Defence Questions, 23/02/2015. Text from Hansard.
Sir Peter Luff: “Does the Secretary of State agree that all the major parties in the coming election should commit to a real-terms increase in the defence budget and to the two per cent NATO target, because only that way can we hope to keep our nation safe in an increasingly hostile and menacing world?”
Michael Fallon: “Since the 2010 SDSR, our planning assumption has been that real growth in the defence budget, with 1 per cent growth on equipment, is required to deliver the highly capable and adaptable armed forces that we set out in Future Force 2020. The scale of our current operations in Kabul, the middle east and Sierra Leone underline the value of the flexibility that we encouraged in that review. So far as the future is concerned, we are spending £34 billion this year; we will be spending £34 billion next year. It is time we heard from Labour whether it will match that spending or whether it plans to cut it.”
Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): “I congratulate the Defence Secretary on highlighting the real and present danger posed by Mr Putin’s Russia to the stability of Europe and the threat posed by ISIL. Does he agree that it would be folly for the United Kingdom to cut its defence expenditure below the minimum requirement of two per cent that NATO has set?”
Michael Fallon: “I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have set out our planning assumptions for the current defence budget, but I still think we ought to hear exactly what the Opposition’s plan is. Are they going to match our £34 billion a year, or are they going to cut it? Is it match or cut?”
Mr Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire) (Con): “May I also congratulate the Defence Secretary on his forthright warning about an expansionist and aggressive Russia under President Putin representing a real and present danger to the Baltic states and, therefore, to NATO and European peace? May I be the third former Defence Minister from the previous SDSR to urge the Defence Secretary to use the current SDSR to improve defence capability rather than reduce it? May I also reassure him that there is a huge groundswell of opinion on the Benches behind him in support of an increase in defence spending and certainly not in support of a cut?”
Michael Fallon: “I hope that my right hon. Friend, who served with distinction as a Minister in my Department, will recognise that, by investing in two aircraft carriers, committing to a replacement of the Type 23s, investing in armoured vehicles, purchasing fighters and commissioning new offshore patrol vessels, we are improving our defence capability. It is because we sorted out the defence budget that we are able to invest in new equipment in a way that the previous Government could not possibly have done.”
Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con): “There are four drivers and constraints on the defence budget: the international security environment, including what is happening in Ukraine; commitments already entered into, including upgrading our nuclear deterrent; the overall fiscal position; and our international obligations and moral authority. Does the direction of travel of any of those four things justify our defence spending falling below two per cent of GDP? Is this a case, if ever there was one, for a proper cross-party consensus in Britain?”
Michael Fallon: “Only because we sorted out the budget mess that we inherited have we been able to invest in and modernise our defence equipment. I fully agree with my right hon. Friend: we would be in a stronger place if there was more consensus. We have yet to hear whether Labour would match our £34 billion or cut it. Is it time we had an answer?”
That four former ministers felt the need to press Fallon on the subject of the NATO two per cent spending target suggests mounting pressure to meet it from well-informed quarters.
As we wrote the week before last, Putin’s actions in Ukraine and the broader threat to the Baltic states is sharpening attention on Britain’s neglected commitments to our NATO allies.