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For fear of being shown up for my own lack of expertise in these matters, and also for fear of repeating many of the arguments that have been made during this interesting debate, I propose to take a slightly different approach to the subject of defence procurement. Those who have spoken have fallen into one of three broad categories, as I shall explain in a moment. The reason that they have done so is the structure of the defence debates that we have in the House. I commented on that
when I spoke both in the last debate, on defence in the UK, and in the one before that, on defence in the world. It is an entirely artificial and false structure for a series of debates. I am not certain that the issues that we have been debating on procurement can be detached from the issue of defence in the world, and in any case, what is defence in the UK if it is not interlinked with defence in the world?
Those who are in charge of these matters, whether that is the Leader of the House, Defence Ministers or others, might like to consider whether, instead of those three separate debates that we have traditionally had for a number of years, the structure might be changed to a series of more general debates linking defence capabilities and foreign policy much more closely, covering defence in the world, and allowing debate to range reasonably widely over procurement matters, manpower matters and welfare matters, and crucially, if possible, resulting in a vote.
It is all very well having these debates as general debates. That means that turnout is poor, by and large. The same gang turns up on each occasion. We tell each other the things that we knew we were going to tell each other before we even started. It is all very useful but it does not achieve very much, whereas if there were a vote on the matteron the motion that this House supports what the Government are doing on a particular thing, for examplethat would be much more useful, and the Government could be assured of a majority.
The reason why I think that the structure produces three kinds of topical speeches in the procurement debate is that there are three ways of approaching procurement. First, many hon. Members, particularly on the Labour Benches, but to a degree on the Opposition Benches as well, are, perfectly legitimately and sensibly, fixated by constituency issues. Their approach to defence procurement is to say, In my constituency there is a factory that makes X tanksor whatever it might beand I want you, Mr. Government, not to change what you are doing about this because thousands of jobs in my constituency depend on it.
Those hon. Members do not argue that the tank is better or worse than a tank made somewhere else. They do not necessarily argue that it is a question of whether it is British, American, Chinese or anything else. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who represents a town that has been mentioned in the House more often than any other in the past 12 years, typified that by saying, We want British uniforms to be made in Chorley, not in China, not necessarily because they were better uniforms, but because he thought it was patriotic in one way or another to have them made in Chorley.
Mr. Hoyle: It is a pity the hon. Gentleman did not open his ears when I was speaking. The point was not only that the uniforms were made in China, but that they were inferior to those made in the UK. I went on to speak about the camouflage print not being as good, and about the infrared within that material which leaves our troops at a disadvantage because the quality of the material and the uniform is not as good as it should be. That is why the uniforms should revert to being produced in Chorley. There is nothing wrong with that, I assure him.
Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He has now had the opportunity to make it twice, and the Chorley Gazette will no doubt be the beneficiary of the press release. He makes a very good point [ Interruption. ]and I am just about to agree with him, if he will give me a second to do so. The important point, as he correctly says, is not whether the uniforms are made in Chorley or in Shanghai, but whether they are the right uniforms for our troopswhether those in the field have the best possible equipment. Uniforms are perhaps a low-grade example, so I shall cite other examples in a moment.
I am guilty of the behaviour to which I have referred, in the sense that every time I stand up in the Chamber I raise the issue of RAF Lyneham, and the question of the Hercules and the A400M. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, and I am guilty of a sort of pork barrel politics, but it is perfectly legitimate for me to do so as a Member. None the less, when we talk about defence, we ought to get away from narrow constituency interests and find a way to debate what is good for the defence of the realm, even if that is to the disadvantage of our constituencies and, if I may say so, to the disadvantage of the British defence industry. I am stepping on to very dangerous ground indeed, and I know that the defence industrial strategy has been widely welcomed and that there are many good parts to it. My instinct, however, is to think that Defence Ministers duty is to deliver a defence capability on the ground, and to carry out instructions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from the Prime Minister to do things around the world. Defence Ministers must provide our troops with the best possible equipment in order to do so, but it could be made in Chorley, Shanghai or Washington D.C. It does not really matter where it is made so long as it is the best possible equipment, provided at the cheapest possible price.
I know that that is heresy, and tomorrow morning I will doubtless be deluged with e-mails from assorted defence manufacturers throughout England for having advanced such a heretical argument, but none the less I believe it to be true.
Mr. Gray: I was about to come on to two caveats to that general approach to life. The first involves those things that are so secret or so peculiar to British sovereignty that it would be quite wrong if we allowed any ally, even one as close as the United States, to have control over them. There are no doubt some areas of defence manufacturing where that is the case, but it is a slight stretch to work out exactly what they are, and the majority of our most secret and urgent requirements are entirely open to the United States. Indeed, it is saidI do not know enough about these things, but it is saidthat Trident could not be fired without a key being turned in Washington.
