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Armed Forces: Reduction

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 22 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what military (1) activities, (2) deployments, and (3) training, they plan to end following any reduction in the number of armed forces personnel.

My Lords, the Government continually review the balance between levels of activity, including deployments and training, and Armed Forces personnel resources. It would not be appropriate, obviously, to comment on specific matters that could compromise security.

My Lords, following reports that the Government plan to cut the size of the Army, Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Defence Select Committee, said that this was “sheer madness” and completely wrong. I agree. I must tell the Minister that, if the Government downgrade the Army, they downgrade the vision of global Britain and our role in the world. The Minister is highly regarded in this House. All I ask of her is that she goes back to the MoD and tells her colleagues that the British Army is overstretched now and should not be cut further.

The noble Lord raises significant issues. His question impinges on two aspects: one is the integrated review and the other is the spending review. In relation to the latter, the spending review process continues in respect of the defence budget, and the Ministry of Defence is in discussion with the Treasury on the department’s settlement. In relation to the integrated review, because of the decision to move to a one-year spending review, the Government are considering the implications for the completion of the integrated review and will provide an update to Parliament once that is decided.

My Lords, on 30 September, when launching the Integrated Operating Concept 2025, the CDS described the UK’s future campaign posture as demanding and said—I shall read this in short—that we would see

“armed forces much more in use”


“engaged and forward-deployed”—


“training and exercising being delivered as operations”—

and that it would involve supporting other countries in a pattern of possible combat operations against common threats.

Since then, as well as anonymous government briefings that a cost-cutting Army will slash its manpower by 7,000, we learn from MoD evidence to the Defence Select Committee that by 2025, the Army will not even be able to meet the demands of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, never mind the IOC. Can the Minister explain those apparent contradictions?

The noble Lord is predicating his question on speculation and hypothesis. I can respond to his question only in relation to facts as I am aware of them. The core obligation of the MoD is, of course, to protect the UK and keep our citizens safe. We shall always prioritise how we respond to the threats that the UK faces. For example, the Armed Forces continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.

My Lords, in the event of land occupied by the Sennybridge training centre becoming superfluous to requirements, will the Government bear in mind how the residents of 54 farms on those 30,000 acres of land were, in 1940, given just three months to quit their farms, some of which had been farmed by their families for generations, on the understanding that the land would be returned to them after the war—something that never happened? If the MoD no longer needs that land, will it please pass it back to the farming community and work with the farming unions and Powys County Council to that end?

I apologise to the noble Lord but I am inadequately briefed to respond to his question in any meaningful fashion. I shall look at Hansard, take away what he has asked and see whether I can respond to him.

My Lords, on one hand, we have Russian aggrandisement in Ukraine and elsewhere—and, indeed, concerning developments with China in the South China Sea. On the other, we have the usage of Armed Forces personnel to fight the current Covid crisis. It seems that the Armed Forces are already pretty stretched. Therefore, looking at the facts, as my noble friend the Minister said, can I urge her to follow up on what the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, said and take back to the MoD and Cabinet that now is definitely not the time to cut further our already much-depleted Armed Forces?

I repeat what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, and assure my noble friend that we are always cognisant in the MoD of what we are there to do and what our priorities must be. We shall ensure that we have the resource to address those key priorities, which are, as I said earlier, looking after the security of the United Kingdom and protecting our citizens.

My Lords, in spite of what the noble Baroness has said, should we not be giving our allies an assurance that we will be able to fulfil existing obligations? I have in mind our leadership of the multinational battle group, which is part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence in Estonia.

As the noble Lord is aware, the Government have committed to honour our spend commitment to NATO by spending 2% of GDP on defence. We also had a manifesto commitment to increase the defence budget by at least 0.5% above inflation every year of this Parliament. We are currently involved in the exercise to which the noble Lord referred, which is important. We are aware that the Baltic and north Arctic areas are strategically significant, and we will ensure that we have the key resources to address any emerging threats.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment of up to £70 million to the Afghan national defence and security forces for 2021. Can my noble friend confirm how this amount differs from that in 2020 and 2019? If she does not have the figures, will she write to me? As violence escalates and there seems to be little progress on the peace talks, and as victims of the Taliban are still not being heard in the peace and reconciliation process, can my noble friend detail plans for our long-term, ongoing commitment to Afghanistan?

I will look at the specific issue to which my noble friend referred and come back to her with a more detailed answer. On the broader front, we do retain a presence in Afghanistan and are concerned about the current situation, which we monitor on a regular basis. We shall certainly try to ensure, through our colleagues in the FCDO, that the necessary protections are in place.

My Lords, resource allocation also requires understanding of the role of the Armed Forces in a moderately peaceful, democratic society, and the UK’s preference for a non-interventionist approach towards foreign policy. However, should chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear capabilities, in addition to back-office activities such as cyber offence and defence, not now be bolstered and become centre-stage activities, together with mobilising the Army on Covid-related duties here and abroad, freeing up valuable resource as a result?

The noble Viscount identified two critical areas of activity. I agree with the importance that he attaches to them. As he is aware, we are positively responsive to these areas through our nuclear deterrent and our support for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. He will also be aware that the MoD is currently engaged in planning winter preparedness. We regularly review that, taking into account the possibility of our needing to be drawn on to meet MACA requests in respect of Covid. I reassure the noble Viscount that we are satisfied that we have the personnel and resources to respond to that.

The Service Prosecuting Authority is an independent organisation which receives its funding, in the region of £5 million annually, as part of the defence budget. Will the Minister assure the House that the Service Prosecuting Authority will remain fully manned and funded, in order to preserve its essential role in the pursuit of justice in the military?

The noble Lord is correct. The Service Prosecuting Authority is essential, as part of the framework under which our Armed Forces operate. I could not envisage a situation where that would not continue to be an essential and necessary structure of our attention to law and order in respect of activity by members of the Armed Forces.

My Lords, over recent years there has been a reduction in the number of activities that keep the military in the public eye. Will the Minister please tell the House whether anything is being done to address this reduction?

The noble Lord will understand that the pandemic has inevitably imposed restrictions on what it is possible to do. That is a matter of regret, but it is a necessity and we have to accept it. Annual events, such as Armed Forces Day, for which I have recently been involved in looking at planning and detailed arrangements, are one way of bringing to public awareness the important role that our Armed Forces perform and the debt that we all owe to them for the jobs that they do.

Sitting suspended.