I beg to move,
That this House pays tribute to the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces; believes that the Armed Forces must be fully-equipped and resourced to carry out their duties; and calls on the Government to ensure that defence expenditure is maintained at least at current levels, that no significant capabilities are withdrawn from service, that the number of regular serving personnel across the Armed Forced is maintained, and that current levels of training are maintained.
I am not sure whether I have to declare an interest, but I want to put it on the record that my son-in-law is an active member of Her Majesty’s reserves. As a family, we are all very proud of him, as no doubt many other hon. Members will be proud of individual members of their families.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for supporting the application and all Members of the House who supported my securing this debate, including the Chair of the Select Committee on Defence, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
No one questions the desire of any Member of this Parliament to defend our country against any threat. I say loudly and clearly that neither does anyone question Parliament’s pride or belief in the professionalism and immense dedication to duty of our armed forces. It is really important to say to those watching this debate that Parliament will rightly challenge the Government and hold them to account, but all of us, whether on the Government or Opposition Benches, are united in wanting to defend our country and in our immense pride for the dedication and professionalism of all our armed forces.
No one questions that, but Parliament does sometimes have to ask whether starting these debates is enough. At a time when our country faces real challenges, we have to match our rhetoric with the reality of the threats that we face. The Government, like all of us in this House, will know—indeed, this is what prompted so many of us to ask for this debate—of the constant media speculation and headline splashes about cuts to the various capabilities of our armed forces. It is vital that our defence budget, whatever that is, ensures that our armed forces are properly equipped for the challenges we will face in the future. It is abundantly clear that our armed forces—this will be one theme of what I say and, I am sure, of what is said by many other Members—need resources over and above what is currently planned for them, particularly in the light of the increasing threats we face as a country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his commitment to defence. Is it not true that the Government have not set out a strategic vision of how we, as a country, will meet the threats we face?
That question goes to the heart of everything we read from the all the various Select Committees and debates. It is the desire of all those Committees, of this Parliament and of all of us who take an interest in defence that we identify the strategic threats we face as a country, and then mould and adapt our armed forces and our security and intelligence services to meet those threats. I will say a little more about my hon. Friend’s point in a minute.
Only yesterday, General Sir Nick Carter, the head of the British Army, said on the “Today” programme that the threats had never been greater in his 40-year career. In evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Mark Sedwill, the National Security Adviser, confirmed that in the last two years we have seen an intensification of the threats we face. Indeed, the former Defence Secretary spoke at another evidence session of an intensification of the risks that our country faces.
We can all name those risks: we have seen the various adventures that Russia has been involved in; we have seen what has happened with China and North Korea; we have seen terrible terrorist incidents in our country; we have seen the identification of risks in respect of new technologies, cyber and artificial intelligence and where that may take us; and we have seen the undermining of the rules-based international order. Those are not made-up threats; they are very real assessments of what our country faces, alongside its allies and those who stand with us. Parliament has a responsibility and a duty to debate how we will meet those threats. That is, I believe, something that the public would expect us to do.
This has been added to, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, by Brexit, which has caused us, as a nation, to reflect on our place in the world. I say strongly to hon. Members—looking around, I think many will agree—that this Parliament should once again send a clear message to our allies and the rest of the world that as a senior member of NATO, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a leader of the Commonwealth, we will not turn inwards and we will not flinch from our historical role as a promoter of democracy and defender of human rights, while also ensuring that our own interests are fully protected.
My hon. Friend mentioned North Korea. Is it not the case that the actions of the North Korean regime are a massive threat to the international rules-based order, and does not that need to have higher priority in the thinking not only of our own Government but of our allies?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. North Korea and China are threatening some of the rules-based international order—particularly, as he says, North Korea. We have to meet that threat, and this debate is partly about how we do that. We have to win the argument again with the British public on this. The British public have to be persuaded—or not, because they can say, “We don’t agree.” We as a Parliament have to make the case again for why it is sometimes important for us to be concerned about actions that are taking place thousands and thousands of miles away, and understand why they have an impact on our own interests and our own security here at home. It can no longer be enough just to assert a problem—we have to once again make the case as to why matters such as North Korea are important.
Just two years after the strategic defence and security review of 2015, here we are in the midst of another review, led by Mark Sedwill. I know—other Members have mentioned this to me—that the Defence Secretary is trying to pull away the defence part of the security capability to provide a longer time to reflect, and I hope he is successful in doing that. However, as it stands, we have a review that is shrouded in uncertainty and that we are now told is to be delayed. One particular thing that was said in the Committee is completely wrong and has to be changed by the Government. Mr Sedwill said that
“this exercise was commissioned by the Council as fiscally neutral.”
Fiscally neutral? How can we come to such a conclusion before all the strands of the review are finished? Surely this is about matching resources to threats, not the other way round. Let this be the line in the sand that ensures that this principle is at the heart of the decisions we take as we now move forward.
We see story after story appearing in the media, speculating on which capability may or may not be cut. Why does this speculation abound? Why are there not statements to Parliament? Why is there no explanation of what is actually going on? To be fair to the Minister, I know that he will be concerned about some of this, but it is not good enough for the Government to dismiss these potential capability cuts as mere speculation by saying, “We don’t comment on these” or “No decisions have been made”. I do not want—nor, I am sure, does any Member of this House—a statement to be made to this House in three months’ time telling us what is going to be done rather than this House having debated and discussed it and come to a view as to where we should go. I do not want, and I do not believe Parliament wants, to wait for a set of decisions to be presented to us as a fait accompli. That is not good enough. Our country deserves better. The public and Parliament need to be properly informed. I am certain that colleagues across this House believe that it is for Parliament to debate the issues, to inform the decisions, and to play our full part in the choices we make as to how we defend our country and its freedoms.
According to the permanent secretary at a hearing of the Defence Committee at the end of last year, it appears that the Secretary of State has, as yet, made no explicit request for additional funding from the Chancellor. Will the Minister tell us where the discussions that have been reported in the media have got to? Will he confirm what the Defence Secretary is now saying to the Chancellor? Has he demanded any additional funding? Where has the discussion got to, or not, as to whether there is to be any additional funding? Will the Minister also confirm whether the defence aspect of the capabilities review has been delayed?
The hon. Gentleman will probably be astonished to learn that the National Security Adviser—Sir Mark Sedwill, as he now is—wrote to me on 23 October and said:
“Because the main decisions on Defence were taken during the”
“SDSR, this review is not defence-focused. Defence capability is one of several projects within the review.”
We are therefore finding difficulty in bringing the National Security Adviser to the Defence Committee because he says that the review is not defence-focused. Yet the first thing we will know about the review is when we are told what major defence capabilities are going to be cut.
I could not agree more with the Chair of the Defence Committee. He is absolutely right. Sir Mark Sedwill says that the review is not defence-focused, but he also said to the Committee, if I remember correctly—he has certainly been reported as saying this in the media—that there is a need for us to increase spending on our cyber and intelligence capabilities. This is fiscally neutral, so where is the money going to come from? That is why we get the speculation about the cuts in defence capabilities to which the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) refers. Because this is fiscally neutral, we are looking to take money from one thing to pay for another. The whole thrust of my argument is that if one thing is a threat and another thing is a threat, we do not rob from one to pay for the other—we fund them both because our country would demand that we do so.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. With regard to many of the commitments that were made in SDSR 2015, the money that would be needed to deliver on all those does not match up with what has been allocated to defence in the Budget statements. We are already being promised a lot of commitments that do not bear any relation to the amount of money that is currently allocated to defence in the Budget.
I agree. I will come on to the point that my hon. Friend has made very well when I talk about affordability.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this debate and on his speech, with every single word of which the whole House would agree. We also could not possibly disagree with the motion, with one exception. It is exceptionally disappointing that he calls for defence expenditure to be maintained “at current levels”. Actually, defence expenditure should be increased quite substantially, and that is the thrust of his speech, so he has got the wording of the motion slightly wrong.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his advice. I am sure that he has read the whole motion, which says that expenditure should be maintained
“at least at current levels”.
This is the problem that I have in trying to be conciliatory. I tried to put together something that everybody would agree with, but perhaps I should have been a bit stronger. I take the admonishment, but I did say “at least”.
My hon. Friend refers to maintaining a fiscally neutral position in defence spending. Does he recognise that in the past few years defence inflation has been 3.9%, on average, whereas the background GDP deflator has been only 0.8%? We are seeing a huge erosion of the effective purchasing power of the defence budget every year that is eroding our capability every year.
My hon. Friend knows, from his own background in the defence industry, the importance of the point he has made. It is not just the headline inflation figure but the real inflation rate we face that needs to be addressed when we make any spending decisions, so the point is very well made. If I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will speak for just a few more minutes.
We find ourselves in an incredibly serious situation, given that a Defence Minister is reported to have threatened to resign if the Army numbers are reduced any further. Will the Government rule out any further reductions in troop numbers below the 82,000 figure? The Army is already 4,000 below that figure, recruitment and retention in our armed forces as a whole has reached crisis point and the current deficit in the number of service personnel needed is 5.6%. I say to the Minister that central to this—I know the Government have made some noises about it—is lifting the 1% public pay cap for our armed forces. We should ensure that something is done about it as soon as possible.
What about the cuts to training that we have all read about? The Government have confirmed that a number of training exercises have already been cancelled for 2018, largely due to costs. According to a parliamentary written answer I have seen, those include Exercise Black Horse and Exercise Curry Trail, which involves jungle training. Have we now abandoned the foolish idea of cutting the marines by 1,000 people, and of getting rid of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which would mean we did not have the ability to mount beach landings? As I have said, the Government say that this is speculation, but the Minister now has an opportunity to rule out such things; he could say that this is speculation, that these things are not going to happen and that this Government will not let them take place.
Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), all of this is taking place against the backdrop of continuing financial pressures on the MOD’s £178 billion 10-year equipment plan. The National Audit Office has said:
“The risks to the affordability of the Ministry of Defence Equipment Plan are greater than at any point since reporting began in 2012”.
That is surely right. The plan relies heavily on efficiency savings being made in order to make ends meet. The MOD’s permanent secretary has stated that there is a need to save £30 billion over a 10-year period.
The 10-year equipment plan for the MOD does have amazing new equipment for our armed forces—new frigates, new planes and the Ajax fighting vehicle—and our defence companies provide massive employment opportunities, including apprenticeships. Many areas depend on this military spending, as well as businesses such as BAE, Airbus, Thales, Raytheon, Babcock and many others, including small and medium-sized enterprises. They need certainty in their orders, however, and regular orders to maintain their skill base, and the questions raised by the Defence Committee and the National Audit Office about affordability and efficiency savings cannot just be dismissed. The refreshed defence industrial strategy must be something that makes a tangible difference.
I strongly agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said. We must support our brave men and women in our armed forces in every way we can, particularly in equipping them sufficiently. I know he would agree with me that it is critical to support our armed forces personnel after they leave and to resource such support properly. There is one part of the United Kingdom that does not have full implementation of the armed forces covenant, and that is Northern Ireland, due to Sinn Féin’s continued antipathy to the armed forces. Does he not agree that we should all work together to make sure that our armed forces personnel are fully supported not only while they are in the Army, but after they leave, and that there should be full implementation in Northern Ireland as soon as possible?
I thank the hon. Lady for the important point she makes. It is obviously crucial that all our veterans, wherever they are, are supported and that arrangements are made to do so. Exactly how that should be done in Northern Ireland needs to be a matter for discussion, but let me say it is clear that arrangements must and should be put in place to support our veterans.
I was talking about the equipment plan, and I will take a couple more minutes to put before the House some points that highlight the problems. Will the Minister be more specific about the cost of the F-35 fighter plane for our wonderful new aircraft carriers? This is crucial because if we do not know how much the planes will cost, we do not know what the impact will be on the other parts of the equipment budget. If I may say so to the right hon. Member for New Forest East, I thought the Defence Committee’s report was brilliant on this, including the questioning from the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and others.
I find it frustrating that the Committee, and other Members of this House, use the Government’s figures, but are then told something else. The total estimated cost to 2026-27 is £9.1 billion, during which time we will purchase 48 aircraft. However, the Government tell us that they cannot say how much each aircraft will cost. They then dispute the £9.1 billion figure, saying it includes this and includes that, and then arrive at a different figure, so what is the right figure? If we are wrong to divide £9.1 billion by 48, which gives £189 million per aircraft, and if the figure of £150 million given in The Times is wrong, what figure are the Government using to make sure that their equipment plan adds up? These are crucial questions, because if they will not say what is affordable, we will not know the impact on other capabilities.
Let me conclude by saying that the stark choices before us have recently been quite starkly spoken about by three very distinguished former armed forces commanders when they expressed their concerns and observations about the national security capability review. General Sir Richard Barrons said that
“if you do not put this money back into defence and pay the bill for SDSR 2015, you will be responsible for tipping the armed forces into institutional failure. That will be a failure of Government, not the armed forces.”
Air Vice-Marshal Sir Baz North said that the Government needed to
“Fund the corrections of 2015”,
and, agreeing, Admiral Sir George Zambellas said:
“I cannot add value to the strategic comments of my colleagues.”
This debate gives the House—this Parliament—an opportunity to speak for the country, and to give our armed forces the resources they need to meet the threats that this country faces. Our armed forces deserve it, our country deserves it and our allies are looking to us to provide it.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). Not for the first time, he has given great service to the cause of defence. He was an outstandingly good shadow Defence Secretary, and as long as there are people like him in the ranks of the Labour party the prospects for a bipartisan approach to defence remain excellent. I must extend that praise to all 11 Members from the four parties represented on the Defence Committee, every one of whom is strongly committed to the defence of this country.
Until recent years, little attention was paid to a possible threat from post-communist Russia, because for a long time after 9/11 counter-insurgency campaigns in third world countries were thought to be the principal role of the armed forces. However, we are now spending just £0.4 billion on operations of that type out of an annual defence budget of about £36 billion. According to the 2015 SDSR, that budget should by 2020 fund 82,000 soldiers, more than 30,000 sailors and marines, and almost 32,000 RAF personnel, plus another 35,000 reservists. To these must be added some 41,000 civilians, many of whom, like those who serve in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, are service personnel in all but name. Finally, there are special forces, as well as new units that have been created to deal with cyber-security and counter-propaganda. Then there is all the equipment, which currently comprises over 4,000 Army vehicles, including tanks and artillery; about 75 Royal Navy ships and submarines, including the nuclear deterrent; and over 1,000 RAF fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. As a portent of things to come, the services also operate a mixture of large and small surveillance drones and 10 unmanned hunter-killer aerial attack vehicles.
All in all, we still have a fairly full spectrum of military capability, and in absolute terms—as I am sure we would all accept—£36 billion a year is a considerable sum. Set in historical perspective, however, that level of defence investment falls far below the efforts that we have traditionally made when confronted by danger internationally.
The Defence Committee published a report on defence expenditure in April 2016. Entitled, “Shifting the Goalposts?”, it attracted attention for highlighting the inclusion of costly items such as war pensions and MOD civilian pensions at a time when Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne were scrambling to meet the 2% of GDP benchmark which, as we know, was set by NATO as a minimum—not as a target—for all its members. The Government were entitled to include such items in their 2% calculations, but they had never chosen to do so previously. It was therefore clear that by resorting to a form of creative accountancy, we were no longer strictly comparing like with like in overall expenditure terms.
Our report was especially revealing in its tables and graphs, which were well researched by Committee staff. They showed UK defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP, year by year, from the mid-1950s to the present day, and compared those data with the corresponding figures for spending on welfare, education and health. We found that in 1963 we spent similar sums—about 6% of GDP—on both welfare and defence. Now we spend six times on welfare what we spend on defence. In the mid-1980s, the last time we faced a simultaneous threat from an assertive Soviet Union, as it then was, and a major terrorist threat in Northern Ireland, we spent similar sums—about 5% of GDP—on education, on health, and on defence. Now we spend two and half times on education, and nearly four times on health, what we spend on defence.
At the height of the east-west confrontation, in every year from 1981 until 1987, we spent between 4.3% and 5.1% of GDP on defence. Between the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the failure of the Moscow coup in 1991, the cold war came to an end. Consequently, and predictably, a reduction in defence expenditure followed. That was known as the peace dividend yet—this is the key point—even after it had been taken, and even as late as the financial year 1995-96, we were still spending not 2% of GDP, which is the NATO minimum, but fully 3% of GDP on defence. That was without the accounting adjustments that have been used to scrape over the 2% line in the past few years.
To sum up, from 1988 when the cold war began to evaporate, until 2014 when we pulled back from Afghanistan, defence spending almost halved as a proportion of GDP. Now that we face a newly assertive Russia and a global terrorist threat, the decision to set 3% of GDP as our defence expenditure target can no longer be delayed.
I have also looked at the statistics mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, and he is absolutely right about the creative accounting. Even taking that into account, it seems impossible to reach the conclusion that we have ever spent as little as we currently spend on defence in comparison with our GDP.
That is absolutely right. It is a measure of how far downwards our expectations were managed during the reductions in percentage GDP spent on defence under the Blair Government and the Cameron coalition Government, that it was regarded as a cause for triumph and congratulation when it was finally confirmed that we would not be dropping expenditure below 2%. The matter had never been questioned at all prior to that period.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and it is a pleasure to serve under his stout chairmanship of the Defence Committee—[Interruption.] I mean stout in personality terms.
In some ways, the situation is even more challenging than the one my right hon. Friend lays out. He has rightly given the figures in terms of GDP, but in recent years—as we heard in testimony from the permanent under-secretary—in almost every strategic defence and security review and comprehensive spending review, the MOD has had to sign up to additional sets of efficiency savings, now totalling some £30 billion over time. Not only does the MOD have a constricted budget, it has had to find those efficiency savings as well, which makes the situation even more challenging.
My right hon. Friend speaks with great experience as a former Armed Forces Minister, and he made a considerable input to our recent report, “Gambling on ‘Efficiency’: Defence Acquisition and Procurement”, by making that very point.
Quite rightly, the hon. Member for Gedling emphasised the current process involving the national security capability review, and he focused on the question of fiscal neutrality, which the National Security Adviser says he has been told to observe. When I challenged the National Security Adviser with that on 18 December, when he appeared before the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, he said, “Well, it’s not as if the defence budget isn’t growing; it is fiscal neutrality within a growing budget.” He then did something else, which is indicative of a worrying trend: he lumped together the £36 billion that we are spending avowedly on defence with all the other money that we spend on everything else related to security, and he started talking about a £56 billion budget. That lumping together of money for security and intelligence services, counter-terrorism and even the relevant aspects of policing with the defence budget, is a form of sleight of hand that causes me concern. That is what I wish to address in the second half of my remarks.
We have a real problem in this country because the tried and tested system for strategic decision making has broken down. In my years as a research student, my area of study was the way that Britain planned towards the end of the second world war, and the early period after it, for what form of strategy we would need to deal with future threats. I was struck by the fact that there was a huge argument between 1944 and 1946 between clever officials in the Foreign Office who wanted to make the Anglo-Soviet alliance of 1942 the cornerstone of our post-war foreign policy, and the Chiefs of Staff who wanted to prepare their assessments of what Britain might have to face militarily on alternative assumptions that that alliance might well continue—in which case all would be well—but that it might break down. There was a tremendous stand-off until 1946, when finally the iron curtain had descended and it became clear that the Chiefs of Staff, who had looked at the Anglo-Soviet alliance in theoretical terms and said, “Well it could work, but it might not”, had been right to be cautious, and the Foreign Office staff, who wanted to put all their eggs in the basket of being able to continue the wartime alliance into peacetime, had been wrong. I was very struck by the systematic way in which the strategic arguments were hammered out, and at the centre of it all was the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
The Chiefs of Staff Committee, as we all know, is made up of the heads of each of the three services. The shocking thing that I have to say to the House today is that one can now become chief of staff of any of the three armed services—one can become head of the Royal Navy, or head of the Army, or head of the Royal Air Force—and yet have no direct input into the strategic planning process. This is all part of the lumping together of military strategic planning with national security strategies that are vague and amorphous and, above all, primarily in the hands of civil servants.
If the civil servants themselves were steeped, as they used to be, in the subject matter of their Departments, that would be less of a problem than it is today. But some years ago, it was decided that those in the senior levels of the civil service—which are, of course, peopled by very clever and able individuals; that is not in dispute—should be able to hop from one Department to another. One might be at a senior level in one Department and then go for the top job in another, including, for example, the Ministry of Defence. What we have is a combination where formerly specialist civil servants have become generalists and the professional military advisers—the Chiefs of Staff—have become more like business managers serving as chief executives with an allocated budget to administer to their services. All their thoughts about strategy get fed through just one single individual—the Chief of the Defence Staff—who then has to represent all their views on the National Security Council. It is this melding together, this mishmash, of the military, the security and the civilian roles that is undermining what we need, which is a clear-headed and systematic approach to the strategic challenges facing this country.
My right hon. Friend is making an extremely important point about the whole structure of decision making within the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence. Does he agree that he has not yet mentioned a very important element in that, namely Ministers? He has not yet discussed Ministers’ role in considering the strategy of the nation. Is it not particularly interesting that when Sir Mark Sedwill appeared before the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy the other day, he let us know that the review that is currently being undertaken by his Department was commissioned during the general election campaign, when presumably Ministers had their minds on something else? I would be interested to know exactly who it was who commissioned the strategy at that particular time.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he made a very useful contribution to the questioning of Mark Sedwill on 18 December. The reason I have not really mentioned Ministers is that, frankly, Ministers do not seem to be having much of a role in this, either. What I did not say, because I did not want to dwell too long on it, is that the stand-off between the Chiefs of Staff and the Foreign Office in 1944 was finally resolved when it went all the way up to Churchill, who finally gave the Chiefs of Staff permission to continue doing the contingency planning for a possibly hostile Soviet Union that they wanted to do, and that the Foreign Office did not want them to do. The reality here is that there has been a loss of focus. There is no proper machinery, other than this rather woolly concept of a National Security Council, served by a secretariat, run effectively by the Cabinet Office.
