Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001
KCB AND MR
120. One of the problems of going towards the
end of the session is that you have to pick the subjects people
have not asked about. Can I turn your attention to paragraph 2.2
on page 21 of the report? It talks about the role of the pricing
staff in your Department. It says they play a major role in the
Department's examination of contractors' costing and financial
management. However, it says that they found the pricing staff
were only used on a third, although I accept it is 80 per cent
by value. Why are they not used on the other two-thirds of contracts
examined in this survey, given that the contracts examined are
at the higher end in that they are over a million pounds?
(Mr Tebbit) It depends on whether their particular
expertise is needed to clarify areas of the prices that companies
are coming up with that would not otherwise be clear to us. The
precise operation of the Pricing Directorate is something which
Mr Porter is in a better position to discuss than I am, but they
are a pretty scarce resource because these are very specialised
people indeed and we have to be selective in how we use them to
make sure we are using them to the best effect.
(Mr Porter) As you noted, the report does say that
the third constituted 80 per cent by value. The reasons why we
might not use the pricing staff on lower value programmes is that
we might already have agreed charging rates for the particular
company, leaving us to make an assessment of the time that was
likely to be taken to apply that charging rate to. It may be that
we had a jolly good basis from the previous contract to a pricing
structure at the lower value end and if the contractor's quotation
for the follow-on contract is reasonable when judged against what
happened previously, then we would seek to negotiate around the
121. They obviously do a good job according
to paragraph 2.3 in that they save the taxpayerI was trying
to add up these figuresabout a third of a billion pounds.
Mr Tebbit said they were a scarce resource so it slightly concerned
to me to discover that they were going to become an even scarcer
resource because you are about to cut 20 per cent of them.
(Mr Tebbit) That is where I say that I devolve responsibility
to the budget holder. Sir Robert Walmsley is the budget holder.
He has to make his own value-for-money judgement as to how much
of his budget he uses for these people and how much not, so I
am happy to hear him now in front of the Committee.
(Sir Robert Walmsley) There are about 400 people who
are pricing specialists of which about 60 are accountants and
maybe something over 200 are costing engineers. There is quite
a lot of administration that goes on there and the pricing staff
used to be part of a free-standing agency. They have now become
part of the Defence Procurement Agency. They no longer need their
own personnel management, they do not need their own training
staff, they do not need their own substantial finance staff, they
do not need to write their own agency framework document, etc,
etc. The first thing I believe is that there is not an organisation
on this planet whose efficiency cannot be improved and there is
a straightforward way of improving the efficiency of the pricing
staff by not leaving them with their own separate free-standing
headquarters, and that is a structural issue. The second point
is that industry have a part to play in this. You can imagine
that when the pricing staff go to their facility, with which they
are extremely familiar, they are asking for data. If somebody
puts all that data in front of you on your desk on Monday morning
when you turn up and it is all written in columns and every figure
is dead clearand that is entirely an industry matterthen
you do not have to spend time phoning them up and saying, "I
do not understand this number" or, "Fill this one in".
I am very keen indeed to improve the efficiency of the pricing
process and by making industry more conscious of what we require,
and in some way coupling their performance on that aspect, particularly
in post-costing, to our satisfaction with their overall performance
as a contractor. There are those two routes.
122. The report does say, and it is agreed in
paragraph 2.11, that "the extent to which the picture of
Directorate of Pricing as a properly resourced outfit can be maintained
may be questionable given that the demands on their expertise
are likely to increase". Do you agree with that?
(Sir Robert Walmsley) Of course it is questionable.
I could not but agree with it because I approved the text of this
report, so it is questionable. Do I think it is as serious as
many other risks facing us to do with the concentration of the
defence industry: how we link up with advanced technology, how
we compress procurement timetables? I think these are all balances
that we have to strike. I genuinely do think that we can improve
the efficiency of the pricing activity and that we have a sensible
plan therefore to make sure that it is adequately resourced.
