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Mr. Caplin: There is nothing unusual in that.

Mr. Robathan: Indeed, there is nothing unusual in that, but it is rather worrying that they feel compelled so to do.

In addition, 1 Armoured Division had to come back to find the kit that they needed in the UK. That should not have happened. The 1991 Gulf war had an enormous logistical build-up. As people said, there was no warning; it began from a standing start and took a long time, but the logistics were fantastic. Very good kit was delivered when we needed it.

Just-in-time equipment is fine, but we are not talking about cans of beans. We are talking about issues that may affect soldiers' lives, and—as the Commandant General of the Royal Marines said earlier this week and as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot mentioned—more equipment should be stockpiled.

I very much hope that we will see two carriers, but the in-service date for the first CVF is 2012, and 2005 is less than two months away. When will the contracts be signed? When will the keels be laid? What will be the long-term running costs? I heard an extraordinary suggestion, which I am sure should be dismissed, of £3 billion per year per ship. What will be the complement of each carrier and, given that the Minister is cutting manpower now, is he confident that trained crew will be available to man them? Will he say something about point defence and close-in weapons systems? Like our existing carriers, the US carriers have a close-in weapons system, but unlike ours they also have Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles. We will have to rely on the Carrier Air Group, but the Type 45 air defence ships will be reduced from the projected 12 to eight. That does not leave many spare for two carrier forces.
 
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Other hon. Members have spoken about shipbuilding, and I do not want to dwell on that, except to say that we need to overcome the cycle of feast and famine that characterises the shipbuilding industry. The Select Committee's report in July 2004 referred to the Astute programme and particularly mentioned that delays were exacerbated by shortfalls in skills. The MOD needs to concentrate on creating a stable procurement programme; a smoother pattern of demand in order to retain workers and protect the UK's valuable shipbuilding expertise, which I believe is referred to as gap filling.

I return now to the issue of through-life management, which was particularly mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport. Civil servants are sent for two, three or four years to deal with a project, and service personnel are posted for two, three or four years to deal with a procurement project. They realise that they will not see it into service, so they try to put off making decisions. They do not want to see it in service because they will end up with the problems. My hon. Friend was right. We need a new approach. We need people to see a project through from beginning to end. We need people with experience and an understanding of service life, and we need long-term continuity in project management. Conservatives intend that that should happen.

All hon. Members want our troops well equipped, which is why we have been debating the matter. I hope that the Minister will now respond in a reasoned manner to the criticism that he has heard from the Defence Committee and everybody else because our servicemen deserve nothing less.

5.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): I begin by welcoming the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) to his new shadow Defence responsibilities and look forward to further exchanges in the months and years to come.

Twelve Back Benchers contributed to this afternoon's interesting debate: my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George); my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby), for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith), for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan); the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who is a regular contributor; and the hon. Members for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett). I shall try to respond to as many points as possible in the time available, but, given other matters, that may be not possible, in which case I shall ensure that hon. Members receive written responses to their inquiries.

As the hon. Member for Blaby said, equipping our service personnel with battle-winning capabilities is a matter close to this House's heart. We owe a considerable debt to our people, and I pay tribute to those men and women in the armed forces who are currently engaged in serious and dangerous undertakings throughout the world. The Government are committed to ensuring that our armed forces remain highly capable and effective. Through our procurement plans and by making sure that our armed forces are
 
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properly equipped, they can respond effectively to the challenges that they confront, day in, day out.

In his opening remarks this afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State outlined the continued improvements to the way in which we procure equipment. Procurement is a vital part of the MOD's role and has often been subject to criticism. In his final words this afternoon, my right hon. Friend said, "Do we have a perfect track record on procurement? No, but no Government ever have." That point should form the basis for this debate.

We have taken many of the valid criticisms on board, but there is much to be proud about. The urgent operational requirement process rapidly equips and supports our armed forces at the front line in Iraq, and has been a success. The process proved to be flexible and adaptable, and I reject any suggestion that our forces have been let down by the MOD and the Government. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) raised urgent operational requirements in an intervention. Urgent operational requirements are an accepted means of supporting operations and are an effective and efficient way to target activity against emerging operational priorities. The National Audit Office has complimented the urgent operational requirement process.

I shall respond to the comments made by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) about yesterday's court martial. I am sure that the House will join me in extending our deepest sympathies to the family of Sergeant Nightingale, who was killed in that tragic incident. We are aware of the finding of the court martial arising from the death of Sergeant Nightingale. Lance Corporal Braymire was found guilty of a military offence concerning his failure to conduct normal safety procedures, which do not involve advanced technical procedures. He had successfully completed his weapons handling test, which included passing the safety modules, during his mobilisation training.

Mr. Soames: On Lance Corporal Braymire, will the Minister accept that 2,300 young men went to the Gulf as reservists without properly certified weapons training? Will he assure the House that the board of inquiry, which we understand has been set up, will report, that its findings will be made public and that the people responsible for that gross failing will be held to account, whatever rank, military or civilian, they may be?

Mr. Caplin: The hon. Gentleman is right. In accordance with our normal procedures, an Army board of inquiry has been set up. It was rightly stayed, pending the outcome of the court martial. We have seen the findings of the court martial only in the past 24 hours and will of course consider very seriously the comments of the judge advocate. However, we are yet to receive a full copy of the transcript, and I think that the hon. Gentleman would accept that we should wait to see that before going any further.

