CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

DEFENCE EXPENDITURE – 27 October 2016

Dr Julian Lewis: I beg to move:

That this House has considered the Second Report from the Defence Committee of Session 2015-16, Shifting the goalposts? Defence expenditure and the 2% pledge, HC 494, and the Government response, HC 465.

It is a privilege to present the findings of our report entitled “Shifting the goalposts? Defence expenditure and the 2% pledge” to the public once again – it was published some time ago. I doubt whether anybody two or three years ago would have registered the significance of the term “2% of GDP” in connection with defence, because it was only relatively recently that the prospect of Britain’s falling below the NATO recommended minimum expenditure on defence for the first time came to the public’s attention. For many years, we spent a great deal of money on defence. The purpose of the report is to track the history of that expenditure to check the extent to which we are continuing to meet the NATO minimum and to see whether there has been any financial jiggery-pokery to enable us to do so.

In a nutshell, we found that no rules have been broken. The Government’s figures and methodology conform to the NATO guidelines. It is true that, on the basis of including such things as armed forces pensions, which were not previously included but are allowed to be included, the Government will reach the 2% minimum. I use the word “minimum” advisedly, because that is what it is. It is not a target, but the minimum expected of each NATO country to contribute as a proportion of their gross domestic product to their defence. One could argue that it remains a target for countries that have never managed to reach it, but for those of us who have always exceeded it, often by very large amounts, it remains a floor, not a target, let alone a ceiling.

I know it is frowned upon to use props in debates in any Chamber, but the sheet of paper I have is so vivid that, even at a considerable distance and through the lens of a television camera, it is easy to read. The bar graph shows a consistent and steady decline in the percentage of GDP spent on expenditure since the mid-1950s. In the mid-1950s, we spent more than 7% of GDP on defence. In about 1963-64, that downward-falling graph crossed the upward-rising graph of what we spent as a proportion of GDP on welfare. Far from spending more on defence than on welfare, as we did until about ​1963, we spend six times on welfare what we spend on defence. In the mid-1980s, we were spending roughly the same amount on defence, education and health. Since then, the descending graphs for defence expenditure and the rising graph for education and health have similarly crossed over, and we have declined closer to the 2% minimum. We now spend almost four times on health and about two and a half times on education what we spend on defence.

Mr James Gray: I am interested in the chart that my right hon. Friend is describing, which appears as a corrigendum to our report. More interesting than the three Departments he mentions is the fact that, during that period, spending on overseas aid increased by a significant amount while spending on defence declined. Is that not a significant correlation?

Dr Lewis: It is significant, and it is indeed included on the chart. The only reason why I did not mention it is that, in comparison with the total spent on the other high-spending Departments, it is a relatively small proportion of our GDP. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right because, such has been the decline in defence, our commitment to spend 0.7% on international development now amounts to one third of the total that we spend on defence, which comes in just above the 2% minimum.

When we called the report “Shifting the goalposts?”, we put a question mark at the end because we did not wish to prejudge it. There are two ways in which the Government could be said to have shifted the goalposts: first, by including things they are not allowed to include – we absolved them of that – and, secondly, by including things that they are allowed to include but never included in the past, which would mean that we are not comparing like with like in terms of our previous methods of calculating UK defence expenditure. The Defence Committee inquiry found that the NATO minimum would not have been fulfilled if UK accounting practices had not been modified, albeit in ways that are permitted by the NATO guidelines.

Patrick Grady: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of the money that is counted in the 0.7% official development assistance is also counted towards the 2%? I might take issue with some of his line of argument, but it sounds like he is arguing that that double counting should not be double counted.

Dr Lewis: We did not find a hard and fast case of double counting, but we noticed in the past that there are items of expenditure that are highly relevant to defence and security that could fairly and usefully be catered for by the international development funds. Given that the 0.7% is protected, and given that one sometimes hears stories of the Department for International Development struggling to find creative ways of spending the money it has to dispose of, there is an opportunity, particularly in relation to soft power, to use elements of the international development money for measures that add to our security.

Of course, this is a rather crude measure, because gross domestic product can vary. If this country’s gross domestic product goes down but we spend the same ​amount on defence, it might appear that we are doing more when we are doing nothing of the sort. Similarly, when the value of the pound changes, as has happened in the short term following the Brexit decision, we see the effect on what we are able to buy for the money we have available for defence when we purchase big-ticket items such as the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft from the Americans, although a considerable amount of that purchase will find its way to the British defence industry. What I am driving at is that perhaps we ought to be talking not about shifting the goalposts, but trying to move the benchmark.

