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The urgent operational requirement budget has provided our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with the equipment that the traditional defence procurement regime has markedly failed to provide over the last decade and
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more. However, the Government have decided to slash it by a third, from £900 million to about £635 million, at a time when we still have insufficient equipment, including helicopters, in Afghanistan. Given that the Prime Minister himself has indicated that we will be sending more troops to Afghanistan, there is clearly a longer-term commitment. Does the Minister believe that we now have enough equipment in Iraq for him to be able to slash the budget—it would be incredible if he did—or is this another example of the military covenant’s being stretched to breaking point, and the Government’s not backing up the military commitments that our troops are required to deliver with the necessary equipment to support them in conflict?

The world has changed significantly in the last 11 years. Asymmetric warfare now dominates, posing challenges to our armed forces, which are still configured like a cold war territorial defence. We need a strategic defence review so that we can engage in an open debate about what kind of armed forces we need for tomorrow’s challenges. As part of that review, the Government need to look more fundamentally at European defence co-operation. The latest Defence Committee report on equipment made a conservative estimate of defence inflation—around 3 per cent. a year in real terms—but others have put it much higher, at about 8 per cent. That is well above the increases in the last comprehensive spending review. At this rate, even without procurement disasters, the salami slicing will continue, and will wear our capability down even further.

Mr. Gray: Leaving aside for a moment those magnificent procurement triumphs the Eurofighter and the A400M, can the hon. Gentleman name one trans-European co-operation in defence procurement that has gone well?

Willie Rennie: There is no doubt that there have been significant problems with European defence procurement, but that does not mean that we should abandon the principle.

Mr. Gray: Name one.

Willie Rennie: There are examples that have worked well. What we need to address is the fundamental issue of working with our European partners so that we can obtain the benefit. Lord Garden—who, sadly, has passed away—said it

and those who completely dismiss European defence co-operation need to provide an alternative answer to the continuing decline in British defence capability.

Mr. Wallace rose—

Willie Rennie: We want our armed forces to have the best kit and the capability to have an influence in the world. If that means deeper co-operation, then so be it. Others seem to have their heads in their hands—including, perhaps, the hon. Gentleman who wants to intervene—but it is essential that we are frank with ourselves and work with others where we possibly can.

Mr. Wallace: When the hon. Gentleman refers to further and deeper European co-operation, does he mean the level that we are reaching in Afghanistan and reached in Iraq, and the complete absence of European
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countries’ commitment to their word when it comes to backing up our armed forces who are doing their job on behalf of their countries’ security?

Willie Rennie: Nothing wakes Tories from their sleep more effectively than the word “Europe”; they start foaming at the mouth at every opportunity when we mention it. It is absolutely clear that we need to get more from our European allies, but the hon. Gentleman should accept that although we have not had the commitment that we should have had from some of them, there are lots of countries, such as Denmark, which have given lots of troops to serve in Afghanistan. Some countries need to do more, but we should not ditch the principle just because we do not get the commitments we need from all countries. I shall move on, however, because I do not want to get the Conservatives too excited by mentioning Europe too often.

Like a bolt from the blue, during the recess the Government announced another set of job cuts at the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, including at Crombie in my constituency. That was unexpected, as another review is currently under way, inspired by the Treasury. When the Minister winds up, will he explain why we have had another set of job cuts, as, unsurprisingly, morale is extremely low in the DSDA? Will he also tell us about the Treasury-inspired review, which I understand the MOD did not know about before the Treasury announced it? Is the MOD involved in that review and debate, and when can we expect to have some kind of answer?

Nuclear non-proliferation merits an investment of volumes of political capital. Over the next year, we have a tremendous window of opportunity in advance of the non-proliferation treaty talks. With President Obama impressively opening doors that have been padlocked shut for years, there is an opportunity to have serious and effective engagement with a range of countries, including the likes of Russia, Iran, North Korea and China, on a range of global matters, with nuclear weapons at the top of the list. Ultimately, nuclear non-proliferation is a political issue. As it requires political, rather than military, solutions, the signals we send in advance of those talks have to be strong and clear. This is not a time for vacuous comments or commitments that any junior student would see through in seconds.

The Prime Minister deserves some credit for investing time and effort on this agenda. He has made a number of high-profile keynote contributions, yet by announcing that the number of missile tubes in the replacement submarines will be cut from 16 to 12, he simply reinforced the status quo. It was a vacuous comment that was not appreciated by his audience and left the negotiators from other countries bemused.

