House of Commons Defence debate

DefenceSynergia (DS) is pleased to publish Howard Wheeldon’s helpful precis of the questions and answers to and from our new Secretary of State for Defence, The Right Honourable Gavin Williamson MP, during yesterday’s House of Commons Defence debate. Howard prefaces his précis with some introductory remarks which not necessarily represent those of DS.

Given that this was the first performance at the Despatch Box of the House of Commons by the new Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Gavin Williamson, I thought that it might be helpful for readers if I summarized questions and answers (taken from Hansard) from yesterday afternoon’s Defence Questions session. I have deliberately, due to space, chosen not to include questions and answers given too and by other defence ministers – these are available for viewing online on the House of Commons Hansard site in the usual manner.

Mr. Williamson handled the question session very well as did his ministers. While some may regard yesterday as being a ‘honeymoon session’ the new Secretary of State will have been left in no doubt as to the general feeling in the House that the defence budget needs to be significantly increased in order to make UK defence credible and to allow us to better face up to the growing level of threat. Let us see where we go from here.

Before moving on, I note that several newspapers are carrying a story suggesting that Gavin Williamson has said “that the requirement to fund the UK’s nuclear deterrent could soon be removed from the military budget”. I have no detail from where such remarks may have been made or come from and, in case they had been made yesterday, I readily admit to having failed to find them. Nevertheless, if true, this would certainly relieve pressure on the defence budget overall.

Initial Remarks from Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson

During my first few weeks as Secretary of State for Defence, I have had the privilege of being able to join the Army on Salisbury plain, the RAF in Cosford and the Navy in Devonport. It is truly moving to see the dedication and commitment they all show in their work. On 8 and 9 November, I had the opportunity to join fellow NATO Defence Ministers to discuss the future NATO command. This is about creating a new structure to lead NATO, but the establishment of a command for the Atlantic and its location have yet to be decided.

Gavin Newlands (SNP) – (Paisley)

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but with Russian submarine activity in Scottish waters at a level not seen since the cold war—just last week, the Russian destroyer the Vice-Admiral Kulakov was escorted through the Moray firth—how can the Secretary of State reassure Scots that, when the command is re-established, it will meet the needs of Scotland, which sits in a vital strategic position with respect to the High North?

Gavin Williamson

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the increased activity of Russian submarines in the north Atlantic. I am sure he would welcome the investment that the UK Government are putting into Her Majesty’s naval base at Clyde. Some £1.5 billion is being spent on investing in Scotland and 6,500 personnel are already based at Her Majesty’s naval base at Clyde, and that number is going to increase. NATO and what we do in terms of NATO are vital. It is the cornerstone of our defence. The hon. Gentleman must understand, though, that it is about not only conventional warfare and conventional deterrents but a nuclear deterrent. If we do not recognise the fact that nuclear weapons have been safeguarding our security, then we do not understand what NATO is. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will start to welcome our investment in not only conventional submarines in Scotland but nuclear submarines

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke – Con)

What steps he is taking to ensure that the UK remains an effective defence partner

Gavin Williamson

The MOD works closely with our allies and partners, making a crucial contribution to Britain’s status as a global power. The challenging global security context, including a resurgent Russia, makes our relationships all the more vital. In my first three weeks, I have met Defence Ministers from the US, France and other NATO members, and I will continue to engage widely

Jack Lopresti

Given the current financial pressures within the MOD, does my right hon. Friend agree with Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who was the commander of the US army in Europe and who said that Britain risks “going into a different sort of category” of ally if we cannot maintain our capability commitments?

Gavin Williamson

When I had the good fortune to sit down with Secretary Mattis to discuss our partnership, what struck me was the value that the United States puts on everything that Britain does, and the contribution our men and equipment make. He was left in no doubt that that commitment—that resolute support that we have always provided to the United States—will always be there

Madeleine Moon (Lab – Bridgend)

Despite what the Secretary of State says, Lieutenant General Hodges and James Mattis have both said that we will lose our clout in NATO and our place at the top table if the cuts continue. Will the new Secretary of State commit to stopping the cuts to our capability, and will he make sure that Britain stays at the top table and that we have the capability to defend ourselves and our allies?

Gavin Williamson

The Government’s commitment to making sure that we have the very best for our armed forces has always been clear. The rising defence budget, which is going from £36 billion to £40 billion, is evidence of that commitment. [Interruption.] The United States knows quite clearly that we will always be there in support of them, regardless of what the hon. Lady’s leader may wish

Leo Docherty – (Aldershot) – (Con)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, when global threats to British interests around the world are increasing, it might seem illogical to have a defence capability review that could decrease our capabilities at a time when we need to be doing everything we can to increase our armed forces’ fighting power?

Gavin Williamson

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about making sure we have the right capability for all our armed forces. I am taking the opportunity to look at all the work that has been done and I am making my own judgment as to the best way to go forward.

Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate – Lab)

At recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the adequacy of funding for his Department. [902548]

Gavin Williamson

I have regular meetings with the Chancellor. As yet, I have not had a formal meeting with him, but I am very much looking forward to doing so to discuss our shared future

Bambos Charalambous

In a recent letter to the Defence Secretary, 25 of his Conservative colleagues said: “We look forward to rhetoric being matched in deeds over the coming months. Will the Secretary of State listen to colleagues from all parts of the House and match the Government’s rhetoric with increased resources for our armed services?

Gavin Williamson

What we have in our national security and capability review is the opportunity to step back, look at the threats and challenges that face this country, whether it is from cyber or from more conventional threats, and make sure that we have the right resources in place to deliver for our armed forces. That is what I will be looking at. I am looking forward to meeting the Chancellor as well as many others and having those discussions going forward.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on taking up office in this vital position. When he speaks to the Chancellor, will he take the opportunity of reminding him that, in the cold war years, we spent 5% of GDP on defence and that now we spend barely 2% of GDP on defence? Perhaps a target nearer to 3% of GDP on defence might prevent our armed forces from being further hollowed out.

Gavin Williamson

I will always listen intensely and very carefully to the arguments of my right hon. Friend. I have always seen 2% as a base as opposed to a ceiling, and I will certainly take on board his thoughts and comments in discussions going forward.

Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post and to the world of defence. The National Audit Office report earlier this year highlighted the fact that the Government have committed £24.4 billion to extra equipment, but only another £6.4 billion was actually there in new money for the joint strike fighter. How will he fill that £18 billion black hole in the budget on the basis that both the efficiencies and the headroom identified by the NAO have not yet been met?

Gavin Williamson

I have an unparalleled commitment from this Government to continue to increase defence spending on equipment—0.5% above inflation every single year. I will be very happy to look at all the issues in the National Audit Office report and make sure that, working with our industrial partners, we deliver very best value for our armed forces

Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase – (Con)

I welcome my right hon. Friend, my constituency neighbour to his place. Training is key to ensuring that our armed forces are operationally ready should they need to be mobilised. Will my right hon. Friend outline what measures are being taken to ensure that training is well funded?

Gavin Williamson

We have often been criticised for having the most poorly equipped armed forces, but the best trained armed forces. In my tenure as Secretary of State, I want to ensure that we have armed forces that have the best equipment and the best training. I have spoken to ministerial colleagues from Norway and other countries across Europe, and they all recognise our commitment to training. We will continue to invest in that, including in what the Royal Marines do in Norway every single winter

Nia Griffiths (Llanelli) – (Lab)

Security cannot be done on the cheap. With expert after expert highlighting serious gaps in defence funding, it was surreal last week to hear the permanent secretary say that the man in charge had made no formal pre-Budget requests to the Chancellor for more money. It is one thing to ask and not get, but another not even to bother asking. Did I hear correctly today? Will the Secretary of State confirm that he actually did not make any representations to the Chancellor before the Budget?

Gavin Williamson

We have to ensure that we understand the needs of our defence and armed forces. The hon. Lady may wish to rush into things, and to demand and demand, but I want to ensure that we have the arguments ready, we understand the threats that this country faces and we deliver for our armed forces. That is what the focus will be. I have had many conversations with the Chancellor, and I look forward to having many more

Nia Griffith

I think I will take that as a no. This is serious; we hear that the Marines may be cut by 15% and the Army reduced to 70,000. That would seriously put our international credibility at risk. With the Secretary of State’s Back Benchers in open rebellion and one of his Ministers threatening to quit over cuts, just how bad do things have to get before the Secretary of State does his job, stands up for defence, and tells the Prime Minister and the Chancellor that enough is enough?

Gavin Williamson

I will take many lectures from many people, but it is a little bit rich to be lectured about defence spending by the party that is led by a man who does not even believe in the British Army or a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent. The Conservative party is the party that is ensuring that we deliver on 2% and that we increase defence spending. Frankly, I find it shocking to be lectured by the party that is led by a man who does not even believe in the British Army.

James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)

What progress he has made on the national security capability review?

Gavin Williamson

With threats intensifying around the world, it is vital that our armed forces have the right capabilities in order to defend global security. We are making good progress: evidence has been reviewed, analysis conducted and options developed. I very much look forward to working with my hon. Friend and listening to his comments on how best to take this forward.

James Gray

I very much welcome the Secretary of State to his new job because, given his background, he is ideally suited to fighting the corner in the upcoming reviews. Will he please speak to the Prime Minister and remind her that the primary duty of any Government is the defence of the realm? Will he speak to the National Security Adviser, and indeed the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and remind them that they must not use this review as some sort of camouflage to cut our services? Will he speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and ensure that he digs deep in his pockets to produce the money we need? Above all, will he speak to his right hon. Friend the Chief Whip and remind him that, if he does not do so, he will be facing a very substantial rebellion?

Gavin Williamson

I thank my hon. Friend. I can assure him that I will speak to every single one of the people he has mentioned. As he rightly points out, the defence of our nation is the primary responsibility of every Government, and it is one that I take exceptionally seriously. When we see our armed forces and everything they do, and the commitment with which they give themselves to it, we cannot be anything but awed by it. I will do everything I can to deliver for them.

CHW (London 28th November 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS