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Volume 602: debated on Monday 23 November 2015

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that the UK defence industry benefits from his Department’s procurement decisions. (902257)

The strategic defence and security review will shortly set out for the hon. Gentleman and the House how we will invest more in bigger and stronger defence for Britain. The British defence industry plays a vital role in delivering more planes, ships, armoured vehicles and battle-winning capabilities for our armed forces. We are looking at how we can drive greater innovation into defence procurement, maximise the use of small and medium-sized enterprises, and ensure that investment decisions contribute to a more dynamic and productive economy.

The important Ajax armoured vehicle programme for the Army has been in the pipeline for years, yet it will use Swedish, not British, steel. We are told that our specialist steelmakers are up to the task, so when did the Government ask British firms whether they could produce the steel?

As with all major defence equipment programmes, the contractors determine the materials, which includes sourcing steel on the basis of competitive cost, time and quality. In 2010, no UK steel manufacturer was able to meet the prime contractor’s requirements, so no UK bids to supply steel for the Ajax programme were forthcoming. I can confirm for the hon. Gentleman, who takes a great deal of interest in this matter because the Ajax vehicles, after the 100th vehicle, will be assembled in Merthyr Tydfil, next to his constituency, that some 2,700 tonnes of steel—about 30% of the total requirement —remains open to competition, and that a competition is under way to supply sets of training armour that is open to applications from UK firms.

A number of colleagues and I visited our magnificent new aircraft carriers in Rosyth last week. It was therefore with some interest that we learned this morning that the Government apparently intend to order a large number of joint strike fighters to equip not only those aircraft carriers, but the Royal Air Force. Will my hon. Friend confirm the truth about that substantial increase in our fighting capability?

My hon. Friend is an experienced Member of the House and it will not be lost on him that after Defence questions, we have a statement from the Prime Minister, who I am quite sure will be able to address the question that he has just posed to me.

It was excellent to welcome the Minister to Barrow-in-Furness again last week and make another show of the bipartisan support across the House for renewing the UK’s nuclear deterrent submarines. Is there still a prospect of having the maingate vote before Christmas?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House that on Thursday last week, I accompanied him to his constituency to recognise the signature of the contract for the fifth Astute boat, Anson. It was good to be able to thank many of his constituents who have been involved in its construction. With regard to the investment decision for Successor, I think that that subject will come up shortly.

Of course, it is true that the defence industry can no longer source its requirements from the UK steel industry in many instances because of a loss of capability. Will the Minister work with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the defence industry and steel producers to put in place a long-term plan to ensure that UK steel develops the capability to meet the needs of the defence industry?

The Ministry of Defence is participating in the working group that was established last month by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. Although steel is clearly a significant and important component in much defence manufacturing, the steel involved in all our current major programmes represented less than 1.5% of the steel manufactured in this country in 2013. Relatively speaking, although defence is important, it is a small contributor to the total steel output of this country.

We are a maritime nation, so I welcome the newspaper reports—we will see whether they are true shortly—that the Prime Minister is to reverse his own decision and procure maritime patrol aircraft that are able, among other things, to defend our submarine fleet. One of the most visible signs of the botched 2010 strategic defence and security review was the photographs of our Nimrods being cut up into pieces, which we all saw in the newspapers at the time. When will the first of the new Boeing P-8s enter service?

The hon. Lady may recall that the programme she refers to, which was commissioned by the previous Labour Government, was more than £1 billion over-budget. It was reduced in scale by that Government to nine aircraft—more than half what was originally procured—and the prototype aircraft that was produced had more defects than any previous aircraft in production. We were not sure whether it would ever fly. That was the right decision to take at the time, and now it is the right decision —if the Prime Minister is about to announce it—to have a replacement capability. We will have to hear when that will be available.

The UK has been without that vital capability for four years as a result of the 2010 decision—right or wrong—to which the Minister refers. Today we read that Britain had to call on our French and Canadian allies to provide aircraft to search for a Russian submarine off our shores. Can the Minister at least give the House a definite date by which we will again have our own maritime patrol aircraft?

I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Lady. It is now twenty to 3, so she must be a little more patient and see what the Prime Minister announces in his statement later this afternoon. I am quite sure that she will be in her place to hear it.