We heard about the ITAR waiver and the importance that the House attaches to it. There has been progress on that front. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last raised the issue with President Bush in June in the
 
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margins of the NATO summit meeting. We will continue to press the point, and contributions from both sides of the House are welcome.

Much has been said about the Defence Committee's report on procurement, about which I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan. I was rather taken with the Committee Chairman's suggestion that we should have preliminary discussions before the Government responses are published. That is okay provided that he is prepared to offer us the same facility before his Committee publishes a report. Perhaps the MOD and the Committee can discuss that in the weeks to come.

I want to highlight one or two aspects of the Committee's report. It claimed that the performance of the Defence Procurement Agency could only be described as woeful; my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South tried to suggest that the word was meant to be "wonderful", which might have given a different tone to the whole report. We cannot accept that the agency's performance was woeful in that particular year, when it delivered £3.6 billion of new equipment.

The report said that there are still problems in relation to four legacy projects. We accept that, although I should say that the Committee particularly welcomed the progress that we have made on Nimrod and Astute to try to deal with the situation. Around 40 per cent. of the cost increases comprise internal interest on capital charges.

The other significant aspect of the report relates to paragraph 53, which refers to a "fear culture" at the Defence Procurement Agency. Several hon. Members tried to explain what they think that means, but it clearly relates directly to staff. The Ministry of Defence wholeheartedly rejects the assertion that such a culture exists. The Committee did not substantiate it, and although it had many opportunities to consult MOD officials and my noble Friend Lord Bach, it failed to do so. The House will understand that such an accusation could have a serious effect on morale at the agency. I am afraid that the Committee did not properly think that through.

I hope that we can move on from here, but it is right and proper to place on record our feelings about the report and its failings, notwithstanding the fact that that there are of course lessons to be learned from the Committee's comments.

I want to move on to comments made by Members. Various Opposition Members suggested that CVF—the future aircraft carrier—is now being run by a committee. In fact, it is an alliance. That works well in other industries and there is no reason why it should not work well in defence procurement. As the House knows, BAE Systems is an important member of that alliance.

I was very disappointed by what the hon. Member for Gosport said about Swan Hunter. I utterly reject his comments and strongly support those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, South and for Glasgow, Pollok. Conservative Front-Bench Members could, in winding up the debate, have dissociated themselves from the hon. Gentleman's comments; they should have done.
 
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I will just say this: those who work at Swan Hunter and the people of the north-east will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said today.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) asked me about Devonport, and I undertake to write to him about those issues. The hon. Member for Aldershot asked about Galileo. It is a civil system under civil control, as has been confirmed by successive EU Transport Councils. The requirement for navigation and timing information to support UK armed forces will continue to be met by GPS, which remains the de facto NATO standard.

I return to the hon. Member for Gosport—on a slightly happier note, I hope—to answer his point about shipbuilding. There are three Astutes, two Type 45 destroyers and two handling ship docks that he might regard as being in some phase of construction.

There was a suggestion that the Defence Procurement Agency accounts may affect our ability to complete some of our planned projects. The figures presented show the value of actual contracts placed with suppliers, less any expenditure recorded elsewhere in the accounts. They do not in any way mean that funding to meet commitments for our procurement programme is not available. I hope that I have clarified that point.

In the short time remaining, I want to make a couple of final points about industrial policy and future capabilities. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State set out in his opening remarks the key principles of the defence industrial policy and the importance of defence manufacturing industrial support. That was welcomed by many Labour Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South. I take this opportunity to emphasise a further aspect of that important policy. Our partnership with industry is crucial in equipping and sustaining our front-line forces. In achieving those objectives, it is vital that the Ministry of Defence and industry continue to work together. We must seek fully to understand the pressures on industry but, in return, industry must respond effectively to the challenge of delivering equipment to time and to cost in fulfilling the contracts that it wins from the MOD.

On future capabilities, I want to emphasise that the challenges faced by our armed forces are complex and ever changing, as I hope the House understands. We have to make difficult procurement decisions today and tomorrow to equip our forces for that unpredictable future. We are often looking decades in advance, so it is not a simple business. Just as our armed forces will have to be increasingly flexible and adaptable in future, so will our procurement plans. The proposals outlined in the future capabilities announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in July will be implemented over the coming years. We plan to increase our capacity to undertake expeditionary operations alongside an equipment programme that is delivering, and will continue to deliver, an advanced range of capabilities.
 
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This Government are investing in defence. For the third successive spending review, we have been able to announce real growth in the defence budget. That is without precedent. We owe a considerable debt of gratitude and thanks to our people, wherever they are serving, at home and abroad. Their courage, determination and ability are making the difference across the world, but that in itself would not be enough without sustained investment in defence and the continued modernisation of our armed forces which will help to guarantee our battle-winning capability long into the future.

It is only right that our armed forces, the best in the world, are provided with the equipment and support that they need to do the job. Procurement plays its part in that process; it has delivered, and will continue to deliver, in that important task. Our investment in network-enabled capability will deliver increasingly agile and precise military capability. Our future procurement programme will support more flexible and deployable forces with world-beating kit tailored to achieve that effect. I can assure the House that this Government will spare no effort in making that happen.


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