In conclusion, what I really want to say is this. Constitutionally, we know what is right. That was confirmed when we spoke to the former Secretary of State for Defence in the Defence Committee and he was attended by a senior MOD official. We asked him, “Is it still the case that the Chiefs of Staff—the heads of the armed forces—retain the right to go directly to No. 10 if they think the danger to the country is such that they have to make direct representations?” The answer was yes, it is. But what is the point of their having that right if they are not actually allowed to do the job of planning the strategies and doing what they used to do as a Committee —serving as the military advisers to the Government? As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) says, ultimately, the Government always have the right to accept or reject such military advice as they get from the service chiefs, but the service chiefs ought to be in a position to give that advice.
My right hon. Friend is coming to his peroration, and I want to go back to his initial point, if I may try your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker. The important point, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), was the comparison between defence, education and health spending going back a couple of decades. Of course we have had the cold war demise, but I would recommend that hon. Members read the Prime Minister’s speech at the Guildhall in November, which talks about the new threats that are coming round. I pose the question: as we try and passionately make the case for the necessary funding for our armed forces, would it be easier for that case to be made if the passion and enthusiasm for our armed forces on the doorstep, as we campaign for general elections and so on, was comparable with that for health and education? I pose that question because I think there is a role for all of us to play in confirming what status our armed forces should have in future.
I am grateful to the Minister for making that point in that way, and nobody could be doing more than he is, within the constraints of his office, to make the case. We all know that.
The reality is that defence is always difficult to get funded in peacetime because it is analogous to paying the premiums on an insurance policy, and people are always reluctant to pay the premiums, although they are very glad to have paid them when the time comes to call in the policy because something adverse has occurred.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee for giving way, but surely this is the role of Ministers. It is the role of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Defence to be providing that leadership, setting out that strategic vision, and therefore the reason for that expenditure. That is where the leadership has to come from.
I agree, but I think it is something more important than that. They must have a proper strategic planning machine at their service; otherwise, they are just a bunch of individuals giving their personal opinions.
It may suit civil servants to sideline the military professionals—to reduce the uniformed contribution to strategic planning to the input of one individual, the Chief of the Defence Staff. It may suit them, too, to sideline the Ministry of Defence and reduce its contribution to a single strand of a so-called national security strategy, but it does not suit the national interest to have inadequate specialist military pushback against politicians with poor strategic grasp and a political bee in their bonnet. That is how disastrous own goals, like the Libya fiasco, come to be inflicted upon us, despite the warnings of the then Chief of the Defence Staff against overthrowing the Libyan regime.
A single military adviser, no matter how capable, cannot have the same impact as the combined contribution of a Joint Committee of the heads of the armed forces. So it is not enough just to set ourselves a 3% target for defence expenditure, as indeed we must; it is vital also to recognise that our tried and tested machinery for making military strategy has been vitiated and largely dismantled. The Chiefs of Staff must once again be more than budget managers, stuck on the sidelines while politicians and officials call the shots and, as often as not, call the shots incorrectly.
Order. I have given a lot of leeway to the hon. Gentleman who moved the motion, and to the Chairman of the Select Committee, both of whom took a lot of interventions, and that is good for rounded debate. It will be obvious to the House that a great many people wish to speak this afternoon. We have plenty of time, but that time will run out, and it will not be fair to everyone if individual members speak for much more than 10 minutes. So, as an advisory amount, 10 minutes would be just about right. If people speak for much more than that, I will have to impose a time limit, which stunts the debate. It is much better if everybody behaves in an honourable fashion.
It is a privilege to be called to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing it. He has been a tireless champion of our armed forces, and he has done us all a great service today by giving us an important opportunity to debate this most important of matters. I will seek to do so in the most constructive way possible, because I believe that we all have a responsibility to hold the Government to account. My remarks, and the concerns that I will express, are not about securing short-term political advantage; they are about ensuring that our nation is properly defended.
Throughout my time in the armed forces and in this place, I have come to believe that every Government’s policy on defence should be underpinned by two promises. The first is the Government’s promise to maintain the freedom and integrity of the UK, its overseas territories and its people, and it is rooted in their recognition that this is their primary duty. The second is the armed forces covenant: a promise from the Government, on behalf of the nation, that those who serve or who have served, and their families, will be treated fairly. For reasons of time, I will not talk about the military covenant today. Like all hon. Members present, I am constantly inspired by the incredible skill and commitment that our servicemen and women demonstrate, often in the most difficult circumstances; it is just that today my emphasis will be on the risk to our defensive capability.
When thinking about this speech, I looked at the “UK Defence Doctrine” to see what it says about the role of defence. It states:
“Our national security encompasses the safety of our state and protecting it from external and internal threats. It also requires us to endeavour to preserve the security of UK nationals living overseas.”
The same document goes on to talk about the many varied potential uses of our armed forces, from enhancing soft power influence to the evacuation of non-combatants, the application of force and responding to natural disasters. However, my concern is that it is not a publication that is read much, at least not by those who seem to be making the decisions on the future of our armed forces. I am thinking, in particular, of some of those in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. Instead, some of them seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that, in the age of information conflict, the need for our armed forces is decreasing. That could not be further from the truth. Mitigating threats to our security is not a zero-sum game.
In recent years and months, the eyes of Westminster and Whitehall have become increasingly focused on Russia’s activity in the UK’s information domain, our critical national information infrastructure and the broader concepts of soft power and security. That is commendable, but it is worth remembering that in 2015 the national security strategy and the strategic defence and security review identified four primary threats to UK national security: the increasing threat posed by terrorism, extremism and instability; the resurgence of state-based threats; the impact of technological change, especially cyber threats; and the erosion of the rules-based international order. Our armed forces are critical in mitigating those threats.
Since then, some members of the Government have repeatedly told us that
“the threats identified have intensified”
“there is a need to strengthen our defences”.
Yet the growth in threat has not been matched by a growth in resources. Indeed, the previous Secretary of State told the Defence Committee that the mismatch between intensifying threats and the capabilities available was in fact being exacerbated by
“the challenge of inflation, cost growth in some of our more complex programmes and the ambitious efficiency targets.”
Yet the ongoing capability review appears to have no intention of addressing that underfunding, because it cannot. Unlike the full SDSR in 2015, it is not taking place at the same time as a spending review, and the budget for the Ministry of Defence has been fixed up until 2021. My first question to the Minister, who I know thinks very carefully about these matters, is therefore this: what is the purpose of a review that may conclude that there is a need for more capability if there is no chance of the Government providing it? Surely such a move will only highlight to our adversaries both the paucity of our ambition and the degradation of our capabilities.
The past few years have not been good for defence. Too much influence has been ceded to people who do not understand or value our armed forces. That has resulted in the mismanagement of the defence budget, delayed the delivery of crucial equipment and created holes in our strategic and operational capabilities. Now, as the national security capability review runs the risk of channelling funds away from our armed forces in favour of a focus on cyber-security, the Government run the risk of making matters worse.
I could speak at length about the capability areas damaged and in danger, but today I want just to touch on our amphibious capability, Joint Force 2025 and the importance of training to both of them. First, on our amphibious capability, I have had the privilege of serving alongside Royal Marines and, although I would not necessarily have told them this at the time, I know how important they and their enabling capabilities really are. That is why I hope the continued rumours regarding their future—specifically, the selling off of HMS Ocean, the cutting of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, and the reduction of the Royal Marines by up to 1,000—are not true. A cyber capability cannot do what they do, and what they do remains absolutely crucial, be that the application of force, crisis relief or the evacuation of non-combatants. Our amphibious capability is a critical national asset.
In 2005 General Sir Rupert Smith said that the future of warfare was “war amongst the people”. He was right. Considering that over 40% of the world’s population live within 100 km of the coast, it is absurd that we should even be talking about cutting our amphibious capability, or pretending that Bay class and Queen Elizabeth class ships offer similar functionality. Crossing the littoral boundary is not only essential to our ability to deploy troops in many future conflict scenarios, but hugely important to the UK’s humanitarian work around the world, and cutting it would signal that we are stepping back from both our global responsibilities and our responsibilities to UK nationals overseas.
The real-world importance of those capabilities was demonstrated recently by Operation Ruman, the UK’s military response to Hurricane Irma, and continues to be illustrated by the fact that, at the joint force headquarters in Northwood, two of the highest priorities for NEO—non-combatant evacuation operations—planning are South Korea and Lebanon. As such, we must acknowledge that any decision to reduce this capability would come not as part of a wider strategy for the UK’s role in the world, but as a misguided attempt to get the defence budget under control. I would therefore like to ask the Minister whether he can confirm today that neither Albion nor Bulwark will be scrapped as part of the national security capability review. Can he also confirm that there will be no cuts to the regular manpower of our Royal Marines?
I am similarly concerned about the current threats to my old service, the Army. Since 2010 we have seen numerous initiatives affecting the manpower, equipment, training and structure of the Army. The most recent, Joint Force 2025, was initiated by the 2015 SDSR and is rightly focused not on equipment and platforms, but on output and effect. The planned reforms were intended to deliver armed forces that were more agile and reactive, and to prepare the Army to deal with growing threats from state adversaries. That kind of development and evolution is critical to our national defence, but such modernisation is predicated on harnessing emerging technologies and, as such, requires investment in research and development, capital expenditure on new equipment, and the right number of well trained personnel. All of this was to be underpinned by greater cohesion and co-operation between regulars and reserves and paid for by MOD efficiency savings, but I fear neither is happening and Joint Force 2025 is, as a result, under threat.
I therefore ask the Minister three further questions. First, is the MOD still on track to deliver Joint Force 2025 as planned? Secondly, how is the MOD ensuring that the outcomes of the capability review in relation to defence do not similarly rest on false assumptions and overly optimistic promises? Thirdly—I say this slightly in jest—should regular reserves like my parliamentary assistant and myself, and I suspect the Minister as well, really be included in the “whole force” figures? Although I say that slightly in jest, it highlights the important point that for our armed forces, in the land environment in particular, capability is not just a question of numbers. Personnel have to be correctly equipped, trained and accustomed to operating in deployable structures. Too often, training is seen as an overhead that can be cut back. That ignores the importance of training in ensuring that our armed forces are ready to respond and in demonstrating capability to allies and adversaries alike. As threats diversify and intensify, our training must adapt and deepen.
My hon. Friend talks eloquently about training, but is it not just as important to consider accommodation for our armed forces? We have seen the pay cap and rising rents, and we now have our forces being written to saying that civilians will be allocated services accommodation. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential for maintaining our capability and training programmes that we have good accommodation, in good condition, at the right price?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Because of the time available today, I have not got into discussing the armed forces covenant, but that is crucial for ensuring that we have people who continue to wish to serve our country in the armed forces now and young people who wish to serve in the future. We as a country, a Government and a House of Commons must be able to demonstrate that we are committed to ensuring good circumstances under which they can serve, which includes ensuring they have rewarding professional opportunities. That is why training is so important. We must also ensure that they and their families are properly looked after, and accommodation is a very important part of that.
This debate has come at a crucial time for our armed forces. The UK is now under greater threat than at any time since the cold war, yet I fear that, as well as there being serious questions about how the targeted 2% of GDP is being spent, our Government run the risk of being seen to have no coherent security and defence strategy. Furthermore, the national security capability review risks channelling more funds away from our armed forces in favour of a focus on cyber-security. There seems to be a belief that the emerging cyber and information threats have somehow resulted in the decline of conventional threats; they have not, and they will not. The opening up of new fronts does not mean the closing down of old ones, and the unprecedented hollowing out of our armed forces must end.
Rarely in debates in this Chamber can the fourth speaker have been faced with such a major challenge as mine in following three such well informed, all-encompassing, brilliant speeches as those of the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and now the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who knows what he is talking about. It is quite a challenge to think of something new to say after those three outstanding speeches. I agree with all of them, and I agree very strongly with the motion. However, you and I have known each other for 25 years, Madam Deputy Speaker, so you will be aware that it would none the less be entirely uncharacteristic of me simply to say “I agree,” and then sit down; that would not be in keeping at all.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Gedling has secured the debate, but I regret the fact that it had to be called under the rules of the Backbench Business Committee. When I—and many of us in this Chamber—first arrived here, we had five such debates a year: one each for the RAF, the Army and the Royal Navy and then two further debates on spending matters. That was changed after the 1998 SDSR into five set-piece, major, full-scale debates in Government time on a variety of subjects: defence policy, defence of the UK, defence of the world, and one on personnel and one on procurement. They were serious debates opened by the Secretary of State, with a packed House and vast numbers of people watching; they were an important part of the body politic’s discussions on defence.
That system has now been replaced, however, and in fact for two or three years there were no debates on defence at all under the Backbench Business Committee. There are now one or two debates a year if we are lucky, secured by a Back Bencher choosing to do so. That is wrong; the Government should return to the way we were when the Backbench Business Committee was invented and say to it that we expect to have at least five substantive defence debates during the course of the year. It must find time in its programme for that. Allocating such debates to compete with such important matters as live animals in circuses is wrong and downplays the importance of the defence of the nation.
That situation might none the less be symptomatic of something that concerns me, and to which one or two Members have alluded: we as a nation are downplaying defence and the threat to us. There is a degree of war-weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan and so forth, and people would like our troops to come home and there to be no more wars anywhere in the world. But that will not happen, of course, because the world is an extraordinarily dangerous place.
We in this House are guilty of a degree of complacency over the threats to the nation, and that is then spread around the nation, and our voters do not realise what a dangerous place we live in. If we conducted a survey and asked voters on their doorsteps whether we should spend money on defence or health or education, defence would, sadly, come fairly low down their list of priorities. We in this place need to change that by having serious debates on the subject and highlighting the huge threats facing us today.
I will not repeat what others have said about the threats from an expansionist Russia, North Korea, events in the South China sea, and terrorism throughout the middle east, but those threats have not gone away and are worse now than they were before. I personally am extremely concerned about Russian ambitions in the high north and the Arctic and north Atlantic, and I am grateful that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) has taken up the cudgels of the Defence Sub-Committee, looking into what the Russians are planning to do in the high north. At the moment, however, NATO is, to some degree at least, ignoring that, and it is right that we should remind people that the Russians have just spent billions of pounds on building eight new military stations along the Arctic coast, that they have very substantially increased submarine activity in the north Atlantic, and that they are threatening our lines of supply to the United States of America—and all of this is happening under our noses and we are not doing anything about it. It is right that we in this place should remind our colleagues and the nation that these very real threats are happening on our doorstep.
Part of the reason for that failure to address these real threats comes from what might sound like a rather technical, machinery of government matter, and which my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East touched on. The last truly proper defence review was in 1998, and I pay tribute to the then Defence Ministers, one of whom, the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), is sitting on the Opposition back row. It was a first-class defence review: it was foreign policy led; it was the MOD sitting down and saying, “Given that these are the foreign policy threats to our nation, here’s what we in the MOD must now do to protect the country from them.” Since then, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East said, the whole process has become ever more muddled, obscured and complicated. Nobody now quite understands who decides what the threats to this nation are, nobody quite knows who decides what we must do about them, and nobody quite knows where we are going to get the money to do that.
For example, the SDSR used to happen at the same time as the national spending review, and that was extremely important. As the hon. Member for Barnsley Central said, what is the point of having a defence review if we know that, no matter what it concludes, there will be no money to change things? Let us imagine that such a review concluded that there was a vast cyber-threat or Russian threat against us and decided that we must significantly increase our Army, Navy or Air Force. The Treasury would turn round and say, “Well, we’re very glad you have had that review and we’re very interested to read it. You have made some important points and we will be reviewing the Ministry of Defence budget two years from now. So, no matter what you have said in your review, we can do nothing about it.” It seems extremely odd to be mixing the strategic defence review with the security review.
Sir Mark Sedwill, a very distinguished fellow who does an awful lot of good stuff, has said that we need to spend more money on cyber, and he is right, but every single penny that we spend on cyber comes out of other budgets. If we were to double our cyber budget, which might well be a very good thing to do, it might have to be paid for by cuts in the amphibious capability that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned. If it is any comfort to the hon. Gentleman, I can tell him that if any such cuts were to take place—if HMS Bulwark were to go, for example, or if 1,000 people were to be cut from the Royal Marines—he can be certain that I and many others on the side of the House would not support any Government who proposed to do that. I want to make it plain that we would not go along with any such proposals from the Government. I think that many of my friends in the Ministry of Defence would agree with that and are fighting that battle very firmly at the moment.
It would seem perfectly logical and sensible, when carrying out a review, to start with the Foreign Office assessing the risk. The Cabinet Office should follow that by determining how much of that risk is to do with us—with policing or with cyber, for example. Those conclusions should then go to the Ministry of Defence, which would identify the threats to the nation and decide what to do about them. Subsequently, the Treasury should say, “Fine, that is what you want to do about the threat. Here is how we are going to find the money for it.” But to have a national security review mixed in with a strategic defence review, and happening at a time that is not contingent with the national spending review, seems to be absolutely pointless and, indeed, substantially misleading. We are misleading ourselves that somehow we are looking into these things properly. I would like to see the defence part of the review separated out. It ought to be happening in the autumn of this year, at the same time as the Budget, in case we need more money to do what the Foreign Office says we ought to be doing.
That is all I want to add to what others have said. We are facing incredibly dangerous and worrying times, and this nation is under threat. There are very real threats to our people’s security and safety. If we in this place do not address that fact strategically, and if we do not find a way of increasing our defence spending towards the 3% that many of us in the Chamber want, I fear that we will not be doing our duty. We will not be doing what our people send us here to do, and we will not be putting in place the correct way to defend our nation.
When it comes to defence, we have to accept that without the right personnel with the right expertise and in enough numbers, the military cannot function. All the most sophisticated technology imaginable is useless if we do not have the skilled individuals to operate it. The planes cannot fly, the ships cannot sail and the vehicles cannot move without the people with the expertise. In essence, without people there is no military capability, and yet it is the people that we keep cutting.
Following the strategic defence and security review in 2010, there was a restructuring of the Army through a plan dubbed Army 2020, along with Future Reserves 2020 for the Army Reserve. The plan was refined in 2015. It proposed to reduce the number of Regular Army, or full-time, personnel from 102,000 to 82,000 and to increase the rebranded and re-enrolled reserve forces, or part-time personnel, from around 15,000 to 35,000 to make up the shortfall. On paper, that looks great. In April 2017, the Regular Army numbered 83,560 personnel and the Army Reserve 29,940. However, we need to dig deeper.
Reserve soldiers work hard as reservists, but many also have full-time jobs. They are required to complete a minimum commitment of days and training with the Army Reserve each year to be fully up to date and able to deploy in support of the regular Army. The completion of this training is not mandatory, but those who do not complete it are not considered qualified to fulfil their function during that given training year. Those soldiers who complete the training are awarded a tax-free bounty or bonus. This bonus shows how many reservists each year are ready and able to deploy quickly to support the Regular Army.
Over the last few years the number of Army Reserve soldiers has increased dramatically, from 21,030 in April 2015 to 29,940 in April 2017. That is an increase of 42% in the space of a few years. Those figures have been obtained from the Ministry of Defence through parliamentary questions. Given such an impressive increase, one would expect to see a proportional increase in those achieving the annual bounty as more and more reserve soldiers achieve their annual training targets. In April 2015, 14,270 achieved their bounty. That was 67.85% of the total Army Reserve. However, in April 2017, 14,930 got their bounty, representing just short of 50% of the total. That represents a 17.98% fall in the proportion of the Army reservists achieving their annual training targets.
The bounty is broken down into five levels. Each year that a soldier achieves a bounty, the next level is paid until they get to year five. Of the bounties awarded in 2017, 1,980 were for year 1; 1,470 were for year 2; years 3 and 4 were grouped at 1,310; and the figure for year 5 was 10,160. That is not a weighting one might expect, given the increased numbers of recruits. The numbers imply that the number of reserve personnel able to complete the training required of them in order to be considered fully up to date and able to support their regular colleagues has been pretty stable but not growing. Despite the 42% growth, the number of reserve soldiers able to fulfil the minimum commitment set out by the Government is still at the same level. The growth in the Army Reserve is a paper growth, not a real growth.
The Government’s expectation is that people will be able to marry up having a full-time job with the capability to operate at the same level as a full-time member of our armed forces. That assumption is being made as a result of a cost-saving decision to cut the Regular Army, and it is simply unrealistic. We now have a Regular Army of about 78,000 and an effective reserve strength of roughly 15,000, with both barely able to fulfil their required duties, especially as the Regular Army was previously more than 100,000 strong.
There is a further problem with the Government’s approach. We are reliant on experts to operate in a sensible and effective manner equipment that is often at the cutting edge of technology. Those skills cannot be replaced overnight. The Government’s solution was to cut those experts from the Regular Army and attempt to re-recruit them as reservists with a £10,000 incentive scheme.
