I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK defence spending.
I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee and those colleagues who supported the application by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for the debate. It would be remiss of me not to recognise the members of our armed forces this week. Armed Forces Day is coming up this weekend when we will think about the work they do on our behalf, but we should, as I said yesterday, think about it every single day of the year.
Yesterday’s events in the Black sea showed how fragile is the world in which we live, with the threat from Russia and developments and increasing threats in China. The domain of defence has changed in terms of, for example, cyber, space, information technology, the asymmetric threats from hostile states, and the determination of some to tear up the international rules-based order which we have come to accept since the second world war.
On 19 November, the Prime Minister announced that the defence budget would increase by £16.5 billion over the next four years. Anyone who knows me will know that, for my part, any increase in defence expenditure is welcome. The Government committed to that increase over and above the 0.5% that the Conservatives had agreed to in their election manifesto. However, the 2020 spending review funding settlement described it as an increase in defence spending of £24 billion in cash over the next four years—something that has been repeated often by the Prime Minister.
I thank the Institute for Fiscal Studies for pointing out that that is rather misleading. It believes that it would be more accurate to say that by 2024-25 the defence budget will have risen in real terms from 2019-20 by £7.5 billion. It seems that the Government have got the £24 billion figure by taking the cumulative increase each year. I do not think that helps the debate on defence expenditure, because clearly that methodology is not one that most people recognise. What clearly is the case is that, by the conventional method by which it is measured, by 2024-25 the defence budget will be £47.4 billion in real terms, which is a 7.5% increase.
Another thing that seems very strange—this was very helpfully pointed out by the House of Commons Library—is that if we look at the way the Government have profiled expenditure, we see that most of it is in the first three years, from 2020-21 to 2022-23. No doubt a general election has been pencilled in for somewhere around then, because after that it drops from 5.6% in 2022-23 to 0.4% in 2023-24 and 2024-25, so in terms of the way in which this has been explained, some of the claims that have been made should come with a health warning.
I would also point out, thanks again to the House of Commons Library, that the defence budget will still be smaller in real terms than it was in 2019. As people know, I am a little bit of an anorak about following the defence budget and reading National Audit Office reports. If we look at what happened, we see that from 2010 the defence budget dropped in real terms by £9 billion. It is worth exploring the history of the defence budget over the last 10 years as a comparison with what we have today. We all remember that in 2010 the Conservative coalition Government took office saying that the Labour party had left the defence budget with a £38 billion black hole. I tried on numerous occasions to find out where that figure came from. The only way I could get it was from the NAO’s 2009 major projects report, which said that on the equipment side there would be a gap in the defence budget of £6 billion over 10 years if the defence budget only rose by 2.7%. It then went on to say, strangely, that if there was no increase over the next 10 years it would be £36 billion. Clearly, the spin doctors in the Conservative party added an extra £2 billion for good measure.
Over the period of the last Labour Government, there was a real increase in the defence budget of 5.5%. If we want to question whether the £38 billion was just rhetoric we can, because within two years of the coalition Government coming in it had been completely wiped out. Clearly, the individuals who were Defence Secretaries then should be brought back to field the fiscal crisis we face today. However, the reality is that that covered up what the Government were actually doing, which was slashing the defence budget from 2010 onwards. For six of those 10 years, we had a reduction in the defence budget, including an actual reduction of 9.7% in 2012-13. When the Government were arguing that they were standing up for defence, they were doing exactly the opposite, slashing it throughout that period by over £8 billion, and we all know the consequences of that. We cannot start today’s debate with the idea that this is somehow new money; it is not even catch-up for what was cut throughout that period.
Was not one of the really detrimental outcomes of that that the services and the Ministry of Defence were pushing programmes to the right and therefore extending them out, adding to costs and disrupting those programmes, and that our troops then did not have the equipment that they needed?
My right hon. Friend is right, and those chickens are now coming home to roost with some of those programmes. That adds cost, but the main effect was that we saw a 45,000 cut to the Army. Despite the fact that the Conservative party in opposition, when I was a Defence Minister, called for an increase in the Army and an increase in the defence budget—an increase in everything—the first thing it did in government, under the smokescreen of this fictitious £38 billion black hole, was to cut the defence budget. Now we have a situation in which the Army is going to be reduced by another 10,000. Alongside that, we had compulsory redundancies, in-year budgets cut at short notice, and ridiculous decisions taken, for example on Nimrod and Harrier, which were scrapped at a moment’s notice. That had a real effect on the capabilities of our armed forces, as my right hon. Friend has just outlined.
Then we come to the equipment plan. Again, I suggest that anyone who wants to understand the defence budget should always read the NAO reports. The NAO is very clear that the equipment plan, as outlined at the moment, is unaffordable. It has been like that for the last four years, and there is no sign that it is going to improve. According to the last report—these are the MOD’s figures, I hasten to add; I am not adding to the fiction—there is a £13 billion black hole in the current equipment plan. The security and defence review—the integrated review—was supposed to look at that. The one thing I was calling for from that, as I think a lot of people were, was some reality: “What are you going to cancel out of the budget to get it back in balance? Will you actually say what you will do?” It did not take the opportunity to do that. The other startling thing from the most recent report is that the efficiencies that were supposedly built in to make the equipment plan affordable have been completely ignored by the Ministry of Defence.
How did we get to this place? Again, we have to look at the history of what the Government have done over the last 10 years. They introduced the Levene review, which pushed the top-level budget holders back to the military and reduced control at the centre. The latest report shows that nearly a third of the accountancy positions in the top-level budgets in the RAF, Army and Royal Navy are vacant, so there is not that control. I said at the time that I thought the Levene review was misguided. It has left the centre with very little control over some of these issues.
We then had the ludicrous decision, thanks to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition Government, to delay the ordering of the Successor class for the nuclear deterrent, which has led to our existing deterrent having to be extended, at huge cost. Without the ability to look in detail at driving down some of these costs, even with the increase that has been made, I do not think that the equipment budget will be affordable. The way the MOD does its budgets needs fundamental reform.
Why does this matter at the end of the day? It matters for two reasons. First, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) has just said, it leads to a situation in which the men and women of our armed forces do not have the right equipment. It is also inefficient, because it pushes things to the right, and we end up with those us who argue for more money for defence facing people who say, “Why should we give it, if you have this chaotic system?”
However, it is even worse than that. This relates to the equipment we are ordering. A very good report was written by the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) on prosperity. I am a believer. The Prime Minister thinks that now in this golden age after Brexit we should buy British—but the MOD is doing completely the opposite. It seems to buy American. Recently, we have had Wedgetail, the maritime patrol aircraft and Apache helicopters all purchased from the United States in a Government-to-Government contract.
People ask, “Why does that matter?” It does matter. First, because we are not supporting British jobs. Unlike other nations that insist on a work share, as the Indians did with their P-8s, we do nothing at all, so we are left completely wide open not just to our industrial base being denuded, but to foreign exchange fluctuations. That is of huge interest in terms of the defence budget. If we look at it as a whole, US content is 31% now—it was 10% in 2006—and we are opening ourselves up to the fluctuations of the currency markets. That is money that should be going into our frontline services, but it will not be.
No explanation has been given to me as to why we have suddenly gone down that path, and why we have not insisted that the US companies we buy from have to work in the UK. That is inexcusable, but it is a clear decision taken by the MOD that exports British jobs to the United States but also makes our defence budget very vulnerable to currency fluctuations.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a most interesting speech. Is not the situation even worse? When we buy from other countries, we will never own all the intellectual knowledge that applies to that kit and that could be a disadvantage when it comes to its use.
I will answer the hon. Gentleman first, because he makes a good point. When we purchased the C-130, the package came with the intellectual property, so that we could do the maintenance in the UK. With Wedgetail and the P-8, it did not, which means that they must fly back to the United States; in the case of the P-8, I think maintenance can be done at Birmingham airport by US staff but UK staff will not be allowed to do it. I cannot understand why, if we have a Prime Minister who wants to champion the best of British, we now have a Department that seems content to buy off the shelf from the United States.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley mentioned Hellfire, the latest scandal. This relates to the new missiles for the Apache helicopters. There were two competitions: the joint air-to-ground and Hellfire missiles; and the Brimstone weapon, to which he referred. Brimstone is an effective weapon which the Americans wanted to purchase, but they were stopped by Congress. So what do you think the MOD did? Did it buy British and ensure this proven technology for our Apaches? No—it has just awarded the contract for Hellfire and JAGM to the United States, which again is exporting UK jobs. The issue with JAGM, and I have raised this with the MOD, is that it is not even at the moment, I understand, fully IM—insensitive munition—compliant, unlike Brimstone.
Why is it that the Government and the MOD are content not only to export jobs, but not to hold these companies’ feet to the fire and say, “Can we at least do things here?” Can we do it? Yes, we can. The Indians did it with their P-8s. There is a lack of understanding about that.
The Prime Minister talks things up, and we have the prosperity agenda and, as I said, the great report by the right hon. Member for Ludlow, but they are not being put into practice. That needs to happen because the danger is that we get to a situation whereby our industrial base is eroded further. It has been eroded by this Government’s policy and that has got to stop.
On the threats we face, we have a problem with the equipment, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley said. In 2027, we will have 17 ships—not even enough to escort the carrier. We have had dilly-dallying on procuring the fleet solid support ships for the Royal Navy, which are needed for the carrier battle group. Ships are being ordered, for example the Type 32, and no one knows what they are or what they will do. It seems that the Prime Minister has suddenly decided that the MOD should pick up the tab for—I was going to call it the royal yacht, but I understand it will not be that—the Prime Minister’s personal yacht, or whatever it will be. However, the decision has been made to spend £200 million, and it is not just the capital costs of building that ship. Where does it fit into the overall naval strategy? Who will run it and at what cost? There is a disjuncture in the way in which decisions are made.
The Government can spin their new increase how they like, but it does not make up for the cuts of the past 10 years and certainly does not fill the black hole. If we look at the next few years, capital budgets might be going up, but revenue budgets are being cut. That means wages, and terms and conditions in our armed forces will be reduced.
I cannot sum up the position any better than the National Audit Office report, which said:
“The Department faces the fundamental problem that its ambition has far exceeded available resources.”
I would say the same of the Prime Minister. His rhetoric far outweighs the abilities and resources we need to meet his ambition.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), my colleague on the Defence Committee. I am pleased to see not one, but two Defence Ministers on the Front Bench who have come to listen to our thoughts today.
The debate is particularly relevant because this is Armed Forces Week. I hope that both Ministers will join me in using it as an opportunity to recognise and celebrate what our services do for the nation. It is a chance to give thanks to all our forces for what they do in keeping our nation safe and working with allies to protect our interests and defend our values.
When we speak of the armed forces, we mean not just our regular and reserve forces, but the cadets, our veterans and, importantly, the families and loved ones who support those who wear the uniform. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
This week is important because the bond between the armed forces and society is critical. Our volunteer forces are drawn from society. If the general public are less aware of what our forces do and the role they play in keeping us safe, fewer people will step forward and consider joining the services. As we have discussed today, we are more likely to get an increase in defence spending if the nation understands the threats. People will support our call for increased spending if we take the nation with us.
It has been said many times in this Chamber that we have arguably the most professional armed forces in the world—highly trained, well equipped, extremely professional and, consequently, revered by our allies and feared by our adversaries. As a former regular soldier and now a reservist, I have no hesitation in recommending to any school leaver a career in the armed forces. To them, I say: “You will learn things about yourself you never knew, go places you never expected, and develop skills and build confidence that will help you for the rest of your life. The first time you march off the parade square, having completed your training, you will make your mum and dad so proud.” We thank all those in the armed forces who serve and continue to serve.
Today’s debate is about defence spending. I think the Government’s integrated review paints the changing threat picture very fairly. By anybody’s calculation, the world is becoming more insecure. Authoritarianism is on the rise; extremism is active not just in the middle east, but increasingly in Africa; both Russia and China are presenting fresh security challenges that we have yet to fully address; and our international organisations are less able to uphold international standards. I would argue that our threat picture, collectively, is greater than during the cold war when defence spending was at 4%, yet today it remains at just above 2%.
Quite rightly, the integrated review calls for new capabilities to counter emerging threats, particularly from cyber and space, but it is clear that without extra funding, that has come at the expense of our conventional forces. The emergence of new threats does not mean that the old ones have disappeared, yet here we are, cutting back the Army by 10,000 troops and reducing the number of tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, as well as our Typhoon and F-35 fleets and our Hercules heavy-lift aircraft.
We will also lose two Type 23 frigates. We have frigates and destroyers in the surface fleet that are global leaders in their class, but we simply do not have enough of them. Our Royal Navy is now overstretched and we need to increase its size. I certainly praise the efforts of HMS Defender in ignoring the intimidation of the Russians in the Black sea yesterday, but if we are to step forward with our allies as we should to defend and protect international waters and show a presence in the Caribbean, the Gulf, east Africa, the Mediterranean, the North sea and now the Arctic, as well as a tilt to the Indo-Pacific, as commanded in the integrated review, we will need a bigger Navy.
The Government put forward the counter-argument that we can lean on autonomous and unmanned assets. New technologies can certainly help, but they should be seen as enablers rather than as replacing manpower. We cannot replace boots on the ground.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about leaning further into autonomous weapons. As that happens more and more, does he share my concern that we are not as far advanced on the rules surrounding their use? Do we not need greater collaboration with allied countries to set the standards and rules globally?
The hon. Gentleman is correct in the sense that we are advancing into new terrain: even when it comes to a cyber-attack, it is unclear whether or not it is an article 5 breach. We are building resilience and capabilities, but the rules-based order, international institutions and legislation have yet to keep up. That should not prevent us from making sure—as the MOD is rightly doing—that our mission is protected as we become increasingly vulnerable and ever more reliant on the movement of data.
To go back to the point about reducing our armed forces and the footprint of our manpower, the ability to seize and hold ground, separate warring factions, deliver humanitarian aid, assist civil authorities with tasks such as tackling covid-19, win over hearts and minds, restore law and order, respond to natural disasters and carry out countless other diverse tasks—that requires people. It requires professionals—it requires our soldiers, sailors and air personnel. It is wrong to reduce those numbers.
I entirely agree with what my right hon. Friend has said. We have not fought a high-intensity war since the second world war—maybe we did in Korea—but we have operation after operation, and what we need is manpower. We have just cut it by 10,000, and I can tell hon. Members that, having commanded soldiers on the ground in peacekeeping or peacemaking, we have cut off our nose to spite our face. We require our boots on the ground. We require soldiers. I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend has said. We are cutting our Army by 10,000 and that is a mistake.
My right hon. and gallant Friend makes a very powerful point. I know that the Ministers on the Front Bench are conscious of this issue. One day, I would like to learn of the algorithm—what it was—that determined the cut of 9,500. Perhaps one day we will read the memoirs of the Ministers on the Front Bench and learn and be better aware.
For the moment, the cuts have another significance, because they affect our upstream engagement: our ability to strengthen our security bonds with allies and partners. I know that the Armed Forces Minister is conscious of the value of the bond that we develop with nations—Commonwealth partners and so forth—because of the professionalism of our armed forces. Being able to share ideas, training and so forth is absolutely critical. However, the integrated review fails to address the biggest strategic threat posed by China. It does not recognise how China is using its soft power—its one belt, one road programme—to gift military and telecoms equipment to countries across the world and effectively nudge us out of favoured nation status. That is happening with Commonwealth countries in Africa and the Caribbean. We lose our soft power and prosperity links.
