Britain's defence in jeopardy, say MPs

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The Independent Online
The parlous state of Britain's armed forces was underlined yesterday when MPs warned that any further cuts would threaten the defence of the realm.

The Commons Defence Committee insisted the case for reversing some of the cutbacks made under the Options for Change and Front Line First programmes was "well made".

"We insist that the defence spending plans set out in the 1996 Budget must at least be maintained in real terms in future years," the committee said.

And in its report the committee stressed: "Any further reduction would jeopardise the defence of the realm."

Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, fought a tough battle with the Treasury before last November's Budget. Small cash reductions were offset by lower than expected inflation figures and reduced pensions contributions to produce a level budget.

Bruce George, Labour MP for Walsall South and a member of the committee, said the report traced "a decline in the defence budget which in reality is considerably worse than the circumstances justify".

The report says that the MoD will spend an estimated pounds 700m more than its pounds 21.4bn budget this financial year. The sell-off of 70,000 service married quarters, which has netted pounds 1.66bn for the Treasury has, so far, actually cost the MoD money as it has had to pay pounds 72m rent to the new owners and pounds 11m to refurbish the quarters before selling them.

Nevertheless, the MoD yesterday said the core of its spending remained unchanged, and that overall spending had gone up slightly when taken as pounds 63.516bn over the three years from 1995 to 1998. The committee - and Labour - broadly accepted this, but warned that spending on a large number of high-profile projects including a new frigate, the Eurofighter 2000, a replacement Maritime Patrol Aircraft and the Advanced Anti Armour weapon was due to peak in 2003-04, and that not enough money would be available.

A future government would either have to make more money available, or some of these very prominent projects would have to be cut.

Of the extra pounds 705-710m the MoD must spend this year, only the pounds 11m for refurbishing married quarters before selling them represents any form of spending on new goods and services. Of the remaining extra spending, pounds 316m - pounds 72m rent for the married quarters and pounds 244m for unbudgeted spending on Bosnia - represents extra cash which will have to be recovered from the Treasury.

The MoD yesterday insisted that the remaining pounds 380m, carried over from earlier years, had already been spent on budgeted items and was therefore merely being redistributed within the agreed defence budget.

The report noted there had been "unwanted savings" because of the shortfall in service recruiting, which was expected to save between pounds 96m and pounds 120m over each of the next three years.

The extra pounds 244m spent on operations in Bosnia this year led the committee to say that "either the defence budget include an element for contingencies, such as peace-keeping operations, or the extra cost of such operations should be refunded to the Ministry of Defence as it is incurred".

t Defence Committee, Fourth Report, Defence Spending; HMSO; pounds 10.60.