Defence Reform Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:33 pm on 10th December 2013.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 5:33 pm, 10th December 2013

My Lords, I do not want to take up too much time, so will address only Part 1 and reserve my comments on Parts 2 and 3 for later stages in the Bill’s progress.

If anything can be said about the Government and defence—quite modestly and unexceptionably, because the points are so blatantly obvious—it is that this Government do not care much about defence and that their judgment in defence matters is pretty poor. In the course of three and a half years, they are well on their way to running the Army down from 100,000 to 82,000, they have abolished our carrier strike capability, they have abolished entirely our long-range maritime surveillance capability and they have reduced our capability in helicopters, in naval escorts—

I think we are now down to 13 naval escorts from 22 when the previous Government left office—and in many other areas.

We are told all the time that that is due to a shortage of funds, but in fact the Government had a surplus in 2011-12, which was then entirely lost to the Treasury. There was then an extraordinary surplus of £2 billion, more or less, in the last financial year, ending in April 2013, some of which has been lost to the Treasury. The Government complacently say that a lot of it has been rolled over, but even this Government must realise that if you do that, at the very best you are delivering equipment a year later than it should have been delivered, and because of the time value of money, your money does not buy as much as it otherwise would do. That has been a disaster for defence—a completely self-made disaster.

On top of all that, we have had this extraordinary, monumental shambles today—something that in future years we will look back on as a memorable shambles—in which the Government, on the very day that they are introducing an important Bill at Second Reading, make a Statement a couple of hours beforehand saying that the first part of the Bill is inoperable and that they do not intend to take it forward in the foreseeable future. The Government have ended up with the worst of all possible worlds. That is the absolute obverse of good leadership and good management.

The Government are keeping both their feet on both sides of the fence. They are not taking a clear decision. Of course that will be damaging to the morale and momentum of DE&S-plus and of course it will be damaging to recruitment, particularly at higher levels. People going in at the higher level are precisely the sort of people who will be displaced in the event that, a few years down the line, the Government switch to the GOCO course and Bechtel or Boeing or Serco or someone comes in and puts its own staff in these senior decision-making posts. It is utterly naive not to suppose that there will be real damage from this continued indecision by the Government. We have had too much indecision already; we might at least have expected and been entitled to a clear decision at this stage.

The decision should be quite clear: we should junk the idea of the GOCO altogether. I totally agree with the points that have been made about GOCO by a lot of people whom I know well and who know an awful lot about defence: the noble Lord, Lord Levene, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Stirrup and Lord Craig, and others who have spoken in this debate.

Of course, the Government have run into a lot of problems with industry over the GOCO proposal, mostly about conflicts of interest and treatment of intellectual property. However, there are two much more fundamental reasons why the whole idea was completely misconceived from the beginning. The first is that defence procurement is and ought to be and ought always to be core business for the Ministry of Defence. It is exactly like recruitment or training; what we are talking about is producing the essential inputs into defence capability. The MoD must be in charge of that and must understand that.

What is more, if the Government give up that capability and that knowledge, they will not get it back. There are all sorts of people now in the MoD and DE&S—I know them well—who can negotiate a contract with a GOCO partner if you want one. But if you actually sign that contract and give up your role running defence procurement to some private sector partner, in five years’ time or whenever you renew the contract, you will be at a very considerable disadvantage, and in 10 years’ time you will not be able at all to have an intelligent or effective negotiation or to monitor intelligently what is going on. It is very important that this should remain a core function and a core expertise of any Ministry of Defence worthy of the name. That is true in this country and elsewhere; it always has been and I believe it always should be.

The second fundamental reason why the GOCO proposal was misconceived and a mistake in principle from the beginning is that an essential part of defence procurement is flexibility. The enemy has a vote in this. You have to take the enemy into account. The enemy may change; the enemy may change his tactics and you have to change your procurement policy accordingly.

When I was defence procurement Minister, I held a meeting in my office every month on counter-IED policy. I had the experts there from DE&S and of course our own capability people and people from PJHQ, and the absolute experts from the various research institutes that we have at Fort Halstead and so forth. They are brilliant; I want to pay tribute to them now. I am full of admiration, and always will be for the rest of my life, for their expertise and dedication. They get no public recognition at all for their role.

We also had the Americans there. I had negotiated an open-eyes agreement with my American counterpart, Ash Carter, on counter-IED. We had an American colonel and she always contributed very usefully to our meetings. In those meetings we quite frequently decided then and there, that afternoon, to change our procurement of some particular technology or item of equipment and switch it to something else, usually in the UOR programme but it sometimes involved adjusting a core programme as well. You needed to do that because the enemy was changing and the enemy’s tactics were changing, and we wanted to save lives and win operations. Those are the fundamental obligations of any Defence Minister, which must override any other consideration.

