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6.16 pm

Ms Claire Ward (Watford): This is the first time that I have wanted to speak in a defence debate. Previously, I felt that I did not have enough experience or knowledge to contribute to such debates. However, during the past few months, I have taken part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, serving with the Royal Marines. That experience and my conversations and discussions with service personnel have shown me that there are a

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number of problems with some of their equipment, many of which do not seem to have been considered in decisions on future procurement.

The Royal Marines and members of all our armed services are dedicated, professional and highly motivated. No one wants conflict to take place. No one wants to send forces into conflict, but we all want to ensure that, should military conflict be necessary, our air, sea and land forces have the equipment that they need to do the job. I suspect that, in some recent conflicts, it is the dedication and the skills of our personnel rather than their equipment--unfortunately, sometimes, in spite of their equipment--that have achieved our success.

My hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the SA80 rifle. Whenever I asked Royal Marines which was their worst piece of equipment, they replied, without hesitation, that it was the SA80. I witnessed trials on their firing ranges and on exercises and on several occasions the weapon did not work. It works neither in desert conditions nor when there is excessive moisture in the air. The jamming is such that only about 30 per cent. of the rifles work at any given time. The design of the weapon is poor; it makes both right and left-hand use impossible. The reliability of the SA80 is extremely questionable and that puts our troops in danger in certain conflicts.

I understand that a programme of alterations has already been agreed by the Ministry of Defence. If possible, will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tell us this evening when that programme will be completed to ensure that some upgrading and improvements take place to provide a much better weapon, although certainly not the kind of weapon that our armed forces deserve and would like to have? Will that weapon get to the front line so that our rapidly deployed forces can use it?

I am also concerned about landing craft utilities. Last week, I visited Poole with the Royal Marines and had an opportunity to see the vessels and landing craft that they are using at the moment. The mark 10 landing craft utility is due to come into service in future and is currently in trials. It was originally commissioned in the mid-1980s but, some years down the line, it still has not come into being and several problems make it inappropriate for the kind of work that our Royal Marines would like to undertake with it.

During the testing of much equipment, including weapons, landing craft and radios--several hon. Members have mentioned the Bowman programme--there have been many instances when the views of military personnel were not taken into account. Many issues raised by personnel are simple and straightforward and concern things that would make life a lot easier for them if only those who procured the equipment listened to the views of those who risked their lives for this country. The personnel work with the equipment day to day, and have a much greater knowledge of it than anyone in the Chamber or the Whitehall offices of the Ministry of Defence. I am concerned that there appears to be a lack of interest in listening to those who use the equipment on a daily basis.

I am conscious of time and the need for Front-Bench spokespersons to answer all the points that have been made in a debate, in which many interesting issues were raised. However, may I make a strong case for greater opportunity for service personnel to be involved in procurement issues? They feel that they are constantly left out and that their views are not heard. Much of the news

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that they get about when equipment is likely to come on stream is filtered through the system and is corrupted one way or another, a little bit like Chinese whispers. They do not get the information that would allow them to feel confident that the procurement of equipment takes into account their concerns and needs. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend in his winding-up speech gives comfort to those who serve on the front line about when the equipment is likely to be completed--and when, in particular, the SA80 will be upgraded--so that they can be assured of the equipment that they deserve and that is necessary for them to carry out their duties.

6.23 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): In many ways, our debate has been extremely revealing and some important subjects have been raised. As I do not have an enormous amount of time, I hope that I may be forgiven for not following my usual practice of commenting on every Back-Bench contribution.

Let me single out five contributions that were particularly original and well informed, one of which was the contribution of the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward). We all welcome her to these defence debates and, given her obvious knowledge of, and sympathy for, the subject, I hope that we shall hear a great deal from her in future--perhaps as early as next week, if she is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I should like to compliment my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who also knows a lot about defence and made a strong case on the need for us to maintain a military and industrial base in this country. Otherwise, as he rightly pointed out, in a crisis we would simply not have the skills available to convert equipment rapidly and support our troops, sailors and airmen in the field.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who has a long record of taking part in defence debates, made some very good points. He made one point that needs to be made over and over again. Despite all the spin and announcements of announcements that are made or contracts that are to be signed, the Government have not signed a single contract or committed money to build a single warship since they took over the reins of power in 1997. No one should be allowed to get away with that, irrespective of the talents of the spin doctors whom the Labour party employs. My hon. Friend reminded us of the importance of the medical back-up for our military forces and what a tragedy it is that the Government have seen fit to close the last military hospital at Haslar.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) is not in the Chamber. I am sorry about that because I want to say some nice things about him, even if he is a Liberal. It does not happen very often. He gave us a fascinating insider's view, which I have not heard from anyone, of the shambles of the Bowman programme during the three and a half years until the Government cancelled it a short while ago.

Dr. Moonie: It has been going on for longer than that.

Mr. Davies: The contract with Archer dates from 1997 and has just been terminated by the Government. So for the whole period of the Archer contract, as every week and month went by, we cumulatively lost the £200 million

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of which the hon. Member for Eastleigh has reminded the House. It was the Minister or his colleagues who were responsible for that, and they cannot get away from it. I shall come back to that later because it is an important issue.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh also gave us a fascinating insight into the position of Vosper Thornycroft, which, in the light of the decisions announced today and the mishandling of the type 45 procurement, may well cease to be an option for the Ministry of Defence when it wishes to procure naval vessels. That is a serious matter.

