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Defence Exports

Volume 701: debated on Monday 20 September 2021

Alongside the Department for International Trade and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we are hugely supportive of defence export campaigns to our friends and allies, a posture reinforced by the defence and security industrial strategy. I have conducted regular meetings on exports in Poland, Finland, Ukraine and Greece over the course of the summer. Tomorrow, I will engage in meetings in Tokyo before joining potential international partners on Type 31 in Rosyth, Babcock having announced only last week a frigate deal with Indonesia.

I congratulate the defence team on all the work that they are putting in to get more defence exports: not only is it good for British defence, but it is good for jobs. I have one concern, though: the licensing system seems to have slowed down, not only because of covid, but because it is very bureaucratic. Could the Minister take that up with the Department for International Trade, which deals with the matter, and have a word with it to try to speed this up? I fear that some of my local companies are losing business.

I think that 11,000 licences were granted during the covid period, but I note my hon. Friend’s concern, which I know is a real concern shared elsewhere in the House. DIT attempts to say that 70% of cases will be dealt with within 20 days and 99% within 60 days, but as we set out in DSIS, we need to get better both in transparency and in speed. We will be taking the matter up. I thank him for the question.

As the gap between ally and systemic competitor narrows, we heard last week that China is planning to join global Britain in the sunlit uplands of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. Given all that we have heard in the integrated review about the UK having a more joined-up foreign, security and trade policy, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s opinion on this strange news and what it is about such a trade deal that the Chinese Communist party finds so attractive.

I am not actually in a great position to speak on behalf of the Chinese Communist party, but I can speak on behalf of the Government. I am delighted that we have a tilt to the Indo-Pacific, and that is coming through in so many different ways in the policy of this Government. It is a part of the world that will have 40% of global GDP in the not too distant future. We need to be properly engaged, and that is what we are doing.

I welcome the new nuclear alliance with Australia and the United States, but I wish we would use a bit more robust language and say why we are doing it. It is to stand up to China’s current behaviour in the South China sea; let us not continue to be in denial about that. However, the timing and the manner of this announcement are not without diplomatic consequence, and prompt further questions about the cohesion, purpose and, indeed, leadership of NATO after the bruised departure from Afghanistan. There is no doubt that France has overreacted to losing a major procurement deal, but does the Minister recognise that China’s authoritarian behaviour cannot be defeated by military means alone? We need all the tools and all the alliances working towards a common strategic aim, and if we do not resolve a sense of unity in the west and, indeed, NATO—

Order. The Chair of the Select Committee should know better. He cannot make a speech; it has to be a question. I got him in deliberately because of the job he holds, but he cannot take complete advantage of the Chair: it is not fair.

All the questions were excellent, Mr Speaker, and I will try to deal with them. [Interruption.]

First, let me make it absolutely clear that the agreement with the United States and Australia is a requirement—an Australian requirement—for their strategic purposes. It is a decision that they wanted to make in order to enhance their strategic capability and their strategic defence. We have very strong contacts and a relationship with Australia and the United States, quite transparently. It will be a pleasure to work with them, and to help to deliver this important strategic capacity for Australia.

As for France, again, we work very closely with the French. My right hon. Friend is well aware of that, and of the Lancaster House treaties. There are ongoing discussions about incredibly important joint defence initiatives that we run together. I was in contact with my opposite number over the weekend, and I am looking forward to our working very closely with the French in the years ahead, as we have always done in the past.

Given that Babcock’s Arrowhead 140 frigate has been selected by Indonesia in an outstanding endorsement of Scottish engineering, will the Minister ensure that the Government expend all available effort to assist in future foreign orders, both for licensed build in-country and for foreign Governments to have their ships built in Scotland?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I said in my substantive answer, I have been working in Poland, Ukraine, Greece, and many other parts of the world where Babcock has aspirations. The United Kingdom has a great belief in the Scottish yards—far more belief than the Scottish Government appear to have, given some of their recent contracts.

I, too, welcome the AUKUS deal, which gives great form to global Britain and could be very good for jobs in both Barrow and Derby. Can we remind the Australians, when they begin their 18-month assessment, that the UK’s Astute submarine is arguably even more capable than the United States’ Virginia class? And, by the way, it is cheaper.

My right hon. Friend is a great advocate for British engineering and British defence jobs. There is an awful lot that is good about our Astute programme, but I am not going to second-guess the Australians’ 18-month assessment. They will work that through, but both we and the United States are there to support them in the delivery of this extremely important strategic capability.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is good to see you back from “Coronation Street” in such fine form, and to see the defence team still in its place.

When the Government presented the integrated review to the House, we were told that this Indo-Pacific tilt would not undermine interests in the Euro-Atlantic area. Can the Minister tell the House exactly how engaging in secret diplomacy against the mutual security and against the trust interests with one of our closest European allies helps our interests in the Euro-Atlantic area?

I think that that would be an accidental misunderstanding of the situation on the part of the hon. Gentleman. The reality is that a close friend and a close ally decided that they had a different strategic need and wanted to do something differently, and approached us. It would have been very strange not to have engaged in very constructive talks with Australia in those circumstances. That is not being seen to be going behind people’s backs; it is responding to a request.

But that was exactly what it was. Let us not muddy the words here: Paris was deceived, was it not? Are common challenges not better faced when liberal democracies trust each other and understand each other’s mutual interests? Whether it is on the rise of authoritarianism or on issues of climate change, terrorism or migration, we must be aligned with our Euro-Atlantic allies first. Has the fallout from AUKUS not taught us all that we need to pursue a comprehensive defence and security treaty with the European Union? Can the Minister tell us why France was excluded right from the start?

We have a number of close relationships, including through the Five Eyes, that we pursue on a global basis. We have an extremely close relationship with France, with whom we are doing so much around the world and with whom we enjoy extremely close relationships on equipment and support, as well as actively in the field. The bedrock of our relationships inside western Europe is of course NATO, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree with. That is absolutely vital, and it is the cornerstone of our defence. It is an area in which we work closely with our European allies, including France.