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Ajax Noise and Vibration Review

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 15 December.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement to update the House on Ajax, which is an important capability and a vital step change in the way the British Army will operate on the future battlefield. It will provide ground-mounted reconnaissance, allowing the Army to understand the battlefield in all weathers, 24 hours a day.

As part of our £41 billion investment in Army equipment and support over the next 10 years, this modernisation is critical to address future threats. This is a vital investment, and the Defence Secretary and I have been deeply concerned about progress on this troubled project, which has been running for over 11 years since its commencement in March 2010. That is why we have been thoroughly focused on the project, why I insisted earlier this year that no declaration of initial operating capability would be made without ministerial involvement and why we asked the Permanent Secretary to commission a report from the Ministry of Defence’s director of health, safety and environmental protection on the health and safety concerns raised by noise and vibration. I am today publishing that report, and placing a copy in the Library of the House and in the Vote Office.

Over the past 35 years, there have been some 13 formal reports on defence procurement; we know the foundations that can build success. Openness, good communication and collaboration within Defence and the ability to act as an informed and challenging customer are vital. This health and safety report has highlighted shortcomings that need to be addressed, not just in health and safety but more broadly. The review finds serious failings in the processes followed. The result was that personnel worked on a vehicle that had the potential to cause harm. The review finds that the failure was complex and systemic; that a culture exists of not treating safety as equally important as cost and time in the acquisition process; and that, from a cultural perspective, the Army did not believe it was potentially causing harm to people, especially from vibration, as it was tacitly expected that soldiers can and should endure such issues.

As I informed the House on 18 October, we have contacted all personnel identified as having worked on Ajax. Forty declined to be assessed for hearing but I am pleased to report that the vast majority of the remainder have returned to duty with no health impact. As of 9 December, 17 individuals remain under specialist out-patient care for their hearing, some of whom, again, are expected to return to duty with no health impact. Eleven individuals have had long-term restrictions on noise exposure recommended, potentially requiring a limitation in their military duties. Seven of them had pre-existing hearing issues prior to working on Ajax, but four did not.

In addition, four individuals who worked on Ajax have been discharged on health grounds, in some cases for reasons wholly unrelated to hearing loss. Although we cannot yet establish a definitive causal link, it is possible that Ajax may have contributed to the current hearing loss in a small number of individuals. It remains the case that no individuals have had long-term restrictions or been discharged as a result of vibration. However, assessment for both hand-transmitted and whole-body vibration takes time and requires specialist assessment, and these continue.

I will set out the key points from the review. General Dynamics UK is responsible for the design and build of the Ajax vehicles. The vehicles that it delivered for use in the trials had levels of noise and vibration that were higher than usually expected in tracked vehicles and have been proven to be above the statutory limit. That exposed our personnel to potential harm.

That exposure was not prevented by the Ministry of Defence due to a series of failures to act when concerns were raised by expert advisers and by soldiers operating in the vehicles. For example, an MoD safety notice in December 2018 said that design upgrades were required to reduce vibration, but this was not acted upon. MoD safety cases and safety management used GDUK calculations that were not independently assured, despite experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory advising that the calculations should not be relied on.

A report from the Defence Safety Authority in May 2020 identifying some of these issues and entitled Serious Safety Concerns on Ajax was retracted and not pursued, either by the DSA or by the project team in Defence Equipment and Support. Multiple warnings from the DSTL and from the Armoured Trials and Development Unit, which was running the trials, were not actioned, even when the ATDU commanding officer questioned the approach as having the potential to expose soldiers to a known hazard, which he stated was not a defendable position.

Overall, the report makes 20 recommendations. The MoD accepts all those relating specifically to armoured vehicle procurements, the regulation of safety for land equipment and the broader approach to safety in defence. Recommendation 9 relates to avoiding the concurrent running of the demonstration and manufacture stages in future projects. That recommendation needs to be considered carefully to ensure that we capture the safety imperatives while not preventing sensible spiral development or, for example, the parallel construction of classes of warship. I will update the House on that, alongside recommendations 12 and 14, which also need consideration of how to best implement them, building on existing work on approvals and senior responsible owners.

I will also update the House on the project more broadly. We have a robust, firm-price contract for the delivery of 589 vehicles at a cost of £5.5 billion. We are ensuring that we protect our commercial position under the contract and will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose. It remains impossible to share with the House 100% confidence that the programme will succeed or, if it does, the timing of achieving full operating capability. However, we are working closely with General Dynamics on noise and vibration and it is showing great commitment to resolving these issues. This very advanced fighting vehicle project employs 4,100 people in south Wales and across the UK. We all want it to succeed and deliver what the British Army requires.