No doubt there are some areas where our national interest is so absolutely central that we could not possibly let it go. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), from the Front-Bench team, correctly points out security of supply, which is the second caveat. Of course, we must be certain that we get the equipment that we need when we need it. I suggest to him, however, that it is predominantly a commercial matter. The defence industry makes its profits out of providing equipment and matériel to armies, air forces and navies throughout the world, and it does so on commercial and contractual bases, so the notion that an organisation with which we had a binding contract, such as BAE Systems, would at our moment of need say, Im awfully sorry but you cant have that particular piece of equipment; Ive decided not to do it because the American Government have brought pressure to bear on me, seems a little remote. There might be some occasions when that would be the case, and we should bear such points in mind when considering procurement, but I do not believe them to be a central consideration.
The second category of speech in this debate has been delivered by those people who have an interest or specialism in a particular piece of equipment. There has been quite a number of them, and they are very welcome. For example, the interesting comments that we heard a moment ago on the A400M is absolutely typical of the category, and I entirely agree with the argument; I think that we should have a fleet of C-130Js based, of course, at RAF Lyneham. None the less, what seems to me to be important is detailed knowledge not of the equipment, but of what it will deliver to our troops on the ground. That is where I very much endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre said. We do not need a middleweight, heavy-lift vehicle, such as the A400M; we need more C-17s or C-130Js, and we need to deliver the stuff on the ground.
We must consider very carefully how we handle our future defence procurement strategy, because with procurement we tend to reinvent the wheel. We employ a vast number of people at Abbey Wood in Bristol. There is a huge office, and huge numbers of civil servants and military people beaver away, coming up with solutions that we should have had 10 or 15 years ago. We can point at lots of procurement projects as examples of that. The Bowman radio system is a good one; it took us 15 or 20 years to produce something that could have been bought off the shelf the day before yesterday. The Eurofighter project is another example; we went through a ghastly pan-European procurement process, and ended up with something that we could have built ourselves much quicker without the interference of the Germans or the French in that cross-European co-operative venture.
We say that we need to do all those things ourselves because of our paranoia about handing over any kind of sovereignty, particularly to the United States. By saying that we must be in the lead in our defence procurement, we give up the ability to pick up a catalogue and say, We want 10 or this, 50 of that and 100 of the other tomorrow because that is what we need to deliver force on the ground.
BAE Systems and the other big British defence manufacturersnot that they are that big anymoreadvance an argument about research and development. They say that if we were to buy everything off the shelf
and if we were merely to buy a lot more C-130Js from Boeing, we would sacrifice our ability as a nation to research. The argument goes that we would no longer have the scientific ability to come up with new inventions for defence purposes. I find that extraordinarily difficult to believe. Incidentally, the pharmaceutical industry is always saying that unless the Government continue to subsidise pharmaceuticals they will stop inventing drugs. My hat! Of course they will keep on inventing drugsthey make a huge profit from doing so and selling the drugs to Governments and peoples around the world. The same surely applies to the defence industries.
If BAE Systems were not to get one penny of subsidy towards its research and development on aeroplanes, for example, it would not stop researching and developing aeroplanes. That is its job and business; it sells planes to nations everywhere, including ours. I simply do not believe that if we moved towards an off-the-shelf procurement programme, we would make a great sacrifice of research and development.
If we were to do all that we would, of course, make some sacrifices. However, we would gain advantages. We would cut out vast swathes of civil servants and research and development activities, and vast quantities of committees, reports, and people sitting around talking to each other about what they wanted. We would gain because we would deliver the equipment that our people need on the ground in good time and at a good price. A fundamental rethinking of our entire approach to procurement for defence purposes would lead to better delivery of the equipment that we need, and at a better price. We would therefore have a greater ability to punch above our weight across the world.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I shall speak only briefly. The bottom line has to be that procurement should be reliable and involve security of supply. I hope that, in summing up, the Minister will give us such assurances because the experience has been that reliability and security of supply are not always there.
I beg to differ from what the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said about research and development because the clothing and textile research establishment that used to be based in my constituency was moved to Bicester and, a decade on, it has disappeared completely. All that knowledge and expertise have been lost to the Ministry of Defence. That may well be a subject for a Defence Committee investigationto see what was proposed and promised, and the reality of what happened when that world-beating research enterprise was moved to Bicester.
