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Mr. Davidson : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is an odd juxtaposition of policy to say that the Government are committing the armed forces to too many duties while saying that his answer would be to cut expenditure to a lower level than the Government intend?
Mr. Soames: I realise that the hon. Gentleman has the most serious difficulty in understanding even the simplest things; I have already told the House that neither I, nor the shadow Chancellor nor anyone else has talked of a cut in the defence budget.
May I turn to equipment and procurement? Let us have a look at the state of the Government's procurement policy on new technology. Despite the much vaunted, and, in fairness, welcome, defence industrial policy set out by the Secretary of State in October 2002, the Government have failed to apply it coherently to their procurement programme. An uncertain and anxious defence industry has been given no strategic steer by the Government about the essential capabilities that they believe the UK must retain. The cornerstone of their policy, introduced under the SDR, was smart procurement. That lasted a couple of years before being reinvented as "smart acquisition". Smart acquisition? Tell that to the trade unions that joined us in fighting tooth and nail to persuade the Government to buy the British Hawk advanced jet trainer. It was so smart a process that they placed an order just hours before 500 employees of BAE Systems were due to be handed their redundancy notices. Tell that to the work force in Telford, who for the past two years have been anxiously awaiting a decision from the Government on the future rapid effects system battlefield vehicle that the Chief of the General Staff requires to be in service by
Clare Short: This is not a popular position, but I think that we need to review our commitment to procure only from British defence companies. When there are procurement problems, there is less of a case for procuring only domestically. If we want our armed forces to have the best radios, the best riflesthe best equipmentwe should move away from that absolute commitment to British Aerospace and the inefficiency in our procurement systems. What does the hon. Gentleman say to that?
Mr. Soames: I say that procurement is indeed a difficult process. However, we have a magnificent defence industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of people and is an enormous export earner. Of course, we should support British industry, but at the end of the day there is no strategic vision as to how that should be done. We propose to develop a proper strategic vision and provide real leadership for an industrial policy on procurement that will make sense.
The procurement budget is more than £3 billion overspent this year alone, and not just on the so-called legacy programmes for which the Government have been responsible for managing for the past seven years. There is a huge bow-wave of projects building up whose affordability is increasingly questioned. Programmes continue to slip, and worst of all, across the board significant gaps in capability are being actively planned for. Nothing better illustrates that than the maritime air cover problem, whereby the Government are gambling that we shall be able to get away with no such independent cover between 2006 and 2012 at the earliest.
Most chilling of all is the Government's language on platformstanks, ships and aircraft to the British public. Last summer, we were told that platform numbers would not be so important in the brave new world of effects-based warfare. Now, we are told that platform numbers will be cut to make way for investment in network-enabled capability. The truth is that numbers remain critical. The White Paper refers to the increased frequency and duration of operations. The Prime Minister alluded to all those ideas in his very important speech in Sedgefield. I can tell the Secretary of State that we need those platforms to undertake the number and scale of operations envisaged by the Government's policy. Ships, planes, armour and men cannot be in two places at the same time.
Mr. Jack: Did my hon. Friend notice that the Secretary of State did not comment once on any of the programmes to which my hon. Friend has referred? As a result, does he share my deep suspicion about precisely
Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for pointing that outI intend to deal with some of those points in greater detailand I share his anxiety. The Secretary of State started off with a dignified and an important speech on defence that degenerated into a rather futile and pointless knockabout.
Specifically, I call on the Secretary of State to confirm the informed speculation that the Type 45 destroyer procurement will be cut by a third. Is it true that tranche 3 of the Eurofighter Typhoon project will be cut? It is clear that mismanagement and indecision by the Ministry of Defence about the future aircraft carrier programme is seriously delaying the project and leading to a substantial waste of funds. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but it is well known already that the carriers will be one and a half years late. Is the objective of having two 65,000 tonne ships, each capable of carrying some 50 aircraft, to be met, and what is the new time scale? The MOD is wasting money and time through a lack of any strategic leadership on those projects and it must provide the House with urgent clarification on the management of those major procurement programmes.
We welcome the intention to enhance the strategic enablers of communication, logistics and intelligencethat may be the point that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) was groping at through the fog that surrounds himbut as a former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, rightly pointed out recently:
Mr. Hoon: The implication of all that the hon. Gentleman has been setting out to the House is that, if the Conservatives were returned to power, they would retain all our existing equipment and buy all the equipment that we propose to buy and that they would do so on the basis of all the previous plans set out, presumably by Conservatives in government. Has it ever crossed his mind that, in the face of a cut in the amount that the Conservatives are planning to spend, his figures simply do not add up?
Mr. Soames: For the record, the only people making cuts are the Government, and I am glad that I managed to get the right hon. Gentleman's head up so I could say that. I would like to say that he is like an old pike, but in fact he is like a rather fat trout, hiding in the weeds. It seems that I have to cast a particularly delectable fly over his nose before I can get him up, but I am glad I have done so. There are substantial cuts, and 14 separate strands of work are under way in the MOD to secure £1.5 billion in savings. That will do great harm to capabilities and to people's capacity to do their duty.
Mr. Blunt : While we are on the subject of money, it might be as well for the House to remember that the Government imposed a cut of £500 million a year in the defence budget in their first comprehensive spending reviewcumulatively, that will now be £3 billionand that the so-called increase in the subsequent defence review will be £2.5 billion at the end of that period, so the Government have been responsible for a net cut in defence expenditure on that which they inherited.