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I have tried tabling parliamentary questions about the Ministry of Defence’s appalling decisions in the interests of what I believe to be a few select contractors. Sir Humphrey has cited commercial confidentiality to
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avoid revealing the truth. I know from first-hand conversations with officials that the competitive procurement process for the new Lynx took place in name only. The process was made to fit the outcome. Yet, unlike our armed forces in Afghanistan, senior officials in the Ministry of Defence can simply avoid the consequences of the appalling failure.

In the House, it has become the Table Office’s default setting to refuse to accept questions about BAE and its Saudi dealings, despite the existence of sufficient evidence to warrant such legitimate questions.

While Members of the legislature are no longer able to hold the Executive to account, a sophisticated lobbying exercise aims at shutting down the debate. How many Members of Parliament who, like me, have taken part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme know that it is funded by the same contractors as the defence industrial strategy privileges? I suspect that the answer is not many, because the armed forces parliamentary scheme refuses to open the books.

I raised the subject of defence contracts and procurement after my visit to Afghanistan and I was directly pressurised by the organisers of the armed forces parliamentary scheme for asking such questions. Without accountability, the defence industrial strategy will remain unchallenged. Its retention will maintain the near monopoly of BAE and a handful of others. As long as BAE remains the monopoly supplier, we will not get value for money. For all the management consultant speak about smart procurement and through-life contracts, basic economic literacy shows that, in defence as elsewhere, a near monopoly provider means that the buyer gets a poor deal. When there is a constraint on supply, the seller sets the terms of trade.

Recently, BAE was handed another £124 million contract to build an unmanned aerial vehicle that we should have bought off the shelf. If one is in Helmand and one needs a UAV that works, one does not care where it is built.

We do not merely need to buy off the shelf; we need to break the monopoly of the few suppliers. If we did that, we might buy the kit that we need instead of waiting until BAE is ready to supply what it is willing to provide. We might supply our armed forces with the best kit available. If we did that, we might well have less outmoded kit—fewer anti-Soviet tanks, less submarine-hunting kit, fewer Eurofighters to defend the skies over the north German plain, fewer old-style frigates ready to take on the communist navy in the north Atlantic—and more of the kit that our armed forces need to fight the wars to which we send them.

Finally, I salute Lewis Page, the author and journalist, who has grasped what so few Labour Members have understood.

8.18 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), whose thoughts and forthright contribution to the debate will doubtless have been heard on the Treasury Bench and in the Civil Service Box.


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Before reaching the main body of my remarks, I want to comment on a theme that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) raised in a passionate speech, and put on record my admiration for so many units of our armed forces that have performed so magnificently in Iraq and Afghanistan. I want to pay special tribute to the 4 Rifles Battle Group and Colonel Patrick Sanders, its commanding officer, who gave one of the most moving eulogies on youth when he spoke of the courage and valour that young men and women are showing in theatres today. Many people outside the House do not fully grasp that those people are every bit as brave and courageous as their grandparents and great-grandparents were. We should be proud of that, and it is a theme that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) developed.

I hope that the Minister will take on board the point that my hon. Friend made about the sometimes leaden approach of the Ministry of Defence, particularly by those responsible for the media unit, who sometimes sing a very different tune from, for example, the one that the Minister sang in his welcome words of support for Help for Heroes, a charity of which I shall be honoured to be a trustee. I hope that the Minister will convey his view to those who are sometimes obstructive. I speak from personal experience, as someone who successfully managed to arrange a day out at Newbury races for wounded armed servicemen. I came up against the media unit at the Ministry of Defence and, frankly, I found it pretty obstructive. The unit let the servicemen go, but it was no mean battle.

I also pay tribute to the mayor of Newbury, who is an excellent man. He has taken up Sir Richard Dannatt’s invitation to pay tribute to our local regiment, the Royal Engineers, by giving a reception. His attitude contrasts with that of the leader of Newbury town council, who said that he wanted nothing to do with the occasion because he did not support the war in Iraq. I cannot condemn enough the failure to make the not-too-intellectual leap of separating whatever one might think about our deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq and paying tribute to our armed forces. I hope that the views of the leader of Newbury town council will be treated with the contempt that they deserve.

The main theme of my speech was also touched upon by my hon. Friend—the extraordinary decision to axe the Defence Export Services Organisation. One of the great success stories in the past 40 years has been the joint working between Government and industry to co-ordinate and support our defence exports. DESO is a child of Labour. It was created by Denis Healey in 1966 and is the envy of the world. It has contributed to our being second to the United States in defence exports. We have to ask not only why the decision was taken, but why it was done in such a cack-handed and arbitrary fashion.

We know that the decision was taken by the Prime Minister. He produced a statement to Parliament on the day Parliament rose for the summer recess. I have a minute from the DESO team briefing on 29 August, at which the second permanent under-secretary said:

I should say so, when I can show clearly the level of unpreparedness across government, as they sought to cope with a decision that was kept so close to the Prime
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Minister’s inner circle. What consultation took place across the Government when the decision was taken? Was the Secretary of State informed? Was Lord Drayson informed? Was Lord Jones informed—the former Digby Jones, who as the Minister responsible for UK Trade and Investment will, we are led to believe, take responsibility for whatever emerges from the debacle? He has been quoted in the industry press as saying that the decision was bonkers. He needs to convey that clearly to the Prime Minister.

