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House of Commons Hansard
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Defence Procurement
13 January 2016
Volume 604

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered defence procurement.

I am grateful to be having this debate, and I thank the Minister for coming here to discuss a subject that he and I have talked about on a number of occasions.

British defence policy should be exclusively aimed at keeping Britain safe, but is it? Instead of serving the national interest, it too often serves the interests of a cartel of defence contractors. Britain does not get military bang for the taxpayer’s buck. We spend about one tenth of what the United States does on defence, yet we have far less than one tenth of the Americans’ capability—in many areas, we can barely field 1% or 2% of their capability. We are the second-largest defence spender in NATO and the fifth-biggest defence spender in the world, but we are simply not getting value for money.

What is going wrong? The problem is procurement. Major projects routinely come in late and way over budget. To be fair to the Minister, it is not his fault; it is not even the fault of his predecessors. The problems are the culmination of successive Governments’ policies over many decades. Starting perhaps in the 1960s, successive Governments attempted to consolidate the defence-industrial base. They thought consolidation would deliver economies of scale and make the UK defence industry more viable. At a time when deindustrialisation was feared, it was believed that ensuring that different defence suppliers amalgamated and merged into one would somehow make them viable. The problem is that consolidating the supply base in any market means that the seller ends up setting the terms of trade, and so it is in defence.

I have often heard Members of Parliament say that defence inflation is somehow higher than inflation in the rest of the economy. That is often described as a fact of life—somehow inevitable—but why do defence costs and prices rise faster than prices in the rest of the economy? Higher defence inflation is a reflection of problems in the procurement process, where too much money chases too restricted a supply of goods. Restrictions on supply are fundamentally the problem. Procurement is the problem.

Some projects, such as the Nimrod MRA4—we cannot possibly blame the Minister for that fiasco—never get off the ground at all. Despite constant cock-ups, however, the MOD keeps going back to the same contractors; we keep seeing the same pattern of dependence on a handful of contractors and bad value for money. Yet, the same contractors keep getting the lion’s share of the defence budget.

The MOD should be sourcing the best equipment possible to keep our armed forces and our country safe. Too often, unfortunately, procurement ends up being protectionist. Protectionist procurement produces huge inefficiencies; it means less competition—it cuts competition —and as we know, competition drives down costs and raises standards. Without competition, contractors ended up being rewarded for failure. Protectionist procurement means we spend years designing and building new equipment from scratch, instead of buying cheaper, better, readily available off-the-shelf alternatives.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and it is good to see the Minister in his place. I look forward to a very positive response from him, because we have discussed this matter before. The hon. Gentleman is right. Defence is very important to our economy in Northern Ireland, where it provides high-tech, skilled jobs for the workforce. It is important that defence procurement is equally shared across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that regions such as mine can receive the benefit. If that is done right, we all benefit.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I have to say that I am a little nervous about looking at the defence budget through the prism of what it means for jobs. Clearly that is important, but the defence budget’s primary purpose is surely not to act as some sort of Keynesian demand stimulus for a regional economy, but to make sure that our armed forces have the equipment they need to defeat our enemies and keep us safe.

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We already have established companies in Northern Ireland that deliver the best and give value for money. The point I am trying to make is that they could do more if defence procurement was regionally spread.

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I agree. If we allocated the defence budget on the basis of value for money, I am sure companies in Northern Ireland would get an enhanced share. However, if we create a system where public money is allocated on the basis of something other than value for money, we open the door—the revolving door—to lobbying and all sorts of nefarious influences. Not only is that bad in itself, but it has negative consequences in terms of giving us value for money as part of what will, by definition, always be a finite budget.

Those in the defence establishment will claim that providing Britain’s defence protection base is a strategic industry, and of course our defence industry is a strategic industry. However, they seek to justify giving privileged contractors the privileges they get on the grounds that that maintains our defence industry and that it is critical to our national security. However, let us assess that argument a little further.

The idea that Britain is self-sufficient in defence production is a myth. We need to import defence equipment and materiel. We did so throughout the last century, and it is thanks to our ability to do so that we won wars we would not have otherwise won. In fact, during the Napoleonic wars, we imported materiel and equipment from overseas through Harwich, near my constituency, to ensure that we prevailed in that struggle. Not for centuries have we been entirely dependent for our defence on equipment produced exclusively on this island, and it would be naive to assume we ever could be.

Today, British defence manufacturers cannot produce equipment without international support. There are few systems anywhere—from mobile phones to jets to missiles—that can be built and manufactured without some sort of international trade. I would say that that is a good thing. International dependence and complex international supply chains are a good thing; apart from anything else, they help to keep the peace and to enhance international co-operation. However, many supposedly British procurement options, which are sold to politicians, civil servants and Ministers as the most British option, actually mean we end up being ever more dependent on other Governments.

