The main UK security and defence news this week has been the confusion surrounding Labour’s policy on Trident. The Guardian reports that Labour has moved to shut down speculation that it could withdraw support for Britain’s nuclear deterrent, after Jeremy Corbyn appeared to leave open the idea that renewing Trident could be left out of the Party’s manifesto. Labour issued a statement on Sunday saying: “The decision to renew Trident has been taken and Labour supports that. We also want Britain to do much more to pursue a proactive, multilateral disarmament strategy.” It came three hours after Mr Corbyn had appeared to cast doubt on a future Labour government’s support for the nuclear deterrent system during a TV interview, in which he also suggested he would think twice about backing a strike to kill the leader of Islamic State.
The Labour leader’s views on nuclear weapons have brought him into conflict with others in his party, including the Shadow Defence Secretary, Nia Griffith. The Party’s current policy is to support Trident, but Labour split three ways when a vote on its renewal came to the House of Commons last July, with Mr Corbyn himself voting against.
The Guardian also reports that Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon has portrayed Jeremy Corbyn as a security risk as Labour’s divisions on nuclear weapons continue to be exposed. Sir Michael said a Conservative government would be prepared to use nuclear weapons. “In the most extreme circumstances you can’t rule out the use of nuclear weapons as a first strike,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. However, he refused to specify those circumstances. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has also attacked Jeremy Corbyn over defence policy as the Conservatives attempt to frame the election as being a decision over leadership.
Labour’s internal struggle over the future of the Trident programme is likely to be one of a number of security and defence weak points the Conservatives will seek to exploit over the coming weeks. Further details of the two parties’ stances in this policy area can be expected when the manifestos are published: The Conservative document will be released on 7th May, followed by Labour’s manifesto on 15th May.
· Warning over cost of defence equipment plan
· Estonia ceremony marks full arrival of UK troops
· £1.4b submarine contract signed
· Police ‘cannot cover for cuts elsewhere’
· Bomb found near Northern Ireland primary schools
· Concerns raised over puppy farm shooting case
· Funding application for fracking policing rejected
· MPs raise concerns over emergency services communications
Warning over cost of defence equipment plan
The Daily Telegraph reports that MPs have warned the MoD may be unable to afford new fighter jets, warships and other military equipment because costs are rising and the falling pound has blown a black hole in its budget. The cross-party Commons Public Accounts Committee said it was “very concerned” a £178 billion defence equipment plan to deliver new kit over the next decade was now at risk. The recent fall in the value of the pound against the US dollar may lead to “significant cost increases” for equipment coming from America.
Overall, MPs said they were more concerned about the MOD’s equipment plan than at any time in the past five years. Keeping the plan affordable was “heavily reliant” on a “highly ambitious, but still under-developed” programme of efficiency saving. It added that the MoD’s spending plan is “vulnerable to cost growth” because of a lack of detail on how much new projects will cost, an inability to rein in spending on some building programmes and a “significant fall” in the pound.
This is the latest report from MPs highlighting the pressure facing the MoD’s equipment budget, even though in recent years equipment has received priority over personnel in the budget allocation. Given the lack of scope for additional reductions in personnel – either Armed Forces or MoD civilians such as MDP officers – it is difficult to see a way ahead without either significant cuts to overall military capability or a fresh injection of funds. The news suggests budgets such as those of the MDP will remain vulnerable, and the Federation will be continuing to highlight the importance of the MDP to parliamentarians following the election.
Estonia ceremony marks full arrival of UK troops
The Daily Telegraph reports that hundreds of British troops were officially welcomed to Estonia as part of a major NATO mission in the Baltic States to deter perceived Russian aggression. UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said on Thursday that the purpose of the deployment was helping deter “aggression from Russia or anybody else.” The 800 troops are based in Tapa, on the main highway between the Estonian capital and the Russian border, and are part of a combined force that includes French and Danish troops. The Defence Secretary told them in Estonia as their mission started: “You are doing us proud. No one should pretend these deployments are anything other than proportionate and defensive.” Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, added: “Today, here, you are creating history. Once again, welcome.”
As well as troops in Estonia, 150 Army personnel have been deployed to Poland, Typhoon jets will go to Romania on Monday and a Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer has been dispatched to the Black Sea.
£1.4b submarine contract signed
The Daily Telegraph reports that a £1.4bn contract for the latest Astute-class attack submarine has been agreed by the MoD and BAE Systems. Work on the 300ft long, 7,400-tonne submarine began five years ago but the latest agreement involves a new contract with BAE and its partners that rewards them for delivering on time and budget, but punishes them for failing to hit targets, limiting the taxpayers’ exposure to over-runs. Agamemnon is the sixth of the seven-boat Astute fleet, with the first three – HMS Astute, Ambush and Artful – having already been handed over to the Navy, and the others in late-stage construction.
BAE employs about 8,400 people in its submarines unit, where they are simultaneously working on the £41bn Dreadnought programme to build the Trident replacement submarine.
The above has been one of a number of contracts signed in recent days in advance of the pre-election purdah period, during which the MoD is barred from making purchases or issuing policy that may hold the potential to influence the election.
Police ‘cannot cover for cuts elsewhere’
The Guardian reports that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary has warned that police cannot continue to pick up the slack for cuts in other public services, especially the shortage in mental health provision. In an annual state of policing report, Sir Tom Winsor highlights a “modern tsunami of online fraud” and increased police awareness of crimes against elderly people and child sexual exploitation as among the increasing daily pressures facing officers. He also added “The police are considered to be the service of last resort. In some areas, particularly where people with mental health problems need urgent help, the police are increasingly being used as the service of first resort. This is wrong.”