DESO employs—or did—around 250 people. In defence terms, it costs a paltry £16 million a year and supports and co-ordinates exports worth £500 million to our balance of payments. DESO is the envy of the world and is being copied by countries that want to emulate our success in defence exports. It is worth looking briefly at what exactly happened. The night before the statement was presented to Parliament and the staff at DESO were informed, the permanent under-secretary was summoned to No. 10 Downing street, where the Prime Minister informed him that the decision had been made to axe DESO. The permanent under-secretary informed the outgoing director of DESO, who got the staff together the next morning so that the permanent under-secretary could tell them the bad news. The director of DESO then said the memorable words—I might not be quoting him exactly—“Well, ladies and gentlemen, I think it’s time that you went and started looking for jobs”. Many of them have: I am told that more than 30—the brightest and the best—have already been employed by companies up and down the country.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Defence produced an internal question and answer sheet for employees about what the arrangements will be. The answer to the question,

was:

The answer to

was:

The answer to

was that

Finally, the answer to

was, again, that that will have to be

So, nobody knows how many people are going to be transferred to the new arrangement, where they will work, under what terms and conditions they will be working or what they will be doing.

Most importantly—I hope that the Minister really grasps this—the answer to the question,

was:


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The answer to

was:

The answer to

was:

The replies to all those questions show a disgraceful unpreparedness across Government for how an important part of our economy and hundreds and thousands of jobs in this country could be affected.

Many companies in our constituencies are affected—I am not just talking about the big ones such as BAE Systems, but small companies that might have to go abroad to an area that they do not know. The first port of call for such companies will be the mission, where they will find the DESO representative. He will say to them, “Right, this is the environment you need to be aware of, these are the people you need to talk to, this is how we do business in this country.” The customers out there will want to know that those companies have the imprimatur of the Government. In particular, they will want to see uniformed service personnel involved in the negotiations for contracts, yet we do not even know what is going to happen to those uniformed personnel.

It is also worth considering what the effect has been in the industry. I have a letter to the Prime Minister from Mike Turner, the chief executive of BAE Systems, in which he expresses his great disappointment about

In a telling remark, he continues:

The chief executive of Thales wrote:

It is now gone—finished.

The most telling letter to come into my hands was from the high commissioner to Australia—someone well known to this Government—Mrs. Helen Liddell. In her letter to Lord Jones—Digby Jones—she clearly sets out the value of the operation run from the missions and how it works in countries that purchase defence goods from Britain. She says:

I believe that this Prime Minister has put that relationship in jeopardy. Mrs. Liddell finishes her letter by saying:

We need to see the replies to those letters, from the Prime Minister and from Lord Jones, and the replies need to be public documents because they relate directly to the decision that the Prime Minister took.


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Why did the Prime Minister take that decision? Was it to appease a group of MPs for whom defence exports are an evil? I would love to have the time to debate that issue with them here and now, but I do not. One of the rumours going round Whitehall is that it was to appease an individual or a group of individuals in his inner circle. I would suggest, however, that this was a typical new Labour cock-up: there are a few negatives out there, BAE Systems and the al-Yamamah project—what shall we do? We should do something dramatic, then we can park it. If anyone raises defence exports, we can say, “Look, this is what we’ve done.” Of course, al-Yamamah and anything else to do with Saudi Arabia is dealt with by the MOD Saudi Arabia project; it has nothing to do with DESO. But that does not matter; it is on the spin grid, and the Government have something that they can say.

Then the Government had to row back, and to create a new environment with UK Trade and Investment. We are losing expertise from DESO and losing respect from customers elsewhere in the world. There are questions that need to be answered. Which Ministers were informed of this decision, and when? Why was there no consultation with the industry? Why was there no preparedness across Government on this important issue? The replies to those questions should be put in the public domain.

I shall conclude by quoting Jane’s Defence Weekly of 15 August. The very cutting article entitled “UK could pay a high price for cost cutting” stated that

I could not have put it better myself.

8.31 pm

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): I start by paying tribute to the armed forces who, as we speak in today’s debate, are serving on Britain’s behalf across the world. No one has any idea of the level of operations that they are engaged in today; it is probably a level that has not been seen since the second world war. That has a tremendous impact on the lives of the individual soldiers and their families, on their equipment, and, indeed, on the collective psyche of the armed forces. We should not underestimate that what they are doing now—whether it all finishes next year in Iraq or whether it finishes in Afghanistan in 10 years—will live with us for decades to come. It will live with us in their families, and in the equipment that we will have to replace. It will also live with the taxpayer and the electorate; as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) rightly pointed out, they will have to recognise and contribute to this effort, through the ballot box perhaps, as part of the responsibility that they hold towards our armed forces.


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