Trade Bill - Committee (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 21st January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 5:30 pm, 21st January 2019

My Lords, I have been listening to the debate with great interest, but I am worried that the House may be making a technical mistake that could have wider implications. With the best intentions in mind, many noble Lords have spoken in favour of the suggestion to place quotas on companies to do with the beneficiaries of public procurement for the portion of the contract supplied by small businesses. It has been said that the small business share in defence procurement is much lower than it ought to be. The House should be very careful about that. It is probably not possible to increase that greatly; I speak as a former Defence Procurement Minister, as the House will know. If we send our young men and women into battle, we must give them the very best equipment money can buy. There can be no compromise on that. In my view, we cannot under any circumstances accept something second-best when the best is available.

Defence equipment generally involves a great deal of research and development; the products are often high-tech, modern and unique, designed to our specifications and not for anybody else, so there are not the economies of scale that are generated with substantial sales. That is a problem because most of the big defence contractors have an overwhelmingly large share in this country’s defence business. When I was the Defence Procurement Minister, the five big defence procurement suppliers included BAE Systems, Thales, Lockheed Martin—which is American, of course—and Boeing. They are large companies, some of which are supplied with components and parts by small businesses, to a considerable degree. However, some of them are not and, in practice, it is impossible to force them to do that.

We must buy the best, which is often very expensive. We cannot place such conditions on its procurement. Let me give an example. Of course, we spent billions of pounds buying the F-35, which is a wonderful aircraft. We buy it from Lockheed Martin; it is built and assembled in Fort Worth in northern Texas, close to Dallas. I have been there many times. The British share in its procurement project is considerable: about 15% is produced by BAE Systems, but that is not a very large company. One would have to look at the extent to which BAE Systems procures from small businesses. In the United States, to some extent—but, again, to a limited degree—Lockheed Martin buys goods, equipment, services or software from small companies, but they are American small companies so they do not help us to reach that particular kind of quota.

In some cases, like the Boeing contract for the Chinook helicopter—I once placed an order for 24 of them, so that was a very substantial contract—again the suppliers are largely American. It is not possible to insert British suppliers into the chain because they do not produce what is required for that particular aircraft. It was designed in America according to specifications set down by the American Department of Defense. I do not want to go into too much detail on this; rather I want to give the Committee an indication that it might be worth thinking carefully about these matters before defence procurement is automatically considered as being part of the desirable targets for increasing the share of the market for small businesses. I fear that almost certainly the only sensible solution would be to leave defence out of this altogether. I started off by mentioning the fact that life and death issues are involved, and we should not be imposing any additional constraints on our defence procurement.