[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Defence Committee, Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two–NATO, HC 358, and the Government response, HC 755.]
I will very likely want to impose some time limit, but I will make a judgment on that after the debate has been opened by the hon. Gentleman moving the motion. I know that he is suffering from the Westminster cold, but I very much doubt that any cold will dare to impede him. I call Mr John Baron.
I beg to move,
That this House believes that defence spending should be set to a minimum of two per cent of GDP in accordance with the UK’s NATO commitment.
Thank you for those kind words, Mr Speaker. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate and those MPs who supported the application. We live in times of heightened international tensions. We would do well to remember that the adage about defence being the first duty of Government has been forged by events, and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril. The world remains a dangerous and unstable place, and a growing number of countries that are not necessarily friendly to the west are not only rearming at an alarming rate, but becoming more assertive. We need to spend more on defence not only to better protect our interests and support key alliances, but to deter potential aggressors and ensure that we try to avoid conflict in future.
The motion calls on the Government to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, in line with our NATO commitment. Defence spending as a share of GDP has been falling in recent years, and it is widely believed that Britain will shortly fall below the 2% figure. We all know that 2% is an arbitrary figure; spending should reflect desired capability. I believe that defence spending should be much more than 2%—I suggest 3% to 4%. But the 2% figure does have symbolic value. Having lectured other NATO members about its importance, we should lead by example.
In short, we need to rediscover the political will for strong defence, and that political will transcends the political divide here. Some demons may need to be vanquished first, most notably our recent misguided military interventions, which have probably distracted us from greater dangers, but banished those demons must be. That we have the political will to ring-fence the international aid budget at 0.7% of GDP suggests that such will can be found; it is simply a question of priorities.
We have in this country, I believe, a political disconnect that needs to be put right. None of the main parties seems to question that Britain has global interests and needs to remain a global power, both to protect them and to uphold our international obligations as a member of NATO and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Yet the political establishment, across the political divide, appears unwilling properly to resource these commitments.
So why the disconnect? I can only put it down, in large part, to our misguided military interventions of the past decade, which have led some to question the value of spending on defence. These interventions have been very costly in terms of blood and treasure, and have rarely achieved their original aims, with the extent of civilian casualties and the persecution of minorities being two such examples.
While I disagree with my hon. Friend about misguided previous military engagements—I do not think that either was misguided—we did see what happens when we try to deploy troops abroad on the cheap without their being properly equipped. We lost a lot of good people because of that, and there were a lot of injuries. We should never put our people in that position again.
My hon. Friend and I may disagree about whether our interventions were misguided, but he makes a very valid point, which is that we have been intervening with increasingly marginal effect. Helmand in Afghanistan was a classic case of that. It took the Americans putting in another 20,000 troops before we pulled that situation round.
Let me return to the point about disconnect. The military interventions over the past decade have distracted us from the greater danger. Too often in these military interventions, we have failed to take the long view in favour of short-term foreign policy fixes that give rise to as many problems as they solve. A key reason is a deficit of strategic analysis at the heart of our foreign policy making, in large part because of continual underfunding—but perhaps that is a debate for another day.
There is little doubt that we went to war in Iraq on a false premise, and that we foolishly allowed the mission in Afghanistan to morph into one of nation building after we had achieved our original objective of ridding the country of al-Qaeda. Our Libyan intervention has not ended well courtesy of a vicious civil war. Speaking as someone who opposed them all, we must dispel these demons when thinking about defence more generally, because, in addition to being mistakes in themselves, these interventions have distracted us from, and blinded us to, the greater danger of traditional state-on-state threats.
For example, recent events in Ukraine reveal a resurgent Russia that is once again making its presence felt around NATO’s borders. Russian bomber aircraft and submarines have resumed their aggressive patrols, some near UK waters and airspace. The Defence Secretary correctly observed last month that Russia posed a real and current danger to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—all NATO members covered by article 5. Only by dispelling these previous intervention demons and recognising the bigger danger can we mend the political disconnect between commitments, on the one hand, and funding, on the other. It is absolutely essential that we do that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that two of the most chilling interventions in recent weeks have been, first, from the chief of staff of the American army, who said that he thought that a diminished UK defence capability would serve not alongside, but as part of, an American division; and secondly, from the Europeans, who indicated that the best deterrent against Mr Putin was a European army? Are not both those interventions extremely telling?
I can only agree with my hon. Friend. The idea that British brigades would serve within American divisions would probably have been unthinkable only 10 years ago. That is testament to the alarm in Washington, expressed—this is highly unusual—as we head into a general election. The extent of that alarm is clear for all to see.
I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the intended consequences of our misguided intervention in Iraq was that we fundamentally altered the balance of power in the region, and we have been playing catch-up ever since.
There are significant benefits to strong defence. As no one can predict with any certainty from where the next substantial threat will emerge, we require armed forces of sufficient capability and capacity to respond to any challenge. The straits of Hormuz or the South China sea may seem a long way away, but we would soon realise their importance should sea lanes become closed, given the fact that the majority of our goods and trade arrive by sea. Argentina is looking to buy sophisticated fighter jets, and that reminds us that our capacity must include the ability to act independently, if necessary.
The heft of a strong military underpins a successful foreign policy. By contrast, a shrinking defence budget threatens our ability to lead global opinion, reduces our foreign policy options and, crucially, sends the wrong message both to our allies and to potential adversaries. It is doubtful that President Putin would operate as he is now if he thought that NATO, especially the European NATO members, would robustly stand up to him. [Interruption.] That is very kind.
If I go down, hon. Members will know why.
Falling defence budgets across NATO have emboldened the Russian President, who has concluded that the heart has gone out of the alliance. This is dangerous, and it underlines the point that well-resourced and capable armed forces can, by deterring potential aggressors, make future conflict less likely. How many times have we foolishly discounted or underestimated that fact?
As we heard in the statement, the benefits of strong defence are not confined just to deterring potential aggressors. Strong armed forces can help us and others to face many of the emerging global challenges for which we need to be better prepared. Armed forces training has a wide skill base—everything from medicine and catering to construction and telecoms—and is a key component of our disaster relief capabilities, as shown by our response to the hurricane in the Philippines and the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.
That skill base will be in increasing demand because the emerging global challenges include those posed by the fact that Africa’s population will be two and a half times that of Europe’s by 2050, the reverse of the proportions in only 1950; by resource scarcity, including water scarcity, which now affects one in three people; by temperature anomalies, which increasingly affect north Africa and the middle east; by fast-emerging middle classes who question political systems that struggle to deliver the goods; and by a growing tendency, aided by social media, for social unrest. Yet it could be argued that this is happening at a time when, in large measure, the international community is failing to produce co-ordinated responses on the scale needed to meet many of the most pressing challenges facing mankind, including poverty, organised crime, conflict, disease, hunger and inequalities. All that points to the need for investment in our foreign policy making and defence capabilities not only so that we are better sighted, but so that we can retain the maximum possible number of policy options by way of response.
How are we faring? Following a strategic defence and security review driven largely by financial pressures, rather than strategic design, the current Government have markedly reduced our armed forces. Plans to replace 20,000 regular troops with 30,000 reservists have created unacceptable capability gaps in the short term and false economies in the long term. Particularly given the fact that the original idea was to hold on to the 20,000 regulars until we knew that the plan to replace them with 30,000 reservists was going to work, I suggest that it was incompetent to let 20,000 regulars march out of the door while only adding 500 to the trained strength of the Army Reserve in the two years that the plan has been in operation.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and I agree with every word he has said so far. If trends continue, all the problems that he has just identified will get worse, not better. In that context, he will surely agree that any move to cut expenditure on defence would be sheer lunacy. Clearly, we need to move in the opposite direction.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That point is best encapsulated in the recent statistic from the Library, which suggests that if the international aid budget continues to grow as it is, it will be as big as the defence budget by 2030—in only 15 years’ time. That is nonsense.
I agree that we inherited a financial shambles, as I have said many times before, but if we are prepared to ring-fence the international aid budget, it becomes a question of priorities. My point is that we need to spend more on defence and we need to reflect what is happening on the international stage: we are failing to do that.
I made the point earlier that defence spending as a percentage of GDP has been falling under this Government, but my message is not just to my own Government. There is a political disconnect between the extent of our commitments and the lack of funding that is not being recognised across the political divide. I do not hear either of the main political parties saying that we should scale back our ambitions in the world, but nor has either party made it clear that it is committed to at least 2% in the future. I personally would like to see much more than that, but everyone can see the terms of the motion.
The reservist plan has been a disaster, in my opinion, resulting in unacceptable capability gaps in the short term and false economies in the long term, as we throw yet more money at it to try to make it work. Matters are not much better in the Royal Navy, which has been reduced to a mere 19 surface ships, although a recent SDSR suggested that 30 would be more appropriate. In addition to problems with the new aircraft carrier, the lack of a replacement for Nimrod means that we are in the ridiculous situation of having no maritime patrol aircraft. We have to go cap in hand to the Americans and the French to police our waters against potentially hostile submarines. That is a ridiculous state of affairs for a country of our standing.
I agree with the point that my hon. Friend makes about maritime patrol aircraft. It is urgent if we intend to deploy aircraft carriers, which are currently being constructed and fitted out in order to come into service in a couple of years.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a valid point.
With these major shortcomings in our defence, it was alarming that a report by the Royal United Services Institute published this week suggests that the defence budget might be cut by 10% after the next election. Talk that Britain has the fifth largest defence budget—and the second largest in NATO—rings hollow when MOD reforms are cutting manpower, capabilities and the armed forces’ capacity to deploy force. Some estimates suggest that we rank 30th in the world in our ability to deploy force overseas, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) told us of the extent of the American concern about this issue.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. If we see defence cuts of another 10% after the election, another major concern will be the impact on our special forces. If we have an Army of 50,000 or 60,000, we will reduce the ability to recruit men into our special forces—currently probably the most respected in the world—and that will have a significant effect on our ability to project force.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He makes a very valid point, but time is pressing and this is a popular debate, so I will bring my remarks to a conclusion.
At the very least, the British Government should fulfil their NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Having implored fellow NATO members to reach this level at last year’s NATO summit, which we hosted, falling below this level ourselves would be a grave mistake as well as a national embarrassment. Given current levels, it would be a dangerous message to send to the Kremlin.
The past decade of questionable military interventions may have bred a reticence among the political establishment on defence. This must end. We must banish these demons and recognise the greater danger of state-on-state threats, which never really went away. It is essential that we have the capability to protect ourselves, our interests and our allies. Reassessing our defence spending should go hand in hand with a wider reappraisal of how we approach foreign policy generally. Budgets have fallen at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our key soft power institutions, such as the BBC World Service and the British Council, have suffered accordingly. This has resulted in a dilution of skills that has hindered policy making and reduced our options.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great admiration. He talks about banishing demons. There are 632 demons that we cannot banish: those who will be commemorated tomorrow; those who died as a result of terrible mistakes made in this Chamber that sent them to Helmand and Iraq. Should we not acknowledge the dreadful delusions, under which we have been operating for the past 12 years, which created those disasters, before we repeat them?
All I will say is that we can have our own opinions about those misguided interventions, or interventions generally. I do not think any of us would say that it has been the fault of the troops on the ground. They did a sterling job in their operations. If the fault lies anywhere, it is with the politicians and the generals who perhaps promised too much and delivered too little.
In closing, I call on both main parties—I do mean both main parties—to recognise their reluctance to commit to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. As an ex-solider and an MP now of 14 years, I find it difficult to believe that I am still, with others, having to try to make this case. I make no apologies for repeating that the adage about defence of the realm being the first duty of Government has been forged by events. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril. Whereas previous generations have perhaps had time to recover from such adverse situations, time may be a luxury we can no longer afford. We must learn those lessons.
I would guess that many hon. Members will make contributions about the symbolism of the 2% target and its relationship with foreign policy and so on. I will try to restrict my remarks to its utility: the purpose for it, the benefits of having the process, and some predictions—guesses may be a better word—and advice on what we might do.
The 2% of GDP NATO target can be defined in all sorts of ways, and there have been many discussions on that recently. It is largely, but not totally arbitrary. It is largely the basis on which we currently spend our money, and so it informs our current decisions. I do not want to discuss what we have done in the past, however. I want to discuss what we are going to do in the future, and why it is important as a mechanism for the future. It should not necessarily be driven by NATO or US ambitions. It should be a matter of deliberate choice for particular strategic reasons, and there should be merit to it.
That is why I want to talk about this. We need certainty with which to plan against the uncertainty, and, in my opinion, the 2% mechanism would help and perhaps provide some structure and context. The truth is that we need a threat-based assessment. No doubt, there will be a new national security strategy, but we can no longer say, “We’ll have a long war over here, and then we’ll have a short war over there. Can you lot hold on until Christmas, and then we’ll come and fight you, because we haven’t quite finished this one yet?” That world is dead. We now have a series of threats and concurrent difficulties to deal with, and they will continue to be concurrent. The way we plan against that uncertainty has changed. Our methodologies are different—there was a great example in the Ebola statement earlier. We need an integrated process, not just within the military, but across the other Departments, if we are to deploy and do this properly. That is the big discussion. I have said to boys from my constituency in the military, “I’ll tell you two things, right—buy a thermal vest and a pair of shorts, because you’ll be in Estonia in the winter and no doubt somewhere warm a bit later. You’re going to be around the place, because there are going to be concurrent reasons to be deployed in different places at different times.”
I want to set out the benefits of the 2% mechanism. We now have five procurers in the MOD: we have the three chiefs—Army, Navy and Air Force; we now have this joint command; and we still have large projects done centrally. So there are five procurement organisations. I have been involved in the many discussions about how we buy equipment, but the real question is: how do we decide what to buy in the first place? We know where the inefficiencies have been, so the managerial structures have changed and we have a different set of relationships. We have chief executives now who are chiefs of services. These are the people who are going to buy this stuff. They told the Defence Committee, “Well, we have redone the structures in the original plans you gave us”, and I said to General Nick Carter when he redid the Army one, “Well done, Nick—you’ve provided a structure that protects you from me.” What do I mean by that? I mean we have this structure—adaptive and reactive forces—and it has some utility and it could be made to work, but it will work well only if we make the right decisions about how to fund and resource it and allow it to operate properly. Currently, the chiefs are telling us, “Unless we get 1% uplift on procurement and flat real, we cannot make those resources work. If you change that, we will have to change your plans or come back with advice on how you will change them.”
There are also questions about how we build this capability. The industrial agenda is really important, but it is not as well described as it could be. It needs to be better described. The defence growth partnership is a great thing, but it concerns applied research, not the whole business of how we deal with industry. Industry needs to plan. All the contractors—whether their function is to go to war or to provide support so that we can release other people to go to war—have to be factored in and they have to plan. This mechanism could produce some rigour, some tools, a language, an understanding and some certainty with which to plan. It might then allow us to plan strategically and even come together and find this magical thing—integration—that will give us the collaboration we need and which we talk about here and on the National Security Council.
The mechanism would test all sorts of things. It would test individual capabilities too. It could go up and down—because GDP increases and decreases—so some people might say, “Well, Trident—difficult question. It’s been set aside really—it’s a given; and therefore we’re arguing about the rest of it.” The mechanism would have to test itself against all others, and the military would have to decide its continued capability and utility. Everything would be in a process of iterative, continual assessment. In the future, these processes have to be iterative; they cannot be linear, they are not binary and they will not be spasmodic.
If we do that, this is what I think will happen: we will spend 2%, we have spent 2% and we will continue to spend more than 2%. But will we do it well? Will we do it in a strategic and planned fashion? Or will we do it just because we are responding to events? The “dogs of war”, as I call them, are a clear example—all these vehicles we now have: the Jackals, the Bulldogs, the Foxhounds. They are all individually important and useful, but they all came out of what? Urgent operational requirements—that is where they came from; they did not come from any proper strategic planning process. We now have to reintegrate this legacy equipment and fit it into the discussion about future planning. You could have avoided being in that position, if you had done some things differently—not you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not blaming you personally. We could all have been in a better position if we had done those things.
On urgent operational requirements, the key is in the wording. We do not necessarily have any idea of the threats or requirements in advance. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen will suddenly be in a situation where we have to find a piece of kit to protect them better. That is the key—
Obviously, yes, we will continue to need them. I am trying to make the point that this became the process, rather than the exception to the process—it should be the exception—and the money came out of the contingency fund, not the core budget.
