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Armed Forces: Investment

Volume 788: debated on Monday 22 January 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the levels of investment in the British Armed Forces, in the light of recent reports of potential cuts in defence spending.

My Lords, defence spending is rising, not falling. This year the budget is £36 billion, and it will increase by at least 0.5% above inflation every year of this Parliament to almost £40 billion by 2020-21. The UK is proud to be the second-largest defence spender in NATO and the fifth-largest in the world. Recent press speculation about changes to the UK’s force structure, and cuts to the budget, has been misleading and unhelpful.

My Lords, is it not unprecedented for the head of one of the armed services to intervene in a debate of this kind? It is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has been endorsed by the Secretary of State for Defence. Does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State for Defence—whom of course he serves as a Minister of State? If the head of the Army and the Secretary of State have now reached the view that there is insufficient investment in defence, is it not high time that the Government did so as well?

It is difficult for me to comment on a speech that has not yet been given, but I recognise the sentiment that the noble Lord articulated. The National Security Capability Review is about maintaining agility in this country’s security and defence, and staying ahead of the curve in terms of the resources we deploy. We must remain agile in a world that is ever changing, and that is why the Government are conducting this review: it is about ensuring that our defence and security policies and plans are as joined-up, efficient and effective as possible.

My Lords, does this not show the chaos in the whole area of defence? The annual report on SDSR 2015 was due by the end of December. This has somehow been subsumed into the NSCR, a date for which we have not got. Will this review set out the threats and how they are going to be met? If, as the Minister has stated in previous answers, there is no money, what threats are we going to tolerate?

My Lords, there is no chaos whatever. The NSCR is about analysing, across government, the intensifying threats to national security and considering their impact on the implementation of the 2015 SDSR and national security strategy. In that context, the Ministry of Defence has done a great deal of high-quality work. Once the NSCR has drawn to a close, we will want to build on the elements of the good work that has been done, to explore further the opportunities for modernisation that have been identified.

My Lords, should it not be remembered that, for every hour of every day and every night, somewhere in the world one of our Trident submarines is on patrol, ready to respond should our supreme national interest so require? Should not any potential aggressor be reminded accordingly?

My noble friend is absolutely right. However, it is precisely for that reason that the recent speculation, in the press and elsewhere, is unhelpful, because it is inherently unsettling to the men and women of the Armed Forces.

My Lords, setting aside potential cuts, there is no speculation about the cuts in train now, particularly those affecting the training of our Armed Forces. Will the Minister comment on this, which is affecting our fighting efficiency and morale?

The noble and gallant Lord is correct. Some decisions have been taken for the current financial year to decrease the amount of training that certain parts of the Armed Forces will be able to avail themselves of. I emphasise that this is a temporary measure.

My Lords, there is no starker illustration of the crisis in defence than that the Secretary of State actually allows a head of service to talk about the fact that it needs more resources. I cannot remember that ever happening before, though admittedly I have been in the Navy only for 53 years. This is a really worrying event and reflects what has been said in this House and the other place about defence.

My question relates to our sailors, soldiers and airmen. This uncertainty, the pressure on resources and the hollowing out that is going on day by day are affecting the morale of our people. It is causing difficulty in recruiting; people are leaving and it is causing churn because there are fewer people. Is the Secretary of State—or the MoD—going to produce something to tell our people what is going on, what the future looks like, when there will be an SDR, if there is going to be an SDR, and what exactly is happening? At the moment, there is huge confusion and that is bad for our military.

The noble Lord’s central point is, of course, quite correct. I agree with him that uncertainty in any context can be unsettling and damaging. The Government do not wish to prolong this exercise more than necessary. The review is still ongoing and Ministers will consider the conclusions in due course. Any decisions on whether, when or to what extent the conclusions of the work are made public will be made by Ministers separately.

My Lords, last Thursday in this House there was a defence debate which I had the honour to lead. The Thursday before there was a magnificent debate in the other House, supported by all Members on all sides of the House in a major way. During those debates, it became clear from those in this House and the other place who are much more experienced than me and who conduct themselves magnificently as a duty to the country, that there is grave disquiet among all Members of both Houses. My noble friend Lord Howe, who has great experience in this area and is always totally courteous, must be aware of this huge disquiet. Would he be prepared to ask the powers that be to allow this House to have a full day’s debate on the defence of the realm? The other House debated it for five and a half hours last week. This is a hugely important subject: none of us wants to live to regret not doing our duty.

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, this House returns to the subject of defence at regular intervals, but I will of course convey his request to the usual channels. I, for one, would be more than happy to take part in such a debate. I am of course aware of the disquiet to which he refers; I have been made aware of it across your Lordships’ House over many weeks. However, the exercise that we are doing is very important: it is to make sure that we have Armed Forces that are fit for the future, not the past.

My Lords, the Minister declared that the central area in this is agility—those were his words. Agility runs through three essential elements: air mobility, marines and naval mobility, and cyber, which now permeates all defence. Can he therefore guarantee that there will be no cuts to the marines, no cutbacks to air mobility, and that cyber will be an integral part of the first major report rather than a separate issue dealt with by a department other than defence?

My Lords, as I have made clear in this House, there is no question of this country abandoning its amphibious capability or cyber, quite the opposite: there is a £1.9 billion programme across government to boost our cyber capabilities. However, as I said last Thursday, the NSCR may result in our reprioritising how we allocate our resources to emphasise the most effective capabilities for the world in which we operate.

My Lords, I think the Minister implied that the results of the review may be made public. Will he tell the House why they might not be made public? We are asking not for the evidence but for the results of the review to be made public, so the rest of us can see how the Government have arrived at their conclusions.

My Lords, the Government always wish their decisions to have maximum transparency but national security considerations may override that.

My Lords, my noble friend, for whom I have very great respect, talks about raising defence spending by 0.5% above inflation but the fall in the value of sterling has negated this completely. In addition, the situation has changed so much, particularly with regard to Russia, but we could also mention North Korea, Daesh and whomsoever one wishes. The situation has changed so completely that a lot of people in this House, the other place and indeed the country are hugely concerned about defence.