Mark Francois vows to protect tax paying Express readers

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Mark Francois, Deputy Chair of the Defence Select Committee, has vowed to look after the interests of “tax-paying Express readers”, pledging to fix defence procurement. Readers of the Daily Express put a number of questions to the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, one of which saw Mr Francois say the UK “absolutely” needs to reform the way in which it spends its money on defence.

This comes after the Defence Select Committee set up a sub-committee investigation into the procurement of new equipment, chaired by Mr Francois.

There are mounting concerns that Britain’s armed forces are not in a state of readiness to tackle such threats, with many upgrades behind schedule.

Previously, Mr Francois has identified Britain’s heavy armoured vehicles as “clapped out” during Defence Select Committee hearings in Parliament and questioned whether “they would get out of the tank park” if NATO allies in the Baltics were invaded by Russia.

As the West faces growing threats from abroad, there is increasing pressure on the Government to do more to defend its own borders, with Mr Francois saying “the first duty of Government is the Defence of the Realm”.

Read more for Mr Francois’ full answers to your questions.

1. “Why do we spend such a large amount for so very little? Whose pockets are we lining?”

The All-Party Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which scrutinises Governmental expenditure in detail, declared in late 2021 that the UK’s defence procurement system is “broken” and often wastes taxpayers’ money. I strongly believe that we need to spend more on defence (see below) but what really matters is not just how much we spend in total but how effectively we spend it. As the economists put it, “not just inputs – but outputs”. We are still paying too much to some defence contractors for vital equipment which arrives in front-line service years late and/or badly over budget. We absolutely need to change this.

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2. “I served for 30 years during the Cold War and as a submariner. Why have successive Governments, and particularly the Conservatives reduced our Services to a level where we cannot counter the Russian submarine threat (the replacement to Nimrod) and cannot use our anti-submarine ordinance?”

The first thing to say is, “thank you for your service”. On a personal note, while you were a submariner during the Cold War I served as an infantry officer in the Territorial Army. My father, Reginal Francois, also served in the Royal Navy during WWII (including being on a minesweeper on D-Day; I still have his naval papers.) Partly as a result of his war experiences, my father impressed on me, (before he died when I was fourteen), that we should “never take living in a free country for granted” – so I fully agree with you that we need to increase the operational readiness of our Armed Forces – especially in light of the war in Ukraine.

Q3. “Why does the Ministry of Defence never seem to learn from its many mistakes – for example T45s that cannot operate in warm water and fighter jets with plastic cannons?”

That may be about to change. After spending £4 billion (to date) on a new recce vehicle, called Ajax, which is already six years late and still not in front-line service, the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, commissioned a highly experienced barrister, Clive Sheldon KC, to carry out a detailed report into what went wrong with the management of the Ajax programme. That Report, which is now completed and apparently due for publication very shortly, may (according to its original terms of reference) effectively recommend that some named individuals are sacked “if they are found guilty of gross misconduct”. The Government has also promised a Ministerial Statement in the Commons on the report’s findings – so watch this space.

4. “Is it your government’s fault that we are in the state we are at present?”

I have always believed that the first duty of Government is the Defence of the Realm. In truth, like many other nations, we took a “peace dividend” after the Cold War ended and reduced our defence spending significantly (and Blair’s Labour Government did much the same). However, the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine is a “game changer” in security terms, so we now must increase defence spending again. In the Budget last week, the Chancellor announced his intention to provide an additional £5 billion for Defence in the next two years, to help take our defence spending to around 2.5% of our GDP by 2025. However, the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC), on which I now serve, has stated we should go further to at least 3 percent of GDP to help deter further aggression from Putin’s Russia (and in the longer term, potentially from China too).

Q6. “Why is the Veterans Agency not fit for purpose?”

We still have millions of military veterans in the UK and most of their records are still held on paper, or even filing cards. There is a major programme underway to digitalise all this, to speed up cases, but given the sheer scale of the task, it is taking time. Nevertheless, we now have a feisty Veterans Minister, Johnny Mercer (himself an Afghanistan veteran) in the Cabinet and he is helping to speed up the process of reform.

Q8. “When are we going to defend our borders Mark?”

On 7 March 2023, the Government published the long-awaited Illegal Immigration Bill, which is designed to stop the boats in the Channel. The Bill, which I supported, had its Commons Second Reading on 13 March and not a single Conservative MP voted against it.The Bill is designed to break the business model of vile people traffickers, by ensuring that anyone reaching our shores illegally from a safe country (like France) whether they are attempting to claim asylum or not, will be detained and then deported to their country of origin or, if that is not deemed safe, to a safe third country, such as Rwanda instead. As we are now spending around £5 million a day to temporarily house cross-channel migrants, the sooner we get this vital Bill enacted the better.

9. “Why do we have insufficient numbers of tanks, ships, drones and modern artillery?”

A clear trend in recent years has been for ever more expensive armoured vehicles, warships and warplanes, which means we can only afford fewer and fewer of them – even though no warship, however sophisticated, can be in two oceans at once. We now have two £3 billion-plus aircraft carriers but one of them, HMS Prince of Wales, keeps breaking down, as do some of the Type 45 destroyers designed to help protect it (their engines basically pack up in hot weather!). The HCDC has recently appointed me as chairman of a special sub-committee, to lead an inquiry into what is really wrong with our “broken” procurement system, which will shortly be getting underway. All tax-paying Express readers should wish us luck!

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