Will the Minister confirm whether we will have four or three submarines for the replacement Trident, because Lord Malloch-Brown indicated in another place that we could no longer keep up a continuous sea deterrent with only three submarines? Will the Minister clarify whether we will have four? He is looking puzzled about this; perhaps he should check his colleague’s comments in Hansard as he made a clear statement that we could no longer follow through on the commitment made in 2006 that we might have three replacement submarines rather than four. We need clarification on that because it was only about two and a half years ago that we
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agreed that there could be a commitment to cut the number to three, and I am sure that many hon. Members cast their vote on that basis. We need clarification on why the decision has, apparently, been made, and on what basis.

I agreed with the Prime Minister when he said recently:

However, the signal we sent out in 2006, when we agreed to renew the fleet of submarines and to enter into an agreement with the US on new missiles, was destructive. That decision need not have been made at that time; it was never necessary to make all the decisions back in 2006. Whatever the reasons for doing so were—such as, perhaps, support from the previous Prime Minister for the current Prime Minister—it was not necessary to make those decisions at that time, and it sends a message out to all those who will attend the NPT talks next year that we have no intention of giving up our nuclear deterrent until at least the middle of the century. I accept all the arguments about industrial drum beat and the necessary lead time for research, development and design, but making a full and, effectively, final decision on Trident six years before it was absolutely essential was unnecessary and reckless. We could by all means have made some of the decisions—the essential ones—at an earlier stage, but with main gate at around 2014, the big decision only needed to be made in advance of that. In fact, we should have a debate at initial gate too, rather than the announcement being snuck out in a recess.

Mr. Hoyle: The hon. Gentleman talks about drum beat, which is important to Barrow-in-Furness and keeping the skills there, but the key point is the necessity of taking the decision now if we are to keep our design skills in place. The people with such skills cannot simply be brought together and then design a submarine. Whether the wider decision is right or wrong is another matter, but the fact is that we must make the decision one way or the other and do so now, so I disagree with him.

Willie Rennie: I agree with that, and the hon. Gentleman should have listened more carefully to my comments as I referred to “all the decisions”. Some of the decisions—the essential ones—could have been made at an earlier stage, but why make all the decisions then, because that sends a message out to the whole world that we are going to renew no matter what happens in the NPT talks in 2010? The hon. Gentleman might think that this is a subtle difference, but it is actually an extremely important difference. Many people—experts from outside the House—recognise that we had an extremely valid and powerful position and we should have stuck to it, but unfortunately not enough hon. Members agreed.

Linda Gilroy: I am a little confused as to whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing from a multilateralist or unilateralist point of view. Will he clarify that? We now have what is basically a minimum deterrent, and we need to keep that minimum deterrent in order to be part of the negotiations, not just in 2010 but beyond as well.

Willie Rennie: This is how things have happened in the past: we have made the main decision at main gate—we have not made all the decisions well in advance
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of when it was necessary. I am a multilateralist, but I want to get rid of weapons, and I want to ensure that we have the right conditions so that we can have a decent set of talks in 2010 with no barriers in the way. What the House did in 2006 was put one big barrier in the way—or rather four now, not three—because people think that we are now committed to Trident until 2050. Some Members of this House may not want to get rid of nuclear weapons at all, but I do; I want to get rid of those weapons. A lot of people, however, seem to hold to the position that we should keep weapons no matter what.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech with enjoyment, but I am now confused as to why he is asking for an answer now about whether we have three or four submarines. Can that not be delayed until later?

Willie Rennie: I think that sending out a message on whether we are going for three or four is important because if we give the impression that, as well as the reduction in warheads, we will go down to three submarines, that would be significant—and what message does it send to the rest of the world if we are already going back on a commitment that was so recently made in this House? It is important for us to know whether the intention is to have three or four submarines.

Allowing the House to make decisions at a later stage would have significant advantages. It would send a message to the rest of the world that we were seriously contemplating a nuclear-free world. [Interruption.] The Conservatives scoff because they do not really believe in getting rid of nuclear weapons. They pretend that they are multilateralists, but in reality they want to keep nuclear weapons for ever. I may be an idealist, but I still hold out hope of getting rid of nuclear weapons, because that is what this country, and the world, deserves.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, and I am a little bit not up to date on Liberal Democrat policy. Given what he says from the Front Bench, when a Liberal Democrat Government are elected in 2010, will his party’s new great leader be committed to abolishing Trident? What will his decision be?

Willie Rennie: We want the NPT talks in 2010 to be a great success, and we will put a huge amount of effort into making sure that they are a success.

Mr. Gray: So do we all.

Willie Rennie: That is doubtful. We have made no bones about the fact that we are in favour of renewing Trident after those talks if we are unsuccessful in them. We have made that absolutely clear. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is being a wee bit mischievous. I will send him our policy document, since he has such great interest in our policy. He may benefit from reading it.

