Tuesday’s defence debate shows this government needs to get a grip on the figures

by Kevan Jones

Since taking office Ministers have repeatedly told the country that Defence cuts must be quick and deep due to a “£38 billion black hole” inheritance in the MoD budget. Yet there is another story. Public body after public body has questioned the validity of the £38bn figure.  This has, of course, now become folklore, but we must scrutinise the claim that underpins the legitimacy of all the government are doing.

The Defence select committee’s report into the SDSR stated that ‘without proper detailed figures’ the government’s claims about the extent of the black hole ‘cannot be verified’.

The National Audit Office has correctly concluded that ‘the size of the gap is highly sensitive to the budget growth… If the Defence budget remained constant in real terms…the gap would now be £6 billion over the ten years. If…there was no increase in the defence budget in cash terms over the same ten year period, the gap would rise to £36 billion’. Cursory scrutiny shows that the defence budget is rising in cash terms. Ministers have said they will make public statements on this but are yet to produce any detail of how this figure has been arrived at.

Within months of this government coming into power the former secretary of state, Liam Fox, had claimed that he had balanced the budget. Now we’ve had Philip Hammond say exactly the same thing. If the ‘black hole’ is as large as they have alleged, how have two secretaries of state been able to claim twice separately that the imbalance has been rectified?

In a defence debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday not a single government minister or MP could explain how the “black hole” figure was reached.

This is a critical issue because the government has predicated all of its spending decisions on this claim. Servicemen and women are enduring cuts to pensions and allowances. Essential military capabilities have been abandoned. Thousands of courageous, skilled and professional personnel have been sacked. And this is all in the name of the ‘£38 billion black hole’.  Ministers must publish how they arrived at this figure. Until they do the public will remain dubious and service men and women will continue to ask why such aggressive cuts are being made on their backs. Without full disclosure how can we rely on ministers’ word alone?

Tories say that to raise these questions means we are ‘in denial’. But it is they who are in denial about the impact of their measures.

We know that if we were in government now we would be facing tough challenges. The financial crash combined with this government’s failure to stimulate domestic growth mean there are huge budgetary challenges. We also know that Labour did not go far enough to reform procurement, just like successive administrations, and areas of the equipment programme became unaffordable.

We have already outlined billions of pounds of savings we would be making, including scrapping the Nimrod MR4 surveillance aircraft, making efficiencies in the Trident renewal programme, rationalising the defence estate, making cuts to civilian allowances, reducing tank regiments, withdrawing aircraft and more besides.

Economic reality is the basis of our ongoing policy-review work, but we know we need reform, not just rushed cuts.  We do not oppose for opposition’s sake, indeed we take every the opportunity to work with the Government, be it over operations in Afghanistan or enshrining the Military Covenant into law.

Our concern is not partisan, but born from our commitment to budgetary stability and honesty with the service community. This government is seeking credit for a now-discredited defence review, but they are running an aggressive deficit reduction programme based highly questionable assumptions.

The defence secretary Philip Hammond recently came to the House of Commons to announce that the MoD budget had been ‘balanced’. His claim, however, is reliant on a 1 per cent real terms year-on-year increase post-2015, but this applies to less than half of the government’s annual defence expenditure. The 1 per cent rise is indeed only an ‘assumption’ and by no means guaranteed.

Given the government’s self-made, double-dip recession and the Eurozone’s precipitous position, you have to ask whether any ‘assumption’ made today is reliable. His triumphalism looks like political hubris of the worst kind.

Ministers are not making the savings they should. Today we have seen reports of waste at the MoD and the delay to Trident renewal, undertaken for political reasons to patch over a coalition rift, has cost £1.4 billion – a figure likely to rise. The government is deferring many big decisions (“pushing to the right”) to make short-term savings but increasing costs in the long-term.

Morale in the armed forces is in freefall, and is it any wonder. Ministers have used the ‘£38 billion’ figure to justify austerity over security. Until they publish specific details of how they arrived at this figure they will look increasingly reckless, all at the expense of our service personnel.

Kevan Jones is MP for North Durham and a shadow defence minister

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6 Responses to “Tuesday’s defence debate shows this government needs to get a grip on the figures”

  1. swatantra says:

    No one is going to attack Britain this century unless its an extra-terestial attack. So nuclear weapons are a complete waste of time. Ad if we were to prempt a strike then our fallout contamintes not just enemy territory but the entire world. The half life of harmful istopes stretches beyond centuries. Besides which convential weaponary is bettter at dealing with civil disorder and boundary disputes and the fight for water rights. So the MOD need to grow up and stop playing with their toys.

  2. Anon E Mouse says:


    Granted under the last Labour government we participated in a lot of offensive wars rather than defensive under the Tories but you have no way of knowing if your silly remarks are true or not.

    Certainly your comments about the after effects of nuclear weapons are complete nonsense so it is safe to assume that perhaps you’d be better off on a site for delusional CND supporters rather than here…

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    While Swatantra might have phrased his opening line more sensibly I agree with the sentiment that Trident is an expensive and unnecessary insurance policy. I might also add that the whole of parliament should be ashamed of themselves for their silence on the disgraceful use of drones by USA and now UK forces.

  4. Anon E Mouse says:

    Robin Thorpe

    I agree that Trident is an expensive insurance policy for this country but in a world where we have medieval nations who wish to destroy us and enforce their vicious hatred of woman and minorities onto the way we live in the West it’s not something I’d like to be without.

    As for drones they are just another weapon in a war and personally I’d sooner see a million drones in action than our soldiers getting killed in Labour’s overseas adventures.

    I will say though that it would be nice for the electorate here to be able to choose between two ideologically different views in political parties….

  5. swatantra says:

    In the C17 and C18 there was honour in War, and nations adopted certain Rules of Engagement. Since then the Art of War has declined. War has become even more mechanistic with the advance of technology, and more dehumanised. There is no honour in the use of drones. If you engage in Warfare then you should do it by fair means and that means fighting fair, man to man. If you believe in your cause then you should have the guts to fight and make sacrifices. I should add that the use of suicide bombers is as unfair as using drones not dignified. Maybe that is the reason why the Americans resorted to the use of drones. But it still is not fighting fair.

  6. Henrik says:

    @swatantra: I’m sure the Germans during the 30 Years War, the English, Scottish and Irish during the Civil Wars and all the normal folk who were killed during the ‘formal’ wars of the 18th Century will be reassured to hear that they died under Rules of Engagement. Wars are deeply unpleasant things, always have been, always will be – and their other consistent feature is that they are a prominent part of human history. I see no reason to expect an era of total tranquility and world peace in the next 100 years any more than we’ve seen the same in the last 100. Much as we’d all love to live in harmony, the unpleasant truth is that wars happen – and, as an interesting historical footnote, since World War II, the comrades have been far more enthusiastic about getting involved in them than the Tories.

    Talk of fighting ‘by fair means’ and ‘man to man’ is nonsense and foolish nonsense at that. There is a generally accepted (by the West, anyway) International Law of Armed Conflict and Western armies generally strive to comply with it and usually manage to do so, even at the cost of significant disadvantage against opponents for whom it is not a factor. To an extent that’s a luxury professional expeditionary forces despatched into non-existential conflicts have to allow themselves, given the political pressure on them to do so.

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