Defence Questions

Philip Dunne answers back bench MPs’ questions on issues including the security of the UK’s international supply chains, investment in the armed forces’ helicopter capabilities and the protection of intellectual property.

International Supply Chains

1. Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security of the UK’s international supply chains. [901478]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): The Ministry of Defence undertakes a quarterly assessment of industrial risk covering both domestic and international supply chains. Our key suppliers are under regular review, not only for their financial status, but for their business strategy, sector risk and leverage. Prime contractors are held responsible for the health of their own supply chain, although many of their sub-contractors are also reviewed under the MOD critical supplier process, which monitors the financial resilience of more than 500 domestic and international suppliers.

Laura Sandys: Food security is one of the big issues facing the UK, given that we are one of the largest importers of food. When assessing the increasing protectionism and food consumption globally, does the MOD feel that we have a secure food supply chain?

Mr Dunne: I am very confident of the food supply chain for mince pies, having visited the factory supplying our troops in Helmand earlier today.

The national security risk assessment rates the short to medium-term disruption to essential resources including food as a tier 3 risk. The UK currently enjoys a high degree of food security in terms of access, availability, resilience and variety of food supply. The main role for the MOD in securing international food supply chains and other critical resources is, in co-ordination with others, to police international sea lanes, which supply the vast majority of imports to the UK of food and other essential resources.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): In the scenario planning assessing the security of the supply chain, has the Minister considered the possibility of the Suez canal being closed? What provision has he made for such a scenario?

Mr Dunne: The Suez canal is clearly a vital supply chain route in and out of the Mediterranean. Naval vessels use those channels to take part in some of our regular routine operations on the other side of the Gulf, and the canal is of course an essential part of the security of supply chains for oil resources out of the Gulf. We keep that under continual contingency planning.

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): BAE Systems has announced its plan to cease shipbuilding in Portsmouth, which will have an impact not only on its own employees but on those in the wider supply chain. What steps is the Minister taking to support small and medium-sized enterprises through this difficult time?

Mr Dunne: Clearly, BAE System’s decision to extract itself from shipbuilding in Portsmouth will have a significant impact locally, but my hon. Friend will be well aware that more than 11,000 people will continue to be employed on the royal naval base at Portsmouth, which will maintain vital jobs for SMEs throughout the supply chain.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What role can unmanned aerial vehicles play in filling the maritime capability gap, and has the Minister considered the use of UAVs by both Europe and the United States of America for maritime surveillance and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance?

Mr Dunne: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the strategic defence and security review 2015 will be the opportunity to review new capabilities in the unmanned space. He might also be aware that the ScanEagle unmanned maritime system is due to enter service in the new year.

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Cyber-security attacks constitute an increased threat to the supply chain. How is the MOD working with the industry to ensure sufficient and proportionate cyber-security in the UK supply chain?

Mr Dunne: As the hon. Lady might be aware, last July we announced the defence cyber-protection policy, which works in conjunction with industry to develop awareness of cyber-defences across the 13 largest defence contractors and with the SME representatives, the trade associations. We are working closely with industry to develop cyber-defensive capabilities.

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Helicopter Capabilities

6. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What recent investment his Department has made in the armed forces’ helicopter capabilities. [901483]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): This Government are committed to providing our armed forces with the helicopter capability required for Future Force 2020. In the equipment plan, published last January, we confirmed that the Department would spend some £12 billion over the next 10 years to ensure that our helicopter capability remained up to date. We have already invested £2 billion since the strategic defence and security review in 2010 on modernising our existing helicopter fleet and bringing into service the Merlin Mk 2, the Wildcat and—a matter of particular interest to my hon. Friend—the Pumas based at RAF Benson in his constituency.

John Howell: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he ensure that the 14 Chinook helicopters ordered by this Government will be put to good use, unlike the eight Chinook helicopters that were left languishing in hangars under the previous Government, despite the shortage of lift capability?

Mr Dunne: My hon. Friend is quite right. This Government are getting helicopter capability upgraded and in service, in stark contrast to the Labour Government, who left eight Chinook helicopters languishing in hangars for years.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register. We know that the UK has strength and depth across helicopter design and development—I have visited AgustaWestland and spoken to other manufacturers—but we need support for the future development of both rotary and fixed wing. In the light of recent reports that the next generation of fighter aircraft may have to be bought specifically from the US or Asia, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we not only protect the skills in the UK but meet our future defence needs?

Mr Dunne: I am intrigued that the hon. Lady is seeking to divert the question to fixed wing from rotary wing. We have a clear strategy to replace fixed-wing and helicopter capability over the next period. On the joint strike fighter, a 15% share of that global programme is being manufactured here in the UK through the BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce supply chains.