Let us take the example of the RAF’s new transport plane—the Airbus A400M. It is partly manufactured in the UK, and a very good thing that is too—I do not denigrate that at all. But it has a shorter range, a lower top speed and a smaller payload than the comparable Boeing C-17 Globemaster, and it is considerably more expensive to boot. However, here is the really shocking thing: if we bought the C-17, we would need the support, compliance and good will of only one Government—the United States Government. But the A400M option requires the compliance and support of the Governments of France, Spain, Belgium, Germany and Turkey, as well as that of the United States. The supply chain is even more interdependent. Far from giving us so-called sovereignty of supply, the A400M is an example of procurement that is protectionist and, at the same time, makes us more dependent and less operationally sovereign.

Defence protectionism has also created a contractor cartel. In an attempt to prop up the defence industry, successive Governments have promoted the supply side and consolidated it. That has created what economists call—this is a rather clumsy term—a monsopoly, which is a monopoly of supply. That means that a limited number of suppliers, not the state, control the terms of trade. Britain is paying over the odds because a tiny group of producers sets the terms of trade.

Big business is not the only vested interest that distorts procurement, either. Perhaps inevitably there is inter-service rivalry, so that projects serve the interests of different sectors rather than the defence interest overall. We have unenforceable anti-lobbying rules, which mean that former defence personnel can pursue what I would regard as inappropriate contacts on behalf of clients, without censure. Protectionist policy and those various crony corporate vested interests are undermining our national security. They are preventing our nation state from being able to turn whatever fiscal power we have into military muscle. We are simply being less efficient than we ought to be. We need a procurement policy that puts the national interest first and allows us to convert the fiscal power that we have into the maximum possible military muscle.

A few weeks ago, the UK Independence party parliamentary resource unit published an excellent paper called “Rethinking Defence Procurement”, in which we set out some ideas and suggestions—I think they are rather sensible, soft suggestions—on what we can do to get things right. First we suggest that the default—though not the exclusive—approach should be to buy a weapons system off the shelf. I grant that there are some weapons systems that we need to make in-house; we need that capability. However, if we want the best value equipment possible we need to be prepared to buy off the shelf.

It would be perfectly possible for us as a nation state to build smartphones that would be manufactured exclusively in the United Kingdom. Probably, they would be the size of a brick, there would be a waiting list for them and they would run on clockwork. It makes much more sense for us to buy smartphones that are the result of international co-operation, with chips built in South Korea, design from California and software from India. International co-operation enables us to have smartphones with a higher level of technology for less cost every year. We should apply a similar principle to defence procurement. We might think of off-the-shelf procurement as being almost like urgent operational requirements—which I know the military rather like. In other words, the military can buy what it wants, from whom it wants. We can think of it as an urgent operational requirement, but without the guddle and the rush.

Secondly, we need to start consolidating not the supply side but the demand side. By working with our allies we could initiate joint procurement projects. That is not a case of our building and manufacturing things jointly; that would be a supply solution. Rather it would be a matter of putting in procurement bids collectively with our allies, ensuring that in many areas we would have a buyers’ market, where the buyers collectively could set the terms of trade. We could do that with a number of countries—not just European countries and NATO members but countries such as Australia and India. If they and we needed a weapons system, why not put in joint procurement bids with our Anglosphere allies? That would drive down prices and ensure both we and our allies got better value for money.

Thirdly, I would like Parliament to have real oversight of the procurement process. Instead of just reviewing the annual report from the Ministry of Defence, the Select Committee on Defence should be required to oversee and authorise major projects. We should take back as a Parliament the power to scrutinise what the Executive spend on our account. Specifically in relation to defence, the Defence Committee should be required to approve and sign off on particular large projects. That sort of oversight would ensure that there was genuine accountability on procurement.

Finally, anti-lobbying guidelines need to become law. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), as Chair of the Public Administration Committee, making some suggestions about that the other day. I think that is exactly what we need to be prepared to introduce, to make sure that, yes, the expertise that exists in Government Departments can be shared with contractors, but that there are public records of those contacts and that where there is a revolving door there is some accountability to ensure that nothing untoward happens.

Britain needs a defence strategy that aims above all to keep our country safe. In an era of growing threats and constrained budgets, misspending is no longer a luxury that we can afford. We need real reform. I know that the Minister recognises the need to improve the way we spend our defence budget, and that he is a reformer. I also happen to know, too, that in his Department reformers do not always get an entirely easy ride. I look forward to hearing what changes he has in mind to improve things, and whether he will consider going further and recommending any of the measures I have outlined.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. It is all too infrequent that we have the opportunity to debate defence matters—and particularly defence procurement—in Westminster Hall, so I am especially grateful to the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) for securing the debate, and I congratulate him on doing so. The subject is one of great interest to me, and to him, but of somewhat less obvious interest to other Members. It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) here; he takes a personal interest in the subject on behalf of his constituents and Northern Ireland.