123. On the Sting Ray post-design services contract
pricing staff were forced to re-prioritise resources. Presumably
if you cut resources there will be more cases such as that.
(Sir Robert Walmsley) I do not know that there will
actually. The text goes on to blame me for that, which I have
to sign up to, as you will probably have noticed. There were two
factors there. The first one was that we have a reciprocal pricing
agreement with the United States. When you are pricing something
for the United States it is quite clear that it is a British contractor
who is going to get the order and the United States will not place
the order until it has been priced, and we have an agreement with
them that we will do it within 45 days, so when they parachute
a requirement into our world we have to get on with it. The second
thing is that I as the Chief of Defence Procurement occasionally
have new requirements where I say, "I am not happy with the
detail of the pricing on this. I want you to do it again."
I did that and of course the report quite properly says that they
were doing other work for the Chief of Defence Procurement, and
I thought it was more important.
124. So you are absolutely confident that your
reduction of 20 per cent in staff numbers is not going to impact
on the effectiveness of this part of your Department?
(Sir Robert Walmsley) I think you have led me into
the water there. I think I went as far as the water and I said
that it was reasonable to question it and I planned to manage
it and said that we had a good outcome.
125. You are absolutely confident?
(Sir Robert Walmsley) No, I am not.
126. You are not confident?
(Sir Robert Walmsley) I am not guaranteeing, but we
will manage it, and if it is wrong we will change it.
127. As other members of the Committee have
said, your candour is refreshing. In most of our hearings we face
a brick wall. Could I turn to what you were saying about sub-contracting.
I was surprised that you were surprised that a huge proportion
of these projects were sub-contracted. This is on page 27. The
Long Lead Merlin Spares, 89 per cent of the contract value were
sub-contracts, yet only 25 per cent of those sub-contracts were
completed; the Enabling Arrangements for the AS90 Spares, 95 per
cent of the contract value was sub-contracted and yet only ten
per cent of those sub-contracted by value were completed. Should
you not be taking a lot closer look now at sub-contracting?
(Sir Robert Walmsley) I think I should, and I do not
mean to pander to this candour idea, but the fact is it is the
one that caused
128. I have no problem with it.
(Sir Robert Walmsley) The one that caught me by surprise,
and there was only one that really did that, and I am just worried
about my previous perception, was the one per cent on Sting Ray.
I know Sting Ray torpedoes well. I knew the number would be low.
I was surprised it was in fact that low. All the rest of them
I think I could instinctively explain to you.
129. Is one of the problems, as identified in
2.22 on the facing page, that "Of the NAPNOC contracts we
surveyed, 37 per cent of those with sub-contracts did not have
conditions in place which gave visibility of sub-contracting activity"?
(Mr Tebbit) You are absolutely right. One of the recommendations
of this report is that we should have visibility of how contractors
manage sub-contracts. We need to build that into our partnering
arrangements. We need to make sure it is clear in our codes of
practice that this is what we expect our contractors to provide.
There is a thing called DefCon 176A which is about whether the
contractor makes or buys the various elements that it is going
to bring together to deliver its side of the contract. There is
also track record of past performance in managing sub-contracts
that we would hope to build into our database in order to decide
where we let the contracts in future. There is a lot of sub-contract
data that we need to gather. It is a helpful recommendation here
from the NAO. We were both a bit surprised and I suspect we need
to keep working at this question of visibility of sub-contract
information. As I say, once you get a prime contract, it is their
responsibility to decide how they do it but we have a close interest
in seeing how it is going.
130. I was interested in what you said about
the Americans effectively having a different culture on defence
procurement in many ways. You also mentioned in another answer
the Joint Strike Fighter. To what extent are we increasingly being
bound into these essentially American procurement decisions so
that all the good work which the NAO identified that you do on
procurement becomes irrelevant because you are having to follow
American procurement decisions?
