Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I first associate the official Opposition with the remarks made by the Minister and the condolences that he has expressed on the deaths of the two servicemen, Lance Corporal Allan Douglas and Corporal Gordon Pritchard, the most recent casualties in Iraq, and a salutary reminder to all of us and to the nation of the proud part that is played not only by our armed forces but by their families in supporting them. I join him in paying tribute to the families who give this unstinting support, as I know, representing as I do a garrison town. The Minister is entirely right to remind the House and the nation that around the country there are many injured servicemen and women who did not lose their lives, but who every day will bear the scars of the contribution and the sacrifice that they have made on behalf of us all. The House will be grateful to the Minister for that.
The fact that so many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to participate in the debate is an indication of the importance of defence procurement at the present time. Furthermore, the fact that the Minister’s contribution lasted for virtually an hour—although, if I may say so, it was a bit wayward at the beginning—was an indication that he too regards this as an important issue, and that there are a number of very specific factors that we need to address. I am conscious that my right hon. and hon. Friends wish to contribute, and if I miss out something, it is not because I do not regard it as important, but I wish to preserve some time for my colleagues, and no doubt my omissions will be taken up by them. I almost begin where the Minister left off, because he referred to the various reports that have been published recently, not least the NAO’s major project reports. Since we last debated defence procurement 15 months ago in November 2004, there have been a number of those reports, so this debate is against the backdrop of a series of Select Committee and NAO reports highly critical of the Government’s management of defence procurement. Once again, Ministers have presented a strategy designed to meet our procurement requirements for the coming decades and to make up for the deficiencies that the previous strategy failed to resolve.
The 2005 NAO major project report was greeted by the MOD as an improvement on the previous two years, which was hardly difficult given that the 2003 report was described as the worst in the history of the report. As is now customary under the Government, the report still highlighted significant cost overruns and delays, and the MOD’s latest projects are now £2.7 billion above the originally approved costs. But that specifically excludes—I understand on grounds of commercial sensitivity—the Typhoon project, which in previous years had accounted for over £2.3 billion in cost overruns. The MOD’s major procurement projects also continue to fall behind, with delays increasing by 45 months over the past year. But once again, that figure is affected by the exclusion of the joint combat aircraft, which has had its in-service date mysteriously dropped.
In a rather underhand attempt to pre-empt the third disappointing major project report in a row, the noble Lord Drayson held a press briefing days before the embargoed report came out, to spin the positive points in that report. The Minister claimed a £699 million improvement in the cost of the 20 largest defence projects. However, as the NAO concluded, those savings came not from efficiency, but from cuts to future capabilities and cuts in the number of platforms.
Let us not forget that the 2005 report follows hard on the 2004 MPR, which cited cost overruns of £1.9 billion and delays of 144 months. That report followed the disastrous 2003 report that I have just mentioned and its £3.1 billion cost overruns and an average delay of 18 months across the 20 largest projects.
Mr. Ingram: Will the hon. Gentleman