House of Commons Debate on the Defence Budget and Transformation

Monday 14 May 2012

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond)
Before I make my statement, I know that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Corporal Brent McCarthy of the Royal Air Force and Lance Corporal Lee Davies of 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, who were tragically killed in Lashkar Gah on Saturday. Both servicemen were performing an invaluable role in training and mentoring Afghan police, helping to ensure that Afghans will be able to take responsibility for their own security so that Afghanistan will never again be a place from which international terrorists can launch attacks on us and our allies. Their sacrifice will not be in vain. Our thoughts go out to their friends, families and colleagues.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on progress in balancing the defence budget and establishing a sustainable equipment programme as part of the work to deliver the vision set out in the strategic defence and security review—a vision of formidable, adaptable and well-equipped armed forces backed by balanced budgets, disciplined processes and an efficient and effective Department.

The United Kingdom’s armed forces and the Ministry of Defence exist to protect our country and its interests and provide the ultimate guarantee of its security and independence. My overriding priority as Secretary of State for Defence must be achieving success on military operations, but our defence is built on the extraordinary quality and commitment of our people, and ensuring their welfare is close behind. I am clear that when we ask the brave men and women of our armed forces to put themselves in danger to ensure our national security, we owe it to them to make sure that they are properly supported with the very best equipment we can give them to do the job.

The best way I can support our armed forces as they restructure and refocus themselves for the future is to give them the assurance of stable and well-managed budgets and the confidence that the equipment programme is affordable and deliverable. That is because the only way to ensure, in the long-term, the ability to project power, to protect our national security and to ensure that our troops have the equipment they need is to have a defence budget that is in balance. A strong, diverse economy and sound public finances are a prerequisite to being able to sustain the armed forces that our national security requires, and so correcting the disastrous fiscal deficit we inherited and returning the economy to sustainable growth are themselves strategic imperatives. Defence has, rightly, contributed to that fiscal correction, as well as putting its own house in order by dealing with the chaos we inherited in an equipment programme that left a yawning black hole under our armed forces.

Tough decisions have been taken, and I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those who have taken them: my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who showed the courage to tackle head on some of the worst and longest-running procurement fiascos and to make agonising choices over capabilities that Britain could not afford; the armed forces chiefs, who have grasped the challenges that the SDSR has presented and embraced the opportunity to create a sustainable foundation on which they can build for the future; and the leadership team in the MOD, who have worked tirelessly to turn this supertanker round—to tear up the old ways of doing things and to embrace a new model that will ensure that the MOD never again gets into the mess it was in by early 2010.

Thanks to all of them, and with the decision I announced to the House last week on carrier strike being the final piece of the jigsaw, I can tell the House today that, after two years’ work, the black hole in the defence budget has finally been eliminated and the budget is now in balance, with a small annual reserve built in as a prudent measure to make sure that we are not blown off course by unforeseen events: a plan endorsed by the chiefs and by the Treasury. We have achieved this by facing up to the fiscal reality and taking the tough decisions that Labour shirked: reluctantly accepting smaller armed forces and redoubling our resolve to invest in the best possible equipment for them; transforming the role of the Territorial Army as the regular army gets smaller, making it an integral part of Future Force 2020; and embarking on a major restructuring of the Department and a reduction of just over a third in the civilian work force.

Those have not been easy decisions, but they have been the right ones. This has been a difficult period for all our people in the armed forces and more widely across defence. Major change, the threat of redundancy and uncertainty about the future all present challenges to confidence and morale. Reaching a balanced budget for the MOD’s “planning round 12”, or PR12, represents a hugely important milestone in the transformation of defence. It is a symbolic break with the failed practices of the past and a solid foundation on which to build. It starts to put the destabilising uncertainty behind us as we move forward with defence transformation.

At the heart of the plan is the defence equipment programme, which by the end of the PR12 period will account for about 45% of the total defence budget. I have seen for myself over the past seven months just how complex defence procurement is. We are developing cutting-edge technology so that our armed forces have a battle-winning edge, with projects that rank alongside the biggest being undertaken in this country today.

