Nia Griffith: The defence review must not be used as another opportunity to impose yet more damaging cuts
This review cannot be just another opportunity to reduce funding - it is time for this government to deliver the investment that our Armed Forces and our national security require, writes Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith
There is deep and mounting concern across Parliament about the perilous effect of cuts and budget pressures on Britain’s defence capabilities.
Labour’s frontbench has been warning about this since the coalition government first proposed severe cutbacks in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, including cuts to personnel across all three services, cancelling our maritime patrol aircraft and retiring HMS Ark Royal.
But in recent months we have been joined by a growing number of Conservative backbenchers who are also very concerned about these short-sighted cuts.
The government’s defence review – the Modernising Defence Programme – will be the first test of whether the government is prepared to listen to this cross-party concern, and whether the curious anti-cuts rhetoric of the Defence Secretary and his ministers will be matched by real investment in our Armed Forces and our national security.
The situation is very serious. Defence spending was cut by nearly £10bn in real terms between 2010 and 2017.
We face the escalating costs of new and sophisticated equipment – a challenge which has been compounded by a stop-start approach by government resulting in delays, leading to rising costs, and subsequent cancellations or cuts elsewhere.
We also face a real challenge with the fall in the value of sterling, given that so much of the Defence Equipment Plan is denominated in foreign currencies.
And then there is the gaping black hole in the MoD’s Equipment Plan, which sets out the £180bn of equipment and associated costs that are required by our Armed Forces in order to keep this country safe. The National Audit Office recently concluded that the Plan is simply not affordable, and the funding gap may be as much as £21bn.
Significant elements of the plan rely on efficiency savings and the MoD’s Permanent Secretary, Stephen Lovegrove, has said that the department must find £20bn of efficiencies over the next 10 years.
And this is a major concern as regards the government’s defence review, because three of the four work strands focus on generating efficiencies through reforming the management of the MoD.
Of course, every effort should be made to maximise efficiency savings, but the government has an alarming habit of over-relying on projected savings to fund key programmes, savings which they are patently failing to achieve.
Industry also needs certainty that the UK will remain a favourable market for defence companies after Britain has left the European Union. But it is sadly clear from my conversations with defence suppliers that there is deep uncertainty about the government’s Brexit plans and this is having a severe impact on the ability of industry to plan ahead.
Most obviously, the government’s reckless decision to rule out a customs union with the EU could be hugely damaging to defence companies which operate complex, pan-European supply chains. We need certainty from this government, as opposed to ideologically-driven decisions that are simply designed to appease a certain wing of the Parliamentary Conservative Party.
We also need the government to come forward with a proper defence industrial strategy, a better approach than simply buying off the shelf. The industry must be supported to develop highly skilled, well paid work - especially in areas where there are not particularly high levels of employment so that it adds distinct value to both local and regional economies.
To this end, Labour believes that the MoD should be required to factor in the economic and employment impacts when it makes contract decisions. Therefore, we will look at how we can re-evaluate the definition of “good value” when making procurement decisions to include the added value of uplift to local economies.
I sincerely hope that the government will deliver a defence review which focuses on maximising the potential of our defence workforce, maintaining the competitive edge of our world-class defence industry and investing in the capabilities that our nation requires.
It cannot simply be another opportunity to impose yet more damaging cuts via the back-door. It is time for this government to deliver the investment in defence that our Armed Forces and our national security require.
Nia Griffith is Labour MP for Llanelli and Shadow Secretary of State for Defence