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Defence Procurement

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, on Ministry of Defence Annual Report and Accounts 2006-07, HC 61, and the Government Response, Fifth Special Report from the Committee, HC 468, and the Tenth Report from the Committee, on Defence Equipment 2008, HC 295, and the Government Response, Seventh Special Report from the Committee, HC 555.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of defence procurement.

May I start by expressing my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Sarah Bryant of the Intelligence Corps, Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Paul Stout, who were tragically killed in an explosion during an operation east of Lashkar Gar on Tuesday? Their deaths are another stark reminder of the sacrifices that our people are making on our behalf. We must never forget them, nor must we allow their sacrifice to go unrecognised.

In my first year in post, I have been increasingly impressed by the men and women of our armed forces, who are doing an outstanding job while deployed on operations around the world. I have seen their dedication and resourcefulness at first hand in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are, quite simply, outstanding professionals, and I know that the House will join me in paying tribute to their dedication and commitment. They are the best in the world and we are lucky to have them.

Over the past few years, we have focused on providing our people with the best possible support on current operations. Providing them with the right equipment is essential if they are to do the job that we ask them to do. Since current operations began, we have spent more than £3.5 billion, through the urgent operational requirement process, on equipment to do just that. The money comes direct from the Treasury reserve and is additional to the Defence budget, which is 7.5 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1997. The recent Defence Committee report on defence equipment recognised that effort, and praised the speed with which we are delivering, through the UOR process, substantial amounts of vital equipment to our armed forces on the front line. Those efforts are also recognised by the most important audience of all: the troops themselves. According to Brigadier Carleton-Smith, currently commanding 16th Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan,

“each soldier is much better equipped than he was in 2006 when the Brigade last served in Helmand. I doubt whether the British Army has ever put a brigade into the field as well equipped as 16 Brigade and it continues to improve with each deployment. The next brigade will probably be even better equipped.”

The Minister rightly paid tribute to the servicemen who recently lost their lives in Afghanistan. I know that the Snatch Land Rover has limitations, but what more can be done to offer our troops protection when travelling in those vehicles? One suggestion is that a device could be fitted that would intercept mobile phone signals, which can detonate improvised explosive devices. Is that sort of measure being considered by the Ministry of Defence? We will need to carry on using the Land Rovers, but surely more protection can be provided.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. It is early days; the tragedy occurred on Tuesday and will need to be looked into in detail. Yes, the people concerned were in a Snatch Land Rover, according to the information that I have received so far. Another vehicle—a Mastiff, for instance—would not have been suitable for the task they were doing in the area where they were required to work. Electronic countermeasures—the kind of capability that the hon. Gentleman talks about—are already fitted to Snatch Land Rovers, and I am told that they were fitted to the vehicle in question. Of course there needs to be a full investigation, and we need to look into the detail of the tragedy, as I am sure we will. We must learn any lessons that there are, and we cannot do that overnight. That is the extent of my information so far, the tragedy having only just occurred.

Without going into too much detail, is the Minister confident that the configuration of the signals capability of our front-line troops fits well with the electronic countermeasures?

The hon. Gentleman says, “Without going into too much detail,” and then asks me a highly technical question that can be answered only in time, after investigation. We have to use every incident as an opportunity to learn lessons, if we are to minimise the tragedies that will inevitably occur from time to time and minimise the impact on our people. Those issues will need to be considered.

Equipment procured from our core budget has played a critical role in current operations. Platforms such as Harrier, Tornado, Warrior, Bulldog and Viking were procured with very different operational circumstances in mind, but they continue to prove their worth on current operations, giving the lie to the accusation that such high-end capability has no value in the complex operational situations that we face in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those platforms can be used across a range of operational scenarios; that has been proven in combat in the past few years. There will continue to be a place for such high-end capability in our future procurement plans.

UOR procurement is rightly designed to deliver capability to meet the threats that we face in current operations, but we have to use our core budget to ensure that our armed forces are properly equipped for every eventuality, not just current operations. We need to strike a balance between the concrete needs of operations today and the risks that we might face tomorrow. Used properly, those two funding streams should complement each other. Whereas our core budget provides an equipment package that will act as a national insurance policy, the UOR process allows us to tailor and supplement that equipment package to meet immediate and unforeseen threats.

Our last planning round focused on the near-term issues facing the core equipment programme. We now need to take a closer look at our medium-term plans and concentrate them further on supporting operations, in line with our commitment in the national security strategy. That is why we are undertaking a short examination of the equipment programme to look at our planning assumptions over the next 10 years. The examination will take in the whole equipment programme, within the context of our basic defence policy. We are doing that because priorities can change, particularly as a result of our experience on operations.

Our estimates of the cost and phasing of expenditure change, too. That is why we have set ourselves the following key objectives: to adapt to rising costs, to shift the balance more towards support for current operations, and to do more for our people. It is simply sensible planning to re-examine our priorities in the light of operational experience and changing spending profiles. The examination will be an important input into the next planning round.

The Minister just referred to the last planning round. Which one was it? Has planning round 2008 merged with planning round 2009?

The planning round is complete. Planning round 2008 is complete. Planning round 2009 needs to commence. The short examination that we are now undertaking will effectively inform the next planning round, which is the planning round for 2009. There were difficulties and, as I said, we concentrated on the short term in planning round 2008. We now need to take a longer look because of the spending profile that we have.

I fully support what is being done, because we need to balance the urgent operational requirements and the kit that we are now buying with the longer-term decisions. That is correct, but may I ask the Minister’s civil servants—his Department—to hold their hands up for once and say that things have changed? I tabled a parliamentary question about where the Mastiff fits in the future rapid effect system programme, only to be told this week that it does not. I am sorry, but that answer absolutely contradicts what Lord Drayson and Brigadier Applegate told me and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), last year, when they said that the Mastiff was now part of the FRES family of vehicles. I should have thought that that was the correct approach. May I ask the Minister’s civil servants, when they draw up the plans, to come back to reality rather than to the old script, which has clearly been ditched?

I am going to move on to talk about the vehicle programmes—the current vehicles on operations and the FRES programme. My hon. Friend has made himself quite an expert on the subject, and he knows that we will need to look at how we use Mastiff beyond current operations, so he makes a very valid point.

For the sake of clarity, will the Minister confirm whether the Nimrod MRA4 will be part of the short review that he just mentioned?

We have to draw the review as broadly as possible. We must look at our whole spending programme, and look at it in the medium term, if we are to have good information that informs the next planning round. We want to draw those bounds as widely as possible and not exclude particular areas. That is not to say that any decisions have been taken that change our intentions towards Nimrod or towards any other programme.

While we carry out the examination, we remain committed to working with industry in line with the defence industrial strategy. We need clarity of purpose, an open working relationship with industry and to retain operational sovereignty where appropriate. We are well aware that over the past few months the uncertainty about our future equipment programme has been unsettling. The equipment examination is designed to give us the clarity we need to move forward with industry, confident that we are heading in the right direction.

There is no better example of how that relationship with industry can work successfully in practice than the naval sector. The maritime industrial strategy has allowed some very effective joint work between the Ministry of Defence and the UK shipbuilding industry, such as the alliance approach being used in the surface-ship support projects. That approach gives industry visibility of future workloads and allows it to plan ahead and adapt its capabilities to meet our requirements. It delivers value for money for defence, and at the same time it helps to ensure that we have a sustainable skills base in our country.

The most recent contract that we awarded was a £9 million contract to Babcock Marine for the standard support period for HMS Monmouth. It will deliver a number of important enhancements to the ship, including an upgrade of her torpedo defence system. There has been a sustained period of investment by the MOD in the UK shipbuilding industry, amounting to £14 billion over the next 10 to 15 years. The recent announcement about the carriers was only the latest in a series of significant naval procurements. We are also bringing into service new Astute submarines, a class of submarine to provide for the future nuclear deterrent, and we are scoping the next generation of surface combatants.

The future of our Navy, and of our naval industrial base, remains secure. But in reality, we do not have unlimited resources. We have to prioritise a range of competing requirements, focusing on the balance between current operations and future capability. That is why I can confirm that we have taken a decision not to take the option to order the seventh and eighth Type 45 destroyer.

The six destroyers that are already on contract will provide a formidable capability. Those ships will be far more capable than we first envisaged, helping to mitigate any shortfall in overall capability. To take one example, their air defence system includes a multi-function radar that is able to track multiple targets and direct high-velocity and exceptionally agile missiles at speeds of up to mach 4. Such technological advances mean that the Type 45 will play a key part in the future force protection package for our high-value ships, such as the carriers.

It has been a difficult decision, but to ensure our future naval capability and maintain the tempo of work for industry, we are bringing forward the future surface combatant programme, which is the long-term replacement programme for the Type 22 and Type 23 frigates. That decision will result in a steady rhythm of building in our yards—from the six Type 45s, through the future carrier programme and into the surface combatant programme.

Although I agree with the Minister that the new Type 45s’ capabilities have been increased, they cannot be in two places at the same time. Given that we face an increased global threat, is he confident that we will have enough ships to do the job?

I understand that point, but we have to tailor our resources to the neediest area. I am assured that we have sufficient capability to protect the carrier task force with the Type 45s and other assets. The issue is effectively about defence in depth in respect of deployments and the other available assets. Therefore, the Navy will continue to have the worldwide reach that it will need to project force in different parts of the world—wherever our requirements lead us.

One area where our procurement effort is already heavily shaped by current operations is protected patrol vehicles, whose importance has been brought home to us so tragically today. Through the urgent operational requirement process, we have spent more than £500 million on protected mobility since current operations began. That programme of upgrades has allowed us to ensure that our patrol vehicle package has kept pace with the rapidly evolving threat in both theatres. Our efforts have also been guided by the need to provide commanders with a range of vehicles with complementary capabilities. Commanders on operations face a variety of tasks—from combat to engagement with the local population—in a range of challenging environments, from urban areas, through lush vegetation to open desert and mountains. They need a range of vehicles in order to carry out those tasks effectively.

The new Jackal vehicles were procured under the UOR with the Afghan theatre specifically in mind. Those agile off-road vehicles are able to range effectively over the difficult terrain of southern Afghanistan, and they allow us to engage better with Taliban forces. They emphasise agility over protection; they could not fulfil their role otherwise. However, they complement other vehicles, such as the Mastiffs that we have already deployed, which are heavily armoured but less mobile.

I entirely take the point about a mix of vehicles being necessary for protection, accessibility and flexibility for the commander. The fact remains that I was involved in the procurement programme for Snatch some 15 or 16 years ago, and those vehicles were almost over-matched by the relatively benign circumstances of patrolling on asphalt in Northern Ireland. They are entirely unsuitable for operations in Afghanistan. They are there because they are all that the military—the Army, in particular—have got. I understand that this is a difficult equation, but could the Minister assure us that Snatch will be taken from service in Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as is humanly possible?

The hon. Gentleman has a great knowledge of military needs and capability and says that he has been involved with Snatch as a capability for a long time. We are seeking all the time to extend the range of vehicles that are available. That is why we announced the new Ridgback—a large, medium-protected vehicle—which we will bring into service as soon as possible. Whether we will be able to take away these small platforms without taking away a whole area of capability will need to be thought about very seriously. Snatch has suffered some considerable setbacks; we have lost lives in Snatch Land Rovers. However, I am being told by commanders on the ground that they still need Land Rover-based platforms—weapons-mounted installation kit, or WMIC, and Snatch—and will do for the foreseeable future. Ridgback will not entirely do that job, because it will not be able to get into the narrow, compounded urban areas in Helmand province, however much we would like it to.

I was recently out in Afghanistan with my old regiment, 1st Battalion the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters—which the Government have chosen for some reason to rename—and people were cursing the Snatch Land Rover as wholly inadequate for those circumstances. I completely take the point about WMIC. Can we not therefore have more WMICs or WMIC variants but get rid of this wretchedly inadequate vehicle, which is a death trap to so many men and women?

I listen to the same people to whom the hon. Gentleman listens—although I do not have the same personal relationships going back over time and perhaps am therefore not able to have the depth of conversation that he is able to have—so I am aware of some of the opinions about Snatch. However, I have to take military advice. If we were to try to take such decisions in this House rather than leaving them to people on operations trying to do the very arduous job that we have given them to do, that would be the wrong approach. I have to listen to that military advice, and I am sure that he accepts that in principle.

As someone who was on operations many years ago—many years before my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)—I would say that when people are on ops they will go with what they are given. The soldiers will do what they are told. Operational commanders in the field will use Snatch because that is all they have for that purpose, and that is costing lives. We should listen to what is happening on the ground—not so much from commanders but from servicemen and women, who are losing their lives because of Snatch, and their loved ones. They will use what they are given; take it away, and they will not use it.

The hon. Gentleman appears to be saying that there is no basis for a small, enclosed Land Rover-based capability and, in effect, that we will not be able to take vehicles into these kinds of enclosed spaces. We have continually to keep this under review. Mastiff cannot be taken everywhere. I saw that first-hand last time I was out in Afghanistan. I managed to get right out on to the front line to forward operating base Edinburgh and the district centre in Musa Qala, but I was not able to go into the town because the Mastiff vehicles that we were travelling in would have ripped up the roadways and presented a profile that was not in line with the message that we were trying to send to the local population at that time. However, our personnel have to be able to operate in the town and to engage with those people.

The conclusion to be drawn from the recent interventions is that my right hon. Friend should ignore what senior commanders say about day-to-day operations and listen to people on the ground. I have some sympathy with that, but I am sure that it would be opposed elsewhere. I have seen Mastiff work in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and it is a great vehicle, but does he agree that there will be situations in both places where people will not be able to have a vehicle that is completely, 100 per cent. survival-proof, because of the weight situation?

There is only so much protection that can be built in given the weight ratio. The problem that we have is how to get that capability across the ground, and the only way that I know of is to take the military advice.

I think that the Minister slightly misunderstood my point, so I will try again. In the 1970s, when I served in Northern Ireland, we had the Land Rover and bolted some protection on to it, and we lost lives. The MOD saw sense, and after a procurement programme we brought in Snatch. It was designed only for Northern Ireland, not for anywhere else. It was certainly not designed for what we are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, so we need a vehicle that is designed for that. I accept his point that we need mobile vehicles within town structures, but not Snatch. It was not designed for this situation, and the Minister knows it. We must listen to what is happening on the ground, not to the so-called procurement experts in the MOD.

We are not listening exclusively to the procurement experts in the MOD. We are listening to commanders on operations—the people who have to do the job that we have given them to do. Snatch was upgraded and refurbished in 2006. I am not decrying the Mastiff, which is a great vehicle. People who have suffered attacks while inside it have a huge amount of confidence in its capability. However, any level of armour can be overcome, potentially including the Mastiff’s, and Mastiff cannot go to certain places or do certain things. The hon. Gentleman is saying that we do not have vehicles designed for Afghanistan, but Mastiff was designed and procured specifically with Afghanistan in mind. Ridgback will be more capable than Mastiff—smaller and able to go to places that Mastiff cannot—but it will be considerably larger than a Land Rover-based vehicle.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is talking a great deal of common sense. There is absolutely no doubt that the sort of improvised explosive devices being deployed in these theatres will take out a tank, if that is what we choose to use. We cannot avoid that. Not wishing to teach the Minister to suck eggs, however, I should say that we had exactly that problem in the southern part of the county of Armagh in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years. Large IEDs were initially used against vehicles such as Saracen and Saladin, and were killing relatively large numbers of soldiers who were packed inside those vehicles. Our solution? We ceased to patrol on wheels or on tracks. We patrolled by helicopter or, more to the point, on good old Shanks’s pony. May I suggest to the Minister that there is a solution to this problem, albeit not a complete one? We need more troops and more aircraft.

I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks a lot of common sense as well, and there are circumstances where foot patrols are not only far more effective for the job that we want to do, but far safer because of the situational awareness that people have when they are on foot patrol.

Does the Minister agree that the decisions outlined by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) are for commanders on the ground, not politicians sat in the comfort of this Chamber? If my right hon. Friend or any other Minister in the Ministry of Defence were to intercede in these matters, would not Opposition Members be the first to criticise him?

Fundamentally, I agree with my hon. Friend, and I have said that, but we cannot refuse to allow a debate to take place in this Chamber on such an important matter. There are Members here today with expertise that they are able to bring to bear on these important issues.

We provide commanders on the ground with a range of vehicles, which allows them to select the platform most suited to the immediate task in hand. The threat that we face on current operations is constantly evolving and we continue to keep our protected mobility requirements under review. That is why the Prime Minister announced in December that we will be procuring a new vehicle type, to be known as Ridgback, to provide 150 medium-protected patrol vehicles, which are lighter and able to access more areas than the Mastiff, but still with high levels of protection to continue to give commanders the choice of vehicles that they need.

We have discussed at great length armoured vehicles and patrols. Are there any vehicles being used by our allies that would give our forces a better alternative and more protection, or are the vehicles we have the best we can manage, and the best in the world for the task they undertake?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. Through the urgent operational requirements process, we look not just at what we use and what we produce in this country, but at what is available throughout the world. The Ridgback is an up-armour of an American vehicle, doing precisely the sort of thing that my hon. Friend asks about. It is considered the best. Its potential is at the level of that of the Mastiff, but its capability, in terms of where it can get to, will be greater because of its smaller size.

Looking forward, the future rapid effect system programme will, in the words of General Dannatt,

“form the backbone of the Army’s future armoured vehicle requirements”.

