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Nick Harvey: My premise is the testimony of various witnesses who have appeared in front of the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee. If he has been unable to pin them down any more specifically at first hand, I fear that I have not been able to at second hand. Whatever the cause of the perception that defence inflation runs faster than the RPI—I would hesitate to hazard a guess—the evidence seems to be the fact that every procurement project ends up costing far more than was originally envisaged. That is rather like every significant, big public infrastructure project, of which the 2012 Olympics seems a current example. I take the right hon.
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Gentleman’s point that the assertion is perhaps bandied about without any empirical evidence or data to back it up, but it seems to be essentially true.

I have made visits to various companies, including QinetiQ, BMT Defence Services in Bath and others that are at the pioneering, research end of the process, and it is clear that some interesting ideas are being developed. In some cases, those companies have to proceed at their own risk, because the clunking way in which we procure things means that there is no market as yet and no public money available for them.

I listened to the Government slipping out the announcement that the number of Type 45s would stop at six. We greatly missed the presence of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). Although the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is a fine man and a great champion of RAF, did his best in absentia, he could not quite match the explosion that we would have heard from the hon. Member for New Forest, East.

I am not convinced that the Government have made the wrong decision. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) intervened to make the point, quite rightly, that no matter what the Type 45’s capabilities are, it cannot be in two places at once, and pointed to the general principle that there is a danger of running down the number of vessels in the Royal Navy fleet. I confess that I agree with the Conservative critique, but I am more sceptical about the idea that the vessels have to be Type 45 destroyers. The key question is whether two aircraft carriers can be defended with six destroyers. That, rather than any industrial consideration, should be the basis on which we judge whether the decision was right.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): May I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister for arriving two or three minutes after he started? I seem to remember that the SDR originally envisaged 12 Type 45s. That was because at any one time there will be a number of ships in refit and a number on their way to, or returning from and recovering from, operations. Having only six Type 45s means a maximum of perhaps three deployable ships at any one time. That is a very limited capability, compared with what was originally envisaged.

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. I am sure that we will continue to debate the issue. Having slipped the announcement out today, the Government will have to come back and discuss it in more detail on future occasions.

I have made it clear that I agree very much with the procurement of the two aircraft carriers, which was essential to the logic of the 1998 SDR and remains an essential plank of our future defence capability. If we are to retain the ability to intervene in different parts of the world, on different bases and at different times, having two aircraft carriers will be essential to the flexibility that we will need to do so.

However, I confess that I remain slightly mystified about what exactly is going to fly off those aircraft carriers. Although it is quite difficult to pin down when those carriers will come into service, it is nevertheless quite worrying that the joint strike fighter, which was generally assumed to be the aircraft that we would fly
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off them, is falling further and further behind schedule. The chief operating support officer for equipment at the Ministry of Defence has stated that the first carrier, when launched, will not operate a full complement of JSFs, as had been thought, and quite right he is, too. The US Government have reported that the project is over budget by $38 billion and that the time scale is slipping, too. The proposal is that the UK will take a second type of JSF, with vertical take-off, but that must, to a considerable degree, be sitting in second place in the US Government’s order of priorities. We have more difficulties ahead of us on that.

Another concern is helicopters. I am sure that the Minister will agree that upgrading and sustaining our helicopter fleet must be a key priority, not just for future capability, but for current operations.

I was delighted, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), when the Department signed the contract for 70 much-needed future Lynx helicopters in 2006, and entered into the first crucial partnering agreement. The existing Lynx aircraft are almost time-expired, and it is clear that the new ones are urgently needed. Lynx is a much respected military asset that has served with distinction, but the Minister will be aware that there is speculation and uncertainty about the future Lynx project. There have been rumours that the contract could be cut or cancelled, but it is clear that that could not happen without severely impairing the capability of our forces.

The cancellation of a contract that was already under way would be hugely expensive, and would become one of the greatest procurement scandals of modern times. AgustaWestland needs an end to that uncertainty, which is threatening to damage the contract and could even cause the company to lose key staff. I therefore urge the Minister to make clear today the Government’s support for the future Lynx project and to give the House a clear and firm undertaking that the uncertainty over the contract will be cleared up before the summer recess, with a clear green light being given for progress on the basis of the existing order for 70 aircraft.

In the field of procurement, it is vital that we do not make the quest for something that is absolutely great the enemy of procuring something that is good. General Dannatt said last week that

We have to make our defence aspirations realistic, and I think the best way to do that would be to have another strategic defence review. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the need to deliver equipment to meet immediate needs as well as future planning, and to assess where we want the MOD and the country to be in the next 20 years or more. We need to determine what kind of force we should be building and maintaining for the future. How can we be a force for good, a military force and a humanitarian force on limited equipment?

