Foreign Procured Munitions

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:26 pm on 6th June 2006.

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Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater 1:26 pm, 6th June 2006

I am grateful to have the chance, yet again, to raise in this place what I believe is a vital matter. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. He has returned from visiting our oldest veteran, who I believe is 110 years old. It was a great ministerial duty—and, I am sure, one of importance to the nation—to visit one of our oldest and most important citizens.

Defence is a genuine interest of mine. I used to be an adviser at the Army Land Command headquarters. I maintain the rank of Major, and I am still on the reserve list of the Territorial Army. Most important of all, I represent a constituency with a proud history of providing our Army, Navy and Air Force with the real means to do the job—in other words, to put forward the Government's will anywhere in the world. In Bridgwater, we make bombs. We have done so efficiently, economically and successfully for more than 50 years—since 1939 in fact. Some of my constituents are the best legal bomb-makers in the business. They are true specialists and dedicated to their work. Unfortunately, next year there may be no work for them to do. Next year, the people who now own what we call the Royal Ordnance just outside Puriton intend to close it. Why? They reckon that they can buy what we need elsewhere in the world but a whole lot cheaper—and unfortunately they have convinced the Government—but they are absolutely wrong, and history proves them to be wrong.

It is rather pithy that the debate should be on the anniversary of D-day. It was today, 62 years ago—unfortunately, the Minister and I were not there. Thank God for the Americans; we launched a joint operation from these islands to bring a final end to the bloodshed that we know as the second world war. Brave allied soldiers—British, American, Canadian, Australian and other allied forces—landed on the beaches of Normandy. It was the severest test of manpower and equipment. The symbolism of a successful invasion disguised the carnage; we have only to ask those soldiers who survived. Putting it in today's crude terms, there were far too many Private Ryans, far too many weapon systems that did not share the same ammunition, far too many home-grown disasters on that day. D-day was a victory, but it was also something of a miracle.

Military success relies on courage, training and scrupulous attention to detail. That detail includes knowing exactly what your weapons are capable of doing—what they will do when the trigger is pulled. We can be completely sure only if we know exactly where the kit was made and by whom. When Hannibal set off across the Alps, he had not bought his elephants on eBay; he knew exactly where they came from and what they were capable of. Those elephants were tried, tested and reliable. In Queen Victoria's time, the dear old British Admiralty, which we all love, would insist that every issue and item of munitions on board all our fighting ships was made here, at home—hence the Royal Ordnance factories, which have existed since the days of Henry VIII.

Even the glasses for the telescopes had to come from a specific British manufacturer with a reputation for excellence—no ifs or buts. That was not blind patriotism or protectionism, but simple common sense. I wish our neighbours and allies no disrespect whatever; I have trained and worked with most of them. However, British standards in military matters have rightly always been of the very highest; every other nation works hard to match them. There is a huge risk in buying bits and pieces—especially those deliberately designed to go bang—on the open arms market.

I am afraid that under many Governments, Britain has acted stupidly in the past. Not long ago, the British Army took delivery from India of an enormous consignment of 9 mm ammunition. I have a horrible suspicion that it was bought as a special offer—probably two for the price of one. The ammunition jammed and misfired with such frightening regularity that it was taken out to sea and quietly dumped. Meanwhile, British officers and soldiers who attempted to fire certain 7.62 mm shells made in Portugal still refer to them as "Lisbon crackers". Unfortunately, once again, the Ministry of Defence had to cut its losses; it fed the useless Portuguese munitions to the fish. Buying those munitions was neither sensible nor economic.

We still have problems with shells. These days we get them from France, where "quality control" is a phrase for which there does not seem to be a direct translation. Even suppliers in Germany are suspect on quality. I hope that the Minister is taking note of what I say; I am delighted that he is here, although I accept that responsibility for defence procurement lies with another Minister. As the Minister can well imagine, much of the information comes from the experts who make the bombs in Bridgwater. Those people, who make up an old work force, have spent their lifetimes in the industry. They believe strongly in their country and in what they do, and still see themselves as employees of the Royal Ordnance factories.