The provisional selection of the Piranha 5 as the preferred design for the FRES utility vehicle is an important milestone and demonstrates our continued commitment to the FRES programme. The programme will deliver a fleet of medium vehicles capable of operating across a range of need. We will ensure that FRES variants are protected against the most likely threats, including mine blasts. That protection will be built into the requirement for the vehicle. The FRES programme will deliver a fleet of vehicles able to go to more places via more varied routes, and to fulfil a greater number of tasks than any protected vehicle currently in our inventory. It will be a truly versatile tool in a commander’s armoury. Let there be no doubt: FRES will have relevance to current operations.

We have increased the level of helicopter support that we provide to commanders on operations. Helicopters are, as was said, a key part of the force package, and essential for our forces’ in-theatre mobility. That is why, since March last year, we have increased the number of helicopter flying hours we provide in Afghanistan by more than 33 per cent., including increases in Chinook and Apache hours. That uplift has not just been achieved through an increase in the number of helicopters we have deployed. In some fleets, we have achieved the uplift in hours without an increase in the number of helicopters. By driving through efficiencies in our logistics support, capability is made up as much by the people who crew and maintain the platforms and the logistics chain, as it is by the platforms themselves.

I saw that myself during a recent visit to RAF Odiham, the home of the Chinook force. Chinooks are a proven battle-winning capability and have been heavily committed on operations for the past seven years. The men and women of the Chinook force are working as hard as anyone in the military to support our current operations. I was enormously impressed by the dedication of all the people I met, from the pilots who crew the helicopters to those who maintain and support them.

Working with Boeing and the integrated project team in Bristol, the Chinook force has totally transformed maintenance support. In the past three years, it has reduced the time that a Chinook spends in deep maintenance by 45 per cent. and the time for smaller repairs by 59 per cent., through a combination of improvements in working practice and operating with Boeing as closely as possible. Above all, it has kept a relentless focus on what is really important—in this case, the flying hours that we provide to commanders in Afghanistan. That is how it has given us a 33 per cent. increase in Chinook flying hours in the past three years.

That is the future for defence procurement and equipment support—a combination of innovation, focus on results and dedication to team working, hand in hand with our partners in industry. That is the only way in which we can make the improvement that we need in supporting the front line while delivering the best possible value for the taxpayer.

We hear a lot about the failings of defence procurement. With good reason, people home in on our shortcomings; effective public accountability demands exactly that. But let the whole House realise that many real gains are being made. The application of new methods and improved systems have allowed us to improve significantly the equipment that we provide to our troops on the front line. It is our people, often working in very difficult conditions, who must take the credit for those improvements. I hope that the whole House will join me in saluting their efforts.

The tragic deaths of nine British servicemen and women in the past few days should serve to remind us of the critical importance of this, our annual review of the equipment programme for our armed forces. At the outset, I join the Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Sarah Bryant of the Intelligence Corps and to Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Paul Stout for their sacrifice for our country. We remember today all those who have given their lives in the current conflicts, and we salute their comrades-in-arms, who, despite the loss of close friends and colleagues, do not flinch from continuing to take the fight to the enemy.

Today we are all greatly indebted also to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and his colleagues on the Select Committee on Defence for their valuable contribution in their most recent report on defence equipment. I was privileged to be a member of the Committee, which manages on a cross-party basis to serve its purpose of finding out what is going on and reporting it to the House. It provides us with expert and considered advice, which is appreciated.

Last week in Westminster Hall we had a preliminary discussion, most ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). As the Minister knows, she has made armoured vehicles her specialist subject. She would have liked to participate today, but she is on parliamentary duties in Westminster Hall as a member of the Chairmen’s Panel and therefore cannot be with us.

Although reference has been made to individual programmes, the whole issue of defence equipment procurement, including the process of acquisition itself, needs to be covered. Clearly, our immediate concern must be to ensure that we provide those on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq with the kit that they need to fight today’s war. However, the task does not end there, nor can it. With the certainties of the cold war gone, we find ourselves in a much more complex world in which it is much harder to predict where conflicts will arise.

In my view—as the Minister knows, I expressed it last week in the Westminster Hall debate—it would be a foolish politician who chose to concentrate solely on the here and now and to close his eyes to threats that could arise in the future. We must remember that it is capabilities that count, not intentions. Intentions can change overnight, but capabilities, as we know to our cost, take time to be changed.

It is in that context that we should view, with concern, the Government’s relentless run-down of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet, from 35 to 22, and falling. In its report, the Defence Committee questioned

“whether it is ever likely”

that the revamped Nimrod MRA4 will deliver the capability needed. As former President, now Prime Minister, Putin expands his arsenal, not least his submarine fleet, should we be cavalier about dispensing with the long-range anti-submarine capability provided by the Nimrod?

On the plus side, we believe that the decision to replace Trident was an example of essential longer-term planning consistent with the need to continue to prepare for a range of threats as yet unidentified. Mention was made in Westminster Hall last week of the Gates doctrine, according to which we need to concentrate on the actual war, not a possible war. I well understand that, but the people of this country would be very concerned if the House took such a short-sighted view as to think that we could rule out, for the foreseeable future or—heaven forbid—even over our lifetimes, the possibility of state-upon-state conflict. Defence has always been an insurance policy, and that applies no less today than it did in the past; indeed, it probably applies more today than in the past. The only difference is that today we are fighting actual conflicts for which we have to provide.

The Minister ended his remarks by saying that some felt that there had been failures, which he was prepared to acknowledge. The Government are in complete disarray in their procurement programme. Let me go through some of the examples. Chinook helicopters intended for our vital special forces operations have been grounded for seven years while Ministers have tried to work out what to do.

I know all the arguments, and that is entirely true, but the Government have been in office for 10 years, during which they have sat around trying to cope with the problem and decide what to do. The failure to resolve that procurement issue is a failure of ministerial decision making. At the end of the day, the Minister knows that if he were asked to make that decision today, he would not be in a position to judge, but would have to rely on his experts. Indeed, he has already said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) that he has to rely on his experts. The question then was: why did the experts get it wrong in that case? Now the question is: why have Ministers taken seven years to resolve the matter?

Possibly to sort out the mess that the previous Conservative Government left in that contract. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that was not the only poisoned legacy that the previous Conservative Government left? They left us a complete farce over the sale of Annington Homes, which has left the Army’s housing stock in the hands of a private company. If the hon. Gentleman wants lessons in supporting our armed forces, let me remind him that the £1 billion-odd that the Conservatives got for that was taken straight out of the defence budget and used for tax cuts.

The Minister is fortunate that he can rely on the hon. Gentleman to blame the previous Conservative Government, after 11 years, for the failures of this Government. That argument might have worn for a few years, but it does not wear today. The Government have only themselves to blame.

I have already mentioned the Chinooks. There has been a combined in-service date slippage of almost 14 years on three projects, with cost overruns of nearly £3 billion, which, as the Defence Committee said, are not limited to legacy projects. There has been scathing criticism from the National Audit Office of the bungled sell-off of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, which, we now understand from the former Minister, Lord Moonie, the Ministry of Defence was opposed to, but which it was dragooned into doing by a Treasury anxious to get its hands on MOD money.

The Royal Air Force soldiers on with clapped-out VC10 and TriStar aircraft, while Ministers fashion a convoluted rental deal for delivery in three years’ time. The Royal Navy is operating Lynx aircraft with less than 200 hours of airframe time left. There are still no contracts signed for the cornerstone of the Government’s 1998 strategic defence review, the aircraft carriers, on which the French claim to be negotiating with Ministers in this country on a timeshare basis, like some holiday apartment.

We are no nearer to a decision on the Army’s essential new battlefield vehicle, the future rapid effect system—FRES—despite what the Minister has said. I will come to that in more detail in a moment. Urgent operational requirements are funded for the short term by the Treasury, as the Minister said, and are not part of the overall core defence budget. There is no comprehensive, through-life plan for the bits of equipment that are required under the urgent operational requirements.

Would my hon. Friend like to put on record our thanks for all the hard work and dedication that have been put into fulfilling urgent operational requirements by the Defence Logistics Organisation staff, the Defence Support Group staff and the Army Base Repair Organisation in my constituency? They often work overtime for no extra pay in order to fulfil those UORs on the front line.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as I am sure the House will be, for making that point. I warmly endorse everything that he has said. Indeed, that is one reason why we have to maintain an integral British defence industrial base, without which we would not have access to that kind of spirited national effort in times of conflict.

The Defence Export Services Organisation, which delivered huge benefits to the United Kingdom, was scrapped at the behest of an ennobled Treasury official, possibly in cahoots with the Campaign Against Arms Trade. The second instalment of the defence industrial strategy has been lost in the Department, if not on one of South West Trains. I could go on, but I will not because time is limited. It is little wonder that the one man with a grasp of the issues and the ability to make decisions, Lord Drayson, threw in the towel at the end of last year to go motor racing, leaving the defence industry with no clear vision of the Government’s strategy.

The recent equipment planning round for 2008—EP08—has proved so unsatisfactory that the Government have invented a stalling device that they have called an equipment examination, which is set to take three months. The House will be interested to know what the Minister has said this afternoon. Apparently, it is to be a short examination designed to look at a 10-year requirement. The Minister needs to make up his mind whether this has been designed to provide a reflective peace in order to wrestle with some of the longer-term issues to which I have already referred, or, as we all suspect, it is a stalling device designed to get the Government through planning round ’08 or ’09. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire was absolutely right to say that we have no idea whether PR08 has been concluded or not—[Interruption.] The Minister says that he has just told us. Perhaps he will tell us when that short examination is going to report to the House. I will give way to him if he would like to put that on the record now—[Interruption.] For the benefit of my right hon. and hon. Friends, he says it will be in a few months.

We do not report the end of planning rounds, and I am not aware of any previous Government having done so. We report decisions that have been taken, at the appropriate time, and we will continue to do so. From a planning point of view, it is common sense to undertake this short review—short in terms of the time that we hope it will take—in order to inform the next planning round. Of course we will inform the House of any individual decision as soon as it is taken, and as soon as we are able to do so.

I think that my right hon. and hon. Friends will be amused to hear that. As the Minister and others have said from the Dispatch Box, there are a lot of programmes on which they cannot tell us that a decision has been made. This would appear to be a prolonged EP08, and we await a decision on it. I am prepared to wager money that we will get a statement on the day before the House rises next month, or possibly on the day that it actually rises. We shall have to wait and see.

I await the development of the hon. Gentleman’s speech with interest. He complains about the length of time the preparation takes but, like most of the Defence Committee, I am keen to go through all that preparation before we get to the main gate. Astute, Brimstone, Nimrod, Stingray, Type 25 and Typhoon, which together are now more than £2.8 billion over budget, and have a time delay of 25 years between them, were all signed off by the previous Government without going through that gateway and that scrutinised preparation. How can the hon. Gentleman argue in favour of that?

It is, of course, incumbent on the Ministry to make decisions more swiftly than it is at the moment, but those decisions must be informed. I shall come to explain how I see that happening, so the hon. Gentleman will get my answer in a few moments.

Let me continue with EP08. So disastrous has the Government’s handling of defence procurement become that the three services are effectively at each other’s throats. Each one explained to whomever would listen that the key project for their service was vital, while the projects for the other services were either not priorities or irrelevant to current operations. The overall impression is that the Government have lost interest, know that they face defeat at the next election and are anxious to postpone as many decisions as possible for the incoming Conservative Administration to pick up, having bankrupted the country to boot.

We need to know when the carrier contract will be signed and we need more than the Prime Minister’s assertion yesterday that

“it is totally untrue that we are trying to merge the English, British and French navies”—[Official Report, 18 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 942.]

whatever that curious SNP-type description of the Royal Navy was supposed to mean. What the French are saying is that their officials are in negotiation not about merging the two navies, but about somehow sharing aircraft carriers. That is what the Minister needs to explain. Are French and British officials in negotiation and, if so, on what? If the Minister does not want to answer that now, I hope that the Under-Secretary will specifically answer it in his concluding speech.

The Minister has told us the pretty desperate news—albeit something that we had expected all along—that the Type 7 and 8 ships of the Type 45 class are to be cancelled. I think that the House will want absolutely cast-iron assurances today—[Interruption.] The Minister for the Armed Forces says “They were never ordered”, but they were all part of the strategic defence review and, still more important, they were a key component in the whole carrier force. Unlike the current class of pocket carriers, if I may call them that, which have heretofore had the protection afforded by the Sea Harrier, those carriers have no on-board protection against air attack. That is what the Type 45 is designed to provide. What the House and the Royal Navy will want today is an assurance from the Secretary of State that there is sufficient protection in six ships to look after two aircraft carriers at any one time. Without that assurance, I am bound to say that the entire project encapsulated in the strategic defence review will be put at risk.

As far as FRES is concerned, the Minister said that General Dynamics had been appointed as the provisional preferred bidder, but as far as I am aware, the line seems to have gone dead since. The Minister set out the roles that the vehicle is expected to perform, but what we need to know is when we will get delivery. General Jackson said about five years ago that he needed this by 2009 and the Minister will be aware from today’s debate, as well as from discussion in the press, that this is a critical programme for the Army.

I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

The battlefield multi-role helicopter, in the form of the future Lynx, is also critical. That aircraft has little in common with the current Lynx, but it is essential for the British Army. Are we going to have to await the outcome of the Minister’s short equipment examination and when can we expect to hear news on that front?

Time does not permit me to expand on all the Government’s failures, so I shall concentrate on three themes. The first is the balance of forces. I am very conscious of the argument that we are spending vast sums of taxpayers’ money on exceptionally high-tech kit to fight an asymmetric conventional war in Afghanistan—an argument that deserves to be addressed. We need to be aware that even close-quarter combat is today conducted in the full glare of international media coverage and that there is a belief that modern warfare is a kind of enhanced computer game in which only the baddies get zapped. Collateral damage or the death of innocent civilians is widely regarded as unacceptable.

Only the use of sophisticated equipment such as the sniper pod, which is carried by the Harriers, enables the precise identification and targeting of individuals and buildings. That kit is expensive and that new equipment also needs relatively expensive defensive aid suites attached for force protection against an increasingly sophisticated enemy. But there is, as the House has considered today, an overriding imperative to provide better force protection against the enhanced threat from improvised explosive devices, which, as I forecast, have migrated to Afghanistan from Iraq.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) rightly pressed the case on when the Snatch Land Rovers are to be withdrawn and replaced by the new WIMIK. The Under-Secretary ought to tell the House something about when we can expect that vehicle, which has much more armour and an example of which I have seen, to be much more readily available to forces in theatre. I accept everything that the Minister for the Armed Forces said about the Mastiff and it not being suitable for every role.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) will deal further with the issue of force protection in his winding-up speech, but the one thing that we have to be clear about is the fact that we cannot provide 100 per cent. protection for our armed forces in the field, and there would be no point in our deceiving the British people that we can so do.

Secondly, I want to discuss the procurement process and the role of industry. Although I have been highly critical of the Government’s overall procurement strategy, I am happy to join the Minister in acknowledging the fact that the urgent operational requirement programme has resulted in improvements in body armour; the off-the-shelf purchase of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, renamed Reaper by the Royal Air Force; and provision of armoured vehicles such as the Mastiff.

Body armour is obviously there to protect servicemen and women on operations, but is my hon. Friend aware that it is not fire protected? In other words, it will burn. Individuals such as Lance Corporal Compton, who suffered horrific burns after his vehicle was hit in Afghanistan, received those injuries because the body armour, which is designed to protect them, burns and their bodies are damaged.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information, which I did not know. I am sure that the whole House will also be grateful to him and that the Under-Secretary will want to respond to that information in his winding-up speech.

The Minister referred to further helicopter capability, and we do indeed have another six Merlins, which we have acquired from Denmark, but which will not enter service until they have been modified for current operations. However, those programmes are essentially one-offs with, as I understand it, little in the way of planned through-life support.

I understand that the Danish Merlins, unlike the ones ordered by the UK, carry the traffic alert and collision avoidance system—TCAS—together with weather radar, but they will not be maintained once they become unserviceable. TCAS would prevent the loss of life in mid-air collisions and I find it hard not to have contempt for a deliberate decision to refuse to maintain a life-saving piece of equipment. As a result of acquiring one-off pieces of equipment such as those I have mentioned, we find that there is no consistency across the fleet, with a multitude of variants having to be maintained, all of which adds to the cost.

There seems to be agreement between us that there needs to be a fundamental review of the procurement process so that we develop an ability to respond much more swiftly to the rapidly shifting nature of the threat while being able to fit the new equipment into a coherent overall core programme. I accept that that is no easy task, but it must be undertaken. The Treasury needs to be part of the process so that it can understand why its agreement to fund the simple acquisition of a UOR should not be the end of its responsibility.

I note that the Defence Committee has again expressed concern about the skills available to the MOD to enable it to monitor procurement projects. The Ministry needs to ensure that project development personnel with experience of controlling major projects are brought in from the private sector so that the MOD has the benefit of serious commercial knowledge that enables the customer to be an informed one and not be taken for a ride by industry. Alongside such savvy commercial people, I accept that we need military personnel with current knowledge of the kit in question.

