SSAFA fund raising dinner (part of Farnborough 2012)

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

Speech by Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology.


Thank you, Sir Stephen [CAS].

And thank you to the ADS (Aerospace, Defence, Security) team for hosting tonight’s dinner.

Congratulations on a very successful Farnborough 2012, and to all the sponsors and donors.

I know you are laying plans for an equally successful Farnborough 2014, and a show within a show, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Expo. This is a really important area for us and the UK needs to demonstrate leadership. This initiative is therefore doubly important.

And thanks to Robin for his remarks, and to you in the aerospace industries for recognising so generously the support from ministers across government at this year’s show.

This level of government representation is certainly a far cry from the days when you were lucky to be able to secure just one.

However, we do value the aerospace sector, civil and defence and we understand the role of government in supporting it.

Supporting it with words and deeds.

Words with real intent. And tangible deeds that count. Such as the Chancellor highlighting the aerospace sector in his budget speech.

As the old cliche has it, “actions speak louder then words.”

When I visit companies, not just defence companies, I always wait for that moment when they give me the well worn line about people being their greatest asset.

It too is a cliche, but it happens to be true, as all good cliches are.

The secret in business is to mean it, and to be able to demonstrate a genuine commitment to it. Not just to say it.

So it’s not a company going through the motions and just paying lip service to this maxim which impresses me.

What really impresses me is a company proving that the men and women who work for them really are their greatest resource

Because people matter.

And that’s my theme tonight.

I know for a fact, for example, that SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces) Help does demonstrate that commitment and support in a very practical way.

SSAFA knows that people are at the heart of defence and that what they do when they serve Queen and country demands a generous response.

So in a week when the platforms have taken centre stage, it’s worth reminding ourselves that for defence people really are our greatest asset.

That stunning display from Typhoon was only possible because of the skills of the pilot, Scott, the people in the engineering crew on the ground, the people in industry who support the plane, the people in four nations who make it and the brilliant people who designed it.

People, always people.

And, I know he’s not here so I can say nice things about him behind his back, that link is personified in the work of your chairman, General Sir Kevin O’Donoghue, who moved from platforms to people when he moved from CDM (Chief of Defence Material) to SSAFA. MOD’s loss was SSAFA’s gain.

People have emotions, ambitions, skills, hopes and fears.

And it turns out there are even those in the defence industry who have emotions too.

First, let me just say for the record that I’ve always found Robin Southwell to be a business like chap, a matter of fact kind of guy.

His role as ADS President is to fight your corner, champion your interests and act as an advocate for industry.

And his job in EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company N.V.) is to sell me anything he can. And he does a good job in both roles, in a robust kind of way.

So he is a man who says what he thinks. I think “shooting from the lip” is the phrase.

But I was still rather taken aback when I opened the Financial Times earlier this year, Friday 24 February to be precise and saw a piece about the defence industry’s relationship with government which read and I quote:

“We don’t want money, all we want is love,” says Robin Southwell, head of the UK arm of EADS, the pan-European defence contractor and president of ADS, the industry’s biggest trade group.

“We don’t want money, all we want is love.”

I was, as you can imagine, because I do like to think of myself as emotionally aware and sensitive man, most concerned by this heartfelt plea.

So, the next time that I met Robin I went out of my way to ensure that he did feel sufficiently cherished. That he got the love he craved.

I remember engulfing him in a fond embrace in the street outside Portcullis House in the Palace of Westminster.

In retrospect, Robin did seem rather taken aback. I like to think he was probably just carried away by the sheer emotion of the moment.

Perhaps, though, he was reacting to my comment that this demonstration of love discharged all MOD’s financial obligations to EADS.

After all, “We don’t want money, all we want is love.”

Tribute to industry

But I do hope that everyone here this evening from industry appreciates that we do recognise the vital contribution you are making to our defence effort.

And in particular your responsiveness in recent years when it has come to our operations in Libya and Afghanistan in particular.

The fact is, thanks to your efforts, our forces today are better equipped than ever before.

And I know that because of the universally positive feedback I get from one very discerning focus group.

People whose lives very often depend on the way we deliver acquisition and support.

I’m talking here of course about our servicemen and women.

