Polonium | Ministry of Defence | Written Answers

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, when the UK ceased production of Polonium-210; and if he will make a statement.

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Backbench Business – Defence Spending | Business of the House | Commons debates

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not sure whether to call you colonel on this occasion.

I, like others, have been greatly impressed by the quality of the debate so far. I agree with much of what has been said, but let me pick up on a couple of points. First, it is right to say that defence does not win votes, but poor defence can certainly lose them if the public form the view that we are not fulfilling our primary

objective—their protection. Secondly, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) made an extremely eloquent speech, but I say to him that there was no option but to abandon the maritime patrol aircraft. The original decision to go with Nimrod was questioned by the Defence Committee at the time. Other alternatives were available, for example, the P-3 Orion, but the decision was taken, I believe by Mr Secretary Portillo, that Nimrod it should be. A final irony was that Nimrod, the mighty hunter, never actually fulfilled his responsibility.

Let us consider the following:

“The Ministry of Defence is being led by the nose by the Treasury towards reductions in Britain’s armed forces which have no rational basis”.

The House will not recognise that quotation, and neither did I until the BBC drew to my attention, in an article written for its website, that in my capacity as defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in August 1991 I had said just that. I do not introduce that to offer some support for the view that I am wise; I do so to point out that nothing seems to have changed. My proposition was put rather more pithily by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who said that after four years as Minister of State for the Armed Forces he formed the clear view that the enemy was not the Russians, but the Treasury.

Some things have changed, though, and the point has been made by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard). When I first came into this House and took an interest in these matters, we had five days of the parliamentary year to consider defence. We had a two-day debate on the annual White Paper at the beginning of October, and then each of the services had a single day of discussion devoted to them. When the three service days were amalgamated we were confidently assured that it would not result in fewer opportunities to hold the Government to account—people can form their own view about the value of that assurance.

I have been through it all: “Options for Change”; Front Line First; and Labour’s so-called “defence review” of 1998. That came closest of all to being a proper defence review, except for one thing: Labour refused to publish its foreign policy baseline attributes or intentions. As a consequence, what was otherwise a first-class exercise, with consultation the length and breadth of the country, driven by the then Secretary of State, now Lord Robertson, and with Lord Reid, as he now is, a very important part of it, that was the closest we have come to a defence review. We have not, even in this Parliament, had a defence review. It is an open secret that in 2010 the MOD was told, “Here is a metaphorical envelope containing money. Go away and find a defence policy that fits that sum of money.”

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Backbench Business – Defence Spending | Business of the House | Commons debates

The hon. Gentleman is right about that. I know a bit about this because I was invited by the then Defence Secretary to be part of the group of politicians, of all parties, who participated in debates with officials as to what should be in the Green Paper.

A defence review is not a hugely impossible concept to understand. What one needs to do is set out one’s foreign policy objectives; decide what military resources are necessary to fulfil those objectives; and then allocate the financial resources necessary to provide the military capability. We have not had a defence review that fulfils those three principles in all the time I have been in the House of Commons.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney made a sound point when he said that 2% cannot be described as a panacea for all the ills of defence. If 2% is to be spent, it must be spent wisely. We do not have to go far in Europe to see that several of our allies spend money, perhaps getting up towards 2%—there are not enough of those countries—which could much more readily be spent otherwise. For example, it could be spent on a greater amount of interoperability, force specialisation and such things. There is no point Mr Juncker talking about a European defence policy when European states have not yet properly fulfilled their responsibilities to NATO, of which almost all of them are members.

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Backbench Business – Defence Spending | Business of the House | Commons debates

The hon. Gentleman makes a very sound point. I am sorry that I cannot give any commitments in relation to the next Parliament, as I shall not be here, but as a spectator outside I shall firmly cling to the view that a proper, full-scale defence review of the kind I have described, and with which he agrees, is necessary if we are to provide ourselves with the proper defences for the foreseeable future.

The situation is worse than I have described, in a way. Not only is the 2% a public commitment, but it was restated at Celtic Manor during the NATO summit and in the final communiqué from that summit. Of course, it is also one that the British Government have been at pains to emphasise to other allies. How are we going to explain away the fact that in recent months, even years, we have been complaining about the level of defence expenditure of other allies yet we are about to breach the very standard we signed up to and advocated only a few months ago? It is a bit worse than that, too, because we know that the possibility that we should fall below 2% has caused great anxiety, particularly in the United States, which is our closely military ally. Senior official after senior official has made exactly that point.

I have another source of embarrassment: in about 10 days’ time, the United Kingdom delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which I have the honour to lead, will be the hosts of the Standing Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. We have in the past 12 months, with the encouragement of Ministers,

sought to persuade the other members of the Assembly of the importance of the 2% figure. We will look rather embarrassed in 10 days if the consequences of the actions that appear to be taken in this country are that we will fall below the very figure which we have been advocating and on which we have been seeking to hold the feet of others to the fire.

Let me finish by saying this: if we do not have sufficient defence—and 2% may not be enough—we will diminish our capability, we will reduce our influence and we will limit the options of government. We cannot afford any of those.

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Backbench Business – Defence Spending | Business of the House | Commons debates

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am not sure whether to call you colonel on this occasion.

I, like others, have been greatly impressed by the quality of the debate so far. I agree with much of what has been said, but let me pick up on a couple of points. First, it is right to say that defence does not win votes, but poor defence can certainly lose them if the public form the view that we are not fulfilling our primary

objective—their protection. Secondly, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) made an extremely eloquent speech, but I say to him that there was no option but to abandon the maritime patrol aircraft. The original decision to go with Nimrod was questioned by the Defence Committee at the time. Other alternatives were available, for example, the P-3 Orion, but the decision was taken, I believe by Mr Secretary Portillo, that Nimrod it should be. A final irony was that Nimrod, the mighty hunter, never actually fulfilled his responsibility.

Let us consider the following:

“The Ministry of Defence is being led by the nose by the Treasury towards reductions in Britain’s armed forces which have no rational basis”.

The House will not recognise that quotation, and neither did I until the BBC drew to my attention, in an article written for its website, that in my capacity as defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in August 1991 I had said just that. I do not introduce that to offer some support for the view that I am wise; I do so to point out that nothing seems to have changed. My proposition was put rather more pithily by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who said that after four years as Minister of State for the Armed Forces he formed the clear view that the enemy was not the Russians, but the Treasury.

Some things have changed, though, and the point has been made by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard). When I first came into this House and took an interest in these matters, we had five days of the parliamentary year to consider defence. We had a two-day debate on the annual White Paper at the beginning of October, and then each of the services had a single day of discussion devoted to them. When the three service days were amalgamated we were confidently assured that it would not result in fewer opportunities to hold the Government to account—people can form their own view about the value of that assurance.

I have been through it all: “Options for Change”; Front Line First; and Labour’s so-called “defence review” of 1998. That came closest of all to being a proper defence review, except for one thing: Labour refused to publish its foreign policy baseline attributes or intentions. As a consequence, what was otherwise a first-class exercise, with consultation the length and breadth of the country, driven by the then Secretary of State, now Lord Robertson, and with Lord Reid, as he now is, a very important part of it, that was the closest we have come to a defence review. We have not, even in this Parliament, had a defence review. It is an open secret that in 2010 the MOD was told, “Here is a metaphorical envelope containing money. Go away and find a defence policy that fits that sum of money.”

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