China is ensnaring more and more countries in its sphere of influence. We are seeing a bipolar world emerge. For me, that is the face of the next cold war, and that is what we need to address. That is exactly why we should be increasing our global presence, not decreasing it or limiting our ability to increase it by reducing our numbers.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a most interesting contribution. Does he agree with the point I made in this place yesterday that reducing the Army by 10,000 people reduces the career options for young people who might join, and that that in itself could make still greater the problem of recruitment?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The burden placed on the existing armed forces when their numbers are reduced overstretches them. That means that the harmony guidelines will not be followed as they should be or welfare programmes adhered to. It is a valid point, particularly in the advent of global Britain. We saw, thanks to the successful G7 summit, recognition that the world is changing fast and we need to do something about it. I would argue that what we choose to do over the next few years in recalibrating, defending and reinvigorating our global order will determine what happens over the next few decades, given the rise of China. It is therefore absolutely important that our armed forces—our hard power—are able to play their role.
In that light, I encourage the MOD to continue in the spirit of what happened in the Black sea yesterday when it chose to send HMS Defender from Odessa to Georgia. I am picking up that perhaps not everybody in Whitehall was of the view that HMS Defender should have taken that path. May I congratulate the MOD on being firm with its commitment to say, “This is how we uphold the international freedom of the seas”? We must not kowtow to adversaries that choose to push forward and demand that other nations are unable to enter these seas. We thought that actually the Black sea would be pretty benign and that it would be the south China sea where things would get a little spicy. What happened yesterday has been a good warm-up. I absolutely encourage the MOD to continue in that vein and not to shy away because of any other voices in Government that might want us to take a more subservient route.
In ending—I am conscious in raising this subject that the Minister was kind in responding to my urgent question yesterday—I reiterate my request for the vaccination of our deployed troops. I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House yesterday. He made it very clear that the MOD must abide by the national standards of vaccination roll-out.
Why? Why can we not make an exemption and show preference for our troops who we are sending on deployment overseas, rather than just sticking to the rigid, dogmatic guidelines or strictures of the Department of Health and Social Care officials and, frankly, their hopeless Ministers?
I partially agree with my Committee colleague. The point that is being made, though—the MOD and, indeed, the Ministers understand it—is that there is a very powerful case for giving keyworker status to our overseas deployed personnel. Quite simply, that is what we are asking Ministers to consider. They should take this issue away. They should heed the tone of yesterday’s debate, which has been echoed today. We owe those personnel a huge debt of gratitude for what they did in this country to tackle covid: driving ambulances, building the Nightingales, and running testing stations and vaccination centres. When we ask them to do their day job, we must honour the armed forces covenant. We have a duty of care. I know from my experience in Bosnia, Kuwait, and even Cyprus and Kenya: I got vaccinated again and again to protect me from the diseases that I might encounter. We have the ability to vaccinate here. Please Minister, can we make sure that that happens? Let us give our deployed troops keyworker status.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Defence Committee with the knowledgeable insight that he brings to these debates.
Defence expenditure brings with it an opportunity to extend fairness into every corner of the country. There is nothing quite like the ability to invest in manufacturers and contractors in all parts of the United Kingdom, and the Ministry of Defence should take this role and opportunity very seriously. However, it does not take it as seriously as it should. Scotland and the south-west of England have almost the same population, yet MOD statistics released in January this year show that, when compared with the south-west of England, Scotland receives only approximately one third of the MOD expenditure—one third of the spend per person and one third of the direct MOD jobs per 100,000. Actually, it is worse than that. When we add the MOD spending in Wales and Northern Ireland to Scotland’s, we still arrive at a figure that is below that of the south-west of England. I do not understand how the Government can justify a single region of England, with half the population, benefiting from receiving more MOD expenditure than three quarters of this so-called Union.
Defence expenditure can be a complex issue, and that is set out very clearly by the Public Accounts Committee, which deemed that the 2019 to 2029 equipment plan is too expensive by between an estimated £3 billion and £13 billion. Plans for efficiency remain rose-tinted and optimistic. For example, £4.7 billion of savings are assumed without the remotest indication of how they will be delivered. Of 32 of the top priority programmes,a third are at serious risk of not being delivered on time, with capabilities reaching full operational standards two years late. It is not too hard to see where the money is going: the money is going on waste, and, on that, I will touch on the Type 45.
The oldest Type 45 in service has been in service since only 2011. The order was cut from 12 to six, with the price rocketing, like a sea-skimming missile, beyond the £1 billion per ship mark. There were more than 5,000 operational defects in five years, with a bill of more than £50 million to rectify them. They were brought into service too early, with untested propulsion systems and now have to be retrofitted with different engines at a very early stage in their lifecycle, costing £160 million that could have been invested elsewhere. It is just as well that the Type 45 is an exceptional fighting warship, given its propensity to find itself stuck. The MOD has a habit of hiding behind the complexity of that extremely advanced warship, but inconveniently for the MOD it is not the highly advanced air defence, anti-ship or anti-submarine systems that are falling over; it is the ship’s basic ability to move. Royal Navy sailors deserve far better than that.
On fleet solid support, the entirety of the order should be fulfilled in domestic yards in the UK. Does the MOD believe that by offshoring large elements of the manufacturing supply chain stimulus it is somehow teaching English and Scottish yards a lesson? If so, what is that lesson? I think it might be not to trust the MOD with future workstreams. The notion that a £1.6 billion order for defence equipment could be manufactured in foreign yards to the benefit of their apprentices, supply chain and steel industry shows a Department apparently all over the place in its procurement priorities. It demonstrates that the Government, as currently set up, are blind in many cases to the value of a potential tender, and fixated rather on the price.
Is it not worse than that? Everyone agrees that the Type 26 frigate will be a fantastic addition to the Royal Navy, but HMS Glasgow is taking 10 years to procure, and that is because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) suggested, of what the Government do on all such contracts: they push it to the right to fit the in-year budgets, which leads to costs. That short-termism also means that other projects cannot be funded.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, if for no other reason than raising the Type 26, which will allow me to highlight that, despite the MOD, we at last have a tremendous ship with very significant exportability, as we have seen with our allies in Australia and Canada. All credit to BAE Systems for the outcome of what has been a less than ideal procurement process, as tends to be the way. Type 31, the steel for which will be cut shortly at Rosyth, is another tremendously exportable frigate for the Royal Navy, and will demonstrate the first-class nature of manufacturing in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, to the benefit of people working here.
I move to the air. While final assembly of foreign-made ship blocks in the UK is patent nonsense, final assembly and component manufacture of aircraft makes much more sense. To that end, I move to the new medium lift helicopter programme to replace Puma, and so on. The competition between Leonardo with its AW149 and Airbus with its H175 means that they will not be British-designed aircraft, but they will require manufacturing in the UK. Can the Minister assure the House that the contract award need not necessarily follow traditional rotary-wing procurement routes, but will instead place a very stringent pre-qualification on maximising UK content, workforce and suppliers, together with a cast-iron commitment on apprenticeships—the type of value added over and above the asset delivery that the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) set out so clearly? To do so would allow the MOD to best deploy defence expenditure resources for the benefit of communities, as well as air service personnel and operators. That scoring of societal benefit in tenders is vital going forward. It maximises return on investments and minimises waste.
I do not have time to go into the Challenger 3 upgrade, which is not an optimistic proposition, or the royal yacht that is not a royal yacht but might be a flagship but is not a real flagship. We are still trying to figure out what exactly it will be. I will move on instead to the broader consequences of waste.
Waste in defence spending comes with a political cost that I am not much concerned with; I am far more concerned by the operational and opportunity costs of haphazard defence expenditure. The effects of that may be seen in the poverty of our defence housing. Earlier this week, the National Audit Office said that many barracks were in very poor condition. Issues with heating and hot water were the most common complaints. The NAO also highlighted a £1.5 billion backlog in repairs to military accommodation, with only 49% of people residing in that accommodation saying that they were satisfied, which is a decrease from 58% in 2015. So a really bad situation is getting even worse. The NAO found that nearly 80,000 people were occupying single living accommodation blocks either full-time or part-time, and 2,400 of those were in housing so bad that they were not even being charged rent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) tabled amendment 41 to the Armed Forces Bill, which was dealt with just yesterday, to demand that defence housing standards are at least as good as, if not better than, the relevant local housing standard, wherever the accommodation is in the UK. That will not be going forward, much to my disappointment. I do not see why our armed forces personnel should be living in accommodation that is worse than anywhere else in the surrounding community. It should not be an either/or, but if this Government could get a grip on defence procurement spending, they might find the capital required to invest in the dreadful accommodation that many of our service personnel are currently enduring. Whether it is defence expenditure or anything else, spending is about choices, and I am very clear that we are not currently making the right choices in the UK.
Order. I have to inform the House of a correction to the result of the deferred Division held yesterday on the motion on the conference, November and Christmas Adjournments. The number of Members voting Aye was 568, not 567. The number of Members voting No remains three. There is no change to the outcome of the Division.
Oh, Madam Deputy Speaker, the disparity in that vote is almost as great as in the results when we voted to renew the nuclear deterrent—where we had very large majorities—on a cross-party basis, in agreement with that step. On a generous interpretation of the terms of this debate, and if I am not prevented by the Chair, I hope to say a little more about one aspect of the nuclear deterrent under the scope of subjects of a defence nature on which we are going to spend a considerable amount of money.
However, let me start by expressing some sympathy with Defence Ministers, because they have fought long, hard and valiantly to get a significant increase, in real terms, in the defence budget, and they have done that and deserve credit for it. The problem with which they have to contend is that, set in the context of defence expenditure over a very long period, defence still remains far too far down—way down—the scale of our national priorities.
Not for the first time, I should like to paint this picture, with the aid of a prop that I am not allowed to use but which I am, I trust, allowed to consult. It shows the falling percentage of GDP spent on defence over a very long period and the rising percentage of GDP spent on three other costly Departments: those dealing with education, health and welfare. I paint this picture just to give people the idea of the long-term trend. In the mid-1950s, an age ago, we were spending 7% of GDP on defence. In 1963, the falling graph on defence crosses over the rising graph on welfare and benefits, at 6%. We now spend six times on welfare and benefits what we spend on defence, but then of course 1963 was also a very long time ago. In the mid-1980s, which is not such a long time ago, we were still spending similar sums on education, on health and on defence. We were then investing roughly 5% of GDP in each, but now we spend two and a half times as much on education and nearly four times as much on health as we spend on defence. The mid-1980s was the last time until recently that we faced a threat from both a strongly assertive Russia and a major terrorist campaign. Then, it was Irish republicanism; now, it is Islamist fundamentalism.
I said that I wanted to talk about one area of defence spending because it had attracted attention from the references to it in the integrated review, and I see to my great pleasure that the next speaker on the list is the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I should be very surprised indeed if he did not have certain observations to make about the change in the maximum number of warheads that it is envisaged might be held in stockpile for the future nuclear deterrent.
Ever since NATO’s September 2014 Wales summit, which restated its 2% guideline for defence spending as a proportion of gross domestic product, it has become necessary tediously to repeat that that figure is a floor, not a ceiling. For example, although it is sometimes proudly proclaimed that we meet the NATO guideline, historically, as I have shown, we used to spend way above that. Even as late as the mid-1990s, half a dozen years after the fall of the Berlin wall, we were not spending 2.1% or what is now going to be 2.2% of GDP on defence; we were spending fully 3% of GDP on defence. It was the view of the previous Defence Committee, and I understand that it is still the view of the Chairman of the present Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), that 3% would be a realistic and sensible target for a country with our worldwide interests to seek to hit.
I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend nodding his assent. Therefore, when we talk about the 2% guideline, we should bear in mind that it is not a ceiling nor a target; it is merely a floor or a minimum. Now we face a similar task regarding the increase in the cap on the size of our nuclear stockpile recently announced in the integrated review. That should be described as a ceiling, not a floor. In other words, it is a maximum and not a target for the number of warheads we will retain.
The integrated review states:
“In 2010 the Government stated an intent to reduce our overall nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling from not more than 225 to not more than 180 by the mid-2020s. However, in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats, this is no longer possible, and the UK will move to an overall nuclear weapon stockpile of no more than 260 warheads.”
Predictably, this is being denounced as a more than 40% increase in the stockpile, on the basis that increasing a total of 180 to 260 would be an uplift of 44.4%. However, the cancellation of a reduction that has not yet been completed—if indeed it ever began—means that, at most, the total might rise from the previously declared maximum of 225 to a new maximum of 260. Were those the actual present and future totals, the increase would be only about 15.5%, a perfectly reasonable increment to ensure that advances in anti-ballistic missile technology over the 40-plus years of our next generation of Trident warheads cannot undermine our policy of minimum strategic deterrence.
The right hon. Gentleman does not have to wait for the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). He knows that we disagree on this—he mentioned at the start of his speech the last vote on the nuclear deterrent, and I seem to recall that we were in agreement that there should be a vote on the nuclear deterrent. However, when the integrated review was published—he has just mentioned the change in threat and doctrines as a reason for the expansion of the new nuclear policy—it was said that this was somehow to do with things such as cyber-threats, so which computer are we aiming these nuclear weapons at? Does he agree that to say that we would use nuclear weapons in response to a cyber-attack or threat is wholly absurd?
If the hon. Gentleman, whom I regard as a friend, waits for the next part of my analysis, I hope that all will become clear. However, it is absolutely the case that nuclear weapons, as a deterrent, do not deter every sort of threat that could be ranged against us. If they did, we could abolish all the other armed forces. The truth of the matter is that they deter other weapons of mass destruction. Unless there were a development in the cyber world that could inflict destruction on a mass level comparable with a nuclear exchange, it is entirely incredible to think that nuclear weapons would be used in retaliation to an attack of that sort. I hope that satisfies him on the main point that he was making.
Minimum deterrence relies on the fact that possession of a last-resort strategic nuclear system that can be guaranteed to inflict unacceptable and unavoidable devastation in response to nuclear aggression does not require any ability to match the aggressor missile for missile or warhead for warhead. Nuclear superpowers have huge overkill capabilities that offer zero extra protection against countries with much smaller weapons of mass destruction arsenals, as long as the latter can retaliate with an unstoppable and unbearable counter-strike against any nuclear aggressor who is seeking to wipe them out. Overkill capabilities may have symbolic political value, but in the dread event of a nuclear exchange, all they can do, as was famously said, is to “make the rubble bounce”.
There may exist more up-to-date estimates, but the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s inventory totals for world nuclear stockpiles, published at the beginning of last year, are sufficiently instructive. China, France and the UK, with estimated totals of 320, 290 and 215 respectively, fall into the camp of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence. By contrast, the estimated totals of 5,800 for the United States and 6,375 for Russia go way beyond anything needed to pursue such a policy. The notion that, at some stage in the future, the United Kingdom might end up with 35 more warheads than its previously declared theoretical maximum does not change the fact that we are currently, and shall probably remain, fifth out of five in the size of the nuclear stockpiles held by the permanent member states of the UN Security Council. So why have the Government chosen to take the controversial step of cancelling the reduction in the ceiling of our warhead total from 225 to 180 and raising it to a new ceiling of 260 instead?
It is a shame that the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), is no longer here, but I was with him when he said that it is to cover for the fact that we are cutting the Army by 10,000 as a sweetener to the Americans. That is what it is.
