With permission, I would like to make a statement on Ajax. I was pleased to update the House through a written ministerial statement on Monday, but given the ongoing and entirely understandable interest of the House in this long-running and important programme, I am pleased to be given the opportunity to make a statement and to respond to hon. Members’ questions in this House.
On Monday, I informed the House that following the careful deliberations of the safety panel, comprising of duty holders from the Ministry of Defence, General Dynamics, Millbrook and independent advisers, a route had been established for independent testing to be safely resumed at Millbrook proving ground. Trials were expected to resume imminently. I am pleased to confirm that trials have now resumed. The independent trials at Millbrook are essential to provide the evidence to support fundamental root cause analysis, and to enable the safe resumption of wider trials and training activity. While we naturally want to see the outcome of the independent analysis as swiftly as possible, it is necessary for the teams to be given the space and time to conduct those important trials. Clearly, the pause in trials will mean that the results we are looking forward to analysing will not be available this month as we had initially hoped. However, once the results are secured and analysed, I will be pleased to update the House.
The focus for the MOD and General Dynamics remains on identifying the root causes of the noise and vibration issues to develop long-term solutions to ensure Ajax meets the Army’s need. I have made it clear that no declaration of initial operating capability will be made until solutions have been determined for the long-term resolution of the noise and vibration concerns. Work continues on both, with General Dynamics heavily committed to delivering a safe resolution. We have a robust, firm price contract with General Dynamics under which it is required to provide the vehicles as set out in the contract for the agreed price of £5.5 billion.
Since the last urgent question, I met Phebe Novakovic, the global chair and chief executive officer of General Dynamics in London on
Hon. Members raised concerns around specific limitations on use which have been issued on Ajax. As is often the case with defence procurement processes, there have been a number of LOUs placed on Ajax vehicles during the early phase of use, and they will come and go during the course of trials and testing. However, as I confirmed on Monday, the specific LOUs restricting speed and the maximum height for reversing over steps have now been removed, preparatory to wider trails and testing being able to be undertaken in due course.
This House has been quite rightly concerned about the welfare of our service personnel. Extensive work has been undertaken through the summer on the health and safety aspects of the noise and vibration concerns. A report into those concerns is being undertaken independently of the Ajax delivery team by the MOD’s director of health and safety. It is important that Defence is transparent on these issues and that not only the recommendations but the background to those recommendations is shared with the House. I have therefore decided to publish the report when it is finalised, as I said on Monday.
The report has not yet been concluded, but it is apparent that vibration concerns were raised before Ajax trials commenced at the armoured trials and development unit in November 2019. While noise and vibration are always issues of focus in the development of armoured vehicles, in December 2018 a specific army safety notice introduced restrictions on use in relation to vibration on this vehicle and identified that, in the longer term, a design upgrade was needed to reduce vibration.
Key themes likely to emerge from the health and safety report will include the importance of having a culture that gives safety equal status alongside cost and schedule. The overlapping of demonstration and manufacturing phases added complexity in this instance, as well as technical risk and safety risk, to the programme. Another theme is the value of having strong risk governance for complex projects that promotes access to expert technical advice on safety issues. Independent certification and assurance of land environmental capability should be adopted and modelled on best practice elsewhere in Defence. Following the report’s conclusion, we will consider what further investigations are required to see if poor decision making, failures in leadership or systemic organisational issues contributed to the current situation, not simply in relation to health and safety but more broadly as necessary.
Following the appearance of the Surgeon-General alongside me at the Defence Committee hearing on Ajax, I would like to update the House regarding our service personnel. Initially, 121 personnel were identified as requiring urgent hearing assessments as a result of recent noise exposure on Ajax. Subsequently, the MOD broadened the scope of those who should be tested. A further 189 individuals have been identified. Of the combined 310 personnel, 304 have been contacted successfully; the remaining six are UK service personnel who have recently left service and are in the process of being traced. Two hundred and forty-eight personnel, including 113 from the original cohort of 121, have now been assessed.
