Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Oct 2008 : Column 454

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Defence Committee visited Abbey Wood last week. It was a most valuable visit. We asked the chief of defence matériel who was in charge of the defence industrial strategy, and the answer was that it was not him. Who is?

Mr. Ainsworth: At the top level, the answer is the Secretary of State and my new ministerial friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who is the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement. Of course, the chief of defence matériel reports to them on all the issues concerned with the procurement of equipment for our armed forces, so the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the chief of defence matériel is not in charge. We live in a democracy, after all, and I thought that the right hon. Gentleman and all Opposition Members understood that point.

My favourite example of procurement and deployment is the Mastiff vehicle—a piece of kit that soldiers have heaped praise on, and which was taken from the order book to the battlefield in less than 23 weeks, making a big impact on operations in a very short time frame. We need to ensure that we recreate that example again and again: sourcing what our armed forces need, ordering it and getting it out to them in theatre as quickly as possible. However, equally, we cannot take our eye off the ball in delivering for the long term.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend also pay tribute to all those involved in bringing the Jackal vehicle forward as an urgent operational requirement? It is rolling off the production line in Devonport at the rate of, I think, at least one a week.

Mr. Ainsworth: That is my hon. Friend’s favourite because it is produced in her constituency. I have seen the production line, and it is a very impressive piece of kit that is being brought to theatre in good time. I can understand why she is so supportive of its operation, which is providing jobs in Devonport as well as a first-class vehicle for our armed forces. She will understand why I tend to favour the Mastiff. It is produced in my constituency by NP Aerospace—an impressive and agile company that has responded very well to defence procurement demands.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): When we debated these issues before the recess, the vulnerability of the Snatch Land Rover to attacks in Afghanistan was one of the main issues raised by the Opposition. Can the Minister advise the House of any developments over the recess regarding when the Snatch might be phased out of aggressive operations in Afghanistan and replaced with more suitable vehicles?

Mr. Ainsworth: Mastiff has delivered a high level of protection for our troops and is very well thought of, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is an extremely heavy truck that cannot go into many places, and there is a need for a lighter personnel carrier that can get to the places Mastiff cannot get to. We hope to bring Mastiff 2—yet another tranche of Mastiff vehicles—into theatre by the end of this year. We have ordered Ridgeback, which will come into theatre and is in the process of
9 Oct 2008 : Column 455
being up-armoured. However, even Ridgeback, smaller though it is than Mastiff, will not provide the size that Snatch does, so what work can be done on Snatch itself is going ahead, to see whether we can get more power into the unit and therefore more speed, and more armour. That will come through in the form of a new, better-performance Snatch as soon as we are able, but I do not think that we can deprive our commanders—I know that this is a controversial issue in the House—of a vehicle the size of Snatch: not while they are telling us that they need that capability and utility in theatre.

Getting the numbers of Mastiff that we need into theatre and getting Ridgeback there to provide a smaller alternative will limit the use of Snatch to those areas where it is the only vehicle that can do the job. People need to remember that there is armour in the Snatch, and we cannot go beyond a certain point in terms of the amount of armour put into a vehicle of that size—it is just not possible. There is a trade-off between size and armour capability.

As I was saying, we need to get new equipment to our forces as quickly as possible, but we must not take our eye off the ball when delivering for the long term. From designing high-tech clothing to building submarines, defence creates or sustains about 305,000 jobs. It is a mark of the stature of our defence industry that the UK accounts for more than a third of the global defence market. During the last financial year, UK-based companies signed contracts for defence goods and services to a value of £10 billion. That demonstrates the amount of money that the sector brings into the UK economy, while maintaining key engineering skills here in the UK.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Minister is being generous in giving way. May I take him back to his earlier answer, in which he made some well-judged points about the difficult trade-off between weight and protection? I draw his attention to the new, blast-resistant materials produced by companies such as Aegis, which are lightweight and work on the principle of absorbing blast rather than reflecting it, as all previous blast materials have done. The Czech army, for example, has already put it on the bottom of relatively light Land Rovers, and there have been some very successful trials, including in this country.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right, in that we must stay at the very forefront of technological developments in lightweight materials that can do a job in force protection. What was not possible a year or so ago in terms of the amount of armour that can be provided for a relevant amount of weight may well now be possible. We must therefore look at such developments and have companies that are prepared not only to use them, but to bring them into being quickly, as happened with the Mastiff. Too often, we take too long over procurement decisions. We have to be able wherever possible to bring new developments into theatre as quickly as possible. The enemy will change and the threat will change, so we have to change as quickly and nimbly as we can to stay ahead of the game and keep our people protected.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I know that people say that one should never ask a question in politics unless one knows the answer, but I genuinely do not know the answer to this one. The Minister explained
9 Oct 2008 : Column 456
where Mastiff and Ridgeback are going to fit in, but will he please explain where Jackal is going to fit in? I was slightly surprised by his response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), in which he said that there would be a more or less indefinite role for the Snatch Land Rover. I had rather assumed that it was largely to be superseded by the Jackal.

