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5.8 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I should like to put on record my tribute and thanks to the brave men and women of our armed forces who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other places around the world. They do an excellent job and we are all rightly proud of what they do.

The future rapid effect system—FRES—has been mentioned today. My constituents who work at BAE Land Systems, and those who work at associated engineering companies in my constituency and in wider Shropshire, were disappointed by the decision on Piranha 5 and General Dynamics, which preferred the VBCI vehicle, but we have moved on from our disappointment and hope that the Ministry of Defence will now look closely at the excellent work force at BAE Land Systems and in Shropshire generally, and that it will consider my constituency for the vehicle integrator programme. The Minister will know, having visited my constituency, that Shropshire has a long and proud history of serving Her Majesty’s armed forces—those in uniform and civilians—and that there is a wide, sound industrial base in the county and across the west midlands.

I also pay tribute to the Defence Support Group and to all those who work in the Army Base Repair Organisation and the former Defence Logistics Organisation, which has now been re-branded. Nevertheless, the demand for logistics and the supply of urgent operational requirements continues and the work force in my constituency and the county of Shropshire more widely continue to be called on to deliver UORs, often at very short notice, to Afghanistan and Iraq, yet they deliver time and time again. I hope that the Minister will pay tribute to them on the record in his concluding remarks.

I hope that the Minister will also take the opportunity to ensure that the Army Base Repair Organisation has a long-term future. Some months ago—perhaps over a year ago—there was a question mark over it, but after the excellent report of the Defence Select Committee, the Government rightly recognised that the attrition on armed vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq and the greater wear and tear on them would mean further repairs.
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After the Defence Select Committee review, as well as a review by the MOD, Ministers took the right decision and said that ABRO should not be downsized or relocated but extended, and called for further recruitment to it. I pay tribute to ABRO’s work. Having briefly visited Iraq with the armed forces parliamentary scheme—indeed, I also visited Afghanistan just some weeks ago—I can pay personal tribute to ABRO on its excellent work. Certainly, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Yorkshire Regiment pay tribute to its excellent work in getting damaged vehicles and those broken down back to the front line.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), sadly no longer in his place, alluded to issues about defence training, the defence training review and the defence training rationalisation programme. I am not trying to hark back to the past, as clearly a decision has been made for the programme to go to RAF St. Athan, but the Minister needs to come clean not just with the people of Shropshire and the west midlands, but with the people of Wales. Some real issues remain about the delivery of the programme, particularly on the lack of infrastructure in Wales and the squabbling between the Welsh Assembly, the Ministry of Defence and local authorities. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan himself made some comments about that. He did not go into too much detail, but there were enough hints of concern in his speech to suggest that the defence training review programme might well be delayed. If that happens, it will be bad not only for Wales, but for Her Majesty’s armed forces. I hope that the Minister will look again at the county of Shropshire, where we already have the infrastructure and the right people in place and where we have the experience necessary to continue to deliver the sort of defence training that Her Majesty’s armed forces quite rightly expect and deserve.

One key issue that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan did not mention is the fact that training can be delivered only if there are trainers to deliver it. Local surveys carried out in my constituency by the Public and Commercial Services Union—a mostly excellent union in much, not all, of what it does—revealed that the majority of experienced, hard-working, dedicated and loyal MOD trainers were for many reasons unable or unwilling to move to Wales. The differential in house prices was one of the key reasons, as house prices around St. Athan are about 25 or 30 per cent. higher than in some of the Shropshire locations. That is a real issue. The Government might find themselves with a training establishment—the building and roads might eventually be built—but the Minister might find that there are no trainers to deliver the training. That is a strategic issue about the procurement of defence training, which will obviously impact on the British armed forces as a whole.

In my final minute—I have other things to say, but I am aware that time is running out for other Members who want to contribute to the debate—let me deal with the issue of hypermass technology. In the debate on Trident, I mentioned that the defence industrial strategy made no reference to such technology. The Government need to look at that. While I support nuclear, there are instances in which weapons of overwhelming force might need to be used when we could not use a nuclear weapon. We have only conventional missiles. We need
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something between a conventional missile and a nuclear missile so that we have more flexible options when dealing with increased threat.

On unmanned aerial vehicles, while I completely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), it is right that we should have as much capability as we can within the UK. Without going into geographical detail, my concern is that in parts of theatre where UAVs are being used, it is not necessarily always British hands that are involved in every application of the UAV mission. That could raise conflict of interest issues.

On cyber defence and the defence industrial strategy, we know that although China is a great nation in many ways and that it has a fine people, its Administration have perhaps not covered themselves in glory on human rights and a range of issues. We know from the head of our own Security Service that China is very interested in our military secrets. Even in the House, we have been told about cyber attacks from outside, potentially from China.

