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17 Apr 2007 : Column 49WH—continued

The Nimrod is becoming the RAF’s Skoda. The men want to fly, but I am afraid that the plane is clapped out. I should like to bring another entry to the Chamber’s attention:

Even if only a small proportion of those stories are true, there is a major problem to which I hope the Minister and the Government will own up and say, “We need to cough up.” We must not and should not put aircrews at risk because the kites that they are flying are beyond their sell-by dates. We should never put anything into the air that does not have the proper equipment inside it.

I believe that the bulk of the work on the aircraft is the responsibility of BAE Systems, and guess who is building the replacement to Nimrod. The new plane
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was conceived in the mid ‘90s, when 21 were ordered. That fell to 18 under the Labour Government, and I believe that the number is now 12. However—hold on to your hats—Nimrod’s replacement should be in service by 2011. Three prototypes have been tested already. They look remarkably like the old Nimrods, but then they are based on the same old airframe. Basically, BAE Systems has been squeezed by the MOD, which has in turn been squeezed by the Treasury. I put it bluntly to the Minister: I am afraid that son of Nimrod is a cheap facelift.

I represent a constituency with a proud history of providing our Army, Navy and Air Force with the means to do the job. In Bridgwater, we make bombs and explosives and have done so efficiently, economically and successfully for more than 50 years. Some of my constituents are the best legal bomb makers in the business. They are true specialists, and, as the Minister is well aware, dedicated to their work. However, in a month or so there may be no more work for them to do. BAE Systems runs the old Royal Ordnance factory just outside Puriton and, as the Minister is aware, it intends to close the place. It and, dare I say it, the MOD believe that they can buy what Britain needs elsewhere in the world—and, unfortunately, cheaper. I think that they are misguided, and I am not alone. Some 136 skilled people agree with me—as does Lord King, my parliamentary predecessor and former Secretary of State for Defence, as do many people with a real understanding of ordnance supplies. To shut the plant would be more than a local blow. It would be a national disgrace and could put the very defence of the realm at risk.

We started making armaments in Bridgwater during the last war; it was a question of genuine necessity. Germany was stretching our military capabilities to the limits and we needed more weapons. Over the years, the discreet little plant has churned out munitions for every theatre of war in which we have taken part since the second world war, as has Chorley.

In my local Royal Ordnance factory, the famous bouncing bombs that destroyed the Ruhr dams were designed and built. I dare say that Sir Barnes Wallis, their inventor, would rotate in his grave if he thought that the factory was doomed. The bombs that we aimed successfully at Saddam Hussein’s bunkers were primed in Puriton and the explosives, the final charges, for Trident missiles are also made there.

The work force were, and remain, very special. Originally, they—experts with cool heads—were recruited from all over Britain, and the Royal Ordnance factory maintained an enviable reputation for safety. When the factory became part of BAE Systems, the employees faced the change with their typical can-do attitude; they really felt that they could make it work for the future. Even when the plant was under threat of closure a couple of years ago, everybody volunteered for extra productivity without any problems. I know that because I worked alongside the trade unions and local management to keep the factory in business, and I will continue to do so.

Now, unfortunately, crude economies are beating sound common sense. BAE is rationalising—I have no problems with that—but for hard commercial reasons. The official line is that there is nothing to worry about and BAE is confident that there is no supply risk. The
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Government have told me so as well through Lord Drayson, but recently at Glascoed, where packaging takes place, 3,000 rounds of artillery were made of which only 150 were workable. There are major production problems.

The Government should never, and I hope will never, treat defence as a matter of commerce. BAE Systems obviously does not think that a little bomb factory in Bridgwater that ticks over nicely and makes a mint will be at the heart of its business; it will not. BAE Systems keeps telling me that Britain can buy munitions without Bridgwater, but the evidence is against that.

I am told that the US navy is seriously worried about its future supplies, because the Puriton factory produces a type of explosive hard to obtain. Rumour has it that the Pentagon tried to persuade my local plant to make more of the stuff so that the Americans can stockpile it when they do not have Puriton. BAE Systems has marked one factory in Tennessee as the future source of the explosive RDX, but, as we know, it has suffered a catastrophic explosion and cannot produce it at the moment.

The Minister is aware that the cost of replacing the plant would be £50 million. That equates to £2 million a year for the 25-year lifespan of the factory. The same would go for Chorley. Surely £2 million a year between the Government and BAE Systems is nothing to pay for the security of supply for our nation’s well-being. I ask him to urge the MOD to rethink. Of course it is possible to buy anything in this world, but we want it to go bang, not fizz, when we need it most. A few years ago, the British Army tried to buy bullets from the far east, but they did not work. Millions were dumped at sea, and the factory, along with Chorley, had to make up the shortfall.