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to address the House, may I point out that a large number of hon. Members are
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seeking to catch my eye? If we are not careful, we will not fit everybody in. Simply out of consideration for colleagues, I would therefore plead for the briefest possible contributions.

3.52 pm

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I will abide by your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and keep my remarks as brief as possible. I welcome the opportunity to take part in this afternoon’s debate and begin by associating myself with the remarks of all the Front-Bench speakers who have paid tribute to the work of our armed forces and to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in recent days.

I have the honour and privilege of having the Special Forces support unit in my constituency. According to long tradition and protocol, we do not draw attention in the Chamber to the work that it does, but the House needs to be reminded of the sacrifices that are made, and the courage that is shown, by the men and women of the Special Forces every day. Their acts of selflessness are almost indescribable, and I would like to place that on record.

Defence procurement has been one of the most difficult issues facing any Government for as long as we can remember, but successive Governments over the years have done their best to try to improve the procurement system. I remember that when this Government entered into the strategic defence review, one of the first things that the Defence Minister responsible did was to call all the previous Defence Ministers into his office for unofficial private meetings. He asked them what they would do if they wanted to achieve greater efficiencies and improvements to the procurement system. The irony was that most of them said exactly the same thing: they said what they would like to happen. However, the problem lies in getting from the wish to the reality, and the Government have tried with varying degrees of success over the last decade to improve the procurement system.

I will confine my remarks in my brief contribution to what I believe is one of the Government’s most important procurement initiatives in an area that is often underestimated and undervalued. When we talk about procurement in these annual debates, we tend to talk exclusively about kit—tanks, planes and ships—and sophisticated technology. However, if we do not train our servicemen and women in the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art methods so that they can use this equipment, quite frankly we will not get the benefits and our service personnel will not get the security that they have a right to demand. The British armed forces have a problem in that much of their training is 20th-century training provided for 21st-century challenges and technologies. That has got to change.

I am delighted that the Government have bitten the bullet, as the House well knows, and decided to undertake a massive transformation in this country’s provision of military training. The defence procurement project to which I refer is, of course, the £11 billion military training academy proposed for St. Athan, which is going to modernise, update and completely transform how training is delivered. It will move away from chalk and talk, which has served us well in the past, towards student-centred and task-oriented training that uses the most modern technology available.

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Members on both sides of the House have referred to the sophistication and changing nature of the threat we face. We have to procure equipment, whether it be Snatch vehicles or anything else, to meet those changes. At the same time and in many respects more important, we also need to be quick in changing how we train our personnel to use the new equipment and face the new threats that they are up against. The older methods of providing such training served us hugely well in the past, but they are antiquated and out of date now. By integrating new technologies, we can have a step change or a quantum leap in the training of our personnel. They should be trained to the highest possible standards and we need the maximum flexibility to train and retrain them in how to use the new equipment and face the new challenges. We cannot do that under the existing system.

It is more than seven years since the Government published their report on modernising defence training as part of the strategic defence review and we have seen a radical and incredibly successful transformation of how we train our officer corps. The creation of the idea for a military academy for training our officers in leadership and management on a tri-service integrated basis is important and nobody questions the success of it. Seven years on, however, we are still waiting for this academy to be provided, although the key decisions have now thankfully been taken so that we can provide the rest of our service personnel with the same modern futuristic training in phase 2 and phase 3, which is effectively technical skills training. The Government have already made the decision that two thirds of that training—in aeronautics, mechanics, electrical engineering, information and communications technology—will be provided at the new huge military training academy on a 500-acre site in my constituency. That will have a dramatic effect on the efficiency and security of our armed forces, but we need to move ahead with it quickly.

The Government announced in January that the so-called package 1 of the defence training rationalisation programme will continue apace under the auspices and leadership of the Metrix consortium. We have been expecting an announcement—it was due in the spring, I believe—on Main Gate 2, which is the next stage in this sophisticated procurement process. That decision has not arrived yet. Will the Minister give notice of when he thinks it will, because the sooner we get the project moving forward, the more our services will benefit?

This, however, is a question not just of capability or of providing 21st century training for 21st-century challenges, rather than 20th-century training methods for 21st-century challenges, but of meeting our commitment to our servicemen and women under the military covenant and with regard to the relationship with the rest of society. We train our military personnel to a high standard, but more often than not the skills we give them are not recognised when they finish their military career and move into civvy street. Often, there is a delay in their finding work, although about 70 per cent. of service personnel find a job within a month of finishing service life, which is very good and a tribute to their calibre. About 94 per cent. find a job within six months.