Although there have been widely publicised failures, there have been unsung successes, most notably in Afghanistan, where the urgent operational requirements process funded by the Treasury has repeatedly allowed us to deliver the equipment that our armed forces need quickly and efficiently. Brigadier Patrick Sanders, who commanded 20th Armoured Brigade last year in Afghanistan, has described the equipment that his troops had as “second to none” and “the best that I’ve experienced in 27 years” in the Army. We need to build on the best elements of the UOR model to achieve that level of performance across defence as a whole. At the same time, we must learn from the failures.

Over the 10 years of PR12, we will spend almost £160 billion on new equipment and data systems, and their support, reflecting the planning assumption agreed with the Treasury of a 1% per annum real increase in the equipment and support budget from 2015. However, poor decision making and poor management have too often meant that the armed forces have not received the full benefit of all their spending.

Under the previous Government, the equipment plan became meaningless because projects were committed to it without the funding to pay for them, creating a fantasy programme. Systematic over-programming was compounded by a “conspiracy of optimism”, with officials, the armed forces and suppliers consistently planning on a best-case scenario, in the full knowledge that once a project had been committed to, they could revise up costs with little consequence. It was an overheated equipment plan, managed on a hand-to-mouth basis and driven by short-term cash, rather than long-term value. There were constant postponements and renegotiations, driving costs into projects in a self-reinforcing spiral of busted budgets and torn-up timetables. Rigid contracting meant that there was no flexibility to respond to changed threat priorities or to alternative technologies becoming available. It is our armed forces and the defence of our country that have ultimately paid the price for that mismanagement. The culture and the practice have to change.

We will move forward with a new financial discipline in the equipment plan. There will be under-programming rather than over-programming, so that we can focus on value rather than on cash management. That will give our armed forces confidence that once a project is in the programme, it is real, funded and will be delivered, so that they can plan with certainty. The core committed equipment programme, which covers investment in new equipment and data systems, and their support, amounts to just under £152 billion over 10 years, against a total planned spend of almost £160 billion. That £152 billion includes, for the first time ever, an effective centrally held contingency reserve, determined by Bernard Gray, the new Chief of Defence Matériel, of more than £4 billion to ensure the robustness of the plan.

The plan includes 14 new Chinooks, Apache life-extension and Puma upgrade; a programme of new armoured fighting vehicles worth about £4.5 billion over 10 years, including the assessment phase of Scout; and a £1 billion upgrade of the Warrior armoured fighting vehicle. It also includes the building of the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, the remainder of the Type 45 destroyers, the new Type 26 frigates and the Astute-class and successor nuclear submarines. It includes investment in new Wildcat helicopters, the Merlin upgrade programme and the assessment phase of Merlin marinisation; the introduction into service of the Voyager air-to-air refueller and troop transporter, the A400M air transporter and the Air Seeker surveillance aircraft; an additional C17 strategic airlifter; continued investment in Typhoon and the joint strike fighter; and £7 billion of investment in “complex weapons”—the smart missiles and torpedoes that give our Navy, Army and Air Force their fighting edge.

Balancing the budget allows me to include within that £152 billion core programme a £4 billion-plus investment in intelligence, surveillance, communications and reconnaissance assets across the Cipher, Solomon, Crowsnest, Defence Core Network Services and Falcon projects; the outright purchase of three offshore patrol vessels that are currently leased; capability enhancements to the Typhoon; and a range of simulators, basing and support equipment for the new helicopters and aircraft that we are introducing.

That programme represents the collective priorities of the armed forces, set out by the armed forces committee on which all the service chiefs sit. They confirm that the committed core equipment programme, together with the £8 billion of available unallocated headroom, will fund the capabilities that they require to deliver Future Force 2020 as set out in the strategic defence and security review. That £8 billion will be allocated to projects not yet in the committed core programme only at the point when they need to be committed in order to be delivered on time, and only in accordance with the military assessment of priority at the time. No project will be allowed to be committed without a 10-year budget line to cover not only its procurement but its support costs. Not rocket science, you might think, Mr Speaker, but quite an innovation in defence procurement none the less, and individuals and contractors can expect to be held to account for the estimates on which decisions to commit to projects are based.

