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28 Oct 2009 : Column 292

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend's attitude with regard to the statement. There was humility, and he said, "Sorry, we admit we got it wrong and we are going to put it right." I await with interest the Government's response to the report. He said that Nimrod issues were missed over the years, but will he change that to "ignored" over a number of years?

Mr. Ainsworth: The report makes grim reading. Glaring dangers with the Nimrod aircraft existed for decades and were not recognised for decades. The safety casework was, as Mr. Haddon-Cave says, far and away the best opportunity to identify those dangers that were so clear to see, but it was missed. Despite great expertise and expense, the dangers were simply not identified, proving that the system was totally and utterly inadequate for the job.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): As I listened to the Secretary of State's words and read about the tick-box culture, I thought that he was genuinely sorry. However, I thought that he and, perhaps, all of us have no understanding of the massive job that we face in changing the culture not just of the Ministry of Defence, but of the country. In that respect, I was very pleased to see the Leader of the Opposition in his place, listening to the Secretary of State's statement. However, if we are to change the culture, let us start here. The strength of this crushing report is that it was rigorously independent. But the Secretary of State has yet to accept the key recommendation of Bernard Gray's review of acquisition-that the assessment of the equipment programme should be similarly rigorously independent. Why not; and, will the Secretary of State please do so?

Mr. Ainsworth: I recognise that the lessons that we could learn from this episode are absolutely profound in terms of defence, and we have to try to learn them. However, they go far wider than defence. How do we get right in our modern world the balance between the pursuit of efficiency, which everybody wants us to pursue because nobody wants to pay more than they absolutely have to for equipment or capability, and making certain that we do not compromise safety in any way? We really have got to put in place systems that properly calibrate those priorities.

On Bernard Gray's report, the one significant recommendation that I do not accept is that we will improve procurement by placing defence equipment and supply with a contractor-run organisation. We can and must do that by other means, and we have to have military knowledge properly plugged into our procurement processes. That recommendation would not be an aid to procurement; it would be a detriment.

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): I commend my right hon. Friend on the manner in which he registered the Government's contrition for the events that have taken place, but I refer him to the assurance that he received from the Chief of the Air Staff and the defence chief airworthiness engineer that our fleets remain safe to fly. Had my right hon. Friend asked for such an assurance on 2 September 2006, would he not have received the same assurance? He says that he has full confidence in the people who carry out airworthiness duties, but how confident can the House be? Will he give an assurance now that no incident in the future will occur due to any fiscal shortfall?

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Mr. Ainsworth: If my hon. Friend manages to read the report, which is very lengthy and detailed, he will see that it contains words that could be read as indicating that Mr. Haddon-Cave himself feels that not only the Nimrod fleet, but some of our other aircraft fleets are not safe to fly today. The reason why I met Mr. Haddon-Cave this morning was to make absolutely certain that I understood what he was saying in his report-I thought that I did on my overnight reading of it, and he confirmed that this morning. It is not only the Chief of the Air Staff and the individual in the new position of defence chief airworthiness safety engineer who are telling me that the fleet is safe, but Mr. Haddon-Cave. Mr. Haddon-Cave says that, on Nimrod, he had been invited to make an interim report, if he felt that one was necessary, because of airworthiness considerations. He has not made that report. He assured me this morning that his report should not be read as saying that our current fleet or fleets are not safe as they fly today.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I say to the Secretary of State that I accept that he is deeply distressed by the report and will do his best to implement the recommendations? May I also say that many of us fear that the long-standing disregard for safety, arising out of a concern for savings, may extend right across the MOD budget-for example, into the military budget, including armoured vehicles and the historical lack of body protection; the Navy, perhaps, with its submarines; and the RAF, with the Nimrod and, I fear, the Puma? Given all that, will he accept that the situation requires a change of culture at the highest level of the services, probably involving direct intervention from Ministers?

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, I do. I accept that savings were a part of the problem-I do not demur from that at all-but I do not think that the pursuit of savings alone is the cause of the problem. It is therefore necessary to drive through culture change. We have been trying to do that, as I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept. We have learned the lessons not only from Nimrod but from the deaths on the Tireless submarine a couple of years ago. We have tried to learn the lessons of our own boards of inquiry in trying to drive in the management and cultural change that is needed in the armed forces as well as in the MOD.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I welcome this hard-hitting and detailed report, as will my constituents, who wish all the best for everybody at RAF Kinloss and the families of the 14 brave service personnel who died aboard the Nimrod XV230. We have had an independent inquiry and inquests, we have had reviews, we have had numerous reports, and we have had analysis about Nimrod. At every stage, Ministers have given assurances that the right lessons would be learned and acted on. Clearly, they were not-so why should we have confidence in the assurances that we have heard today?

