One of the UK’s largest construction companies, Carillion, entered into administration this week. The public sector was particularly exposed to the giant, which is understood to have contracts with the public-sector (including the Ministry of Defence) worth £1.7bn and employing more than 20,000 across the UK. The company offered services in cleaning, maintaining and supplying meals in schools, hospitals and prisons. At the point it went into liquidation, Carillion was also working on infrastructure projects in road and rail development, including the controversial HS2 high speed rail line, and building including two major hospitals, new schools, and city centre redevelopments. All work has been put on hold pending decisions about how the projects will proceed.
The GMB union boss Tim Roache called the Government’s response to the news “inadequate and inept.” Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, accused the Government of negligence for continuing to award contracts to Carillion even when it was clearly in trouble, and he called for an end to the “costly racket” of public sector services being managed by the private sector.
Carillion is the largest provider of facilities management in the MoD, supporting more than 360 defence establishments and 50,000 service family homes, as well as delivering infrastructure and housing services to the Armed Forces through joint ventures, such as CarillionAmey and with KBR. CarillionAmey has issued a statement saying that it “will continue to deliver services as normal,” and partner company Amey said it would “ensure continuity of service to the DIO and the MoD and the service men and women in the UK.”
Defence Secretary answers oral questions in Parliament
The Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, went before the House of Commons to answer oral questions this week. Questions were asked by Chris Green (Con, Bolton West), Dan Carden (Lab, Liverpool Walton), and Stephen Morgan (Lab, Portsmouth South) about the defence industry, to which Mr Williamson outlined that the Strategic Defence and Security Review prioritised promoting British prosperity and “supporting a thriving and competitive defence sector.” He said that industry had welcomed the publication of the national shipbuilding strategy and the refreshed defence industrial policy.
Mary Creagh (Lab, Wakefield) and Sir David Amess (Con, Southend West) asked about the Armed Forces Covenant. Ms Creagh noted that there were an estimated 13,000 homeless veterans and it is impossible to know whether they have given priority for social housing as they should be because the relevant information is not collected in censuses. Mr Williamson noted that the MoD had recently invested £2m in the veterans’ gateway, which signposted veterans to charities and support organisations. Dr Andrew Murrison (Con, South West Wiltshire) noted that service homes were notably exposed to the recently collapsed Carillion. Mr Williamson said that he was monitoring the situation.
Kevin Foster (Con, Torbay) asked about the Royal Navy’s capability and strength. Responding for the MoD, Mark Lancaster, Minister for the Armed Forces, said that the Navy was “growing for the first time in a generation;” also noting “we will spend £63 billion on new ships and submarines over the next decade. We are also committed to increasing the number of personnel in the Royal Navy.” He refused to comment on the leaked proposal to merge the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment, which is discussed further below. Royal Air Force pilots, Fleet Solid Support Ships, and Daesh were also discussed.
A question by Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods (Lab, City of Durham) on strategic equality objectives was answered by Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood who said that the defence diversity and inclusion strategy would be published later this year.
Questions were also asked about the European Defence Agency and Fund; the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, the future accommodation model, World War munitions workers; war widows, Armed Forces pay and retention, and mental health in the Armed Forces.
Mr Williamson also answered a written question by Luke Pollard this week asking whether the MoD had asked for the timetable of the completion of the National Security Capabilities Review (NSCR) to be extended to autumn 2018. Mr Williamson responded saying the MoD had not made such a request, and that “Ministers will consider the conclusions of the National Security Capability Review in due course.”
There is considerable speculation over the timetable for recommendations from Mark Sedwill, the National Security Advisor, who is leading the defence capability review. There has been speculation, noted in last week’s document, that Mr Sedwill’s work could be split – with a set of immediate recommendations followed by further announcements later in the year as the MoD attempts to address a £20bn budget deficit.
Defence Secretary makes statement on defence
Following leaks to the media about controversial proposed defence cuts, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson made a statement on the National Security Capability Review (NSCR) in the House of Commons. This was in response to an Urgent Question submitted by a member of his own party, Defence Select Committee chairman, Rt Hon Dr Julian Lewis MP.
