I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of defence procurement.
Providing good equipment is a fundamental component of the military covenant. We ask our armed forces to risk all on our behalf and in return we must support them properly, giving them the equipment and the training that they need to do the job that we ask them to do today, and the job that we may ask them to do tomorrow.
We are committed to that, which is why the defence budget has risen consistently at a rate above inflation since 2000. In real terms, by 2010-11 it will be over £3 billion, or 10 per cent., higher than in 1997. That is why defence spending has risen by about £1 billion a year over the past five years—a clear contrast with the last five years of the Tory Government, who cut defence spending by £500 million pounds per year.
I will give way in a while.
Separately and additionally, since 2001 the Treasury reserve has provided about £14 billion to ensure that our forces are properly trained and equipped for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, including £4.2 billion approved for urgent operational requirements, the majority of which related to force protection equipment. In allocating funds, we must give priority to current operations. However, we cannot take that too far, because we must continue to insure against the threats that we may face in the years to come.
The national security strategy, published in March last year, highlights the sheer range of potential security threats facing the United Kingdom, from international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflicts and failed states to pandemics and transnational crime. We live in a complicated and unpredictable world. It is that unpredictability which makes it so important that in fighting today’s war we do not irreparably damage our ability to prepare for tomorrow’s, whatever it may be.
No matter how good the equipment package that we procure through our core budget, the unpredictability of conflict means that we need a rapid procurement system of some kind to allow us to tailor and supplement the kit that we give our forces. Our urgent operational requirement programme has done that job. Working with industry, we have used it to slash procurement lead times dramatically and to fast-track equipment tailored specifically for the demands of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For example, in 2005 we used the urgent operational requirement process to introduce new Kestrel and Osprey body armour for our forces in theatre. That represented a step change in capability in comparison with the body armour that they had before, but we cannot rest. The feedback from troops is, predictably, that they like the level of protection afforded but do not like the extra weight. We are now working on a better fit of body armour, which will make carriage easier and which we expect to be in theatre by summer. We are also making further improvements to the infantryman’s helmet.
As the Minister knows, we have just returned from a two-week recess during which a number of announcements were made about defence issues. It was announced, for instance, that the Territorial Army might be cut by 10,000, that we might be sending 900 more troops to Afghanistan, and that as a result of a strategy change led by President Obama we would examine the Anbar awakening project in Iraq with a view to allowing militias in Afghanistan to be paid to do their own patrolling. Those actions will have huge significance for the way in which we operate the British Army.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify what is going on? Many people in uniform are wondering what on earth the Government are doing. They read about decisions in the press that do not—
Order. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention has been very long, and he has asked a number of questions. I think that the Minister would be entirely within his rights to answer only in terms of defence procurement, which is the subject of today’s debate.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have made the point for me. I cannot go further than the debate allows without risking your wrath. It does not surprise me that the hon. Gentleman was as out of order as he has been on a number of other occasions.
I got good feedback on the equipment package that we are now providing from the Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade, whom I visited in Afghanistan in December. Everywhere I went, Royal Marines of all ranks had nothing but praise for the Jackal vehicle. There are now 200 Jackals in service, and the new, improved Jackal 2 is due to be delivered later this year, six months after the requirement was first raised.
Jackal is only one small part of the vehicle fleet that we are delivering to the front line under the UOR regime. We have approved more than £1 billion on new vehicles for operations, with a focus on providing our commanders with a range of options to allow them to select the most appropriate vehicle for the task in hand. As well as heavily armoured vehicles, they must have more mobile vehicles that can penetrate the narrow streets of villages in the green zone in Helmand, and vehicles that can cover rough terrain in pursuit of the enemy.
We have been making good progress in delivering this comprehensive programme. In October 2008, the Secretary of State announced that we would be procuring approximately 700 new and upgraded armoured vehicles. This included £350 million for more than 400 new light, medium and heavily protected utility vehicles, to be known respectively as Coyote, Husky and Wolfhound. We have now signed contracts for Husky and Wolfhound and expect to sign the contract for the Coyote vehicle very shortly.
Will the Minister explain to the House the problems associated with the UOR system, particularly as in historical terms it now accounts for such an enormous proportion of equipment procurement, and what that means for the maintenance of that equipment in the Army’s inventory over a prolonged period?
The hon. Gentleman is right in that integrating programmes bought through the UOR process with the main programme is problematic, but surely he would accept that, as we cannot always predict every military circumstance, we need our ongoing procurement capability and the UOR process in order to be able to supplement quickly the urgent needs of troops in theatre. That is exactly what it is designed to do. Governments then have to try as best we can to integrate and mesh the UOR process, and the equipment we have bought through it, with our ongoing core equipment programme. That is, of course, problematic, but leaving troops without both the vital equipment they need and a rapid response to changing threat scenarios would be a lot worse.
The Minister’s explanation of why UORs are important would be absolutely right if they were, indeed, simply a way of providing our troops with the equipment they need at times of war such as now, but is there not a problem with UORs in that the Treasury has capped the budget—if my memory serves me right, at £700 million a year—and anything more than that comes out of the ordinary defence budgets in subsequent years, which will be after the next general election? Is there not something rather bogus about the whole UOR project, therefore?
Order. For the benefit of those people outside this House who are not specialists, will the Minister explain what UORs are in his reply to that question?
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The urgent operational requirement programme is in theory not capped but becomes refundable for the Treasury at a point in time. However, it is an academic argument at the moment because we have not gone over that capped amount. There may well be issues at some time in the future, but we have not gone over it yet, so no repayment is required at present, and it is a hypothetical argument to say that it might present a problem at some time in the future.
I was talking about vehicles. Mastiff continues to prove its worth in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deliveries of the enhanced Mastiff 2 began in late 2008, bringing the available Mastiff fleet to more than 280. Ridgeback, which will provide similar levels of protection to Mastiff but is based around the smaller Cougar 4x4 chassis, is expected to start arriving in theatre later this month. The first batch of the Panther command and liaison vehicle has arrived in theatre. It is expected to become operational in the next few weeks.
We use the urgent operational requirements programme to ensure that we are prepared for operations today. We have to ensure that our core budget is properly balanced between equipment designed for the kind of operations that we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those that we may face in future. In his budget earlier this month, the American Defence Secretary, Bob Gates, said that the USA is shifting its emphasis to equipment designed for counter-insurgency operations. His analysis is that the US needs to be realistic about what kinds of conflicts its armed forces are likely to face in the years to come, and to tailor its equipment accordingly. In future, the enemy is more likely to be the masked insurgent than the Russian tank commander.
Last December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced the conclusion of the equipment examination. That, too, was designed to prioritise current operations. Among other measures, he announced that we would prioritise the future rapid effect system Scout vehicle and the Warrior upgrade programme for the Army. He announced that we would redeploy the Merlin helicopter from Iraq to Afghanistan, making significantly more helicopters and flying hours available to commanders, and that we would invest £70 million to upgrade 12 Lynx mark 9 helicopters with new engines, allowing them to operate in the high altitude and heat of the Afghan summer. Those helicopters are expected to be ready to deploy in 2010.
The Minister says that priority will be given to the FRES Scout vehicle, as the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), has said before. May we have an indication of the time scale in which that vehicle will come on stream? This FRES story has been going on for a little bit now.
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence has just told me that he is hopeful that we will get to the initial gate with the FRES Scout vehicle within the next 10 months. I hope that that answers the right hon. Gentleman’s question.
The US’s shift towards procuring equipment for counter-insurgency operations has been well reported. Perhaps less well reported are the measures in its budget to maintain the US contingency capability for state-on-state conflict and power projection, measures such as the commitment to the joint strike fighter, an extra $700 million for theatre missile defence systems, and the announcement of a replacement programme for the US Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The US is making sure that its programme stays in balance.
Given the relative sizes of our armed forces, maintaining that balance is more difficult for us. We need to make sure that we do not abandon our high-end capabilities on the altar of the needs of today. Once abandoned, those capabilities, dependent on complex equipment and highly trained personnel, would be difficult to re-grow. In our uncertain world, our armed forces will need the tools to deal with many potential threats. Equipment such as Trident, Astute, the Type 45, the new carriers, Typhoon, the JSF and the future surface combatant is essential to our ability to defend ourselves and our ability to project force.
The Minister mentioned the joint strike fighter. Will he inform the House of what the Obama Administration’s initial reaction was to sharing the technology so that we can operate that aircraft entirely independently? Will he also tell the House whether the variant that we will get will be the same, in stealth terms, as the one that the United States will have? Or will we get the “export” variant, which I suspect will be much less stealthy?
The programme for the joint strike fighter is in the early days, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but we are involved in it and securing our position by the purchase of three aircraft. That will ensure that not only do we obtain the very highest capability—including full stealth capability—but we are able to understand and maintain the aircraft in the future, and we have full access to the technology. That is the whole reason for our involvement, and we are determined to be embedded in the programme to achieve independence of control in the future. We are receiving every indication of co-operation from our American colleagues in that regard.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the future surface combatant programme. Does he agree that, as with the future rapid effect system, or FRES, it will suffer from having a name that nobody understands? Will he please call a spade a spade and call it the future frigate programme?
I try desperately to avoid falling into MOD jargon—[Interruption.] Perhaps I should say, “Ministry of Defence” jargon. I try to avoid it, but it is impossible. Some of the names that we give to our equipment defy any ordinary person’s understanding of what we do, so there is a lot to be learnt by the Department and those involved with it in trying to call equipment by names that are understandable to the ordinary person. I insist on calling a carrier a carrier, not a CVF—a carrier vessel future—much to the annoyance of many people in the Royal Marines.
My hon. Friend was making a point about the titles that we hang on the kit and equipment that people do not understand. The fundamental capability embodied in what has become known as the FRES programme is still something that the Army wants and needs in the future—vehicles that are capable of operating in different theatres of war, not just in counter-insurgency.
The language issue is like “The Hunting of the Snark”. Perhaps the Minister of State can explain what a “Boojum” is when he finds one.
On the question of Typhoon, can the Minister of State explain what is happening with tranche 3? I understand that it has been split into tranche 3A and tranche 3B, and there is international agreement that tranche 3B should proceed with us counting 30 aircraft off to Saudi Arabia as part of our tranche. Why will not the Treasury agree that? Or is every major procurement decision now being stalled by the Treasury?
We fall straight into a trap when we talk about tranche 3A and tranche 3B of Typhoon and nobody other than ourselves understands what anybody is talking about. We are in discussions with our partners about this tranche of aircraft, but I am not able to make an announcement on that at the moment and I am sorry to have to say that to the hon. Gentleman. We will make an announcement as soon as we can on our intentions to buy tranche 3 and we will try to keep the House informed on that.
My constituents, particularly those who live close to RAF Leuchars, understand well and truly that the Eurofighter Typhoon is a new fighter aircraft. They are particularly pleased that the Government have yet again committed themselves to the deployment of three squadrons to replace the two squadrons of Tornado that are based there. However, my constituents are a little concerned at reports that 43 Squadron, which has a strong Scottish tradition, may be disbanded. If that is to be the case, would not the effectiveness of one of the new squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoon to be based at RAF Leuchars be more than enhanced if the new squadron were renamed 43?
I shall come back to the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the naming of squadrons. We will try, if we can, to give assurance or at least certainty to his constituents. I am not sure, to be honest with him, what the consequences are of what he is talking about. However, I will talk to him outside and separate from the debate, if he wants, and will try to give him at least some clarity.
May I inform my right hon. Friend how important tranche 3 is not only as regards jobs and skills in the north-west but to the RAF, too? It is a crucial, world-beating aircraft and we are sending out a clear message around the world that says, “We believe in this aircraft; come along and buy it.” What is he doing to ensure that those export orders are coming on board to ensure that the skills will remain in the north-west?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This fantastic aircraft is spoken of very highly not only by all those who have flown it but by those who have seen it perform. We have tried, wherever it is appropriate, to make the aircraft available for export, as have other partner nations. People are aware of it. The doubts that people in this place and elsewhere have cast on the Eurofighter, going back some years, have largely been removed as people have seen the real capability that the Typhoon provides.
When there was a gap in production between tranche 1 and tranche 2 of Typhoon, the MOD had to pay £100 million in compensation to cover that gap. Will the Minister tell us what the figure would be if there were a gap in production between tranche 2 and tranche 3 of the Typhoon?
The hon. Gentleman describes a hypothetical situation, which would include the questions of whether there would be a gap and of how big that gap would be, so I cannot answer his question. We will come to the House, as I said, and we will inform people as soon as we can about the situation regarding tranche 3 of the Typhoon.
High-end equipment, such as that which we have been talking about, can be used very effectively across the spectrum of conflict. That is borne out by the experience of current operations. The armed forces are using equipment designed with very different theatres in mind for roles for which they were not originally intended. Such equipment includes the Tornado, which was bought as a deep-attack bomber but is employed in Iraq for close air support and will soon perform the same role in Afghanistan. However, making the right decisions about the equipment that we need is only one side of the equation. The other side involves ensuring that when we go on to procure equipment, we procure it as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Delivering equipment programmes has always been challenging. In 1958, the then Ministry of Supply estimated that defence equipment cost 2.8 times as much as forecast, so delays, slippages and cost overruns are nothing new, and nor are these difficulties something with which the UK alone struggles. In his budget speech, Secretary Gates said:
“The perennial procurement and contracting cycle—going back many decades—of adding layer upon layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build must come to an end.”
I agree with the Minister and accept the point that he is making—procurement is not easy, and many other countries have great difficulties—but there is no need for us to have those great difficulties. American defence procurement is on a scale vastly bigger than ours, and is vastly more complicated and vastly more complex, covering many more areas and systems. What we choose to require of our desperately small armed forces should not be as complicated and difficult as it is. The Government need to make things run much better, whichever Government they are.
Our problems are different, but that does not necessarily make them easier. We procure relatively few things, so we cannot utilise the economy of scale available to the Americans, which brings its own set of problems. Yes, our problems are different, but they are not always easier—sometimes, indeed, they are more complicated as a result of our smaller procurement runs and equipment runs on individual items.
Previous generations have warned the House about perceived threats, and have been shouted down, not least Winston Churchill in 1930s, when he was in the House and talked about the need to rearm. On the perceived threat of cyber-attack, which has manifested itself in countries such as Estonia—and we have recently heard how China has indulged in cyber-technology that could be used to attack countries in the west such as the UK—what assurances can the Minister give the House that he understands that threat and has built it into his procurement policies?
I think that that is the thrust of what I have said. It is enormously difficult, and it would be challenging for any Government—it is challenging to the USA, and it has always been challenging—to get the balance right. We have to face up to the situation and provide our troops with the equipment that they need now for the conflicts in which they are involved, which cost lives in real theatres of war, yet we must try, too, to look at the spectrum of potential threats, including cyber-attack, to ensure that we are best placed in an uncertain world. The question of how we get that balance right is fundamental to the issues that we face. If in the near future we wind up in an environment in which the threat increases because of the global pressures that may flow from the current economic climate, those difficulties will become even more acute.
That is not to say that we can bend our procurement programmes entirely towards the perceived threats of tomorrow, and not give priority to those threats that we face and that threaten our people today. Surely, they must come first. We have an enormously difficult thing to do, and everyone who talks about defence today talks about that issue and getting the balance right.
I shall try to contain my comments this time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am grateful to the Minister for his generosity in allowing Members to intervene. May I ask him about the future strategic tanker aircraft and the contract for, I understand, 27 years, which has been signed? That is a hugely elongated period, agreed in one single contract for that operation.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman seriously believes that we will not at any point over the next generation have any need for strategic air capability of the kind that will be delivered by the future strategic tanker. I do not think that the period of 27 years is a problem at all. That will give us stability, a very capable aircraft and a contract that will keep it in the air and available to the RAF and the rest of our armed forces consistently over that period.
The Minister has commented twice on the carriers, but has made little other reference to the Royal Navy. The carriers are delayed, but they are on stream. Can he give the House an assurance that there will be enough Daring class destroyers and other surface ships and submarines to protect our capital assets?
The carriers will be used for a variety of tasks, any one of which will have to be properly configured, taking into account not only the requirement and what is needed in terms of force projection, but the threat. We have on order six Type 45 destroyers. They are phenomenally capable ships. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity yet to go on board Daring and to experience the radar suite and the missile system that will go with it. We have Astute, and the current Type 23 and Type 22 frigates, which will continue to provide further anti-submarine capability until the future surface combatant comes on stream. We have not taken a decision at this stage about numbers for the future surface combatant, but that will be needed to provide the carrier task force capability, as well as the other functions that those ships will have to undertake.
Can my right hon. Friend tell the House when we shall have an announcement about the maritime change programme? When will he get his finger out and give us the clarity that we need in Devonport so that we can show people that we are at the centre of the way ahead, and answer the point that has just been raised?
As my hon. Friend knows, I have been reading the local press. No matter what we say, the speculation continues as to the future of Devonport. We have said that we need Devonport as a naval base, and that that will not be solely for submarine work. No matter how many times we say that, it does not stop the BBC locally saying that our plans are otherwise. We have said that we intend Devonport to become a centre of excellence for depth maintenance, not only for submarines, but for fleet work.
I am sorry that, as my hon. Friend knows, I am not able to compromise our negotiating position while we are trying to reach a commercial agreement with Babcock—a long-term terms of business agreement. I would like to be able to give detailed comfort to the people of Devonport, but I cannot compromise our commercial situation with regard to those negotiations with Babcock. It seems not to matter how many times we say that in strategic terms, Devonport is needed, and we know that we need the continuation of the vital skill base that exists down there. The local media will continue to cause difficulties for my hon. Friend and for us until we can thrash out the detail of that commercial contract so that she and her constituents can see exactly where we stand. We will try to do that as soon as we can. We are not able to do so at present, and I know that that causes discomfort.
Does it not demonstrate a failure of Her Majesty’s Government’s procurement policy that the new Type 45 destroyers should take to sea without their new anti-aircraft missile system when they begin operational deployment later this year? Why has that system been delayed so much, meaning that the new Type 45 destroyers are more vulnerable than they otherwise might be?
The hon. Gentleman should not take everything too far. The missile system is being tested and, before HMS Daring goes on operations, it will have not only its current phenomenal radar capability but the missile system to go with it. The ship does not have the system now, but it is not on operations. By the time the missile system is needed operationally, it will be available to the Type 45 destroyer.
My right hon. Friend referred to the fact that our armed forces are small, but an even smaller number of contractors supply them. Soon, there may be only one contractor to supply us with certain equipment and we are going into partnerships, so how can my right hon. Friend guarantee that, in the consultation and negotiations, we get value for money?
I was just coming to the defence industrial strategy, so perhaps I can answer my hon. Friend by continuing with my speech and bringing out the issue that he raises.
I was talking about what US Defence Secretary Gates said about the perennial procurement problem, and I could not agree with him more. We have a duty to the taxpayer and to our armed forces to ensure that we procure as efficiently and as cost-effectively as possible—particularly in the current financial climate. The defence industrial strategy still forms the basis of those endeavours, its principles remain at the heart of how we do procurement, and we are working with industry to deliver it. We also need to ensure that we draw on every source that we can to find ways to improve. For example, there are many lessons to be learned from the urgent operational requirement experience: requirements driven by the needs of users on the front line rather than by the allure of technology; industry involved at the start of the process; and a premium placed on speed rather than on perfection. That is why the Secretary of State commissioned Bernard Gray to conduct a review of our processes for delivering major equipment programmes, and it will conclude later this year.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) that a straightforward commercial contract on any given piece of equipment is not necessarily the way to secure value for money in defence procurement, because we—the Government and the taxpayer—wind up paying for the downtime of the facilities that the private sector provides. Partnership, whereby together we drive down costs and increase the availability of kit and equipment, is the way forward, and for that we need transparency. We need to see what the contractor is doing over time, and how is he doing it, if we are to ensure that the taxpayer makes the same gains as the contractor on the equipment that he provides.
The Minister has been extraordinarily generous in allowing Members to ask questions. While he is on the subject, will he indicate how important he feels offset arrangements still are? Do they still operate in relation to literally hundreds of companies in the UK? They are worth hundreds of millions of pounds, if not billions.
I do not fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s question. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), will be able to pick it up, or whether the hon. Gentleman will allude to it further before my hon. Friend winds up the debate.
We will never be able to predict the future accurately. Instead, we can only train, equip and support our armed forces so that they are as prepared as they can be to face the unknown. We have seen improvements in that area over the past few years, but we can and must do better. We owe it to our armed forces and to the British taxpayer to ensure that we do.
Predictably, the Minister painted a rosy picture of the state of Britain’s defence equipment programme—not least in his opening remarks, when he referred to the fantastic increase in funding delivered by the Government. Perhaps I should remind him that that has been necessary because his Government have chosen to engage in five wars since taking office in 1997; those wars should have been better funded than they have been. Furthermore, I remind him that he was a Member of the House when his party attacked the Conservatives when we were in government and wrestling with the aftermath of the end of the cold war. At that time, the Labour party was asking for even more defence cuts than were being delivered by the Conservative party.
Order. We can conduct this debate without that sort of expression. I ask the hon. Gentleman to have second thoughts and withdraw that remark.
I am sure that none has been taken, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for withdrawing.
There was no offence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am happy nevertheless to accept the hon. Gentleman’s withdrawal.
The hon. Gentleman was simply confused in his comments about defence spending. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces was talking about the core defence budget, which is rising at 1.5 per cent. in real terms, beyond inflation, in contrast to the disgraceful record of the last Conservative Administration. [Interruption.] No. That has nothing to do with the funding of the wars, conflicts and campaigns, which comes out of the reserve and is in addition to the core defence programme. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) should at least understand that distinction.