I hope that the defence industrial strategy will carefully consider developing a British capability not only for cyber defence but for cyber offence, because as military equipment becomes more reliant on integrated systems, fly by wire, special forces and aircraft such as the Typhoon, having the defence systems to protect ourselves from cyber attack will be critical and we must also have the capability to go on the offensive should we choose to do so.

5.16 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I associate myself with the condolences expressed to those men and women of our armed forces who lost their lives in Afghanistan in the last week or so. In particular, I pay tribute to Corporal Sarah Bryant, the first woman to lose her life in Afghanistan. As a member of the Defence Committee for the last seven years, I have seen young men and young women doing a tremendous job in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and we should recognise the tremendous debt that we owe not only to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the last week, but to those men and women who continue to serve.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) that we need a strategic defence review. The major strategic issues are still as they were in 1998 and a review would be a diversion from where we are now. The issue that we face is the fact that we have high-tempo operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan alongside what my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) put forward on the legacy programmes. We can all say that we would like to cancel or change them, but in practice it would be difficult to do so. The two run side by side.

The Ministry of Defence has been good in responding to demands in theatre, such as in Afghanistan. Urgent operational requirement has worked and I pay tribute not just to the people in the MOD who made that happen, but to industry. Not only large defence companies but small defence companies and suppliers have stepped up to the mark and delivered quickly. We have seen that clearly with vehicles, as well as with things that we do not and should not talk about, such as technology around counter-measures and improvised explosive
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devices, which is saving lives in Iraq and in Afghanistan. That applies not just to our servicemen and women, but to those of other nations.

In the last few years, it has been common to kick defence around as a political football, but I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South. Since I have been a member of the Defence Committee, we have had a consensus on a lot of issues, which is how it should be. Let us make it clear: all parties will go into the next general election with no commitment radically to increase the amount we spend on defence, although I, like my right hon. Friend, would argue for more defence expenditure. No one is going to do that, so we are facing some difficult decisions in respect of our armed forces.

Senior military personnel are in the same position. They may think that kicking these matters around will lead to easy newspaper headlines that will change things, but they must understand that they too have to make sure that we get value for money, in terms of both equipment and military organisation. Even though our Army has reduced in size over the past few years, there is still a debate to be had about its present structure.

Like most people, I welcomed the defence industrial strategy. It clarified the position regarding our armed forces’ equipment, and also in respect of industry. I was sceptical about whether it would outlast Lord Drayson, and unfortunately I have been proved right. I said as much to the permanent secretary at the MOD when he came before the Defence Committee about a year ago. The uncertainty described earlier by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), is not good: we need clarity, but I understand the pressures that the MOD is facing. The money that needs to expended very quickly on our armed forces’ high-tempo operations must be laid alongside the existing defence budget.

That is a difficult thing to do, but sometimes I wish that the MOD would tell us the reality of the situation rather than trying to con us that, for example, the future rapid effect system is all about design, because it is not. If someone were to tell me that the vehicles that we bought for Afghanistan and Iraq were to be incorporated into the FRES requirements, I would accept that. It is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but the MOD should tell us what is happening. That would be better then insulting our intelligence by maintaining that something different is going on.

We have been promised a new chapter on the defence industrial strategy, and we need one to remove the uncertainty facing industry. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) talked about skills, and I have said on numerous occasions that the skills that we need in our defence industry cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Decisions need to be taken now, and some major projects may have to be cancelled. For example, I welcome today’s announcement about Type 45 destroyers, as that will give the rest of the defence sector the clarity that it needs.

Companies will know where to go for investment, and there will be an improvement in the investment that is made in skills. That is important, as it takes months—and sometimes many years—to upskill people so that they
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can handle the new technologies. That is why it is important that we get the clarity, to which I have referred, as quickly as possible.

The Government can be proud that the procurement process has had an impact on regions such as mine. For example, the two new carriers will have a major impact in the north-east of England. That will be felt in the traditional shipbuilding industry that will handle their fabrication, but all sorts of small and medium-sized industries will benefit as well. It used to be that large industries produced ships and other big pieces of kit, but those days are gone. Even so, the defence industry is worth about £2 billion to the regional economy of the north-east, with much of the work being carried out by SMEs.

That work is very ably supported by the company Northern Defence Industries, which champions the supply chain in the north-east and Yorkshire. It also works with the North West Aerospace Alliance to ensure that SMEs can access some of the work that is coming forward.

We need the clarity that I have referred to. Tough decisions must be made, and the sooner, the better. We need to make sure that we can produce the necessary equipment for our armed forces, and our service personnel must have confidence that they will get the kit that they will need in the future. Finally, we must make sure that the industrial base for this country’s defence industry is retained and strengthened as a result of the key decisions that we take.

5.24 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): It is right and proper for me to add the condolences of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales, to those already expressed following the tragic loss of service personnel in Afghanistan.

