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and that

Was the Chief of the Air Staff speaking correctly when he gave that interview to the journalist?

It would equally be helpful to know what processes were involved in determining the specification of the tranche 3 aircraft. Some strange stories are doing the rounds: that somehow tranche 1 aircraft will be exchanged for tranche 3 in a refurbished form; that tranche 3 will be a more sophisticated version; or that tranche 2 will be upgraded. Confusion reigns. It would be helpful if we had some indication of what is going on. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and I have on a number of occasions pursued the Government’s attitude to a marinised version of Eurofighter Typhoon.

Another major defence project that the Minister fails to go into in any detail is the joint strike fighter. British Aerospace is delighted to have a 10 per cent. work share of the project, but coming from the United States are some concerning stories not just about cost overruns and time delays, which one accepts as par for the course on such a complex project, but about operational failures of the short take-off and vertical landing aircraft, which would effectively be the carrier-borne choice of the United Kingdom Government at the moment.

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The Minister was also silent on whether the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, Lord Drayson, had seen any signs of the information and technology exchange that should underpin whether we buy any of those aircraft. Lord Drayson made it clear that there was a plan B if the United States did not tangibly open the books to the United Kingdom aerospace industry and the United Kingdom Air Force on an equal basis and share that technology. What progress has been made? Have there been any tangible signs? If not, why not? If not, what does the Minister intend to do about the decisions that ultimately have to be taken about which aircraft are to be deployed on the carrier?

Again, stories are swirling around—are we to have some joint strike fighters and some Eurofighter Typhoons? I do not know. I should be grateful if the Minister was kind enough to clarify precisely what the situation will be.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): He does not know either.

Mr. Jack: Perhaps not, but the purpose of the debate is to find out answers to some of these important questions. It is great to see BAE Systems recruiting 1,000 people this year and 1,000 next year of the right skills mix, but those people want to know whether they have a long-term future in the industry and they want answers to these questions, particularly against a background of press reports. A final assembly and check-out facility has been agreed for joint strike fighter with the Italians, when the Government said in the Rand Europe report that they were considering it. Again, they have gone quiet on that.

As for conventional aircraft, perhaps the Minister could say something about the state of play for Nimrod. The Government announced about a year ago that they were talking about purchasing up to 12 MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft. Certainly, test flying has shown that its capability is much admired, not just in this country but by competitors. However, the Government are vacillating over the three prototype aircraft, notwithstanding the nine that I hope they will buy. The Minister should bear in mind the growing importance of long-range maritime patrol and land-based patrol aircraft. The Nimrod is an ideal solution to both those challenges, and it would be useful to know precisely the Government’s position on these matters.

The Minister glossed over the question of unmanned air vehicles. He seemed surprised when I asked him about the operational capabilities of the HERTI aircraft, which has been deployed in Afghanistan. The Government have, in fairness, provided some £50 million for a demonstrator project from BAE Systems—the Taranis project. I am delighted to hear that, but it would be helpful to know from the Minister some more about the time scale for that project, and whether the demonstrator will lead to more interest in different types of unmanned air vehicles. Without doubt, when one comes to look to the future, it will be important to strike the right balance between manned and unmanned air vehicles in facing the threats before us.

I started by talking about what was happening in the Russian aerospace industry. One of the concerning points in the defence industrial strategy was a clear statement that for the foreseeable future—the next 20
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or 30 years—the United Kingdom Government could not see their way to being involved in any more fast jet project development. Given that competitors are now enhancing their technological capability, perhaps the Minister can say whether the Government plan to review that very definite statement in order to make certain that we do not fall behind in our technological capability.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) mentioned the lack of specificity by the Government about the sovereign technologies that we need. The reason why we are involved in joint strike fighter is that short take-off and vertical landing capability and our manufacturing capability were the jewels in the aerospace crown that were put on the joint strike fighter table. If we are not involved in major projects in the future, the United Kingdom will develop its technologies, but on a jobbing shop basis. We will no longer be absolutely at the forefront of technological and material development. I should like to hear some reassurance from the Minister that the Government regard in the same way as they do our nuclear capability, our shipbuilding capability and our encryption capability, the capability to be at the forefront of aviation technology. Without those skills, given the importance of air power to meet a range of threats, we will flip backwards and become dependent on other people’s technology at a time when we need sovereign capability.

7.9 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I begin with an apology, or rather an explanation, to those on the Opposition Front Bench. It was no discourtesy that I was absent during the Opposition’s opening speech, but defence debates often take place on days when the Select Committee on Defence has commitments. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) and I were attending a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), to consider an issue that strikes a particularly important chord with all Members who represent defence constituencies: the arrangements for coroners’ courts and inquests following the repatriation of bodies from theatres abroad. I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury, who may well speak about such matters a little later in the debate—I will leave that to him—on his diligent campaign to bring these matters to the attention of the appropriate Ministers.

When I last spoke in a defence debate, at the end of April, I concluded by saying that I looked forward to some important procurement matters moving forward in the months ahead, and indeed they have. I make no apology for concentrating on local issues, where we are experiencing a very fast pace of change.

