[Relevant Documents: Eighth Report of the Defence Committee, SDSR 2015 and the Army, Session 2016-17, HC 108, and the Government response, HC 311, and oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 14 November 2017, on National Security Capability Review, HC 556.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the size and strength of the British armed forces.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am pleased to have secured this important debate. I will speak briefly to allow colleagues the maximum opportunity to speak and intervene. It does not take the brains of an archbishop, a Royal Military Academy Sandhurst graduate or a Mons Officer Cadet School graduate to work out that the world is an increasingly dangerous place. We are dealing with not only the threat of transnational, cross-border terrorism, but the rise of cyber-conflict, possible nuclear conflict in the Korean peninsula and a resurgent Russia probing the eastern flank of NATO. The very direct threat posed by Russia in a state-on-state approach was starkly laid out by the Chief of the General Staff in an eloquent speech at the Royal United Services Institute on Monday.
After 15 years or so of engaging in expeditionary counter-insurgency operations—wars of choice—we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we have to have the capacity to deal with state-on-state conflict. That is a shift in attitude and approach that we have to grapple with. We are moving from an era of wars of choice to an era of wars of necessity. In terms of capability, we need to work back from that threat.
The hon. Gentleman has made the case well for having sufficient capacity available to us. Does he therefore agree that we cannot have a situation where Army numbers remain below 80,000? Quite simply, we need a larger Army.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need hard power on a large scale. We need to be able to project hard military capability globally. Part of that is about having a large body of men and women. When I was serving in the Army 10 years ago, we had north of 100,000 soldiers. We need a large pool not only to have a critical mass, but to draw special forces and other critical capabilities.
Just on a technical point, an army by definition is meant to have more than 100,000 people. Below 100,000, it is more like a self-defence force.
I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention. I agree entirely with his point, and I am sure the Minister will be pleased to offer reassurance about the critical mass of the British Army in terms of incorporating reservists.
Many of us are calling for greater numbers of British troops and a greater frequency of rotational deployment of those troops to our key strategic NATO partners, especially Poland. I pay tribute to those British troops who have been sent to the Suwalki gap. Those things are not cheap, and that is why we need more spending on our defence budget.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Some of what we have been discussing, such as the fundamental requirement for hard power that we can project around the world—the doctrine and force plan—was contained in the strategic defence and security review laid out in 2015. The concept of joint force 2025 was sound. It laid out that we need a war-fighting division of 50,000 soldiers, carrier-enabled power projection and a significant air group, including Typhoon and F-35. As a concept and a plan, it was sound. The problems with the SDSR 2015 were on two fronts. First, there were significant funding problems. The budget for SDSR 2015 was predicated to a degree on significant internal savings of £11 billion that had to be made by the Ministry of Defence. When that is done by cutting inefficiencies and waste, that is good, but when things such as training and the defence estate are cut, it is probably not so good.
On the issue of the defence estate, Imphal barracks is due to close in 2031, yet it is the jewel in the crown for those coming to York and in particular for their families. Is there not an impact on recruitment and retention from the closure of barracks such as Imphal?
I am sympathetic to the hon. Lady’s point, and I know the Minister is particularly well positioned to respond to it. The other difficulty with SDSR 2015 was the depreciation of sterling and the ongoing fluctuation of Trident within the MOD budget, which have caused considerable problems. Taken in the round, that means that the MOD budget has a black hole of £2 billion or thereabouts. That is why we are here today. That black hole has been driving the discussion about possible cuts. I would like to lay it clearly on record that I think all of us in the Chamber agree that any form of capability cuts is an entirely untenable prospect that we should resist.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate at this critical time. On resources, does he agree that given the recent stark warning from the Chief of the General Staff on a resurgent Russia, we in this House have a role in deterrence, and that includes deterring the pinstripe warriors of the Treasury from leaving us without sufficient resources to fund our defence adequately?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is our duty to make it clear to the Treasury that there is a large cohort of Members of Parliament who are absolutely determined to ensure that the Ministry of Defence has a sound financial settlement and is properly resourced.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in articulating his argument, it is important to stress that he has the support of all Members?
I absolutely acknowledge that. Defence is not really a party political issue; it is an issue of national security, and I am heartened by the fact that Members from all parts of the House are here engaging in this debate.
The second set of problems with the plan laid out in SDSR 2015 relate to timing. As the name implies, joint force 2025 is some years away. We have a capability gap, and delivering that capability is some years off. It is also important to remember that this is not the generation of a new capability. The force laid out in SDSR 2015 is essentially making up for ground lost in 2010, when the MOD suffered a 8% reduction in budget and our fighting power was reduced by about 25%. We have to put things in context: having a deployable war-fighting division as laid out in SDSR 2015 is nothing new. We deployed a division of 45,000 soldiers to Iraq in 2003 and a division of 53,000 men in Operation Granby at the Gulf war in 1991. We are essentially making up for ground that we lost in 2010, and it is important to bear that in mind. It is also important to bear in mind that with joint force 2025, there is not much fat in the system—it is quite a bare-bones approach.
We have to reconcile ourselves to the situation we find ourselves in today, and I would be interested in the Minister’s comments. My judgment is that we cannot credibly claim to be able to deploy a war-fighting division within six months. That is some years off. We also lack the air defence that is particularly important to protect our enhanced force presence in Estonia. The Minister will perhaps mention that.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on this timely debate. I am grateful to him for mentioning air defence. He will appreciate that the Typhoon force will not be able to operate effectively without the tanker force that is based at Brize Norton in my constituency. He mentioned the Russian threat, which almost weekly we now see, as we did in the 1980s, probing our air defences. Does he agree that it is essential to make a cool, dispassionate assessment of that threat and make sure that our capacity and capability match it, rather than to reduce the threat to match available resources?
I absolutely agree. The response has to be threat-based, and the review must not be a sticking plaster. We need a large-scale solution for what is a large-scale problem.
To conclude my remarks on the SDSR 2015, there is also a gap in the extent to which we have the capability to co-ordinate artillery fire with cutting-edge technology, which was mentioned by CGS on Monday. The Russians have done that very effectively by co-ordinating long-range artillery fire with unmanned aerial vehicles. Furthermore, one of our big current gaps is that we do not exercise on any scale whatever. In their Zapad exercises, the Russians exercise north of 70,000 troops, whereas we in this country and across the NATO alliance are nowhere near that. That is a critical capability gap that we need to resolve.
