LIAISON COMMITTEE: THERESA MAY QUESTIONED ON RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA [EXTRACTS] – 27 March 2018
Grimond Room – House of Commons
Questions 12 – 16
Q12 Dr Lewis: Prime Minister, the very success of the expulsions [of Russian ‘diplomats’] and the inevitable retaliation mean that the west will have less representation in Russia than in the past. Doesn’t that put an added premium on the services of the BBC Monitoring Service? Will you now consider reinstating the ring-fenced £25 million-a-year grant, a small sum of money that will enable this organisation to avoid the cuts and absorption by the mainstream BBC that currently threaten it?
The Prime Minister: I am aware that this was also a question that you raised in the House yesterday. The answer is that we are looking, as I indicated, at the extent to which we can ensure that the sound journalism of the BBC can be available to Russian-speakers and to people more generally in that area. My understanding is that there are discussions taking place between the BBC and the Foreign Office about certain aspects of funding.
Q13 Dr Lewis: That would certainly apply to the Russian Service broadcasting into Russia, but the Monitoring Service, for a very long period of time, has done a brilliant job scooping up open-source information from Russia. I would urge you to look at that situation as well. Are you satisfied – given that we say that defence is the first duty of Government – that we spend six times as much on welfare as we do on defence and that we are operating at the bare NATO minimum of 2% of GDP? Should we not be aspiring to a target of 3% of GDP, which is what we used to spend as late as the mid-1990s, even after the end of the Cold War and after we had taken the 'peace dividend'?
The Prime Minister: You refer to the NATO commitment that we meet as a “bare” commitment, but of course, just to put it into context, we are the second biggest defence spender in NATO. We are only one of six NATO countries that meets that 2% GDP commitment. That is a £36 billion defence budget at the moment, which will rise to £40 billion because we are committed to an increase of at least 0.5% above inflation in every year until the end of the Parliament. It is right that we meet that NATO commitment, that we remain committed to meeting that commitment and that we encourage others to meet it where they don’t. As I say, it is only six countries in NATO that spend 2% of their GDP on defence.
Of course, we have also had the National Security Capability Review, which looked widely at national security matters, and what has come out of that is the Modernising Defence Programme. This is about looking across the board at our national security and seeing what threats we face, what capabilities we need to meet those threats and how we can provide for that.
Q14 Dr Lewis: Will you not take on board the fact that the Defence Committee, the National Audit Office and even the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy have all produced reports that say that defence spending is inadequate? Of course we spend a lot in absolute terms, but isn’t it a fact that, as was revealed in January, major further cuts in conventional forces were being considered in order to fund the answer to new threats? Do you not agree that funding measures against new and non-traditional threats must not be at the expense of our capability to meet the more conventional dangers, which have not gone away?
The Prime Minister: I think the reports that you refer to are those that appeared in the newspapers. Of course, we are having the National Security Capability Review, and we have launched the Modernising Defence Programme, precisely to ensure that our Armed Forces have what they need against the background of the varied threats that we face. Of course, as you will be aware, those threats have diversified over time.
However, we also need to make sure that defence is sustainable and affordable. That is why the MOD, alongside the work it is doing in looking to the future, has also been able to make sure that taxpayers are getting good value for money by ensuring that they are saving where it is possible to do so. We of course want them to have the capabilities that they need, but what is important is that we make sure that we are looking at the capabilities across the wide range of providers of those capabilities across Government when we are looking at national security and defence in the round.
Q15 Dr Lewis: It is certainly true that the reports of the cuts were in the newspapers, but the reports produced by the Committees, and by the National Audit Office in particular, show that there is a gaping black hole in the defence equipment budget for the next 10 years in the order of, at the very least, £4.9 billion, and possibly up to four times that amount.
Given that we were having to look at making major cuts in existing capabilities that we deemed to be necessary only two years ago, at the time of the last Review, surely it is the case that, if there are new and intensified threats, we need extra funding for defence? Otherwise we can only fund these new and intensified threats, can we not, at the expense of capabilities that only two years ago were deemed to be essential?
The Prime Minister: I return to the point about looking at national security and defence in the round. I am obviously aware of the reports that you refer to, but the important thing, it seems to me, is that, when we look at the threat picture that we face and the capabilities that we need in order to meet those threats, we recognise that some of those capabilities may come from what people may regard as more traditional defence, but some may come from other capabilities. What is important is that, across the range, we are doing what is necessary to ensure that we can meet the threats that we face.
Q16 Dr Lewis: Finally from me, given the re-emergence of Russia as a strategic danger, have you considered increasing the number of British troops deployed in the NATO area in Europe?
The Prime Minister: We obviously regularly look at our deployments. As you will know, we are currently leading the battlegroup – the Enhanced Forward Presence – in Estonia. We are also making a contribution to the presence in Poland. We obviously look on a regular basis at what is necessary.
However, it is of course not just us providing those troops. As regards Estonia, I was pleased when President Macron came for the Anglo-French summit in January that he committed to continuing a French troop presence in Estonia as well. So we look to work with our allies to ensure that the numbers there are appropriate.