That was absolutely magnificent and wonderful. The hon. Gentleman never made such accusations about his own side when he was sitting on the Conservative Benches. Indeed, I recall his many Rottweiler-style attacks on the Labour party at the time. He is obviously happier at home with the Labour party now, although he is looking rather discomfited. I hope that he has a good visit to my constituency of Aldershot tomorrow.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong about my record during the last Conservative Administration. I did criticise that Administration from the Back Benches for spending too little on defence.
The hon. Gentleman will have to withdraw that.
Order. The House should calm down a little; we should turn to discussing the current procurement position.
Perhaps a simple housewife can pose a question or make a remark with which, I hope, my hon. Friend will agree. In the House we talk so often about how much money is being spent, but never about whether it is being spent wisely and how much waste there is. A case can be made against the current Government in respect of that latter point.
Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her valuable intervention and I hope to amplify her remarks.
I will acknowledge that there is some good news around—it is important that we produce a degree of objectivity in these debates. I will make a number of critical remarks about the Government and end with some positive proposals, but I say at the outset that the order for 700 armoured vehicles is right and essential. The Minister made some important points about how the threat is constantly evolving and the need for us to be very agile in our response to these changing threats. I welcome that. I also welcome the decision to proceed with the Trident replacement.
Set against those bits of good news, however, the overall position is absolutely desperate—so desperate that the chairman of the Defence Industries Council, Mike Turner, said in his evidence session before the Defence Committee:
“The future equipment programme is paralysed.”
He is a senior figure in the defence industry, well known to the Government, and his words sit gravely at odds with what the Minister has said. The fact is, as the Minister knows, that the Ministry of Defence is in a state of chaos. The Royal Air Force and the Army are each short of about 2,500 people, equipment in theatre is being hammered at a rate never originally envisaged, and the Treasury is clamouring for more cuts even as the nation contemplates committing nearly 1,000 more hard-pressed servicemen and women to Afghanistan. So dire is the position that the Ministry of Defence has been forced to agree that some UOR—urgent operational requirements—costs, until recently met wholly from the Treasury’s contingency reserve fund, will in future have to be accounted for in the main MOD core budget, but not, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) pointed out, until after 2010.
The hon. Gentleman is saying what he has said repeatedly in television studios and from the Front Bench, but he is not entitled to cite the defence forum rather than his own Front Benchers and his own party political position. His party’s position, surely, is that the Conservatives cannot guarantee the same level of spending in any areas other than development and health—not defence. It is no good his quoting outsiders—why does he not quote his own Front Benchers, who will not even guarantee the levels of spending that currently apply to this country’s defence budget?
I have to tell the Minister that he is in government: he and his colleagues are responsible for the state of affairs in the running of this country, and the Conservative party will not be held accountable for the carnage that they are going to leave behind for us to pick up and put right in 2010. I can tell him about our own financial proposals. We have made it absolutely clear that if we had a Conservative Chancellor proposing the Budget on Wednesday, any cuts in public expenditure this year would exclude defence as an area for cuts. [Interruption.] Well, that is the case for this year. Unfortunately, as each month unfolds the state of the British economy is exposed as being worse and worse and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now the Prime Minister, who is responsible for this catastrophe, continues to preside over a failing Government. Bring on the general election, and then we will tell the Minister exactly what we propose to do. [Interruption.] I have told him how we would deal with it right here and now. He cannot absolve his Government of responsibility for the shambles to which they have reduced this country.
If this has just become a problem for the Conservatives in the light of the very challenging economic circumstances that we face, why did the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the shadow Defence Secretary, say to the Financial Times on 17 June 2008:
“I keep on telling my colleagues—many of whom want an increase in defence spending—that we’ll have to decide it in the light of the hard numbers that we find”?
Of course that is the position. We do not know what the numbers are—we have not had access to the books. I am telling the hon. Lady and the House what my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor is proposing as we speak.
I think that you will require us to move on, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because there is much ground to cover. The Minister covered a lot, and I want to do the same. Sticking to financial matters, in another twist of creative accounting the Government have embarked on an expensive programme of private finance initiative projects. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) referred to the largest, the future strategic tanker aircraft programme to meet our requirement for transport and air-to-air refuelling, which will cost some £13 billion over 27 years. The defence training review will apparently cost some £10 billion over a similar period, and other PFI projects for flying training and helicopter search and rescue will cost about £10 billion. Those will be contractual commitments, reducing the proportion of the defence budget available for ministerial discretionary spending. Not content with screwing up their own budget, this Government want to saddle the next Conservative Government with Labour’s debts. There is a fundamental flaw in the Government’s approach.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something that confuses me slightly? I understand that he disagrees with how the Government are going to proceed with the tanker programme and the others that he has referred to, but what would be his way of funding them? He will agree that it is very important that we go ahead with the air tanker programme and the others, and I believe that we have to fund them one way or another, so I would be interested to hear what he would say to that.
I have been a consistent opponent of the structure of the FSTA programme, which I think is the most absurd procurement programme of all, and there are quite a few applicants for consideration for that. It is an absurd programme that is hugely costly and years and years late, meaning that the RAF is having to carry on with clapped-out kit in the form of the VC10 and the TriStar, which is grossly unfair to the RAF and its officers and men. That is all because the Government have come up with this fancy way of doing it. The contract is signed, and we will have to see where we stand when we come into government. Sadly, that is for another day.
As I was saying, there is a fundamental flaw in the Government’s approach. The Prime Minister hailed his economic stimulus as a route to recovery from the shambles that he has created, but for some obscure reason defence has been excluded. Billions of pounds can apparently be magicked up to bail out irresponsible bankers while the service chiefs have to fight for every last penny to ensure that the men and women on the front line have the kit that they need.
Planning round 09 is still unsettled, and further cuts are being demanded. Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of the Typhoon tranche 3. The Financial Times reported this weekend that a deal to approve half of tranche 3—44 aircraft in the case of the UK—has been placed on hold by the Treasury, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) pointed out. The Minister is clearly not prepared to confirm that report, although I understand that we will get a credit for half the 44 aircraft allocated to the UK in respect of the Saudi order. It would be helpful if the Minister told us something about that, because it is a very serious matter. He needs to tell the House what the consequences will be if the deal fails to go through. I am told that there is every possibility that Chancellor Merkel will be on the phone to the Prime Minister asking, “How on earth can you expect us to follow your example and bend to your wishes on global economics when you have reneged on the long-standing deal on the Typhoon?” The Minister needs to tell the House what implications there will be for the maintenance of key technology skills in this country if the deal fails to go through. Will we have to cede those skills to Germany or Italy, or will we have to pay a financial penalty?
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons we need an urgent answer is that under its constitution Germany has to get the predominant part of the tranche 3 contract through its Parliament by this May, before the elections start? If we do not get it through by then and the Germans do not get it agreed in Parliament, it is likely that tranche 3 will not happen for a long time.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—that is my understanding, too. That is why there is serious urgency about this business and why the Minister ought to be as forthcoming as he can be with the House. Perhaps the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), will mention the matter when he winds up the debate. Of course, there are commercial issues that he may not be able to talk about, but he needs to be honest with the House about what it will cost if the Treasury fails to approve the compromise proposals. If we do not maintain those skills, they will not be available for new programmes such as unmanned aerial vehicle—UAV—programmes, which BAE and others are developing.
Treasury demands for more cuts coincide with reports such as that prepared for the UK National Defence Association by Tony Edwards and endorsed by General Lord Guthrie and Lord Owen, which suggests that the cumulative deficit since the 1998 strategic defence review amounts to some £15 billion and that the planned expenditure for the next five years risks pushing Britain into the second division.
Since we last had a full debate on procurement last June, the Government have cancelled or postponed key programmes and faced a torrent of criticism from all-party Select Committees and others. The Public Accounts Committee’s “Major Projects Report” last July stated:
“The Ministry of Defence has not made sufficient improvements to deliver major military equipment to time, budget and quality.”
Carriers, the cornerstone of the SDR’s expeditionary warfare policy, are delayed again—at a cost of approximately £600 million, I understand from the First Sea Lord. I said in our debate a year ago that the French strawberry, the FRES utility variant—I think that we have to call it the French strawberry now—had gone dead. It has since been binned, in the year by which General Jackson said that the Army had to have the vehicle. The Defence Committee described the handling of the programme as “a fiasco”, on which,
“the MoD has wasted both its and industry’s time and money.”
I am sorry that I am a little late in rising to my feet—I intended to ask my hon. Friend about the carriers. He mentioned a figure of £600 million. When the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), appeared before the Defence Committee, he told us that the delay in the carriers meant no defence cost to the country. If the First Sea Lord has given the figure of £600 million—I have heard the same figure from other authoritative sources—to my hon. Friend, does he believe it to be correct?
I think that it is universally accepted that delay in programmes costs money. The idea that one saves money by postponing programmes is not historically proven. Of course, one forgoes the immediate expenditure, but ultimately one drives up the cost. As I understand it, that has happened in the case that we are considering. It is not for me to intervene between senior serving officers and current Ministers, not least because I look forward to a different relationship with them in 2010, but it is for Ministers to explain those matters.
I am happy to try to clarify the position. When I said that there were no defence costs, I clearly said—the record will prove it—that there was no loss to the nation’s defence capability. I think that I also acknowledged before the Committee that there is always a time value of money. As the hon. Gentleman says, if something is delayed, it tends to cost more in cash terms. However, there is no point in spending the money earlier than required when it could be more usefully spent on other things for national defence capability in the meantime. That is the judgment that I made and to which I stick.
The exact amount of money depends on contractual negotiations, which are currently proceeding. It is simply not in the national interest for me to answer that question or be drawn into precise figures at the moment. [Interruption.]
In case that gem was missed, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said that it is not in the national interest for the Under-Secretary to answer any question. Since we are not likely to make much positive progress with the Under-Secretary, I shall move on.
I noted my hon. Friend’s intervention on the Minister.
The House will have noted the Minister’s extremely cagey response to the important point that was made about whether six Type 45s will be sufficient to protect two carrier groups simultaneously, bearing it in mind that at any one time ships will be in refit, maintenance or whatever. I posed that question to the Minister last year, but I did not receive an answer to it, so perhaps his hon. Friend, the other Minister present, will address it when he winds up. The nation needs to know. We are talking about very expensive aircraft carriers, being built at a cost of around £4 billion in total. They will be very vulnerable assets and will need as much protection as they can be given if they are to do their job. The Type 45 is critical to that defence capability, so I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with that point.
Let me turn to other projects. The A400M will be at least four years late. It would be helpful if the Minister said where negotiations on that are and whether the company will pay damages to the Government, or whether it will be in a position to offer an interim solution and, at its own expense, provide the Royal Air Force with aircraft that can give it what it needs immediately.
Let me turn to helicopters. Despite the National Audit Office’s warning in 2004 about the
“considerable deficit in the availability of helicopter lift,”
the Government cut £1.4 billion from the helicopter programme—a decision that has considerably hampered UK operations in Helmand province in Afghanistan. Even now, future Lynx numbers have been cut from 80 originally to 70, which are now just 62 plus some old Lynxes that will be re-engined. Also, the Minister did not mention the essential maritime support programme MARS—the military afloat reach and sustainability programme—which has been delayed indefinitely.
However, besides the policy issues, the Government stand guilty of utter incompetence in the way that they have mismanaged a number of key projects. The Public Accounts Committee reported that the modification of the eight mark 3 Chinook helicopters was so incompetently managed that
“the Department failed to consult with Boeing, the manufacturer of the helicopters, with regard to the potential costs or timeframes, and the estimated cost of the project subsequently grew by 70 per cent.”
The Committee concluded that the delays arising from the Government’s crass incompetence have
“potentially put the lives of British service personnel at greater risk.”
That is a big charge for an all-party Committee of this House to level at the Government.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I imagine that the shadow Minister will not enjoy this particular intervention. His comments are a bit rich, because the Chinook contract to which he refers was placed by the previous Conservative Government, unless I am much mistaken.
Do you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker? I am wholly aware of that fact. I am also aware that the hon. Gentleman’s newly adopted party has been in government for 12 years now, and it is about time that it took responsibility for sorting things out. [Interruption.] The Minister says that the Government have sorted them out, but they have not. Where are those helicopters? They are not in Helmand today, where the armed forces need them. Why not? Because the Government did not know what to do—they left those helicopters languishing in a hangar while they decided what to do about them, so I will not take any lessons from him about actions that were taken 12 years ago.
Let me turn to another project for which the Minister would perhaps like to blame somebody else: the defence information infrastructure programme, which is designed to upgrade the network of all computers around the defence estate. The Public Accounts Committee says that it was “badly planned” and is running 18 months behind schedule and £182 million over budget. Then there is the Red Dragon project, in St. Athan in south Wales, which has proved to be another fiasco.
It is all right, we will send him a copy of this debate. I think that we know what he would say—we have heard it once or twice.
The Red Dragon project has proved to be another fiasco, with the Defence Committee accusing the Ministry of Defence and Welsh authorities of failing to “work together sufficiently closely,” with the result that £113 million has been spent on creating just 45 jobs, instead of the target of 4,500. That is £2.5 million spent per job created.
Against that background, it is hardly surprising that the Office of Government Commerce last year issued an appalling verdict on the operation of Defence Equipment and Support. Among its criticisms was the following:
“overall, procurement staff lack broad commercial skills essential for the future”.
It also noted that
“there is an acknowledged shortage of sufficiently capable commercial staff at all levels in the Department”,
“There is no single coherent view of procurement activity”.
That is a pretty damning indictment.
In the defence industrial strategy and the defence technology strategy, the then Minister, the noble Lord Drayson—who at least knew what needed to be done—recognised the importance to national sovereignty of maintaining a healthy defence industrial base, underpinned by an active defence research programme. That science, innovation and technology budget was cut last year by 7 per cent., and it faces further cuts in the coming year. These reductions have been denounced by the Defence Committee, which said in its report, published at the end of February:
“If the UK is to play a meaningful role in the world in the future, sufficient funding for defence research needs to be ring-fenced. The MoD must recognise the very high priority of research and reverse the cut…if not, the role which our Armed Forces can play in the future risks being substantially diminished.”
The impact on Britain’s key defence industry threatens to be disastrous. The Royal Aeronautical Society has stated:
“The UK defence industrial base will decline, UK companies will lose their edge in world markets, global defence companies will not want to invest in the UK and ultimately the UK armed forces will lose access to the high quality domestic assets needed to support equipment in the field and to acquire weapons to meet their specific needs.”
The examples I have set out are the criticisms not of the Conservative party, but of all-party groups in the House, composed of Members with considerable experience.
Why is this litany of failures so important? First, thanks to the financial carnage caused by the Prime Minister, we need to ensure that every penny of investment in defence achieves value for the taxpayer’s money. The commercial skills involved in the procurement process need strengthening, with a greater emphasis on project management, as the Office of Government Commerce has suggested.
From where does the hon. Gentleman think we are going to obtain significant competence in procurement, if such a capability is not developed as a consequence of the type of projects we have now? Does he think that the absence of procurement competence is unique to the Government sector, or does he believe that it is shared by the private sector?
The hon. Lady poses an interesting question, to which I fear that I could give a long answer. I shall not do so, however. The private sector has demonstrated its greater ability to run major projects, which is why we need to beef up the professional element of what used to be called the procurement executive—a better description of it, in my view. She has made an important point, but that is something we need to do. Pulling in a half-colonel straight off the front line and telling him to be an integrated project team leader is not the answer. We need professional project managers, with military personnel sitting alongside them to advise them on the practicalities and on what is needed in the field. However, there is a bigger debate to be had on this point.
May I suggest that my hon. Friend consider substantially expanding the courses on business expertise and leadership available to servicemen and women who go into the procurement field? This is such a specialist area, and a corps d’élite of managers with modern, up-to-date capabilities needs to be firmly embedded in the procurement process.
Unsurprisingly, I agree with my hon. Friend that a tremendous amount of work needs to be done in this regard, and I am actively looking at this matter at the moment. Work is being done on this at Shrivenham and it needs to be strengthened—or beefed up, to use a more straightforward term.
Mention has been made of the inconsistency between the Ministry of Defence’s core programme and the urgent operational requirements, which I accept are essential if we are to protect the lives of our servicemen and women. But where is the strategy for Land Systems to replace a fleet of 35 to 40-year-old CVRT armoured fighting vehicles? I haven’t a clue what CVRT stands for. I think that it is—
Order. If the hon. Gentleman is not sure, I am sure that the House is mystified—and those outside the House even more so. Perhaps he can seek advice.
Come on, Gerald, what are you going to do?
I think I am going to phone a friend, actually. I am looking around for my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who might bail me out. CVRT? I know that the “T” bit is “Tracked”. Forgive me; I am sorry about this failure. Anyway, they are armoured fighting vehicles that are 35 to 40 years old, and I believe that the Department needs a strategy. The Minister mentioned new “dog”-type equipment—further to confuse us all—that is being introduced: Coyotes, Wolfhounds and goodness knows what. I do not believe that this is a substitute for a strategy; it is a strategy that we need.
The second reason why the litany of Government failures is so important is that we live in an increasingly dangerous and, as the Minister said, unpredictable world. Our failure to provide the nation with a defence insurance cover will render us and our way of life vulnerable. If the cold war taught us anything, it was the critical importance of deterrence. Since our last defence procurement debate, Russia launched with complete impunity an aggressive attack on Georgia, a sovereign state; troops have been deployed to the Arctic where Russia has staked a claim to 460,000 square miles of territory that scientists believe could prove rich in oil and gas deposits; and we have seen a resumption of incursions into UK airspace. Between now and 2015, Russia will spend more than $200 billion upgrading its forces.
Then there is Iran and the particular threat of the country acquiring nuclear weapons, which could be followed by nuclear proliferation and regional arms races. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has been vigorous in pointing out the potential risks to the region that might follow such a move by Tehran, which has already shown its intent to destabilise the region. The Minister and I are “ad idem” on these issues. He did not mention North Korea, but we have recently had confirmation that the country has launched its latest Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile. As we know, North Korea is not a country that has ever been too fussy about its customer base. Then there is the increasing threat to our sea lanes by Somali pirates and there are also cyber-threats, as mentioned earlier, which need to be taken very seriously indeed.
Those events illustrate the way in which the events we face can suddenly change. Mention was made earlier of the US Defence Secretary Bob Gates, who said last year that it was
“the war, not a war”
that required all our attention. Earlier this month he refined his position when he declared as one of his three key objectives the rebalancing of his department’s programmes
“in order to institutionalise and enhance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead, while at the same time providing a hedge against other risks and contingencies.”
Secretary Gates has shifted his position and understands that simply concentrating on winning the war in Afghanistan is not sufficient. The Minister made the same point and I agree with him.
Secretary Gates is determined to reform his procurement programme and we intend to do the same if we are returned to Government in the next 12 months. We have already made it clear that we will immediately undertake a defence review. It is imperative that our armed forces and UK industry have a clear picture of how a Conservative Government would view defence in the long term. We will begin by deciding what role Britain should play in the world, and we will then determine what capabilities are needed to fulfil that role and the cost of providing them. If we cannot afford the capability, the mission, not the capability, must change. That way, we would hope to end the failure of this Government properly to fund the duties we impose on our armed forces.
Industry and the Ministry of Defence must adapt to new principles of procurement. We call them the “Fox five” and they will guide individual programmes. The first is capability—does the equipment provide the capability to enable our armed forces to fight effectively? Secondly, there is affordability—can we afford the costs of acquisition and through-life maintenance? The third is adaptability—the platform must have the capability to adapt to meet potential future threats. The fourth is interoperability to allow integrated military operations with our allies, most importantly, of course, the United States. Fifthly, there is exportability—can the product be exportable, thereby reducing unit costs of equipment and sustaining the skills base in our own country?
On day one, we plan to return the Defence Export Services Organisation to the Department where it belongs: the Ministry of Defence. In addition, the programmes must underpin our existing strategic relationships, particularly with the United States, and provide predictability to United Kingdom industry. The Government have begun a process of partnership with industry—questioned by the Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), and I think for very good reason—on which we would seek to build. We would have to, because if only one company in the United Kingdom can manufacture critical equipment over which we must have sovereign control, there is little alternative but to negotiate with that company.
There is evidence that industry is becoming far more nimble in offering unsolicited solutions and then dramatically reducing the time lines for the development of new equipment and putting it into operation. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring and I have visited BAE Systems and its Mantis programme— 17 months from concept to first flight. That is the sort of thing that the Government should be looking to industry to be able to deliver. The missile manufacturer MBDA is undertaking at its own expense research that it then makes available to the Government. The case is similar with Fire Shadow. However, companies have to be more nimble, and Ministers and civil servants equally have to be more nimble in making decisions.
I will not give way to the hon. Lady, if she will forgive me, because many hon. Members wish to speak and I gave way rather more than I should have done earlier on. I am approaching the end of my remarks.
The United Kingdom has more small and medium-sized companies than Spain, Germany, France and Italy put together, and we must find ways to support them and to allow them to continue to fuel the United Kingdom defence industry, because often they are where the innovation lies.
I have made a number of critical remarks and the Government have a lot to answer for to our armed forces for how they have managed the procurement programme, but I wish to end on a positive note. The public and some of us in the House believe that modern military operations should and can be quick and clinical, and that civilian casualties and collateral damage are avoidable. Such precision equipment to deliver that comes at a very high price—anybody who has been round a defence factory will have seen the magnitude and sophistication of the task involved.
Those of our fellow countrymen employed in the defence industry are engaged in the vital work of developing defence equipment to protect our armed forces and to remove with minimal collateral damage our enemies and those who threaten our national interests. Upon the continuing success of their endeavours depends our very freedom, for we cannot allow a situation to arise whereby the United Kingdom becomes dependent on any other country, not least our principal ally, the United States of America.