A lot of what I have mentioned is tied up in CGS’s stark warnings on Monday. I look forward to the Minister offering reassurance on some of the points, particularly with regard to our forward presence in Estonia.
So where do we stand now? It is good news that the review that is under way has been restructured. We expect an announcement today from the Secretary of State for Defence to indicate that the defence component of the review will be extracted and given a little longer to run. That is a good development. In my judgment, the review that was under way, led by the National Security Adviser, was essentially misconceived. It was supposed to be initiated because of an increase in threat, but at the same time it was supposed to be fiscally neutral, so it was inherently problematic from the very start, and I am glad that that restructuring has developed.
I am also pleased that the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), has indicated his support for an increased overall defence budget moving up to 2.5%. We have to see this slightly longer review, which I think will run into the summer, as an opportunity for a wholesale refunding of defence and the achievement of a proper long-term financial settlement for our military. I am confident that our Secretary of State gets that. I hope the Minister will reassure us that that is the case, and that Ministers see this as an opportunity for a long-term solution.
It is important that MPs, like all of us in this room, make it clear to the Treasury that we insist on the proper resourcing of defence. That is important for a number of reasons, not least because I, like every Conservative Member, stood on a manifesto that committed us to maintaining the size of our military. Page 41 of the Conservative party manifesto commits us to maintaining the size of our armed forces. Apart from the politics, it is a national duty to achieve that.
We have to get the politics right. We cannot simply demand more money for the Ministry of Defence. We have to continue to insist on the MOD achieving efficiencies and best practice, including things such as competitive procurement. I am encouraged by the detail in the national shipbuilding strategy that sets upper limits on expenditure. Also, we need to consider seriously the removal of expenditure on Trident from the MOD budget.
In simple terms, we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that a world-class military cannot be bought cheaply. I conclude by saying that we should see this as investment, not spending. This is not money that just gets spent to no consequence. Spending on our military is an investment in our national profile globally. A strong national military does not simply defend us militarily domestically and internationally. It secures our global reputation. It is a fundamental enabler of our foreign policy, our humanitarian effort around the world and our passing global trade, so we get a phenomenal return on that investment. Members who have travelled around the world in connection with the military know that the British armed forces have, without doubt, a phenomenal global reputation for higher standards of excellence. We should recognise that as an asset, not just a cost.
I finish by repeating a quote from Trotsky that was mentioned by CGS. I am not given to quoting Trotsky in this place, but Trotsky rightly said:
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
A properly resourced military is not a luxury; it is an absolute necessity. Given our heritage and our history, I am confident that we can rise to the challenge.
Seven people wish to speak and wind-ups need to begin at 10.30 am. I will leave you to work out the maths for yourselves. If anybody takes too long, I will have to impose a time limit on the remaining speakers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this debate, especially with such fortuitous timing. There have been many debates on defence in the past couple of weeks and Members of all parties who believe that our military is best served by having a strong and adequately funded force have made an extraordinary effort. I will be brief today because yesterday I spoke at length about the national shipbuilding strategy, frigates, the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and the future of our sovereign defence capability. There is no appetite anywhere in the House for further defence cuts. I am pleased that that sentiment seems to have infected the Ministry of Defence in its funding battle with the Treasury.
The Defence Committee’s excellent “Shifting the goalposts?” report showed that the previous Labour Government spent on average 2.5% of GDP on defence, not falling below 2.3%. Lots of Labour Members, and indeed Conservative Members, would like to see a return to that level of spending relatively swiftly. It is important that we match the funding for defence to the threats that we face, rather than match the spreadsheets to the number of ships. That is an important distinction and the argument has been made many times.
The fiscally neutral element of the national security capability review is an anchor that has dragged this debate down, but it has enabled Members on both sides of the Chamber to share the valid concerns of the defence communities about the potential for cuts, be they speculation or actual potential. We must not fall into that trap of spreading fear because morale is already suffering in our armed forces. It is important that we support those people who are serving now and who want to serve, so they understand that a role and a future in our armed forces is a career to be proud of, and that their service is recognised and valued.
The potential postponement of the cuts is welcome news. I welcome the chance that the hon. Member for Aldershot mentioned for further consideration of the future shape, role and capabilities of our armed forces. This is a moment for us to regroup and refocus our efforts to provide a clear challenge and direction for Ministers to take forward in their discussions with the Treasury, and to be clear about the role we want the armed forces to play in future. How will we support them through adequate training and resources and, importantly, how will we support them after their time in uniform has come to an end?
Plymouth has been at the centre of much of the speculation. I am grateful to the Minister for taking the time to listen to the concerns from Plymouth about our amphibious ships, Albion and Bulwark, which are due to come out of service in 2033 and 2034—I hope those dates remain. He also knows about the importance of ensuring that we have an adequate number of capable frigates base-ported in Devonport, and of looking carefully at the capability of our helicopter carriers. HMS Ocean has now come out of service. Members from across the House will recognise that she served with distinction over her career, most recently in response to the hurricanes in the Caribbean. That was a fitting last deployment, showing the real value of that ship and her crew to the Royal Navy and to our friends and allies abroad.
It is also right to pay tribute to all those people who are not elected—members of the public, armed forces and veterans—who have used their voices loudly and proudly in the last couple of months to speak up for our armed forces. If more of our communities raised defence on the doorstep, as they have done over the last few weeks when I have been canvassing in Plymouth, the debate over the last couple of years would have been very different. The Plymouth Herald and the cross-party Plymouth City Council campaign to fly the flag for Devonport has been one such example. There are many other examples from around the country of local communities galvanising and coming together to say that the armed forces are important, not just for jobs, but for heritage, feel, community and identity. We should shout loudly and proudly, especially in my part of the world in Plymouth, about the contribution of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines.
The Minister might give us good news towards the end of the debate, and the Secretary of State might do the same later, but I am encouraged that there has been such a strong outpouring of support for the armed forces. I hope that that will continue as we regroup and refocus to make sure that the tussle with the Treasury produces better funding for defence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). There can be no one with a more appropriate seat to discuss the size and strength of the British armed forces, and I congratulate him for his very knowledgeable and excellent speech.
I want to say a few words about recruiting, which is of course the lifeblood of our armed forces, and most especially about recruiting to the Army. It is not an idle boast that the British Army is, man for man, probably the best fighting force in the world. In the Falklands, the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and, most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, both our enemies and their allies have been deeply impressed by the fitness, determination, courage, professionalism and, most especially, humanity of our armed forces.
