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5.31 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I shall endeavour to be extremely brief and I join the tributes paid by colleagues to our armed forces.

The background to this procurement debate is of course what General Sir Kevin O’Donoghue, Chief of the Defence Materiel, told the Select Committee about the difficulty he is facing in this planning round, PR08. He said that it was different from anything that had gone before and was worse than the planning round of 2007. He had to think back to the 1970s for anything comparable. The essential problem is that the Government spending increases on defence have simply not kept up with either the costs of procurement or of operations.

As Lord Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said at the time, the SDR was never fully funded. It is interesting that Ministers are keen to take military advice when it suits them but when they were presented with that advice back in 1998, they refused to take it. We have been living with the consequences ever since.

The Prime Minister likes to laud the £6 billion of urgent operational requirements that have been delivered to our front-line forces over recent years, but unfortunately UORs do not address the shortage of baseline funding.
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Even PR08 foresaw a mere 1.5 per cent. real-terms increase to 2011, a minute increase compared with the increases given to other Departments over the years. Defence cost inflation, and the ring-fenced spending for Trident, for housing, for pensions and for the council tax rebate pretty quickly whittle that increase down to something minimal, if it is an increase at all. The Government’s failure properly to fund the main equipment programme over the past 10 years has a direct consequence on operations, a very painful one, as the exchanges on Snatch land rovers demonstrated.

What capabilities do we really need? The Minister of State said on Monday, and repeated today, that the MOD now aims to

That is a highly dangerous concept to pursue and it is very unsound to premise future operations on present operations.

Churchill always said that the War Office is always preparing for the last war, and it seems that nothing changes. What sort of wars will we be fighting in the next 30 years, which is the realistic time horizon on which we should be planning the major equipment programme? That is difficult to tell at the best of times, but we know that weapons proliferation will increase and that a huge shift is taking place in the distribution of power among the world’s superpowers. Conflicts and crises will become increasingly complex and unpredictable.

At present, the Government’s interventionist foreign policy simply does not match their defence policy of limited resources. Last week, General Dannatt said that

He is obviously correct in his assessment of the type of operations the British armed forces need to be able to conduct, and it is the duty of politicians to provide the armed forces with the capabilities they need and to provide best value for the taxpayer.

The idea of tailoring the armed forces to short-term requirements is too short-sighted. We accept that the opposite strategy of trying to provide for every eventuality at any time is too expensive. We need to strike the balance for which the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) argued, between readiness for immediate operations and readiness for the longer term.

In the face of that and in the current low-threat environment, we need what Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward has called a “core force strategy”. That means that we need to spend the money on the big platforms—the expensive bits of kit—even at times of low threat, so that we are in a position to build up our armed forces at a later date should the threats change and that be necessary. The danger of transferring resources from the major equipment programme to short-term operations currently being undertaken is that we are playing poker with the future of this country. We have no idea what threats we might face in five, 10 or 15 years’ time.

Those were the arguments that Ministers deployed in favour of renewing the Trident missile system and the Trident submarine. Those same arguments apply to
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every other aspect of our defence policy, and it is short-sighted to pursue the policy that the Government are beginning to pursue. The problem with the strategic defence review is not its content or its shopping list—everyone agreed that it was a pretty good blueprint for defence policy and the armed forces; the problem is the lack of money.

5.37 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) for curtailing his excellent speech, as it gives me time to get in. He has great knowledge in this area, and the House will have missed the rest of his speech this evening.

I have no defence interests in my constituency. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have brilliantly defended the local businesses, services and units in their constituencies. My constituency contains a brand new cadet hut, of which we are very proud. It replaced the Territorial Army centre in my constituency—we were also very proud of that, and it is sorely missed. So I speak very much as a Back Bencher who is defending and speaking up for the troops in the armed forces.

I thought that the contribution made by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) about uniforms was very interesting and factually correct. If the Minister were allowed to go to a quartermaster’s department in an average regiment to take a look at combat kit—the uniform that has been handed back in—he would find that most of it had got the backside busted out of it. The quality of the kit being purchased from the Chinese is just not up to scratch, and it does not last as long as the uniforms that were made in this country. After the contract went abroad, it was obvious that the uniforms just did not last as long, as any quartermaster who has the guts to talk to the Minister will tell him. That is to do with quality, although lots of different things have been tried—for example, double-stitching on certain parts of the uniform. The particular uniform that I have been issued with by the armed forces parliamentary scheme is simply fantastic, but it does not look anything like what is being issued to my friends who are serving in the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards. The uniforms are completely different.

