Parliamentary and Political Monitoring Report w/c 5th January 2015
This week has seen the commencement of the ‘long campaign’ ahead of the May General Election. With regards to defence, the main development so far has been an admission by the Prime Minister during a BBC interview that a future Conservative government could cut spending on the Armed Forces to below two per cent of the UK’s GDP – the target set by NATO. However, he did promise to keep the regular Army’s strength at the current figure of 82,000, saying he did not want to see levels fall.
Military spending has already been cut by eight per cent in real terms since the Coalition came to power, and the Royal United Services Institute has predicted it will fall even further, to 1.88 per cent of GDP, in the next financial year. Military leaders also fear the Treasury will try to make further raids on the MoD’s budget next year. That could see defence spending fall to as little of 1.5 per cent of GDP by the end of the decade, the report says. However, it should be noted that a fall in defence spending to below two per cent would not necessary require any further cuts to take place, as a static military budget would naturally see its size in relation to overall national income fall against the backdrop of a growing economy. However, there is a strong case that the UK already spends too little on defence.
Another area of defence that has seen the impact of the upcoming General Election has been the UK’s commitment to Iraq. The Daily Telegraph reports that Downing Street is postponing plans to increase the number of British soldiers in the country because of Government fears that casualties could damage the electoral prospects of the Conservatives.
Head of MI5 warns that Britain is at risk of Paris-style attack
The Daily Telegraph reports that Andrew Parker, the Director General of MI5, has warned that Al-Qaeda is planning a Paris-style terrorist atrocity against Britain and that intelligence pointed to the existence of specific plots. MI5 officers have increased surveillance of British Islamic extremists who they fear may launch copycat attacks after 12 people were killed by al-Qaeda gunmen at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Intelligence has reportedly shown that the Syrian arm of a resurgent al-Qaeda is planning similar outrages against the UK, possibly by British jihadists who have already returned from fighting in Syria or Iraq. Speaking to members of the Royal United Services Institute at MI5 headquarters, Thames House, Mr Parker said the terrorist threat to the UK was “complex to combat and unlikely to abate for some time”.
2010 scrapping of RAF anti-submarine warfare aircraft called into question
The Financial Times reports that a major upturn in Russian submarine activity is calling into question the decision in the 2010 SDSR to scrap the Nimrod anti-submarine warfare aircraft in order to save money. The aircraft, known as the Nimrod MRA4s, were due to replace the ageing Nimrod MR2s that had just been taken out of service; the new fleet had a crucial role in ensuring no foreign submarines could track the UK’s Trident-missile carrying Vanguard class submarines as they came in and out of their base. Four years later, the hole in the UK’s defences remains, and Russian naval forces are becoming more active. As a temporary counter, this week saw the US Navy deploy two P-3 anti-submarine warfare aircraft to Scotland to cover for the gap in the UK’s capabilities after a report of a Russian submarine in the area. The MoD declined to comment on specific issues raised by the Financial Times, but said it was reviewing maritime surveillance requirements.
Labour supports “lowest-cost” nuclear deterrent option
The Times reports that Labour leader Ed Miliband MP has said that he backed the idea of replacing the current Trident system with the “least-cost deterrent” possible. An order for a new nuclear system is due soon after the election and could be a deal-breaker in coalition talks with the SNP, which backs scrapping it. “I want to see disarmament, but I want to see multilateral disarmament, I’m not in favour of unilateral disarmament,” Mr Miliband said. “What does that mean? That means we have got to have the least-cost deterrent that we can have, and that’s my philosophy.” A government-backed review of Trident found it was possible to maintain a nuclear deterrent without always having a submarine carrying nuclear weapons at sea. However, Mr Miliband admitted that the study “didn’t really show that there was much of an alternative” to a submarine-based system.