The answer is simple and not, I suspect, much understood outside the armed forces and those who have been lucky enough to serve in them. In no other army in the world can a soldier depend on the men around him in the way that he can in the British Army. From Waterloo to Alamein, from Goose Green to the Euphrates, from Bosnia to Basra and Helmand, British soldiers and commandos have proved time again that they can face tremendous odds and triumph. A soldier will likely say that the key to that confidence is their discipline and training. It is therefore a matter of the first importance that the system that produces young men and women of that calibre must not be altered in such a way that it will produce only pale imitations of what is required.
So far the Army has held the line, but only just. It is a constant battle for all three services to fight off politically correct notions that are, rightly, anathema to the ethos of the armed forces. They require a very high standard of personal conduct, respect for the law, teamwork, cohesion, trust, and a highly developed sense of duty. After training, these men and women are no ordinary people, and they may well be asked to do extraordinary things. For the soldiers of today and tomorrow, as for their forebears, warfare will continue to represent the ultimate physical and moral challenge. They may have to take part in a terrifying contest of wills that inevitably leads to death, terror, bloodshed and destruction. They will encounter extreme danger, in rapidly changing circumstances, amid conditions of chaos and uncertainty. Their skills and the quality of their leadership, weapons and equipment will be severely tested.
Such operations can be sustained only by highly trained men and women, motivated by a service ethos and absolute confidence in their training, by pride in their traditions and institutions, by comradeship and an exceptional level of team spirit, by the emotional, intellectual and moral qualities that lead people to put their lives on the line, and of course by loyalty, patriotism, and an enduring belief in essentially British values and an unshakeable determination to defend them.
I remind the Minister of what Lord Wavell said in his famous lecture on generalship. His words are very apposite. He said:
“in the last resort, the end of all military training, the settling of all policy, the ordering of all weaponry and all that goes into the makings of the armed forces is that the deciding factor in battle will always be this: That sooner or later, private so-and-so will, of his own free will and in the face of great danger, uncertainty and chaos have to advance to his front in the face of the enemy.”
If all that goes wrong, after all the training, intensive preparation, provision of equipment and vast expenditure, the system has failed. So far it has not failed. The armed forces have never let us down, but the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the House must see to it that the state does not let them down by failing to resource them adequately for the hugely demanding tasks that are placed upon them. Although I am all for the Army adapting its recruiting to some vaguely woolly notions if it really feels it has to, it is important that we continue to get the outstanding young men and women whom we are so lucky to have in our armed forces, and that the training does indeed prepare them for what might come.
The Ministry of Defence made a huge mistake when it let the contract for recruiting to Capita, which has made a real pig’s ear of it. It was done much better and much more efficiently when the Ministry of Defence retained recruiting offices all over the country. They had vast local knowledge and were staffed by officers and senior non-commissioned officers, who were all highly experienced. They took the greatest possible trouble with the selection of recruits and were better able to guide those recruits towards well-thought-out careers. It is much more effective for the armed forces to leave recruiting to the military staff who actually know what is wanted.
I conclude by saying this: I do not mean to sound like a stick in the mud, but touchy-feely political correctness has absolutely no role whatever in the British Army. The services have so much to offer young men and women, many of whom join up to acquire very valuable skills, but all of whom, in their basic training and beyond, require courage, toughness, resilience and skill at arms. They are truly some of our very finest young men and women. I accept that the Army must do what it thinks it needs to do to get people to join, but I think it ought to be extremely cautious about the message that it sends outside.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing the debate. It seems that we are getting used to seeing the same faces in debates on defence, calling on the Government to do the same thing time and again. This matter has to be taken seriously—we are at tipping point.
Any organisation that is struggling to recruit and retain staff must consider what is going on. We are seeing the effects of austerity across many areas, including health, education and defence. It has an impact on the equipment, the service that can be delivered, and ultimately the people. Despite the cuts, we want the same good outcomes. We want our population to have good health services, excellent education, and well-organised defence with critical capabilities.
We have not reduced the demands on the armed forces. We still want to deploy overseas. The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) talked about our well-trained personnel. Of course we want them to remain the best-trained personnel in the world, but operational stretch in the armed forces means that, although our expectations remain high, with fewer personnel, the demands on those still serving are increasing year after year.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot on securing this debate. It is not only the men and women of our armed services who suffer from operational stretch, but also their families. That might very well be a deterrent to many of the young men and women choosing a career in the armed forces.
I was one of those families who experienced operational stretch and know first hand the impact it has. Many people serving in the armed forces have to make the decision to leave simply because it is no longer sustainable for their personal life to remain. We know from the continuous attitude survey that the retention crisis is not simply about pay. Although that does contribute, the crisis is about the value we place on our armed forces personnel. Housing, family life, leave entitlement and so on all contribute to the retention problems.
Scotland faces eight base closures. What message is that giving to those who are stationed there? Are they feeling valued? Is their service being recognised? As the crisis deepens, more and more personnel will leave. These are highly trained individuals and have skills that are in such high demand in civilian life. There are many companies just waiting to snap them up when they walk out.
We have called on a number of occasions for an armed forces representative body on a statutory footing, which is the norm for many countries, such as Ireland, Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Germany. Recognised representation is a key way for the UK Government to better understand the needs and requirements of our armed forces, their families and the wider armed forces communities. A representative body like the Police Federation would be a voice for both personnel and veterans. It would tell them that their concerns are being taken seriously and that they are valued, and would give them a means of liaising with the Government.
The Tory party bills itself as the champion of the armed forces, but the chronic underinvestment simply does not match those claims. The Scottish National party is currently organising a commission, talking to members of the armed forces and finding out what it is they require and what terms and conditions would make a difference to them. I hope that, when we publish the findings, the UK Government will act on the recommendations.
Ultimately, glossy adverts cannot solve this problem. Serious investment is required. A complete overhaul of the terms and conditions of members of the armed forces has to be considered, including pay and housing, and the impact on the family and children’s education. It is commendable that so many Tory Members are in the Chamber—I know they champion the cause—but unless the defence budget becomes serious and the Chancellor opens up his purse, there will be no improvement. The hon. Member for Aldershot suggested—we have heard the suggestion many times—that Trident should be removed from the defence budget. I would say it is better still just remove Trident from any budget, and we can start looking at serious defence that continues to have critical capabilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on a very well informed speech, although I am not faintly surprised, as he was a serving officer in the Scots Guards. As I always do, I remind all present for the record that my daughter is a serving officer in the armed forces.