The Army continues to identify and monitor the hearing of all personnel exposed to noise on Ajax, with additional testing being put in place where required. The Army is also in the process of identifying any health effects in those potentially exposed to vibration. Veterans who have been exposed to noise or vibration on this project will be supported throughout and will have access to the same assessments as those still serving. I will update the House on the number of personnel affected by noise and vibration in due course, including if any trends become apparent once the data has been analysed. I know this House will, as I am, be absolutely determined that we provide the appropriate testing and care to our service personnel and veterans.
I have previously described Ajax as a troubled programme. It is. But that does not mean that the problems are irresolvable. Ajax, a fully digitalised system, represents a step-change in the capabilities of the British Army and, while we will never accept a vehicle that does not meet our testing requirements, we remain committed to working with General Dynamics to understand and, we trust, resolve the outstanding issues. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for making the statement and for advanced sight of it. May I, through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, thank Mr Speaker for ensuring that the Defence Secretary understood his determination to see that Ministers account properly to this House, after Monday’s written ministerial statement was slipped out late in the afternoon in the middle of the Prime Minister’s statement on Afghanistan in the Commons?
This was the Minister’s shocking admission in that statement on Monday, underlined again today, though in more guarded terms:
“it is not possible to determine a realistic timescale for the introduction of Ajax vehicles into operational service with the Army.”
It is three months to the day since this House last questioned the Minister on Ajax and since then things have gone from bad to worse: the Public Accounts Committee pursuing a critical inquiry; the National Audit Office agreeing to my request and that of the Defence Committee for an urgent investigation; the Government’s own Major Projects Authority again flagging Ajax red and saying that successful delivery “appears to be unachievable”. This is a programme that has cost £3.5 billion to date, delivered just 14 vehicles and is set to be completed a decade late. The Minister’s statement now puts Ajax on an end-of-life watch. He confirms that the vibration problems were well know before the Ajax trial started in 2019. Indeed, he said today there was an Army safety notice in place on that vehicle in 2018. How much did the Defence Secretary know about the flaws in Ajax when he published the Defence Command Paper in March backing Ajax, scrapping Warrior and scaling back Challenger?
The Minister now says that he has realised that what is required for Ajax is what he calls a full-time dedicated senior responsible owner. So for over a decade this Ajax programme, the most costly defence procurement, second only to the deterrent, has had nobody senior responsible who has taken full-time charge. No wonder Ajax is the biggest procurement failure since the Nimrod, and this has happened entirely on this Government’s watch. Ministers are failing British forces and failing British taxpayers.
Specifically, can the Minister tell the House how many of the 248 Army personnel tested so far need medical treatment, and for what? What is the expected MOD cost for the additional trials and modifications? What impact will the indefinite delay have on the Army’s ability to deploy the essential planned strike brigade? Has the Minister approached the Welsh Government with a plan to support jobs at General Dynamics and the Welsh economy if Ajax is cancelled? What contingency plans are in place for the Army to have full reconnaissance and force protection capabilities while Ajax is delayed or indeed deleted?
There are alternatives to Ajax. So alongside the report that the Minister says he will commission from the new senior responsible officer on whether to complete or to cancel Ajax, will Ministers also commission full viability reports on modifying Boxer with its fourth generation ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance—capability, on the Combat Vehicle 90s used by our European NATO allies, and on the Warrior upgrade cancelled in the defence Command Paper? How much longer will it be before Ministers make a firm decision on the future of Ajax and provide certainty for all involved?
Finally, the defence Command Paper made it clear that the Government’s rapid further cut in Army numbers is linked directly to more advanced technology based on the Ajax, so will Ministers also now halt their further cut in Army numbers at least until they have sorted out and fixed this fundamentally failing procurement?
I am pleased to respond to the comments by the right hon. Gentleman. I think he was being just a little ungenerous in talking about statements being slipped out. I have always thought that it is best to inform this House as swiftly and transparently as possible. I was very pleased to make, on the first day this House returned, a statement that gave a full update as to where we were on Ajax. I was proud to make that statement in written ministerial form on Monday.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to my being guarded in this oral statement on full operating capacity. I am not being guarded. I state what is obviously and transparently the case. I cannot give a date on reaching FOC when I have said what I have said on initial operating capacity, which I mean and I will stick by—that is, that we will not accept an IOC until we have a clear resolution to the issues on noise and vibration. We are working through how that will impact and how the timetable will move on in getting from IOC to FOC, but quite transparently we need a vehicle that works and is fit for purpose, and that is what we are determined to deliver.
