DEFENCE REFORM BILL– COMMITTEE STAGE – 20 November 2013

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a pleasure to be able to say that, unlike the traveller who fell among thieves, I feel like one who has fallen among friends. On these issues, I have friends on both sides of the House, including, first and foremost, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Julian Brazier), who has been a wonderful advocate for the Reserve forces for many years. I say to him and to those on the Front Bench that if this matter had simply been put forward in isolation, I would not have contemplated voting for the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (John Baron). I am thinking of doing that for two reasons but, before I go into detail, I shall mention a couple more of my friends.

It is a pleasure to welcome to the Opposition Front Bench another friend, the new Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). My experience of his activities and positions on security issues has been wholly positive, and he has lived up to that by making his first trip as Shadow Secretary of State a visit to the Barrow shipyards. I am sure that we can rely on him to maintain the firm position in support of the successor generation of submarines for the nuclear deterrent that both Front Benches adhere to, and which only one small party has sought to obstruct.

Another friend to whom I would like to refer – he has just slipped out of the Chamber for a moment – is the Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Philip Hammond). Most people would agree that he was a very fine Treasury Minister indeed. I cannot think of anyone who was better at tackling complex financial problems and explaining them in terms so crystal clear that, from time to time, I even thought that I understood them myself. In reality, I could not think of any person, when presented with a limited budget – whether for defence or any other portfolio – who would make a better fist than my right hon. Friend of adjusting the workings of the Department concerned to fit a budget that he had perhaps rather arbitrarily been allocated.

That has a direct bearing on the two reasons for my putting my name down in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay’s new clause and amendments. The first relates to the size of the defence budget; the second is the question of whether the scheme for the Reserves is or was linked to the proposed reduction in the size of the Army. Those are the two things that worry me. Even if my hon. Friend’s new clause and amendments are not ideally drafted – I am not saying that they are not – they present me, and other hon. Members whose main purpose of being in Parliament, apart from representing our constituents, is to maximise the defence of this country against threats, with one of the few opportunities that we have to register our concerns when we think that defence has fallen too far down the list of priorities.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) saying that the defence budget was a given. I am afraid that I do not accept that. I do not accept that more money could not have been found from within the defence budget and outside it. There could have been more money. We did not need to spend £1.4 billion extending the life of four Vanguard-class submarines just to satisfy the Liberal Democrats, so they could put off the decision to sign the main-gate contracts for the successor submarines until the next Parliament. We did not need to spend a whole shedload of money reversing the plan for two aircraft carriers and to adopt a preposterous plan for one functional and one non-functional aircraft carrier, and then spend another shedload of money reverting to the original position. Nor do we need to spend £40 billion or £50 billion on a high-speed train service to the north of England – [Interruption.] It has a great deal to do with it.

Martin Horwood: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Having missed some of the recent debate, I am unclear as to which clause we are precisely discussing – and I really cannot tell from the hon. Gentleman’s speech.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Dr Julian Lewis.

Dr Lewis: If the hon. Gentleman had not been absent, he would have heard the great deal of discussion that took place about the priority of defence in the nation’s schedule of priorities. If he had made that bogus, so-called point of order having been here, I would have had some time for him, but given that he did not even have the courtesy to listen to the debate before making it, it was unworthy.

The reality is that a nation gets the defence forces it is prepared to pay for and it can decide what level of services it will fund – whether that involves cuts in the Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force that could be avoided.

The next question is whether this scheme for the Reserves was linked to the proposed cut in the size of the Army. As I said, if this scheme had been put forward on its own, I could have wholeheartedly supported it, but it was not. It was specifically put forward as a compensating factor for the Army’s Regular strength being reduced by 20,000. We were told that that reduction would be compensated for by the 30,000 increase in Reserves. Now we are told that that linkage no longer exists. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire asked what we will do if we find that in fact the Reserve scheme is not working. If I understood him correctly – I think I did – he said that, by the time we discovered that we were not going to get the 30,000 Reservists, it would be too late to regenerate any of the loss in the 20,000 Regulars. [Interruption.] He seems to be indicating that I have understood him correctly. If that is the case, I take great exception to the fact that this linkage was ever made in the first place.

If we are to be told that we have to accept cuts in this country’s defence capability, we should be told that honestly. We should not constantly be confronted with shifting goalposts. If the recruitment of 30,000 Reservists may or may not be achieved, and if the 20,000 cut in Regulars will happen nevertheless and is irreversible, we should have been told that at the outset. [Interruption.] Somebody says, “We were.” Who said that?

Mr Gray: Allow me to be the person who says that we were indeed told that. I very much regret that that has occurred. None the less, my point is not that I endorse this, but that it has happened: by 10 January, the British Army will be 82,767. That is the case and cannot be reversed.

Dr Lewis: Yes, but if so, that was always going to be the case, and we should not have been sold the package of a cut in Regular numbers of 20,000 on the basis that at least we could look forward to 30,000 Reservists being added. That is no way to treat a mature Parliament or to show respect for the judgment of parliamentarians who are doing their best to supply the best level of defence that we can within the budget available.

A very simple principle is at stake here. Let us suppose that someone comes to a sovereign Parliament and says

“We are going to make a significant cut in the size of the Army, but don’t worry about it because we are going to compensate for it by building up the Reserves to the tune of 30,000 people.”

If there are any significant or reasonable doubts at all about whether the 30,000 target will be achieved, it is reasonable to say

“Hang on a minute, what happens if the 30,000 is not achieved?”

If the answer is that the 20,000 cuts will take place in any case, it is absolutely unacceptable to have promised the 30,000 in the first place, especially as it was explicitly stated to the House that the cuts in the Regulars would not be fully or irreversibly implemented until we knew that the Reserves were going to be forthcoming. I do not want us to have this debate again in a few months’ time or in a few years’ time over the fact that we have neither the number of Regulars we need nor the number of extra Reserves that were promised. That is why, whatever the intricacies of the wording of new clause 3, I intend to support it.