It is quite wrong to give up that flexibility. You need flexibility for other reasons. I made it a principle—I have no idea whether the Government continue with it, but I hope that they do—that before I authorised any major programme, I always investigated whether we could do it in collaboration with an ally. If you do that, not only do you share the research and development costs and the risks but you get longer production runs, and the very considerable fixed overheads then spread over a greater production run, which is highly desirable. I had a lot of successes in that, particularly with the French, where we did a lot of things. One example was in underwater programmes. I invited them into the Mantis UAV programme. We did the new turret for the Warrior and the Scout vehicle together. These were successful examples of international collaboration requiring great flexibility.

If you had an annual, biannual or five-year contract with a GOCO to procure things on your behalf, you would have to hold up the whole process. You would have to talk to them; you would have to negotiate with them; and it would take time. What is more, it would take money. Money is what motivates the private sector—quite rightly and understandably so—and it knows perfectly well that the way in which it makes the real money out of government is when the Government change their mind, change their specification and want to do something differently. That is always the great moment, when you get penalties and you can increase your prices. That is exactly the situation which we must not find ourselves in and why we must not go down the GOCO route. I hope that we hear no more about the GOCO. However, I am extremely disappointed: it is a fundamental failure of government not to reach a clear decision and to let the country and everybody involved in defence procurement, in industry and within the MoD, know exactly where we stand, and to maintain this uncertainty which they have created, quite gratuitously, in the coming months and years.

What is the solution? I do not want ever to be accused in this House of criticising without saying what I would like to do and what I believe is the right solution. I think that we should proceed with the DE&S as it currently is and make steady, incremental improvements to it. Any human institution, of course, can be improved, and that is true of the DE&S. The DE&S contains wonderful people of enormous ability and enormous dedication, enthusiasm and commitment. When I was putting together the Scout programme, I remember there being a big time factor there. We succeeded in getting the whole process, which would normally take about two years, done in about 13 weeks. People were working through the night and through the weekends. They are superb people. Of course, they do not have quite enough of certain types of expertise—some in the financial area and some in the project engineering area—and that must be remedied, as Kevin O’Donoghue and I were trying to do. We did so often by secondments from the private sector. You cannot bring in people to deal with contracts of their own companies, of course, but you can put them in other parts of the DE&S and they will learn a lot about government procurement and you will learn a lot from their particular expertise during those secondments.

You can also do something which I did not have the occasion to do but thought of doing on several occasions. Where you have a particularly complicated and difficult project, you could perhaps bring in a private sector partner to be alongside you in the negotiations. I would have done that on the future tanker programme, which had gone on for eight or nine years when I took over. Luckily, the people concerned came to a conclusion rather rapidly after I came on board and avoided that particular fate. That is something that we should look at.

Above all, I do not believe that the DE&S needs a new corporate structure. That creates barriers, inflexibilities and some of the problems to which I have already referred. I totally agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. He was quite right in what he just said about the international position. Of course, we have had big problems with cost and time overruns—you always have those in defence procurement if you are at the cutting edge of technology. By definition, nobody can predict exactly the time and costs involved in solving technical problems at the cutting edge—at the coal face. That is absolutely inevitable. If you look at how the French and the Americans do it—those are the only comparisons really worth making because other people are not normally at the cutting edge of technology—you will see that the position is very similar there. The Americans have far worse cost overruns. Their time overruns are not quite so bad because they throw enormous amounts of money at something when they run into a problem.

However, that is not a reason for complacency. There is enormous scope for improving the DE&S, and it should be steadily improved in the way that I have described, but we should in no circumstances destroy any of its enormous qualities. We should in no circumstances throw over this particular institution lightly and set up something else which we would live to regret.

Finally, I want to ask some specific questions of the Minister. If he does not have answers for me now, I ask him to write to me and place a copy of the letter in the House. First, was it by accident or design that the approximately £2 billion surplus was accumulated in the MoD in the last financial year? Secondly, are the Government providing for or expecting to make compensation to Bechtel for withdrawing the competition in which it was engaged and on which it would have spent a lot of money? Thirdly, what is the total cost of this GOCO exercise, including any compensation to contractors if that arises? Fourthly, what is the pay or total remuneration package for Bernard Gray in his new role? Fifthly—the matter has been raised this afternoon but nobody seems to have any clue to the answer—why was it that, extraordinarily in this case, the normal processes for open, public recruitment were overridden and a special deal was done with one particular nominated individual?