Under proposals made by Lord Drayson in the defence industrial strategy, British industry, which plays such an important role in supporting our armed forces, had some idea of where the Government were going. The Minister is correct: today, it is extremely unhappy and has no sense of direction. Lord Drayson’s strategy is clearly set out in paragraph A1.16 of the defence industrial strategy:

“Promoting an overall business environment which is attractive to defence companies and investors… identifying key industrial capabilities which are important to Defence to retain in the UK industrial base to maintain appropriate sovereignty, with sustainment strategies where these seem at risk.”

We agree with that assessment. The Astute submarine programme ran into trouble in part because of skill fade—the loss of key skills to build the boats—and it is essential that we do not allow that situation to prevail.

Equally, we need to maintain investment in defence research. The defence technology strategy acknowledged as much when it said that today’s battle-wining kit is the result of yesterday’s investment. A programme of technology demonstrators may be one way of ensuring that we keep feeding the research base.

It is important to preserve Britain’s world-class research base not only for the benefit of our own forces but so that we have something to bring to the party with the US. The moment when we cease to be such a contributor, we shall become a supplicant, and that would dramatically alter the relationship. I know that the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), the former Secretary of State who is now the Government Chief Whip, felt that ownership of Britain’s defence industry to be of little consequence. Since he made that assertion some four years ago, however, two of our major enterprises—BAE Systems and QinetiQ, both of which happen to have their headquarters in my constituency—have been developing faster in the US than in the UK.

At the same time, many of our smaller companies are being acquired by overseas interests, such as Thales from France and Finmeccanica from Italy. There is clearly an element of the inevitable about that, thanks to globalisation, but if we want to maintain a vibrant defence industry in the UK, we must ensure that investors can see an income stream.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the achievement of the British defence industry. Recently published figures show that defence exports from this country are at record levels.

The hon. Gentleman, who plays such a vigorous role in our debates, will be pleased to hear that I shall come to that in a moment.

The Minister needs to tell us when we can expect DIS 2. In the other place, his colleague Baroness Bolton told my noble Friend Lord Astor that it was anticipated that DIS 2 would be brought forward, but that no date had been set. We, and British industry, would like to know when that will happen.

I am the first to acknowledge that foreign companies such as Thales and Finmeccanica make important contributions to the UK’s defence effort—

My point is that we must remember that investment decisions are taken at head office. If most of the relevant head offices are outside the UK, we need to bear that in mind.

For its part, industry needs to accept that the current economic outlook is pretty bleak. It will have to smarten up its processes still further, as we shall seek to secure better value for money for the taxpayer.

I am concerned about the three prototype Nimrod MRA4s, and gather that BAE Systems is demanding a substantial amount of money to bring them on line. The failure of the Nimrod programme lies wholly at the company’s door: it is the design authority for that aeroplane, and it has a responsibility to the nation to deliver it into service very quickly. It is hugely needed for current operations, as well as for the future.

On a positive note, British industry’s attainment of a record £10 billion in defence sales last year—to which the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) alluded—under the outstanding leadership of Alan Garwood was a singular milestone. It is a tribute to the co-operation between industry and the Ministry of Defence, but that collaboration was shattered—utterly needlessly but wilfully—by the Prime Minister last July. That was an act of vandalism that I am pleased to report will be reversed immediately when the Conservative party assumes office. It is a sign of the transfer of power in this area that my question to the Ministry of Defence about how many foreign military delegations had visited UK Trade and Investment since that act of vandalism has been transferred to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Does the hon. Gentleman have any evidence that the damage that he alleges has actually been done? We have just heard about last year’s record defence sales. What evidence does he have?

I am trying to find information. I have been told that the Ministry of Defence is no longer in command of these matters, as I feared. The responsibility for defence sales has been transferred to another Department, where it sits alongside that Department’s responsibility for other areas of British industry. Last year’s record defence sales are a tribute to Alan Garwood and his team of outstanding people, but I want to know how many military delegations are continuing to speak to the Government. I shall look forward to seeing them at Farnborough. I hear that they do not want to speak to UK Trade and Investment. They want to speak to Government, and people in uniform want to speak to other people in uniform. That is the problem.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the Government’s withdrawal of funds from both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office for defence and military attachés, who do a great job throughout the world and also play an important part in defence sales?

I entirely agree. I think that some of those offices could be closed without huge damage being done to the United Kingdom’s defence industry, but the closure of others—I note that the Finland office, for example, is earmarked for closure—strikes me as evidence that the Foreign Office has demanded more money from the Ministry of Defence, which it is having to apply to current operations.

Paragraph A1.21 of “Defence Industrial Strategy” states:

“We must maintain the appropriate degree of sovereignty over industrial skills, capacities, capabilities and technology to ensure operational independence”.

That brings me to the subject of the joint strike fighter. We are equity partners in that major United States programme, but the US has been reluctant all along to allow us full operational sovereignty over the aircraft that we acquire. That cannot be right, and is no way to treat a key ally. We have experienced no problems with the arrangements regarding the operation of our Trident submarines, and the US should not hesitate to give us the sovereignty that we require over the joint strike fighter. Perhaps Ministers can tell us how matters stand, and whether the Government are continuing to insist that if Lockheed Martin is to have any role in the maintenance of the aircraft, it must perform that role from a facility within the United Kingdom.

I suspect that I am not alone in being extremely concerned about the treatment of senior BAE Systems personnel at the hands of the United States Department of Justice. The fact that our key ally had detained as common felons the chief executive, a non-executive director and the group business development director should have had the Prime Minister on the telephone to the President of the United States forthwith. I understand that one of those detained was met by five armed guards, and that his luggage was searched for an hour while they awaited a subpoena warrant.

I also understand that there is to be a grand jury hearing next month, when the United States will seek information on the UK-Saudi deal. That was a Government-to-Government deal between Her Majesty’s Government and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and is not the business of the United States. Perhaps we should demand to see its memorandums of understanding with the Israelis.

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the leader of his party that he should not criticise the Prime Minister for making what I consider to have been the right decision when the Government interceded in the investigation of the al-Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia? He will recall that Conservative international development spokesmen tabled a motion to be debated on the Floor of the House—with which I know the hon. Gentleman did not agree—criticising the involvement of BAE Systems in Tanzania.

We made it very clear that we regarded that as a matter for the Attorney-General, as the Law Officer of the Crown with responsibility, and that we would accept his judgment.

The present disastrous state of affairs is the effect of 11 years of stewardship, or lack of it, by the Prime Minister—first in his role of Chancellor, when he failed to fund the armed forces to the extent necessary to meet the Government’s own strategic defence review requirements, let alone current operations, and now in his role as First Lord of the Treasury, where his understanding of the military is so inadequate that he believes that the Secretary of State for Defence can double up in his spare time as Secretary of State for Scotland, with the modest task of saving his colleagues’ seats from the ravenous Scottish National party hordes. That constitutes no assault on the present incumbent, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), for whom I have great affection and who has sought to fulfil his impossible task to the very best of his considerable ability; but wherever I go, I find that the military feel the insult keenly. They believe that the political class does not value them.

The defence of the realm and its wider interests across the globe is the first duty of any Government. The extent of this Government’s failure to provide for both the present and the medium term has been, to an extent, masked by the extraordinary professionalism, courage and dedication of the men and women of Her Majesty’s armed forces, the support of their families, and the hard work and ingenuity of the 300,000 people in Britain’s defence industry who are engaged in the noble cause of providing equipment for the front line. They deserve better, and I trust that the incoming Conservative Government will not let them down.

When I was the Chairman of the Defence Committee and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) was partially under my control, I thought I could teach him the moderation and fair-mindedness that I had exhibited throughout my parliamentary career. At the beginning of his speech, I thought that I had succeeded brilliantly, but I realised that I had wasted 15 years of my life when he lapsed back into his partisan ways, seeing everything through a single set of spectacles. Frankly, if people are considering what way to vote in the next election and if defence figures heavily in their thinking, perhaps they should look at who the spokesmen are on those areas of policy. That gives me a great deal of hope, which I must confess I have not witnessed for some weeks. If the hon. Gentleman manages to convey his sense of fairness to his other colleagues, I shall be quite up for the next election.

My nails are not long enough to scratch the hon. Gentleman, but I can work it out without undertaking such a painful search.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about a disastrous state of affairs. Any serious-minded person—there are some—would see more than a glimmer of hope that a Labour Government had behaved incredibly responsibly for 10 years. I find it deeply insulting that the endeavours of a Government who have been successful are somehow deliberately misconstrued to try to give the impression that Michael Foot has been Secretary of State for Defence and Tony Benn the Minister for Defence Procurement for the last 10 years. It has not been that way at all. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that, I feel some concern.

I shall try to be even-handed. When I was Chairman of the Defence Committee, we kicked the hell out of the Government, whoever were the Government of the day. That was part of our role and no mercy was shown. I reached the conclusion, rather painfully, that despite the immense endeavours of Governments of whatever political hue over the years, defence procurement has proved to be immensely complicated. The best minds and organisations, with the best will in the world, have not yet led us to produce the weapons and the equipment required for our armed forces within the original budget that actually works. It has not happened.

From the strategic defence review onwards, I cannot think of any area of Government policy that has been subject to more close analysis, investigations, inquiries, changes, adjustments and readjustments, all seeking that ultimate goal of producing the equipment required in time and of the right quality at an acceptable cost. Whatever Government are in office will pursue that totally elusive goal.

I spent many hours, before the hours of the House were altered, in the Library looking at the history of defence procurement. I found it quite interesting because so many lessons can be learned. Every single war in which our armed forces have engaged was either just about won, or even lost, not just because of poor leadership but because of poor procurement. Poor equipment has existed as long as warfare. In recent years, the subject has been treated seriously. I recall reading stories—I was not there at the time—of how infantrymen’s bayonets were snapping in the 19th century and of new ships sinking on contact with water. So one finds that this is not a recent development.

When the Defence Committee produced the first of its many very good reports under this Government in 1998, I commissioned an analysis of the history of the examinations of defence procurement, and what we came up with was not earth-shattering: the 1961 Gibb-Zuckerman inquiry was followed a few years later by the Downey report; then there was the Mr. Peter Levene appointment, which brought many changes between 1985 and 1991 and many critical reports after his departure by the Defence Committee, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, internal MOD inquiries and Defence Evaluation and Research Agency inquiries. The industry, academics and consultants made criticisms and proposed how procurement should be improved. There was then the very important strategic defence review process, which was epochal in its approach, and the smart procurement and smart acquisition initiative and so on.

I am as guilty as the hon. Member for Aldershot, in that it is very difficult to put all the blame on one Government—in fairness, he alluded to that fact. Time scales are such that the programmes are begun by one Government, but are later cancelled or persisted with until the towel is thrown in when people say that they must be cancelled because they are not redeemable. Alternatively, something else could happen. I suspect that the SA80 is a great example of that, because it originated under Labour, somehow survived 17 years of the Conservative Government and then became a half-decent gun when Labour came back into office. The problem is that if one is going to take the hon. Gentleman’s approach or the one that I am just about to take, that is not entirely fair, because blame can be fairly evenly distributed.

The National Audit Office report gives many reasons why projects fail: inflation, cost estimating, changes in specification, quantity audit variation and cost variation. There are also equally long explanations of failure on in-service dates. One could go on almost endlessly.

I have said in previous debates of this kind that I should not go into the history too much unless provoked, and I have been provoked once again, this time by the hon. Member for Aldershot. I have found my infamous A to Z of Tory procurement failures. I shall just remind him of those, although I was not going to do so. If we see before us the team, with a few additions, that will be setting up as the new decision makers in procurement, we want to know what they are, what they are doing, what they are saying and what the genesis of their evolution is. I must therefore remind him about Bowman, among other things—I shall not cover the whole of my alphabet.

C stands for the cancelled common new generation frigate; for CACS, on which the Defence Committee reported in 1986-87—that system was rubbish; for HMS Challenger, which was a sea bed operation vehicle that was flogged off because it did not work; and for the Chinook Mark 2, which was originated in 1995 and with which we have not done much until recently, but we know where it began. D stands for DROPS—the Demountable Rack Offload and Pickup System—which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will remember, as everyone on the Defence Committee does. F stands for Foxhunter. I recall, as will he, that the Defence Committee was persuaded to close its eyes to the fact that when a Tornado was flying with its radar, there was no radar there—it was concrete put into the nose. We tried to sell it on the basis of concrete and not on the basis of a proper radar system. F also stands for the Fearless-Intrepid change, which took so long.

I could add the Hercules replacement, the C130J; JSTARS, the joint surveillance targets attack radar system, which we should have bought for ASTOR, the airborne stand-off radar; Law 80, a wonderful weapons system except that it bounced off Russian tanks; Nimrod 2000; QinetiQ, which was appalling; the Rapier field service C; the SA-80 rifle; the Upholder class submarine, which was flogged off to the Canadians; Westland; and Zircon. The list goes on and on.

I am prepared to accept criticism of procurement failures. In a debate two years after we came into office, the then Opposition Defence spokesman criticised our record—it was my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who has since wisely defected to the Labour party, no doubt immediately after one of my critiques—and I told him to wait, because we had only been in office for two years and we had not had time to have any failures. I said that if he came back in 10 years, there would be a lot, and there are. But that is endemic. Despite all our efforts, defence procurement is an attempt to do the undoable. Other countries have failed equally miserably, and some far worse.

I just wanted to say that the C130J was a success and ordered by us, but I shall not question the list any further because the right hon. Gentleman might find a new alphabet to double the numbers.

Until I do, I am prepared to teach the hon. Gentleman the existing alphabet. The C130J was partly his Government’s policy and partly Lockheed Martin’s. The Defence Committee came up with a solution and said that we should not put all our money into the C130J, which was then unworkable, but look for alternatives and supplement it. In this case, it was largely Lockheed Martin’s fault that the C130Js were not as numerous as they could and should have been, and my version of events is better than the hon. Gentleman’s. If he would like to try again, I shall willingly give way. Indeed, having heard his riposte, I would give way as long it was allowed.

I have tried to find out what cancellations of systems there have been, but it was tricky. The hon. Gentleman’s boss tried to find that out and he was apparently told that information about the cancellation of systems could be provided only at disproportionate cost. One wonders how many failures have gone unpublicised. Along with my A to Z, I have looked at the Public Accounts Committee’s reports. Projects cancelled between 2002-04—thus ordered by the previous Government—included TRIGAT, the third-generation anti-tank missile; the multi-role armoured vehicle; the area defence weapon; and the counter anti-radiation missile suite.

In 1989, the then Minister was asked a parliamentary question about projects cancelled between 1984 and 1989. The list is short but telling and does the previous Government no credit. I can read out the list of projects cancelled under the Conservatives if hon. Members wish me to do so.

We are all enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s speech enormously. His performance on the Defence Committee is remembered with great reverence, affection and respect. Will he give some thought to the point we made in our most recent report on procurement to the effect that money is always short, and one therefore needs to decide whether salami-slicing or cancelling an entire programme is better? Salami-slicing can destroy the benefit of many programmes for the future.

I was about to deliver a eulogy on the Defence Committee, not only under my chairmanship but under that of the right hon. Gentleman. Its reports—including on defence equipment 2008 and on defence industrial strategy—are excellent and quite remarkable.

My response to the right hon. Gentleman’s question was to have been my conclusion, but I shall give it early: we have to determine the defence budget based not just on what money is available but on the need. If the need is high, the budget has to be increased. Too many historical examples should persuade any people in the Ministry of Defence who have read history—I am sure that many of them have—that to do otherwise is profoundly unwise, because when they find out that they have made a mistake they will have retired and the consequences for the political and bureaucratic classes are potentially devastating. We have lived through enough historic failures to convince people that history cannot be thrown aside on graduation.

I strongly argue—I am not saying this just for the benefit of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) or because of his intervention—that a lot has been done to enhance procurement. I will not go into the arguments about defence expenditure collapsing under the Tories or the enormous expenditure dedicated by this Government, but we have now reached the point in terms of personnel and equipment where it is inadequate to take the stance that is being taken. If equipment is inadequate, lives are lost and wars can be lost. The Government are doing a pretty good job, but we are getting close to the point where someone in office will have to rattle the Treasury’s cage and say that the budget has fallen to such a level that if it continues to do so it will not just be undesirable but could have serious consequences.

Going back to my pro-Government mode, I should say that what emerged from the SDR was quite remarkable. We have seen smart procurement, smart acquisition, integrated project teams and the creation of all sorts of things—resource accounting and budgeting, public-private partnerships, private finance initiatives and partnering. The list goes on and on. Then we see the developments coming out of the EU—I will not spend much time on them—or NATO. There is defence industrial policy, on which we produced an excellent report in 2002, and then there is defence industrial strategy. The list of initiatives is a long one.

I have read the Defence Committee reports about new developments, stocktake, the Defence Procurement Agency forward teams and so on—there has been so much activity. However, I would want to see more evidence that endeavour, activity, research and so on had brought us close to solving the problems that have so far eluded Governments.

Jeremy Blackham, whom most of us know well, wrote an article for the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, about what he called the “wicked problems”—the almost insoluble problems that face all Governments. I fear that we have an enormous task to do before we achieve the equipment that we require.

I have listened with great interest to my right hon. Friend, who speaks with authority, and to his shopping list. Does he not think, as I have over the years, that when an item for procurement goes on to become very expensive and therefore unworkable and is axed, we should ask whether it was a need or a want? When it was axed, the world did not end and we just went on with the next project. Do we have too many projects of want rather than projects of need?

