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Armed Forces: Expenditure

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, following the speech made by the Prime Minister in Plymouth on 12 January, they propose significant increases in defence spending.

My Lords, departmental expenditure limits for 2008-09 to 2010-11 will be set in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that holding reply. I hope that he will agree that the Prime Minister’s speech in Plymouth should be recommended reading for all Members of this House. The Prime Minister buys into the neo-conservative view of world politics; he talks about a long war against a single enemy—all the mistakes that the Americans make on global terrorism. However, he stated very clearly:

“For our part, in Government, it will mean increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces; not in the short run, but for the long term”.

Is that not a clear Prime Ministerial pledge for a significant and sustained increase in defence expenditure?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that every Member of the House would benefit from reading the Prime Minister’s speech, but the interpretation that they would give it would be rather different from that which the noble Lord has indicated. We are in the process of establishing defence expenditure for the next three years, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Our projections beyond that will be made at a later stage, but there will be a number of contributions to that debate. The Prime Minister’s contribution will, of course, be regarded very seriously and very importantly indeed.

My Lords, while I would not for a moment dream of dissenting from the views that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister expressed in Plymouth—and there is the need of which he spoke—would it not help also if Members of your Lordships’ House emphasised the imperative not only of getting more expenditure in the United Kingdom, but of persuading our NATO and EU allies to increase the percentage of the gross national product that they commit to mutual defence issues? At the moment, we are bearing a wholly unfair burden by comparison with many of those allies, not least in the present actions in Afghanistan.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. For Britain to play its part in the modern world with regard to defence issues, it will need to work in alliance with other countries. We look towards our partners in NATO to play their full part and, as my noble friend has indicated, we hope that their contributions both in Afghanistan and elsewhere will match those that we are presenting.

My Lords, when the Government are considering the necessary future expenditure on defence to which the Minister referred, to what extent are they considering the cost of the 7,000 or 8,000 British troops—I have found it not to be possible to find the exact figure—to be allocated to what in this country is called the rapid reaction force and in Europe is called the European defence force?

My Lords, the cost of that contribution to the force is included in the provisions for defence in this country. That force represents a successful area of international co-operation and Britain is pleased and proud to play its part within that framework.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that yesterday was the 300th anniversary of the signing of the Act of Union between Scotland and England? Is that not a cause for celebration? In case he is wondering about the relevance of that question, would he ask the Ministry of Defence to undertake a study of the effect on bases like RAF Lossiemouth and Rosyth, the Clyde naval base and many others in Scotland, in human and economic terms, if we were ever to implement the Scottish National Party’s policy of breaking up Britain?

My Lords, I had not the slightest doubt that my noble friend would ask a highly relevant question on this particular day. Let me emphasise that if there were any thought of breaking up the United Kingdom, the costs that he identified would be an important part of the balance.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in considering future defence expenditure, the Government should concentrate expenditure on the troops themselves, be that by way of accommodation or essential equipment, rather than on expensive weapons systems, which combine massive cost over-runs with dubious operational value?

My Lords, there is no question of the British Government ever doing anything other than putting troops first with their defence expenditure.

My Lords, does the Prime Minister not have a nerve to come to the end of 10 years in power, having committed our troops to wars in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq—during which time there has been barely any increase in the defence budget—in trying to commit his successor to significant increases in defence spending, when during his time we have seen troops ill equipped? Their barracks are a disgrace and the married quarters worse. All our Armed Forces are overstretched.

My Lords, the truth is that defence expenditure has been increasing at 1.2 per cent each year. This is contrary to the nerve of the noble Lord, who was part of an Administration who reduced defence expenditure.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why this Government have reduced the percentage of GDP spent on defence?

My Lords, would my noble friend, when considering defence spending, pay no attention to the major party opposite, which cut defence spending by 30 per cent in its period of government?

My Lords, my noble friend is right, but I pay attention to what the party opposite says; it helps to identify why people should vote Labour.