Mr. Ainsworth: Jackal provides an altogether different capability from Snatch. Jackal is a highly mobile, highly armoured reconnaissance vehicle with a level of visibility that provides protection in itself. It is a new form of WMIK—weapons mounted installation kit—rather than the new form of Snatch. As I have said, we are working on the degree to which Snatch can be up-armoured. The main problem is the amount of power that Snatch has and its ability, therefore, to pull the increased weight at anything like a reasonable speed. If we can get more power out of the power-pack, we can put on more armour, and that is being worked on now. We are looking to bring on line the new, up-armoured Snatch, which is being referred to as “the Vixen”, as soon as we are able. Jackal has a different capability entirely.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Before the Minister took the interventions about armoured vehicles, he was referring to the extraordinarily successful export record of Britain’s defence industrial base. Does he accept that that superb record was achieved in large measure thanks to the assistance of the Defence Export Services Organisation—an institution that was scrapped by the Prime Minister last year? Can he tell the House why, in its new incarnation in UK Trade and Investment, the word “export” has been dropped, and whether, as a consequence, he expects it to be of any use in achieving a similarly successful result for British industry in the coming years?

Mr. Ainsworth: I was interested by the furore among Conservative Members at the changes that were made last year. I have followed that through, and whenever I have got talking to people in the defence industry, I have asked them how they feel about those changes, how they have bedded in and whether people are getting the service that they need to continue to do their job. Without exception, all the comments that I have received over the past few weeks, from the many people to whom I talked at the Labour party conference and the people whose factories I have subsequently visited, suggested that the support provided by the new organisation is perfectly acceptable, quite superb and has the potential, through connections with all the trade expertise in the Department responsible for trade, that DESO would not have had. The defence industry does not feel the disappointment that hon. Gentleman suggests, and I ask him to check the facts. I have been checking them because I need, and want, to know the situation, and I have been enormously pleased with the response that I had. I invite him to do the same and to bring his reports back to the House. He might think that people feel let down by the changes that we have made, but that is not what they are saying to me.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I can only say that yesterday I was talking to a senior managing director of a very important defence company in this country, and he agreed with my suggestion that the decision was a thoroughly bad one and was damaging to the British defence industry.

9 Oct 2008 : Column 457

Mr. Ainsworth: I could name the people to whom I have spoken, and the right hon. Gentleman could name the person to whom he has spoken. We are being given two different stories; one never knows, perhaps the same people are saying two different things. I have heard no detrimental comments from the people with whom I have raised the subject of the changes that were made. People are saying that they are getting the support that they require and that there is the potential for improved support from the new arrangements. That is the feedback that I have been given, so perhaps we need to continue this conversation with people outside the House—I am sure that we will continue it with people inside the House too.

British military training is considered to be the best in the world. No other institution in the United Kingdom provides such a broad range of high-quality training and education, which is evident, for example, in our apprenticeship delivery programme. On average, more than 20,000 people leave the armed services each year, and, overwhelmingly, they are better educated, fitter and more highly skilled, and they have a higher level of confidence, a strong work ethic and a team spirit, when they leave—no wonder they are quickly snapped up by employers.