It is a good time to have such a debate, not least because it comes two months after the Government published the gratifyingly well received strategic defence and security review in November. The review was comprehensive and ambitious, and when combined with the Chancellor’s summer Budget announcement it was good news for defence. Defence procurement is central to our plans to deliver our national security objectives, and that was precisely the point on which the hon. Member for Clacton opened his remarks—that the purpose of defence procurement must be to provide the capability for our armed forces to keep us safe. That is the primary duty of Government, as has been recognised in the priority that the Government have given defence and in the reform of defence procurement processes, in which the hon. Gentleman takes such a keen interest.

By giving us an increasing budget, the SDSR will help us to protect our people with more new planes, ships and armoured vehicles over the procurement cycle. It will help promote our prosperity. An additional task for defence—an additional strategic objective—of contributing to the economic prosperity of the country has been emphasised through the SDSR in a way that has not happened before. That has a number of implications for how we go about procurement.

Promoting prosperity provides a stimulus for innovation, which is essential for maintaining technological superiority over our adversaries. It provides the opportunity for the Department to become a champion of small business, which in many respects is where innovation originates. It also allows us to encourage defence exports, which means that we can allow our defence supply chain to be competitive internationally, from which we benefit through our own procurement. All in all that is a good thing, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree as we explore the issue in this debate and on future occasions. We are on the right track. We may not have gone as far as he would like or necessarily as fast as we would like, but in my view we are making great strides.

Before I look to the future and address some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, it is worth acknowledging the enormous achievements in the previous Parliament. I want to preface my comments on the document prepared by his party, which he referred to and which he has in front of him, by saying that many of the criticisms it makes—in many respects rightly—relate to a period that we are now some way beyond. They relate to the defence industrial strategy that was authored in 2005-06 under the previous Administration, which no longer prevails. Part of the disagreement that there may be between us will be about the extent to which today’s policy has moved on beyond the defence industrial strategy, rather than being grounded in it.

In 2010 we inherited a defence procurement position that was unquestionably unfit for purpose. It was not delivering to time, performance or, above all, cost. That is why, at a time of heightened pressure on the national finances, we had to make some tough decisions. We did not shrink from cancelling overrunning and massively expensive programmes such as the Nimrod MRA4 programme, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his remarks. We embarked on the most radical series of defence reforms in decades, and I am pleased to say that those reforms meant that defence ended the last Parliament in a markedly better state than it began it in.

The National Audit Office’s major projects report for 2015, which was published before the end of last year and covered the most recently available material we had, recorded a fall of £247 million in the forecast cost of defence projects—the second successive year of reductions in the major projects it reviewed. That compares with a £1.2 billion in-year cost overrun reported for 2009 by the NAO in its major projects report.

The 2015 report builds on the success of the 2014 report, which reported the best cost performance since 2005 and the best time performance since 2001. That is powerful evidence of how far we were able to progress in improving performance during the previous Parliament. Indeed, Lord Levene of Portsoken said in his 2014 report on the Department as a whole that,

“a leopard really can change its spots”—

rare praise indeed from Lord Levene.

If I may reflect on the comments of the hon. Member for Clacton and the document to which he referred, we recognised the glaring inadequacies of the defence industrial strategy of 2005-06. That was why we determined to overturn it in a White Paper published in 2012, “National Security Through Technology”, which set out our thinking on industrial policy. It replaced outdated concepts of industrial sovereignty at any cost with a much more nuanced approach, saying that the sole aim of defence procurement was to equip our armed forces with the best capabilities we could afford at the best value for money. That meant putting an end to unaffordable gold-plated requirements and instead increasingly buying things off the shelf, from the global market where possible and appropriate.

“National Security Through Technology” highlighted the benefits of working with other countries, as the hon. Gentleman seeks to do, to open up each other’s defence markets and, where we share requirements, collaborate on international acquisition programmes. The best live example of that new way of collaborating on procurement is the F-35 programme—the largest defence procurement programme in the world ever. Eleven nations are pooling their demand signal to provide as large an order as possible to the contractor consortium—at the moment in annual buys, but in the future it will be multi-year buys. That order is for three different variants of the aircraft type, but it is essentially the same aircraft type for each customer, in order to avoid the bespoking that, as the hon. Gentleman said, becomes so expensive in defence procurement. We are already doing that, and we are doing it in a big way.