When this programme was initially set up in March 2010, under a different Administration, I do not believe there were, at that stage, SROs. I may be wrong, but I believe that SROs have been introduced subsequently. [Interruption.] You had them?
I am better informed. So there were SROs in the MOD at that time, and I suspect that they would do what SROs have continued to do since, which is to have a proportion of their time allocated to particular projects. In saying that we want to have an SRO 100% committed to this project—and, I hope, the same SRO who will be able to carry it right the way through to completion—we are recognising the fact that this is a troubled programme that needs the extra resource and the commitment of a full-time SRO, and that is what we will deliver.
The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. On health and safety and on medical concerns, I am determined, as I made clear in my written and my oral statement, that the full health and safety report will be published so that hon. Members can see it for themselves, and I will update the House on information regarding the medical testing at that stage.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about additional costs. There are no additional costs to be incurred by the MOD with regard to additional testing being done by General Dynamics. That is part of the overall contract. There will be additional costs incurred by the Ministry of Defence in conducting independent trials at Millbrook. I think that is right and appropriate. This is an independent process. I want to see the analysis coming to us, so we will be paying money for the Millbrook trials, but I think that is appropriate.
On the strike brigade and contingency plans, we cannot have Ajax introduced to the strike brigade until we have Ajax—that is axiomatic—but we do have clear views as to contingencies. The Army is always evolving its full process on contingencies. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the very helpful session chaired by my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, the Chair of the Defence Committee, which was attended and spoken at by the Commander Field Army. There is a range of capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as existing platforms, to fill any gap that is required to be filled.
I would counsel the right hon. Gentleman against what may be wholly unnecessary, inappropriate and inaccurate scaremongering about jobs. This is an incredibly important programme not only for the British Army but for thousands of people who are employed on it across the country—from memory, over 200 firms, including, as he says, General Dynamics in south Wales. We are committed to working with General Dynamics to achieve a resolution of these issues. As I have said before, I cannot 100% promise to this House that we will find a resolution to these issues, but we are determined to work it through with GD. As I have been very open and transparent in saying, an important step in that is the independent testing at Millbrook to enable us to know where the vibrations in the vehicle are originating from and whether the design modifications that are already being examined and thought through will work and achieve effect. I beg the right hon. Gentleman, and other Members, to be mindful of those people who will be concerned about their jobs and livelihoods, particularly if we can, as I sincerely hope and trust, find a long-term resolution to these issues, as we are determined, working with General Dynamics, to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on inheriting a dog’s dinner of a procurement problem when it comes to our British Army’s combat vehicle capability. He is trying to grasp this and grapple with it, but he has made very clear, and been honest with the House about, the challenges that are in front of us. As we have heard, we are reducing the numbers of tanks that we have. We are getting rid of all our Warrior armoured fighting vehicles and replacing them with Boxer, a wheeled vehicle that is excellent but does not have a turret. That makes it all the more important for Ajax to succeed, because it does have a turret. If we want to protect our dismounted troops, they need a gun on the battlefield. Will my hon. Friend declare whether he has a deadline in mind for when this procurement process will end if the problems that he spoke about cannot be resolved? Can I recommend, anyway, that he introduces a variant of Boxer with a turret so that there is force protection for our dismounted troops on the battlefield?
I thank my right hon. Friend for congratulating me on taking on this programme. As he knows from his own time in Defence, these procurements take a long time. However, I can absolutely assure him that I am very focused on this, as I am on other procurement issues, and determined to be transparent and open to this House.
My right hon. Friend raises a number of interesting points. Boxer is modular, as he knows. We have said that we are looking to expand the number of Boxers we have. It is a very useful vehicle. I was very pleased to be present in Stockport to see the assembly line beginning to go into action there. It certainly has capabilities, and we will look to see how we can add lethality to that over time, which could take a number of forms.