As of 1 October 2017, 4,350 ex-Regular Reserve soldiers had been recruited using the bonus incentive scheme since its inception in 2013. The £10,000 bonus is broken down into four instalments, called key milestones, that are paid out over four years provided that the soldier has completed a number of days of training and tests. Considering that it equates to almost a quarter of those cut from the Regular Army in a similar period, 4,350 is a good number. However, of those who have entered the scheme, 3,320 made it to key milestone 1, 2,370 made it to key milestone 2, only 1,280 made it to key milestone 3, and just 480 reached key milestone 4 —a drop-out rate of 88.97%. Therefore, despite the offer of a £10,000 bonus, these ex-regular soldiers are also unable to meet the requirements of a full-time job while being a fully trained reservist that is capable of deployment. We risk having an undermanned regular force that lacks the skills and knowledge that come from the experienced soldiers that we made redundant, and an overworked reserve force that is doing its best to make up the shortfall while its people also try to get on with a civilian career. Once again, the apparent cost saving is elusive.
Returning once again to the ex-regulars in the reserve forces, each ex-regular at the rank of private is on a basic rate of £50 a day. Many earn much more than that, but let us just go with the basic. The total amount spent since the inception of the scheme on just wages and bonus payments is roughly a minimum of £26.3 million. For that £26.3 million, we get an 88.97% drop-out rate and only 480 reserve soldiers. That is before any consideration of the cost of restructuring both the Regular Army and the Army Reserve. We are cutting full-time capable soldiers and replacing them with people of whom we expect too much.
The Government have created a personnel problem in our armed forces that threatens to spiral out of control. We all acknowledge that the men and women in our armed forces, whether regulars or reserves, are dedicated professionals who are asked to do a difficult and demanding job, but their numbers have been cut to dangerously low levels and we are losing vital expertise. To make up the shortfall, we have put in place increased, unrealistic and unfair burdens on the reserve forces, which are also made up of honest, hard-working people, in the name of a cost saving that appears to be nothing at all.
The immensely frustrating factor in all this is that the Ministry of Defence and the services seem to be replicating exactly the same mistakes that were made in the “Options for Change” White Paper at the end of the cold war. They are pushing regulars out and creating an atmosphere in which people think that the forces are not recruiting, and they are damaging morale. Then, during the Christmas period, they spend however much they did on blitzing the airwaves to try to attract people in an atmosphere in which people are seeing those who have been forced out of our services.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Some statistics released today show that 71% of businesses in the service sector are finding it difficult to recruit from the skilled workforce, and the figure for manufacturing is 76%. We are operating in a climate where skilled people are at a premium. The armed forces had skilled people, but they sacked them and, rightly enough, the business community has grabbed them. We then tried to bring them back into the armed forces by offering them a bonus, but that has not worked. We have managed to keep only 480 of them. It is shocking, irresponsible and downright dangerous. This is an unpredictable world, and we cannot afford to play games. We are not showing our friends and allies our willingness and ability to support them and to support our own interests around the globe if we are not retaining and training our full-time personnel.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who always speaks knowledgeably on defence matters, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing this important debate and, if I may say so, on introducing it so ably this afternoon. I want to focus on the national security capabilities review—the NSCR—and, in particular, its potential effect on the greatest asset we possess in defence: our people. There is already considerable anxiety in the armed forces about where the review may lead, and it is important to understand the serious damage that could be done to defence if those fears are not addressed.
Unfortunately, we are starting from a position in which the armed forces are already being subjected to a hollowing out. In May 2017, the total strength of the regular armed forces was 138,350, which is some 5% below their establishment strength, as the hon. Member for Gedling intimated—although shortages are far worse in highly specialised pinch-point trades, such as qualified engineers. In the year to April 2017, 12,950 people joined the UK regular armed forces, but 14,970 left over the same period—a net deficit of over 2,000 personnel. At present, trained and experienced personnel are leaving the armed forces faster than the recruiting organisations, which are already running to stand still, as it were, are able to make up for those who are departing. In particular, the Regular Army is currently around 30% below its annual recruitment target, managing only around 7,000 new recruits of the 10,000 required last year.
Moreover, as is borne out in the most recent armed forces continuous attitude survey—AFCAS—published in May 2017, there are also issues of morale, which is not as high across the armed forces as we would like it to be. Pressure of service life on families is still given as the greatest reason for leaving. As people leave, that only increases pressure on those who remain. There has also been a particular drop-off of morale reported in the Royal Marines. That is disappointing, but it may well be linked to some of the speculation about the future of our amphibious shipping and potential reductions in the size of the Royal Marines as a whole. I hope that that speculation does not become a reality.
If we are honest, we are dealing with a somewhat fragile situation, even before the outcome of the NSCR is known. There is clearly much staff work being undertaken, both within the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office, in relation to this review, but I was particularly alarmed when one national newspaper, The Sun, reported some weeks ago that the Treasury was arguing at one stage for a reduction in the size of the Regular Army from its established strength of 82,500 down to as low as 50,000. If carried to fruition, that ludicrous proposal would involve making redundant well over a third of the serving Regular Army and would constitute perhaps the greatest blow the British Army has ever suffered in peacetime.
At a time when we face a resurgent Russia, which has carried out the annexation of Crimea, still has further territorial ambitions in Ukraine and is placing pressure on the Baltic states, reducing the Army would send entirely the wrong signals to the Russians about our commitments to NATO and our willingness to uphold the territorial integrity of our allies. It would be sheer folly. I only hope that the pin-striped warriors in the Treasury, who live in daily fear that their air-conditioning might malfunction or that the tea-trolley might be late, have since abandoned such a daft suggestion as there is no way that I and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) intimated, many of my colleagues on the Government Benches could possibly support a reduction of that magnitude in regular manpower. It is simply unthinkable.
Following on from the 2010 strategic defence and security review, I was the Minister responsible for implementing tranches 3 and 4 of the Army redundancy programme. It was an extremely difficult process that had a detrimental effect on morale and retention, as well as on recruitment. I very much hope that we will not have to announce any further rounds of redundancy in the Army, because that would threaten to make the situation I described earlier even worse.
Many service personnel are watching this review very closely, and if it is seen to lead to a further reduction in our conventional capabilities or in the strength of our armed forces, many will react by simply voting with their feet and opting to leave what they might perceive to be a constantly shrinking enterprise. To be clear, I am not suggesting there would be a sudden rush for the exits, but, more likely, there would be a steady increase in the drumbeat of people requesting to leave, above and beyond the ability of the recruiting organisation to replace them. In short, more and more people would go and the hollowing out would become worse and, in some particularly sensitive areas of which the Minister will be well aware, critical.
Senior Ministers who will take the final decisions on the NSCR need to understand the stark reality of our admirable personnel and what may ultimately influence them to stick or twist and change their career. Those personnel do not want sympathy, but they want and deserve our respect. They deserve our empathy, too.
Ultimately, as the hon. Member for Bridgend intimated, we can buy as much shiny new kit as we like, but it is of no use to us, and will not provide the deterrent effect we would wish, unless we have people available and sufficiently trained to operate it in a hostile environment. Too often in defence, we talk about capability in terms of equipment, whether it be new Ajax fighting vehicles for the Army, Type 45 destroyers for the Navy, or F-35s for the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force. However, without the required blend of man and machine, or increasingly woman and machine, we have no capability at all. We forget that at our peril.
The truth is that over the past few decades, under Governments of both colours, our service personnel and, indeed, the country have witnessed a continuing retrenchment in our capabilities and in the numbers serving in uniform. Together with our nuclear deterrent, as the Chair of the Select Committee said, our service personnel are our national insurance policy—they are the defenders of our freedom and of our way of life—and we are now at real risk of skimping on the premium.
As a former Defence Minister, I can only offer the House my earnest and heartfelt advice that we must not take our armed forces personnel and their families for granted. Our history as a nation shows that when we failed to keep up the insurance policy, as we did when we allowed our armed forces to seriously degrade in the early to mid-1930s, the ultimate result, a world war in which some 50 million people died, was utterly catastrophic.
We in this House, we who were sent here by our citizens and whose responsibility it is to protect them, are the guardians of that national insurance policy. On that basis, we have to say to our Government that the time for cuts is over. It is time for our cover to be increased.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and my other Defence Committee colleagues. I commend the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for tabling the motion. As a member of a defence family whose nephew joined the Royal Engineers on 2 January, we are very much aware of his defence of the members of the armed forces.
Those of us who take an interest in these things know that, of late, this Government’s running of the Ministry of Defence has focused more on slick sloganeering than on the huge issues facing the Department, so it is no surprise that recent media coverage has tended to focus on the relative success of the propaganda coming from Main Building. Take, for example, the Year of the Navy campaign, which probably could not have gone worse. I am sure the Air Chief Marshal and the Chief of the General Staff wake up at night in a cold sweat after nightmares that 2018 is to be the Year of the RAF or the Year of the Army.
Following a slightly botched Army recruiting campaign, this week saw the MOD refuse one of the campaign’s stars permission to speak to Sky’s Alistair Bunkall, which comes just after the Defence Secretary was forced to reconsider a decision to ditch the Army’s “Be the Best” slogan.
As the Conservative and Unionist party struggles with its messaging, I thought I would go back to another time when it was divided on Europe and tanking in the polls to find a slogan that best sums up what I will talk about today: “Back to Basics.” As the Government bang on about their vision of a global Britain and the Foreign Secretary comes out with absurd assertions about HMS Queen Elizabeth being deployed to the South China sea, they continue to neglect the most basic of defence tasks at home, namely the defence of the homeland and the north Atlantic, on which I will concentrate.
Last year, I was delighted to attend the launch of the Royal United Services Institute Whitehall paper on revitalising our collective defence in the north Atlantic area, edited by John Andreas Olsen, the Norwegian defence attaché here in London. The launch was facilitated by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the polar regions. Mr Olsen contributed to the booklet by pointing out that, for most of recorded history, the cold, grey waters of the north Atlantic were seen by most, even on these islands, as the very edge of civilisation. That fact changed rapidly, to the extent that the north Atlantic was the crucial link between North America and Europe during the two world wars and in the planning processes during the cold war.
Of course, the north Atlantic gives its name to an alliance that I would hope all of us in this House agree, although some in senior positions do not, is the bedrock of our defence and security. During the first period of NATO’s existence, protecting the sea lines of communication between the United States, Canada and Europe was a core task. It was during that time that the UK developed a world-leading anti-submarine warfare capability, as the skills honed hunting U-boats during the second world war were allied with American technology to ensure that NATO held the operational advantage. At a time when many believe Russian submarine incursions into our waters are again at the level of those during the cold war, if not exceeding them, we must consider whether the balance of power is still the same. I am afraid that, for me and my hon. Friends, it is not.
We know that the Royal Navy’s escort fleet is at a historic low of just 17 usable frigates and destroyers. We know that over Christmas, for the first time in living memory, none of them was deployed outside UK waters. We also know that the UK’s most northerly surface warship base is on its southern coast, meaning a journey of more than 24 hours to reach the place from which most of the threat is coming due to the reimposed Russian “bastion” policy.
If we listened to the Government, we would think all is well for the defence of the realm. They say there is record investment in the procurement budget and an increasing defence budget, so I was glad that, in our report on procurement last month, my colleagues on the Defence Committee endorsed the National Audit Office’s assertion that the affordability of the equipment plan
“is now at greater risk than at any time since reporting was introduced in 2012”.
The beginning of our report looked at the Committee’s previous reports on procurement and it was remarkable to see how little this Government have learned from previous mistakes—we all know that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The defence cuts made by the Conservative and Unionist Government in 2010, whether it be the decision to reduce the escort fleet to its current woefully low number or the decision literally to chop up the UK’s maritime patrol capability, were meant to be the last we would see for the foreseeable future, and the MOD vowed to develop an affordable equipment plan.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; forgive my French pronunciation. The deficit that led to the 2010 cuts was £38 billion and the upper limits of the estimates of the current deficit are around £30 billion, meaning that hard decisions will have to be taken.
For example, can we be certain that the purchase of F-35s will be balanced sensitively against the rest of the defence budget, especially now that they are more expensive with the depreciation of the value of sterling? One other worry for those, such as myself, who value the defence of the high north is that the vital and much-missed maritime patrol capability will either be delayed or decreased in scope from the current planned purchase of the Boeing Poseidon P-8s.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Not at the moment, because I need to make progress, as other Members want to get in.
Last month, it was no surprise when I received a reply to a parliamentary question which revealed that on no fewer than 17 occasions last year maritime patrol aircraft from allied nations undertook missions from RAF Lossiemouth in Moray. That is an unacceptable situation, made worse by the fact that by the most generous estimates it will now take until 2024 before this capability is returned. This return to a triangle of north Atlantic patrolling from Scotland, Iceland and Norway will hopefully be accompanied by a reinstatement of NATO’s Atlantic Command. I am glad to say that my party has made it clear from the start that Scotland is an obvious choice to host SACLANT—Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic. I can only hope that Scottish Conservative Members will use the renowned leverage they have with the Government, demonstrated so clearly this week, to press the MOD on this.
We must only hope that this return to that posture can also be accompanied by a continuing commitment to one of our oldest allies, the Kingdom of Norway, as represented by the ability to deploy Royal Marines across the North sea provided by HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. Scrapping these ships was, of course, a sadly much-anticipated consequence of the security and capability review we were waiting for this year, but which has been delayed yet again by a Government who seem quite unable to take hard decisions. Unfortunately, the hopes for an improvement in not only Scotland’s security, but that of this entire political state hinge very much upon that review and the extent of the “adjustments”—I believe that to be the favourite euphemism—contained within it. I am not holding my breath for good news.
As I did earlier, I fully endorse the findings of my Committee’s report, when it said that the MOD
“faces the risk that in future it may have to return to a situation where affordability of the portfolio is maintained by delaying or reducing the scope of projects.”
Anyone who has read the NAO report on the equipment plan knows that, with the procurement budget about to enter a period of unprecedented budget bandwidth challenges, at least until 2023, delays to decision making such as this do no one any favours. It is an incredible situation, one I can explain only by repeating the words of General Sir Richard Barrons, which have already been used in the Chamber. When he gave evidence to the Defence Committee in November, he said:
“The reason we are having a review only two years after the 2015 defence review is that at no time in that review has the amount of resources provided to defence matched the programme.”
This situation will only be exacerbated by Brexit and the various economic consequences it has presented us with. The fact that the only part of the defence budget to be protected from the cuts is the one for the deterrent is something that my party has a long-standing disagreement with. I am sure we do not need to go into that again today, especially as, I am glad to say, we are beginning to break the omertà around questioning it among Government Members.
Let me bring my remarks to a close by pleading with this Government to back their old-fashioned “back to basics” on defence by lifting the public sector pay cap for armed forces personnel, which is giving them a real-terms wage cut this year, and focusing on the essential task of defending not only Scotland, but this entire political state and, crucially, the north Atlantic. It will come as no surprise that I would ask them to take Trident out of the defence budget and to focus on the conventional capability within that budget, which we so desperately need. It will also come as no surprise that I hope that the security of Scotland, which has suffered from decades of under-investment in its security, and that of our allies, will be improved by independence. It is this Government’s challenge to prove us wrong.
By way of disclosure, I should say that I had the privilege to serve, in a modest way, in the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, and I remain a reservist soldier. I thank the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) very much for securing this debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes).
In this brief speech, I would like to talk about defence in the broader sense of the word, because the security of our nation rests on many things, not just on how many tanks or ships we have. At times, we can be fixated by so-called heavy metal warfare: ships, planes, tanks and so on. Physical defence is important, but it should not be seen in isolation, and today I would like to talk about security and defence in the round. Having said that, it is clear that we are significantly under-resourced and underfunded. What concerns me most in terms of Government Departments is that the Treasury seems to fail to understand that the point of having an armed force is not to use it. The Treasury seems to think that if an armed force is not being used, it can be cut—that is an incredibly foolish thing to think. It encourages our generals to look for wars to justify the existence of the armed forces, and starting wars and being politically or economically unwilling to finish them—there is some truth there as regards Iraq—is at best bad strategy and potentially disastrous for this nation.
I wish to talk about strategy and whether we have one, and about how we can improve coherence in policy making. I also want to make a few suggestions for parliamentary committees, building on some of the excellent things said by my colleagues on both sides of the House. First, on strategy, it is ironic that we have so many think-tanks in this country but we seem to lack one sometimes in our national strategy. I fear we are losing the capacity and confidence to act without clinging on to the coat-tails of the European Union or United States. Indeed, the US, despite its many great benefits as an ally, has in some ways exacerbated that problem. The great Oxford historian Sir Hew Strachan argues:
“a power which possesses overwhelming force has less need of strategy”
because it has so much power. That has resulted in thoughtlessness, definitely in Iraq and perhaps to a lesser extent in Afghanistan. We have been somewhat corrupted by that thought as well, because our strategy in the past 20 years seems to have been to cobble together just enough kit to take part at a meaningful level in a US-led coalition, so that we can have a political voice at the top table.
That strategy is now under pressure. First, the US has been disengaging—regardless of what one thinks of President Trump—slowly from Europe for the past three presidencies and the Russians are now a threat, with what they call “contemporary military conflict”, using both military and non-military tools.
One thing has been worrying me a great deal. A number of people have cited Russia as a growing threat, but it would be dangerous to ignore the threat from the south, which still exists. Is it therefore not time we stopped focusing simply on the threat from the east and recognised the threat from the south, which has not gone away?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I talk about the threat from the east because I would like to bring this in a bit later and I am trying to finish a thesis on contemporary Russian warfare. But she is right that in many ways the non-conventional warfare threat—migration and chaos—is represented in our southern flank. She makes a valid point and I thank her for it.
Post-Brexit, it is critical for our nation that we have a powerful security and defence policy, one that not only projects our identity—our values and our brand, if you like—but provides balanced and comprehensive security. Part of that is about remaining a powerful player on the world stage across the spectrum of effects. We are trying to be more holistic, and the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre in Shrivenham, with which I have done a little work over the years, has done some important work looking at national strategy in many of the joint doctrine publication documents it has written. According to the DCDC, our national strategy rests on political, military and economic power, but I wonder whether that is not quite subtle enough for today’s world. In defence, we need to be thinking about humanitarian power, governmental power, cyber capability, cultural, linguistic and informational capability and public outreach. All those tools are critical because the wars and conflicts of the past 30 years, including those we have been engaged in, show that populations have become the critical information and psychological targets. If we look at the three Russian military doctrines since 1999, their two foreign policy concepts, their national security concept and their information security concept, we see that they all put the integration of military and non-military effects aimed at civilian populations as a critical characteristic of modern warfare. Indeed, we see that in Ukraine, eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Historically, the tools of grand strategy have been held at national level. Military force is one element of that defensive strategy. Nowadays, especially with Brexit happening, we have an opportunity to rethink our national strategic culture so that we can understand how we can use our past experience of strategic culture to understand the future. Basil Liddell Hart, who was perhaps our greatest military theorist ever—I am sure that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends will know him well—said that we were champions of the indirect strategy. We had a powerful Navy and a small standing Army, and we used money to encourage others to fight. We used our alliances and set examples by our behaviour. We probably need to return more to that behaviour.
Let us consider the example of the Russian threat in Ukraine. We have parked some soldiers, some kit and around four planes—which is probably half the RAF these days—in the Baltic republics. Russia has used force in Ukraine and is bellicose towards the Baltic republics, so it is right that we put that kit there, but the most powerful threat to Ukraine is not necessarily the military threat, but the political and informational war, the co-option and corruption of its political leadership, and the trashing of its ability, confidence and statehood.
Our key weapon is not the planes or the troops—important though they are—but our ability to work with the Canadians, Americans, Germans and EU to provide a Marshall package and significant sums of money to Ukraine. We spend £13 billion on aid every year, and I apologise for saying this but much of it is badly spent. Here, though, is a major prize that we are not trying to attain. We spend probably £40 million in Ukraine, all in, including Department for International Development spending. We irritate the Russians by parking military kit in the Baltics, yet we do not seem to be thinking enough about the most powerful weapon we could have against Russian expansion, which is a stable Ukraine that looks like Poland, not like Russia. That is an example of haphazard strategic thinking.
We have an unbalanced foreign policy. DFID burns though money like it is going out of fashion. I had lots of pretty miserable experiences of DFID in Afghanistan and Iraq. I remember asking at the UK consulate in Basra how many DFID projects there were in southern Iraq and how much money was being spent. I was staggered that DFID could not provide an answer. For me, that summed up how DFID is sometimes profligate and lacks competence. I know that it does great work in some parts of the world, but sadly I have not seen the best of it.
At the same time, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is chronically underfunded and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, the Ministry of Defence is scraping together savings in areas in which it should not be looking to make savings. Cyber-attacks are regular in Europe—in France, Germany and the United Kingdom—and the BBC, which is a critical part of our soft-power infrastructure, even at arm’s length from the Government, is funded such that it has to exist hand-to-mouth. BBC World Service TV and radio broadcasts should be funded entirely by DFID, by looking into and rejigging the definition of official development assistance.
I shall try to make progress; I do not have too much more to say. We must look closely at defence procurement. Can we please have a level playing field? Let us buy kit from other countries to save money, but some countries, such as France, have closed markets, so why are French companies allowed to bid here when we do not have the same rights to secure contracts there?
I will seek a meeting with the Minister in the near future to discuss the need for a complex radar technology demonstrator at the BAE site in Cowes in my constituency. As the Minister knows, the BAE radar factory in Cowes produces all the radars for the carriers and the Type 45 destroyers. If we want our own indigenous radar capability, we need that technology demonstrator soon.
We should use reservists more. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) made a series of eloquent points about reservists—I am one myself. We need reservists, but let us also support them. The reserve unit on the Isle of Wight was saved not through the MOD’s wisdom but thanks to the remarkable work of Captain Richard Clarke and the continuing leadership of Acting Sergeant Matt Symmans, for whom I feel a certain affinity as I was an acting sergeant for much of my Army career. It is individuals punching above their weight who are saving units from closure.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) said, there is no redundancy in our defence system. There are so few surface ships—I think there are 17. Talk to any admiral—give them a drink or two—and they will admit that the Royal Navy at its current size cannot protect the carriers. In any conflict or at the threat of conflict with peer or near-peer nations, those carriers would go home and sit in a base because they are not protectable, unless they are to be surrounded by a US fleet. They have no protection against ship-busting ballistic missiles. If we keep reducing the armed forces in terms of personnel and kit, we will encourage violence against this nation rather than deter it.