The House should pay tribute to those men and women in constituencies across the land whose innovation and skill provide our armed forces with the tools to do the job of protecting our freedoms. Those who protest at defence exhibitions are free to do so thanks to the ingenuity of the very men and women whom they so gratuitously insult.
Of all the decisions that Governments take, surely none is more important than that to send our forces overseas into combat. When that is done, I am sure the whole House agrees that it is imperative that everything is done to enable our forces to have the maximum opportunity to avoid loss of life and casualties when they are involved in such action. It is therefore understandable that in recent debates, and indeed to some extent in this debate, a lot of the focus has been on the need to provide proper equipment and support to our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Recalling the discussions about Snatch Land Rovers and the new vehicles that are coming on, I think there is agreement across the House—there are certainly some signs of it—that real progress has been made, that the equipment that the forces concerned are now being provided with has been massively improved and that the Government are providing the support which we have an obligation to provide if we send our forces into such action.
These are hugely significant issues, but it is important that we do not lose focus on the major long-term decisions that the Ministry of Defence and the Government have to take. I refer to the major procurement decisions, which are very important and involve expenditure of large sums of money. The defence industrial strategy was welcomed for many reasons, but partly because there was recognition that if we were to be able to secure the advanced sophisticated equipment that we needed in certain areas, there would have to be a policy that deliberately encouraged and nourished the capability in certain high-technology sectors and certain aspects of military manufacturing. It important that the Government develop and build on that policy, because once we lose industries they are lost for ever. It is important that we make the investment, provide the support and have a proper defence industrial strategy.
In that context, what industry is more important than the aerospace industry? The aerospace industry is a huge British success story and it is a tribute to the people who work in it that so much has been achieved in relation to exports and being at the forefront. Companies have been winning head-to-head contracts in the United States for the joint strike fighter. Our aerospace and avionics sectors are a tremendous British success story—not just for the people who work in them, who are the key people, but in respect of the support that the Government have provided in the sectors over the years. Surely it is incumbent on the Government that they continue to provide the support that those industries need.
In that context, I want to make a few remarks about the Eurofighter Typhoon, which I have spoken about repeatedly over the years in this House of Commons. The first point to understand is that it is a great success story. Obviously, when people develop a new plane they can never be quite sure how successful it will be, but the Royal Air Force and everyone who flies this plane seem to say that it is a tremendous achievement—an excellent plane to fly. Okay, we waited rather longer than we would have liked for tranche 2, but it came forward with the new precision ground attack capability. Tranche 2 is now delivering, and the Royal Air Force is, I think, expected to take between six and 20 aircraft a year.
The issue is tranche 3, of course. Reference has been made to that. It is vital that we do not have a prolonged delay. We must sustain this process. Major jobs are involved, as are companies such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce. In Edinburgh, we have a particular interest with Selex, now owned by Finmeccanica, where we have people who are at the forefront of technological advance in many sectors, such as lasers and radar. It is vital that those organisations can continue and be successful. They can do that only if they can see the future, get the investment and make it in research and development. Just as the tranche 2 plane was an advance on the tranche 1, the tranche 3 plane will be an advance in some key respects, including radar, on the tranche 2.
I cannot emphasise too strongly how important it is that the Government maintain their support for the Eurofighter Typhoon. Let us be clear: some of the reports we have heard have not been very encouraging. There have been suggestions that there would be some weakening in Government support. I strongly urge the Government not to go down that road. We have a successful area and a successful plane, and we know that we need to encourage and nourish those capabilities in companies throughout the country, so it is vital that we maintain our commitment. We can do that only by honouring what we signed up to in relation to tranche 3.
I will not be drawn on the various speculation, although I must say that while I would welcome any export orders, including the possibility of more planes going to Saudi Arabia, I am not awfully encouraged by the idea that there should be some substitution and that some of those planes should be allocated, as it were, to what was intended for the Royal Air Force. As I say, I will not be drawn into the detail of that. The fact is that there is a commitment and the Government are obliged to reach an agreement with our partners—with Spain, Germany and Italy.
Surely we have been in the lead on this matter—at the beginning, as hon. Members will recall, the Germans were reluctant—so now that we have such a success story and as we have more international interest and commitment than all those other European countries, it is vital that we are not found wanting, that we recognise the issue’s importance to British industry and to the future, and that we go forward and support Eurofighter tranche 3. Let us have an early announcement, as soon as possible.
In every defence debate we rightly pay tribute to the armed forces and the service that they give to the nation, and it is even more important for us to do that in the context of defence procurement. In my view, however, the best tribute that the House could pay our troops would be to provide them with the equipment that they deserve and desperately need. I believe that the Government are forcing the troops to change their mentality from “can do” to “make do”, and that there is an urgent necessity for the Government to review what they are asking our troops to do in the front line when their circumstances are so challenging.
It is well over a year since I was a member of the Defence Committee. Just before I left, we took evidence from the then new defence procurement Minister, Lady Taylor. She replaced the highly respected Lord Drayson when he decided to go off and race cars around the desert. I understand that he is now back at the Cabinet table. Lord Drayson was determined to push through a second edition of the defence industrial strategy as a means of further strengthening the relationship between industry and Government, but as soon as Lady Taylor secured her seat she slammed on the brakes, saying that it was time to reflect and consider before publication. Surely a year is more than enough time in which to deliberate on whether we need a second defence industrial strategy. Lady Taylor was subsequently punted to the right, and we now have a new defence procurement Minister. Perhaps he can enlighten us on when we shall see a new strategy, because we desperately need one.
The Government’s defence procurement strategy has been characterised by overblown commitments to the thousands of workers in dockyards and factories across the United Kingdom. As with their commitments in regard to public services, education and the health service, their delivery has fallen well short of expectations. I suppose that it is much better than the delivery under the Tory years, but that is not saying much. There have been extensive delays, overruns and cuts, and the workers have been let down badly by the present Government.
Let me give some examples. Although 12 Type 45 destroyers were promised, the number has been halved to six, yet the costs have risen dramatically. The Astute submarine is £1 billion over budget. The Chinook conversion, initiated by the Conservatives, will be delayed by up to nine years, with an extra cost of £200 million. The Nimrod MRA4 is eight years behind schedule and £1 billion over budget, which is leaving dangerous planes in the air and costing lives.
They are grounded, well beyond time. They should have been grounded a long time ago. The Minister knew that they were unsafe, but took no action to resolve the problem.
We have heard much about FRES, the future rapid effect system. We have spent an absolute fortune on it—some £132 million—but there has been no output whatsoever as a result.
I am listening with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Let me take up two of his points. First, we have placed contracts for 12 destroyers and we are picking up six of them, but anyone who visits Govan and asks about the impact that those orders have had will learn that it is substantial. Moreover, we have sought to manufacture the destroyers in the United Kingdom, and we are leading manufacturers in that particular area. Secondly, I greatly resent his comment that Ministers should have taken action with respect to a perceived danger. They would have taken action had there been a danger.
There was clearly a danger. If the hon. Lady had paid attention during the debate, she would have discovered that the Nimrod was extremely dangerous. Fuel was flooding out of the side of the plane and lying on the hot pipes, which blew up the plane. It was a clear example of sheer neglect. Airmen had been sent into the air to protect the troops on the ground. They felt that that was a tremendous obligation, which it was. Ministers should never have put themselves in such a position, and it was an outrage that that was allowed to happen. I think that the hon. Lady should ensure that she is a little better informed before entering into a debate on this issue.
As for the ships built in Glasgow—HMS Daring and the other Type 45 destroyers—we have done some tremendous work there and I am sure that the workers are delighted with the orders that they have received, but my point concerned overblown expectations. Although 12 destroyers had been promised, the number was cut in half.
Order. There are relatively few Members in the Chamber, and we really do not want the debate to be disturbed by a lot of sedentary comments, from whichever quarter they may come.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall now move on.
The MARS or military afloat reach and sustainability project has been punted to the right, and the super-aircraft carriers—finally commissioned in Rosyth in my constituency, and a great, iconic project for the Forth—face a further two-year delay. Rather than securing a firm grip on defence procurement, the Government have simply added to the chaos. We have now been told that the delays, including the delay in producing the carriers, are not really delays but have more to do with “stretching” the process, with no real impact, in order to assist the industrial base.
While flattening the peaks and troughs will undoubtedly yield benefits, the motives for the decision were first and foremost financial, but the delay will not help the Government. As we have heard this afternoon, it will result in significant cost increases, in terms not just of the procurement or construction of the carriers but of the work that will have to be done on the current fleet to ensure that it lasts longer. When the Secretary of State for Defence made his announcement, he made no reference to the additional cost. If he had been a wee bit more frank, he would have made clear that this was not simply about saving but was about punting the cost into the future and, in fact, increasing it.
The urgent operational requirement budget has provided our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with the equipment that the traditional defence procurement regime has markedly failed to provide over the last decade and more. However, the Government have decided to slash it by a third, from £900 million to about £635 million, at a time when we still have insufficient equipment, including helicopters, in Afghanistan. Given that the Prime Minister himself has indicated that we will be sending more troops to Afghanistan, there is clearly a longer-term commitment. Does the Minister believe that we now have enough equipment in Iraq for him to be able to slash the budget—it would be incredible if he did—or is this another example of the military covenant’s being stretched to breaking point, and the Government’s not backing up the military commitments that our troops are required to deliver with the necessary equipment to support them in conflict?
The world has changed significantly in the last 11 years. Asymmetric warfare now dominates, posing challenges to our armed forces, which are still configured like a cold war territorial defence. We need a strategic defence review so that we can engage in an open debate about what kind of armed forces we need for tomorrow’s challenges. As part of that review, the Government need to look more fundamentally at European defence co-operation. The latest Defence Committee report on equipment made a conservative estimate of defence inflation—around 3 per cent. a year in real terms—but others have put it much higher, at about 8 per cent. That is well above the increases in the last comprehensive spending review. At this rate, even without procurement disasters, the salami slicing will continue, and will wear our capability down even further.
There are examples that have worked well. What we need to address is the fundamental issue of working with our European partners so that we can obtain the benefit. Lord Garden—who, sadly, has passed away—said it
“is a matter of arithmetic not politics”,
and those who completely dismiss European defence co-operation need to provide an alternative answer to the continuing decline in British defence capability.
We want our armed forces to have the best kit and the capability to have an influence in the world. If that means deeper co-operation, then so be it. Others seem to have their heads in their hands—including, perhaps, the hon. Gentleman who wants to intervene—but it is essential that we are frank with ourselves and work with others where we possibly can.
When the hon. Gentleman refers to further and deeper European co-operation, does he mean the level that we are reaching in Afghanistan and reached in Iraq, and the complete absence of European countries’ commitment to their word when it comes to backing up our armed forces who are doing their job on behalf of their countries’ security?
Nothing wakes Tories from their sleep more effectively than the word “Europe”; they start foaming at the mouth at every opportunity when we mention it. It is absolutely clear that we need to get more from our European allies, but the hon. Gentleman should accept that although we have not had the commitment that we should have had from some of them, there are lots of countries, such as Denmark, which have given lots of troops to serve in Afghanistan. Some countries need to do more, but we should not ditch the principle just because we do not get the commitments we need from all countries. I shall move on, however, because I do not want to get the Conservatives too excited by mentioning Europe too often.
Like a bolt from the blue, during the recess the Government announced another set of job cuts at the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, including at Crombie in my constituency. That was unexpected, as another review is currently under way, inspired by the Treasury. When the Minister winds up, will he explain why we have had another set of job cuts, as, unsurprisingly, morale is extremely low in the DSDA? Will he also tell us about the Treasury-inspired review, which I understand the MOD did not know about before the Treasury announced it? Is the MOD involved in that review and debate, and when can we expect to have some kind of answer?
Nuclear non-proliferation merits an investment of volumes of political capital. Over the next year, we have a tremendous window of opportunity in advance of the non-proliferation treaty talks. With President Obama impressively opening doors that have been padlocked shut for years, there is an opportunity to have serious and effective engagement with a range of countries, including the likes of Russia, Iran, North Korea and China, on a range of global matters, with nuclear weapons at the top of the list. Ultimately, nuclear non-proliferation is a political issue. As it requires political, rather than military, solutions, the signals we send in advance of those talks have to be strong and clear. This is not a time for vacuous comments or commitments that any junior student would see through in seconds.
The Prime Minister deserves some credit for investing time and effort on this agenda. He has made a number of high-profile keynote contributions, yet by announcing that the number of missile tubes in the replacement submarines will be cut from 16 to 12, he simply reinforced the status quo. It was a vacuous comment that was not appreciated by his audience and left the negotiators from other countries bemused.
Will the Minister confirm whether we will have four or three submarines for the replacement Trident, because Lord Malloch-Brown indicated in another place that we could no longer keep up a continuous sea deterrent with only three submarines? Will the Minister clarify whether we will have four? He is looking puzzled about this; perhaps he should check his colleague’s comments in Hansard as he made a clear statement that we could no longer follow through on the commitment made in 2006 that we might have three replacement submarines rather than four. We need clarification on that because it was only about two and a half years ago that we agreed that there could be a commitment to cut the number to three, and I am sure that many hon. Members cast their vote on that basis. We need clarification on why the decision has, apparently, been made, and on what basis.
I agreed with the Prime Minister when he said recently:
“We cannot expect to successfully exercise moral and political leadership in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons if we ourselves do not demonstrate leadership on the question of the disarmament of our own weapons.”
However, the signal we sent out in 2006, when we agreed to renew the fleet of submarines and to enter into an agreement with the US on new missiles, was destructive. That decision need not have been made at that time; it was never necessary to make all the decisions back in 2006. Whatever the reasons for doing so were—such as, perhaps, support from the previous Prime Minister for the current Prime Minister—it was not necessary to make those decisions at that time, and it sends a message out to all those who will attend the NPT talks next year that we have no intention of giving up our nuclear deterrent until at least the middle of the century. I accept all the arguments about industrial drum beat and the necessary lead time for research, development and design, but making a full and, effectively, final decision on Trident six years before it was absolutely essential was unnecessary and reckless. We could by all means have made some of the decisions—the essential ones—at an earlier stage, but with main gate at around 2014, the big decision only needed to be made in advance of that. In fact, we should have a debate at initial gate too, rather than the announcement being snuck out in a recess.
The hon. Gentleman talks about drum beat, which is important to Barrow-in-Furness and keeping the skills there, but the key point is the necessity of taking the decision now if we are to keep our design skills in place. The people with such skills cannot simply be brought together and then design a submarine. Whether the wider decision is right or wrong is another matter, but the fact is that we must make the decision one way or the other and do so now, so I disagree with him.
I agree with that, and the hon. Gentleman should have listened more carefully to my comments as I referred to “all the decisions”. Some of the decisions—the essential ones—could have been made at an earlier stage, but why make all the decisions then, because that sends a message out to the whole world that we are going to renew no matter what happens in the NPT talks in 2010? The hon. Gentleman might think that this is a subtle difference, but it is actually an extremely important difference. Many people—experts from outside the House—recognise that we had an extremely valid and powerful position and we should have stuck to it, but unfortunately not enough hon. Members agreed.
I am a little confused as to whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing from a multilateralist or unilateralist point of view. Will he clarify that? We now have what is basically a minimum deterrent, and we need to keep that minimum deterrent in order to be part of the negotiations, not just in 2010 but beyond as well.
This is how things have happened in the past: we have made the main decision at main gate—we have not made all the decisions well in advance of when it was necessary. I am a multilateralist, but I want to get rid of weapons, and I want to ensure that we have the right conditions so that we can have a decent set of talks in 2010 with no barriers in the way. What the House did in 2006 was put one big barrier in the way—or rather four now, not three—because people think that we are now committed to Trident until 2050. Some Members of this House may not want to get rid of nuclear weapons at all, but I do; I want to get rid of those weapons. A lot of people, however, seem to hold to the position that we should keep weapons no matter what.
I think that sending out a message on whether we are going for three or four is important because if we give the impression that, as well as the reduction in warheads, we will go down to three submarines, that would be significant—and what message does it send to the rest of the world if we are already going back on a commitment that was so recently made in this House? It is important for us to know whether the intention is to have three or four submarines.
Allowing the House to make decisions at a later stage would have significant advantages. It would send a message to the rest of the world that we were seriously contemplating a nuclear-free world. [Interruption.] The Conservatives scoff because they do not really believe in getting rid of nuclear weapons. They pretend that they are multilateralists, but in reality they want to keep nuclear weapons for ever. I may be an idealist, but I still hold out hope of getting rid of nuclear weapons, because that is what this country, and the world, deserves.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, and I am a little bit not up to date on Liberal Democrat policy. Given what he says from the Front Bench, when a Liberal Democrat Government are elected in 2010, will his party’s new great leader be committed to abolishing Trident? What will his decision be?
That is doubtful. We have made no bones about the fact that we are in favour of renewing Trident after those talks if we are unsuccessful in them. We have made that absolutely clear. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is being a wee bit mischievous. I will send him our policy document, since he has such great interest in our policy. He may benefit from reading it.
Waiting until 2012 or 2014 would give us a clearer view of the world. We could see how the world was at that time. Why make the decisions way before it is absolutely necessary to do so? We would also be able to weigh up the various defence and other expenditure priorities before putting a mark on the contract.
All is not lost; there is a way out for the Government, and I like to help them whenever I can. When the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), makes his winding-up speech, he could announce that he will allow the House to have a vote in 2012 or 2013 on the main gate decision on the replacement of Trident subs. I know that he has the power to do so; he has tremendous power within the Labour party, and he may allow us to have that vote. It is essential that in 2012 or 2013, the House is given the power to vote. There is also an indication that we should have some discussion at the initial gate stage, rather than the initial gate decision being snuck out in another recess. Perhaps the Minister could explore that possibility, too. Such an announcement today would be the most powerful boost that this country could give to those NPT talks in 2010. It is a powerful message that we could send to other countries, and I urge him to make that announcement today.
It is a pleasure to follow previous contributors, who have quoted extensively from the Defence Committee report on equipment. I want to mention a few good things that the Committee found, before highlighting some of our criticisms, and then I shall talk about what some of that means for my constituency.
Not everything that we had to say about the Ministry of Defence’s procurement policy was bad, by any means. We remarked on the delivery of equipment and supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan in very challenging circumstances. In particular, our report commends the urgent operational requirements system as “highly effective” in meeting rapidly changing threats. One example is Jackal, a highly mobile weapons platform, manufactured in Devonport, which was introduced in Operation Herrick in 2008 in response to such an urgent operational requirement. The report also praises Defence Equipment and Support for its achievements to date, stating that the operation is heading in the right direction and has made good progress in improving the skills of its staff across a range of key acquisition disciplines.
I think that I am right in saying that the MOD is the only Department to have published its innovation procurement plan—something that all Departments have been asked to come up with to improve public procurement from the private sector, including the important small business sector. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who spoke for Her Majesty’s Opposition, seemed to be saying that procurement was still something of a basket case—those are my words, not his—but that cannot be so, because the Department’s approach to strategic management and performance continues to attract interest from wider audiences, including other Departments, local authorities and indeed other nations’ ministries or departments of defence. In addition, MOD performance managers are regularly invited to address and take part in international strategic and performance management symposiums. We need to be careful to get the balance right; there are some people in MOD defence procurement working very hard to get the right equipment to our front line in the theatres. It is important that somebody, apart from Ministers, stands up and says that.
The Defence Committee’s third report of the Session on defence equipment did, of course, make some cogent criticisms, some of which have already been quoted. There is one that I particularly want to highlight, because I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), will, in responding, elaborate on what he said about the defence industrial strategy when he was before the Committee. It was originally expected that there would be a second DIS in December 2007, and there was a further deadline in the spring of 2008. When the Under-Secretary came before us, he said that he was “open-minded” about whether it made sense to have an updated version of the defence industrial strategy. My fellow Committee members could not understand that. The strategy is all about protecting the industrial skills bases, having identified the sovereign capabilities that we need. I look forward to his elaborating a bit, in front of the whole House, on what exactly he meant. However, it is of course true that the defence industrial strategy continues to inform the Government’s procurement decisions in an important way that helps to maintain the skills base.
The part of the defence industrial strategy that exercises me and other Members of Parliament from in and around Plymouth and Devonport is the maritime change programme. I want to come back to that and how it affects Devonport at the conclusion of my speech. First, I want to say a bit about the Select Committee programme. Having concluded our work considering the equipment programme, we decided to set out the current state of the armed forces, in terms of readiness and capability, in a series of related areas of MOD policy and activity. We set out how the MOD must act to ensure that the armed forces have the proper training, organisation and capabilities for future challenges, drawing on the MOD’s balanced scorecard, which was issued with the defence plan for 2008 to 2012. We hoped that using the MOD’s own balanced scorecard would guide us to look in an appropriate way at the matters that are most important to ensuring that the men and women on the front line have the capability to meet the great challenges that we face in Iraq—although to a lesser extent now—and continue to face in Afghanistan.
Following through on that, we currently have an inquiry on readiness and recuperation for the tasks of today. It looks at preparedness, with regard to equipment in particular. It also considers procuring, training, and the sustainability of the interplay between the two for any new and immediate challenges. We are just setting out on a helicopter capability inquiry, and will then move on to look at an assessment of the intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—issues, with a focus on network-enabled capability. A further new inquiry—the comprehensive approach—will include consideration of the lessons that can be learned from experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan and, as part of that, will consider what equipment is necessary for such situations.