The Government believe that transparency is a driver of performance. I want to be as transparent as possible about the defence budget, because greater transparency will help me to drive the change that we need to see in the Ministry of Defence. However, the House will understand that some elements of the defence budget are security-sensitive and others are commercially sensitive. It is essential that we preserve our negotiating space with defence contractors without announcing all our detailed intentions in advance. So to provide the reassurance that the House will want, while protecting the commercial and security interests of defence, I have agreed with the National Audit Office that it will review the equipment plan and confirm that it is affordable. The NAO will have access to confidential, detailed information on the equipment plan that cannot be published, but once it has completed its work, we will publish its verdict on the plan together with a summary of the plan itself.

Today’s announcement and the work that we are taking forward mean that for the first time in a generation the MOD not only has a balanced budget and an appropriate reserve but is putting in place the behaviour-changing incentives and structures that will keep it in balance. It means that the politicians and civil servants in the MOD can look the armed forces in the eye, in the knowledge that we are delivering them the stable platform that they need to build Future Force 2020. We are delivering them a budget agreed across Government, across the Department and by the service chiefs, and a firm baseline for the transformation that is under way to armed forces that may be smaller, but which will be adaptable, agile, equipped with the very best technology and supported by an MOD that is laser-focused on their needs. We are working alongside a defence industry that can invest with renewed confidence in an equipment plan that is actually deliverable. That represents the start of a new chapter in the long history of UK defence, and I commend this statement to the House.

Mr Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) (Lab)
I join the Secretary of State in offering my condolences to the families of Corporal Brent John McCarthy from the Royal Air Force and Lance Corporal Lee Thomas Davies from 1st Battalion Welsh Guards. They will be for ever missed by those who love them, and their sacrifice should always be honoured by our nation. I agree with the Secretary of State. We continue to support the mission in Afghanistan, and we all wish to see political progress there to match our force’s bravery.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance copy of his statement. He might lack the passion of his predecessor, but he should not mimic his assertions. His predecessor said, about the strategic defence and security review, that defence was back on a stable footing, and at the time of the three-month review, he said:

“For the first time in a generation, the MOD will have brought its plans and budget broadly into balance”.

Today we are hearing the same thing, but we will judge today’s statement not on these reheated claims but on the detail published and on whether the Defence Secretary’s plans provide the right balance between flexible force structures, strategic reach post-Afghanistan, strengthening alliances within NATO, support for our forces and their families, and budgetary stability.

The Defence Secretary has said that there will be no more cuts over and above those he has already announced. Let us not forget, however, that he has announced cuts up until 2020, with thousands of service personnel and civil servants yet to be sacked, £900 million of allowances still to be lost and veterans’ and war widows’ pensions being frozen year-on-year.

Short-term control of defence costs to support careful deficit reduction needs to be coupled with long-term reform, but the Government have been reckless where care has been essential and timid when boldness has been required—reckless because decisions on the Astute class submarines and the Trident and carrier programmes have massively increased costs, and timid because long-promised reform of Defence Equipment and Support has been stalled. Only this Government’s review into speeding up defence delivery could itself be four times postponed. Hundreds of defence workers have lost their jobs, and major projects were last year delayed by a combined 30 months and at a cost of £500 million.

Last week, the Secretary of State stumbled into three different figures on the aircraft carrier U-turn. Let us see whether he is any clearer today. In the interest of the Liberal Democrats, the Government have delayed the biggest procurement decision of them all—Trident replacement. Will he therefore tell the House how much that decision to delay will add to the total projected costs of Trident’s successor? Will he also tell the House whether any cuts have been made since the three-month review and whether any programmes have been delayed to enable today’s announcement?