Rumour also has it that France could become a new source of supplies for BAE Systems. The French make good cheese and wine, but I do not think that they do explosives. A container of explosives was recently shipped from France to Bridgwater so that Puriton could have a look at it. The product was OK, but it was not of the quality that we expect in this country.

This is not the time or place for complacency. If Somerset were the only ordnance factory of many to be closed, that would be fine, but it is the only one that we have. It is a sad saga of price not peace. Making weapons is far too important to leave to the marketplace. Closing our arms factory would be a bitter blow to Bridgwater and Chorley and is a steep price for our national security. I appeal to the Minister and the MOD to intervene and use their considerable muscles before it is too late.

12.43 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) for securing this debate. It is important that we put on record the failings of Royal Ordnance. It has cheated the workers of Chorley and Bridgwater. Those people gave everything whenever there was a need, whether in the Gulf, the second world war or Korea. Their loyalty and expertise were second to none, and their reward was closure. That is a sad indictment of the RO.

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The RO is a disgrace. It tells lies, misleads people and makes empty promises. We were told that engineering offices would remain at Chorley, and what happened after it settled closure at Chorley? It removed that promise. It cannot be trusted as an organisation. This is about money and nothing else. It ought to be ashamed of what it has done to the workers.

There is still time to protect Bridgwater and Chorley. We in this country will be naked—we will not be able to make explosives without them. Nowhere else in this country can they be replicated. BAE is failing our national interests, and it ought to be ashamed of itself. What did it leave in Chorley? A storage facility of explosives. That is how good BAE is to the people of Chorley—not one job will remain, but everybody’s bombs and explosives will be stored in Chorley. There will be no jobs and no security. It is unacceptable.

What did we ask BAE for? We said, “Why not put up a memorial to this factory? Although Sir Barnes Wallis used Bridgwater, the casings were made at Chorley. We have a great history that ought not to be lost.” What was the BAE bosses’ reply? “No, we are not going to provide anything.” They ought to be ashamed of themselves as a company. It is a total disgrace that they are willing to use overseas workers at the expense of British jobs. It is not good enough. They ought to come back to the table, go back to the MOD and ensure that the workers of Chorley and Bridgwater will be truly represented. It is unacceptable. I say once again that they should be ashamed of the lies that they tell.

12.45 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate on the procurement of BAE Systems products by the UK armed forces and on providing an opportunity to discuss that important issue. I am also grateful to him for providing his thoughts in advance, allowing me the opportunity to provide a fuller response to his points.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech and would like to start by correcting a number of the points that he has made. He mentioned a time when bullets were procured from a source in the far east that were subsequently found not to be of the required standard and were removed from use. That is true, but I am advised that it happened in 1976 and I do not think that I can be held responsible for that. Subsequent Governments obviously learned their lessons relating to that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned an explosion at the US Holston factory. He raised that matter during a debate on 6 June 2006, which is in Hansard at column 66WH. However, we can find no such evidence for what he refers to. He was written to by the then Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), on 19 June 2006 asking for more details, but none were forthcoming. To repeat the accusation today is slightly disingenuous: it is more a whimper than a bang. If there is evidence, he should give it to us. But we cannot find any source for it at all.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned rumours concerning the US navy. I am sure that he will understand that I cannot respond to rumours. I need hard facts. If he can
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give me more details about what he has been advised of, I will certainly look into that and respond to him in detail.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the 105mm artillery round, termed the L50, which is a new round, using new production processes and facilities. The company is working hard to deliver that new capability. Meanwhile, I assure him that operational delivery to the front line is not being compromised as a consequence of that new development work, because we are continuing to use the current 105mm high explosive round successfully on operations. There is an issue and both the Ministry of Defence and the company are actively engaged in finding a solution to it, which I am confident will be found.

Let me now turn to the more general aspects of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. The MOD sources its matériel from a wide range of companies at home and abroad. However, I accept that BAE Systems is the largest supplier of equipment to the MOD. BAE Systems provides up to £4.5 billion of equipment a year to the MOD and employs 30,000 people in the UK, with another 60,000 worldwide. That is a major contribution to defence acquisition and support. We aim to work effectively and closely with the company to improve its performance and ensure that complex programmes meet operational, programme and budget imperatives. We are currently working closely to implement the defence industrial strategy, which was published in 2005, the aim of which is a competitive, lean industrial base that provides security of supply of critical capabilities to the armed forces while delivering long-term value for money.