Mr. Ainsworth: We commissioned the report because we knew that assurances were necessary given the findings of the board of inquiry-not through any fault of its own, but because the terms of reference of boards of inquiry mean that they do not consider the wider background and apportioning blame but the direct causes of the accident. There was an absolute necessity to commission this piece of work because it was obvious
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that some of the reasons for the crash went beyond the remit of the board of inquiry. I hope that we are able to reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents-many of the lost lived in his constituency-that we take this matter very seriously and are determined to drive in the change that is necessary. When I meet the families of service personnel who have lost their lives in very many circumstances, I find that their overriding desire is to know that their loved one did not lose their life in vain and that we genuinely learn the lessons of the loss that they have suffered; and that is what we must try to do.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): When will the Nimrods be phased out of service?

Mr. Ainsworth: The Mk 2 Nimrod is nearing the end of its service life. Indeed, part of the report exposes the fact that we have extended its out-of-service date repeatedly because of delays in the supply of a replacement. On current plans, the MR2 has only a few more months of service life left. However, I remind my hon. Friend that we also have the Nimrod R1, which is conducting vital operations in Afghanistan.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): The MOD is very often-continually, it seems-criticised for its inability to provide the right equipment at the right place. Surely we can expect that when equipment is provided it is at least safe and airworthy. There are two stark facts in this report. First, Mr. Haddon-Cave refers again to the pursuit of financial savings and taking eyes off the safety ball; and secondly, he is very critical of our industrial partners. We heard what the Secretary of State said about the internal review that he is going to conduct within the MOD. What ultimate sanctions can be taken as regards our industrial partners, and how can they be called to account?

Mr. Ainsworth: This is a very detailed report with some pretty far-reaching criticisms, not only of us but of others-individuals and companies, including important British companies. I therefore do not want to leap to conclusions about how we take these matters forward. I have promised to look in detail at every aspect of the report and to come back to the House before Christmas, and I will do that.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's saying that he is going to learn from Army boards of inquiry, because, as he knows, a second Army board of inquiry is due on my late constituent, Captain James Philippson.

I was pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is aware of the financial implications stretching more broadly across other items of defence equipment. Will he take that down to the lowest common denominator-namely, not just equipment that is out there and may not be functioning correctly, but the absence of equipment that should be there?

Mr. Ainsworth: In the case of the hon. Lady's constituent, she knows that we are awaiting a second Army board of inquiry. Her constituent was not at all happy with the outcome of the first Army board of inquiry, and I would not like to prejudge any findings that the second board of inquiry comes to.

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Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): The parents of one of the dead crew members live in my constituency. They find it almost impossible to get closure on the situation because of the time that it has taken to come up with these reports. Will the Secretary of State build into the MOD ethos the fact that the speed with which people need to know what happened is paramount? These parents and families need to know, as quickly as possible, the reason that their child, or whatever, died. Could we please have some form of timetable after a disaster for when the information comes back to this House?

Mr. Ainsworth: I accept that the hon. Gentleman is genuine about the point that he makes. This was a big issue with me when I first became Minister for the Armed Forces over two years ago. These things go on for such a length of time that people cannot possibly get closure. However, I have come to accept that one cannot impose arbitrary timetables in such cases. The board of inquiry in this case took more than a year, which was very frustrating. We then had the inquests, and we then commissioned the Haddon-Cave review. We must be mindful, all the time, that there are grieving people suffering as a result of the process. However, when I talk to them they say that their first demand is thoroughness. Yes, they want speed, and yes, they want closure, but they do not want short cuts. We therefore cannot impose an artificial time line on these things.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Nimrod aircraft was built at BAE Systems at Woodford; part of the site lies in my constituency. I welcome the Secretary of State's statement and his assurance that all the recommendations will be implemented, as the crash was an absolute tragedy. However, will he not stand up for this wonderful aircraft that has done a magnificent job over the years? The R1 is still performing a brilliant role. Will he tell me, and all the work force still at BAE Systems at Woodford, that following this tragic accident, which I deeply regret-my condolences go out to the families of all those who were killed-the Nimrod will not be prejudiced in future purchases by the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Ainsworth: Mr. Haddon-Cave pays glowing tributes to all those who were associated with the Nimrod, and rightly so. The overwhelming thrust of his report-I have not managed to read every single page and every detail overnight-is not an attack on the aircraft itself in any way: it is an attack on the systems that have effectively let our people down.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for the content and tone of his statement. He says that lessons have been learned and that there is still more to be done. As part of that process, will he look at the procurement programmes that he has already announced, such as the Puma
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extended life programme? That programme was much criticised by the Defence Committee, and there are modern alternatives that may prove to be better value and cheaper in the long run.

