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Mr. Harper: I knew that I was taking my life in my hands with that remark. It is a defence debate, and I am well defended by the Minister.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing the debate, and to hon. Members on both sides of the House, representing constituencies in Shropshire and the west midlands, who have spoken very eloquently about many local issues. They ably represent their constituents on this subject.

I want to touch on two issues—the merger of the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency. We accepted at the last election that there was a need to introduce effective through-life management of major capabilities. Indeed, in 2003 the National Audit Office found that one of the barriers to through-life management was the relationship between the DPA and the DLO. It certainly makes sense that there should be one organisation to manage that capability from its inception to the completion of its service life. We felt that that justified a merger with the capability functions of the DLO and the DPA.

We feel that the full merger of the two organisations has the potential to create a very large and cumbersome organisation, and there seems to us to be no reason why the purely logistical functions of the DLO should be included in a merger with the DPA. Consumables such as ammunition and nuts and bolts do not need to be provided by the same organisation that has responsibility for procuring aircraft, ships and tanks. The risk is that the Government will create a huge, unwieldy empire that will not perform either task particularly well. We support merging the capability functions, but think that there should be a separate logistics command specifically to take account of the logistics items, as opposed to the large procurement areas.

On the defence training review, hon. Members will know that my constituency is beautifully positioned, being adjacent to both Wales and the west midlands. I therefore find it easy to take a balanced and neutral position between the two bids. Hon. Members from the west midlands and Shropshire have put their cases very ably, and no doubt others will make strong cases for their bids. I am sure that the Minister will make a very wise decision on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

Chris Bryant: All the joshing apart, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most important issue that the MOD has to decide on this is not whether there is a higher level of employment or unemployment in one area or another, or the level of relative deprivation between areas, but which bid will provide the best level of training for our forces? If we were to do anything other than that, we would be failing in our duty to our troops.

Mr. Harper: That is a helpful intervention. I agree that the decision about the defence training review—indeed, all decisions about MOD responsibilities—should absolutely be made on the ground of providing the best possible defence for our nation and, therefore, the best possible training for our forces. That should be the criteria on which the decision is made.

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Harper: I will not give way again, as time is short and I want to allow the Minister to deal with the many issues that have been raised.

I shall say a brief word about the defence industrial strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin drew attention to the defence industrial strategy’s references to sovereignty and what is meant by the term British. As far as I am concerned, we mean the ownership of intellectual property, companies being based in this country and, very importantly, contracts and companies that will ensure the security of supply of defence capability for this country. Taking those three things together, we can focus on what the defence industrial strategy means by sovereignty and a preference for British companies.

I repeat that the absolute priority of the MOD must be to ensure that we maintain the standards of service and support that our forces deserve and need. However, it is worth making one more point about the defence training review as a caution: whatever decision the Minister takes, it should not undermine the military ethos of that training. We are training soldiers and servicemen, and that is not the same as training people for a role in private business. We ask a great deal of those who serve in our armed forces. Our training should recognise that, and the military ethos should be properly preserved to recognise that we ask our armed forces to do a very separate and distinctive job. We must ensure that we maintain the military ethos and professionalism of the armed forces on which we depend, as we have in the past and will in the future.

12.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Hood. If we could physically hug each other, I would have no problem with that. After all, this has been a very “new man” debate, with the exception of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt).

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) should be congratulated on securing the debate. He talked about taking an holistic approach. I shall give an holistic response if I can. Before I begin to talk about some of the key issues, I must say that never in the field of party political conflict have so many press releases been owed to the Shropshire Star. I say to the famous five from Shropshire, somewhere in that newsroom, a man—or woman—is generating page leaves as we speak. I commend you all.

I congratulate in particular Mr. Mark Egerton, the barber of Shropshire. The hon. Gentleman has probably bankrupted him by now, but I am sure that, given the excellent employment opportunities across the region, he will be able to find alternative employment.

On a serious note, the hon. Gentleman raised several points. I shall talk about the defence training review at the end of my speech, because I want to talk about wider defence issues across the region, if hon. Members will allow me to. This debate has been a thinly disguised opportunity for Members to lobby for the defence training review, but I do not object to that, in the interests of fairness, because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, I was invited to talk to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs about defence in Wales, and that was also a thinly disguised lobby on behalf of St. Athan. I expect hon. Members to argue for their regions.

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I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper)—I shall call him my hon. Friend—on staying studiously neutral on the matter, both geographically and politically. I commend the hon. Member for Solihull on coming out, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, for RAF Cosford—I think—but let us see what happens with that.