I make no apology for mentioning a constituency interest. Twice last year, I visited Afghanistan to see British troops in Helmand province. On both occasions, the message was the samethere was a need for more helicopters. That was particularly the case the second time, because 16 Air Assault Brigade, from my own constituency, were there. If the procurement of additional helicopters is not going to happen as quickly as we would like, why cannot our European allies provide the additional helicopters, and the engineers and mechanics, and then allow our pilots from the Army, the Air Force and the Navy to fly them? When I visited Iraq with the Armed Forces Bill Committee, I saw a wonderful team
effort by helicopter pilots from the three services. I was greatly taken by the wonderful facility that unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, or drones, provided in identifying potential ambushes. That is perhaps an area of procurement that we are not doing enough about.
I invite the Minister to tell us where we are as regards improved protection for vehicles, particularly Snatch Land Rovers. I was struck by the bravery of the young men who were involved in dealing with improvised explosive devices, and I wonder whether we could look at providing additional equipment for them. Medical aid has not been mentioned to any great extent today. I saw life-saving applications issued to soldiers in the field and in field hospitals. I urge the Minister to consider the great successes in the procurement of medical aid and to think about how we can develop that still further.
The last defence procurement debate was on 19 June. Since then, the UK economy has declined further in relation to its peer group, the MOD has continued to fight wars on a peacetime budget, and the Treasury has refined the art of squaring the books by mortgaging the future. Its spend now, pay later approach relies on later being somebody elses probleman expedient that Ministers can be sure will be flagged up from now until election day, and well beyond that.
We have had an excellent and authoritative debate, with 13 contributions from Back-Bench Members. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) praised the British aerospace industry; of course, he was right to do so. He spoke specifically about the Typhoon Eurofighter and hoped that there would not be the weakening of support from the Government that he perceives.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) talked largely about jobs in defence manufacturing. He said that delays were about casting off things into the future and increasing costs, which I did not fully understand. Rather bizarrely, he prayed in aid Denmark as evidence that EU defence is a good thing. I would ever so gently remind him that Denmark is exempted from the European security and defence policy, so perhaps it was not the best example to choose. When the Liberal Democrats are in a hole, they should stop digging. The National Audit Office has made it clear that we cannot delay the decision on Trident. I would have thought that the Liberal Democrats would have hoisted that on board by now and would not continually volunteer it as a unique and rather strange element of their slate of policy proposals, such as they are. The hon. Gentleman wants, in effect, to go into the non-proliferation treaty talks in 2010 with the locker bare. He said that he was an idealist, and today we had evidence of that in spade-loads. Does he really think that our unilateral disarmament would convince other countries to do the same? I suspect probably not.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who is not in her place, brought us FRES as the French strawberry. We will never think of FRES in quite the same way again. She talked a great deal about Plymouth,
a city that I know very well, and she will have been as distressed as I have by the BBC news from Plymouth, which has led today with the story that the naval base there is to be a nuclear dustbin. She was rather pointed with the Minister for the Armed Forces in suggesting that he should get his finger out. I wonder whether that is precisely what he has been doing in relation to the future of Devonport. I suggest ever so gently that digits are sometimes best left in situ.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) spoke magisterially as ever and said that we must reconcile ourselves to the almost irreconcilablethe need to fight todays wars and to prepare for tomorrows. He said that FRES as a brand was now meaningless, with which I certainly agree, and that the Scout vehicle was unlikely to reach main gate in 10 months, as the Minister has suggested.
The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) mentioned cut and sew in connection with the camouflage uniform and put in a bid for Chorley in referring to that contracts renewal. I assume that that will be favourably entertained, since the Prime Minister wants British jobs for British workers. The hon. Gentleman mounted a defence of the beleaguered A400M and hoped that tranche 3 would go ahead, and he called for a marinised Typhoon. His remarks may well be prescient.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) highlighted problems with kit in the early stages of Operation Telic. I know that he was right, because I wore and dealt with some of that kit during Operation Telic II. I am happy to say that matters have improved since then, but we have to admit that it was from a low base. My hon. Friend and I might have to differ ever so slightly on aircraft carriers, but I appreciate the perspective of a cavalry officer and am confident that there will always be a place for the main battle tank, although I fear possibly not for horses. He was right, of course, that we have to fight todays wars, but it would be imprudent to sign up completely to the Rupert Smith thesis. State-on-state warfare needs resources that cannot simply be turned on and off. If we admit it as a catastrophic possibility, we must prepare for it now.
Ministers have used facts and figures with flair and imagination to suggest, with ever-decreasing conviction, that defence is safe in their hands. For example, there is the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). We have heard a lot from him already this evening, and I hope that he will not mind if I gently pull his leg a little and revisit his claim last month that in displacement terms, our warship building programme is the most substantial since the great war. In his dreams, apparently, he is trying to out-Dreadnought Jackie Fisher.
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