Locally, the MOD has agreed to Babcock’s purchase of DML, which operates our local dockyard, and it has been cleared by the Competition Commission. The terms of business agreements are being cleared: the dotting of the i’s and crossing of the t’s on the important contract arrangements for the nuclear facility and the Trident contract—an important part of which we operate at Devonport—as well as major contracts to refurbish the Vanguard class submarines. The new owner has been broadly, if somewhat cautiously—as is our way in Plymouth—welcomed. A British company is involved, rather than the rather distant American ownership that
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we previously experienced. Babcock has formed Babcock Marine, the headquarters of which will be based in Plymouth. We look forward to working with the company, and we hope that, having acquired the significant additional base of Devonport, it will be able to use the new arrangements as a springboard to become a major marine defence company in the United Kingdom.

The dockyard and the naval base activities are closely linked, and we were very pleased with the outcome of the review, which found a role for all three bases. The Minister and members of the Defence Committee are certainly familiar with the peaks and troughs of submarine maintenance work in Plymouth. The investment of £150 million in the nuclear infrastructure to meet, quite rightly, the ever more stringent safety case and to enable those involved to undertake decommissioning work on the older classes of submarine was also very welcome and certainly answered some of the great concerns that we have expressed over recent years. Nevertheless, there will still be some challenges for the new company. The base porting of ships at Devonport remains a very important issue, on which we hope to get some clarification in the near future. If there is one issue on which the Minister’s clarification would be appreciated, it is that there will be no further haemorrhaging of Devonport’s role as a base port for ships in service.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces visited Plymouth last week. From discussions that I and the other Plymouth MPs—my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter)—had with him, I know that he is familiar with those arguments and, indeed, will meet all three of us again tomorrow to continue the discussion. From his participation in the Thursday war, I am sure that he will have seen for himself that there is far less congestion in Plymouth than there is in the busy Portsmouth facilities. Nevertheless, we have the capacity to offer significant savings to the naval base review budget, especially through the innovative land release model that is under discussion.

In his statement on the naval base review, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence told the hon. Member for South-West Devon that there would be no further salami slicing of naval base activities and issues. As chair of the strategy group that has been looking at the work load issues, the change in ownership and the naval base review since December 2005, I want to tell my hon. Friend the Minister how important we consider it to be to conclude the work that we began during the naval base review and to state clearly the comparative socio-economic impacts of a reduction in activities at the different naval bases on the savings that will need to be made.

Before leaving local issues, I want to mention two matters to do with filling those important troughs and helping us to maintain the skills base at Devonport. First, the recent £30 million work package for HMS Ocean is certainly welcome, although of course we look forward to more of the allocated non-competitive work load coming our way. We have also become used to filling those troughs with luxury yacht work. I think that a keel was laid at Appledore in north Devon only yesterday morning—something that will be very welcome
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to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey)—and rail rolling stock is also being refurbished.

We were all a little taken aback in Plymouth recently by the £30 million contract to build new military vehicles, which my right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned in his opening speech. That will take a little bit of getting used to in Plymouth, which has been so strongly identified as a naval port for many years, but we hope that it heralds further contracts coming Devonport’s way from that very big—I think that it is worth £16 billion—programme of FRES vehicles, albeit perhaps not all of it. That would be a little greedy, but if we can perform with the skill for which the Devonport work force are so well known and deliver value for money, on time and to the right quality, Plymouth might well become known for that in future years—as well as for its very strong association with naval matters.

In the last defence debate, I spoke about increased investment in Defence Estates and single living accommodation, including Project Armada in Devonport, and improvements to service family properties. Since then, the Defence Committee has produced a report on the issue, and as part of our ongoing work we will look closely at the Government’s response to the serious issues about the pace of change that we raised in our report. The investment announced in the Chancellor’s statement earlier today is very welcome, but it is clear from our report that change and investment are greatly needed if we are to achieve the standard of accommodation that we would wish for all our service families within the foreseeable future.

A number of hon. Members mentioned helicopters. The new Merlins were mentioned in a recent press report, and we were told earlier this year that they would be available within a year. Lord Drayson visited those involved with the helicopters, which we hope will soon be available. As other hon. Members said, we need to make much more progress on helicopters.

I am sure that progress at strategic level will form a significant part of the Defence Committee’s ongoing work in the current and forthcoming Sessions. We will consider the lessons of the urgent operational requirements, particularly in respect of the defence industrial strategy. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) expressed concern about whether the priorities were being configured correctly. I am not sure how welcome he would have found the remarks that the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, made in his speech to the Royal United Services Institute in September. The key points that he attempted to lay before us, which will no doubt preoccupy us as we approach the forthcoming defence industrial strategy, is that basic equipment procurement has suffered as the UK has focused on the acquisition of advanced technologies, and that, as we heard in the Minister’s opening remarks, the urgent operational requirements process, on which we now spend £2 billion, has been instrumental in developing forces and their equipment.