While there has been longstanding speculation over further cuts within the MoD – including criticism for the sale of Royal Navy vessels to the likes of Brazil – most recent speculation has included the possible merger of elite Royal Marines and paratroopers, reported across the national media, including in The Times. Such proposals would reduce the Army to its smallest since Napoleonic times.
Dr Lewis asked for “urgent clarification of the radical reductions in conventional military forces provisionally proposed by the NSCR,” calling defence “the UK’s national insurance policy.” He said that an intensification in security threats to the UK had prompted the NSCR, and so it was reasonable to conclude that being “fiscally neutral” and proposing “radical reductions in our conventional armed forces” was not appropriate.
Mr Williamson refused to be drawn on the content of the NSCR, saying he did not “have the ability to preempt” it. He said he hoped that it would be concluded “at the earliest possible moment” and that he was working with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure he got “the very best deal” for defence. He said he could “assure the House” that defence will “develop and sustain the capabilities necessary […] to protect the north Atlantic and Europe” through maintaining Britain’s continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence, carrier force and armed forces. He did not go into much further detail.
Commons Speaker, John Bercow, said the media briefings on proposed defence cuts “greatly irritates members of the House” and that further briefings would likely lead to further Urgent Questions. Defence Select Committee member and Labour MP Ruth Smeeth said that the briefings were “undermining morale, [and] undermining confidence of families, as well as sending completely the wrong message to our allies.” Mr Williamson agreed that reading speculation was “no good for anyone.”
Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, Nia Griffith, responded to the statement saying that Mr Williamson cannot answer “the most basic questions about the Government’s defence review” and that “the simple fact is that you cannot do security on the cheap.” Mr Williamson’s statement was repeated in the Lords by Defence Minister Earl Howe.
It is highly unusual for an Urgent Question to be tabled by the party of government, and the intervention of Dr Lewis reflects growing alarm within Parliament at the potential for further reduction in the UK’s defensive capabilities. The DPF has spoken at length with Dr Lewis regarding the challenges facing the MDP, and continues to be in contact with him and the Select Committee’s clerks. The DPF also met with Ms Griffith in July 2017, along with shadow defence minister responsible for the MDP, Gerald Jones. We are continuing to liaise with their offices as part of our ongoing parliamentary engagement.
BTP – Police Scotland merger to jeopardise counterterrorism efforts
The House of Lords debated merging of the British Transport Police (BTP) with Police Scotland last week as part of the Draft Order on the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016 (Consequential Provisions), which was laid before Parliament in September. The merger of the BTP in Scotland with Police Scotland has been pushed through the Scottish Parliament amid concerns that Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) lacked oversight of the BTP’s work in Scotland. However, critics of the plan contend it will reduce operational effectiveness.
The Scottish Herald noted that Labour peer Lord Foulkes of Cumnock said that “the merger would jeopardise an effective fight against terrorism,” and was supported by Conservative Lord Forsyth who likened it to “an act of vandalism.” Lord Foulkes proposed a “sensible and reasonable” alternative that would satisfy concerns about the challenges the British Transport Police present to devolution. He said, “the BTP could remain intact but the Chief Constable would report to the Scottish Parliament and to Scottish Government Ministers on all operations in Scotland and all issues affecting Scotland. They would have a say in everything happening in Scotland without having to break up the BTP.”
Labour’s Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale branded the merger an “absolute folly,” and called the BTP a “very professional, exceptionally efficient force…with its special expertise in anti-terrorism, which is of very great relevance right now.” The Liberal Democrats’ Lord Wallace of Tankerness said that the proposals were not a merger but “a dismemberment of the BTP with the Scottish part of it being put into Police Scotland.” However, he noted that railway policing had been made a devolved issue and so “the train had left the station” and “it is a matter for the Scottish Parliament.”
Lord Duncan of Springbank, Scotland Office Minister, responded on behalf of the Government and said that he would call on the Joint Programme Board, who is overseeing the merger, to produce a report on it which could inform further debate.
