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Mr. Hoon: The Conservatives bought it.

Mr. Davies: The Secretary of State seems to think that every shortcoming in the services for which this Government have been responsible over the past three and a half years can somehow be laid at the door of the previous Conservative Government. We can all play that game; I could talk about the military inadequacies of the Government of Ramsay MacDonald. The fact is that the Secretary of State has responsibility and if he is to do something on the issue, he had better do it.

Mr. Hoon: I find the hon. Gentleman's observations absolutely astonishing. We have ordered secure air-to-air communications to replace the system that his Government purchased.

Mr. Davies: The system clearly is not in place at the moment.

What is more, the Secretary of State has been engaged in the GR1 to GR4 conversion programme. The matter has been in his hands for several years and he still has not got it right. Apparently, the software has still not been successfully integrated in order that GR4s can handle smart weaponry. After three and a half years, that is thoroughly unsatisfactory.

I know perfectly well that the need to replace Clansman has been with us for a long time, and do not doubt that serious errors were made by the previous Conservative Government. Heaven knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and I wrote a pamphlet during the previous Parliament criticising the defence policy of the then Administration, so we can hardly be expected now to say that everything that they did was perfect. The important thing is that this Government do not delude themselves, as they are trying to delude the public, that they do not have responsibility for anything because somebody 10 or 15 years ago may or may not have made some mistake. They have responsibility now, and must get things right.

26 Oct 2000 : Column 481

The Government have been working with Archer Communications Systems for the past three and a half years and confirmed as recently as March that they believed that it was the right partner to deliver the new Bowman system. Now, they have cancelled the contract and pulled away, losing £200 million. Every penny of that has been lost under this Administration. If the Secretary of State disagrees with that, he should intervene to say so.

I must ask many other questions. What is happening about the Tucanos--the RAF basic trainer? We are told that they are grounded and that our pilots are being sent to Australia for training. The Tucano has been perfectly all right for the first three years of the Labour Government. Are the Government going to say that that situation is the fault of some previous Conservative Administration?

The C130Js have been suffering several problems. They were ordered by the Conservative Government, but who has had problems with them flying in the past few months? The Government have done nothing at all. They have taken delivery of the aircraft, which are clearly not performing properly at low speed and low altitude.

The sonars for the Navy are a serious matter. Everyone agrees that the sonar 2193 is necessary for the Hunt class minesweepers, but when is it due to come on stream? It is at least two years behind, under the Labour Government. The sonar 2087 for the type 23 frigates is an even more important matter. As Ministers ought to know, no 2031s were fitted on the last five of the type 23s, on the grounds that the 2087 was coming along so rapidly that it would not be necessary to fit the 2031. We now have five type 23s that have no stern sonars whatever. As those frigates are supposed to be the essence of our anti-submarine capability, that is thoroughly unsatisfactory.

A further issue is the Eurofighter and the Eurofighter cannon. It was always intended that the Eurofighter would be procured with a cannon, and the Government did not cancel the cannon for the first batch of 55 Eurofighters. However, they decided that the pilots would not be trained and there would be no back-up for the operation of the cannon. A remarkable piece of military hardware was procured by the decision of the previous Conservative Administration and the Government have taken delivery of it, but the cannon will be completely inoperable. Pilots will be put into the aircraft and told that they will never be able to use part of the weapon system that is fitted. This is another case in which Ministers have been a great deal less than frank.

I raised the matter at the last Defence questions with the Minister for the Armed Forces, who said that the Eurofighter was not intended to have a ground attack role. However, in a written answer to me shortly afterwards, he had to confess that the Eurofighter was, among other things, a successor to the Jaguar, which of course has a ground attack role.

I do not believe that Ministers have begun to think through the issue. No one suggests that a cannon is required in a conventional dogfight, but there are many situations in which a cannon is extremely useful--against transport aircraft, for example, or against helicopters. Ministers do not seem to realise that current warfare is somewhat different from warfare 50 or 100 years ago. Often, the state of belligerence is uncertain and the rules of engagement are less than would be expected in a full-scale war.

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A potentially hostile aircraft may intrude across a particular line into our airspace and refuse to respond when challenged. It may not be practicable or politically desirable to order the aircraft to be brought down by a missile such as the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile--AMRAAM--the advanced short-range air-to-air missile--ASRAAM--or Meteor. A shot from a cannon--the traditional shot across the bows, so to speak--may be exactly the response that is needed.

That aircraft was built with a wide range of flexible options for combat use, but the Government have simply removed one of those. They pretend to the House and the public that no damage is done and it does not matter. It is absurd that the next batches of the Eurofighter Typhoon will have a lead weight to replace the cannon. In no circumstances can the removal of the cannon be justified by the other capabilities or the longer range that the aircraft can achieve as a result.

That is not a zero sum. It is a minus sum conclusion, which is typical of the Government's procurement policy. They thought that it was a small detail that no one would notice. When it came out, they used every trick--

Ms Squire: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Davies: --to try to deflect attention from the facts.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order.

Mr. Davies: That is all too typical--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. When the Chair takes a point of order, the hon. Gentleman must sit down at once.

Ms Squire: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have always understood that the time available at the end of a debate would be equally shared between the Opposition and the Government, but the Opposition spokesman has exceeded his time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: In this instance, that is not the case.

Mr. Davies: Had the hon. Lady been better informed, she would have known that I was under instructions to speak until 6.45 pm, which I propose to do.

Over and over again, it is the same story. We have the spin, and over and over again the reality is different. The reality is tawdry. The reality is the Government's shortcomings, and the worst reality of all is the systematic way in which they try to cover them up.

6.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): My opportunity to reply to the debate seems to have been a long time coming. The argument of the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), appears to be that basically, everything is all our fault, for taking so long to clear up the mess that the Conservative Government left us. That appears to be the logic of the arguments advanced by Opposition Members. I apologise; it is taking a long time to clear up the mess that they left us--but that is because the Conservative Government left us with such a mess.

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Almost every system mentioned by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who replied on behalf of the Opposition, was yet another painful example of the mess in which the previous Government left defence procurement. It is taking us longer than we might have hoped to clear things up. That is a sign of the magnitude of the task facing us.

In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State covered some very important ground. He spoke about how we are ensuring that our armed forces will continue to have the equipment that they need. He talked about what we are doing to address the problems of time and cost overruns that have bedevilled Ministry of Defence equipment programmes too often in the past.

My right hon. Friend described the scale of our investment in the future of our armed forces and in our economy. He highlighted many of the impressive programmes of new world-beating equipment which will be coming into service over the next few years. It is a matter of concern and regret to me that some hon. Members and parts of the media try to present a different picture--one that says that the equipment on which our armed forces depend is not up to the job. That is untrue. Our service men and women and their families deserve better than to have their confidence in their equipment undermined by inaccurate and misleading remarks.

Yes, we inherited problems with, for example, the Bowman project and the SA80 rifle. However, we are taking decisive action to sort them out. Those are the exceptions. The standard of our forces' equipment in general is overwhelmingly excellent.

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