General Sir Richard Dannatt made some very strong points in that speech, which I commend to all Members who follow defence issues closely and who have not yet picked up on it. It is in the very good briefing that the Library produced for this debate. He would like us to spend more money on getting things right at the very lowest levels. He talked at considerable length about
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the great improvements that have been made, and not only in respect of the Mastiff vehicles. He particularly referred to the role of dismounted close-combat units. He compared the infantry unit of two years ago to one of today, and said that people

We must be careful, in our comments about deficiencies—which, no doubt, are there—to bear it in mind that things are changing very fast, particularly with the significant investment that is being made in urgent operational requirements in response to what people on the ground find necessary.

We are experiencing continuous change in the culture of researching and developing new equipment, but there are also ongoing, major procurement changes to the partnership between industry and Government. The Select Committee will shortly return to consider the progress that has been made since the first defence industrial strategy, which of our recommendations have been taken up, the need to invest substantially in research and development if we are to keep ahead and are to be in the right place in 20 years’ time, and the issue of the small and medium-sized enterprises that the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned. I notice that Christianne Tipping of the Royal United Services Institute, who comments on such matters, says that she is unsure whether that issue is being followed up in the way that we on the Defence Committee would expect, and that the second defence industrial strategy might well suggest that that role needs to be formalised.

To conclude, I should like to say how much we welcome the work that Lord Drayson has done, and to welcome, as others have, the fact that he is still in post. Decisions are still being made, not only about up-front acquisition costs but about through-life cost, and that is one of the most difficult areas of defence procurement to take on. It has been said that it will take a brave individual to follow that through to its conclusion, but I hope that we on the Defence Committee can support those who are trying to do that.

7.23 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). I hope that she will regard it as a significant compliment when I say that the way in which she represents her constituents’ case reminds me very much of our late colleague Rachel Squire, who represented another port. I see that her successor, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East is here— [Interruption.] I am sorry, I meant the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie); he is testament to the electoral benefits that can come about when the Prime Minister assists one’s opponent in an electoral campaign. That, I think, was at the time when the hon. Gentleman’s party was formally leaderless.

The debate is extremely timely for me; the battlegroup of my old regiment, the Light Dragoons, has just returned from Afghanistan. I will briefly speak about it, and my remarks on procurement will focus first on the equipment that it currently uses, and then on the equipment that it is supposed to have at some time in the future, which will be drawn from FRES—the future rapid effect system programme.

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I served in the Army for nearly 12 years, and it is humbling for me to talk to colleagues who remained in the Army. I served between 1979 and 1990. The wounds that I got were nearly always the result of being on the wrong end of a cricket ball; it was a rather different age from the one that my former colleagues are now living through in the Army. Indeed, I had to become a special adviser, and then a politician, to find people firing in my general direction. It is humbling to talk to my former colleagues, given what they have just gone through in six months.

I want to place on record my tribute to Lieutenant-Colonel Angus Watson, who has just brought the Light Dragoons battlegroup back. One of its squadrons, B Squadron, has just over 24 hours left in theatre on operations before it comes back. So far, the Light Dragoons have managed to get through without sustaining a fatality. That in itself is a great achievement. As I have family in the United States army who are serving in Baghdad and in Afghanistan, I know about the thoughts and prayers of everyone who is waiting for their loved ones to come home, and about the anxiety that families go through when their loved ones are deployed on operations. Tragically, Colonel Watson’s battle group had six fatalities among members of the other sub-units that were part of his battle group. That is part of the pattern of operations, and it shows the intensity of the operations that we are now dealing with in Afghanistan.

We should reflect on the quite remarkable achievements of our young men and women on operations; in the case of the Light Dragoons, we are talking about young men. The Playstation generation is doing our country proud. They are 18, 19 and 20-year-old young men, and the calm, unassuming and humane way in which they have conducted themselves while on operations in Afghanistan is a great tribute to them—a tribute that belies their age, and the expectations that even their parents had when their sons went into training with the Army. It is a remarkable achievement. In six months, B Squadron of the Light Dragoons has had 40 contacts with the enemy, and they range from 30 minutes to seven hours in contact with the enemy, including a full replenishment of ammunition in contact. One or two of my hon. Friends who have served in the Army, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), will have some idea of what that means. What we have expected of them is remarkable.

I am delighted that Breckland district council decided, before the request came from the chief of general staff, to invite the Light Dragoons to parade in a month’s time. That small gesture from a local authority means a great deal to the regiments coming home; it shows that their contribution has been recognised.

We should not confuse our admiration for the magnificent way in which our young soldiers are carrying out their duties with a consideration of the wider merits of their task. It remains our duty constantly to assess whether the task that they are doing collectively on behalf of the United Kingdom serves British interests, and wider western liberal democratic national interests. That is a matter that we must constantly keep under review, and we should never confuse the fact that our soldiers are performing magnificently with the fact that what they are being asked to do might not be wholly helpful to our wider objectives.

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