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19 Jun 2008 : Column 1143

My response to the right hon. Gentleman’s question was to have been my conclusion, but I shall give it early: we have to determine the defence budget based not just on what money is available but on the need. If the need is high, the budget has to be increased. Too many historical examples should persuade any people in the Ministry of Defence who have read history—I am sure that many of them have—that to do otherwise is profoundly unwise, because when they find out that they have made a mistake they will have retired and the consequences for the political and bureaucratic classes are potentially devastating. We have lived through enough historic failures to convince people that history cannot be thrown aside on graduation.

I strongly argue—I am not saying this just for the benefit of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) or because of his intervention—that a lot has been done to enhance procurement. I will not go into the arguments about defence expenditure collapsing under the Tories or the enormous expenditure dedicated by this Government, but we have now reached the point in terms of personnel and equipment where it is inadequate to take the stance that is being taken. If equipment is inadequate, lives are lost and wars can be lost. The Government are doing a pretty good job, but we are getting close to the point where someone in office will have to rattle the Treasury’s cage and say that the budget has fallen to such a level that if it continues to do so it will not just be undesirable but could have serious consequences.

Going back to my pro-Government mode, I should say that what emerged from the SDR was quite remarkable. We have seen smart procurement, smart acquisition, integrated project teams and the creation of all sorts of things—resource accounting and budgeting, public-private partnerships, private finance initiatives and partnering. The list goes on and on. Then we see the developments coming out of the EU—I will not spend much time on them—or NATO. There is defence industrial policy, on which we produced an excellent report in 2002, and then there is defence industrial strategy. The list of initiatives is a long one.

I have read the Defence Committee reports about new developments, stocktake, the Defence Procurement Agency forward teams and so on—there has been so much activity. However, I would want to see more evidence that endeavour, activity, research and so on had brought us close to solving the problems that have so far eluded Governments.

Jeremy Blackham, whom most of us know well, wrote an article for the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, about what he called the “wicked problems”—the almost insoluble problems that face all Governments. I fear that we have an enormous task to do before we achieve the equipment that we require.

Mr. Jenkins: I have listened with great interest to my right hon. Friend, who speaks with authority, and to his shopping list. Does he not think, as I have over the years, that when an item for procurement goes on to become very expensive and therefore unworkable and is axed, we should ask whether it was a need or a want? When it was axed, the world did not end and we just went on with the next project. Do we have too many projects of want rather than projects of need?

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Mr. George: That is a very fair question. If we intend to be a major part of the second rank, as we have been since 1970, and do not want to drop down to the lower divisions, we have to do something quite expensive about the quality of not only the personnel but the equipment. In fairness—I am being very fair to the Government—the Government fully support Trident, the joint strike fighter, Eurofighter, the carrier programme and so on. All the equipment must have come as a bit of shock to the Conservatives, who probably could not believe that a Labour Government would take such expensive and correct decisions, facing down those in their own party who are still hypercritical.

On the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre website, I saw a superb unclassified document called “The DCDC Global Strategic Trends Programme 2007-2036”—a modest remit to address. It is difficult to predict the future; probably Nostradamus was the best at it, but his sayings lacked the precision necessary to help a defence planner. Clearly, when the Treasury considers proposals put before it, it will try to gauge whether the equipment is affordable and desirable given the time frame involved. The report considers the endless range of issues, including climate change and globalisation, that could become security and military problems in the next 15 to 30 years. However, it hedges its bets.

Let us consider how dangerous the environment could be in future, given the long list of 20 potential problems. If we add to that the rise of potential new superpowers and the resumption of arms races, we find that we may face such a multitude of problems, requiring such a range of responses, that the costs will be prohibitively high. Will we be required to fight a war of survival—we were drifting into such a situation during the cold war—as well as having to deal with all the other issues involving our forces? I can only hope that those with greater experience and access are in a position to say, “These are the threats that we will face in five, 10, 15, 20 or 25 years.” Given how procurement proceeds in this country, we need to start thinking very seriously about the weaponry that we might need for 2025 or 2030.

