Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Donald Anderson: The hon. Gentleman is giving a long list of reasons, mostly valid, for problems in recruitment. Is he not missing the main point--that we are now benefiting from the lowest unemployment for over 20 years?

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman is wrong in this respect: the military profession is a vocation. In some ways, it is rather like the House of Commons, for example. I do not think that there is any falling away of desire to come and serve in this place simply because people could make more money elsewhere. The military

2 Nov 2000 : Column 885

profession has always been a vocation and attracts a particular type of person. Frankly, it would not be suitable for the great mass of humanity. Furthermore, the profession has considerable advantages. I have yet to come across anyone who has spent a part of his career in the military--where he may be superbly trained to do a technical job or go on to do a management job--who has not added not only to the richness of his life but to his qualifications for a subsequent job in the civilian sector.

I said that I wanted to take advantage of this debate to extract information from the Government. "Extract" is the verb that I must use, because we have to go through a painful and long drawn-out process to obtain information these days. The Government do not like telling Parliament anything. When they want to give information out, they like to do so in a highly doctored, selective way through the press and in a way that is carefully spun by their spin doctors. What they do not like to do is give straight answers to Parliament.

May we have straight answers this afternoon? We shall all be listening to find out whether the Government are capable of doing that. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence is more than capable of providing them if he wishes to do so and if he is allowed to do so by his superiors on the Government Front Bench and in the Treasury, which seems to run military policy under this Government. If the Government give us straight answers, we will be able to have a serious discussion and move forward. If not, we shall continue to return to the issues until we receive straight answers. Let me give the Government that warning at the outset.

First, on submarines, at least some information was given to us yesterday--although we did not have a formal statement because we rarely hear them these days--and I am grateful for that. However, it was not enough, as my intervention yesterday made absolutely clear. We know that five of our 12 hunter-killer submarines have been cleared of having the same problem that HMS Tireless has in Gibraltar. That is very good news, and I understand that three of the strategic submarine nuclear--SSN--vessels that have been cleared are Swiftsure class and that the other two are Trafalgar class. However, if the Government do not yet know, when do they expect to know the status of the other submarines? We know about five and Tireless, so that makes six. If we subtract six from 12, we get six, and I think that the Government will agree with the arithmetic. What is the status of the other submarines, and when can we expect to know that?

We also need to know what is happening about Tireless. How long will she remain in Gibraltar? Will she be repaired in Gibraltar, or will she be towed back to this country? How long will it take to repair her? If other SSNs are found to need work, are the berths and specialists available? What time scale can we expect before the SSN fleet--God knows it is the smallest that it has been in the past 50 years--is back in service. At the best of times, we do not normally have more than seven or eight of the submarines available for operations, so we badly need to know what the position is.

Secondly, can we have a statement about the Tucanos? I am surprised that the Government have not provided any information about them, because I would have given it if I were a Minister. Tucanos are the prime Royal Air Force trainer and they are all out of service. There must be about 100 of them although the Under-Secretary will give me the exact figure. Every one of them is out of service,

2 Nov 2000 : Column 886

and it is amazing that, last week, two whole systems or platforms were completely out of service. I cannot remember an occasion when even one system was out of service. It is amazing what happens under a new Labour Government. I am sure that Ministers want us to believe that that is a coincidence.

Can we please know what is happening to the Tucanos and what the nature of the problem is? When do Ministers expect them to be fixed? We merely want clear answers on that subject. We have no objection to the pilots being sent in the meantime to Australia; that may be a sensible solution.

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will deal with the details, but let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that all armed forces would sensibly take aircraft or other vehicles out of service when a common defect in one type is found and while the fault is established and the recovery programme is undertaken. That happens in all forces. The United States Marines recently had three of their major platforms grounded while they were dealing with defects. That happens in the commercial world, too.

All the hon. Gentleman should be considering is the defect, its cause, the recovery programme and the alternatives available, and my hon. Friend will deal with those points. Instead of becoming excitable, the hon. Gentleman should accept that such things happen and that we will deal with them.