The budget should be 2%. As hon. Members might remember, when Labour was in Government and people said, “You should give more money to defence”, I used to say, “Well, if I was Gordon Brown, I’d say, ‘When you can spend the money I’ve given you properly, come back and ask for some more.’” That is the same debate, and it is the debate for the future. How do we plan for it properly? I think that 2% might give us a way of structuring the discussion. Spent well, the 2% could give us ways of planning and the right language, tools and transparency.
I have something to say to us in Parliament. This is probably the last time I will speak in this Parliament, so I will say something to the next one. The next Parliament will have to debate this better than we have debated it up till now. As I have said several times, we do not have structures any more and we do not discuss defence properly. We can make all the criticisms we like of other people and how well they do things, but we would do well to look at ourselves and consider how well we do them. In my opinion, the 2% could give us, if not certainty, at least some process by which to start to plan against the uncertainty, and it could enable other people to plan for themselves. For me, this is iterative; it will have to deal with the concurrence issue; and it is more than just a declaratory or arbitrary figure—it has a purpose.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) both for his service on the Defence Committee and for having set out very clearly the two central questions in the debate about defence spending: first, the focus on threat—what is the threat we face?—and secondly the fact that these threats are now concurrent.
The reason we need to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence is that the entire defence planning assumptions created in 1998 and in 2010—those in the national security strategy and strategic defence and security review, leading up to Future Force 2020—have been bypassed by events; they no longer hold. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the world has changed fundamentally, and those assumptions—this is why we cannot just tweak the NSS or be complacent about the SDSR—were essentially developed on two bases. The first was that the cold war had ended. The NSS stated again and again that the cold war had ended and that we needed to be much bolder about getting rid of cold war capacities.
The second assumption was that what we will be doing in the future is the same kind of things that were happening in 2010—primarily Afghanistan. Absolutely central to the SDSR was the idea that what we need is something called “enduring stabilisation operations”. That meant that we were planning to go into a single country—or, at most, in US planning, two countries at a time—for a very long time with a large number of troops. The concept was: Iraq and Afghanistan; 100,000 to 130,000 troops on the ground; Britain contributing 10,000 of those troops—or, in the latest Future Force 2020 structure, 6,600 troops. All our brigade structures were set up to sustain that. The idea was that we would have force structures to keep 6,600 troops on the ground for a decade.
The world has changed completely, however, and as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it has changed in two ways. First, we have a return to a threat from a conventional state with an advanced military capacity—Russia. That is a major change: it reshapes the entire assumptions from 1998 to 2010. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman also pointed out, we now have concurrent threats that are not just happening in one state at a time. General Sir Peter Wall pointed out that the basic assumption of the SDSR was for a benign security environment. We had come out of Afghanistan, and we assumed that there would not be anything looking like Afghanistan again very soon. Of course, if we look around the world, we see developments—I shall deal with them in greater detail later—in Yemen, Libya, Syria, to some extent in South Sudan and certainly in western Iraq and still in Afghanistan. We are seeing exactly the same threats, but they now happening in half a dozen countries at one time.
Let me deal briefly with this threat assumption. We need more defence spending because we need to deal with those two things: the conventional threat from Russia and the concurrent threats from all the fragile states that are currently harbouring Islamist groups, terrorist groups—groups that appear to threaten the west. Dealing with this requires imagination, new force structures and spending.
That is a fundamental point, so let me deal with it briefly. We need to work from the assumption of three things. First, we must agree that these things are threats. There is a huge debate within the civil service, where some people are beginning to say, “Perhaps failed states and terrorist groups are not really threats at all; perhaps everything we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq was mistaken, and we do not need to worry about what is happening in Libya, Iraq and Syria.” Secondly, we need to assume that Britain wants to do something and actually wishes to be a global power. There is another danger in this whole debate, with people in Whitehall saying, “Perhaps this is none of our business; perhaps these things are threats, but somebody else such as the United States will deal with those threats for us”—a freeloader problem. Thirdly and most importantly—this comes to the centre of the strategy—we need to believe that we have a doctrine that can deal with these things. We need to believe that we can deal with them and that we have the capability to engage.
I shall deal with resources needs separately. First, the threat posed by Russia’s recent actions requires serious imagination. We have had “reassurance measures”—the grisly jargon we produced in Wales, essentially to talk about setting up a high-readiness joint taskforce, about exercising in NATO at a divisional level and about air policing operations. Those things need to be resourced. It will be surprisingly difficult in practice to have that very high-readiness joint taskforce, with all its enablers in place and functioning, particularly when some of the framework nations are still insisting that they can take their forces out of that very high-readiness joint taskforce and deploy them somewhere else such as in the Central African Republic.
It is much more than that, however. This House will have heard that we need to invest. Here, however, the idea that flat real plus 1% is somehow going to be enough cannot be the case if we are serious about the threats. Let me run through some of the requirements. Maritime surveillance is an obvious one, so there is no point debating it here today. Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear capacity is another. Any Members present who were in the armed forces will remember training, walking around in NBC suits and thinking about how to deal with that kind of threat. All that capacity has gone out the window. We do not do that anymore, because we have been fighting for nearly 15 years against lightly-armed insurgents, and most of our planning was based on counter-insurgency warfare operations that did not require that kind of training.
Ballistic missile defence is a third requirement. If we are serious about taking on a country such as Russia, which has tactical nuclear weapons as part of its normal operational doctrine, we need ballistic missile defence. That will probably mean—I do not want to pre-empt procurement decisions made by the Ministry—finding some way of buying into an existing US system and persuading the US to locate it not just in continental Europe, but in the United Kingdom.
If we look at our Navy, we find that it is currently down to 19 frigates and destroyers. That is pretty radical. What we have heard in the other place from Lord Astor is that our attrition calculations are currently zero. That means that we function on the assumption that we are not going to lose any of these frigates or destroyers. Lord Astor said that we have not lost any of those things since the Falklands war, so we do not need to worry about that. Of course, the Falklands war was the last time that we were fighting a navy, so it does not provide a basis for making this sort of calculation if we are thinking about taking on Russia.
It is the same for the Royal Air Force. As we move down to just seven squadrons, our attrition calculations are again pretty close to zero. If we are serious about carriers, we need to realise that they cost a lot of money. If we are to put one carrier at sea, we need to think about how to resupply it and how to get the fuel and weapons to it. The fuel and weaponry supply vessels will be moving along at 9 knots, which poses a huge challenge to us. We need to work out where to get the money to buy the planes to put on that carrier. How can we have a comprehensive carrier strike capacity? We have not yet paid for it.
Then there is the Army. If we are thinking about manoeuvre warfare again, it amounts to a huge spending commitment. It means thinking about heavy armour and whether we want to relocate the Royal Air Force at an Army headquarters level rather than two levels up. It means wide water bridging capacity and all the things that any Members present who operated during the NATO era will be able to think of much better than me.
Then there is ambiguous warfare. If we are thinking about dealing with Russia, we are going to have to think about what to do on cyber, information operations, strategic communications; and we will need to think about whether we have the special forces capacity right the way around the edge of Russia to deal with the phenomenon of these “green men” in these insurgency operations. We need the knowledge of places such as Narva in Estonia.
That is the easy stuff. That is before we get on to the concurrent threats, mentioned by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. If we in this country take seriously the idea that we care about threats from failed states, terrorists and Islamist groups, we are going to have to think about northern Nigeria, Libya and Yemen, and we are going to have to think much more seriously about Syria and Iraq. We are going to have to think about continuing to support Afghanistan and, potentially, Pakistan, and if we do not do something about these places now as a coalition, it is just going to get worse. We will be reporting back to the House in two years’ time, and the Nigerian problem will have spread into Chad and Niger; the Libyan problem will have re-exploded back into Mali; Syria and Iraq will be destabilising Lebanon and Jordan even more profoundly than they are now.
Unfortunately, in dealing with these problems, we cannot base what we do on the Future Force 2020 structure. That was about the enduring stabilisation operations and heavy investment in counter-insurgency operations, with 100,000 people retained for a decade or more. That works if we have only one of these problems, but it simply does not work if we are dealing with a dozen of them at one time. So we need a much lighter, smarter approach to dealing with these countries. That will mean moving out of the world view of “one at a time” and not losing confidence. That is central; it cannot be about despair. It is about recognising that in Bosnia and Sierra Leone, we did these things quite well, but that if we are serious about them, we are going to have to upgrade our special forces and potentially look at—again, these are just ideas—type 2 special forces of the “green beret” type that they have in the United States. We may need to develop the idea of the Chief of the General Staff on defence engagement, but much more ambitiously, much more imaginatively and much more aggressively, including pre-posting officers into a dozen countries. We may be talking about 50 or 100 officers at a time, not about just one defence attaché covering three Baltic countries, and we may need to rethink the whole force structure that lies behind that.
I have run out of time, so let me say a few things in conclusion. I have sketched out a world which, as was made clear by the hon. Gentleman, is very different now. It is different in terms of the conventional threat, but—and this is something that we have only touched on so far—it is, above all, different in terms of the concurrent threats that are emerging from all the fragile states. We have not begun to think those through. We have not begun to consider the deep implications of the skills set, the force structures and the capacity that we would need in order to deal with those states simultaneously.
The 2% of GDP matters for several reasons. First, we can deal with these problems only as a coalition, because they are beyond the sort of problems that Britain can deal with on its own. The 2% matters because it is a way of raising the commitment of more than 20 NATO countries to matching that expenditure themselves. It is essential to keep the United States bound into the system, because it is currently spending 70% of the NATO money. The President, the chief of the United States army, and the United States ambassador to the United Nations have all made it clear that they view the 2% as a sign of seriousness and of Britain’s commitment to keep the United States involved. Above all, however, the 2% is needed because the threats are real. The world is genuinely becoming more dangerous, and Britain cannot be a freeloader.
One of the sad aspects of what I feel is happening is our growing obsession with kit. People stand up and list all the different bits of kit that we have bought, but they do not intend ever to use it. They are freeloading on the idea that Britain will never act alone, that the United States will somehow fill in all the gaps, and that therefore we do not need to be serious about what we are actually doing in countries such as Libya. The challenge to Ministers should be, “Explain how we are to deal with a situation like the one in Libya. Explain what we are going to do in Yemen and northern Nigeria. Explain how this kit will really prevent us from letting the Russians into Mariupol.” Do we care about those issues, or are we creating an isolationist world view?
That 2% of GDP will return confidence to the military. It is an increasing budget, so the military will have £1 billion a year more every year to finance imaginative ideas. They will be able to restructure our forces, invest in defence engagement rather than scrimping and saving around the edges, and give us back the confidence that we need as a nation.
We have heard three excellent speeches, and I found very little to disagree with in any of them, but perhaps I did disagree with the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) when he spoke of our “misguided” interventions. Surely it was not our interventions but the way in which we carried them through that was misguided. We generally did not carry them through with enough stamina and enough commitment to the action that we needed to take.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), who serves on the Defence Committee and who has provided us with some extraordinary insights. We have occasionally wished that we could edit some of what he said, or make it a little quicker—we ribbed him about that mercilessly at times—but I think that the whole Committee learned from his long-term, strategic way of looking at things and pulling them together.
It might have been beneficial for the entire defence team to listen to today’s debate, for, as I look around the Chamber, it seems to me that it will turn out to be a debate worth listening to. The same applied to our last debate on defence spending: every speech contributed something. Even if Ministers take in what is said by Members on both sides of the House, they do not make it clear that they are taking any notice of some of the friendly advice that is given to them. A classic example arose during Prime Minister’s Question Time, when I raised the subject of the 2% target. It was the Prime Minister who, at the Wales summit, lectured other countries and told them that they should step up to the plate. I suggested that he might just feel a tiny bit embarrassed, but all that he could come back with was some reference to the Scottish National party. Defence is not a party political issue; it is an issue for which the House has a collective responsibility. It seems that Back-Bench debates are required to bring Members together to discuss an issue that the Government ought to encourage us to talk about, but do so very rarely.
Let me return to the question of why the 2% matters. We all agree that it is an arbitrary figure, but it is part of an international commitment: it is part of article 5. Article 5 contains no mandate for a particular kind of response, but if we continue like this, we shall have no response except sanctions. We shall not be able to respond militarily except via the Americans. It is deeply irresponsible for the mainland European NATO members to keep cutting defence spending and keep telling their publics that, while their aspirations have not changed, everything will be done through much smarter methods and in co-operation, so they will continue to deliver more by investing less.
A few years ago, someone in the Pentagon described European countries as “no-good, crummy allies”. If we continue on our present trajectory, we shall join the ranks of no-good, crummy allies, and I do not want to see that day. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay spoke of national and international interests, to which I would add “national and international responsibilities”. If we wish to be a significant player in the world and to fulfil those international interests, we must possess not only capacity, but reliability and steadiness.
I do not want to repeat the speech that I made last week. My last point concerns political leadership. It is true that defence is not a vote-winner. I would not like to live in a country where people demonstrate in the streets, demanding more weapons and military action. It is in the nature of our people to want peace, but the leaders must show that they are responsive to the needs of the defence of the realm, and are conscious of their international responsibilities.
The hon. Lady is making some characteristically wise observations, and I think we all agree about the 2%. Surely, however, leadership is not just about calling on all NATO members to match that 2%, but about calling for effective use of that money. Many people feel that if the 2% is not spent wisely, it is not really the end of the story. We need to be sure that it is being spent properly.
The hon. Gentleman is right: it must be spent properly. The 2% commitment sends signals, and gives the services and the supply chain certainly, about what is going to happen. It is no good trying to massage the figures and suddenly include war pensions in order to arrive at the 2% figure, because that would render it absolutely meaningless.
I said that I would be brief. Let me end by saying that the 2% is part of our North Atlantic treaty commitment, because part of our commitment is to a capacity that will enable us to respond to an article 5 threat. It is up to all parties in the House—and, in particular, Front Benchers—to show leadership, so that we can bring our voters with us in relation to our commitment. Without leadership, that simply will not happen.
I strongly agree with what has just been said by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). I also pay particular tribute to the impressive and remarkable speech that we heard from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who explained the practical implications of our situation in a very detailed and convincing way. I shall not repeat the points that he made, because they were made so well by him.
Let me begin by emphasising that this debate is not just about defence expenditure, but something far wider. If we continue to make cuts in our defence budget of the kind that are being contemplated, we shall find that we are making a profound and irreversible change not just to our defence capability, but to the ability of the United Kingdom to conduct a global foreign policy with authority, conviction and credibility. That, in essence, is the fundamental choice that we are being asked to contemplate.
We have had these cuts over a number of years. I have not until now criticised the Government for their defence cuts over the five years of this Parliament, for several reasons. First, I have recognised—as have most of us—that in a period of great austerity it is of course impossible to remove the contribution that the Ministry of Defence, given the size of its budget, might be able to make to resolving matters. I was privileged to serve as Secretary of State for Defence, and I had to implement defence cuts myself, so I am very conscious of the pressures that exist, and the need to try to find a way of resolving them.
My hon. Friend helps to take me to exactly the next point I was going to make. What also enabled me to modify my concerns—to not feel the need to speak out during those few years—was the way in which the MOD addressed the difficult decisions it had to make. To a considerable extent, it tried to preserve the major improvements to our overall capability —our carrier capability, for example, and the need to renew the Trident submarines because of our strategic requirements. A lot of the reductions were made in the areas of manpower. That is painful and difficult, but the reality is that if we had cancelled the carriers, they could never have been reintroduced. That would be gone for ever, with profound and permanent impacts on our maritime capability. When we reduce Army manpower, it is painful, but the changes can be reversed, if the resources are available and the need is there, over not too long a period. That will still be difficult, but it can be done without the implications that come from a major reduction in capability.
Perhaps the most important thing that reassured me—rightly, I hope—over the last five years was the clear assurance that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave that once we had resolved the immediate economic crisis, and had economic growth and economic development, there would be, as an absolute necessity, real-terms increases, year on year, in our defence expenditure. That was, so far as anything can seem to be a commitment, a commitment at the very highest levels of our Government five years ago, and we have been told ever since that that remains the Prime Minister’s view.
We face a most extraordinary situation. The Government say—I happen to agree with them—that the United Kingdom is going through a period of remarkable economic recovery. We are now one of the strongest economies in Europe, we are told; our economic growth is now higher than that of almost any other country in Europe, and our employment situation has improved. All these economic developments, which will rightly be very important in the forthcoming general election, are being shown as examples of how we have succeeded in our strategy, and how the UK is therefore stronger than many other countries in the western world. Yet ironically, simultaneously, precisely because our GDP is growing substantially, meeting that 2% requirement becomes that much more difficult, if not unattainable. It is a great irony that the more our economy improves, the more we seem likely to fall below the 2% requirement, when the reverse should be the case: if our economy is growing and doing well, it should be easier to find the resources required, because the revenues coming into Government will also increase considerably. That irony is not one that I have yet heard explained.