We should be reminding people that, in the 1980s – the last time we faced a significant threat from the east in Europe in the second and closing phase of the cold war – we regularly spent between 4.5% and 5.1% of GDP on defence. The similarity lies not only in the international situation. In the 1980s, we simultaneously faced a very significant terrorist threat in the form of Irish republican terrorism. We now face a similar threat in the form of fundamentalist Islamist terrorism.

It therefore seems appropriate to note that and, in the week that we were told that the first of the successor submarines for the nuclear deterrent will be named HMS Dreadnought, to remember a previous HMS Dreadnought, the battleship that changed the whole nature of sea power as far as capital ships were concerned in the years approaching the first world war. A famous naval arms race was going on between this country and Germany and, around 1909, there was a great deal of controversy that the German navy was drawing level with the grand fleet of the British Royal Navy in terms of dreadnought battleships. A public campaign was mounted, encapsulated by the phrase of the Unionist politician George Wyndham:

“We want eight and we won’t wait!”

My view, which I believe is shared by at least some other members of the Defence Committee, is that a new benchmark is perhaps needed for the percentage of GPD to be spent on defence:

“We want three to keep us free!”

In reality, if we go on at the 2% level, we are in danger of finding ourselves incapable of meeting the threats that face us today and will continue to face us in future.

Mr James Gray: We want four, or we’ll show the Government the door.

Dr Lewis: As always, I am delighted to be trumped by my hon. Friend in that direction. That is an absolutely splendid intervention and I thank him for it. I hope the Minister will go one better even and think of something to rhyme with five.

Mr John Spellar: Yes, the threshold is important for a whole number of reasons, and we want to look at the overall level and get that focus of Government, but it is not the most important thing. The right hon. Gentleman might be about to come to this point, but we ought to be pressing the Government on what capability we are getting as a consequence in terms not only of materiel, but of manpower, and experienced manpower in particular.

Dr Lewis: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely spot on, and of course that is what underlies my remarks about the fact that the figures are only, at best, the crudest guides. Nevertheless, they give us some sort of measure of comparison. Spending a certain amount of money on defence – or, should we say, investing it in defence – is not a sufficient condition for the reason that the vice-chairman of the Committee has just explained. It is, however, a necessary condition: if we do not spend enough, we cannot possibly have the potential. If we have enough to spend, we can consider how to ensure that we spend it in the most efficient and productive ways.

At this point, I pay tribute to the staff who help the Defence Committee to prepare our reports and, in particular, to one member of staff, Dr Megan Edwards, who did all the background research for the appendices to the report. They show, on as near as it is humanly possible to express the same terms, how much we have spent every year since 1955-56 up to the present day. That sort of original research work is of lasting value, because it sets into context the minuscule efforts that we make these days in comparison with the efforts that we had to make in the past. The reason that I single out Dr Edwards is that today is her last day working as a specialist member of the staff of the Defence Committee – our loss will be the Cabinet Office’s gain, and we wish her well in her new post and congratulate her on it.

Another aspect of the financial calculations that causes particular concern is the constant emphasis on efficiency savings. The most recent tranche of efficiency savings that the Government required from the Ministry of Defence was, I believe, some £0.5 billion, just before the 2015 strategic defence and security review. Some estimates put the aggregated total of efficiency saving requirements in recent years at something in excess of £1 billion, carried forward year on year. Theoretically, savings are ploughed back into the MOD. In practice, I understand from people who know about such things, it is hard to track that money, to apply those notional savings in concrete terms and to see where exactly the savings have gone in terms of new capacity.

A few days ago, on 18 October, that matter came up during a hearing on the Ministry of Defence’s annual report and accounts for 2015-16. The Defence Committee was interviewing Mr Stephen Lovegrove, the new permanent secretary at the MOD; Lieutenant General Mark Poffley, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff for military capability; and Ms Louise Tulett, director general of finance at the MOD. They made an impressive trio of witnesses.

At one point, it was put to the witnesses that, of the almost £26 billion of equipment commitments that came out of the SDSR, almost a quarter really was new money, nearly £11 billion was so-called headroom or contingency, which is understood to be used up at appropriate points in the programmes, but the rest of it was in fact efficiency savings. It is therefore understandable if we feel a bit worried that what seems on paper to be a substantial commitment to spending large sums of money is, in a significant respect, notional, because it is dependent on the redistribution of money that the MOD already has but is supposed to spend more efficiently in some way or another.