In terms of a deadline on Ajax, it would be all too easy to set an artificial deadline for when I can tell this House that we know all the answers, but I just cannot do that—it would not be being transparent with this place. I do not know how long it will take for the Millbrook trials to be concluded and how long it will take to analyse the results. I do not know, at this stage, whether the design modifications currently being worked on and examined will then work with the assessments that we have from Millbrook to be able to say there is a tick in the box and it will come through. I am putting on a lot of pressure to get the right results, but consistent with doing trials on a safe and appropriate basis, as my right hon. Friend would expect. As soon as I have more information to share with the House, I will be only too delighted to do so.
In July, we had General Dynamics in front of the Defence Committee. GD’s general manager for the programme was kind enough to inform us that prior to their job there, they had been director of land equipment for the MOD, meaning that they were negotiating the superb deal that they got for GD with one of the successors in the job at Main Building. By happy coincidence—this will be no surprise to those who are now going to have to take medical advice because of the Ajax failures—during these negotiations GD would also have been able to call on the advice of the former Chief of the General Staff, Sir Peter Wall: a member of its board since 2016, with just over a year having elapsed from when they had left post to take up this new role.
I hasten to add that it is not just about Ajax and General Dynamics any more. The UK’s largest defence contractors are able call on the expertise of numerous gamekeepers turned poachers trousering handsome rewards for their inside knowledge of the procurement process. Can the Minister tell the House and those members of the armed forces now having to seek medical attention how they will ensure that they do not squander this most recent injection of cash in the way that their predecessors have and how they will stop allowing taxpayers’ money to get taken a loan of by these defence contractors?
As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, there is an Advisory Committee on Business Appointments process that former senior members of the military, as indeed do Government officials, have to go through before taking on outside roles. They are required to seek advice and stick to the advice provided by that committee. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the £24 billion that the Government have invested in defence was needed, is vital and will be well invested and scrutinised. I am determined to learn any lessons that we need to learn from this process to ensure that they are well applied and well met in our future procurements.
I thank the Minister for his frank and transparent response. The assembly of the Ajax in Merthyr Tydfil contributes greatly to prosperity and jobs in north Wales, but he will know that the Defence Committee has taken a keen interest in the Ajax project, and we have concerns, mainly around the effective use of taxpayers’ money. Is he in a position to tell us how much the ammunition for the Ajax 40 mm cannon costs?
I am not. I am writing to the Defence Committee, of which my hon. Friend is a very important member, on exactly that issue, as well as other issues that the Committee raised after my appearance before it. I have seen lots of rumours about the costs of rounds, many of which are way out, but I am constrained. As the House will appreciate, there is nothing more commercially sensitive for a supplier than the exact price of a particular product that it sells to one of its major customers.
If I may, I will explain the difference between 30 mm and 40 mm. An analysis was conducted by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. As the Committee and the House are well aware, there is extra weight on armoured fighting vehicles to enhance the survivability of the crew within them. Given those trends, DSTL’s view was that we needed a heavier weight of ammunition to have effect and to have lethality. That was why we went for the 40 mm rather than the 30 mm option for Ajax, in combination with the entire system, including the stabilisation. The extra punch from the 40 mm, with the system that supports it, means that we would expect to get lethality from one shot. That is incredibly important to our service personnel. It means that they are not dwelling to get an accurate shot and they are not, unlike with the 30 mm, required to send a burst with a shotgun effect. They have a single precision strike. When we look for value for money, the ability to protect our crews and to provide lethality and to ensure that we get that one strike are what is important.
As a result, when we compare the costs of a round of 40 mm with a round of 30 mm, we are comparing a 30 mm burst of three rounds with, in normal circumstances, one shot from the 40 mm. That is the context of value for money, which I hope will persuade my hon. Friend that it is not just a straightforward round-for-round shell comparison. It does not give the full answer.
Can I just remind the Minister to face forward so that he is facing the microphone? I understand the temptation to look at the person who has asked the question, but it is so that things can be properly recorded. Can we have short questions and shorter answers, please?
