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Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): The initial starting date for Brimstone was 1990. What happened between 1990 and 1997?

Mr. Duncan Smith: The hon. Gentleman, who is chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, knows very well that that programme was delayed. I make no bones about it: the previous Government came to it, went away from it and came back to it again. The Committee's reports illustrated that; they were highly critical, and rightly so. However, when the decision was finally made to go ahead, the industry--in this case I think that it was Marconi, which became BAE--stuck to its part of the bargain.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that Brimstone should have been in service a long time ago. I make no excuses for that. The industry has said, "Now we have the firm order, and know what is required. There will be no more messing around from the Government. We will meet the March date in 2001, and we will meet it on cost and capability." My worry is that the report may mean that, just as this most smart of procurements could be proved, it could be chopped away at the knees. Let us not see a repeat of what happened before--that is my main concern.

I turn now to the pressures on the defence budget in general and, more particularly, to certain reports about the Royal Air Force. I hope that the Minister will deal with the recent press reports about how the RAF will lose at least--[Interruption.] The Secretary of State is compressing it, but I suspect that he will have more than he anticipates. It has been reported that the RAF will lose at least three of its front-line squadrons under plans drawn up to claw back some £1.5 billion overspent on defence procurement projects.

Those same reports said that the plans presented to the air force board were to be held back until after the next election, disguised, as they said, as a modernisation of

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the RAF's capabilities to protect the Government--any Government, I suppose, but particularly this one--from charges that they were going back on their commitment not to make further defence cuts.

Intriguingly, on learning of the leak, the Under-Secretary said that the paper was written before the Ministry of Defence's budget was increased in the summer spending review. About a week later, a further leak showed that this paper was not shown to the air force board until its monthly meeting on 2 August--two weeks after the spending review was announced, and when the Government, and the Minister, knew how much money was in the defence budget. So it was not, as he seems to have suggested--I am ready to be corrected--that the Air Force board saw the paper after it knew of the extra money.

Will the Minister also confirm that comments were made at that meeting about reducing a front-line type of aircraft, which would thus reduce cost? That is one way of doing it. Rumours are circulating that it could be the Tornado F3, the Jaguar, or the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. [Interruption.] I did not leak those documents because I did not have them. Or is the Minister suggestion that we, too, sit on the air force board?

Those documents were in existence and were presented on 2 August, unless the Minister denies that. Now he must explain why he said that they were presented before the budget announcement, not after. That is of great significance. I hope that he will also confirm that no such plans will be implemented.

The Secretary of State mentioned type 45, but he did not talk much about the carriers. Before the summer recess, the Secretary of State announced that the Government intended to go ahead with the order. I welcomed that announcement at the time. There have been discussions about the collaborative Horizon project mess for much the same reasons. We have been around this fence before. However, we still do not actually have the order. We have heard of difficulties from Vosper Thorneycroft.

I hope that, even if the Government cannot announce the order today--as they seem to have chosen to do in the debate on ro-ros--they can at least alleviate the fear and concern in Vosper Thorneycroft, whose work force has lay-off orders. As they have decided that they will spend the money on this project, will they please make the announcement as soon as possible?

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): When the Government make an announcement about the type 45s, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the ships should be capable of launching not just the principal anti-air-missile system missile but also other missiles, particularly Tomahawk? An ability to do this from a ship at sea on the surface would add greatly to our capability of launching cruise attacks, particularly at the moment, when our submarine fleet, which provides the only existing way of launching cruise attacks, is unfortunately in port.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The key point for the Government in the context of the hon. Gentleman's question is: what are we producing these ships for? Obviously they must have the best equipment to deal with possible threats.

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Government must take into consideration the requirement that the equipment must not be second rate but must deal with the perceived threat. The threat should be explained, and a ship designed around it.

I will not follow the hon. Gentleman in trying to specify exactly what equipment should be used--that is not my role. That should come from the members of the military who advise the Government. I hope that the Government take that advice on board and provide the best equipment available, not cut-price equipment. We do not want a ship that is incapable of dealing with today's threats, let alone threats in the future.

