How much does the UK really spend on defence?

Liam Fox says that we have the fourth largest military budget in the world. Is he right?

If you cut through the military jargon, this morning's report from the defence select committee is remarkably hard hitting. The committee warns that the government's cuts mean the armed forces may be falling below the "minimum utility" required to carry out existing commitments, let alone future ones. Unusually, it also criticises David Cameron directly, stating that "The Prime Minister's view that the UK currently has a full spectrum defence capability is rejected by the committee, as it was by the Single Service Chiefs."

Liam Fox has responded by emphasising that the UK retains the "fourth largest military budget" in the world. But how accurate is this claim? It's true, in cash terms at least, that we're still one of the biggest spenders. In fact, according to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (the global authority on defence spending), we're now in third place. Below is the top ten.

Military Spending: the top ten

2010 (US$, at 2010 prices and exchange rates)

1. USA $698bn

2. China $119bn

3. UK $59.6bn

4. France $59.3bn

5. Russia $58.7bn

6. Japan $54.5bn

7. Saudi Arabia $45.2bn

8. Germany $45.2bn

9. India $41.3bn

10. Italy $37bn

Source: SIPRI

But this is a poor measure of a country's commitment to defence spending. A clearer picture emerges if we look at military spending as a share of GDP. Here, in graph form, is the top ten (plus the UK).

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The data, again provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, comes with several caveats. The figure for Saudi Arabia, for instance (11.2 per cent), also includes spending on what is euphemistically described as "public order and safety". The figure for Israel (6.3 per cent) does not include the $2.9bn that the country received in military aid from the US in 2010. But it still offers a much more accurate picture - the UK does not even make the top 30.

This said, even after the government has cut defence spending by 7.8 per cent in real terms, the UK will still meet the informal Nato commitment to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence, one of just five members - the others are the US, France, Greece and Albania - that does. With this in mind, it's hard to argue that the defence cuts are excessive (although the typically contrarian Simon Jenkins has suggested that they are far, far too small). What is now needed is a clearer alignment between commitments and resources.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.