Previous Section Index Home Page

We had another look through the looking glass on 24 November in European Committee B, when the Under-Secretary sought to downplay the threat from the European Union to the doctrine of appropriate sovereignty given in the defence industrial strategy and implicit in EC article 296. European security and defence policy and the Lisbon treaty will, of course, degrade our ability to operate autonomously in the national interest by promoting supranational decision making, the European Defence Agency and the scope of qualified majority voting. To the bewilderment of European Committee B and the press, who sadly do not normally take an interest in what happens on the Committee
20 Apr 2009 : Column 113
corridor, the Under-Secretary, who is apparently a historian, offered in support of the EU’s defence ambitions the assertion that it had put a stop to bloodshed in Transylvania. Why he chose Transylvania I will have to leave to the imagination of others, but there is more than a touch of the Bram Stokers in the horror story of this Administration’s stewardship of the equipment programme.

On 23 February the Under-Secretary told us that the delay in the carrier programme was not the result of the non-availability of the joint strike fighter, which by any reasonable interpretation contradicted his boss’s written statement of 11 December. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin made it clear that JSF could be available, if we wanted it, as early as 2014. In the midst of all that confusion, we were denied the opportunity to debate the aircraft carrier programme in a timely fashion. The House needs to know definitively why the programme has shifted right, and why, especially towards the end of their lifespan, six Type 45s, three deployable at any one time, are now reckoned to be enough for the safe deployment of high-value assets, contrary to the strategic defence review.

The most important bit of kit is, of course, the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Their procurement and the promotion of their through-life capabilities must be our first consideration. We have heard much today about force protection—as well we might, because maintaining public support for distant conflicts, which appear to deliver body bags and little else, will be a challenge for any Administration. History tells us that wars are lost when the home front loses heart. For that reason, if for no other, as we face the long haul in Afghanistan, it behoves us to review our position and bear down further on force attrition. To do that, we must reconsider kit.

The Minister is right to point out, as he did on 19 June, that vehicles such as the Mastiff tear up the tarmac and alienate the locals. It is right to say that 6x6 wheeled and tracked vehicles look belligerent to a host population. However, the British public expect us to minimise casualties, and those of us who represent large numbers of servicemen demand it. If the Minister is worried about the impact of heavy vehicles on the mission, he must tackle his Administration’s attitude to in-theatre air transport.

I know that Ministers feel each loss as keenly as any of us, but what are we to make of Chinooks mothballed in Wiltshire for years, while commanders grit their teeth and muddle through with what their men call “coffins on wheels”? What is going on when the traffic collision avoidance system—TCAS—anti-collision technology on the Merlin helicopters belatedly leased from the Danes—I raised the matter in June—is considered an optional extra? What are we to make of the continued intransigence about Snatch and the demise of FRES, which was meant to deliver the best in force protection? What happened to the future integrated soldier technology—FIST—that was meant to network fire teams with the command? The US is to operate in that way, but we learn that we are not.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) spoke expertly about OCCAR and commonality with the European Union on kit. We must be careful not to reinvent the wheel, since NATO stock numbers already exist in the common NATO stock catalogue, which was hard won. I am not sure that we need a duplicate parallel system, which can lead only to confusion.

20 Apr 2009 : Column 114

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) has been described as a military vehicle anorak, in the nicest possible way. She demonstrated her mastery of the subject today.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) reiterated the central point that, since 2001, the armed forces have been operating well beyond defence assumptions. In the light of that, he was right to say that there has been no fiscal stimulus for defence.

I recently had the pleasure of sharing a parliamentary trip to Iraq with the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who spoke today about his party’s attitude to defence. I learned many of the points that he made in the debate during that visit in September, and they have not changed much since then. I hope that he will not mind if I disagree with most of them.

It is always a great pleasure to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), who spoke with much authority about the highly technical subject of defence economics. I share his concerns about and analysis of PFIs. Like him, I am worried about the eventual redeeming of mortgages. I appreciated his references to dealing with worn-out troops as well as worn-out kit.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) followed my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, so they could agree about the A400M. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said that we should attempt not to argue from a narrow constituency perspective and we all try to do that in such debates. However, it would be wrong not to mark his tireless advocacy for RAF Lyneham, which has been most effective, and appreciated by people in Wiltshire.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) spoke.

In February, Ministers kindly arranged for me to visit Afghanistan. The full experience involves a trooping flight out of Brize Norton, knowing full well that departure and arrival times are purely aspirational. My flight did not happen. Nobody will shed any tears over a politician being messed about, but when that becomes the common experience among men and women who are forced to kip down on the floors of airport terminals for days on end waiting for return flights, it behoves those who represent them to ask what is going on. My letter to the Secretary of State for Defence seeking clarification on that point remains unanswered, but a better solution than the RAF’s fleet of flying antiques struggling to operate from an airbridge that has become notorious must be found.

