A motion tabled by the Labour Party calling on the government to reverse the decision to cut the size of the armed forces has been voted down by the Commons this evening, with 256 MPs voting in favour and 357 against.
Opening the debate for Labour, John Healey criticised the move to break with the personal promise made by the Prime Minister’s when launching the Conservative 2019 general election not to reduce the armed forces “in any form”.
“He make take the pledges that he makes to our armed forces and the public lightly,” the Shadow Defence Secretary told parliament this evening. “We do not.”
Healey argued that “with the threats to the UK growing and diversifying there is a strong case against not for further cuts to our armed forces” and highlighted that the army will be at its smallest in 300 years at 72,000.
“You can destroy enemy forces with technology but you can’t seize and hold ground without troops. Drones and robots don’t win hearts and minds, they don’t mend broken societies, they don’t give Covid jabs,” Healey said.
He said the reduction would do reputational damage and undermine the UK’s resilience to unforeseen crises such as Covid, its ability to rapidly respond to events and its capacity to sustain rotations of troops in long-term engagements.
The government’s defence command paper published last month included plans to reduce the full-time established strength of the army from 82,500 to 72,000 by 2025, leaving the UK with the smallest army since 1714.
It followed defence spending announced in November, reportedly signed off following weeks of arguments between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury, which represents the largest military investment since the end of the Cold War.
The funding is an increase on top of the Tory 2019 election pledge to increase defence spending by 0.5% above the rate of inflation each year of this parliament. The department will receive overall an additional £24.1bn over the next four years.
“But the new defence budget is not all it seems,” Healey warned MPs in the debate this evening. “Ministers talk about the rise in capital funding but not the real cut in revenue funding over the next four years.
“This means less money for forces recruitment, training, pay, families. It means a possible cut of 40% to the budget of the office for veterans’ affairs.
“And, worse still Madam Deputy Speaker, over half of this year’s £16.4bn defence equipment budget is revenue based for equipment support and maintenance. This revenue cut is the Achilles’ heel of the defence plans.”
He accused ministers of doing nothing new to “get a grip of the MoD’s budget failings, to make the most of this big, one-off opportunity from the extra funding” in the recent defence review and defence industrial strategy announcements.
He told the minister: “Get to grips with the budget, consider the concerns raised, rethink the plans and report back to parliament before the end of June. Britain was promised better. Britain deserves better. Britain needs better.”
“We have to think about defence differently,” James Heapey told MPs this evening. “No longer can we have a contingent force sat in the UK waiting for the fight, instead we must be operating persistently around the globe.”
“The lessons of the last two decades show that you must work intelligently to tackle instability upstream and through regional partners,” the minister added. “You simply can’t muscle your way to a solution in these places with all-out hard power.
“Our contributions to these conflicts in the future must be smarter and we must develop a capability that will endure even after our mission is inevitably over.”
Labour’s Kate Osborne described the reduction as a “slap in the face for our armed forces personnel”. She pointed out their contribution to combatting the pandemic and highlighted that at one point 95% of mobile testing units were run by the army.
“There is no doubt that the threats we face as a country have changed in modern times and that spending needs to be focused accordingly. But as the pandemic has highlighted, highly trained personnel are indispensable,” she said.
The government also saw opposition from its own benches. Beckenham MP Bob Stewart warned that the UK has not fought a “total war as envisaged and on which this integrated review is predicated for over 70 years”.
“99% of all operations have required us to put soldiers on the ground. Suddenly, we’re saying everything should be predicated on this ‘grey zone’ warfare,” he said. The backbench Tory added: “Having commanded men on peacekeeping, there is a real argument in having enough.”
The debate this evening was one in which the opposition can set the agenda. The motions put forward are not binding on the government. Labour also forced a vote to establish a parliamentary inquiry into the Greensill scandal today.
Below is the full text of the armed forces motion tabled by Labour today.
Mr Nicholas Brown
That this House notes the Prime Minister’s 2019 election pledge that his government would not cut the armed services in any form; further notes with concern the threat assessment in the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, that threats from other states to the UK and its allies are growing and diversifying; calls on the government to rethink its plan set out in the defence command paper, published in March 2021, CP411, to reduce key defence capabilities and reduce the strength of the armed forces, including a further reduction in the size of the army by 2025; and calls on the Prime Minister to make an oral statement to parliament by June 30 2021 on the government’s plans to reduce the capability and strength of the armed forces.