I have some brief suggestions. Can the Foreign Affairs Committee champion the need to think about strategy and hold hearings to give platforms to leading academics so that they can discuss our national strategy and defence culture? With Brexit coming up, this is a perfect point in our history to look into our national strategy. If we leave the security review to the Government, they are going to come up with the answers that they want, not the answers that we all need and want to hear. We need to rethink DFID funding and encourage DFID to take greater responsibility in a more holistic and joined-up strategy. We need to think about defence in the round.
We need all forms of power for our security and the protection and projection of our values. We need soft power, hard power and cyber power, but most of all we need an attitude of smart and integrated power. We need to study and understand how to project that smart power at a strategic, operational and tactical level. From what I have seen on operations and here at home, we still lack that, but it is not unachievable, if the Government have the ambition.
I rise as my party’s defence spokesman. It is important that I remind the House that my daughter is a serving officer in the armed forces. I share the trepidation of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) at having to speak after so many highly informed contributions.
I wish to use my constituency as the basis of my first point. It is no stranger to the armed forces: very near to where I live we have the RAF Tain weapons range; Cape Wrath is used every year for the Joint Warrior exercise; and the area has a long and close association with the armed forces, going back to the Lovat Scouts and the Seaforth Highlanders, through to the Royal Regiment of Scotland today. Traditionally, the Territorial Army has recruited extremely well in Wick, in the north of my constituency. The support for Army and RAF cadets is also very strong throughout my constituency. I applaud them and put on record my recognition of what they do and their contribution to the social cohesion of the area.
I am a great believer in the British public’s common sense. I know from having knocked on many doors that if we talk to people about the armed forces and say, “We have to defend ourselves,” they say, “That is exactly right.” I hope that the Government will decide to spend more on our armed forces, and I think they can take the British public with them, because ultimately the public recognise the need and the responsibility to do it.
For the enlightenment of the House, I should say in passing that I served in the Territorial Army myself. However, I cannot compete with the august rank and record of the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), or, indeed, the Minister. Nevertheless, if I had to present arms and my ancient frame would allow it, I could still do so.
My second point is based on my knowledge, through my own family, of what the situation was in Northern Ireland—I am sure that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will touch on this. In their time, both my brothers-in-law served in the Ulster Defence Regiment. Over a long and happy marriage, I saw the situation in Northern Ireland change from the troubles and murder—my wife comes from County Armagh, and I know about all this—to what we see today, and may God be thanked for that. The UDR, the armed forces, our intelligence services and the Special Air Service played the supreme role in defeating the terrorists on both sides of the divide. We should not forget that, but the point is this: God forbid we should ever again have a situation, either in the UK or close to our borders, in which we have to mobilise that sort of force, because I doubt we could do it. Other Members have hinted at that already. If we had to, some ask, could we refight the Falklands campaign? No, we could not. Enough said on that.
The point has been made, particularly by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), that our Navy is critically small right now. That was why, on Monday, I questioned the Minister about why so many of our ships were apparently tied up over Christmas and not available for service overseas. I share absolutely in what the hon. Member for North Wiltshire says about what he calls the high north. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said that it was on our doorstep—as a matter of fact, representing Caithness and Sutherland, I can say that it is on my doorstep, if he does not mind me saying so. It is absolutely correct, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire says, that the Russians are establishing their bases there. I am not advocating our going back to Scapa Flow, but we will have to think very carefully about the strategic positioning of our forces.
Cyber-security has already been touched on today. All I have to say is that there was a story in The Times today—perhaps it is a scare story—which said that our cyber-security could be breached to the extent that we could almost be fooled into launching a nuclear strike. Whether fact or fiction, that shows just how incredibly important cyber-security is.
I feel obliged to intervene as a matter of national security to assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that robust measures are in place to ensure that the event that he has just talked about does not happen.
I thank the Minister for that very good reassurance. However, that does show an example of some of the more irresponsible reporting.
Specifically, the Chatham House report, to which the hon. Gentleman rightly refers, spoke about not our own missiles—I am quite concerned about the Russian stuff—but the US Minuteman being susceptible to cyber-attacks.
That is absolutely correct.
My final point is that the importance of the armed forces’ confidence in our politicians cannot be overestimated. When that is eroded and they feel that we are not acting in their best interests, or indeed that we do not understand what they do, it is incredibly corrosive. That, in turn, will affect their capability to defend this country if, God forbid, that time ever comes.
The point has been made about the pay gap. I have to be careful when I speak about that given the interest that I declared at the start of my remarks. There are also issues related to housing and recognition of what the armed forces do.
On behalf of my party, I applaud the tone of this debate. It is my great honour to associate my party with that tone and with the thrust of what has been said today.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). I hope the tone does not drop too quickly after his consensual remarks, with which I am sure we all agree. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing this extremely important debate. I listened closely to what right hon. and hon. Members said about the number of defence debates that were previously held in this Chamber. I certainly think that we should aspire to what was done in the past, rather than just having the odd debate or two.
The motion is wide-ranging, and I will use that as an opportunity to speak about my local bases in the Moray constituency and a number of other issues connected to the military aspect of what we are discussing today. I was taken with the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) that it was difficult to speak after the speeches of so many credible speakers—whether it be the Chair of the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Gedling or others who have served in the armed forces. Unfortunately, I cannot speak with the intimate knowledge that comes from having served in the military. My only connection is a very important one to me—any Member of Parliament for Moray, which has both an RAF base and an Army barracks, is intrinsically involved with the armed forces, which is why it is such a great pleasure to speak in this debate today. I wish to mention both of those bases today.
First, Kinloss, which has already been mentioned in the debate, was previously home to the Nimrod fleet, but after the decision taken in the 2010 strategic defence and security review it became home to 39 Engineer Regiment, which has been extremely busy in the past year. It has been in South Sudan with the UN, in the Falkland Islands, in Romania to support NATO air policing, and in Cyprus in the anti-Daesh coalition operations. There was much fear and concern when RAF Kinloss closed as an air base—clearly the community was concerned, as were the serving personnel. There was a genuine fear at the time that nothing would be put in its place. Now, in 2018, all of us in Moray are happy and proud to be celebrating the work done by our excellent service personnel at an Army barracks, in place of the air base. It is good to see that strong military tradition at Kinloss continue—and it will continue for many years to come.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the local populations near these installations are very proud of them and pleased to have them there? We should always remember that.
That was something that came out very clearly when the RAF base closed. There were also concerns at the time that RAF Lossiemouth might close, which would have made it a double blow. I took part in a march in Lossiemouth back in 2010 to ensure that the base stayed open. Thousands of people from across Moray, who would not normally gather at a single event, all joined together to show their support for the Ministry of Defence in Moray. That was a very significant event that is still remembered very clearly a number of years later. RAF Lossiemouth is now going from strength to strength, and the numbers there are increasing significantly. It is a northern quick reaction alert facility, protecting our United Kingdom airspace from unidentified aircraft. The Typhoons have overseas deployments with Operation Shader, and are also based in Cyprus for operations over Iraq and Syria. Later this year we will see deployments in Romania and Oman.
We are waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the P-8 Poseidon aircraft. Everyone is celebrating this huge investment, which includes £400 million of investment at RAF Lossiemouth and 400 additional personnel coming to our area. I have informed the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) that I will mention him in my speech. Unfortunately, he took no interventions, despite our having a bit of flexibility. I would not be so churlish should he choose to stand up and intervene on me. He has unfortunately taken the approach that he will not celebrate or welcome this huge investment, which is welcomed by everyone in Moray. He would rather raise scare stories. When I was successful in defeating the Scottish National party incumbent in Moray, I thought that we had ended the time when SNP politicians would raise scare stories about the MOD presence in Moray.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will come back to my hon. Friend in a minute.
I thought that we had got rid of that situation, but no. Just this week, we saw this in the media:
“An SNP MP is demanding reassurance from the UK Government that they will proceed with the… maritime patrol aircraft”.
Let me quote what the hon. Gentleman said in that article:
“I would like to hear them restate their commitment to purchasing all nine of the promised Poseidon P-8 aircraft.”
That was agreed when the contract was signed with the UK Government and the US Government to provide those nine Poseidon P-8 aircraft. Why did the hon. Gentleman feel that it was necessary to put out a press release to say that that might be in doubt, when all along the UK Government have had that contract signed with the US Government? We should be focusing on the benefit coming to Moray, rather than launching scare stories. I note that the hon. Gentleman has remained in his seat. He has not tried to intervene to say that I have said something wrong.
Well, if the hon. Lady needs to support the hon. Gentleman, I will quite happily give way.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing this intervention. I have no need to support my colleague, but I certainly want to take issue with one comment that he has just made, which was about the nine maritime patrol aircraft. I am sorry, but in Scotstoun and Govan in my constituency, and in the constituencies of some of my hon. Friends, we were promised 13 Type 26 frigates. Forgive us if we do not believe this Government’s promises.
What I will never forgive is an SNP politician who sits in this House and has the opportunity to question Ministers at any time, but who instead decides to put out a press release launching another scare story about the future of a Moray base. It is very clear: we are preparing for this record investment in Poseidon P-8 aircraft at Lossiemouth, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire chose to do that.
I fear that we have moved away slightly from the measured tone of this debate. In the spirit of reconciliation, may I invite Scottish National party Members to write to me if they have legitimate questions on procurement issues such as this? I would be delighted to give them an answer, and perhaps they would then not feel the need to go through their local press.
I am very grateful to the Minister for that. In fact, I would have loved it if SNP Members had gone through their own local press, rather than mine in Moray.
I hope that we do not get too far away from consensus again, but I do want to mention the nat tax. Approximately 10,000 military personnel and 4,000 civilian employees working for the Ministry of Defence are based in Scotland, and the SNP plans to make Scotland the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom, with everyone earning more than £24,000 paying more tax. I have been contacted by a number of constituents about that.
I am glad this is the consensual part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, because he will of course acknowledge that the frontline squaddies—the lowest-paid in the Ministry of Defence—are getting a tax cut in Scotland under the new tax powers, whereas his Government are freezing their pay, which is actually a pay cut because of inflation. He might want to look at his figures a wee bit before he expands on his point.
There we go—no denial from the SNP that it is making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom. A number of my constituents based at both Kinloss and Lossiemouth are contacting me, aghast at the plans by the SNP that will see them paying more tax than their counterparts based in other parts of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] If it is the Conservatives who are so wrong, maybe SNP Members also disagree with the Scottish chamber of commerce, which said that their move is a “disincentive to investment” that will be difficult to reverse. The SNP should reconsider the policy before implementing it later this year. I hope the Minister will urge SNP politicians in this place to encourage the SNP Administration in Edinburgh not to go ahead with the nat tax. If they do, will the Minister look at options for supporting our personnel based in Scotland who will be faced with these higher taxes?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
I also want to look at aspects other than just the two bases in Moray. First, the families connected with our serving personnel are an integral part of our communities, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, and they are involved in all aspects of our communities. A lot of spouses of military personnel work in local schools and hospitals, and are vital to ensuring that those local services remain open. In Moray, it is estimated that 13% of all school pupils have a military connection, ensuring that some of the smaller schools remain open.
Today is 11 January, which means that it is the new year in the Julian calendar. Along with local people in Burghead, military personnel from Kinloss and Lossiemouth will be taking part in the clavie ceremony today, when clavie king Dan Ralph puts a barrel of burning tar on his back and troops it through Burghead up on to Doorie hill. I always try to get the clavie mentioned on 11 January; I have managed to fit it into this debate somehow. I will find out in a few moments if it is the first time the clavie and Doorie hill have ever been mentioned in this Chamber when Hansard ask me for the correct spelling. The clavie ceremony is another example of how military families get involved with local traditions, and that is to be welcomed.
Our military families play a crucial role in Moray, across Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. There has rightly been much talk today about the Government ensuring that investment continues now and going forward, and I would like to see that. We are seeing investment in Scotland, including in Moray. We are gratefully appreciative of all the money and investment going into Moray, and we will be serving our local area and the country very well from Moray. I look forward to the rest of this debate so we can continue celebrating the contribution of Moray and service personnel across the United Kingdom.
I congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing a debate on such a vital topic. After his tour de force, and those of other colleagues across the House, I am sure that there is little more to say—but since when has that ever stopped any of us?
No one in the House would challenge the fact that our armed forces are truly the best in the world. Their skills and professionalism are second to none, and we owe our security to their service on a daily basis. Yet who could look at the decisions that this Government have taken and conclude that our armed forces are being well supported, that our defence family is getting the investment and consistency of message it needs, or that our current sovereign capabilities are being protected?
Colleagues from across the House have articulated, and will continue to do so, the point about the holes in the defence budget—the fact that 2% of GDP needs to be a minimum, not a target, for defence expenditure, and that when we are considering expenditure on conventional forces versus tackling the ever emerging threats of cyber-warfare and international terrorism, it should not be an either/or. I, of course, wholeheartedly agree.
I do not intend to use my time today to speak up for the status quo. I am concerned that there is limited strategic consideration from the Government about what we need and why, which is what I plan to discuss today. Our world is changing beyond all recognition, and we must be prepared to change with it. We face new oppressors, renewed threats and unprecedented challenges. Whether it is a resurgent Russia, an unstable middle east, a volatile North Korea or the ever-present and ever adapting threat of international terror networks, the global order is entering a period of rapid and unpredictable change. That requires a more flexible but genuinely strategic approach from central Government—something that can only happen if we are asking the right questions in the right order.
In my humble opinion—not so humble, as many hon. Members know—it is vital that we agree what we are trying to achieve before we start talking about cuts and capabilities. There are questions that we need to discuss. What is our place in the world? What threats does that mean we face? Based on those threats, what capabilities do we need? And then—and only then—how much money do we need to deliver them? Let us start with our place in the world.
Much has been made of the Prime Minister’s past statement that “Brexit means Brexit”. I raise this today because I am increasingly convinced that, far from being a soundbite concocted to keep the Government’s cards close to their chest, this statement in fact represents the sum total and sole focus of this Government’s vision for our place in the world. And that question of Britain’s place in the world is exactly the one that we need to answer if we are going to develop a coherent defence strategy for the 21st century. The EU referendum should have been, and now must be, the start of a meaningful conversation about what our country’s future will look like outside the European Union. Brexit must not mean that we abandon our allies, neglect our commitments or turn away from the wider world, but it does require us to think again about the role we are going to play in the future.
Britain has always punched above her weight on the world stage, and today our soft power is extended through our unique international position. We are a nation that has never shirked our responsibilities on the world stage, or stepped back from our duty to defend our friends and allies. We have made mistakes, and have sometimes been faced with the consequences of our actions—or, most recently, the consequences of our inaction. Yet for all this, I contend that it is in not just our own interests but the interests of global stability that Britain continues to exercise its power on the world stage, and that we continue to play our part in tackling the security challenges that we and our allies face.
I am proudly a member of an internationalist party, so walking away from the world is simply not an option for us. But retaining our place in the world not only costs money but determines what capabilities we need to tackle emergent threats. This is, of course, a defence debate, rather than one focused on foreign affairs, but I think we can all agree that an emboldened Putin, an erratic President in the White House, the increased use of cyber-terrorism from too many actors to count, the ongoing instability in the middle east, the increasingly volatile positioning of North Korea and the challenging environment in the South China sea pose genuine threats for the UK. This is in addition to the continued threat of international terrorism that touched too many families last year. We must remember, though, that not all challenges we face come from the aggression of nation states or ideological opponents. Climate change and natural disasters also have huge destructive capacity, and it is frequently our armed forces who have been the first to be deployed to offer aid and assistance, as we saw so recently with Hurricane Irma.
What do we need to be able to respond to this level of threat? Our capabilities are currently incredibly flexible, but I am concerned about what we could be about to lose in terms of our military and our domestic skills base, both of which ensure our security in the future. Keeping us and our allies safe in this uncertain environment requires a military that is flexible, highly trained and capable of deploying quickly in a diverse range of scenarios and climates. It also requires the right number of people.
Thankfully, we start from a position of strength; we used to be stronger, however. We have some of the most effective and well trained armed forces personnel in the world and the ability currently to deploy them quickly by land, sea or air. Yet these advantages are at risk of being undermined by the Government’s current approach to our national security, under the current national security and capability review—or cuts programme, as we should call it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her eloquent speech. Does she agree that the national security and capability review has nothing to do with strategy or the role of our armed forces in the world? It is just a last-ditch attempt to get to grips with years of spending mistakes and indecision.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. At this point, the national security and capability review seems to equate to little more than a campaign of cuts and reductions so severe that it is causing concern not just within our armed forces but even among our closest allies, which regularly raise discussion about it. Perhaps the most egregious example is the Government’s reported plan, already mentioned, to decimate our amphibious capability and cut up to 1,000 Royal Marines.
I have seen at first hand the Royal Marines’ extraordinary courage, ability, focus and fortitude, and I am a fan. Following his photo op this week, I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence has also come away from his time at Lympstone with a fresh appreciation of what our Royal Marines bring to the table; perhaps he will use them more effectively, going forward.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces, I want to put on the record how much I appreciate the hon. Lady’s chairmanship of its Royal Navy and Royal Marines section, as well as the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) of its RAF section. I want to thank them for it.
You’ll make me blush.
And that’s not easy!
Not too easy. I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) very much. One important thing, demonstrated here today, is that the armed forces parliamentary scheme and the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces inform all of us and ensure that the standard of debate in the House is as high as it can be.
I return to our amphibious capability. The proposals to cut our amphibious capability in the shape of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark could cause tremendous harm to the adaptability and deployment options of our armed forces. Simply put, they would cut our options at a time when we need as many as possible, not fewer.
We will not adapt to this new world by running down our existing capabilities or by undermining the very people who are putting themselves in harm’s way in our defence; let us remember why they are there. But I fear that that is exactly what we are doing. It is no secret that the MOD currently faces a £20 billion black hole and the risk of further cuts. I sincerely hope that the new Secretary of State has made representations to the Treasury demanding more money from the pen pushers who worry about their air conditioning—my favourite quote of the day.
It is my very real fear that if we continue down the path that the Government have set, we may find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with what the future holds. We also need to recognise that Britain’s security does not just depend on our service personnel, vital though they are; we also need new and advanced technology platforms for them to use. A vital aspect of that is buying British, so that we can retain domestic skills to design, develop and produce cutting-edge defence technology.
In a post-Brexit world, that is more important than ever. That is why I began this year with a visit to the BAE Systems site in Brough to meet the team behind the Hawk. That was not just a chance to see some of the incredible engineering technology that goes into these aircraft; it was an opportunity to speak with the wider defence family—that is who they are: the engineers, technicians and manufacturers—who make kit knowing that their neighbours and children may well end up using it to keep them safe. They support both our own military and those of our allies, and we need to recognise that. Unfortunately, many of them are currently under threat of redundancy, owing to a lack of orders. The reality is that the MOD needs to step up and ensure that that industry has a steady drumbeat of orders, so that it can invest in their workforce and emergent technologies.
Fundamentally, however, my real concern today is that the Government are focused only on the cost envelope—trying to fill the black hole in the budget rather than investing properly in our future and what we need to keep us safe.
I am listening in particular to what my hon. Friend is saying about defence procurement and the need for a regular drumbeat of orders. I sometimes wonder whether the public understand the importance of keeping the sovereign capability embedded in those skills. At some point, we might not be able to call on neighbours and allies to provide us with kit and equipment. We need always to be able to provide that critical equipment ourselves.
I could not agree more, but the issue is twofold: it is also about our economic prosperity. Some 88% of defence exports come from aviation, yet we have no dedicated defence aviation strategy. We need a plan—we needed it last year, but we will take it this year, please, Minister.
By attempting to limit our capabilities according to budgetary constraints, the Government are putting the cart before the horse. The reality is that we cannot secure the defence of the realm on the cheap. If we are serious about having armed forces fit for the 21st century, we need to assess what threats we face, establish what capabilities we will need to counter them and then spend accordingly—whatever it costs. We need to stop tirelessly regurgitating the line that we are meeting our NATO target. Let us be clear that 2% is not a target, but a minimum threshold: if it proves insufficient to provide the capabilities that we need, we must be prepared to invest further.
No one can predict the future. Unfortunately, there will always be new threats on the horizon and not all of them can be foreseen. But it is the duty of Government—this Government—to ensure that we are as prepared as we can be, with the capabilities that we need.
It is a privilege to rise to speak in such a consensual debate; I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing it. It is an honour to speak after the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), who is such a vociferous supporter of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.
In a Westminster Hall debate a couple of months ago, I cited the age-old list of enemies of the fleet; Members will forgive me for repeating it today. They are, in reverse order: the French, because with the Navy it is always the French; the enemy of the day; and, of course, Whitehall. That is, of course, typical Jack humour, but as ever with Jack there is an uncomfortable grain of truth. As a Conservative proud to think of my party as the part of the armed forces, it is rather difficult to swallow.
On the one hand, the Government have proved themselves to be committed to the defence of our nation and the resourcing of strong, capable, adaptable and modern armed services. The UK still has the second largest defence budget in NATO, the largest in the EU and the fifth largest in the world. It is one of only five countries that meets the NATO baseline of spending 2% of GDP on defence—a depressing statistic in itself. It is the Conservative party and this Government who have committed to increase defence spending by 0.5% above inflation every year until 2021, meaning that the defence spend is £35.1 billion in this financial year, will be £36 billion next year and will go up to £39.7 billion in 2021.