I come from a family not unconnected with the military. My brother-in-law served in the Scots Guards, possibly with the hon. Member for Aldershot. My father served in the 14th Army, led by Field Marshal Slim, a man for whom he lost no admiration to his dying day. In recent years, I discovered to my utter astonishment that my mother worked not unadjacent to Alan Turing. That was a secret she kept until very late in her life.
I am a great believer that we learn from history, and I make no apologies for going into history again. It is something I do increasingly frequently in this place. I live in Easter Ross, up in the Highlands north of Inverness. In Easter Ross, there is a cluster of four aerodromes or air bases, call them what you will: Tain, Alness, Evanton and Fearn. One might say that it was the grandfather of the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) who led the charge to see off the threat that was rapidly developing from Nazi Germany—it is quite true. One might say that it was late in the day that those bases were built, but they were, and they were built in time to defend this country. Today, going there, it is clear just how big an undertaking it was to put the bases in place, and one can see the commitment and courage behind the decisions taken in the 1930s. If we had not done that there and in other parts of the UK, we know what would have happened: we would be speaking a very odd dialect of English today in this place.
I shall ignore the comment from the hon. and gallant Gentleman.
With your forbearance, Ms Dorries, I would like to tell an anecdote. On 5 May 1945, Dönitz gave orders for the German U-boats and surface fleet to surrender. The U-boats were ordered to fly black flags to indicate their surrender. On 8 May, three days after that order, U-534 was on the surface off the coast of Denmark and was attacked by two Liberator bombers. U-534 shot down E for Edward from 547 Squadron, Leuchars, but G for George got that U-boat and sank her. G for George from 86 Squadron was from RAF Tain, near my home town of Tain. That is a fact that even local people at home do not know. It is worth putting on the record.
We have heard in previous weeks and today about the threat from Russia. It is absolutely obvious what is going on there. We know that China is building bases and developing its forces; Members have mentioned that. As I mentioned in the Chamber two weeks ago, and as others have said—I am sure that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) will touch on this—our Navy was mostly tied up over Christmas. What a tragic contrast to the great days of the Royal Navy! We know that we have to spend the money. Members in all parts of the Chamber plead for that money to be spent. As I have said before, it is a great honour to associate my party with that sentiment.
I close with a point I have made before in this place. The Great British general public are not stupid. They know perfectly well what is going on. They take great pride in their armed forces. Everyone in my home town is extremely proud of everyone who has served in the colours, be that the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy or the Army. They know and recognise the necessity of spending the money. As and when the Chancellor reaches deep into his purse and comes out with the extra millions we so badly need—it is more than millions; it is verging on the billions—he will have the support of the British public, and he will have praise and his place in history.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and to be called to speak in this debate. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this timely debate. He walks in the footsteps of many of his predecessors in being a stout defender of our armed forces. I have very happy memories of my own service, starting in his constituency in New Normandy Barracks and Normandy Barracks with 2 Para and 1 Para. He has done us a great service today in providing an opportunity for an important debate about the size and structure of our armed forces.
It is also, as always, a great pleasure to see the Minister in his place. I know that he takes these matters incredibly seriously. It is a reality of parliamentary procedure that questions and debates relating to defence are responded to by Ministers from the Ministry of Defence. Perhaps we could employ our collective nous to see whether at some point in the not-too-distant future we can find a way of gathering like-minded colleagues together to make some of these points and put some of these concerns to the Minister’s colleagues in other Departments, namely the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.
Like all hon. Members present, I am constantly inspired by the skill and commitment of our servicemen and women, who serve our country often in the most difficult circumstances. My concern, though, is that very soon there may not be enough of them to do what is required, and not only will they suffer from being over-exposed and overstretched but, as a result of having fewer personnel in our armed forces, the UK will be less secure.
With that in mind and with an eye to the forthcoming defence review, I want to draw attention to a few of the reasons why, in recent years, the importance of numbers has been downplayed. First, there is a misunderstanding about the threat environment. In recent years and months, the eyes of Westminster and Whitehall have been focused on cyber-threats and the broader concepts of soft power and security. It is important to look at such emerging threats, but we run the risk of that focus coming at the expense of a focus on the conventional threats that we still face. At a time when the UK is under greater threat than at any point since the cold war, that focus has resulted in the Government considering reducing the personnel in our armed forces to an historic low.
As hon. Members are aware, the risk associated with those low numbers is often hidden behind the term “capability”. Every time people voice a concern about size, what tends to follow is a response about technology, structures or training, and someone telling them that in the 21st century, less in fact means more. The truth, however, is that even in the 21st century, less still means less, and quantity still has a quality all of its own. I am certainly not denying that new equipment and structures can mitigate the loss of numbers, and it is of course true that technology is a force multiplier, and that well trained troops are better than poorly trained ones, but it is equally true that there is an irreducible number of people that a credible Army cannot go below.
My greater concern, however, is focused on why those misunderstandings of both threat and capability occur, and why they are allowed to take root. In my view, the answer is threefold: poor processes, a lack of expertise and undue emphasis on money. For too long, we have allowed the loud whispers of Whitehall generalists, often in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, to drown out the voices of subject matter experts, be they civilian or military. That must stop.
Due respect must be given to those who understand hard power, hard security and the application of conventional force. Similarly, any review process must be done correctly, beginning with analysis of the world in which we live, including the threats posed by it and the role we want in it—not with a list of the savings that must be made, and where the Cabinet Office and Treasury think they should come from.
As such, I very much hope that the Minister and his Department use any forthcoming review to re-emphasise to those in Whitehall the importance of both strategy and of specialists. If they do not, I fear that we run the risk that any review may be no more than a fig leaf for yet another round of Treasury-inspired cuts.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), my colleague on the Select Committee, for securing this debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that the potential defence review is an appalling added pressure on our armed forces, because they simply do not know what will happen to them in the weeks and months ahead? That is simply unfair, and the Government need to get on with it and tell us what will happen.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. She and all hon. Members will be most welcome to join me later today when we play host to soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment. That will be a good opportunity to listen to the concerns of soldiers. She is right, however, that there is significant uncertainty about the future of our armed forces.
I understand that the Defence Secretary will make a statement in the House today; from the recent debate in the main Chamber he will know the strength of feeling across the House. There is a challenge for all of us who believe that the size and structure of our armed forces are such that they should not be reduced further, and he should understand—I hope the Minister will take this away—the significant support from Members throughout the House for this position that we want the Secretary of State to take: hold firm to the line that we cannot reduce our manpower.