I understand that the main reason for that six-month delay is that many of our servicemen and women, even though they are highly trained in skills such as engineering, have to retrain to do in civvy street the same job that
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they were doing in the military. There are a number of such examples in my constituency, where large numbers of military personnel retire from the forces and seek work.

The other great attraction of the defence training rationalisation programme is the fact that all the qualifications provided in engineering, computing and all those other areas will be recognised civilian qualifications. We will be able to say to our servicemen and women, “We will not only train you in the military to the highest standard, but you will be able to use that training when you finish your service.”

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman looked at the armed forces benefits calculator? If he has, he will have seen that a number of inflated claims are made for the notional value of training packages that people receive in the armed forces. Given what he has just said about their value in civilian life, would he perhaps like to comment on the claims made in the benefits calculator?

John Smith: Not particularly. I would like to concentrate on the future and what we intend to do to improve the situation and get things right. We owe it to our service personnel to do just that, and the best thing we can do is progress this vital procurement project as quickly as we can.

Under the strategic defence review, when we said that we needed to reconfigure and restructure our forces to meet the new types of challenge, we then had to buy the modern kit and equipment to meet those same challenges. The most important thing was to train our personnel properly in modern techniques and in a modern way so that they could meet those challenges well. We have left that till last, and the Government need to get the matter absolutely right.

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the headquarters of Metrix, which is in the QinetiQ facility at Farnborough. I have just realised that I owe the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) an apology because, even though it was a private meeting, I should have written to him and told him that I was visiting his beautiful constituency. The training briefing that I received from Paul Swinscoe of Raytheon was one of the most impressive that I have ever heard. He told me how the training provided for our service personnel was to be modified, and anyone in the Chamber familiar with traditional apprenticeship training will know that it was very effective but a bit long winded. When I was a little boy it took seven years, but by the time that I left school it took only three. The old saying was that people would be in class all day listening to the instructor, but that some might get their hands on a bit of equipment if they were very lucky. However, the modern techniques are incredible: the use of virtual reality means that all students will be completely familiar with their equipment, whether it is an engine or a computer, before they set eyes on it or are expected to work with it. There has been a real transformation in the way that people are to be trained.

I pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence and to Metrix for the work that they are doing in my area. They are working very closely with the local community in my constituency. The development covers 500 acres and, to put the project into perspective, I can tell the House that it is bigger than the London Olympic bid.
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For the past 12 months, there has been an ongoing dialogue with the local community in St. Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan, and that has worked extremely well. Both organisations have listened to the community, and amended some of their proposals accordingly.

The local authority is also working really well on progressing the planning application for what is a huge development. I am sure that the Minister will understand that there is concern in my constituency that the planning is got right. There are two areas of particular concern—housing and the transportation infrastructure—that I hope that he will look at, perhaps in liaison with the integrated project team under Brigadier Neild.

The development will provide 1,200 courses, and train thousands of students every year. Although there may be another new development quite close to the base, we do not have to worry about service accommodation. As part of the military covenant, the site will provide more than 90 per cent. of trainees with the best single-person accommodation in the world. It will all be brand new and purpose built—and so it should be. The new centre of excellence will make a wonderful impression on young recruits, but the people who work there—both MOD and civilian—will also need to live nearby. Therefore, it would be a good idea for the Ministry to talk to the Vale of Glamorgan council, the local planning authority. Its local development plan must provide sufficient new housing to meet the needs of the staff who will be coming into the area.

On transport, the Welsh Assembly Government have given a commitment to providing a surface link to the M4 before the academy opens. It is consulting Arup and considering the various options, and the Ministry of Defence and the Welsh Assembly Government must engage in close dialogue to make sure that the procurement project is advanced as soon as possible.

I am grateful for the Government’s courage in grasping the nettle when it comes to training. The project is going to be huge and complex. Various sites will have to be rationalised, and all the services brought together. That will be a huge challenge for us, but I genuinely believe that it is probably one of the most important challenges that we face. I think that if we meet the training challenge, we shall be the envy of the world.

4.10 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): We have just been given a perfect example of the ingenuity and skill of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). He managed to present a training programme as procurement, and I did not see you twitch for a moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He brings the same ingenuity and skill to all that he does in the Defence Committee, and we are grateful to him for his work.

Let me echo in particular what the hon. Gentleman said about the servicemen and women who have died in theatres of war. How lucky we are that they go out there, prepared to sacrifice everything in defence of the values of this country. They are the best of this country, and we are very lucky indeed as a result of what they give to us and what they give up.

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