We still have problems with our training that we need to tackle—for example, bullying is something that the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence will not tolerate. The vast majority of recruits who come through training have a very positive experience, and we act quickly to resolve the issues for the small number who experience bullying or have any other grievance. We are proud of the fact that complaints can now be referred to the completely independent service complaints commissioner, and our training establishments are subject to ongoing scrutiny by external, independent authorities. The nub of the issue is whether we can eradicate bullying entirely and still keep our training sufficiently robust, hard and challenging to prepare young people for the demands of combat. Both the Chief of the General Staff and I think that it is possible to do so, and we are committed to working towards that end.

As in all areas of defence, we continue to examine how we can improve training. The House is aware of the defence training review programme. The review will transform how we deliver specialist phase 2 and phase 3 technical training on a defence-wide basis, and, once complete, will help us to adjust to changes in demand, to make more efficient and effective use of training personnel, to improve accommodation and to make better and more efficient use of the training estate.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con) rose—

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con) rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: I am coming to the point on which the hon. Gentlemen probably want to intervene. Hon. Members will be aware that progress on defence training review package 1 has been more difficult and prolonged than expected. However, I can report that considerable progress has been made in driving down costs and towards achieving an affordable, value-for-money package 1, which is on track for an investment decision next spring, with the contract signature to come approximately 15 months later.

9 Oct 2008 : Column 458

Mark Pritchard: As the Minister knows, the defence training review programme is the largest private finance initiative in British history. I hope he agrees that we must get defence training in this country right. Does he share my concern about the reports over the past three or four weeks about the delay in the delivery of that programme—I believe that an announcement will be made today or perhaps next week about a further delay; he just alluded to it—and, more importantly, about the rising costs? Such reports contradict the statement that he just made. The fact is that the costs have increased by £1 billion in the past six months alone. What recent discussions has he had with Treasury Ministers about those rising costs?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am aware of all the ongoing publicity about the difficulties, particularly those in defence package 1. I know that the hon. Gentleman is interested in that because of his constituency interest—

Mark Pritchard: And national interest.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has a national interest too, but he has a particular interest in this matter and, obviously, he pursues it. I am not saying that the costs have not changed. I am saying that we still have an affordable package that is far cheaper than the alternatives, and that has been worked on over the summer. We will be able to go ahead with defence package 1 and get value for money out of those proposals.

Mike Penning: The Minister referred to bullying. I agree that the Army, in particular, should do as much as possible about that, but bullying will be there. One of the areas about that I am worried about is recruit-on-recruit bullying, especially among training regiments. Many years ago, when I came through basic training, there were trained soldiers in the barrack rooms during the night. The Minister is aware of that, and I have also raised this issue with the Secretary of State. If one visits a training regiment these days, as I know the Minister has done, one finds that the instructors go home to their families and loved ones, and there are few experienced soldiers in the barrack rooms at night, and the bullying often takes place when recruits think that they are a little more senior. As so many of our armed forces who have received some minor injuries and some serious injuries still want to stay within the military, surely it would be sensible to bring those experienced soldiers back into phase 1 and phase 2 training to provide the sort of mentoring that we need to stop the bullying.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is obviously right; it is as important, and perhaps more so in some instances, to provide a safe environment in our training establishments at night as it is to do so during the training practice that goes on during the day. A big part of doing that lies in getting the estate right; we need to make the configuration of the training accommodation appropriate to a safe environment. He takes a huge interest in this issue, so I commend him to look around some of the new accommodation that is provided at Pirbright, where there is a safe environment that provides people with oversight during the night as well as during training hours. He knows that bringing the defence estate up to an adequate level—I shall return to this
9 Oct 2008 : Column 459
point later in my speech—is a massive project that will still take some time, although building has been going for some time. We need to deal with this issue; we need to get our priorities right; and we need to ensure that we eliminate bullying, no matter where it comes from, be that from instructors or peers. In the process of doing so, we must not lose the rigours of the training regime. If we lose those rigours, we will not turn out the people for the highly dangerous environments in which we expect them to work, to stay safe and to stay alive.