The Secretary of State talks about balancing the books, but I also want to ask him about the balance of our forces. What will be the precise up-front costs in this Parliament of converting RAF bases to Army bases for those returning from Germany? There is also consternation in Scotland about his plans for historic Scottish regiments. Scotland has a proud history in UK armed forces that simply cannot be cast aside, so will he guarantee that the names, identity and cap badges of Scotland’s regiments will be preserved? Failure to do so will show yet again that the Government are totally out of touch with Scotland.

We welcome the new investment, but will the Secretary of State confirm that the full cost of major projects, including the future tanker, the carrier programme, the Typhoon and the joint strike fighter fleets, have all been factored into the figures he is publishing today, and will he publish—perhaps not today but shortly—details of each programme and their costs? Ministers have committed to publishing a 10-year equipment plan. Without that, his claims today cannot be substantiated. Will he therefore honour his commitment to publish the equipment plan with its projected cost and available resource over the same period, or do his comments today about the National Audit Office override that previous commitment?

The Secretary of State has said that there is now a departmental reserve in each year. Will he guarantee that the contingency will be ring-fenced for defence?

In conclusion, Governments take the gravest decision of all by sending our forces into harm’s way. Today’s statement is about the quantity, quality and cost of the equipment we provide them with. We will hold the Secretary of State to each and every one of his commitments today, because it is in the nation’s interests that he gets it right; and where he does, we will support him.

Philip Hammond (Secretary of State, Transport; Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
They still don’t get it. Still they do not understand that a balanced budget is the essential underpinning to effective defence. Still they are in denial about the £38 billion black hole they left, even though we have the internal Labour party documents admitting that the £38 billion black hole is Labour’s biggest weakness in defence. Still they appear to believe, like children in a sweetshop, that it is better to have a big programme that cannot be delivered than a smaller one that our armed forces and defence industry can rely on. Where would we be if the right hon. Gentleman was in charge? We would be right back where we were in May 2010, because he will not make the difficult decisions that support effective defence and will get the MOD back on track.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the process from the SDSR and the three-month exercise. It has been a long and drawn-out process, with savings made at the SDSR, further savings made in the three-month exercise to get to the position announced by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox)—that the defence budget was broadly in balance—and, now, the work that we have done to go the final mile, which has enabled us to say that we have a fully balanced budget.

I must correct the right hon. Gentleman on his point about pensions. Pensions are not frozen, as he very well knows, and using emotive language like that will not help him.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the £500 million increase in the defence programme projects over the last year. What he forgot to tell the House was that in the last year of his party’s Government there was a £3.3 billion increase in the equipment programme. I can also tell him, in answer to his question, that there is no delay to the Trident programme. The timetable of the Trident programme allows us to include all the critical path items in the PR12 period, and we have done so in the figures that I have announced today.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about regimental structures in Scotland. I can say this to him: I, too, have read in a newspaper that I am determined to introduce a continental-style Army, without a regimental structure. I can say this to the House: I understand absolutely the vital role that the regimental structure plays in the British Army, and as long as I am Secretary of State for Defence, the regimental structure will remain.

The right hon. Gentleman made a fair point when he asked how, when the equipment plan in all its detail cannot be published—as it never has been published in the past—I can substantiate the statement that I have made today. I can do two things. On the one hand, I can ask the armed forces committee and the chiefs of staff to confirm that they can deliver the Future Force 2020 capability within the budget that I have announced, and they have done that. On the other hand, I can ask the National Audit Office to review the statement that I have made—the plan that we have produced—and confirm that it is deliverable within the available budgets. As I said earlier, once the National Audit Office has completed its review, we will publish the equipment plan at the same level of detail as it has been published in the past.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me whether I was confident that managing the Department’s budget prudently, with in-year unallocated provision and contingency provision in the equipment plan, would not lead to a Treasury raid, in an attempt to snatch back the headroom. May I guarantee that it will be retained for use in defence? He might have noticed that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is sitting on the Treasury Bench. He gets it—he understands that the only way in which we will be able to manage the defence budget effectively in future is to have an open and transparent relationship between the Treasury and the MOD, where we both understand the boundaries and drive the incentives that will change behaviour in that Department.