I do not want to embarrass the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) by supporting him, but he made a devastating attack on the Government's procurement policy and today's announcement. Nothing that anyone on the Conservative Benches could say would be more eloquent than the speech made by the hon. Gentleman, who holds a different ideological and political point of view and comes from a different parliamentary tradition.

The great event of today--"great" is perhaps the wrong word; the important event of today--was the announcement of the Government's intentions with regard to procuring the roll on/roll off ferries. We all agree that they are vital, and agree with the need for naval strategic lift. The Government's decision had two particularly unsatisfactory aspects, the significance of which goes much wider than defence procurement or capability, and to the heart of the nature of the Government's relations with Parliament and the way in which the Government take decisions, present them to the public and account to the public for them, as they should do in a democracy. Both aspects are thoroughly unsatisfactory--and that is the mildest word that I can use.

First, we had one more case of an important announcement that was supposed to be made in Parliament being made first in the media. You were in the Chair at the time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and you expressed your personal concern and undertook to take the matter up from the Chair. You said all the right things, as much as you could. I have no illusions. I believe that Ministers will go home tonight sniggering as they walk away from the House into the darkness, thinking complacently that they have got away with it once again, and that nothing will happen to them. They will try it on a second, third, fourth and 500th time. That is the way of the Government, and it is lamentable.

The second unsatisfactory aspect of the affair is the way in which the decision has been taken and defended to the public. The implication--although I think it was more like a statement than an implication--of the Secretary of State's remarks was that the Government had no choice but to allow the bid to go to the lowest tenderer in the European Union. The implication was that the public procurement directive and the Treaty of European Union left the Government with no option. However, that is not true. The Government had a choice as to whether to go down the private finance initiative route or the public-private partnership route to procure the vessels.

The decision to take the PFI route meant that the private sector partner would become the nominal owner and the purchaser of the ship. Therefore, the public procurement directive would apply and the purchase would not be protected as a piece of Government procurement for military purposes. The Government took that decision,

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but we do not know whether they were so incompetent and naive that it never occurred to them, when they decided on the PFI structure, that the inevitable consequence was that the order would have to be offered to competition throughout the European Union. If they did not know that or even think about it, on the basis of competence alone those on the Treasury Bench should not be there.

However--I fear that this might be so--if it was not a matter of competence but one of honesty and they knew perfectly well of the inexorable consequences of the route that they had chosen to go down and were determined to disguise them from Parliament and the public, they obviously behaved in an utterly unforgivable fashion. We may never know the answer, but Parliament is entitled to know which of those alternatives is true. There is no third, fourth or fifth logical possibility. One of the alternatives must be true and both are damning.

The Secretary of State seemed to cover himself against the possibility that we might find out the answer to my question by implying that the vessels did not qualify under the treaty for protection against the public procurement directive. I thought that it was not an accident but a little sinister that he either deliberately or inadvertently continued to use wrong and inappropriate terminology that is not relevant to this legal issue. He said that the roll on/roll off ferries were not "warlike vessels" and implied that they were not warships. Perhaps he hoped that the inference would be drawn that they would not be protected from the public procurement directive even if the Government had been their direct owner and operator.

Article 296 of the treaty appears after the section on single market legislation and it is relevant. It says that the Government must be open about their procurement within the Union on everything except the military equipment that is defined in the article. It says nothing about warlike vessels or warlike equipment, but refers to

These roll on/roll off ferries are intended explicitly for a specifically military purpose. Although they do not fire missiles, they will play a military role. Therefore, it is unarguable, according to the treaty, that had the Government procured them in the normal way, they could have protected that order. They could have given it to British shipyards had they wished to do so. I fear that they did not wish to do that, but that is what every other European nation would have done, as the hon. Member for Jarrow rightly said. The Government are in the business of bamboozling their own supporters as well as the employees of the shipyards involved. Those employees must be rightly furious at how they have been betrayed by the Government's announcement this afternoon.

The Government's whole procurement policy can be characterised in exactly the same way as the new Labour Administration can be characterised across the board. There is a facade that is initially and superficially attractive. However, once one looks behind that facade, one soon comes across the dry rot, the hypocrisy, the serious errors and--worse than that--the attempts to cover up those errors. When it comes to the high-profile, headline issues, everything seems fine. The Government are committed to the type 45 destroyers, to two new

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carriers, to the A400M and to Meteor. We have supported those decisions--I see the Secretary of State nodding--but only so long as they get them right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has asked a number of pertinent questions, not merely today but on previous occasions, about whether our continental partners will go ahead with projected orders for the A400M, and so forth--and, indeed, about how the type 45 destroyer procurement is proceeding. In principle, it sounds splendid. However, when one looks behind that, one sees not only great problems with individual items but that the Government have very cleverly so arranged things that they hardly have to spend one penny before the election. So, in fact, all the announcements of new orders and the comments on how they are minded to order this or that are hot air. We have yet to see any of it in reality.

When one goes behind such a facade into the day-to-day necessary procurement of equipment on which the effectiveness and lives of our fighting men and women will depend, one finds a very sad story of serious inadequacies and cover-ups. Let us look at the communications system for our combat aircraft. As we have seen in Kosovo, it is not compatible with the United States system.

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