Let us see if the hon. Gentleman was right in anticipating what I have to say.
In the absence, at present at any rate, of any briefing on the issue, classified or otherwise, from my parliamentary colleagues on the Defence ministerial team, here are the four possible explanations that occur to me. Explanation 1—most probably, as already stated—is that it is an insurance policy to prevent a potential aggressor from calculating that advances in anti-ballistic missile systems have reduced our retaliatory capability to a point where our response to an attack becomes bearable or even avoidable. Explanation 2—quite probably—is that it is to give more headroom for the time, in the late 2030s or early 2040s, when we are due to exchange our current stockpile of warheads for next-generation nuclear warheads, while at the same time preventing disruption of our continuous at-sea deterrent patrols. Explanation 3— possibly—is that it is to send a signal internationally that the UK is determined to keep nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them and remains committed to doing whatever is required to maintain their invulnerability. And—here it comes—explanation 4, conceivably, is that it is also tailored for a domestic audience worried about cuts in the size of the Army, in order to offer reassurance, or at least to divert some attention from those reductions.
What seems most unlikely is an intention to invest in additional warheads of the existing design. We are certainly cancelling their reduction from a theoretical maximum of 225 to one of only 180 for any or all of the four reasons listed, particularly the first explanation. Raising the maximum from 225 to 260 to provide extra headroom for the eventual transition from current warheads to their replacements is a sensible explanation, though not a conclusive one, given that the changeover is not due to happen for well over a decade.
Despite the imposition of a dedicated supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as the Leader of the Opposition in 2015, hon. and right hon. Labour Members ensured that their party’s policy remained multilateralist. Previously, on 14 March 2007, Parliament had voted by 409 to 161 in favour of proceeding with the initial gate for renewal of the Trident submarine fleet. Even that huge majority was eclipsed on 18 July 2016, when it rose to 355 after MPs voted for the decisive main gate stage to proceed by 472 to only 117.
There is nothing in article VI of the non-proliferation treaty that requires any country already in possession of a recognised nuclear arsenal to get rid of it and to achieve a nuclear-free world prior to a state of grace when general and complete conventional disarmament—also referred to in the non-proliferation treaty, but seldom cited by those who quote it selectively—can be guaranteed. There is a very good reason for this, because if we were to abandon all nuclear weapons in an unreformed world, that would be a recipe for disaster. In a conventional war taking place in a nuclear-free world, the former nuclear powers would immediately race to reacquire the bomb. The first to succeed would then use its monopoly, as occurred in 1945. If the treaty’s vision of general and complete conventional disarmament ever becomes reality, then nuclear weapons can indeed also safely be declared redundant; but, until that day dawns, the United Kingdom is perfectly capable of changing the size of its warhead stockpile without breaching the non-proliferation treaty in order to maintain indefinitely the credibility of its strategic minimum deterrence policy.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, but I have to say, with all due respect to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), that it is deeply depressing to follow him when he seems to be contemplating with equanimity the idea of further nuclear arms and a global nuclear war. Surely this debate, of all debates, ought to be concentrating on issues of peace, issues of security and issues of hope for the future, but very little that I have heard so far offers any hope to anybody for the future other than a preparedness for more conflicts and more wars.
The Government’s White Paper on security was very interesting, and I read it with interest and care, yet I felt that it had missed the fundamental point. What is real security? Is real security the ability to kill somebody else, to destroy something else or to go to war with somebody else, or is it the ability to feed your population and to ensure that they have good healthcare and good education and breathe clean air, and that their young people can look forward to a future with some degree of hope? For many around the world, that is not a possibility and they suffer grievously. Looking at the causes of wars that have happened over recent years in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Libya, they have all been followed by non-state actors getting more and more active and thus more and more dangerous. There are consequences to every military conflict that we involve ourselves in, and we would do well to think about that.
The Government’s proposals in all this, in a post-covid world where wealth has been transferred from the poorest to the richest at an unprecedented rate over the past year to 18 months, are to spend £24 billion more on our defence budget over the next four years and to cut our overseas aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. What kind of message to the world is that? It says that post-covid, recognising all these issues around the world, we are increasing expenditure on arms and preparedness for war and decreasing that which we invest in clean air, clean water, education, health, housing and all the other things that are so important in many parts of the world that are significantly poorer than we are.
The White Paper also makes real a decision that the Government have been inching towards, perhaps galloping towards, for quite a while, and that is to, as they see it, restore Britain’s global role. In the 1960s, the Labour Government led by Harold Wilson, while giving political support to the Americans in Vietnam—which I profoundly disagreed with at the time, as did many others in my party—nevertheless recognised that Britain’s role of imperial grandeur around the world had to come to an end, and so ended the east of Suez policy on deployment of the Navy and of significant numbers of troops. That was a significant, important and quite seminal moment.
This Government seem to have abandoned all those ideas and now talk grandly of a global role for this country. We should just pause and think about this for a moment. We are a country of 65 million people in one part of the world. We are not a global power. We are not an imperial power. We should not be having pretensions of being an imperial or global power but play our part in the family of nations, through the United Nations, to try to improve the lot and living standards of people all around the world.
In that context, I ask myself what we are doing sending an aircraft carrier to patrol the South China seas to encourage a build-up of military hardware between India, Australia, the United States and ourselves all around the South China sea and towards China. It seems to me that this is a recreation of the whole idea of a cold war philosophy, which will not serve us well any more than building up to further conflict with Russia by the deployment of the Navy in the Black sea. Before anybody shouts at me about human rights abuses in China, Russia or anywhere else—Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or any country you care to name—I will just say this: I would challenge any country or any leader on their human rights record if I thought they should be challenged, and I do think they should be challenged, because human rights are a universal concept, based on the universal declaration of 1948. Would it not be so much better if we put our energies into engagement with all those countries to try to ensure that the ideals of the universal declaration were actually met in a proper way and if we supported the United Nations in what it is trying to achieve?
In this post-covid world, let us recognise that we need to spend a great deal of money on healthcare around the world. The World Health Organisation frequently points out that the greatest risk to the health of us all is another novel virus that will come from goodness knows where and goodness knows what source. It will not be dealt with by military means; it will only be dealt with by healthcare and health means. When Prime Minister talks of sharing our vaccine surplus, I hope it happens. I hope he is right in doing that and I hope those vaccines get to all the people and all the countries that need them.
I want to say something more on the issues of nuclear weapons. The General Assembly of the United Nations and the vast majority of nations in the United Nations have supported the idea of a global ban on nuclear weapons. They have signed up for it. A number of countries have already ratified that particular treaty. We are in a minority of countries that does not support the principle of a global ban. We are in a very small minority of countries that, contrary to what the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) says, are, in my view, in breach of the principles of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
The nuclear non-proliferation treaty was set up with the idea of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and it has had some successes in that through nuclear weapons-free zones in Africa, central Asia, Latin America and others that are proposed, but it has not been so successful in persuading the declared nuclear weapons states or the non-declared, but “no nuclear weapons” states such as India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel to take part fully in the principles of the NPT.
The NPT review conference is coming up later this year. How on earth will Britain go to the NPT review conference and say, “We support the nuclear non-proliferation treaty”, while at the same time expanding our nuclear warheads from a maximum of 180 to 225 or 250—the figure is unclear from the White Paper and statements from the Ministry of Defence? Or, will we be able to say something more positive: that we will adopt a “no first use” policy, that we will not further increase the number of nuclear warheads, that we will take steps on greater mutual verification and on reducing the number of warheads and that we will seriously engage with the idea of a global ban on nuclear weapons?
Nuclear weapons usage is inconceivable and unthinkable for anyone who wants to see the world survive. Any one nuclear weapon used anywhere would cause massive and intense damage. What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was a firework compared with the power of the current nuclear weapons held by China, Russia, France, the United States and ourselves, so we have to think about what that means.
There was an article yesterday in the i about some of the survivors of the nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in 1954. Many died from cancers as a result of those tests, as indeed did many British nuclear test veterans as a result of being forced to observe those particular tests. Can we not instead start looking towards a future where we play our part in trying to bring about a more peaceful world? We as a country want to live in a peaceful world. The people of this country want to live in a peaceful world. The people of this country do not want to see soldiers underpaid, badly treated, suffering mental health stress when they come out of the armed forces and getting inadequate support for it, nor do they want to see the privatisation of their facilities. They are proud when our armed forces help to deal with Ebola or save people, desperate refugees, drowning in seas around the world. They are proud of that. Can we not move in a slightly different direction and start looking not just at our own defence policy and the need to diversify so much of our defence industry while protecting jobs that are so important in different parts of the country, but also recognise that when we sell arms to others, they get used? They get used by Saudi Arabia to kill people in Yemen. They were used by Israel in the recent bombing of the Gaza strip. We need to think a bit more carefully and a bit more seriously about that.
The study of history is always important: the way in which the world went from the complacency of Edwardian England to the horrors of the first world war by a series of semi-secret mutual defence treaties all around Europe and the borders of Europe; and the way in which the rise of fascism was for a long time ignored in Germany and we ended up with the holocaust and the genocide of the second world war. Let us not go back to those days. Let us instead look to a world where we are actually making our contribution to peace around the world, and our contribution to supporting people who are going through human rights abuses and oppression. I hope that our debate will consider what I started my contribution with: real security in a very difficult and very dangerous world. That, surely, is something we could all, I hope, agree with and sign up to.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this fascinating debate and a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who made a very eloquent plea for his version of what peace looks like around the world. I would not disagree with him at all, in that I think the UK does have a big role to play in trying to establish it and maintain it. I think we may disagree on some of the particular details on how to get there, but I think the whole House could agree that that is what we are trying to do.
I have always thought that a proper commitment to defence and defence spending is an essential part of that. I have been a champion of the Government’s commitment to the 2% minimum of GDP spending on defence, but I also agree with Members who made the point that that has to be the minimum and, in fact, we could do with spending more. The fact is that we face many threats around the world. There are lots of nations with lots of nuclear weapons and designs on their neighbour’s territory. We have a role to play—absolutely not as an imperial power, but as a concerned global citizen—in trying to make sure those strategies and weapons are never used. That means we have to be part of the balance in the world that others respect.
When it comes to world security and the ability to work with partners and insert ourselves into places to help with humanitarian missions for example, many people are rightly very proud of the great role our armed forces play in disaster situations around the world. These are things we simply cannot do to the extent we do now unless we have a fully functional and capable armed forces that is able to be flexible and have the capacity to act in multiple areas at the same time. That is how we can help our partners in need, whether it is with their security or with their response. I would love to see us spending 3% of GDP on defence—maybe that is something to work on for the future.
I want to talk about a couple of ways in which our defence spending is integral to our strategy for shared prosperity, both in the UK and abroad, and about how the budget needs to be used wisely. We have heard about the problems in procurement that have existed over many years, with budgets moving to the right and being delayed, which can end up costing more. I agree that we need to focus much more on how we get the best bang for our buck out of procurement spending. Some very big procurement items are moving through the budget at the moment, such as the nuclear deterrent. How they are paid for is a massively important part of the overall picture, but we need to make sure that procurement focuses properly on prosperity for British industry and British jobs here in the UK and that it helps to develop skills and opportunities for young people and support the technologies of the future. With reference to my constituency of Yeovil, there are two critical things that illustrate that very well.
The first is the unmanned aerial vehicle programme that Leonardo has been working on in conjunction with the MOD. It is very important that that goes to the next stage, because the military very much see it as the medium to longer-term replacement for existing vertical lift programmes such as the Wildcat and the AW101 Merlin, which our commandos operate out of. However, my understanding is that the MOD does not yet have the next stage of the programme budgeted and funded. I would like Ministers to please look at that, because it is also essential to the perpetuation of engineering skills in the UK for vertical lift, which Leonardo really embodies—a key sovereign capability that we should preserve and enhance.
The second big opportunity, as the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned, is the potential identified in the integrated review for a medium-lift helicopter to be built in the UK. There is a Leonardo product called the AW149, which is an extremely capable vehicle. I must briefly correct the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan): he said that it was not a British design, but actually it was originally. The helicopter was designed in Yeovil, but as it was not being used militarily, it was given as a civil idea to the Italians, who have been making it as the AW189.
The AW149 could deliver our capability in a very cost-effective manner, because it is off-the-shelf—it is an existing civil product. It can be made very cost-effectively and can deliver a very manpower-centric type of capability. It has all of the automation suite that is so well loved on the AW101 and that makes that product such a success in search and rescue, because it gives the pilots much more ability to focus on the mission and on supporting the men under their charge without having to fly the aircraft. That makes it a very modern capability, which I believe is much better than anything else potentially on the market. Also, from an industrial point of view, it would unlock a big opportunity for foreign direct investment from the Italian parent, to invest in the UK, to really make Yeovil and Leonardo the centre of its military excellence when it comes to vertical lift. That is a real prize worth having. It can also make an important contribution to the UK’s export performance, because medium-lift helicopter requirements around the world could amount to as many as 500 aircraft of that type. That is a massive opportunity for the south-west and the entire supply chain in the south-west to participate in economic recovery and exports for the whole of the UK and really sustain the prosperity.
The hon. Member for Angus mentioned a disparity in his mind between Scotland and the south-west, but actually Leonardo is a living example of a Scotland and south-west co-operation, because Leonardo has massive operations in Edinburgh and is very proud of them, so it is an ideal example of how these slightly parochial, shall we say, interests can be bridged and are not what they might first seem.
These are crucial programmes to the sustainability of the workforce and the sovereign capability in vertical lift in the UK, and it would be a huge missed opportunity not to take advantage of that for recovery and exports. I consider that in the UK we suffer from not having direct Government involvement in export, as the US does, for example, through its foreign military sales programme. I agree with the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that companies such as Boeing have done very well out of the UK in recent years. They have just had a massive procurement of Chinook to add to the Wedgetail, the P-8 and so on. Chinook was done on a sole-source basis, so there was not a competition. Leonardo could not bid for any of that work—not even any of the maintenance.
Given that the medium-lift requirement for the MOD is for 2024 and 2025, there is a very strong case for saying that, as that is such a short timeframe, it makes eminent sense for that to be a sole-source procurement process, and for Leonardo to be chosen to work with the Government on that. Those machines will need to be in the factory in 2022 and 2023 to make the timetable, so the decision must be made pretty much immediately. I hope that Ministers will look at that.
To conclude, defence spending is admirably supported by this Government and is a key pillar of the outward-looking global Britain that we seek to build, but we need to ensure that it delivers for hard-working people at home. We need to buy British and support our industries and their world-leading products.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think the previous speech, by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh), reveals why we need to get back into this Chamber, where we could have made a few interventions on how the Government are letting down Yeovil, as they are letting down so much of the rest of the country.
I was going to start by asking what defence is for, and I was helpfully pre-empted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who talked about a study of history. A study of history would show that after the second world war NATO had to be founded, by a Labour Government and by the Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, in response to Soviet aggression and also to subversion of the countries of eastern Europe. We had to respond to that, and to subversion at home as well. In the same way, Ernest Bevin also played a prominent part in framing not just Labour policy but national policy before the second world war. Although, to his credit, George Lansbury, the Jeremy Corbyn of his time, had run a London borough, at that conference Ernest Bevin demolished the Lansbury argument for appeasement and pacifism and made it absolutely clear that authoritarianism—totalitarianism—had to be confronted, and confronted robustly.
