Chris Evans – 2023 Speech on the Armoured Cavalry Programme – Sheldon Review

The speech made by Chris Evans, the Shadow Defence Minister, in the House of Commons on 15 June 2023.

Before I start, if you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to pay tribute to Glenda Jackson, our former colleague, given the sad news that she recently passed away. She was a doughty champion for social justice and was the greatest actor of this or any other generation. I am sure further tributes will be paid in the coming days.

What the Sheldon review has shown without a shadow of a doubt is that Ajax is the biggest procurement failure for a decade. The review is beyond damning. For a report to state,

“Reporting was at times lacking, or unclear, or overly optimistic. That led to senior personnel and Ministers being surprised to discover in late 2020 and early 2021 that the programme was at much greater risk than they had appreciated”,

is frankly embarrassing.

There is no place to hide any longer. The failure to manage this contract was on this Conservative Government’s watch. It was they who allowed the relationship with General Dynamics to break down to such an extent that every time Ajax was mentioned, here or in the press, there was fevered speculation that the contract was about to be cancelled. That has caused anxiety for the Army and above all for the workers in General Dynamics in both Merthyr Tydfil and Oakdale in my own Islwyn constituency. Even the threat of losing 400 jobs would be devastating for the south Wales economy.

This programme has cost £5.5 billion and has been running for 13 years, but has yet to deliver one deployable vehicle. If this was the private sector, heads would roll, so I ask the Minister this: has any action been taken against anyone responsible for this mess? What new procedures have already been put in place on other major programmes to stop similar mistakes happening? Ministers must ensure that our NATO obligations are met in full, but, whether it is Ajax, delays to Wedgetail or a modern war-fighting division, NATO must have concerns. Have any been raised with the Government about Ajax?

I well remember the sense of excitement from workers at Oakdale when this contract was signed in 2010, just after I was elected. The Ajax contract was then labelled a game changer, not only for south Wales, but for the Army. It is truly sad that we have arrived at a point where Ajax has become a byword for waste and incompetence.

Workers at General Dynamics should have been listened to, but they were not. There was a

“lack of appreciation of diverse and contrary voices, especially from those working on the ‘shopfloor’. These voices were not fully included, and were too easily dismissed.”

Those are not my words, but the words of the report. Perhaps if workers had been listened to, we would not be standing here now.

As the Minister knows, Ajax is not an isolated case: 37 out of 39 defence equipment contracts being run by the Ministry of Defence are marked red or amber by the National Audit Office. That includes Morpheus, which is extremely important to our armed forces. Have the problems with that programme’s communications system been fixed, or are they unfixable? What contingency plans are being made for Morpheus?

For a contract as important as Ajax, with so much speculation around it, it is amazing that we have not had an oral statement on Ajax since December 2021. For too long, the Government have avoided scrutiny on this issue. On this and other future contracts, will the Minister commit to giving regular updates to the House? We are, after all, ensuring soldiers’ safety—the most important thing about the contract—and spending taxpayers’ money. I find myself in agreement with the Minister when he says that change has to come. It is not a moment too soon.

James Cartlidge

I begin by agreeing with the hon. Gentleman on Glenda Jackson; I do not think she was in the House when I was here, but she was an amazing actress and I join in his sentiments and echo them entirely.

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is not just the shadow spokesman but has a clear constituency interest, and I respect that. He talks about fevered speculation and the impact on the workforce, and I totally understand that. We do not want to see that. He talks about coming to the House: I am here today to be absolutely clear with everyone about the latest position. In fact, my colleague the Paymaster General regularly updated the House on the position around Ajax when he was the Minister. My predecessor, now the Lord Chancellor, also issued a written statement earlier this year that was very detailed about the programme, so I think we have been consistent in updating the House.

On some of the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions, he asked about action on individuals. What we said when commissioning this review was that disciplinary action would be taken only if there was evidence of gross misconduct, and Mr Sheldon found no evidence of misconduct, let alone gross misconduct. That is the clear reason why individual action has not been taken.

In terms of action across programmes, I point the hon. Gentleman to the very significant investment by the Army of £70 million over the next 10 years in Army procurement programmes, including in the past two years a doubling in the number of SROs and a doubling of the amount of time that SROs spend on their responsible major projects. Those are significant investments.

I also point out to the hon. Gentleman some of the improvements we have seen. I accept that we need to go further but, if I may draw a contrast, this is not the first review of acquisition. Bernard Gray issued an independent “Review of Acquisition for the Secretary of State for Defence” in 2009, which described a poorly performing procurement system. That review found that

“the average programme overruns by 80% or c.5 years from the time specified at initial approval through to in service dates”,

and that was under a previous Government.

These problems have been around for some time and it is disappointing. I have pointed to the improvements we have seen, but let me be absolutely clear: the ultimate reason we have this report is to learn lessons and the way we respond to it is to deliver a fundamentally better acquisition system. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman on that and I hope we can all work together to that end.