I hope that when the Minister winds up, he can reassure us on how we will benefit from the remarkable economic growth for which we are taking the credit. We certainly did not expect increases in defence spending when the economy was in a mess. Now it seems to be much healthier. I recognise that the budget deficit continues, but that is only part of the overall economic situation.
Something else worries me, too, and it has been mentioned by colleagues and those outside this House. Of course this 2% is a nominal figure, a totem, and it is the real resources that are important, but I find it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile a cavalier approach towards the 2% objective, which we have held for many years, with saying that overseas development is somehow untouchable, and indeed may have to be given statutory protection in the current economic circumstances. Indeed, it now has statutory protection of a kind that I find extraordinary. These are very curious situations.
The consequence of what is happening, particularly if it continues after the general election, will be not just pain for our armed forces and their capability, but an irreversible change to Britain’s ability to conduct a credible foreign policy. After the United States, our armed forces and those of France are unique around the world. We are the only other two countries that have been able to make a meaningful contribution—albeit that we come far behind the United States—to providing a global deployment of armed forces to assist with overall issues of global security. Our role and credibility in the Security Council of the United Nations as not just a member, but a permanent member, is because of our ability to contribute towards security. That is what the Security Council is all about.
Our foreign policy is conducted on the basis of three assets that we have: first, of course, our diplomatic capability, which is impressive, although it has been under considerable strain in recent years; secondly, our intelligence capability, which is strong, and I pay credit to the Government for the resources provided there; and, thirdly, our military capability. The UK’s military capability is in a serious condition, of a kind that we are all familiar with, and that has an impact on our diplomatic credibility.
I read some years ago a remark that I have used since—colleagues may have heard me use it. It is attributed to Frederick the Great: “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” That remains true, not because we will necessarily always wish to use our armed forces, but because if we are pursuing, with good faith, a desire to develop a political and diplomatic solution to some intractable problem—there is a perfect example in our relations with Russia and Mr Putin at present—the fact that we have as the ultimate back-stop a military capability has a significant and profound impact on the likelihood of our delivering the result that we are trying to obtain. However, if we are seen as once having had that military capability, but as having opted, as a deliberate act of Government policy, to reduce that capability so that it remains significant but is not in any profound sense impressive, we will have seriously reduced our diplomatic clout and made the ultimate problem that much greater.
It is always dangerous to draw comparisons with the 1930s, but we know perfectly well that those in Berlin who were planning aggression believed that the western democracies were incapable of providing the resources required for a strong defence, and that influenced their foreign policy. I am not saying that the threats that we face today are of that order, or that the individuals concerned are comparable to the people who led Germany at that time—of course that would be unfair—but the fundamental principle is nevertheless the same.
What I beg of the Government, or any Government who emerge after the general election, is that they do not ask the facile question, “Does this win votes? Are the public demanding it? Is this therefore something we must respond to, or it will hurt us politically?” If a Government have one justification in a democratic society, it is that they do not just follow, or seek to follow, public opinion, but occasionally recognise the need to lead public opinion, and to take decisions that may involve painful choices, and that may be difficult in terms of newspaper headlines, but may have profound and beneficial impacts on our ability to make our contribution to sorting out some of the problems of the world.
Looking around the world, there are very few countries indeed that combine strong democratic institutions, genuine respect for the rule of law, and a military capability that can help build up security, restore peace and achieve the global objectives with which this country has always been proud to be associated. Let it not be the legacy of this Government, or any Government who emerge after this election, that we can no longer say that or make that contribution, not because the public rejected the idea, but because politicians failed to provide the right level of leadership.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. I commend all who have spoken, especially the Chair of the Select Committee on Defence, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). I have the privilege of being a member of the Committee but do not attend as often as I might like because of other commitments back home in Northern Ireland to do with the peace process, but what he said made a lot of sense. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), vice-Chair of the Committee, made an excellent contribution, too. It has been a pleasure to serve on the Committee during this Parliament. The work that it has done has been of real value, and when a cross-party Committee of this nature comes together and says clearly to the Government that a minimum of 2% of GDP should be allotted to defence spending, the Government should listen to the wisdom of that Committee. We look at these issues week in and week out, taking evidence and examining all the facts.
Judging by what I have heard today, there is a high degree of support for the need to get on with the task of strengthening our armed forces and the United Kingdom’s defences, especially in the light of our improved economic conditions. Other speakers have rightly said that the world around us is changing, as is the nature of the threat against the United Kingdom and our allies. That threat emerges in various locations, and our capacity is being spread and stretched. I know that there are plans to enhance and improve our armed forces, but we believe that it will be critical for the incoming Government to make a clear commitment to spending 2% of our GDP on defence.
I shall go further than that. I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said about the debate not being party political, and I entirely accept that. However, the Democratic Unionists are a small regional party in this Parliament and we might have some influence over who forms the next Government. Let me therefore place clearly on record, so that there can be no doubt, and so that this does not become a bargaining chip—it will not—that we will only support a Government of this nation who make the commitment to a minimum of 2% of GDP being spent on defence. That is not a party political comment; it is simply something that we believe to be important.
We have been accused in the past of focusing our interest narrowly on Northern Ireland. It has been said that when it comes to negotiating with coalition Governments or in confidence and supply arrangements, we will always be there with the begging bowl on behalf of Northern Ireland, but that is not the case. We have spelled out today certain key areas on which we want the next Government to make commitments on national issues. We are focusing on the national need and what is in the interests of the United Kingdom, and right at the top of that list are the defence and security of this nation and the need for a commitment to 2% of our national income being spent on defence. I agree that it is not enough just to make that commitment, and that it needs to be made clear how the money will be spent. It must be spent wisely and it must be prioritised towards the areas in which it is required.
Looking at the world around us, we see that we have two aircraft carriers under construction. The Queen Elizabeth is now being fitted out and the Prince of Wales is being built. There must be certainty that both ships will be brought into service and properly equipped with airframes and aircraft. We need a credible carrier force. That will be an essential component of our defence strategy’s capacity and global reach, not only in defending this nation’s security but in providing security to our allies. That needs to be a priority.
If I may say so, one of the mistakes that this Government made was to scrap our surveillance aircraft and to cut up the Nimrod aircraft. That was frankly an act of madness. We now have Russian aircraft flying around the coastline of the United Kingdom but we do not have the capacity to deal with it properly. We need to do something about that. That is an area of our armed forces that could, with extra expenditure, be re-equipped, to enable surveillance globally but particularly around the shores of the United Kingdom. The British Isles need defending—they need watching in the most literal sense—but our maritime surveillance capabilities are currently well below par. Vladimir Putin respects force, and we need to respect it too. We need to be able to show that we as a nation have the military capacity to defend ourselves against any possible attack.
Beyond equipment, we need to get the strategy right. Many Members have already referred to the strategic defence and security review. I stated in an earlier debate that we needed to bring forward that review, but in any event it is clear that the current SDSR is not fit for purpose, because the world has changed and things have moved on. It is therefore essential that we get the next SDSR absolutely right. We will need to know why and on what the 2% of national income will be spent, and to set that in the context of our strategic needs and defence requirements. That is not just some marketing commitment to be waved around as a policy commitment during the election. We need to know exactly what the policy will mean in terms of the numbers, what the money will be spent on, and what our strategic requirements are for national defence and security.
Beyond capabilities and strategy, we have to consider the daily needs of the men and women who serve in our armed forces. I get worried when I see the provision of housing and catering for our armed forces personnel, because decisions on these matters are often taken on the basis of the lowest tender that comes into the Department. I have had many complaints from members of the armed forces about the quality of the services that are put in place to support them. We need to improve on that. It should not always be about the lowest tender.
I am listening intently to the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech. Does he agree that we do not give sufficient consideration to the funding for treating those who have been wounded once they return to this country? Does he acknowledge how much our armed forces have to rely on charity to take care of those who have been wounded, both physically and mentally?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The military charities play an important role in supporting our veterans, but the military covenant must mean something and it must be real. I still meet too many armed forces veterans who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have been abandoned after a number of years. That applies particularly to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sadly, as a result of Operation Banner being conducted in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years, we have a large number of ex-security force and ex-military personnel suffering from PTSD, and recent research has shown that the number is growing. The armed forces charities are really struggling to support those personnel, and more needs to be done. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that if we are going to increase our spending we should ensure that our veterans, especially those who have been injured on operational deployment, get the support, care and treatment that they need, and that they can continue to do so.
Specifically on injured service personnel, I would like to give the House just one example of how we have tried to do better. We managed to get £6.5 million from the Treasury special reserve, with the Treasury’s full approval, to provide the latest generation of prosthetics—the so-called geniums, or what The Sun describes as “bionic” legs—for our wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. They set the world standard in prosthetics. We spent £6.5 million of taxpayers’ money—which no one would object to—to give our wounded service personnel the best that money could buy.
I appreciate that. I have the greatest respect for the Minister and I know from our conversations how deeply and strongly he feels about supporting those who have served in our armed forces. I take on board the point that he has made. My concern, however, is for those who are beyond that point, particularly those who are suffering from mental trauma. There is a need to do more to support those members of our armed forces. We need to support, through infrastructure, those who serve our nation.
I want to conclude by mentioning the reserve forces. We have put a lot of emphasis on their work and there is an urgent need to embed more regular personnel into the reserve forces to help with the training regime there, so that they are better trained and so that we improve the levels of manpower retention. As Ministers know, we have been very successful in Northern Ireland in our recruitment capacity. Many of our units are already fully recruited and we want to build on that work.
I welcome this debate. The Chancellor recently said:
“We can afford whatever it takes to provide adequate security. Defence comes first.”
If in the next Parliament my party is called upon to support a Government, that Government will need to be one who mean just what the Chancellor said.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not sure whether to call you colonel on this occasion.
I, like others, have been greatly impressed by the quality of the debate so far. I agree with much of what has been said, but let me pick up on a couple of points. First, it is right to say that defence does not win votes, but poor defence can certainly lose them if the public form the view that we are not fulfilling our primary objective—their protection. Secondly, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) made an extremely eloquent speech, but I say to him that there was no option but to abandon the maritime patrol aircraft. The original decision to go with Nimrod was questioned by the Defence Committee at the time. Other alternatives were available, for example, the P-3 Orion, but the decision was taken, I believe by Mr Secretary Portillo, that Nimrod it should be. A final irony was that Nimrod, the mighty hunter, never actually fulfilled his responsibility.
Let us consider the following:
“The Ministry of Defence is being led by the nose by the Treasury towards reductions in Britain’s armed forces which have no rational basis”.
The House will not recognise that quotation, and neither did I until the BBC drew to my attention, in an article written for its website, that in my capacity as defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in August 1991 I had said just that. I do not introduce that to offer some support for the view that I am wise; I do so to point out that nothing seems to have changed. My proposition was put rather more pithily by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who said that after four years as Minister of State for the Armed Forces he formed the clear view that the enemy was not the Russians, but the Treasury.
Some things have changed, though, and the point has been made by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard). When I first came into this House and took an interest in these matters, we had five days of the parliamentary year to consider defence. We had a two-day debate on the annual White Paper at the beginning of October, and then each of the services had a single day of discussion devoted to them. When the three service days were amalgamated we were confidently assured that it would not result in fewer opportunities to hold the Government to account—people can form their own view about the value of that assurance.
I have been through it all: “Options for Change”; Front Line First; and Labour’s so-called defence review of 1998. That came closest of all to being a proper defence review, except for one thing: Labour refused to publish its foreign policy baseline attributes or intentions. As a consequence, what was otherwise a first-class exercise, with consultation the length and breadth of the country, driven by the then Secretary of State, now Lord Robertson, and with Lord Reid, as he now is, a very important part of it, that was the closest we have come to a defence review. We have not, even in this Parliament, had a defence review. It is an open secret that in 2010 the MOD was told, “Here is a metaphorical envelope containing money. Go away and find a defence policy that fits that sum of money.”
It is a fact that in spring 2010 the Labour Government produced a Green Paper, which would have fed into the defence—[Interruption.] What happened afterwards was what the Conservatives did with it, but we did produce the Green Paper to start the process.
The hon. Gentleman is right about that. I know a bit about this because I was invited by the then Defence Secretary to be part of the group of politicians, of all parties, who participated in debates with officials as to what should be in the Green Paper.
A defence review is not a hugely impossible concept to understand. What one needs to do is set out one’s foreign policy objectives; decide what military resources are necessary to fulfil those objectives; and then allocate the financial resources necessary to provide the military capability. We have not had a defence review that fulfils those three principles in all the time I have been in the House of Commons.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney made a sound point when he said that 2% cannot be described as a panacea for all the ills of defence. If 2% is to be spent, it must be spent wisely. We do not have to go far in Europe to see that several of our allies spend money, perhaps getting up towards 2%—there are not enough of those countries—which could much more readily be spent otherwise. For example, it could be spent on a greater amount of interoperability, force specialisation and such things. There is no point Mr Juncker talking about a European defence policy when European states have not yet properly fulfilled their responsibilities to NATO, of which almost all of them are members.
May I take the right hon. and learned Gentleman back a little to the defence and security review? We can have a defence review and we can have a security review, or we can have an integrated process that looks at the whole business of future resilience, which I think is what he is suggesting we have not done and are not doing now. Does he think that when the new Parliament forms, the circumstances will be such that the current budgets for defence might be maintained in order to allow time for a proper, integrated assessment of defence and security, possibly in the next calendar year, if not this one?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very sound point. I am sorry that I cannot give any commitments in relation to the next Parliament, as I shall not be here, but as a spectator outside I shall firmly cling to the view that a proper, full-scale defence review of the kind I have described, and with which he agrees, is necessary if we are to provide ourselves with the proper defences for the foreseeable future.
The situation is worse than I have described, in a way. Not only is the 2% a public commitment, but it was restated at Celtic Manor during the NATO summit and in the final communiqué from that summit. Of course, it is also one that the British Government have been at pains to emphasise to other allies. How are we going to explain away the fact that in recent months, even years, we have been complaining about the level of defence expenditure of other allies yet we are about to breach the very standard we signed up to and advocated only a few months ago? It is a bit worse than that, too, because we know that the possibility that we should fall below 2% has caused great anxiety, particularly in the United States, which is our closely military ally. Senior official after senior official has made exactly that point.
I have another source of embarrassment: in about 10 days’ time, the United Kingdom delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which I have the honour to lead, will be the hosts of the Standing Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. We have in the past 12 months, with the encouragement of Ministers, sought to persuade the other members of the Assembly of the importance of the 2% figure. We will look rather embarrassed in 10 days if the consequences of the actions that appear to be taken in this country are that we will fall below the very figure which we have been advocating and on which we have been seeking to hold the feet of others to the fire.
Let me finish by saying this: if we do not have sufficient defence—and 2% may not be enough—we will diminish our capability, we will reduce our influence and we will limit the options of government. We cannot afford any of those.
When the cold war ended in the early 1990s, the established view was that there would be a peace dividend. Defence spending would decline as countries spent money on initiatives that would create peace and stability rather than on arms. Russia was expected to become a fully integrated member of the international community; deadlock in the UN Security Council would become a thing of the past; and Russia would engage productively with its European neighbours. There was even talk of it joining NATO.
Those aspirations have since dissolved, and the illusion that we live in relative peace has now been lifted. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) painted a very good picture of this new insecurity in the world. The most pressing concern is the continued ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish his dominance over eastern Europe. His tactics go beyond conventional warfare. Using subversive tactics such as political destabilisation, informal military units, information warfare and energy blockades, he has destabilised and partly occupied Ukraine. We saw such tactics for the first time in the 2008 Georgian war in which, under the pretext of aiding Russian citizens, he annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We have now seen him do the same with Crimea and large parts of eastern Ukraine.
Russia seeks to flex its military muscles across the whole of Europe, as we have seen recently with the incursion into our airspace by Russian bombers. That is not the first time that that has happened and it will not be the last. In 2013 and 2014, there were eight similar incidents of Russian military aircraft invading UK airspace.
Aside from Russia, we are also once again faced with the threat of the spread of nuclear weapons and the question of nuclear proliferation. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted three nuclear weapons tests, and Iran, while at the negotiating table, continues to work on its nuclear weapons programme.
International terrorism has taken on a new form with the rise of Islamic State, which, every day, conducts grotesque, barbaric and despicable acts. Now is certainly not the time for Britain to shirk its responsibilities. After all, we pride ourselves on being a world power. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a member of the European Union and a member of NATO, we should make a minimum 2% GDP commitment to defence. Listening to the debate today, I get the impression that one or two Members think that 2% of GDP is a target, but it is not; it is a floor below which spending should not drop.