(Sir Robert Walmsley) The degree of purchasing from
the United States goes up and down. We are essentially through
the Trident programme now under which we have been purchasing
an awful lot of hardware from the United States. That was done
at the same price as the United States Government paid. That is
the best deal that they were able to get. Their route to establishing
their best price happens to be different from ours. Part of that
is industrial pressure.
131. And political pressure?
(Sir Robert Walmsley) Perhaps. I know about the industry
side. What the industry was saying was, "We simply do not
believe that it is sensible when we are trying to develop articles
at the cutting edge of technology to work to a fixed price in
advance." We do not take that view. That is a huge difference
132. So on something like the Joint Strike Fighter,
which presumably is the most important aviation procurement decision
you have made recently, none of this applies because you have
had in effect to go with the American decision?
(Sir Robert Walmsley) What they have is a discipline
called "cost as an independent variable" which sounds
like jargon but what it is actually saying is that part of the
requirement is what the plane costs, so they feed that in and
in effect they are very prepared to trade capability against price
so that if it starts to look as though the cost is going up, if
they stick to their guns, then they will have to reduce the capability
of the aircraft.
133. But on something like the Joint Strike
(Mr Tebbit) But JSF was a competitive contract and
that has been won by competition.
134. Yes, but the competition was organised
under a different kind of culture than the British programme.
(Mr Tebbit) That is true.
135. We were buying a much smaller proportion
of the aircraft than the entire United States military. Do we
in effect have any real say on the capabilities of the aircraft?
(Sir Robert Walmsley) Oh yes, we did. One of the first
things we said, before the Strategic Defence Review decision that
we would procure new carriers, was, "Whatever else this aircraft
does it has got to go down in the lifts in the existing Invincible
class carriers", because clearly there would be no point
in buying it if it did not. That was a huge design constraint
on the dimensions of the aircraft. It was dead simple and everybody
understood it. We were very privileged to be an integral part
of the requirements development team in the United States and
we have some really good people embedded into the joint project.
And so of course we do not crack the whip over the programme,
but where our key interests are, in laying down our requirements
very firmly, we have been successful there. Where we have not
been successful is in the form of the contract which they choose
to use and that is beyond me.
(Mr Tebbit) And I think it would be misleading to
leave you with the impression that because of cost-plus approaches
in the States it means that when we buy stuff from the United
States we are paying more than we should because of course there
are other factors that come into play, like economy of scale.
If we are buying 300 aircraft from 3,000 it clearly changes the
cost and value.
(Sir Robert Walmsley) But if it is an independent
procurement we do get a fixed price and the American contractors
give it to us.
136. Can I in the time remaining time turn to
questions that my colleague Nick Gibb asked about: whether you
thought there was going to be an increase or a decrease in the
amount of non-competitive procurement. Indeed, the reportand
this is not a criticism of you; it is a criticism of the reportis
slightly contradictory on this in that paragraph 1.6 says: ".
. . the increasing use of commercial off-the-shelf procurement,
particularly for information technology, should allow the Department
rather more scope to use competition", and then paragraph
2.11 says, ". . . the increased likelihood of non-competitive
procurement [is] as a result of industrial consolidation, for
example, in the missile industry", so there are conflicting
pressures. I wonder if, as part of procurement policy or maybe
as part of broader Ministry of Defence policy, there is a desire
to encourage as many suppliers as possible in the defence industry
that you can draw on. Do you in any way resist consolidation by,
for example, encouraging the smaller firms by giving them contracts
and so on?
(Mr Tebbit) This issue of whether we should have an
industrial policy over and above competition and value for money
is always a very tricky one indeed. There is certainly a dialogue
that goes on very actively with small and medium sized companies
within the defence industry to ensure that they still get a fair
crack of the whip even under prime contracting arrangements that
go to very powerful main companies, and we do look after that
and take care of that. It is certainly the case as well that where
we can, that is to say, where we can influence the issue and it
is not too expensive for us in the overall calculations we can
make, we try to preserve competition for the future so that we
are not in the state of only being able to get it from one supplier.
