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Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review

Volume 802: debated on Monday 23 March 2020


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review will inform the 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord West of Spithead and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the integrated review will define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy. The comprehensive spending review will be informed by the integrated review.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. My noble friend wanted to ask about two strands of work and whether they are being undertaken. First, although this is in breach of international law, the Minister will be aware that a number of countries are developing, stockpiling and weaponising even more dangerous pathogens. Is work being undertaken in the review to increase national resilience to such an attack? Secondly, is the review identifying an action plan with the United Nations Security Council to rebuild the tapestry of nuclear arms control agreements and confidence-building measures that limit the possibility of nuclear exchange by miscalculation?

My Lords, in response to the first question, Her Majesty’s Government’s biological security strategy draws together our work on building national resilience to natural, accidental and deliberate risks from biological agents. I concur with the noble Lord that there are countries around the world which still engage in the activity he described. I reassure him that we work very closely with international partners to strengthen co-operation against potential biological threats, including through the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention and the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism. To make this very topical to the current crisis, the FCO and Her Majesty’s Government are working very closely with their diplomatic network to monitor the spread of coronavirus throughout the world. We are working with international partners to tackle this global challenge.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, for years, there have been warnings about pandemics? Did he note that, in the 2015 review, there was a declared need to tackle threats that did not recognise borders? On epidemics, it said:

“No single nation can act alone on such transnational threats.”

It also stated:

“We have detailed, robust and comprehensive plans in place and the necessary capacity to deal with infectious diseases, including pandemic influenza”.

Does he agree that, once we are through this crisis, we will need to pay close attention to not only the health but the economic and social implications of our interconnectedness, and that poverty in one part of the world and the practices rooted in it can quickly affect all of us? This must be part of the upcoming review.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that the current crisis and the challenges it imposes have asked us to redefine all relationships. If there is one conclusion we can draw from where we are today—we are still on the cusp of the crisis here in the United Kingdom—it is the sheer interdependency of humanity. This crisis does not know borders, political differences or geographical space. It knows one thing: that it will affect us all in some shape or form, as we are seeing. Once we are over this crisis, it is important that, not just as a nation but collectively through international partners and the relationships we have, we learn lessons and share experiences so that when this kind of pandemic hits again, we are even better prepared.

My Lords, during the 2010 defence review I was working at the Ministry of Defence and it was said throughout that it was not Treasury-driven. I regret to tell noble Lords something they may not know: it was entirely Treasury-driven. At the moment, during the current crisis, I see on the front page of the Times calls for troops to go and help; sailors are going to be delivering food to prisons and the like. Will my noble friend pass on to the Government that with the geopolitical problems and the problems caused by the current crisis, now is not the time to even think of reducing the number of personnel that we need in the armed services?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. I reassure him that this is well understood by the Government. Indeed, we remain committed to the NATO guidance to spend 2% of GDP and, furthermore, this is protected against any inflationary increase that may occur. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, there may be further lessons to be learned from the crisis. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to our Armed Forces who, not just in times of challenge globally but, as we are seeing, domestically, step up to the mark.

My Lords, my understanding is that the security and defence review has been put back six months. Can the Minister tell us what is now the best expectation of the timetable going forward? If there is to be rather longer to prepare, is it the intention to have a more root-and-branch look at the resilience of the whole security apparatus and the extent to which we are able to respond to all sorts of crises, those which are natural as well as those that are initiated by hostile actors?

Again, I find myself very much in agreement with the noble Lord’s last point. We need to ensure that there is a thorough review of all the challenges we face, whether it is from Mother Nature and pandemics or from sinister actors. Let us not forget that it is not that long ago that we were impacted by chemical weapon attacks on the streets of Salisbury. On the integrated review itself, given the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, we are, of course, keeping all non-related government work under review. The Prime Minister has already said that he will lead the review and bearing in mind his leadership on the current crisis, of course we will look to ensure that the learnings from this crisis can be fed into the review itself.

My Lords, with the leave of the House I suggest that we adjourn until 2.48 pm to allow noble Lords to leave the Chamber and other noble Lords to move in for the next Question.

Sitting suspended.