That is a very fair question. If we intend to be a major part of the second rank, as we have been since 1970, and do not want to drop down to the lower divisions, we have to do something quite expensive about the quality of not only the personnel but the equipment. In fairness—I am being very fair to the Government—the Government fully support Trident, the joint strike fighter, Eurofighter, the carrier programme and so on. All the equipment must have come as a bit of shock to the Conservatives, who probably could not believe that a Labour Government would take such expensive and correct decisions, facing down those in their own party who are still hypercritical.

On the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre website, I saw a superb unclassified document called “The DCDC Global Strategic Trends Programme 2007-2036”—a modest remit to address. It is difficult to predict the future; probably Nostradamus was the best at it, but his sayings lacked the precision necessary to help a defence planner. Clearly, when the Treasury considers proposals put before it, it will try to gauge whether the equipment is affordable and desirable given the time frame involved. The report considers the endless range of issues, including climate change and globalisation, that could become security and military problems in the next 15 to 30 years. However, it hedges its bets.

Let us consider how dangerous the environment could be in future, given the long list of 20 potential problems. If we add to that the rise of potential new superpowers and the resumption of arms races, we find that we may face such a multitude of problems, requiring such a range of responses, that the costs will be prohibitively high. Will we be required to fight a war of survival—we were drifting into such a situation during the cold war—as well as having to deal with all the other issues involving our forces? I can only hope that those with greater experience and access are in a position to say, “These are the threats that we will face in five, 10, 15, 20 or 25 years.” Given how procurement proceeds in this country, we need to start thinking very seriously about the weaponry that we might need for 2025 or 2030.

There will be mistakes in procurement decisions; we will order weapon systems that are superfluous by the time that they can be deployed. The Government should be prepared to think carefully, spend money and look into the future with as much precision as possible. By 2010, 2015 or 2030, unless we have quality personnel and equipment, the country will find itself in a distinctly embarrassing situation.

I welcome this opportunity for a regular debate on defence procurement, but like others I begin by paying tribute to the service personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. We have had a grim couple of weeks there, but that shows how important the fight is, and the battles must go on. I pay tribute to the Special Air Service members, and to Intelligence Officer Sarah Bryant, Corporal Sean Robert Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Paul Stout. Our thoughts are with their friends and families. We owe gratitude to them, and to everybody who continues to undertake the very dangerous work that is vital to our national interest.

The security of the nation is the Government’s first responsibility, but it is clear that the nature of the task of securing our nation has changed, as new challenges and threats have emerged. In the 1998 strategic defence review, we rightly identified our priorities and how we would respond to the threats of that time, but events have changed a great deal, and rapidly, since then. We find ourselves in more wars of choice than we had anticipated, and we are more greatly involved—at a more sustained level—in operations in hostile areas than the assumptions of the 1998 review envisaged. We are involved in two sustained high-tempo operations, and we have additional commitments in the Balkans. Given our limited defence budget, our reliance on reserves to meet key immediate needs, and significant delays to some of the most important procurement projects—a subject already mentioned—we are obliged to ask serious questions about defence.

We need to ask about the future needs and challenges of our armed forces, how we can most effectively meet them in the next 20 years and beyond, and how we prepare for unforeseen threats that might arise during that period. Great plans for the future are of little comfort to the men and women who are on the front line today, but preparations that build on our current capabilities are absolutely vital. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, rightly stressed the need to strike a balance between our immediate needs in Afghanistan in particular and the reality, which we must keep in mind, that we cannot assume that, just because there is no immediate threat, we will not in the medium or long term find ourselves once again involved in state-on-state warfare.

Just as 25 years ago we were configured for the military needs of the cold war, and now we face mainly insurgency tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan, the future security environment might be founded on some very different considerations: climate change, migration, technological developments, population growth and resource scarcity, which the Government have already recognised. As I look at that uncertain future and consider the threats that we might face, ringing in my ears are the words of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who also speaks from the Conservative Front Bench. He will always paint a grisly picture of the threats that we could face from Russia, China—

Not to mention the icebergs.

It is essential that we always keep such considerations in mind. However, were we to find ourselves involved in any hostilities with the likes of Russia or China, it would be quite beyond our capacity to hold them at bay on our own. Although we must be prepared for the possibility of such engagements, we can prepare only in concert with our military allies. It is not necessary or desirable for the United Kingdom to attempt to defend itself across a broad front entirely from our own resources. We must co-operate with our NATO and European allies to make better use of equipment and personnel. That may occasionally mean a greater willingness to buy off the shelf to meet short-term needs, and we must find ways of speeding up procurement in order to limit waste and inefficiency.

For that reason, I, like others, have said several times in the Chamber that we clearly need another strategic defence review. I welcome the Government’s conduct of various small-scale reviews of certain aspects of defence policy, but it is now 10 years since we had a strategic defence review, and as I have said before, the Americans conduct one every four years. It is high time that we went through that exercise again. To take the point that was just made, it may be necessary for the Treasury to recognise the need for more resources, but frankly that could be done only off the back of another strategic defence review—not one whose aim from the outset was to reduce the defence budget, but one that examined our foreign policy needs and objectives and then began to build a defence capability that was in tune with, and responsive to, them.

The Ministry of Defence has set out in its defence plan its strategic objectives for the coming three years:

“Achieve success in the Military Tasks we undertake at home and abroad… Be ready to respond to the tasks that might arise…Build for the future.”

They are all worthy objectives, and they should apply at any stage, but I still believe that something more fundamental by way of a review is necessary.

Last year, the Defence Committee raised concerns about the MOD’s 20 biggest weapons projects, which are £2.6 billion over budget and a total of 36 years behind schedule. This month we learned that the Prime Minister has instructed defence chiefs to delay replacing old weapons, vehicles and aircraft in order to try to ease the £2 billion black hole, which looks set to be even bigger in a couple of years’ time. There is a debate to be had about the merits of salami-slicing or deciding that we have to review our commitments and what we are trying to do.

The hon. Member for Aldershot quoted from the White Paper, “Defence Industrial Strategy”, and said that it was necessary for us to have an “appropriate degree” of independent British defence industrial capability “to ensure operational independence”. He was right to identify the phrase and to quote from it. However, the key word is “appropriate”. There are sometimes points at which we may have gone too far in trying to defend the concept of independence. A great deal more could be done to ensure our capability to respond in the short term, as well as provide better value for money for our taxpayers, by giving a little ground on the concept of independence and being more willing to look around at what our allies are doing, so that what we are doing dovetails with that.

The hon. Member for Aldershot shuddered with horror at what President Sarkozy was reported as having said and suggested that the Government might be in a dialogue with him about the possibility of, as the hon. Gentleman put it, a time-share of our aircraft carriers. He took the point a bit far, although I would share his concern if that was really what was proposed.

However, whatever we do in future we will do in concert with our allies. If we are going to invest in such enormous things as aircraft carriers, as I believe we should, it is essential that we view them not only as British assets but as NATO assets that we share with our allies. It is entirely right and appropriate to have discussions with others about the exact use to which the aircraft carriers will be put and how we can co-operate on ensuring that maximum value is extracted from such a massive investment. We need to think about how we extract the best long-term value from undertaking a programme on that scale.

I thoroughly endorse the overall concept that we should work together closely with Europe. Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am that individual countries still want to maintain their independent sovereign operations? It is silly that we are all reinventing the wheel by producing our own arms for our own personal consumption to maintain employment in our own countries. It is much better done on a cross-European basis. However, if, for example, we were considering landing French planes on our aircraft carriers, we would realise that their carriers sometimes have completely different decks and the French planes would shoot across our decks and fall off the other end, as we do not have restraint barriers in place because we have vertical take-off and landing aircraft. That is the sort of difficulty that we have to struggle with.

I am certainly aware that the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the current French fleet operates on a completely different principle from the plans that we have for our own future aircraft carriers. That said, progress towards the building of our aircraft carriers seems so painfully slow that it may still be worth getting involved in some further dialogue about that. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. While I talk about the concept of sharing assets and ensuring that what we develop and what our allies develop are mutually compatible, there will also need to be technical considerations.

I recall attending a dinner two or three years ago at which Mr. Nick Witney, who was then chief executive of the European Defence Agency, reported that at that particular moment 14 different EU member states were designing new tanks. With the best will in the world, that is absolutely ludicrous. If the Americans hope, as I am sure they do, that in the long term Europe will shoulder a bit more of the burden and stand on its own two feet, there is no hope whatever of our doing so while idiocies of that sort are taking place. That is why we have to recognise in the longer term that the capabilities that we build up need to be co-ordinated as much as possible with those of our allies—the Americans, the Europeans and other allied countries around the world. General Sir Richard Dannatt said in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute last week:

“All elements of Defence of the future must remain relevant…we must have capabilities that are highly likely to be needed and used in the foreseeable future. We need relevant capabilities so that we can both intervene and contribute to stabilisation…We must be relevant to our Allies and bring the kind of capabilities that they need”.

I could not agree with him more. That is exactly the point I am trying to make.

There has been debate, and quite rightly, about vehicles in Afghanistan. I, too, have visited Afghanistan recently and talked to those on the front line about the issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and I heard, at first hand, from some of those who go out on patrols, who told us how unhappy they are about going out in their current vehicles. I entirely endorse the intervention made by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). He put his finger on that point exactly, and said that, as a matter of urgency, we needed to get more reinforced vehicles in place. He specifically mentioned weapons-mounted-installation kit—WMIKs—and I should like to take up that point. The men were begging us to make it our key message when we got home: they rate WMIKs, they want more of them and they want them as fast as they can get them.

I applaud the Government’s decision to procure Mastiffs. The Secretary of State deserves great personal credit for that, and if the rumours that he is not going to hold his post for much longer are true, it will be one of his lasting legacies. I also welcome what the Minister for the Armed Forces said at the Dispatch Box about Ridgback. It has been said that we need different vehicles for different purposes, and that there is no single solution, which is absolutely right. Equally, we delude ourselves if we suggest that we can send people out on patrol in any one thing that is capable of withstanding all the hazards that they face. We continue to refer to things as improvised explosive devices, but the truth is that they are rather less improvised than they used to be. They are becoming more industrial in scale. WMIKs are essential because they are at the more mobile, versatile and nimble end of the spectrum.

I believe that I am correct in saying—I stand to be corrected if not—that the adaptation of WMIKs is being handled by a small company in Devon, the principal market of which is a marine one. It ill behoves me, of all people in this Chamber, to undermine the work of a small company in Devon, but—and perhaps this is an unfair observation—I cannot help contrasting what appears to be a lack of urgency on the part of the Government with previous policy. At the time of the Falklands war, the country’s defence industries were told as a matter of absolute priority that they had to do whatever was necessary, and that the Government would pick the bill up and sort it out later. While what Ministers say at the Dispatch Box is perfectly rational, we need to ramp up the scale of such procurement work to an altogether different level. I dearly hope that the company in Devon is capable of doing what needs to be done, but if not, someone else needs to be brought in.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on one point. The WMIKs are not being built by Supacat, which is a company based at Dunkeswell, the managing director of which happens to be the nephew of my former secretary—so I know a bit about it. It is building the Jackal, which, as the hon. Gentleman will have heard from the Minister, is performing superbly and is a fantastic bit of kit. Supacat is not involved in the WMIK programme.

I am reassured by the hon. Gentleman. I said that I stood to be corrected; he has taken the opportunity to do so, and I am grateful to him. All I can say is that that was the impression of the men on the front line. I do not know whether it will be possible for me to track individuals down and put them right, but that was their impression.

There may be some confusion about the Supacat vehicle, about which the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) knows in detail. It is, in fact, the result of an alliance between a small company in Devon, I think of ex-marines, that invented that agile vehicle, and Babcock, which operates the production line. It was an urgent operational requirement, and it is rolling off the production line at the rate of one a week. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be very welcome to visit.

I am very pleased to hear that. Perhaps I have been unfair in suggesting that there has been a lack of urgency. If they are coming off the production line at the rate of one a week, that is certainly good news. However, three or four weeks ago I was told at first hand by the guys going out on patrol that they urgently needed more of them. It is clear that casualties could have been avoided if people had not been going out in inappropriately light vehicles. I was at Headley Court last week and talked to a chap who had lost one leg and whose other was in a pretty bad state, and that was exactly the story that he told me.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the dismay of many people in the squadron that is replacing the one that recently suffered casualties in inappropriate vehicles.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which adds to my point. I was reporting the opinion that I had picked up on the front line, and other people will back up what I am saying.

I know that the Government are always keen to highlight the fact that we have had a decade of sustained growth in defence spending. That is correct in purely arithmetical terms, but it ignores the true cost of defence inflation. As we know, that runs way ahead of the retail prices index. We have had a succession of procurement disasters, and they have not been unique in the past decade. We have an appalling history of procurement mishaps over several decades, such as Eurofighter, Nimrod, the Chinook embarrassment that we have heard about today and even, frankly, the A400M. Things have invariably taken far longer than they should have, cost far more and ended up being supplied in smaller quantities than had been imagined.

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s point that defence inflation runs far ahead of the RPI. That is my impression and it is what many people frequently say, but every time I or anybody else I know of has tried to pin down the exact evidence of it, it has been rather difficult to establish. Does the hon. Gentleman have any better evidence than we have been able to discover?

My premise is the testimony of various witnesses who have appeared in front of the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee. If he has been unable to pin them down any more specifically at first hand, I fear that I have not been able to at second hand. Whatever the cause of the perception that defence inflation runs faster than the RPI—I would hesitate to hazard a guess—the evidence seems to be the fact that every procurement project ends up costing far more than was originally envisaged. That is rather like every significant, big public infrastructure project, of which the 2012 Olympics seems a current example. I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point that the assertion is perhaps bandied about without any empirical evidence or data to back it up, but it seems to be essentially true.

I have made visits to various companies, including QinetiQ, BMT Defence Services in Bath and others that are at the pioneering, research end of the process, and it is clear that some interesting ideas are being developed. In some cases, those companies have to proceed at their own risk, because the clunking way in which we procure things means that there is no market as yet and no public money available for them.

I listened to the Government slipping out the announcement that the number of Type 45s would stop at six. We greatly missed the presence of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). Although the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is a fine man and a great champion of RAF, did his best in absentia, he could not quite match the explosion that we would have heard from the hon. Member for New Forest, East.

I am not convinced that the Government have made the wrong decision. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) intervened to make the point, quite rightly, that no matter what the Type 45’s capabilities are, it cannot be in two places at once, and pointed to the general principle that there is a danger of running down the number of vessels in the Royal Navy fleet. I confess that I agree with the Conservative critique, but I am more sceptical about the idea that the vessels have to be Type 45 destroyers. The key question is whether two aircraft carriers can be defended with six destroyers. That, rather than any industrial consideration, should be the basis on which we judge whether the decision was right.

May I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister for arriving two or three minutes after he started? I seem to remember that the SDR originally envisaged 12 Type 45s. That was because at any one time there will be a number of ships in refit and a number on their way to, or returning from and recovering from, operations. Having only six Type 45s means a maximum of perhaps three deployable ships at any one time. That is a very limited capability, compared with what was originally envisaged.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. I am sure that we will continue to debate the issue. Having slipped the announcement out today, the Government will have to come back and discuss it in more detail on future occasions.

I have made it clear that I agree very much with the procurement of the two aircraft carriers, which was essential to the logic of the 1998 SDR and remains an essential plank of our future defence capability. If we are to retain the ability to intervene in different parts of the world, on different bases and at different times, having two aircraft carriers will be essential to the flexibility that we will need to do so.

However, I confess that I remain slightly mystified about what exactly is going to fly off those aircraft carriers. Although it is quite difficult to pin down when those carriers will come into service, it is nevertheless quite worrying that the joint strike fighter, which was generally assumed to be the aircraft that we would fly off them, is falling further and further behind schedule. The chief operating support officer for equipment at the Ministry of Defence has stated that the first carrier, when launched, will not operate a full complement of JSFs, as had been thought, and quite right he is, too. The US Government have reported that the project is over budget by $38 billion and that the time scale is slipping, too. The proposal is that the UK will take a second type of JSF, with vertical take-off, but that must, to a considerable degree, be sitting in second place in the US Government’s order of priorities. We have more difficulties ahead of us on that.

Another concern is helicopters. I am sure that the Minister will agree that upgrading and sustaining our helicopter fleet must be a key priority, not just for future capability, but for current operations.

I was delighted, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), when the Department signed the contract for 70 much-needed future Lynx helicopters in 2006, and entered into the first crucial partnering agreement. The existing Lynx aircraft are almost time-expired, and it is clear that the new ones are urgently needed. Lynx is a much respected military asset that has served with distinction, but the Minister will be aware that there is speculation and uncertainty about the future Lynx project. There have been rumours that the contract could be cut or cancelled, but it is clear that that could not happen without severely impairing the capability of our forces.

The cancellation of a contract that was already under way would be hugely expensive, and would become one of the greatest procurement scandals of modern times. AgustaWestland needs an end to that uncertainty, which is threatening to damage the contract and could even cause the company to lose key staff. I therefore urge the Minister to make clear today the Government’s support for the future Lynx project and to give the House a clear and firm undertaking that the uncertainty over the contract will be cleared up before the summer recess, with a clear green light being given for progress on the basis of the existing order for 70 aircraft.

In the field of procurement, it is vital that we do not make the quest for something that is absolutely great the enemy of procuring something that is good. General Dannatt said last week that

“there is no point in developing grand sounding future concepts if we fail to resource and structure to the required standard to deliver success today. If we do not succeed, the future for defence will look pretty bleak”.

