Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
My Lords, speaking on defence matters, I am not used to having detailed legislative scrutiny. We rarely have legislation, and when it comes forward it is often like the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order, which is on half a side of A4, and the Explanatory Notes are equally short and, in most cases, rather unnecessary. The message is essentially: “We need this legislation in order to carry on having the Armed Forces”.
On this occasion, I rise to speak with some trepidation on the Procurement Bill, because as the noble Lord, Lord True, pointed out in his opening remarks, it is a very detailed Bill and not one to which I would normally put my name. On this occasion, therefore, I am extremely grateful for the Explanatory Notes. I will speak to the core part of the Bill that I welcome: the fact that if we are to have a single procurement regime, it should include defence. However much we might endorse Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and welcome what they do, it is very rare for anybody to stand up and say that the defence procurement regime works incredibly well and cannot be improved. So in that sense, this is a welcome Bill.
By way of preamble, I would very much like to welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord True, in introducing the Bill and in his response to a previous question from the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg—that this Bill could have relevance to genocide and modern slavery. I assume that my noble friend Lord Alton will raise this issue in his contribution. The opportunity for us to raise questions about values in procurement is hugely welcome. That the Government were willing to make some amendments to the then Health and Care Bill was also very welcome in this regard. If a single procurement regime were to lead to best practice, ensuring that contracts which could be seen as corrupt were not let, or that people’s What’s App groups were not relevant to procurement, this would all be very welcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, has just pointed out that procurement is sometimes about trying to change the spec—maybe mending or meddling. In defence procurement, contracts regularly run over length and over budget. Many civilians, many of whom are not interested in defence, may not have noticed, for example, questions about the A400M or Ajax armoured vehicles. It is a bit similar to Crossrail, now welcomed as the Elizabeth line, being four years over time and over budget. In a whole series of reports, most recently in November 2021, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has pointed out some of the problems with defence procurement. Cumulatively, various pieces of defence equipment are running 21 years behind schedule—although one assumes that no single item is 21 years overdue.
The noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead—he is not in his place today, although he may appear at some later point in proceedings on the Bill—has on many occasions asked questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, about the number of ships and the procurement process, including when a certain class of ship will come on stream. We keep being told that this may be in the mid or late-2020s. Delay is a perennial problem in defence procurement. If this legislation is to offer a single approach to procurement, of which defence is part, that sounds very welcome.
As my noble friend Lord Fox pointed out, there are a number of exemptions in the legislation. A whole clause lists various exemptions, chief among them being those relating to defence. I would be grateful if the Minister, either today or in writing, or the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, when preparing for the Bill Committee, could indicate to your Lordships the Government’s thinking on exemptions, particularly those linked to defence. Some would appear straightforward. If a tank or armoured vehicle is in another country, it would not necessarily be brought back to the United Kingdom to be repaired. If there are larger procurement issues to do with repairs, maybe we need to think about not exempting these provisions. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s thinking on exemptions?
As is so often the case, there are some weasel words in the schedules about national security, which is mentioned twice as an exclusion and as an exemption. Procurement might be exempted from this regime if there are national security reasons to do so. Who determines whether something is a matter of national security? Is it the National Security Council? Is it the Home Office if it is a domestic matter? Will it be the organisation seeking to procure—whether that be the MoD, the Home Office or some other body—who say: “This is a matter of national security, and therefore it should be exempt”? Is the legislation sufficiently clear on that? If not, then that is an area where perhaps we need to bring some amendments to tighten the legislation. Those who advocated Brexit would say that this new approach to procurement legislation gives us more control over procurement and allows this House and the other place to scrutinise legislation so we should be doing it properly. Exemptions in terms of national security are a concern.
There will also be exclusions on the basis of national security. That clearly sounds very sensible on the face of it. You would not seek to procure equipment—particularly defence equipment—from a provider which might jeopardise British security. That seems a no-brainer. But again, who is making that decision about providers potentially jeopardising national security? Will there be a register? Will companies be on a list of providers that cannot be used because they jeopardise national security? That might be an area where there could be some probing amendments.
In terms of defence, having some improved procurement mechanisms might be very welcome. In its November report, the Public Accounts Committee argued that:
“To meet the aspirations of the Integrated Review, the Department’s—
that is, the MoD’s—
“broken system for acquiring military equipment needs an urgent rethink, led by HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.”
Is this Bill the Cabinet Office’s response to the need for the MoD to improve its behaviour and its procurement provisions? Personally, I think it would be quite good to keep Her Majesty’s Treasury out of these things because, while we might want value for money in defence procurement, we also need to ensure that we are procuring the right things, and the Treasury’s approach to the bottom line might not be the right way forward.
In defence procurement in particular, having the right legislation will matter, but so will scrutiny of the actual contracts that are being let. It will be vital not just to get this legislation right but to ensure that, in major complex procurements in the future, we do not allow the politicisation of procurement to allow Ministers and officials to keep going back asking, “Could we just amend this contract? Could we add a few more bells and whistles?” Every time that happens, the cost of a contract goes up and the overruns go on longer.
This legislation offers some opportunities, but it will still be incumbent on your Lordships’ House and the other place to ensure that, in defence procurement, we really scrutinise everything that the MoD is doing.