Last week, Plymouth again woke to find stories in the media predicting doom and gloom for its defence sector. This time, they concerned the future base-porting arrangements for our 11 frigates. I understand that tomorrow’s local papers contain further doom and gloom with the predicted move away from Plymouth of our submarines. There is a group of people who seem to thrive on talking Plymouth down and the rest of us are not always as vocal as we should be—or as supported by the MOD—in setting out how much Devonport remains at the heart of the MOD and, in particular, the naval service. There is considerable—and understandable —apprehension in the city as we wait for clarity, and that is set against the local backdrop of a 300-year-old relationship with the Navy and a national outlook of very challenging economic circumstances.
I know that Ministers have visited Plymouth, including my right hon. Friend who opened the debate—he is not in his place at the moment—and the Secretary of State. On more than one occasion my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has come to speak to the strategy group that I set up three years ago and now chair. He has also been generous in ensuring that if he cannot be present, he sends a senior civil servant to almost all our meetings to help to guide our thinking. We have also discussed this subject at length in numerous debates and many uncertainties have already been clarified on the record.
The Minister has previously stated—and repeated at the strategy group meeting earlier this year—that there will be no changes to base-porting arrangements for the next five years. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can confirm when he winds up that that guarantee still stands. Our unique and unsupplantable role as the only location capable of refitting and refuelling nuclear submarines remains, and was recently demonstrated by the signing of the refit contract for HMS Vigilant by the Secretary of State when he visited my constituency.
The Defence Estates review earmarked Devonport to become the centre of excellence for all deep maintenance—the long, complex refits and overhauls of ship and submarines that are lucrative in terms of money and jobs. Devonport will therefore remain home to the Navy’s three large amphibious vessels, together with the relocation of Royal Marine landing craft to create an amphibious warfare cluster. Given the nature of the threats we currently face, and the uncertainty surrounding the threats that may emerge in the future, that is an exciting area of capability at the heart of the defence of our country in the 21st century.
We also remain the headquarters of Flag Officer Sea Training—a world-class establishment for the Royal Navy and other navies, bringing as many as 50 Royal Navy and foreign warships to Plymouth every year. We are successfully diversifying into other defence markets, notably the production of Jackal armoured vehicles, the relevance of which colleagues and I have seen demonstrated in our visits to Afghanistan. I hope that we will hear an announcement on further orders for those vehicles in the very near future, including variants of the initial model.
As the MOD struggles to make financial ends meet, I recommend that the Minister remembers certain points in relation to the maritime change programme, which has reached a crucial stage. Devonport dockyard and naval base—and the wider city of Plymouth—have assets and skills that are unique and indispensable. The people of Plymouth and Devonport show a depth of support for defence and the armed forces that is an unrivalled asset in itself and it would be extremely foolish to undermine it. We saw that on Friday when Plymouth people turned out in their thousands to welcome our commandos, especially 29 Commando, home. The Minister, who wrote a recognition report, would surely have been very impressed. There was a service of thanksgiving and a medal ceremony, and the returning troops were greeted with great warmth, dignity and respect for their service over the past six months on deployment in Afghanistan.
As the maintenance work on submarines and frigates reduces, we have played, and continue to be willing to play, a role in the end-of-life submarine disposal, but in return we expect and deserve the clear and continued support of the Ministry of Defence and a mutually beneficial relationship with the Royal Navy. The Minister and his colleagues have to understand that that willingness comes at a price. That price is that we remain a naval base that is not a pinned-on extra, but the naval base and dockyard that provides the centre of gravity for the Navy.
Supposedly, we live in the days of joined-up government in which—given that all things are equal between the dockyards in terms of quality of assets and of skills—the Treasury and the Government will expect the MOD to look to wider issues. The issue in which the Treasury and the Government will be interested in above all else is whether they will be handed a hospital pass when it comes to picking up the cost of shrinking the naval bases, which will be higher and more challenging than it need be if Devonport experiences greater shrinkage than the other naval bases. What we do in Devonport provides value for money, and it relies on men and women who are highly skilled—the equivalent of the proverbial rocket scientists—which is something that any sensible Government should value. That is not just because Devonport’s facilities, assets and skills base are also flexible and future-proof—two terms that the Minister will have heard applied to warships, but that are equally true of the people that built, maintain and man them—but because Plymouth’s prosperity has for the best part of several centuries depended on the dockyard and naval base.
The lamentable do nothing approach towards the dockyard of the Tories from the 1980s and 1990s, and the subsequent dole queues and run-down, are remembered with great fear. In those days, the dockyard employed some 17,000 people. We are now down to 3,500 or 4,000, and that is roughly where it should stay. We need clarity. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State confirmed today some of what he had said to us before, but it is time to get a grip on these issues and give us the clarity we deserve.
I said in a debate such as this in February 2004 that we were confident that what we had to offer at our naval base provided value for money. We did not want the opportunity that the review offered to be fudged. Nor should the decision be open to challenge. We want fairness, not favour, and I hope that that is what we will hear soon in clear announcements about the maritime change programme and the way ahead for Devonport.
We have just heard an excellent example of why the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is such a valued and valuable member of the Defence Committee, although I would quibble a little with her suggestion that we did nothing for Plymouth in the 1990s. I remember spending at least £1 billion there and visiting on several occasions when I was a Defence Minister, because it was so important to entrench Plymouth’s role as the future base of our submarines. Although I would quibble with that part of what she said, I agree with almost everything else. I want to follow the structure of some of her comments.
I want in particular to refer to the Select Committee on Defence’s report about defence equipment, which we produced on 26 February. It was, I think, the most damning report that the Defence Committee has produced in this Parliament, and I shall come back to it in a few minutes.
Let me begin by saying that it is not all bad news. I hope that I do not breach a confidence in saying that about a month ago, along with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and a number of colleagues from this House and the other place, I was at a function that was addressed by somebody who plays an important part in auditing the accounts of the Ministry of Defence. He drew attention to the way in which the Ministry of Defence, in some ways, is streets ahead of other Government Departments, in this country and in others, in respect of procurement. He said—I think he was right—that some of the best procurements in this country and the Department mirror the best practices in the private sector.
He also pointed out that this is a field of great difficulty. If we compare the difficulty of the national health service’s rolling out across the country a computer system that can communicate with itself, or of doing the same for the many police forces in this country, with the fact that the Ministry of Defence has had to do that with the Bowman communications system, which also has to be stuck in the back of a Land Rover and driven around battlefields in Afghanistan while being jammed and shot at, we begin to understand the complexity of the operation for the Ministry of Defence. Bowman, too, has had its difficulties—I remember them only too well—but it is turning into a real success story.
The Minister for the Armed Forces commented on the issue of fighting today’s wars or tomorrow’s wars, and said that in fighting today’s wars we do not want irreparably to damage our ability to fight tomorrow’s wars, wherever they may be. He is right, but Professor Hew Strachan, who is highly regarded in this field, has written articles and made speeches to suggest that on the current budget we cannot do both: we cannot afford to fight today’s wars and tomorrow’s wars, and we have to make a choice. My concern is that because of the Government’s current strategy, we might be failing to make that choice and failing to fight properly today’s wars and to prepare for future wars. That would be the worst of all worlds.
The Minister moved on to talk of the fleet of urgent operational requirements—I am bearing in mind Mr. Deputy Speaker’s strictures about not using acronyms —and the number of military and armoured vehicles that are being bought under the urgent operational requirements system. Many people have already raised the difficulty that urgent operational requirements are beginning to cause.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton was right to say that the Defence Committee drew attention to the success of the UOR system and programme, but nevertheless it produces in the Ministry of Defence a huge range of vehicles that make it much more expensive and difficult logistically to maintain and repair. I visited in my constituency recently one of the military schools that is training mechanics to repair those vehicles, and they are finding it extremely difficult because they have to learn how to repair so many vehicles.
The UOR system produces casualties and, frankly, I think that the FRES programme is one such casualty. It concerns the future rapid equipment—[Hon. Members: “Effects.”] Yes, effects system. We are all beginning to forget what the future aspect of the acronym was meant to mean, but it has now become completely absurd. It certainly was not rapid, it was not particularly for the future, it has not been very effective and to describe it as a system would be ridiculous. In our report, we described it as a fiasco. Now we hear that the Scout variant of the FRES programme is to have priority. I do not think that anybody will have very much confidence in the notion that the initial gate will be in 10 months’ time.
As a brand, FRES is meaningless. The Army has never decided what it wants and seems to be attempting to fight the battles of the last century in providing equipment that is mostly aimed at Russian hordes advancing across the German plains. The Government have shilly-shallied throughout the programme and one of the main requirements of the vehicle is that it should fit into an aircraft, the A400M, which, like FRES, looks unlikely ever to exist. The programme is a complete fiasco and it ought to be dropped. To suggest that the Scout variant of whatever it is should be part of a FRES programme would belittle whatever vehicle might come out of that process.
I am clearly getting into the subject of our equipment report of 2009. We were very concerned across the range. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton mentioned the defence industrial strategy, and that was a good example of one of the concerns that we raised. When the chief of defence matériel appeared before us, he said:
“I am absolutely clear, the Permanent Under-Secretary has been clear that we will publish DIS 2 as soon as we are able to. Chairman, I really cannot go beyond that.”
Less than a month later, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), came in front of us and said:
“Whether it makes sense to have a second version of that, Defence Industrial Strategy 2, is a matter on which I am open-minded”.
Of course, it is true that, as industry has told us, there is no point in having a document that is not backed up by money. It is also true that while the Government are delaying as many decisions as they can until after the general election—I was going to say “as they respectably can”, but I think that we are past that point—there is no point in an updated strategy that nobody would believe. We should never have reached this point, however. The purpose of the entire defence industrial strategy was clarity, and that is what we lack and what the defence industry of this country lacks. I am afraid that I think that this is another fiasco.
Some mention has been made during this debate of aircraft carriers. My main concern about the aircraft carriers is that at the time of the strategic defence review, when a much larger surface fleet and a larger submarine fleet were introduced, the carriers fitted well into the overall balance of our armed forces. Since then, we have been fighting some serious wars. Money has been sucked from the Navy so that the proposed new balance of our forces is wholly skewed. The question now arises of whether the Navy is actually viable. There is certainly a real question about whether the tiny surface fleet that we will have will be able to maintain the sort of presence around the world that this trading maritime country needs and wants. I thought that the strategic defence review, which, when I was a Minister, I wrongly categorised as being a method of putting off decisions, was a very good document, but it is now time to do it again.
My right hon. Friend is doing himself down, because although at the time when he and I were Ministers together we should have had a defence review, it was not possible to have a defence review at the fag end of an existing Government. It had to be conducted by a new Government. The pity of the last defence review, which was in many ways excellent, was that it was neither properly measured against a foreign policy baseline nor properly funded.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I want particularly to comment on the fact that it was not properly funded. Like the defence industrial strategy, the intention was that it should be properly funded—the Ministry of Defence believed that it would be—but somehow the Treasury got at it. I have quoted my hon. Friend on many occasions on which he has said that the Treasury was working for the Russians. It is a joke, of course—and it is a good joke—but the fact remains that the Treasury has to keep a hold on the purse strings. I wish, however, that it would do so on the basis of visiting the armed forces when they are deployed abroad rather more frequently, as that would give it the knowledge with which to make important decisions in the interests of this country.
I ought to conclude, because I want to end with the most important point that the Defence Committee made in its equipment report. It relates to defence research and development. The Committee said:
“The UK’s future military capability depends upon the investment made today in Research and Development and the military advantage achieved at any one time depends upon the R & D investment made over the previous 25 years.”
That was not originally our comment—it was the Government’s comment, made in the defence industrial strategy. However, one of the witnesses—the chief executive of the Society of British Aerospace Companies—told us that defence research spending was being cut by 7 per cent. this year. The Minister for the Armed Forces told us that
“the MOD has to look at it from the point of view of priorities”.
Yes, indeed. If the Government are right that the military advantage achieved at any one time depends on the R and D investment made over the previous 25 years, it should be the very highest priority, and clearly higher than the priority that the Minister gives it. Any other approach would be to let our forces down. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) correctly said that there is no more important decision that we can make than to send our armed forces to fight for their country. If we do not make the right decisions on defence research and technology now, 25 years down the line it will be our children and grandchildren who pay the price.
This is an important debate, and I shall follow the Chairman of the Select Committee by taking up some of the points that he made, perhaps going into a little more detail on one or two of them. Yesterday in Chorley, a huge event—the Falklands remembrance service—took place. The veterans who came along were talking about kit, and what it was like in the Falklands: they lost a great deal of kit, and it did not suit the requirements at the time. We have to learn from what happened in the Falklands.
That is absolutely correct. Some of our so-called allies would not even supply the equipment and ammunition that we needed, so we must learn from those mistakes. It was right to celebrate those who gave their lives in the Falklands, and those who were seriously injured there and took part in yesterday’s parade. I pay tribute to the Chorley branch of the Royal British Legion for organising that annual event: we ought not to forget those people who served us so well in the Falklands.
It is about the best kit, and the kit that we need. It is important, whatever the requirement, whether for helicopters or the new armoured vehicles, that we get the kit into theatre as quickly as possible. We cannot expect those people to risk their lives without the best kit. Part of that kit is the camouflage uniform, which is being made in China, of all places. Unfortunately, the cut and sew contract that we put out to tender was won by a company in Northern Ireland under the pretence that it was going to create jobs. The moment that it won the contract, it moved it to a state-run factory in China. We may hear—and I hope that we do not—that that is about best value, fairness and European competition rules. It has absolutely nothing to do with European procurement rules: the uniform is produced at a state-run factory in China, so there is unfair competition. It is not good for our troops, as there are problems with those uniforms. The camouflage is unique to the British Army, and we should ensure that it is best-print quality. The infrared aspects of that uniform should be correct, but I have to tell the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), that the uniform does not meet requirements. I believe that it is substandard—it is not good enough, and he needs to look at it now.
The cut and sew contract is coming up for renewal, and I hope that my hon. Friend will make the right decision and ensure that the uniform is made and printed in this country. My constituency has previously done that work, and it is doing the work for most armed forces around the world. In fact, we are supplying the Afghan army with uniforms. The contract was not put out to tender, because we know what a good job that company in my constituency does, so we gave it straight to the company. I hope that my hon. Friend will rethink the situation. We believe in the Warwick agreement—he will have heard about it—and supporting British jobs, which means procurement in this country.
May I offer my hon. Friend some encouragement? Declassified destroyers that were being broken up in China have been moved to Liverpool dock, and the reason given for that is better environmental standards, as well as our ability to ensure that the workers are treated well and are not exposed to any risk. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as encouragement that similar decisions may be made regarding uniforms.
I hope that, if that is a clear message to the Government, they are listening, so we can look forward to uniforms for the British Army being made in the UK. I take heart from my hon. Friend’s comment. The Under-Secretary is listening carefully, and I am sure that he will want to give me good news as we progress.
It is about making sure that we get the right uniform, and ensuring that we produce it and look after British jobs, but it is also about the best kit, and making sure that it is of high quality. Much of the kit from China has had to be sent away to be repaired. That has been done quietly, so we have not known about all the things that have gone wrong regularly, such as buttons being missing and uniforms not being stitched properly and falling apart. I hope that the Under-Secretary takes that on board.
Another issue, which has been touched on by hon. Members, is the A400M, which fulfils a strategic heavy-lift requirement and is crucial to our future needs. The delays are unacceptable: we should shake all the other parties involved, and say, “Let’s get on with it.” In the end, we have little option. We have ended up with C-130s, and we have sweated as far as we can with them. The C-130 is a great workhorse—it is the backbone of the RAF’s heavy-lift programme—but the problem is how much longer we can keep it in the air. Delays are not good for the future of heavy lift.
Of course the C-17 is a great aircraft, but we need something in the middle. The A400M would give us that heavy lift capability—the capability to lift a battle tank—which we should have but do not. The benefit is that it is a saleable asset around the world. If we produce good kit, we should ensure that there is a return to UK industry and jobs. There is not only a military but a civilian role for such an aircraft. We should support the project and get back on board with it. We should start kicking our partners to make them listen, shaking them by the neck, which I know the Minister is very good at, and saying, “Come on. Let’s not let this programme fall away.” We cannot have everything we want, but that is a capability that we cannot go back on.
Other speakers have touched on Typhoon. Tranche 3 is critical not just to the north-west, as I mentioned earlier, but to the RAF and its future requirements. I want to ensure that tranche 3 goes ahead. It is not too late to consider what will operate off the platform provided by the carriers. We ought not to rule out a Typhoon variant that could operate off the carriers. We have done the design work. We invested heavily and all the computer designs are available. It is a capability that we could fall back on, and that we should consider.
Typhoon is a world-leading aircraft—the best. There is nothing else to touch it, so please let us support it; let us push our partners, and let us not be the partner who wants to shy away from our commitment to tranche 3. It is crucial to jobs and skills in the north-west and to the supply chain in the components sector, as well. It is a good news story that we can sell. We know that other countries around the world are keen to buy it, and we should ensure that it is at the forefront of our exports. We should be talking to Japan and delivering it to Japan. We know that countries in the middle east have been buying it. We want to sell it to further countries in the middle east. Let us not be afraid of exporting this quality aircraft. I know that that will be taken on board.
That brings me to the joint strike fighter, from which we benefit in the north-west at Samlesbury and Warton. It is a good aircraft that is good for jobs and for everything that we need, but there are questions of intellectual transfer. What type of joint strike fighter will be on the order books? What will we be allowed to build?
We want to hear about that from those on the Government Front Bench. We need to know whether we will have the stowable version, what intellectual copyrights we still need to agree on, and what we will be allowed to build. Will we be allowed to build the full aircraft? Will we be allowed wholly to maintain the aircraft? The jobs in maintenance are important, and we must be clear that we can do deep maintenance. Full assembly is crucial.
I make a plea for Woodford, which is important to the north-west. The MRA4, the upgrading of Nimrod, is needed. The alternative is to buy second-hand aircraft from the Americans. Those aircraft are overpriced and are not as good. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will rule out the American option and support jobs at Woodford; we need that commitment from Government. The issue drags on and on, and we cannot afford to lose the skills at Woodford and the technology that has been built up there. We are the world leader in aerospace, and the north-west is at the forefront. We must ensure that we keep those jobs.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are part of the future for Warton and Salmesbury. I want to ensure that we do not shy away from investment in research and development. We can lead the world in UAVs and we must do so. It is easy to save a pound now, but it will be a long-term cost in the future, not only in jobs and skills but in cutting-edge technology. I am presenting a great wish list, but it is one on which we can deliver, and I hope my hon. Friend will take that on board.
Barrow-in-Furness is a world leader in submarines and surface fleet, and we must ensure that work comes to it. The carriers are important. We know that there is a slight delay, but I want to know that there is a guarantee that we will stand by the two carriers that we promised. Those future large carriers are so important because of the work that they bring to the north-west. As we heard earlier, it is about the drumbeat—the ability of the team designing the submarines, and the need to continue with other work to make sure that the skills in Barrow are not lost. It is important that submarine and surface fleet work continue to come to Barrow.
Barrow has had great news. It has been leader in the development of the howitzer, a specialist field gun that has been sold to the Americans. A £1 billion order is to be delivered, and others around the world want the cutting-edge gun. I hope that it is good not only for us, but for exports. I hope that a second contract comes from America, which will ensure that jobs at Barrow are protected. The Australians want to talk to us about the howitzer, as do other Governments, including the Canadian Government. Will my hon. Friend be at the forefront of ensuring that those exports take place and support BAE in whatever it needs to export that gun around the world?
It would be remiss of me not to mention the neighbouring constituency covering Bolton. MBDA is a leader in missile technology. BVRAAM and much else that we need have come out of Lostock. How can we ensure that contracts continue to come in, so that those skills are not lost in research and development and in the manufacturing facility? I look to the Minister to help ensure that MBDA continues to have a bright future. We lead the world in some of the missiles that we produce. We cannot afford to give up on that. It is one of the strategic values that we must keep in this country.
We have all those skills and we are putting so much money into defence and procurement. What can be done to ensure that we benefit from technology transfer? That is a way of ensuring that procurement becomes cheaper. The transfer of the skills, designs, knowledge, research and development is not about killing people. It is about supporting people, which is so important.
Leyland Trucks supplied the light vehicle for many years. Now the contract has gone to MAN, which bought ERF, which pretended that it would build in the UK. ERF has closed down, so MAN is supplying from Germany and has a two-bit garage to maintain the vehicles it is supplying to us. That is not good enough. We should have looked to support our truck manufacturer in this country. There is a chance to support Leyland Trucks, which produced the DROPS—demountable rack offload and pickup system—vehicles for moving ammunition around the battlefield. We have created a slight delay in the deep maintenance and upgrade of those trucks. It is important to ensure that some work goes to Leyland Trucks, because we cannot afford to lose another truck manufacturer in the UK. If the Minister looked at that issue quickly, I would be very grateful, because we have introduced a delay and we should not have done so. The DROPS trucks are needed.
The Territorial Army is a key factor. It is the backbone; it is the support that we need to give to our troops. Wherever we call on the TA, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, it is there to support us, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, please do not cut its budget or its numbers. Let us ensure that it, too, has the best equipment and gets all the support it needs. The TA is the real back-up for our medical needs on the front line of the battlefield. C Squadron at Chorley has been out in Afghanistan and played its role, so I hope the Minister will acknowledge what a good role the TA plays and what a good future it will have under this Government. Let us not choose the easy option of nibbling away at the TA to try to save a few pence. It is easy to become penny-wise and pound-foolish, as he would be doing if he took that route.
The cadets are also important, so why should they lug around rifles from yester-year? Is it not time to ensure that their equipment is brought up to date? Will the Minister ensure that the cadets at Chorley and other TA cadets throughout the country also have better kit? Let us supply it, because if we want to recruit and get our forces up to strength, we will do so by looking after the cadets and the TA. That is how we will meet future requirements. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has taken that on board, and I look forward to positive news from him, and to our troops marching in uniforms that have been printed and produced in the UK.