I was not aware of that fact, but I totally concur with the idea of spending anything up to 5%. As I said, 2% should be considered the floor. I am very concerned that some of our NATO and European partners are not getting anywhere near that figure. How can it be argued that we should shut our doors to Europe and, at the same time, commit to working closer with European nations if we cannot work together to reach at least that 2% figure?
The recent report by the Royal United Services Institute says that the strength of our Army, Navy and Air Force could fall from 145,000 to 115,000 by 2020, which is a 26% decline. If we follow that trajectory, we could face a situation in which our armed forces numbers drop below 100,000. If we consider that Wembley stadium can accommodate 90,000 people, our entire armed forces might soon be able to fit into the stadium, which does not bear thinking about. There are also around 92,000 people currently in prison in Britain. We could well end up with more people incarcerated than in our armed forces.
This country has always had a powerful air force. We have always built and supplied the best military aircraft in the world, from the Harrier to the Typhoon. Yet air support today accounts for only £13.8 billion of our £162.9 billion defence budget, which is 8.8%. The numbers of RAF servicemen have been continually cut over the past few years. There are 8,810 fewer servicemen in the RAF in 2015 than there were in 2010, which is a decline of nearly 25%. That is despite the fact that limited military intervention via the deployment of aircraft for bombing campaigns has once again become the norm. We saw that in Libya and we now see it in Iraq where Tornadoes and Reaper drones have flown 374 missions and released 206 weapons against ISIL targets.
That is the point I am making. As I have said, we may soon be in a position where all our defence forces will fit into a football stadium and where our prison population will outnumber our military personnel.
The technological edge that we have in military aerospace has created huge dividends for our economy and is an indispensable part of our economic infrastructure. That is particularly evident in my region in the north-west of England where BAE Systems employs around 15,000 people at sites in Lancashire, Cumbria and Cheshire. Some 10,000 people, including many of my constituents, make military jets at Samlesbury and Warton just outside Preston, which means a great deal for the local economy. BAE Systems currently trains 264 apprentices across those sites and young people are trained to use the high-technology equipment and to develop engineering skills that will secure them permanent jobs into the future.
To maintain our existing military air superiority, our priority is twofold: the upgrading of the existing Typhoon fleet and the purchasing of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighters. The upgrading of our Typhoon fleet has to be of the upmost importance. Our RAF pilots currently rely on our ageing fleet of Tornado GR4 bombers to conduct missions against ISIL positions in Iraq. That is because of delays to the RAF's upgrade programme for the Typhoon fleet, principally caused by the lack of funding available for the new equipment.
The next UK Government will decide the size of our new fleet of F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighters. So far, the Government have approved the purchase of 14 aircraft to provide the first operational squadron, plus four aircraft for testing and training. The current cost of their development is more than £5 billion and their completion is vital for our economy and the future of our security. The next Government must commit to offering clarity over the size of our F-35 fleet and a timetable for its completion.
There can be no doubt that the future security of Europe should be our main priority. Irrespective of whether we are in the EU, Britain will always be a European power and an internationally strong mid-league military power. The threats to European security are threats to Britain’s security. We must maintain our technological edge. Technological advancements and investment in skills not only have a direct spin off into other industries in our economy, but support thousands of independent small to medium-sized businesses in the supply chain.
The key to security for the future is our mastery of technology and our ability to stay one step ahead. We see that now with the development of unmanned aerial vehicles. We are leading the way with projects such as BAE Systems Taranis stealth attack drone, which is part of an Anglo-French project to develop unmanned capability by pooling technology from each nation’s work so far. In November 2014, a £120 million contract was awarded to six industry partners across the UK and France to invest in the development of future unmanned combat aerial vehicle technology.
A commitment from the next Government in the strategic defence spending review for the next generation of drones would reinvigorate our domestic aerospace industry. Without it, says one BAE senior executive, there will be no UK aerospace industry to speak of in the future. Our military aerospace industry is a source of jobs, skills and pride for many in this country. It is an area where, technologically, we are leading the way. I fear that, if our spending commitment falls below 2%, we could put many of these skills and jobs in jeopardy, not to mention our national security. Therefore, I strongly believe that the next Government, whichever colour they are, should commit to meeting that target and going beyond it. We cannot put too high a price on our security. Our security must come first.
As for others who have spoken in this debate, it is likely that this will be my last debate in Parliament. I am glad that it is on defence—the defining purpose of the state and of Parliament. I will seek not to repeat what others have said, but I want to say this. We have no more important role than to keep those who elect us safe from our enemies. This view is not as popular as it was. Elections, we are told, are not won and lost on defence; there are no votes in defence. I am not so sure. If the political establishment is seen to be playing fast and loose with our security, we will all pay a heavy price in further disillusionment and alienation.
The 2% NATO floor or target, to which we are all politically and morally committed, is the minimum that we should spend, yet it is far from safe. I do not generally favour targets for spending of any kind, and I certainly do not favour writing them into law, but the unavoidable truth is that if we are to achieve our current objectives, spending of that order is needed. I understand the scope for increased efficiency in the area of human activity; indeed the increased sophistication of the technology behind military equipment enables us to do more with less, which means that fewer people are needed to deliver the same effect than even a decade ago.
A Type 45 destroyer is considerably more capable than the Type 42 that it replaces and needs a smaller crew. And there are opportunities to do more with less. That is one of the purposes of the UK-French defence relationship. The application of the whole force concept could increase the effect and efficiency of defence. So our debate about national security must not lapse into sentimentality. It is not sentimental to speak up for defence. I want to do so by addressing three things—the financial background, the fact that defence is a long-term game and the threat to essential investment in science and technology.
The Chancellor is right to say that strong defence depends on a strong economy. That is why as a Minister in 2010, I swallowed hard and accepted significant cuts to defence capabilities, even though they led to some very challenging gaps in capability. But for a trading nation like ours, the protection of the sea lanes and the maintenance of an open rules-based trading system are crucial. So a strong economy also depends on strong defence. Prosperity is built on peace. The urgent question to both Front-Bench teams today is this. The funding post-2015 that is needed just to achieve Future Force 2020 is based on a 1% per annum increase in the equipment budget and flat real for the non-equipment budget. That is what the chiefs of staff and Ministers were promised at the time. So will Ministers and shadow Ministers commit today to both the equipment and non-equipment figures that we were promised?
The commitment on the equipment budget made only by my party is welcome. There is a long list of very important capabilities, but it is not enough on its own. The significant cuts that appear to be pencilled in for current expenditure—RDEL, or resource departmental expenditure limit—are deeply worrying. I commend Professor Malcolm Chalmers excellent paper, “Mind the gap; the MOD’s emerging budgetary challenge.” It is an objective, factual assessment of the cost pressures facing defence. I doubt that the Minister can offer reasons to disagree with any of its deeply worrying conclusions, but even in the optimistic scenario that Professor Chalmers outlines, under which defence is given the same protection as health and education, those cost pressures would still force a total cut of 8.7% over the next 10 years—about £35 billion in total.
If further cuts are to be made, they would sadly have to be based on a refreshed and less ambitious strategic approach. The decisions in the 2015 review, then, could redefine Britain’s role in the world. There are other strategies, depending more on diplomacy, soft power and development assistance, for example. They are all vital components of our national security, but are they credible without strong defences too? No. Not when, for the first time since the cold war, Europe faces a real military threat on its borders. The world is more dangerous than it has been for decades.
In some ways, though, the 2015 SDSR will be easier than the last one. Crucially, a major programme of reform has rebuilt the MOD’s credibility, and its performance on equipment acquisition has been transformed. From both the industrial and security perspectives, the 2010 SDSR succeeded in protecting the very special US-UK defence relationship, but will this last? President Obama, the US Chief of Staff and the US ambassador to the UN have all warned us and are sending us a clear message about what they fear is the future of UK defence spending.
So to my second theme—the need to take long-term decisions to protect our operational advantage and our freedom of action. In layman’s terms, that means making sure that we have superior capabilities to our enemies and that we can use them and sustain them whenever we want to. At the heart of this for me is the alarming engineering skills shortage that we face as a nation, especially in defence. This is the area of the 2012 White Paper on defence acquisition, to which I put my name, with which I am least satisfied. The ingredients were all there, but the urgency of the issue was not properly articulated and opportunities were missed. Crucially, commentators did not understand what the White Paper said. It made it clear that
“We will take action to protect our operational advantages and freedom of action, but only where this is essential for national security.”
Here is the commitment to invest in what industry calls the body of knowledge essential to sustain capabilities in the long terms. We cannot protect all the skills and capabilities that we need and would like to on current budgets, but there are areas of capability that we simply must invest in to sustain our security. Short-term budget cuts make this White Paper promise, which is essential to our security, impossible to deliver, with serious long-term consequences.
My third theme is the priority that we must attach to sustaining investment in technology. The centrality of research investment to UK national security takes on greater significance in a new global security context—a context defined by state fragmentation, asymmetric threats and technology proliferation. Belligerent non-state actors are increasingly using technology to counter the traditional technological advantage of conventional military and security forces. Since the end of the cold war, we have seen widespread development of technology by commercial organisations and individuals driven by a consumer society and business sector hungry for tomorrow’s technology today. This has lowered the bar for entry to conflict, espionage, terrorism and serious and organised crime, meaning that there are far more threats out there now than there were. As a result “conflict” will be far less predictable than we have seen before. It simply will not conform to set-piece scenarios in the same way that the west planned for in the last century or in the last SDSR.
If we are not committing to investing a realistic amount in science and technology, I see several things happening. First, we will become less relevant to our key strategic allies—the United States and France. Secondly, we will miss the opportunities to build capability by adapting the best of the commercial and international technology sector because we simply will not know what the cutting edge looks like. Thirdly, we will cease to act as an intelligent client. How do you know what you are buying if you do not know what good looks like? Fourthly, we will be unable to evolve during a conflict. This is potentially the most serious if we cannot defeat the novel threats deployed against us.
If the 2015 SDSR correctly prioritises science and technology, logically the MOD must spend more on it.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. The Defence Committee in reports in this Parliament and the previous Parliament has talked about the MOD devoting 2% of the money that it has to S and T as well as R and D so that such spending is structured into budgets.
I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more strongly. That is the precise figure that I have in mind for the level of resources from the defence budget that should be spent on S and T. It was 2.6% under the previous Government, but it declined under them to 1.2%. The White Paper on technology put a floor under it of 1.2%. It is far too low a floor, and what is more, as defence budgets have shrunk, the sum being spent has gone down too. It is only a third higher than what the Department for International Development now spends on research. Two per cent. is the bare minimum, of rising budgets as well. The trouble is that the Department sees S and T as the cash cow of the spending round. It is a resource that is easily cut because contracts are short term, but the consequences for our security are devastating.
If cuts to revenue spending happen, the science and technology budget will go straight back into the firing line of the Treasury and the bean counters of the MOD. We must not let that happen. Maintaining operational advantage is a race against time to take innovation from the lab and into the battle-space.
Our partners envy our ability to do more with less. Key to this is understanding the operational advantage of technology and moving it quickly into the hands of the military. As Bernard Gray, Chief of Defence Matériel, put it recently,
“The key question is, of all the desirable things in the world, which are the ones you can afford?”
But the country can afford more, as it should choose to do. In the end, this is not about votes, it is about leadership. We must all in this place do everything we can to sustain the national understanding that we maintain peace through strength, not weakness. That is why it is imperative that the next SDSR is well argued, persuasive and properly funded, and why all the political leaders of our nation must show their deep personal commitment to this outcome.
After every major conflict we have cut defence and regretted it. The Crimean war, the first world war, the second world war, the cold war—cut and regret, cut and regret, cut and regret, cut and regret. As Hegel said,
“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
In 2015 we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the foundation of our freedoms, Magna Carta, and the 750th anniversary of the beginning of our representative democracy and Simon de Montfort. It would be depressingly ironic if in 2015 of all years a timid Parliament, an intellectually feeble SDSR and another round of austerity combined further to weaken our defences and threaten our freedoms at such a dangerous moment in world history.
It is a happy coincidence that this debate follows the statement on the Ebola crisis and what will be a magnificent page in the history of the armed forces and government. I believe that we have performed splendidly there, with great courage and with great professionalism, and it is what we do best. We also have a great deal to be proud of in the military intervention in the same country—Sierra Leone—and in other countries and in Bosnia. We are very good at humanitarian work, and that is what our role should be.
I would be happy to see 2% being spent if we reshaped our Army to concentrate on what will be the real problems of the world, not on repeating all the divisions of past centuries and the tribal wars between nations, and accepted what the real challenges are for the future. They are mostly environmental. They are the shortage of clean water—a challenge for us all—and all the other environmental tasks that will probably overwhelm us because the future is one in which we should see ourselves not as groups who are plotting against one another and carrying on traditional wars, but as one human family whose future is in deadly peril from various sources.
We are carrying out this debate again with a sense of delusion. We are talking as we could have done 100 years ago or 50 years ago. The 2% Newport pledge was agreed in my constituency, not that the Government were very keen to see me at the summit. I think that the 30 foot wall around it was intended more to keep me out than anyone else. They would not have welcomed my views there, but it had an element of pantomime and farce. How many of the 28 countries will spend up to 2%? Well, I will tell the House: none. How many of the 28 countries will get nuclear weapons. Twenty-five of them are without nuclear weapons at the moment. There will still be 25 in the future. It is all a bit of window dressing and it is fairly meaningless.
What we should be doing, before we decide on continuing to repeat the errors of the past and celebrating them, is looking at the mistakes that we have made in the House. It was not that long ago when we were told that we had to go to war to eliminate non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We were also told that we had to intervene in Helmand to protect our streets in Britain from a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat. About 18 months ago, we were told to prepare against Iran, which was threatening us with its non-existent long-range missiles, carrying its non-existent nuclear weapons.
Tomorrow, there will be a commemoration of those who died in the Afghan war. I think that we all had a letter from the Secretary of State for Defence that says:
“We can be very proud of what we have achieved, which has eliminated the terrorist threat to the UK and from Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan”.
It has also done something else: it has multiplied the terrorist threat. In March 2003, I wrote to Tony Blair and said that, if we carried on with what we were planning to do in Iraq, we would deepen the divide between the Muslim eastern world and the Christian western world. That is precisely what we did. I suggested in that letter that it would deepen the antagonism not only in the far corners of the world, but in the mosques on the corners of our local streets. Now, it has happened. It is unbelievable that young children born and brought up here in Britain think it right to go out and join the barbarous operations of ISIS. Who is responsible for that? There is an element in which the hubris of past Prime Ministers is responsible.
It was not that long ago—29 August 2013—when we were being asked in the Chamber to go to war against Assad, the deadly enemy of ISIL. Now, we are in that area attacking ISIL, which is the deadly enemy of Assad. If we are to take decisions here, we cannot rely on the hubris of leaders or others who are here talking about these great plans. Someone thinks that we should spend money to avoid him embarrassment at an international meeting that he is going to.
We should look at what happened in Afghanistan. We could not look at the truth then. What are we saying now? A number of statements have been made since we pulled out militarily from Afghanistan. Brigadier Ed Butler said that the UK was under-prepared and under-resourced. General Sir Paul Wall said that the calculus was wrong. Major General Andrew Mackay said that the war was a series of shifting plans, unobtainable objectives, propaganda and spin. The former ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles said that the UK operation was a massive act of collective self-deception by the military and politicians unable to admit how badly it was going. General Lord Dannatt said that the UK knew it was heading for two considerable-sized operations and really only had organisation and manpower for one.
I am sure that all those gentlemen will be there tomorrow at the ceremony with a tear in their eye, sincerely regretting the deaths of 453 of our brave soldiers. Where were they when they could have done something about it? Why were their mouths bandaged when those decisions were taken and we were sending those young men to die in vain. They were silent: cowardice by those military men against the reality. They knew that Afghanistan was a hopeless war. They knew that we were not protecting our streets from Taliban terrorism. Yet they remained silent, and that is something that should be on our consciences and teach us that we should never do it again, as we blindly go forward with the delusions that we have here.
A great problem that we have had is this myth, coming back from the 19th century, that we must punch above our weight. We have heard about our role in the world. Punching above our weight has meant in the past 20 years that we spend beyond our interests and we die beyond our responsibilities. We are in the ignominious position now where we pride ourselves on having an independent nuclear weapon, worth spending £100 billion on, but we do not have an independent foreign policy.
