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5.2 pm

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): I, too, will attempt to be brief. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who had some interesting insights into defence issues.

It is easy to realise from the feelings expressed earlier on the Floor of the House how incredibly important equipment issues have become to us, not only for the sake of our constituents but because we so desperately want to ensure that our very best resource--people in the Armed Forces--is given the very best equipment at the best price. That is why we become so animated when such issues are raised. We as Members of Parliament, and especially the Government, shoulder a huge responsibility to ensure that we get such issues right. It is very important that we secure modern, usable equipment that suits our armed forces.

My first word of warning to everybody in the defence industry and the armed forces who might be listening to the debate is that when they are promised great cuts in taxation at the election, they should think very carefully which Government will truly be interested in ensuring that our armed forces are properly equipped. Defence cuts are such an easy hit when times become hard, which I suspect they would for any future Government.

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It is important that we think about the procurements of the past and remember that there have been some enormous mistakes. I shall not cite a huge list; that would be a silly waste of time. We have heard hon. Members eloquently pointing out how important some procurement is to their constituents. I should like to relay to the House my experience and why I believe it is so important that we get procurement right.

Getting procurement right is particularly important to those in Kosovo and Macedonia. Being with the men and women on the ground who are doing the job on our behalf made me realise that their having to use a mobile phone during their working hours because we do not provide them with a proper radio station is wrong, and should not be part of our requirement. I hope that we can now see a way forward, especially given the very painful experience of re-tendering for the Bowman programme. Re-tendering was right--and I say that even though one company in my constituency was heavily involved in it. It was right to think about the future of that project.

I suspect that my next point will preclude my receiving an invitation to go to Washington with the Defence Committee. Our men and women serving on the ground with other forces throughout the world say readily and happily that the Americans have all the gear and no idea. That is no excuse for us not to ensure that our forces have proper equipment. It is important in these debates to remember not just the people on the front line but those in everyday jobs.

On a recent Select Committee visit to the Falkland Islands, we were transported in a very out-of-date Tristar aircraft that regularly breaks down and disappoints those in the armed forces who are waiting to get home after six months away from their families. That is an example of an incredibly expensive and daft way in which to procure travel. I sincerely hope that the Government will consider that issue. It may not be the sexy front-line stuff about which everyone has talked today, but it is very important to our armed forces that we move them around the country and the world properly, efficiently and cost-effectively.

I have some major concerns about delivery. To return to the Bowman issue, we must ensure that once we have started, we deliver on time. I understand that we have brought the project back into line, but I want to ensure that the in-service date of 2003-04 is secure and that our armed forces can rely on us to deliver exactly what they need when they need it.

Everybody wants to extol the virtues of parts of the defence industry on their own patch. I shall take a slightly different view and speak about the value of defence jobs in the United Kingdom. I have the great good fortune to live in Crawley, and Gatwick airport is within my constituency. Jobs in the area are largely directed towards the service industries. Without the defence industries in my town, there would be few jobs to entice university graduates back into the town to work on sophisticated communications systems. When we discuss procurement, we should remember how important such jobs are to our constituencies.

The European defence industry is undergoing enormous change. I believe that it is change for the better. We on the Defence Committee are watching matters closely and looking into the way in which we do business. A fine

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example of that was the quadripartite meetings of Select Committees, which together examined defence exports. That was a huge success and resulted in an excellent report.

The Government have done a superb job of ensuring that we know where exports are going. We could do more and produce more detailed reports. We have made a good start and should move towards greater transparency about the end users of the United Kingdom's defence exports. We are leading by example.

The use of new technologies in defence procurement delivers another agenda that is extremely important to the Government--equal opportunities. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, looking at me as if to say, "You managed to get that in again!" New, lighter technologies allow men and women to serve equally in all roles in our armed forces. Women do not want to be given an advantage, but lighter materials and lighter equipment provide a level playing field, and neither men nor women will have to carry heavy packs in future.

