Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Oct 2007 : Column 220

Mr. Hoyle: The truth of the matter is that the kit is there, but there is also personal choice; soldiers always have bought the kit that they feel suits their requirements, and they always will do that. We ought not to embroider the story.

Nick Harvey: I am not embroidering the story. That point the hon. Gentleman makes is exactly the same as the point I am making: members of the armed services feel driven to purchase their own equipment. They feel driven to do so because they have no confidence in the equipment supplied to them.

Mr. Soames: Nonsense.

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that they are not, but serving members of the armed forces look me straight in the eye and tell me that they are, for the reason I have given. I do not believe that anyone can, with confidence, say otherwise. We must do better by our armed services not only in the supply of boots but, more importantly, in the supply of big equipment.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman has just mentioned a basic bit of kit. When was the last occasion somebody came to him to complain about adequate boots not being available?

Nick Harvey: From memory, as recently as March this year, when I heard from people who had just come back from serving in Afghanistan last winter. If the hon. Lady has information that a transformation of the supply has taken place since March, I invite her to report that to the House.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): In light of the hon. Gentleman’s comments about individual soldiers being driven to purchase kit, perhaps I could refer him to the diaries of Private Clay of the 3rd Foot Guards—probably the finest regiment in the British Army. In his diaries at the battle of Waterloo, he mentions exactly the same problem of the inadequacies of his kit and that he was forced to purchase a new knapsack. It is not uncommon for individual soldiers to buy personal equipment, but I have never met a soldier who was driven to buying a larger piece of equipment, such as a tank.

Nick Harvey: I am not quite sure that I follow the hon. Gentleman’s last point, but I accept that this is not a new phenomenon. However, that does not make it any more acceptable that so many of the armed forces feel driven—feel driven, I repeat—to go out and do what I have described.

Let me turn from boots to helicopters. I cannot conclude my contribution to this debate without mentioning them. It was a subject that was always very dear to the late Lord Tim Garden who, tragically, died in the summer. He is unable to continue to make his point, so I do it in his stead. The helicopter situation in both operational theatres is desperate. In both those theatres, they are indispensable, but there are still too few. Those that there are have restricted flying times and operational constraints that affect their support role in both medical and military missions.

9 Oct 2007 : Column 221

We need not revisit the saga of the grounded Chinooks here, but suffice it to say that it has been an absolute disgrace. Years after the Chinooks were first ordered, the same problems continue to plague them. They lack airworthiness. The forces have not had the helicopters that they need at their disposal. I will be interested to hear from the Government about their plans for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) asked the Minister about the partnering agreement with AgustaWestland in respect of the Future Lynx programme. That, of course, has been signed and there is an anxiety that the Government may not follow it through on the scale or time scale that the armed forces need. Beyond the issue of the Future Lynx is the serious issue of what will replace the Sea Kings and Pumas—they are antiquated. Sea Kings should not be used in anything like the circumstances in which they are, years after they were built for a completely different purpose. If we are looking ahead, we must have clarity about the Government’s longer-term intentions on that issue.

There is a strong correlation between, on the one hand, poor equipment and vital shortages and, on the other, the toll being taken on the armed forces and the overstretch about which we are all so concerned. We have heard about the widely reported and speculated-about cuts in the naval fleet. The Government need to come to the Dispatch Box and clarify their intentions in that regard; it is simply unacceptable that such reductions in our capability should be made by what is frankly a stealth process. The Minister needs to clarify the issue.

The aircraft carriers have been announced and that is welcome. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) asked me about Eurofighters, but the issue of what will fly off the aircraft carriers is a long way from being clear. It is time that the Government started to indicate what they anticipate will fly off the carriers, particularly as the joint strike fighter, which had been predominant in the Government’s thinking on the issue, is itself stretching further off to the right and is certainly further to the right than the now announced and expected deployment dates for the two aircraft carriers. Whether those dates will be achieved is another issue altogether, but there is clearly a time gap between the two things.

The defence industrial strategy is a brave attempt to improve our procurement processes. I am pleased that Lord Drayson is still in position and is able to try to pursue the new approach. However, it is important, in identifying head contractors and the operators with whom the Government are going to deal, that the interests of small and medium-sized companies are not forgotten. When the Government make their key decisions about suppliers for the FRES project, that should be one of the key criteria by which they should be judged. What will be the role of small and medium-sized firms in that provision? There will be other considerations, such as what capacity there will be for putting new capabilities on to the vehicles as time goes on; inevitably, whatever they were designed for initially will need to change as the years go by.
9 Oct 2007 : Column 222
Making sure that whatever is designed is capable of being adapted, changed and added on to as time goes on is vital.

We have to retain knowledge and capacity in certain key industries. We need to decide which those are on the basis of national security. As has been said, there will be other instances when it will be possible to buy off the shelf elsewhere. The more that we can do that in an internationally competitive environment, with allied countries being in a position to provide options to us, the better—the better the value that we will get for the taxpayer and the better the product that we will ultimately get for our armed forces.