Chris Bryant: I have my press release already.

Mr. Watson: We have even got a press release for south Wales out of a debate on defence in the midlands.

Our broader plans for the Ministry of Defence for the next few years are to modernise the MOD, our armed forces and our defence capability. The changes include initiatives in areas such as logistics, on which we have touched—I will respond to hon. Members’ comments on that later—information systems, personnel and estates, and training. They apply to all service and civilian personnel, not only in the west midlands region, but throughout the UK and worldwide.

We are managing the defence change programme as a single, coherent effort with the goal of modernising and improving our defence business processes. That will allow us to reallocate our scarce resources from back-office functions towards the front line in order to improve our operational capability. That is the best way to make sure that we can go on giving the best support to our servicemen and women in the future, to which so many have referred today. That means that we have to do things better and cut out waste.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin made a point questioning privatisation. I hope that that comment will not come back and haunt him as he progresses through his career in his party. He is bold enough to shake his head. There is no ideological commitment for or against privatisation in the MOD. We pick a view that—

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I know that he will want Hansard to be accurate in reflecting my earlier comments. I am not objecting to privatisation in principle; I am saying that it needs to be undertaken on a case-by-case basis and should be done objectively rather than driven by some ideology. With the MOD there has, perhaps, in some cases, been a privatisation too far.

Mr. Watson: I am grateful. I am sure that that clarification will go into Hansard. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) who is, dare I say, the unity candidate today was nodding vigorously at the hon. Gentleman’s stateist approach and his arguments for protecting jobs in the region. I am certain that they can reach a consensus today about how we should protect jobs in the region rather than open up to the market. That allows me to answer the central point of my future leader’s argument about consultation. [Interruption.] I am only joking. He would not expect a former trade union official not to want greater consultation.

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who has responsibility for the armed forces, yesterday met a delegation that was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford
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(David Wright) to talk about some of these issues. Other meetings are planned, and I expect representatives of the work force to be heard at all levels in the MOD and across the management.

John McDonnell: I shall give one example of a lack of information flow. In relation to the future defence supply chain initiative, no information has been provided regarding the estimate that has been provided to the unions of cost savings of £400 million. The unions have not been provided with a copy of the investment appraisal, or financial data setting out how any of those savings are to be provided. That level of information would give some assurance to members of staff working in the field that they can have a guaranteed future.

Mr. Watson: Unlike my hon. Friend, I do not have the benefit of the PCS brief, but I hope that he can be reassured that the commitment that I gave is absolute: we want our work force to be involved. Indeed, I think that they are consulted extensively, but my hon. Friend’s points will be taken up, and if there is a problem, we will deal with it.

Daniel Kawczynski: On privatisation, the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) and I met a delegation of workers in the House some time ago. It is not only Conservative politicians who are concerned about privatisation; ordinary workers and members of the public are concerned that the British defence industry could end up in the hands of foreign companies that have no good will towards this country.

Mr. Watson: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Indeed, I understand that representatives of Amicus, the manufacturing union, are in the House today. They represent ordinary workers in Shropshire and from across the region, and I would be delighted to show the hon. Gentleman the room where they are trying to lobby. He could put to them his view that he stands for ordinary workers in Shropshire, and I am sure that they would like to engage him on their views about privatisation.

Mark Pritchard: I just want to put something on the record. There is no such thing as ordinary workers in Shropshire—there are only extraordinary workers in Shropshire.

Mr. Watson: I am sure that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) will feel admonished for having referred to ordinary workers in Shropshire.

Mark Pritchard: No, I meant the Minister.

Mr. Watson: I was only using the hon. Gentleman’s words.

Daniel Kawczynski: The Minister is not being statesmanlike.

Mr. Watson: Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene?

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Daniel Kawczynski: I do, because I was making a serious point. The Minister is trying to say that I used the word “ordinary” in some derogatory way, but that is not correct. I simply said that those people felt passionately about this issue and that they reflected public opinion.

Mr. Watson: In that case, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will attend the Amicus meeting straight after this event to put those points.

I have a lot to say about defence and jobs in our region, so let me move on. I know that hon. Members want me to talk about the defence training review, and I shall try to get through my comments as quickly as I can so that we can talk about my position on the review at the end.

Our goals are ambitious. We have committed ourselves to achieving £2.8 billion of efficiency savings by 2007-08. That money will be reinvested to maximise front-line capability and will come partly from cutting numbers elsewhere. We are committed to reducing the number of civilian posts by at least 10,000 and the number of military posts in administrative and support roles by at least 5,000.

