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I hope that the Minister can clarify an issue for me in this debate, or subsequently by letter; I am not clear about it at the moment. Does the requirement to conduct the programme under EC regulations stem from an assessment by the Ministry of Defence that the vessels are outside the scope of war-like equipments
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that can be exempted from the EU procurement process under article 296 of the treaties that established the European Union?

In the past, we have argued that, in some circumstances, vessels should be designated “grey ships” and therefore not have to go down the open procurement route. Given what the specification for the ships is likely to be, it is my view that they clearly fall under that exemption and that the MOD is therefore not required to go for open procurement. As I understand it, the range of military capabilities and standards detailed in article 296 is substantial. There is a classification against Lloyd’s register naval ship rules, rather than merchant ship rules. There is a specification about naval helicopter operating, support and maintenance facilities and one in respect of secure military communications systems, which will be in the contract. There will also have to be naval-replenishment-at-sea equipment, and firefighting and security arrangements that exceed merchant navy practice. Similarly, there will have to be manoeuvring, stability and sea-keeping requirements in excess of merchant standards.

All that makes me believe that it is not necessary for the MOD to go to European open procurement. Also involved will be the ability to transit out of nuclear, biological and chemical contamination areas, having survivability, vulnerability and shock standards in excess of commercial standards and having operating patterns with warships. Such patterns would inevitably put the vessels in harm’s way.

In such circumstances, how can the MOD say that those are not military ships and are eligible to be put out for open procurement? I want the Minister to be clear about whether the MOD has thought through what the consequences of such open ordering might be. If the prime contract were won by a foreign supplier, it is entirely likely that that supplier would use its own supply chain. That would cut directly across the MOD programme to develop British supply chains in shipbuilding and elsewhere. I find it difficult to believe that the MOD would draw up a specification that gave the prime contracting role to a foreign supplier, yet not allow that supplier to choose its own sub-suppliers. If the supply chain were dictated from the United Kingdom, that would be a recipe for chaos, with a different prime supplier not using its normal supply routes. I hope that the Ministry of Defence and the Minister will consider the whole issue again.

Finally, on behalf of the trade union movement in the yards of my constituency and elsewhere, I pay tribute to the excellent work that Lord Drayson has done. He has established a relationship with the trade unions far better than those of many of his predecessors, largely because he has been consistently open and straightforward with them. They genuinely believe that they can trust him; it has to be said that they are not always happy with what he tells them, but they have always accepted that he is simply giving it to them straight. Similarly, I have found him to be somebody with whom it is a pleasure to deal. As many Members know, when it comes to reform of the House of Lords, I am in favour of the “one Lord, one lamp post” solution. However, I want it made clear that that would not all happen simultaneously and would be done in tranches. Lord Drayson would certainly be towards the end of that queue.

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I hope that the Minister will be able to give me satisfaction on the points that I have made, if not today, then subsequently in writing.

8.59 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): This has been a very interesting debate, with contributions from nine regulars. Seven of them were Opposition Members, and the two from the Government Benches comprised one turncoat and one reservist—the latter being the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), who has just spoken. I pay him a warm tribute for the support that he has given to the defence industry, especially shipbuilding. At the risk of damaging his prospects at the next election, I can tell him that I strongly support his line on the euro, a subject about which he and I have privately made common cause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) was right to say that the House should be packed for a debate such as this, as it deals with matters that are vital for all our constituents and for everyone in these islands. It is very disappointing that, although my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence was able to attend, the Secretary of State himself unfortunately was not. I presume that the right hon. Gentleman was attending to a greater priority—that is, looking after the threat posed to Scotland by the Scottish National party.

Mr. Davidson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth: I will, as this may be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to save his seat by putting some clear blue water between himself and me.

Mr. Davidson: I should regret it very much if this has not been made clear already, but my understanding is that the Secretary of State for Defence is attending another engagement, at which the Army is to receive an award. He thought that that was especially significant, and that is why he was unable to attend the debate.

Mr. Howarth: I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing an explanation that was not forthcoming hitherto. Obviously, all of us face enormous calls on our time, and there are always competing claims, but this Prime Minister has said that the House of Commons is the top priority, and it is disappointing that the Secretary of State was not able to be here.

The time available to me is rather longer than I had anticipated—and I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will chastise me if I stray—but I shall run through some of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that the procurement programme was likely to move to the right, and I think that he was correct to do so. He also made common cause with my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State that greater transparency for Parliament would improve the quality of scrutiny. That theme was evident throughout the debate, and I hope that Ministers will take it on board and see what more can be done to provide the House with greater insight into what goes
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on—although I am conscious that the National Audit Office and the Defence Select Committee perform a valuable function for all Members of the House, irrespective of party.