Interestingly enough, that was emphasised very strongly only last month by President Biden in a speech at the National Memorial Day observance, which I commend to colleagues. He said very clearly that
“democracy must be defended at all costs, for democracy makes all this possible.”
He was talking about equal rights, respect and decency in the way countries treat their citizens and the way they treat other countries and their citizens. That is why we need collective defence. Rather than just talking about the League of Nations or the United Nations, important roles though the United Nations plays, we need collective defence.
Pat Moynihan, the famous American politician and diplomat, wrote a book arguing that the world is “A Dangerous Place”, the strapline of which was, “But a lot of people don’t understand that”. The world is a considerably more dangerous place now than it has been for a while. We have a revisionist China, a revanchist Russia, a subversive Iran, a terror-ridden Sahel—and those are just the main headlines. That is why we need defence, and that is why we need defence spending. A critical part of that for the United Kingdom and, indeed, the countries of western Europe is our transatlantic alliance with the United States, protecting democracy and freedom in Europe and keeping the Atlantic open as the great connecting sea lane between us. We ought to face up to that and support it.
That, of course, has consequences. Having decided that fundamental purpose, what is the structure that we put on top of it, and what role do we play in that? Are we going to play a leading and prominent role, or a very supportive but maybe less prominent role? We have to have—this is where a number of Members, including the right hon. Member for Islington North, are right—a national debate on that.
If we decide that Britain is going to play a significant and prominent role in the defence of freedom around the world, the resources have to follow—not short-changing the armed forces, not cutting the Army’s numbers, not shifting procurement requirements continuously to the right, greatly adding to the expense of each unit and gradually under-capitalising the armed forces; we need to make sure that they are properly funded. The Government talk the talk, often for political purposes—that was quite easy in the last general election against the right hon. Member for Islington North—but they must do more than that. They actually have to walk the walk and make the resources available.
Let us just have a look at the figures for spending on defence. Under the last Labour Government, in 2007-08, it increased by 6.8%. In 2008-09, which of course was a rather difficult year, as people remember, with the global financial crisis, it still increased by 0.5%. It recovered a bit in 2009-10, to plus 2.7%. Then in came the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition and, sadly, the figures were—I will just read the first years—minus 3.7% in 2010, minus 7.2% in 2011, and minus 9.7% in 2012. It went on, some years going down, some years going up slightly. That has always been the history, by the way; we remember “Options for Change” at the end of the cold war.
I greatly respect the right hon. Member for his expertise in and passion for defence matters, but he has conveniently left out the context in which we had to attack and deal with the financial mess we inherited in 2010. We cannot defend our country if we are broke. The right hon. Member talked about history and I enjoyed the beginning of his speech, but every Labour Government in history have left a mess to be cleared up.
Interestingly, in 2008, when the global financial crisis hit, the ratio of debt to national product was less than it was when we came to office in 1997, and in the meantime we built the schools, the hospitals and the infrastructure that the Conservative Government had lamentably failed to build.
I hope the Whips have taken note and that the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) will get a job after his intervention. By the way, what was the debt to national product ratio when we left office and what is it now? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could tell us that, but he should not bother to interrupt at this moment to do so.
It is not just what we spend but where we spend it. We have had that argument continually in the Chamber. Why are we buying ships from Korea? Why, even when we are going to have the fleet solid support ships armed, does the Secretary of State still talk about only joining them up, not building and procuring all their equipment, here? Why are we buying so many planes from the United States? My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) pointed out to me that our dollar purchases in 2016 accounted for 10% of equipment. That has now increased to 31%. The hon. Member for Yeovil pointed out that the Yeovil factory is under threat basically because contracts have been given to Boeing, as they have for several other projects. Even when we have a superior product such as Brimstone, the Ministry of Defence cravenly gives in, keeps handing out those contracts and gets nothing in return.
As I said in the earlier debate on trade, no other country in the world behaves like that. I do not understand why Ministers do not stand up for Britain and for defence and get a grip. Otherwise, what is the point of them?
The debate has been animated and enjoyable. It is a great pleasure to speak from the Back Benches from a position of unequivocal strength. As someone who would ordinarily have been critical of defence spending at any time over the past three decades, I admit that today I cannot be. Why? This year, the Government announced an unprecedented multi-year settlement for defence.
Yes, it is. It offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernise our armed forces.
Throughout my 27-year career in uniform, I lost count of the times I was told that I could not do something, whether it was going on an exercise, organising adventure training, buying trucks or getting the latest equipment. I was always told by the bean counters that it could not be done. It was all doom and gloom, but now it is different. If anything, part of me wishes I were still in uniform because I believe that defence is well placed to take advantage of the excellent settlement.
Let us look at the facts. First, the deal for defence is worth an extra £24.1 billion over the next four years. It is a huge increase, unlike anything we have seen in recent history.
Will the hon. Gentleman not keep repeating that Front-Bench or central-party pump-out? He should look at the Library note. I explained the increase. He says he would like to be there now, but I am not sure he would get the opportunity were he a young man wanting to join the armed forces now, because there are nearly 55,000 fewer people because of the Conservative Government. The budget today is still lower than it was in 2009. Even with the increase, the £13 billion black hole in the equipment budget will not be filled. The idea of painting this rosily might get him on the Front Bench, but he should look at the facts and be independent—which he usually is on a lot of the issues.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but of course he is wrong. I will explain why—because the figures speak for themselves. Have a look at the maths! He is also wrong, because I believe that the offer right now for our armed forces is better than ever before. If I were 21 or 22 years old, I would want to do exactly the same thing that I did almost 30 years ago. I am proud of my service and of the fact that the Government support defence. So, £6.6 million has been invested in research and development, generating £25.3 billion a year for the UK economy and directly employing 133,000 people across the country. Defence spending is critical to levelling up, and we are doing it—fact.
The recent Command Paper “Defence in a Competitive Age” reflects a balanced budget. The MOD now has a fantastic opportunity to balance its red line, to get above the line—
Yes, it does. The UK armed forces will become a threat-focused integrated force with a continued shift in thinking across land, sea, air, space and cyber, while also being financially sustainable for the first time in decades. If I may say so, the Conservative Government over the past 10 years have spent much of their time putting right the mess that Labour left this country in 2010.
Defence will spend £85 billion on equipment over the next four years. Shipbuilding investment will double over the life of this Parliament, rising to more than £1.7 billion a year. This will support the MOD in its commitment to grow the Royal Navy surface fleet to 24 frigates and destroyers by 2030. Admittedly, we need more, but of course we have to balance the budget as well.
Recently, too, the Procurement Minister launched the new defence and security industrial strategy, which benefits British industry to a superb degree. It is about jobs, livelihoods and, above all, export markets. The new strategy allows us to mandate UK content in all our defence contracts in a way that we could not do under the auspices of the European Union.
The hon. Gentleman is just wrong on that. Military contracts were excluded from any EU law. The only individuals who chose to put a military contract out to international tender, hiding behind the EU, were this Government, when they were arguing to put FSS out to international competition, even though they could have designated a warship, as did every other country in Europe—France, Spain, Italy and everyone else—and built it at home.
Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. My clear understanding as someone who has spent time working in Defence Equipment and Support and in the MOD is that European Union legislation prevented this country from preferring UK industry. We are now not beholden to the European Union. We can place contracts with whom we want, and we are seeing it right now with our new strategy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he said something very significant—about his understanding when working at DE&S. He was saying that the culture there was to embody in their thinking the idea that they could not do it. In fact, that was totally untrue, and every other European country looked after its own industry. He has, very helpfully, exposed the deeply rotten culture inside the Ministry of Defence.
I reiterate my previous points on this. The Opposition can make as much noise as they want from the Back Benches, but the fact is this: under the new defence industrial strategy, it is absolutely clear that the MOD can purchase equipment from whom it wants in a way that has not been possible over the past 10 to 40 years.
Perhaps. But it is also about balancing the need for the right equipment against the need to make sure that we look after our nascent defence manufacturing industry. I believe that the balance is right today in a way that has not been possible before.
I am not precious about this. I agree with the hon. Gentleman in terms of wanting to buy the best kit for our armed forces. May I ask him why, in all those Government-to Government contracts—on Wedgetail, on Apache and now on Brimstone—there is no work share, not even in terms of allowing ongoing maintenance for those things? Why have we just given that out and exported UK jobs to the United States, if this Government are so committed to ensuring that we have a vibrant UK defence policy?
It is my clear understanding that the MOD’s responsibility is to purchase the best kit. This is about supporting our soldiers, airmen, sailors and so on. This is about a balanced decision made by the MOD, on advice from DE&S, about buying the right kit. In my humble view, we are in a new era. This is post Brexit and post EU. This is a new era where the Government have the autonomy, as never before, to make the decisions that they want to make. The post-Brexit era gives us that opportunity—that incentive—to look after British industry, which, in my view, is what we must do right now. In terms of what has gone before, that has happened. As of now, under this Government, from 2021, I am absolutely clear that our new strategy gives us the opportunity to do the right thing with the kit that we buy.
I am not giving way again.
Time is marching on. What have we got? We have Lightning II, an advanced fifth generation aircraft, procured to operate alongside the RAF Typhoon. We have Dreadnought, which will replace the Vanguard-class submarine. It will be the largest ever submarine operated by the Royal Navy. We have the Astute-class nuclear submarines, the largest and, again, most powerful attack submarines ever procured. We have our fantastic carriers: the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, again, the largest and most powerful warships ever built for the Royal Navy.
We have Ajax, which, I know, has been the subject of debate in this House, but it is a purpose-built platform and, like many other state of the art protected mobility platforms, it will be the best on the market. We have Type 26 frigates, Type 31 frigates, the fleet solid support ships and so much more.
These are not vanity projects. These platforms allow us to project force, deter, fight and win. Our forces might be small in comparison with yesteryear, but they are perfectly formed, battle ready, potent and anything but cuddly. They are poised at readiness to be deployed anywhere in the world and our adversaries know that, which is why so much mischief is being caused by them in other domains, but we are ready there, too, as the review has proven.
For those in any doubt, and I address my remarks to those on the Opposition Benches, defence spending is a necessary evil to keep us safe. Today, we do face a multitude of threats in multiple domains. Some are known to us and some are not. We are living in an era of constant competition, with persistent engagement against our foes. Sub-threshold conflict pervades all around us. It is a dichotomy perhaps that, in this age of relative peace and prosperity, our future has rarely been less certain or predictable, not least in the battlegrounds of space and cyber. As a fan of the integrated review, it seems obvious to me that the proverbial golf bag of military capability will need to carry ever more clubs and that is happening under this Government. For a start, the golden thread that links hard power with soft power through worldwide free trade exports, balance of payments and creating national wealth is persuasive. We must therefore protect our ability to project force anywhere in the world by being able to call upon the additional, if needed. It is about platforms, ro-ro ferries and long-range aircraft such as the C-17 and the A400—the list goes on.
I am being urged to finish by Madam Deputy Speaker, but, before I do, I want to quickly cover a few points. Given that we now have more money to spend on defence—fact—the MOD should be placed under even greater pressure to ensure that it is spent wisely. That is about integration of British kit and integration in the UK of overseas equipment if we have to buy overseas equipment. This is about UK content in our defence contracts.
In finishing, I will raise three quick points. We have fantastic kit in the UK and I am confident in the main that our forces have what they need. I say that after three decades in the armed forces. I am also proud to serve under a supportive Government who really get defence, and we must spend responsibly and flexibly both to secure what we need for defence and to keep our British defence industry at the forefront of what we do. It is also about producing competitive exports that allow us to benefit our balance of payments, prosperity and reputation. Global Britain is here to stay.
I never thought I would hear the UK armed forces being called “small but perfectly formed”. I look forward to that being on a Conservative party leaflet at the next general election—I do not think it will be a vote winner.
It has been a while since we have had one of these debates and I thank two friends, the right hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—one current and one former member of the Defence Committee—for securing it. As we saw from their speeches, we certainly do not agree on everything, but I know and understand where those Members are coming from and they are open to discussing and debating all sorts of ideas. That should be the goal of a liberal democracy. We need to have more of these debates and not only in Backbench Business time.
Let me begin with the recent publication of the integrated review and defence Command Paper. I do not think it is useful just to talk about defence spending as an inherent good. First, we must ensure it is being spent correctly. My friend, the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), chaired a session yesterday in which we heard from the Secretary of State, who was quite clear that those were the key documents for understanding where this political state was going. I happen to agree with the Secretary of State that there is a level of coherence within and between the documents that we have not seen in a while.
As a member of the Defence Committee, I have been lucky enough to be briefed by the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser, who has been responsible for synthesising the many disparate strands of foreign, defence and trade policy that we saw—no mean feat when concepts of global Britain have been so notoriously akin to nailing jelly to a wall. In achieving that feat, you are required to move on to a second-order problem: putting those abstract policy ambitions into concrete national security commitments. That is where we begin to encounter some turbulence.
There is a wonderful example of that on page 66 of the integrated review:
the review thunders; the UK
“will be the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific”.
I wish I had had the time to ask the Secretary of State about that yesterday. The consequences of that statement are potentially huge. I have one example—a current one—which makes me wonder about it.
This week, French air force Rafales, to simulate their long-range power projection capabilities, flew 40 hours in one go from France to Tahiti. That is French Polynesia, of course: that French part of the Indo-Pacific that allows that European partner to have a pretty broad, integrated and, given recent developments, sustained presence in the region. Is the UK seriously seeking to go further than that? How long has the carrier strike group tour of the Indo-Pacific been in the planning? This is the only type of thing that could replicate the French capability, and it is certainly not permanent. Do a couple of forward-deployed offshore patrol vessels equal a sustained presence, or a commercial opportunity to have them in the shop window? I am not sure. I have heard about RAF Typhoons planning to deploy into the Indo-Pacific, and the F-35B is famously the model with the shortest range.
Much as I would love to go into a longer debate on that commitment, behind my point lies a larger one: the Government are making national security commitments that are really understood only by a narrow range of policy makers in Whitehall, and not by the public at large, whose taxes will pay for them. Have we had a wider public debate about the UK Government’s commitments to the region and what the Indo-Pacific tilt means? I suspect that the up-and-coming trade negotiations will bring it to wider attention, but can any of us truly say that our constituents know what implications it will have?
This is the key point: the UK is stuck with a winner-takes-all political system where the formulation of foreign and security policy is done by the governing party. While all of us in this debate know that the commitments to the region are paper thin and likely to remain that way, the Government continue to use it as a means of pretending that we have moved on from the very concrete security challenges in our home region here in northern Europe. That is why my Scottish National party colleagues and I continue to bang the drum on multi-year defence agreements, such as the ones across Scandinavia, bringing together all parties interested in making a contribution and agreeing on general principles, and bringing debates to a wider audience so that the public can have confidence on what basis defence spending decisions are being taken, and why their hard-earned tax contributions are being spent in that way.
As we get to notions about an acceptable level of spend—something that I know my friend the right hon. Member for New Forest East has been at the forefront of—I must confess to being left a little cold. Whether we get 2%, 3% or even 8% of GDP, can we be confident that there is broad agreement on the aims and outcomes of that spending, and are we sure that the public would not rather the money be spent elsewhere? The two of course are linked.
Scottish National party MPs are here—it may come as a bit of a shock—to deliver independence for our nation, and I hope that by the time the next integrated review rolls around we will not be part of this conversation, but the affairs of the rest of the United Kingdom will never be abstract to us. It shall remain our most important security partner, so I dearly hope that it can learn to make security policy that is understood and supported by the general public who pay for it.
