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Defence Suppliers: Innovation

Volume 637: debated on Monday 5 March 2018

With an equipment plan worth £180 billion over 10 years, a rising defence budget and an £800 million innovation fund, there are great opportunities for innovative suppliers to work with the Ministry of Defence. The Department recently took part in a Pitch@Palace event, reaching out to defence sector entrepreneurs, and the open call for innovation has been changed to increase opportunities to work with the Government.

Baltex, which is based in my constituency, is a leading supplier of high-performance fabrics, meshes and nets that are designed to keep our service personnel safe and well-protected in the field. What is my hon. Friend doing to support businesses in the defence supply chain that manufacture technical textiles, and will he and the Secretary of State consider visiting Baltex to see the innovative work that is being carried out in Erewash in support of our armed forces?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Indeed, I would like to take her up on her kind offer of a visit to Baltex, which is an important provider of services to the Ministry of Defence. It is a classic example of a company that is generating key supplies for the Ministry of Defence and for our armed services, and it is being innovative in the way that it does that. Indeed, we see that innovation across the board with Ministry of Defence contractors—they are innovative for the UK economy in addition to supplying our armed forces.

Does the Minister agree that the launch of the RAF’s first satellite, Carbonite-2, using British technology, is to be welcomed, and can he update the House on whether space technology will be part of the combat air strategy?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am very disappointed not to have been able to visit Surrey Satellite Technology, which developed that facility. Unfortunately, my visit did not take place last Thursday owing to the weather.

This is a significant development. From my perspective, it is an example of innovative thinking being developed by the MOD and the Air Force. Even more importantly, it was a concept only 10 months ago and it has now been procured. Obviously, as part of our combat air strategy, the way in which we interlink with satellite technology will be a key consideration for the Ministry of Defence.

The Minister’s predecessor recently paid a very welcome visit to BAE in Chelmsford, which has played a critical role in developing Britain’s radar capacity through the generations. Does the Minister agree that, when it comes to the next generation of ballistic missile defence radar, it is vital to maintain British capacity and make sure that these skills stay in Britain?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and pay tribute to BAE for the work that is being done in her constituency. She is absolutely right to highlight the importance of keeping skills in the United Kingdom. Members from all parts of the House should be proud that the Ministry of Defence is responsible for more than 20,000 apprenticeship opportunities throughout the United Kingdom, as it highlights again that Ministry of Defence procurement leads to high-quality, skilled jobs in all parts of the UK, including Chelmsford.

What impact does the Minister see coming from his attempts to increase innovation in defence suppliers if the UK withdraws from REACH, the European regulation on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, and if the free movement of scientists and engineers is not part of the Brexit agreement? Certainly, defence companies have expressed grave concerns to me about that.

This Government want to continue the free movement of people with relevant skills. The MOD is already engaging with the REACH issue. As it happens, I will be meeting relevant companies tomorrow to discuss the matter. I fully understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, but the MOD is on top of the issue and is looking at it closely. I am confident that we will have an agreement that will benefit both the United Kingdom and our European Union partners.

BCB International is a fantastic and innovative defence company, also supplying the civilian and humanitarian sectors, based in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Indeed, I have eaten ration packs cooked on its fantastic FireDragon fuel. The company needs support from all Departments to be able to export effectively. Will the Minister commit to speaking with his colleagues at the Department for Transport, and perhaps to meeting me, to ensure that it gets support from the whole Government to be able to export to other markets, including the United States?

I would be more than delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue in more detail. I was very pleased to visit the company in question in my previous position as a Wales Office Minister, and it is difficult not to be impressed by what it provides for our armed services. I am more than happy to take any opportunity to support the company and Welsh businesses.

The portfolio management agreement that the Ministry of Defence struck with MBDA offers the framework through which we can achieve innovation with defence suppliers. Is the Minister considering agreeing more portfolio agreements, and does he envisage that that will be any time soon?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. One of the first meetings that I had in my new position was with MBDA. Indeed, I also met its chief executive in Paris recently. The agreement is an example of what can be done to embed innovation in the way in which we do procurement. It shows support for UK-based companies and a degree of partnership between the MOD and the companies in question.

May I also welcome the combat air strategy? Will the Minister please give a commitment that the review will look not only to ensure that the RAF has the aircraft that it needs to fight the conflicts of the future, but at how British industry will deliver them?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for the RAF and for his constituency. I believe that he called for the combat air strategy before the announcement was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. This is indeed about capability, but it is also about embedding the ability of UK industry to respond to the needs of the 21st century, and the combat air strategy will do just that.

There is crippling uncertainty about the customs arrangements that our defence suppliers will face after Brexit. This is threatening their ability to innovate and invest. Just today, Airbus, the RAF’s biggest supplier of large aircraft, has warned that trade barriers will seriously impede its ability to move parts across borders. It is clear that only a comprehensive customs union with the EU can guarantee frictionless trade, so will the Minister explain why the Government have ruled out this option?

The Government have been very clear that we want the most comprehensive free trade agreements possible with the European Union. A free trade agreement of that nature will respond to the concerns of industry, especially the industry supplying the defence sector.

The fact of the matter is that ADS, the trade body, has said that the Government’s preferred options are either incomplete or so complex that they simply will not be viable. Why will this Government not listen to the voices of industry such as ADS and the CBI? Why are they ignoring those voices and their support for a customs union? Is it not the case that the Government are putting ideology above the interests of defence suppliers and pursuing an extreme Brexit that will damage jobs, our sovereign capability and, ultimately, our national security?

I find it interesting that only a few weeks ago the hon. Lady was voting against a proposition from her own Back Benchers for the United Kingdom to stay within the customs union. It is also the case that the announcement made by the Leader of the Opposition was about staying within a customs union, not the customs union; in terms of listening to the voice of industry, there is not much in common between what was said by the Leader of the Opposition and the CBI.