DEFENCE – DEFENCE EXPENDITURE (NATO TARGET) BILL – 23 October 2015

Dr Julian Lewis: May I urge my hon. Friend not to use the word  "target"? It is in fact a minimum. Those countries that are below the minimum may have it as a target; those that have always been above it should not be ringing the church bells just because we have decided not to go below it.

Mr Speaker: Order. I think the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is pleading for terminological exactitude.

Sir Gerald Howarth: I quite understand that that finds the most enormous favour with you, Sir. My right hon. Friend is to be commended, I am sure you will agree, for his terminological exactitude. However, he anticipates something I shall say later. ...

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Dr Lewis: I am a little surprised at the vagueness of the Opposition today. I thought the position was absolutely clear namely, that the Opposition are committed to continuous at-sea deterrence and the continuation of Trident under the Successor programme, because that was the position adopted by the Labour party and endorsed by its recent conference. The decision was taken not to change the policy. If a free vote is necessary for the Opposition, it will be the Leader of the Opposition who has to take advantage of it, not the people who believe in Trident.

The Minister for Defence Procurement (Mr Philip Dunne): My right hon. Friend has highlighted one of perhaps a number of apparent inconsistencies between certain leading members of the Opposition and those on their current Front Bench. I do not want to prey on the misery of the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I should have started by welcoming her to her position. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] This is her second appearance in the Chamber this week in her new role as a Defence Minister. She is doing an admirable job, if I may say so, completely unsupported as she is in this debate by a single colleague. That speaks volumes for the interest the Opposition parties en bloc take in defence. I do not want to put her under any more pressure than my right hon. Friend has done. ...

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Mr Dunne: ... While I was in Scotland, I had the distinct privilege of cutting steel for the first time on HMS Trent, the third of our offshore patrol vessels, the latest class that we are commissioning for the Royal Navy. These projects are, in turn, securing the skills required to build the Type 26 global combat ship, which is another example of our investment in the Royal Navy. It will be one of the most significant programmes undertaken during this Parliament.

Dr Lewis: Given that the Minister mentions the Type 26, which I would loosely describe as a replacement frigate, will he take this opportunity to confirm, now that we have just the six Type 45 destroyers, that there is no question of going below the total of 13 Type 26 frigates, thus keeping our total of frigates and destroyers at 19 itself a huge reduction from the 35 we had in 1997?

Mr Dunne: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the chairmanship of the Select Committee. I have no doubt that he will press Ministers on many programmatic issues. What I am afraid I cannot be tempted into doing is to pre-empt the conclusion from the SDSR, which will reach its conclusions, as I have said, before the end of the year. What I can tell my right hon. Friend about the approach to the SDSR is that any programmes not committed before the start of the process are on the table for review and consideration of allocation of spending in accordance with other programmes. I am not going to be drawn on what that means for Type 26 in particular, but as I have said, this is going to be one of the biggest programmes we have for the rest of this Parliament.

Dr Lewis: Do I therefore understand that when the SDSR comes out, we will know for certain that there will be no reduction from the total of 13 Type 26s?

Mr Dunne: I think all I can do is to encourage my right hon. Friend to read the SDSR carefully when it comes out, so that he can draw whatever conclusions he can.

Moving beyond the Navy for a moment, flying from the aircraft carriers will be the F-35B Lightning II Strike Fighters, which have stealth built into their DNA. Their advanced systems give pilots enhanced network connectivity, allowing them to send real-time information untainted and unseen by others from the battlefield to the back office, up to Ministers and back again if necessary to prosecute decisions.

Last month at the defence and security equipment international exhibition, we saw what is going to happen on the land front, but before I move on to land, I believe my right hon. Friend was fortunate enough to visit the showcase that took place when Parliament was in the conference recess and the F-35 cockpit simulator was here in London. He has indicated that this was an outstandingly good event and worthwhile experience, which unfortunately many hon. Members were unable to share because the House was not sitting at the time. I think he may have an observation to make on that.

Dr Lewis: I was not intending to intervene, but I cannot resist an invitation like that. This was an outstandingly good event. I am hoping that it may be possible to bring the same presentation not only the cockpit simulation of the Lightning II, but the presentations by the representatives of many of the firms involved in the supply chain to illustrate to hon. Members that hard power has economic value, as Lord Sterling is always trying to tell us in the other place.

Mr Dunne: I am grateful for that suggestion, and will happily take it up with Lockheed Martin, who I believe organised the event, to establish whether it would be willing to repeat it. On the issue of prosperity, I can give my right hon. Friend another sneak preview ahead of publication of the SDSR, in that there is likely to be a theme coursing through that document of how much defence contributes to our economy and the nation’s prosperity.

Sir Gerald Howarth: I would like to endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said about the F-35 cockpit simulator. I had a chance as a pilot to have a look at it, and I have to say that it was extremely impressive. I agree that that should be made available to more Members because this is going to be a very important programme in the Royal Air Force agenda and in the defence of the United Kingdom.

Mr Dunne: I am grateful for that endorsement. I completely agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends that the UK as a tier 1 partner has a unique role to play in the development of this programme over decades to come. It is the single largest defence programme in the world ever in value terms, although that may be as much to do with inflation as anything else. We have a 15% share in the manufacture in this country of each and every one of those platforms as they come into service in air forces around the world. The contribution it will make to sustaining the vibrancy of our defence industry cannot be overstated.

Dr Julian Lewis: There is, in fact, one other aspect of the F-35 programme that I had not realised until recently: the potential for expansion in a crisis. When the assembly line is operating at its peak in America, it will produce one of these aircraft per day. If ever, heaven forbid, we found ourselves in sudden need of a large number of extra aircraft, that joint capacity between British industry and American industry will enable us to fulfil our needs.