Procurement is not just about the acquisition of new assets; it is also about the responsibly managed transition from the systems that they are replacing. That applies most acutely to the Nimrod replacement programme, in which the current MR2 fleet based at RAF Kinloss in my constituency will be superseded by the MRA4.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State visited RAF Kinloss today. He will have met and heard from the air and ground crew as well as the civilian contractors, who do an excellent job and are working hard within the resource constraints to ensure that the appropriate safety standards are met. He will also have heard the concerns of the civilian work force and their union about job security. I hope he was able to provide the reassurances that they sought.

As matters stand, BAE Systems expects to conclude flight-test activities on its three Nimrod MRA4 development aircraft later this year. Nine MRA4s are under contract for the RAF, and there is also an option for the three refurbished design and development aircraft. It has been reported in the specialist aviation press that the first production MRA4 will achieve “power on” by September this year and will then enter an extended equipment fit, load and test programme before making its first flight next year. Under the current programme schedule, BAE Systems will deliver four production MRA4s to RAF Kinloss by the end of 2010, when the new type is expected to be declared to be in-service.

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Colleagues in the Defence Committee, a number of whom are still in the Chamber, recently called on the MOD to reconsider its options in relation to the Nimrod MRA4. Without dismissing the awful track record of the programme or the lessons that need to be learned from it, I should stress that most of the costs have already been incurred. To walk away now would mean losing massive sums of taxpayer investment.

Although the delays and budgetary increases in the Nimrod MRA4 programme are of course cause for concern, another particular and deadly problem has resulted. Owing to the important capability of the existing Nimrod and the need for its vital services in a range of theatres, the 40-year-old Nimrod MR2 fleet has been pushed to the limits. In the recent case of Nimrod XV230, it proved fatal. Shortly after refuelling over Afghanistan on 2 September 2006, the aircraft exploded near Kandahar, killing all 14 personnel aboard. It was the biggest UK loss of life since the Falklands war, and more than half the victims were my constituents.

On 5 November 2007, a further mid-air incident took place, this time when Nimrod XV235 was over Afghanistan. The crew noticed a fuel leak during-air-to-air refuelling operations. After issuing an in-flight mayday, the aircraft was landed successfully. The Minister of State admitted recently that there had been at least 111 fuel leaks since Nimrod XV230 exploded.

On 4 December 2007, the report of the findings of the official board of the inquiry into the loss of XV230 was published. Four separate factors were listed as having contributed to the accident, and are a matter of public record. On 23 May 2008, only a few short weeks ago, the coroner who led the inquest into the deaths stated that the entire Nimrod fleet had

and urged that it be grounded. The assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, Andrew Walker, added:

as low as reasonably practicable—

The Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), said earlier that we needed answers. I agree. We have been given no detailed statement, or indeed any detail at all. What I would describe as a badly advised and badly timed press release was issued only minutes after the deputy coroner had announced his ruling. There cannot have been time for serious consideration of the points that he had made.

Last December, the Secretary of State assured Members that Nimrod was safe, citing a report by QinetiQ. It has proved difficult to establish whether that was factually correct. It has taken freedom of information requests to establish that the report said that the aircraft would not be fully safe until its 30 recommendations had been implemented. All but one of those recommendations related to a failure to implement mandatory airworthiness regulations.

The inquest heard that if the risk of something going wrong on a plane is only “tolerable”, MOD rules stipulate that it must be further reduced to make it as low as reasonably practicable—ALARP—before the plane can
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be declared safe. The QinetiQ report cited by the Secretary of State as showing the aircraft was safe in fact found that it was only “tolerably safe” but, because of the 30 problems, it was not ALARP.

It is still not ALARP. In a letter to me, the Secretary of State for Defence said that of the 30 recommendations, 21 have been accepted—using the present tense—by the MOD and are still being implemented. Six relate to air-to-air refuelling, which is no longer done with Nimrods. Three more are still—again, present tense—being considered.

Group Captain Colin Hickman, who is in charge of the safety of the Nimrod fleet, admitted to the coroner that the remaining Nimrods were not ALARP and would not be so until the end of this year. Asked if this process could be speeded up, Hickman replied:

Reassurances need to be given about transitional arrangements from the MR2 to the MRA4 and about safety standards for ageing systems facing replacement as part of a managed procurement process. We need answers on this. I would welcome the Minister giving some detail of all the 30 recommendations. How many have been fully implemented and when will the rest of them be implemented? It is only fair that we have the answers.

Some say this is a technical point, but I think it is easily understood by the man in the street. The situation now with the Nimrod fleet is as if a driver had been notified of 30 improvements necessary for his car to pass an MOT and, nearly two years later, he is only partially through the mandatory work and is still considering whether to go through with some of the other repairs. It would not be allowed in a car. Why does the MOD think it is okay for a plane? Given that the ALARP standard is the MOD’s own standard, I do not understand why it is not complied with. I hope the Minister will explain that this evening.

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