I warmly endorse many points that the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) has made. He is a staunch defender of all things defence and knows a good deal about it. Whether he is right about the uniforms, I do not know, but he is certainly right about the Territorial Army and the cadets. May I urge the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), if he is not beyond urging, to address the issue? To make cuts to the TA now would be an act of grotesque folly. I hope that he will see that that is not done, and in his winding-up speech, I should like an assurance to that end.
This is a debate about defence procurement, but defence procurement in the context of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who have to use the equipment. As the Iraq operations come to an end, too soon in my view, we can say here without any shadow of a doubt, as we always do, that British troops have performed with the greatest courage, skill and determination. There were some serious dramas about the equipment to start with, but it is important that the lessons of the Iraq conflict be learned and applied to the operations in Afghanistan. Rather disappointingly, as a matter of fact, the Americans are much better at the lessons learned operations than we are. Here, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Army—the individual services—get at it and grub away at it, and by the time a moderately successful operation has been staffed up, it comes out as one of the greatest military successes of all time.
We need to be much franker with ourselves—much more serious about the scale of the problems that we have faced. We have faced some serious problems in Iraq, not just with equipment but with military advice and many other issues. Given the difficult operation in Afghanistan, those problems need to be carefully dealt with, because one thing that bedevilled the Iraq operation, as always, was the improper architecture at the heart of Government for prosecuting such operations. No one figure had complete ownership of the problem, but there must be a single person who is responsible for the prosecution of the war. This House can be assured that no Conservative Government would ever send British troops into battle without a detailed plan of what to do after they had taken over. May I remind Defence Ministers that, despite the most vigorous questioning, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), I and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) did not receive any proper answers.
The operation in Iraq was a catastrophe for the first few months after the military phase. The war among the people—the Rupert Smith theory of modern warfare—was never more obvious than in the months after that phase in Iraq, so we must learn those lessons very well, given what is happening and will continue to happen in Afghanistan.
I was very fortunate to visit a forces logistics centre not so many months ago, and I talked to the staff about precisely the problems that the hon. Gentleman presents. I was told very clearly that as the decision to go to war was pending a vote in the House, until the vote was taken, the forces took no action to prepare for the engagement or for anything that happened afterwards, because had they done so, they would have been complicit in the argument that decisions had been made in advance of the House doing so. They were placed in tremendous difficulty, so what is his view on the House having the right to vote on whether the country goes to war, given the problems that it presents to our armed forces when such decisions are made?
The hon. Lady is only partially right. The delay in ordering kit was nothing to do with a vote in the House, where the Government had a substantial majority and could be assured of getting their way; the decision to delay any ordering of substantial amounts of equipment was based on the wait for a United Nations vote. I went to see the then Secretary of State for Defence—he is now the Secretary of State for Transport—to discuss the issue, and people were clearly in limbo. They knew perfectly well that we were going to war, but they could not submit orders for the fatuous reason that they could not take the necessary risk and put themselves in the right place in case the UN should not approve of the operation. The war was delayed for that reason.
We will never send troops as they were sent last time. They must never again be sent to fight without the proper equipment, training and, particularly, health and welfare structure to look after them on their return.
May I place a slightly different emphasis on these events? I was talking to Ministers at the time, and without breaching any confidences, I can say that it was quite clear, as my hon. Friend says, that we were going to go to war. However, there were ministerial decisions to try to disguise decisions that were being taken as having nothing to do with the possibility of invading Iraq, and to delay decisions that were obviously to do with that possibility, because they were embarrassing the Government. It might have embarrassed Ministers if they had pre-empted a decision that Parliament was going to take, when it would have been responsible to let Vickers tool up the tanks for desert warfare, for example, instead of waiting until the last minute.
My hon. Friend is completely right. As I said to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), the prime point was the UN vote, on which the vote in this House was conditional. I agree with my hon. Friend, however; there is an unparliamentary word and I cannot use it, but suffice to say, it was fantastically unwise and not very brave of the Government to take a risk, knowing that they were going to send into war troops who did not have the proper equipment, not to go ahead and make the order. I remember that in the Falklands war, ships were put to sea with civilian crews still on board tooling them up, and they got off at the Ascension islands.
We should have been much more energetic, but I pay tribute to the work at the Ministry of Defence not only of the soldiers but of the civilians, who marvellously support our troops. When I was a Defence Minister, I was very proud to work alongside the civilian staff, who were incredibly proud of and very good at what they did. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) was so right to say that because the problems of the Ministry of Defence are enormous, they are magnified tenfold. Fundamentally, however, it is one of the best-run Departments in Whitehall. Nothing is too much trouble for it, but the fact was that we were not equipped and we did not, in my view, have the correct military doctrine for what was going to follow on in Iraq. As I said, I hope that those lessons have now been learned and that we will not suffer such problems in Afghanistan.
I would like the Minister to find out—I do not expect him to know—whether the architecture for the conduct of operations in Afghanistan is different from that for Iraq. Has it changed? We know of the terrible problems of the Department for International Development, which is unable to act in areas that are remotely hostile because of the views that it takes. That position is perfectly reasonable. Nevertheless, there are still people who are worried about the conduct of operations in Afghanistan, and I would be grateful if the Minister reassured me on that.
In my judgment, most of the programmes that we have been discussing today remain unaffordable. I want to make two points about the Navy. First, the carrier programme is much too expensive. The ships are much too big and the aeroplanes are much too costly. We will need to look at it all again and decide whether we need ships of that size. I totally endorse, as did the 1997 defence review and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire, the concept of “go away”—of being fully deployable. There is no doubt that the “fully deployable” concept is right, and that the carriers would be useful, but is the air power required proportionate to or necessary for what we need, bearing in mind that we will never go to war again on an expeditionary basis without being part of a coalition, and that one part of that coalition has massive air power?
My second point is that the Type 45s, the Daring class, are magnificent ships—some of the greatest that this country will ever own. Their technology is simply unmatched and they are extraordinarily powerful. However, as we have said for 10 years, ships can be in only one place at a time. I am afraid to say that the Navy is a shrunken beast; it has shrunk substantially since my right hon. Friend and I were at the Ministry of Defence, when it was also shrinking—we got rid of too many ships. However, now the Navy is suffering from a problem of critical mass.
Since the Minister’s party came to power, about a fifth of the whole operational side of the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service’s total fleet has been cut. Furthermore, frigate and destroyer numbers have fallen from 35 to 25, which is way below what the strategic defence review said was the minimum requirement to carry out the standing tasks of the Royal Navy, and the number is due to fall to 23. The number of attack submarines has been cut from 12 to eight, and will fall to seven. That is a really catastrophic situation for a maritime power—an island—that is dependent on keeping the sea lanes open. If we faced a terrible difficulty, we would have to be able to secure our sea lanes, but the truth is that we could not secure anything. We are now a very minor sea power with some wonderful people and very good but very small ships. We also have some terrible gaps. There is a serious problem.
We have done what we have done throughout so much of our procurement—we have bought equipment that still lives in the cold war era. The Daring class radars are some of the most sophisticated and powerful in the world; they can enable a golf ball to be shot down at 700 miles or something. That is terribly useful, but it will not be necessary. We need many smaller ships capable of dealing with such events as the pirate operations in the lower gulf. There is no point in sending a Daring class destroyer to deal with Somali pirates—we could blow them out of the water with a .50 Browning. We would not need a fully gunned-up warship. The Danes have a good range of ships, which are much smaller and lightly armed. They carry good weapons and small crews and can operate pretty much anywhere in the world. We need such ships for the next generation of warfare.
We really need three or four HMS Oceans, and, if necessary, a bigger HMS Ocean to carry a short take-off/vertical landing version of whatever aeroplane is involved. We do not need enormous carriers. There is no point in having only two carriers; there have to be three if there is to be proper rotation. They will be a terrible drain on the existing surface vessels of the fleet, and we do not have enough submarines to protect them. The whole thing is geared towards a cold war concept, but all the planners will tell the Minister that, as he knows, the concept of warfare for the next 20 years will be very different from anything that went before.
We are going back to the arguments about the tank and the horse, when the British Army had to be persuaded that, sadly, the day of the horse in battle had gone and that it had to be replaced by the tank and armoured car. We are at that sort of moment now, and we are building a lot of the wrong kit. That is why the future rapid effects system, or FRES, order is so important; it contains all the things required to enable soldiers to operate in a more forward way, using all the relevant communications. However, my right hon. Friend is completely right: one has almost given up on FRES ever appearing.
I agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but now he seems to be arguing that we should go back to the horse rather than go forward with the tank. We do need big carriers because we need floating platforms. Even in Sierra Leone, we would need a platform to operate from. Carriers are useful, and we do not know what will be needed around the world. I would have thought that he would support modernisation, rather than going back to the horse.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that I am not a very good speaker, but I have been doing my best to say that we need carriers, although not of the size that have been ordered. We need carriers such as HMS Ocean; if he has not seen it, I strongly recommend that he has a look. It is a very impressive operation. It can carry helicopters and commandoes; HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, the commando carriers, are fantastic ships. We do not need to build monstrous leviathans in an age when we need to be light, agile and flexible.
Actually, I am a horse—I am so in favour of them that I would certainly have been on the wrong side of the argument in 1939. However, the fact is that the cold war and the age of set-piece battles with nations have long gone. Of course we need to retain the ability to prosecute such a war, but in our own way. It is terrible to say, but we have to acknowledge that we are no longer a first-rate military power. We have one of the best armies in the world. The men and women of our armed forces are the benchmark by which, by and large, all other armed forces judge their people. Our equipment, however, is most definitely not such a benchmark.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is very knowledgeable; we always listen to what he says. Basically, he is saying that we need smaller carriers than the large ones that we are going to buy because he wants money to be moved elsewhere. However, how much money does he seriously think would be saved if we cut the size of the carriers? It is not their size that brings the cost, but the kit that goes into them, their capability and what flies off them. His proposal for smaller carriers would surely not release funding for spending elsewhere.
I am in the fortunate position of not being party to the sums, which is a great thing when one is speaking about defence. None of my argument in respect of the carriers is about saving money; it is about having the right kit. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) raises a fundamental point. In defence now, we have to do the right thing. If the uniforms in Chorley are not the right ones for the Army to buy, we must say, “Even though we all love the hon. Gentleman with a passion and think that he has a spiffing constituency and they are jolly good people who make the kit, we are going to give the contract to someone else—very sorry.” We need to make a whole lot of those decisions, which will be very uncomfortable for whoever comes into power.
My hon. Friend compares HMS Ocean with the aircraft carriers. Does he agree that our operations will not be in a cold war scenario, although that could come back, or necessarily in a modern-day counter-insurgency, but that whatever scenario we face, we are unlikely just to need to pack our bags and go home after the actual war fighting has finished? That has changed—we have to stay around and do the peacekeeping as well, and that is why we require the likes of HMS Ocean over the aircraft carriers.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend. I have made the point that war among the people is the way that things are going to go. Of course we have to stay on afterwards. We do not need aircraft carriers to have people hanging around—they can hang around on HMS Ocean. We do not need these vast ships, with all that it takes to keep them at sea and the tremendous amount of escort involved. The Daring class ships are for the purpose of air defence—they are built to defend an aircraft carrier, which is a tremendously limiting factor in their use. I am pleading on the Navy’s behalf, although the Navy always thought I was too hard on it. It must have more ships if it is to be able to do the simply wonderful work that it has always done all over the world. More credit attaches to this country through the work of the Royal Navy down the generations than anyone in this House could possibly imagine.
I want to ask the Minister what planning is going on to cover the eventualities that will arise in procurement over the next 20 to 30 years given the different conflicts that are likely to occur. The Government, whoever they are, will have to take a risk by working out what is the most likely type of conflict that we will have to undertake in the next 30 years. If my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) really believes that Britain is in a position to take part in every level of conflict, he is wrong—we can no longer do that. We will have to make some very difficult decisions about which particular specialities we are going to stick to, pay for and be a big part of.
I want to say a few words about Trident. The arguments on Trident are not yet settled. I voted to renew the deterrent because there must be some form of deterrent, but the arguments have not yet been had in public in nearly an adequate enough way to warrant the spending of this nation’s treasure on the scale that will be required. This is not a question of who is a member of CND or who is against CND. It is really difficult in these times to answer the question whether we need to renew the Trident system in some form or another. If the new system were to go ahead and I were a Defence Minister, I would absolutely insist that it came off the Ministry of Defence’s budget and went on to the Prime Minister’s budget—that the MOD paid not one penny towards building it and that it be paid for out of central Government funds and then handed over to be run by the Navy.
My hon. Friend is making an absolutely central point. It is interesting that the Government have not so far said how the replacement for Trident will be funded. The Minister—who is not listening—might like to intervene on him to let us know precisely what plans they have to fund it. If it comes out of the MOD’s budgets, the MOD will be even more overstretched than it is at the moment.
It will be one or the other; I am not making a political point. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend. I do not know where the money is coming from. The Government have not worked it out yet, and we have no clue as to where it is going to come from, but the system will need to be paid for if we decide to have it. This is not just a straightforward yah-boo question of who is in favour of it and who is against. Some of the most important fighting men in this country are profoundly against a new Trident system. Some of the most thoughtful people are against it; some very good people are very much in favour of it. It is a very important, serious and expensive decision that will not be settled by having some sort of spat. The decision will have a profound effect on our status and role in the world and how we are perceived: if we were to give up the system, what impact would that have on all kinds of other things that we do?
I endorse what my very wise right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, said about defence science. I beg the Minister not to cut the defence science budget. We are now in a period where we are moving to a completely new type of warfare. Of course we have to keep our hand in as regards all the other aspects, but over the next 20 years we will be asked to fight not in nation-to-nation conflict but war among the people. I commend Rupert Smith’s book to anyone who has not read it—it is interesting, wise and profound. We need to remake the armed forces in light of the threats that we will have to encounter in future, not those that we have encountered in the past. The wars that we will fight will be more like Afghanistan than D-day, and we must equip ourselves for that. Our aeroplanes, helicopters, training, infantry and weaponry—everything that goes to make up the modern battlefield—have to be right. We do not have the money to have anything going spare. We are not like the Americans, who are refashioning their whole doctrine on the basis of lessons that they learned in Iraq in a way that one would not believe possible. I do not know whether the Minister has been invited to Fort Leavenworth to see it, but the way in which they retrain is absolutely astonishing. They used to take lectures from us about counter-insurgency operations, as if we knew the answers, but they have completely retrained the army that has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In conclusion—I am sorry for going on for so long, Mr. Deputy Speaker—the next Government will have to decide whether Britain wants to play a role in the world. The last defence review by Lord Robertson was a really excellent piece of work, in my view. I would be very surprised if many of its supporting documents have to be substantially rewritten for today; certainly, the stuff on deployability will not have to be. Britain has to decide if she wants to continue to play a real role in the world. If we are to do so, we will have to find the money and the will to fashion a new, less sophisticated approach—much of the equipment that we are buying is too sophisticated—with more specialist equipment to deal with the wars and conflicts that our people are going to take part in. I would not want to see Britain doing anything other than playing a very full role in the world—that is to say, retaining not only the ability to conduct a high-intensity land battle but the extraordinary gift that British soldiers have of being able to switch that off in moments and, 25 yd further along the street, indulge in some real, serious nation-building and peacekeeping. That is the great brilliance of the British soldier: the question is whether our armed forces will be given the money to be able to do it.
I shall confine my remarks to my experience as a member of the European Security and Defence Assembly, which meets regularly and brings together representatives of all European countries, including the accession states, and visitors from Russia, Canada and Australia. We discuss a number of security and defence issues that pertain to the European context, and some of our discussions have been reflected in today’s debate. I wish to focus my comments on the papers that are currently being prepared on armoured personnel carriers, cyber warfare, the review of the Airbus A400M procurement and the Boxer armed personnel carrier.
I begin by saying that we should understand that the UK currently has 790,000 people engaged in the defence industry, supported this year alone by a £7.156 billion budget. It is an extremely big industry, and some of the comments and aspirations that I have heard today have been utopian given that we are dealing with the employment of 790,000 people. It is difficult to ask such a contingent of individuals to be fleet of foot, because that is not possible.
I have learned in the past couple of years that the industry is peculiar in terms of the gap between order placement and order delivery, simply because it is like no other industry in the size of orders and the size of the individual units purchased. Some colleagues might ask, “What about private aeronautics? What about the big air companies?” I shall come to them in a minute, because in fact it is a big private, commercial air company, Airbus, that is involved in the development of the A400M, and we know what difficulties it has run into. Those difficulties have arisen as a direct result of the company coming out of the private sector, which has very limited aeronautic requirements, and into the military sector, which has far more technically complex and demanding requirements.
I wish to comment on the work that is being done on armoured personnel carriers. I think that in the past six months, I have visited every armoured personnel carrier manufacturer operating in Europe. That means every one in the world, because the companies involved are either American with a European operational base or European with a significant presence in the US. What I have noted—it has surprised me and goes to the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—is the tremendous number of vehicles available from which countries can choose.
Just 10 years ago there were a very limited number of models of armed personnel carriers, and I think that it is fair to take that one product as a typical example of what is now available in the defence catalogues. Defence armoured personnel carrier models then numbered not many more than three or four. Their procurement would be an ideal project for OCCAR to be involved in. We have not heard mention of OCCAR today, but it is the procurement agency that was established by European countries to purchase on a common platform. It failed at the first hurdle to tackle that task, simply because each army in each country has its own specification and requirements. One armoured personnel carrier may operate in exactly the same environment as another that is managed by a different country’s army, but that does not matter. Apparently, the specifications for operating in the same area are very different. That is great news for the producers of the carriers but very bad news for us, because there is no capitalising on general procurement and no opportunity to capitalise on the innovation that has been applied to a vehicle by mass purchasing it as a direct consequence of that.
My experience is, and I have been told, that the number of armoured personnel carriers will continue to grow. The carriers will diversify and there will be far more specialism, which is what armed services now want. Much of the debate has been about not only getting things right now but planning for the future. I have spoken to front-line staff, and I am afraid that they are not thinking very much about the future; they are dealing with the problems now. The industry is responding to the now and offering people exactly what they want, for which there is a price to be paid.
May I help the hon. Lady, who makes a very good point? The people she has been talking to are not paid to think about what is going to happen in future. They are there to do exactly as she describes—get on and get the kit out. All three services have the extraordinary single-service plan system, which we must dismantle because it clogs up the whole machine. There should be a purple operation that buys the right kit for the right service. An incoming Government will have to deal very toughly with the single-service structures to make them much more purple.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the right kit, and that is what gives companies a great opportunity. Who defines what is the right kit at any moment? There is no ubiquitous environment in which that kit operates. A field commander in one area will say, “I want this specifically,” and a field commander in another area will say, “I want that specifically.” It is then a question of creating common platforms. The number of units of kit required in an area might be so small that the capital cost of developing the facility is far higher than it would be if there were common agreement by a number of countries about what they wanted.
On the procurement of the Boxer, the UK played a significant role in its development, but in the end we pulled out because it was not diversifying enough to meet our operational requirements. That said, the company responsible for manufacturing it has gone ahead and produced it. It has a product that sits on the shelf, and sales are growing. I have listened to arguments about letting the private sector have its head and produce far more products out of its own stables rather than being led by defence requirements. In fact, that is exactly where the private sector believes it ought to be. It does not want Governments to specify their own kit. It thinks that it is so knowledgeable that it can produce kit that meets the needs of an environment at significantly less cost.
I have listened keenly to the arguments and comments, but we have not reached a position of saying that the private sector should have a far greater role in defining the kit than the public sector, or of understanding where the public and private sectors sit.
I am listening carefully to the complicated argument that the hon. Lady is advancing, and I am little puzzled by it. Is she seriously saying that rather than ask the private sector to produce a variety of equipment of one sort or another and then seek to sell it to national Governments around the world, it would be better if somehow those Governments got together, agreed on a standardised specification and then asked the private sector to deliver it? Surely the former is better than the latter, although, as demonstrated amply by the Russian Republic, we should go no further than that.
Yes, but against what criteria? The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) alluded to OCCAR’s role and its importance. Its role is to get consensus between countries on procuring specific pieces of kit. I hope that colleagues understand why that is such an attractive option. It means that one gets kit for less cost per unit because the cost of developing the unit is shared. Unless we can bite that bullet, we are back to making our own specifications at higher cost. That means that the holy grail of getting something cheaper will never be attainable for us. We might gain when the private sector produces vehicles based on the tremendous investment that we have put into those companies. The investment of successive Governments in the private sector, especially defence, is considerable, allowing it to have the competence that we would like in the public sector, but will never now gain.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that one thing that makes our armed forces among the greatest in the world is our allowing them to lead and help shape need? That means configurations that suit our commanders and equipment that makes us better than our counterparts. We must let our armed forces be at the forefront of design, otherwise we will end up with standardised armed forces, which show little initiative and have little advantage over our opponents.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s arguments—I fully understand them. However, today I have heard a debate about costs, timely procurement and meeting forces’ expectations quickly, and the arguments that he has advanced militate against achieving those objectives. If we allow decisions about kit specifications to rest entirely with the armed forces, we will experience the problems about which we have heard, especially those that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex enunciated. Expectations change faster than the time that lags between placing an initial order and delivery.
There are great merits in a common European platform for standard core kit. One benefit of a standard core kit is supporting common European deployments. A good example of that is the humanitarian role that we played in Chad, where 26 countries were represented, all with their own pieces of kit—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) made a sedentary comment, which I did not hear. Does he wish to intervene?