We have to make our defence aspirations realistic, and I think the best way to do that would be to have another strategic defence review. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the need to deliver equipment to meet immediate needs as well as future planning, and to assess where we want the MOD and the country to be in the next 20 years or more. We need to determine what kind of force we should be building and maintaining for the future. How can we be a force for good, a military force and a humanitarian force on limited equipment?

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to address the House, may I point out that a large number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye? If we are not careful, we will not fit everybody in. Simply out of consideration for colleagues, I would therefore plead for the briefest possible contributions.

I will abide by your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and keep my remarks as brief as possible. I welcome the opportunity to take part in this afternoon’s debate and begin by associating myself with the remarks of all the Front-Bench speakers who have paid tribute to the work of our armed forces and to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in recent days.

I have the honour and privilege of having the Special Forces support unit in my constituency. According to long tradition and protocol, we do not draw attention in the Chamber to the work that it does, but the House needs to be reminded of the sacrifices that are made, and the courage that is shown, by the men and women of the Special Forces every day. Their acts of selflessness are almost indescribable, and I would like to place that on record.

Defence procurement has been one of the most difficult issues facing any Government for as long as we can remember, but successive Governments over the years have done their best to try to improve the procurement system. I remember that when this Government entered into the strategic defence review, one of the first things that the Defence Minister responsible did was to call all the previous Defence Ministers into his office for unofficial private meetings. He asked them what they would do if they wanted to achieve greater efficiencies and improvements to the procurement system. The irony was that most of them said exactly the same thing: they said what they would like to happen. However, the problem lies in getting from the wish to the reality, and the Government have tried with varying degrees of success over the last decade to improve the procurement system.

I will confine my remarks in my brief contribution to what I believe is one of the Government’s most important procurement initiatives in an area that is often underestimated and undervalued. When we talk about procurement in these annual debates, we tend to talk exclusively about kit—tanks, planes and ships—and sophisticated technology. However, if we do not train our servicemen and women in the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art methods so that they can use this equipment, quite frankly we will not get the benefits and our service personnel will not get the security that they have a right to demand. The British armed forces have a problem in that much of their training is 20th-century training provided for 21st-century challenges and technologies. That has got to change.

I am delighted that the Government have bitten the bullet, as the House well knows, and decided to undertake a massive transformation in this country’s provision of military training. The defence procurement project to which I refer is, of course, the £11 billion military training academy proposed for St. Athan, which is going to modernise, update and completely transform how training is delivered. It will move away from chalk and talk, which has served us well in the past, towards student-centred and task-oriented training that uses the most modern technology available.

Members on both sides of the House have referred to the sophistication and changing nature of the threat we face. We have to procure equipment, whether it be Snatch vehicles or anything else, to meet those changes. At the same time and in many respects more important, we also need to be quick in changing how we train our personnel to use the new equipment and face the new threats that they are up against. The older methods of providing such training served us hugely well in the past, but they are antiquated and out of date now. By integrating new technologies, we can have a step change or a quantum leap in the training of our personnel. They should be trained to the highest possible standards and we need the maximum flexibility to train and retrain them in how to use the new equipment and face the new challenges. We cannot do that under the existing system.

It is more than seven years since the Government published their report on modernising defence training as part of the strategic defence review and we have seen a radical and incredibly successful transformation of how we train our officer corps. The creation of the idea for a military academy for training our officers in leadership and management on a tri-service integrated basis is important and nobody questions the success of it. Seven years on, however, we are still waiting for this academy to be provided, although the key decisions have now thankfully been taken so that we can provide the rest of our service personnel with the same modern futuristic training in phase 2 and phase 3, which is effectively technical skills training. The Government have already made the decision that two thirds of that training—in aeronautics, mechanics, electrical engineering, information and communications technology—will be provided at the new huge military training academy on a 500-acre site in my constituency. That will have a dramatic effect on the efficiency and security of our armed forces, but we need to move ahead with it quickly.

The Government announced in January that the so-called package 1 of the defence training rationalisation programme will continue apace under the auspices and leadership of the Metrix consortium. We have been expecting an announcement—it was due in the spring, I believe—on Main Gate 2, which is the next stage in this sophisticated procurement process. That decision has not arrived yet. Will the Minister give notice of when he thinks it will, because the sooner we get the project moving forward, the more our services will benefit?

This, however, is a question not just of capability or of providing 21st century training for 21st-century challenges, rather than 20th-century training methods for 21st-century challenges, but of meeting our commitment to our servicemen and women under the military covenant and with regard to the relationship with the rest of society. We train our military personnel to a high standard, but more often than not the skills we give them are not recognised when they finish their military career and move into civvy street. Often, there is a delay in their finding work, although about 70 per cent. of service personnel find a job within a month of finishing service life, which is very good and a tribute to their calibre. About 94 per cent. find a job within six months.

I understand that the main reason for that six-month delay is that many of our servicemen and women, even though they are highly trained in skills such as engineering, have to retrain to do in civvy street the same job that they were doing in the military. There are a number of such examples in my constituency, where large numbers of military personnel retire from the forces and seek work.

The other great attraction of the defence training rationalisation programme is the fact that all the qualifications provided in engineering, computing and all those other areas will be recognised civilian qualifications. We will be able to say to our servicemen and women, “We will not only train you in the military to the highest standard, but you will be able to use that training when you finish your service.”

Has the hon. Gentleman looked at the armed forces benefits calculator? If he has, he will have seen that a number of inflated claims are made for the notional value of training packages that people receive in the armed forces. Given what he has just said about their value in civilian life, would he perhaps like to comment on the claims made in the benefits calculator?

Not particularly. I would like to concentrate on the future and what we intend to do to improve the situation and get things right. We owe it to our service personnel to do just that, and the best thing we can do is progress this vital procurement project as quickly as we can.

Under the strategic defence review, when we said that we needed to reconfigure and restructure our forces to meet the new types of challenge, we then had to buy the modern kit and equipment to meet those same challenges. The most important thing was to train our personnel properly in modern techniques and in a modern way so that they could meet those challenges well. We have left that till last, and the Government need to get the matter absolutely right.

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the headquarters of Metrix, which is in the QinetiQ facility at Farnborough. I have just realised that I owe the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) an apology because, even though it was a private meeting, I should have written to him and told him that I was visiting his beautiful constituency. The training briefing that I received from Paul Swinscoe of Raytheon was one of the most impressive that I have ever heard. He told me how the training provided for our service personnel was to be modified, and anyone in the Chamber familiar with traditional apprenticeship training will know that it was very effective but a bit long winded. When I was a little boy it took seven years, but by the time that I left school it took only three. The old saying was that people would be in class all day listening to the instructor, but that some might get their hands on a bit of equipment if they were very lucky. However, the modern techniques are incredible: the use of virtual reality means that all students will be completely familiar with their equipment, whether it is an engine or a computer, before they set eyes on it or are expected to work with it. There has been a real transformation in the way that people are to be trained.

I pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence and to Metrix for the work that they are doing in my area. They are working very closely with the local community in my constituency. The development covers 500 acres and, to put the project into perspective, I can tell the House that it is bigger than the London Olympic bid. For the past 12 months, there has been an ongoing dialogue with the local community in St. Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan, and that has worked extremely well. Both organisations have listened to the community, and amended some of their proposals accordingly.

The local authority is also working really well on progressing the planning application for what is a huge development. I am sure that the Minister will understand that there is concern in my constituency that the planning is got right. There are two areas of particular concern—housing and the transportation infrastructure—that I hope that he will look at, perhaps in liaison with the integrated project team under Brigadier Neild.

The development will provide 1,200 courses, and train thousands of students every year. Although there may be another new development quite close to the base, we do not have to worry about service accommodation. As part of the military covenant, the site will provide more than 90 per cent. of trainees with the best single-person accommodation in the world. It will all be brand new and purpose built—and so it should be. The new centre of excellence will make a wonderful impression on young recruits, but the people who work there—both MOD and civilian—will also need to live nearby. Therefore, it would be a good idea for the Ministry to talk to the Vale of Glamorgan council, the local planning authority. Its local development plan must provide sufficient new housing to meet the needs of the staff who will be coming into the area.

On transport, the Welsh Assembly Government have given a commitment to providing a surface link to the M4 before the academy opens. It is consulting Arup and considering the various options, and the Ministry of Defence and the Welsh Assembly Government must engage in close dialogue to make sure that the procurement project is advanced as soon as possible.

I am grateful for the Government’s courage in grasping the nettle when it comes to training. The project is going to be huge and complex. Various sites will have to be rationalised, and all the services brought together. That will be a huge challenge for us, but I genuinely believe that it is probably one of the most important challenges that we face. I think that if we meet the training challenge, we shall be the envy of the world.

We have just been given a perfect example of the ingenuity and skill of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). He managed to present a training programme as procurement, and I did not see you twitch for a moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He brings the same ingenuity and skill to all that he does in the Defence Committee, and we are grateful to him for his work.

Let me echo in particular what the hon. Gentleman said about the servicemen and women who have died in theatres of war. How lucky we are that they go out there, prepared to sacrifice everything in defence of the values of this country. They are the best of this country, and we are very lucky indeed as a result of what they give to us and what they give up.

This is the first defence procurement debate that we have had since the man who was probably our last ever Minister for Defence Procurement resigned in order to take up other challenges. We do hope that he wins the race. [Interruption.] We are talking about Le Mans in this instance.

I think it right to pay tribute to the work of Lord Drayson. He brought great industrial knowledge and skill to his job, and I believe that industry recognised that he proved to be of great benefit to defence in general and to the country. His replacement, Lady Taylor—she is a great friend of mine, having been Chief Whip at the same time as me—brings great political skill to her job. It will be very beneficial to bring together those two skills. We hope that a degree of progress will be made by the Ministry of Defence once some steps have been taken in the work of procurement.

When the permanent secretary gave evidence to the Defence Committee, I predicted that the defence industrial strategy and the tempo of change in the procurement process would not survive the departure of Lord Drayson. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that prediction has come true?

Yes. In fact, I was about to say something about the defence industrial strategy. The original strategy provided the vision that, for the first time ever, the Ministry of Defence would set out what the United Kingdom defence industry was going to do, what it was not going to do, where it should be developing its investments and what it should be planning for the future. The budget was to be clear, which is why the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was signed up to the strategy. Then Lord Drayson left and the premiership changed—although not in that order—and seemed to break down. In November last year, we were told that “Defence Industrial Strategy 2”, which we had expected to be published before the end of last year, had to be delayed for a few months until the 2008 planning round.

It seemed sensible—and industry seemed generally to support it—for the planning round to inform precisely where the defence industrial strategy was going. Unfortunately, the planning round itself seemed to run into the sand. I was delighted to hear today, for the first time, that it has actually finished, although I am not entirely sure what has come out of it. It seems that we are now looking forward to some sort of review that will go into the 2009 planning round. We are told that it will be published some time in the next few months, but we were told that about “Defence Industrial Strategy 2” last year.

Where is industry in all of this? It seems to have had the dialogue it had with Lord Drayson under the defence industrial strategy completely cut off. There seems to have been virtually no dialogue, so how can the industry decide where it is to invest and where things are going? There seems to be a sense that industry does not know what is happening because no one else does either. It is worrying that a sense of paralysis is coming from the MOD, and it is caused, frankly, by a budget that is so tight, given the level of operations we are facing, that things are beginning to break.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) spoke about the Defence Export Services Organisation. When I was the Minister for Defence Procurement, making all these mistakes that have been referred to from the other side of the House, I found that DESO was an absolutely outstanding organisation. It did really good work for this country and provided a link between the uniformed personnel, the industry and the MOD that was really valuable overseas. If the transfer of DESO to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform breaks that beneficial link, it will be a tragedy. I believe it probably will, frankly. I was delighted that my hon. Friend said that a future Conservative Government would reverse that policy.

After all this muddle over the planning rounds, we have had a succession of different announcements. They do not seem to have been informed by any particular strategy on procurement, but we have had a welcome announcement on the future strategic tanker aircraft. The manufacturers seemed a bit surprised that we were buying that capability in the way we were, implying to the Defence Committee that it was probably a rather expensive and time-consuming way of achieving something that the Australians seemed to have achieved in a far shorter time scale. Nevertheless, the FSTA is a welcome renewal of a capability that we definitely need.

I am delighted that we are closer to having some clarity on the carriers. Industry in this country will be pretty pleased that it has been announced that a contract will be signed. I understand that the contract for the carriers will be signed once the new ship company has had all the shareholder consultation that is necessary. I hope we have some clarity by the end of July.

The trouble with the carrier decision is that it initially came out of the strategic defence review at the end of the 1990s, which was based on a surface fleet that was going to be much larger than our current surface fleet. It will now take such a high proportion of the defence budget that many people—Sir Michael Quinlan wrote an article in the Financial Times in February—will wonder whether this capability should be provided in a different way. These are questions that need to be considered and answered. The point about the Type 45s being reduced to six is a worrying one. It does not look as though Britain, as a maritime power, will have the footprint—if that is an appropriate thing to talk of in maritime terms—around the world with the number of ships we need. There is a definite quality in quantity.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that perhaps the Government had made the right decision, and that we need more ships but they may not need to be Type 45s. However, it seems to me that the decisions we are taking reduce the number of ships that we have, and therefore the influence and reach of the Royal Navy, in a way that is potentially devastating to the influence of this country.

I would like to know how many joint strike fighters—the things to go on the aircraft carriers—we are going to get. The initial announcement was that we were going to get up to 150 joint strike fighters. All in this House know what “up to” means; it means “fewer than”. Thus we will get fewer than 150 joint strike fighters, and I understand that each aircraft carrier will be able to take 36 of them. The Ministry of Defence has just told the Defence Committee that there was never any intention to deploy two aircraft carriers with a full complement of joint strike fighters at the same time, and I do not know what consequences that statement will have.

Nevertheless, this will be a very capable aircraft. When I originally saw the proposals for the aircraft, I was very enthusiastic about it, partly because it would give us access to new technology, particularly on stealth matters, and partly because each aircraft was going to cost only $33 million. The price seems to have gone up a bit since then, and there seems to have been a bit of difficulty with the international traffic in arms regulations—ITAR—as to whether we get access to the new technology.

My right hon. Friend expresses a doubt about the number of the aircraft. From his standpoint on the Defence Committee, is he convinced on two grounds—the question of the exchange of classified information and the maturity of the test-flight programme for the short take-off and vertical landing version of this aircraft—that a decision on a commitment on numbers could yet be made?

No, I am not convinced that a decision on a number of aircraft could yet be made. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to have a rather better indication than the current one of somewhere between 36 and 150. Essentially, the defence of this country has to be based on what we need to defend ourselves. We have been told by the Ministry of Defence that this decision will be taken on the basis of what we can afford. That obviously must be a very serious consideration in this decision, but the first duty of Government is to be able to defend the country, and that will require a suitable number of joint strike fighters.

The future rapid effect system—FRES—used to be more than just a vehicle acquisition programme, but that is what it seems to have become. As a vehicle acquisition programme, I believe it to be this country’s most important procurement, because the armed forces are in constant contact with the enemy on the ground and they need proper protection. When our forces are dying because of roadside bombs when we have the capability to protect them better, we ought not to hold that procurement up by bureaucratic delay.

I believe we were told last summer, at the trials of truth, that a decision would be made in November that there would be a downselect. In November, there was a downselect from three vehicles to three vehicles. That struck me as slightly strange, but we were also told at the same time that the downselect of the utility vehicle would be combined with the selector of the utility vehicle integrator. That has not happened. Therefore, the design of the vehicle is ploughing ahead somewhat strangely as no one knows who the integrator might be.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the delay is convenient for the Ministry of Defence? Irrespective of what it tells me in parliamentary answers, the Mastiff and other vehicles that have been purchased are part of the FRES family. They are being pushed further back to manage the commitment programme.

I agree, but I do not know whether that is convenient for the MOD or whether it is confused on the issue. Baroness Taylor has told the Defence Committee that the Mastiffs are not part of the FRES programme, but surely they have to tie into that programme, in some definable and predictable way, so that we know how they react with each other.

The right hon. Gentleman and I attended the trials of truth when Lord Drayson said, in response to a question I asked him, where Mastiff and the other vehicles fitted in. We were told then that they were part of the FRES family, so something has clearly changed since the departure of Lord Drayson.

Yes, indeed, and we need to have some answers to those questions. No doubt Baroness Taylor will give us some answers to those questions, but we need to ask them. The programme is important and I wish we could have more clarity about when we will get those vehicles.

Obviously the decision on Piranha V from General Dynamics has been made, but my right hon. Friend is right to make the point about the vehicle integrator programme. Is he aware that BAE Land Systems in my constituency, which employs several hundred people, is keen to hear as early as possible who will be picked for that integrator programme, as it could well be that company?

I am aware of that. BAE Land Systems is not alone in being very keen to discover who will be picked, because I am, and I am sure that the rest of the House is, too—

Let us never forget that. It is the soldiers who need to be protected. What they are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are doing for us—not for politicians but for this country and the stability of the world. We should pay them a great tribute for that.

I echo what the Minister said at the beginning about the success of urgent operational requirements. These have been very successful. There is always the question of how, when some equipment comes into the MOD’s inventory as the result of a UOR, the subsequent maintenance costs will be paid for. Will they continue to be paid from the contingency reserve?