The Millbrook trials to baseline the vehicle’s characteristics have been completed and we expect to receive the conclusions shortly. In parallel, General Dynamics has been developing its theories and trialling design modifications to address vibration. We expect to receive its analysis in the new year, following which we will, if appropriate, undertake thorough testing of its proposed modifications to satisfy ourselves on their efficacy.

Part of our analysis is also looking at the performance of the headset used in Ajax. Although the noise profile on Ajax is noticeably different from that of other armoured vehicles, following tests on in-service headsets, we took in November a precautionary measure to limit temporarily the amount of time personnel operate while using them in other armoured fighting vehicles. Acoustic testing of our in-service headsets is under way at test facilities in the UK and overseas. We are also testing other headsets to establish whether they will meet our requirements and provide additional attenuation. Once this analysis is complete, we expect to be able to relax the temporary restrictions or implement appropriate mitigations. In the meantime, we remain able to maintain our operational commitments.

The work on Ajax has also highlighted the significant number of personnel across defence whose exposure to noise results in short- or long-term restrictions to their military duties. I have therefore asked the MoD Permanent Secretary to look further at that issue to ensure that we are doing all we can to prevent avoidable hearing loss in our people.

In conclusion, the Ajax health and safety report makes for very difficult reading. It lays bare a deep malaise, which is cultural and results in systemic failures across our organisations. I am grateful to David King and his team for their work and grateful for the candour of many who contributed to the review. There are many working tirelessly to get Ajax back on track. We need to build on that candour and dedication and encourage all those involved in procurement programmes to speak up, identify problems and make clear where those responsible are failing. A culture in which individuals are encouraged not to elevate problems but only solutions through the chain of command may be admirable in other circumstances, but rarely in procurement. We need to support our people by resolving underlying cultural issues that risk making it harder to deliver the capabilities needed by our Armed Forces.

To take that forward, we are commissioning a senior legal figure to look more deeply at Ajax and to examine not just health and safety but the cultural and process flaws that it has highlighted. We will leave no stone unturned to learn those lessons. I encourage people to participate in the further review and will ensure they have the space to do so. Of course, if the review uncovers evidence of gross misconduct, those concerned will be held to account, but the primary purpose of this inquiry is to ensure that we address significant cultural failings. The terms of reference will be agreed with the reviewer and I will make them available to the House.

In summary, while we should not forget that General Dynamics UK is responsible for delivering a safe and effective vehicle, it is clear from the report that the customs and practices of the Army, Defence Equipment and Support, Defence Digital and the wider MoD resulted in a culture that prevented issues being addressed at an earlier point. We are committed to ensuring that measures are put in place to deliver these very complex programmes in a way that minimises the risk to our people while delivering the capability needed by the Armed Forces. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, £3.2 billion has been spent, with only a couple of dozen of the Ajax tanks delivered out of an order for 589, all of which are supposed to be delivered by 2024 with a total cost of £5.5 billion. The Public Accounts Committee in the other place has called it a catastrophe. How has it come to this? It has to be the biggest defence procurement failure of the last decade, does it not?

Now we have a further damning review just published by the Government called the Ajax Noise and Vibration Review. It catalogues failure after failure of process, accountability and procedures. Some 310 soldiers were exposed to noise and vibration, with a small number discharged because of hearing loss. According to the review, senior Army officers and MoD officials knew of these problems for two years before any action was taken. How and why was that possible? Who knew? Did Ministers know?

The review’s conclusions are stark and extremely worrying, not only first and foremost for our soldiers but for what it means for a central part of our future military capability. I quote directly from the Government’s own report:

“Nothing in this Review detracts from the fact that GDUK has designed and built what MOD maintains is thus far a vehicle which is not fit for purpose and does not meet the contracted specification.”

What does the Minister have to say to that specific quote? The report concludes that

“from a cultural perspective, the Army did not believe it was potentially causing harm to people, especially from vibration, as it was tacitly expected that soldiers can and should endure such issues. Society and the law expect MOD to do better”.

Is the MoD doing better? What has changed? Who is being held to account? We cannot tell from the review what is actually happening.

One of my final quotes directly from the review is:

“Within the acquisition system, safety is not viewed as an equal partner to cost, schedule and military capability, and the culture in MOD does not currently ensure safety is considered within strategic decision-making.”