I wish to ask the Minister some questions. I am sure that he will not have time to respond to all of them, so I ask him to write to me about the specific issues that I am about to raise. Can he confirm that all the C130s in operation have fire-retardant foam in the tanks? We all know about the disaster in which we lost all those servicemen. Long before that, Lockheed recommended to all the fleets around the world that fire-retardant foam be added to the tanks. Some countries added it; we did not, and one was shot down. It is too late for those who lost their loved ones, but I hope that the foam has been added to all the C130s on operations now.

Many of us had the honour of watching the trooping of the colour on Saturday. Those taking part are not toy soldiers, but operational servicemen—and women, these days—and we should all be very proud of them. When I served, many years ago, and trooped the colour, we saw very few service medals—a Northern Ireland medal and, perhaps, a United Nations one. On Saturday, there were servicemen and women who had more medals
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than some of the second world war veterans wear on Remembrance day. That is a tribute to how often our servicemen and women go on operations.

Unusually for a former Foot Guard, I also wish to pay tribute to the Life Guards and the Household Cavalry, because they go on operations as well as carrying out their ceremonial duties. I was very moved by the Westminster Hall debate on Lance Corporal Compton last week. I have met Lance Corporal Compton and his burns are horrific. As I said, the House was shocked when I mentioned the fact that a bullet-proof vest is not fire protective. If a soldier is in a Scimitar that is hit, as Lance Corporal Compton was, and his colleagues are dying around him and he is alight, the last thing he needs is for the uniform that has been issued to protect him to burn. That is frightening. If nothing else comes from this debate today, I hope that we will now look at how we protect our servicemen and women in the field.

5..41 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I add my tribute to those that have been paid so warmly today to the fallen. It is a sad day today for British defence procurement, because the Minister has announced—sotto voce, if I may say so—the reduction in the number of T45s from the 1998 assumption of 12 to six. That is to be regretted.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) wants to increase defence spending. I certainly hope that there will be no more reductions in our capability. My plea to the Minister, if he is tempted to make any further cuts, is not to do it on a tribal basis. In the past, the temptation has been to divvy up any cuts on an Army, Navy and Air Force basis, and that will not do. That approach underpinned “Delivering Security in a Changing World” only a few years ago, but it does not serve the British defence capability overall. That was probably what the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) meant when he talked about salami-slicing.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) expressed her understandable concerns about the T45 programme. She also asked about these old workhorses, the T42s. I remember them well, and they are now old ladies. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister thinks that, in the light of his announcement today, their service should be extended. The hon. Lady also rightly asked for reassurances about the Astute programme.

While we are on the subject of the senior service, I should say how much I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) about the need for some progress on the decision on the technology transfer that will underpin our decision on the future of the JSF. If we are not going to get the JSF, we need to think very carefully about what we are going to do with our carriers.

It is always a pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). He spent some time saying that he hoped the debate would not be partisan, and indeed up to that point it mostly had not been. He made an important point, and the debate has been fairly on the level today.

We heard an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). He was absolutely right—the procurement of training is every bit as important
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as the procurement of bits of kit and hardware. I shall come on to that in a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) underlined the same point. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made a linked point by saying that we cannot simply, in his words, turn skills on and off like a tap in relation to the defence industry. Of course, he is absolutely right.

The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) gave a robust defence of the defence sector. He talked about Lancashire, and I suspect that Ghandi would be smiling down at this debate because, of course, he made a rather similar observation in relation to homespun all those years ago. The hon. Gentleman’s point was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning).

The defence industrial strategy recognises that the defence industry is a business like no other. There is a delicate balance to be struck between protectionism, which we have learned is in nobody’s long-term interests but which characterises the defence industries of our competitors, and the free market instincts towards which most of us, on this side of the House at least, would naturally incline.

France, Germany and the US protect their defence industries using a bewildering array of direct and indirect offsets and old-style state ownership. It is against that backdrop that we have to consider the way that successive Governments have dealt with the purchase of equipment for the British armed forces and the support that we offer our defence industry.

Underpinning the DIS is the doctrine of appropriate sovereignty. Many would say that that means very limited sovereignty or none at all. The question is the extent to which we can or should endeavour to control the means to manufacture and service our own kit and to ensure that we control imported items of a sensitive nature. As equipment becomes more complex, that becomes increasingly difficult, but from SA80 A2 conversions to anything reliant on GPS we are hopelessly dependent on other countries. Even if bits of our kit were wholly organic, we could not possibly mount an effective fighting force on land, sea or air if, for whatever reason, defence manufacturers outwith the immediate control of the UK decided to stop playing with us or became obstructive.

We should be realistic about the price tag that we put on the notion of appropriate sovereignty beyond highly specialised requirements relating to the independent nuclear deterrent, cryptology and the perverse desire of some to deny technology transfer. Of course, I have in mind the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde. Finally, but most importantly, we must not compromise on quality. Our troops are the best, but too often they have gamely put up with kit that frankly leaves a great deal to be desired.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members have talked about the urgent operational requirement, notably my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex. It is generally accepted that the UOR has been a success. We do not know how much exactly—or even approximately—has been spent on it since there is something of a disparity between what has been announced by the Minister and his Department’s outturn. Nevertheless, we know that it
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does not cover a raft of things that are consumed by war fighting and thus fall on a peacetime defence budget. That has been referred to in this debate.

