Tensions between Russia and the UK have escalated this week as Prime Minister Theresa May gave the Kremlin a deadline by which to explain how a Russian nerve agent had poisoned two Russians in the UK. Russia refused to engage and allies of the UK such as the USA and Germany have expressed their support. France, which is leading calls to develop a European army and is planning on reintroducing military conscription, has asked for more evidence before blaming Russia.
In response to the attack, two former American military chiefs, General David Petraeus and General Sir Peter Wall, have written in the Daily Telegraph saying that the threat from Russia means that Britain must have “full spectrum” defence capabilities. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced that troops will be vaccinated against anthrax poisoning and £48m will be invested to create a chemical weapons defence centre in Porton Down, the MoD’s chemical laboratory guarded by the MDP.
The Defence Secretary has also announced he will campaign for the Armed Forces to be exempt from the income tax rises coming into effect in Scotland next month on the basis that personnel based in Scotland will receive less take-home pay than their English and Welsh counterparts. The DPF is engaging with the MoD to ensure that the needs of MDP officers are reflected in any agreement reached by the Secretary of State.
Defence Secretary looks to exempt armed forces from Scottish tax rises
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced that he will seek exemptions to the Scottish Government’s income tax increases for the Armed Forces stationed in Scotland. The Scottish Government announced tax increases in Scotland for people earning more than £26,000 per annum, which will take effect next month. The tax rise will result in those working nationally and based in Scotland having less take home pay than their English and Welsh counterparts. It is estimated that up to 8,000 MoD personnel will be impacted by the rise, with increases expected as Scotland’s role in the defence of the UK set to increase with the expansion of HMNB Clyde and RAF Lossiemouth, while the number of personnel stationed in Scotland will increase as troops return from Germany.
Mr Williamson said: “The SNP’s tax hike unfairly hits 70 per cent of our brave and loyal service personnel based in Scotland, leaving thousands of them out of pocket. This is wrong. I am working to ensure that those who are affected do not feel they are being punished by serving in Scotland. We are urgently reviewing how we can counter this unjustified raid on the pay packets of our Armed Forces.” The Daily Telegraph reported that this review could lead to “an annual compensation payment or a monthly increase in wages.”
Given that the Secretary of State has interceded, it is plausible a compromise will be made despite income tax being. The DPF will be writing to the Chief Constable and Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood to seek clarification on the impact of the MDP (including access to public services) to ensure officers’ needs are reflected in any subsequent agreement.
Extra funding for MDP-guarded site following Russian spy poisoning
The Guardian has reported that Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced extra funding for the MDP-guarded Porton Down chemical laboratory following the targeted chemical attack on two people on the streets of Britain. Former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury with the highly sophisticated nerve agent Novichok and found in a critical condition.
The £48m funding comes from an already strained defence budget and will be used to set up a chemical weapons defence centre. Although the UK is a signatory to a convention banning it from developing nerve agents, it can still work on defensive measures and so will vaccinate thousands of its troops against anthrax poisoning. Mr Williamson said, “the vaccination of soldiers is the reintroduction of a programme that was widespread in the Cold War and an appropriate measure to protect our troops.”
These announcements are part of a wider plea by Mr Williamson for more defence spending, as he said, “In the face of intensifying threats, we must prioritise investment in military capabilities. We cannot sit back and let events overtake us. We have to be the ones who determine our future.”
Former admiral calls for £7bn in defence to avoid disaster
The recently retired Rear Admiral Alex Burton has spoken out against funding cuts as he claimed that the British Armed Forces need an extra £7bn “to avoid disaster,” The Times has reported. This extra funding would result in an increase in funding of 0.5 percent GDP, raising defence spending to a total of 2.5 percent. Admiral Burton said that because underfunding had prevented the timely repair and purchase of equipment the Royal Navy was less able to be deployed around the world than it had been eight years prior, despite threats increasing. He vocally opposed the scrapping of the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, which was discussed by defence chiefs last year during the National Security Capability Review, which defence has subsequently been separated out from.
Admiral Burton said, “If we can’t deter or reassure and deliver retribution when required […] then we will have a compromised insurance policy and our ability to stand up for our beliefs and protect those interests that we have will be weakened.”
Chancellor’s spring statement hints at end of austerity
The Chancellor presented the Spring Statement to Parliament this week in which he confirmed expectations that the UK economy is set to grow more strongly in 2018 than previously predicted, with public finances improved. There were no new announcements regarding defence or policing, in line with the Chancellor’s comments last year that he would confine significant financial/spending announcements to the autumn Budget.
According to the Chancellor, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast more jobs, rising real wages, falling deficit and shrinking debt in the coming years through to 2022. Despite this the Chancellor acknowledged that he was hesitant to increase public spending. Instead he suggested that possible public spending increases could be delivered in the Autumn 2018 Budget, provided public finances continue to reflect the outlined projections presented.
The UK economy grew by 1.7% in 2017 compared to the 1.5% forecast in the Autumn 2017 Budget while the forecast for 2018 has been revised up to 1.5% from 1.4%. The OBR also expects inflation to fall back to its two percent target within the next 12 months. Mr Hammond said that this should lead to real wage growth from the first quarter of 2018/19.
The Chancellor also announced that borrowing and debt is expected to fall from 2018/19. The OBR confirmed that the forecast for debt this year is expected to be £45.2 billion which is £4.7 billion lower than the Autumn Budget forecast. This cumulatively means that the UK is expected to run a small surplus in 2018/19 with borrowing only for major investment projects. Hammond presented this as the culmination of eight years of work by a Conservative Government.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell accused the Government of “astounding complacency” and failing to address the “crisis on a scale we have never seen before” in the UK’s public services. He added that the Government should end the politics of austerity and that “austerity was a political choice not an economic necessity.”
While the Chancellor’s statement was very much that of an interim report on the state of the economy, it is neither unexpected nor frankly unhelpful there were no large-scale commitments in terms of public spending. The Chancellor has in recent weeks expressed a measure of sympathy for additional funding for the MoD; and by holding any announcement until later of the year will provide the opportunity for the Modernising Defence Programme to set out a series of funding recommendations as opposed to a short-term injection of cash that would likely only address immediate procurement issues as opposed to longer-term strategic issues, including domestic establishment security.