I also echo the words of the hon. Member for North Devon who said that the Future Lynx was an urgent matter. We are generally short of helicopters. I hope that Ministers will be able to provide more details once they have read the report of this debate, but it looks as though the number of helicopters owned by this country will be dramatically reduced over the next 10 to 15 years. However, this is the time when the number should be dramatically increased. Because of the roadside bombs and other threats in Afghanistan, it will be necessary for more work to be done by helicopter as opposed to by vehicle, so we need more helicopters.

In that connection, I want to comment on the partnering arrangements, which seem to have worked very well, between the Ministry of Defence and Finmeccanica. They are a mechanism whereby the MOD can save a lot of money and can introduce the integrated operational systems that will really help it as well as bring in some of the industrial skills that it desperately needs. I hope that we can hear more about where partnering is going. It seems to have worked in the helicopter division and it ought to work in other divisions, too.

On individual programmes, when a coroner makes strong remarks such as those that the coroner made recently on the tragic Nimrod crash, the whole country wants answers to the questions about whether those aircraft are airworthy. I am sure that there are answers to those questions, and we want them to be given so that the public can have confidence in what our men and women who are still flying those aircraft are doing.

I turn now to the method of procurement. The threats that we face change constantly. There is no point in our trying to decide 15 years beforehand what needs to be the answer to a question that we do not yet fully understand. We need a series of platforms that are flexible and have the connections to allow us to evolve them. We need a procurement system that allows for precisely that change in procurement. In order to achieve that procurement system, we need personnel in the MOD who are well trained and have the commercial and industrial skills and the commitment to different programmes to deliver those procurements.

We know that there will be a vast reduction in the number of people at Abbey Wood. We also know, because we have been told, that because of the operational tempo many of the people at Abbey Wood cannot be sent out for the training that they desperately need on current procurements. That strikes the Defence Committee as seriously short-sighted. The operational tempo should not mean that people are not trained to do properly the jobs that they need to do. That training should be absolutely essential in getting that important work done.

Finally, we need skills not merely in the MOD but in the industry and the country as a whole. Unless we improve our science base in this country, and unless we can commit some of that science base to the sort of research that QinetiQ has been telling us leads to battle-winning capability, we will not have that capability. If we do not have that, we will be in real trouble.

Of course our forces are entitled to the best equipment. That could not be more graphically demonstrated than by the loss of so many of our brave young people this week. That equipment should be purchased, and at the right price. It should deliver security of supply and, above all, be dependable. The safety of our forces is paramount and value for money is vital, but I am obliged to say that in the main and in the long-term the most secure and dependable supply is a local supply manufactured and delivered by the UK for the UK and in the UK. I completely accept that urgent operational requirements and international co-operation are separate matters, but in the long term, in the main, we should buy British.

The Government Front-Bench team may be a little tired of hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) about the cut-and-sew contract to supply our soldiers’ uniforms. He is absolutely right to complain about the way in which British jobs were sold out when we allowed our uniforms to be manufactured abroad. The contract was placed with a company in Northern Ireland that immediately transferred production to China. That five-year contract is coming up for renewal, and I sincerely hope that we will soon see an end to the scandal of British soldiers wearing uniforms made by one of our commercial and military rivals.

Ridiculously, British soldiers wearing uniforms made in China are working alongside Afghan army soldiers, who enjoy the luxury of having their uniforms tailored in Lancashire. Does anyone really believe that the Chinese or the Russians would dress their soldiers in Lancashire cotton? I do not. It would be funny if it was not so sad. All that we ask is that when the Ministry of Defence lets the contract again, we ensure that the product is produced in Britain, or at the very least in Europe, and that we are not in the appalling situation of supplying our troops with inferior kit that then has to be repaired in Britain.

The aerospace industry also profits greatly from Lancashire. The British aircraft and aerospace industry is second in size only to America’s, and it is a significant driver of economic growth and productivity. We should be enormously proud of it, and we must make certain that we look after it, not just because of the jobs involved, but in the interests of our military sovereignty. We have been able to maintain our position as the world’s second largest defence supplier, and so we should. After all, we are the world’s second largest defence importer. The British defence industrial base has a proud, successful history, but the smart trick will be to ensure that we have a long, successful future.

We choose to spend more of our taxpayers’ money on defence than many of our European partners, and we are right to do so. I hear all the talk about co-operation with our allies, but the first step towards that co-operation is for our allies in NATO to start spending the same amount of gross domestic product on defence as we do, and to be as prepared to put their soldiers and service people in harm’s way as we are. Britain has the most open market in the world, and that, no doubt, drives down costs and improves the quality of our defence-related products. We must ensure that our willingness to allow access to our markets does not result in the decimation of British jobs or loss of essential skills and British intellectual property.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the policy of an open defence market has also led to significant investment in the UK from Thales, Finmeccanica and others? That has helped to support and perhaps grow our defence industry.

Absolutely; valuable contributions have been made. My concern is not so much about international ownership as about British production. From a defence point of view, as long as manufacturers are prepared to produce products using British workers, and to keep that under British control, I am happy. We must ensure, however, that such openness is not a door that opens only one way. Too often that is the case, certainly as far as the Americans and many of our European partners are concerned. We are, as my hon. Friend described, privileged to be involved with some first-class international aerospace co-operation programmes: the joint strike fighter, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the A400M, for example. They are first-class products and we must take full advantage of them.

I am disappointed that we have suffered so much slippage in the A400M transport programme, and I am concerned at the way in which we work our ageing Hercules Lockheed C-130 fleet in such difficult circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must ensure that we provide first-class equipment for the transport of our armed forces. When the Main Gate approval decision was made in May 2000, the in-service date for the A400M was predicted to be December 2009. That was revised in May 2003 to an in-service date of March 2011, and Airbus Military recently announced that the initial aircraft delivery date will slip a further six to 12 months, taking us to December 2011.

At Defence questions on Monday, I was disappointed with the vague answer that I received about the numbers of A400M aircraft that we intend to procure, and when we can expect them to come into service. The delivery dates for the 25 planes that we have ordered span 2010 to 2015, and I believe that this House is entitled to be informed in much more detail of the reliability and security of our transport fleet.

Again, the joint strike fighter is an exciting prospect, but it is disappointing that it will not be ready in time to fly off our new aircraft carriers—provided, of course, that the carriers’ launch dates do not slip from 2014 and 2016. The Eurofighter Typhoon has been another tremendous success, for Lancashire in particular, even if it was a long time coming. However, we are entitled to an early decision about whether the Government intend to purchase tranche 3.

One problem for industry is that once existing orders for both air and maritime platforms are completed, there may be no new requirements for new platforms for some considerable time, so we need to make the very best of what is available to us now. Our industrial base needs certainty, too, and although the defence industrial strategy was a considerable achievement, we seriously need an update.

In the Minister’s opening remarks, he referred to the Government’s review of the budget over the next three years, 10 years, or whatever, covering 2008-09 to 2010-11 and thinking even further ahead. I accept completely that they may need to make some difficult decisions, but whatever is agreed we should adopt a realistic and affordable programme. If we need to commit to an entire equipment programme, we should get on with it, instead of allowing programmes to slip further and further in the hope that no one will notice. Most importantly, if the Government are prepared to make such a decision, none of us should play party politics with the issue. It is far too important to play games with. I urge the Government Front-Bench team and the Ministry of Defence firmly to decide our future requirements, and to do so very soon.

I should like to associate my comments with those of other right hon. and hon. Members about the brave members of our armed forces who have sacrificed their lives in operational theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan. That was brought home to me only too graphically when an officer whom I got to know completed his tour of duty in Iraq and within a few months was having to tell his family that this year there would be no summer holiday with him present because he had to go back to Iraq. That brings home in human terms exactly what tours of duty really mean, particularly for those who are left behind in this country.

Equally, none of the equipment programmes that we have discussed could occur were it not for the skilled personnel of the defence companies of this country. I think particularly of the BAE Systems work force at Warton in my constituency—the engineers, software developers and so forth. Without the human dimension, none of these systems would be possible.

I am struck by one of the overriding themes of the debate, which was built on by the comments of the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) about the British contribution. I am a great believer in what the United Kingdom’s defence industrial base can do, either singularly or working in concert with our partners in Europe, to ensure that we maintain a capability over which we have some degree of control. That was recently brought home to me when I read in the newspapers of the possible removal of senior air force personnel in the United States after its new Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, questioned some of the blunders that had been made. In the same article, questions were raised about the future of American programmes such as the F22—a highly complex, very expensive fighter that had attracted the attention of the Japanese in meeting their own air defence requirement. If that programme were to be sacrificed, the overtures that BAE Systems has been making to the Japanese about a possible purchase of the Eurofighter Typhoon would have much better prospects. Unless we can keep such programmes going, export opportunities such as that to Japan, or possibly even, in the long term, to India, will not arise. I could not support the idea that in future we should simply sacrifice our defence procurement requirements to whatever comes off the shelf from somebody else; that is not tenable. The example of the possible export of the Eurofighter illustrates why we must have control over those capabilities.

My right hon. Friend makes an absolutely vital point, which is that this country has its own defence requirements. We want to support the British defence industry, but when there are countries that are purchasing the same products as we are, and when we need that kit and capability, it is vital that those products are delivered to this country first and to a foreign country second.

I concur with my hon. Friend’s contribution; I am glad that he underscores the importance of what I have said. In the aerospace industry, we are good at doing what we are doing, whether constructing aircraft, missiles, radar or ancillary equipment, or, in the case of Rolls-Royce, helping to build, in concert with others, the engines that power those aircraft.

I salute the Government for their investment with BAE Systems in the further development of unmanned and autonomous air vehicles, which is very much what future, post-Eurofighter Typhoon projects will be based on. However, if we are to make those projects work, or to update projects such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, we must keep in place the skilled work forces to enable the job to be done. That brings us essentially to the role of the Government as the single most important customer for those companies and technologies, and underscores the need to ensure that the objectives of the defence industrial strategy and the defence technology strategy weave their way through what the MOD does in future.

I was concerned when my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, indicated that there might have been a breakdown in the work of the noble Lord Drayson on the partnership arrangements, of which he was the author, that were evolving with industry under the defence industrial strategy. If that breakdown becomes reality, the chance of sustaining such teams of experts becomes ever more difficult.

The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East mentioned tranche 3 of the Eurofighter. Could those on the Government Front Bench, in the spirit of clarity and openness for which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire asked, for once be candid with the House about exactly what is going on? About a year ago, I sat in this House listening to the Chief of the Air Staff, who said, on the record, that a number of options—zero, 22, 44 or 88 aircraft—were being considered. I am aware that other variations on those numbers and timings of the off-take are being considered. I am also aware that the Government have a cash-flow problem, and that other partners in the Eurofighter consortium have agreed their off-take.

Whatever the numbers being considered, they have an implication. If we go for a lower number than we should in order to be compatible with the Government’s promise that they remain committed to all 232 Eurofighter Typhoons, it could mean a substantial rearrangement of the work-share programme, which would affect the thousands of jobs in the aerospace industry in the north-west. BAe did an excellent job with Oxford Economics of establishing what that would mean in personal economic terms. There are about 60,000 jobs associated with the aerospace industry in the north-west, among 1,200 companies, which all work together on major projects. If we were to reduce the numbers, there could be some significant knock-on effects—not just at BAe’s plants, but in other small and medium-sized enterprises that are the lifeblood of the north-west’s engineering economy.

The Government also ought to be clear on the idea that they can somehow trade the Government-to-Government deal of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons with Saudi Arabia against their obligations to ensure that the RAF is properly equipped with the right number of planes. There should be candour on these matters in the House, instead of the ducking, weaving answers that I have had every time I raise the subject. The work force at Warton would like some degree of certainty about the future. They recognise the stretched nature of the defence budget, but the time is right for the Government to make their views clear. It is interesting that I say that at a time when we read in the newspapers that tests in United States air force ranges in Nevada on the operational capability of the Eurofighter Typhoon show how well the aircraft is performing in what is as near as possible an operational activity. If the long-term export prospects of the plane are to be realised, the more the UK Government honour their commitment to the project, the better.

I come to the joint strike fighter project, which was referred to earlier. I would like to see some tangible demonstration that the Government are, as Lord Drayson made clear, confident that they have solved the technology transfer issues that underpin the operational capability of the aircraft. No one has said anything, but Lord Drayson was very clear. He said that if that point was not demonstrable he would walk away from the project. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire indicated that the clock is ticking on the decisions that have to be made about what will operate from the aircraft carriers. The Government owe it to the House to tell us in a straightforward way whether the United States are playing ball and showing openness on that point. I seek a reassurance from the Minister that we will not go too far down the road of committing ourselves to the next stages of the joint strike fighter process until we can be certain that the short take-off and vertical landing—STOVOL—version of the aircraft is capable of delivering, as they say, what it says on the tin.

Finally, I turn to the matter of unmanned air vehicles and autonomous air vehicles. It is interesting that names such as HERTI, Fury and Taranis are becoming the new lexicon of the aerospace industry in the north-west. I was delighted to read that HERTI has been deployed successfully in Afghanistan and that Fury has been to the San Diego exhibition in the United States. It demonstrated to the Americans that, in a relatively short time, we in the United Kingdom have been able to develop an unmanned air vehicle with a weapons capability, at a price that is probably much lower than that of the equivalent American product. That is extremely good news from the standpoint of our armed forces and industrial base. Again, it shows the benefit of our being able to maintain our own aerospace capability.

Some 250 people are currently employed on those projects, and in fairness the Government have supported Taranis. I hope that they will continue to provide an economic underpinning for those vital new technologies. They show once again that British innovation can speedily develop systems that are much needed in the field, at a lower cost than the Americans and probably with a higher operational capability.

I hope that, if the Minister is not able to deal with all my points in his wind-up, he will at least write to me in some detail to supply me once and for all with some hard answers, particularly on tranche 3.

It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who always talks not only in a spirited way about his constituency industry interests but knowledgeably about the aerospace industry.

I wish to mention the work of the Defence Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said that it works on a cross-party basis to try to get good value for money from the defence industry, and that is true under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). Some of the time that I most enjoy in this place is spent in the Defence Committee.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, also drew on his considerable experience to remind us in no uncertain terms that procurement and its failures are as old as warfare itself. He and other hon. Members said that we are perhaps not paying a high enough premium for the defence of this country, and I agree. I hope that we will be able to set out a strong case for that.

I am not absolutely convinced of the need for a new strategic defence review. The Government have announced a review against the background of the security and resilience strategy, and the Defence Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry examining the implications of that strategy from the MOD perspective. That review may well come up with some answers more quickly and in a more focused way. I hope that it will provide the certainty that people are looking for on certain matters, but of course the history of the issue is strewn with a slightly different experience. Maybe I will turn out to have been over-optimistic.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South, said that Nostradamus had had some success in his predictions. That reminded me of Machiavelli, who advised republicans—not princes in this case—that to try to guide a flood when it came, they needed to build bridges and dams. In the same way, we need to be agile in procurement and build capabilities that can flex to fast-changing circumstances and the threats that we face. The Government’s need to weave that into the procurement process is perhaps greater than ever before.

It is certainly important that the Government get procurement right. There is always a tension between procurement and personnel in the defence budget, and money lost through overruns, delays and project difficulties is money that could have been spent on pay, accommodation, personnel and other improved kit. During the course of our inquiry we heard about major changes in the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency, and about the transformation into Defence Equipment and Support. We need to exercise a considerable degree of caution about the speed of those changes, particularly given the reductions in personnel, although the savings from that may, in the end, be welcome. However, speed in change can sometimes result in cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. We will need to keep a close eye on that over the coming months.

Before I move on to naval matters, as hon. Members would probably expect me to, let me say that we in Devonport are still trying to get our heads round the idea of becoming a base for the manufacture of vehicles for use by the Army and the Marines. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to clarify a little the different types of vehicle that we are talking about and the roles that they play. There is a huge demand for the Supacat vehicles that are being manufactured in Devonport, and they are welcome when they arrive at their deployed destination.

A year after Babcock took over responsibility for Devonport Management Ltd, which is no more—all the logos have been changed, and Devonport is now the UK base for Babcock Marine—and following the naval base review, there is a great deal of interest in Plymouth and Devonport in what the process means for our local industry and work force. I am looking forward to a meeting in early July, to which I will bring some of the community leaders from Plymouth to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces what the changes may involve.

Certain questions flow for Devonport from the fact that the joint venture has been formed and that the order for the future carriers can now be placed. HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious are planned to leave service in 2012 and 2015 respectively. In the meantime, they will still require maintenance and docking, especially as they are getting older, as older vessels often need more attention. There is some interest in how that will pan out, as Devonport undertook refits and maintenance on the Invincible class in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There will obviously be disappointment about what I am sure was a difficult decision to make on the Type 45s, if for no other reason than that HMS Daring has well exceeded expectations in her sea trials. The six Type 45 destroyers that have been ordered to replace the Type 42 destroyers will certainly be a great asset to the Royal Navy. I would like to know—if not today, then at some point—whether consideration is being given to extending the lives of the later Type 42 destroyers. Even without the Sea Dart, they could still be useful in undertaking some of the general purpose tasks, to which I will return when I talk about the numbers of frigates and destroyers, that were referred to earlier.

