New Forest East


Dr Julian Lewis: The hon. Gentleman [Vernon Coaker] will probably be astonished to learn that the National Security Adviser – Sir Mark Sedwill, as he now is – wrote to me on 23 October and said:

“Because the main decisions on Defence were taken during the”2015“ SDSR, this review is not defence-focused. Defence capability is one of several projects within the review.”

We are therefore finding difficulty in bringing the National Security Adviser to the Defence Committee because he ​says that the review is not defence-focused. Yet the first thing we will know about the review is when we are told what major defence capabilities are going to be cut.

[Vernon Coaker: I could not agree more with the Chair of the Defence Committee. He is absolutely right. Sir Mark Sedwill says that the review is not defence-focused, but he also said to the Committee, if I remember correctly – he has certainly been reported as saying this in the media – that there is a need for us to increase spending on our cyber and intelligence capabilities. This is fiscally neutral, so where is the money going to come from? That is why we get the speculation about the cuts in defence capabilities to which the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) refers. Because this is fiscally neutral, we are looking to take money from one thing to pay for another. The whole thrust of my argument is that if one thing is a threat and another thing is a threat, we do not rob from one to pay for the other – we fund them both because our country would demand that we do so.]

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Dr  Lewis: It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman [John Woodcock] to give way at this late stage. May I just say that I, for one, want to give the new Secretary of State the benefit of every possible doubt, because what we need at this moment in time – the debate has really brought this out – is someone who is going to have a bare-knuckle fight with the Treasury to get the money we need for defence? The fact that he may not have much of a background in defence is not the main issue. The main issue is whether he will fight for money for defence and whether he can win that fight.

[John Woodcock: It is, absolutely. I suppose it remains to be seen whether the tactics he has so far adopted continue and are effective. We will be as supportive as we can in ensuring that that is the case. I wish that the Secretary of State were here so that I could say this to him in person. I do not know what his other commitment is, but this has been a really important debate with many important contributions, and he would do well to listen to what has been said this afternoon by colleagues on both sides of the House.]

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[Stewart Malcolm McDonald:  ...  We need a proper SDSR that takes account of the fact that we will no longer be members of the European Union, and of the fact that we have had currency fluctuations and the devaluation of the pound. I am in favour of taking more time if we get a more considered outcome, but the cynic in me suggests that that is not what is at play.]

Dr Lewis: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that separating defence from the amalgam that has been created could be a good thing, by focusing attention on the purely defence aspect, as he acknowledges, and by giving a new Defence Secretary the opportunity to fight and win the battles with the Treasury that need to be fought and won.

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Dr Lewis: Will the Minister give way?

[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Tobias Ellwood): I will in a moment.

The House is well aware of my position on the size of the armed forces. I want to see the UK maintain its long-held military edge and its enduring position as a world leader in matters of defence and security. The Ministry of Defence and the Government as a whole share my ambition. I should also like to address the involvement of Ministers, and indeed generals and others in uniform, in the process. This has been run not just by the permanent secretary but by a team of generals. That point was touched on by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, and I give way to him now.]

Dr Lewis: The Minister has just said that we will not be left more vulnerable. On 25 January last year, the then Defence Procurement Minister wrote to me to say that she could reassure me that the out-of-service dates for HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark remained 2034 and 2035 respectively, and that their roles remained vital. Surely that rules out the scrapping of those ships. They obviously still had a vital role to play in January last year. Why would their role be any less vital in January this year?

[Mr Ellwood: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He asks an operational question about the amphibiosity of our capability. I stress to the House that we must maintain our amphibiosity, a capable Royal Marine presence and, dare I say it, a capable Para presence as well, so he can rest assured. I will not go any further ​than that because we are getting into the weeds of operational decisions, and more will become clear very soon.]

[For Julian's speech in this debate click here.]