6.44 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): May I first warmly welcome the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is no longer in his place but who opened the debate tonight? He performed gallantly when dropped, as The Sun so charmingly put it this morning, deep into “the Brown stuff” last week, when the Prime Minister made an announcement in Basra about force levels and the number of those returning to this country, without first having told the Secretary of State that he was going to make it. I wish to place it on record that the Prime Minister’s actions in that regard and many others in the past week were absolutely contemptible and unforgivable, and that he took advantage of his position by being among our troops.

My speech will be brief. I want to ask a number of questions in no particular order. First, I am told that the Fleet Air Arm would prefer to have the Super Hornet maritime strike attack aircraft, which it could buy off the shelf, instead of the joint strike fighter. I would be glad if the Minister could let me know the position on that matter. Has that been or is that being considered, given the escalating costs of the JSF?

Secondly, I am anxious to know what the Army is doing about recruiting. How does the recruiting stand? Many regiments are having to go on operations with composite squadrons and companies; that, of course, is of great concern. The lack of manpower is leading to serious overstretch at a time when we are fighting in two different theatres.

Thirdly, will the Minister see what he can do to try to improve on the Ministry of Defence’s dismal performance in respect of telling the story of the astonishing achievements and activities of British troops on operations? The continual bleating about nobody knowing what the Army is doing on operations is entirely the fault of the structures to promote such stories. There is no reason on earth why well informed, well told stories that give away nothing, but enable people here to get some comprehension of the astonishing challenges and remarkable achievements of our troops, should not be told. It is incumbent on Ministers to review the situation and see what they can do to drive it forward. At the Ministry of Defence, in both military and civilian bureaucracies, there is a sort of leaden resolve to say no to everything. I urge the Minister to improve on that.

Fourthly, I should like to make the general point that now is no time to reorganise the head office of the Ministry of Defence, although I understand that that is to take place under the Cabinet Office changes. Doing
9 Oct 2007 : Column 223
such a thing is madness when we are operating at war in two theatres—one very, very demanding and the other just very demanding. It is folly to take our eye off the ball because of such a major change at the very top of the Ministry of Defence.

Next, I want to raise a question that I know my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who knows so much about such matters, will also raise. It is about the treatment of the Defence Export Services Organisation, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot wrote in an admirable letter to The Daily Telegraph, it is extraordinary that

Scrapping DESO is an act of bovine stupidity, engineered by some communist woman at the Treasury, I understand, who decided that it would be in the interests of the United Kingdom to do away with one of the most effective organisations in this country for promoting British commercial interests. When I was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, I worked alongside two DESO chief executives and I have only the highest admiration and regard for everyone in that organisation, which has done so much to raise this country’s defence export sales. Our defence products are admired all over the world and are a very important part of our commercial life.

Next, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) was right to say that the real increase in defence spending is about 1.5 per cent. year on year. It is futile for the Government to keep asking Conservative Members, “What would you do?” We are not in government: we will have to deal with such questions when we are in government, but military funding cannot remain at the current low level when we are fighting two wars. We are doing that on a peacetime budget, but Ministers must understand that the result is that there has been a split in the armed forces. I have never known such bitterness and inter-service rivalry as exists now in our armed forces. The three services are having to fight for the very poor assets that are available, and I believe that the chiefs must be feeling the strain very seriously. All that is happening at a time when we can least afford it.

I shall end with two brief points. The first is that we cannot fight the wars that we are fighting unless the money available to meet the here-and-now requirements of our forces is increased. For instance, we urgently need more helicopters. There is no argument about that, and I was delighted by the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday that, not before time, an order was to be placed for 140 Mastiff patrol vehicles.

In that regard, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on doing so much to bring home to colleagues in the House how serious is the problem of the lack of protection available to our soldiers. Some of the hazards that they face are very grave. The vehicles referred to yesterday by the Prime Minister should have been ordered at least 18 months ago and, although I am pleased that the order has been made, we cannot afford to put our entire future capability at risk. That means that we must pay for the wars that we fight in a realistic way.

9 Oct 2007 : Column 224

Finally, may I make a suggestion to the Minister? It is probably somewhat outside today’s discussion, but in my view it is essential that the next Chief of the Defence Staff is not chosen from among a group of nominees put forward by each service in a manner that, as it were, resembles Buggins’s turn. I believe that the next CDS should be chosen from the entire pool of four-star officers in all three services, as that would broaden the talent pool in a way that is very important in today’s armed forces.

6.53 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who speaks with inimitable knowledge, determination and commitment. His remarks stand in stark contrast to those of the Minister, who said that he had waited four years to speak. We might have had a more coherent presentation of the Government’s procurement policy if he had waited a little longer. He meandered through a sort of shopping list of what was being bought but, as the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) noted, without any sort of context.