If we have learned one thing from the pandemic, it is that what we have previously taken for granted in security terms has been washed away. This state and so many others around the world have seen economies and national morale affected in a way that military planners could scarcely have imagined. It has finally brought the idea of the broad concept of security into the mainstream. Health spending is a national security issue. Education spending is a national security issue. Local government spending is a national security issue, and public services and cohesive societies are a national security issue and, rather inconveniently for some, I suppose—in terms of this debate at least—one that voters and taxpayers find easier to understand.
I hope that colleagues can understand that this is not some abstract, possibly peacenik nonsense. Defence spending has no automatic right to be raised just because we say that it should. The right hon. Member for New Forest East is right to characterise it in terms of priorities, and it is our job to demonstrate why defence should be further up the list. Much as I agree with my friend from the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), that the world is becoming a more dangerous place, our constituents need to understand that. I therefore hope that we have more of these debates, that they are covered more widely, and that they are used in a way that we can discuss the vital issues at hand. It is the very least that our constituents deserve.
May I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary on his notable victory in securing the support of the Treasury for a £24 billion multi-year increase in defence expenditure? This demonstrates our commitment to safeguarding our country and working credibly with our allies at a time of, as others have said, increasing international instability. It also represents an £85 billion investment in equipment over the next four years, and that is what I will focus on.
The Government are not only honouring their manifesto pledge on defence spending but are exceeding it by £16 billion. Through the choices they have made they are using taxpayers’ money wisely to invest in the capabilities we will need for the future, and clearly every pound spent with a UK industry benefits the Exchequer by supporting local economies such as that in my constituency. According to the Royal United Services Institute, the Exchequer recovers at least 35% of the value of domestically sourced contracts, so I hugely welcome also the Government’s decision to invest in future technology; £6.6 billion will be spent on R&D over the next four years, which we need to confront the challenges of the grey zone and disinformation activities by states that are clearly hostile to the sort of society we have and the values, way of life and essential freedoms that we and our allies seek to protect. In this new age the term “military capability” takes on a more enhanced meaning, as it now embraces Britain’s cyber-domain and space activities, which is why it is great news that there will be a new agency dedicated to artificial intelligence and a new space command.
I am proud to represent and serve an area that plays a major role in the defence of our country; there are 8,000 dedicated public servants at MOD Abbey Wood; Defence Equipment and Support does a great job in ensuring that our forces have the equipment they need. My constituency is also at the heart of one of the largest aerospace clusters in Europe; defence contractors such as Airbus, BAE Systems, Boeing, MBDA, Rolls-Royce and Thales to name just a few provide highly skilled jobs in my constituency and throughout the wider south-west region and support a large number of jobs in the supply chain. At least 30,000 jobs are supported by defence spend alone in the south-west region. The MOD already spends £20 billion with industry and commerce, and defence directly or indirectly supports 207,000 jobs. This additional funding from the Government will also benefit the wider economy throughout our country.
I also welcome the Government’s defence and security industrial strategy and the certainty it will offer industry to do its share of investing in the jobs and technology of tomorrow. That will help bring into reality the Prime Minister’s ambition for the UK to be a science superpower in the 21st century. As chairman of the all-party group on sovereign defence manufacturing capability, I am pleased by the Government’s recognition in the defence and security industrial strategy that the country needs
“a sustainable defence industrial base to ensure that the UK has access to the most sensitive and operationally critical areas of capability for our national security, and that we maximise the economic potential of one of the most successful and innovative sectors of British industry.”
As co-chairman of the all-party group on apprenticeships I welcome the opportunities that this additional investment will create for our highly skilled science, technology, engineering and mathematics apprenticeships into the future. It is essential for our country and our strategic viability in the future that we bring on and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and technicians who will be designing and building our future capabilities. The all-party group is currently conducting an inquiry into the MOD apprenticeship programme. The MOD is the largest provider of apprenticeships in the UK; there are currently 20,000 apprentices undergoing training, and 53% of the UK’s defence companies of all sizes now provide apprenticeships, which is great.
Over the next four years we will be investing £2 billion in the Tempest programme for the next generation of combat aircraft, and jobs are already being created because of the programme. Industry is investing £800 million in the programme, which is a sign of great confidence. Some 1,800 jobs have been created so far and PwC has estimated that 5,000 jobs will be directly created by this programme and 21,000 indirectly in the wider supply chain. However, the programme is not just about aircraft; it is also about embracing the possibilities of technology and artificial intelligence, as the programme comprises both manned and future unmanned capability. The future of combat air is a bit like the old tanks versus horses moment, in that we need to choose to invest in the future and what modern technology can offer us rather than continue with outdated capability. The fact that other countries, such as Italy and Sweden, are keen to participate in the Tempest programme shows that we can forge, and are forging, new partnerships with like-minded nations and allies who want to invest in the next generation of combat air systems.
As we continue to invest and increase our investment in our own industry, we should also remember that, as other Members have said, the opportunity for exports not only supports jobs in the UK, which will deliver on the Government’s prosperity agenda, but, crucially, enables us to build partnerships with allies and friends around the world. Like many other Members, I was honoured to attend the Armed Forces Day flag raising on Monday, and it is appropriate that we should be discussing these matters today. Yesterday, we were discussing the Armed Forces Bill, and this is all taking place during Armed Forces Week. I hope that our proceedings, conversations and some of our debates will send out an important message to our armed forces and their families that we value them, and thank them for their service and sacrifice, and that we all, in all parts of this House, want to do as much we can to properly equip the men and women who serve our country.
Global Britain will mean nothing if we do not partner with our allies and friends across the world, The increasingly competitive nature, on many fronts, of the modern world looks set to and will increase. Just this week, aircraft flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth have struck targets in Iraq, as part of the ongoing campaign against Daesh, and obviously our “friends” the Russians in the region have been watching our deployments and how we undertake some of our missions. The incident in the Black sea yesterday, whatever it was, shows that the UK will continue to stand up for international law and rules. I welcome the ambition of the MOD to ensure that our armed forces spend more time working around the world, widening and deepening our relationships with our counterparts.
In conclusion, if the UK is to continue to be a reliable and credible ally, we must be ready to respond to unexpected challenges; challenges often come out of the blue and are not predicted. This is not just about personnel, but about having the tools and technology to be ready and to deal with future emergencies, challenges and crises. I commend and thank the Government for committing to invest further in the equipment and technology that we need to remain a credible force for good around the world, with all our responsibilities, and to protect the freedom and wellbeing of our people.
I think that any members of the armed forces watching this debate would be encouraged by the seriousness with which we take this issue. I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for a tour de force in laying out this whole issue. Sitting where I do and hearing the voices behind me, I am reminded of being on the school bus in the second year when the big boys who made the noise were at the back. I therefore rise to my feet with slight trepidation.
As for the contribution of the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), I do not think I have heard a more succinct definition of what defence is all about since I have been here—although my parents are no longer with us, I believe I almost hear their cheering from far away. My father served in the 14th Army and fought against a totalitarian regime, the Japanese. My mother told me she had been in the Foreign Office and it was only when certain books were published that I realised that she had worked in a large house near Milton Keynes, although she never told me anything about the work she did there. That generation understood what the defence of the realm is all about, so the right hon. Gentleman has put it very well for us today.
I want to go on record, as have others, in thanking the armed forces for their work during the pandemic. In my far-flung constituency they played their part, and it was much appreciated by local people. I talked to some of the personnel who helped out and it was so encouraging to hear that they appreciated doing something different, it had made their lives more interesting and they felt that they were helping to defeat the unseen enemy of the virus.
The point has been made again and again— I apologise for repeating myself—about buying British. If we can, we always should, because, as I said in an intervention, the intellectual knowledge—the final clever stuff, the last bits—about the piece of kit will always remain with the country or the consortium that made it. With the best will in the world, we will never be told everything about the F-35; we will never know every little bit about it. That is why we must design and build in this country if we humanly can. This is about employing people, about know-how and, at the end of the day, about getting the best, but made in Britain.
I regret that I am repeating something I said yesterday, but a further point is that this is about boots on the ground, as the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said. Make no mistake, recruitment is beginning to be hit, and that is not what we want to happen at all. The general public are not stupid. They realise the importance of protecting ourselves, and they know that cutting the Army by 10,000 men and women is not a move in the right direction.
I should like to support my good friend’s comments. When I joined the Army, my battalion was 750-strong. When I commanded that battalion, it had 525 personnel. We now have one battalion in the Army that apparently has 170 people, yet it is still called a battalion. We must beware when people say we have a particular amount of battalions. We may have that amount of battalions, but we do not have the numbers of men and women who operated those battalions when they were properly at strength.
The right hon. and gallant Member puts it very succinctly indeed. May I take this opportunity to offer him my personal congratulations on his elevation to the Privy Council? It was looked on favourably by those in all parts of the House. Well done to the gallant Member!
I did not serve at such an august rank as the Minister, or as the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), who were full colonels in Her Majesty’s Army. I served as a private soldier in the Territorial Army, and not with particular distinction—that will have to wait for another day—but it makes me realise that what the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East said about getting the support of society is absolutely true. I was doing a day job, but on a Wednesday night and at the weekend I would put on my uniform and serve the colours. The same is true of the cadets. They are appreciated and they involve wider society in the defence of the realm. As has been said, when it comes to having to pay for our defence, it makes it easier if the general public understand these important points.
What has been happening in the Black sea demonstrates that we live in a dangerous world. Anyone who thinks that other states are concerned about the good of the health of the UK should forget it. They are not. The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) will agree that, as the ice pack retreats, the high north is increasingly becoming an area of operations for the Russian fleet, which sails not very far away from the north coast of my constituency. If the events in the Black sea have demonstrated anything in these last days and hours, it is that we must take this threat absolutely seriously. To fail to do so would be a huge mistake.
I want to end with two points. First, I must go on record and thank those on the Government Front Bench for the courteous way in which they respond to my inquiries. I await a call from the Secretary of State, who is going to tell me about the Black sea at some stage today. Finally, out of courtesy to the Minister, I must apologise for leaving the debate somewhat before the end of it. That is because I have to catch a flight to a faraway place that is rather close to the Russian fleet.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow the many hon. and right hon. Members in this important debate, which certainly affects a good number of us here in the south-west. As the Member for West Dorset, I should first like to renew my thanks to Her Majesty’s armed forces, and particularly the Royal Marines, who supported us at the Dorset County Hospital during the pandemic. Their support has been much valued, and we very much appreciate it.
My contribution to today’s debate is not so much about what we have spent and done previously, but about what we should be doing in the future. I have listened attentively to this debate from afar and we have talked this afternoon about many things, but we have not talked so much about the rotary sector. My hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) spoke and shared his views, but I also say that, as West Dorset neighbours Yeovil, a large number of my constituents are employed by Leonardo helicopters. With no doubt, the best return on investment for British defence spending, particularly for the rotary sector, is on British manufacturing. It supports our industries and wider communities and it secures our supply chain. For every £1 that the Government spend on Leonardo, £2.40 is generated in the UK economy through its 7,500 staff. That number includes, of course, 500 apprentices and graduates.
As I have mentioned previously, Leonardo is the only end-to-end helicopter manufacturer in the UK and its state-of-the-art AW149 is hoped to be the MOD’s new medium helicopter in the programme contained in the defence and security industrial strategy. I urge Front Benchers to please consider the work that Leonardo does and the excellent product that it offers to the defence sector and, particularly, to our armed forces here. By giving a contract to a British manufacturer, the Government will preserve and create jobs not only in Yeovil, for my constituents in West Dorset and for the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil, but up and down the country and across the Union.
Defence manufacture in the UK also reaches far beyond our borders. The British armed forces are considered across the world to be an exemplary military force to be emulated. Frequently, other countries choose models for their militaries based on what the UK has bought. If the UK Government do not invest in their manufacturing capabilities by buying British-made equipment such as the AW149 helicopter, other buyers might wonder why the MOD has not put confidence in its own. Exports abroad then run the risk of reducing. Leonardo exports less than it produces for the UK, but in the context of the £2 billion that the company creates for our economy each year, a Government decision to look at foreign companies for their new medium helicopter will have ramifications across the country.
At home, Leonardo spends £200 million a year on research and development, fitting in perfectly with the Government’s plans to make the UK a global science superpower, but this speech is not about extolling just the virtues of Leonardo or even just the AW149; it is about the thousands upon thousands of jobs that are supported by UK defence manufacture in this country. Our servicemen and servicewomen are supported by thousands of engineers, apprentices, scientists and many others whose communities are, in turn, supported by the Government’s investment here in the UK. I was delighted, earlier this year, with the Government’s announcement of historic defence spending and the spending review on defence. For us in the south-west, it matters hugely. It is right that we continue to have a dynamic and modern military that is capable of keeping us all safe from even the newest of threats.
We saw during the pandemic that our armed forces play a vital role at home, as I mentioned, with service personnel supporting the testing and vaccine efforts where they were most needed, and we valued that incredibly in Dorset. We must recognise that the biggest impact of the UK’s armed forces is felt at home through communities and families who support the forces as a whole and the individuals who make it up. In order to keep those communities vibrant, and to ensure the defence of this nation, I urge Ministers, particularly the Minister for Defence Procurement and the Secretary of State, to consider and choose the AW149 to fulfil the military’s need for a new medium helicopter and to keep that production British.
I am hugely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for securing a debate that has such enormous implications for my constituency. I declare an interest as a long-standing member and former north-west regional secretary of Unite the union.
I am immensely proud to represent a town that is home to the historic Cammell Laird shipyard. From its slipways have sailed some of the most advanced and technologically sophisticated ships ever seen in British waters, including, recently, the RSS Sir David Attenborough, which is due to make its maiden Antarctic voyage later this year. For far too long, however, British shipbuilders like Cammell Laird have been disastrously let down by procurement policies that have totally neglected to invest in jobs and skills at home, instead buying defence projects off the shelf from abroad. That is why Sir John Parker’s independent review of the national shipbuilding strategy, which was clear in its recommendation that defence vessels be open to UK-only competition, was so welcome. So too was the decision to scrap the coalition Government’s ruinous “open competition by default” policy, which saw price trump social value and left British suppliers out in the cold.
But we must go further. That is why my party is calling for a policy of “buy British by default”, which would require Ministers to prove that a defence project cannot be built at home before buying from abroad, alongside an expanded definition of good value that includes the potential benefits to British manufacturers, small and medium-sized enterprises, and the employment and training opportunities that these companies create.
This must begin with the bidding process for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s new fleet solid support ships. With the competition now open, I call on the Minister to provide a cast-iron guarantee that these vessels will be built and designed in their entirety in the UK. At the moment, the Government are allowing bidders to work with international partners as long as the ships are integrated in a UK shipyard. This simply is not good enough. As the GMB and Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions have warned, it risks leaving the lions’ share of the work to be offshored, with UK workers and companies missing out. I therefore call on the Minister to ensure that the contract is awarded to the Team UK consortium, comprising Babcock International, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Cammell Laird. This would guarantee or create at least 6,500 jobs across the UK, as well as countless more along the wider supply lines, and of the £800 million spent by the Ministry of Defence, at least £250 million would be returned to the Treasury in the form of income tax, national insurance contributions and lower welfare payments. The choice is simple.