I am sorry for making another intervention, and I thank my hon. Friend for taking it. I believe that the Secretary of State has decided not to make a statement to the House this afternoon.
I am sorry to hear that, if it is the case. We will hear about that from the Minister later.
To conclude, emerging cyber and information threats have not and will not result in the decline of conventional threats; the opening up of new fronts does not mean the closing down of old ones; and threat mitigation is not a zero-sum game. As such, I very much hope that the Government will ensure that we do not reduce the number of men and women who serve in our armed forces with such distinction any further. I very much look forward to working with Members across the House to ensure that the Government do not make any further cuts, specifically to the size and structure of our armed forces.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
With yesterday’s shipbuilding strategy debate and the expected statement from the Secretary of State, which is now in doubt—this week is turning into a bit of a defence-fest. This is an important debate at a time when defence is very much in the headlines, and I thank the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for introducing it.
The situation is complex, but the bottom line is the significant drop in the size of the armed forces since this Administration came to power in 2010. There are many ways in which the figures and numbers can be played around with, but the broad, overall figures suggest that, on 1 April 2010, the full-time trained and untrained total strength of the UK armed forces was 197,820, and that by 1 April 2017, that total stood at 157,247, which is a drop of 21%. The number of full-time trained and untrained personnel serving in the Royal Navy was 39,310 in 2010 and 33,230 in 2017, which represents a drop of 16%. The figures for the Army and the Royal Air Force are equally depressing.
According to the most recent figures, which cover the past 12 months, the net outflow from all three services has been 2,740 personnel. If numbers across all three services are even to remain neutral, we need to attract some 15,000 new recruits every year just to stand still. That is a tall order and has to be achieved against a background of increasing cuts. Between 2010 and 2015, we had a real-terms cut of £8 billion, or 18% of the overall budget. Although this Administration are trying to reverse that trend, a lot of the damage has already been done and has been made worse by slow, delayed decision making, cloudy strategic thinking and poor value for our tax pound in some procurement projects. The very fact that we will hopefully get a statement today—according to The Times, another defence review will be pushed into the long grass for perhaps another six months—tells its own story about this Administration and the legacy they are grappling with. It is a legacy of their own making.
That does not have a positive impact on recruitment and retention at a time when skilled engineers and technicians can find that there is more money and a more stable family life in industry and commerce rather than in serving in the armed forces. A recent report from the pay review body highlighted that people were joining up not for a career, but to be trained to a high standard before moving on to industry. They may be “made in the Royal Navy”, but they are progressing their career and enjoying family life in civvy street.
It was a very good-natured debate, but the Scottish National party can never resist. What assessment has he made of retention given that 45% of service personnel in Scotland will be paying a higher rate of tax than their equivalents in England?
I will be happy to answer that when I come to that point in my speech. The armed forces continuous attitude survey of 2016 reported that the morale of “self, Unit and Service” has also decreased, with 61% of serving personnel thinking that morale was low, and 9% perceiving that it was high. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned that. Ensuring that retention is high up the Government’s agenda is a serious matter.
Housing for serving personnel is a long-running sore. The Minister is honest in his desire for improvements in housing quality and repairs. Will he give assurances that the collapse of Carillion changes nothing for forces families in the short-term, but that it will change everything to do with build quality and the maintenance of homes in the long term?
I will surprise the Minister by ending on three positive points. We invite the Government to scrap the public sector pay cap and to follow the Scottish Government’s lead by introducing a pay rise of up to 3% for public sector workers. That would include all armed forces personnel and would have a positive impact on retention and morale. In Scotland, many lower-paid personnel will also receive a tax cut, as Scotland becomes the lowest taxed part of the UK after April this year. I recommend that the Minister look very seriously at the commission headed up my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) about pay conditions and a better family life for serving personnel.
Finally, the small nation of Denmark decided last week to increase her military spend by some 20%, to help to meet new threats and to continue her international obligations. If a small, independent country of 5 million people can increase its defence spend by that amount, why cannot the UK?
It is good to see you in the chair, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who is a fellow member of the Defence Committee, on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall, and on being a doughty fighter in the Docherty clan and not being feart in pulling their punches when necessary in this type of debate.
Yesterday’s announcement about the security review seemed slightly inevitable, although I should put on the record my pleasure that the Government seem to have finally caved in to what I assume is cross-party pressure for a proper look at the defence and security budget. I noticed from his speech this week that that position was shared by the Chief of the General Staff.
Of the range of possibilities next year, one of the main issues we should be very careful about is what we wish for, crucially in respect of Brexit and its impact on the Treasury accounts. It seems incredible to me that most of the doughty champions of the armed forces want the UK to push ahead with a form of Brexit that is damaging to the economy, and therefore to the Treasury’s receipts that sustain the armed forces. The recent Defence Committee report on defence acquisition and procurement showed that that financial headwinds, particularly the dollar exchange rate, have caused many problems in sustaining sovereign capability—the hon. Member for Aldershot alluded to that.
As ever, the men and women of our armed forces bear the brunt. Despite widespread support in the Chamber to lift the public sector pay cap, the Government have kept it—my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) mentioned that a moment ago. That has meant that those in uniform have taken a real-terms wage cut. Most of the projections leaked to the press for future adjustments would make yet more cuts to the Army of the kind not seen since Napoleon was a lad. The Government will find allies across the entire House if they lift the public sector pay gap.
One part of the defence budget—the deterrent—normally does not dare to speak its name, although taking it out of the Ministry of Defence was mentioned. Many of us agree that it should probably be taken out of the defence budget, but that would not suddenly make £205 billion appear in the equipment plan, just as Brexit did not mean that £350 million a week appeared for the national health service. Politics on the most basic level is about choices. I find it increasingly difficult to hear Members across the House call for preserving the size of our armed forces, argue for preserving certain capabilities and beseech the Government to put more in the pot, without even acknowledging that there is one part of the budget that is uncapped and, as the hon. Member for Aldershot said, out of control.
The Minister for Defence Procurement confirmed to the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) in a parliamentary question in November that any review is off the table. Whatever it is called, a modernising defence review will have to find money to pay for a procurement pipeline that includes Astute submarines, F-35 fighters, Type 26 frigates and Ajax vehicles. It will find its bandwidth considerably squeezed the more the budget keeps rising. I challenge any of us to read last year’s NAO report into the equipment plan and dispute those facts. The continuous at-sea deterrent that supposedly keeps us safe every day is failing if it makes us less capable in so many other defence areas.