It certainly does, but we heard again today the need to be able to plan for some eventualities. In EU/NATO-led peacekeeping operations, in which military capacity is fundamental to a successful intervention, and for which we could plan over a long period, procurement of common assets on a common platform is a genuine option. Indeed, it supports the greater benefits of European collaboration through, for example, OCCAR.
Outside humanitarian operations, we must revert to the more expensive option of ascertaining what we specifically need to match our troops’ requirements in theatre. That is far more expensive in the longer term. I do not want us to say that we should retain a British badge for all procurement because that is ultimately a more costly position for us to adopt and does not take advantage of the experience of other armed forces in Europe, with whom we will have to engage in common theatres.
Cyber warfare has been mentioned once today, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) who raised it has now left the Chamber. An anoraky subject is probably the best way to describe cyber warfare, but it has interested the European Security and Defence Assembly for the simple reason that that body has representatives from Estonia, which, if colleagues do not know, faced a complete takeover of the country’s internet system approximately two years ago, not by an individual but through concerted action by several individuals throughout the world. The Government were literally brought to a standstill in one day. Every Department, including the military Department, was affected. I have been assured that the UK could never suffer such an assault. However, the event raised several issues and I have asked Defence Ministers questions about that. We have not yet defined the difference between a cyber threat, cyber warfare and cyber terrorism. I do not know whether they are the same, but there is no definition and we need one because the current response is country-specific. Again, it is an ideal matter for collaborative working in a European context, not least because we share some major telecommunications networks. We are also equally sophisticated in the technology that we have developed.
I am sorry that I will not be here for the Under-Secretary’s winding-up speech, but I should be grateful if he gave his view of OCCAR’s role and contribution—I accept that there have been difficulties with the A400M. I should like him to comment on the diversity of product that our armed forces now request and the problems that that presents any procurement programme. I should also like him to say whether he believes that some of the proposals that we have heard today, notably the redefinition of the carrier that is currently on the order books, are viable, given that they are fundamental to securing so many jobs in this country.
The debate has been interesting and wide ranging. It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), and it was especially a delight to listen to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). I do not always agree with him, but I agreed with about 99.5 per cent. of what he said.
Indeed it is.
There is no doubt that procurement drives military strategy and tactics and that it, in turn, is driven by the warfare in which we might be engaged in future, and the current counter-insurgency warfare in which the UK is heavily involved in Afghanistan. The Easter recess has been useful in giving us an opportunity to read the recommendations of the United States Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, for next year’s defence budget. They were followed by his subsequent presentation and question-and-answer session at the Maxwell air force base in Alabama.
I find it gratifying that the US Defence Secretary proposes significantly to restructure the US army’s future combat systems—FCS—programme, with the recommendation that the vehicle component of the current programme be cancelled. The FCS programme is equivalent to our future rapid effect system. I find it extraordinary that our future Army structure was completely changed on the back of FRES. Yet as we all know, FRES is now a non-starter, not least because of its exponentially rising costs. In my view—and, I think, in the view of many others—it will never happen.
The current US vehicle programme, which was developed nine years ago, was estimated to cost more than $87 billion, but did not include the recent $25 billion investment in MRAP, or mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles—I have to say that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because earlier you asked us not to use jargon. Those vehicles are being used to good effect in today’s conflicts, because the Americans have learned from their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and have changed procurement and tactics rapidly to succeed in the engagements in which their troops are fighting. I wonder whether the UK will follow suit and cancel the FRES utility programme. We were informed earlier in this debate that the programme will be at the “initial gate”—is that right?—in approximately 10 months, but I shall be very interested to hear what the Minister says about that in his winding-up speech.
I disagree with the kind of thinking so often expressed on this side of the pond by many and, in particular, by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, who recently stated in an article that
“you can always fight from a high intensity capability at lower intensity”.
I believe that to be one of the greatest fallacies and one that led directly to our defeat in Iraq and caused unnecessary deaths. High-intensity warfare creates a strategy of thinking big, with top-down decisions taken. That is what we are seeing played out in Afghanistan. Big sweeps at battalion and company level take place, but the ground taken cannot subsequently be held. Lowering the intensity, however, does not lower the strategy or the way of thinking and often creates the overstretch that we hear about so often.
As far as procurement is concerned, high intensity means being provided with the very latest technology and all the wizardry that goes with it, which always proves to be exceptionally expensive. For counter-insurgency, that type of procurement is, with few exceptions, unsuitable and is definitely far too expensive for purpose, leading to the cry of underfunding. For example, the House has been told that up to £860 million has been spent on honing the Harrier’s performance for service in Afghanistan, with running costs of £37,000 an hour, plus the cost of large expensive ordnance. Add to that the cost of the Harriers, which were not previously able to cope with the dust in Afghanistan, and the cost of Merlin helicopters and their upgrade, not forgetting what has been wasted on the likely-to-be-aborted A400M, and the grand total runs into megabucks. Such expenditure makes the Army look like poor cousins. The Army is doing the fighting, but it appears to be missing out on comparable levels of expenditure.
I have consistently argued that we should use aircraft such as the Super Tucano two-seater light attack aircraft, which can carry 15 tonnes of ordnance. It could assist in the creation of an Afghan air force. If such a force is not founded and developed, the international military force will be required to continue to give air cover virtually for ever. It is interesting to note that the United States has recently leased two such aircraft and they will be used in Afghanistan. It will also be interesting to see whether those aircraft will be procured directly when they have proved to be successful.
The cost of expensive helicopter usage could also be reduced by using aircraft such as an adapted Pilatus Porter, which would be better suited for many roles in Afghanistan and has a 15-tonne payload. The Pilatus Porter is a Swiss aircraft that is produced only in a civilian version, but it can be upgraded and would be ideal for ferrying in supplies and for medevac.
I hasten to add that the blueprint for successful counter-insurgency warfare—I have always said this and will probably be laughed at for repeating it—was set in Rhodesia from 1965 to 1980, where, with the international community ranged against the Rhodesians and with very little money and precious few new supplies of equipment, success was driven from the bottom up. Let us never forget that the Rhodesians conducted the best counter-insurgency campaign ever on a one-to-one ratio. That is an achievement that neither we, nor anyone else for that matter, have been capable of matching since. What the Rhodesians did, short of both money and equipment as they were, was to produce a successful strategy based on practical, functional vehicles and airpower, excellent intelligence and rapid changes in tactics to reflect changing circumstances, and they did that from bottom up. We have failed to learn those simple lessons. Insurgents cannot be beaten by technology alone. It greatly helps, but high-intensity warfare by itself cannot deliver the goods.
I have time to quote only two passages from the 1991 RAND Corporation report on the Rhodesian experience, which spells out some lessons that we need to learn. It said:
“The Rhodesians, for example, made innovative and inexpensive modifications to ordinary military and commercial vehicles that dramatically reduced the deaths and injuries suffered by passengers travelling in vehicles that struck land mines. Such modifications had the additional benefit of instilling confidence in the troops and enabled the security forces to retain control over the countryside by defeating the guerrillas’ attempts to force the army into a ‘garrison mentality’ by making road travel dangerous if not impossible.”
That is exactly what happened to us in Iraq. The report continued:
“The Rhodesian security forces functioned under severe financial constraints that limited their access to late model, sophisticated high tech weapons and to large quantities of material. The Rhodesians’ ability to overcome these constraints by embracing innovative strategies and tactics, including novel techniques in road security, tracking and reconnaissance, small unit tactics, special operations, and intelligence gathering, suggests that the successful prosecution of counter insurgency need not entail huge expenditure.”
That is why we as a country must first decide what we want our military to do. If that includes counter-insurgency, we must specialise in it and provide the right equipment and training to win. If we are not prepared to do that, we should stop sending our service personnel to defeat and, in certain tragic cases, unnecessarily to death.
I was dismayed to learn of the recent procurement of the Husky vehicle, which involved 200 vehicles at a cost of £120 million—close to £600,000 each for what is essentially a commercial truck. The MOD has picked a conversion based on a civilian sport utility vehicle pick-up truck known as the International MXT 4x4 and then bolted bits on, just as it did with the E-Jackal. That shows that none of the lessons has been learned following the debacle of the Pinzgauer Vector. Although I understand the concept behind the Springer, I suggest that the jury is still out on whether it will prove to be another death-trap, and it is expensive, at £93,000 each and with no protection. The MOD is obviously paved with gold, but at least the Wolfhound, with a V-shaped hull, is a sensible choice and should prove a success with its built-in ability to deflect blasts.
I have absolutely no doubt that appropriate procurement is vital to succeed in any counter-insurgency situation, but sadly the lessons of the past have not yet been learned and, on our present record, the ability of our forces—they are the finest forces in the world—to succeed and to win in the future has not recently been enhanced.
May I crave the indulgence of the House for a moment, and compare the speech just delivered by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) with that made by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) earlier? Both talked about the complexity of buying the right armoured vehicles for a given situation in a particular conflict. The fact that the circumstances described in each of those speeches were so diverse rather made the point that, however much we might wish to standardise and to make things simple for ourselves, it is always easier to talk about that than to deliver it. Often, by the time we find ourselves in a situation in which we urgently require the kit for a particular operation, we have to buy off the shelf or mix and match on the ground in order to deal with a threat that has arisen against the vehicle that we are using at the time.
I am minded to point out to the hon. Member for Crosby that the European context is just one of the contexts in which we operate internationally. In fact, for the British, the American context is possibly more important than the European context. A point to emphasise in the European context is that each nation puts its forces into battle backed by its own national perspective, its own values and its own moral limits. That means that each nation has a different doctrine of operations, which leads to the Germans buying one kind of rifle while the French buy another, and we have our own rifle, which is different from the American rifle. This is because we practise military warfare in slightly different ways. Unless we are going to try to standardise the politics of all the nations, we will end up with different military doctrines and different things that we find it important, or not important, to do.
My hon. Friend is partly, but not completely, right. The Germans, for example, bought the Leopard tank instead of the Chieftain because it was said at the time that the Leopard could go backwards faster than the Chieftain could. However, they both had the same gun. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) was not far wrong in what she said. Nations can each have their own vehicles, provided that they have the same guns and ammunition as those of the nations with which they are fighting; otherwise, they will get into a terrible muddle.
My hon. Friend reinforces the points on both sides of the argument. Yes, there are virtues in standardisation, but there will always be requirements to do things differently in different circumstances, which will lead people in different directions.
I want to turn to the Minister’s opening speech, which had an atmosphere of unreality about it. I say that with the greatest respect, and I intend no personal criticism of him; this is what Ministers do. He went straight into a discussion of current operations and the success of the urgent operational requirement programme, but avoided discussing the serious structural crisis at the heart of the Ministry of Defence, which is what this debate should be about. The numbers involved are much bigger than the amounts being spent on urgent operational requirements.
The failures of the Ministry of Defence’s procurement programme are manifold and too numerous to discuss in detail in the short time allowed for this debate. Some, including the A400M, have been brought about by industry failures. Many of us prophesied that the A400M, being mainly a political aeroplane rather than a military requirement, would get into the muddle that it is now in. That project, like the Typhoon before it, highlights the problems of pan-national, pan-European programmes, which inevitably end up involving political compromises that suit no one. Other projects, such as FRES and the Chinook mark 3, offer lessons in departmental incompetence that must be learned.
The spectre at the feast of the MOD’s trouble is always the money. Of course, defence never has enough money, but the Department’s decisions over the past 10 years have been taken in an atmosphere of unparalleled fiscal restraint, which has progressively got worse and is likely to become worse still in the current climate. We know that the procurement spending round PR08 was never really settled; it was just imposed, and the Ministry of Defence decided to live with that. We are told that PR09 has now run its course, and that there has been no resolution between the Department and the Treasury about it. There is a stand-off, but the Department somehow has to continue to function, albeit in an extraordinarily dysfunctional way.
The Department repeats the mantra that it has had record increases in funding, but, as ever, it fails to mention the real contexts. The first and most obvious is that, since 2001, the armed forces have been operating well beyond the defence planning assumptions. Whatever urgent operational requirements may have been funded, the real increases in the core defence budget have not been enough to maintain the capabilities required for the operations being undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan. I refer to the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee. He talked about the compromises between current operations and future capabilities, and about Professor Hew Strachan’s writing on today’s wars and tomorrow’s wars. Those points are expressly illustrated by the national security strategy. The Government are consciously compromising future capabilities to fund current operations, as I have said many times before in the Chamber.
Secondly, we must compare the rises in our defence expenditure with those of our allies and rivals. According to SIPRI—the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which produces the respected international tables for comparing defence expenditure—between 2001 and 2007, our defence spending apparently rose by 22 per cent. in real terms. I find that hard to believe, given the figure that the Minister quoted earlier, but there are statistics and there are statistics. However, the comparable international statistics show that our 22 per cent. increase compares with India’s 32 per cent., America’s 59 per cent., Russia’s 66 per cent. and China’s 108 per cent. Britain and Europe’s response to the changed circumstances after 9/11 has been wholly inadequate.
Thirdly, it is most important to remind the House that defence spending increases in the UK were relatively modest compared with spending increases in other policy areas. Since 1997—the last year of the Major Government —core defence spending up until 2007-08 increased by £4.5 billion in real terms. In the same period, real-terms increases in health spending were £44 billion—10 times as much. In education, the increase was £35 billion. Even the spending for the police has been increased by nearly as much as defence spending, and the railways have had an even bigger increase than defence.
Is the hon. Gentleman advocating that we match some of the budget increases in developing nations that, compared with us, have very small armies in proportion to their population? Or is he talking about expanding our budget so that we can expand our armed forces accordingly? If that is the basis of his argument, what does he believe that such expansion would be for?
I merely point out that our defence expenditure has declined, relative to that of other nations, and that our defence expenditure as a proportion of total public expenditure has also been in decline. It has also been in decline as a proportion of gross national product, as everyone knows. I do not think that the Government made a conscious decision to do that when they were first elected, but that is what has happened, and I think that it explains why our armed forces are under such strain and why there is probably a £2 billion hole at the heart of this year’s defence budget. There will probably be a bigger hole next year, because there seem to be no proposals to fill the hole, apart from pushing programmes forward, as I shall explain.
The recession has changed the public expenditure landscape, and we can no longer expect any Government to provide dramatic increases to allow the armed forces to catch up with other public services in the short or medium term. That opportunity has passed. The public finances are in crisis, and will be for years to come. Defence, like everything else, must learn to cut its cloth and live within its means. I say that as someone who has, for some years, advocated significant increases in defence spending.
It is frustrating that, once again, we see that when it comes to designing fiscal stimuli to resuscitate the economy, defence is left out of the Prime Minister’s mindset. He has preached the need for more Government borrowing and spending to get us out of a debt crisis and has brought forward £3 billion of expenditure on capital projects—on everything from £30 million for play facilities for children to £300 million for road building. When I tabled a question to ask the Ministry of Defence to say what had been brought forward in defence to revive the economy, the response was:
“No Ministry of Defence capital expenditure has been brought forward in response to the economic downturn.”—[Official Report, 27 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 308W.]
That sentence sadly sums up where the armed forces come on Labour’s list of priorities—and it gets worse.
Not only has funding not been brought forward; it has been put back. The equipment report of last December delayed the carriers, mothballed MARS, cut Future Lynx numbers and kicked FRES into the long grass. Even the compromise reduction in tranche 3 Typhoon, as discussed earlier, is being questioned, when it could maintain skilled jobs in the north-east throughout the recession. We can expect only more cuts and more delays when the results of the latest planning rounds are finalised—if ever they are. Defence must share the pain with other public services, but why is it, we may ask, that the only time when our armed forces seem to come first is when budgetary restraint is called for?
The Government’s attitude has forced the Ministry of Defence to prioritise current operations ahead of the long-term procurement of capabilities, as the national security strategy made clear. That has meant that the long-term equipment programme is increasingly unaffordable—the collective view of the Defence Select Committee. There is estimated to be a £2 billion black hole at the heart of defence budget. Everyone in the MOD, in the Cabinet, in the House and in the media knows that the Department is increasingly paralysed by the Government’s inability to deliver their stated policy on defence. I have a certain amount of sympathy for the Secretary of State, knowing, as we all do, that he comes to the House with his hands tied by the Prime Minister and the Treasury. Outside Downing Street, everyone recognises the need for a new defence review, but we all know that it cannot happen this side of the election because the Government know that a review will identify either the need for more money, more equipment and more troops, which it is now impossible to provide, or that the only realistic choices lie, at least in the short term, in what to cut from the programme.
The Secretary of State is reduced to falling back on the strategic defence review mantras. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex—that the SDR is a fine piece of work, but the Government have become too complacent about it. For example, the Government said:
“The SDR continues to inform our thinking; our future procurement strategies are designed around the analysis contained in it.”—[Official Report, 30 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 1071.]
The SDR was designed before Kosovo, before 9/11, before Afghanistan, before Iraq, before the Iranian nuclear programme, before we went to Helmand and before the Georgian war. There is a sense that all this has to move on, but it has not done so because the Government dare not because it would open up so many questions about what our defence policy should be.
The challenge we must face is: how do we escape from the straitjacket of SDR being funded inadequately, leading to vital decisions being delayed because of costs, where Ministers argue that dwindling numbers of platforms and troops do not matter? The Department remains obsessed with the SDR idea of capability over numbers in an age when numbers of platforms and troops matter as much as capability, if not just as much as they ever did. For example, the decision to extend the life of the Type 23s by up to eight years has been made because the future surface combatant programme will be slowed on account of budgetary constraints. Ministers still claim that the first FSC is expected to enter service “around the end” of “the next decade”, but it seems more likely that it will not be until the beginning of the following decade at the earliest. The Under-Secretary of State told the House at Defence questions before Easter that construction on the first FSC will begin
“as soon as the second carrier has been launched”—[Official Report, 30 March 2009; Vol. 490, c. 647.]
That is unlikely to be until 2015, so HMS Daring, the first Type 45, will have taken more than six years from first metal being cut to entering service—meaning that the first FSC is not likely to enter service until at least 2021—provided there are no further delays, which seems unlikely. What is two years between friends in the Ministry of Defence, we might ask, but between 2019 and 2021 three Type 22s are due to leave service, reducing our surface fleet still further. The decision to extend the lives of the Type 23s, with no answers to parliamentary questions about the cost implications of the decision, is merely another attempt to push cost decisions to the right.
It is the same story with the helicopter programme. Aware that there was a danger of the fleet being cut in half by 2020, the MOD has now announced plans to extend the lives of the Chinooks, the Pumas and the Sea King Mark 4s and 7s. Despite repeated questioning, however, Ministers—including the Under-Secretary who will reply from the Dispatch Box this evening—will not reveal how much these decisions will cost, or when the money will be made available for these life extensions. Again, decisions are shifted to the right so the financial consequences of today’s decisions will be felt only after a general election.
We have already discussed the carriers, but the decision to delay them reeks of money more than any other consideration. To argue, as the Minister did, that this leaves our defence capability “unaffected”—the word he used—is simply not credible. As elsewhere, cost pressures and political expediency mean shifting the cost of delays until after the general election. It was disappointing that the Minister was unable to furnish the Defence Committee with robust figures about how much the delay to the programme would cost. We now have the figure of £600 million floating in the air, to which the Minister will neither indicate assent or dissent. He is shrugging his shoulders. We know that this is likely to be yet another bill that will land on the Secretary of State’s desk after the next general election.
The MOD and the Royal Navy will not countenance cutting the carriers because they are a prestige programme, so they just delay them, but there is little indication that the Department has thought through the practical consequences of building these carriers and what sort of Navy we want to possess in the 21st century. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex was absolutely right to question the purpose of these two 65,000 tonnes carriers. They seem to point towards ambitions for a powerful blue-water Navy, but at the same time we have seen the number of frigates and destroyers slashed and significant cuts to the number of attack submarines at a time when the Americans value most highly our minesweepers, for the capability that they can bring, rather than our larger capital ships.
Minehunters, I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The Royal Navy is facing in two directions and there is a real danger that our pretensions for it will not match our capabilities to deliver it. If the carrier programme is to go ahead—I very much hope it does—we must build a Navy fit to go with it. If we cannot afford to do this or do not want to play such a role on the world stage, the £4 billion would be better spent elsewhere and we will finish up getting out of blue-water naval capability. I cannot believe that that would be the right decision, but that is the nature of the decisions that we face on the current budget. Decisions of that type need to be faced in a defence review that must take account of the short and medium-term fiscal crisis from which defence will not be immune, however much ring-fencing we call for in our speeches.
How should we configure the armed forces for the type of country that we wish to be in the medium and long term, despite the pressures that we face in the short term? We must ask ourselves whether we really want to continue to play a global role—I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex. In the past 10 years, we have punched above our weight, but we have come close to exhaustion in doing so. We must decide whether we wish to slim down, cutting back on the carriers, JSF, the full complement of attack submarines, tranche 3 of Typhoon, FRES, future Lynx and FSC or whether our national interest demands that we maintain a global role, in which case the review must lay out a pathway to and the real costs of achieving armed forces capable of sustaining such a global role, in both Professor Strachan’s present war and the future war. In the long term, that means a bigger Army, more helicopters, more strategic and tactical lift, and a blue-water royal naval fleet.
For too long, we have sought to play a global role but without being willing to pay for it. In the short term, even our current expenditure plans are unaffordable, leaving aside any ambition to expand. In the long term, recent research by Decision Analysis Services suggests that by 2028 the defence budget would need to be around £88 billion at current prices to achieve the current equipment programme, but, given trend spending growth of merely 2 per cent., it will be under £50 billion by that date.
