Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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John Healey Portrait John Healey
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I think the hon. Gentleman needs to have a word with those on his own Front Bench, because the Department is at the moment planning a fresh review, whatever the outcome—[Interruption.] Yes, it is, whatever the outcome of the election. The problem for the hon. Gentleman is that the 2030 target is not in the Government’s financial plans; it is in a press release. We cannot rebuild the UK’s armed forces, let long-term procurement contracts, deter those who threaten us or defeat Putin with press releases. If this 2030 plan had been in a Budget, it would have been independently checked, openly costed and fully funded, but it is not and it was not. There are more holes in the Defence Secretary’s numbers than there is in Emmental cheese. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has called the £75 billion figure “essentially meaningless”. The Institute for Government has said that the Conservatives’ 2.5% plan does not add up, and that cutting 70,000 civil servant jobs will get nowhere close to delivering the savings needed to fund 2.5%.

To produce his fake figure of £75 billion, the Secretary of State has invented a zero-growth baseline for the next six years, unlike and in contrast with the Treasury’s official 0.5% real annual growth baseline. To get 2.3% as a different baseline for the annual increases in his plan on page 20 in the annex of his report, which he likes to parade, he has added all the one-off spending this year to the defence core budget—that is £3 billion for Ukraine, £1 billion for the nuclear contingency, half a billion pounds for operations and £300 million for ammunition, all in the figures for each of the next six years. Finally, the Secretary of State has used a trick that the Government tried before, in the 2015 defence strategic review, when Ministers pledged to cut 30% of MOD civil servants just to make their spending plans add up. However, after 2015 and that plan, civil service numbers in the MOD of course did not go down to 41,000; they went up to 63,000.

The new promised increase to defence core budgets will not start until April next year. For the next 10 months, day-to-day budgets in real terms are still being cut, the Army is still being cut and recruitment targets are still being missed. Nine out of 10 of the veterans promised a veterans ID card by the end of last year are still missing out, and around 500 veteran households are being made homeless every three months.

Our armed forces cannot afford another five years of the Conservatives. With threats increasing and tensions growing, we must make Britain better defended. Labour’s plan for defence will reinforce homeland protections with a new strategic review. [Interruption.] It will fulfil NATO obligations in full, with a NATO test on our major programmes.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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On that point, will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

John Healey Portrait John Healey
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I am finishing off now; the hon. Gentleman will have his chance to speak.

Labour’s plan will renew the nation’s contract with those who have served through an independent forces commissioner. It will make allies our strategic strength, with new French, German and EU defence agreements, and renewed UK leadership within the AUKUS alliance. It will direct British defence investment first to British jobs with deep procurement reform. Labour is the real party of defence. With Labour, Britain will be better defended.

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Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes
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I am grateful for that opportunity, but I have previously declined it for various reasons. I will get into that in a wee bit more detail and, although the hon. Member may not agree with me, I may want to reflect on some of the profound experiences that we saw in that report. I am afraid that we would not hear those things talked about on the armed forces parliamentary body. I am talking about ordinary service personnel, in private meetings with parliamentarians as part of a Committee inquiry, talking about the dreadful conditions that they suffer because of their gender, sex, sexuality or ethnicity. Some of it has been like a revolving door.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland
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I spent 27 years of commissioned service in the British Army. The hon. Member does the British Army a disservice.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes
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I recall the hon. Gentleman chairing the Armed Forces Bill Committee during the pandemic, when we heard some really profound and challenging evidence. I do not think that he and I would disagree that it was challenging. The report from the hon. Member for Wrexham, a former reservist, was challenging. It was the bare reality of what many members of the armed forces had to go through. I am sure that he was in the Chamber when members of Pride were here to hear the Prime Minister’s apology to LGBT members of the services. That happened; it is not a figment of the imagination. It does not say anything about the abilities and capabilities of the vast majority of the armed forces.

To me it is more about the structure. How different it would be if we had a body in which members of the armed forces, elected by their peers, could engage with any Government in the future. We would then be in a far better position to have that debate and to actually target support where it is needed. I have not yet heard a convincing argument against that.