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Intellectual Property

9. Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with the UK defence sector on the protection of intellectual property. [901486]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): Routine contract negotiations involve intellectual property discussions with industry all the time. The MOD’s intellectual property team enjoys a close working relationship with industry. A joint issues working group meets three times a year and it includes the industry trade body ADS.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister will know that I chair the all-party group on manufacturing and that we have some fine manufacturers in my constituency. There is a worry in the sector about the close relationship with China. We want to export to China, but many people in the sector believe that China is in the business of economic warfare—it has stolen our IP—and that we are opening up our major sensitive companies to the stealing of IP by China.

Mr Dunne: The hon. Gentleman may have a point in relation to other industries, but I can assure him that there is no intent on the part of this Government to encourage the export of defence equipment to China.

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Equipment Programme

11. Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): Which urgent operational requirements he plans to bring into the core Ministry of Defence equipment programme. [901488]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): The future of equipment bought through the urgent operational requirement process for operations in Afghanistan is currently being considered, with a departmental provision of £1.5 billion to support such equipment over the next 10 years. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we have already decided to bring some 2,000 protected mobility vehicles into the core programme, including 71 Coyote, 325 Husky, 441 Jackal, 439 Mastiff, 169 Ridgeback and 60 Warthog vehicles. That represents a significant increase in the Army’s protected mobility capability, which I am sure he will welcome.

Mr Syms: I welcome that very comprehensive answer. I am pleased that we will make the maximum use of the equipment that was purchased for Afghanistan and that the Government are determined to increase the capability of the Army in Europe. What cost implications will that have for the core equipment programme, and will it have an impact on other aspects of the programme?

Mr Dunne: As I said to my hon. Friend in my fairly comprehensive initial answer, we have allocated £1.5 billion, which is essentially to support the elements being brought back into the core. The original capital cost was more than £5 billion in Iraq, and I think £7.6 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That is of course money that has already been spent, so it is not a continuing drain on the Ministry of Defence budget.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): The Government previously announced that the cost of the Vanguard successor programme would be part of the MOD main core equipment budget. I note that today the Minister has published a document on the costings of the assessment phase of Vanguard. It makes reference to the alternatives review. Will he inform the House when the Department will be in a position to tell us the cost of that review?

Mr Dunne: I am sure that you would agree, Mr Speaker, that the successor programme could scarcely be described as an urgent operational requirement.

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): Let me take the House back to urgent operational requirements and the fairly comprehensive answer given by my hon. Friend. Will he update the House on the progress of the Foxhound vehicle, which began life as an urgent operational requirement and is now part of the core programme and performing very well?

Mr Dunne: With great pleasure, as my hon. Friend played a key role in commissioning the Foxhound vehicle. As he will recall, it was commissioned under the urgent operational requirement procedure but was always regarded as a core piece of equipment. We are well on the way to delivering 400 Foxhound vehicles to the British Army.

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Topical Questions

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): May I join the Defence Secretary in sending Christmas and new year wishes to members of our armed forces past and present and their families, whether abroad or in this country?

Once again the media are reporting concerns about a major defence issue based on a document obtained from the Ministry of Defence. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the planned privatisation of the Defence Support Group, which provides equipment repair and maintenance for our armed forces? Will he confirm that the US Government have raised significant concerns about intellectual property and that the sell-off is causing understandable nervousness in the Army?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne): As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, this Government do not comment on leaked documents. I can confirm, however, that the Defence Support Group is an important maintenance supplier to the British Army and that we are in discussions about the possibility of selling that entity, as has been made clear to him and to the Members of this House who have facilities in their constituencies. A decision will be taken in the first quarter of next year. We have had initial interest in this opportunity and we are well on top of the issues that have recently been identified in the press in relation to intellectual property and foreign IT.

Vernon Coaker: Well, there we have it—again. We have seen this one before and we all know how it ends. Despite warnings from Labour Members, the Defence Secretary pressed ahead with his fundamentally flawed plans for a GoCo before being forced to abandon them last week when it became clear that they would not work. Rather than go through that again, why do not the Government delay putting the Defence Support Group out to tender to allow a proper analysis of the implications of selling it off and to help to ensure that we do not end up with another GoCo no-go debacle? This is about our national interest and security; does not the Defence Secretary agree that we need to get it right?

Mr Dunne: The Defence Support Group provides maintenance and repair to platforms used by the British Army. It is entirely analogous to the maintenance and support repair facilities provided to surface and sub-surface ships in the Navy and to all the air platforms in the Air Force, which are all provided by private contractors, many of whom were put under contract under the previous Government.

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Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): My constituents who work for the Defence Support Group at Sealand in north Wales share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) about this possible sale. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) does not need to comment on leaked documents; could he just tell the House whether or not the American Government have made any representations to him about the dangers of such a sale?

Mr Dunne: What I can say is that the activities at Sealand cover ECBU—the electronic and components business unit—which we have indicated would not form part of the sale, so it is most unlikely to apply.

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