Mr. Davies: The Minister at least takes a fairly humble tone for once. I am glad about that, because the Government owe the House answers. The hon. Gentleman has touched on exactly the questions that I asked. What is the defect and what is the time scale within which it will be fixed? If he had been listening to my remarks, he would have realised that I said that it was not necessarily wrong to withdraw either the submarines or the Tucanos from service--not at all; I dare say that was the right thing to do. However, we do not know all the facts that we should know. Perhaps we will have them at the end of the debate, but I certainly did not suggest that those platforms should not have been withdrawn from service. However, since the first announcements about those two disasters were spun out in the media in the way they usually are, I have thought that the House was owed a full and proper explanation. We still have not received one.

Let me deal now with the third platform--the Lynx helicopter. We have just over 200 of them--how many of them are currently out of commission because of the rotor head fatigue problem? I realise that a certain number of Lynx helicopters will always be in refit or being maintained, but how many of them that should be operational are not operational? Can we have an update on the position, because we have heard nothing since my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green asked a parliamentary question in May? The Government do not seem to want to tell the House anything, but they must tell us where we stand on this important piece of equipment that is essential to the Army, the Marines and the Navy.

The fourth key point that I come to is ISTAR, and for the benefit of the Hansard writers I should spell out what that means. It is the information, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability. We should

2 Nov 2000 : Column 887

have had a statement on that, but we have not. The Government have entered into a contract to purchase aircraft with an airborne stand-off radar--ASTOR--fitted to them. However, we have not heard how many aircraft are being purchased and when they will come into service. Can we please have a clear statement on this important aspect of the country's military capability?

Fifthly, it is extraordinary that the Government did not take the opportunity in last Thursday's debate or yesterday to mention the most important procurement decision that they are likely to take in the remaining months of their time in office. After that, they can enjoy the benefits of opposition and we can give them advice on how to play it in opposition when we change places with them.

Before the next election--even if the election comes as early as May--the Government will have to take a crucial decision on the joint strike fighter programme. Will we enter the engineering management design--EMD--stage for the JSF? [Interruption.] I think that I heard the Under-Secretary say under his breath that he did not know yet, but the Government have a way of running away from difficult decisions. If they do not know yet, what factors that are currently not available to them do they need to be aware of so that they can take an informed decision? I hope that the Under-Secretary will answer my first question.

Secondly, by when do we need to take the decision? The Americans have said that the decision must definitely be taken soon, but have they given us a deadline? If so, when is it? Thirdly, how much will it cost us to join the EMD stage? I am told that it is $2 billion. Is that figure approximately correct? If it is, over what time scale will the money have to be paid over to the US Department of Defence? Fourthly, if we do pay over the $2 billion, what will we receive for it? Will we receive an assurance of full access to the technology and to the know-how that will enable the British partners to build the aircraft or parts of the aircraft here and will we have full access to the updates on technology? Will there be full know-how disclosure?

Fifthly, will there be an opportunity for British subcontractors and American subcontractors to bid on the same basis in exchange for $2 billion, which is no mean sum? Sixthly, if we pay the $2 billion up front, will we benefit from an export levy on third-party sales of the joint strike fighter subsequently? Seventhly, if we are to come up with the $2 billion, is that money already in the budget, or will the Minister have to go to the Treasury to get a supplementary budget? If it is to come out of the Ministry of Defence budget, will that be at the expense of something else? We need a clear answer.

If we do not pay the $2 billion, what are the penalties? Will we have sufficient control of the programme? Given that specifications may change at the later EMD stage, in addition to what is agreed, is that a satisfactory situation?

Finally on this matter, will the decision to enter the EMD phase prejudice in any way our decision whether to go for conventional take-off and landing aircraft or short take-off and vertical landing aircraft? In other words, whether we go for a STOVL or a CTOL-type carrier. There is an important interrelationship between these decisions and we must establish whether the one will

2 Nov 2000 : Column 888

prejudice the other. I hope that we shall have some straightforward answers on this important matter. It is the most important procurement decision that the Government might take, and they have steadily and studiously avoided mentioning a breath of it. They have not said a word about it to Parliament. That is not good enough.

I shall make two other important points, and I hope that the Under-Secretary, who is to reply, will listen to them. Again, we want some answers.

Next Section

IndexHome Page