In Armed Forces Week, it is highly appropriate to be debating funding for our brave armed forces personnel. On Monday, I was honoured to attend the flag-raising ceremony in Aylesbury organised by Buckinghamshire Council. It was an important moment to pay tribute to all those who serve, whether as regulars, reserves or cadets.
I am proud to be a member of a Conservative party that has an unequivocal commitment to defence, that recognises that it is essential to have strong, well-equipped armed forces to protect our nation and our allies, and that is investing to tackle new and emerging threats from both established and developing hostile parties. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on securing a substantial real-terms increase for our armed forces, with planned expenditure increasing by 4.9% in the last financial year and further increases above 5% for 2021-22 and 2022-23—although a further increase would naturally be very welcome. I do believe, however, that it is incumbent on us to bear in mind the broader fiscal pressures, particularly as we continue to deal with the profound economic shock of the pandemic. Along with Members on both sides of the House, I pay tribute to the many members of the armed forces who have contributed to the country’s tremendous effort to combat covid-19 in recent months.
My constituency is home to two Royal Air Force bases—RAF Halton and RAF High Wycombe. RAF High Wycombe is in fact in the villages of Naphill and Walters Ash, and it is home to Air Command and the new and exciting Space Command. As the MOD has made clear:
“Space, and our assured access to it, is fundamental to military operations… The threat from adversaries in this rapidly evolving operational domain is real and it is here now.”
So I am very pleased to see the investment in the establishment of a UK Space Command for defence and proud that its home is in my constituency.
RAF Halton near Wendover is one of the oldest RAF bases in the country, having been used since 1913, and was bought from a member of the Rothschild family five years later at a very competitive price. There are first world war training trenches still in situ, and the officers’ mess is in the splendid Halton House, which has featured in many films and TV dramas, ranging from “James Bond” to “The Crown”, “Poirot” and “Bridgerton”. Revenue raised from hiring out the house provides welcome additional funding to the MOD.
Today, Halton is one of the largest RAF stations, and home to approximately 2,000 personnel from all three armed forces, as well as to foreign military, contractors and civilians. It is the base where many of the Royal Air Force’s new recruits begin their careers, as the station’s primary role is to train military and civilian personnel to perform to the highest standard for military operations. Last month, I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest for the graduation of Pearson intake. Talking to the recruits then highlighted the huge range of roles that are necessary for a successful military. One was going on to serve as a chef and another to work in cyber, an ever-increasing and pernicious threat. The pride of the men and women on the parade ground, as well as their families in the stands, was testament to what the armed forces are all about—duty, honour and service. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said that he wanted to see hope for the future. He need look no further than the brilliant recruits coming out of RAF Halton to see not just hope, but talent, commitment and profound belief in the need for the armed forces to safeguard peace.
It is not just in my constituency that I have seen such dedication to serving our nation. Over the past year, I have been lucky enough to participate in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. One of the highlights was undoubtedly visiting RAF Marham, where my uncle Gordon served as a pilot of Vulcan bombers at the height of the cold war. It was a privilege to sit in an F-35 and talk to the heroic pilots and crews who are currently taking on Daesh while on deployment on HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The F-35 programme is clearly bringing huge strategic and tactical advantage, but the Government have recognised that there is always a need to go further. This is well demonstrated in the investment of more than £2 billion in the future combat air system, which will deliver a mix of crewed, uncrewed and autonomous platforms, including swarming drones and the Tempest fighter jet. That is already creating hundreds of jobs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) has described, and this is on top of £6.6 billion going into R and D projects.
Alongside this very welcome investment in cutting-edge technology, I have been reassured to hear from Ministers before today the recognition that accommodation and facilities for our service personnel need and deserve improvement. Conditions in some bases are not always as good as they ought to be, and it is only right that attention is paid to them.
Questions have been raised about funding a new national flagship. I have to say that, for my part, I regard this as a very good and wise investment, even in terms of financial constraint. It is clear that the role of such a vessel would be to promote trade. This is surely in keeping with the recognition of a growing interdependence between defence and the protection of our economic security. As the integrated review says:
“We will play a more active part in sustaining an international order in which open societies and economies continue to flourish and the benefits of prosperity are shared through free trade and global growth… By 2030, we will be deeply engaged in the Indo-Pacific as the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually-beneficial trade, shared security and values.”
The House heard earlier today about the benefits ahead of joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. For me, the prospect of the UK joining the CPTPP is an enticing prospect indeed, heralding fantastic opportunities for our exporters. Much as I enjoy a crisp sauvignon blanc from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, I want to see the award-winning sparkling wines from Daws Hill in my constituency on the shelves in Sydney, Tokyo and Santiago, not only in English Wine Week but every week of the year. I want to see Rumsey’s chocolates not only in Wendover but in Wellington and Winnipeg. A national flagship that can promote our country and our products is surely a sound investment, and, beyond that, another means to reassure countries around the world that the future lies with democratic capitalist free-trading nations, rather than dictatorial communist regimes. Such a national flagship will cost an absolutely tiny proportion of the extra £24 billion or so in the multi-year settlement for defence, and the return on that investment will accrue not just in pounds and pence, but in prestige and sheer physical presence.
I would say that the hon. Gentleman is a brave individual, because I am not quite clear from where, in the very tight £13 billion black hole already in the defence procurement budget, the extra £200 million is going to be found, as well as the fact that its running costs would come out of the defence budget. Does he not also think that a better way to promote trade would be what we do already? We use our Royal Navy assets to promote Britain when they visit ports. That is being done already. We do not need an extra gin palace to do that role.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We need both. I would not agree with his description of the proposed new flagship. I am sure it will serve many types of alcohol, including, as I have suggested, the very fine sparkling wines from my own constituency, but to be serious, I genuinely believe that it will provide an added opportunity to show the kinds of products that showcase the fantastic opportunities that exist in this country.
To conclude, we live in troubling and uncertain times. Our enemies are not as obvious as they were 50 years ago. Hostile acts are not always overt or blatant. We are being prodded and provoked, whether through propaganda and disinformation or by enemy jets approaching our airspace. We have the most amazing people serving our country. Our Government are investing many billions of pounds to provide them with the equipment, training and opportunities they need. This is an unimpeachable illustration of the Conservative Government’s commitment to defend our nation and our allies; a truly global Britain confident of our place in the world.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this important debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for the debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and his colleagues from the Defence Committee for securing it.
I would like to concentrate my remarks on procurement and the failure to support British jobs and communities, but also to make reference to the important contribution of veterans and some of the challenges they face, particularly given that Easington, the constituency I represent, is a high recruitment area for our armed forces. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a member of Unite the union and have the honour of chairing the Unite parliamentary group.
Echoing the comments of my right hon. Friend, I want to point out that UK defence has undergone a decade of decline under successive Conservative Governments. Indeed, Conservative Governments in their various coalitions and manifestations have overseen a steady erosion of our armed forces’ numerical strength and capabilities, with cuts in frontline personnel since 2010 of over 45,000 and real-terms cuts of £8 billion to the defence budget over that period.
I was rather hoping that the Government had finally accepted the need for a long overdue change in defence procurement policy. I welcomed the end of the open competition by default that the coalition Government introduced in 2012, under which defence procurement was, effectively, offshored by the Conservative party at the cost of tens of thousands of UK jobs and businesses. Clearly, with a Conservative Government there is no guarantee that defence procurement will be concentrated in the United Kingdom.
As evidence to support that statement, I point out that in May the Government announced a £1.6 billion competition to acquire three new fleet solid support ships—the new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships that carry munitions and provisions for the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers. My trade union, Unite the union, has expressed concern that the Government are
“allowing bidders to work in partnership with foreign companies to create a false image of work being integrated into UK yards.”
It rightly brands that a “smoke and mirrors” deception, because
“the contract could be won by a UK-led bid but then designed and completed largely overseas”.
These are UK ships that need to be designed and built in the UK, using core UK technologies, including UK engineering skills, and UK products such as steel. The Defence Secretary and the UK Government must now show their commitment and their faith in UK workers’ skills and expertise. UK shipyards are a vital part of local economies and could play a significant role in the Government’s much-stated levelling-up agenda.
Labour would go much further and set a higher bar for defence procurement. I am delighted by my party’s decision to adopt a “British-built by default” policy, which would require Ministers to prove that military equipment could not be built in the UK before buying it off the shelf from abroad. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham some interesting, and indeed alarming, figures for the expenditure on US-procured weapons in the defence budget.
The integrated review makes it clear that threats to Britain are increasing. UK forces may be deployed further from home, yet the Government’s plan is for fewer troops, fewer ships and fewer planes over the coming years. Deeper cuts to our armed forces will limit our capacity to simultaneously deploy overseas, support our allies, including during natural disasters, and maintain strong national defences and resilience. The UK risks being out of step with the defence plans of leading NATO allies; indeed, Canada plans to increase its regular service personnel by 3,500. Labour’s commitment to international law, to universal human rights and to the multilateral treaties and organisations that uphold them is total.
I pay tribute to the invaluable contribution of the armed forces to the national covid-19 response in what has become the biggest ever domestic military operation in peacetime. I am appalled that 40% of Britons surveyed by the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association were unaware that the armed forces have supported the fight against covid, while a further 53% did not know that the armed forces had helped with the UK’s covid vaccination programme. That is no reflection on the armed forces; it is more a failing on the Government’s part to recognise and commend the armed forces’ vital contribution to the pandemic response.
Government failures go beyond military service, however. From substandard housing to mental health and social care, the Government are failing to provide our veterans and their families with the respect and support that their service should afford them. Our veterans are left alone or reliant on charities if they fall on hard times. That is quite simply unacceptable.
Because of the lack of support for veterans’ mental health, the community have taken it on themselves to help their comrades. Veterans in my constituency and the surrounding area are fortunate as we have the newly established charity, East Durham Veterans Trust, in my constituency providing practical assistance and mental health support to our veterans community. I take this opportunity to thank its founder and driving force, veteran Andy Cammiss, for establishing the charity and for the invaluable support that he, his staff and the volunteers at the East Durham Veterans Trust provide.
However, the charity has a precarious existence. It is dependent upon fundraising efforts, grants and donations from the community. I know the generosity of this House, and the Minister for the Armed Forces on the Front Bench will appreciate the gaps in support, so while he is working to fix those problems and bridge the gaps in provision, he will be pleased to know that he can make a personal donation if his staff go to justgiving.com/eastdurhamveterans. They can make a one-off donation or a regular monthly donation as they wish. In case other Members missed the address, it is justgiving.com/eastdurhamveterans. All donations, particularly considering it is Armed Forces Week, will be gratefully received.
Finally, related to the work of the East Durham Veterans Trust, I highlight an e-petition by another east Durham veteran, David McKenna, titled “Fight of Our Lives: Reform mental health support for veterans”. The petition asks the Government to:
“Offer annual mental health check-ups for three years following discharge…Create a Veterans Mental Health Scheme offering ongoing screening for conditions such as PTSD and a rapid intervention service for Veterans in distress”.
It also asks the Government to
“Require coroners to record Veterans suicide”,
which is a hidden epidemic in the community that does not get the attention it deserves. I hope the public will support the petition and help it hit the threshold to at least receive a response from Government.
In Armed Forces Week, I pay tribute to the armed forces and those who have served. We live in an increasingly dangerous world, and I hope the Government will listen to today’s debate and not repeat the mistakes of the last decade on the size of our forces, on finances and on veterans’ mental health care and support.
First, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me. Yesterday we were debating the Armed Forces Bill, and we discussed many things. Today I want to focus specifically on the size of our forces, recruitment and their capability to respond. I make my comments in a constructive fashion, and I look to the Minister for a response to some of the points of view I will put forward on capability to respond. It is important that those are aired and spoken about today.
During the debate yesterday, we sought to firm up our treatment of the armed forces, and I would like to focus on an aspect of that: defence spending on personnel levels. It is my belief that we must address the shrinking numbers of personnel and set aside funding to build them back up. I understand the Government’s aim to build up cyber sectors, and that is right and proper, but we also need feet in boots, on boats and in the air. We need to ensure that we in the United Kingdom and our policy can respond not just here but across the world when we are called and where the demands are many.
Perhaps the largest and most controversial sleight of hand is the definition of trained strength. Up until 2016, Army manpower was judged on the basis of personnel who were trained—that is to say, they had completed phase 1 and phase 2 training. The waters have now been muddied by including phase 1 trained personnel in the total Army trained strength. As one service personnel member has said—and I say it very gently—
“This is a fudge, as it falsely inflates the numbers but hides the fact that phase 1 personnel are trained in only the very basic rudiments of soldiering.”
For example, phase 1 armoured corps and infantry soldiers are unable to deploy on their vehicles; they are not trained to use radios; they have only very basic first aid training; they can only fire a rifle, not other weapons systems; they cannot use drones; they cannot conduct cyber operations; they cannot do public duties; they cannot carry live, armed weapons to guard their own camps, and many of them will not even have driving licences, so they are unable to deploy overseas and certainly cannot deploy on operations.
I say that respectfully, because I hope that, in response, the Minister will be able to say, “Well, here’s what we’re going to do to recruit them, train them and get them to that level of capability.” Again, I ask this with respect: is it not true that those soldiers are not able to do all that many of the duties that are requested because of their capabilities and their training, and that we should not be using them in an attempt to mask—I hope that is not what it is—the scandal of chronic undermanning? Will the Minister clearly outline whether the new figure of 72,500 will be based on trade-trained personnel and confirm that it will not be fudged or adjusted?
Another area of huge concern is the availability of trained military manpower. Is it not true that as much as 15% of the trade-trained strength—that is, those who have completed phase 1 and phase 2—is unable to deploy owing to temporary and permanent medical downgrading, attendance on career courses, maternity and paternity leave, career breaks and so on? I believe that is further exacerbated by large numbers of personnel being unavailable to deploy because they are in training roles already or in full-time reserve service roles, or they are in the MOD office—civil service personnel—on loan service embedded in other countries’ military, seconded to international bodies or serving in embassies around the world. Those are things that they are doing that reduce the number of personnel capable to respond.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. When he mentioned the 70,000-odd regular deployable forces, he did not mention the reserve forces, which will be a major element of what we have available. Those will be in excess of 25,000. Will he work into his remarks the availability of reserve forces?
I thank my hon. Friend—for he is—for his intervention. I am not quite sure that he and I will agree on the figures game. Perhaps it is one of those cases where we agree to differ. If the reserve forces were trained to the high level of capability that I hope they would be, they would be extra forces, but the point I am making about the 72,500 is that we have a level of soldiers who are not trained to the capability that they should be. That is the point that I am trying to make. It is clear to me that there are issues that need to be addressed.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we cannot simply add the reserve numbers in, because in many cases they are not formed units, they are not training with regulars, and in some cases, even among them, there are individuals who are not fit for deployment?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which—I say this very nicely—probably encapsulates the issue better. That is further exacerbated by large numbers of personnel being unavailable to deploy because they are in training roles or full-time reserve service roles. Not all those personnel are available; that is the point that I am trying to make.
If we apply the reality of those factors to the Army numbers, taking account of traditional undermanning of 7%—in layman’s terms, failing to recruit to 100% of strength—we are already, to use a snooker pun, behind the eight ball. Take out the staff supporting phase 1 and phase 2 training and any other training organisations that are on the staff assessment; take out the 15% unavailable to deploy, and the British Army regular manpower available to support a brigade-level deployment of just three years—a deployment in intensive operations for six months and every six months—is actually only about 55,000, because they are not trained to the capability that they need to be for so big a response.
