By Jim Murphy - 1st October 2012
Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy sets out Labour's vision for a sustainable and affordable defence policy in the 21st Century, pledging to "replace hubris and incompetence with rigour and accountability".
A future Labour government would have an approach to defence spending characterised by discipline and rigour. No smoke and mirrors, no delay in tough decisions and a culture of consequences at all levels.
I am using this year’s Conference speech to outline a change we would make to defence budgeting. We are as committed to learning the lessons of the past as we are to adapting to today’s era of less resource. We can increase value for money and deliver best for less, rejecting out of hand the current Government’s approach of savings over strategy.
With Labour, we would set a core equipment programme and ensure that any increases in expenditure would be fully accounted for and justified within the ten year rolling defence budget through savings or additional money from the Treasury. We will not tolerate a gap between what we can afford and what we put on the order book.
To show we are serious about this we will have an independent, expert review of our decisions conducted by the National Audit Office at the end of each annual Planning Round, which the Defence Secretary would present to Parliament. To earn the trust of the electorate we must in Opposition make clear our approach to some of the issues which we would face in government, which is why we have outlined several defence savings. Today I am underlining our commitment to making sure that the defence equipment programme is sustainable, affordable and deliverable. We will take tough decisions and stick to them.
We know that in the past successive administrations have delayed projects and pushed costs in to the future. This is, of course, necessary at times for technical or strategic reasons, for example to improve a programme’s scope or protect work. ‘Pushing to the right’, as it is known, to make in-year savings, however, can simply defer expenditure which, if repeated, increases the liability on the MoD over time. This has in part, combined with the global economic downturn and the Government’s failure to stimulate growth, led to the unavoidable spending tightening we are seeing in defence in the UK. This is also true amongst our international allies, including the US.
The Conservatives are repeating these mistakes. Slowing the Astute submarine programme, for example, added £200 million in 2011. Ministers claim to have balanced the budget but have shown the country no evidence whatsoever. With Labour, by contrast, increased expenditure will occur only where absolutely essential and will be accounted for - and you will not just have to take our word for it. We will replace hubris and incompetence with rigour and accountability, providing for the frontline while protecting the bottom line.
I say Conservatives rather than Coalition deliberately. The Liberal Democrats have walked out of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Both Departments are free of Lib Dems and Conservative-only areas of Government.
As Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have made clear, it is essential to ensure that every bit of public expenditure is scrutinised and accounted for, which is why zero-budgeting is so important. Defence will be no exception. There have been historic problems with defence procurement and Labour is determined to strengthen scrutiny and discipline, being bold where this Government is timid, planning for the future not presiding over decline.
This is part of a package of reforms to make defence procurement efficient and effective and support the defence industry. We will professionalise procurement within the MoD to increase skills and expertise. We would be prepared to return projects which over-run to the decision-making stage, as they do in the US, to ensure targets for time and cost are met. And we would define our sovereign capabilities to give industry greater certainty. We would also strengthen international co-operation, in particular across NATO, to avoid duplication or capability gaps as we collectively reshape our Forces to new challenges.
The Government’s short-sighted defence review was as inadequate as their lack of an active defence industrial strategy. Ministers’ actions have provided new limitations on what our Armed Forces can do in the world. Labour’s budgetary discipline would provide a strong platform from which to achieve our global ambitions.
We are learning from our past to deliver confidence and credibility for the future.