This week’s main UK defence news has been the confirmation that the Conservative General Election manifesto will contain a pledge to continue spending 2% of the UK’s GDP on defence should the party retain power. The Guardian reports that Theresa May will also commit a Conservative government to increasing defence spending above inflation every year of the next parliament. The manifesto pledge would mean that defence spending will increase at least 0.5% above inflation every year, even if the UK is in recession or the economy is hit by the country’s exit from the EU. The commitment was originally made in George Osborne’s summer 2015 budget, but the manifesto would extend that pledge for an additional two years until the next election in 2022.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director of defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute called the extension of the annual commitment “significant”. “It protects defence to some extent from the uncertainty about the impact of Brexit on government finances overall and the possibility that a new spending review might require further cuts,” he noted.
Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith said Labour was also committed to the 2% target, and added: “The Tories' hypocrisy on defence knows no bounds. Their cuts have left our forces more under-resourced and underpaid than at any time in the modern era”.
Additionally, the leaking of a draft of Labour’s manifesto has this week provided an indication of its defence priorities. In addition to the 2% pledge, there is a policy to order “a complete strategic defence review when it comes into office – to assess of the threats facing Britain and the necessary defence requirements”. There is also a commitment to the renewal of Trident, along with an assertion that “any prime minister should be extremely cautious about ordering the use of weapons of mass destruction which would result in the indiscriminate killing of millions of innocent civilians”, and a commitment to pursuing multi-lateral nuclear disarmament. Additionally, there is a pledge to improve the pay and conditions of Armed Forces personnel, and to address ongoing recruitment problems. On policing, the manifesto contains a commitment to recruit 10,000 more officers. There will also be a “review” of the Prevent counterterrorism programme, and an investigation into Orgreave. 1,000 additional border guards would also be hired.
Although there is a very strong argument that current spending is inadequate, the pledge to meet both the 2% commitment and ensure a 0.5% rise in spending regardless of circumstances makes the defence budget one of the most heavily protected in the public sector. There is, however, a need to ensure that prestige projects are not allowed to consume the available funding at the expense of key capabilities such as those provided by the MDP.
· Leading defence figures attack MoD accounting practices
· Man arrested after Whitehall alert charged with terrorism offences
· Three women charged with terrorism offences
· Police dogs could be deployed to defend Parliament
· Additional British troops may deploy to Afghanistan
· Scores of convictions in doubt amid forensic test manipulation claims
· Durham Police artificial intelligence to help with custody decisions
Leading defence figures attack MoD accounting practices
Sky News reports that the MoD has been accused of being misleading in claiming to meet NATO's target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, and giving “disingenuous” responses to questions about funding. The intervention – from retired admirals, generals, air marshals, wounded veterans and leading academics – came in a letter to the Prime Minister. It is the first major public intervention in the General Election campaign by defence figures. The letter says security is threatened “in almost every corner of the globe”, from “nuclear sabre-rattling over Crimea” to uncertainty over the future of NATO. “The 2015 Strategic Defence & Security Review charted a path towards our future security,” it also noted, “But the necessary funding is simply not there to give it substance.” It adds: “Government boasts of spending 2% of GDP on defence are widely criticised as an accounting deception”, and that “Most analysts agree core defence expenditure for hard military power is well below 2%.”
The letter was leaked prior to the Conservative pledge to continue spending 2% of GDP on defence until 2022 were made. However, the substance of the accusations – including that the 2% pledged by the government involves a level of creative accountancy, albeit still within the NATO rules – remains valid.
Man arrested after Whitehall alert charged with terrorism offences
The Guardian reports that a man arrested by armed police in Whitehall has been charged with preparing terrorist acts. Prosecutors announced that Khalid Mohammed Omar Ali, 27, of north London, would face a total of three counts, including two alleged explosives offences related to Afghanistan five years ago. A major alert was sparked on 27th April after a man was wrestled to the ground and arrested by armed officers metres from the Houses of Parliament and Downing Street. Since then counterterrorism detectives have been investigating why he was in the Whitehall area.
These charges alleged that “on or before 28th January 2012 [Ali] unlawfully and maliciously made or had in his possession or under his control a quantity of explosive substances with intent by means thereof to endanger life or cause serious injury to property or to enable any other person to do so”. A further count alleges the same offence on or before 6th July 2012, again in Afghanistan. Ali is a British national, and his family live in Enfield, north London.