I said at the start that I would make these comments in a constructive fashion, because I want the Minister to respond to the queries that we have. Those figures are worrying, and no person here can say that they are not worried by that analysis and those figures.
Given a deployed brigade current manning of about 12,000 people, it does not bode well for us being able to maintain sustained operations for any amount of time. Bear in mind the fact that the Iraq conflict ran for eight years and the Afghanistan one for 12 years, and that between 2003 and 2011 there were simultaneous operations at brigade-plus strength. We have to look at what we had in the past and what we have for the future.
Why focus on numbers? There is an old Stalinist military maxim, “Quantity has a quality of its own.” We should never disregard that thinking. It has been pointed out to me that the residents of eastern Ukraine, watching the build-up of Russian military power on their border, including their motorised nuclear motors, would draw little comfort from the language, and perhaps fanciful notions, expressed in our new integrated operating concept, such as “drive the strategic tempo”, “maximising advantage”, “creating multiple dilemmas”. We are certainly achieving this last one. Here is our multiple dilemma in this United Kingdom: we are likely to know and understand more than we have ever done in terms of intelligence and cyber, and be less able to do anything about it than ever before. That is the point I am making. If we do not have the soldiers, if we do not have feet in boots, on the boats and in the air, we have a serious problem.
In conclusion, I believe we need to spend the money and have a fully able and equipped force, fully trained. I look to our Minister and our Government today to confirm that that is where we are heading, because if we are not, we are in trouble. If we are, I hope the Minister will reassure us.
Mr Deputy Speaker, it is good to have you join us in the Chair this afternoon.
It has been a good debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing it. He opened it and intervened several times, with the customary authority and knowledge that we have all become used to. It is good to see the Minister for the Armed Forces in his place. He is a good Minister, a conscientious Minister, but those of us in the Chamber who have been taking part in these defence spending debates for the past few years—indeed, I think you might have, Mr Deputy Speaker, before you went back into the Chair—will note that this is another such debate in which we have failed to get a Treasury Minister to come to the Dispatch Box. I am hopeful that when we inevitably have the next one, we will be able to use our collective imagination to force that to happen.
Like other hon. Members, I too, on behalf of the Scottish National party, want to put on the record our thanks to the men and women of the armed forces, particularly for the past year, as has been mentioned several times. I particularly want to thank them for the job that they have done in Glasgow, with the setting up of the NHS Louisa Jordan, but also the job that they have done in many other areas of the pandemic and beyond. As has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), who is no longer with us, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), the pandemic has shown us that the debate on security and the role of the armed forces is way wider than perhaps we would have thought pre-covid. That is something that requires debate, discussion and, yes, public consent and buy-in.
It is also important—I am sure that the Minister will do this in his remarks—to refer to yesterday’s events in the Black sea. The Scottish National party stands four-square behind international law. International law, challenging and challenged though it is, is important to defend, is important to protect. In that, the crew members of HMS Defender have our support. We recognise that that is not easy, and I back the assessment of others: we understand that the Royal Navy was there not to pick a fight, but to make a point. Those are international waters and, indeed, there are no Russian waters there; they are Ukrainian sovereign waters—to reinforce that point, you will have noticed the Ukrainian national colours on my tie, Mr Deputy Speaker.
That, however, is where our consensus may start to come to an end, I am afraid. This is a debate on spending, and spending has never been the Ministry of Defence’s strongest suit, no matter how much money it may throw at the problem. Indeed, when the announcements were made when the defence Command Paper and the integrated review were published earlier this year, we welcomed many things, but let us not forget—we could be forgiven for forgetting, could we not—that that was about capital spending. Day-to-day spending has not changed, and the pay and the terms and conditions of the members of the armed forces—whom we have all praised this afternoon—have not changed. But I will come back to that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) spoke with authority and knowledge on many issues of procurement, which he knows all about, having worked in that field for many years. He correctly set out the disparity in spending not just between Scotland and the south-west of England, but in other parts of the UK as well. It is not parochial, as the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) seemed to suggest, to point that out. Those are just facts that I would have thought any Unionist Member of Parliament would wish to see changed.
We also have to come to the black hole that exists in the Ministry of Defence procurement plan, which the right hon. Member for North Durham mentioned several times when he opened the debate. The multi-year defence agreements, long called for by those on the SNP Benches and others, are welcome, but there is still some way to go. All we have to look at is the National Audit Office report, which came out only this morning, and all those big projects where waste is the fashion of the day—we might almost think that money is going out of fashion in the Ministry of Defence.
The amazing thing, in all the many years of waste under Conservative or Labour Governments, is that nobody has ever lost their job over any of this stuff. Is it not fantastically amazing that hundreds of millions of pounds—into the billions—of public money can be wasted over all those years, and nobody gets so much as a demotion? What is that all about? That is where we need to see greater transparency and accountability on how the money is spent or, rather, how the money is misspent.
What do we get in return? Housing that I would not put a dangerous dog into, housing where hundreds and hundreds of complaints are about the basic things that we all take for granted—the heating does not work, the water does not run, or the hot water does not work. Those are basic repairs that, if we really valued members of the armed forces, would not go unanswered but would be fixed and invested in with a sense of urgency. Is it any wonder that the satisfaction or, rather, the dissatisfaction levels are where they are? Is it any wonder that the retention issues are what they are?
I value the work that those in the armed forces do—I believe we all value it—but the political choices being made are the wrong ones. We need to invest heavily in accommodation services, in getting the armed forces personnel good equipment and in ensuring that they are not having to go to Amazon to supplement the equipment that they have got for themselves. You understand this, Mr Deputy Speaker—I do not think that that is all that much to ask.
We then come to an issue that has been mentioned several times: fleet solid support ships. There is nothing new for me to say on this, other than to support Opposition and Government Members when they say that those ships should be made here. Let us not fall for the canard advanced by the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland)—sadly, no longer with us in the Chamber—when he said that, somehow, the European Union was the bogeyman holding us back. That is, of course, false. It was interesting that, following the many interventions from the right hon. Member for North Durham and the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), who is just scurrying back into the Chamber now, he was unable to rebut that when it was put to him.
I have to come to the issue of the cut in the size of the Army—a cut of 10,000. I will sound like a broken record here, but I make no apologies for revisiting the promises made to voters in Scotland about the size of the armed forces during the 2014 independence referendum campaign. A commitment was given to voters by this Government that 12,500 regulars would be stationed in Scotland. Even if we overlook the fact that they have never come close to that target, the Government have still not been able to tell us, given that they are now going to cut the size of the Army by 10,000, what the new footprint will eventually look like and when they will get to that point. That is before we come to the other issue of the frigate factory that was promised. Quite often, we hear Members say, “Oh, we’re building more ships and there is the frigate factory.” I rather suspect that they know that they are being slightly casual with the facts. The frigate factory that was promised was never built.
In the context of all of this—I thought the Chairman of the Defence Committee opened on this rather well—we need to think about where the threats of the future lie. My party does not believe in the need to raise the nuclear stockpile. We do not believe in that project at all, but where we can get some consensus is on the threats of the future. However, the debate is lacking here. I have mentioned this to the Chair of the Defence Committee and to the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and discussed it previously. As we move into artificial intelligence, crypto currencies and all this new autonomous weaponry that we will be able to deploy, where are the rules surrounding this? This goes to the heart of ensuring that, when we engage our forces or our equipment in whatever form, we do so properly and with maximum transparency, in as much as one would be able to expect. What is important is that we answer the question: who gets to write these rules? As these challenges are presented to countries such as the UK, G7 or NATO countries, they also become opportunities for those who would rather write the rules on their terms, which might not be favourable to open and liberal societies. That is where this House needs to whip itself into shape and have this discussion. I accept that all these new challenges, and perhaps new opportunities, will not go away—indeed, they will increase —so we need to have a discussion about transparency and the rules around them.
I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire was absolutely right when he made the point that national security is not just about the hard equipment we have or the defence budget—the pandemic has shown us exactly that. But what is crucial is that the public understand this so that, when the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee achieves the 7% of GDP target on defence spending, which he often wants—[Interruption.] Oh, 3%. He has downgraded it somewhat. If we are to achieve that, and I am not saying that I necessarily agree with him there, that needs to have not just public understanding, but public buy-in.
When I took on this role as defence spokesman for my party four years ago, a Labour colleague—I will not say who it was—said to me, “The thing you must understand is that defence will never win you any votes, but it can lose you votes if you are seen to not get it right.” We all have differing views on what getting it right means, but I have found that, when we engage the public on it, they are quite keen to have that conversation. As new threats and new challenges present themselves in different ways, if we do not have the public onside, there will be an amazing opportunity for a hostile disinformation campaign, as we saw just yesterday in the Black sea. Imagine if it happened to be about a Russian warship off the north coast of Scotland, for example, or any of the other challenges to sea and air that we often see from the Russian Federation. There is a challenge for us all to better explain the threat picture and why we do what we do—why we believe what we believe. Fundamental to all that—how we meet that threat—is the money that we spend.
We have had a good debate and I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Durham on securing it, but let us not lull ourselves into a false sense of security. There is still some way to go in keeping the public on board and in ensuring that we have good, robust rules and treaties for the new technologies and threats that we will face. I am up for that debate and I know that the Minister is, too. Let us make sure that it happens robustly.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time for this important debate during Armed Forces Week, when we celebrate the service of the brave men and women, and all those who support them, who make our forces the very best in the world.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for leading the debate. His wealth of knowledge in this area is incredible, matched only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar). I think everyone will agree that the House is well served by the members of the Defence Committee. We also heard strong contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) and for Easington (Grahame Morris), who spoke about the importance of the defence industry to their constituencies.
There can be no doubt that, for the Ministry of Defence, the £16.5 billion extra in defence spending that the Prime Minister announced in November would have been welcome news, especially when it was staring into the abyss of a £17.5 billion black hole in its budget. That money should be an opportunity to balance the defence budget and effect the type of change that the Ministry of Defence so badly needs in its culture. Instead, the Prime Minister announced grandiose plans in the integrated review, which included new capabilities in space and cyber, international partnerships and more collaboration between the MOD and the defence industry. Unfortunately, as always seems to be the case with the Prime Minister, he was short on the detail of how it will all be paid for. However well it plays with the headline writers, jingoism does not account for a clear and concise strategy.
The defence and security industrial strategy lacks a clear rationale about how it will be delivered without proper oversight and project management. Even the most ambitious plans will be derailed by other spending decisions. One of the aims of the DSIS is a mutually supportive, collaborative approach between the MOD and the private sector. That is a cultural shift from the adversarial approach that has characterised defence procurement in the past. It cannot happen overnight. Skilled project management and clear strategies are required to enable that transformation to take place. It is not enough for the Government to state their desired intentions. They must tell us how the plan will work and what needs to be done now to ensure that people with the correct skills are in place and that measurable progress can be made.
Corporate confidence will take time to build. Industry will not be willing to offer increasing transparency without being certain that the MOD has a coherent and deliverable plan. The aspirations of the DSIS and the integrated review are long term, but the MOD has problems right now. As I have said, the MOD’s defence equipment plan faces a funding black hole of up to £17.5 billion. The Public Accounts Committee has warned that the MOD faces additional cost pressures, estimated at more than £20 billion, to develop future defence capabilities, which are not yet included in the plan. Damningly, for the fourth year in a row, the National Audit Office deemed the defence equipment plan “unaffordable”. The Secretary of State claimed that he had personally improved affordability, but the NAO said that that assertion was based on the MOD revising its approach to assessing affordability
“rather than the result of actions to address the 10-year funding shortfall.”
Even this morning, the NAO published a report that highlights that the MOD is incapable of managing contracts to time, with delays for key defence projects of up to 254 months, and eight out of 19 major projects rated as at serious risk of failed delivery. Simply put, for the party of business, that would not be good enough in the private sector.
We cannot simply cross our fingers and hope for financial stability. These things take time and work from proper financial professionals. Yet the NAO report on the defence equipment plan says that only 41% of MOD finance staff hold a professional financial qualification. That work needs to start immediately. Ahead of the debate, I had a look at a live job advert for a commercial officer in the MOD. Strangely, even though the MOD has been told by the National Audit Office that it needs to improve the number of people with a professional financial qualification, there is still no requirement for the candidate to currently hold any financial qualifications.
On the ground, there are real concerns about delivering capability. I am sure that all Members of this House will have heard and worried about the problems with Ajax recently, which cannot be ignored. It is a long-standing issue. The Ajax vehicle has been repeatedly delayed and beset by problems. Nearly four years after the vehicle was first expected, only 14 have been delivered, at a cost of nearly £3.5 billion. Worryingly, personnel have needed medical attention after being inside them. As we heard yesterday in the Defence Committee, they cannot fire accurately on the move.
The delay on the vehicles’ delivery has left our armed forces inadequately equipped and unable to properly plan for the future. That is worsened by the cancellation of the Warrior project earlier in the year, which resulted in a larger reliance on the Ajax delivery to ensure that the Army was equipped with some modern vehicles. Our armed forces had to adapt in the light of the Warrior cancellation, and now they have been left without any new vehicles that work safely or are reliable. As it stands, the current armoured vehicle capability of the UK is perfectly summed up by the title of the Defence Committee report: “Obsolescent and outgunned”.
The cancellation of Warrior not only resulted in £430 million being spent on a vehicle that will never come to service, but has wider economic effects. We talk all the time about such figures as £430 million. They are not inconsequential sums; they will have an effect on the local economy. For example, in April this year, Lockheed Martin announced that because of that cancellation 158 jobs would be lost at the Ampthill site. The suppliers to the programme will also be hit, and the effects would have been felt in the local economy.
How can defence companies, their suppliers and small and medium-sized enterprises invest in research or apprenticeships when such uncertainty looms over them? If the MOD and the Government are going to change their mind suddenly on key equipment areas, that leaves our defence industry and our armed forces extremely vulnerable. I am not going to stand here and denigrate the DSIS. Many of the ideas are very good for an encouragement of British industry, for collaboration and for investment in research. However, judging by the MOD’s track record in the past 10 years, one cannot help thinking that those ideas are built on sand.
Some of the major components of the integrated review will take over a decade to realise, so we will require consistent and competent project management oversight. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of that now. Major capabilities are all overrunning on time and cost. Without a significant overhaul, there is no evidence that that will change. For this to work, thousands of civil servants and large numbers in industry will have to be retrained to adjust effectively to new career paths. If the integrated review is to succeed, the Government will need to demonstrate through actions, not just words, that they are able to co-ordinate inter-Department projects, support key programmes and encourage collaboration and transparency between the MOD and industry.
The easiest thing in the world for the Minister would be to dismiss all the points that have been raised today, but it is crucial that the Government get the implementation right. There is no time to wait for the plans to mystically fall in place; the work needs to start now. I say to the Minister that it is not a case of political point scoring; it is instead about the most important people in this, the men and women of our armed forces—the very people we gathered together this week to pay tribute to. Without the equipment they need and the ability to plan for what future warfare will look like, they will be unable to do what they do best: protect our great nation. We must not let them down. We must get this right; it is what we owe them for all they do for us. I welcome the more nuanced and collaborative and less adversarial approach to future contracting set out in the DSIS, but these documents include big promises and grand words and there is no detail on how they will be delivered. Publishing a plan is not the end of the story; without immediate and concrete action from the Government to lay out how progress will be made and measured, the intentions will simply remain on paper. We expect so much from our forces personnel; in return they should be able to expect only the best from us.