May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that those of us who were in Germany for many years took great succour from the fact that we had a nuclear deterrent? People like me and other Members who possibly would have had to fight the Warsaw pact or the Russians were much comforted by the fact that they might not dare to fight us because of the nuclear deterrent, and therefore that our lives would be preserved. That is the link between the nuclear deterrent and conventional forces.
I have much respect for the hon. Gentleman but we disagree on the deterrent. The point I am trying to make is that a decision must be made about the type of investment that we require in the armed forces. This is a debate about armed forces personnel. On this position I disagree with him.
The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 said that:
“The Royal Navy delivers our nuclear deterrent, projects our maritime power and provides world-class amphibious forces.”
It would be unrealistic of us to expect the Queen Elizabeth class carriers to be withdrawn from service. The current First Sea Lord has been presented with a scenario that his predecessor described as
“a choice between having his left arm cut off or his right arm cut off”
when he spoke to the Committee last year.
As we entertain the scenario of downgrading the status of an iconic capability such as the Royal Marines, whether by merging it with the Parachute Regiment or by removing its ability to conduct contested landings, we need to ask ourselves whether it is really worth preserving the deterrent. I do not expect most Members to change their minds overnight or at all, but the lack of practical debate—Government Members do not say in public what I know many of them say in private—does not bode well for honesty in the formation of defence policy.
Let me end on what I hope is a point of consensus. I acknowledge that there is not one person here who does not have the best interests of the armed forces at heart. I have an armed forces family. I praise in particular my colleagues on the Defence Committee, who have followed those interests doggedly whenever possible and pursued the MOD for its failings without fear or favour. I am glad to say that, if there is one positive about yesterday’s announcement from Main Building, it is that the Defence Committee’s work seems to be working for a change.
It is a pleasure to welcome you to one of our weekly defence debates, Ms Dorries. I see the usual faces around the Chamber. I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing the debate.
We have heard Members adumbrate the drop in the size of the armed forces. An axe is being taken to capability left, right and centre. The National Audit Office reports that mismanagement of the procurement budget has led to a black hole of up to £20 billion. The Government are failing in their obligations to people at home and to allies abroad. I say to the Minister that Scottish National party Members approach these near-weekly debates constructively—I see lots of Conservative heads nodding in agreement with what we say—but we make no apology whatsoever for providing robust opposition to what we see as a folly.
Let us look at the numbers. In their manifesto, the Conservatives committed to an Army of 82,000. In Scotland, on 15 April 2014, the then Defence Secretary, who is now Chancellor, promised that
“we will actually be increasing the size of our defence presence in Scotland…from a Regular force of some 11,000 personnel today, to 12,500 by 2020.”
Let us fast-forward to 1 October 2017, when the Regular force in Scotland stood at 9,970. The Government fail on their own promises, and we make no apology for pointing that out. Of course, that comes on the back of a 20% cut to the MOD footprint in Scotland, which is another area in which we were told there would be investment.
I am not going to take an intervention from the Minister because he will have the chance to sum up. I want to address something he said earlier about terms and conditions affecting recruitment and retention. Let us look at where the evidence lies, starting with armed forces pay. We know that pay is an issue for members of the armed forces because the evidence tells us that. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body noted:
“In general, we heard about the lack of trust in the employer to maintain the offer in future, and an increasing feeling that people were not joining the services for a career, but to obtain training and skills before moving on to alternative (and possibly better paid) employment elsewhere.”
That is compounded by the public sector pay freeze, which, when inflation is taken into account, is a cut. Army privates who, on a salary of £21,000, are among the lowest-paid members of the armed forces, have had a cut of £400 per year. The Minister should look at the evidence in front of him—this is well documented and well researched—rather than simply pluck evidence out of thin air.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I am going to finish my point. The Minister’s comments on tax were not based on any research or evidence. They were not based on anything beyond what he seems to think the issue might be. He is willing to ignore all the evidence, including the evidence I have just quoted. That is before we even get to the appalling state of military housing, the risible pension increases that the Government have offered to members of the armed forces and their families, and the dreadful roll-out of the armed forces covenant in some parts of the country.
SNP Members make no apology for the fact that those who earn tens and tens of thousands of pounds—way beyond the average salary—may pay a bit more tax. Frontline squaddies in Scotland, who make up the vast majority of those serving in Scotland, will pay less tax than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom. I am happy with my Government’s policy of putting more money into the pockets of people in the armed forces, while the Minister’s Government continue to rob them day in, day out.
The Minister will have 10 minutes to sum up, so I am not going to take an intervention from him.
Let me end with this. I am dismayed that we will not have a statement today on the splitting up of the security capability review, about which there has been one of the most unedifying public spats I have ever seen in politics. This country seriously needs to look at how it finances and budgets for defence. It has to look at countries such as Denmark, which budgets on a five-year basis so that its Defence Ministers are not continuously chasing their tail. I think there is a political consensus. I make no apology for being robust in opposition, but I believe there is much on which we can work together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing the debate and on the way he presented his arguments. I also thank Members on both sides of the Chamber for contributing to the debate, which, by and large, has been consensual. I think there is a unity of purpose among the Members who expressed their views.
Our starting point has to be the personnel deficits of 3.5% in the Royal Navy, 6.3% in the Army and 5.8% in the Royal Air Force. That must be a cause for concern for us all. There are problems with recruitment, as the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) said—I share his views about Capita entirely—and there is concern about retention in the armed forces. We all know about the problems with accommodation and pay. Those concerns must be addressed.
We are also worried about the gaping black hole of between £20 billion and £30 billion in the Ministry of Defence budget over the next decade. We all know why that has happened: there has been a lack of coherent management in the MOD and we have bought a huge amount off the shelf from the United States of America while the pound has depreciated. We all know, too, that it is completely unrealistic for the MOD to call for yet more efficiency savings that cannot be achieved. That is all happening at a time when this country is increasingly under threat from terrorism and, as the Chief of the General Staff said in his speech at the Royal United Services Institute last week, from an assertive Russia.
There is a widespread view that defence expenditure must therefore increase. Many peers in the other place have expressed that view, and it has been forcefully expressed by the military. Earlier this week, the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), called for our military expenditure to increase by £7.7 billion to 2.5% of GDP. He issued a chilling warning:
“Our security is at stake.”
