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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): As many hon. Members have reminded us, while we sit talking in this comfortable Chamber it is important to bear it in mind that our soldiers, sailors and airmen are putting their lives on the line and themselves in danger on our behalf.

The Minister of State told us how well defence procurement was going. To use his words, he highlighted our successes on defence procurement and said that all issues on smart acquisition had been
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addressed. Sadly, few people who have spoken in the debate have agreed with him. I do not pretend that defence procurement is easy or that it was easy for Conservative Governments; anyone who does so is foolish. However, we must always remember the end result of failings in defence procurement; a frightened soldier, sailor or airman who is protecting our country's interest and defending us, yet who, because of deficient equipment—a failed radio, a rifle that does not work properly or an engine that does not start—might die. That explains why the debate is important.

The Select Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) properly highlighted, with great wit, his Committee's report. He also highlighted the Minister's astonishing sensitivities when confronted with criticism. We all know that the truth hurts and that we only get really angry with criticism when it is justified. As many hon. Members said, the report needs a proper reasoned answer, not the Minister's petulant response, and the important points need to be addressed.

If the Minister of State has moved to the right of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), he should start to be called Genghis by Labour MPs. [Hon. Members: "He already is."] I was not aware of that.

Ms Dari Taylor: Attila.

Mr. Robathan: I thank the hon. Lady for that.

I do not often agree with the Liberal Democrats, but the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) rightly talked of the looming crisis in research and development, echoing my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot. He also spoke of the importance of the ownership of defence companies. Not all defence companies or products have to be British; that would be ridiculous. However, we are right to remember that ownership matters. In the Gulf war in 1991, our Belgian allies had a request from the Ministry of Defence for 5.56 small arms ammunition, which was running short. They refused it.

The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) spoke—I hope he does not take this the wrong way—a great deal of sense about defence industrial policy. He said that it is not necessarily benefiting the UK and has a bad effect on our industry while other countries benefit to our detriment. That was an excellent point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) described the indecipherable gobbledegook and management-speak of smart acquisition. He made an excellent critique of the failings of smart acquisition and a sensible point about the need for proper service experience in long-term procurement management.

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab): On the contribution by the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to dissociate the Conservative party from the disgraceful and gratuitous attack on the work force at Swan Hunter shipbuilders?

Mr. Robathan: The right hon. Gentleman should attend the debate if he wishes to criticise hon. Members who spoke in it.
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Mr. Brown rose—

Mr. Robathan: I know that the right hon. Gentleman was here at the beginning, but he was not here when my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport spoke. My hon. Friend's point was reasonable. I have to confess that I have never visited Swan Hunter. I do not know what the situation is there. My hon. Friend has been there, so he spoke with some authority, but I cannot support or deny what he said.

Mr. Brown: It is possible to follow the debate on the closed circuit television that we all have in our offices, which I have been doing. The remarks by the hon. Member for Gosport were gratuitous and offensive. If the Conservative party is to have any standing in such debates, it should take the opportunity to dissociate itself from them.

Mr. Robathan: I am sorry, but I do not intend to associate myself with those remarks. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport took a judgment that Swan Hunter did not have the ability to do the work. Surely anyone is entitled to make such a judgment.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robathan: I am not going to go on about this unimportant point. All this nonsense about an apology is unworthy of the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown). He should attend the debate instead of sitting with his feet up in his office drinking tea. If he had attended, he could have intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport. I was disappointed with my hon. Friend in one respect; he did not mention Haslar, which I think he has mentioned in every other debate.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith), who described himself as a loyal supporter. The hon. Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) and for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) all made points that were not supportive of the Government. It was not that they were anti-Government, but their criticisms were good. Even in her loyal speech, the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) reported that she had identified problems and demanded that the UK support UK defence manufacturing industry; a fair point.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) made an excellent speech and asked some pertinent questions about the aerospace industry and where skills would come from. Those questions need answers from the Minister. The dialogue that he mentioned earlier is not enough.

I joined the armed forces in 1970, which makes me distressingly old. I shall tell a short story that illustrates defence procurement. With a very short haircut I was shown around the Royal Marines commando training centre—perhaps "shown around" is not the right way to describe it—and I remember a signals captain showing me something called an A40. Some hon. Members may have carried an A40. It was a big one, and very heavy. I carried it across Dartmoor, the Brecon Beacons and all sorts of places. It was almost impossible to tune and very inefficient. The person who had the job of carrying it was
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the unlucky one. In 1970 the marine captain said, "Don't worry, Clansman is coming in soon. It's a brilliant new set and we're all going to have Clansman." This is not a party political point, I hasten to tell the Minister. I rejoined my battalion in 1987 in Hong Kong and we still had Larkspur A40s. It was only in 1988, 18 years after I had been told that it was coming soon, that Clansman came in.

I mention that because Bowman's original in-service date was 1995; under a Conservative Government, I know. The Labour Government said in 1999 that the in-service date was 2002 and it eventually came into service in March this year. Procurement is dogged by such delays. It needs to be sorted out, but I do not have any pat answers.

Smart acquisition, of which we have heard a great deal, was introduced six years ago, but we have yet to see evidence that it is working. It was intended to result in faster, cheaper, better procurement, delivering

but the Government cannot continue to claim that the strategy is working if, as we heard earlier, the 20 biggest projects are already delayed by, on average, a year and a half and the taxpayer is footing the bill for the Government's £3 billion overspend. Typhoon was four and a half years behind its target in-service date and will cost at least £1 billion more than promised.

Let me emphasise the consequences of delays and overspend. Not only are service personnel jeopardised when they find themselves on the front line without the equipment that they need, but there is the prospect of having to cancel or scale down the size of projects, as in the case of Type 45 destroyers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot mentioned the Defence Procurement Agency's "woeful" track record, which the Chairman of the Select Committee also described. The cancellation of the human centrifuge project, which has not been mentioned, is an example of how the MOD has lost its grip on the procurement process. In 1997 a contract worth £14 million to design and build a human centrifuge to allow trainee pilots to experience G-force was let to the US firm Environmental Tectonics Corporation, ETC. In July 2001 the MOD took the decision to cancel the project, citing

Before the project's cancellation, the MOD had already made progress payments of almost £6 million, which were of course written off.

The costs to the taxpayer of the centrifuge that never was do not end there. Earlier this year the MOD had to pay cancellation costs. According to the 2003–04 annual report and accounts of the MOD, under the rather euphemistic heading "Constructive Losses", the final cost of the project to the British taxpayer was reported to be £14.4 million. The MOD paid more to cancel the project than it would have cost to acquire the centrifuge. The project was not cancelled on grounds of insurmountable risk or because of an inability to achieve the desired capability, as ETC was able to design and build the centrifuge. It was cancelled as a result of the Government's inability to manage the procurement process. I can report to the House that the centrifuge,
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designed and built with British taxpayers' money, is in full operational service with a far eastern air force. That is what we call smart acquisition; by them.

We hear much about future effects and capability, but what happens first is cuts. The promised future capability is often still at drawing-board level, while our forces have to cope with what they have been left with. Is that sensible at a time when our forces are experiencing overstretch as never before?

Admiral Sir Alan West has acknowledged that the reductions in the fleet leave the Royal Navy exposed to "enhanced risk". He has said:

I come now to logistics in the Gulf war last year. British troops were dubbed "the borrowers" by their American counterparts because they were short of equipment. That is not new, because troops always like having other people's equipment, but nevertheless it is true. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall mentioned equipment survey findings in Iraq. The 2003 survey for the Army last year found that 55 per cent. of troops and 42 per cent. of officers had bought items of kit with their own money.

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