The Minister will be aware that I have had a passing interest in this project for a number of years. In June, the MOD gave the impression that everything was on track. As my right hon. Friend John Healey said, in the same month the Infrastructure and Projects Authority said that it was unachievable. I thank the Minister for his honesty and for telling us something new today—that these vibration problems were known about a lot earlier than was admitted by GD or anyone else at the Select Committee. I welcome the fact that the Millbrook trials have started, but can he indicate when they will be completed, because that is important?
Finally, the Minister said he met the head of GD recently to discuss this project and other things. If and when he cancels this project, where will the liability lie? Will it be with the UK subsidiary or the main parent company? I can envisage years of litigation on this project if it is cancelled. Where does the liability lie? If it is with the UK subsidiary, that is a very different kettle of fish from the main GD board.
I will be fixed entirely in front of me in answering the right hon. Gentleman, Mr Deputy Speaker. First, I just make one point that sounds like semantics, but it is not. On the MPA report, as I understand it, “unachievable” does not mean unachievable; it means unachievable without the risks and problems associated with the programme being addressed. We are in the business of addressing those problems and issues to make certain that the projects go forward. The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention—it was important to clarify this for the House—to the fact that there was a recognition of vibration points earlier. I made that point to him in the Select Committee hearing, as he may recall, as well as in the written ministerial statement earlier this week.
On the contract, I hope it never gets to cancellation. I hope and trust that we will resolve this issue and bring the vehicle into service, but I understand the interest of the right hon. Gentleman and his Select Committee colleagues in that contract. I will be writing to the Chairman of the Select Committee, and I am trying to find a way that we can share more details of the contract to help reassure the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Committee in an appropriate way, which I know the Committee will respect, to enhance their understanding without breaching our commercial undertakings.
Time and time again, when it comes to defence procurement, programmes are beset by delays, costs spiralling out of control and poor oversight—in short, the abysmal contract management of public money. Ajax has been no different. The Minister will recall dodging any responsibility in July’s Defence Committee sitting for the failings of this programme. A lessons learned review was then promised over the summer. Where is it?
The most important report from my perspective is the health and safety report, which will deliver an entire timeline as to events that are troubling and concerning, and that will be published in full. In parallel, we have been doing a lot of work, as I said to John Healey, on how we move from IOC to FOC. We are looking at all aspects of this programme. As I said in the written ministerial statement and repeated today, on the conclusion, finalisation and publication of the health and safety report, I will be saying what our next steps are, not only in relation to health and safety but across the project as a whole.
This £4 billion debacle is an example of exactly why the MOD’s procurement process is completely broken. The IPA analysis has already been referred to. Each year, it goes through the top 36 MOD procurement programmes and grades them with a traffic light. Ajax is red, unlikely ever to be achieved. How many of the 36 were green and successfully on track? None. Zero, zilch, nothing. Not one major MOD procurement programme is successfully on track. This is over £100 billion of British taxpayers’ money. The procurement system at Abbey Wood is a shambles, and presiding over this steaming heap of institutional incompetence is the Minister. You are losing 36-0 on behalf of the British taxpayer. [Interruption.] It might be nice if you were not laughing about it. This is massive amounts of taxpayers’ money. You are 36-0 down, you have got a broken system and you are in total denial. What are you doing about it?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was smiling merely at the sporting analogy, which I do not think is appropriate. I have already mentioned the MPA’s valuable role, and I am grateful for the work that the IPA is doing in assisting us by looking at the project and how its management can be improved. It has a series of traffic light systems, and my right hon. Friend is right that two of our projects are rated red. There is a whole series of colours; from memory, three projects are green-amber. None is green, which would signal that there are no problems. However, in fairness, if we look at every major country acquiring major defence assets, we see that these are complex and difficult programmes. The importance of the MPA is that it draws attention to problems and to the issues that need to be undertaken and achieved to hit programme targets. A red rating does not mean that it is wholly unachievable; it does mean that there are very serious issues to be addressed, as is patently the case with Ajax, and as I would be the very first to admit that.
