he feels keenly. He demonstrated that the crux of the matter is not statistics. Rather it is in the size and structure of our armed forces and how we go about equipping them. The subject could hardly be more serious.

The hon. Gentleman clearly feels strongly about the matter. He has two major RAF operating bases in his constituency, and a significant number of his constituents are armed forces personnel. Clearly, he has done something to impress them at the last three elections because they continue to send him back as their MP. He has also spoken as his party’s spokesperson on defence matters. That party is, of course, the Scottish National party, and because of its pursuit of independence for Scotland comes with a certain perspective of the world. He will understand that I do not share that perspective, and as Minister for the Armed Forces, I could hardly be expected to do so.

The hon. Gentleman has spoken forcefully about the implications for Scotland of how the defence budget is spent, but I and my ministerial colleagues are more concerned with the implications for the men and women in the armed forces. Let me be absolutely clear that the purpose of the defence budget is to maintain the armed forces so that they can contribute to our nation’s security—the whole nation’s security. Every pound that the MOD spends must contribute to the security of the United Kingdom. Decisions on where personnel are based, and on which contracts are let to which firms are based fundamentally and totally on what is best for the armed forces.

I fear that the thesis that the hon. Gentleman advanced is based on a completely false premise of how defence works—for example, the idea that a variation in the number of servicemen and women permanently based in Scotland is somehow related to Scotland’s significance to our armed forces. That is simply not the case. The armed forces offer amazing opportunities to those who want to join, regardless of which part of the United Kingdom they come from. Scots may join any part of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Air Force, or the Army, and have a tremendous career. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that even joining the Royal Regiment of Scotland does not mean that a soldier will necessarily stay in Scotland.

The 4th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland is currently based at Fallingbostel in Germany. Its personnel would not appear in any statistics as being based in Scotland, but that does not lessen the battalion’s connection with Scotland, or the contribution that it makes to Scotland’s economy. Of course not. Scots serving in the various parts of the Army, the Royal Navy, or the Royal Air Force, but not necessarily based in Scotland, do not, in any sense, lessen the contribution that those Scots make to the armed forces. As the Secretary of State said recently in the House, the service personnel we meet do not care whether their comrades come from Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast or London. They are all members of the armed forces under the Crown, and proud of it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke passionately about patterns of defence spending. He referred to the defence footprint, and then alleged that there was a defence underspend in Scotland, but that is simply not the basis on which defence could possibly be organised by a Department with specific responsibility for the provision of defence of the entire realm. We have an interest in the defence footprint to some extent, but only in so far as it enables our military functions to be performed better. We must ask whether footprint is an issue in military terms, and whether it affects our ability to recruit from and defend the whole of the United Kingdom. That is the beginning and end of the Ministry of Defence’s responsibility to consider the defence footprint.

It cannot be repeated often enough that every pound of the defence budget must deliver as much as possible for the men and women of our armed forces, and through them, our national security. As Minister for the Armed Forces, I make no apologies for seeing beyond where a firm is based and looking at the overall benefit to our service personnel. It is the duty of Government to ensure that the defence budget is spent wisely, maximising the resources available to the front line and ensuring that every pound counts.

Operating at a national UK level is the only way that we will achieve the best value for money and deliver what the armed forces need. That is what matters. The hon. Gentleman seems to propose a different method of spending the defence budget. He implies that there should be a quota for each region and nation of the United Kingdom. Perhaps he thinks that a set proportion should be spent in each region; perhaps a set proportion should be spent overseas. He seems to believe in a concept of a “fair share” to be calculated per head of population, and the implication seems to be that we should do that irrespective of the capabilities that it would provide for the armed forces. Surely he does not think that that would be a wise way to allocate the defence budget? If that argument is taken to the extreme and we look at regions where there are no defence manufacturers, the logic would suggest that we should artificially stimulate the creation of a defence manufacturer.

Does the Minister understand that his arguments about making decisions based purely on defence would have more credibility in Scotland if the previous Conservative Government had not taken the Trident contract away from Rosyth and sent it to Devonport? That was not in the interests of the MOD or the taxpayer; it was about political chicanery.

