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Strategic Defence Review: Timescale

Volume 683: debated on Monday 2 November 2020

The Government announced on 21 October that they will conduct a one-year spending review for 2021-22. The implications of that decision for the integrated review are currently being considered. The Government will provide an update to Parliament once this has been decided.

At the annual NATO Parliamentary Assembly in 2019, a report was published about the growing maritime threat from Russia. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and other members of the Assembly so that we may feed into the review of forward and ongoing naval demands for the foreseeable future?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his work in leading the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. The UK, along with NATO allies, takes the maritime threat from Russia very seriously. This tempo and assertiveness of our operational output will continue for as long as Russia continues to pose a threat and challenge to freedom of navigation. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces would be delighted to meet him and his colleagues to discuss it further.

As we belatedly go into this second national lockdown, can we as a House pay tribute to the role of the armed forces?

I say to the Defence Secretary that his commitment to update the House regularly on the use of the armed forces in this second lockdown is very welcome. If he is willing to make further use of the forces this time, this House and the public will back him. I also pay tribute to the professionalism of the special forces who took back control of the Nave Andromeda last week. With the integrated review in mind, this is a timely reminder that while high-tech weapons are essential, our highly trained British troops are indispensable The Defence Secretary promised at the Dispatch Box “a multi-year integrated review”, with

“a four-year spending settlement…for capital and a three-year settlement for revenue”.—[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 607.]

When will it be published?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for paying tribute to the armed forces. He is, of course, right that they have gone above and beyond in making sure that we get through this covid process. Because of their training and the skills that they possess, we can answer the call to help with resilience throughout the country. We will not hesitate to take advantage of all their skills. The demand must come from the ground up—from local authorities or, indeed, the rest of Government. We stand by our offer to any part of Government or the devolved Governments to help in that struggle.

As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), the integrated review will be resolved; where we are going to go with it will be resolved. We are thinking through the impact of the Treasury’s announcement that there will be a one-year spending settlement. Once we have thought through those consequences and worked through the implications, I will report to the House directly on what that means.

Is it not the regrettable truth that the Chancellor has cut the ground from under the Defence Secretary and our British forces? The Secretary of State rightly said that previous Tory defence reviews have

“failed because they were never in step with the spending plans”.—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 647.]

They were a cover for cuts, which is why our armed forces are nearly 12,000 short of the strength promised in the 2015 review; essential equipment, from new tanks to the new radar system protecting our aircraft carrier, is long overdue; and the defence budget has a £13 billion black hole. A fully fledged, fully funded strategic defence and security review is needed now more than ever. What does the Defence Secretary say about the failure to deliver on that?

I think the right hon. Gentleman delivered the speech for a potential future statement. No one has said yet that the integrated review will be delayed or curtailed. What we are saying is that we are studying the implications of the one-year spending review for that. Once we have worked through those implications, he is of course welcome to make his points across the Dispatch Box. I know that he is keen to make those points, but I respectfully suggest that he waits until we have thought through the implications. Then we can have that discussion in Parliament.

Ahead of Remembrance Sunday at the end of the week, we wish well all of those organising events in a different fashion. The day does not lose its meaning at all.

On the integrated review, I am sure that the Secretary of State is more frustrated than most. As an avid reader of National Audit Office reports, he will know that pushing spending to the right will ultimately leave him with less money to spend. A multi-year settlement, as long advocated by SNP Members, would allow future-proofed planning. Can he tell us what the consequences of the postponement are for the future nuclear warheads system and, in particular, the W93?

As I said to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), the first thing is to wait until we have worked through the consequences of the one-year spending announcement by the Treasury. I, or indeed the Prime Minister, will then be happy to come and update the House about what that means for the integrated review and the consequences that follow.

Unfortunately for the Secretary of State, we can all see where this is going, as he knows as well as we do. In April, he wrote to members of Congress stating that

“support to the W93 program in this budget cycle is critical to the success of our replacement warhead programme and to the long-term viability of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.”

We read in the press about his Department’s alarm that a victory for the Democratic nominee in tomorrow’s election could stymie congressional and US support for that programme. As his Treasury and UK alliances have let him down, does he agree with Tom McTague’s assessment in The Atlantic today that

“if the election of one president or another is an existential challenge, then perhaps the issue is Britain’s strategy itself”?

I do not agree at all, and I think the hon. Gentleman may be slightly confused because, whether it is one year or multi-year, it does not mean to say that the defence budget goes to zero. We will still have a £41 billion budget—one of the biggest budgets in Europe—which will allow us to continue not only running the armed forces but investing in them. Of course, the challenge that we have always been open about is the black hole in the overall finances, which we will have to take steps to meet. I am sorry to disappoint some of the hon. Gentleman’s anti-nuclear colleagues, but that does not mean the end of the nuclear deterrent or the submarines. The budget will not resort to zero after the one year. We should first work through what one year will mean, versus multi-year. It is not the first one-year funding settlement, and it is not the first defence review that is trying to fix underfunding and over-ambition. I distinctly remember serving in the armed forces when Labour’s reviews did exactly the same.

I can tell the Secretary of State what a one-year funding settlement will do: it will make the integrated review next to meaningless. The Prime Minister gave me a direct assurance that the integrated review would not be delayed. If “global Britain” is an instruction and not a strapline, this review is the road map to how we advance our defence posture to support our foreign policy ambitions. Any delay in its publication with its full spending commitments will send a poor signal to the world that we are absolutely serious about re-establishing our global credentials, and could prompt questions about our justification to retain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. May I urge the Defence Secretary to complete this review as promised, with a multi-year funding settlement, taken in isolation if necessary, if the spending review is to be delayed?

My right hon. Friend makes some interesting observations. First, I ask him, as I have asked others, to wait until we see the implications of the Treasury’s announcement of the one-year review. Until that time, speculation is just speculation, but of course he might like to take his message to the next Treasury questions, where Treasury Ministers, too, can hear his views of the impact.