I meet them regularly on my visits to theatre and here in the UK.

They speak in glowing terms about the quality and availability of their equipment. The protection and cutting edge, battle winning capability of the equipment you produce and we provide.

And your contribution is likely to grow as we develop the “total support force” concept.

And you will make that contribution with people.

Their talent and dedication will enable our armed forces to keep the nation safe.

But there is one major obstacle and I’ll be talking about this in a minute.

You will have heard what the Prime Minister said on Monday about the Aerospace Growth Partnership and the beginning of a similar dialogue with the defence industries.

Good news indeed.

Building on the approach set out in the Aerospace Growth Partnership and the National security through technology white paper, we will now begin a dialogue with you to see what we can do to create an environment in which you are strong and can flourish.

I welcome this.

And I hope it will put paid, once and for all, to some of the speculative debate about our real intent our the white paper.

The white paper may be tough love Robin, but it is love.

Now, though, we can also start looking forward and talking about the wider context.

There will be much to talk about. Challenges and opportunities.

But at the top of the agenda I believe will be the obstacle I referred to earlier.

And that is the whole issue of skills.

Any business needs the right people to succeed. Your companies are no exception.

Yes, of course you need a healthy order book.

But without skilled engineers in particular you simply won’t be able to develop and integrate the equipment, to write the software, to understand and interpret our requirements.

Without these people we cannot safeguard our operational advantage and freedom of action.

And I know you can’t find them. At all levels of engineering and in all disciplines there seems to be a shortage.

I met one engineering company a few months ago who’ve given up looking for engineers in the UK and are recruiting from Spain, Portugal and Greece.

The smaller defence companies I meet complain about all kinds of things, and understandably so.

But top of their list is skills.

We’ve talked about these issues endlessly as a nation.

Engineers just aren’t valued sufficiently highly in this country.

There’s an urban myth that this country doesn’t make anything anymore. And that manufacturing is dead or dying.

So schools don’t encourage bright young people into science and engineering.

And anyway they’re often too focussed on university and not enough on technical vocational options for their pupils.

Universities offer too many general courses that don’t produce the technical, specialist skills you need.

I am absolutely passionate about the need to do more about this.

I’m not making specific suggestions here tonight to address it, but I certainly hope it will be a major theme of the dialogue the Prime Minister announced on Monday.

Not the only one, but perhaps the most important one.

For people are indeed our most important asset.

This week’s show is of course a great chance to enthuse and inspire future generations of engineers and scientists.

I know you’ll be doing that at tomorrow’s dedicated “Futures Day” when you should have 7,500 young people there from schools and universities.

Lets hope their visit to Farnborough tomorrow will inspire some of these young people to pursue a career in science and engineering.

This is the sort of initiative I warmly commend, it’s definitely the way forward for our science and technology sectors.

Just like the Bloodhound world land speed record project which is doing excellent work to inspire school pupils with the massive excitement of technical innovation.


My focus tonight has been on people and I have spoken about the needs of industry.

But it is also the case in defence, that people in industry serve the people in our armed forces.

We ask a lot of these servicemen and women.

And we also ask a lot of their families.

We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude for the sacrifices they make on our behalf.

That’s why the work of SSAFA is so important.

And why the money you raise this evening will make a real difference to the lives of thousands of men, women and children. Serving personnel, families and veterans.

SSAFA promises a lifetime of support and it delivers just that.

One of our oldest service charities, it works tirelessly to provide a wealth of practical, hands on support and guidance.

Its people include many experts and professionals.

When it comes to health and social work, for example, and running the SSAFA Norton Homes which provide accommodation for families visiting injured personnel recovering at Birmingham and Headley Court.

But there is also a huge pool of committed volunteers.

Thousands of men and women who give up their time to work in communities, bases, units and garrisons up and down the country, as well as overseas.

The money you pledge tonight will ensure SSAFA Forces Help has the money it needs to continue this work.

As a defence minister I have the huge privilege of working with and for the United Kingdom’s armed forces, quite simply the bravest, most committed people it is possible to imagine.

They are our nation’s greatest asset, and tonight our generosity can demonstrate our understanding of that vital truth.

Thank you.