The last year did see unprecedented investment in equipment across the forces. I apologise in advance for this rather long list, but it is important to underline how much equipment is being purchased and built by the Government for the forces of the Crown. The Royal Navy saw HMS Queen Elizabeth being commissioned, the Prince of Wales being named, five offshore patrol vessels start their build, and steel being cut for the first Type 26 frigate, HMS Glasgow, and for the first of the new Dreadnought class ballistic missile submarines. The Astute class programme continues, and the competition for the Type 31E has been unveiled. The Army has seen the warrior infantry fighting vehicles upgraded; 50 upgraded Apache attack helicopters; new Chinook helicopters enter service; and brand new Ajax multi-role armoured vehicles. Meanwhile, the RAF saw the purchase of nine Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, 48 F-35s, new Voyager transport aircraft, new high altitude surveillance aircraft, more than 20 Protector drones, and Airseeker surveillance aircraft.
I have not even mentioned that the Government side of the House is the only one that unreservedly, without fear or favour, supports the maintenance of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. With that record, as well as our unparalleled investment over the past year—
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but that is demonstrably not true. Had he been with me during the many circular arguments within the Labour party over the last seven years, rather than having just popped up as a Conservative MP this time, he might know better. Will he correct the record please?
If there is a circular argument within the Labour, it shows that it is not united behind an independent nuclear deterrent. Perhaps we should ask some of those who were backstage at Glastonbury last year whether the leader of the Labour party supports an independent nuclear deterrent.
With our record, as well as our unparalleled investment in the defence estate to bring accommodation up to a level suitable for 21st-century life, which is needed, the commitment of the Conservative party and the Government to the forces of the Crown should be unquestioned. In the past seven months, however, it has depressed me to read stories and debates in this place and hear at first hand from those still serving that all is not as rosy on the ground as we would like, and that perhaps we are not doing or spending enough to maintain our dedicated armed forces at the necessary level for them to do the jobs we ask them to do. We cannot underestimate the effect that continual media speculation has on morale in the ranks, especially in my neighbouring constituency at RM Condor, for example, which seems perpetually to have the sword of Damocles hanging over its future.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the reckless scaremongering of opponents, such as the Scottish Government Minister who wrongly suggested that RM Condor was up for closure only a few months ago, that is putting our brave personnel and their families under undue threat, and that we should not play political games with our defence capabilities?
Yes, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. As I have said, we cannot underestimate the effect on the morale of people serving on bases such as Condor when every so often—every other month, it seems—we read in newspapers of ill-judged speculation about the future of bases by, in this case, Scottish Government Ministers. We cannot underestimate the effect that has on them, their families and the communities those bases serve.
My hon. Friend mentioned accommodation a couple of minutes ago. Will he accept from me that the repairs and maintenance service provided by CarillionAmey is woeful and that many service personnel from across all three services are very upset about it? We need to honour our people and do better. Does he agree that the Minister, who I believe has sympathy with this point, should be encouraged to hold CarillionAmey more firmly to account?
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. In fact, one thing that gets brought up time and again when I speak to friends still serving in the armed forces is the state of accommodation and the support they have received from that company. It would be very nice to see it held more firmly to account by the Ministry of Defence.
Since I came to the House, we have too often heard questions raised about whether the UK can afford to maintain its independent amphibious capability, seen key elements of Royal Marine training cut and even questioned the overall number of our Royal Marines. Over Christmas, we read about the selling of HMS Ocean for £85 million, barely two years after a £65 million refit, which would leave this country without a functioning helicopter carrier capability until the Queen Elizabeth comes into service in 2020.
Even more worrying, however, and something that has not been touched on in this debate yet, is the current level of troops medically fit to deploy today. The British Army today has an official full-time trained strength of 78,407, which is already below the target of 82,000. In answer to a written question of mine in November, however, it transpired that the number of medically unavailable troops stands at 18,000, meaning that the fit and trained strength of the Army is 60,500—just over 60,000 soldiers fit and able to deploy today. In the Navy, that figure is 24,893 out of 29,000. In the RAF, it is 25,000 out of 30,000. That means that as we debate this today the immediately deployable strength of our full-time armed forces sits at 111,026. To put that into context, it is three times less than the number of people employed in Britain by Tesco.
On Tuesday, in Foreign Office questions, I asked the Foreign Secretary about our pausing reluctance to intervene in Syria in 2013, which I believe prolonged the conflict and led to thousands more deaths. Whether someone was for or against intervention in 2013—I know that there are strongly held views on that, and I respect that—the fact is that we had that choice. We had, and still have, the ability to choose whether to intervene because of the size and capabilities of our armed forces. There is a genuine concern today, however, at the heart of the defence and diplomatic community and among our closest allies that in the not-too-distant future our ability to intervene for good, as we did in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, or to support our partners across eastern Europe, could disappear, and with it our standing on the world stage would be diminished, especially if we lose our amphibious capability or cut the number of troops even further.
I know that the Government support the armed forces. Ministers in the MOD are fighting daily battles to secure the budget and numbers, and the record on increased spending and procurement and the improvements in accommodation are a testament to this. Difficult questions must be asked, however, about recruitment and retention, about the size of our defence budget—is 2% of GDP enough? I do not think it is—and about whether the cost of funding our continuous at-sea deterrence should be met from an already-squeezed defence budget, or whether, as some believe, given that it is a continuing operation, it should come directly from the Treasury, as it did until 2010.
These are big and difficult questions, but they must be asked and answered, for we must maintain the trust of our armed forces and our allies. If we are serious—and I know we are—about being a truly global Britain, we must maintain our position on the world stage, leading the world in investment in and commitment to our responsibilities at home and abroad, and we must never lose the ability to intervene with moral purpose in defending the values that we cherish around the world when we choose to do so. Only when these questions are answered—and I know they will be by this Government—can we truly move forward with confidence that in this country we will continue to have the finest, most adaptable and best equipped armed forces in the world—armed forces that, as the hon. Member for Gedling said, we can all be truly proud of.
As many Members will know, my husband served as a Royal Navy officer for 17 years. As a result, I want to speak almost exclusively about the impact that serious budget cuts have on personnel.
It is often said in the military that the most important part of a weapon system is the human being. If the human being is not maintained with due care and attention, as other parts of the weapon system are, the Government are undermining the fundamental principles of our armed forces: defending our nations, promoting democracy and protecting human rights. The men and women who serve in our armed forces are used to the warm words of this Government. Unfortunately, pledges of support ring hollow, however, when the everyday reality of forces life is being made far more difficult by chronic under-investment and cost-cutting.
If the human being is to continue to be the most important part of our weapons systems, personnel must be central to any defence strategy. Unfortunately, they appear to be an afterthought. Considering the journey of a typical soldier throughout their career, we see that a number of areas must be improved. Recruitment should play an important role in our defence strategy, but this has been outsourced to a private company, Capita. Leaving aside the £44 million annually that Capita is creaming off to perform the service, I must ask why we are relying on a third party—possibly one with no knowledge of service life—to recruit those who will defend our nations. Instead of wasting millions on a failing contract with Capita, the Government should invest in a fair pay rise for personnel. It was revealed in response to a written question in October 2017 that the Government had increased spend on recruitment advertising by nearly 50%, yet Army numbers have continued to fall.
When recruits join up, they are faced with housing conditions that in some instances have been described as squalid, as a number of Members have mentioned. Military personnel may accept that as being just part of the job, but what about when families and children are involved? Relationships are already put under huge strain by service life, but the additional pressure that poor housing puts on relationships is immense. How can children study when there is no internet or when the central heating boiler does not work? Meanwhile, we continue to refer to our service personnel as “brave” and their families continue to be lauded. I am sure they do not feel the same way.
Then comes the time to take some well-deserved leave—leave to which service personnel are fully entitled. In the submarine service, where my husband served, five days’ leave used to mean heading off on a Friday afternoon or early evening and not returning until a week on Monday, so there was a full week and two weekends at home. Now, it is far more common for five days’ leave to start on a Monday morning, with submariners expected to be back in post on Friday night. How is that sustainable? How can relationships survive such neglect? Those submariners are not central to any defence thinking.
Worse still, the reality for some is that they are unable to take their leave at all because of personnel shortages, or part of their leave has to be spent doing mandatory training such as health and safety, conduct after capture or equality and diversity. No one would argue that that training does not have to take place and in isolation no one would object to it, but when they are back from operations, personnel need to fit in such mandatory training, operational training and leave. That has come about slowly over a period of time and is now simply accepted as the reality. However, when the operational stretch is such that the only time training can take place is during leave, I question once again whether personnel are really central to defence thinking.
I want to talk again about the children, who can have a variety of educational experiences. In Army regiments, the families often move with the unit. The solution presented is to send the children to boarding school. When I was faced with that possibility for my son, we took the decision to remain in Glasgow—me in my job and my son in the local comprehensive school. However, the educational experience of many children is disjointed, resulting in poor outcomes and children’s attainment not always matching their potential. If personnel are central to defence thinking, we must think more creatively. We must think about things like the distance between family homes and bases, and how we can ensure educational continuity.
Equipment has been mentioned by a number of Members so, in the interests of time, I will move on to veterans. We celebrate our veterans’ service and thank them for their sacrifice, but in many cases, unfortunately, we then leave them to get on with it. There are fabulous veterans’ organisations, but they are scrabbling about for funding—funding that should come from the Government. Organisations such as Combat Stress deal with the most psychologically damaged veterans and centres such as the Coming Home centre in Govan in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) provide a vital lifeline for veterans, but they are struggling to keep in the black because of cuts and a lack of funding. Are those veterans central to our defence thinking?
All the personnel issues are compounded by chronic disinvestment. What makes this infuriating is the voicelessness of the personnel. The Netherlands has four trade unions that represent the armed forces. They act as a go-between that can liaise between the Government and the armed forces. Morale is so high and conditions so good in the Netherlands that special measures have been introduced to encourage personnel to retire at the age of 55 to make way for younger recruits. We need to establish a representative body on a statutory footing to give a voice to our armed forces—a representative body that is able to liaise directly with Government and ensure that personnel are central to defence thinking. Ultimately, the chronic disinvestment must be addressed. Our most important weapons system must be maintained, not neglected.
I will finish by quoting, like my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), from General Sir Richard Barrons, who gave evidence to the Defence Committee in November:
“The people who are in defence have to keep going every day. They are never going to say publicly, or to themselves, their enemies, or their allies that we are broken, but when they fly, sail, or deploy on the land and they look at their equipment, their sustainability, the shortfalls in their training, and at their allies, they know that they are not fit for purpose.”
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and to take part in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for his outstanding, wide-ranging introductory speech, which set the tone for the debate—or at least most of it—that we have had so far. The comment that struck me most was by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who spoke of the armed forces as being fundamentally about skilled individuals. I think the phrase she used was, “the people with the expertise”.
In seven years in this place, I am not surprised, given the history of north-east Wales, by the number of current members of the armed forces whom I have met, but I am surprised by the number of former members of the armed forces whom I have met. Their reasons for no longer being in the armed forces are quite diverse. I hope that, as we have this debate, we listen to their voices.
My constituent, Alex, is a former member of the armed forces with years of experience serving in the Royal Navy. As I prepared for this debate, Alex did rather a lot of work with me, having spoken to a number of his colleagues who still serve in the Royal Navy. I would like to share the points that Alex raised with me directly with this House and with the Minister. He says this:
“HMS Northumberland is currently in the final stages of a multimillion pound service. As is typical of our refits, headline upgrades to weapons systems use the bulk of the available budget. The budgets are so constrained that a lot of engineering defects are largely ignored purely due to a lack of funding. The 4 main Diesel engines (used to power and drive the ships) have major issues remaining extant and the switchboards used for main power distribution also have major issues. Due to a lack of funding there is no repair plan in place for these problems. Issues are also going on with the chilled water plants which are used for air conditioning and to cool the weapons control systems. These engineering issues in Northumberland were typical of Type 23 frigates throughout my career in the Navy and a situation arose where despite my warnings, when serving as the diesel maintainer on Monmouth back in 2011, we suffered simultaneous and catastrophic failures on two of our Diesel engines leaving our ship stranded alongside awaiting a double engine change, at huge cost.”
Moving on to manpower issues, my constituent writes:
“The Navy haemorrhaged personnel between 2010 and 2013 with the redundancy tranches. Marine Engineers in particular were hit quite hard. One of the main draw backs was a lack of ability to compete with a higher paying private sector. This loss in engineers left others over worked, and feeling underpaid compared to their civilian counterparts. This was a key reason for me leaving ultimately, I had over 5 months of leave to take that had accumulated over several years of cancelled leave periods due to engineering defects and trials. This lack of man power has now spread to Weapons Engineers and communications ratings. These people are amongst the most capable and highly trained engineers on the planet and the MoD has no real plan for retention and no ability to compete with private employers. I also know that due to staff shortages, people who are just not ready for promotion are being promoted to fill gaps in senior positions. These positions come with great responsibility and it is unfair on the promotee to be put in to that position without sufficient experience. Speaking of manning shortages, HMS Portland has been sat alongside in Devonport since March with a locked gate on her gangway, as they cannot staff the ship. It is occasionally being used for minor training exercises. Then will be going in to refit early next year. If manning is not sorted, when she comes back in to service personnel may need to be passed from other ships causing shortages elsewhere and further compounding the effect of engineers et al missing out on leave.”
My constituent also writes:
“These issues are causing other issues, as more ships are now due to be cut. There are rumours of 2 Type 23s and both LPDs being scrapped and the fabled Type 26 may not see service for another decade. Of the 13 Type 23s currently in service, there are 4 in refit and HMS Portland locked up alongside. Of the remaining 8, at least 2 are running around the UK on reduced man power. That leaves 6 destroyers and 6 frigates out to meet our standing NATO commitments across the globe, providing no destroyers are currently in refit. It’ll be no surprise that we don’t have a UK presence on a few standing NATO deployments as we have a fleet of maybe 12 active surface warships. I was wryly chuckling with my friends that fleet is the wrong word and in reality the Royal Navy makes up barely a squadron.”
I was struck by these comments at the end of what Alex writes:
“This is not a concise appraisal of the struggles of the Royal Navy and certainly more issues are ongoing but these are things I know quite confidently. I have worked across the globe as an engineer since leaving the service and I can say quite categorically that our service men and women are amongst the most capable and expertly skilled engineers on the planet. This means they are sadly being let down by ever tightening shoe string budgets and face annual below inflation pay increases. Though this year they won’t have a below inflation increase as they have been told to expect no increase at all.”
My constituent goes on:
“I know tabloids have said this sensationally before but I don’t feel it has ever been truer than today. Our Armed Forces are at absolute crisis point! Our equipment is over used and under maintained and so are our servicemen and women. The Government needs pressing on this and holding to account for the 7 years of decay they have inflicted.”
I very much hope that the Government will be held to account today, and that the Minister will respond to the points made.
I join others in thanking the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for securing this debate. I found out a couple of minutes ago, to my astonishment, that he is not right honourable, but I am sure that will be rectified in good time. He was quite correct in what he said in his speech, and he struck a chord with me when he talked about the economic benefits to the country of maintaining defence spending. I will use the last part of my speech to talk about that, particularly as it relates to shipbuilding and the national shipbuilding strategy.
I have a great family history in that many members of my family have served in the armed forces, and when it comes to defence spending, Thales, a company in my constituency, is celebrating its centenary this year. As I noted in early-day motion 292, the company has now provided visual systems equipment for submarines—or, for the lay person, periscopes—for 100 years. That resonates with me because, when it was trading as Barr and Stroud, my grandfather and grandmother met there, fell in love and ended up married for 61 and a half years. They were very keen supporters of the Scottish National party, and if it was not for them I would not be here in the Chamber today.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for mentioning the Coming Home centre, which is celebrated in early-day motion 499. It provides 1,000 hot meals a month to veterans in Glasgow, and it does fantastic work. I am a regular visitor to that centre, and am always keen to help with its funding.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) made an important point that was backed up by other Members when he said that the Government should be allocating more time to discuss defence matters. For example, Sir John Parker’s report on shipbuilding was published on 3 November 2016, but the first opportunity for Members of the House to debate that report was 8 February 2017, when my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) secured a debate in Westminster Hall.
We had a ministerial statement on the national shipbuilding strategy from the former Defence Secretary—it is fair to say that it was a presentational dog’s breakfast—but we have not yet had the opportunity to debate that strategy, despite the best efforts of many members of the all-party group on shipbuilding and ship repair, who are always applying for such debates. This is therefore an opportunity for Members such as me—and I am sure others—to debate the national shipbuilding strategy.
For me, the national shipbuilding strategy has flaws that should be explored by hon. Members across the House to see whether we can put them right. Our real fear is that the national shipbuilding strategy is going back to the thinking of the 1980s, which suggested that shipyards should be in competition with each other. Such thinking has only ever led to shipyards closing. Competition has not led to the cutting of costs; with shipbuilding it has led to higher costs and to some famous shipyards—such as Swan Hunter—no longer being around and trading.
We must consider whether we want specialist shipyards that build complex naval warships. That was the position of the former Labour Government who decided that the centre of excellence for building complex naval warships was on the Clyde. I am always grateful to the workforce at Govan on the Clyde, and particularly to the trade union representatives who do a magnificent job of representing their members in the shipbuilding industry.
The other flaw in the national shipbuilding strategy is the nonsensical position of ignoring Sir John Parker’s recommendations, and sending the building of Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships out to international competition. This country has just completed a process during which the Aircraft Carrier Alliance was built across shipyards in the UK. If that was good enough for the Alliance, surely it is good enough for Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships. I do not believe that sending Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships to international competition will save the Ministry of Defence money—far from it. Indeed, the Government would make greater savings if they built the ships in the United Kingdom, because the workers building those ships would pay income tax into Government coffers. There will be no savings in sending the building of Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships to international competition, and I hope that the new ministerial team in the MOD will look seriously at that issue. These ships should be built in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned price tags, and his speech resonated with me with regard to general purpose frigates. There is a flipside to what he said about price tags, and I have the impression that the price tag set for a general purpose frigate will determine its capabilities. We have yet to discover—either in a debate or during Defence questions—what will be the capability of the general purpose frigate. It seems to be a downsize from the Type-26 frigate, three of which are contracted to be built in my constituency. What is the role, purpose and function of the general purpose frigate for the Royal Navy? We do not yet know.
I am sorry to interrupt, but this is such an important point about capability. If you have an equipment budget projected over the next number of years, it must be based on a certain price. So if you do not know the price of those frigates and the price goes up, the only way to pay for them without increasing resources is to cut a capability somewhere else. It is ridiculous.
I fully agree with that point. Francis Tusa, a defence analyst, said that if anyone believes it is possible to build a general purpose frigate for £250 million they are guilty of a conspiracy of optimism. There is no defence expert who thinks that that is an appropriate price for building the general purpose frigate.
I want to provide a bit of clarity on this important point, which is part of our shipbuilding strategy. Yes, there is a tentative price tag of £250 million, but each ship will be tailor-made for the order that we actually get. As the number of orders that we get goes up, the unit cost of the ships will go down. Of course there are ways of criticising that, and if Opposition Members have another strategy in mind, I invite them to suggest it; but I want to make it clear that this is something that we are doing, in advance, to utilise our friendships across the world to provide a capable ship that can be utilised in a number of maritime capabilities, depending on the details of the individual order.
I thank the Minister, who has been constructive, but I would gently say to him that there was a promise that 13 Type 26 frigates would be built, and that was cut to eight Type 26 frigates and five general purpose frigates, the purpose of which we do not yet know. He mentions orders. It seems to me the argument is that these general purpose frigates could be exported, but who would they be exported to? If we do not know the purpose, the role and the function, why would anybody anywhere else in the world buy a general purpose frigate? It makes no sense. When the Minister sums up, he may want to consider those issues.
The Government have a role to play in shipyard investment. The Ministry of Defence has talked, not just on the Clyde but at other shipyards too, about being more efficient, and if those shipyards are to be more efficient it means a very real investment in shipyard reconstruction and construction. When the former Secretary of State made his statement on the national shipbuilding strategy, he insisted that there was a frigate factory on the Clyde. While he was at the Dispatch Box, insisting that there was a frigate factory on the Clyde, representatives of the GMB trade union were taking journalists round the Clyde, showing them the site where that proposed frigate factory was supposed to be built, and it was rubble and ash.
We really need to get this right. I support the construction of a frigate factory, but it will need investment, and the Ministry of Defence has a real role to play in providing finance and money for that, because if it is insisting that shipyards should be more efficient and that they should reconstruct, it has a role to play. I hope that it will consider investing in a shipyard construction.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing this debate. I rise to speak not only for the armed forces in Plymouth, but those right round the world. They deserve our thanks and respect for all the work they do. It is worth noting that it is not only those people who serve in uniform that we should be thanking in this debate, but all those civilian defence workers who do such a good job of supporting our armed forces, not only the engineers, designers, tradesmen and technicians at Devonport dockyard but those in the entire supply chain—sometimes called “the defence family.”
Plymouth is entwined with this debate, not only as a defence city but because HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and the Royal Marines, which are based in Plymouth, are at the heart of this debate about defence spending. A strong defence is worth fighting for, and that is a sentiment that has been shared by Members on both sides of the House. I think the defence communities have had enough of the talk of cuts—Plymouth certainly has—and they want to see a strategy laid out such that we can proudly talk up our armed forces, with a firm plan about how we will provide them with the equipment and training they need, and the support they need after their time in uniform has come to an end. That should be our collective ambition, but we are still far too far from that at the moment.