No one protests that we have an American general telling us what to do with our budget. When he tells us to spend more on defence, he is also telling us to spend less on the health service and education. What has it got to do with him? America, of course, is our great partner and an admirable nation in many ways. It has lost more of its sons and daughters in wars to bring democracy and freedom to other countries than any other nation in the world, but we must not be tied to the United States. What it did in the Afghan war—the cause of that link there—and our refusal to part from American policy cost us at least 200 of those 453 lives.
Countries such as Canada and Holland pulled out of Afghanistan after making very honourable sacrifices in blood and treasure in the war, but they could see the hopelessness of it. Why did we not do the same? Are we going to do it again? Will we continue to aim for this mythical 2% target? We can have a great role in the world. We have great riches in skills, money and imagination and in our technical equipment, and I believe that we need to redraw the whole purposes of our defence forces.
No one can claim that we were in Iraq or Helmand to defend Britain. It was part of supporting the United States and trying to build a new world. It has gone terribly wrong, and it was counter-productive because we have created and spread these terrible wars. Al-Qaeda is virtually gone. It had gone from Afghanistan by 2002, and we went into Helmand in 2006. What has happened is that we have got the daughter organisations of al-Qaeda. They are more blood-thirsty and more vicious. Can we not understand that the battle for world peace is a battle for hearts and minds and that we can never win hearts and minds with bombs and bullets?
I enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). It is 32 years since I first came to the House and made my maiden speech on defence and this is probably the last speech that I will make in the Chamber, but during those 32 years, I have never agreed with a word that he has ever said. None the less, I enjoy listening to him.
I cannot resist pointing out that the second name on the motion today, which is
“That this House believes that defence spending should be set to a minimum of two per cent of GDP in accordance with the UK’s NATO commitment,”
is indeed that of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn).
Perhaps I can start again.
What is behind this debate, I think, is a fear of cuts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who is a valued member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on bringing this debate. I agree with much of what he said during his opening remarks, except for the points that he made about intervention. It is a debate that we have had in the Foreign Affairs Committee and our latest report on the finances of the Foreign Office makes the point that the Foreign Office, like the defence budget, is at a crossroads. We have such a thinly spread diplomatic service around the world that either it needs to have more resources or it has to narrow its bandwidth and match its aspirations to the budget available.
Linking a percentage of GDP to any policy is, in my view, bad politics. It is not the way to run Government, and that applies equally to the aid budget and the defence budget. Economies go up, economies come down. Of course, we are not going to have the defence and aid budgets going up and down like a yoyo. These things have to be evened out over an economic cycle. As many colleagues have said, the defence budget has to match our requirements. We must look at it in the context of the threat. What is the threat to the United Kingdom?
I do not think anyone is arguing at present that there is any serious existential threat to the United Kingdom. If there were, the figure on the motion today would be 20%, not 2%. We can safely say that NATO and the EU have given us the longest period of peace for centuries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said very effectively on the “Today” programme today, we cannot ignore the impact and the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons.
I used the figure of 20% for effect, rather than for any serious argument.
On the defence budget in the context of NATO, the same point applies. Russia is now spending heavily. I believe that nearly a third of its federal budget is being spent on defence, though no one is arguing that we are going to see Russian tanks rolling across the central European plain in the foreseeable future. With hindsight, Russia’s intentions have been flagged up for longer than we realise. We should have realised that when the intervention in Georgia started. Then Russia’s focus moved to Syria and later to Crimea. Russia’s human rights record is appalling. It is a country under authoritarian and unpredictable rule at the top and in the Kremlin.
The Defence Committee produced a report in 2009 after we visited Russia because of the Georgian conflict and we made recommendations then. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree, on the basis of reports from his own Committee and others, that as a Parliament we do not properly debate the recommendations that we advise it to discuss?
I hang on every word of the reports of the Defence Committee. They are authoritative, powerful and impressive. The Chairman of the Defence Committee was once a valued member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and might follow the Foreign Affairs Committee in instigating debates on our own reports, through the Backbench Business Committee.
The focus now may be on the Baltic states. We are right to deploy troops and aircraft there with the Spearhead brigade, and we should make it clear that if there is an intrusion which poses a threat, we shall not hesitate to use that force. But it is ultimately a political decision and one that will be very difficult to make when it comes because the intrusion will involve the use of militias, rather than an overt use of force.
But we are not going to defend Europe on our own. As has been said by many people, the rest of Europe needs to live up to expectations on its level of expenditure. It is ironic that NATO, which was formed in the aftermath of the second world war and of German re-armament, is now calling for Germany to re-arm. I wonder what will be the public reaction if Germany, the largest economy in Europe, said that it was going to double its defence budget. One thing is certain: that would mark the end of the post-war era.
Russia is spending heavily on equipment and so are we. The two new aircraft carriers soon to be launched are the most powerful weapons that this country has ever produced. As someone who served for several years on aircraft carriers in the 1960s, I am well aware of the projection of power that those bits of equipment bring. Where the mistake has been made is in the lack of support equipment to go with it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said, the issue is not just the fruit and veg being transported behind the carrier, but the anti-submarine underneath it, the air defence aircraft above it and the air defence screen around it. That is the distortion that we will get. Most of the Royal Navy will be required to defend just that one ship, distorting the whole projection of Royal Navy power. If I had been in the Admiralty at the time, I would have preferred to have a dozen Type 45 frigates, which are equally formidable bits of equipment, than the two aircraft carriers.
We have to accept—again, this point was made in an excellent speech from the Chairman of the Defence Committee—that the nature of warfare is changing. As I said, we are not going to see tanks coming across the central European plain. The real battles of the future lie in cyber-warfare—attacks on both economic and military targets. It is the anoraks inside cyber-warehouses in eastern Russia or in Asia who are the current enemy. It is absolutely legitimate for us to increase our levels of expenditure on the security agencies, in particular on GCHQ, to address that. We can argue about whether that should become part of the budget, but the need to do it is beyond doubt.
There is no doubt about that, but the point that I and others make is that the threat is not static and we have to keep adapting.
The second great threat that we face arises from the instability in north Africa. We have seen the flow of boat people coming across the Mediterranean. The drip has grown to a trickle, the trickle is becoming a stream, and 100,000 people are projected to reach Lampedusa. President Sisi of Egypt said the other day that that figure would not be hundreds or thousands; if we do not sort out north Africa, it will be millions. That is the threat that we now face.
I distance myself from critics of the aid budget. It is a perfectly legitimate use of public expenditure to protect this country by spending that budget in innovative ways to address the economic instability in north Africa. Hundreds of millions of young men and women are being born into an economic wasteland. They are turning to crime or emigrating and trying to get into Europe. That is the threat that we face and it must be addressed. So it is not just the defence budget that matters, but the agencies’ budget and the aid budget, all of which have to be looked at in an holistic manner.
As I said in my opening remarks, this is probably the last time that I shall address the House so, if I may, I shall make one or two other comments. It has been a huge privilege to have served in this House. I would like to convey my thanks to all the people who have made it possible, from the policemen on the gate to the ladies in the cafeteria to the Clerks, the Librarians, the staff and the officials whom we work with. It has been a huge privilege to work with them.
There are three great laws in politics. The first is that you should never ask a question unless you know the answer. I believe we are asking serious questions here today and I hope we are going to get the answers. We have some idea what the answers might be, but it is a law to keep very much in mind. The second great law is that old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill any day. Ask anyone who has served in the Whips Office, where I had two happy years, but just look at the mindset in the Kremlin and the old age and treachery there now. We ignore it at our peril. The third great maxim is that in politics perseverance pays. The British people will persevere in their demand of this House to protect the nation if they consider it appropriate and the circumstances call for it, and the House will persist in asking these questions, and it will be right to do so.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to have this debate, and the right hon. and hon. Members who have made a contribution and those who will follow. We should not begin any defence debate without acknowledging the work of our armed forces and those who have lost their lives defending our nation. I commend the fantastic integrity of our armed forces and their continued excellence, standards and recognition globally.
To speak directly, my concern is not wholly focused on meeting the aspirational NATO figure of 2% of GDP on defence spending, not because this is not an extremely concerning issue, but because we do not want to risk figures and budgetary considerations making us lose sight of what we seek specifically to achieve in practice—armed forces who are equipped to deal with any and all circumstances that might reasonably occur. My concern stems from needing assurance that we will be prepared for a number of situations. The Government have a global strategy, but we must have armed forces who can respond to our strategy as a nation. Sadly, we live in a world of ever-growing danger and risk, in the form of both old and new challenges.
My first concern would be not having adequate manpower or provision to step in and offer adequate aid to buttress against further pressures in the areas in which we are involved. This concern is in the wider context of heightened security tensions across Europe, the middle east and the Atlantic. There are threats of both an internal and existential nature, threats that we need to be prepared to meet, and threats that stretch the capacity of our defence capabilities, first to maintain the standard of assistance in areas that we are involved in, and, secondly, to meet the prospect of further demands.
At this stage the Secretary of State for Defence may be saying that we do not plan to cut the numbers of the Army, but we should remember that manpower has already been reduced, and the reality is that the number of 30,000 reserves that has been bandied about has yet to be reached. Perhaps when the Minister replies he will inform us exactly how many reserves have been recruited to make up the number of 30,000 that was cited.
Our combat mission in Afghanistan has now ended, and about 470 military personnel remain deployed there in support of the national unity Government of Afghanistan to ensure a positive future for all the peoples of Afghanistan, and we are glad to see that. Of course, I praise the UK for helping to fund the Afghan national defence and security forces, in addition to providing important resources such as mentoring and training support. This continued commitment to Afghanistan is commendable, and I hope that it will continue, but the situation requires upkeep. While we are maintaining a commitment, there is a need to recognise that in any defence considerations, we have to take into account the long-term trajectory in places where we already have an involvement, including Afghanistan.
As reports from the European Leadership Network emphasise, the crisis in Ukraine has not only caused death and destruction in the country’s east, but poses the most significant existing threat to European security of recent times. The possibility of further Russian antagonistic behaviour and lack of responsiveness suggests that now more than ever we should be thinking carefully about our defence capabilities, how we are spending the money and what areas are vulnerable to being overstretched. The figure that needs to be spent must be at least 2%, but if not achieving this target means that we will be left vulnerable, open to being under-resourced or ill-prepared, the figure needs to be upped, not reduced. We have to be adaptable to a volatile international scene. An arbitrary spending freeze that curtails our ability to respond to new, fast-developing demands would be excessively risky.
Reinforcement of that point comes from military officials and analysts who warn us to increase defence expenditure, though to the majority of spectators on the international stage, that would not be seen as warranted, rational or advisable. Of course there is pressure from our US counterparts, who say that we will be undermining NATO commitments if we do not strive toward our 2% GDP spend on defence. If we do not, who else in Europe will follow suit in aiming to hit the target?
The Ukrainian situation has been much debated in the Chamber, but we cannot be complacent and not take adequate account of the potential for further Russian aggravations—aggravations that seek to send us and our European counterparts signals of Russia’s ever-growing muscle. I do not want to be sensationalist, but we are all very aware that between January and October 2014 there was clear evidence of Russia becoming increasingly antagonistic, in the form of 40 highly sensitive close military encounters. That matched cold war levels. That must be of concern to the House. I do not mean to say that Russia is pushing for a war, but it is certainly playing a game of brinkmanship, and considerable defence cuts send a signal of weakening resolve, and possibly of complacency and disbelief towards a state that poses a very possible threat.
I cannot forget that we had to seek assistance from NATO to search for Russian submarines off the Scottish coast in light of our scrapping of sea patrol planes. Nor can we forget that we had a 10-year purchasing plan for a number of procurements, and intended to plug the capability gaps that were discovered and recognised as needing to be addressed. All of these matters are critically important to the debate. Even more alarming is the gravity of the possibility that our Army could be reduced to its smallest size in some 250 years. We need assurance from the Minister on what will happen in the future.
We as a Chamber must stay mindful of the implications of what we are doing, and also recognise that this is picking at the minds of the public, especially in the light of ongoing activity from ISIS, with more of our vulnerable young people being drawn into its toxic activities. I do not question the resolve that led us to ring-fence health and education, as they were extremely important, but I see defence as needing a similar degree of protection as a matter of national safety. I understand that it may be difficult for our constituents to understand what that means, but we must deliver and make sure that defence spending is also ring-fenced and looked after.
In the 2010 spending review, the Government could and did say that they were building up our political and security dialogue with Russia; that was part of the considerations for that budget. But in 2015, what can we say of this political and security dialogue? What does this say about how rapidly the global context and our relationship with countries, including Russia, can change? Can we confidently ever predict any more, if we ever could, the threats in the next five years? Whether or not we hit the 2% target on the head, we should be ever mindful of our capability gaps, and of whether a budget can or should prioritise areas where we can feasibly make cuts. At the same time, we must be careful where that is done.
The gradual run-down of our armed forces is a matter of grave concern. A great many of my constituents have served in the armed forces and will continue to do so, so this issue is important. On hearing about this debate, one of my constituents asked why, at this time and at this political juncture, we would consider weakening our forces, and whether there was another agenda at work. He suggested that there would be a European army—that a British Army would not be able to stand alone and would need co-operation, or to stand alongside others. My first response was that there was no chance of that; that it could not happen. But it would be wrong to say that that has not weighed heavily on my mind during the last few days. Whether the agenda is to be part of an EU army with co-operation, or to have stand-alone British forces who can react and respond to our Government’s foreign policy, I nail my colours to the mast and ask: why would we dilute the best armed forces in the world? The answer is: we should not and we cannot. Is it not enough that much of our trading is ruled by the EU, without our defence and sovereignty being called into question? Minister, we must not be put in a situation whereby we cannot meet our obligations. Allow our armed forces to do what they do best, and let our British Army continue to be simply the best.
May I first remark upon the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash)? He had wished to be here to support the motion but is attending the funeral of Sergeant Doug Lakey, who was awarded the military medal and was with my hon. Friend’s father, Captain Paul Cash, on the day he was killed in Normandy in July 1944.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and his colleagues on pinning their support for any future coalition Government to the 2% commitment, which is a significant benchmark. I hope that we will not be relying on his support after the general election, but I think that it sends a strong signal, both to people in my party and to others, so I commend him for that.
This debate is about the importance of defence. Every Member who has spoken seems to understand the importance of defence, but I hope that the House will forgive me if I go right back to basics and explain why defence is important. It is about what defence is expected to achieve: security. Security can be hard to define. It is best understood as a state of mind: how safe and secure people feel in carrying on with their daily life without undue anxiety about what might happen to them, to those on whom they depend, and to those who depend on them. It is also about providing security of expectation. We expect access to reliable supplies of clean water, food, energy and communications, which we all take for granted, and in the longer term we expect access to health, economic security, jobs, incomes and pensions, and education in order to strive for a secure future for the next generation.
It is true that military capability is just part of what we need in order to achieve true security. We want to shape the world for our own benefit and to advance democracy, human rights and free trade for the benefit of all humanity. We and our allies must therefore separately and together conduct campaigns to advance those ends. For the most part we want to use soft power—diplomacy, trade, aid and cultural links—to succeed in those campaigns. In a peaceful world, the exercise of soft power is the only acceptable way to conduct international relations.
During periods when it is less obvious how expensive military capability can be of much value, as was the case in the period immediately after the end of the cold war, it is tempting to believe that national or European defence is not about being prepared to repel invaders or protect from potential aggressors. The use of soft power can seem to be the only way to combat insurgencies driven by religious tensions or extremist ideologies, but there is another danger in that regard. Some offer soft power as an alternative to hard power, and that is particularly attractive due to the war-weary sentiment that pervades our politics today. Some even warn that using or threatening to use hard power—we heard this from my friend and Public Administration Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn)—undermines and discredits our commitment to the objectives that we Europeans wish to achieve in the world. That is a dangerous fallacy.
The lessons of history are very clear. We cannot enjoy a soft-power world unless we also have recourse to hard power when necessary. Central and eastern Europe were able to emerge from under Soviet communism and join the western family of democratic nations only because the west’s determined hard-power stance succeeded in facing down Russia during the cold war. Today, democratic nations must be ready and willing to deploy hard power to maintain global peace and security. The successful resolution of the 1990s Balkans crisis, which was not a humanitarian operation, proved that when NATO threatened a ground invasion in order to resolve the conflict.
Therefore, as we Europeans—I say “Europeans” because this spending problem is a European problem—conduct our global campaigns to promote peace, security and prosperity around the world, and we seek to do so by using our influence through trade, aid and diplomacy, we need to remember that global security and the rule of international law depend on our ability to defend them—in the last resort, by force, if necessary. The commitment to foreign aid, which eschews the national interest, is no more important an indication of the national will than our commitment to spend the NATO minimum of 2% of GDP on defence.