We cannot put off this choice any longer: either we play a global role and pay for it, or we do not, and we take the savings and risks that come with such a decision. I am convinced that we must maintain our global role, in which case the defence review must nurse us through the current crisis in the public finances.
The current procurement budget is around £5.5 billion and the next defence review will have to go through it with a fine-toothed comb. The Government have been frightened to cut programmes, but a new Government must have the courage to break the logjam and provide the MOD with some clear direction. That is bound to be extremely tough. Can the Trident upgrade be delayed? The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, is asking a perfectly legitimate question. I am not minded to agree with him, but he is entering into a debate that we need to open up and discuss more than we have so far.
Although most of our costs for the Astute submarine have already been met, would it be possible or practical to slow down or delay the construction of boats 5, 6 and 7? Astute is an essential component of a blue-water Royal Navy. Few navies would dare to put to sea knowing that the British, the Russians, the Americans or the French were operating submarines in their area. That is a powerful capability to have. Could we compromise it in the short to medium term to make ends meet?
Delays, however, are unlikely to be enough on their own. Some projects may have to be cut entirely. Could we abandon tranche 3 of Typhoon? Would it be worth the savings? Is there any point fighting the Treasury to keep the A400M? Again as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said, are we likely to be operating in any substantial theatre where heavy lift is not available from one of our allies?
Airbus—aware of the technical problems and delays that have hit that programme—has admitted that the programme may collapse. Its chief executive told Der Spiegel last month:
“It is better to put an end to the horror than have horror without end”.
I wonder what the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who has responsibility for defence procurement, might say about that.
Up until the end of the last financial year, the MOD had spent £564 million on that programme, but the main expenditure is not due until 2011-12, and by putting the programme out of its misery we could save around £2 billion, much of which could be diverted to proven models such as the Globemaster or C-130J. Furthermore, 25 C-130Js could be purchased for around £1.1 billion, which would save the MOD around £900 million, assuming that we do not have to wait too long or have missed our place in the queue.
I am just winding up, if I may.
Defence must be prepared to make sacrifices in the current climate and current operations must take priority—that is certainly correct—but we cannot ignore the crisis in defence funding that has been building up over the past decade. The next defence review must place the armed forces on a sustainable footing and ensure that, once the fiscal crisis is over, we are ready to make the kind of investment that the brave men and women who serve in them deserve and which is necessary for the future security and prosperity of our country.
It is a real honour to follow so many hon. and right hon. Members who speak with great experience on defence matters. I listened especially closely to what the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) had to say on Trident. It was echoed, I think in the same way, by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), and I read that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has said something similar in recent days. So, I very much take the point made about the debate on Trident.
Perhaps I am one of the usual suspects who take a strong line against Trident, but I very much welcome the fact that people are, perhaps from a different direction, questioning whether it is the right thing to do in the context of such heavy financial pressures on the defence budget, but also in relation to the challenges of this century as we expect them to be.
I am also pleased to follow the speeches of the hon. Members for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who spoke with such conviction in support of their constituency defence interests. I want to echo that in discussing procurement matters as they relate to Scotland, and in particular the important role of defence aerospace and naval industries in Scotland.
According to SBAC Scotland—the trade association that represents the defence sector in Scotland—approximately 170 companies north of the border operate in the sector, employing about 16,000 people. Given that Scottish design engineering and manufacturing in general have a worldwide reputation for excellence, this industry in particular should and will go from strength to strength on the basis of its experience. It is a little-known fact that 59 per cent. of defence aerospace and naval output in Scotland is exported from the United Kingdom, which means that the overwhelming majority is not destined for the domestic market. The global reputation of Scottish engineering excellence will serve the industry well.
The industry in Scotland has a long history and heritage. That was highlighted by the very successful 90th anniversary celebration of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund at Edinburgh Castle, which was hosted by the First Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), and attended by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). In his address to the large group of supporters of the fund, my right hon. Friend drew particular attention to the production and development of the crucial gyro gun-sights that were used in Spitfires during the second world war. The tradition of technical excellence in defence procurement is a long one, and the development and manufacture of key aerospace defence and naval products and construction has continued to the present day—from world-leading optical and radar equipment to top-of-the-range sea-going vessels and even land mine-clearing equipment.
Undoubtedly the most important factor in that success is the people involved. It is due not just to one of the finest engineering traditions in the world, but to the steady throughput of trainees, apprentices and graduates learning the high standards of a very high-standard industry. Bearing that in mind, I am pleased that there is cross-party consensus in the form of support for the sector. Whether it is represented by the Prime Minister’s visit to Govan last week to see shipbuilders on the Clyde, or by Scottish Government Ministers engaging regularly with the sector to secure a competitive market advantage, all of it should be welcomed. Having said all that, however, I must add that I consider it important to deal with the funding realities of the domestic defence procurement sector.
The hon. Member for North Essex raised the issue of relative spending on defence matters, without going into the—I think—pretty frightening GDP-related statistics. Defence is the only major area of United Kingdom Government expenditure that has not experienced an increase in spending as a percentage of gross domestic product in recent years, despite high-tempo and high-cost operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As a percentage of GDP, defence spending has fallen from 7.1 per cent. to 2.4 per cent. in the last 50 years. That is understandable in general terms, but the fact that it has fallen from 2.8 per cent. to 2.4 per cent. since 1997 is less explicable.
In Scotland it is difficult to obtain official confirmation of procurement spending from the United Kingdom Government, although the Minister with responsibility for procurement may be able to answer some of the questions when he sums up the debate. Until the early 2000s, the Ministry of Defence was able to answer questions about defence procurement in Scotland, and I do not really understand why that is not the case now. On 1 February 1999, my predecessor, Margaret Ewing, asked a specific question. I will not give the details, but the question can be found in column 450 of the report. She asked how much the MOD was spending in Scotland on defence procurement and how much of that was passed by sub-contractors. The answer to that question was detailed and helpful, but since the introduction of accountancy changes—I understand that that is the excuse given for the impossibility of answering similar questions now—the MOD has been unwilling or unable to give equally detailed answers.
Amazingly, the MOD cannot tell us what overall MOD expenditure is in Scotland. It cannot tell us what MOD personnel expenditure or procurement expenditure is in Scotland. It also cannot tell us what the projected costs are of MOD contracts placed with companies in Scotland, or the cost of MOD research and development expenditure in Scotland, or about Defence Bills Agency spending in Scotland, Defence Bills Agency procurement related to spending or expenditure by MOD bases in Scotland. These are all questions that I have put to the MOD, but none of them has been answered. However, all the past evidence points to a significant procurement and wider defence underspend in Scotland relative to tax contributions from Scottish taxpayers.
The lack of transparency in that context is matched in respect of offset. I asked the Minister of State about this issue at the beginning of the debate, but, to be charitable, perhaps he had not been advised on it for today’s debate as he did not seem to understand why it is important. However, if one understands that military offset is a Government-negotiated agreement that requires a supplier of military equipment to direct some benefits—usually work or technology—back to the purchasing country as a condition of the sale, one understands why it is of importance. It is of such great importance to the United States Defence Department that it publishes annually a large document listing all information about offset arrangements, so that our colleagues in the US Congress and Senate can understand those offset contracts. We do not have that here, however, so we have very little understanding of the value that offset provides to companies operating in the UK in terms of their trade in this important sector. Frankly, that is not good enough.
I am very much in favour of the valued Scottish defence sector having the following: a competitive taxation advantage, decision making close to production, and guaranteed full value of domestic defence spend, whether direct contract or through offset, which does not happen in the UK. I am, of course, also in favour of the Scottish Parliament making decisions on all these policy areas. Members have rightly scoffed at Parliaments or powers elsewhere making decisions about defence policy as it impacts on, from their perspective, the United Kingdom. I am in exactly the same position: I think it frightfully odd that a Parliament 550 miles away from my country makes decisions about our defence and procurement policy—but I have no doubt that that will change for the better in the years ahead.
A Scottish Parliament and Government making decisions about defence procurement will allow us to continue with shared UK programmes where that makes sense and is properly managed, and to provide alternatives where that is not the case. It must be in the interests of the MOD in London to partner with neighbouring nations interested in making bulk purchases of expensive pieces of equipment, thereby bringing down the unit cost; surely no Minister in Whitehall would gainsay something like that. However, if in Scotland any procurement projects were not in either the taxpayer’s interest—we have heard a litany of them today—or the national interest, it would make eminent sense for Ministers in Scotland to be able to decide not to buy into them. However, so long as Scotland does not have the power to make such decisions, we will go on contributing to the UK Treasury, and throwing good money after bad in many procurement policy areas.
I would like to conclude by turning to an area that has not been discussed, but which will be of growing importance: satellite and space technology. I do not need to talk at length about the military applications, as they should be obvious to anybody who understands anything about these matters. However, of particular interest is the fact that we are only a few short years away from commercial space flight operating from the UK. There are the beginnings of a significant satellite sector in the UK, and I greatly encourage the MOD to look as closely as possible at this.
I must declare an interest: the leading, preferred site for the launch of commercial space flight in the United Kingdom is Lossiemouth. [Interruption.] I am glad to have such vocal support from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I had a successful meeting with Lord Drayson a few weeks ago, and I very much sensed from that meeting that the UK Government are seized of the opportunities that that technological development offers. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), will take forward the development of space technology and commercial space flight from a site in the UK, wherever that site may be, although I of course believe that Lossiemouth is the best place for it. That development really would afford a whole range of options to the defence and aerospace sector, and it is worth pursuing it before other countries get there first.
It is certainly a pertinent time to have this debate, just a few days before the Budget. Our armed forces face an incredibly high tempo of operations; they are probably more overstretched than they have ever been. At the same time, their equipment perhaps faces the prospect of basically being worn out. Some of the equipment in the field today has been there not for weeks or months, as was the design in some cases, but for years.
This Prime Minister is no different from many of his predecessors in sometimes failing to recognise that defence costs. So do defence deployment and time. The Ministry of Defence is often up against it when it comes to budget. I am acutely aware of the history. Historically, we have always tried to play catch-up with the threat. I would like to blame the Labour Government for finding themselves in that predicament, but it is not a new phenomenon. For centuries we have invested in the wrong technology, or had troops in the wrong part of the world when a threat has appeared elsewhere. We always do our very best to catch up.
As both a former soldier, and a former civil servant who worked briefly at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency before it became QinetiQ, and then at QinetiQ, I have experience of both sides of the coin. Having served, I have needed equipment as an infanteer and in the armoured infantry, as a Warrior commander. However, I have also been involved in trying to get money out of the MOD and in supplying the equipment to the front line. I am aware of the tremendous effort made in the MOD by officials, members of the armed services and indeed Ministers to try to get resolution to the problems that our forces face daily.
One thing that we can say about the MOD is that historically, under all Governments, it has been a can-do Ministry. When I meet Ministers who have been in the Ministry of Defence and have then gone to other Departments, they nearly always say to me, “I could teach them a thing or two in this Department, with what I have learned in the MOD. I’d have the MOD running half of Whitehall.” I often hear Ministers saying that—and I hear it just as much from the Government Benches as from my party’s Benches. We should not forget in today’s debate that there are hundreds of successful stories of defence procurement. It goes on all the time, producing good kit for our soldiers, and allowing our armed forces to do their job and to maintain their standard, often in the face of the enemy, although they are now under greater pressure—I wish it was not so—and although there are strained budgets.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) raised the issue of the Treasury. We are always calling on our Ministry of Defence to reform—to reform how it procures its equipment, or how it deploys its assets or forces—but we seldom hear about the Treasury being forced to reform. Far too often, extra expense or waste in the MOD is caused by the Treasury’s insistence on short-term measures being taken in the defence budget, rather than engagement in understanding the long-term needs of defence procurement.
There are a number of examples; the private finance initiative is a good one. Treasury figures that I eventually managed to get hold of show that by 2015, 4.5 per cent. of the whole defence budget—not just the capital budget, but the capital and revenue budget—will be taken up by PFI payments for a range of projects. That is a huge figure. Some £1.7 billion a year will be spent on paying off the mortgage broker, effectively. The chart given to me by the Treasury covers the next 32 years; I will have long left the House by then. I suspect that some of us will be in our boxes by that time. That is a long mortgage—my mortgage is only 20 years—and we have to ask what we have locked ourselves into.
Another example was the time when the MOD wanted to buy four C-17 heavy-lift aircraft and the Treasury said that it could not buy them and would have to lease them. Some £769 million was spent leasing them for five years, after which the MOD was allowed to buy them at the original offer price of £200 million. If that is not an example of a huge waste of money caused by Treasury demands, I do not know what is.
We have to insist that the Treasury accepts some reform. That is easy to say, and I am sure that the door would be slammed in my face, but I want to recognise the efforts that Defence Ministers in this and previous Governments make in day-to-day battling against the demands of the Treasury.
My specific warning in that area concerns tranche 3 of Typhoon. In an intervention on the Minister earlier, I said that when we failed to take decisions about tranches 1 and 2, it cost the taxpayer £100 million in penalty payments. We dithered over the decision, production stopped and the contract meant that we had to pay compensation. Such penalties also exist for tranche 2 to 3. The Minister did not want to speculate, but he will know the likely cost if we do not make a decision on tranche 3 by May, or if the Germans fail to make a decision by the end of the year. That will be money wasted. The Government may be looking forward to blaming the Germans—a familiar pastime for many in this country at some stage—but they cannot say, “We have had to cancel tranche 3, but it’s the Germans’ fault—they have had an election and decided to delay.” That will not be an acceptable excuse, because the Government have enough power within the consortium to achieve some resolution and push ahead.
There are real procurement challenges ahead in the next few years, not just in the long-term strategy for our armed forces and our position in the world, but in refurbishing the equipment that we already have and that is wearing out. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and I recently visited Congress. The US army has an office there, and the US colonel we met told us that he had 900 tanks coming back from the Iraq war that needed refurbishing. The challenge for his budget was to restore them to useable condition, let alone replace them with a new model. Such refurbishment will also cost us a lot.
We will have to make the decision on all the urgent operational requirements—the UORs—as to whether we absorb them into the main defence budget and our defence infrastructure. For example, all the Mastiffs and other vehicles bought for operations in Afghanistan are one-off purchases at the moment, and the decision has not been taken about whether to bring them back and make battalions out of them or to give them to the Afghans. If we bring them back, that will take a large chunk of the budget. In one of the Defence Committee’s excellent reports last year, it identified the proportion of UORs that had been brought into the main core of the MOD, and it was only about 5 to 10 per cent.
The biggest challenge in procurement of services will be post-conflict welfare—the welfare of our soldiers who, like their equipment, may be worn out. Dealing with the mental stress they face will mean the procurement of Army medical services and Combat Stress-type initiatives.
From the history of procurement, we must learn that we have to insist on flexibility. The point was made by my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) that the debate on the super-carrier is not about how much money we should spend or even whether the Navy should have one: it is whether we are reducing the flexibility of our armed forces by putting all our eggs in one basket—or 32 airplanes on one piece of metal in one part of the world, as opposed to a more flexible option.
When we cut off our flexibility, we get stung further down the line. We withdraw ships from certain parts of the world, and suddenly drugs trafficking across the Caribbean goes through the roof and the next thing we know we have drugs on our streets. Flexibility will see us through these periods with smaller and ever-decreasing armed forces, because that is how we will be able to plug into our closest ally, the United States, and into Europe.
There are two programmes that I want to mention that need examining within our current budgets. They are perhaps unnecessary—some have been talked about already—or could do with significant improvement. The first candidate for cancellation is the A400M programme. In 2003, with a host of European nations, we set about the purchase of a medium-lift capability aircraft. One reason that we did that was that that aeroplane was built around the concept of the armoured FRES vehicle. We opted for the 23 tonnes lift capacity, while the Germans went for the 26 tonnes capacity. It would be able to fly the new FRES utility vehicle around the world to a medium range—a similar range to that of a Hercules. There is no FRES utility vehicle—I will not hold my breath for it—and it is starting to look like there is a gap.
Why do we need a medium-lift capability? We have the C-130J Hercules, which has only 30 per cent. less payload capability than the A400M, at about 48,000 lbs rather than 65,000 lbs. It has the same range, it is tried and tested and we run 25, already. We can use the same crews and will not need to retrain a whole load of people to fly a European A400M. The C-130J has flown and it is being made. The only photograph that anybody will see of an A400M is of the one that they had to tow out of the factory in Spain because the engine did not work. It still has not flown. We are going further along a path that leads to an expensive project, with an upfront purchase of £2.6 billion and a through-life cost over a decade of about £1.8 billion, depending on the exchange rate.
The A400M is an expensive aeroplane that is untested, that will require the retraining of some of our crews and that is yet to fly. The only defence for continuing to purchase it that I can see at the moment came from the French Defence Minister when he gave evidence to the Senate in March. He said, “We have to have it, because we must have some competition for the Hercules.” That was the only answer.
Of course, a lot of jobs and skills come on the back of the A400M, because of the technology in Barnoldswick and the fan technology. The hon. Gentleman is talking about the aero engine, which is a joint venture between Rolls Royce and Snecma. Of course, there have been problems because we are putting it together—it is a turbo prop engine—but the fact is that it gives us a capability. We are also hiring in a lot from Antonov at the moment. We are still using Antonov; does the hon. Gentleman not agree that we ought not to give up on UK jobs quite so easily?
Forgive me, but what I do not want to give up immediately is our forces. Our forces will experience a capability gap in medium and lightweight cargo and trooping because the A400M is already two years late. It was due to be delivered in 2011 and will perhaps be delivered in 2013, and it looks likely that it will not even make its fixed cost. The only other plea to keep it going has come from EADS, the German-French conglomerate defence company, which has said, “We might go bankrupt if you don’t carry on buying it.” I do not see any real long-term need for the A400M, especially as if we cut it now there will be few penalties—we have a three-month moratorium before we have to make a decision. Let us cancel it now and get some C-130Js and some C-17s. Let us get on with this, save the money and get the troops the equipment that they need. This is not anti-European, but the A400M has not worked and it is not going very far.
The other programme that should be further considered—it is harder to get the figures—is the future strategic tanker aircraft. It is a £13 billion private finance initiative project over 27 years. By 2011—for our £480 million a year defence budget for those 27 years—we will get not a plane. We do not buy the planes at the end. Not only that, but from the PFI deal on which we have embarked we will get eight planes on call at any one time with a further six should we need them. Those other six will apparently operate as passenger planes for charter holidays. There are so many of them that, in an economic downturn, it will be possible for the consortium to raise the money that way. There is already a glut of Airbus airframes around the world—second hand and so on—so the consortium will manage to work out how to raise enough revenue. The worst thing is the sweetener for the PFI project from the MOD: we handed over the monopoly for all air-to-air refuelling capability for that 27-year period. Should we decide that we want to refuel our next generation of helicopters in that way, which the Americans often do, we cannot do so. Should we want to utilise, if we buy the A400M, the refuelling plumbing fitted in the aeroplane, we cannot do so. If we buy the A400M, it will be delivered from the production line with the ability to provide and receive air-to-air refuelling, but we will not be allowed to switch it on, because we have handed over that monopoly to a PFI project for 27 years.
With the super-carriers, for example, the Americans refuel their fighters with something called a buddy-buddy tank—another fighter carries a fuel tank, and it piggybacks—or they use the V-22 Osprey, a peculiar-looking plane in the marine corps. It is certainly not the same as a strategic tanker, but all those options will be cut off, because we have given the monopoly to a consortium. That is extraordinary—who knows what technology will be developed in 27 years? Twenty-seven years ago, we hardly had colour televisions, so we can only imagine what will happen when we want to utilise a new way of air-to-air refuelling.
We must look at that. The future strategic tanker aircraft is another aspect of the fact that our partners, whether European or from other parts of the world, are not contributing their fair share to deployments, whether it is the NATO deployment to Afghanistan or the European deployment in Kosovo, or whether it was in Bosnia or wherever. If we look at the tables on tanker-to-fighter ratios for our partner countries, we can see that Belgium has two tankers and 72 fighters. I do not know why it bothers having fighters, so let us look at France, which is the only country comparable to the UK. It has 23 tankers, and 320 fighters. It has a ratio of 13 fighters to one tanker. The Germans have 220 fighters and only four tankers. We expect our allies to share the burdens. We should not buy 14 tankers to ensure that we keep those international deployments going all the time—it is as if our allies need not worry, because the British are always there to back them up with a tanker. We must make sure that in a range of situations, whether involving troops on the ground, equipment, or logistical or strategic refuelling, our partners play their part. One of the saddest reasons for the defence budget being under pressure is that time and time again, Ministers have worked on their European colleagues to come along to produce more and contribute more to Afghanistan and Iraq, but time and time again, they have not delivered. Whether it was delivering ammunition in the Falklands or delivering troops on the ground in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a lot of talk, but seldom is there much delivery.
We are expecting a lot if we not only expect our defence budget to carry some of Europe’s capability but, with the A400M and efforts to support EADS and Airbus with the FSTA, we apparently want our defence budget to carry some of European industry as well. I do not think that we have the money to do that. It is not about being anti-Europe or any other label that some people would want to use; it is about trying to make sure that our troops, and the British interest and front line, receive what they need.
There are other issues that we need to look at. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex was absolutely right: what we really need is clarity in our defence strategy. We need clarity in our foreign policy, and we need clarity in what the British interest is and where it lies. The Americans are always 100 per cent. sure about what the American interest is, but I often question, certainly at the fag end of this Government, whether there is a clear definition of the British interest. Just as there was clarity in the defence industrial strategy—that strategy paper gave us great hope—if we have clarity on what we want to procure, where we want to go and what Britain’s interest is, we will go some way towards helping the defence procurement problem that every Government face.