I shall provide an example of some slightly heavier artillery. The old Royal Ordnance factories won a contract to manufacture the RO18, a weapon still in service today. However, the MOD first insisted on buying a Belgian version, which went on test in Canada and proved so inaccurate that the safe area for our troops had to be increased tenfold. The Secretary of State at the time—not the present one—said that he knew all about it. He explained that the fault was common, but refused to stop the MOD buying cheap Belgian products. That was not acceptable. The only line of defence against the shoddy workmanship was the expertise of Royal Ordnance staff, who were then responsible for checking every item of stock that came in. One report eerily catalogued the landing of a consignment from a European arms factory:

"When the first batch arrived the base plates simply fell off. We had to teach them how to weld them on!"

That ought to be the scary stuff of history. Unfortunately, however, I know that it still happens. The more we buy abroad in the mistaken belief that cheapest is best, the more we risk embarrassment, accident and, ultimately, military disaster.

When loading big munitions, we need propellant, which we used to make here. However, now we buy it from Switzerland—a little nation more famous for its cuckoo clocks and chocolate. Swiss propellant still gives problems. We still import erratic naval shells from Australia. TNT from eastern Europe is of "very dubious quality indeed". Those words are not mine, but from the report of someone who deals with TNT and works inside this close-knit and very loyal British industry. Why are we forced to import TNT, of all things, from eastern Europe? The British company that makes it over here reckons that it can make far more money by not making it here at all.

The parliamentary advisers to BAE Systems should start taking note at this point. British Aerospace was proud enough to use the national name when it bought Royal Ordnance plc in 1986, not under this Government. However, then came the rebrand—everything in this country has to be rebranded. Out went the words "British Aerospace"; in came the abbreviation "BAE". The company is now so busy getting rid of other essential British assets that I rather wonder why its title still includes the B for British at all. I do not believe that it is a British company any more. We should say goodbye to Airbus and to the Bridgwater bomb factory, too—it is all becoming a bit of a tragedy.

Some 130 BAE Systems workers agree with me, as do, I like to think, many Members of this House. My illustrious predecessor, the former Secretary of State, Lord King, agrees with me. Shutting the BAE plant would be much more than a local blow; it would be a national disgrace. It could put at risk the very defence of the realm, about which every Member, regardless of who they are, should care.

We started making armaments in Bridgwater during the last war; it was a question of necessity. Germany was stretching our military capabilities to the limits. It was in my local Royal Ordnance factory that the famous bouncing bombs designed to destroy the Ruhr dams were loaded. Their inventor, Sir Barnes Wallis, is probably rotating in his grave at the news that we now know.

The bombs aimed at Saddam Hussein's bunkers were also made at Bridgwater; the final charges for our ultimate weapons are still made in the area. Next year, however, the essential ingredients will be shipped in from France, provided that the French are not on strike. Relying on foreign suppliers for anything as essential as military munitions is mad. No Government should treat defence as they do commerce, and no Government should ever be held hostage by any company, British or otherwise. Who will pack our bombs in future? Who will load our bullets? It will not be done at Glascoed.

I hope that my questions are sensible, but so far I have not been given a real answer from any Minister in this place or the Lords. I have corresponded with Ministers and taken part in rather too many detailed face-to-face sessions. I am always told, not only by Ministers, but by BAE, "There is nothing to worry about; BAE Systems is confident that there is no risk to supply." I am sorry, but I do not believe that. I can understand why BAE Systems cannot be bothered with a little bomb-making factory that ticks over nicely but will never make a real bomb in the financial sense.

I am told that a consignment of explosives was recently shipped from France to Somerset so that the experts at Puriton could have a look at it. The product was passable—just about. However, security at the French depot at which it was collected was lamentable. The gates were wide open; the staff had gone to lunch. The lorry driver went in, picked the stuff up himself and delivered it back here. That cannot be right in any country. It certainly would not happen here—I know that it would not—and it should not be allowed to happen in places on which we depend in other countries. Making weapons is far too important to leave to the sloppy or cut-throat practices of the marketplace. I am convinced that the risks of buying abroad outweigh the advantages. To adapt the words used by a recent Defence Secretary when giving evidence to a Select Committee, buying abroad is not "fit for purpose."

Of course closing our arms factory would be a bitter blow to Bridgwater, but it would also be a dangerous step for national security. I ask the Minister to use his muscle and to intervene before it is too late.