Last week, the chief executive of Airbus made an impassioned plea to save the A400M, citing the jobs under threat. He asked rhetorically what alternatives to his aircraft exist, while Boeing prepares to step in with C-17s that are already under active consideration as replacements for the A400M in France and South Africa. Perhaps the Minister might like to comment on that in his winding-up speech and outline his criteria for any new deal that the Government might be hatching with EADS or Boeing.

I am very sorry that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) is not here, because we have to cover the defence training review. It is one of the biggest items of defence procurement before us, but it is limping towards main gate. Before covering that, however, perhaps we should pause to draw a discreet veil over project Red Dragon and the so-called super hangar. As the National
20 Apr 2009 : Column 115
Audit Office reported last month, this spectacular has tipped £134 million down the drain with very little to show for it.

In relation to the DTR, Land Securities Trillium walked away from the Metrix consortium in December, when the bottom dropped out of the property market on which the financial case for the St. Athan project depends. I find that deeply worrying and I am not reassured by the replacement partner, the French catering firm Sodexo. The MOD’s website says that contracts will be signed with the newly constituted Metrix for the DTR phase 1 in the summer. Is that the case?

Will the Minister let us in on the DTR contingency plan that the MOD commissioned last year for use in the event of Metrix disintegrating? Will he ditch the fig leaf of “commercial in confidence” and say what cuts to training deliverables we can expect as a result of rising project costs? Can we assume that the DTR second package is now dead in the water? What does the Minister say to the main trade union involved, which has pointed out that large numbers of civilian trainers, who are already in short supply, will not relocate to south Wales and that that will impact on the quality of training produced at St. Athan, at least in the short to medium term?

Although he is not here, I commend the Veterans Minister, who I know takes a close interest in mental health, for his bravery in taking on his opposite number at Richmond House over the Easter break. It would be wrong of me to trespass too much into that territory, because this is a debate about procurement. However, procurement inevitably crosses departmental boundaries. In the current climate, it beggars belief that a Government who truly prioritised the welfare of our servicemen could produce something that they are pleased to call the “new horizons” strategy for improving mental health that does not carry any mention at all of servicemen, service charities or veterans. I hope very much that that situation will be remedied as soon as possible.

We have heard today that Bernard Gray will report early, having curtailed his consultation. Why is that and why was that issue not covered in the opening remarks of the Minister for the Armed Forces?

Finally, in his written ministerial statement of 11 December, the Secretary of State said quite specifically that at the end of the MOD planning round in March, we would have a proper and comprehensive announcement on the future of the equipment programme. March has been and gone, but there has been no announcement. Why not?

9.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): We have had an interesting debate, with a lot of extremely well-informed contributions. A certain amount of egregious nonsense has been spoken as well, however, which I will deal with in a second. For me, the most memorable aspect is that this is the first time that I can recall since I have been in the House of Commons—there may have been many other such occasions—when, without fail, every single speaker put a question, and usually several questions, for the Minister to answer when he winds up. That leaves me
20 Apr 2009 : Column 116
with a large pile of notes and little chance of doing justice to all the questions that were asked, many of which were extremely pertinent. However, I shall try to do my best, at least in relation to those questions that touch on my responsibilities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said that we must support high-tech investment in the aerospace industry. I totally agree with him on that. The series of investments that we have made in the Typhoon, the involvement of British companies in the joint strike fighter programme and our involvement in supporting a number of unmanned aerial vehicle projects, including the Mantis project, to which those on the Opposition Front Bench referred, are evidence of that. He also spoke powerfully in favour of tranche 3 of the Typhoon, and I agree with those comments.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) talked about the defence industrial strategy. Many people raised that issue, so I shall deal with it now. I am a complete supporter of the DIS. When I said that I was open minded about whether there should be a new one, I did not mean that I was casting doubt on the principle of having a DIS, or on the existing DIS. I was simply saying that I was not clear that we needed to move beyond DIS 1 to DIS 2. It is axiomatic that, if we did that, we should do so only if it created value. In other words, we should do it only when there was not much value left in DIS 1 and it needed to be replaced by a new framework in which industry could operate and invest with confidence over the long term.

It would be absurd to have a new defence industrial strategy every year or two. It might be possible after three or four years, although that is not certain. We should certainly take into account whether the industry itself felt that the present DIS was adequate or that it ought to be replaced, although that would not necessarily be a decisive point. All the signals that I am getting from the industry—including from Mike Turner, who I am sure will not mind my quoting him on this; he has been mentioned, rightly with great respect, by the Opposition on several occasions—suggest that the industry is not calling for a new DIS at the moment. So, that is the background on that matter.

The hon. Gentleman accused us of slashing the urgent operational requirements budget from more than £900 million to £635 million in the new financial year. He is simply factually wrong about that, I am afraid. We always have to have a budget; it is right for us who are managing the UOR programme to take the responsibility of saying what we think we will need to spend in this area, so we always have a figure. If there were some completely unpredicted event, we would obviously have to look at the matter again and go back to the Treasury, but it is right for us to try to manage our resources in this way. We have a budget of £635 million for the new financial year, in addition to a proportion of the £700 million for protected personnel vehicles—the lighter armoured vehicles—that we announced in November, which will be drawn on in this financial year. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman to the nearest pound how much of it will be drawn on in this financial year, but it will certainly be the majority of the amount. So, in my view, the UOR spend will be well over £1 billion in this year. I wanted to put the record straight on that.