I listened with interest to the opening speech from the hon. Member for Moray. His thesis seemed to be that the 13 years of the previous Labour Government had—according to the construct in his mind and his ideas about the fair divvying out of jobs and investment—counted against Scotland’s interests. It is not my role or responsibility to defend the previous Conservative Government or any decision that they made. However, if the previous Government did what the hon. Gentleman alleges, one presumes that they did it according to their best calculation of how to act in the interests of UK defence. One might not necessarily agree with each and every decision that the Government took, but they took those decisions from that perspective. The Ministry of Defence’s responsibility is the defence of the realm. Other Departments have responsibility for stimulating economic growth in different parts of the country. If hon. Members wish to form cross-governmental policies, they are welcome to do so, but that is not the purpose and locus of the Ministry of Defence. Our role is to secure the defence of the realm and to ensure that our armed forces are properly supported and equipped to carry out that function. There would be no sensible alternative way to organise our defences. Any alteration to that general approach would be a function of industrial policy.

I make no apologies for differing with the hon. Gentleman on that matter. We do not allocate money on a regional basis and it should be clear why the MOD stopped producing estimates of its regional expenditure two or three years ago. Quite simply, the estimates did not add anything to the decision-making process, given that that process was founded, fairly and squarely, on defence considerations.

The decision passed me by at the time—I make no bones about that. However, I can see no sinister motive, cover up or scramble to hide uncomfortable truths. The hon. Gentleman presents his concern as if it is part of some preconceived plot, but it seems from the time scale that the MOD had stopped gathering those statistics before it conceded the principle of a strategic defence review. The idea that one action went hand in glove with the other to mask the impact of the strategic defence review is far-fetched in the extreme. Let me return to my point: every pound counts. I readily acknowledge that those estimates may have been helpful to the hon. Gentleman in pursuing a political agenda, but they were not helpful to the Ministry of Defence in furthering decisions that had to be based on defence considerations.

The previous Administration drove down the cost of MOD head office by about 25%, which meant that the number of analytical staff in head office was reduced by a similar proportion. That was achieved by cutting some low-priority outputs, and one output deemed to have lower priority was the estimate of defence expenditure by region, and the employment dependent on that expenditure. That decision was made two or three years ago and I was not party to it, although I understand the logic behind the decision. By all accounts, the figures were difficult to produce and resource-intensive to maintain. They relied on analytical tables produced by the Office for National Statistics, which have not been updated since 1995. As I explained, that did not support the MOD’s decision making.

I have looked into how much it would cost to reintroduce the estimates, and I am told that reproducing the ONS tables would cost in the region of £150,000. Every three years or so, another £100,000 would have to be spent updating the underlying data. Additional statistical staff would have to be employed to perform regular updates at a cost of about £50,000 a year. As much as I respect the hon. Gentleman, I agree with my predecessors that one struggles to justify that expenditure as being in the interests of United Kingdom defence.

The hon. Gentleman challenged me about the exchange that we had on the Floor of the House. I have already apologised to him unreservedly, and I will do so again today. I raised a false hope and expectation that production of the figures could recommence. I understood that he was asking me to stop suppressing some information held by the Ministry, and I agreed to his request on that basis. Had he explained in large letters that he wanted to recompile figures that had ceased to be complied two or three years ago, I would have looked into the issue more seriously before replying. My impression was that the information was still held and that the previous Government had chosen, for political reasons, to suppress it. I turned to the Secretary of State for Defence and asked what he thought about it, and he replied, “He can have whatever we’ve got.” The hon. Gentleman can have whatever we have got, but we do not have what he asks for. It would cost a lot of money to get it again.

In conclusion, it would be a mistake to believe that we are singling out Scotland—I know that the hon. Gentleman feels that we are, but we are not. We are ceasing to produce such figures across the board. I would be interested to know whether he can point to any other central Government Department that goes to a lot of cost and expense to break figures down on a regional basis in that fashion. We cannot find any comparator in the ways that other Departments spend money on UK-wide projects, but if the hon. Gentleman can point to one, I will have another look. This debate should not be about competition between different parts of the UK. As far as we are concerned, it is about the security of the nation. We must spend our money on that basis, not on compiling the figures that the hon. Gentleman asks for.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).