The Coalition has made strong progress on pledges made to the military in the Programme for Government. Budgetary consolidation has not been as controversial as might have been expected prior to the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010. While the Government has faced occasional criticism, over issues such as a lack of aircraft carriers and cuts to combat aircraft, the military has proved itself to be operationally capable in both the ongoing engagement in Afghanistan and the unexpected Libyan conflict. Any concerns raised from within the Armed Forces have also largely been muted, at least in public.
The Armed Forces Covenant was also an early success. While the Government decided against a complete legal formalisation of the Covenant, the new statutory reporting arrangements appear to have been successful so far. Military personnel have received additional support in a number of areas, notably including improved mental health care, funding for post-service university education and extra pay and allowances for troops on active service in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Of course it is beneficial to the Government that defence issues have largely taken a political backseat. While the UK remains embroiled in conflicts around the world, both the governing parties and the Opposition are presenting a united front in their support for the armed forces. It is notable that Prime Minister’s Questions and Ministerial Statements that focus on defence issues have been amongst the most collegial of the Parliament and Labour have offered their support to the Government on the Covenant and on British involvement in Mali, Libya and elsewhere. Even the cuts to the defence budget have attracted little attention, as Ed Miliband and his team have focused their ire on cuts to areas such as welfare.
But despite these initial successes, there may be trouble ahead for the Coalition’s defence policy. The renewal or replacement of Trident as Britain’s nuclear deterrent remains a key fault line between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The Cabinet Office review into possible alternatives is expected to report in mid-2013 but it seems likely the issue will not be resolved quickly. Indeed, it is probable that the decision will be delayed until after the next election and that the upcoming Spending and Strategic Defence reviews will be used as stumbling blocks, despite David Cameron’s statement of support for a nuclear deterrent in April 2013. The prospect of an independent Scotland has also created a great deal of uncertainty. With so much of the UK’s naval and shipyard capacity situated north of the border, including a large portion of the Trident system, firm decisions on future policy directions cannot be made prior to the independence referendum. Of course it is also impossible to predict if, when and where the Armed Forces will be called into action again elsewhere and what pressures this might place on them.
Overall, it seems likely that the Government will aim to keep Defence as quiet a policy area as possible in the run up to the 2015 election. Internationally, the Government will continue working to resolve ongoing and potential conflicts as peacefully as possible. At home, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives will attempt to gradually highlight their differences over issues such as Trident, whilst accentuating the Government’s successes to date. Whether or not this will resonate with voters remains to be seen.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives. We will immediately play a strong role in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, and press for continued progress on multilateral disarmament.
Status: In progress – The Government has set up a review, led by the Cabinet Office, into possible Trident alternatives. However the review will not report until mid-2013 and a final decision may not be taken until 2016. The Coalition partners remain deeply divided on the issue. The Government supported the development of a Non-Proliferation Action Plan at the 2010 Treaty Review Conference.
Pledge: We will aim to reduce Ministry of Defence running costs by at least 25 per cent.
Status: In progress – The Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010 revised this target upward, to a reduction of 33%. The Department considers itself on track to meet this new target and it has already achieved a reduction in its civilian manpower by 20% and improved efficiency via the creation of Defence Business Services and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation. The UK’s involvement in Libya and Mali, as well as the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, has placed financial burdens on the defence budget.
Pledge: We will work to rebuild the Military Covenant by: – ensuring that Service personnel’s rest and recuperation leave can be maximised; – changing the rules so that Service personnel only have to register once on the Service register; – exploring the potential for including Service children as part of our proposals for a Pupil Premium; – providing university and further education scholarships for the children of Servicemen and women who have been killed on active duty since 1990; –providing support for ex-Service personnel to study at university, – creating a new programme, ‘Troops for Teachers’, to recruit ex-Service personnel into the teaching profession; –providing extra support for veteran mental health needs; and –reviewing the rules governing the awarding of medals.
Status: Done – While the Armed Forces Covenant was not completely formalised as law (instead, there is a statutory requirement for an annual report to Parliament relating to its condition) the principles it is based on have been upheld. A number of fully-funded programmes for the education, healthcare and families of military personnel have been introduced, including the payment of tuition fees for service leavers without degrees and the creation of new mental health care programmes for veterans.
Pledge: We will double the operational allowance for Armed Forces personnel serving in Afghanistan, and include Armed Forces pay in our plans for a fair pay review.
Status: Done – Operational Allowances were doubled by the Government in 2010 and the Armed Forces were included in the Fair Pay Review. David Cameron announced the changes to the Allowances during a visit to Afghanistan, pledging to put the military “at the front and centre” of British society.
Pledge: We will ensure that injured personnel are treated in dedicated military wards.
Status: Done - Systems have been adopted to allow military personnel who are injured abroad to be treated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. This hospital provides dedicated intensive care services using military staff.
Pledge: We will look at whether there is scope to refurbish Armed Forces’ accommodation from efficiencies within the Ministry of Defence.
Status: In progress - The 2012 Budget committed an extra £100 million worth of spending on improving military accommodation in 2013/14. The success of this commitment will be judged over the next financial year.
Pledge: We will support defence jobs through exports that are used for legitimate purposes, not internal repression, and will work for a full international ban on cluster munitions.
Status: In progress - While many UK arms manufacturers have, controversially, accompanied Cameron and his Ministers on trade delegations around the world, the failed merger of BAE systems and EADS in late 2012 has overshadowed the industry. The Arab Spring and the rebellions in Libya and Syria have also raised questions about the legitimacy of weapons sales in these parts of the world.
The Government quickly moved to tackle the issue of cluster munitions and passed the Cluster Munitions (Prevention) Act 2010 as well as the International Cluster Munitions Convention to help limit their use. In April 2013, the UN approved an international treaty to limit the sale of conventional weaponry with UK support.