The UOR process anticipates operations of short duration. We are five years into Telic, and as we recalibrate our expectations for the length of our engagements in Afghanistan we need to think about what constitutes “urgent” and how it will be funded. If the military thought that the UOR was Father Christmas, they were mistaken. What the Treasury gives with one hand, it takes with the other. Equipment provided quickly for war that would have been procured electively in any case is subject to both clawback and, of course, accelerated senility. However, we should give credit where it is due, and the UOR has meant that off-shelf equipment has been purchased, removing the risk of project delays and overspends and allowing truly smart procurement with limited scope for the MOD to mess up in acquiring kit, a capacity that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South referred to in a non-partisan sort of way.

Helicopters are bound to come into such a debate. The big story is the cut in the budget of £1.4 billion in 2004, which I am sure the Minister will accept, with the benefit of hindsight, was a mistake. If one talks to anybody in transit in a tracked or wheeled vehicle in Iraq and Afghanistan, they will say that they would rather be airborne. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) pointed that out. Helicopters have to be the means to get from A to B in hostile terrain, and following the announcement on Monday of a reconfiguration of British forces in Afghanistan and better force protection, I hope that we can look forward to optimising our air assets.

May we have an update on where we are with regard to making the extra Merlins that we bought from the Danes fit for purpose? Will they have an operational traffic alert and collision avoidance system?

Finally, I note that the Government called the debate “Defence Procurement”, the implication being that they wanted to talk about tanks, ships, and aircraft, but let us be clear about the most important piece of kit in the Minister’s, or any future Minister’s, armoury. It can never be reduced to an acronym; it will never be the CVS, FRES or JSF. It has been the same since King Alfred repelled the Danes at Ethandune and Bloody Point. It is our sailors, soldiers and—though it pains me to say so and, sadly Alfred did not have the benefit of them in the 9th century—airmen. We must procure more of them, particularly for the infantry and pinch-point trades. We must reduce wastage of them, and we must ensure that their through-life capabilities are our first consideration.

5.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): May I, too, put on record my admiration for the bravery, sacrifice and professionalism of our armed forces, who do an absolutely amazing job? Of course, I send my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives.

This has been an interesting debate. Our armed forces are well served by the Members who are present; they take a great interest in, and think deeply about, the
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issues. I shall try to cover as many points as I can in the short time available to me. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) brought his great experience to the debate, and made a balanced contribution. He said that the Government had behaved extremely responsibly; that was an important point. He noted that defence procurement is difficult, complicated and problematic, and strongly argued the case for improvements to procurement. A great deal has been done on the issue so far. He demonstrated a great grasp of the trials and tribulations of procurement, and talked about balancing the budget.

In an important contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) made a significant point about training. He has been a great champion of the defence training review programme and St. Athan, and he rightly raised the issue today. He wanted an update on progress, and I can tell him that discussions with the Metrix consortium are still ongoing on a range of issues. We will make an announcement as soon as we are in a position to do so. As he knows, package 2 has reverted to a conventional procurement process, managed in-house. Approval of an initial gate is expected soon. He also mentioned resettlement, and made the important point that the skills and experiences of our armed forces personnel allow them to get into the jobs market pretty quickly, but training is an important consideration, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) made a passionate speech about buying British and ensuring more British contracts—ideas that he has long championed. He mentioned the importance of the aerospace industry to the north-west. I count myself a Lancashire lad, so I agree that it is an important part of the world. He pointed out how proud we are of the British defence industry and its importance to maintaining links and partnerships, not just across the country but around the world. He made an important point about maintaining our skills base. He also asked about the Typhoon; we are continuing discussions with our partner nations and with the industry on tranche 3. Those discussions will continue throughout the year, and decisions will be taken as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) has a great deal of experience in defence, and particularly naval, matters. She showed her knowledge and commitment to defence through the range of issues that she talked about. She mentioned the Navy’s importance to Plymouth. She has been a great champion for Plymouth during her time as a Member of Parliament, and she regularly lobbies Ministers on a range of issues. She referred to future carriers, the Astute programme, the joint shipbuilding venture, and the size of the royal naval fleet. The joint venture is not yet formed, but is due to form on 1 July. It is still the Ministry of Defence’s intention to order seven Astute boats.

It was asked why no decisions had been taken on the Future Service Combatant. It is in the early stage of concept design, and detailed criteria have not yet been defined. The number of ships required will be determined when the programme is more mature.

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