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Defence Questions

12th December 2016

Harriett Baldwin answers questions from MPs on defence procurement.

Defence Suppliers: Innovation

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con)

3. What steps he is taking to encourage innovation by defence suppliers. [907773]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Harriett Baldwin)

With a rising defence budget and an equipment plan worth £178 billion over the next 10 years, we are renewing our capabilities. We spend up to 20% of our science and technology budget on research, and we have launched an £800 million innovation fund.

Nigel Huddleston

The Minister will be aware that the Ministry has a reputation among some suppliers of being somewhat challenging to work with. What is she doing to try to improve working relationships, particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises, including many of the defence industry suppliers in Worcestershire?

Harriett Baldwin

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely right that it can be challenging to work with Ministry of Defence procurement processes. We are particularly keen to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to apply for business with us. We want to increase the level of our spending that we procure from small businesses from 19% to 25%. Acting on direct feedback from small businesses, we have introduced a network of supply chain advocates to help smaller businesses through the maze of defence procurement, and their contact details are available to my hon. Friend and other Members on request.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)

The Minister has referred to renewing our capabilities. I have previously asked her about the programme to renew the Type 45 power and propulsion systems. I recognise that there are commercial sensitivities, but will she tell us whether there is a budget for the programme of improvements to the Type 45 power and propulsion systems, and when does she expect all six vessels to be improved?

Harriett Baldwin

I am very pleased to be able to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that there is a budget, and that progress is being made. These incredibly capable ​ships are performing a wide range of tasks. For example, HMS Daring is now in the Gulf, acting as part of our deployment there.

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con)

21. Small firms in my constituency, such as GSI ExoTec Precision, which specialises in producing beryllium-based products, have the technology and the ideas that could help us to maintain our defence advantage. Will the Minister confirm how such firms can access the £800 million innovation fund, and when might the first competition stage start? [907792]

Harriett Baldwin

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that I was able to launch the first competition on Thursday at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. In the first competition—for up to £3 million—we are looking for new ways of exploring data to inform decisions. It does not sound as though that is exactly the area of specialisation with which the business my hon. Friend mentioned is engaged, but there will of course be further competitions, and applications are also open for a wide range of different ideas to be fed in directly.

Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

No one would deny that it is vital to do everything we can to encourage innovation in the defence sector. Does the Minister agree with me that to foster an environment in which innovation can flourish, business and industry have to be able to trust what they are told by the Government? Given that, will she take this opportunity to explain to the shipbuilding industry exactly why she did not deliver on the copper-bottomed assurances, which she gave on at least four occasions, that the national shipbuilding strategy would be published before the autumn statement?

Harriett Baldwin

Mr Speaker, did you pick up in that question any congratulations on or delight at the fact that I was at the shipyards on the Clyde on Thursday, cutting steel for two new offshore patrol vessels? I remain astonished at the very grudging way in which the Scottish National party fails to recognise the billions of pounds of work that is being sent to shipyards on the Clyde.

Brendan O’Hara

For the record, I am absolutely delighted that the OPVs are being built on the Clyde. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to workers and management across the UK shipbuilding industry for the misleading and contradictory statements that have come from the Ministry of Defence during the past few months? Will she also take this opportunity to explain why the shipbuilding strategy did not appear when she promised it would appear?

Harriett Baldwin

It is lucky the hon. Gentleman gets a supplementary, so that he can say some vague, grudging words of welcome for the fact that we have just announced two decades’ worth of work on the Type 26 frigates in Scotland. He is complaining about the lack of publication of a report that has been published; the Government will provide their response next year. [Interruption.] Sir John Parker’s report on shipbuilding was published on 29 November. I am sorry the hon. Gentleman has not had a chance to read it, and will send him a personally signed copy.

Mr Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is a very excitable burgher of this House. I am not sure that he has quite attained the apogee of statesmanship to which he should aspire. He must try to calm himself and take some sort of soothing medicament. That will probably do the trick. Let us hear from a calm person. I call Maria Miller.

Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)

The Minister’s focus on innovation is absolutely right. Will she look at the excellent work of the National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme, which is already running more than 100 innovation projects, and establish how she can help to continue that work?

Harriett Baldwin

Mr Speaker, you were absolutely right to call my right hon. Friend, who has asked such a calm and helpful question about the excellent work of that organisation. She also will be familiar with the work of the Defence Growth Partnership at Farnborough and the fantastic way in which it works to promote the excellence of the UK aerospace industry to people all around the world.

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Armed Forces: Equipment

Edward Argar (Charnwood) (Con)

14. What plans he has to invest in equipment for the armed forces until 2020. [907785]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Harriett Baldwin)

The Government are committed to increasing the defence budget by 0.5% a year in real terms, as well as increasing our equipment budget by 1% above inflation each year until 2020. Put simply, that means more ships, more planes and an increase in cutting-edge equipment for our Special Forces.

