Parliamentary Questions to the Secretary of State for Defence
On Monday afternoon the Secretary of State for Defence fielded questions from MPs. Many MP's were pre-occupied with the SDSR statement that was to follow, but I wanted to put the Minister on the spot:
Perhaps I can help the Minister with a question that does not involve waiting until half-past 3. A lot of our focus is currently on the middle east and north Africa. Does he agree, however, that with two Russian Tupolev bombers off our coast recently, as well as a Russian submarine, it would be naive for us to take our eye off the strategic risk to the UK from the High North and Arctic region?
Though the Minister agreed with me, it is important the government and the wider defence community continues to monitor the potential security threat we face from the North Sea.
The Strategic, Defence and Security Review (SDSR)
The SDSR is conducted annually by the government to re-assess its defence priorities in response to changing threats and security challenges. The government framed its specific spending commitments within a broader vision of a 'secure and prosperous United Kingdom, with global reach and influence'. The Prime Minister announced an ambitious spending plan: he promised nine new maritime patrol aircraft, two new Army strike brigades, new Type 26 Global Ships and has committed to trebling the number of F-35s by 2023 and extending the service of Typhoon jets by 10 years. Overall, the government plans to spend £178 billion on new equipment.
Following the Prime Minister's statement Gisela Stuart focussed on his 'commitment to a contingency plan that will allow 10,000 members of the armed forces to support the police in the case of a terrorist attack'. This follows criticism, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, of the government's plans to reduce funding for the police. Gisela asked: 'How long will it take to train those military personnel to allow for interoperability, and will he revise his plans to cut police numbers? One without the other is nonsense'. The Prime Minister said that there are already 5000 personnel who are trained to fulfil this function. It was later revealed in the Chancellor's Autumn Statement that the government intends to abandon its proposal to cut police funding.
I was concerned that, despite increased funding for equipment, our defence capability will be undermined by cuts to the MOD civil service:
The Ministry of Defence employs civil servants as nuclear scientists and nuclear engineers, and in a whole range of tasks, including logistics, training support and maintenance, as well as in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. I understand that there is a cut of 12,000 to the MOD’s civil service. How will the Prime Minister ensure that critical roles and tasks are not lost to the Ministry of Defence?
In his answer, the Prime Minister seemed reluctant to engage with the central point of my question:
The hon. Lady makes an important point. There are civilian roles in the MOD that are hugely important, and she mentioned some of them. What we have done with this budget is say that we will meet the 2% of defence spending and that we have created this joint security fund that can be bid for by our intelligence services. We said to the military, “Every penny you can save through efficiencies, you now know will go into extra capabilities.” That is why I can stand here today and talk about new squadrons, more members of the RAF and more people joining the Royal Navy, but all of that should be done without damaging any of the vital capabilities that civilians provide.