The systems are in place for us to move forward, and money is being made available for our armed forces. People should know that the Government are committed to the armed forces and will continue to support them, and the Defence Committee will continue to watch the Government with a keen eye.

5.11 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on her emphasis on people in the defence industry. As a constituency Member of Parliament, I represent the interests of those who work at BAE Systems at Warton--some 6,000 people. They are part of the military aircraft division, which employs almost 13,000 people, who provide a vital backbone to Lancashire's economy.

There are 40,000 people in the north-west of England who rely on the aerospace industry, whose well-being depends largely on military orders, although of course civil orders are important as well. I mention those figures to put into context the number of people who are reliant on our success in that industry.

I have referred to large numbers of people, but I pay tribute to one person whom I used to follow in such debates: our former colleague Michael Colvin, the Member for Romsey. In a way, I feel his presence on the Bench in front of me, from which he used to make extremely knowledgeable contributions to defence debates. I am sorry that he is not present, but I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that, as far as I am concerned, he is here in spirit. The clarity of his contributions will not be forgotten.

The elements of strong defence are, I believe, a clear strategy, excellent people, the best kit and a budget to match. Those are the benchmarks by which one judges the success or otherwise of a procurement exercise. Clear strategy is, perhaps, a subject for debate next week, but if there is one element of the strategic demands on our forces which has become abundantly clear in recent times, it is the need for flexibility.

That has been acknowledged in references to the A400M. I am delighted that the Government have come to a conclusion on that. It was a difficult issue, but the

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right decision has been made. Similarly, the Government made the right decision on the Meteor missile system. It is right that from the Opposition Benches we say thank you when good decisions have been made. We all recognise the need for quality air power and the importance of flexibility.

Future major procurement projects, whether transatlantic or within Europe, will succeed only through co-operation. That is a challenge, because it entails not just resolving some of the difficult political debates, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) alluded in his remarks from the Front Bench, but recognising one of the fundamental changes that is now occurring in the world of defence--the change in the industrial mix.

The United Kingdom is ideally placed for that. BAE Systems, with the takeover of Marconi and the Sanders division of Lockheed Martin, now has a major footprint in the United States and on this side of the Atlantic. The alliances and strategies, and companies working together, are a key ingredient of our future success in defence.

The debate is taking place because both sides of the House expressed concern that once again BAE Systems had had to reduce the number of people whom it employed. Thankfully, the reduction was implemented by natural wastage but, sadly, there are now fewer employees. Rationalisation was taking place in the organisation of the defence industry, and that was recognised. There was a quest for efficiency by that means to re-equip the company with the right skills and the right people for the future. The company recognised the demands that were to be made of it.

One of the issues that the work force find difficult to reconcile is that they know that a company has a £35 billion order book and ask, "Why is the company dispensing with our services?" Against that background, are the Government minded to acknowledge the importance of sustaining work and the importance to the north-west of England of the aerospace industry?

I understand that the Minister has many questions to answer, but perhaps in future the Secretary of State could try in a speech to put into context, for the benefit of the work force, how his Department sees the industrial backbone of the defence industry in the north-west. Does it understand why we become excited about big projects? We all know that they represent a great deal of work for our constituents. That is why we become excited. We should be excited because we are talking about the best kit for our armed forces. That guides our thinking.

If we are honest, we are looking after our constituents' interests and the numbers of jobs that big projects represent. Some words of comfort from the Government on that score would be extremely reassuring to the many hundreds of thousands of people who are somewhat confused because they are personally affected by the changed nature of the way in which large multinational companies operate, both in Europe and across the north Atlantic.

We shall see co-operation in future, perhaps because of the factors that underlie some of the projects that are now in the pipeline. The Eurofighter Typhoon has been mentioned. Co-operation with our partners is important, and so is the second strand in UK defence policy. We need strong UK-based companies for a key strategic reason.

