Defence Expenditure (NATO Target) Bill

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Private Member’s Bill – 23 October 2015, 2nd Reading

It is a huge privilege to highlight the importance that this Party places on our national security and our role in safeguarding the wider world. We live in an ever complex and challenging international landscape, where our service personnel selflessly give of themselves to keep us safe.

It is the first duty of any Government to ensure that we have the capacity and capability to defend ourselves against current and future threats while ensuring that every precaution is taken to safeguard those who put themselves in danger for our security. It is the determination of this Opposition to scrutinise the Government over each decision that it takes, ensuring that there is a modern and strategic plan to maximise our security.

As a Party in power, Labour consistently spent well above the 2% NATO target, and therefore embrace the principle that this Bill is trying to achieve.

In 2006, NATO recognised the sharp decline in many of its European members’ defence budgets by an average of 10%.

But we’ve witnessed an even steeper decline in the UK, with a Conservative-led Government cutting the defence budget by 18% between 2009/10 and 2014/15.

So it is this, and the last Conservative-led administration that we can thank for the scepticism about our defence budget.

It’s because of actions like that of the last Government that an agreement was made through NATO that there should be commitment from governments to apportion 2% of their GDP to defence spending.

Under a Labour Government in 2006, Britain was recognised for being the largest NATO contributor of its GDP to defence outside the US. At the September 2014 summit in Wales, progress had not been made, so nations again embraced this 2020 target of 2% with renewed commitment, although no nation has enshrined the 2% into their domestic law.

Academics have been critical of the 2% defence spend target as it does not commit to hypothecate how much investment should be made into research and development to provide cutting edge technology, and as evidence to the Defence Select Committee highlights, even with a 2% spend, the proportion of nation defence spending does not necessarily align with what capability a nation is willing to deploy and how relevant their equipment is to the challenges faced in any particular operation.

I’m sure that across these benches, there is a further air of scepticism that has developed. If a statutory 2% of GDP is apportioned to defence, we know that it will be met, even if through creative cross departmental definitions around our wider security. As the NATO report appertaining to Financial and Economic data highlights, the UK is projected to spend 2.08% of GDP on defence during this financial year, however when compared against the NATO determinants, spend sits at 1.97%, and this is before accounting for the £500m cut announced on 4 June.

So let’s be clear Madam Deputy Speaker, Labour Governments deliver on the 2% target and Conservative Governments slash the budgets and undermine the principle – putting our security and our commitment to NATO at risk.

Stretching definitions to wider defence and security interests by wider inclusions does not make our shores safer, and therefore not to put the 2% into statute enables a more honest assessment of our capability and spend. And I say capability and spend as output is of more significance to these benches than just input.  Let me give an example, £800m of military pensions have now been classified as defence spending by this government and spending on the Single Intelligence Account (from which Mi5, Mi6 and GCHQ derive their funding) have now appeared in the Government’s 2% classification.

Labour is determined that this Government’s defence spending doesn’t just become a smoke and mirrors exercise to justify a target, as so many targets become, but reflects a serious commitment to safeguard our security.

As the last Strategic Defence and Security Review determined, we were left with aircraft carriers without aircraft, and left the UK without any maritime patrol capabilities, or shamefully serving personnel without the most up to date equipment. Even this week we heard in Defence Questions how old equipment is being used for training, not the most up to date.

Not only do these decisions seriously shrink our capability in proportion to spend, but they also create risk, and a clear nervousness amongst the Government’s own backbenchers, as to why they are wanting to tie the hands of their frontbench today; so that this can never happen again.

Members across these benches can therefore understand the concerns raised across the house resultant from the last Strategic Defence and Security Review, which was neither strategic nor sought maximise our security. The huge scale of the cuts driven by the Chancellor since 2010, has placed ideology ahead of our national security.

Labour are taking a different approach to defence spending. We have already announced that we will be carrying out a strategic review of our security. This will be evidence-led, ensuring first that our nation is safe and that we secure strong global partners in defending those at risk and in creating a safer world.

Labour have a proud history on these matters. You need only look to our record of the last term of the Labour Government where we spent an average of 2.4% of GDP on defence each year, compared to the little over 2% predicted for this year inclusive of wider spending commitments beyond those strictly defined as defence. This is a worrying trend.

With NATO founded out of that great Labour government – led by Major Attlee, our Party is committed to the principle of spending a minimum of 2% on defence with the modern capabilities to secure our nation’s future.

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