There will be mistakes in procurement decisions; we will order weapon systems that are superfluous by the time that they can be deployed. The Government should be prepared to think carefully, spend money and look into the future with as much precision as possible. By 2010, 2015 or 2030, unless we have quality personnel and equipment, the country will find itself in a distinctly embarrassing situation.

3.22 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I welcome this opportunity for a regular debate on defence procurement, but like others I begin by paying tribute to the service personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. We have had a grim couple of weeks there, but that shows how important the fight is, and the battles must go on. I pay tribute to the Special Air Service members, and to Intelligence Officer Sarah Bryant, Corporal Sean Robert Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Paul Stout. Our thoughts are with their friends and families. We owe gratitude to them, and to everybody who continues to undertake the very dangerous work that is vital to our national interest.

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The security of the nation is the Government’s first responsibility, but it is clear that the nature of the task of securing our nation has changed, as new challenges and threats have emerged. In the 1998 strategic defence review, we rightly identified our priorities and how we would respond to the threats of that time, but events have changed a great deal, and rapidly, since then. We find ourselves in more wars of choice than we had anticipated, and we are more greatly involved—at a more sustained level—in operations in hostile areas than the assumptions of the 1998 review envisaged. We are involved in two sustained high-tempo operations, and we have additional commitments in the Balkans. Given our limited defence budget, our reliance on reserves to meet key immediate needs, and significant delays to some of the most important procurement projects—a subject already mentioned—we are obliged to ask serious questions about defence.

We need to ask about the future needs and challenges of our armed forces, how we can most effectively meet them in the next 20 years and beyond, and how we prepare for unforeseen threats that might arise during that period. Great plans for the future are of little comfort to the men and women who are on the front line today, but preparations that build on our current capabilities are absolutely vital. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, rightly stressed the need to strike a balance between our immediate needs in Afghanistan in particular and the reality, which we must keep in mind, that we cannot assume that, just because there is no immediate threat, we will not in the medium or long term find ourselves once again involved in state-on-state warfare.

Just as 25 years ago we were configured for the military needs of the cold war, and now we face mainly insurgency tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan, the future security environment might be founded on some very different considerations: climate change, migration, technological developments, population growth and resource scarcity, which the Government have already recognised. As I look at that uncertain future and consider the threats that we might face, ringing in my ears are the words of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who also speaks from the Conservative Front Bench. He will always paint a grisly picture of the threats that we could face from Russia, China—

Mr. Kevan Jones: Icebergs.

Nick Harvey: Not to mention the icebergs.

It is essential that we always keep such considerations in mind. However, were we to find ourselves involved in any hostilities with the likes of Russia or China, it would be quite beyond our capacity to hold them at bay on our own. Although we must be prepared for the possibility of such engagements, we can prepare only in concert with our military allies. It is not necessary or desirable for the United Kingdom to attempt to defend itself across a broad front entirely from our own resources. We must co-operate with our NATO and European allies to make better use of equipment and personnel. That may occasionally mean a greater willingness to buy off the shelf to meet short-term needs, and we must find ways of speeding up procurement in order to limit waste and inefficiency.

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For that reason, I, like others, have said several times in the Chamber that we clearly need another strategic defence review. I welcome the Government’s conduct of various small-scale reviews of certain aspects of defence policy, but it is now 10 years since we had a strategic defence review, and as I have said before, the Americans conduct one every four years. It is high time that we went through that exercise again. To take the point that was just made, it may be necessary for the Treasury to recognise the need for more resources, but frankly that could be done only off the back of another strategic defence review—not one whose aim from the outset was to reduce the defence budget, but one that examined our foreign policy needs and objectives and then began to build a defence capability that was in tune with, and responsive to, them.

The Ministry of Defence has set out in its defence plan its strategic objectives for the coming three years:

They are all worthy objectives, and they should apply at any stage, but I still believe that something more fundamental by way of a review is necessary.