We have learnt some things today. Unachievable does not actually mean unachievable. The Minister also said that if eventually the programme ends, the liability lies with General Dynamics. What does that mean for the £3.5 billion that has already been paid for the delivery of only 14 vehicles? Will we get that back? Following the Chair of the Defence Committee, Mr Ellwood, and my right hon. Friend Mr Jones, the most important question is: what are the timescales for the tests and for the re-engineering? What is the end date? At what stage—roughly what month, or even which quarter—will the Minister decide whether the project is still viable or when it is time to draw stumps and start again?
What we have with General Dynamics is a firm price contract. That means that it has undertaken to deliver 589 vehicles for a set specification, and we have undertaken to pay it £5.5 billion for that number of vehicles, at that specification. There is clarity on the contract. It is a strong, firm contract on which GD is determined to deliver, and we are working closely with it. I am afraid, however, that I cannot give a firm date. I know that the right hon. Gentleman, like other hon. Members, would like me to do so—and I would, too. The reality is that we need to get those trials done and the tests analysed, and then we need to find out whether the proposed engineering solutions will work. The right hon. Gentleman is generous and would not wish me to provide alarm and concern to the employees and firms that are doing the work. I know that he appreciates that we need to do the work and ensure that we do our utmost to make the programme work.
I have great sympathy for the Minister’s finding himself in this situation, but I also have sympathy for the taxpayer, who seems to be hammered on a regular basis under this Government. On the 3.5 billion, can he assure me that the taxpayer will get the money back? Also, on this and future contracts, will he make it his business to ensure that the taxpayer is completely and utterly protected?
I reassure my hon. Friend that this is a firm price contract. It is a good contract. We have gone over it, as he can imagine, and there is a requirement for GD to produce the vehicles to the specification in return for the funds expended. He would not expect me to go through the details of that contract, which are commercially sensitive. He is a member of the Defence Committee, and I hope that there may be a way in which, in a different forum, we may be able to shed some more light, but he will understand that commercial sensitivities are such that to go through the details of the contract in this House at this time would not be appropriate.
This fiasco surrounds a complex military fighting vehicle, but we need to be clear that the technologically advanced fighting assets are not what is at issue here. What is clearly at issue, with the intractable vibration problems, is the basic vehicle. Moreover, it is almost certainly not due to the German MTU V8 diesels or the German Renk transmissions. We are therefore narrowing it down—I am even narrowing it down for the Department—so why are we, the taxpayers, on the hook for the testing at Millbrook and why has the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory not been called in finally to analyse what has gone wrong with the vehicle? If it has, what did it find?
I reassure the hon. Member that DSTL has been engaged, but Millbrook has an international reputation. As I said in the statement, one of the recommendations likely to come through from the health and safety report is that we should be more open and forward-leaning in getting independent analysis and safety verification. If a regulated entity is taking advice from independents about the nature of a product it is buying, it is better to get that advice direct and to pay for it. He who pays the piper calls the tune. I would rather be paying for that independent analysis myself and get it on behalf of the taxpayer, knowing that we have full sight and full visibility on those reports, than going through any third party. That is the rationale.
My father spent many happy years in the Royal Tank Regiment in scout cars in the desert, but he later developed tinnitus, which is an irritating condition. The Minister said that more than 300 people were involved in the trials. What concerns has he got to follow up with them in the long term to ensure that their health is monitored?
To date, 310 have been identified as being at possible risk. We therefore want to ensure that all of those 310 are given the opportunity to have tests, though we cannot require it. I think I said that so far 248 have been tested, including 113 of the original 121 identified. That is part of an ongoing process to make certain that we monitor hearing over time. I am committed to reporting to the House any trends that emerge in that analysis. I am concerned about it, which is why we went down the route of the health and safety report. The surgeon general is very much focused on that as well. I will update the House as and when more news emerges.
I do not envy the Minister one little bit; he has always been most courteous in dealing with me and all my requests and approaches. Just some of that £3.5 billion would have gone a long way to sorting out one of our long-standing problems: recruitment for the British Army. I note that he did not respond to the shadow Secretary of State’s point about halting the cut in the British Army. Will he now reconsider that point and perhaps address it directly?