Before that, let me mention in passing the Astute programme. As the Defence Committee has uncovered in so many of our inquiries, it is essential that sufficient orders are placed, in order to keep up the drumbeat and to keep up the skills base. That is as important to the future deterrent as it is to the current Astute programme, not only to ensure that the Navy receives the submarines that it requires, but to ensure that the skills necessary to build those submarines are not lost before work begins on the successor to Trident. I hope that the Under-Secretary will confirm that it is still the intention to order seven boats and tell us that he understands that confirming when orders for further units will be forthcoming would allow BAE Systems to plan with greater certainty and, potentially, keep the costs down.

Much has been made of the numbers of frigates and destroyers being built but, as I set out in considerable detail in my Adjournment debate on 5 March, I believe that simply building greater numbers of ships is an over-simplistic answer. We need a wide, balanced and flexible range of capabilities. The Royal Navy’s warships have always been multi-purpose. Destroyers protect carriers and amphibious ships from air attack, while frigates have the primary role of hunting submarines. Both have the secondary role of carrying out a range of medium to low-level tasks, from anti-piracy and counter-drugs operations to humanitarian missions and guard ship duties.

We have always ensured that the ships are state of the art, in order to be effective in their primary roles. The Type 23 frigate, together with its Merlin helicopter, is the quietest and most effective anti-submarine frigate in the world. The Type 45 destroyer, with its Aster missiles and Samson radar, is also world class. However, this has had the effect of pushing up costs to the point at which it is no longer possible to build them in sufficient numbers to fulfil their secondary roles. The cost of a Type 45 is approximately £1 billion.

It is therefore time for us to consider separating the two roles. A frigate undertaking humanitarian operations in the Caribbean during the hurricane season does not really need to carry anti-submarine weaponry. Nor does a destroyer intercepting pirates off west Africa really need the world’s most advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Perhaps it is time for us to develop a small, flexible design for an escort—a light frigate that we can build in sufficient numbers to carry out that multitude of tasks. The future surface combatant has been mentioned, and I hope that the Minister will set out whether that is the direction that the future surface combatant will take us in, with a capability to be adapted by spiral insertion to meet what are by common consent the uncertain and changing threats and roles that we shall face in the future.

In conclusion, I shall return to the point at which I started, and stress the importance of getting the underlying procurement process right. Our Defence Committee report was broadly positive about the direction of travel, although we certainly have concerns about the speed of change and about the generation and mix of skills. The aim must be not just to take out cost but to improve quality and speed of decision making, and I believe that the Chair of the Select Committee was absolutely right to sound a note of caution. The coming months promise to bring plenty to keep our Committee busy on the procurement front, and I look forward to the discussions that I shall shortly have with community leaders about the prospects for Devonport’s continuing important role in supporting the Royal Navy and our vital deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I should like to put on record my tribute and thanks to the brave men and women of our armed forces who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other places around the world. They do an excellent job and we are all rightly proud of what they do.

The future rapid effect system—FRES—has been mentioned today. My constituents who work at BAE Land Systems, and those who work at associated engineering companies in my constituency and in wider Shropshire, were disappointed by the decision on Piranha 5 and General Dynamics, which preferred the VBCI vehicle, but we have moved on from our disappointment and hope that the Ministry of Defence will now look closely at the excellent work force at BAE Land Systems and in Shropshire generally, and that it will consider my constituency for the vehicle integrator programme. The Minister will know, having visited my constituency, that Shropshire has a long and proud history of serving Her Majesty’s armed forces—those in uniform and civilians—and that there is a wide, sound industrial base in the county and across the west midlands.

I also pay tribute to the Defence Support Group and to all those who work in the Army Base Repair Organisation and the former Defence Logistics Organisation, which has now been re-branded. Nevertheless, the demand for logistics and the supply of urgent operational requirements continues and the work force in my constituency and the county of Shropshire more widely continue to be called on to deliver UORs, often at very short notice, to Afghanistan and Iraq, yet they deliver time and time again. I hope that the Minister will pay tribute to them on the record in his concluding remarks.

I hope that the Minister will also take the opportunity to ensure that the Army Base Repair Organisation has a long-term future. Some months ago—perhaps over a year ago—there was a question mark over it, but after the excellent report of the Defence Select Committee, the Government rightly recognised that the attrition on armed vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq and the greater wear and tear on them would mean further repairs. After the Defence Select Committee review, as well as a review by the MOD, Ministers took the right decision and said that ABRO should not be downsized or relocated but extended, and called for further recruitment to it. I pay tribute to ABRO’s work. Having briefly visited Iraq with the armed forces parliamentary scheme—indeed, I also visited Afghanistan just some weeks ago—I can pay personal tribute to ABRO on its excellent work. Certainly, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Yorkshire Regiment pay tribute to its excellent work in getting damaged vehicles and those broken down back to the front line.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), sadly no longer in his place, alluded to issues about defence training, the defence training review and the defence training rationalisation programme. I am not trying to hark back to the past, as clearly a decision has been made for the programme to go to RAF St. Athan, but the Minister needs to come clean not just with the people of Shropshire and the west midlands, but with the people of Wales. Some real issues remain about the delivery of the programme, particularly on the lack of infrastructure in Wales and the squabbling between the Welsh Assembly, the Ministry of Defence and local authorities. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan himself made some comments about that. He did not go into too much detail, but there were enough hints of concern in his speech to suggest that the defence training review programme might well be delayed. If that happens, it will be bad not only for Wales, but for Her Majesty’s armed forces. I hope that the Minister will look again at the county of Shropshire, where we already have the infrastructure and the right people in place and where we have the experience necessary to continue to deliver the sort of defence training that Her Majesty’s armed forces quite rightly expect and deserve.

One key issue that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan did not mention is the fact that training can be delivered only if there are trainers to deliver it. Local surveys carried out in my constituency by the Public and Commercial Services Union—a mostly excellent union in much, not all, of what it does—revealed that the majority of experienced, hard-working, dedicated and loyal MOD trainers were for many reasons unable or unwilling to move to Wales. The differential in house prices was one of the key reasons, as house prices around St. Athan are about 25 or 30 per cent. higher than in some of the Shropshire locations. That is a real issue. The Government might find themselves with a training establishment—the building and roads might eventually be built—but the Minister might find that there are no trainers to deliver the training. That is a strategic issue about the procurement of defence training, which will obviously impact on the British armed forces as a whole.

In my final minute—I have other things to say, but I am aware that time is running out for other Members who want to contribute to the debate—let me deal with the issue of hypermass technology. In the debate on Trident, I mentioned that the defence industrial strategy made no reference to such technology. The Government need to look at that. While I support nuclear, there are instances in which weapons of overwhelming force might need to be used when we could not use a nuclear weapon. We have only conventional missiles. We need something between a conventional missile and a nuclear missile so that we have more flexible options when dealing with increased threat.

On unmanned aerial vehicles, while I completely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), it is right that we should have as much capability as we can within the UK. Without going into geographical detail, my concern is that in parts of theatre where UAVs are being used, it is not necessarily always British hands that are involved in every application of the UAV mission. That could raise conflict of interest issues.

On cyber defence and the defence industrial strategy, we know that although China is a great nation in many ways and that it has a fine people, its Administration have perhaps not covered themselves in glory on human rights and a range of issues. We know from the head of our own Security Service that China is very interested in our military secrets. Even in the House, we have been told about cyber attacks from outside, potentially from China.

I hope that the defence industrial strategy will carefully consider developing a British capability not only for cyber defence but for cyber offence, because as military equipment becomes more reliant on integrated systems, fly by wire, special forces and aircraft such as the Typhoon, having the defence systems to protect ourselves from cyber attack will be critical and we must also have the capability to go on the offensive should we choose to do so.

I associate myself with the condolences expressed to those men and women of our armed forces who lost their lives in Afghanistan in the last week or so. In particular, I pay tribute to Corporal Sarah Bryant, the first woman to lose her life in Afghanistan. As a member of the Defence Committee for the last seven years, I have seen young men and young women doing a tremendous job in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and we should recognise the tremendous debt that we owe not only to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the last week, but to those men and women who continue to serve.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) that we need a strategic defence review. The major strategic issues are still as they were in 1998 and a review would be a diversion from where we are now. The issue that we face is the fact that we have high-tempo operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan alongside what my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) put forward on the legacy programmes. We can all say that we would like to cancel or change them, but in practice it would be difficult to do so. The two run side by side.

The Ministry of Defence has been good in responding to demands in theatre, such as in Afghanistan. Urgent operational requirement has worked and I pay tribute not just to the people in the MOD who made that happen, but to industry. Not only large defence companies but small defence companies and suppliers have stepped up to the mark and delivered quickly. We have seen that clearly with vehicles, as well as with things that we do not and should not talk about, such as technology around counter-measures and improvised explosive devices, which is saving lives in Iraq and in Afghanistan. That applies not just to our servicemen and women, but to those of other nations.

In the last few years, it has been common to kick defence around as a political football, but I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South. Since I have been a member of the Defence Committee, we have had a consensus on a lot of issues, which is how it should be. Let us make it clear: all parties will go into the next general election with no commitment radically to increase the amount we spend on defence, although I, like my right hon. Friend, would argue for more defence expenditure. No one is going to do that, so we are facing some difficult decisions in respect of our armed forces.

Senior military personnel are in the same position. They may think that kicking these matters around will lead to easy newspaper headlines that will change things, but they must understand that they too have to make sure that we get value for money, in terms of both equipment and military organisation. Even though our Army has reduced in size over the past few years, there is still a debate to be had about its present structure.

Like most people, I welcomed the defence industrial strategy. It clarified the position regarding our armed forces’ equipment, and also in respect of industry. I was sceptical about whether it would outlast Lord Drayson, and unfortunately I have been proved right. I said as much to the permanent secretary at the MOD when he came before the Defence Committee about a year ago. The uncertainty described earlier by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), is not good: we need clarity, but I understand the pressures that the MOD is facing. The money that needs to expended very quickly on our armed forces’ high-tempo operations must be laid alongside the existing defence budget.

That is a difficult thing to do, but sometimes I wish that the MOD would tell us the reality of the situation rather than trying to con us that, for example, the future rapid effect system is all about design, because it is not. If someone were to tell me that the vehicles that we bought for Afghanistan and Iraq were to be incorporated into the FRES requirements, I would accept that. It is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but the MOD should tell us what is happening. That would be better then insulting our intelligence by maintaining that something different is going on.

We have been promised a new chapter on the defence industrial strategy, and we need one to remove the uncertainty facing industry. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) talked about skills, and I have said on numerous occasions that the skills that we need in our defence industry cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Decisions need to be taken now, and some major projects may have to be cancelled. For example, I welcome today’s announcement about Type 45 destroyers, as that will give the rest of the defence sector the clarity that it needs.

Companies will know where to go for investment, and there will be an improvement in the investment that is made in skills. That is important, as it takes months—and sometimes many years—to upskill people so that they can handle the new technologies. That is why it is important that we get the clarity, to which I have referred, as quickly as possible.

The Government can be proud that the procurement process has had an impact on regions such as mine. For example, the two new carriers will have a major impact in the north-east of England. That will be felt in the traditional shipbuilding industry that will handle their fabrication, but all sorts of small and medium-sized industries will benefit as well. It used to be that large industries produced ships and other big pieces of kit, but those days are gone. Even so, the defence industry is worth about £2 billion to the regional economy of the north-east, with much of the work being carried out by SMEs.

That work is very ably supported by the company Northern Defence Industries, which champions the supply chain in the north-east and Yorkshire. It also works with the North West Aerospace Alliance to ensure that SMEs can access some of the work that is coming forward.

We need the clarity that I have referred to. Tough decisions must be made, and the sooner, the better. We need to make sure that we can produce the necessary equipment for our armed forces, and our service personnel must have confidence that they will get the kit that they will need in the future. Finally, we must make sure that the industrial base for this country’s defence industry is retained and strengthened as a result of the key decisions that we take.

It is right and proper for me to add the condolences of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales, to those already expressed following the tragic loss of service personnel in Afghanistan.

Procurement is not just about the acquisition of new assets; it is also about the responsibly managed transition from the systems that they are replacing. That applies most acutely to the Nimrod replacement programme, in which the current MR2 fleet based at RAF Kinloss in my constituency will be superseded by the MRA4.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State visited RAF Kinloss today. He will have met and heard from the air and ground crew as well as the civilian contractors, who do an excellent job and are working hard within the resource constraints to ensure that the appropriate safety standards are met. He will also have heard the concerns of the civilian work force and their union about job security. I hope he was able to provide the reassurances that they sought.

As matters stand, BAE Systems expects to conclude flight-test activities on its three Nimrod MRA4 development aircraft later this year. Nine MRA4s are under contract for the RAF, and there is also an option for the three refurbished design and development aircraft. It has been reported in the specialist aviation press that the first production MRA4 will achieve “power on” by September this year and will then enter an extended equipment fit, load and test programme before making its first flight next year. Under the current programme schedule, BAE Systems will deliver four production MRA4s to RAF Kinloss by the end of 2010, when the new type is expected to be declared to be in-service.

Colleagues in the Defence Committee, a number of whom are still in the Chamber, recently called on the MOD to reconsider its options in relation to the Nimrod MRA4. Without dismissing the awful track record of the programme or the lessons that need to be learned from it, I should stress that most of the costs have already been incurred. To walk away now would mean losing massive sums of taxpayer investment.

Although the delays and budgetary increases in the Nimrod MRA4 programme are of course cause for concern, another particular and deadly problem has resulted. Owing to the important capability of the existing Nimrod and the need for its vital services in a range of theatres, the 40-year-old Nimrod MR2 fleet has been pushed to the limits. In the recent case of Nimrod XV230, it proved fatal. Shortly after refuelling over Afghanistan on 2 September 2006, the aircraft exploded near Kandahar, killing all 14 personnel aboard. It was the biggest UK loss of life since the Falklands war, and more than half the victims were my constituents.

On 5 November 2007, a further mid-air incident took place, this time when Nimrod XV235 was over Afghanistan. The crew noticed a fuel leak during-air-to-air refuelling operations. After issuing an in-flight mayday, the aircraft was landed successfully. The Minister of State admitted recently that there had been at least 111 fuel leaks since Nimrod XV230 exploded.

On 4 December 2007, the report of the findings of the official board of the inquiry into the loss of XV230 was published. Four separate factors were listed as having contributed to the accident, and are a matter of public record. On 23 May 2008, only a few short weeks ago, the coroner who led the inquest into the deaths stated that the entire Nimrod fleet had

“never been airworthy from the first time it was released to service”,

and urged that it be grounded. The assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, Andrew Walker, added:

“I have given the matter considerable thought and I see no alternative but to report to the secretary of state that the Nimrod fleet should not fly until the Alarp”—

as low as reasonably practicable—

“standards are met.”

The Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), said earlier that we needed answers. I agree. We have been given no detailed statement, or indeed any detail at all. What I would describe as a badly advised and badly timed press release was issued only minutes after the deputy coroner had announced his ruling. There cannot have been time for serious consideration of the points that he had made.

Last December, the Secretary of State assured Members that Nimrod was safe, citing a report by QinetiQ. It has proved difficult to establish whether that was factually correct. It has taken freedom of information requests to establish that the report said that the aircraft would not be fully safe until its 30 recommendations had been implemented. All but one of those recommendations related to a failure to implement mandatory airworthiness regulations.

The inquest heard that if the risk of something going wrong on a plane is only “tolerable”, MOD rules stipulate that it must be further reduced to make it as low as reasonably practicable—ALARP—before the plane can be declared safe. The QinetiQ report cited by the Secretary of State as showing the aircraft was safe in fact found that it was only “tolerably safe” but, because of the 30 problems, it was not ALARP.

It is still not ALARP. In a letter to me, the Secretary of State for Defence said that of the 30 recommendations, 21 have been accepted—using the present tense—by the MOD and are still being implemented. Six relate to air-to-air refuelling, which is no longer done with Nimrods. Three more are still—again, present tense—being considered.

Group Captain Colin Hickman, who is in charge of the safety of the Nimrod fleet, admitted to the coroner that the remaining Nimrods were not ALARP and would not be so until the end of this year. Asked if this process could be speeded up, Hickman replied:

“No, it is driven by resources.”

Reassurances need to be given about transitional arrangements from the MR2 to the MRA4 and about safety standards for ageing systems facing replacement as part of a managed procurement process. We need answers on this. I would welcome the Minister giving some detail of all the 30 recommendations. How many have been fully implemented and when will the rest of them be implemented? It is only fair that we have the answers.

Some say this is a technical point, but I think it is easily understood by the man in the street. The situation now with the Nimrod fleet is as if a driver had been notified of 30 improvements necessary for his car to pass an MOT and, nearly two years later, he is only partially through the mandatory work and is still considering whether to go through with some of the other repairs. It would not be allowed in a car. Why does the MOD think it is okay for a plane? Given that the ALARP standard is the MOD’s own standard, I do not understand why it is not complied with. I hope the Minister will explain that this evening.

I shall endeavour to be extremely brief and I join the tributes paid by colleagues to our armed forces.

The background to this procurement debate is of course what General Sir Kevin O’Donoghue, Chief of the Defence Materiel, told the Select Committee about the difficulty he is facing in this planning round, PR08. He said that it was different from anything that had gone before and was worse than the planning round of 2007. He had to think back to the 1970s for anything comparable. The essential problem is that the Government spending increases on defence have simply not kept up with either the costs of procurement or of operations.