I am glad that the official Opposition have a policy on this matter. It might not be one that I think is appropriate, but it is a reflection that the time has now come to have some type of body to take up that physical challenge. I believe that their example is from Germany, but I am also mindful of the example of the Kingdom of the Netherlands—one of our closest military allies—where a member of the armed forces could also be the general secretary of a trade union. Having a distinct armed forces trade union does not stop them carrying out their duties as members of the armed forces.

One or two of our NATO allies have unions and actually have the right to strike, although that is not somewhere I would be going in terms of policy. I just think that having such a union is critical, given some of the conditions that members of the armed forces and their families have faced over many years. We have heard about them in Select Committee reports, in debates on housing and in statements. My friend the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) talked about Capita and some of the profound problems that members of the armed forces face on a daily basis. I honestly believe that they would be in a far better position to deal with these challenges if they were able to come together and deliberate and engage with whoever the Government are.

It is important to reflect on some of our Scandinavian allies when it comes to a more coherent approach to how we go forward as parliamentarians, because this is not just about members of the armed forces; it is about the role of Parliament as well. I have heard Members talk about having a more collegiate approach. Were we to follow the Danish or Swedish examples—this could be done whether or not the Government have a huge majority—it would mean that for an entire parliamentary term we could have an agreed military defence posture and an agreed budget. We could bring the main parties together and make a collective parliamentary decision.

The Nordic-Scandinavian model means that there is a good foundation to create a robust defence posture, with full parliamentary support. Even we in the SNP would agree to that. We may disagree on the nuclear deterrent, but Parliament has voted for that. But on the vast majority of issues I think the vast majority of parties in this place could agree and support a Government, which is critical given that the times in which we live need a coherent approach and full and robust parliamentary support.

I do hope that both the Government and the official Opposition will consider that if and when the next election is called, and whoever should form the next Government. That brings people together. It is also about us as parliamentarians taking our responsibilities appropriately, and about creating transparency and openness. Even in the United States, there is far more transparent and robust engagement with the Government on Capitol Hill by the Armed Services Committee. Of course, our Defence Select Committee has no such powers, in any shape or form, but if we had more open and transparent engagement at parliamentary level, we could hopefully overcome a lot of that.

The other thing I want to talk about, in bringing my remarks to a conclusion, is partnership. I am really glad that the shadow Defence Secretary mentioned some partnerships in bringing his speech to a close. Since 2016, we on the SNP Benches have been pushing for a more coherent mutual defence agreement with the European Union. He will need to correct me if I am wrong and that was not a part of what he said in his concluding remarks. The reason for that is not to replace NATO, but to understand that some of the complexities that EU members face—for example, when it comes to logistics, road design and bridge weights—could be tackled far more easily through the EU in partnership than, say, through NATO. That is because if we are trying to move a tank from the west to the eastern front, it has to get across France, Germany and so on. [Interruption.] I will conclude my remarks in a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I say that as a Euro-Atlanticist. It is really important that we create defence relationships with people who share our common interests here in the Euro-Atlantic area, because, as others have mentioned, we face a crisis of retention, a crisis of recruitment and unfathomable black holes that I would not wish on any Defence Secretary, whether the present one or anybody who wants to be one. The next Government will face unimaginable tasks, but if we put people, place and partnership at the heart of that, we in the SNP—although with our differences on the nuclear deterrent—would certainly be willing to support that.

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James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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It is a great privilege to speak in this debate. I am not a Minister—to echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray)—but I am a former serviceman, and I hope to bring some value, as a practitioner, to what we are discussing.

We know that the first duty of any Government is the defence of their people—that is quite clear—so the need to keep people safe is non-discretionary. Right now we have war raging across Europe, not too far away, and multiple threats are proliferating right across the globe. Given that the international landscape now is probably more dangerous, unstable and incendiary than it has been at any time since world war two, defence spending is absolutely essential. Voters care about their security, and many are nervous about what is happening across the world. Most importantly, it is our duty as politicians to keep them safe.