The word is “currently”. Does the Minister recognise that term—not 10 years ago but currently? What is urgently being done to change that culture? What steps are being taken? Are any other defence procurement projects subject to such a culture? Even during the Minister’s Statement yesterday in the other place, he talked of reports such as that from the Defence Safety Authority in May 2020 identifying some of these issues, entitled Serious Safety Concerns on Ajax, and then tells us that that was retracted and not pursued. Who retracted the report? Who decided not to pursue it? Where are they now? Have they been promoted? Have they been sacked? Was any Minister aware of it and, if not, why not? The Government’s response is to have announced that following this review they are to launch another review. To what purpose and timescale is that further review to operate?

This is deeply disturbing and unsatisfactory. Ajax is in limbo. A major military capability for this country is in real trouble. Are the Government sticking with Ajax or are they going to scrap it? What confidence can we have that they have a grip of the Ajax programme? Are we sure that there is no impact on the Army’s ability to deploy the planned strike brigade?

As the review concludes:

“To have confidence that the events covered in this report will not be repeated, culture change needs to be progressed.”

For the sake of our Armed Forces and the security of our country, it certainly needs to be. I am sure that we will all appreciate the remarks of the Minister in response to this serious and damning report.

My Lords, I can associate these Benches with many of the questions from the noble Lord. He rightly highlights the fact that many government assertions over recent years have not been matched with what we now learn from the review.

I agree with the Minister in the House of Commons when he indicated that he read the report with a deep sense of regret. If anything, he needs a degree of commendation for highlighting these issues. The problem had been that many of them had not been highlighted thus far, and we have had to rely on this review. As the noble Lord indicated, the review states that nothing in it

“detracts from the fact that GDUK has designed and built what MOD maintains is thus far a vehicle which is not fit for purpose and does not meet the contracted specification”.

The Minister replied that the key element of that was “thus far”, but he did not tell the House of Commons when he believed that these vehicles would be fit for purpose, and he did not say when they would meet the contracted specification. As the noble Lord indicated, the National Audit Office, in reviewing the procurement of MoD equipment, highlighted that the expenditure as of March 2021 had been £3.755 billion. How on earth can that amount, of a total of £5.5 billion, be committed when the review had indicated that these vehicles were not fit for purpose and would not meet the specification? If the Government’s position is that the vehicles will do so, when will that happen?

The NAO in paragraph 11 of its report highlighted part of the challenge as being the Government changing the specification. However, it said that that accounted for an 11 months’ delay to the programme. It high- lighted more than 13 programmes with 254 months of delays in MoD procurement—an astonishing amount. Paragraph 5.11 indicated in relation to Her Majesty’s Treasury that:

“The assessment for the Ajax armoured vehicle (October 2020), stated the programme remained a VFM”—


“solution despite slippage of entry into service from July 2020 to June 2021, with a worst-case scenario of slippage to December 2022.”

How can the Treasury claim that there is a continued value-for-money solution while this review indicated that the vehicles were not fit for purpose and did not meet the contracted specification? Will all the vehicles now be in operation for our servicemen and women by the time of the worst-case scenario of December 2022 or are the Government changing that position?

I should declare that I represented a military barracks in my former constituency and was in northern Iraq last week. I know well the great pressure that our Armed Forces personnel have had to endure over many years. The welfare of those individuals should of course be a paramount priority. The Minister in the Commons did not indicate any detail about how support will be provided to those affected, so if the noble Baroness could provide more details, I should be grateful.

My final question relates to a Statement that the Minister made to this House in March this year. When asked about procurement in the MoD, she said in relation to a question from my noble friend Lord Addington about overruns and expenditure increases:

“The scenario that the noble Lord envisages is unlikely to arise because from now on procurement will proceed on a very different basis from what we have known in the past.”—[Official Report, 24/3/21; col. 845.]

However, we had to rely on this report and the Minister in the Commons stating in his concluding remarks yesterday that the report

“lays bare a deep malaise, which is cultural and results in systemic failures across our organisations.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/12/21; col. 1082.]

How on earth can those two areas be reconciled? Can that department be relied upon, even by commissioning a senior legal figure, to learn these lessons? Would it not be better if that legal figure responded to a different and external organisation to ensure that deep malaise and cultural and systemic failures are not repeated in the future?

My Lords, I, first, thank the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Purvis, for their observations and comments.

