News story

Defence Minister Peter Luff is talking equipment

For a minister with only a limited military background, the new Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, Peter Luff, has quickly developed a firm grasp of his new brief. Report by Steve Moore.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

He has been in post for just one month, but Mr Luff - a keen supporter of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme where MPs ‘join’ the Forces for weeks at a time to see military life - has already built up a stock of experience:

Urgent Operational Requirements [UORs] achieved by DE&S, delivering kit to our people to make life safer, and their lives better is a fantastic success story,” he said.

And we have to talk about it more. It just shows what can be done. It requires a constant blitz to get this message across.

As Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology - the amended title shows the increasing importance of technology insertion into defence equipment - for only a few weeks Mr Luff has received a crash course in the work of DE&S which has given him the knowledge he will need to contribute to the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR):

The range and scale of the work done by DE&S is breathtaking,” he said.

Abbey Wood is a hugely impressive operation and I pay tribute to all those who brought two organisations into one. It has worked in a short timescale with very sharp reductions in staff. But the ‘can do’ attitude you see in the Armed Services you see at DE&S too.

Despite briefs on major projects Mr Luff is keen on second opinions:

I am told the equipment DE&S produces is very good. On my visits to see equipment I have been impressed. It does look good.

But I will be going to theatre in the not-too-distant future and one of my key questions will be, is this actually true?

I’m inclined to think it is but I need to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

Many of us have friends and relations in theatre who say things are coming along quite fast in the quality of kit the troops are getting. But public perceptions lag a long way behind reality.

It’s a problem politicians face all the time. People judge things on what they heard a year or two ago, Those memories linger on and it is very true of kit.

It has got better, a lot of lessons have been learned, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make further improvements.

The number one priority is to make sure the Afghanistan effort is supported,” he added.

You can’t fault the DE&S effort towards UORs - at what cost to the rest of the organisation, well, discuss - but that effort has been fantastic.

The second priority has to be getting things back in balance again. The organisation is hopelessly overcommitted and cannot afford what it is committed to. But we can’t rush decisions.

In a sense this is an easy time for me as we wait for SDSR and we’ll be much busier in the autumn when we know exactly what it is we want to achieve.

Mr Luff, with a long record of success in business, has spoken to staff about a new relationship with industry:

We will always be at a disadvantage against the commercial sector, their commercial skills, their legal skills, their lobbying campaigns. So we must make sure we upskill people.

I know a lot of that is already happening. Project management work for example which the Chief of Defence Materiel is always telling me about, is clearly improving rapidly and we are in some cases leading the rest of the country, but that kind of skill has to be developed so we can take on industry.

Industry has to recognise that they may want a long-term base but they must treat us fairly too.They can’t take us for granted. Rebalancing means empowering us to take on industry.

Other priorities include treating our small and medium sized enterprises properly and trying to increase the exportability of our equipment. I’m really keen on making sure our exports in the defence world rise. We are very good already; we can do much better.

There will be an updated version of the Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS) informed by SDSR. Again Mr Luff is forthright:

What was crucially wrong with the old DIS was that it didn’t have a price tag to it. It was a wish list, and the next DIS can’t be a wish list,” he said.

We haven’t made formal decisions on how we go forward on that, but we want industry heavily involved. I’m clear that the defence industry is a big part of the British economy and I’m concerned to make sure that any decisions we take affecting procurement actually enforce the success of industry to the nation.

Parts of the Gray Report last year caused controversy:

Some of the phraseology of the Gray Report might have upset people but there was a lot of common sense in it. He proposed GOCOs [government-owned, commercially operated], which I disagree with very strongly.

But there are too many types of equipment, too many tasks they have to perform, too many specifications. Bad decision-making here in Whitehall is part of the problem.

Abbey Wood gets dumped on very often for faults which are created elsewhere in the system. As ministers we have to make sure that we stop that, that we set achievable targets for DE&S. A lot of Gray is already there and not controversial.

I don’t see how you can remove the military from the process. We appoint a new Chief of Defence Materiel later this year and I don’t want to curtail that person’s freedom of manoeuvre specifically by what I think should happen at Abbey Wood.

They should have the freedom of manoeuvre to make any changes they want to but I do see it as difficult to remove the military. We need the military to make sure we get the capabilities right.

Mr Luff has echoed Defence Secretary Liam Fox’s warning about future economies:

We haven’t got the money we need to do the things we want to do on current plans,” he said. “We face a budgetary problem as a department and a budgetary crisis as a country.

We have to make savings and DE&S can’t be exempt from that process. Efficiencies have to be driven into the whole process. The 25 per cent figure you have heard applies to the main running costs of the department.

The department can rise to the challenge; it has to, as we can’t go on as we are.

Mr Luff’s appointment surprised many, not the least his wife, who answered the early morning phone call from the Prime Minister:

I had said I would like to be a minister but only in a job I would enjoy doing,” said Mr Luff. “I wanted to do a job I would believe in. This job I hadn’t considered available. It is, and I’m thrilled.

Peter Luff MP

Member of Parliament for Mid-Worcestershire, married into a naval family. His father-in-law is a retired naval officer who taught at Dartmouth while his brother-in-law is a serving naval officer.

His own father, a sergeant in the Berkshire Yeomanry, served during World War One and, along with two brothers, survived the horrors of Gallipoli, before joining the Imperial Camel Corps and serving with TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in Damascus.

Before becoming Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology in the new Coalition government, Mr Luff, an MP for Worcester since 1992, headed the private office of Sir Edward Heath in the 1980s and became a successful businessman in the corporate communications industry. He has also been company secretary of his family’s retail stationery firm.

He lives in Worcestershire with his wife Julia. They have two grown-up children.

This article is taken from the July 2010 edition of desider - the magazine for Defence Equipment and Support.

Published 22 July 2010