Owen Thompson – 2023 Speech on the Defence Command Paper Refresh

The speech made by Owen Thompson, the SNP spokesperson on defence, on 18 July 2023.

I too thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of a draft statement, albeit that there were one or two additions on delivery. I also, perhaps pre-emptively, join in wishing him well in whatever comes next. Although I have not directly shadowed him, I certainly pass on those thoughts from my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), who has worked closely with him over a period now.

I will start on a positive note. I welcome a number of the points made. I very much welcome the fact that people are put front and centre. That is absolutely critical in anything we do in defence. People are what make it work, and if we are not supporting the men and women of the forces, what are we doing at all? There is probably that more we can do, even beyond this. While it will not surprise Ministers to hear me say that we need to support those serving, we also need to continue to look at what we are doing to support our veterans. I know that the Minister is working on that, but it is an area in which we need to try to do more.

I also welcome the recognition of some of the accommodation conditions. I welcome the fact that steps are being taken and matters looked at, but that needs to be moved forward at a greater pace.

I note that the Secretary of State says we are going to spend over £50 billion for the first time next year. I wonder whether he can tell us how much of that is simply down to inflation created by this Government. I am not trying to be awkward, but that is clearly quite a significant factor.

We have also heard of the ongoing and long-lasting issues around procurement, with reports showing that roughly £2 billion is wasted each year in failed equipment programmes and cancelled procurement contracts. Is the Ministry of Defence making the necessary reforms to make its procedures better, and will they deliver value for money?

Recruitment and retention issues have been flagged up; the Haythornthwaite review clearly highlighted those. Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that the steps being taken now on the skills agenda will be the necessary actions to address recruitment and retention issues?

Finally, the Haythornthwaite review highlighted cyber capability as a major issue. Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that the steps being taken and outlined today will do enough to deliver that capability in the way that we all want to see?

Mr Wallace

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and grateful for his party’s support on Ukraine.

On the Haythornthwaite review and skills, right across Europe and the west we are seeing recruitment challenges in the military. I was with my New Zealand counterpart recently, and my Canadian counterpart, and they too have a challenge. The skills shortage across society is big, and it is no different in the armed forces, which is why we have to adapt rapidly and tackle some of the challenges.

On procurement, as I said, the figures have started to improve. Yes, there are challenges, and we could spend a whole day debating the reasons for those challenges. Complex procurement is not as straightforward as many people think, and the hon. Gentleman will know from the Scottish Government’s procurement issues that it is not straightforward to deal with. I certainly believe that if we invest in the people and are prepared to invest in continuity—if instead of having the senior responsible owners who help manage our projects here today and gone tomorrow, we ensure that they are there for the long term and link their incentives to success, and help them manage our projects—we will have a better chance of delivering better value for money.