The armed forces constituency across the UK, including veterans, families and the armed forces, numbers about 10 million people. That broad constituency is part of the fabric of this nation, and enriches life in Britain immeasurably and in a variety of ways. As a Government and a nation, we have asked a great deal of our armed forces recently, not least in Iraq and Afghanistan—and they have delivered. So it is right that we give them all the support and recognition that they deserve. That was the theme of the national recognition study, carried out with his customary skill by the new Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford who has responsibility for defence equipment and support. He reported in May this year and highlighted a range of ways in which the country can do more to show appreciation and to recognise the huge debt that we owe our armed forces. I am pleased that since that study was launched, we have seen an increase in the number of military parades through towns, as well as a number of other initiatives, such as free tickets to football matches and discounts at cinemas. Individuals are finding their own ways to show their gratitude. That is to be welcomed and appreciated, and it is probably past time that we reached that position.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I associate myself with the condolences in the Minister’s opening remarks. In my constituency, 16 Air Assault Brigade has lost 11 soldiers in Afghanistan. I also endorse his remarks about the proper level of support for our armed forces. Will he or one of his ministerial team visit my constituency to see the married quarters? While the new Merville barracks for the single soldier are the best that can be provided, I have to say that—as a direct consequence of the privatisation of Army housing by the last Conservative Government—the condition of the family accommodation and the play areas, and the inadequate policing now that MOD police numbers have been cut, are causing serious concern. If retention is important—and it is—that issue needs to be addressed.

Mr. Ainsworth: I try to get round as many establishments as I can, and I will continue to do so now that Parliament has returned, as I did over the summer. The Whips and parliamentary business allowing, I shall get round to as many establishments as I can, and I hope that that will include the one that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I shall come to issue of accommodation shortly, and I do not think that my comments will be very dissimilar from his.

Recognition of our armed forces is not enough. Our most valuable asset in defence is our people. The men and women of the British armed forces are person-for-person the best in the world. They provide security for the nation and accept the unique demands of service. Most markedly, they accept the risk of death or serious
9 Oct 2008 : Column 460
harm as part of their job. So it is vital that we do all we can, not just within the MOD but across Government, to ensure that those who serve are not disadvantaged by virtue of what they do. This will in some circumstances call for degrees of special treatment for those who need it.

That guiding principle underpinned the Command Paper launched in July. We pledged more than 40 cross-Government initiatives to improve support to our armed forces community. For example, we are doubling the maximum, up-front lump sum compensation for the most seriously injured to £570,000. That is on top of—although the media too often forget it—a tax-free, index-linked guaranteed income payment, which can take the total value of a settlement to in excess of £1.5 million over the course of a lifetime.

I was also pleased to see that most of the recommendations made by the Forsyth commission were already in our Command Paper—after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): On the question of compensation, especially for those who have been killed, will the Minister consider the anomaly that those who have been bereaved are not paid that compensation until after the inquest has been concluded, which may be a significant length of time after the death? Is not there an argument for paying compensation to the families immediately after the death, with the higher amount being paid after the inquest is completed?

Mr. Ainsworth: The armed forces compensation scheme is for people who are injured, not those who are killed. Separate arrangements are in place for compensation in some circumstances when people have died on service. The armed forces compensation scheme seeks to pay out as soon as is reasonably possible after a proper assessment of the level of injury. The hon. Gentleman will accept that the level of injury may not be immediately apparent, and we therefore need a proper assessment of that before we can compensate the person for it.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about death, for which we need a process to establish culpability. We have tried, where appropriate, to accept culpability so as not to delay the decision further and increase the trauma of the families of those who have lost their lives.

Mr. Gray: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as I did not explain myself clearly. When a member of the services dies, a standard amount—I think that it is £40,000—is always paid to the bereaved family, but it is delayed until the end of the inquest. Could we not pay that standard amount as soon as a death occurs, with any uplift arising from the result of the inquest being paid later?

Mr. Ainsworth: I will talk to the hon. Gentleman later and ensure that we are doing what we can. I understand his request, and if our actions are inappropriate, we will seek to address that.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): On a similar point, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the individual and the family are supported appropriately before a compensation settlement is reached?

Next Section Index Home Page