I would like to praise all those who have come to the defence of Albion and Bulwark and the Royal Marines. Plymouth, as we know, is at the centre of the universe—it has certainly felt that way in this debate. Members across the House, people across the country and our allies abroad have spoken about the world-class capabilities that Albion and Bulwark provide, and the expertise of the crews who serve on board and the people who provide support in port. I also support the Plymouth Herald’s “Fly the Flag for Devonport” campaign, which has enabled people in Plymouth to add their voices in support of our brave men and women who serve on Albion and Bulwark and in the Royal Marines.
As has been said, the context of this debate has changed. Russia is more assertive. Its use of Georgia and Ukraine as test grounds for new weapons and tactics is something that all of us in this House, whether or not we have a defence interest, should be aware of. Its weaponisation of migration, in particular, is a deliberate tactic deployed by the Kremlin. Its use of cyber to intimidate not only us but our allies is a growing threat. The threat to the northern flank, as detailed by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), is something we should take seriously. We need to know about the threat to the Baltic states. I ran a quick test on the Baltic states, asking people to name them from north to south. I have to say that I am concerned by the results. It is critical to the defence of our NATO and EU allies that we understand why the Baltic states are important, so we should first be able to name them on the map.
Go on then.
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and then, importantly, Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave in the heart of Europe. We should all be studying this important defence context.
We need to invest more in our cyber and intelligence capabilities, but not at the expense of our conventional forces, as has been said. We need to invest not only in our equipment, but in our personnel. I know from conversations with off-duty service personnel in the pubs around Plymouth that morale is a concern, not only because of the poor state of armed forces accommodation, as has been mentioned, but because of the pay cap and the uncertainty of their role in the world. Key to our armed forces is their ability to get on and do. They do not question; they just deliver. It is up to us in this place, and to Ministers, to do our bit to ensure that they have the backup they need. At the moment there is much more that could be done.
I am grateful to the Armed Forces Minister for meeting me yesterday to talk about the base-porting of frigates, which is an important issue in Devonport. I welcome the decision to base-port the new Type 23s with tails and ASW—anti-submarine warfare—capabilities in Devonport, but I encourage Ministers to set out a timetable for when the base-porting arrangements for the Type 26s and Type 31s will be made so that we can provide certainty. Devonport has a 25-year order book for maintenance in our dockyard, but that is not the case for our naval base. That certainty is very important.
In my maiden speech I made the case for the Type 26s to be base-ported in Plymouth. At the time I was expecting 13 Type 26s, as Scottish National party colleagues have mentioned, but we now expect only eight of them plus the Type 31s. I am concerned about the debate on the Type 31s, because we must have confidence in these warships, to ensure that they and the crews who serve on them around the world are respected. I think that the debate on the Type 31 frigate could be resolved simply if Ministers renamed it a corvette rather than a frigate. The Type 26 frigate will be world-class and world-beating. Let us not spend our time in this place talking down the Type 31. We should be having 13 Type 26s, but for various reasons we will not, so let us have five world-class corvettes, not just cheap frigates, which would do us and the Royal Navy no favours. I think that could easily be rectified.
While I am making requests of the Minister, will he provide some clarity today on what is happening with HMS Ocean? Having returned from expert work supporting hurricane-hit communities in the Caribbean, to hear from the Brazilian Government that they have purchased HMS Ocean for £84 million, not from the UK Government, felt like a kick in the teeth for all those closely associated with this world-class ship. I would be grateful if the Minister provided clarity on what is happening to her.
I mentioned HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark at the start of my remarks. I expect Ministers to hold true to their promise that Plymouth will be a centre for amphibiosity. That means not only retaining the Royal Marines in Plymouth after the closure of its spiritual home at Stonehouse barracks with a new purpose-built facility in the Plymouth area, but also ensuring that we have amphibious ships that are capable. The Bay classes are brilliant ships but they cannot replace the capabilities of the Albion class ships, and neither can the carriers. Losing HMS Ocean’s unique littoral capabilities for a helicopter carrier cannot be replaced by the Prince of Wales.
So we know we are having a capabilities cut already, but we need to make sure that, in providing a world-class centre for amphibiosity, we retain Albion and Bulwark and the Royal Marines. I am pleased that there has been cross-party and cross-Chamber support for the retention of the Royal Marines and the amphibious warships, and I know that Ministers have listened carefully to this. I must tell the Minister that many Members on both sides of the House will join him in any contest he has with the Treasury to make sure that he gets the resources he needs to provide for our armed forces.
On four occasions to date since being elected, I have asked Ministers to rule out cuts to Albion and Bulwark, but on each occasion I have been told it is simply speculation and is untrue. I ask the Minister now to give some certainty to those who serve on those ships by ruling out the cuts once and for all so that we can focus on where we need to get to, and to rule out cuts to the Royal Marines. Plymouth already saw the loss of 300 Royal Marines from 42 Commando just before the general election, so we have recent history of knowing that cuts to the Royal Marines can, and indeed do, happen. They are a vital pipeline for our special forces; the 6,500 Royal Marines provide 40% of our special forces. We must preserve and embed this pipeline.
On submarine recycling, we have spoken about the importance of our hunter-killers and our ballistic missile submarines, but I also want to raise the issue of the 19 decommissioned defuelled or fuelled submarines lying at rest in Devonport or at the naval base in Rosyth. Valiant, Warspite, Conqueror, Courageous, Sovereign, Splendid, Spartan, Superb, Trafalgar, Sceptre, Turbulent and Tireless are waiting in Devonport dockyard for recycling. The demonstration project on Swiftsure in Scotland is, I believe, paused at present.
We need a long-term solution so that we can safely dispose of our nuclear legacy, ensuring that, when new submarines are brought on board, we as a nation deal with the legacy of previous ones. We must ensure that the people of Plymouth and Rosyth do not have an indeterminate uncertain legacy in their dockyards without knowing what will happen to them in the future. This topic is being raised on the doorsteps in Plymouth, and although it only affects two places across the country, it should affect all of us in how we deal responsibly with the legacy of our armed forces.
I agree with all the remarks that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) made about our shipbuilding strategy. We must have clear investment in that strategy, and the House should be firmly opposed to building the solid support ships abroad. The tonnage of those ships would equal that of the carrier programme, and we have demonstrated that the carrier alliance model works. As the RFA ships might not be armed but will be carrying munitions, the Government should determine that there will be a restricted tender for security and defence reasons, so that the long-term contract is provided to a UK facility.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if these ships are procured internationally there will be serious consequences for the UK shipbuilding industry?
Yes. The protection of our sovereign defence capability to both build and design must be preserved not only in naval matters but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) said, in the Air Force as well. We must make sure we have a clear strategy and a clear plan to deliver on protecting the vital, high-skilled jobs in the UK that will preserve our unique role in the future.
This debate was too important to miss. I would have liked to see more Members present, and I encourage the Minister to follow the suggestion of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and hold defence debates in Government time. It is not only Members who have served or have a military establishment in their constituency who should voice their view on this; the whole House should understand the importance of the defence of the realm, how precarious the international situation is at present and how vital it is that Labour, SNP and Conservative Members speak with one voice—[Interruption]—as must Liberal Democrat Members and others. We must speak with one voice in backing our troops and armed forces. We need a long-term plan with long-term funding so that we can provide the certainty and clarity our armed forces, the civilian contractors who work with them and our veterans need.
It is always a pleasure to speak in this House on any issue, but defence is an issue in which I have a particular interest. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing the debate and on putting forward a detailed, succinct, balanced and informative case for us all to support. I am pleased to be a signatory to the motion, and it was a pleasure to appear before the Backbench Business Committee with him to ask for the debate. I never doubted for a second that the interest in this subject would be enormous, and of course it is.
I should like to thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, some of whom have served in the armed forces. It is always a pleasure to listen to the words of wisdom of the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), when he gives us his knowledge and expertise. We are grateful to have benefited from that knowledge and expertise today as well.
I should also like to thank the gallant Members who have served in uniform. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) will not mind my saying that we are immensely impressed by him, and not only because he has served in uniform. We have not forgotten the occasion last year on which his particular qualities shone out. I can honestly say that I think about that occasion often, and I know that others in the House feel the same. I should like to put on record my thanks to the Minister for that. I hope the message is coming through from all Members here that we want to support him. Others have already said this, but I repeat that we want to strengthen his hand when he goes to the Chancellor to get the moneys that the Ministry of Defence needs to spend.
I should like to declare an interest as a former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, in which I served for three years in an anti-terrorism role. I then served for eleven and a half years with the Royal Artillery as a part-time soldier. I am pleased to have had those opportunities; it was good to have that experience. I should like to pay tribute to all our armed services personnel who are currently serving, to their families and to our veterans. Theirs is the ultimate form of service, and they all too often make the ultimate sacrifice. The words that adorn the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey sum this up perfectly:
“Man can give life itself
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world
They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
This is a hugely important debate at a critical time in global defence and security, and it is vital that we in this House, as guardians of the decision to go to war, should take the time to debate the Government’s current policies and plans for ensuring that our armed forces are fit to fight and that they can truly “be the best” in these dangerous times.
I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who serves on the Defence Committee. As other members of the Committee will know, he makes a massive contribution to it, but he could not be here today owing to constituency duties back home. Speaking on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party, I am happy to add our support to the themes that have emerged clearly from the debate so far.
It is an inescapable conclusion that our armed forces have been in demise since 1979. We cannot deny that fact. I accept that dividends were rightly taken as a result of the end of the cold war, the eventual end of the troubles and the impact of new technologies. However, I believe that it is plainly wrong—indeed, it is folly—to think that any current or future threats across the world will be of a lesser magnitude of consequence to our defence and security than what we faced in Berlin, or in Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s.
I would gently remind the Secretary of State, who is not in his place, and the Minister that the majority of Governments since 1979 have acquiesced in the managed decline of our armed forces, hollowing out manpower, materiel and morale in equal measure. The Secretary of State needs to bring that decline to a halt, and we want to strengthen his hand to enable that to happen. He and his colleagues—a number of whom have given gallant service in uniform, and of whom we in this House are rightly proud—must begin the much-needed process of rebuilding our defence and security capacity for the role that we must play in world and European affairs post Brexit. We need our armed forces to be ready and able to deal with the hard-power challenges of the 21st century, not just fit to engage in soft diplomacy and, if I may say so gently, shadow boxing.
On 11 November 2018, we will pause and reflect on the centenary of the end of the first world war. The history books tell us that it was the war to end all wars, and 100 years on we have an army smaller than that which we had at the advent of the first world war. We know all too well what happened to that British Expeditionary Force: defeat followed by retreat and then entrenchment. We did not learn, because by 1938 we had once more hollowed out our armed forces and chosen to ignore the real existential threat of an ambitious expansionist enemy. Once more, we met with defeat and retreat, culminating in the Dunkirk evacuation, five years of hard-won battles and losses, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of our finest young men and women. We are at grave risk of setting the same conditions again. We risk ignoring threats from all around us: under the sea, on the surface, on land, at home and abroad, in the air and in cyber-space. Returning jihadists, dissident republicans, Russians, ISIS, Iranians, North Koreans and home-based cyber-terrorists all present us with a problem.
We continue to pursue the disingenuous process of so-called security and defence reviews and—I do not mean this unkindly—we have to and should ask questions. Defence reviews are nothing more than budgetary exercises where we suspend reality, forget the past, ignore the present and dilute the future to reverse-engineer the military into a smaller fiscal envelope. The warning signs are all around us. There are doubts about whether the Royal Navy is able to put its Type 45s to sea. We have aircraft carriers with no aircraft, and helicopter carriers are sold off before they can be replaced. The fleet cannot be fully manned, and less than a third of it is at sea. The Royal Marines do not have the amphibious capability to get ashore. Contrast that with the taskforce that we sent to recapture the Falkland Islands in 1982. Can the Minister offer any reassurance that we could emulate that today? Others have said that it would be impossible. I do not say that, but it would be much more difficult.
The Army gets smaller and smaller by the week. Reduced recruiting targets are still not met, equipment promises are reneged on, fleets are cut to the core and, as others have said, housing is in disrepair. Training budgets have been slashed and overseas training areas have been closed or restricted. The long-promised Army Reserve experiment is still in the test tube. I have been privileged enough to be on the armed forces parliamentary scheme for several years, and I have been on the Army scheme for the three years. We get the chance to speak to Army personnel, to officers and to families, and we are well aware of the problems. I praise the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for his role in the scheme, because he enables many of us to participate in it, and we can learn more and become more knowledgeable in the House.
I do have some good news, however. I cannot speak about it much more than generically, but I understand that the Government and the Ministry of Defence have confirmed that they will increase the number of reserves in Northern Ireland. We are at 95% of capacity, and we want to grow, so we have asked for that and the Government have responded. I also understand that some capital spending is coming through, which we welcome.
I heard the Chief of the General Staff trying to explain the frankly bizarre decision to abandon stable branding on TV, to which the hon. Member for Gedling referred, and a hard-won ethos in pursuit of fleeting and fashionable politically correct soundbites and millennial tastes. He said that the traditional recruiting cohort that the Army would usually draw upon is 25% smaller, but the fact is that the Army is 33% smaller, so we have missed a target there as well. The plain and simple fact is that we need an Army that is able to engage with and defeat the enemy, with bayonets or bare hands if needs be. It is a horrible image and an awful thing to imagine, but that is the gritty and enduring reality of what we are asking our young men and women on the frontline to do.
Our Air Force is also in a perilous state. I am serving for the RAF on the AFPS this year, and we get to know such things. We talk to the officers and other personnel, and we see the realities. The RAF suffers from chronic underfunding, undermanning and an ageing fleet of aircraft. The Tornadoes, for example, have now had more upgrades and life extensions that most. The reduced Typhoon fleet has much to admire, but it has not proved itself to be the answer to the multi-role, multi-platform challenge that it needs to meet, and it is now regularly overmatched by aircraft from potential aggressors. Closing that gap will be a challenge for the joint strike fighter programme. I hope to be proved wrong, but I fear we will never again be able to conjure up the battle of Britain spirit that has come to define us in our darkest hours.
The House will be glad to hear that all is not lost. The opportunity to intervene and address this difficult situation has not yet passed us by. This debate is a step on the way, and it will strengthen the hand of the Minister and the Secretary of State in ensuring that the Chancellor finds a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or whatever it may be, so that we can fill the gap. The United Kingdom will once again take its place on the global defence and security stage, stepping out from the shadow of the European common security and defence policy. We need to express a clear and bold statement of intent about who we are and what we stand for. We need to invest in our armed forces by putting our money where our mouth is, as befits our UN P5 status. We need to step up to the plate as the second senior partner in NATO and give a much-needed lead to other members who draw their inspiration from us.
Yes, health and welfare remain this nation’s priority, as they should, and spending priorities reflect that. However, Defence has been playing second fiddle or, more accurately, third flute to other Departments for too long—we are well aware of the third flute in Northern Ireland. We do not want to be a third flute when it comes to defence. We want to be more than that, so we gently and respectfully look to the Minister.
The House must cease to be supine on matters of defence and security spending. The Government cannot continue to degrade our armed forces while we turn a blind eye. Hope and good fortune are simply not good military expedients, and we have become over-reliant on the world behaving broadly in our favour.
I take this opportunity to plug a book to book readers. If Members have not read it already, they should make it their business to get “2020: World at War” by a friend of ours, Kingsley Donaldson, who has an experienced and knowledgeable point of view on where we are on defence.
Taking Northern Ireland as a simple case in point of a wider malaise, in 1979 thousands of men and women were serving full time and part time in the Ulster Defence Regiment, in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and I served. We will never be able to recover that capability because of the cuts to the Army. I question whether the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office have anything like the capacity or capability to deal with resurgent terrorism of the scale we lived through in the troubles, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said—he is well aware of it from his family connections in Northern Ireland.
In regular recruiting, Northern Ireland furnishes two armoured regiments—the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars and the 5th Inniskilling Dragoons—the Irish Guards, two battalions of the Royal Irish Rangers and an infantry training depot. Six Regular Army units are permanently garrisoned in Northern Ireland. There are Navy ships on station in Carlingford, Belfast lough and Foyle, air stations at Ballykelly, Aldergrove, St Angelo and Bishops Court, and thousands of servicemen and women across the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Over the years Northern Ireland has provided thousands of reserves to the Army, Navy and Air Force. We have two Territorial Army infantry battalions, a Royal Armoured Corps regiment, an artillery regiment, an engineer regiment, a signals regiment, transport units and two field hospitals, as well as Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Auxiliary Air Force units.
There are many talented young men and women in Northern Ireland of all ethnic diversities and social backgrounds who would make excellent recruits to our armed forces. I am a spokesperson on reserve force and cadet organisations in Northern Ireland, and I commend the Minister and his Department for their work with the cadets. We are growing the cadets in all capacities and across all communities in Northern Ireland, which is an indication of where Northern Ireland is going. Northern Ireland could go further if we get the opportunity.
I say gently to other Members—this is not a game of one-upmanship—that educational attainment standards across Northern Ireland are much higher than in the equivalent armed forces recruitment hotspots in Scotland, northern England and the midlands. I welcome the commitment of the Minister and the MOD to increase the number of TA and reserve forces.
Wellington, one of many famous Irish soldiers, famously commented that more than a third of his Army at Waterloo were Irish. Four of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded to the British Army at the Somme on 1 July 1916 were won by Ulstermen of the 36th (Ulster) Division. The British Army generals who orchestrated the eventual allied victory in world war two included many notable Ulster connections among them: Field Marshals Alan Brooke, Alexander, Auchinleck, Dill and Montgomery; and Generals Cunningham, O’Connor and Ritchie. Indeed, Churchill said of Field Marshal Alan Brooke:
“When I thump the table and push my face towards him what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me.”
He also said:
“I know these…stiff necked Ulstermen, and there is no one worse to deal with than that.”
I am not sure we are all that bad, Madam Deputy Speaker, but we do not take being told off too easily. That came from such a national hero as Churchill, so what greater epithet or encouragement do the Minister and his colleagues need to get on the front foot, starting with defence money? We need to invest in our rich source of martial fighting spirit, dogged determination, moral courage and fearlessness. Those are the characteristics of our armed forces that we need, whether it be in fighting floods, defeating ISIS, keeping our islands and dependent territories safe, policing the seas and skies, or just supporting our allies’ efforts.
I am very conscious of the time, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Laughter.] I have just realised, and I apologise. I wish quickly, however, to commend the charities that work in my area, including SSAFA, which does tremendous work. I do a coffee morning with it once a year and we have raised almost £30,000 over the past six or seven years, so we have done very well, as have the people of Newtownards and the district. I should also mention Combat Stress and Beyond the Battlefield, another organisation that reaches out to people that other charities may have missed.
It is clearer than at any point in the recent past, certainly since 1979, that our armed forces are in a perilous state. We must stop that rot. A bare minimum of 2% of GDP will not keep pace with rising inflation, so standing still is not an option. I well understand that the Minister wants to see the spend increasing, and we are behind him in making sure that that happens. It is time we reconsidered the funding priority for defence and placed greater importance on the assets that are at the core of the values of our nation. We need to distance ourselves from these reductionist security and defence reviews, and instead look at funding programmes that match our ambitions for our global status post Brexit. To do otherwise is to leave us vulnerable to our enemies and incapable of defending ourselves, never mind assisting our friends and allies, and certainly not fully able to answer to our responsibilities in NATO and the UN. Thank you for your patience and your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I suspect you may agree, although you would never be ungracious enough to say it, Madam Deputy Speaker, that sometimes debates in this place can go on a bit. But we have heard a genuinely informative and at times inspiring series of contributions today, and it has been a pleasure to sit through and listen to the debate, almost in its entirety. I, like perhaps one or two others, may not have the privilege of winding up a debate any time soon from the Front Bench, so it is a privilege to be the last speaker from the Back Benches in this debate.
For the avoidance of doubt, there is still one hon. Member to come and I have not forgotten him.
Who could ever forget him? I say to my hon. Friend that I am terribly sorry—I had not seen him back there.
Let me just add a few thoughts on the threat we face, the budget constraints and personnel issues to the many cogent points that have been made in this debate. First, let me say that it is truly extraordinary that this country is in a position where the Ministry of Defence is locked in a battle with the Treasury and we are talking about desperately trying to save vital capabilities such as our amphibious capabilities, the size of the armed forces and so many others. We are scrapping merely to maintain things at their existing level, when we have heard so often and it is so obvious that the threats we are facing are expanding.
Russia has been mentioned many times in this debate. The scale of the threat posed by President Putin’s expansionist regime is not spoken about nearly enough. It is not mentioned nearly enough that, for the first time since the second world war, part of a European nation has been annexed by another European nation by force. That has almost fallen off the public and political agendas, yet it has happened and it will happen again, unless countries such as the UK can wake up to the scale of the threat we face. The values that we all hold dear are potentially in mortal danger. In an act of terrible complacency, we seemed to believe that the post-cold war consensus had settled those values for good, but they are being eroded. Even now, we are not prepared to understand the scale of the peril they are in.
We have an expansionist Russia, and we have, potentially, a similar mortal threat to our country and our values from the evil ideology of which the latest encapsulation has been Daesh. Although that organisation is crumbling, that ideology will certainly resurface in other forms. Part of the investment that this country makes to combat that ideology will extend far beyond the MOD’s capabilities, but we have seen its capacity to cohere around a capability that can control a state for a certain amount of time.
If we look just beyond Daesh’s first foothold in Iraq, we can see how in Syria our complacency about tackling Daesh and the perversion of Islam that it represents has mingled with our complacency about the threat posed by Russia. As has been well articulated not only today but in a Conservative Member’s question in Prime Minister’s questions this week, that has gravely diminished the UK’s standing and put a question mark not only over our capability to intervene if we wish, but over our willingness ever to do so, despite the fact that our values are threatened.