Mr Speaker

One of the great merits of having the Clerk in front of me is that I am on the receiving end of his specialist advice. May I say, for the benefit both of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), who takes an interest in these matters, I know, and of the House, that the letter to which reference was made is strictly speaking a letter to the House and for its benefit? Notwithstanding the motivation of the right hon. Gentleman in saying, “You need not write,” may I with the greatest respect say to the right hon. Gentleman, a distinguished former Minister, that that is not for him to judge—the letter is for the House’s benefit. He may be disinterested in it, but others may be interested. We will leave it there.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

How will we get to see it?

Mr Speaker

The hon. Gentleman chunters from a sedentary position, “How will we see it?” Toddle along to the Library and you will find it, man.

Edward Argar

Will my hon. Friend the Minister reassure me that we will continue to provide our armed forces with the best possible equipment and that, where appropriate and where that standard is met, that will be equipment developed and manufactured in the UK?

Harriett Baldwin

My hon. Friend is right that we need to focus on the best equipment and getting the right capability for our armed forces. We will also always seek the best value for money for the taxpayer, but we will seek to get that UK content as strong as possible. The F-35 is an example. Fifteen per cent. of each of the 3,000 planes in the global programme are made at Warton in the north-west, and the UK has been selected as the global hub for a large number of elements for the maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade of those fantastic aircraft.

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Topical Questions

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (UKIP)

T7. Does the Minister support Sir John Parker’s recommendation that the construction of the Type 31 frigate be opened up to a much wider range of defence contractors, rather than just BAE Systems, and that in doing so we can end the defence cartel and embrace more competition? [907802]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Harriett Baldwin)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for having read that excellent report, for which we thank Sir John Parker. The Government will respond to his 34 recommendations in spring 2017.

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George Kerevan (East Lothian) (SNP)

The unit cost of the five P-8 Poseidon aircraft that Norway is buying is $300 million, including the data uplink. After the Brexit devaluation, the unit cost of the nine P-8s that the UK is buying is nearer to $400 million dollars. Does the Minister call that value for money?

Harriett Baldwin

I am not quite sure of the hon. Gentleman’s exact point, because if it were up to him and his party, we would not be buying P-8s or basing them in Scotland.

Marcus Fysh (Yeovil) (Con)

Will my hon. Friend support me in obtaining Department for Communities and Local Government sponsorship for the lion’s share of funding to bring forward the iAero innovation hub in Yeovil? Rapid innovation in unmanned aerial vehicles could help the MOD to deliver aid and support our military.

Harriett Baldwin

I thank my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on behalf of the excellent work done in his constituency on interesting, innovative projects, such as the unmanned helicopter system. We have committed to spend some £3 billion with Leonardo over the next 10 years as part of our long-term partnering arrangement.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab)

The Israeli and US navies have recently been attacked with anti-ship missiles by Hezbollah and the Houthis. Is it not time to look again at the River-class offshore patrol vehicles and the Type 31 frigate to ensure that they have ASAM capability?

Harriett Baldwin

It is important that the Royal Navy continually assesses the capabilities with which ships are fitted. I cannot go into some sensitive details at the Dispatch Box owing to operational requirements.

Chris Philp (Croydon South) (Con)

The UK’s frigates and destroyers are currently protected with Harpoon missiles with a range of 80 miles. Those missiles will be coming out of service in 2018, leaving our frigates and destroyers defended by Mark 8 guns with a range of 17 miles and, from 2020, Sea Venom missiles with a range of just 11 miles. Will the Minister reconsider extending the service life of the Harpoon missiles to ensure that our ships are properly defended?

Harriett Baldwin

The Royal Navy is, of course, continuously assessing the capabilities it requires, and work is ongoing across the Department to consider the options for the Harpoon replacement.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

Thanks to the Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Act 2010, brought in by the Labour Government, we do not use or sell cluster munitions any more, but the Government are also required under the Act to persuade their allies not to use cluster munitions either. What are the Government doing to try to stop the Saudis from using cluster munitions in Yemen?

Harriett Baldwin

In line with our obligations under the cluster munitions convention, we continue actively to discourage all states that are not party to the convention from using cluster munitions and we encourage them to accede to it without delay. We have raised the issue of ratification of the convention at ministerial level with Saudi Arabia.

Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood) (Con)

I was disappointed to learn of staff reductions at BAE Systems, including at the site in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend outline what support his Department can offer to our local suppliers to ensure that the skills behind the innovation are secured in my constituency?

Harriett Baldwin

I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment at the news that BAE Systems is reducing employment at the Rochester site—after all, we are spending quite a lot of money with BAE at the moment. But I am sure that the people she mentions have exemplary skills, and I can say on behalf of the Government that we will do everything we can to make sure that those valuable skills are redeployed in other areas of this avionics speciality.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)

Further to the hon. Lady’s answer to me earlier, I am glad that she gave confirmation about the budget, but can she tell us when the last of the six Type 45 destroyers will have the new power and propulsion system fitted?

Harriett Baldwin

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact timetable, because that has not been finalised, but I can tell him that the budget is in place, the contract will be competed for in the normal way, and that ongoing improvements are being made—as they have been made—all the time to that power and propulsion system.

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