Speaking in a debate on defence and security, Keith Simpson calls for this autumn’s strategic defence and security review to establish a national security policy with a single national security budget rather than it being spread between several Departments. He also highlights the challenge of raising public awareness about the threat to the UK from Russia at a time when the public are focused on threats from Islamic terrorism.
Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) on introducing the debate with such clarity and depth of knowledge.
This autumn the Prime Minister, whoever he is—no doubt it will be my right hon. Friend—will revisit the strategic defence and security review. He is on record as saying that he thinks it just needs a light touch. With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, I think he is wrong for every reason that my hon. Friend and other colleagues here have pointed out. It is a horribly complex situation.
I remember, in the early 1970s, going to seminars on military history, defence and international relations at the Institute of Historical Research, where one sat at the feet of Professors A. J. P. Taylor, Donald Cameron Watt, and Sir—as he is now—Michael Howard. A lot of the talk was about rearmament and appeasement in the 1920s and ’30s, and I used to sit there and think how naive and stupid were the chiefs of staff, the politicians and most of the advisers of that time. In the past 20-odd years, I have gained more sympathy for them, because they were faced with financial collapse and a multiplicity of threats. The armed forces had been reduced in number, most Government expenditure had been reduced, and the armed forces themselves could not agree on priorities. In relation to the Ministry of Defence’s budget, the armed forces—I say this with regret—have been log-rolling for decades, often wasting billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
In the few minutes that I have, I want to emphasise the fact that we should have a national security policy. That is of the things that the Government should be addressing this autumn. I hope that the discussion will not just be confined to Government Departments and to Parliament but open to wider outside expertise, as happens in the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and most European countries. That is absolutely crucial. Although this debate has—rightly given the nature of the publication—concentrated on the defence aspects and highlighted the threat from Putin, we all know that in fact we face a multiplicity of threats. If anything, the situation is more challenging for a Government now than it was even for the Governments of the late 1930s.
In looking at a national security policy, we must think not only of the threats that our country faces and is going to face, which have been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and others, but what the market will bear in terms of the money that is going to be allocated. It is a sobering thought that, looking at the national security budgets in the round, one of the poorest Departments is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with £1.72 billion. The Department for Work and Pensions could lose that kind of money in an afternoon, and Government IT budgets have invariably done so. The MOD’s budget is £34.34 billion, and the budget of Department for International Development, which I would include in the national security budget, is £9.89 billion. I will not go into the arguments about whether DFID’s budget should be reduced.
Sir Gerald Howarth: The latest figures I have indicate that the figure is actually £13 billion—it has gone up from £8.5 billion.
Mr Simpson: I am using the latest figure provided by the House of Commons Library. There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. The fact is that if we put together the budgets of those three Government Departments, that part of the national security budget is about £45.95 billion.
If we throw in, say, another £5 billion to £10 billion for the intelligence services and GCHQ, we have about £55 billion. That is not a vast sum of money, but it is quite large. We need to consider whether we are spending our national security budgets correctly. They are in separate silos, and it would be much better, in the modern world, to look at them in the round.
In outlining the threat of Putin and all the other threats, we need to think about how we get public opinion alerted to this, and whether public opinion is prepared to see more money spent on national security. The latest polling done this weekend by YouGov shows what the public think about the amount of money spent on defence: 49% think it is too little, 20% about right, and 16% too much. Yet if we drill down into the 49% and tell those people that to get the extra money we must either, in simple terms, put up taxes or cut other areas of public expenditure—some will say “Transfer the money from DFID”—they do not much like either alternative.
Another aspect of the poll—this relates directly to what my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border has been saying—showed that 52% of those asked believed that resources on defence should be focused on dealing with the threats from Islamic terrorism rather than threats from states like Russia: in fact, only 18% thought that we should allocate resources to that. We can play with statistics, and public perception changes. In September 1938, the overwhelming majority of people welcomed the Munich agreement, but by April 1939 they had changed their views completely. Things will always change. The challenge that we all face is in being open in our debate and in getting public opinion to think about this, but also in getting the Government to move away from what can only be seen as cold war thinking in relation to cold war structures of the sort that still exist today.
To be fair to the previous Government, and our own Government, they did, between them, set up the National Security Council. Things are much better co-ordinated than ever before, according to everybody I have spoken to, including Opposition Members. The success of the National Security Council depends on the personality, interest and drive of the Prime Minister. Although one might disagree with some of the decisions that the current Prime Minister has made, he has provided that drive by regularly attending the National Security Council. There is nothing set in concrete to say that another Prime Minister would do that. As with Departments, once we remove a Minister who takes real, direct action, we can see things drift.
This has been an important debate. The national security budget and the strategic defence and security review do not need a light touch, but some serious thinking. We should have a debate not just about whether we spend 2% of GDP on defence but about how much we spend in total on national security and whether we can move any of that money around between Departments.