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Ms Dari Taylor: I am sure that my right hon. Friend remembers that I was a member of the Select Committee, under his chairmanship, when defence procurement was something that we were all discussing and becoming involved in. May I ask him whether he made any criticisms of it at the time? Frankly, I cannot remember him ever doing so. In fact, I remember that it was the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and I who made such criticisms, not my right hon. Friend.

Mr. George: I cannot go back as far as the idyllic days when my hon. Friend was a member of the Committee, but I will talk to her afterwards.

The Government's response suggested that the Committee should have highlighted the success of the procurement of items. We did, and in our "Lessons of Iraq" report we were in many ways very complimentary. The MOD attacked us as uninformed and disliked our conclusions, but those were based on solid evidence given to us.

The Committee concluded that a fear culture existed in the DPA. The Government disliked that intensely. Several pieces of evidence led us to our conclusion. Perhaps the most compelling was from the chief of defence procurement, who told us:

He also told us:

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Why would officials need an amnesty? What would prevent them from admitting that their programmes were experiencing problems? Fear? However, our conclusion was rejected by the MOD.

One of our industry witnesses also used the term "fear culture", and Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, former director of equipment capability—a dangerous outsider—spoke at a recent RUSI procurement conference, which I chaired, about procurement problems being prompted by

Our report focused on the latest available data at the time on the performance of major defence projects. What about the procurement performance since then? In the DPA's annual report and accounts for 2003–04, published in October, the chief of defence procurement says that the agency failed to achieve its targets on programme slippage, cost growth and customer satisfaction. He added:

I could go on and on, but it is too painful.

My point is that things have gone right in many instances. The budget is going up and the programme set out by the Government to acquire weapons to equip our armed forces for the future is formidable and commendable. I admire what they have done. They are trying to achieve almost the impossible. Many previous Governments have failed in the task. The Government have begun the process and made progress but, unfortunately, failures have occurred. It is incumbent on the Defence Committee to point out those failures. If the Minister does not like the message, he should not shoot the messengers, because most of them are in the pay of the Ministry of Defence. I ask him to tell the person who wrote the document that slags us off that he should perhaps have approached us privately so that we could exchange views. We are trying to be constructive, not destructive.

The budget constraints are obvious, and we need to get the best equipment that we can afford. The Minister, his colleagues and I remain good friends. I have had my famous discussion with a nameless person and I emerged in one piece. We are on the same side. Even the Opposition are part of the process of considering how best to serve our armed forces with the money available. I hope that our comments, those of Ministry of Defence employees, and of internal mechanisms, can be acted on. I hope that lessons will be learned, without rancour or excessive anger. We can then collectively deliver to our armed forces the right amount of high-quality equipment that is good enough for them. They deserve the best and perhaps we can collectively help them to get the best equipment so that they can do what we ask of them.

3.11 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): It is a privilege to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee and to agree with everything that he said, especially his last comments. The purpose of such debates is to try to ensure that we get to the bottom of all
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the matters that need discussion, not only for our armed forces, but for taxpayers, constituents and the country. We should be able to do that in a helpful and constructive, rather than a destructive, spirit.

A fortnight ago, we debated defence in the world, which clearly demonstrated our enormous current defence commitments, not least in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the context of Iraq, I want to comment on some "breaking news"—the phrase that appears on television screens. The Black Watch is apparently deploying to a larger geographical area. Although I do not have the exact details, I hope that the Minister will make a statement at the end of the debate. On 21 October, the Secretary of State said:

I hope that the breaking news does not contravene that, and that later we will understand what constitutes the enlargement of the geographical area.

I place on record again our admiration of and support for the bravery and professionalism of all our troops, especially in the difficult times that they are experiencing, leading up to what we all hope will be successful elections in Iraq in the new year. I am pleased that presidential elections, although they may not have been perfect, were held in Afghanistan. We wish President Karzai the very best in trying to take his country forward.

The annual opportunity to consider defence procurement policy provides us with the chance of considering individual high-profile projects. The two previous speakers have spent approximately an hour going through two aspects of those high-profile and costly projects. However, I hope that the debate also provides us with an opportunity to explore the changing strategic environment in which long-term decisions have to be made. The United Kingdom is—I suspect, not for the first time—at a crossroads in several matters, which will have a significant bearing on those decisions. I should like to consider them briefly.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) alluded to the first aspect, which is the relationship on foreign affairs and defence with the United States of    America and the European Union. Without unnecessarily repeating the catalogue of events that led up to the conflict in Iraq, we must surely recognise that if we move ever closer to the USA in foreign policy, it will inevitably affect relationships with our European partners. It is also likely to determine the shape of our defence assets.

The necessity for compatibility with US equipment when fighting alongside each other is clear and obvious and such a policy has significant cost implications. Unless compatibility is also possible with our European partners, we face either expensive duplication or possible value for money integration. It would be ideal, as the Minister said in his opening speech, if we could harmonise in Europe and be compatible with the USA. I am not clear about whether that will be possible on a medium and long-term basis.

Secondly, procurement spending appears increasingly polarised between expensive technology and what might be considered low-tech personnel numbers. As greater technological advances are made in our weapons and communications equipment, it is
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tempting and seductive to believe that fewer fighting troops are necessary. Yet is clear that, although impressive technology was able to win the brief war in Iraq, the lack of troops on the ground to patrol the borders and secure arms dumps, vital oil installations and other infrastructure dramatically changed military planning. We need both, and expenditure and focus on one should not compromise the provision of the other.

Thirdly, I want to consider the importance of the UK defence industry. Again, much has been said about that with which I agree. Its importance in security of supply and economic value to the UK cannot be overestimated, yet we must ensure that our armed forces get the best possible equipment and that the taxpayer gets value for money. As the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out, those decisions are sometimes incredibly complex and difficult. We do not criticise to make a point—we acknowledge that decisions are difficult—but we want to try to understand all the parameters.

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