As Lord Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said at the time, the SDR was never fully funded. It is interesting that Ministers are keen to take military advice when it suits them but when they were presented with that advice back in 1998, they refused to take it. We have been living with the consequences ever since.

The Prime Minister likes to laud the £6 billion of urgent operational requirements that have been delivered to our front-line forces over recent years, but unfortunately UORs do not address the shortage of baseline funding. Even PR08 foresaw a mere 1.5 per cent. real-terms increase to 2011, a minute increase compared with the increases given to other Departments over the years. Defence cost inflation, and the ring-fenced spending for Trident, for housing, for pensions and for the council tax rebate pretty quickly whittle that increase down to something minimal, if it is an increase at all. The Government’s failure properly to fund the main equipment programme over the past 10 years has a direct consequence on operations, a very painful one, as the exchanges on Snatch land rovers demonstrated.

What capabilities do we really need? The Minister of State said on Monday, and repeated today, that the MOD now aims to

“shift the balance of defence procurement to support operations.” —[Official Report, 16 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 663.]

That is a highly dangerous concept to pursue and it is very unsound to premise future operations on present operations.

Churchill always said that the War Office is always preparing for the last war, and it seems that nothing changes. What sort of wars will we be fighting in the next 30 years, which is the realistic time horizon on which we should be planning the major equipment programme? That is difficult to tell at the best of times, but we know that weapons proliferation will increase and that a huge shift is taking place in the distribution of power among the world’s superpowers. Conflicts and crises will become increasingly complex and unpredictable.

At present, the Government’s interventionist foreign policy simply does not match their defence policy of limited resources. Last week, General Dannatt said that

“the Army of tomorrow must retain the capability to fight Major Combat Operations (MCO)s and Stability Ops, both simultaneously and sequentially.”

He is obviously correct in his assessment of the type of operations the British armed forces need to be able to conduct, and it is the duty of politicians to provide the armed forces with the capabilities they need and to provide best value for the taxpayer.

The idea of tailoring the armed forces to short-term requirements is too short-sighted. We accept that the opposite strategy of trying to provide for every eventuality at any time is too expensive. We need to strike the balance for which the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) argued, between readiness for immediate operations and readiness for the longer term.

In the face of that and in the current low-threat environment, we need what Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward has called a “core force strategy”. That means that we need to spend the money on the big platforms—the expensive bits of kit—even at times of low threat, so that we are in a position to build up our armed forces at a later date should the threats change and that be necessary. The danger of transferring resources from the major equipment programme to short-term operations currently being undertaken is that we are playing poker with the future of this country. We have no idea what threats we might face in five, 10 or 15 years’ time.

Those were the arguments that Ministers deployed in favour of renewing the Trident missile system and the Trident submarine. Those same arguments apply to every other aspect of our defence policy, and it is short-sighted to pursue the policy that the Government are beginning to pursue. The problem with the strategic defence review is not its content or its shopping list—everyone agreed that it was a pretty good blueprint for defence policy and the armed forces; the problem is the lack of money.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) for curtailing his excellent speech, as it gives me time to get in. He has great knowledge in this area, and the House will have missed the rest of his speech this evening.

I have no defence interests in my constituency. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have brilliantly defended the local businesses, services and units in their constituencies. My constituency contains a brand new cadet hut, of which we are very proud. It replaced the Territorial Army centre in my constituency—we were also very proud of that, and it is sorely missed. So I speak very much as a Back Bencher who is defending and speaking up for the troops in the armed forces.

I thought that the contribution made by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) about uniforms was very interesting and factually correct. If the Minister were allowed to go to a quartermaster’s department in an average regiment to take a look at combat kit—the uniform that has been handed back in—he would find that most of it had got the backside busted out of it. The quality of the kit being purchased from the Chinese is just not up to scratch, and it does not last as long as the uniforms that were made in this country. After the contract went abroad, it was obvious that the uniforms just did not last as long, as any quartermaster who has the guts to talk to the Minister will tell him. That is to do with quality, although lots of different things have been tried—for example, double-stitching on certain parts of the uniform. The particular uniform that I have been issued with by the armed forces parliamentary scheme is simply fantastic, but it does not look anything like what is being issued to my friends who are serving in the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards. The uniforms are completely different.

I wish to ask the Minister some questions. I am sure that he will not have time to respond to all of them, so I ask him to write to me about the specific issues that I am about to raise. Can he confirm that all the C130s in operation have fire-retardant foam in the tanks? We all know about the disaster in which we lost all those servicemen. Long before that, Lockheed recommended to all the fleets around the world that fire-retardant foam be added to the tanks. Some countries added it; we did not, and one was shot down. It is too late for those who lost their loved ones, but I hope that the foam has been added to all the C130s on operations now.

Many of us had the honour of watching the trooping of the colour on Saturday. Those taking part are not toy soldiers, but operational servicemen—and women, these days—and we should all be very proud of them. When I served, many years ago, and trooped the colour, we saw very few service medals—a Northern Ireland medal and, perhaps, a United Nations one. On Saturday, there were servicemen and women who had more medals than some of the second world war veterans wear on Remembrance day. That is a tribute to how often our servicemen and women go on operations.

Unusually for a former Foot Guard, I also wish to pay tribute to the Life Guards and the Household Cavalry, because they go on operations as well as carrying out their ceremonial duties. I was very moved by the Westminster Hall debate on Lance Corporal Compton last week. I have met Lance Corporal Compton and his burns are horrific. As I said, the House was shocked when I mentioned the fact that a bullet-proof vest is not fire protective. If a soldier is in a Scimitar that is hit, as Lance Corporal Compton was, and his colleagues are dying around him and he is alight, the last thing he needs is for the uniform that has been issued to protect him to burn. That is frightening. If nothing else comes from this debate today, I hope that we will now look at how we protect our servicemen and women in the field.

I add my tribute to those that have been paid so warmly today to the fallen. It is a sad day today for British defence procurement, because the Minister has announced—sotto voce, if I may say so—the reduction in the number of T45s from the 1998 assumption of 12 to six. That is to be regretted.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) wants to increase defence spending. I certainly hope that there will be no more reductions in our capability. My plea to the Minister, if he is tempted to make any further cuts, is not to do it on a tribal basis. In the past, the temptation has been to divvy up any cuts on an Army, Navy and Air Force basis, and that will not do. That approach underpinned “Delivering Security in a Changing World” only a few years ago, but it does not serve the British defence capability overall. That was probably what the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) meant when he talked about salami-slicing.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) expressed her understandable concerns about the T45 programme. She also asked about these old workhorses, the T42s. I remember them well, and they are now old ladies. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister thinks that, in the light of his announcement today, their service should be extended. The hon. Lady also rightly asked for reassurances about the Astute programme.

While we are on the subject of the senior service, I should say how much I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) about the need for some progress on the decision on the technology transfer that will underpin our decision on the future of the JSF. If we are not going to get the JSF, we need to think very carefully about what we are going to do with our carriers.

It is always a pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). He spent some time saying that he hoped the debate would not be partisan, and indeed up to that point it mostly had not been. He made an important point, and the debate has been fairly on the level today.

We heard an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). He was absolutely right—the procurement of training is every bit as important as the procurement of bits of kit and hardware. I shall come on to that in a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) underlined the same point. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made a linked point by saying that we cannot simply, in his words, turn skills on and off like a tap in relation to the defence industry. Of course, he is absolutely right.

The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) gave a robust defence of the defence sector. He talked about Lancashire, and I suspect that Ghandi would be smiling down at this debate because, of course, he made a rather similar observation in relation to homespun all those years ago. The hon. Gentleman’s point was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning).

The defence industrial strategy recognises that the defence industry is a business like no other. There is a delicate balance to be struck between protectionism, which we have learned is in nobody’s long-term interests but which characterises the defence industries of our competitors, and the free market instincts towards which most of us, on this side of the House at least, would naturally incline.

France, Germany and the US protect their defence industries using a bewildering array of direct and indirect offsets and old-style state ownership. It is against that backdrop that we have to consider the way that successive Governments have dealt with the purchase of equipment for the British armed forces and the support that we offer our defence industry.

Underpinning the DIS is the doctrine of appropriate sovereignty. Many would say that that means very limited sovereignty or none at all. The question is the extent to which we can or should endeavour to control the means to manufacture and service our own kit and to ensure that we control imported items of a sensitive nature. As equipment becomes more complex, that becomes increasingly difficult, but from SA80 A2 conversions to anything reliant on GPS we are hopelessly dependent on other countries. Even if bits of our kit were wholly organic, we could not possibly mount an effective fighting force on land, sea or air if, for whatever reason, defence manufacturers outwith the immediate control of the UK decided to stop playing with us or became obstructive.

We should be realistic about the price tag that we put on the notion of appropriate sovereignty beyond highly specialised requirements relating to the independent nuclear deterrent, cryptology and the perverse desire of some to deny technology transfer. Of course, I have in mind the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde. Finally, but most importantly, we must not compromise on quality. Our troops are the best, but too often they have gamely put up with kit that frankly leaves a great deal to be desired.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members have talked about the urgent operational requirement, notably my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex. It is generally accepted that the UOR has been a success. We do not know how much exactly—or even approximately—has been spent on it since there is something of a disparity between what has been announced by the Minister and his Department’s outturn. Nevertheless, we know that it does not cover a raft of things that are consumed by war fighting and thus fall on a peacetime defence budget. That has been referred to in this debate.

The UOR process anticipates operations of short duration. We are five years into Telic, and as we recalibrate our expectations for the length of our engagements in Afghanistan we need to think about what constitutes “urgent” and how it will be funded. If the military thought that the UOR was Father Christmas, they were mistaken. What the Treasury gives with one hand, it takes with the other. Equipment provided quickly for war that would have been procured electively in any case is subject to both clawback and, of course, accelerated senility. However, we should give credit where it is due, and the UOR has meant that off-shelf equipment has been purchased, removing the risk of project delays and overspends and allowing truly smart procurement with limited scope for the MOD to mess up in acquiring kit, a capacity that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South referred to in a non-partisan sort of way.

Helicopters are bound to come into such a debate. The big story is the cut in the budget of £1.4 billion in 2004, which I am sure the Minister will accept, with the benefit of hindsight, was a mistake. If one talks to anybody in transit in a tracked or wheeled vehicle in Iraq and Afghanistan, they will say that they would rather be airborne. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) pointed that out. Helicopters have to be the means to get from A to B in hostile terrain, and following the announcement on Monday of a reconfiguration of British forces in Afghanistan and better force protection, I hope that we can look forward to optimising our air assets.

May we have an update on where we are with regard to making the extra Merlins that we bought from the Danes fit for purpose? Will they have an operational traffic alert and collision avoidance system?

Finally, I note that the Government called the debate “Defence Procurement”, the implication being that they wanted to talk about tanks, ships, and aircraft, but let us be clear about the most important piece of kit in the Minister’s, or any future Minister’s, armoury. It can never be reduced to an acronym; it will never be the CVS, FRES or JSF. It has been the same since King Alfred repelled the Danes at Ethandune and Bloody Point. It is our sailors, soldiers and—though it pains me to say so and, sadly Alfred did not have the benefit of them in the 9th century—airmen. We must procure more of them, particularly for the infantry and pinch-point trades. We must reduce wastage of them, and we must ensure that their through-life capabilities are our first consideration.

May I, too, put on record my admiration for the bravery, sacrifice and professionalism of our armed forces, who do an absolutely amazing job? Of course, I send my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives.

This has been an interesting debate. Our armed forces are well served by the Members who are present; they take a great interest in, and think deeply about, the issues. I shall try to cover as many points as I can in the short time available to me. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) brought his great experience to the debate, and made a balanced contribution. He said that the Government had behaved extremely responsibly; that was an important point. He noted that defence procurement is difficult, complicated and problematic, and strongly argued the case for improvements to procurement. A great deal has been done on the issue so far. He demonstrated a great grasp of the trials and tribulations of procurement, and talked about balancing the budget.

In an important contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) made a significant point about training. He has been a great champion of the defence training review programme and St. Athan, and he rightly raised the issue today. He wanted an update on progress, and I can tell him that discussions with the Metrix consortium are still ongoing on a range of issues. We will make an announcement as soon as we are in a position to do so. As he knows, package 2 has reverted to a conventional procurement process, managed in-house. Approval of an initial gate is expected soon. He also mentioned resettlement, and made the important point that the skills and experiences of our armed forces personnel allow them to get into the jobs market pretty quickly, but training is an important consideration, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) made a passionate speech about buying British and ensuring more British contracts—ideas that he has long championed. He mentioned the importance of the aerospace industry to the north-west. I count myself a Lancashire lad, so I agree that it is an important part of the world. He pointed out how proud we are of the British defence industry and its importance to maintaining links and partnerships, not just across the country but around the world. He made an important point about maintaining our skills base. He also asked about the Typhoon; we are continuing discussions with our partner nations and with the industry on tranche 3. Those discussions will continue throughout the year, and decisions will be taken as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) has a great deal of experience in defence, and particularly naval, matters. She showed her knowledge and commitment to defence through the range of issues that she talked about. She mentioned the Navy’s importance to Plymouth. She has been a great champion for Plymouth during her time as a Member of Parliament, and she regularly lobbies Ministers on a range of issues. She referred to future carriers, the Astute programme, the joint shipbuilding venture, and the size of the royal naval fleet. The joint venture is not yet formed, but is due to form on 1 July. It is still the Ministry of Defence’s intention to order seven Astute boats.

It was asked why no decisions had been taken on the Future Service Combatant. It is in the early stage of concept design, and detailed criteria have not yet been defined. The number of ships required will be determined when the programme is more mature.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made a very important speech, showing his ability and his detailed grasp of defence issues. He made a number of points, but he referred in particular to the defence industrial strategy. Industry is, and continues to be, in close dialogue with the Ministry of Defence on that issue. Industry is helping us to develop the DIS update, and it was represented at a very senior level only a few weeks ago.

Several other Members made important points. My time is limited, but I shall briefly go through them. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) made a very important point about Nimrod. In the time that I have I am unable to deal with his questions, but I assure him that we will write to him as soon as possible. The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) has again shown his obvious grasp of detail because of his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Defence and his hard work on that. He raised a number of issues, as he has before.

The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) is very lively on the issues that he raises, and he raises them continually. I was quite interested by the point that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) made: basically, he said that when things went wrong with procurement under the Conservative Government, it was the experts’ fault, but when they went wrong under this Government, it was Ministers’ fault. That was a very interesting contrast.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) made an important contribution on modernisation and future technology. Shropshire is a great county. My grandfather served in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) also made an important point about armoured vehicles, which I shall come on to, and the hon. Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) made impassioned speeches on issues that they are very keen to take further and explore.

It is important to deal with several issues that several Members raised, rather than refer to each individual Member, but I shall say a few words first. Making sure that our servicemen and women have the equipment that they need when they need it is central to our defence effort. That theme emerged throughout the speeches today, and it is of course essential to our operational success. The Chief of the Defence Staff has said that the British forces across the board are better equipped than at any time during his 40 years of service. The servicemen and women—including some quartermasters—whom I meet on my operational visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the UK, tell me that they have the best equipment that they have seen. However, we can always improve that, and there is no complacency.

In the past three years, equipment to the value of £10 billion has been delivered to our armed forces. In addition to that expenditure, we have the urgent operational requirements process, which has been discussed in detail. It allows us to respond directly to feedback and requests from commanders on the front line—a key point to make—and it boosts capability where and when it is needed. We have approved about £3.5 billion since operations began. The investment has transformed personal equipment, from specially designed boots to the £29 million spent on new enhanced body armour, and it has doubled the firepower of an eight-man infantry section. The investment, as we have heard, continues to enhance and upgrade our protected patrol vehicle fleet—£500 million since operation began.

We have done a tremendous amount in the past two years to ensure that commanders have had a variety of vehicles at their disposal. However, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces made clear in his speech, in reality no single vehicle is suitable for every task. We must listen to the commanders’ views on that.

There was some confusion about vehicles, and in the few minutes that I have left I hope to clear that up. Members referred to a number of different vehicles that are available to operational commanders. Mastiff is a heavily armoured 6x6-wheel drive patrol vehicle, based on the US Cougar that American marines use. The MWMIK, known as Jackal, is a high-mobility weapons platform based on the Supacat vehicle. WMIK, which is part of the Land Rover family, is an open-topped vehicle that provides a better situational awareness and allows greater interaction with the local population.

There are three types of Land Rover: the basic, the Snatch and the WMIK. On the question whether the WMIK will replace the Snatch, just as with the question of the Mastiff and the Bulldog, it is our intention that the arrival of the Jackal, which is the MWMIK, and the WMIK and the Ridgback, will substantially reduce the use of Snatch vehicles, other than in a number of limited roles and operational tasks that commanders want them for. However, it is important to make the point that we have available a range of vehicles which has been much increased in the past year or two.

We are continually investing in programmes to increase the protection of our vehicles against all threats, including explosive devices. We are committed to the FRES programme and to deploying that capability as soon as we can. We are working hard to increase the level of helicopter support that we provide to commanders on operations. Since March last year, we have increased the number of helicopter, including Chinook, flying hours that we provide in Afghanistan by over 33 per cent. Driving through efficiency in our logistical support has been key to this process. The cost of high-end equipment is increasing, and we must have an equipment programme that is focused and sustainable.

It being Six o’clock, the motion lapsed, without Question put.