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9. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): How many military vehicles were programmed to be converted for Bowman; and how many have been converted. [36103]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): More than 20,156 land mobile platforms were in the original Bowman contract for conversion and, as of 7 December 2005, some 3,845 have been converted.
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Mr. Heath: Bowman represents a huge improvement in potential capability. Is the Minister aware, however, of the frustrations being expressed to me by many serving officers and NCOs—non-commissioned officers—that vehicles are going for refitting and simply not coming back to their units, sometimes because of delays in the workshops and sometimes because of nonsense in the specifications, such as leads being provided that are too short for anything other than standard vehicles? The result of these problems is frustration in the operational units, and expensively acquired training decaying while people wait for the vehicles on which they can put their skills into use. Most importantly, perhaps, essential units are not in the state of readiness that they ought to be. Can anything be done to remove the logjam?

Mr. Ingram: Bowman represents an important step change and a considerable improvement. I was recently on HMS Bulwark with 40 Commando Royal Marines, who were extolling the virtues of what they had been trained to provide, saying that it would give them greater punch as an expeditionary force. Bowman is, however, a very complex system, and we have unquestionably encountered difficulties as we have gone along. A lot of that has been to do with the age of some of the vehicles, and with the non-availability of some essential pieces of equipment, which we are trying to source. We are discovering aspects of the vehicles that are presenting difficulties because their original specification included individual fits, which have to be worked round. We are fully conscious of the fact that there is a crying demand out there for the conversion programme to be advanced so as to bring those vehicles into service, and we are doing all that we can to achieve that. We know that this is a very important piece of equipment that will provide a tremendous step change, and we shall continue to try to meet the deadline of the end of 2007 as best we can.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The roll-out of the Bowman radio system must be one of the more embarrassing procurement projects that the Army has had to endure. Our armed forces have rightly been praised, and all Members share in that, but such praise is often not matched by our encouragement and support for the procurement process. Does the Minister agree that waiting 40 years for the replacement of a radio system is far too long?

Mr. Ingram: I know that the hon. Gentleman is new to the House, but had he been around at the time he would have remembered the criticisms of the previous contract, which was probably best described as a disaster on legs—or, more appropriately, a disaster on wheels and tracked vehicles. It was not well designed and managed, and had to be renegotiated under this Government. We have faced difficulties and we now have an incredibly potent piece of kit, both in terms of the voice system and, as we roll it out, the data system. That will provide a step change and a new way of communicating between command centres, the front line and back again. It will lift the capability of the armed forces to a first-class level, and that is what is wanted. Everywhere that it has been implemented, it has been warmly received, and people say, "Give us more
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and move to the next phase." We are doing all of that. It has been difficult, but much of that history rests with the previous Tory Government.

Relief Effort (Pakistan)

11. Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): What role UK Chinooks have played in disaster relief in Pakistan. [36106]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): UK armed forces have provided significant and wide-ranging assistance to the Pakistan earthquake relief effort. That has included three heavy-lift Chinook helicopters, a specialist 86-man light engineering team, a four-person mobile medical team, four logistics planners, three C130 transport aircraft as part of the NATO air bridge, and 24,000 vegetarian and halal ration packs.

Mr. Khan: My right hon. Friend might be aware that I recently visited the areas affected by the earthquake in Pakistan, and I had the pleasure of meeting the Chinook teams working there around the clock. One of the contributions that he did not list was that our men and women can load and unload a Chinook faster than the Americans—we are doing three sorties a day. First, will he join me in congratulating our men and women? Secondly, will he consider speaking to our European colleagues, who, unfortunately, have been less generous than we have been? He will be aware that in that part of the world, at this time of the year, the help that we can give through our helicopters is much appreciated and needed.

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend has seen this activity at first hand. I met the Chinook crews when they returned, and I was amazed at the amount of effort that they had put in. He is right about the capacity of our people, which is better than that of not just the Americans but everyone, to lift heavy quantities and to do more sorties than anyone else. As I understand it, the Americans cottoned on to what we are doing and have introduced the same lift techniques, and other allies are examining what we are doing, including the UN efforts. We have helped considerably in that specific area.

I also saw off 59 Commando Royal Engineers and 42 Commando Royal Marines, who have gone to provide light engineering support. We have seen some of the playback of what they are doing. All the teams that we have sent out there are doing truly amazing work, all hours of the day, delivering essential humanitarian aid and support. Others should study what we are doing to see what more can be done. This is a critical area, and lives can be saved on the back of that effort. That is what our people are doing, and I will pass on my hon. Friend's warm words, which, I know, are echoed across this country.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the activities of those Chinook teams from the UK is a source of pride not only to Britain, but to RAF Odiham in my constituency. I know that the Minister visited RAF Odiham on Monday. Does he agree, however, that there is serious worry about the availability of heavy-lift
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helicopters once we deploy to Afghanistan next year? Is he convinced that we have enough heavy-lift helicopters, and support helicopters in general, to do the very necessary work that they do?

Mr. Ingram: There is an issue to be dealt with. We are looking at the servicing of the whole support helicopter fleet, but particularly the Chinooks, and considering new cycle times for maintenance. If that proves feasible in safety terms, more helicopters may be available at any given time, and pressures may be eased.

We should view the position across the board. We should not simply say "Let us purchase more"; we should ask whether there is a better way of making certain platforms available. Our action is part of our overall logistic support effort. It does not apply just to support helicopters, fast jets and so on. The Defence Committee, which the right hon. Gentleman chairs, is examining the whole issue, and I await the outcome of its report.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am sure that the whole House is very proud of the part played by the Royal Air Force in dealing with the terrible disaster in Pakistan. It is even more notable that we have been able to make that contribution despite the enormous pressure under which our helicopter fleets are operating.
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May I return to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot)? The fact is that we are short of heavy lift. We do not require it just for military purposes; we need it for precisely the kind of situation that we see in Kashmir, where the United Kingdom can make a serious contribution. Unless the Government are prepared to devote the necessary resources to defence, however, we shall not have that capability. In Iraq, as the Minister knows perfectly well, our helicopters are under enormous pressure. Can he not do more to ensure that the country has the heavy lift that it needs?

Mr. Ingram : I do not think that the hon. Gentleman heard what I said. We are paying a great deal of attention to the problem, and there are ways in which we can ameliorate it. We can ensure that more platforms are available at any one time, which constitutes best use of our defence resources. I do not propose to enter into a debate, but I shall mention in passing that defence has received the largest sustained increase in funds for 20 years. It received £3.7 billion in the Budget—a real-terms increase of 1.4 per cent.—over the current spending review period from this Government, which contrasts with the cuts made by the last Tory Government.

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