My view is that defence expenditure should be increased to at least the level achieved by the last Labour Government, yet we are seeing more and more cuts. Earlier this month, it was leaked that the MOD is considering three options. The first involves a personnel cut of 14,250. Under that option, marines would be cut by about 2,000 and the RAF would lose 1,250 personnel. Fifty-nine cap badges would be lost. There would be cuts to the Navy, to the Air Force and to the equipment of the Army. The other two options are no better.
Those figures may well be true, but the hon. Gentleman has to deal with the fact that, regularly, 50% of Army personnel leave before they reach the age of 30. How does he propose to deal with that problem?
A whole host of measures need to be put in place. Recruitment is an important issue, but so is retention. Pay, accommodation, respect for the armed forces and people’s prospects after they leave all have a material bearing on retention. The right hon. Gentleman is correct to raise that point.
The Defence Secretary said that the proposed cuts are unacceptable, and he is correct. As we know, he is having a battle with the Treasury for money, and Labour will be firmly on his side in that battle. We are also aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ellwood) has threatened to resign if these cuts are imposed. I support and respect that. If the Minister decides to issue a similar statement, we would support that as well.
Finally, we were led to believe that there would be a separation of the cyber capability and defence aspects of the national security and capability review, and that the Defence Secretary would make an announcement on that today. We have since been told that that will not happen. Will the Minister say when that statement will be made to the House, because it is of tremendous importance? When it was established, the national security and capability review was to be conducted on the basis of fiscal neutrality. The suspicion, therefore, is that moneys could be taken from Peter, the defence budget, to pay Paul, the cyber capability budget, which is totally unacceptable. We believe that there should be an increase in capabilities all round. This has been a good debate in both content and tone, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence will stand firm in its battle with the Treasury. If it fights for extra resources, the Opposition will be on its side, together with many Conservative Back Benchers and Members across the House.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and I declare an interest as a serving member of the Army reserve. I confirm that I have no intention of resigning from the Army reserve, as that would not help numbers at all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing this important and timely debate. It follows a number of other debates on similar themes in recent months in Westminster Hall, the main Chamber, and another place. The Government welcome every opportunity to emphasise their strong commitment to the armed forces and the defence of our country, and I am pleased to do that again today.
I also thank my hon. Friend for his insightful observations. As a former officer in the British Army with many years of distinguished service, including in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has brought a wealth of knowledge and personal experience to the Chamber this morning. Other right hon. and hon. Members have also made contributions, and it is a privilege to respond to a debate of such quality. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), and the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis)—I was particularly impressed by that speech and will return to it—for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes).
I also enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), but may I gently say that, in my limited experience after 12 years in this House, this is supposed to be a debate? I was simply going to make a helpful comment, which I will return to, and the House tends to appreciate it if we can have a debate, rather than Members simply standing up and having a bit of a rant. I admire his passion for the subject, but Members get a bit more respect in this place when they are prepared to have a debate. I am gently chiding him.
This debate has been about the size and strength of our armed forces, so in a major sense it is about our people. I therefore pay tribute to the many tens of thousands of servicemen and women whose selfless service keeps our country and people safe. We must do everything we can to persuade our young people that the armed forces remain a great place to work with many development opportunities, both professional and personal. We accept, however, that recruitment remains a challenge—that point was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex.
Record youth employment and a diminishing number of 16 to 24-year-olds entering the workforce over the next few years means that there will always be strong competition for new people. We are responding with a range of short and long-term initiatives to ensure that the offer of a career in the armed forces remains competitive. The services are recruiting though active and targeted campaigns, and increasing engagement and activity in communities where recruitment has been low. We are also working on recruiting and retaining specialist skills. There are some encouraging signs. The number of applications to join the Navy and the Army has increased compared with the same point last year, and outflow from the regular armed forces in the past 12 months has reduced. The reserves are a success and continue to increase in number.
British society is changing, and young infantry soldiers who come from our traditional recruiting grounds in the north-east and north-west now represent a much smaller proportion of our society. That is why we have set ourselves challenging targets to recruit from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, and to get a better gender balance in the armed forces. There are signs that we are beginning to make progress in those areas, but it is difficult, not least because we must ensure that the right role models in our armed forces can inspire other people to join.
Being a bottom-fed organisation, it is sometimes difficult to get those role models in the right place at the right rank. Hopefully, the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill, which is proceeding through the House, will give us greater latitude in how we bring people into the armed forces, and potentially allow people to take career breaks, or—perhaps at an important point of their career—to work part-time or job share. No one suggests that that will be a silver bullet that will solve the problems, but hopefully it will make serving in the armed forces a little more compatible with the challenging pattern of modern life. I am pleased that in general there has been support for the Bill.
On recruitment, does the Minister accept that the approach of Capita leaves a lot to be desired? Will the MOD look carefully and critically at how it is fulfilling its contract?
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. There have clearly been challenges, and to suggest otherwise would be entirely wrong. I am particularly interested in recruitment, and I think that this package of measures will be the right thing. I firmly take on board what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex, and we should try to move toward a blend of measures. I would not want to tie up enormous numbers of members of the armed forces solely in recruiting, but there is an important place for young role models who can inspire young people to join. Many of the back-room functions of the process can be done through Capita and others. We need a balance, and I am not sure that we have quite got that right at the moment.
Let me return to the theme of size and strength. It seems to be a day for Communist quotes, because I think it was Stalin who said that
“Quantity has a quality all of its own”,
which is a reasonable point. The worth of an armed force is ultimately determined by what it can do: the military power it can bring to bear, the readiness with which it can respond, and the effects it can achieve in the different circumstances in which it may be asked to achieve them.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central will expect me to say that new technology and new capabilities tend to reduce the service requirement for manpower overall, but I do not for one second say that that justifies a continued reduction in the size of the armed forces. It does not, but there is a balance to be found between embracing those new technologies and maintaining that Stalinist thought about quantity having a quality of its own.
Although fully trained, regular service personnel will continue to make up the majority of the military workforce, particular requirements can be met equally well by reserve forces, including the sponsored reserve. Our aim must be to make the best use of all the talent and ability that the country has to offer, including from those who can bring to the armed forces valuable skills acquired in civilian life. I have already mentioned the more flexible approach to military workforce planning—what we called the “total armed force”—which we are looking at along with the service chiefs. I hope to update the House on exactly what that means and how we intend to move this forward. It is an attempt to embrace all the talent we can find.