This concept of defence rests on the concept of deterrence, which has already been mentioned. It is a grave mistake to see defence merely as a collection of tools to be kept in a box that is taken out of the cupboard under the stairs only when something goes wrong, and is put away again when the job is done. Some like to see defence as a kind of insurance against worst-case scenarios. Britain’s nuclear deterrent is often described in that way, but the analogy is deeply misleading and dangerous, because it encourages a false belief that we can balance what we have to spend on defence against what we perceive to be the risks or threats. Not even the nuclear deterrent can buy national or European security on its own.
Is it not also the case that if someone belongs to a club, they have to pay the subscription? We are never allowed to cut the subscription we pay to the European Union, from which some of us do not think we get value, and now people are suggesting that we can cut our subscription to NATO, which is vital to our security.
Yes, and it should not be forgotten that our subscription to the EU is also written into legislation, and that we are not allowed to change that. I am thinking of asking the Library to speculate on when our contribution to the European Union will overtake what we spend on defence.
The question is what role defence plays in shaping the kind of world we want. We need to possess and be able to deploy the capacity to discourage, or even to retaliate against, those who would disrupt that. Opponents of the maintenance of our minimum nuclear deterrent systems in the UK and France often assert that they are a waste of money “because they are never used”. Actually, our nuclear deterrent is used every hour of every day of every year. All that we require potential adversaries to know is that we can and might use it, if circumstances arose that would make that expedient. That is how we influence the global strategic environment.
The same applies by degrees to all military capabilities that nations, or groups of nations, possess that can inflict harm or disadvantage on adversaries who threaten our interests or global security. The mere possession of military capability is not a threat to international security. The lack of it on our part, in the face of those who do have it and have the intention of using it, is the threat we confront today. Money spent on our capability is not wasted if we never use it. It is an indication of our will—our determination to succeed in our aims of promoting international security and the rule of international law. We need military capability in order to be peacekeepers. What we possess changes how potential adversaries perceive us because of what we can or might do in response.
Defence is not just about having the armed forces to match the particular military threats that we can see or imagine. Defence policy is about how we decide what military capability we need to possess in order to help shape the world to be more as we want it to be, rather than subject to the will of those who seek to take unfair advantage, or to disrupt that. These days, defence policy extends beyond the traditional domains of land, sea and air, as was so ably described by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). In the globalised and technological world of today, we need to think of defence in wider domains such as economics, trade, aid, cyberspace, technology, industry, media, communications and even politics, and throughout the whole sphere of global society.
For each nation to be effective in international statecraft, we need to act collectively where we can, which is why we Europeans must be prepared to commit national resources to defence, to harness our potential together, and to join with other global allies, or we will find that we have failed to provide for our own security.
That brings me to the absolute primacy of NATO. The idea of a happy new world order, which some still seem to believe we can enjoy, is disappearing before our eyes. That is evident from the failure on a spectacular scale in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the emergence of a more Soviet-style leadership in Russia. Putin pursued a brutally repressive war in Chechnya and then tested his revived military capability in the invasion of Georgia. The subsequent diplomatic stand-off was resolved only when President Sarkozy of France made a unilateral visit to Moscow and effectively conceded permanent Russian annexation of the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Perhaps that led to his later boldness. We have seen the Arab uprising lead to chaos in the middle east, not the spreading of democracy that we had hoped for.
It is clear that we live in a world where soft power must still be sustained by hard power. We will need to continue to live up to the 2% commitment that all NATO members agreed to at the summit in Wales. If we will not do that, which countries will we have to rely on for our security and for the future of world peace, stability, freedom and democracy around the world?
Order. May I remind hon. Members that we need to conclude the debate by 3.30 pm to allow for the Front-Bench contributions? That means that we have about an hour, with six speakers in the Chamber at the moment. If each Member aims for about eight minutes, we will comfortably get there; otherwise the last few speakers will have their time severely squeezed. That would not be particularly fair, so I ask for co-operation.
I start by apologising because, as I explained to Mr Speaker, a long-standing engagement elsewhere, and an almost as long-standing train reservation, mean that I will have to depart almost as soon as I have spoken, but I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to do so. This has been an excellent debate marked by contributions from colleagues who are leaving the House and will be deeply missed, not least my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), who was a first-class colleague in the Ministry of Defence during some very tough times.
Before the last election, all three parties committed to a strategic defence and security review following the election. I had fondly imagined that that process would be allowed to take some 18 months or so, as had the 1998 review, and that it would be a deep and profound study of what we needed. What we actually found coming down the tracks at us was a brutal comprehensive spending review, and we had to make a very quick decision as to whether we were going to allow ourselves the luxury of the 18-month review or would do a quick and dirty review and try to equip ourselves with the arguments that might help us to increase the size of our cash envelope, to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife referred, recognising that more detailed work would have to take place afterwards. In the event, the cut of some 7.5% that was applied to the budget—or a little over 16% to the programme, which was at that time overheated—led us to make some very unpalatable decisions that none of us came into politics wishing to make. Decisions such as axing the Harrier were absolutely wretched and painful things that nobody wanted to make.
The painful decisions that were made in 2010 by Ministers and by defence chiefs were, as others have said, made against the background that the sunny uplands would follow and that for the period after 2015 the Ministry of Defence could at least look forward to a flat real budget supplemented, as came later, by a 1% real-terms increase in the equipment budget. If this year’s comprehensive spending review visits further cuts on the defence budget, bearing in mind that there have been a couple of mini-CSRs in the past couple of years that have already done some damage, it simply will not be affordable for us to come up with anything like Future Force 2020, which was articulated in 2010, let alone the wider and more ambitious prospectus that was outlined so lucidly by the Chairman of the Defence Committee. I would not demur from that in any significant way, although that would certainly have taken the budget way beyond the realms of 2% of GDP and rather, as the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, nearer to 3% or even 4%.
Of course, it is right that we have another review now. I am a firm supporter of having a review at least every five years, because the world can change an awful lot in five years, as it has in the past five years. We would do well to try to break ourselves out of the unfortunate cycle where we propel ourselves into one of these reviews at the outset of a Parliament, when there is a comprehensive spending review looming over the whole thing. It would be better if it could be done at a later point in the Parliament so that we get out of this unfortunate cycle.
The significant changes in our security assessment since 2010 are the diminishing relationship with an increasingly aggressive Russia, the rise of Islamic State, and the ever-growing threat of global terrorism and cyber-attack. When one looks at some of the specific issues that will be on the table, with which Defence Ministers, whoever they are this summer, will have to grapple, it is clear that the painful decisions we thought we were taking in 2010 may be but nothing compared with some of the agonies that will be on the table from now on.
I think there is a general consensus that the nation will not find acceptable the 2010 conclusion that we would spend £7 billion on building two aircraft carriers, and then tie up the second one, and that we must in some way deploy the second. That will have a manpower implication which was not taken into account when cuts in naval headcount were made in 2010. We also have a general consensus that we must make good the pledge to go back into the realms of maritime patrol. We have to do that if we are going to embark a carrier fleet in Plymouth. That will have a resources implication and potentially even a manpower implication.
We do not know how many joint strike fighter aircraft we will be able to afford. We seem to have forgotten all about DPOC—deep persistent offensive capability—and the role that air-based joint strike fighters were supposed to have fulfilled. As the saga—I think it would be fair to call it that—of the F-35 rolls on and on, we still do not know what the unit cost of these aircraft will be or how many we will be able to afford. At the time when BAE got its work share, our commitment was meant to be 130. So far, as I understand it, we have bought four, and we are talking about sailing carriers with 12 on board. I have absolutely no idea where the number is going to end up. This is not just a shopping list; there are also manpower implications for how many of these things we have.
We are supposed to be having 13 frigates in order to get us back to the princely goal of a destroyer frigate fleet of 19, but one hears worrying rumours that some of the past mistakes are being repeated and that this is getting almost as big and expensive as the Type 45. I wonder how many we are really going to end up with. Again, that has manpower implications. On amphibious shipping—the ability to enter a theatre of war from the sea—HMS Ocean is due out of service in 2018. Is she going to be replaced? Albion remains tied up. What are we going to do about this? We will lose a serious capability if we do not resource that.
We need more ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—assets. The lack of that capability inhibited what we were able to do in Afghanistan and was conspicuously a problem in Libya. We have not resolved the saga of Army vehicles. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) was extremely pertinent in his observations on that. We have all sorts of balls in the air relating to the future of remotely piloted aircraft—a matter of great importance to our future capability. Again, there are cost pressures there that are not even factored in. Chinook and Apache both need upgrading. I could go on; this is not an exhaustive list.
The existing budget as predicted cannot pay for all that, let alone withstand any cuts that might come this autumn. Let us remind ourselves of the gap. The RUSI paper, with which I entirely agree, and whose figures accord with what I recall from the last time I saw any, suggests that we will be at 1.95% spending next year—one might hide one’s blushes there with a bit of creative accounting—but that by year 2 there will be a gap of £3 billion and by year 4 a gap of £6 billion. That is if no cuts at all are made this summer; if any are made, the situation will get worse and worse.
We seem to have got to a situation where all three political parties recognise that Britain has global interests and have a genuine will that we ought to be part of international coalitions to protect those interests. All three parties agree, in principle, with the commitment that the Prime Minister gave, in principle, at Newport, that we ought to be spending at least 2% of our GDP on defence. Yet given those figures, with an extra £6 billion a year needed to do that by year 4 of this Parliament, it is small wonder that neither the Chancellor, the shadow Chancellor, nor—I am not trying to score a political point here—the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have exactly been on the front foot so far in explaining where £6 billion a year could possibly come from.
I would say to everyone who has taken part in this debate, because we are, by definition, defence enthusiasts, that whether or not this issue takes light during the election campaign, we will have to come back—those of us who manage to come back—to debate these things again and again through the rest of this year as we conduct an SDSR and a CSR and keep the pressure on our Treasury colleagues, of every colour, to honour the commitments given at Newport and the needs so powerfully outlined by the Chairman of the Defence Committee in describing where the shortfalls will occur.
Last August, I was reminded of something that happened to me more than 25 years earlier. Back then, as a young infantry officer on a night-time exercise and navigating by the stars, I had to get my men through some woods. We eventually got to the edge of the trees and saw open ground ahead, but there was only a narrow point at which to exit the woods and the exit would be slow, so the gun group went first and then the rifle group, and it all seemed to go very well. I used what moonlight there was to look around and make sure that not only had everybody got out of the woods, but that they were now in position, which they were. The only thing spoiling the view was that, 250 yards to the right, a particularly distinctive tree marked where we had gone into the woods in the first place. We had not gone through the woods at all: we had got lost in the middle of them, and we were now in a very nice position, but facing completely the wrong way.
The plight of the 10 Russian paratroopers reminded me of that incident. Bless them, they too had become geographically embarrassed: they had ended up in Ukraine and been captured by the Ukrainian military. They were not of course any sort of force supporting the rebels; they had simply got lost in the woods. What was more interesting was the detail of where they had come from. They were from the 331st Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division. To put having at least 98 divisions into context, the Football League has more divisions than the British Army. Even making allowances, to have 331 regiments of a 98th Division means there are a lot of them; there are not a lot of us. That is illustrated by something else that happened last August. As Ukrainian troops faced Russian paratroopers, we amalgamated two of our tank regiments into one that was smaller than a single regiment would have been even a few years ago.
As summer turned to autumn, we hosted a bit of a do in Newport in Wales. We had previously written to all the potential guests to remind them of a few house rules, one of which was about spending 2% of GDP on defence. Along with whatever going-home gifts they received, they were all reminded of that on departure. However, we are suddenly shy of that same 2% commitment in our attitude and, potentially, in our contribution.
There are only two reasons why people do not spend money: the first is that they cannot afford to do so, and the second is that they can afford it but choose not to do so. We do not seem shy of making spending commitments. We have just committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it would be moon-howlingly mad to be committed to foreign aid at the expense of the defence of the realm. No one ever suggested that swords should be beaten into ploughshares before the danger is well and truly passed, and passed for good.
We can afford the 2%, but we are not doing it, which must mean that someone has decided that we will not. How can that be? The idea of allocating a percentage of GDP to defence, rather than a particular annual amount, is clearly designed to ensure that the necessary resources will be made available over a period of time: 2% of a lower GDP in year x is offset by 2% of a higher GDP in subsequent years.
Some people use the phrase “fixing the roof while the sun shines”. That is a particularly commendable approach, so why on earth would anyone contemplate abandoning it for defence spending? Why would they even dream about abandoning it at a time when Russian bombers are being intercepted in the channel, over Cornwall and just off the south coast? Why would they dream of abandoning it when we have yet again learned to expect the unexpected—this time in Libya, against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and, most importantly, with article 5 commitments in the Baltic that the founders of NATO could never have contemplated? Why would we abandon it at a time when if we renamed our frigates and destroyers after premiership football teams, one of the clubs would miss out because we do not have enough ships?
I am not alone in having given the Government the benefit of the doubt on defence matters in the early years of this Parliament. I did so because it was clearly intimated that the effects of the measures introduced would be offset by increases in defence expenditure as the economy healed and grew. Now I hear that to come good on that deal, a search is on for anything that can be fudged as defence spending to get us to the 2% level. That sort of kindergarten economics is bad not just for defence, but for politics. It leads to damaging speculation, such as the whisper that while Regular Army numbers may be safe, the number of reservists is not guaranteed, at a time when we are in the middle of a campaign to offset cuts to the Army with a recruiting drive for non-regulars.
It has even been suggested that former senior military figures are misrepresenting the situation to sell books. Criticisms may be made of some former senior figures, not for misrepresenting the situation now, but for the fact that—for all their later book talk of gritted teeth and near resignation while in post—no one stepped forward and spoke out at the time; in fact, quite the opposite. I do not thank them for that, but the Government certainly should.
I have heard this phrase used at a party conference:
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”.
Courage and bravery are of course the hallmark of our armed forces, but the Estonian soldier waiting in his foxhole for Russian tanks may well believe that the size of the dog in the fight is also critical. We plan to underfeed our bulldog, while its potential adversaries are thrown red meat.
Outside those woods back in the summer of nineteen-eighty-whenever, I may have been 180° out, but no-one else noticed and, in the scheme of things, it did not matter. This does matter. In this context, it is those reinforcing the impression that we care only so much about defence who face the wrong way. In doing so, they face away from the first duty of any and every British Government, which is the duty to ensure the security of these islands, and that is a disappointing and dangerous state of affairs.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell), who has given us a salutary reminder of the importance of defence. He and I share a profession, and I have to say that this is the first defence debate that I have attended in my 10 years in the House. I say so not out of pride, but out of shame, as well as to emphasise the growing unease I have felt from reading and listening to such important debates—it has been a privilege to listen to the speeches of hon. Members from both sides of the House. I am now better informed, and perhaps even a little wiser and more enlightened, but none of them allayed my anxieties or convinced me not to make the effort to attend the debate this afternoon.
I must say that my only qualification—a tenuous one—for speaking in a defence debate is that my father was a career soldier and that I was brought up on Army bases and camps around the world in the 1960s. He was a gunner for 40 years, and left the Army only in the mid-1980s. The experience of growing up within the Army taught me not only its values—its ethics, its morality, its discipline and its code—but that it was essential to the very fabric of this country for us to maintain our armed forces in a state of readiness and properly resourced to be able to defend its people. Following my increasing concern over the past few years, I have to say that I am no longer convinced that we give our defence forces the priority that they require.
I should not have been in the Chamber this afternoon; with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who has responsibility for defence equipment, support and technology, I should have been in Appledore visiting the last English shipbuilder, which is just completing its third Irish—I stress, Irish—naval patrol vessel, having already completed the bow sections of both of the carriers. I believe that our visit would have been widely welcomed by the 400 or 500-strong work force of that shipyard because they feel that the defence establishment should nurture the last remaining skill bases that exist for the production of naval vessels and ships. I am grateful to the Minister for having expressed his wish to visit, and I hope that he will visit after the election—and I hope that he will still be in his present job or some even more senior and illustrious position.
My purpose today is not to contribute to the weight of opinion, authority and expertise that I have been awestruck to listen to this afternoon, but by appearing here today as the representative of a sedentary and dusty trade, a long way removed from the military or the armed forces, to demonstrate to the Government, including Ministers from my party, that the issue of defence is not a specialised interest confined merely to a few dozen of our colleagues. It was suggested earlier that those present are “defence enthusiasts”, but concern about defence is spreading widely, not only through the Conservative party, but the country. It would be wrong of us to believe that it is a specialised interest of significance only to a narrow circle: it is becoming ever more widespread.
