DEFENCE CAPABILITY REVIEW – 19 October 2017

Dr Julian Lewis: As time is so pressing, and so many people wish to speak who do not get as many opportunities as I do to speak on this subject, I shall just raise a few brief points.

First, I wish to place on record the gratitude of the Defence Committee as a whole to my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), who served on the Committee in the last Parliament, for everything they did to buttress the strength and depth of our inquiries and conclusions. We are very grateful to them all.

I would like to raise the following questions. What is this review about? Who should be able to scrutinise the process? What should we be spending on defence? What is our concept for defence? Is our decision-making process adequate to produce a strategy? Is our soft power adequately resourced? The answers necessarily will be inadequate.

The answer to the first question – what is this review about? – is: I do not know. It is about either increasing the money, sorely needed for defence, or further cutting capability in order to balance the books. I know which of them I should like it to be, and I know which I fear it will be.

Who should be able to scrutinise the process? This process is being carried out by the National Security Adviser, Mark Sedwill. The Defence Committee has applied to have Mr Sedwill appear before us, but the initial response has not been encouraging. It is being suggested that the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy would be the appropriate body for the National Security Adviser to appear before, notwithstanding ‚Äčthe fact that National Security Advisers have appeared before us previously. I hope wiser counsels will prevail there.

What should we be spending on defence? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh) for not only initiating the debate, but making the point very well about what percentage of GDP we used to spend on defence. We used to spend the same on defence as we spent on education and health in the 1980s. Now we spend two and a half times on education and nearly four times on health what we spend on defence. Although we are spending more on defence, defence has indisputably fallen down our national scale of priorities.

What is our concept for defence? That was ably set out by the Labour-led strategic defence review of 1997-98, which came to the conclusion – at a time when we were not facing a threat on the continent of Europe – that we needed an amphibious taskforce and a carrier strike taskforce in order to form a sea base that could go anywhere in the world. I hope to reassure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) by quoting to him from what the Minister for Defence Procurement wrote in a letter deposited in the House of Commons Library in January, after I raised the question of the future of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark on the Floor of the House. She said:

“There are no current plans to decommission the ships early, and I can reassure you that their out of service dates are 2033 and 2034 respectively.”

It would be diabolical to take ships with that amount of life left in them and retire them early.

Mr Mark Francois: I absolutely agree with what my right hon. Friend said, not least because he is my boss on the Defence Committee. To take Albion and Bulwark out of service would be an absolute false economy, and I very much hope that the Minister will convey that back to the Department.

Dr Lewis: The idea that anyone could be my right hon. Friend’s boss on the Defence Committee is polite, but fanciful.

Is our decision-making process adequate to produce a strategy? In a word, no. We have got to a situation where the chiefs of staff are too divorced from strategy-making. They are then left to have to make cuts in capacity themselves, while they are not able to get together to thrash out a joint strategy in the way that the Chiefs of Staff Committee traditionally did.

Finally, is our soft power adequately resourced? It could be, but the signs are not promising. For example, we produced a report entitled, “Open Source Stupidity” – I think that is probably the first time the word “stupidity” has appeared in an official Select Committee report title – referring to the fact that, for £25 million a year, we need not close the BBC Monitoring centre at Caversham. It is not too late to reverse that extremely stupid decision; and I am glad that the Foreign Secretary, the Chairmen of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the International Development Committee and I will have the opportunity to visit that excellent establishment soon, in the hope that we can, even now, prevent that folly from proceeding.