I pay tribute to my honourable friend Jeremy Quin, the Minister in the other place, for his determination to lift the drain covers to find out what had been happening. I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Purvis, for acknowledging his efforts. I also thank David King, the MoD director of health and safety and environmental protection, for his report, which, although deeply troubling, is also robust, analytical, comprehensive and helpful.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, quite understandably raised the catalogue of failings and asked how this could be. We are absolutely clear about what the recent report has produced. It confirmed that there were serious failings in how the MoD handled the health and safety concerns regarding Ajax vehicles. The review concluded that it was not the failure of a single individual but a complex combination of the Armed Forces’ relationship to harm and weaknesses in the MoD’s acquisition system. It also pointed to missed opportunities to act on safety and risk management across the programme.

Let me make it clear that all that is unacceptable. My honourable friend in the other place made that clear and I repeat that to your Lordships. That is why I say that this report, although deeply troubling, points to a way forward in a constructive and helpful manner. Your Lordships will be aware—the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, alluded to this—that the recommendations in the report not only cover Ajax but reach out helpfully into the broader areas of procurement, particularly in relation to health and safety, and what changes might be made.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked how no one knew what was going on. It has emerged that warnings were not given sufficient attention; the report is explicit about that. Very troublingly, the Army did not believe that it was potentially causing harm to people as it was tacitly expected that soldiers could and should endure such conditions. That is utterly unacceptable, as the report makes clear. The recommendations are designed to ensure that a completely different and much more scrutinising approach to health and safety is adopted in future.

The noble Lord asked about the relevance of the follow-on review. I suppose that the review will look partially at the current health and safety report that has been published, but it is really determined to look at the whole Ajax programme to try to work out exactly what was going on beyond health and safety, and why communication was so poor and warnings were ignored. I make it clear that if gross misconduct is disclosed by that follow-on review then the appropriate administrative and disciplinary action will be taken.

The noble Lord asked specifically about the Defence Safety Authority report. That report was withdrawn for good reason: it did not follow the process, quality control and due diligence that you would expect of an inquiry such as a formal initiation establishing and analysing the facts, gathering and verifying evidence and, of course, deploying peer review. Following the retraction of that report because it was not considered sufficiently robust to be proceeded with, the Defence Land Safety Regulator, which works within the DSA, followed up on the concerns directly with Army HQ and DE&S. Again, while that sounds reassuring up to a point, I fully understand, as the report has disclosed, that the whole background and territory of communication —of the warnings being given, of how those were acknowledged and what response was given to them— becomes very opaque, and that is utterly unacceptable. The follow- on review will certainly look very closely at those issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, also asked whether we were sticking with Ajax. As he will understand, Ajax is a very important piece of equipment. It is a step change in how we deal with carrying personnel and with deploying cutting-edge technology to do that safely and to have as precise a knowledge of battleground as possible. We have made it clear that we are working with General Dynamics to try to get to the root of the problem with a view to finding solutions, but I make it clear again to this House that we will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose. As my honourable friend said in the other place yesterday, it remains impossible to share with your Lordships 100% confidence that this programme will succeed, or, if it does, of the timing for achieving full operating capability.

In relation to overall capability, a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referred, as did the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, we live in a world where we constantly consider, assess, adjust and, as necessary, plan what our response will be to threats. We will make sure that we are able to deal with whatever operational obligations fall upon us. Very particularly, I make it clear that this is not impacting on our operational capability nor on our obligations under NATO.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis raised the matter of trials. As he is aware, trials have taken place and we are currently assessing them. The physical trials at Millbrook have concluded. They have generated hundreds of gigabytes of data, and we expect to see conclusions from the analysis shortly. We will then verify the data, conduct assurance trials where required and draw conclusions on the next steps. Over and above that, separate from the trials, General Dynamics has conducted its own tests of proposed modifications to address vibration issues. Once analysis is complete, the MoD will verify the results through subsequent trials.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised the follow-on review. It is important that we build on such knowledge as has now been gathered together, and I think the health and safety report is a robust foundation on which to do that. The Secretary of State’s intention to bring in a leading legal figure is absolutely right, and they will look objectively, analytically and dispassionately at whatever the evidence may be and draw conclusions from that. I cannot pre-empt that, but we await progress on it.

When I looked at the report, it was deeply concerning —and I can tell your Lordships that it was deeply concerning to my ministerial colleagues—that personnel worked in a vehicle that had the potential to cause harm. I find that utterly unacceptable. The 310 people identified as working on Ajax trials and training have all been contacted for assessment. We shall continue to monitor those who have been assessed. We encourage those who have either declined assessment or been unable to attend an assessment to come forward, and any identified with continuing or emerging conditions will be supported appropriately.