Mr Spellar: May we forbear on the nomenclature of the civil service – the so-called efficiency savings? Efficiency, as I understand it, is when we are running a payroll ​office and using 100 people, but we bring in new equipment and only employ 50 as a result, while keeping outputs the same. Efficiency is when people find new and improved ways of undertaking their work. Everything else is cuts. We should be clear that many of the things we are discussing are not efficiency savings but cuts, and we should describe them as such.

Dr Lewis: The right hon. Gentleman perfectly exhibits the cross-party basis on which we try to find agreement on such matters in Committee, and the extent to which we succeed in doing so. He is of course absolutely right.

I do not intend to speak much longer, because it is excellent to see so many would-be contributors to this short debate, but I will first refer to the question that was put to Mr Lovegrove. We asked, basically, when the point will arrive at which an organisation can truthfully say, “We are just about as efficient as can be and, indeed, any further ‘savings’ that we make must amount to cutting into the bone, having already cut through the flesh.” The permanent secretary’s response was as follows:

“There may be a moment at which that happens. It is not on the horizon right now. There are certainly efficiency savings that we can get at in the Department, and our focus is on doing that and seeing whether or not we can go even further. It is only at that point that we would start engaging in the kinds of conversations that you suggest.”

With the greatest respect to the permanent secretary, who as I say made a good impression and was a credible witness in our examination of the annual report and accounts, we hear time and again from within the armed forces the same underlying fear: that we are in danger of creating a hollow force, which may have exquisite equipment – perhaps not enough so-called platforms, but exquisite nevertheless – but not enough people to man it.

The trouble is that short-term cuts – I beg your pardon; efficiency savings – can lead to long-term problems. That applies in particular to training. With the carriers coming on stream, the big frigate programme having to get under way and the new F-35 joint strike fighters taking over the maritime air role from the sadly missed Harriers, which will have filled too long a gap in our naval capabilities, now is the time when we should inject maximum effort into training. Yet we find ourselves in a position – perhaps for reasons of morale or under-investment, or perhaps because insufficient emphasis is being placed on defence in our national priorities – of struggling to recruit and retain the people we need even as we cut the size of the armed forces.

The Government have not broken any rules, but they have scraped over the line by the narrowest of margins. There is no guarantee that we will not dip below the 2% figure. People usually come up with the response, “Just remember that we are the second highest spender on defence in NATO.” I remember that sort of argument from back in the 1980s, when people who wanted us to spend less on defence – we were spending quite a lot in those days; between 4.5% and 5% – said, “Why should we spend this amount on defence when Germany and so many other European countries spend so much less than we do?” The answer, as the author of a short and pithy letter to The Times pointed out, was that the countries that we were being compared with were all on our side. We have to judge our defence expenditure by ​what our potential adversaries spend and what defence and attack capability they get for the money that they invest.

We do not want to engage in a race to the bottom. We do not want to preen ourselves on doing a good job because people on our own side are spending even less than we are. Our percentage expenditure on defence is lower than it has ever been – even on the new calculation, it is 0.1% lower than it was in the previous financial year. Something has gone wrong with our scale of national priorities, and the purpose of the Committee’s report is to draw attention to that, in the hope that the Government will renew their emphasis on their first duty: to keep our nation safe.

* * *

Dr Lewis: I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate. We have had an excellent turnout for a quiet Thursday afternoon. The fact that so many people have given up their afternoon to take part in this debate and made such strong contributions, both from the Back and from the Front Benches of the respective parties, is a matter for congratulations. I think we all agree that adequate funds are a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for wise defence expenditure. The question that came up again and again was whether 2% is enough. We heard it from the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and from the Front-Bench spokesman for the Labour party, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton).

I started off by referring to the “we want eight” crisis of 1909, of which Winston Churchill wryly noted:

“The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.”

Perhaps in the context of this debate we might end up by saying that I want three to keep us free in terms of percentages. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) wants four or the Government should be shown the door. Maybe we can compromise like the Bee Gees and say:

“We want five for stayin’ alive.”

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this House has considered the Second Report from the Defence Committee of Session 2015-16, Shifting the goalposts? Defence expenditure and the 2% pledge, HC 494, and the Government response, HC 465.