I ask the Government to get on with that. It would help those who work in the shipyards. More particularly, there is a glaring gap in our capability, which was created by the collapse of the Horizon programme. There will be many who have smiles on their faces, saying, "I told you so". We do not want to go over that again, but I hope that we have learned the lessons from it. The decision on type 45 is the right one, but for goodness' sake, let us get on with it as quickly as possible.

In winding up the debate, will the Minister--or the Secretary of State--inform the House of the latest position on the replacement of faulty rotor heads on Lynx helicopters? On a visit that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and I made to a base, we were told worrying stories about how far too many Lynx helicopters were grounded and unable to fly. Pilots are literally queueing up, like a local enthusiasts' air club, to fly Lynx helicopters in rotation, because they cannot get their hours on the Lynx helicopters that they would normally fly. What is the position? Can the Government give us any time scale? How long will it take to remedy the problem? When will those Lynx helicopters be back in the air, as they should be?

The Secretary of State mentioned another procurement project, the SA80. The Kosovo report and others have highlighted the problems and failures of the SA80 over the years. The previous Government, in previous iterations, went through get-well programmes that clearly did not work. The Government have taken a decision, in the light of all the concern about the SA80, to upgrade--[Interruption.] If the Secretary of State holds on, I will use my own words; I do not need a prompt from him.

The point is that--despite concerns about the light support weapon as well as the personal weapon, which the Secretary of State knows are widespread--the Government have now decided to go ahead and spend about £80 million on upgrading the SA80. That is about £400 per weapon. The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have clearly reached that conclusion in the belief that the get-well programme--for that is what it is--will eradicate all the problems that have made the military so concerned about the weapon and so dismissive of its capabilities, to the extent that special forces and others do not want to use it if they can avoid it.

Presumably, the Government's decision will deal with that problem. Therefore they must state beyond any doubt today that the weapon will be as capable as it should be. One of the tests is whether the Government honestly believe that the weapon will reappear on the NATO

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approved weapons list after the upgrade. If they do not, they must explain the reason behind the decision to upgrade rather than to go for another weapon.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): Which one?

Mr. Duncan Smith: If the Minister concerned has decided that he needs advice from the Opposition about what weapon to buy, he is being paid far too much for the grade that he is in.

Mr. Brazier: It is common knowledge in the armed forces that the Army wants the Armalite--it has wanted it from the beginning. If we cannot afford a complete replacement, it would be much better to spend the available money on replacing SA80s with Armalites for front-line troops--a partial replacement with a decent weapon--instead of trying to get a little more life out of that hopeless weapon again.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I hear what my hon. Friend says, and my only answer is to question the Government yet again. The answer to my hon. Friend's question lies in the Government's answer to mine. They must say at the Dispatch Box today, beyond any doubt, in the winding-up speech if necessary, that the programme will completely eradicate the problems that have beset the weapon. Let us forget the history. We want to know now whether that is the Government's view. If they cannot say that, it opens up the debate about whether another weapon should be entertained for approximately the same cost. They must know what the figures are.

The other part of the equation concerning whether the Government replace or repair the weapon is what will happen to the Nottingham facility in the process. Having placed the contract with BAE Systems, the Government know that most of the work--the only important part of it--is going to Germany to the Heckler and Koch facility, which BAE owns. Are the Government concerned in any way that the Nottingham facility, which is the last serious small arms manufacturer in the country, will simply close?

The Secretary of State's initial response to such questions was that the Government must deal with best value, but in the summer he seemed to twitch slightly, and to suggest to BAE that it could do more work at the Nottingham facility. He may want to correct me, but those were certainly the press reports. I will give way if he wants to tell us his view of the work at that facility--whether it should do more than simply strip the weapons down, and whether it should do some of the work that is going to Germany. Does he believe that, or is he content with the present arrangement with BAE? Obviously, he does not want to answer that question.

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