Wednesday, 10 October 2007

What are they for?

The primary purpose of a general debate in the House of Commons (in theory, at least) is to afford MPs the chance to discuss issues of concern and, in particular, to bring the responsible minister to the House for questioning. It is thus a vital tool by which our government is held to account.

On an issue as vital as defence procurement, this process of scrutiny - holding to account - is sorely necessary, not least because of the dismal record of this government (like its predecessors) on the issue, but also because of the vast sums of money involved (some £16 billion a year) and because the entire efficacy of our Armed Forces depends on the right decisions being made.

There is also the equally important matter of the safety of our Service personnel for, as we have demonstrated so often in this blog, the wrong decisions can and do cost lives.

So it was that yesterday we had an adjournment debate on defence procurement, giving MPs precisely the opportunity of questioning the newly promoted Minister for the Armed Forces, Bob Ainsworth (pictured, top).

For those unfamiliar with the procedure, this type of debate is open-ended. There is no "motion" as such – merely that "the House do adjourn", discussed, typically, in a near-empty chamber.

Traditionally, the senior minister opens with a speech, he (or she) is answered (and questioned by a senior opposition spokesman - in this case, Liam Fox for the Tories), then by spokesmen for the lesser parties, following which the debate is opened to the "floor". At its conclusion, the debate is then summed up by shadow spokesman – this time it was Gerald Howarth, shadow defence minister – and then there is a response from a junior government minister. On this day, that duty fell to Derek Twigg.

The problem – and indeed it is a problem – is that such general debates are too general. Serious minded MPs might like to press the minister on major issue – like better equipment for troops on operations – but this is also an opportunity for any passing MP to "intervene" on the minister and air a particular hobby horse.

Thus it was that Ainsworth, not minutes into his speech, was interrupted by Bill Wiggin, the Conservative MP for Leominster, who persists to the degree that the minister is forced to give way.

But Wiggin is not concerned with matters such as would normally find their way into this particular blog. He wanted to know what discussions the minister had with DEFRA about increasing from just three percent of the amount of British lamb that our forces are allowed to eat. Introducing more British lamb through the procurement process, says Wiggin, would be good for the taxpayer, good for the farmers on whose land our troops train and, most of all, good for our troops, because British lamb is so delicious.

Shortly afterwards, we get another intervention – this from Ian Davidson Labour MP for Glasgow, South-West. He tells the minister how grateful he and his constituency are for the award of the aircraft carrier, and then wants clarification on whether the MARS - military afloat reach and sustainability -contract will be offered for award outside the United Kingdom through the Official Journal of the European Union.

This is an issue which we raised over a year ago and it deserves a debate in its own right. Davidson wants the minister "to reverse Government policy" on the matter – as if he could. If the project comes under the EU procurement directives, then he has no choice but to open the contract out to EU competition. But Ainsworth simply bats the question away with the uninformative statement that, "the MARS project is still in the development stage."

But before he can get back into his stride, the Labour MP for Chorley, Lindsay Hoyle, chips in with a comment about the BAE yard at Barrow getting a share of the carrier building work. And, no sooner has that been dealt with than the Lib-Dem MP for Yeovil, David Laws, raises a point about "the first partnering agreement for the Future Lynx helicopter".

Such "interventions" are the daily fare of Commons debates, but it is worth referring to them here as it illustrates the general incoherence of the discourse and also the difficulty in reporting such events. Many minutes into the debate, the minister has said nothing very much and we have been all over the place.

In fact, the minister says nothing very much at all – they never do. His speech is a bland tour de table of the current procurement situation, heavily politicised, self-congratulatory and uninformative. Ann Winterton intervenes at one point, asking about the order for medium protected patrol vehicles. The answer is also bland, but reassuring, and on it goes.

Frankly, at this point, interest wanes. The real "fireworks" are supposed to come later, when the opposition spokesman pitches in, so we move forward to Liam Fox, with Ainsworth, en route telling us that, "Our armed forces are among the most capable in the world…".

Come Fox's speech, however, starting 36 minutes into the debate, any idea of a thread or specific theme has long been lost. And the opposition spokesman immediately turns to his personal hobby horse, complaining about those "who make a false distinction between procurement and welfare issues." He adds for good measure, "Procurement is a welfare issue… For our servicemen and women and their families, there are few issues as important as whether they have the equipment to maximise their safety and ensure the success of the tasks that they undertake in our name."

We could not disagree here, but his speech is then a litany of complaints about falling defence expenditure, about cuts, cuts and more cuts, inadequate resources, overspending and again – a quote he used at his Party conference – the words of the Oxford coroner at the inquest of Sergeant Roberts in Iraq: send soldiers into a combat zone without the appropriate basic equipment is, in my view, unforgivable and inexcusable, and represents a breach of trust that the soldiers have in those who govern them.
At this point, we do walk away. Had I been a journalist tasked with covering the debate (not that there were any), I would have been moving towards the door, to the bar, the toilet, the office, or even home – anywhere but this debating chamber, with tired mantras flying, vying for attention with stale clichés.

There are nuggets later in the debate, and we will mine them, refine them and refer to them in other posts, but the spoil heap is huge and should not trouble our readers. Debates in Parliament are not for the faint-hearted. Nor are they for seekers after truth or even simple-minded souls who want answers to questions.

One might, therefore, ask our own question about these debates, such as "what are they for?" The question is easy. Answers are a little more difficult.