What a treat it has been for the MOD to have had the opportunity to debate defence matters so many times in Armed Forces Week. Of course urgent questions are not necessarily of our choosing, but it is important that those who serve our nation have seen the matters that concern them, their careers and their families debated so keenly in this week of all weeks. I thank also the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) who I believe was assisted by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) in securing today’s debate, and I thank them, too, for their contributions. Listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech and his many interventions thereafter, it was almost as if my Minister’s box had become an audio book as the parliamentary questions were all read out loud. The only problem is that all his PQs will be waiting for me in my actual box when I get back to it later today. I make light of this, but as other Front-Bench spokespeople have rightly said, the forensic way in which he holds us and our Department to account makes us better, and we are grateful. [Interruption.] Well, we are being nice to each other.
My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East gave us a tour de force on the importance of maintaining our nuclear deterrent. I started today at 3 am in the former bunker in Corsham, where constituents of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and many other of his countrymen were fighting their way through the mine system as part of their final exercise. The importance of that deterrent was made vividly clear to me, as was the tremendous warrior spirit of the Ulster fighter. My right hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot say which if any of the first three hypotheses he offered are the right ones for changing our stockpile, but I can absolutely confirm, as he suspected, that the fourth of his hypotheses is not the case.
The Chairman of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), eloquently paid tribute to our armed forces in his speech. Of course, it will come as no surprise to anybody in the House that Defence Ministers will always take more money for defence, but we cannot ignore the fact that the settlement that the MOD received from the Prime Minister—a multi-year settlement, which we have been asking for for many years and have now got—is a big deal. It puts the MOD finances into a place that they have not been for a long time, and while of course tough decisions remain, the reality is that for the first time the budget looks like it can be balanced and choices can be made based on military need, not because of accounting issues.
I commend to my right hon. Friend the experience of the 3rd Division, who have recently returned from the United States where they have been participating in Exercise Warfighter. The feedback from that exercise is a powerful demonstration of how the land battle is changing and has validated many of the decisions in the integrated review around trading mass in the close fight for more capability with precision deep fires.
My hon. Friends the Members for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) and for West Dorset (Chris Loder) extolled the quality of helicopters made in Somerset. They will get no argument from the MP for Wells. My hon. Friends the Members for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) made fine speeches on the benefit of the generous defence settlement and extolled the virtues of the new technologies that area emerging and the requirement to employ them in our armed forces. Like so many hon. Members across the House, they also rightly championed the UK defence industry.
I expect the right hon. Gentleman knows that he puts me in a tricky situation as an MP from Somerset and a Minister in the MOD. You will not be surprised to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that such decisions are ultimately not for me. However, we can all be clear that the options for a helicopter made in the UK are keenly in the minds of Ministers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) spoke up strongly for the Royal Air Force and the amazing transformation we have had in our combat air forces. The hon. Member for Strangford asked a number of questions seeking reassurance about the shape and size of the Army and, therefore, its resilience going forward.
At the Army board yesterday, many innovative ideas were brought forward by the Chief of the General Staff for how we can get combat personnel from the back office and into the frontline. He asked me specifically to confirm that 72,500 is for trade-trained strength, and that is indeed the case. He is absolutely right that we must get after chronic undermanning and lack of deployability. That challenge has been set to the Army. This is a moment to get those things right.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am not sure whether you were in the Chamber for the joy of the speech of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I am afraid that it was remarkable only in that it stood out from the sensible and balanced contributions from everybody else who participated in the debate. Rather unsurprisingly, he was unwilling to support freedom of navigation in the south China sea or freedom of navigation in the Black sea; indeed, he was critical of the UK and our allies for seeking that. Of course, he was entirely mute on the Russian build-up of troops, combat aircraft and warships in the Black sea earlier this year. Unfortunately, his contribution was typically tone deaf in what was otherwise an excellent debate.
A number of issues have been raised, but first I want to say that the first duty of any Government is the defence of the realm and I know that Governments of all colours ensure that that is their priority. We may disagree on how it is done, but I do not doubt the motives of those who served in the Ministry of Defence before us, and those who will serve after us will always be keen to ensure that our brave armed forces have the resources that they need to do increasingly demanding jobs. However, with the constraints on resources growing, not least due to the pandemic, it is imperative that we deliver more punch for our pound and, indeed, that we become more relevant in an ever-changing battlespace. Even casual observers of defence will know that previous Governments of all colours have not necessarily always got that right. Our integrated review and the Command Paper that followed represent a radically different way of dealing with the defence budget and I welcome the opportunity to explain our thinking in more detail.
The approach is threefold. First, in the short term, it is about upping our spending. The threats to our nation are growing and they come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a resurgent and increasingly more malign Russia to a rising China, and from global terror to the acceleration of a whole range of threats through climate change. Our adversaries are operating below the threshold of conflict and taking advantage of exponential advances in new technologies. We must invest to stay ahead of the curve. Recognition of the dangers that our nation faces prompted the Prime Minister last November to announce the biggest investment in the UK’s armed forces since the end of the cold war. In the next four years, we will inject more than £24 billion into defence. In total, we will spend in excess of £190 billion on equipment and equipment support in the next decade, including at least £6.6 billion on research and development.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East thinks that the ratio between defence spending and health spending is out of kilter—especially now that we are in the company of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. However, I know he will agree with me that the contribution the Prime Minister has made to the defence budget is none the less hugely significant and to be welcomed.
If the right hon. Gentleman will indulge me, I will make some progress, not least because he has intervened quite a few times in the debate already, but I will come back to him, I promise.
As I was saying, our defence spending will enable us to continue to meet our international obligations and remain a leader in NATO. Notably, we are one of 10 nations not just meeting but exceeding the alliance’s 2% target, reaffirmed at the recent Brussels summit. Separately, the International Institute for Strategic Studies places the UK fourth in the table of strongest military capabilities and defence economies, behind the USA, China, and India, but ahead of France, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Thanks to our boosted budget, we have been able to plug a potential black hole of some £7 billion on projected equipment spend. Some Members have already pointed out that last year’s National Audit Office report suggested the deficit could be deeper still, but that reflected the situation as it was then, not as it is now, following a multi-year settlement, new investment and the defence Command Paper. Together, those have allowed us to redress the imbalance of previous spending reviews.
That brings me to my second point. We have achieved this outcome only by taking tough choices, by refocusing defence on the threats, by honestly assessing what we can and will do, and by retiring legacy capabilities—our ageing tanks, oldest frigates and dated early-warning aircraft—to make way for new systems and approaches. I say in all honesty to colleagues across the House, as somebody who has knowingly served on operations on an outdated platform, that you take no solace from how many of them are in the MOD inventory if you know that they are out of date, you are not properly protected and they lack the lethality for the modern battle space. Coincidentally, there often appear to be the same voices criticising us for retiring legacy platforms as saying we are not doing enough to balance the books or eliminate the so-called “black hole”. You can’t have it both ways. President Eisenhower, no stranger to the military, put it well when he said there is
“one sure way to overspend. That is by overindulging sentimental attachments to outmoded military machines and concepts.”
So, yes, we have taken hard decisions, but they will enable our armed forces to make that rapid transition from mass mobilisation to information-age speed, readiness and relevance.
Those decisions will give us a force fit for the future, equipped with an advanced arsenal of capabilities across sea, land, air, space, and cyber. On the ground, our Army will be leaner but it will be more integrated, active and lethal. It will have revamped attack helicopters, brand new Boxer armoured fighting vehicles, state-of-the-art air defence, long-range precision artillery and new electronic warfare capabilities. At sea, our Royal Navy’s fleet is growing for the first time in years. It will have world-class general purpose frigates—to add to the Type 26 world-beating anti-submarine frigate—air defence destroyers, hunter-killer submarines and a new multi-role ocean surveillance capacity to safeguard our underwater cables in the north Atlantic. In the air, our RAF will benefit from updated Typhoons, brand new F-35 Lightning stealth fighters, new unmanned systems capable of striking remotely and a massive investment in next generation fighter jets and swarming drones. Meanwhile, our growing National Cyber Force will blend the cyber skills of the MOD and GCHQ to counter terror plots, disrupt hostile states or criminals, and support military operations, and our new Space Command will be able to defend our interests beyond our atmosphere.
Of course, we can have the best kit in the world but it counts for little unless we have the best people. Our military and civilian personnel have always been our finest asset and they must be looked after accordingly. That is why we are putting aside resource to help them, whether by investing around £1.5 billion in improving single living accommodation or by spending £1.4 billion over the next decade to provide wraparound childcare.
As we heard at length when I was answering the urgent question yesterday, and as my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary said in the Select Committee meeting thereafter, when we made the case to my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary for jabs for missions that we felt could not be administered in line with age priorities, we were given them without question and we are grateful for that support. However, the judgment was made that we should not be prioritising fit, healthy young men and women in the armed forces at the expense of more elderly and vulnerable people and communities across the country. As I said many times yesterday, and as the Secretary of State said, we in the ministerial team stand behind that decision.
The challenge that the Minister is setting is that he will get things right for the people, as opposed to focusing just on the platforms. That is good. There is currently a £1.5 billion backlog of repairs in armed forces accommodation. Will he commit to a quarterly update on where that figure stands, to give a level of transparency that we do not currently have and to ensure that he delivers on the promises he is making at the Dispatch Box?
There is a term popular among those of us who have served in the military: volunteering a mucker for the guardroom. The Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) will, I am certain, have heard that request and he will no doubt write to the hon. Gentleman in due course to agree with him a mechanism for ensuring that progress is reported to him.
It is not enough to spend money wisely now; we must manage our money for the long term. In the past, over-ambitious and underfunded reviews led to successive years of short-term settlements, followed by short-term savings measures, funding pressures deferred and poor value for money for the taxpayer. However, by agreeing to a long-term multi-year settlement, we are redressing the balance. We are carving out space to deliver capability and drive commercial outcomes, commit investment in cash, fund transmissional activities and set a clear headmark for policy. We can at last tackle the root causes of some of the endemic and systemic problems faced by Defence, such as unwieldy procurement, and we can start to develop a sustainable plan for equipment.
Spending on defence is no different from any other large organisation. We must learn to live within our means. That is why the Department has taken the hard decisions to balance our spending plans, rationalise the estate and reduce operating costs as we modernise our equipment. That is also why we have been busy strengthening our financial capabilities. We are currently three years into a five-year programme to enhance the skills of our finance staff, improve cost forecasting and adopt a more realistic approach to risk. But our plan is not just about what we do internally. It is also about augmenting our relationship with industry.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the training and education programme within our workforce is so important. I do not think anybody in the House would argue that, in the past, MOD contractual negotiations have not gone swimmingly.
Our defence and security industrial strategy, published in March, is the first critical step in achieving all of this. It gives our sector partners more transparency and more clarity on our requirements, and provides for a more co-operative approach. Meanwhile, we will be bringing out a refreshed shipbuilding strategy to supercharge the sector. We are making sure that shipbuilding investment will double over the life of this Parliament to more than £1.7 billion a year. Our spending reforms are signalling that we are ready to create the jobs and skills that will help to level up our country, and ready to build on the talents of different areas—frigates in Scotland, satellites in Belfast, armoured vehicles in Wales and aircraft production in the north of England—to strengthen our Union.
In a competitive age, it is vital that we get our defence spending right. Failure to do this in years gone by has often cost our country dear, but we have upped our spending, transformed our approach and put in place a plan for the long term. We have aligned our resources and our ambition, and by giving our great men and women the tools they need to succeed, we are helping them to focus on what they do best: safeguarding our shores and advancing our interests throughout the world.
This week as we celebrate Armed Forces Week and look forward to Armed Forces Day, the Royal Navy has three capital ships at sea: HMS Prince of Wales in the Atlantic; HMS Albion returning from the Baltic; and HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean. The Royal Navy is forward present in the south Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, and our submariners are maintaining the continuous at-sea deterrent beneath our oceans. The Army is part of NATO in Estonia and Ukraine, fighting violent extremism in Mali, Somalia, Nigeria and Ghana, and doing the same against Daesh in Iraq and against the Taliban, as well as keeping the Falklands secure. Our Air Force has our quick reaction alert pilots at high readiness to protect UK airspace, while Typhoon pilots in Cyprus participate in Operation Shader. As well as that, we have more Typhoon pilots in Romania on Op Biloxi and, of course, those on board the carrier with F-35.
I do not wish to inject a depressing note into proceedings, but the Minister mentioned the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are many of us who are very concerned about the announcement of a specific end date without a clear military support plan for the Government for which our troops have sacrificed so much. It does not sit well with the objectives that we set ourselves all those years ago in intervening in Afghanistan. I wonder whether he can say anything about that.
That could be the subject of an entire Backbench Business debate and I know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you are keen to move the business on. I will say two things in response to my right hon. Friend’s point. First, he gives me an opportunity to mark the enormous sacrifice of all British service personnel who have served in Afghanistan since 2003. They have done amazing things in an extraordinarily challenging country, and I know from my own experience soldiering there just how grim the grimmest days of that campaign were. He also rightly makes the point that Afghanistan has reached a crossroads. I stand by the argument that I made during the statement on our withdrawal from Afghanistan three or four weeks ago. I believe that it has forced a moment of political decision making in Afghanistan that would not otherwise have come, and I think it is right that the international community has done that, but we all, of course, share his concerns about what the future of the country might hold.
Yesterday, I had a number of opportunities to meet reservists who have been serving in the civil service throughout the last year. People have been involved in certifying vaccines and as part of distributing it around our country. To think that people have been doing that as their day job and then still finding time to serve in our armed forces at the weekend is the most amazing demonstration of just what wonderful people our reservists are. This morning, in the dead of night, in the land beneath Corsham in Wiltshire, I saw— in this case, men of Ulster, but they were representative of all our armed forces who are hugely professional—do the most incredible and amazing things in pitch black.
Being the Minister for the Armed Forces, is, in my view, the best job in Government. It is an honour to associate myself with these extraordinary people, especially as a veteran. I wish them all a happy Armed Forces Day and thank them for their service.
We have had 16 contributions from Back-Bench Members and I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) that it has been a good debate. The debated was entitled “UK Defence Spending”, but we have had a wide-ranging debate. I was going to say that it was well informed but, on occasions, it was possibly not that well informed—with the contribution from the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland)—but we have also heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), who made the case for why defence is important, giving the historical context of that and the part that my party has played in it. We heard the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) making the case for and against the nuclear deterrent, like two former cold war warriors. Both argued passionately and the House is better informed for them both making the points that they did.
One of the main themes that has come out of today’s debate is that all of us who are interested and passionate about defence just need to keep making the case for defence and why it is important. We also heard from many Members the important role of defence in their constituencies and the role that our armed forces personnel have played in the covid pandemic. There was very brave support from the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) for the Prime Minister’s new gin palace. We will wait to see where that ends up. My hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) and the hon. Members for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), for West Dorset (Chris Loder) and for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) spoke about the importance of UK defence to local economies. It is important that we get this right for the sake of prosperity and spend the money in this country. Instead of the current policy of “buy American first”, we should adopt one of “buy British first”.
Finally, points about the contribution of our people were made eloquently by the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), and argued articulately by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Defence is about the big issues that we have discussed today, but at the end of the day it is down to the people who serve selflessly on our behalf to ensure that we sleep safe in our beds at night.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK defence spending.