That is why the Government’s commitment to a defence budget equal to 2.5% of GDP by 2030 is so important, both strategically and politically. As a member of the UN Security Council, the UK’s continued role as a bastion of global rights and democracy can be underpinned only by hard power. It is a reality of history that we may yet be called upon to protect our own security and that of our allies. We know that the Defence Secretary has recently increased military aid to Ukraine, securing an extra £700 million and thereby taking Britain’s total contribution beyond £3 billion—that is a lot of money—so we are doing our bit.

On the 2.5% target, it is extra money, but the issue is what we do with it and how we spend it—that is important—so I advocate for a capability audit right now. The reason I say that is that the extra injection of funds means that we need to work out what we can now do. When I was working at Northwood permanent joint headquarters many years ago, we had this thing called the JOECR—the joint operational estimate of capability and readiness. In my view, with the extra money that we have now, we should be turning all those capabilities that are flashing red to green—in other words, we should plug the capability gaps—and not just on land, at sea and in the air, but in space and cyber. Yes, state-of-the-art platforms are fine, and yes, we must procure weapons that we know can beat our adversaries, but it is also about spending wisely and smartly where necessary.

My second point on the 2.5% is that we need to better operate what we already have so that every part of our lexicon works. We must not rely on the exquisite exclusivity that we have spoken so much about; we must ensure that all our platforms work and can be sustained across the battlespace.

In terms of equipment generally, as one part of capability we need to procure what we need and nothing more. It is about strategic lift as well as exquisite exclusivity. If we do not have the ships—the roll-on roll-off ferries—or the strategic lift, including C-17s and A400Ms, to get equipment and people right across the globe, there is no point having the kit in the first place. It is therefore about enabling expeditionary reach. We cannot put boots on the ground if we cannot get the boots there. Plus, Minister, it is about logistic tail, spares, the supply chain, sustainment, defence contractors, delivery and munitions. We must be careful to ensure that if we buy it, we will be able to use it and then fight it through, and it must be sustainable and enduring.

“Platform” is an interesting word. It means the platform on which a capability sits, but what is put on that platform also matters. I therefore favour a modular approach for future equipment programmes, whereby we can apply different degrees of mobility, firepower and protection, but it is the kit that is bolted on and bolted off that really matters, and that is the battle-winning equipment for me. For me, this is about a commonality of platforms, about spares, about logistics, about interoperability and about cannibalisation. If we run out of something, can we get it? With complex platforms and complex supply chains, we cannot, so let us please go for modular and for commonality.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord
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Is the hon. Member aware of the Supacat range of vehicles, which operate in much the way that he has described?

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland
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I am very aware of Supacat. I have visited the company, which is in the hon. Member’s neck of the woods. It is a very impressive British company. Yes, we need to do more to ensure that it produces and builds what we need. Let us work with it a bit more on that. As the hon. Member suggests, this is about fewer variants, an easier supply chain, and not having equipment that is too complex to use or to maintain. That is very important: we should keep it cheap, simple and easy.

Let me say a little about NATO. As we know, it is the only show in town. It is the umbrella for European security in the north Atlantic. It now consists of 32 countries, and that is to be welcomed. It has responded magnificently to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. It has galvanised the alliance since the invasion, in a way that Putin could not possibly have conceived. In many ways, it is much stronger because of what has happened. Article 5 is the prize for NATO membership. It has defined Putin’s actions in Ukraine, in that so far he has not attacked a NATO country. Why? He is worried about article 5, and that strategic uncertainty underpins our security in Europe.

However, there are issues with NATO. First, only 18 of its 32 member countries are currently committed to 2% of GDP, and that is not enough. In addition, the five non-EU members—the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey and Norway—contribute 80% of the operating budget, which is outrageous, with 96% of the EU effectively reliant on NATO for its security. That is a stark contrast. Europe must therefore become much more responsible for its own security, and that is non-discretionary.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Does the hon. Gentleman share the concerns that some of us have about Trump’s comments? He has said that if he is the next president of the United States—he may not be—and if NATO members do not up their commitment to 3%, the United States will withdraw and reduce its own commitment. Is Trump a danger?