BAE Systems’ position as the largest supplier of equipment to the MOD places it in an important position as part of that equation. The DIS is widely supported across industry, Government and the trade unions. I believe, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) believes, that that is the way forward and gives the best arrangements for partnerships with industry, including BAE Systems. We have made much progress in implementing the strategy, which has been needed for a long time. We have now defined it and are making progress on it.

One aspect of the DIS was to recognise the military importance of munitions. There are critical capabilities that we want to retain and to develop. We also want to retain the ability to design and to produce munitions, to support them throughout their lifetime and to test them safely, which is also highly critical.

That is why we have a general munitions industrial strategy to take those commitments forward. It is in that context that the munitions acquisition supply solution project operates. Project MASS is charged with delivering future arrangements for the supply of general munitions beyond 2010. It is part of the overall analysis and strategy.

Operational sovereignty, security of supply and value for money are crucial factors in determining the way forward for project MASS. The result will be that industry will have a better understanding of the opportunities to provide safe and effective munitions. We are working to ensure continued security of supply, both now and on operations in the future.

As part of such efforts to improve efficiency and value for money for the taxpayer, BAE Systems has
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made the commercial decision to close the munitions sites at both Chorley and Bridgwater. Both sites are due to be closed in their entirety by early 2008, as my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman will be aware.

The closure of the sites is not a sign of disrespect to those who have worked there—on previous occasions I have abundantly praised all that has been delivered by those people. As decisions have been made on site or base closures, both within the MOD and between the MOD and industry, I have paid genuine tribute to those who have provided service in the past. However, change is required, and clearly there are those who are adversely affected by it. The employees of both sites have worked hard and delivered a quality service over a number of years—that is not in question. However, at the end of the day, the decision is one that BAE Systems must make on the basis of its best commercial judgment.

We at the MOD must take the impact of that decision into account and assess its effect on military capability. I am satisfied that capability will not be compromised by the decision to close the sites in Bridgwater and Chorley. We have worked closely with the contractor and we are satisfied with the assurances provided by that company that the supply of material will be safeguarded.

I do not have time to go into all the details, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend at length and set out the various bilateral relationships that we have with our allies on supply security—the memorandums of understanding that exist. I will place a copy of the letter in the Library. The issue has been raised by both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend, and it is a critical one.

On wider acquisition issues, I believe that we have a good story to tell. It is not a case of throwing big numbers around and saying, “Doesn’t that sound good?” I do not accept that we are cutting corners. Equipment valued at more than £10 billion has been delivered to the armed forces in the last three years alone, which is an astonishing record. Equipment now successfully deployed in Afghanistan includes Apache helicopters, upgraded armoured vehicles, Bowman communications kit, new light machine guns, under-slung grenade launchers, weapon sights, a wide range of night-vision aids, and other infantry equipment such as body armour.

I hear the stories on equipment failures—it is part of my job to be out in the territory, to be visiting Afghanistan, Iraq and other places where we have people deployed, and to hear the concerns of those people. We pick up some concerns, but we no longer get complaints about personal equipment from those in the front line; they are well served, and if a shortfall is found it is immediately rectified. That is why we have spent nearly £700 million on urgent operational requirements for both Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. That was to meet the defined requirements, including shortfalls and past failures, which have been addressed, but it is an ongoing process as well.

The loss of the Nimrod XV230 in Afghanistan with the loss of life of the 14 military personnel on board was unquestionably a tragic incident. Such incidents serve to remind us of the risks that our servicemen and women take across the world every day. The loss of an airframe inevitably means that it is more difficult to
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meet front-line requirements—that is the nature and the hard logic of the matter. However, the Nimrod personnel and aircraft are meeting their operational commitments and continue to do an excellent job. Of a fleet of 15 aircraft, nine are typically available to the front line. The remainder are being modified or in deep servicing. Four are deployed on operations overseas, and five are available in the UK to be used at short notice.

The depth contract with BAE Systems and its subcontractor Flight Refuelling Aviation Services is proving to be a great success. Nimrod commanders are positive about the support that they receive from the company, which is meeting aircraft maintenance schedules, with aircraft entering and leaving servicing on time and to standard. That is the hard test that we have to set those who supply the equipment to us. They have to meet the time demands and the high quality that we demand of them.

There is no question but that the Nimrod is a unique asset. It is in great demand at home and overseas and is providing vital direct support to our troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. That inevitably means that front-line Nimrod squadrons are very busy. I have met members of the squadrons in both those theatres. As a consequence, personnel are committed over the level that we would desire and over the harmony guidelines. We cannot hide from that, but to address it in the short term the RAF is rebalancing its engineering manpower to put additional resources at the front line. We have a study under way to identify longer-term solutions. Again, we have identified an issue and are seeking to address it. Simply to take those aircraft out of that situation would put at risk all the people operating on the ground.

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