The hon. Member for North Devon also referred to the need for a defence review. I hope that he has read that it is part of our programme that we would hold such a review every five years. The way in which the situation around the world has changed makes holding a regular review of our defence posture something that the House should consider very seriously. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we will also be calling it to the attention of our friends and colleagues that the Liberal Democrats have called for a windfall tax on the defence companies. I am sure that they will be interested to hear about that policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made one of his characteristically spirited contributions, for which I am the first to salute him. I have served as his deputy in the House, and he is a wonderful man to work for. No one has the interests of the armed services closer to his heart than he—and, my goodness, this House knows that he has a very big heart. He made a number of very good points, especially about the under-reporting of the positive achievements of our armed forces on operations. Something that is gaining common ground on both sides of the Chamber is that members of the armed forces often complain, when we visit them in theatre, that the media do not report the positive things that they are doing. They want to know why that happens, and they will say so even when the media are there with them. The media need to look to their own responsibilities not only to the wider British public but to the armed forces themselves.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, like several of my hon. Friends, mentioned the Defence Export Services Organisation. I thought that his description of scrapping it as “bovine stupidity, engineered by some communist woman at the Treasury” was wonderfully politically incorrect, and I endorse it. It was magnificent, and typical of his robust language. I shall come back to DESO in a moment.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) is a doughty advocate for aerospace in his constituency—not exclusively for BAE Systems, but it has its military aircraft headquarters in his constituency. It is an extremely critical component in Britain’s defence capability, and we should pay tribute to it. We should pay tribute to all Britain’s defence companies, whether large or small, for the incredible job that they do. We are a small country. We are a fifth of the size of the United States yet, as several of my hon. Friends have pointed out, we are the second largest exporter of defence equipment in the world. We owe that to the professionalism and innovation of our scientists and engineers. Far from decrying them, I pay them the warmest possible tribute. We should acknowledge that not only do they respond swiftly and agilely to demands for upgrading of equipment in theatre, but they have people pretty near the front line, and we should pay tribute to them for that.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of unmanned aerial vehicles. Work is going on at Warton, some of which I have seen. It is an extremely interesting area of development which we should
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encourage and in which Britain has a world-class leading role to play. I strongly support my right hon. Friend when he says that the United Kingdom must continue to be at the forefront of technology. That is something on which we are in accord with the Government, especially with the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, who has made the point that we will not be a sovereign nation if we cannot autonomously operate our own kit—a point to which I shall come back later.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is a doughty campaigner for her constituency. We all share her delight that the naval base review rightly decided, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said at the outset, that there was no case for the closure of any base. I am delighted that that has happened. The Supacat vehicle, which is a superb vehicle, was on display at the defence systems and equipment international exhibition. It is made by an excellent company called Supacat down in Devon. Its managing director is my secretary’s nephew and I have visited it a couple of times. I give it a plug because it is a jolly good company. It is a small British company doing a splendid job, and it is not just the big boys that we need to be concerned about.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), in a feisty speech, paid tribute to his regiment, the Light Dragoons. I have to say that he was slightly modest. I have no doubt that if he were serving today, he would display every bit as much courage and determination as those who are currently serving in the uniform that he was once proud to wear. He has indeed demonstrated some extraordinary politically courageous skills, which perhaps I will not go into any further today, save to say that his military career and bearing have provided the House with some valuable expertise.

My hon. Friend was right about the CVRT, although it has been upgraded. The upgrade is an interesting one. I have seen it for myself. It illustrates the point that we have to build new equipment that will be in service for a long time and therefore requires the ability right from the outset to be upgraded and adapted for the different conditions that we face today.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the disgraceful delay in the future rapid effect system programme. He drew attention to the fact that General Sir Mike Jackson had said that it had to be in service by 2009 and is now not likely to be in service until we do not know when. He drew attention to the fascinating exchange in the Defence Committee between the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and Sir Peter Spencer. Of course, that exchange led to the decision by the Ministry of Defence to remove any requirement on the part of the Government to give in-service dates, largely because they were completely incapable of meeting in-service dates. So it was better not to tell the House of Commons or the public the likely in-service dates, otherwise they might have to meet them.

Mr. Blunt: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. In-service dates are an issue. The Light Dragoons are under the rather fond illusion that the scout variant of FRES will be in service sometime around 2013 or 2014, but since the utility variant is coming in first and the systems house estimates that
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that will happen in 2017, someone better tell the Army—the people who will use it—just exactly when that equipment can be expected to come into service.