Waiting until 2012 or 2014 would give us a clearer view of the world. We could see how the world was at that time. Why make the decisions way before it is absolutely necessary to do so? We would also be able to weigh up the various defence and other expenditure priorities before putting a mark on the contract.

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All is not lost; there is a way out for the Government, and I like to help them whenever I can. When the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), makes his winding-up speech, he could announce that he will allow the House to have a vote in 2012 or 2013 on the main gate decision on the replacement of Trident subs. I know that he has the power to do so; he has tremendous power within the Labour party, and he may allow us to have that vote. It is essential that in 2012 or 2013, the House is given the power to vote. There is also an indication that we should have some discussion at the initial gate stage, rather than the initial gate decision being snuck out in another recess. Perhaps the Minister could explore that possibility, too. Such an announcement today would be the most powerful boost that this country could give to those NPT talks in 2010. It is a powerful message that we could send to other countries, and I urge him to make that announcement today.

6.23 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow previous contributors, who have quoted extensively from the Defence Committee report on equipment. I want to mention a few good things that the Committee found, before highlighting some of our criticisms, and then I shall talk about what some of that means for my constituency.

Not everything that we had to say about the Ministry of Defence’s procurement policy was bad, by any means. We remarked on the delivery of equipment and supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan in very challenging circumstances. In particular, our report commends the urgent operational requirements system as “highly effective” in meeting rapidly changing threats. One example is Jackal, a highly mobile weapons platform, manufactured in Devonport, which was introduced in Operation Herrick in 2008 in response to such an urgent operational requirement. The report also praises Defence Equipment and Support for its achievements to date, stating that the operation is heading in the right direction and has made good progress in improving the skills of its staff across a range of key acquisition disciplines.

I think that I am right in saying that the MOD is the only Department to have published its innovation procurement plan—something that all Departments have been asked to come up with to improve public procurement from the private sector, including the important small business sector. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who spoke for Her Majesty’s Opposition, seemed to be saying that procurement was still something of a basket case—those are my words, not his—but that cannot be so, because the Department’s approach to strategic management and performance continues to attract interest from wider audiences, including other Departments, local authorities and indeed other nations’ ministries or departments of defence. In addition, MOD performance managers are regularly invited to address and take part in international strategic and performance management symposiums. We need to be careful to get the balance right; there are some people in MOD defence procurement working very hard to get the right equipment to our front line in the theatres. It is important that somebody, apart from Ministers, stands up and says that.

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The Defence Committee’s third report of the Session on defence equipment did, of course, make some cogent criticisms, some of which have already been quoted. There is one that I particularly want to highlight, because I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), will, in responding, elaborate on what he said about the defence industrial strategy when he was before the Committee. It was originally expected that there would be a second DIS in December 2007, and there was a further deadline in the spring of 2008. When the Under-Secretary came before us, he said that he was “open-minded” about whether it made sense to have an updated version of the defence industrial strategy. My fellow Committee members could not understand that. The strategy is all about protecting the industrial skills bases, having identified the sovereign capabilities that we need. I look forward to his elaborating a bit, in front of the whole House, on what exactly he meant. However, it is of course true that the defence industrial strategy continues to inform the Government’s procurement decisions in an important way that helps to maintain the skills base.

The part of the defence industrial strategy that exercises me and other Members of Parliament from in and around Plymouth and Devonport is the maritime change programme. I want to come back to that and how it affects Devonport at the conclusion of my speech. First, I want to say a bit about the Select Committee programme. Having concluded our work considering the equipment programme, we decided to set out the current state of the armed forces, in terms of readiness and capability, in a series of related areas of MOD policy and activity. We set out how the MOD must act to ensure that the armed forces have the proper training, organisation and capabilities for future challenges, drawing on the MOD’s balanced scorecard, which was issued with the defence plan for 2008 to 2012. We hoped that using the MOD’s own balanced scorecard would guide us to look in an appropriate way at the matters that are most important to ensuring that the men and women on the front line have the capability to meet the great challenges that we face in Iraq—although to a lesser extent now—and continue to face in Afghanistan.

Following through on that, we currently have an inquiry on readiness and recuperation for the tasks of today. It looks at preparedness, with regard to equipment in particular. It also considers procuring, training, and the sustainability of the interplay between the two for any new and immediate challenges. We are just setting out on a helicopter capability inquiry, and will then move on to look at an assessment of the intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—issues, with a focus on network-enabled capability. A further new inquiry—the comprehensive approach—will include consideration of the lessons that can be learned from experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan and, as part of that, will consider what equipment is necessary for such situations.

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