Three women charged with terrorism offences
The Daily Telegraph reports that a woman shot by armed police during a raid on a north London home has been charged with preparing a terror attack and conspiracy to murder. Rizlaine Boular, 21, was shot when armed police and counterterrorism officers stormed Harlesden Road in Willesden on 27th April 27th. During the raid Khawla Barghouthi, 20, was also arrested at the same address while Ms Boular's mother Mina Dich, 43, was arrested in Kent. All three have been charged with the preparation of a terrorist act, contrary to section five of the Terrorism Act, and conspiracy to murder. Two men aged 21 and 28 and a 16-year-old boy all arrested either in or close to the Harlesden Road address on 27th April were released without being charged earlier.
Ms Boular was arrested when she was discharged from hospital on 30th April 30. She is alleged to have conspired together with Mina Dich and Khawla Barghouthi to murder a person or persons between 11th April 2017 and 28th April 2017. She is also charged with preparing terrorist acts between 11th April and 28th April 2017. Ms Dich and Ms Barghouthi are charged with assisting Ms Boular to commit acts of terrorism and conspiracy to murder between the same dates.
Police dogs could be deployed to defend Parliament
The Evening Standard reports that police dogs could be used to protect Parliament after PC Keith Palmer was killed in the Westminster terrorist attack in March. The dogs would be deployed to help officers at the weakest points of the building – which the paper states include the gates through which terrorist Khalid Masood ran during the attack. Sir Paul Beresford, former chairman of the Commons administration committee, said he believes that PC Palmer could have been saved if he had been stationed with trained attack dogs. “If we'd had a dog there PC Palmer might have been saved,” he said. He added: “If some idiot who is not a terrorist runs in, and there are a few of those out there, the dog will drop them and they won’t be shot.” Mr Beresford said the introduction of the animals was being “seriously considered”.
A Parliamentary spokesman said: “Two reviews have now been commissioned into the perimeter security at Parliament and into the Houses’ response following the incident on 22nd March.”
Sir Paul’s highlighting of the need for a graduated response to defend parliament once again raises the value of police forces with the full spectrum of capabilities – up to and including an armed response – in managing a wide variety of incidents in an appropriate manner. The MDP is a vital part of the UK’s ability to respond to a broad array of threats, and currently possess the second largest police dog holding in the country.
Additional British troops may deploy to Afghanistan
The Daily Telegraph reports that Britain could send more troops to Afghanistan after NATO requested extra support to help in the fight against the Taliban. The United States has written to NATO members about its existing 13,000-strong presence in the country with the possibility of sending more troops to be considered at a meeting in Brussels later this month. British combat troops left Afghanistan in 2014, but there are still about 500 on the ground training local military forces. It is expected that any increase would be small – 50 and 100 troops.
Scores of convictions in doubt amid forensic test manipulation claims
The Guardian reports that police fear scores of convictions may face challenges to their safety because of the suspected manipulation of forensic test results at a private laboratory in Manchester. James Vaughan, the national police lead for forensic outsourcing, said two employees of the testing services company Randox were under criminal investigation for allegedly perverting the course of justice after issues with test results emerged in January.
Initial retesting of samples still held has shown broadly the same results as was presented in court cases. However, 10% of samples are no longer held, cannot be retested and thus can no longer be relied on. Much could depend on how crucial the toxicology test results were in the prosecution’s case. The alleged manipulation relates to data describing the findings of the tests of samples submitted by police forces to the lab. The samples themselves were not interfered with. A Home Office spokesperson said: “This matter is currently being urgently investigated by the forensic science regulator and the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS) and a criminal inquiry has been launched by Greater Manchester police.”
Durham Police artificial intelligence to help with custody decisions
The BBC reports that police in Durham are preparing to go live with an artificial intelligence (AI) system designed to help officers decide whether or not a suspect should be kept in custody. The system classifies suspects at a low, medium or high risk of offending and has been tested by the force. It has been trained on five years of offending histories data. In testing, forecasts that a suspect was low risk turned out to be accurate 98% of the time, while forecasts that they were high risk were accurate 88% of the time. This reflects the tool's built in predisposition – it is designed to be more likely to classify someone as medium or high risk, in order to err on the side of caution and avoid releasing suspects who may commit a crime. During the upcoming experiment, officers will access the system in a random selection of cases, so that its impact when used can be compared to what happens when it is not.
The use of AI systems to speed decision making – and hence save time and money – is likely to become more widespread across the public sector in the coming years.