It is fair for the hon. Gentleman to refer me back to what John Healey said. Ajax is a highly sophisticated technological platform. That is the intention. It will be a step change in the capability offered, but it is one of a very large number of new technologically advanced platforms. There is risk in bringing forward such platforms, but with the way the threat is and the way in which the world is evolving, we need them. Whether that be long-range precision strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance or Boxer, the requirement to have more technologically advanced vehicles, effectors and ISR capabilities is absolutely real. With those capabilities, we can have greater effect with fewer personnel, be more lethal and achieve our defence ambitions and objectives against the threats we currently see.
I understand that recruitment is holding up well, as well it might. There is a great career in the armed forces, and I sincerely hope that people continue to see the opportunities.
Recent events in Afghanistan have reminded us once again—if we needed reminding—of the huge debt of gratitude that we owe our armed forces, and correspondingly underlined that we owe it to them to do everything we can to preserve their safety. Will my hon. Friend assure me that, in defence procurement, safety will always be a priority and never sacrificed to cost or time?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. That should always be the case. I do not think we should need a health and safety report to remind us of that, but I look forward to the report and its recommendations. Given what was said on that in the written ministerial statement, it is important that lessons are learned.
This is a five-star shambles. The Government are guilty of negligence. This is not good enough when service personnel have been put at risk. There could be a massive waste of money and now people’s livelihoods may be hanging in the balance. We should not scaremonger, but we should prepare. Can I press the Minister again: what discussion has he had with the Welsh Government to prepare contingencies should the worst come to the worst?
I know the hon. Gentleman is a keen supporter of General Dynamics and employment in his constituency in south Wales, and he will appreciate what I was saying earlier—I meant it genuinely, as I always do when I say things in this House—about how we are working with General Dynamics to find a solution to this. Of course I cannot give a 100% guarantee, but I do believe that we can work together. I sincerely hope we find a solution, and I know that nothing would please him, this House and me more than to have that resolved, have it sorted and then go on to export Ajax globally. I want to raise our eyes and get the right results, rather than focus on worst-case scenarios that I sincerely hope will not be the case.
May I commend the Minister for the forensic way in which he has tried to get to the bottom of a mess that is not of his making?
The Royal Dragoon Guards based at Battlesbury barracks in my constituency operate, or are meant to operate, the Ajax fighting vehicle, and many of them will be very concerned at the hand-arm vibration syndrome and noise-induced hearing loss that some of them may be victims of. It is a betrayal of the military covenant. He knows very well that there are senior members of the Ministry of Defence, serving and retired, who knew full well the risk of this vehicle at an early stage. Will he ensure that the institutional cloak of invisibility that the MOD traditionally operates does not apply in their case, since if they are allowed to get away with it, as it were, we will not get to grips with the cultural issues that have dogged defence procurement for years?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his courtesy and generosity to me personally. Can I reassure him and this House that I will stop at nothing in making certain that we do get to the bottom of this and get to the lessons that need to be learned? He has my absolute assurance and commitment on that. I refer him to my oral statement, in which I said:
“Following the report’s conclusion, we will consider what further investigations are required to see if poor decision making, failures in leadership or systemic organisational issues contributed to the current situation”.
I have said that in writing and orally, and I mean it. That does not mean that we have come to any conclusions, but it does mean that everything needs to be on the table. We need to ensure, if mistakes have happened, that we learn from them, execute on them and make sure they are never repeated.
It is relatively unprecedented for such a new and expensive platform not to make its projected IOC date because of a special report on health and safety. Does the Minister agree that there are many failures in the whole process, and could he please assure me of when IOC might be—any indication at all—because this is ultimately about the delivery of equipment to the frontline?
Earlier this year I made a point of saying that, on Ajax, I did not want any IOC to be declared without its going through my office to ensure that I personally, as well as everyone else, was fully satisfied we had kit that would work. That was made clear early on, and I have made it clear when issues have re-emerged that under no circumstances would we be taking into IOC a vehicle that was not fit for purpose and that we need to find a pathway to long-term resolutions on noise and vibration. That is what my hon. Friend would want me to say. It is what the British Army would want me to say; it wants to have vehicles that work and are reliable. The flipside is that I cannot therefore, sadly, give my hon. Friend a date. What I can do is give him my assurance that we will have something that works and meets our specifications when we put it into IOC.