The White Paper also recognised that defence procurement is different from other procurement, so for some aspects of capability, we still need to take special measures to maintain our operational advantage and freedom of action, but we stated that those would become the exception rather than the rule.

Having pointed out some of the areas where we agree with the hon. Gentleman’s critique, I will have to disappoint him by saying that I do not see the document prepared by his party as a valid critique of today’s policy and the important work that has been done over the past five years. The White Paper that we published heralded a series of sweeping reforms to defence procurement, which went hand in hand with the much-needed reforms we made to the wider Ministry of Defence. We adopted the proposals outlined by Lord Levene to overhaul the structure and management of the Ministry of Defence. We have thereby created a much leaner, more strategic head office, devolved responsibility and accountability to the single services and, crucially, stood up a Joint Forces Command to look after cross-cutting areas such as helicopters and ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. Far from being dominated by single service rivalry, the Department is now more joined up than at any time in its history. That was amply demonstrated by how we handled defence’s contribution to the SDSR, with virtually no trace of the behaviours that had so coloured the exercise five years before.

Nowhere has the extent of our transformation been more ambitious than in our procurement entity, Defence Equipment and Support. DE&S provides vital support to the armed forces, without which they simply could not operate, and I pay tribute to the civilian and military staff employed in that endeavour for their dedication. Re-formed as a bespoke trading entity in April 2014, DE&S now has the freedom to make the changes needed to transform it into a world-class acquisition organisation. DE&S staff numbers have already reduced by around 18,000 since 2007 and, through transformation, we will continue to professionalise it and focus on the people and skills we need.

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Of those 18,000 people, how many have been re-hired in a contractor or arm’s length capacity?

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I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact number, but some of the activities previously held within DE&S have been outsourced. One example is the operation of the Royal Navy operating bases, which had, for some historical reason, been managed within DE&S. That has now gone back to the Navy, so those jobs by and large remain, but a large number of the 18,000 are a reduction in individual roles, to become more efficient.

Turning to how we obtain equipment, it is not as simple as making direct comparisons with other nations’ defence procurement models. Structures, roles, operational commitments and, consequently, equipment needs vary. For the past three years we have published a comprehensive and fully costed 10-year forward-looking equipment plan that takes account of our defence priorities and the capabilities needed to support them.

Our £178 billion investment in equipment over the next decade will support all three services, including committing to the F-35 joint strike fighter, which I have mentioned, and to new maritime patrol aircraft. Incidentally, we have decided that those aircraft should be procured off the shelf, to take advantage of the existing production line in the United States, to maximise interoperability with the United States and the other allies that will be procuring that capability, and to minimise bespoking, so that the cost is as plain vanilla as it can be. Through the equipment programme, we will also invest heavily in the Navy through the Type 26 frigates and in the Army through forming the new strike brigades with its equipment, which will be state-of-the-art.

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Excellent.

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That will allow us to acquire the capability we need, with minimal costly bespoking, in the timescale required. The hon. Gentleman has just indicated from a sedentary position that he supports those initiatives.

We share the hon. Gentleman’s view that protectionism is not good for defence or for the UK in the long term, not because we do not want to support British industry—we do—but because we recognise that protectionism provides no lasting solution. It does not give us the capabilities we need when we need them, at a price we can afford. Above all, it does not help industry. It stifles innovation, saps productivity and suppresses competitiveness.

That is why we focus on competitive procurement, with one of the most open defence markets in the world. It is why, for example, we decided to procure the new fleet of Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers from South Korea, which the hon. Gentleman touched on in his remarks. The fleet will come into operation later this year and draws on key British technology, with some 25% of the supply chain for the vessels coming from the UK. There is still a strong UK component to an international procurement, demonstrating that having an open defence market helps to sustain a competitive defence industry in this country.

We recognised that we needed to reset the relationship with industry, particularly on the large single-source projects of which the hon. Gentleman is so critical. For that reason, we used the Defence Reform Act 2014 to reform single-source procurement. It established a statutory governance framework to ensure that costs are fair to us and to our suppliers. We have also set up the Single Source Regulations Office as an independent review body, and it has now been operational for 12 months. No longer will suppliers have carte blanche to set the terms of the trade. We believe that that will help to address the hon. Gentleman’s concern about defence inflation by imposing a much greater spotlight of transparency on individual single-source contractors and the bill invoices they submit, which we think will put downward pressure on inflationary pressures.

I point out gently to the hon. Gentleman that some of the cost comparisons in his party’s document confuse different things, often comparing apples with pears by not taking into account some of the additional costs that appear when we procure in the UK, other than on an off-the-shelf basis. We tend to include the cost of support, training and simulators alongside the cost of the capital equipment itself, which can often distort a like-for-like comparison with an off-the-shelf purchase.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.