Last year, the Defence Committee raised concerns about the MOD’s 20 biggest weapons projects, which are £2.6 billion over budget and a total of 36 years behind schedule. This month we learned that the Prime Minister has instructed defence chiefs to delay replacing old weapons, vehicles and aircraft in order to try to ease the £2 billion black hole, which looks set to be even bigger in a couple of years’ time. There is a debate to be had about the merits of salami-slicing or deciding that we have to review our commitments and what we are trying to do.

The hon. Member for Aldershot quoted from the White Paper, “Defence Industrial Strategy”, and said that it was necessary for us to have an “appropriate degree” of independent British defence industrial capability “to ensure operational independence”. He was right to identify the phrase and to quote from it. However, the key word is “appropriate”. There are sometimes points at which we may have gone too far in trying to defend the concept of independence. A great deal more could be done to ensure our capability to respond in the short term, as well as provide better value for money for our taxpayers, by giving a little ground on the concept of independence and being more willing to look around at what our allies are doing, so that what we are doing dovetails with that.

The hon. Member for Aldershot shuddered with horror at what President Sarkozy was reported as having said and suggested that the Government might be in a dialogue with him about the possibility of, as the hon. Gentleman put it, a time-share of our aircraft carriers. He took the point a bit far, although I would share his concern if that was really what was proposed.

However, whatever we do in future we will do in concert with our allies. If we are going to invest in such enormous things as aircraft carriers, as I believe we should, it is essential that we view them not only as British assets but as NATO assets that we share with our allies. It is entirely right and appropriate to have discussions with others about the exact use to which the aircraft carriers will be put and how we can co-operate on ensuring that maximum value is extracted from such
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a massive investment. We need to think about how we extract the best long-term value from undertaking a programme on that scale.

Mr. Jenkins: I thoroughly endorse the overall concept that we should work together closely with Europe. Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am that individual countries still want to maintain their independent sovereign operations? It is silly that we are all reinventing the wheel by producing our own arms for our own personal consumption to maintain employment in our own countries. It is much better done on a cross-European basis. However, if, for example, we were considering landing French planes on our aircraft carriers, we would realise that their carriers sometimes have completely different decks and the French planes would shoot across our decks and fall off the other end, as we do not have restraint barriers in place because we have vertical take-off and landing aircraft. That is the sort of difficulty that we have to struggle with.

Nick Harvey: I am certainly aware that the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the current French fleet operates on a completely different principle from the plans that we have for our own future aircraft carriers. That said, progress towards the building of our aircraft carriers seems so painfully slow that it may still be worth getting involved in some further dialogue about that. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. While I talk about the concept of sharing assets and ensuring that what we develop and what our allies develop are mutually compatible, there will also need to be technical considerations.

I recall attending a dinner two or three years ago at which Mr. Nick Witney, who was then chief executive of the European Defence Agency, reported that at that particular moment 14 different EU member states were designing new tanks. With the best will in the world, that is absolutely ludicrous. If the Americans hope, as I am sure they do, that in the long term Europe will shoulder a bit more of the burden and stand on its own two feet, there is no hope whatever of our doing so while idiocies of that sort are taking place. That is why we have to recognise in the longer term that the capabilities that we build up need to be co-ordinated as much as possible with those of our allies—the Americans, the Europeans and other allied countries around the world. General Sir Richard Dannatt said in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute last week:

I could not agree with him more. That is exactly the point I am trying to make.

There has been debate, and quite rightly, about vehicles in Afghanistan. I, too, have visited Afghanistan recently and talked to those on the front line about the issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and I heard, at first hand, from some of those who go out on patrols, who told us how unhappy they are about going out in their current vehicles. I entirely endorse the intervention made by the hon.
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Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). He put his finger on that point exactly, and said that, as a matter of urgency, we needed to get more reinforced vehicles in place. He specifically mentioned weapons-mounted-installation kit—WMIKs—and I should like to take up that point. The men were begging us to make it our key message when we got home: they rate WMIKs, they want more of them and they want them as fast as they can get them.