I rise with some trepidation at the end of a long and well-informed debate, typified by the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), who speaks with a level of knowledge, understanding and wisdom on defence matters that is hardly paralleled across the House. It is a joy to listen to him. He manages to express complex and difficult ideas in remarkably simple, straightforward and understandable language, which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, called for earlier. My hon. Friend achieves that with huge ability.
For fear of being shown up for my own lack of expertise in these matters, and also for fear of repeating many of the arguments that have been made during this interesting debate, I propose to take a slightly different approach to the subject of defence procurement. Those who have spoken have fallen into one of three broad categories, as I shall explain in a moment. The reason that they have done so is the structure of the defence debates that we have in the House. I commented on that when I spoke both in the last debate, on defence in the UK, and in the one before that, on defence in the world. It is an entirely artificial and false structure for a series of debates. I am not certain that the issues that we have been debating on procurement can be detached from the issue of defence in the world, and in any case, what is defence in the UK if it is not interlinked with defence in the world?
Those who are in charge of these matters, whether that is the Leader of the House, Defence Ministers or others, might like to consider whether, instead of those three separate debates that we have traditionally had for a number of years, the structure might be changed to a series of more general debates linking defence capabilities and foreign policy much more closely, covering defence in the world, and allowing debate to range reasonably widely over procurement matters, manpower matters and welfare matters, and crucially, if possible, resulting in a vote.
It is all very well having these debates as general debates. That means that turnout is poor, by and large. The same gang turns up on each occasion. We tell each other the things that we knew we were going to tell each other before we even started. It is all very useful but it does not achieve very much, whereas if there were a vote on the matter—on the motion that this House supports what the Government are doing on a particular thing, for example—that would be much more useful, and the Government could be assured of a majority.
The reason why I think that the structure produces three kinds of topical speeches in the procurement debate is that there are three ways of approaching procurement. First, many hon. Members, particularly on the Labour Benches, but to a degree on the Opposition Benches as well, are, perfectly legitimately and sensibly, fixated by constituency issues. Their approach to defence procurement is to say, “In my constituency there is a factory that makes X tanks”—or whatever it might be—“and I want you, Mr. Government, not to change what you are doing about this because thousands of jobs in my constituency depend on it.”
Those hon. Members do not argue that the tank is better or worse than a tank made somewhere else. They do not necessarily argue that it is a question of whether it is British, American, Chinese or anything else. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who represents a town that has been mentioned in the House more often than any other in the past 12 years, typified that by saying, “We want British uniforms to be made in Chorley, not in China”, not necessarily because they were better uniforms, but because he thought it was patriotic in one way or another to have them made in Chorley.
It is a pity the hon. Gentleman did not open his ears when I was speaking. The point was not only that the uniforms were made in China, but that they were inferior to those made in the UK. I went on to speak about the camouflage print not being as good, and about the infrared within that material which leaves our troops at a disadvantage because the quality of the material and the uniform is not as good as it should be. That is why the uniforms should revert to being produced in Chorley. There is nothing wrong with that, I assure him.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He has now had the opportunity to make it twice, and the Chorley Gazette will no doubt be the beneficiary of the press release. He makes a very good point—[Interruption.]—and I am just about to agree with him, if he will give me a second to do so. The important point, as he correctly says, is not whether the uniforms are made in Chorley or in Shanghai, but whether they are the right uniforms for our troops—whether those in the field have the best possible equipment. Uniforms are perhaps a low-grade example, so I shall cite other examples in a moment.
I am guilty of the behaviour to which I have referred, in the sense that every time I stand up in the Chamber I raise the issue of RAF Lyneham, and the question of the Hercules and the A400M. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, and I am guilty of a sort of pork barrel politics, but it is perfectly legitimate for me to do so as a Member. None the less, when we talk about defence, we ought to get away from narrow constituency interests and find a way to debate what is good for the defence of the realm, even if that is to the disadvantage of our constituencies and, if I may say so, to the disadvantage of the British defence industry. I am stepping on to very dangerous ground indeed, and I know that the defence industrial strategy has been widely welcomed and that there are many good parts to it. My instinct, however, is to think that Defence Ministers’ duty is to deliver a defence capability on the ground, and to carry out instructions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from the Prime Minister to do things around the world. Defence Ministers must provide our troops with the best possible equipment in order to do so, but it could be made in Chorley, Shanghai or Washington D.C. It does not really matter where it is made so long as it is the best possible equipment, provided at the cheapest possible price.
I know that that is heresy, and tomorrow morning I will doubtless be deluged with e-mails from assorted defence manufacturers throughout England for having advanced such a heretical argument, but none the less I believe it to be true.
I was about to come on to two caveats to that general approach to life. The first involves those things that are so secret or so peculiar to British sovereignty that it would be quite wrong if we allowed any ally, even one as close as the United States, to have control over them. There are no doubt some areas of defence manufacturing where that is the case, but it is a slight stretch to work out exactly what they are, and the majority of our most secret and urgent requirements are entirely open to the United States. Indeed, it is said—I do not know enough about these things, but it is said—that Trident could not be fired without a key being turned in Washington.
It is often said and the Government always deny it, but it is impossible to imagine us firing Trident without approval from the United States.
No doubt there are some areas where our national interest is so absolutely central that we could not possibly let it go. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), from the Front-Bench team, correctly points out security of supply, which is the second caveat. Of course, we must be certain that we get the equipment that we need when we need it. I suggest to him, however, that it is predominantly a commercial matter. The defence industry makes its profits out of providing equipment and matériel to armies, air forces and navies throughout the world, and it does so on commercial and contractual bases, so the notion that an organisation with which we had a binding contract, such as BAE Systems, would at our moment of need say, “I’m awfully sorry but you can’t have that particular piece of equipment; I’ve decided not to do it because the American Government have brought pressure to bear on me”, seems a little remote. There might be some occasions when that would be the case, and we should bear such points in mind when considering procurement, but I do not believe them to be a central consideration.
The second category of speech in this debate has been delivered by those people who have an interest or specialism in a particular piece of equipment. There has been quite a number of them, and they are very welcome. For example, the interesting comments that we heard a moment ago on the A400M is absolutely typical of the category, and I entirely agree with the argument; I think that we should have a fleet of C-130Js based, of course, at RAF Lyneham. None the less, what seems to me to be important is detailed knowledge not of the equipment, but of what it will deliver to our troops on the ground. That is where I very much endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre said. We do not need a middleweight, heavy-lift vehicle, such as the A400M; we need more C-17s or C-130Js, and we need to deliver the stuff on the ground.
We must consider very carefully how we handle our future defence procurement strategy, because with procurement we tend to reinvent the wheel. We employ a vast number of people at Abbey Wood in Bristol. There is a huge office, and huge numbers of civil servants and military people beaver away, coming up with solutions that we should have had 10 or 15 years ago. We can point at lots of procurement projects as examples of that. The Bowman radio system is a good one; it took us 15 or 20 years to produce something that could have been bought off the shelf the day before yesterday. The Eurofighter project is another example; we went through a ghastly pan-European procurement process, and ended up with something that we could have built ourselves much quicker without the interference of the Germans or the French in that cross-European co-operative venture.
We say that we need to do all those things ourselves because of our paranoia about handing over any kind of sovereignty, particularly to the United States. By saying that we must be in the lead in our defence procurement, we give up the ability to pick up a catalogue and say, “We want 10 or this, 50 of that and 100 of the other tomorrow because that is what we need to deliver force on the ground.”
BAE Systems and the other big British defence manufacturers—not that they are that big anymore—advance an argument about research and development. They say that if we were to buy everything off the shelf and if we were merely to buy a lot more C-130Js from Boeing, we would sacrifice our ability as a nation to research. The argument goes that we would no longer have the scientific ability to come up with new inventions for defence purposes. I find that extraordinarily difficult to believe. Incidentally, the pharmaceutical industry is always saying that unless the Government continue to subsidise pharmaceuticals they will stop inventing drugs. My hat! Of course they will keep on inventing drugs—they make a huge profit from doing so and selling the drugs to Governments and peoples around the world. The same surely applies to the defence industries.
If BAE Systems were not to get one penny of subsidy towards its research and development on aeroplanes, for example, it would not stop researching and developing aeroplanes. That is its job and business; it sells planes to nations everywhere, including ours. I simply do not believe that if we moved towards an off-the-shelf procurement programme, we would make a great sacrifice of research and development.
If we were to do all that we would, of course, make some sacrifices. However, we would gain advantages. We would cut out vast swathes of civil servants and research and development activities, and vast quantities of committees, reports, and people sitting around talking to each other about what they wanted. We would gain because we would deliver the equipment that our people need on the ground in good time and at a good price. A fundamental rethinking of our entire approach to procurement for defence purposes would lead to better delivery of the equipment that we need, and at a better price. We would therefore have a greater ability to punch above our weight across the world.
I shall speak only briefly. The bottom line has to be that procurement should be reliable and involve security of supply. I hope that, in summing up, the Minister will give us such assurances because the experience has been that reliability and security of supply are not always there.
I beg to differ from what the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said about research and development because the clothing and textile research establishment that used to be based in my constituency was moved to Bicester and, a decade on, it has disappeared completely. All that knowledge and expertise have been lost to the Ministry of Defence. That may well be a subject for a Defence Committee investigation—to see what was proposed and promised, and the reality of what happened when that world-beating research enterprise was moved to Bicester.
I make no apology for mentioning a constituency interest. Twice last year, I visited Afghanistan to see British troops in Helmand province. On both occasions, the message was the same—there was a need for more helicopters. That was particularly the case the second time, because 16 Air Assault Brigade, from my own constituency, were there. If the procurement of additional helicopters is not going to happen as quickly as we would like, why cannot our European allies provide the additional helicopters, and the engineers and mechanics, and then allow our pilots from the Army, the Air Force and the Navy to fly them? When I visited Iraq with the Armed Forces Bill Committee, I saw a wonderful team effort by helicopter pilots from the three services. I was greatly taken by the wonderful facility that unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, or drones, provided in identifying potential ambushes. That is perhaps an area of procurement that we are not doing enough about.
I invite the Minister to tell us where we are as regards improved protection for vehicles, particularly Snatch Land Rovers. I was struck by the bravery of the young men who were involved in dealing with improvised explosive devices, and I wonder whether we could look at providing additional equipment for them. Medical aid has not been mentioned to any great extent today. I saw life-saving applications issued to soldiers in the field and in field hospitals. I urge the Minister to consider the great successes in the procurement of medical aid and to think about how we can develop that still further.
I must first draw the attention of the House to my entry in the register.
The last defence procurement debate was on 19 June. Since then, the UK economy has declined further in relation to its peer group, the MOD has continued to fight wars on a peacetime budget, and the Treasury has refined the art of squaring the books by mortgaging the future. Its “spend now, pay later” approach relies on “later” being somebody else’s problem—an expedient that Ministers can be sure will be flagged up from now until election day, and well beyond that.
We have had an excellent and authoritative debate, with 13 contributions from Back-Bench Members. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) praised the British aerospace industry; of course, he was right to do so. He spoke specifically about the Typhoon Eurofighter and hoped that there would not be the weakening of support from the Government that he perceives.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) talked largely about jobs in defence manufacturing. He said that delays were about casting off things into the future and increasing costs, which I did not fully understand. Rather bizarrely, he prayed in aid Denmark as evidence that EU defence is a good thing. I would ever so gently remind him that Denmark is exempted from the European security and defence policy, so perhaps it was not the best example to choose. When the Liberal Democrats are in a hole, they should stop digging. The National Audit Office has made it clear that we cannot delay the decision on Trident. I would have thought that the Liberal Democrats would have hoisted that on board by now and would not continually volunteer it as a unique and rather strange element of their slate of policy proposals, such as they are. The hon. Gentleman wants, in effect, to go into the non-proliferation treaty talks in 2010 with the locker bare. He said that he was an idealist, and today we had evidence of that in spade-loads. Does he really think that our unilateral disarmament would convince other countries to do the same? I suspect probably not.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who is not in her place, brought us FRES as the French strawberry. We will never think of FRES in quite the same way again. She talked a great deal about Plymouth, a city that I know very well, and she will have been as distressed as I have by the BBC news from Plymouth, which has led today with the story that the naval base there is to be a “nuclear dustbin”. She was rather pointed with the Minister for the Armed Forces in suggesting that he should get his finger out. I wonder whether that is precisely what he has been doing in relation to the future of Devonport. I suggest ever so gently that digits are sometimes best left in situ.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) spoke magisterially as ever and said that we must reconcile ourselves to the almost irreconcilable—the need to fight today’s wars and to prepare for tomorrow’s. He said that FRES as a brand was now meaningless, with which I certainly agree, and that the Scout vehicle was unlikely to reach main gate in 10 months, as the Minister has suggested.
The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) mentioned cut and sew in connection with the camouflage uniform and put in a bid for Chorley in referring to that contract’s renewal. I assume that that will be favourably entertained, since the Prime Minister wants British jobs for British workers. The hon. Gentleman mounted a defence of the beleaguered A400M and hoped that tranche 3 would go ahead, and he called for a “marinised” Typhoon. His remarks may well be prescient.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) highlighted problems with kit in the early stages of Operation Telic. I know that he was right, because I wore and dealt with some of that kit during Operation Telic II. I am happy to say that matters have improved since then, but we have to admit that it was from a low base. My hon. Friend and I might have to differ ever so slightly on aircraft carriers, but I appreciate the perspective of a cavalry officer and am confident that there will always be a place for the main battle tank, although I fear possibly not for horses. He was right, of course, that we have to fight today’s wars, but it would be imprudent to sign up completely to the Rupert Smith thesis. State-on-state warfare needs resources that cannot simply be turned on and off. If we admit it as a catastrophic possibility, we must prepare for it now.
Ministers have used facts and figures with flair and imagination to suggest, with ever-decreasing conviction, that defence is safe in their hands. For example, there is the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). We have heard a lot from him already this evening, and I hope that he will not mind if I gently pull his leg a little and revisit his claim last month that in displacement terms, our warship building programme is the most substantial since the great war. In his dreams, apparently, he is trying to out-Dreadnought Jackie Fisher.
We had another look through the looking glass on 24 November in European Committee B, when the Under-Secretary sought to downplay the threat from the European Union to the doctrine of appropriate sovereignty given in the defence industrial strategy and implicit in EC article 296. European security and defence policy and the Lisbon treaty will, of course, degrade our ability to operate autonomously in the national interest by promoting supranational decision making, the European Defence Agency and the scope of qualified majority voting. To the bewilderment of European Committee B and the press, who sadly do not normally take an interest in what happens on the Committee corridor, the Under-Secretary, who is apparently a historian, offered in support of the EU’s defence ambitions the assertion that it had put a stop to bloodshed in Transylvania. Why he chose Transylvania I will have to leave to the imagination of others, but there is more than a touch of the Bram Stokers in the horror story of this Administration’s stewardship of the equipment programme.
On 23 February the Under-Secretary told us that the delay in the carrier programme was not the result of the non-availability of the joint strike fighter, which by any reasonable interpretation contradicted his boss’s written statement of 11 December. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin made it clear that JSF could be available, if we wanted it, as early as 2014. In the midst of all that confusion, we were denied the opportunity to debate the aircraft carrier programme in a timely fashion. The House needs to know definitively why the programme has shifted right, and why, especially towards the end of their lifespan, six Type 45s, three deployable at any one time, are now reckoned to be enough for the safe deployment of high-value assets, contrary to the strategic defence review.
The most important bit of kit is, of course, the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Their procurement and the promotion of their through-life capabilities must be our first consideration. We have heard much today about force protection—as well we might, because maintaining public support for distant conflicts, which appear to deliver body bags and little else, will be a challenge for any Administration. History tells us that wars are lost when the home front loses heart. For that reason, if for no other, as we face the long haul in Afghanistan, it behoves us to review our position and bear down further on force attrition. To do that, we must reconsider kit.
The Minister is right to point out, as he did on 19 June, that vehicles such as the Mastiff tear up the tarmac and alienate the locals. It is right to say that 6x6 wheeled and tracked vehicles look belligerent to a host population. However, the British public expect us to minimise casualties, and those of us who represent large numbers of servicemen demand it. If the Minister is worried about the impact of heavy vehicles on the mission, he must tackle his Administration’s attitude to in-theatre air transport.
I know that Ministers feel each loss as keenly as any of us, but what are we to make of Chinooks mothballed in Wiltshire for years, while commanders grit their teeth and muddle through with what their men call “coffins on wheels”? What is going on when the traffic collision avoidance system—TCAS—anti-collision technology on the Merlin helicopters belatedly leased from the Danes—I raised the matter in June—is considered an optional extra? What are we to make of the continued intransigence about Snatch and the demise of FRES, which was meant to deliver the best in force protection? What happened to the future integrated soldier technology—FIST—that was meant to network fire teams with the command? The US is to operate in that way, but we learn that we are not.
The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) spoke expertly about OCCAR and commonality with the European Union on kit. We must be careful not to reinvent the wheel, since NATO stock numbers already exist in the common NATO stock catalogue, which was hard won. I am not sure that we need a duplicate parallel system, which can lead only to confusion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) has been described as a military vehicle anorak, in the nicest possible way. She demonstrated her mastery of the subject today.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) reiterated the central point that, since 2001, the armed forces have been operating well beyond defence assumptions. In the light of that, he was right to say that there has been no fiscal stimulus for defence.
I recently had the pleasure of sharing a parliamentary trip to Iraq with the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who spoke today about his party’s attitude to defence. I learned many of the points that he made in the debate during that visit in September, and they have not changed much since then. I hope that he will not mind if I disagree with most of them.
It is always a great pleasure to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), who spoke with much authority about the highly technical subject of defence economics. I share his concerns about and analysis of PFIs. Like him, I am worried about the eventual redeeming of mortgages. I appreciated his references to dealing with worn-out troops as well as worn-out kit.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) followed my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, so they could agree about the A400M. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said that we should attempt not to argue from a narrow constituency perspective and we all try to do that in such debates. However, it would be wrong not to mark his tireless advocacy for RAF Lyneham, which has been most effective, and appreciated by people in Wiltshire.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) spoke.
In February, Ministers kindly arranged for me to visit Afghanistan. The full experience involves a trooping flight out of Brize Norton, knowing full well that departure and arrival times are purely aspirational. My flight did not happen. Nobody will shed any tears over a politician being messed about, but when that becomes the common experience among men and women who are forced to kip down on the floors of airport terminals for days on end waiting for return flights, it behoves those who represent them to ask what is going on. My letter to the Secretary of State for Defence seeking clarification on that point remains unanswered, but a better solution than the RAF’s fleet of flying antiques struggling to operate from an airbridge that has become notorious must be found.
Last week, the chief executive of Airbus made an impassioned plea to save the A400M, citing the jobs under threat. He asked rhetorically what alternatives to his aircraft exist, while Boeing prepares to step in with C-17s that are already under active consideration as replacements for the A400M in France and South Africa. Perhaps the Minister might like to comment on that in his winding-up speech and outline his criteria for any new deal that the Government might be hatching with EADS or Boeing.
I am very sorry that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) is not here, because we have to cover the defence training review. It is one of the biggest items of defence procurement before us, but it is limping towards main gate. Before covering that, however, perhaps we should pause to draw a discreet veil over project Red Dragon and the so-called super hangar. As the National Audit Office reported last month, this spectacular has tipped £134 million down the drain with very little to show for it.
In relation to the DTR, Land Securities Trillium walked away from the Metrix consortium in December, when the bottom dropped out of the property market on which the financial case for the St. Athan project depends. I find that deeply worrying and I am not reassured by the replacement partner, the French catering firm Sodexo. The MOD’s website says that contracts will be signed with the newly constituted Metrix for the DTR phase 1 in the summer. Is that the case?
Will the Minister let us in on the DTR contingency plan that the MOD commissioned last year for use in the event of Metrix disintegrating? Will he ditch the fig leaf of “commercial in confidence” and say what cuts to training deliverables we can expect as a result of rising project costs? Can we assume that the DTR second package is now dead in the water? What does the Minister say to the main trade union involved, which has pointed out that large numbers of civilian trainers, who are already in short supply, will not relocate to south Wales and that that will impact on the quality of training produced at St. Athan, at least in the short to medium term?
Although he is not here, I commend the Veterans Minister, who I know takes a close interest in mental health, for his bravery in taking on his opposite number at Richmond House over the Easter break. It would be wrong of me to trespass too much into that territory, because this is a debate about procurement. However, procurement inevitably crosses departmental boundaries. In the current climate, it beggars belief that a Government who truly prioritised the welfare of our servicemen could produce something that they are pleased to call the “new horizons” strategy for improving mental health that does not carry any mention at all of servicemen, service charities or veterans. I hope very much that that situation will be remedied as soon as possible.
We have heard today that Bernard Gray will report early, having curtailed his consultation. Why is that and why was that issue not covered in the opening remarks of the Minister for the Armed Forces?
Finally, in his written ministerial statement of 11 December, the Secretary of State said quite specifically that at the end of the MOD planning round in March, we would have a proper and comprehensive announcement on the future of the equipment programme. March has been and gone, but there has been no announcement. Why not?
We have had an interesting debate, with a lot of extremely well-informed contributions. A certain amount of egregious nonsense has been spoken as well, however, which I will deal with in a second. For me, the most memorable aspect is that this is the first time that I can recall since I have been in the House of Commons—there may have been many other such occasions—when, without fail, every single speaker put a question, and usually several questions, for the Minister to answer when he winds up. That leaves me with a large pile of notes and little chance of doing justice to all the questions that were asked, many of which were extremely pertinent. However, I shall try to do my best, at least in relation to those questions that touch on my responsibilities.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said that we must support high-tech investment in the aerospace industry. I totally agree with him on that. The series of investments