Mr. Howarth: That is a very good point. Ministers will have heard it, and I hope that they will give the House an answer.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) referred to the absence of the Scottish National party from the debate. That was noted by all sides. He also referred to the need for the aircraft carriers, which we endorse.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said that if he were Prime Minister he would double the defence budget, and I look forward to serving under his premiership in those circumstances. I remind him that, in an opinion poll conducted in October last year and published in The Daily Telegraph, when asked whether we should spend more or less on defence, 46 per cent. of the public said that we should spend more and 22 per cent. said that we should spend less. The House can make up its own mind on that. My hon. Friend said that 90 per cent. of trade is seaborne and therefore that there is a need to protect our trade routes, and he is absolutely right.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth: No, emphatically not.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) suggested in his slightly idiosyncratic and sometimes slightly bizarre contribution that the whole thing was a conspiracy by a number of defence companies. He probably thinks that I have sold my soul to them, but I represent Farnborough, where the headquarters of BAE Systems is based, and although Lady Thatcher used to say to me, “I hope BAE is still paying you”, I have never received a penny piece from BAE in my life.

My hon. Friend did himself something of a disservice in suggesting that those of us who believe passionately in a strong British defence industry are somehow in hock to those companies, for that was the general purport of what he said, although he had some positive points to make. It is important to BAE to have a strong home base, which has enabled it to become such an effective force in the United States. Without that home base here, it would not have been able to achieve what it has achieved in the United States. His suggestion that we should simply buy off the shelf was effectively refuted by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace). We would very soon cease to be partners; we would become supplicants. We would get inferior kit at an increased price, and that must be borne in mind.

I am bound to say on behalf of Sir Neil Thorne that the idea that the armed forces parliamentary scheme is supported by BAE, Rolls-Royce and one or two others to enable them to secure contracts is extremely unworthy of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich, and he should think very carefully before making such an accusation in the House.

I am delighted that the reception organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon)
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for the Royal Engineers went so well. In the same vein, having been instrumental in persuading Rushmoor borough council to put up some fantastic 20 ft banners in Aldershot a couple of weeks ago that said, “Aldershot welcomes home the Grenadier Guards”, I should like to see what he has done in Newbury and to tell the House that Aldershot Town football club has tonight opened its doors to the Grenadier Guards and others who have recently returned from operations and invited them to the game against Ebbsfleet—a game that I am sure everyone will rush to watch on the television, as soon as the debate is over—and they are being welcomed in free. That should be done much more often across the country. I will return to the subject of the Defence Export Services Organisation, because my hon. Friend made some important points.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, like so many of my hon. Friends, brings real expertise to the House. He is not the product of some sort of party political research organisation and the hothouse of politics. As well, of course, as his distinguished record of service in the military, he has been on the front line, fighting for British interests commercially. He made an extremely important speech. I was pleased to be in Washington with him earlier in the summer, where on a cross-party basis with a number of Labour Members we tried to persuade the Americans that our not getting access to the technology for the joint strike fighter would be a potential show-stopper. We must be able to operate that aircraft autonomously. He was right to mention the defence treaty; I hope that the Under-Secretary will refer to that in his winding-up speech, and tell us when it will come before the House.

Equipment is as important to soldiers, sailors and airmen as pay and accommodation. Why would they feel valued and why should they put their life on the line if those in charge of policy fail to give them proper and sufficient equipment to do the job? The Minister for the Armed Forces listed new projects that have recently been delivered or ordered, and we welcome them, not least the Supacat, which I mentioned, and the Mastiff, which I have seen in operation in theatre, and which is unquestionably a splendid piece of equipment, although it should have been in service much sooner. However, that is the least that should be expected of a Government who have decided to embark on two major military operations simultaneously, exceeding the planning assumptions set out in their strategic defence review of 1998.

As the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), said in 2003,

As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring said, we are talking about the Government’s position, and their planning assumptions. They knowingly exceeded their planning assumptions by a substantial margin.

The tempo of operations has meant that through-life cost calculations have been shot to pieces, as kit has been utilised at a far higher rate than expected. There is a shortage of helicopters and of other equipment—
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shortages to which hon. Friends have drawn attention. The RAF continues to operate old transport aircraft that the Government intend to replace by means of one of the most absurd procurement private finance initiatives yet invented. It is scandalous that the Royal Air Force is no nearer to getting its hands on the future strategic tanker aircraft than it was two and a half years ago, yet the first aircraft was due to be in service this year. The Australians, having straightforwardly purchased the same aeroplane, have theirs in operation today.

So what has happened? A pattern has developed whereby senior military officers move almost seamlessly from Whitehall to the television studios or—still, thankfully—to the other place to denounce the policies of successive Labour Ministers. Distinguished and experienced officers—Field Marshal Inge, General Guthrie, Admiral Boyce, General Ramsbotham and now General Jackson—have all warned that the armed forces are being short-changed by Labour. Increasingly, such is their frustration that serving officers are forced to speak out. The Chief of the Defence Staff told the Defence Committee that there was

Brigadier Levey from Land Command said in May that “the cupboard is bare”. When Sir Alan West, the Government’s security Minister, was First Sea Lord, he said in response to Government plans to reduce the Royal Navy’s surface fleet to 25:

The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, said that vital equipment was being used

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