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Defence: Budget

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to ring-fence the defence budget in the same manner as the international aid and National Health Service budgets.

My Lords, the Government have set departmental budgets for the remainder of this Parliament. No departmental budgets are set beyond 2015-16, including for health, international aid or defence. However, the Government are committed to ensuring that we have properly funded Armed Forces, which continue to be the second biggest contributor to NATO, and to growing the defence equipment programme at 1% above inflation each year until 2020-21.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, as far as it goes. However, the defence cuts since 2010 are the largest since Options for Change in 1990, which were taken against a much bigger set of forces. On this very special day—I know that all of us are thinking of those who have given their lives for this country—it is a hard thing to say, but as Plato said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. Are the plethora of experts and, indeed, the Chiefs of Staff correct when they say that the structure of Future Force 2020 planned by this Government cannot be achieved without the injection of extra funding, which was promised by the Prime Minister in 2010?

My Lords, I support the noble Lord’s comments about the importance of today. We must work endlessly to promote peace, which of course is partly the result of the defence budget, but is also something we do via our political, economic and aid budgets. There are many views on the appropriate level of the defence budget. All parties are considering what they believe an appropriate level of defence expenditure should be as they begin to think about the spending review, which will be conducted early in the next Parliament.

My Lords, is it not the case that the size of our defence forces ought to relate to the threat that we face? Is the noble Lord satisfied that the present size of our forces is sufficient for the new threats currently appearing?

My Lords, the threats that we currently face are obviously very different from those that we have faced in the past. We have accepted that we would have a smaller but more flexible defence force, enabling us to deliver one enduring operation or two non-enduring operations. We are still committed to that. We are also spending increasingly more on cyber expenditure, including some £210 million next year on the national cybersecurity programme.

My Lords, following on from the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord West, does the Minister agree that the SDSR in 2010 was means before ends? It was negligent in that we had unpredicted events, one after the other—Libya, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine—and our Armed Forces cannot even fill Wembley Stadium. Will the Minister assure us that we will stick to the 2% spending commitment to NATO and that we will not cut our Armed Forces any more?

My Lords, the Government are committed to that 2% for the remainder of this Parliament and into the next Parliament and to keeping the defence equipment budget growing. Any commitments in the medium term beyond that are commitments that the parties will be making in their manifestos.

My Lords, has the Minister read the analysis in Monday’s Financial Times which shows that, on the basis of what at least the Conservatives are proposing, the implications in the next Parliament for non-protected departments will be a budget cut of one-third? What might be the impact of this analysis on the defence budget? Does he believe that the Prime Minister’s assurances to the defence community carry any credibility whatever?

My Lords, I did read the Financial Times article. It is fair to say that all the parties going into the next election will have different views about how to bear down on the deficit. The Conservatives have one view and the Liberal Democrats have a different view as to where the balance between expenditure cuts and tax rises should fall. I have no idea what the Labour view is.

My Lords, I want to be more specific. The Government’s original plan was to purchase 138 F-35B joint strike fighter aircraft. This was reduced to 48 and it has been further reduced to 19. How will this commitment be affected by budget requirements and how will budget requirements and the needs of the defence of the realm be balanced?

My Lords, at this stage of the Joint Strike Fighter programme, aircraft are being procured via a rolling programme of annual contracts which confirm customer requirements two years ahead of purchase. We will make further announcements on new contractual commitments in due course. The overall number of F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft to be purchased will not be determined before the next strategic defence and security review.

My Lords, as on this day we look with sadness on the past, should we not also be constructive about the future? Does the Minister agree that the strategic defence and security review should be put on a statutory basis, brought before Parliament to ensure that it is robustly scrutinised, and that this process should take place once in each Parliament, as my party is proposing?

My Lords, that is an interesting idea. However, the key thing is the content of the review, rather than the procedure.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the fact this country is still the second largest contributor to NATO. Sadly, that is not a terribly high bar to clear these days. At the recent NATO summit in Wales, the Prime Minister stressed the importance of alliance members contributing at least 2% of their GDP to defence. While no one can commit the next Government, does the Minister not think that, were the current Prime Minister to form the next Government, it would be utterly bizarre if he and his party were not to adhere to this principle which he so strongly espoused so recently?

My Lords, I really cannot comment about what the leader of the Conservative Party might think after the next election.