We have those two weaknesses coming together, as epitomised in Syria. We do not know what the future of the European Union will be after the UK leaves, but we have drawn a red line in respect of areas of future co-operation, so we must have our own capability outside the EU. America is retreating into itself. Aside from the monstrosities of President Trump’s regime, we simply cannot rely on America coming to the aid of our values in Europe.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s point—I do not like President Trump any more than he does—but in the US it is an Administration, not a regime. There are regimes in Cuba and Russia, because their democracies are questionable. I know that some of us do not like the American Administration, but it is an Administration, not a regime.
It is, and let us hope it is a one-off. I cannot remember who made this point earlier, but there has been a real question mark over the US’s enduring willingness to engage around the world that dates from before the current Administration. The fact that we can have someone such as President Trump shows that our complacent reliance on the Americans must go forever, even if—God willing—we get someone we can actually trust with the nuclear button in the future.
We have this budget process whereby we have to plead for even current levels of defence spending to be maintained. Let me say another thing on that—this has been mentioned by a number of people. In fact, this is the first time that I can recall agreeing so substantially with Scottish National party Members on an issue—I am sorry to have to break that to them. It must be the case now that the Government act to take the Dreadnought programme out of the Ministry of Defence’s budget and deal with it through the Treasury reserve. I was privileged to be an adviser to the previous Labour Government for a number of years. I remember quite clearly the agreement that the then Defence Secretary, now Lord Hutton, reached with the then Chancellor, now Lord Darling, over restoring what had historically been the position that the nuclear deterrent would be treated outside the MOD’s budget. It was a grave act of complacency by this Government, which came to power in 2010, to rip up that agreement. While I was waiting to speak just now, I tried to refresh my memory of what happened then. I came across the way in which the then Chancellor, George Osborne, announced it at the time. In justifying the decision, he said:
“All budgets have pressure. I don't think there’s anything particularly unique about the Ministry of Defence.”
Well, absolutely. As we have heard from so many speakers, the MOD’s budget, with the capabilities that it is defending, is unique. Even if that complacency was justifiable back then, which it was not, it is deeply worrying that we now have another Chancellor who is potentially adhering to that line of thinking, when all the developments in the world since then have shown that, actually, we did not understand the level of threat we were facing.
In conclusion, let me turn to personnel, but in a different sense from that which has been cogently spoken about by a number of Members.
The hon. Gentleman is making some fair points, if I may say so. Does he accept this one as well? When considering the total amount of money that goes towards our collective national defence, there are a number of pots, particularly in so far as they affect the intelligence services, which are especially important in terms of waging war in cyber-space, that are not necessarily taken account of within the £36 billion of the defence departmental expenditure limit, and that must be taken into consideration when looking at this in the round.
I would be interested in discussing that matter further with the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure whether I accept that point. The whole point of this is that we are talking about very difficult decisions, and I do not envy the Ministers on the Front Bench. We are shifting around money from an overall pot, which is just woefully, woefully inadequate.
Let me talk about personnel. First, locally, I was saddened to see the departure from Barrow shipyard of Will Blamey after only a few months in the job. I wish him very well. I know that he has a big contribution to make in the future and, hopefully, that will be in the field of the strategic defence of our realm. I welcome Cliff Robson as the new managing director. I say that not just to get it on the record, but to make the point that the challenges facing our submarine programme must not be all put at the door of the good men and women at Barrow shipyard.
There has been a level of mismanagement of the submarine programme as part of the suboptimal management of the entire defence equipment programme, and it may be reaching a critical point. It is not acceptable for the Government to lay blame at the door of people who are doing extraordinary work for the defence of the realm; Opposition Members will not allow the Government to get away with that. The Government are currently seeking to starve our future capability of the vital equipment budget, which is not great at the moment, but it is now vital in order to create future capabilities so that we can continue in the business of building submarines.
My final point on personnel relates to the ministerial team here. I am really glad to see the Minister in his place. From the fact that he kept his job in the reshuffle, I take it that he has been given the assurances he sought that the Army will not recede any further. I look forward to him making that clear in his winding-up speech. I welcome the new Minister for defence procurement, who comes in at a critical time. I hope that Opposition Members will be a constructive force in helping him to meet the challenge of arguing for greater resources and ensuring that they are properly spent. Let me finish on the Secretary of State, who is not a man I knew a great deal about. In fact, I get the sense that he is not a man that many in the armed forces knew a great deal about before he took his job. I look forward to working with him constructively, particularly on the future of the submarine programme.
This is a time for seriousness—for serious people and people who are able to establish a grip over their roles. In various roles, I have briefed a newspaper occasionally and ended up with a story, sometimes in The Sun and sometimes in the Daily Mirror. But I have looked at the way in which the Ministry of Defence has been run over the past couple of months, and, although I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has apparently intervened directly to save some military dogs and is personally cutting down on the Chancellor’s ability to use military flights, I question whether this shows that he is spending sufficient time ensuring that our equipment programme is up to scratch in a way that will be effective for the nation. He still has a window of time in which to prove himself, but he needs to do so in short order.
It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to give way at this late stage. May I just say that I, for one, want to give the new Secretary of State the benefit of every possible doubt, because what we need at this moment in time—the debate has really brought this out—is someone who is going to have a bare-knuckle fight with the Treasury to get the money we need for defence? The fact that he may not have much of a background in defence is not the main issue. The main issue is whether he will fight for money for defence and whether he can win that fight.
It is, absolutely. I suppose it remains to be seen whether the tactics he has so far adopted continue and are effective. We will be as supportive as we can in ensuring that that is the case. I wish that the Secretary of State were here so that I could say this to him in person. I do not know what his other commitment is, but this has been a really important debate with many important contributions, and he would do well to listen to what has been said this afternoon by colleagues on both sides of the House.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to this magnificent debate in which we have heard a series of robust, resilient and passionate contributions, not least from my immediate predecessor in speaking, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock). He represents a fine shipbuilding town that has a critical stake in the future of the defence equipment programme.
I think it is fair to say that there has been consensus, and that it is a source of great dismay, among everyone present today that every year of this Government has seen a steady decline in defence spending as a percentage of GDP, from 2.4% in 2011 to 1.9% in 2016. Not only has it declined in every year of this Government, but it is lower than in any year of the previous Labour Government. Those figures, damning as they are about the Government’s real commitment to defence, belie the true criticality of the situation. A letter published by former defence chiefs during the general election last year called the 2% target “an accounting deception” and added:
“Most analysts…agree core defence expenditure for hard military power is well below 2%.”
Not only is real defence spending well below the purported 2% target minimum, but its effective purchasing power is being eroded year on year; as many Members will know, the defence rate of inflation runs well above the national rate. In 2015-16, for example, the defence inflation rate was 3.9%, the highest since 2010, while the national GDP deflator was just 0.8%. That relentless pressure on defence resources explains the litany of cuts stemming from the 2010 and 2015 strategic defence and security reviews. Most notable in its absurdity has been the scrapping of the Nimrod MRA4 programme mere months before it entered service, squandering £3.4 billion and leaving the UK with no maritime patrol aircraft for at least a decade.
In recent months, the Army has been cut by a fifth, wages have been frozen for a sustained period and no Royal Navy ships have been on patrol in international waters over Christmas for the first time in history. That is an absurdity and a really depressing situation. We continue to see the playing out of chaotic and wrong-headed thinking on procurement of defence, most notably in the recent national shipbuilding strategy. Yesterday, I had the privilege of chairing the latest meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on shipbuilding. We heard further testimony about the urgent need to improve key elements of the strategy if we are to achieve the best effects possible for our national shipbuilding sector.
Key themes seem to be emerging from the ongoing process of discussion with key stakeholders in industry and in the defence community. The national shipbuilding strategy must both define and outline measures to safeguard key industrial capabilities. It is breathtaking that the strategy has taken no steps to define the minimum sovereign capabilities that we need to sustain as a nation in the shipbuilding industry or to prescribe how we achieve and sustain those capabilities.
The strategy must also commit to investment that will ensure that those key industrial capabilities, once defined, are modernised to be world class. That was the case under the previous defence industrial strategy created by the Labour Government in 2005; it designated that the Clyde shipbuilding industry would be the key deliverer of the nation’s complex warships and prescribed a solution that would allow that industry to become world class by developing what was called a frigate factory or modern dock facility. That would deliver an integrated, consolidated site achieving the efficiencies necessary to deliver the defence capability for the Navy at an effective value for money cost.
We also recognise as a result of this process that a distributed block build strategy as defined by the national shipbuilding strategy is not suitable for frigates such as the Type 31E as it will actually drive up unit costs to manufacture; they would best be built in that consolidated world-class facility, with the benefits from learning curves and efficiency from integrated production. The national strategy must also recognise clearly that there is a huge opportunity for that distributed block build strategy in the next tranche of royal fleet auxiliary ships to be procured: the three fleet solid support vessels with a displacement of 40,000 tonnes—a scale suitable for such a strategy. No one site in the UK would be capable of building such a ship alone. That is the key opportunity: to use that distributed block build strategy to sustain shipbuilding capacity across all the multiple sites in the UK and maintain the resilience of the defence supply chain. I would like to insist that the Minister consider applying the treaty on the functioning of the European Union article 346 protection in the case of the new solid fleet support ships to ensure that there is a UK-only competition to build those new complex royal fleet auxiliary ships.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says as I have the same problem. Does he agree that, as well as having shipbuilding as a core strategic industry, we need to keep radar capacity in my constituency and others? We need radar demonstrators to ensure that we continue development of radar in this country for those ships in the next 50 years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that excellent contribution. What he says is absolutely critical. When we think of shipbuilding, we often just consider the hull of the ship. However, when we see a ship launch into the water for the first time, we are seeing perhaps only 8% of the value of the overall project, even though structurally it looks like much more. The real value is in the ship as a platform for multiple other high-value defence capabilities. A good example is the multi-function SAMPSON radar. It is manufactured on the Isle of Wight and constitutes a large share of the overall cost of the Type 45 programme. That is where we need the pipeline of capability: not just in the front-end shipbuilding capability, but in the second and third-tier supply chain.
Our RFA capability provides an opportunity to pump-prime our national shipbuilding capability. According to the latest figures compiled by the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde, shipbuilding on the Clyde alone contributes £231 million a year to GDP in the UK and—critically—generates, in addition, a multiplier of £366 million a year across the wider defence supply chain. That includes the facility in the constituency of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). It is critical that we use the national shipbuilding strategy to involve that wider supply chain and so maximise the value to the UK economy.
The all-party group on shipbuilding and ship repair yesterday discussed how we gave the contract for the latest fleet support tankers to Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering in South Korea. The cost of building them there was equivalent to the cost of building them in the UK, but the price the South Koreans offered was considerably lower than any UK shipbuilder alone could have offered. In effect, the South Korean taxpayers are subsidising the British MOD to build its ships for it. Why on earth would they do that if they did not recognise that it is a major industrial opportunity for them? Surely there must be an opportunity for the South Koreans. They would not do it simply out of generosity or altruism; they are doing it because they recognise that it is a core part of their defence industrial capability and national industrial strategy. Perhaps we ought to take a leaf out of their book by having a more active industrial strategy when it comes to defence and including those RFA ships.
There is a further issue in the national shipbuilding strategy: the financing, particularly of complex warships. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness mentioned that the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer described defence as no different from any other Government Department when it came to capital expenditure. I take issue with that, as I am sure do many other Members. Defence is unique when it is commissioning complex warships such as the Type 26 and the new deterrence submarines. These two vessels alone constitute two of the most complex engineering projects every built by mankind. They are huge national, generational programmes. The idea that they ought to be constrained by in-year spend profiles is absurd, because it militates against the efficiency of the programmes. They are not managed in the same way as, say, the Olympic games, the High Speed 2 programme, Crossrail or any other large-scale infrastructure project. They are arbitrarily constrained by Treasury limits on annual spending. It is critical that we change that—this is a cultural thing in the UK—if we are to achieve the best opportunity for defence. That has to be tackled on a cross-party basis.
When I worked at BAE Systems, innovations for the Type 26 programme, which included changing to spray-on insulation, using LEDs and replacing non-structural welding with adhesives, were constrained because the MOD was not willing to adapt and innovate and apply new standards to its shipbuilding programmes. That demonstrates that it is the customer that is sclerotic in its approach to innovation in new programmes. It drives costs into projects and militates against innovations that would save costs in the long term. Those short-term constraints cast a long shadow through the life of the programme and build in an overall cost.
That is the reason for the attrition we often see in programmes such as the Type 45—originally 12 ships were meant to be built; that was cut to eight; and finally six ships were built. There is an optimism bias at the start, followed by annual constraints on spend and a structural rigidity built into the programme that fails to adapt as it goes forward and innovate with new products as new technologies emerge. That approach also insists on arbitrary competition in the supply chain, when actually long-standing relationships can be established there—for example, with gear box manufacturers and engine builders—that can ensure a commonality of approach and adaptability and enable ships to be built more efficiently. A year-zero approach for every programme duplicates costs and adds complexity that could easily be avoided.
All that ought to change. We have a huge opportunity. We have seen the bigger picture. The root cause is the relentless decline in defence spending as a share of GDP. The Chair of the Defence Select Committee mentioned that it has halved as an overall percentage of national wealth in the last two decades or so since the end of the cold war. That is the root cause, but we could certainly provide mitigation in the meantime by more efficiently managing the remaining resources we do receive and managing our defence equipment programme in a more resilient and innovative way.
Hopefully I have presented some practical opportunities to improve the national shipbuilding strategy that can help us to achieve a future fleet of the scale and capability that we need to sustain British military power around the world in the coming decades. I look forward to the Minister offering his view on that.
This is one of the few debates in the House that has been not only extremely well mannered, but extremely well informed by Members from all parts of the House. I cannot single out all of them, but I want to mention the typically well-informed duo who make up the chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and for North Wiltshire (James Gray). Of course, the Chair of the Defence Committee gave an incredibly thoughtful speech.
Despite the brief diminution in consensus, I will single out the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who spoke incredibly proudly of his constituency and its long, historic connections to the armed forces. He will be glad to know that I will be returning to the issue of tax, which I will be very pleased to do.
In the short time he has been here, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has shown himself to be a force to be reckoned with in defence debates. I even found myself hear-hearing at the end of the speech by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), which is possibly a first for an SNP Member and is making him visibly nervous as I finish this sentence. Of course, it is a pleasure to follow my good friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney). Of course, there were also excellent speeches from the SNP Benches by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes).
I really do want to single out the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who secured the debate. His opening speech was a forensic, thoughtful, blistering, sobering and eye-opening contribution on the state of defence and the armed forces and on the challenges we face now and will face in the future. The House is much better informed as a result of his securing the debate today. As he mentioned, it comes in the context of international threats from Russia, North Korea and an extremely unpredictable incumbent in the Oval office in the United States; new threats in relation to cyber-security and cyber-defence; and a boisterous Russia, which seems to have been in our waters on an almost weekly basis over the past few years.
Following the reshuffle, Defence is Whitehall’s only all-male, all-white Department. The one woman who was a Minister there was replaced by a man. I make an appeal to the Prime Minister, which perhaps the Minister on the Treasury Bench, who knows that I respect and like him, can take back: why can we not have the promotion of the hon. Lady sat behind him, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan)? She would not only make a fine Minister, but bring a new sense of dynamism and youth to that extremely male-dominated Department. I fear that my endorsement may have the opposite effect. [Interruption.] The kiss of death, I hear. In the week when the Army launched its diversity recruitment campaign, the one woman who sat in the Ministry of Defence as a Minister was moved elsewhere. So much—[Interruption.] So why not promote another woman to replace her instead of a man? That is the point I make to the House.
I want to look at the condition and state of the armed forces and illustrate what has been mentioned in the debate. Let us start with the Army, which is smaller than at any time since the Napoleonic wars. I will speak about terms and conditions, starting with the issue of pay. Because inflation is about 3%, the 1% pay cap is, in real terms, a cut to armed forces wages. It is no wonder that some on the Government Benches are looking at their feet, because I would be embarrassed to come to this Chamber and defend the Government’s record on armed forces pay.
Under the new rates of Scottish income tax, an Army private on a salary of £18,500 will pay less than their counterparts based anywhere else in the United Kingdom. These personnel make up the vast majority of those who are based in Scotland. Those at the higher ends of the pay scale—who, yes, will pay a bit more—make up a tiny percentage. This is a legacy of decades of under-investment in defence in Scotland by the Conservatives and by Labour. Let us look at the increases in context. Under the new SNP tax plans, an Army sergeant will pay an extra £1.44 a week, and a naval lieutenant will pay an extra £2.61 a week.
The hon. Member for Moray, who was so outraged by all this, may wish to take one figure—the average salary in his own constituency. I took the liberty of looking it up just after his speech: it comes in at £22,584. The average taxpayer in his constituency will not pay any more. The frontline squaddie in Scotland is getting money in his pocket thanks to the SNP, while the hon. Gentleman’s party cuts his wages, insisting on a continuous pay freeze.
Let me say once again that the nat tax will make Scotland the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman will have to accept, despite what he says, that anyone in Scotland earning more than £24,000—hardly a high earner—will pay more tax under the SNP plans than they currently do. That is affecting members of our armed forces, who have been in contact with me about it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to go over the figures again. An Army sergeant with a salary of about £33,000 pays £1.44 a week more. I think that it is fair to ask them to pay a little more, and entirely fair to ask officers who are earning in excess of £65,000 to pay a little more. Let us bear in mind that the average salary in his seat is under £23,000.
Will the Army sergeant, or member of whichever rank, be paying these tax rates based on where he was born, where he was living when he joined the forces, or where he is based?
Where they are based. That is why I said that the squaddies in Scotland will get a tax cut. What we can unite on—the right hon. Gentleman’s party; my party; and, I understand, some sympathetic members of the Government party—is that it is time to lift the public sector pay cap, which is affecting serving soldiers.
Is it not the case that the sergeant my hon. Friend mentions who will be paying a little more tax will be getting free prescriptions, while their children will go to university for free and their grandparents will get free social care, because that is the social contract that the Scottish Government have with the people of Scotland?
They will benefit from many elements of the social contract. Of course, they already receive some of these benefits as members of the armed forces anyway.
I turn to the issue of housing. I was amazed to hear what the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) said. Actually, I should have singled him out because he gave a thoughtful speech. Military housing that I have seen is the kind of stuff that you would not put a dangerous dog into. It is one area where the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)—who is not in his place, unfortunately—sees that the Government really need to put some work in.
On recruitment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West said, we need an urgent alternative to the Capita recruitment contract, which rakes in about £44 million per year over 10 years. It was the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford who suggested, in his marvellous report last year, that an alternative way needed to be found to fill the ranks. On terms and conditions, let us get our house in order. The right hon. Gentleman has now rejoined us.
I say to Labour Members, in the genuine hope that we can work together on this, that we should get an armed forces trade union Bill before the House. Let us give the armed forces the dignity and decency they deserve as workers in uniform so that they are in a better position to bargain for better terms and conditions for themselves and their families. I am very pleased not only that that was in the SNP manifesto, but that my party is currently undertaking some policy work—led by our armed forces and veterans spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West—on how we can improve the terms and conditions offered to the armed forces.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned accommodation. I do not know whether he is aware that Carillion, the parent company of CarillionAmey, is in an extremely difficult financial situation at the moment. It is actually in discussions with its creditors about whether the company will be allowed to continue. Under those circumstances, does he agree that it is extremely important for the Ministry of Defence to have a plan B, so that if the worst were to happen to the corporate entity, its personnel can still receive a housing service?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention because he is absolutely right. My preferred option would be to bring this back in house. I do not know whether he would go that far, but his central point is right that the MOD needs a plan B. I have been watching with interest the news on Carillion, which made the papers just this morning, and this is a really critical time for it.
I want to talk about capability, and I will do so briefly. We are running slightly ahead of time, but I wish to hear what the Minister has to say. Following the 2015 SDSR, there is a new mini-review, led by Sir Mark Sedwill, as several right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. The review is looking at both security and defence aspects. My fear, which other Members have adumbrated, is that it is about what the Government can get away with spending, as opposed to what they need to spend given the threats they face.
As the hon. Member for Gedling said in his speech, we learned from a report in the Financial Times at the weekend that the review will now be split. Many of the Members who regularly attend defence debates will recall that the report was supposed to be published, and presumably a ministerial statement would have been made, early in the new year. I would have been charitable and extended that right up to the end of March. We now learn, however, that the defence aspects will be kicked later into the year. I would be grateful to the Minister if he told us in his summing up whether that is the case. The cynic in me does wonder—I am not normally one for being cynical—if this is about getting beyond the local elections in May. I sincerely hope not, because that kind of politics is not on.
The hon. Gentleman seems to imply that there is some plot or conspiracy involved in splitting up the security and defence parts of the review. If that is the case, I strongly welcome it, because that means there is a much greater chance that the defence budget will not be cut. If the two parts are announced together next week, the extra spend—on cyber, for example—will come straight out of the defence budget. If he wants them to be announced next week, he is actually speaking in favour of defence cuts.
The hon. Gentleman is much more optimistic than me. I have seen just this week, on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, how the Government do this kind of thing. They take every opportunity to pull the wool over people’s eyes. He need only ask his colleagues the hon. Members for Moray and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, as well as the rest of the Scottish Conservative intake. We need a proper SDSR that takes account of the fact that we will no longer be members of the European Union, and of the fact that we have had currency fluctuations and the devaluation of the pound. I am in favour of taking more time if we get a more considered outcome, but the cynic in me suggests that that is not what is at play.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that separating defence from the amalgam that has been created could be a good thing, by focusing attention on the purely defence aspect, as he acknowledges, and by giving a new Defence Secretary the opportunity to fight and win the battles with the Treasury that need to be fought and won.
