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“The defence budget has been rising every year…. The only time the defence budget has been cut was in the 10 years before 1997″
Gordon Brown, Questions to the prime minister, 10 March, 2010
Cathy Newman checks it out
Gordon Brown has been under heavy fire from the top military brass in the last few days for starving the Ministry of Defence of resources. Today he returned fire. Labour has been at war five times since it came to power 13 years ago. And the PM is adamant that during his time as chancellor, and since he got the keys to number 10, the military have got everything they asked for. His claim at prime minister’s question time today that the defence budget has risen EVERY year since 1997 was impressive. But even before he’d left the chamber, FactCheck had got to work to find out if it was true.
Gordon Brown is accused of squeezing defence budgets at a time of war. Just this week Sir Bill Jeffrey, the most senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, told the Chilcot Inquiry the forces were kept short of funds when Brown was Chancellor.
David Cameron today took up the baton, accusing Brown of fighting “two wars on a peace time budget”. The PM retorted that the defence budget has been rising every year since Labour came to power.
A Downing Street spokesman reiterated the prime minister’s claim, saying: “The government has a strong record on defence spending. Defence spending has risen by 10 per cent in real terms since 1997, and on top of a rising defence budget £8bn was spent on Iraq and so far £9bn have been spent on Afghanistan. Every additional request for funding for Iraq and Afghanistan has been met.
“As Chancellor, Gordon Brown’s successive spending reviews provided for annual average real terms growth in the defence budget.
“Exact outturns on those budgets can vary for a range of reasons, including the cost of operations, departmental underspends, and additions over and above budgets in these periods. But there can be no doubt about the government’s commitment to resourcing defence.”
In real terms – i.e. taking account of inflation – Gordon Brown is wrong. Figures given to us by the Ministry of Defence (see table below) show the defence budget fell year-on-year in real terms on four occasions since 1997 when Labour came to power – in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2007.
Worse, the defence budget also fell below 1997 levels (again in real terms) on four occasions – 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002.
The MoD says Gordon Brown wasn’t talking about real terms growth, but was instead referring to “near cash” rises in the defence budget. “Near cash” is the simplest form of the military budget, the most basic cash figure – without inflation or depreciation taken into account.
According to the Institute For Fiscal Studies, inflation has to be factored in to make spending comparisons meaningful. So Brown was at the very least playing fast and loose with the figures by ignoring inflation.
However, Gordon Brown also stated today in the Commons that the “expenditure of the Ministry of Defence has been rising in real terms under this government”. Taking him absolutely literally, “this government” was elected in 2005. But here he is also wrong. As we’ve seen just now, spending fell in real terms in 2007.
FactCheck likes a belt and braces approach, so we called several experts – including Mark Stoker, a military economist at the International Institute For Strategic Studies.
He pointed out NATO also provide accounts on defence budgets, and he reckons these numbers are more accurate.
Looking at the NATO figures, the defence budget fell from £34.4bn in 2007 to £32.8bn in 2008.
“If you look at Nato’s figures Gordon Brown’s statement is incorrect,” says Stoker. “Either way, both sets of data indicate that the budget has not risen every year.”
Cathy Newman’s verdict
Defence spending has gone up in “near cash” terms, but it’s fiscally illiterate to use this measure, and the former chancellor knows it. The government is on firmer ground when it points out that the departmental budget is 10 per cent higher this year than in 1997, but FactCheck has established that Gordon Brown’s central claim that the defence budget has gone up every year is fiction.
Source: MoD. Figures are calculated using the latest (4 January 2010) GDP deflator which is updated quarterly by the HM Treasury. The agreed figure of 1.5 per cent for the average annual real-terms growth over the comprehensive spending review period was agreed with the Treasury in 2007/08 and was calculated using the 2007/08 baseline (£29,411k).