As I am sure that the hon. Member for The Wrekin is aware, the Defence Medical Services branch of the Ministry of Defence already enjoys a strong presence in the west midlands. The Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, which is based in and around Birmingham, has recently benefited from a £106 million refit, which I am sure that all hon. Members welcome. That refit was carried out in partnership with the regional development agency.

In that respect, perhaps I can answer some of the cogent points raised by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), who talked about the “Let’s Fly” campaign led by the RDA. That is the west midlands RDA at its best, and I hope that we will be able to stand up for it when we talk about the future of RDAs in other forums, because it is the only body in our region that could mount such a campaign. I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to stand up for RDAs up and down the country, given that some hon. Members believe that there is a question mark over their future.

The chief executive of the Defence Medical Education and Training Agency is now leading a programme to improve accommodation and support facilities for military medical personnel in Birmingham and is exploring a number of options to consolidate the command, control and training elements of the Defence Medical Services. That is intended to create an international centre for clinical excellence and to provide a suitable environment for DMETA military and civilian personnel, including those who are currently serving in Birmingham without access to MOD accommodation or facilities. That would result in significant numbers of staff and jobs being relocated to the west midlands from around the country, and I know that all hon. Members will support the Government in trying to achieve that goal.

In the few minutes that remain, I should like to move straight on to the defence training review. The in-house bid was not considered appropriate, because it could not have provided comparable technical innovation, performance discipline and risk transfer. The DTR programme is about improving training and its environment,
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as well as managing the risk of demand ebb and flow without compromising the quality of training. A PPP arrangement will offer the best value-for-money solution, while still meeting the MOD’s critical requirements.

Our initial studies identified six streams of specialist training, which are currently being conducted on about 30 separate sites around the country. Together, those streams offered the greatest potential benefits from the rationalisation and harmonisation, and hon. Members have referred to that. Consequently, they have been grouped into two packages for what my officials describe as maximum synergy, or what I would describe as a common-sense solution. Package 1 comprises training for engineering and communications, while package 2 will provide training for logistics, security, policing and administration.

Our overall procurement strategy has required bidders to select sites as part of their training proposals. They were given a free hand to decide which MOD or non-MOD sites offered the best solution. That geographical freedom has been essential for bidders to develop coherent value-for-money proposals that take full account of the service training requirement, their training design and delivery solutions, the necessary personnel and skills, and the environment in which solutions would be delivered.

There are two bidders for each contractual package. The evaluation process is drawing to an end, and I can provide an assurance that an extensive and robust evaluation methodology has been in place to ensure that bidders’ proposals meet defence requirements and are evaluated on an equitable basis. All factors are being considered. The process has been led by a Ministry of Defence project team, although it has involved several hundred other training and estates subject matter experts. The relevant procurement rules have been carefully applied, and the work has been overseen by our own private finance unit specialists and independent academic experts to ensure there is a level playing field.

The project team and those involved in the evaluation have been commended by Professor Molyneaux, the independent auditor of our evaluation process and a leading expert in learning technologies, for operating with the utmost professionalism and objectivity throughout the process. The evaluation process has properly weighted the training element of bidders’ proposals, including the ability to deliver distance learning in front-line command units, above other supporting and enabling capabilities, such as the future estate. It has also strongly emphasised the application of innovation in that process.

We therefore have good reason to expect a solution that best delivers value for money for defence specialist training. However, lower-priority factors, such as location, regional economic and sociological impacts, transport links and other related points will not be ignored. I am aware, for example, of the proposal to establish a national manufacturing skills academy in the west midlands. We welcome that initiative, which would have a role in achieving the Department’s desire for national centres of excellence as part of preferred bidder negotiations, whichever bidder is successful.

As I have explained, I can make only limited comments on any likely use of sites at this competitive phase of the project, as I am sure that hon. Members
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understand. Those who have spoken have raised several specific points that go beyond the DTR, but I have not been able to cover them, because of time limitations. However, I shall make myself available to anyone who needs me to pick up any of those points afterwards or who needs to write to me.

However, I can also assure the House that there is no question of the MOD systematically withdrawing from the west midlands. Many options remain available for the use of existing MOD establishments in the region. I acknowledge that there might well be closures in the future, but we are actively pursuing numerous possibilities. We certainly recognise that change can be unsettling for individuals, so staff and the trade unions are being kept closely informed of the latest developments.

To conclude, I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin on allowing us to talk about the excellent future that defence has in the midlands. I also congratulate all other hon. Members who have made a contribution.

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