My Lords, listening to the questions and the Minister’s answers persuades me that this is a complete disaster, as we have debated in your Lordships’ House quite a few times now, and it does not seem to be getting any better. I am glad that some further work has been done; we have now spent billions on this, apparently.

I wonder how it is possible that the Army top brass has allowed the situation to get this far without coming along and explaining why it has got so expensive and why it does not work properly. In the previous debate, in addition to the effect on the soldiers inside the tank, there was the question of whether the thing can go backwards up a step or something, and I think I made a comment that the British Army probably does not think we ever retreat so it does not matter—I hope it has some better reasons than that for saying what it has. Nor can it fire on the move or do its designed speed. If any private company were ordering something at a hundredth of the cost of this thing and made these kinds of mistakes, they would have been sacked.

This has also been debated before in your Lordships’ House, but Ajax came out very badly in the Infrastructure and Projects Authority annual report. I remember asking at the time: do Ministers ever read that report, and do they take action? It is clear that in this case they have not, otherwise they would have done something by now to get the answers. I appreciate that the report is a step in that direction, but they need to take stronger action to control the costs.

My last question is: why do we need this at all? Is it really part of the Army’s necessary equipment? Do we need to spend all this money on tanks? I do not know where we deploy them apart from Salisbury Plain. Is it not time that someone took a step back and said, “Do we, as a medium-sized power in the world, need tanks that can’t go backwards and cause injury to the people inside them?” We do not seem to be questioning it.

I will respond to the noble Lord’s questions in reverse order. Yes, Ajax is an important capability for the future British Army. It will provide a mobile, resilient and crewed ISTAR capability that is optimised for “find, understand and exploit” effects. It will offer the newest and most technologically advanced capabilities, equipped with a best-in-class sensor suite and other cutting-edge technological aids. It is a very important piece of equipment and I think that is universally acknowledged.

The contract for this is a firm-price contract. We know what the price is. It is now down to the company, in collaboration with the MoD, to resolve the issues that have been causing the noise and vibration.

The noble Lord raised the question of the IPA report. The IPA released its public data in July 2021, showing that the Ajax programme had moved from amber to red status back in April 2021. The then senior responsible owner asked the IPA to review the programme over concerns that it was not progressing as it should be. However, as the health and safety report indicates, that is just one element of a very confused system of accountability, communication, acknowledgement of warnings and reaction to warnings. The noble Lord is right to express concern about that, and I will not diminish the significance of his question. If you look at the recommendations of the health and safety report, there is a lot of comfort to be derived from it, not only in relation to the Ajax programme but the relevance of some of these recommendations to the wider procurement programme. The noble Lord is correct that there are still questions to be answered. That will fall within the jurisdiction of the forthcoming follow-on review.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s response to this report, and the involvement in the other place of Jeremy Quin, who was a first-rate official in the Treasury at the time of the financial crisis. I also think that this country still needs to be able to deploy tanks in Europe, fulfilling its NATO responsibilities. My question is a simple one, derived from 30 years of working at the Treasury. The MoD has undertaken countless reports over many generations to deal with problems of procurement. I would welcome an explanation from the Minister of why this time it will be different.

I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks about my honourable friend in the other place. Everyone is clear that Jeremy Quin has been like a terrier trying to get to the root of what has been going on here; hence we have much more information available to us today. This programme in particular has indicated and illustrated that there is no denying that there are weaknesses in the system. The defence director of health, safety, and environmental protection is owed a huge debt. He has analytically looked at the problems and come forward with rock-solid recommendations based on evidence. I can assure the noble Lord that it is the intention of the MoD to accept.

As the noble Lord is possibly aware, there are three recommendations that pose some practical problems. In principle, we understand what they are trying to do, and we are sympathetic to them, but we need to look at them more closely to see how they will work in practice. However, I am satisfied that these recommendations are very much a way forward. He will be aware that reforms have been adopted in the MoD in relation to contracts, procurement, and acquisitions. They have been working well. This programme started back in 2010, so it has been a long-standing development. The follow-on review will begin to answer some of the question that I know are uppermost in his mind, but I assure him that this is not a one-off. In terms of solutions, this will be looked at as a signpost to how we should act in the MoD and be regarded as a template for future procurements.