The potential for the BTP in Scotland being merged with Police Scotland is likely to be considered further in the House of Lords. We will keep members updated on discussions in the Upper Chamber and Scottish Assembly.
MPs speak out against proposed defence cuts
Labour MP for Gedling and former Shadow Defence Secretary, Vernon Coaker, led a debate in the Commons on defence funding at the end of last week. He opened the debate saying that “it is abundantly clear that our armed forces need resources over and above what is currently planned for them, particularly in the light of the increasing threats we face as a country.” Referring to the NSCR, Mr Coaker said that it was “completely wrong” of Mark Sedwill, the lead of the review, to say that it would be “fiscally neutral” before it had been completed. Mr Coaker said, “surely this is about matching resources to threats, not the other way around.”
Mr Coaker was supported by Defence Select Committee member and former Defence Minister responsible for the MDP, Mark Francois, who said that it is “simply unthinkable” that some of the proposed cuts could be supported by the Government and that he hoped “the pinstripe warriors in the Treasury […] have since abandoned” their rumoured plans to decrease army numbers to below 50,000. Mr Francois called on his colleagues to “say to our Government that the time for cuts is over” and to invest into defence.
The DPF is working to secure a meeting with Mr Francois, having previously worked closely with him in his capacity as a Defence Minister. We have also met numerous times with Vernon Coaker when Shadow Defence Secretary, and will seek a follow-up meeting with him to follow-up on this debate. The discussion led by Mr Coaker is further evidence – alongside Julian Lewis’ Urgent Question – of pressure on ministers over MoD funding. Central to our briefings during the coming months will be the messages that the MDP has no ability to find further savings, and that given the pressure on MoD resources it is essential high-value assets are robustly protected.
Former Armed Forces Minister warns against funding cuts
Sir Mike Penning, the Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead and former Minister for the Armed Forces, has given his first interview since resigning from the MoD in June 2017, claiming that “enough is enough” after rounds of cuts to defence spending. Speaking to The Sun, Sir Mike, who served as a soldier in the Grenadier Guard for eight years, said that the British Armed Forces were so short staffed, exhausted and under-funded that they were “on the verge of not being taken seriously anymore.”
Sir Mike said that the Armed Forces are “down to the bone now” and any further reductions to army numbers would mean “we are simply not going to be able to do what the British public expect of us, from our NATO and UN commitments to humanitarian missions.” He said that the overstretching of the special forces in particular had led to a retention crisis and army equipment is being mothballed to save money. Examples cited were troops going into Eastern Europe with Jackal vehicles designed for Afghanistan and that the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigates were not fully crewed and so could only stay at sea for five or six-day missions, at a time when Russian ships and submarines were “testing us” off our own shores.
Sir Mike called for the Trident nuclear deterrent to be taken out of the MoD’s budget to give the Department up to £1bn to use elsewhere.
Merger threat to Royal Marines and paratroopers
It has been reported in The Times that when Gavin Williamson took up his role as Defence Secretary last November, he had been presented with three possible streams for meeting proposed defence cuts, which one Whitehall source described as “ugly, ugly and ugly.” They were devised alongside the NCSR. Two of the three streams presented included a merge of the 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines and 16 Air Assault Brigade of the Parachute Regiment. Some sources have argued that this highly controversial proposal would erode the MoD’s fighting capabilities and reduce its capacity to deploy elite forces on a lengthy operation.
Other proposals included reducing the size of the armed forces by as much as 11,000 soldiers, 2,000 Royal Marines and sailors and 1,250 airmen. This would make the Armed Forces the smallest it has been since before the Napoleonic Wars. Equipment is also under threat, particularly nine Royal Navy warships including seven Type 23 frigates, and more than 100 helicopters “including an entire fleet of Wildcat and a reduction in the size of the Apache force,” as well as the Navy’s two amphibious assault ships.
Both Mr Williamson and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, were considered the proposals unacceptable, according to the Whitehall source quoted by The Times. Defence Select Committee member, Johnny Mercer, said “I and a robust core of Conservative MP’s will simply not allow these proposals to become a reality” and helped to organize the submission of an Urgent Question to the House of Commons on the matter.