We do what we can to sustain competition. It is in our interests
to do so but it is increasingly hard to do it purely on a national
basis, and increasingly we are looking at big international mergers
and developments. It is a global game now, not a UK-only one.
137. Sir Robert, I was very impressed by the
story of the inseparability of the seaman and his paintbrush.
At the risk of getting anecdotal, I told this to your predecessor
but Sir John is the only one here who will have been here long
enough ever to have heard it before. In my days as a junior officer
in the Royal Air Force one of my supernumary duties was to hold
a couple of inventories. One of these inventories consisted of
the contents of several of the airmen's billets. Quarterly or
half yearlyI cannot remember whichyou had to do
an inventory check and I got an insight into how equipment is
controlled and managed within the RAF. For example, at either
end of the billet you had these metal mini-furnaces with pokers
metal as they were described, one at each end. When I discovered
to my great grief that one was missing in one billet my first
step was to talk to the sergeant and the sergeant said, "Hold
on. I will go and look at my store". He comes back and says,
"No, I have not got a poker metal, but do not worry; I will
get the corporal". He gets the corporal who is then despatched
with the one good poker metal and instructed to find a metal saw.
He then comes back and saws it in twoI promise you this
is absolutely trueand one half is taken one day to the
equipment officer to claim a new poker and the other half is taken
on another day to get a new poker, so I now have two pokers and
there is still a third poker circulating somewhere on the camp.
As you can see, the RAF is gradually building up a considerable
surplus and I thought this was unique to us, but an army sergeant
in the engineers who was a friend of the family told me that they
were closing down a mill in South Cumbria or a tower in West Wales
(I have forgotten which of the two it was) and he and a small
group of men were left behind at the end of the closing down operation
and their job was to go to the sand dunes and bury the surpluses
because surpluses were even more difficult to explain than deficiencies.
At some time in 500 years' time no doubt archaeologists will discover
these mysterious remains in the sand dunes. However, I have no
doubt paintbrushes are treated with greater sanctity nowadays.
(Mr Tebbit) It is unfair of you to put that to Sir
Robert Walmsley because I think you are talking about the performance
of our logistics supply chain. All I would say there is that we
have set ourselves a target from the Strategic Defence Review
to reduce the costs of our logistics operation in output terms
by 20 per cent by 2005. We have already taken out of the inventory
two billion pounds worth of stock since the Strategic Defence
Review in 1998 and we are putting in place much better management
systems to have visibility of everything in our support and supply
systems. We are on the case and it is getting better.
138. I am relieved. What about the pokers metal?
Have you sorted that out?
(Mr Tebbit) I think a lot of pokers metal will have
been in that two billion.
139. Until you can tell me you have sorted it
out I will not be assuaged. Coming to the report, I was very impressed,
listening to `Should Cost' and post-cost and reality checks, and
I looked at box one on page 16, Profit Formula. There I discover
in the first two lines that the profit formula is based on the
comparability principle related to the average of return earned
by the United Kingdom industry. We have a clear basis on which
you compare the profitability of the contract you enter into.
Unfortunately there is then a little footnote 1, which says: "Industry
is defined as the reference group used for assessing comparability
with non-competitive work let by the Government. Originally the
yardstick was the overall earnings of British manufacturing industry."
But then later on they change this because there were changes
in manufacturing industry, and so now, since 1998, all sectors
of industry and commerce are used for the comparator, "except
for banking, insurance, investment trusts, mining, oil, gas, water,
power, rubber and tea and companies controlled by overseas parent
companies", and of course the Eurotunnel is excluded. Well,
I am glad about that last one, but at least now we have a precise
definition of the comparator. I ask you: what on earth does that
really mean? Can you assure me that it is regularly updated and
it has an appropriate flexibility to allow you to change the profitability
of whatever is left of British industry and commerce to be included
in the comparator?
(Mr Tebbit) Mr Williams, this is very much the work
that Mr Porter is engaged in and I wonder if he might explain.