Three US bases in the UK to close
The Times reports that three American bases in Britain and almost a quarter of all US military personnel stationed in the country will go by the end of the decade as part of a shake-up of US forces across Europe. US military personnel will vacate RAF Mildenhall, in Suffolk, which hosts 15 KC-135 re-fuelling aircraft and a number of aircraft designed to support US Special Forces. All will be relocated to Germany. A number of reconnaissance aircraft also at Mildenhall will be moved within Britain. The other two RAF bases affected by the announcement are RAF Molesworth and RAF Alconbury, both in Cambridgeshire, which house communications and other support elements for combat aircraft. However, the future of RAF Lakenheath was confirmed with the announcement that 48 F-35A aircraft will be deployed there by 2020 to replace the base’s current F-15s.
MoD awards Babcock £900m vehicle support contract
Reuters reports that the MoD has awarded a £900m contract to engineering firm Babcock to help maintain, repair and store Army vehicles. The 10-year contract has been awarded as part of the sale of its Defence Support Group (DSG) business to Babcock for £140m, which was announced last month. The MoD has said that the contract will generate total savings to the army of around £500m, representing a reduction of over a third of current costs.
Anti-drone protestors arrested at RAF base
The Guardian reports that four people campaigning against Britain’s use of armed drones have been arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass. Lincolnshire police said two men in their early 50s and two women, aged 30 and 64, were detained at RAF Waddington on Monday. Waddington, near Lincoln, has been the focus of recent protests over Britain’s operation of unmanned aerial vehicles, which are controlled from the base.
MoD pays £2m to settle cadets’ sexual abuse claims
The Guardian reports that the MoD has paid out more than £2m in out-of-court settlements over the past three years as a result of claims of sexual abuse against young people within the ranks of the cadet forces. The allegations included sex abuse rituals performed by teenage boys on younger cadets in their charge, as well as the case of a cadet who was raped and gave birth to her abuser’s child. While some of the settlements reached in the last few years were made to adults for abuse perpetrated when they were children, some are understood to relate to much more recent abuse claims.
MoD to defund Battle of Britain memorial chapel
The Daily Telegraph reports that a memorial chapel dedicated to the aircrew who died protecting Britain from attack by Nazi Germany is threatened with closure because the MoD has decided to stop funding it. The MoD has said its £50,000-a-year running cost is no longer an “appropriate use of defence resources”. A spokeswoman said: “This chapel is an integral part of our national heritage and the Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans Anna Soubry is already working to find a replacement source of funding. In order to ensure that the defence budget is spent in the most appropriate way, the MoD will look to relinquish ownership of St George's Chapel by March 2016. However, we remain committed to its preservation.”
Significant rise in the number of Met police officers taking time off for stress
The Guardian reports that the number of days taken off work by Met police officers owing to stress-related illness has increased by 43 per cent over the last five years, according to figures released by the London force. The number of resignations has also increased dramatically from 289 officers in 2009-10 to 506 in 2013-14, although the figures do not record the reasons for resigning. The Met figures, released to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act, show that London police took a total of 24,065 days off work owing to stress-related conditions (including post-traumatic stress disorder) in 2013-14, amounting to 44 days for each officer taking leave. That compares with 16,781 days in 2009-10. The most affected by stress-related absences was the Met’s Westminster headquarters, which had a total of 34 officers taking 1,549 days off owing to stress in 2013-14. Counter-terrorism command had 15 officers take leave because of stress, each taking an average of 64 days off.
MoD reminds the lower ranks to salute their seniors
The Daily Telegraph reports that the MoD has published a reminder on who to salute after military chiefs complained they were not getting the proper show of respect from the lower ranks. Senior officers insisted personnel were reminded of the rank hierarchy after complaining that younger officers were failing to salute their seniors, particularly from other services. The problem has become more apparent with increasing numbers of joint operations where the Army, Navy and RAF serve alongside each other, defence sources said. Lax saluting is not the only cause of annoyance. There have also been complaints of personnel referring to superiors as “boss”, or in extreme examples “mate”, instead of sir. The reminder, called The Pecking Order, was published in a recent MoD in-house journal.