As we have taken the painful decisions in the best interests of our armed forces and of Britain’s defence, we have required no lectures from the party that shirked them. As we have tackled the £38 billion black hole, we have asked for no advice from the Labour party, which has yet to take any action to deal with that black hole.

Liam Fox (Secretary of State, Defence; North Somerset, Conservative)
First, may I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words and extend them to the rest of the ministerial team? The junior Ministers all had their share of the hard work and the difficult decisions that had to be taken to get us out of the mess that we inherited. Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the fact that we inherited from Labour not only a £38 billion black hole but a commitment to the replacement of the Trident programme that had no funding line whatever? Will he also tell us how far he has got in introducing professional procurement skills into the Ministry of Defence to enable us to deal with contracts on an equal basis with industry and thus give taxpayers better value and ensure that the kind of disasters that we faced in the past do not happen again?

Philip Hammond (Secretary of State, Transport; Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to one part of Labour’s black hole—the unfunded Trident commitment. He might equally have referred to the 22 Chinook helicopters that the former Prime Minister famously announced but forgot to fund. He asks about professional skills in Defence Equipment and Support, which is a crucial part of the MOD’s operation. The new Chief of Defence Matériel is drawing up a defence matériel strategy that will involve a radical change to the structure of the Defence Equipment and Support organisation. I hope to be able to make an announcement to the House on that matter before the summer recess.

[…]

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
Now that the Secretary of State has finally got around to mentioning Trident, will he please say why he cannot give us some news in his statement on the expenditure of £1 billion on long-lead items for the reconstruction of the Trident system and the missiles that go with it, and why we are still contemplating spending £100 billion on a weapon of mass destruction that does not bring any security to this country, but merely a great deal of expenditure and danger?

Philip Hammond (Secretary of State, Transport; Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman’s views on this subject are very well known, and I do not share them.

[…]

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
Will the balanced budget enable the previously agreed total of 25 frigates and destroyers to be maintained in the future, and will it allow the future Trident successor fleet to mount continuous at-sea deterrence, as personally favoured repeatedly by the Prime Minister in this House?

Philip Hammond (Secretary of State, Transport; Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
The answer to the second question is yes, the funding for the successor submarine is based on continuous at-sea deterrence. I am not sure about the 25 figure; the figure in the SDSR is 19 frigates and destroyers.

[…]

Wayne David (Caerphilly, Labour)
Given the Government’s commitment to the renewal of the Trident programme, can the Secretary of State explain the point of the Liberal Democrats’ review of alternatives to Trident?

Philip Hammond (Secretary of State, Transport; Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
As part of the coalition agreement, we made a commitment to such a review, in parallel with committing to the long-lead items on Trident replacement, so it would not slow down the programme—to answer the question of the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), the shadow Secretary of State. That review of possible alternatives to a submarine-based nuclear deterrent will be completed by the end of this year and submitted to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and a decision will be made then.

[…]

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, Conservative)
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he has said and I hope that it will produce greater confidence in his negotiations with the Treasury, as it will understand exactly where the MOD budget is going. May I ask for an assurance that the nuclear deterrent will not be up for negotiation with any of the other political parties in this House?

Philip Hammond (Secretary of State, Transport; Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
Let me assure my hon. Friend that relationships with the Treasury have improved dramatically at a working level. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and I have complete transparency on these matters and have worked together very closely to achieve this outcome. The Government are fully committed to the replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

[…]

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay, Liberal Democrat)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the £5 billion-worth of funding for the Atomic Weapons Establishment that has been announced today in a written ministerial statement is not new money and does not represent an increased financial commitment to the Trident successor programme?

Philip Hammond (Secretary of State, Transport; Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative)
I can confirm that the new contract for the Atomic Weapons Establishment, announced today, is in fact a rolling over of the existing contract at a lower price for the next period.

[…]

The full debate is available here.