I attend this debate not to send a message to my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know grasps these points, but to those in charge of the Treasury that enough is enough and that 2% is a line in the sand. Beyond it we must not go. It represents a demonstration of will and the fulfilment of a commitment, and no amount of creative accounting, sneaking or ducking and diving will deflect the attention of the British people from the solemn responsibility of this Government and the next to defend our interests and the integrity of our borders. I say to my hon. Friend as a messenger to those who sit in Cabinet and have the decision-making power in the councils of the Government that if we were to compromise that 2%, the message it would send to the dictators, and the enemies of freedom and all the values and principles we hold dear, is that we are no longer willing to stand by our commitments and to pay the price of freedom.
I agree with those who have said that to do business in terms of proportions and percentages of GDP is not good politics, but we have made the 2% figure the line in the sand. We have said it to other countries and we cannot now compromise on our determination to fulfil our responsibility to the international community. If we allow ourselves to become weak, impliedly we expect others to take up—to the same measure and in the same proportion—the burden of defending us. That has never been Britain’s way and cannot be the way that this House regards as appropriate. I ask all my hon. Friends to hold the Government to the 2% commitment and not to let it go.
I, too, have been awestruck by what I have heard this afternoon, not least the speech we have just heard from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) and the excellent speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) who made a fantastic speech from the Opposition Benches.
Tribute has been paid to the armed forces this afternoon, but I do not think that we can pay high enough tribute to them. Year after year and throughout history, we in this place have sent our armed forces into harm’s way. Ultimately, we decide how to finance and nurture them, and take care of them when they come home. It is a huge responsibility.
I wish to make the point to the Ministers that any comments I make—and I know others feel the same way—are not aimed personally at them. They are both honourable men. I know the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) well and I know that he feels very strongly about the state of our armed forces.
I find it strange that defence is a partisan subject, not just in the House but as reported by commentators and others, although there is an element of truth in that even in my own party. It is suggested that the right represent the armed forces and the left represent overseas aid. That should not be the case, and I do not believe it is. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said so eloquently, it is the collective responsibility of the whole House to ensure the defence of our island and our dependants, and the meeting in full of all the commitments that we have—not least to NATO.
Allegedly, polls show that there are no votes in defence. I would like to put any politician who claims that in front of a battalion of the Coldstream Guards that has just returned from its second or third tour of Afghanistan. I do not think that that politician would return to the House in one piece. Millions have died to defend peace, democracy and freedom throughout history, many of whom were servicemen and women. Are we saying that all that sacrifice does not get any votes? Do we really mean that? I do not think we do, but what concerns me greatly is where politics has got to. I read a very good book recently about Winston Churchill, and when he was shown the results of a poll, he threw the poll in the dustbin and did completely the opposite. Some would argue that on some occasions that is rashness, but some would call it leadership. It is on subjects that do not necessarily seem to attract the voter that parties, of all political persuasions, have to lead. If we do not lead, we will endanger our country.
Expenditure on defence has never been—and I suspect never will be—a popular political topic. It is, as someone said earlier, like an insurance policy. We groan as we pay the annual fee, but we do so because when the dread day comes that we shuffle off this mortal coil, our loved ones will benefit from the investment that we have made. By God, if we did not have such an insurance policy, we would rightly be attacked by members of our family, our wives or anybody else whom we have not provided with security. That is what we should bear in mind when we debate expenditure on defence.
How many times throughout our great island history have we spent less money on defence? I am an avid reader of military history—as an ex-soldier it is particularly pertinent to me—and politicians of all colours have made the same mistake that we are making today countless times. Why do we go on making the same mistake? We are told that tanks will not rumble across the plains of central Europe. I suspect they probably will not, but I would not like to bank on it. I suspect that the Poles did not bank on their country being invaded at one end by the Russians and at the other by the Germans, but it happened. It is happening again, as we know, in Ukraine. Without defence, there will be no security at all for the other subjects we have to meet and pay for.
I would like to touch, if I may, on a very delicate subject: overseas aid. How many of us in this Chamber set ourselves a target every year to give, say, £500 to charity? I bet no one does, but if, at the end of the financial year, we had spent only £300, would we then splurge £200 on any old charity? Of course we would not. We would keep that money for a better cause. That is where I think we are getting it wrong. We have to target better what few resources we have for overseas aid. We have proof that much of the money we spend does not get to where it is intended to go.
One or two hon. Members have suggested that somehow the military should be incorporated into overseas aid. There are arguments for and against, but on the whole when it works there is no one better than the British serviceman or servicewomen to deal with such predicaments. That again has proved what an honourable and fantastic task they all do. Overseas aid has been ring-fenced. Other areas have been ring-fenced. If we cannot defend our country, our people, our dependants, meet our commitments and stand together—we are never going to stand on our own; we cannot afford to—and for the Americans to publicly now say to the world that Great Britain is not meeting its commitments, that means the position is incredibly serious. I know friends who have contacts in America. Their contacts say that they really hate saying that publicly, but they do so because they are so concerned.
It is not just hon. Members in this House who are concerned. It is the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton; former US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates; former British Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth); former British Defence Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff); former NATO Secretary-General, Anders Rasmussen; current NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg; President of the United States of America, Barak Obama; US army chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno; former defence attaché to Washington, Sir Anthony Dymock; former ambassador to the United State, Sir Christopher Meyer; former UK Chief of the General Staff, Sir Peter Wall; US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power; former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West; and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the Chairman of the Defence Committee. That is by no means the whole list. It is not just us who are saying that we must meet at least—at least—the 2% commitment; it is everybody else who is looking to this island for leadership to protect all the things that we hold dear.
Twenty five years ago, we spent more than 4% of our gross national product on defence. There were some 306,000 regular personnel and 340,000 reservists. The Army had 153,000 regular soldiers who manned three armoured and one infantry division. We had 1,330 main battle tanks. The Royal Navy had 50 frigates and destroyers, two aircraft carriers, 28 attack submarines, three Harrier squadrons and a Royal Marine Commando brigade. For its part, the Royal Air Force had 26 fast jet squadrons, two squadrons of maritime patrol aircraft and specific aeroplanes tasked with suppressing potential air defences.
In the next Parliament, however, the Army will be reduced to 82,000 regular soldiers and 400 tanks. The Navy will have 19 frigates or destroyers, seven attack submarines and only about 24,000 sailors. It may be that by 2020 we will see the first of two new aircraft carriers, but as yet not one aircraft has been ordered to put on them. The RAF will have seven, or maybe only six, fast jet squadrons, and no means to suppress enemy air defences. Nobody knows whether by then we might again have some maritime patrol aircraft. That remains the worst gap in our current military capability.
Some argue that there are few votes in defence—we have heard that repeated all afternoon—but that is certainly not what I hear in Beckenham. People there are increasingly fearful of what is happening in the world.
As my hon. Friend knows, I back the minimum 2% spend of GDP on defence. He knows how important that is to the Ribble Valley. Does he welcome the announcement today by the Prime Minister and BAE Systems that a new training academy will open at BAE Systems Samlesbury, not only to train the new apprentices but to tune up the great skills we already have at BAE Systems?
I was born close to Samlesbury, so I know it well. I certainly applaud that news.
Leaders on both sides of the House consistently maintain, quite rightly, that defence is the first responsibility of Government. If that is so, whether there are votes in defence hardly matters. It is the duty of our political leaders to ensure our defences are sound, whether there are votes in defence or not. The defence of our country is the paramount requirement of our Government. If we had been beaten by Hitler in 1945, there would not even have been a national health service. Health, education, pensions and overseas aid budgets are largely ring-fenced and apparently untouchable. Obviously, that is not so for the defence budget. If defence is vital, its budget should be protected too.
Some hon. Members have touched on our long-standing and close defence partnership with the United States, which is being increasingly questioned there. Both the American President and, more recently, the United States army chief of staff have signalled their alarm at what is happening to our MOD budget. We have favoured status so far, but yet more cuts to our defence budget are likely to have an irreversible impact on our special defence relationship with the United States. If we, as America’s most steadfast ally, are not prepared to put at least 2% of GDP into defence, why should United States citizens, who currently pay more than double per head than us, continue to fund more than 70% of NATO’s budget?
Others argue that the dominating factors of mass and firepower in conflict are no longer as important as they were, and of course they have a point. It is true that cyber, data fusion, information, robotics and the like spawn a different form of war fighting—truly they are important developments, and they might even influence how we go to war—but I dispute that they are war-winning factors. It is unlikely that they will be able to dislodge the Daesh from Syria and Iraq. They might help, but they alone will not do it. In military terms, the job might well require good old-fashioned kinetic energy—soldiers closing with the enemy on the ground and destroying them in face-to-face fighting—although I hope this time it is done mainly by soldiers from our friends in the middle east, rather than our own armed forces.
Some say that the cold war is dead. Others suggest that the day of the tank is over. The Russians obviously disagree. Perhaps we are not really seeing T-64 and T-72 tanks cruising around eastern Ukraine. Russia has once more formally declared NATO to be its enemy and stated plainly that external conflicts can justify its use of nuclear weapons. The MOD is a unique Department of State because it provides us with both the insurance and endowment policies necessary to deal with the unexpected. Threats to our national security tend to explode suddenly and with very little warning. Of course, we all want a strong economy, but defence is too important to depend just on that. We only have to look at the lack of political resolve in the 1930s, which translated into our armed forces stagnating, giving clear signals to Hitler that we were not prepared to arrest his ambitions. Such stupidity cost us dear.
In truth, a strong economy needs a safe security environment. Defence must be affordable. The international situation is as bad as I have ever seen it in my lifetime. Welfare, education, pensions and overseas aid will count for nought if defence goes wrong, so, particularly now, the defence of our country is far too important a matter for it to become a party political football. It is a bipartisan matter for serious political parties. Looking around the Chamber, I think that all the parties present are serious. I call on all the parties present, including the Democratic Unionist party—I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his fantastic speech today—to commit wholeheartedly to ensuring that we spend 2% of GDP on defence.
Not for the first time, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) has done the House and the country a service by bringing to the Chamber a matter that the coalition Government might perhaps have preferred he had let lie. I believe it is his intention, if we do not get the assurances we want from both Front Benches, to give the House the opportunity to put its opinion on the record by dividing. If the Whips did not know that, they had better get busy.
One of the advantages of speaking last from the Back Benches in such a debate is that I do not have to repeat all the points made by everybody else. This has been particularly worthwhile today because I could not have made a stronger strategic case than the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee made in his excellent speech, and I could not have made a stronger economic case than was forcefully made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). I pay tribute to him for his outstanding service to this country, both in high office and, more recently, as Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I have had the pleasure of serving on throughout this Parliament.
Any suggestion that the budget spent on the intelligence agencies should be redefined as defence to edge us closer to the 2% minimum would be not only outrageous, but dishonest, because we would no longer be comparing like with like. Let us compare like with like. It came as a surprise to the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick), who made a thoughtful speech, when I pointed out to him that at the height of the second cold war, in the 1980s, this country was spending more than 5% of GDP on defence. I know the economy has got bigger, but defence has got more expensive, so that excuse will not do.
Let me put on the record that between 1982 and 1986, the amount spent on defence varied from 5.1% of GDP to 5.3%. From 1986 to 1990, as a result of perestroika, the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and other measures, the figure gradually declined from a maximum of 4.8% to 4%. When we took the peace dividend, following the break-up of the Soviet Union—in other words, in the first five years of the 1990s—the figures were 3.6%, 3.6%, 3.5%, 3.3% and 3.1%.
When Labour came into office in 1997, the figure was 2.5%, and it remained, as Tony Blair said and as I have quoted here before, roughly constant at 2.5% for a decade, although that hid the fact that the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq, which should have been met from the Treasury reserve, were being included in the overall calculation. Even as late as the coalition coming in, in 2009-10, the figure was 2.5%, and it remained the same in 2010-11. It went down to 2.4% in 2011-12 and since 2012 it has been 2.2% and 2.1%. Frankly, I regard it as a disgrace that defence spending has declined even to that level, and I will be far from satisfied if—without redefining things—we spend only 2% of GDP on defence in the future.
I have to ask myself why, at a time when we have not only the threat from international terrorism to deal with, but a re-emerging threat from a newly aggressive and revanchist Russia, politicians are calling into question even the basic NATO minimum of 2%. The only answer I get has nothing to do with grand strategy and everything to do with low politics. This is the politics of the pollsters who are trying to tell my Prime Minister that there are no votes in defence.
My mind goes back to a conversation I had in Conservative central office with the then general director of campaigning of the Conservative party in about 1985. When I said that we needed to focus on Labour’s defence policy at the next general election, he said, “Well, just because nuclear weapons and defence policy was a big issue in 1983, it does not mean that it will be a big issue in 1987.” My response was, “Of course it will not be a big issue unless we make it a big issue.” Of course, if we poll people at the moment and ask them how high defence is in their sense of priorities, we will not get much of a reaction. Believe me, however, things would be different if we went into the election campaign fighting hard to explain to people the dangers that threaten us and the terrible signal it would send to Vladimir Putin if we, having exhorted everybody else in NATO to meet the 2% minimum, then fell below it ourselves for the very first time—which would be appalling.
I do not know who is more to blame. I do not know whether it is the American strategist who is advising my Prime Minister or whether it is the British Chancellor who is advising him, but I like to think that my Prime Minister has more sense than to fall for it. Let me put it in “low” political terms: if the Prime Minister is worried about the UK Independence party taking a chunk of the Conservative vote, he should bear it in mind that even UKIP has made the gesture—it is only a gesture on its part—that it would support the 2% minimum. If the Prime Minister is worried about losing votes to UKIP, he had better match its pledge.
We have had a pledge from UKIP. We have had a pledge—a very important pledge—from the Democratic Unionist party today. We need a pledge from the official Opposition, and we need a pledge from the Government. Otherwise, in the words of an excellent editorial that appeared in The Times yesterday, we shall be practising nothing short of “a false economy”, along with a dangerous delusion about the action that we need to take when doing our duty for this country.
This has been a very good debate. We have heard 19 speeches from Members in all parts of the House, although, yet again, no Scottish National party Members have been present for a debate on defence. I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on making the debate possible, and also on maintaining the role that he has played throughout this Parliament of political pain in the posterior of the Prime Minister.
I particularly want to mention four Members who spoke today: my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway). I understand that they will all be retiring at the general election, and I thank them not only for the speeches that they made today, but for their wisdom, and for their contribution to the House during their time here.
Another feature of the debate is that it has been completely void of Whips’ narks, although, in an intervention, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who is no longer in the Chamber, produced the usual narrative of the “£38 billion black hole” that the Conservatives claim to have inherited. In a report published in July 2011, the Defence Committee said:
“We note that the MoD now state the genuine size of the gap is substantially in excess of £38 billion. However, we also note the”
“Secretary of State’s assertion that ‘for the first time in a generation, the MoD will have brought its plans and budget broadly into balance, allowing it to plan with confidence for the delivery of the future equipment programme’. Without proper detailed figures neither statement can be verified.”
The debate has, of course, been dominated by the issue of the 2%. We have seen a great deal of “blue on blue” this afternoon, and I feel sorry for my hon. Friend—as I call him—the Minister. [Interruption.] Yes, he has drawn the short straw. However, he is passionate about defence, and he is very committed to it.
The right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife said that when it came to defence, the Treasury was always the problem. I am sorry, but that is not true in this instance. Last year’s autumn statement set out what the Government, including the Prime Minister, would need to spend between 2016 and 2020, not only to eliminate the deficit but to be in surplus by 2018-19. If, as we heard from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), there is flat cash over that period, we are talking about a £6.8 billion cut in the defence budget, not counting the other cuts to which the Chancellor referred in the autumn statement.As has been pointed out, health, education and overseas aid have been ring-fenced, so any further cuts made over that period would have to fall on Departments that have not been ring-fenced. That would bring us to a point at which defence spending would be not 2%, but 1.4% of GDP.
However, it is worse than that for defence. The Government’s policy is to ring-fence the equipment budget and increase it by 1%. Any cuts made will not be made to the entire budget; they will fall on 55% of it, which means operations. As we all know, the main cost driver in that area is people, notwithstanding the nonsense that the Prime Minister keeps reiterating—as he did during Prime Minister’s Question Time a few weeks ago in a reply to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth)—about the Army remaining at its current levels. Unless he has some magic formula to which we mere mortals are not party, I do not understand how he will ensure that that happens.
