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Bernard Jenkin questions Defence Secretary on military spending and Iraq commitments

Jenkinbernard Bernard Jenkin MP: "I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me for conveying the sentiment of many in the armed forces that he seems to be putting a very brave face on the situation in his Department. Although it is true that defence spending may have risen by 10 per cent. in real terms since 1997, it is also true that the United States has increased its spending by 60 per cent., the Russian Federation by 148 per cent., India by 40 per cent., and China by 129 per cent. Why are we falling so far behind so many of our international comparators?"

Des Browne MP, Defence Secretary: "The first point that I make to the hon. Gentleman—and others in his party who constantly look for comparators to justify, in their terms, the allegation of cuts in UK defence spending, which they have thankfully moved away from—is that our real-terms growth in defence spending contrasts significantly with what happened during the last years of the Government whom he supported. They cut defence spending by £0.5 billion a year in real terms. The challenge for him and his Front-Bench spokesmen is not whether they can compare spending in the UK, in its particular circumstances, with spending in any other country that they might identify. I could identify many countries where the comparison goes the other way.

The challenge for his party is to match the level of spending to which we have committed in the spending review and to say whether it intends to spend more on defence—and, if so, to say what it would spend that money on and which public services it would cut in order to spend it. If the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench spokesmen are not prepared to engage in that debate, they cannot be allowed to seek solace in comparisons that they have drawn out of the air. The circumstances of the US, Russia, China or India are not our circumstances. I am talking about a continuum of which we should be proud: real increases and real investment in defence, which are reflected in how we are able to support and equip our troops in the operational theatre."

Mr. Jenkin: "At the time of the invasion, British military forces comprised some 30 per cent. of the UN mandated coalition’s combat power in Iraq. The Prime Minister’s announcement envisages that we will now provide perhaps less than 2 per cent. of the coalition’s combat power. Do we still stand shoulder to shoulder with our American ally?"

Des Browne: "We could not be closer. Knowing the hon. Gentleman’s interest in Iraq, I am sure that he will have pored over every word uttered by General Petraeus when he was here explaining how closely we had worked to achieve what we have achieved in southern Iraq. If that was not good enough for him, he probably pored over every word uttered by Secretary Gates on his visit here only last week, when he confirmed that what we are doing was entirely consistent with what the Americans are doing. We therefore could not be closer to the US, and that is to be expected, although I know that the reduction in British troop numbers is counter-intuitive, especially given that it happened when the numbers of US troops were surging. However, those who understand the diversity of Iraq and the extent of the differences between provinces know that our action was entirely consistent with what the Americans were doing, given the different environment facing our troops. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the people in the US who know best about these matters—and they include General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, who for some months now have been responsible for US policy in Iraq—have given evidence that confirms that."

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