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In the Gulf conflict, no Tornado or Jaguar would have flown properly equipped if short-term modifications could not have been made to those aircraft. Whether we talk of ships, aircraft or land-based equipment, we must sustain our industrial base. If we do not, and if the chips are down and there is a real conflict, we shall not be able to modify our equipment to cope with strategic demands. That will not be possible if we do not have skilled design teams and skilled manufacturers, down to the humble fitter. Again, I seek some comfort from the Government Front Bench. I hope that the view that I have outlined is in the Government's mind when they make strategic decisions.

Much has been made of so-called smart procurement. I think that it is now called acquisitive procurement. I read an interesting article in a magazine published by the Royal United Services Institute, which was written by Michael Bell. He poses some interesting questions, which are a challenge to us for the future. His first and key point is to draw our attention to the fact that in procurement terms there are few big projects, and there is an incredible amount of competition for them. There is tremendous commercial risk attached to bidding to get them--and to the risk that the company will not get them.

In that scenario, Michael Bell questioned whether a winner-takes-all approach is the best way to run procurement projects. Even within the context of smart procurement, competition still underpins the way in which decisions are made.

Mr. Bell writes:

In the same article, Sir Robert Walmsley, chief executive of the Defence Procurement Agency, is quoted. His agency was invited to comment on the delays in the maritime patrol aircraft programme, and he says:

Now is not the time for a detailed discussion of Nimrod, but we should heed those wise words and think again about our procurement philosophy.

Michael Bell raises another valid point when he says of smart procurement:

Industry will embrace smart procurement because working together makes sense, but I have drawn attention to some small cameos that should persuade us to reflect carefully on the results of the policy.

One of the key ingredients in the mixture is a strong budget. The £1.5 billion cuts in the budget for the RAF are not settled, so perhaps the Minister will comment on that issue when he winds up the debate. Can he unequivocally guarantee that the Government currently have no intention either of reducing the number of Eurofighter Typhoons that they procure, or of amending the timetable for that procurement?

The joint strike fighter programme is vital to the development of our aerospace industry, but there is a bill to be met. I understand that if we are to participate in the

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process over the next four years, the Government have to commit $1.6 billion; if they do not, we shall be unable to sit at the table with other partners and, more important, we will not have the leverage needed to have access to the full range of technologies involved in the programme. I hope that the Minister can offer an assurance that the Government stand four-square behind British participation in the project and that the money to keep us at the top table will be made available.

I should be grateful for clarification of the position on the future offensive air system, which has not yet been mentioned in the debate. I understand that it has the potential to serve as seedcorn for new technologies and as the source of the replacement for the Tornado, whether that is a manned or unmanned aircraft. The project has become enmeshed in some of the thinking about the joint strike fighter and about modifying and upgrading the Eurofighter Typhoon, perhaps for a marine application. How do the Government perceive the future offensive air system in the context of its relationship to the joint strike fighter and modifications to existing equipment?

Will the Minister comment on the Government's efforts to settle with the Government of India the question of their procurement of the successful Hawk aircraft? Finally, will he explain the problem with the adoption of the thermal imaging and laser designation system on the Tornado GR4? In a letter dated 27 April, the Minister for the Armed Forces tried to tell me that the nature of some of the problems was technological, but, in a letter from the MOD dated 8 October, I was told that the problems emerged during trials run by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency which uncovered

Considering how long the Tornado mid-life update was in procurement, I find it distressing that I should have received two diametrically opposed opinions from the MOD on a problem that should have been solved before a single GR4 was accepted back into service. However, I am grateful to the Minister for his tribute to BAE Systems for the work that it has done in sorting that out.

Finally, on the theme of personnel, attracting people into an engineering environment is vital to the procurement industry, but attracting people into the RAF is equally important. As president of 2468 squadron of the Air Cadet Force in my constituency I see the poor-quality equipment that those young cadets who are keen on defence have to use on the two nights a week and at the weekends when they come along to learn their skills. Would it not be right to invest a little more in more up-to-date equipment and premises for those young people? They are the seedcorn of our aerospace industry and the RAF and they deserve a better deal.

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