The Prime Minister now has a defensive strategy. It goes like this: “We try to massage the figures.” However, as the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has said, that would be dishonest, and he is not alone in saying that. In The Times this morning, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, says he rejects including, for example, the intelligence budget in the figure:
“This is the kind of book-keeping for which you would go to prison if you were running a company.”
So clearly there is a concern. There are people in No. 10 who think if they massage the budget in some way, people will not spot the difference, but it appears from today’s debate that there are many on the Prime Minister’s own Back Benches with a lot of experience of, and commitment to, this sector, and he will find it difficult to pull the wool over their eyes.
I say to those on the Government Benches that I do not for one minute question their commitment to defence, because I know most of them very well, and they have spoken passionately over many years about their commitment to defence. But they have a dilemma, because in a few weeks’ time they will be standing on an election platform calling for a reduction in defence spending; they will have to somehow explain that to their electorate.
I know of the hon. Gentleman’s personal commitment to defence; he is passionate about it, as we all are. He will also be standing for election in a couple of weeks’ time. Will he be standing on the platform that an incoming Labour Government will definitely commit to 2% or more on defence spending?
Well, what I am not being is dishonest, which is what the Government’s position is. I shall reiterate the point that I made in the debate last week: what we have a commitment to, and will argue for, is maintaining the 2015-16 budget. Also, we will start the defence review—the detailed work that needs to happen, not the rushed job we saw last time—and that will inform the debate on future budgets.
No, it is not the same, because the Government and the hon. Gentleman have got the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s fiscal straitjacket around them—his commitments to reducing spending. There is a big difference, and it gives us a lot of leeway in making sure that we can deliver on our defence needs and foreign affairs commitments, whereas what the Government are putting forward will lead to a situation in which the budget is set, and there is no way that they can meet those commitments.
Something else has come out in this debate. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), who is in a good position because he was a Minister in the Department at the time, and the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell) raised the idea that the Prime Minister convinced his Back Benchers and the military to take the pain of the 8% cut in 2010, and that somehow once we reached the sunny uplands—I think the hon. Member for Dewsbury referred to that—we would have an increase in the budget. That is clearly not going to happen if the Prime Minister’s commitment to deficit reduction is followed. We have come to expect such smoke and mirrors from the Prime Minister. We have had that narrative again; I do not for a minute question the former adviser of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who has written in today’s newspapers in a similar vein. It is clear that that commitment cannot be met if the Prime Minister is to keep to the deficit reduction process laid out in the autumn statement.
We need honesty from the Government on what they are going to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and I are not going to stand here and make the ludicrous promises we heard at the last general election from those now on the Government Benches. They promised a larger Army, more helicopters, and more of everything for the armed forces, but the Conservatives reverted to type, as they always do in government. The hon. Member for Dewsbury said that this was a right-left issue. No, it is not. The Conservatives’ record in office shows that they always cut defence, whereas Labour has always protected defence.
I genuinely want this to be a bipartisan debate, but could the hon. Gentleman clarify the shadow Chancellor’s comments in The Times on Tuesday this week, when he stated that his party would go
“nowhere near the huge scale of defence cuts you are going to see under the Conservatives”?
Does that mean that Labour will commit to at least the 1%-plus real-terms-equivalent budget increase?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is not standing for re-election, but he needs to understand that the huge impediment to his party’s adopting the 2% target is the autumn statement. His party will have to bin that if it wants to commit to the 2%. This allows us a lot more flexibility. We will ensure that the findings of the defence review are what drive our defence needs. That is in contrast to what happened in 2010 and what is happening now, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer driving the debate with the support of the Prime Minister.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) made a clear commitment that his party would seek a commitment to the 2% expenditure target from any other party before supporting it in a future Government. The Prime Minister has employed a lot of diversionary tactics in the past 24 hours, because he knows that he has a problem in this area. He clearly wanted to massage the figures, but that has now been blown out of the water.
Then we had the nonsense last night of the Defence Secretary writing to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about whether the nuclear deterrent would be up for negotiation in any future deal with the Scottish National party. I want to nail that one quite clearly: no, it would not. We are not going to do what the Conservatives did when they came into office in 2010. They played fast and loose with the nuclear deterrent by doing a deal with the Liberal Democrats to delay the implementation of the decision to replace Trident, which the Labour Government had already voted for. It was this Government, in the deal that was done in May 2010, who delayed that implementation, so I am not going to take any lessons from the Conservatives about doing deals, or using our nuclear deterrent in some kind of political poker game as a means of getting into office.
In passing, may I point out that the quotes recently attributed to me were not in fact mine? Is the hon. Gentleman in any way embarrassed by the fact that, within the space of 10 minutes, he has turned what was a sensible debate into a party political broadcast?
Not at all, because I am actually on the hon. Gentleman’s side in trying to expose the Government’s illogical approach. I think I am right in saying that it was he who described the attempts of the Prime Minister or his advisers to massage the figures as “kindergarten economics”. There is an honest argument to be made to the British people about what we are doing on defence, but the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot stand before his electorate in Dewsbury in a few weeks’ time and say that he wants his Government to commit to 2% when he has also signed up to the Chancellor’s deficit reduction strategy. I am on his side when we argue about defence—I have argued passionately about the subject from the very moment I entered this House, as people know, and I will continue to do so—but will he be able to look his electorate in the eye and say that his party is committed to 2%? No, he will not. The manifesto on which he will be campaigning will actually offer the opposite: it will propose reducing defence expenditure.
This afternoon’s debate has been contributed to by a large number of people who put a belief in defence above party politics, and they have been objective in their criticism of both sides. That mood has changed since the hon. Gentleman got to his feet, and that is a shame.
Well, it might be party politics, but if I have exposed the inconsistency between what the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister have said about deficit reduction over the next five years on the one hand, and what the hon. Gentleman and others on his side have said about their support for the 2% on the other, then I am sorry, but I am guilty of that.
This is an important debate and I am glad that we have had it. May I also say that the Members who said we should have more of these debates made an important point? We used to have the Back-Bench debates annually, and they were important to Members on all sides in ensuring that defence went up the political agenda, and that we had the scrutiny we needed.
Let me finish with this final point: irrespective of party politics—the hon. Member for Dewsbury will have more of that in the next few weeks, if he is standing for re-election—if there is one thing that unites us, it is our thanks, support and admiration for the vital job the men and women of our armed forces do daily. We sometimes forget the sacrifice that they and their families make. That is one thing that, irrespective of our disagreements on the detail of defence policy, we should never forget.
This has been a timely debate, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who, as the House knows, takes a particular interest in defence. I gently point out to the House that although the Backbench Business Committee is responsible for this debate and a number of hon. Members have said it is a shame there are not more debates on defence, there was a debate on Monday of last week on this very subject in Government time. Hon. Members need to recognise that the Government are giving due time to these important matters.
This is a timely debate because it comes as we prepare for the comprehensive spending review and the strategic defence and security review, which will follow the general election. There is no doubt about the support for our armed forces from all 20 Members who have spoken today, including the Opposition spokesman, and about the importance of defence to the nation’s security. Fittingly, this debate was used as an opportunity to speak by a number of hon. Members who are leaving the House later this month having served the House with particular distinction, particularly on defence. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who unfortunately has had to catch a train, although I told him I would mention him; to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), who I am delighted to see in his place; to my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), who has given considerable service to this House—I had not appreciated that he had also served on a carrier in an earlier career; and to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), who has been a very influential figure on the Defence Committee. I am pleased they have all been able to participate, alongside the many other Members whose contributions I may or may not have time to commend.
Clearly, in a democracy, strong defence requires a strong economy, and as we head into the next Parliament, securing our economic recovery will be vital to securing defence spending. We do recognise—we were challenged by some hon. Members on this—that the threats we face have changed since the last strategic defence review, and they will be carefully reviewed in the next SDSR, which will help to determine the investment choices of the next Government.
I listened carefully to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), a former Defence Minister, whose commitment to defence I do not doubt. I have, however, had the opportunity not only to listen to his remarks today, but to read the interim report—I believe it is described as No. 8—of Labour’s so-called zero-based review, the defence element of which was published only on Saturday. I gently remind the House that he was making some claims about defence being in a better place under a potential Labour Government, but the zero-based review’s foreword indicates that, were Labour to have the opportunity, it would carry out
“a root and branch review of every pound the government spends from the bottom up”.
The defence volume foreword says
“we will make appropriate savings in the Defence budget”.
I take that to mean that every pound of defence spending will be up for review and is not secure as a consequence.
It is a sensible way forward to ensure, as I said in the debate last week, that every single piece of our defence expenditure is reviewed to ensure that we get maximum value for money. If we are going to meet the targets for 2015-16, savings will have to be made and that will be reinvested in what can actually be done. What we do not have is the fiscal straitjacket that the Minister has come 2016-17.
The only comfort that this House can take from the Opposition’s position is that one of the very few Government Departments that the shadow Chancellor would not abolish is the Ministry of Defence.
I wish to set out some context about how, since 2010, defence spending has required, and has undergone, significant reform. The situation we inherited from the Labour Administration was chaotic. There was a severely overheated programme with costs that outstripped the available budget, which left a black hole of £38 billion. Difficult decisions were routinely ducked. The Gray report, commissioned by the previous Government, identified that the average equipment programme overrun was five years, and with an average increase in cost of £300 million. The National Audit Office’s major projects report for 2009 evidenced an increase in costs in that year alone of £1.2 billion across the major projects, including the infamous decision to delay the carriers in a desperate attempt to cram that year’s spending into the available budget. To sort that out required one of the biggest defence transformation programmes undertaken in the western world. Today, the defence budget is in balance—
No, the hon. Gentleman has had his chance. The defence budget is in balance and our plans are affordable. We are on track to deliver £5 billion of efficiency savings in the next Parliament, including £1 billion from the equipment support plan alone. Incidentally, the half-baked plans in the Labour review “A New Deal for UK Defence” would deliver only some 1% of what we are already saving in the Department. The proof of our transformation was set out in the National Audit Office major projects report for 2014, which showed a reduction in cost of £397 million across our 11 largest projects. That was the Ministry of Defence’s best performance on cost since 2005 and best performance on delivering projects on time since 2001.
Yes, it cost just under £100 million to make that decision, which is substantially less than the £1.2 billion cost of the deferral to which I referred earlier. I should congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his contribution today. I had not appreciated that, like me a few months ago, he faced some impediments to getting in and out of the Chamber. I hope that his leg gets better soon.
Even the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, not known for lavishing praise on this Government, said only last week that she had
“seen a step change and improvement in performance, which is incredibly welcome.”
She was referring to the transformation in defence.
I congratulate Conservative Ministers on making such a tremendous improvement to the capital budget. May I urge them to seek big savings in the bureaucracy of the armed forces? There is no bureaucracy in Whitehall that is worse than that in the Army, Navy and Air Force, and those services really need sorting out.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his advice. It is the case that vast majority of the headcount reductions across the Ministry of Defence have taken place within the bureaucracy—as my right hon. Friend calls it—of civil service support to the armed forces.
The lesson here is that it is no use having a budget of £34 billion if it is not spent efficiently. Driving efficiency savings out of our budget is an important part of what we have achieved, which is to get more capability for our armed forces out of the money that we spend on defence.
In 2010, the defence budget was the second largest in NATO, and the largest in the EU. In 2015, it remains the second largest in NATO and, by some margin, the largest in the EU. Using NATO’s figures, the UK defence budget is now some $8 billion larger than the next largest EU budget, which is that of France. That gives the UK one of the most effective and deployable armed forces in the world. This very day, the UK has more than 4,000 military personnel deployed overseas on 20 key operations, in 24 countries worldwide.
Our funding also enables the UK to be and remain the most reliable partner to the US in NATO. Since August, we have been the US’s largest partner in the coalition air strikes against ISIL, conducting more than 10% of air strikes. A key capability in the effort, for example, has been the result of investment in the Brimstone missile, the most advanced precision missile system in the world. We are now working to integrate Brimstone on to other platforms such as Typhoon. This is just a single capability within our £163 billion costed, funded, affordable equipment plan, which in turn enables the UK to be one of only four NATO countries consistently to meet the key metric, spending 20% of defence expenditure on major new capabilities.
The clarity of this plan allows us to invest in next-generation capability. I shall give a few brief examples. Our new aircraft carriers will deliver a step change in capability. They are half as long and weigh almost three times as much as the previous Invincible class, yet will deliver their cutting-edge capability with the same size crew. They will have the next-generation F35 aircraft flying from them, and we have ordered four aircraft to form part of the operational squadron in addition to the four currently in test and evaluation in the United States. That platform will be far more capable than the Harrier that they replace. As the Prime Minister confirmed again yesterday, the Conservative party is committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent and will build a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, with the final investment decision due in 2016, of which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) will approve.
Yesterday I suggested to the Prime Minister that he might be just a tad embarrassed by the fact that less than a year ago he lectured other NATO countries about not reaching 2%, yet we were falling below it. He failed to answer that question. Would the Minister like to add anything?
I will come on to the issue of the 2% in a moment. We are not falling below it and we do not intend to do so in the period of the spending review. We have also presided over the modernisation of our air mobility fleet, which is now the envy of the world. Many of our NATO allies rely on our capability during operations. The Voyager air-to-air refuelling capability is being used today across Iraq by a number of our allies, not only the RAF. We are transforming our helicopter fleets. As I saw earlier this morning, we have invested £6 billion over the past four years in state-of-the-art lift, attack and surveillance capability, on time, on budget, providing flexibility so that more can be done with less.
For the Army, last year we placed the Scout vehicle contract—the biggest single order for a UK armoured vehicle in 30 years. It will provide the Army with its first fully digitised armoured fighting vehicle to give it the kind of manoeuvrability that the Chairman of the Select Committee and other hon. Members have called for. I can also confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), who did such a good job in laying the foundations for this transformation work, that we remain committed to spending at least 1.2% of the defence budget on defence science and technology. We achieved more than that last year and will do so this year. This will include more investment in disruptive areas of technology such as directed energy weapons and others, where we have committed to shift more of the balance of science and technology investment as we move into a contingent posture.
The Government’s position on the motion before the House this afternoon is clear. We will meet the 2% commitment in this financial year. We will meet it in the next. As we have been consistent, after the general election this will be a matter for the next spending review. The Prime Minister has been clear. We are committed to a 1% year-on-year real-terms increase in spending on defence equipment for the next spending review period. He has also been clear that the size of our regular armed services will remain at the level it is now, with a continuing commitment to grow the reserves to 35,000. It is not just about 2% of GDP; it is about how you spend it and what you are prepared to do with it.
The results of our reform programme speak for themselves. Four and a half years ago, we were in chaos. Today, we have earned a strong reputation across Whitehall for competence and have transformed defence capability for the better. The Treasury, even, has granted the Ministry of Defence the largest delegated budget of any Department. So we have replaced Labour’s chaos with Conservative competence. Where there was a deficit, now there is a balanced budget; where there were cost overruns, now there are cost savings; and where equipment programmes were late and over-budget, now they are overwhelmingly on time. The MOD is on far firmer foundations as we head into the next SDSR and spending review.
I want to thank all hon. Members for their contributions. There have been many good speeches here today, and I am pleased to say that we have all benefited from them. There has been almost universal acceptance that we live in times of heightened tensions. A growing number of countries not necessarily friendly to the west are not only increasing their defence spending and rearming but becoming more assertive. We need to spend more on defence not only better to support alliances and better protect our interests, but in deterring potential aggressors, to help to avoid conflict in the future.
We all know that 2% is an arbitrary figure. Money must be well spent and should reflect desired capability. I personally believe that we should spend 3% to 4%, but 2% has a symbolic value in that, having lectured other NATO members on the importance of 2%, it is important that we lead by example. We need to rediscover the political will for strong defence across the political divide. There is presently a disconnect in that the main political parties accept that we have global interests and responsibilities but seem reluctant to fund them, and perhaps our misguided military interventions have contributed to that. If so, these demons must be vanquished, because they have distracted us from the greater danger of potentially hostile nation states.
In short, as for the line that there are no votes in defence, we are shirking our duty to lead on this issue, and votes are lost through bad defence. We have acknowledged the adage that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. That has been forged by events, and we forget the lessons of history at our peril. Therefore, given that those on neither Front Bench have clearly committed to 2% of GDP—[Interruption.] If they have, they will have no trouble in supporting the motion. On that basis, I wish to test the will of the House if it will allow me.
That this House believes that defence spending should be set to a minimum of two per cent of GDP in accordance with the UK’s NATO commitment.