The Minister has been very clear with the House today that the contract in place is a firm price contract to deliver the 589 vehicles and the various variants to their specification. Can he assure the House that the rest of the system, for which he is responsible to this House, shares his determination to deliver these vehicles once the health and safety issues have been addressed—that the British Army, the chiefs of staff in their entirety and the Ministry of Defence share his determination?
As my right hon. Friend knows very well from his experience, this is an important platform for the future of the British Army, and it really will help us deliver against the threats we are contemplating daily. We need to have it sorted, and we need to have it into service. The commitment that I am showing to work with General Dynamics to resolve these issues, if they can possibly be resolved—and I sincerely hope they can be—is shared throughout the Ministry of Defence and throughout the armed forces. We want this into service, but we want it into service on the basis that it will work, fill our requirements and be the effective tool that our military deserve and need.
I have many servicemen and women in Derbyshire Dales. Can the Minister please reassure me that sufficient money but, more importantly, sufficient effort is put into treating all those affected? I know that the culture in the institution does sometimes mean that servicemen and women will not complain and will not mention what is happening. I want an assurance about the effort that is going into tracing everybody.
Specifically to reassure my hon. Friend on that point, we are not waiting for people to come to us. We are going out to the 310 service personnel we have identified in various cohorts who have had experience of Ajax. For example, we are specifically asking them to fill in questionnaires about vibration and to let us know if they have any concerns. I would encourage any service personnel who feel they have concerns to make that known so they can undergo tests and ensure that we can monitor that situation. I hope—I sincerely hope—that my concerns are not justified, but this House would want us to do the testing and to take every precaution to ensure we know what the situation is, and that is what we are doing.
I would like to thank the Minister for his typical courtesy and thoroughness this afternoon, which has been very impressive.
I hope that General Dynamics has heard the deep concern of this House about the status of this procurement episode, because it is clearly extremely concerning. The world is getting more dangerous, and we need these vehicles in operation. Notwithstanding the very considerable sunk costs and time of this project, we will need a point of resolution in the near future. Will the Minister confirm to the House that, in the interim, alternative options are being pursued in case this project needs to be drawn to a conclusion? We cannot afford a procurement gap that might last for years, given the state of the world at the moment.
To reassure my hon. Friend, I am sure General Dynamics will be very aware of this discussion. I did say in the statement that I had met the chairman and chief executive of GD in July, and she emphasised how strong its determination is to get this resolved. It wants this platform to work, and so do we. We are all focused on the same thing, and that is the point. I would rather not dwell on the second half of his question, because I do believe we can get there. I cannot give a 100% guarantee—of course I cannot—but we have a lot of investment, time, effort and focus on this vehicle, and I sincerely hope we can make it work.
I thank the Minister for the full and open update to the House today. I am really disturbed by the health risks our armed forces personnel are being exposed to from vibration and noise. We know that hearing loss can lead to complex long-term problems, and it is irreversible in most cases. Could he guarantee that no more risk will be taken and that no service person will be put into the Ajax until these health and safety issues have been fully resolved?
That is a good question from my hon. Friend. I can absolutely reassure her that the safety panel has been convened and has been working through the summer to find a way to allow limited use—and it is only limited use—to undertake the trials at Millbrook. Having done a lot of work on it, with independent advisers as well as the duty holders from the MOD and others, it believes it has found a way forward that is safe and allows the trials to take place. In due course, when we learn the lessons from those trials, they will enable us to have a safe manner of working in the future.
However, the nub of this, and it is a good point on which to end, is that we need a fundamental resolution of these issues. We want Ajax to come into service, and we want it to work. We want to work with General Dynamics to achieve resolution. We need this kit—it is useful, valuable equipment that the British Army is looking forward to having—but we will only have IOC when we have a path to long-term resolution on noise and vibration, and we are committed to working towards that.