I mention that because, when I speak in these debates, I normally launch straight into a series of points relating to the aerospace industry and to the BAE Systems plant at Wharton in my constituency. However, the importance of identifying the threats that face us and, therefore, what we should procure to deal with them was brought home to me when I spoke recently to officers from 2nd Battalion the Rifles. They had recently returned from Iraq, and they told me that what had struck them was the paucity of the basics.

For example, when those officers left Iraq, the tourniquets used by soldiers to treat field injuries had to be handed in, and they described how a man held a box for their collection. One officer told me that his body armour, sweaty after six months of brave service, also had to be handed in so that somebody else could use it. If equipment is to be handed on in that way—it is almost like hot-bedding—it is clear that something is wrong, and that there are serious pressures on some of the basics. When one speaks to brave soldiers who have faced sophisticated roadside bombs which might have emanated from countries such as Iran, one wonders why the Government have said nothing about the investment made in defence technologies aimed at dealing with that very real threat to our soldiers every hour of every day.

The debate will be the poorer for the lack of a wider context for the shopping list enunciated by the Minister, because we must be certain that we have got our procurement priorities right. The programmes are very long term, but the correct balance must be struck between the short-term interests of the infantry soldier on the ground and the longer-term strategic interests of force deployment and the ability to provide minute-by-minute air defence capability. The importance of that capability was demonstrated by the recent resumption of Russian military flights over the UK.

I turn to an article published in the October edition of the magazine Aerospace International . It said:

9 Oct 2007 : Column 225

All of a sudden, the sleeping giant that was the Soviet Union has been reincarnated by the arrival of petrochemical funding in Russia. It is worth looking at the sort of equipment produced there, as it includes the SU35—an aircraft that is not dissimilar to the joint strike fighter. The same article says that an element of commercialism is creeping into the Russian aerospace industry, which is using its export arm to develop markets for affordable but high-performance modern aircraft. Those markets include India, and one cannot but wonder what we might be up against if such equipment were to be deployed.

Mr. Hoyle: The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that India is looking for aerospace technology. In fact, it is already building the Hawk aircraft, and it is still building Jaguars. Britain is one of the countries in the fly-offs to provide the future needs of the Indian air force. Does he agree that hon. Members of all parties should do everything in their power to support BAE Systems’ Typhoon aircraft, and to ensure that India looks to BAE Systems for its future needs, rather than to Russia?

Mr. Jack: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes an excellent case for retaining DESO, as that organisation would be an ideal vehicle for such a sales pitch. I suggest that he reads the magazine article to which I have referred, as it will expand his understanding and education by demonstrating exactly what we are up against. We are in a highly competitive world, and it sends a shiver down my spine to discover that the Russian aerospace industry once again is trying to compete for the sort of business that we want to secure. In addition, the same article suggests that the Russians are trying to develop stealth capability.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hoyle: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way once more?

Mr. Jack: I will give way to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones).

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am very interested in what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, and I agree that the aerospace market is very competitive, given the threat posed by the former Soviet Union. However, does not that mean that the Government have to set priorities for where investment is made? I support what he has said about the Eurofighter, but I also recall that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is now sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, went to work as a promoter of the Soviet aircraft industry when he lost his seat in 1990.

Mr. Jack: My point is that, all of a sudden, a resurgent Russia has rejoined the competitive arena for aerospace contracts of a military nature. It is important that we do not forget that as we consider these matters. I want to move on now to some specific questions.

Mr. Hoyle: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

9 Oct 2007 : Column 226

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Jack: I will not give way, because time is against me and I want to proceed to ask some important questions on behalf of the aerospace workers in my constituency.

Naturally, I am delighted that Saudi Arabia has maintained its strong links with the United Kingdom, with the signing of the deal for 72 Eurofighter Typhoons. The Minister did not mention the closer working relationship between the Saudi Arabian and United Kingdom aerospace industries, not just on development of Typhoons but on other air systems and perhaps in other areas of mutual defence interest. I regard that as very important. My first question is whether, against a background still of Government silence on tranche 3 of the Eurofighter Typhoon, the 72 aircraft will be net extra to the project or a trade-off between those aircraft which the United Kingdom have already decided to buy within the envelope of an overall purchase of 232. There seems to be a great deal of speculation on exactly what is happening with the third tranche of the Eurofighter Typhoon. I accept that a final decision will not have to be taken for probably another 12 months, but it would be helpful if the Minister could say something about the process to determine just how many of those aircraft will be bought.

Reports in Jane’s Defence Weekly have indicated that all partners in the Eurofighter consortium have begun consultations on the implications for the project of reductions in the overall number of aircraft. Those remarks were given further currency by the Chief of the UK Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, when Jane’s reported that he told the magazine

Next Section Index Home Page