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Robust scrutiny is required at a critical time for UK defence

3 min read

We need new thinking about how the government spends its defence budget. I have the experience to bring this as chair of the Defence Select Committee, writes Bernard Jenkin MP

The core purpose of the Defence Select Committee is to conduct robust scrutiny of defence ministers, officials and service chiefs in order to help create conditions where the public can have justified confidence in UK defence policy, the MoD and the Armed Forces. Scrutiny should be positive and forward looking, holding ministers and officials to account to promote learning and improvement.

Now is a critical time for UK defence. The forthcoming defence and foreign policy review must face the reality that the UK, and the West’s values and institutions, are facing new challenges from across the world.

Having always had a deep interest in defence, I served as Shadow Secretary of State for two years, and then four years on the Defence Committee. I also bring my experience as chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), following our reports on national strategy, government contracting and procurement, and the lessons of Chilcott.

The most immediate question is the UK’s future relationship with our European neighbours, as we leave the EU. There is broad consensus that the UK should have a strong new partnership with European defence within the Nato framework. If Nato cannot guarantee peace and security for us Europeans, then what will? Nato also does not interfere with the strategic and operational independence of its members, and Nato does not preclude cooperation with the EU and its member states on military operations, training, defence doctrine and procurement. So, while reinforcing the primacy of Nato and the importance of our other bilateral defence relationships, such as with the US, how will the government proceed?

Defence policy must recognise the shift of power from West to East in recent decades. The democratic world is facing rising threats, such as the China’s challenge to the international order, Russian aggression, hybrid warfare, global terrorism and failed states. The government must acquire the military capability and defence diplomacy in order to reform failed states and to promote democratic values to other countries. It must also recognise the volatility of the Middle East and the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation, which is unlikely to be confined to Iran and North Korea in the longer term.

All this requires new thinking about how the government spends its defence budget. Massing a large arsenal of weapons and systems at great cost is no good if the UK finds itself dealing with threats we never anticipated. UK national strategy has to be more about being ready for what we cannot predict or anticipate.

As well as completing inquiries on major projects and global terrorism, I would also ask the committee to monitor defence negotiations with the EU, shadow the foreign policy and defence review, and scrutinise MoD capability, particularly on procurement. The committee must also hold the government to account for its promises to armed forces personnel and veterans. As a Vice President of Combat Stress, the mental welfare charity for armed forces personnel, I attach particular importance to this.

Bernard Jenkin is Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex

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