Henry Smith is MP for Crawley.
In Crawley, where the aerospace sector is a significant local employer, we have been hit hard by the impact of Covid-19. This will be an extremely challenging time for individuals and families in my constituency and we must look to replace those jobs quickly.
I believe that this recovery can, and should, be technology-led and that one of the Government departments with the biggest budgets – the Ministry of Defence – could be at the heart of it. With the Integrated Review due to report soon, it is important that the UK takes this opportunity to adapt to an environment where technology, science and data are at the centre of delivering our global ambitions.
I agree with Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, that investing in cyber, space, electronic warfare, AI, robotics and autonomy is vital for our future prosperity and security. These kinds of technologies will be critical in building not only national resilience for the UK but a resilient digitally enabled economy.
However, in order to make the Integrated Review effective and the long-term platform on which to build the nation’s security, it must be accompanied by a multi-year spending settlement.
I appreciate that Rishi Sunak needs to focus on the present. But in an industry where contracts are for tens of years and companies make decisions on R&D investment with a long-term view, the absence of a multi-year settlement adds to uncertainty, causes delays in programme decisions, and makes the UK less attractive to large defence companies for investment.
British national security cannot be separated from the strength of our onshore defence and technology base, which increasingly that includes cyber and digital. The ability to rapidly respond to changing threats or shifts in international dynamics is critical. By developing our industry at home, we are able to make decisions to prioritise our values and protect our security, as the Government rightly did with the Huawei/5G decision.
As we have seen throughout this pandemic, our economic and social lives have been shifted online and the importance of being able to have trust in the systems we use, – that our data is secure, that a website is legitimate – can scarcely be overstated. Given the importance of the digital economy, digital trust must now be considered a foundation for national security; we should consider an intrinsic aspect of our Critical National Infrastructure.
Having world leading capabilities that are created and developed in Britain can also support our trade ambitions and export strength. Export sales can help spread the costs of design and production, potentially bringing down the cost of capabilities for the Armed Forces and saving taxpayers’ money. The reputation of the British military is such that when they can be cited as a reference user it adds significant weight to an export campaign.
In order to maximise the UK-wide benefit, the Government must back our industry by choosing to place a high weighting on the positive economic and employment impacts for Britain when making contract decisions, particularly when taxpayer money has been invested in the development of key technologies.
Brexit represents a chance to level the playing field for our defence industry, having previously been hampered by EU competition laws that were interpreted differently across the different states. The Ministry of Defence must be serious about using criteria to make contract decisions that take into account the impact on British jobs. With a large budget and significant annual capital spending, the MoD can be a vital tool in supporting the economic resilience of the nation as well as our security in the more traditional terms. This is something we have seen in countries across the world as they respond to Covid-19 including the US, France, Germany, and Australia.
Like in Crawley, colleagues from many parts of the nation, from Broughton, Brough, and Barrow, will also know benefits of big manufacturers supporting both employment in their area and a national supply chain. By giving the MoD a multi-year settlement, the Government will be recognising the value that defence spending brings to the national and – crucially – local economies.
We must be thinking about the long-term future of our manufacturing towns, and the Government needs to demonstrate their commitment by giving industry the certainty it needs to level up the economy across our United Kingdom.