I am amazed that with their combined experience, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) appear so optimistic, and I fear they are trying to square a circle that cannot be squared. For more than a year, the SNP has called for a proper SDSR to take account of the fact that we are leaving the European Union, as well as the devaluation of the pound and currency fluctuations.
We must also address the nonsense that we have heard about 2% of GDP. The Government do not spend 2% of GDP on defence, and we should not let them get away with claiming that they do. That 2% includes things such as pensions, efficiency savings, and all sorts of things that it ought not to include. [Interruption.] I see that you are getting nervous about the time, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will conclude my remarks and say that I think we should have more such debates on defence in the House. I think we should do that in Government time, and that the Defence Secretary should have turned up to the first defence debate of his tenure. It should not always be up to the Opposition to drag the Government to this Chamber to explain their woeful record.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing today’s debate. He speaks with great authority and passion on defence matters. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who said that we have heard many considered and well informed speeches today. They have included contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), and for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones). I will not comment further, simply because time is marching on and I know that the Minister would like a decent time in which to respond.
The debate takes place at a time of immense uncertainty for defence and our armed forces. Recruitment has stalled across each of the services, with numbers falling year on year. The defence budget faces significant funding gaps, with fears of deep cuts to the Royal Marines and our amphibious capability. That uncertainty also puts at risk thousands of jobs in our world-class defence industry, and threatens to undermine our skills base and sovereign capability. Yet for all the talk of stand-up rows with the Chancellor and the Minister’s threat to resign, we are still none the wiser about what the Defence Secretary and his Ministers will do to get to grips with these serious challenges.
The motion before the House rightly pays tribute to the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces. Their courage and dedication represents the very best of what our country stands for, and we pay tribute to all those who serve, and particularly those who were separated from family and loved ones over Christmas and the new year.
Last week I had the privilege of visiting personnel who are serving with the Royal Welsh in Estonia. I was visiting as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for his hard work on that scheme. In Estonia, along with Members from across the House, I saw the vital work being done as part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence there. It is clear that the mission is highly valued by the Estonian Parliament and its forces with whom our personnel serve, as well as by the Estonian people more broadly. This is not just about defending Estonia from potential adversaries; it is about reinforcing NATO’s eastern border and making clear that NATO stands as one against external threats.
As Britain leaves the European Union, it is all the more important that we dedicate ourselves to the international institutions that have served this country’s interests over many decades, including NATO and the United Nations. Our work with those bodies is a reminder of the huge good that this country can achieve in the world, thanks in large part to the service of our armed forces personnel, be they serving on NATO missions or as part of UN peacekeeping efforts.
I profoundly regret that the last seven years have seen the weakening of our voice in the world, and it must be said that our current Foreign Secretary has not helped. Brexit cannot, and must not, be an opportunity for this country to turn inwards and shirk our international obligations. That includes the responsibility to be a critical friend to our country’s allies when they flirt with pursuing reckless policies that endanger the international order.
One of our foremost international obligations is to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, in accordance with our NATO commitments. The Opposition are fully committed both to NATO and to the 2% obligations; indeed, we spent well above that figure on defence in each year of the last Labour Government, with defence spending at 2.5% of GDP when Labour left office. I was pleased to hear the new Secretary of State say recently that he regards the 2% figure as a floor, not a ceiling; yet under this Government we have barely scraped over the line, and have come perilously close to missing the target altogether.
As the Defence Committee found, the Government are guilty of shifting the goalposts, in that they are now including in our NATO return areas of spending that were not counted when Labour was in government. The fact is that the 2% does not go nearly as far at a time when growth forecasts are being downgraded due to the Government’s mismanagement of the economy.
The simple truth is that we cannot do security on the cheap, and the British public expect their Government to ensure that defence and the armed forces are properly resourced. With that in mind, I was staggered when the Secretary of State admitted to me at Defence questions that he had not been to see the Chancellor before the Budget to demand a decent settlement for defence. I just wish that he had spent as much time fighting for the defence budget as he appears to spend in briefing the newspapers about rows with the Chancellor and near-scuffles in the voting Lobby.
We know that the Government’s national security capability review is being carried out within the same funding envelope as the last SDSR—that is, there will be no new money. It has now been widely briefed that the Government plan to hive off defence from the review altogether and carry out a separate exercise sometime next year. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified what the format and timetable now are. While we agree that the most important thing is to get the decisions right, this cannot just be an opportunity to kick the issue of funding into the long grass. Nor should the review be used to pit cyber-security against more conventional capabilities. Of course, we absolutely must develop and adapt our capabilities as the threats that we face continue to evolve, but Britain will always need strong conventional forces, and those include the nuclear deterrent, as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) will be pleased to hear.
There is considerable concern across the House about possible cuts to our conventional capabilities and to our personnel. We understand that our concern is shared by the Minister himself, who has even staked his own position on preventing further defence cuts. With that in mind, can he rule out once and for all that the Government are looking at selling HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, and can he confirm that there will be no cuts to the Royal Marines? Those decisions would have a profound impact on the role of our Royal Navy and would limit our ability to carry out operations, contribute to NATO missions and facilitate humanitarian relief efforts, such as the recent Operation Ruman.
There is deep concern about the affordability of the Government’s equipment plan more generally. The National Audit Office has concluded that it is at
“greater risk than at any time since its inception.”
We know that the plan was heavily reliant on efficiency savings to make ends meet, but the Defence Committee has found that it is “extremely doubtful” that the MOD can generate efficiencies on the scale required. Alarmingly, the Committee also uncovered considerable confusion between the permanent secretary and the former Defence Secretary over the figures for the projected efficiency savings, so can the Minister now clarify just how much the Department is counting on saving?
We also face a major challenge due to the dramatic slump in the value of sterling—down an unprecedented 17% under this Government. Given that £18.6 billion of the equipment plan is to be paid for in dollars, including the F-35 programme and the Apache attack helicopters, the Government need to come clean about the effect that will have on the already stretched equipment budget.
As well as investing in equipment, we must invest in the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Worryingly, the Government have decided to cut training exercises in the coming year, and I know that is a real source of concern to service personnel. We are also facing a crisis in recruitment and retention, with more and more personnel choosing to leave the armed forces. Indeed, every one of the services is falling in size, and the Government have broken their 2015 manifesto pledge to have an Army of 82,000 and the pledge they made before last year’s election to maintain the overall size of the armed forces.
We have been clear that one way of beginning to remedy this sorry state of affairs would be to lift the public sector pay cap and give our armed forces a fair pay rise. It would not be a silver bullet for the real challenge we face with personnel numbers, but we know from personnel themselves that pay is one of the main reasons they choose to leave the armed forces. Indeed, satisfaction with basic rates of pay and pension benefits are at the lowest levels ever recorded.
We must also explore other means of boosting recruitment, particularly of those from under-represented groups. With that in mind, I welcome the Army’s recent recruitment drive, despite the mild hysteria it provoked in parts of the press. If we can remove perceptions that deter potential applicants, that is to be welcomed. But we must take more radical action, and that means looking very seriously at the recruitment contract with Capita, which is simply not fit for purpose. There have been substantial delays to the IT systems and the planned savings have not materialised. More fundamentally, Capita has simply not done its job of boosting recruitment.
I know that the Minister shares with Members across the House a strong commitment to the defence and security of this country. The question now is whether he can convince his colleagues across Government that we simply cannot do security on the cheap. We wish him well in that endeavour.
It is a real pleasure and an honour to respond to such a formidable debate, which has been detailed and truly constructive, and throughout much of it there has been a consensus on the direction in which we need to travel. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on securing it and commend the Members throughout the House who have contributed —it is comforting and encouraging to know that hon. Members on both sides of the House can illustrate their case with such detail. In congratulating our brave and professional servicemen and women on what they do, may I also, on behalf of the whole House, express our gratitude to the families who support those in uniform, the cadets, who are the future of our armed forces, the reserves and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service? They all play an important role in defending our nation and reminding us of who we are.
There has been a Government reshuffle. I am delighted and honoured to continue in this role, but I want to take this opportunity to welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), and to wish all the best to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), who has moved to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. An SNP Member commented earlier on gender balance, and I am pleased to say that overall there has been a huge jump in the number of women who are Ministers, and let us not forget that we have a female Prime Minister—the second that the Conservative party has put forward.
The debate has focused on a number of areas: equipment and resources, defence expenditure and the size of our regular services. I will do my best to answer the questions that have been asked, but if I am unable to do them all justice, I will write to the hon. Members concerned—I am looking to the officials in the Box—and do my best to answer them in due course. Let me temper expectations, however, because I am unable to provide answers to some of the bigger questions on the capability review. Answers are coming and announcements will be made, so I ask Members to please be patient.
Before going into detail of the outputs, we should look at the bigger question, which I thought was wonderfully articulated by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth). She asked what role we require our armed forces to play. Of course they must defend our skies and shores and the UK’s interests overseas, but do we aspire to partner with, train or lead other like-minded nations in dealing with the threats and challenges the world faces? Should our defence posture be limited to war fighting and defending, or should it include stabilisation and peacekeeping capabilities? With the conduct of war advancing and the battlefield becoming ever more complex, how do we respond to the new threats that the fast-changing technology is presenting?
As reflected in this debate, Britain aspires to act as a force for good on the international stage. We have the means and the aspiration to step forward when other nations might hesitate. That is all the more critical at a time when some nations are ignoring the international rules-based order that we helped to establish and that has served us well for decades, and other nations are adopting a more nationalist approach.
That is why UK forces are currently conducting, and contributing to, operations across the world. We are contributing to defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria, we continue to help train troops in Afghanistan through Operation Resolute Support, and we are supporting the Ukrainian armed forces by training them in the challenges they face. We are involved in peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Somalia and South Sudan, and we are training the Libyan coastguard to respond to irregular migration in the Mediterranean and countering piracy off the horn of Africa. HMS Argyll and HMS Sutherland will both deploy to Asia-Pacific this year, and British military personnel will join military training on the Japanese mainland, underlining the UK’s commitment to peace and stability in the region.
The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) asked the important question of where this will leave us post Brexit. We will not have an EU membership card in our back pocket, but we remain a formidable force—the biggest force in Europe— and I believe that the coalition of the willing will still step forward to meet the challenges of today, just as when there was an Ebola crisis in west Africa it was us who stepped forward along with other nations that are not necessarily all active members of NATO. The same will continue into the future. It is a question of whether we have the capability and desire to step forward, rather than of what organisations we might or might not be part of.
The versatility of our armed forces is regularly demonstrated when they step forward to help, not just by responding in war-fighting and peacekeeping scenarios but also, as has been mentioned, by responding to events such as Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean, with 2,000 personnel deployed there to provide humanitarian aid and disaster response. Op Tempora is another example of responding, when the security threat at home changes and our police require support, as we saw last year. Our armed forces provide invaluable support, not always seen, to our intelligence agencies, embassies and overseas development efforts, as well as to our police forces and communities, often with little recognition. I know the House will join me in thanking them for their efforts.
This is a big year for the armed forces as we mark 100 years since the end of world war one, and, as has been mentioned, it is 100 years since the founding of the RAF, and we look forward to celebrating that, too.
I apologise to the House for missing today’s debate, but I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) were on a visit to RAF Odiham with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Will the Minister join me in praising the work done at that station both at home and abroad, notably in the alleviation of the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma last year? Does he also agree that the Chinook is a very versatile, robust platform and we should ensure it continues long into the future?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate, and it is a pleasure to join him in paying tribute to RAF Odiham and all the RAF bases and the work the RAF does; this is going to be a fantastic year for the RAF. I encourage all Members to talk to their local authorities and ask what they might be doing to mark Armed Forces Day on 30 June this year. This is a great opportunity for us to make sure the nation and our local communities can celebrate what our armed forces do.
I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for giving way, and, like many others in this House, I am delighted that he remains in his place. I read his cogent article in The Sunday Telegraph about the many roles our armed forces perform, including in maintaining the economic wellbeing of our nation, not least as 90% of our trade comes by sea. Will he say something about the importance of that before he moves on to talk about equipment?
I would be happy to do that. We perhaps take for granted how open our economy is, and how we require the freedom of the seas to ensure that we can trade and attract business here. There is now an entwined link between security and our economy, and we forget that at our peril. My right hon. Friend reminds us of this powerful point.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) went through a comprehensive list of our equipment. I feel that he must have copied my list! I will simply underline the fact that we have some amazing bits of equipment coming through as a result of our pledge to spend £178 billion. The aircraft carriers have been mentioned, as has the F-35B, of which 14 have now been delivered. We have heard about the Type 26, and we have had a good debate about the Type 31. We have also heard about the River class, and the Dreadnought programme is coming on line as well. In the Army, we have the Ajax armoured fighting vehicles; these were Scimitars and Samsons in old language, if my hon. Friend remembers them. In the RAF, we have the upgrade of the Typhoon, and the F-35 fifth-generation fighter is joining our armed forces as well.
Much of this debate has focused on expenditure. As has been mentioned a number of times, the Defence budget is £36 billion this year. We hold the fifth largest Defence budget in the world. The Government have made a commitment to increase this by 0.5% above inflation every year of this Parliament, so it will be almost £40 billion by 2021. The Secretary of State has expressed the view strongly in public that the capability review is a priority for the Ministry of Defence, and he will shortly outline in more detail the process of how we will move forward. The capability review was brought about because things had changed since the SDSR in 2015. We have had terrorist attacks on the mainland, and cyber-attacks, including on this very building. We have also seen resurgent nations not following international norms. It was rightly decided that this necessitated a review, to renew and reinforce our commitment to the UK’s position as a force for peace, stability and prosperity across the world.
I am glad to hear that the Minister is taking the capability review so seriously. I want to ask one simple question. If the review comes to the conclusion that more defence spending is required, where will that extra money come from?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I have said, it is for the Secretary of State to spell that out in more detail, and that will happen shortly, but that is the big question that we must ask ourselves as fiscal, and responsible, Conservatives. The money must come from somewhere, which is why we cannot simply rush in and say that it will be provided. The details need to come through, and I hope that we will hear more details from the Secretary of State in due course.
It is clear from the contributions that we have heard today, and also from the world around us, that the world does not stand still, and nor should we. We must be sure that we possess the right combination of conventional and innovative capabilities to meet the varied and diffuse threats that I have outlined. We must also retain our long-standing position as one of the world’s most innovative nations, and do more to harness the benefits of technological progress and reinforce our military edge. I can assure the House that the Ministry of Defence has no intention of leaving the UK less safe, or the brave men and women of our armed forces more vulnerable, as a result of this review.
Will the Minister give way?
I will in a moment.
The House is well aware of my position on the size of the armed forces. I want to see the UK maintain its long-held military edge and its enduring position as a world leader in matters of defence and security. The Ministry of Defence and the Government as a whole share my ambition. I should also like to address the involvement of Ministers, and indeed generals and others in uniform, in the process. This has been run not just by the permanent secretary but by a team of generals. That point was touched on by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, and I give way to him now.
The Minister has just said that we will not be left more vulnerable. On 25 January last year, the then Defence Procurement Minister wrote to me to say that she could reassure me that the out-of-service dates for HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark remained 2034 and 2035 respectively, and that their roles remained vital. Surely that rules out the scrapping of those ships. They obviously still had a vital role to play in January last year. Why would their role be any less vital in January this year?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He asks an operational question about the amphibiosity of our capability. I stress to the House that we must maintain our amphibiosity, a capable Royal Marine presence and, dare I say it, a capable Para presence as well, so he can rest assured. I will not go any further than that because we are getting into the weeds of operational decisions, and more will become clear very soon.
Going back to the point made by the Chair of the Defence Committee, if the capability was vital last year, when we were given an end date, what has changed in the meantime to put that capability in any way in question?
The right hon. Gentleman is trying to pre-empt the capability review and what will follow. All I can ask for is patience, because the answers will be forthcoming.
Turning to a couple of other contributions, this has been a tough time for recruitment and retention, and we should be honest about the challenges, something which my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) studied in detail in his report. Nevertheless, I am pleased to say that recruitment is moving forward. We do have to change our approach, and we need to recruit specialists as well, because the art of war is fundamentally changing. The requirements for what is needed on the battlefield mean that we should not necessarily have to train somebody from start to finish. It may be easier to have somebody with the technology, understanding or detailed knowledge instead. For example, a subject matter expert for a country in the middle east could be brought in and trained and then could join our armed forces to provide that intelligence detail. That is exactly what 77th Brigade does, and it provides huge value away from the teeth arms, with which the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and I are more familiar.
We need to adapt and to reflect society as a whole. We have now opened up all roles to women, and our new campaign has led to a rise in applications of 20% since 2016-17. Reserves are also up by almost 5% on last year. The offering must also change, and some worries have been raised about accommodation, but we are looking at a new accommodation model, and I am concerned about what is happening with Carillion. We need to give individuals more opportunity. Do they want to stay in a garrison, do they want to rent, or do they want to own their own house? That is what other people aspire to, so why should somebody who joins the armed forces not be able to do the same? That is what our accommodation model is looking at. Many hon. Members have participated in the passage of the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill, which will allow somebody to step back from what they are doing in the armed forces for a period of time, perhaps to spend more time with their family or possibly to have a child. That proposal is proving hugely popular.
The enterprise approach is about attracting people on sabbatical, such as someone with a senior engineering, cyber or linguistic capability whom it would not be cost-effective for us to train from the bottom ranks all the way through. The veterans’ package has been mentioned, and I am proud of this Government’s work in supporting the armed forces covenant, which over 2,000 companies have signed. We also have the Veterans’ Gateway which, if hon. Members are not familiar with it, is the online portal that allows any individual to comprehend the myriad military-facing charities that are there to support our brave armed forces as they make the transition into civilian life. It is an excellent bit of work, and I recommend that all hon. Members look at it. Finally on that front, through our mental health strategy we are trying to remove the stigma from someone stepping forward if they are suffering from any form of mental health issue.
A couple of comments were made about the public sector. Pay is obviously up to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, but the cap has been lifted and there is the freedom to go above 1%. However, it is for the pay review body to make recommendations.
The last contribution that I want to comment on came from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). His pertinent point was that if the armed forces are not being used, they can be perceived as redundant. As Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War”:
“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
Having an armed force, a posture and a strong capability that backs up our soft power can do much to influence the world around us without our having to leave it to war fighting or military engagement.
I would like to give a couple of minutes to the hon. Member for Gedling, who moved the motion, so I conclude by thanking all Members for their contributions. I hope the House will agree that we are deeply indebted to all those who choose to wear the uniform and, if required, stand in harm’s way in defence of our country and values and in aid of those in need across the world.
The professionalism of our defence people forms the hard power that is respected by our allies and feared by our adversaries, and it is that hard power that sits behind the country’s soft power that allows us to continue playing such an influential role on the world stage.
As the world moves faster and becomes more dangerous, we must not be naive about the durability of the relative peace that the UK has enjoyed over the past few decades. Our country, our open international economy and our values are vulnerable to a range of growing world threats that have no respect for our borders. It is critical that Britain’s defence posture remains credible and that we maintain our military edge. That is exactly what the Secretary of State is working to achieve.
I end by reminding the House that President Reagan said:
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
Let us not take our ability to fight and the security we have for granted. All of us in this House should make the case for strong and credible defence.
I thank the Minister for his response, and I thank all my hon. Friends and all hon. Members who have taken part in this well-informed debate. I gently say to the Minister that it is disappointing the Defence Secretary has not been here for at least part of the debate to listen to the intensity of feeling on both sides of the House that wants to get behind him in his arguments with the Treasury.
A lot of what the Minister said was, “There will be lots of answers in due course.” As it stands, we do not know from the Government about the size of the Army; about whether there are continuing threats to the number of Marines, to Albion and Bulwark, and to the number of planes; or about a whole number of equipment decisions.
The reason why the Government are in this predicament, as the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and many Opposition Members have said, is that the National Security Adviser told the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy that he was instructed by the National Security Council to deliver a strategy review that is fiscally neutral. That means it does not matter what threats he uncovers or what threats he feels this country faces—we have heard that everyone believes those threats have increased and intensified—as he will not recommend that there should be more money; he will recommend that we cut from one area to pay for another. That is totally and utterly unacceptable to this Parliament, to the public and to this country. It is not good enough. The Government have to get a grip and realise that we will not have defence on the cheap—this Parliament will not vote for it.
I say this as a Labour politician: all power to the Department in its argument with the Treasury to get the money it needs to defend the country we all love and to continue promoting democracy and human rights across the world. That is what needs to happen, and all power to the Secretary of State as he argues with the Treasury to get that money. Anything else would be a diminution of the responsibilities of this Parliament.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House pays tribute to the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces; believes that the Armed Forces must be fully-equipped and resourced to carry out their duties; and calls on the Government to ensure that defence expenditure is maintained at least at current levels, that no significant capabilities are withdrawn from service, that the number of regular serving personnel across the Armed Forced is maintained, and that current levels of training are maintained.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to correct the record, as it appears I may have inadvertently misled the House this morning. During business questions, I spoke of the Scottish Government sending two letters to the outgoing Culture Secretary without reply. Hansard did not record the words “without reply”, but the Minister responded to that specific point in his response. It has since come to my attention that the Scottish Government have recently received a response from the Secretary of State, and I did not want the day to end without correcting the record. I thank you for the opportunity to do so.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The record requires to be corrected and he has adequately done so.