'THE DEFENCE SELECT COMMITTEE'
By Julian Lewis
Lines of Inquiry: The House Magazine Select Committee Guide
The committee I rejoined in recent months is quite different from the one I left in 2001. Back then, the chairman and members were cosily appointed by party whips. Now the members are elected by their own parties’ MPs and the chairman is elected by Parliament as a whole.
Nor is the defence scene remotely comparable to 2001 – a decade after the end of the Cold War, when defence was on the back-burner. The 9/11 atrocities were about to happen. Interventions in Kuwait, Sierra Leone and Kosovo were viewed as almost textbook successes. Campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were unforeseen – as is usually the case with dramatic and gruelling conflicts. One thing has remained constant: the reluctance of governments to invest in defence until we have our backs to the wall.
For the Defence Committee in 2010, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) came as a shock. Key capabilities, like fixed-wing carrier strike and maritime patrol aircraft, were lost. The survival of the Future Carriers was a very close call, and new submarines for the Trident deterrent were delayed for at least five years.
Members of that committee, under the able leadership of James Arbuthnot and Rory Stewart, tried to ensure that the next Review would be more about strategy and less about cuts. Of particular interest was a study of Decision-Making in Defence Policy, published in March 2015 (HC 682) which identified gaps in expertise and inadequate opportunities for the Service chiefs to tender military advice to politicians.
These themes continue to be followed by the current committee, which will undertake assessments of the new SDSR against a checklist of potential threats and vulnerabilities identified in our first report. Given the eventual Government commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence, we have examined to what extent this pledge compares like with like in the way it is calculated, and how it measures up to defence expenditure by previous governments.
We are presently examining UK military operations in Iraq and Syria, defence policy towards Russia, and armed forces welfare subjects, including the use of the controversial anti-malarial drug Lariam. We have created a Defence Sub-Committee, currently chaired by Madeleine Moon, which gives individual members of the full committee opportunities to lead inquiries into subjects where they have special knowledge or experience.
As formal inquiries take time but events move quickly, we have also been sending ‘Topical Letters’ to the Defence Secretary and publishing these, together with his replies, on our website at www.parliament.uk/defcom where all our activities are recorded in detail. This gives the MOD a chance either to take remedial measures or to explain why none is necessary.
Select Committees are elected for the lifetime of a Parliament: during the months and years ahead, we shall scrutinise Government policy but also aim to produce defence analyses which will stand the test of time.
Julian Lewis is Conservative MP for New Forest East and served on the Intelligence and Security Committee before his election in 2015 to chair the Defence Committee.