Sir Tom’s annual report identifies 18 of the 43 forces where a need for improvement has been highlighted in at least one of HMIC’s inspection themes of effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy. He says that in many cases, police leaders are “still too sluggish” to ensure their plans are sound given the new demands on their force, and warns police are behind many organisations in their use of technology.
Despite recent Government efforts to reduce the role of police as a ‘fall back’ to provide support to mental health patients, a lack of capacity in the mental health system has hampered this drive. The recently passed Policing and Crime Bill 2017 banned police from detaining at a police station anyone under 18 suffering from mental health problems.
Government 'blocked' from accessing Twitter data
The Daily Telegraph reports that Twitter has blocked the Government from accessing data on potential terrorist threats in a move that ministers fear will make the country less safe, industry sources have told newspaper. The social media platform has withdrawn access to key streams of information, which help the police, and MI5 to identify plots, under plans to stop user data being used for “surveillance”. The Government is understood to have paid a third-party company for the service, which tracked terms related to potential terror attacks before it was blocked by Twitter. Instead, it said Government agencies are free to search Twitter as any public user can but without the help of third-party businesses.
Last month Home Secretary Amber Rudd warned Twitter and other similar sites must do more to crack down on hate speech and terror plots online as she hinted at possible legislation if they fail to do more.
Bomb found near Northern Ireland primary schools
The Belfast Telegraph reports that police in Northern Ireland have said the “viable device” found near a Belfast school was an attempt by dissident republicans to murder security force members. The explosive was discovered near Holy Cross Boys' Primary School, in the Herbert Street area of Ardoyne in the north of the city. A number of residents were evacuated for several hours as the security alert took place.
PSNI Chief Supt Chris Noble said the device had put lives at risk in the local community. “There's no doubt that device was there to try and kill community police officers on the beat in their local area but also it was left in such a reckless manner and in such a reckless location that it would undoubtedly have led to the death or serious injury of a member of the public had it exploded anywhere near them,” he said
Concerns raised over puppy farm shooting case
Sky News reports that three police officers and two staff “have cases to answer” after a puppy farm owner shot dead his partner and her daughter with a shotgun police handed back to him, an investigation has concluded. Seven months before the murders, John Lowe had his shotguns and certificate seized after Stacy Banner reported to police that he had threatened to shoot her. Lowe used one of the guns returned to him to kill Mrs Banner's 66-year-old mother Christine Lee and her sister Lucy, 40, at the farm near Farnham, Surrey, on 23 February 2014.
Prosecutors ruled out criminal charges against police staff, but two firearms licensing team members had cases to answer for misconduct. The IPCC found John Crabb and Stanton Royle did not highlight risks posed by Lowe or properly address whether he was a danger to the public when deciding to hand back his shotguns and certificate. Mr Crabb was sacked following a hearing, while Mr Royle retired before one was held. Two Surrey Police staff were rebuked for returning shotguns to Mr Lowe. The police watchdog also found a Detective Constable and a Detective Sergeant had cases to answer for misconduct, and a Detective Inspector had a case to answer for gross misconduct which related to Mrs Banner’s detention and her further arrest.
IPCC Associate Commissioner Tom Milsom said the investigation painted “a deeply concerning portrait” of Surrey's firearms licensing. Recommendations have been made to improve firearms licensing locally and nationally.
Funding application for fracking policing rejected
The BBC reports that a request from a police force for extra government funding to deal with anti-fracking protests has been rejected. The Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) said the Home Office refused an appeal for help with a £450,000 monthly bill to police protests near Little Plumpton. A spokeswoman for Lancashire PCC, Clive Grunshaw, said she expects costs to reach the threshold – which amounts to £2.6m – within six months.
Mr Grunshaw said officer resources “are being stretched to the limits” to provide “round the clock policing” at the site. He said when the force reaches the £2.6m spend it will “only be able to claim anything over that initial cost.” He added: “That's £2.6m that could have been spent investigating child exploitation, serious crimes and domestic abuse, but instead is focused on policing protests.” The Minister for Policing, Brandon Lewis, said he understands the PCC's “concern” regarding the impact that protests are having on the force but there is “no central government funding stream available.”
Given that it is likely that Lancashire site will be only one of the first of many locations at which fracking takes place in the UK, the issue of paying for policing protestors will likely be one that a great many forces will face. The announcement does not have direct impact on the MDP, but is likely to further test the resources of Home Office constabularies
MPs raise concerns over emergency services communications
The i newspaper reports that Britain’s emergency services face a “potentially catastrophic” six-month gap without a crucial communications system, a Commons report warns. MPs raised the alarm over the impact of allowing a network used by all 105 police, fire and rescue and ambulance services in the country to be taken out of service early. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the need for blue-lights teams to communicate in the event of an emergency, including a terrorist attack, is an essential part of keeping the public safe. Meg Hillier, Chairwoman of the Committee, said: “The potential consequences of a six-month gap in emergency service communications are unthinkable.”
A new Emergency Services Network (ESN) will replace the current Airwave system as part of a £1.2bn project using EE’s 4G network. Earlier this year, the Committee concluded that it was unlikely that the December 2019 target date for delivering the upgrade would be met. However, Policing Minister Brandon Lewis said: “The existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to the Emergency Services Network is completed.”