Mr Dunne: That is a very interesting observation. At a time of surge and crisis, it will obviously be a challenge to produce a pilot every day at such a pace, but it is clear that that is currently being planned. Given the scale of the programme, which will last for three decades, it will involve a steady and regular introduction of capability to a number of air forces, including ours. ...

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Mr Dunne: ... Above all, our leadership in NATO is illustrated by the fact that we are prepared to put our money where our mouth is. We have a budget of £35 billion, the second largest defence expenditure in the alliance. We are one of those five nations projected to spend 2% of GDP on defence in 2015, and the Chancellor has made the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence for every year of this decade. Make no mistake: our allies appreciate our efforts. It has been suggested in this debate that unless the Bill proceeds we will suffer opprobrium from some of our main NATO allies. I am afraid that hon. Members are misguided, because our principal allies in NATO have expressed on several occasions their pleasure that we are taking that lead. Let us not forget that President Obama was first on the phone to the Prime Minister after the Chancellor had made that major spending announcement.

Dr Lewis: I am sure that we all believe the Government entirely when they say that they will stick to the 2% up to the next general election, but can the Minister not see that passing this Bill would make it much harder for any Government of any complexion after the next general election to resile from the minimum spend because the legislation would have to be repealed first? While he is making an excellent case for all the good things that Britain does in NATO, can he assure the House that that case will not take him another hour and 15 minutes to outline, because it would be a terrible shame if we ran out of time before we had an opportunity to see whether the House wants the Bill to go into Committee?

Mr Dunne: My hon. Friend will be relieved to hear that, as someone once said, I am beginning to come to the end of my preliminary remarks.

I was just alerting the House to the confidence that the United States has in the measures that we have announced. I found that out for myself when I visited Washington in July, as the first Defence Minister to do so after the confirmation of our 2% commitment. I met Deputy Secretary Bob Work, who was effusive in his praise of the United Kingdom and the way we are showing such strong leadership within NATO and among its allies. When Defence Secretary Ash Carter was here at Lancaster House just two weeks ago, he pointed out that our Secretary of State was the first counterpart he had hosted in the Pentagon since his appointment, and added that

"that was only fitting given the special relationship our nations share. Simply put the United States have no closer allies and friend than the United Kingdom."

Our actions have drawn wider praise, not least from the NATO Secretary General who commended us for a

"Great example of leadership within the Alliance."

But this is not just about what we spend: it is about what we spend the money on. When nations fail to spend more than 20% of their defence funding on new technologies, they run the risk of equipment obsolescence and growing capability and interoperability gaps, as well as a weakening of Europe’s defence industrial and technological base.

So at the 2014 summit in Wales, NATO leaders agreed that allies currently spending less than 20% of their annual defence on major equipment will aim to increase this annual investment within a decade. Here, too, we are showing others the way. I am pleased to say that the UK is one of only seven nations expected to meet this guideline by 2015, along with the US, France, Luxembourg interestingly and Norway, Turkey and Poland. We are one of only three members meeting both targets alongside the US and, for the first time, Poland. [...] In other words, we need no reminding of the importance of 2%, any more than we need a law to remind us to protect our country and our people. Britain has always historically spent above 2% of GDP on defence. It is something that comes naturally: it is ingrained in our psyche. That was why, when we saw the danger, we acted and committed to that spend until the end of this Parliament, despite the predictions of the doubters. That is why a Bill like this is ultimately unnecessary. Why do we seek to spend precious parliamentary time on passing legislation that, in effect, is unnecessary, taking up Members’ time in order to commit to something that in practice we already do and will continue to do? We should not forget that Parliament already has the ability to hold the Government of the day to account on defence spending. ...

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Mr Dunne: I know that some Members remain concerned about the apparent disparity between our approach to defence and our approach to official development assistance, given that we have enshrined the 0.7% of gross national income commitment in law. But I believe that we are talking about a very different set of circumstances when considering whether to put my hon. Friend’s Bill into law. We have always met our 2% defence guideline and we have never needed the stimulus of legislative requirement to do so, yet the UK only met the 0.7% target for the first time two years ago. [...]

Dr Lewis: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, especially as I know how keen he is to get through the rest of his comments rapidly. However, I think his argument is the reverse of the truth. The difficulty with putting into law something that was a target that we had to strain to meet was the danger that having put it into law, we would end up having to make inappropriate expenditure in order to fulfil the commitment in law, whereas that does not apply to this objective. As there is and should never be any question of us dipping below the 2%, we will not have to distort our spending; we will just be giving the assurance that we need to give to the country and to our allies that we will never fall below the 2% minimum, and it is strange that there was ever any doubt that we would.

Mr Dunne: I do not think there was doubt that we would, other than in the minds of those who seek to find fault. We are not striving to achieve the number by fiddling the figures. I have gone through the re-assessment that we undertook to the spending that we are making, and we are meeting the commitment this year and for the rest of the Parliament.

Dr Lewis: I am very sorry that the Minister doubts the account that I gave him in my contribution to the debate earlier, when I said that by asking the Prime Minister whether we would always meet the 2% as long as he was in office, I was not casting doubt at all. I was expecting him freely and readily to say yes, of course we would, and he did not. That is why the doubt crept in.

Mr Dunne: It is not for me to intervene between the Chairman of the Select Committee and the Prime Minister in their interpretations of meeting 2% or not, so I will not be tempted to carry on this debate. I am anxious to reach the end of my remarks and I am nearly there. ...

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