20 Apr 2009 : Column 117

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Does that mean that, if circumstances required us to invest further sums in urgent operational requirements, any such excess expenditure would have to be met from the Department’s core budget after the next general election?

Mr. Davies: We are, I hope, good managers of the budget. We should therefore be able to take into account all the factors available to us, and of which we were conscious, at the time when the budget was agreed. If we were to fail in that, it would be reasonable that we should be held to account by the Treasury, and that the Treasury would not accommodate any overspend. However, if the reason for the overspend were some new national emergency or completely unpredictable event—some act of God or force majeure—the situation would clearly change and we would have to go back to the Treasury and negotiate a new position. That is the best that I can do, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that I have set out our position quite fairly. That division of responsibilities between ourselves and Her Majesty’s Treasury is a rational and reasonable one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is a really superb advocate for her constituency and for the interests of Devonport. I know that she has given a hard time not only to me but to all my ministerial colleagues on that subject. Indeed, when the Secretary of State was in her constituency in March, he gave her what sounded to me like very encouraging reassurances about the future of Devonport. I do not think that I could reasonably be expected to go further than that, but I hear her requests for more detail on the maritime change programme, and that point will be taken on board by the Government.

My hon. Friend asked for an assurance about changes in base porting, and I can give her that assurance now from the Dispatch Box. We will always give a minimum of five years’ notice—it could be more—of changes in base porting. If we were going to change the base porting of any ship, there would always be a five-year notice period. I hope that she will be smiling about that, because that is the assurance that she wanted.

Linda Gilroy: I hope that the Minister understands that at the moment people can see things going in Plymouth, but they cannot see things coming. If there are things coming, they need to be made visible.

Mr. Davies: I understand my hon. Friend’s arguments, with which we have a lot of sympathy, as well as her impatience. She has already received considerable reassurances from my ministerial colleagues—from the Minister for the Armed Forces as well as from Secretary of State—and more detail will be forthcoming before too long, but there are difficult commercial negotiations in process at the present time, so I hope she will understand that we should not go further than we have for the moment.

The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is Chairman of the Select Committee, accused us, if I heard him correctly, of providing for current wars, but failing to provide for future wars. I think that that is a completely unfair criticism. It is entirely what the urgent operational requirements programme is all about, and that UOR programme is in addition to the core defence budget, which is focused on the long-term contingency liabilities that our defence forces might face.

20 Apr 2009 : Column 118

Mr. Arbuthnot: I did not actually say that. I said that Professor Hew Strachan had said that under the current budget one cannot afford to fight both the present war and the future war, so we need to make a decision. I said that there was a risk that we might not fight either.

Mr. Davies: If I know anything about academics, it is that we never get a consensus from any of them, and I have no idea about the assumptions on which that professor drew in making that statement.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the FRES programme, so let me take the opportunity to deal with it. The FRES utility vehicle is not dead; we will make progress this year in going forward with this project, which is essential for the Army over the long term. Indeed, I hope that we will have a FRES utility vehicle in service within a decade. We will make more progress this year, as I say, and we will make further announcements in due course.

I couple the FRES reconnaissance vehicle with the Warrior upgrade, which has not been mentioned here, but there are so many common elements, particularly the cannon, that it is important to look at the two things together. I am extremely focused on this; I meet the teams regularly every month or six weeks. I hope that we will be able to go out to competition for it in a few months’ time. We really are making as fast progress as we possibly can, so I hope that relieves the anxieties—the understandable anxieties—of the right hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) raised with me, as he often has, the issue of the cut and sew contract and the uniforms, part of which were made in China. I had not before heard the complaints that my hon. Friend brought to the House about shortcomings in the quality of the product—the too high infrared signature and so forth. I will ask about that. My hon. Friend knows that a new contract will be let later this year and I will certainly do my best—it is my responsibility—to make sure that it is negotiated and placed in the fairest possible way. His representations, which are always very powerful, will very much be taken into account; I give him that undertaking. He raised a number of other issues and I am glad that he supports the tranche 3 Typhoon.

On Woodford, the future of the Nimrod programme and where we go with the MRA4 project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley also raised, I said that I would not make any decision until I visited Woodford, which I believe I am doing on Tuesday of next week. I look forward to that visit, but I do not want to hold out any unreasonable expectations. I have said that very clearly to my hon. Friend and his colleagues who come to see me and to the trade unions, as there are very considerable difficulties. So far as Woodford is concerned, it is not the Government’s decision, but it is quite clear that BAE Systems does not actually expect the plant to remain open very long anyway because it does not have a successor in the plant for the Nimrod programme. It thus becomes a question, sadly, of redeploying the extremely skilled, effective and valuable work force—in 2012, 2013 or 2014—so it would be quite dishonest to hold out a prospect for their long-term future on that site when the firm itself appears to have taken that decision.

Next Section Index Home Page