Mr. Ainsworth: We must look at our procurement processes. The purpose of commissioning and delivering the Gray report was, in effect, to force us to do that. We will bring forward proposals for acquisition reform as part of the Green Paper process that the hon. Gentleman's party and the Conservative party are co-operating with, and I hope that we will bring forward some work early in the new year. However, I do not want to get distracted into individual programmes and decisions that people may or may not agree with. This is a far bigger problem than that, and it needs to be considered at a comprehensive and strategic level.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I join the Secretary of State in expressing the sympathy of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the grieving families of the 14 servicemen who tragically lost their lives. I commend the Secretary of State on the manner in which he made his statement and the humility with which he has accepted the report. Can he guarantee that the failings that have been outlined will be corrected, and that a time scale will be given for when those corrections will be made?

Mr. Ainsworth: There are many people in the MOD who, over the period I have been there, have been absolutely bent towards trying to ensure that we learn all the lessons that we need to learn to put safety in place. Nimrod has been a big part of that lessons learned process. There is a desire to do that, but are we at the right place? No, we are not. We have not yet achieved the culture change that needs to take place, but there is a huge desire to do so and I want to ensure that I encourage that and drive it through so that we get to where we need to be.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Three companies of my local Royal Anglian Regiment went to Afghanistan last week. They will welcome the Secretary of State's gracious words, but there are of course implications for them in the report. Will he seek to ensure that the replacement aircraft that comes in soon will be able to operate from a base much nearer its operational zone? That may help to reduce risk.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not aware of the basing considerations that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I am more than happy to talk to him and listen to any representations that he has. Ensuring that we have sufficient surveillance for operations in Afghanistan is a vital part of keeping our people safe there. That surveillance is provided not only by Nimrod but by many other platforms, and we must ensure that we do all that we can to maintain the overall capability in the best possible shape that we can.

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Points of Order

1.12 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make clear my displeasure at the fact that a written ministerial statement pertaining to today's debate has in fact not been released. The Government have announced publication of the responses to the consultation on local spending reports, but I find it curious, to put it generously, that the statement is being published on the day of the debate. I find it incredible that Members were not given the courtesy of seeing the statement, and that it is still not available in the Library of the House as late as 12 minutes past 1. Not only is that a grave discourtesy to Members of all parties, who have worked together in a non-partisan way on the issue of local spending reports, but it makes a mockery of the Chamber being used in any meaningful form.

I believe that there was a similar incident the Thursday before last, Mr. Speaker, when you described it as a grave discourtesy to Members that a statement was made available only one hour before a debate. I should like to know what your view is of the fact that the statement pertaining to today's debate has not yet been made available.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order and for giving me advance notice of it. My view is straightforward: I regard the situation as extremely unsatisfactory. A statement of that kind ought to be delivered in a timely way. If it has not been, we need to know why and the matter needs to be put right. Above all, I hope that there will not be a repetition. It is a discourtesy to Members of the House.

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Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I address this point to you in your capacity as custodian of the interests of those who work in the Westminster village. You will be aware of the speculation surrounding the leaking of Sir Christopher Kelly's report and the impact that that is having upon a lot of individuals who work for MPs or are members of MPs' families. I do not believe that it is tolerable that that speculation should be allowed to continue until next Wednesday.

It is well known that the report has been completed and is at the printers at the moment. I wonder whether it is within your power, Mr. Speaker, to order that the report should be published as soon as possible so that the speculation can be ended and we can answer questions from our staff based upon the facts in the report rather than speculation.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. It is not a parliamentary report that is being produced, and although I note that he either thinks that it is within my power to do as he asks or wishes to extend my power to ensure that it is, the present situation is that it is not. The report is due to be delivered to the Government by 4 November and published on that date.

I have heard the very serious point about the leakage that has taken place, and I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is an immensely experienced and perspicacious parliamentarian, that if he wants to address his concern to representatives of the Government, business questions might be a suitable opportunity for him to do so. I have a hunch that he will probably be there.

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Rentcharges (Notification)

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

1.15 pm

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I beg to move,

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