I applaud the Government’s decision to procure Mastiffs. The Secretary of State deserves great personal credit for that, and if the rumours that he is not going to hold his post for much longer are true, it will be one of his lasting legacies. I also welcome what the Minister for the Armed Forces said at the Dispatch Box about Ridgback. It has been said that we need different vehicles for different purposes, and that there is no single solution, which is absolutely right. Equally, we delude ourselves if we suggest that we can send people out on patrol in any one thing that is capable of withstanding all the hazards that they face. We continue to refer to things as improvised explosive devices, but the truth is that they are rather less improvised than they used to be. They are becoming more industrial in scale. WMIKs are essential because they are at the more mobile, versatile and nimble end of the spectrum.

I believe that I am correct in saying—I stand to be corrected if not—that the adaptation of WMIKs is being handled by a small company in Devon, the principal market of which is a marine one. It ill behoves me, of all people in this Chamber, to undermine the work of a small company in Devon, but—and perhaps this is an unfair observation—I cannot help contrasting what appears to be a lack of urgency on the part of the Government with previous policy. At the time of the Falklands war, the country’s defence industries were told as a matter of absolute priority that they had to do whatever was necessary, and that the Government would pick the bill up and sort it out later. While what Ministers say at the Dispatch Box is perfectly rational, we need to ramp up the scale of such procurement work to an altogether different level. I dearly hope that the company in Devon is capable of doing what needs to be done, but if not, someone else needs to be brought in.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on one point. The WMIKs are not being built by Supacat, which is a company based at Dunkeswell, the managing director of which happens to be the nephew of my former secretary—so I know a bit about it. It is building the Jackal, which, as the hon. Gentleman will have heard from the Minister, is performing superbly and is a fantastic bit of kit. Supacat is not involved in the WMIK programme.

Nick Harvey: I am reassured by the hon. Gentleman. I said that I stood to be corrected; he has taken the opportunity to do so, and I am grateful to him. All I can say is that that was the impression of the men on the front line. I do not know whether it will be possible for me to track individuals down and put them right, but that was their impression.

Linda Gilroy: There may be some confusion about the Supacat vehicle, about which the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) knows in detail. It is, in fact,
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the result of an alliance between a small company in Devon, I think of ex-marines, that invented that agile vehicle, and Babcock, which operates the production line. It was an urgent operational requirement, and it is rolling off the production line at the rate of one a week. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be very welcome to visit.

Nick Harvey: I am very pleased to hear that. Perhaps I have been unfair in suggesting that there has been a lack of urgency. If they are coming off the production line at the rate of one a week, that is certainly good news. However, three or four weeks ago I was told at first hand by the guys going out on patrol that they urgently needed more of them. It is clear that casualties could have been avoided if people had not been going out in inappropriately light vehicles. I was at Headley Court last week and talked to a chap who had lost one leg and whose other was in a pretty bad state, and that was exactly the story that he told me.

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the dismay of many people in the squadron that is replacing the one that recently suffered casualties in inappropriate vehicles.

Nick Harvey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which adds to my point. I was reporting the opinion that I had picked up on the front line, and other people will back up what I am saying.

I know that the Government are always keen to highlight the fact that we have had a decade of sustained growth in defence spending. That is correct in purely arithmetical terms, but it ignores the true cost of defence inflation. As we know, that runs way ahead of the retail prices index. We have had a succession of procurement disasters, and they have not been unique in the past decade. We have an appalling history of procurement mishaps over several decades, such as Eurofighter, Nimrod, the Chinook embarrassment that we have heard about today and even, frankly, the A400M. Things have invariably taken far longer than they should have, cost far more and ended up being supplied in smaller quantities than had been imagined.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s point that defence inflation runs far ahead of the RPI. That is my impression and it is what many people frequently say, but every time I or anybody else I know of has tried to pin down the exact evidence of it, it has been rather difficult to establish. Does the hon. Gentleman have any better evidence than we have been able to discover?

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