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland
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It is not for me to endorse Trump in this Chamber, but what I will say is that to a certain extent he is right. It is absolutely right that Europe must take on more responsibility for its own security, to allow the United States to worry about parts of the world that NATO will not necessarily worry about. It is important to ensure that the United States is not overly committed in Europe for the same reason. We know that NATO in Europe massively overmatches Russia, but we need to reach a point, strategically, at which Europe itself overmatches Russia, leaving the United States to focus on the parts of the world on which it needs to focus.

Another important point that I would like the Minister to note is that the UK has a global footprint that extends beyond NATO. We have discussed NATO a great deal this evening, but it is not just about NATO. East of Suez, where we have not had a presence for quite some time, we now have bases in Bahrain, Diego Garcia—we have always had one there—and of course Oman. If the UK is to be a bastion of global democracy, it is important for us to have that reach across the far side of the globe. We also have operating bases in Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Falklands, Ascension and Diego Garcia. I mention that because it is really important for us to look after those bases. Were we to withdraw from Diego Garcia, for example, that will be a part of the world that we can no longer cover with our strategic reach. We therefore need to be very careful what we wish for politically.

It is imperative that the UK is able to fulfil its global commitments: in the middle east with carrier strike, as well as in the Falklands, west Africa, the Red sea, the Caribbean, the Baltic and the north Atlantic—the list goes on. We are not just focused on NATO, so it is really important that our defence capabilities extend beyond the north Atlantic and fulfil our global responsibilities. We need only look at where UK forces are deployed right now to realise how important that global footprint is. Dean Acheson, the former US Secretary of State, famously said that

“Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.”

Well, we clearly do have that role. We have seen that this evening in this debate, and it is very important that we are resourced and funded to be able to fulfil that role in perpetuity.

Lastly, what numbers should the armed forces consist of? There is a lot of debate about the Army being cut and whether 72,000 is enough, the size of the Navy and the state of the RAF, but the answer is that the forces must be big enough to do the job with which they are tasked. The answer therefore lies in defence tasks. The idea of having an Army or Navy of a certain size is pie in the sky. We know that we have to be able to resource them, but the important thing is that our forces have to be able to meet defence tasks. We know that we do not have enough ships—we need more frigates and more destroyers. Quantity has a quality all of its own. We have state-of-the-art equipment in the RAF, including the C-17, A400M, P-3, F-35B, Typhoon, and Tempest to come, but do we have enough of those platforms?

As for the Army, I keep being told by constituents, “Well, Mr Sunderland, the Army cannot fight Russia.” Of course the British Army is unlikely to be fighting Russia on its own—it is called NATO. We know that NATO has approximately 3 million troops to call upon, and we also know that NATO overmatches Russia in Europe. We need to play our part in NATO, not necessarily being perplexed about what we used to be able to do. The UK needs to be able to retain autonomous and unilateral forces to support NATO and its other tasks, as we have mentioned, so we cannot afford to be harder on numbers.

In conclusion, 2.5% is the right thing to do, but that number must keep rising to meet the threat. Do we need more ships? Yes, we do. A bigger Army? Perhaps. Is NATO fundamental to our future? It absolutely is. Trident? Unequivocally yes—we need to invest in it and reinforce it. It gives us a seat on the UN Security Council, which is really important. Do we need to focus on autonomous and remote platforms? Absolutely, yes. With cyber and space, we now have five domains, not three; we need to invest much more in those, as we saw today. We need to invest in precision capabilities. We need to have better training, better activity, more training, more exciting activity, and opportunities that keep people and attract them to stay. Richard Branson famously said, “We need to train people so well that they can leave, but treat them so well that they do not want to.” With the Minister in his place, I urge him to think about wokery—not too much of it in the armed forces, please; we still have a job to do. Dumbing down of standards? Absolutely not; we have to set the bar and maintain it, because discipline depends upon it. The divisive new accommodation model? No, thank you.