We often talk about the number in the armed forces as if, magically, the whole force could be deployed in the field tomorrow. It cannot be; no military can deploy its entire force in the field in one day. The true strength of an armed force is a combination of its total manpower—be that regular, reserve, or regular reserve—and the readiness with which it can be deployed.
Historically, we have deployed divisions; we should be fiercely proud of that, as few countries can deploy a division—the first size of armed force that has the full orchestra, so to speak, of capabilities to be deployed—but a division cannot be deployed tomorrow. It takes time; there is a readiness cycle for its deployment in the field. However, I am confident about answering the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot about our having a deployable division at readiness. We hold different forces at different periods of readiness, on a graduated scale. It would be wrong to go into detail about exactly what is held at what level of readiness, what is quickly deployable and what larger forces can be deployed over a period.
We often talk about threat. In my basic military training, threat had two components: capability and intent. A true threat exists when someone has capability and intends to use it. To go back to the speech of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, there is an argument that the biggest threat we face now, based on capability and intent, is probably in cyberspace. There are threats to the nation every day there. However, that is not to dismiss other threats such as the Russian threat, clearly articulated this week by the Chief of the General Staff. In that case, there is definitely capability, but at the moment probably no intent to use it. However, I am very mindful that capabilities can take a long time to build up, while intents can change relatively quickly. We need to be mindful of and careful about that.
The national security capability review was touched on, and Members are no doubt aware that the National Security Council sat yesterday and that the NSCR was on the agenda. It was agreed that an NSCR report would be published in late spring 2018. More importantly for the purposes of this debate, the result of the NSC meeting was that a further separate programme of work to modernise defence will now happen. That will be called the modernising defence programme.
The Defence Secretary will make a statement. It will not be today; there is a negotiation by the usual channels. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that they should not read anything into that. The right date is being sought to maximise attendance. Let us be honest: probably the last thing we want is a statement when most people have plans to go home or be elsewhere. The statement will happen soon, on a day—Members can guess which day—of maximum attendance in the House, for maximum scrutiny of the Defence Secretary. I offer my apologies that it is not today, but ask Members please not to read anything into that.
I thank the Minister; but can we have an assurance that the statement will not be made in the evening?
That was one of the issues, to be fair. There is a genuine feeling that on a matter of such importance the statement should be made at the right time on the right day, when there will be maximum opportunity for hon. Members to quiz the Secretary of State; but nothing should be read into the timing. The hon. Gentleman has alluded to one of the potential problems, and that is the nature of business today.
Will the Minister give way?
Should I give way? Well goodness me, I am a generous soul. I hope that will be a lesson to the hon. Gentleman.
The regular faces will know it is not my normal MO not to allow an intervention. I was perhaps unnecessarily wound up at the time. As to the splitting, with defence coming later, will that part of the review still be tasked with being fiscally neutral?
It is not for me to offer a lesson in the development of grand strategy, but in my training it was always all about ends, ways and means. We are attempting to establish the ends: what are we seeking to do? Clearly we seek to counter the threats that the UK faces. As to means, effectively people always focus on the capabilities that we have. That has been one of the challenges that we have faced in the wider debate, where individual capabilities have been plucked out that hon. Members feel must be saved at all costs, without their necessarily looking at the wider context of how the means and capabilities fit together. Equally, part of the capability is the finance—the ability to buy it. Means therefore include both physical capability and money. Ways are how we use those means. The piece of work in question will grow on the NSCR, and as it continues, clearly, if factors emerge and investment in certain capabilities is needed, that will be a negotiation with the Treasury.
Does not what the Minister said imply that his answer is yes, it will be fiscally neutral?
That is not what I am saying at all. To be fair to my boss, the Secretary of State, he has made a strong case for greater investment in defence; and that negotiation will continue. However, before I get into lots of trouble by pre-empting what he will say in the statement shortly, I ask right hon. and hon. Members to indulge me with their patience. They will have the opportunity to ask all those questions shortly, during the statement.
Will the Minister deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, which is key to the point that the Minister correctly made about divisional size and operation, and the bringing together of the whole military orchestra in one place, which is that quantity has to matter?
Certainly, a division, by definition, because of the orchestra of capabilities that it brings to the battlefield, and its ability to fight at various geographical locations, must be of a certain size. To correct a comment that was made earlier, the Conservative manifesto commitment was to maintain armed forces at their current size, and be able to field a division. That is our commitment, to which we are working.
On the question of spending, the Government remain determined to ensure that our armed forces have the people, equipment and training to defend the United Kingdom at home and overseas against the growing and diversifying threat to our security. That means that our armed forces will continue to be world-leading, with the ability to project power globally in a way that few other nations can match. It also means that we will deepen our relationships with allied powers and work to strengthen alliances such as NATO. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot mentioned concerns about the ability to train. He is quite right: Zapad 2017 was the major Russian exercise in Russia’s western area. In 2017 we have had several NATO exercises, because working with our allies is crucial. We had Joint Warrior, which was a joint expeditionary force exercise, Noble Jump 2, which was a very high readiness joint task force exercise, and Swift Response. Looking forward to this year, there will be several major international exercises. We will have Saif Sareea 3, which will be the biggest UK-Omani exercise to be held for nearly 15 years; and Trident Juncture, which is the NATO exercise held every three years. I take my hon. Friend’s point that it is crucial that, to counter the threat, we work continually with our NATO allies, and exercise accordingly. Collective training is important.
Another certainty is that we are increasing spending on defence and will continue to do so. With a defence budget of some £36 billion this year, the UK is undoubtedly a major defence power. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire talked about the Danish defence budget; but actually it will not get to 2%. Its defence budget will be 1.3% of GDP by 2023, which is up from 1.2%. That is a welcome rise, but it still does not reach the 2% target.
I am proud that the Government have committed to increasing the defence budget further, by at least 0.5% above inflation every year of this Parliament. I am mindful that I should allow my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot a minute to sum up, so I shall leave my remarks there, but I shall write to hon. Members on any questions I have not answered.
As the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, the home of the British Army, I am delighted to have been able to call this debate today. I am grateful to all the colleagues who have come and contributed so positively, and to the Minister for his remarks. It has been a productive debate.
We are at a critical time for defence. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will see the extended review as an opportunity to lay out a positive vision and that the Treasury will find the money to pay for it. I, like all Conservatives, stood for election on a manifesto of maintaining the size of the armed forces, and it is our duty to the British public and the men and women of the armed forces to ensure that we do that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the size and strength of the British armed forces.