Richard Rosser explains the two crunch issues remaining at Report stage of the Defence Reform Bill
Today’s final day of Report of the Defence Reform Bill is not likely to be a prolonged session, but that should not be allowed to detract from its importance.
Despite having been thwarted (by a shortage of bidders) in their objective of putting the procurement of defence equipment and supplies in the hands of the private sector, Ministers have still insisted on retaining the power to make such a move within the Bill. The only scrutiny therefore, that there would be of any future government’s decision to transfer the defence procurement activity within the Ministry of Defence to the private sector would be a need for affirmative Orders to be passed by both Houses.
Such scrutiny would be totally inadequate, particularly since the current Defence Equipment and Supplies organisation is going to be given greater freedoms to operate on a more commercial basis. So any future case for handing over the function to private firms would have to be based on a comparison with the effectiveness of a revamped MoD organisation which is not yet up and running – rather than, as now, on a comparison with the current one.
Labour has tabled an amendment turning the affirmative Orders into super-affirmative Orders, which provide for specific documentation (including comparative information) to be provided to Parliament. And we are also calling for scrutiny by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, prior to any related votes. A weaker amendment, tabled by Crossbench Peers, provides for less scrutiny of any future government’s decision to hand over defence procurement to the private sector. But nevertheless goes further than the provisions currently proposed by the Coalition.
If the Crossbench amendment is put to a vote we shall support it. If it is not, and no acceptable commitments have been given by Ministers to come back with a satisfactory response of their own at Third Reading, we shall vote on ours.
The other key issue to be debated today is our amendment seeking to implement one conclusion of the Defence Select Committee from its recent Report on ‘Future Army 2020. The Committee had two key concerns. The first is over whether plans for the role and structure of the Army, with its run down of regular forces and increase in the number of reserves, will meet the UK’s national security needs. The second is regarding how these plans were developed and tested. In light of all of this, the Committee has pressed the government to commit to providing regular, annual updates to Parliament on the progress being made on implementation – or indeed, the lack of it.
There is already a requirement in the Bill for the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association to produce an annual report on the state of our reserves. Given this, there is absolutely no reason why Ministers should not accept the conclusions of the Defence Select Committee and agree to our amendment.
Lord Richard Rosser is a Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords
Published 26th March 2014