Madame Deputy Speaker,
With permission, I would like to make a statement to update the House on Ajax.
Ajax is an important capability and a vital step-change in the way the British Army will operate on the future battlefield. It will provide Ground Mounted Reconnaissance, allowing the Army to understand the battlefield in all weathers, 24 hours a day.
Part of our £41bn investment in Army equipment and support over the next 10 years, this modernisation is critical to address future threats.
This is a vital investment and the Defence Secretary and I have been deeply concerned about progress on this troubled project which has been running for over 11 years since its commencement in March 2010.
That’s why we have been thoroughly focused on the project; why I insisted earlier this year that no declaration of IOC (Initial Operating Capability) would be made without Ministerial involvement; and why we asked the Permanent Secretary to commission a report from the MOD’s Director of Health, Safety and Environmental Protection into the health and safety concerns raised by noise and vibration.
I am today publishing that report and placing a copy in the library of the house. Over the last 35 years there have been some 13 formal reports on defence procurement: we know the foundations that can build success. Openness, good communication and collaboration within Defence and the ability to act as an informed and challenging customer are vital.
This Health and Safety Report has highlighted shortcomings that need to be addressed, not just in health and safety but more broadly.
The Review finds serious failings in the processes followed. The result was that personnel worked on a vehicle that had the potential to cause harm.
The Review finds that the failure was complex and systemic. It finds that:
- a culture exists of not treating safety as equally important as cost and time in the acquisition process; and
- from a cultural perspective, the Army did not believe it was potentially causing harm to people, especially from vibration, as it was tacitly expected that soldiers can and should endure such issues.
As I informed the House on 18 October, we have contacted all personnel identified as having worked on Ajax. 40 declined to be assessed for hearing but, of the remainder, I am pleased to report that the vast majority have returned to duty with no health impact.
As of 9 December, 17 individuals remain under specialist outpatient care for their hearing, some of whom are again expected to return to duty with no health impact.11 individuals have had long term restrictions on noise exposure recommended, potentially requiring a limitation in their military duties. 7 of these had pre-existing hearing issues prior to working on Ajax. 4 did not. In addition, 4 individuals who worked on Ajax have been discharged on health grounds, in some cases for reasons wholly unrelated to hearing loss.
While we cannot yet establish a definitive causal link, it is possible that Ajax may have contributed to the current hearing loss in a small number of individuals. It remains the case that no individuals have had long term restrictions or been discharged as a result of vibration. However, assessment for both hand-transmitted and whole-body vibration take time and require a specialist assessment and these continue.
Madame Deputy Speaker, I will now set out the key points from the Review.
General Dynamics UK is responsible for the design and build of the Ajax vehicles. The vehicles they delivered for use in the trials had levels of noise and vibration that were higher than usually expected in tracked vehicles and have been proven to be above the statutory limit. This exposed our personnel to potential harm. This exposure was not prevented by the MOD due to a series of failures to act when concerns were raised by expert advisers and by soldiers operating the vehicles. For example:
An MOD Safety Notice in December 2018 that said design upgrades were required to reduce vibration. This was not acted upon.
MOD safety cases and safety management used GDUK calculations that were not independently assured, despite experts at the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory advising that the calculations should not be relied upon.
A report from the Defence Safety Authority in May 2020 identifying some of these issues and entitled “Serious Safety Concerns on Ajax” that was retracted and not pursued, either by the DSA or by the project team in DE&S.
Multiple warnings from Dstl and from the Armoured Trials and Development Unit that were running the trials were not actioned, even when the ATDU Commanding Officer questioned the approach as having the potential to expose soldiers to a known hazard which he stated was not a defendable position.
Overall, the report makes 20 recommendations. The MOD accepts all of those relating specifically to armoured vehicle procurements, the regulation of safety for land equipment and the broader approach to safety in Defence.
Recommendation 9 relates to avoiding the concurrent running of the demonstration and manufacture stages in future projects. This recommendation needs to be considered carefully to ensure we capture the safety imperatives while not preventing sensible spiral development or for example the parallel construction of classes of warship. I will update the House on this alongside Recommendations 12 and 14 that also need consideration on how to best implement them, building on existing work on Approvals and SROs.
Madame Deputy Speaker, I would also like to update the House on the Project more broadly.
We have a robust firm price contract for the delivery of 589 vehicles at a cost of £5.5Bn. We are ensuring we protect our commercial position under the contract and will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose.
It remains impossible to share with this House 100% confidence that this programme will succeed or, if it does, the timing of achieving Full Operating Capability.
However, we are working closely with General Dynamics on noise and vibration and they are showing great commitment to resolving these issues. This very advanced fighting vehicle project employs 4,100 in South Wales and across the UK. We all want it to succeed and deliver what the British Army requires.
The Millbrook trials to baseline the vehicle’s characteristics have completed and we expect to receive conclusions shortly. In parallel, General Dynamics have been developing its own theories and trialling design modifications to address vibration. We expect to receive their analysis in the New Year, following which we will if appropriate undertake thorough testing of their proposed modifications to satisfy ourselves on their efficacy.
Part of our analysis is also looking at the performance of the headset used in Ajax. While the noise profile on Ajax is noticeably different from other armoured vehicles, following tests on in-service headsets we took in November a precautionary measure to limit temporarily the amount of time personnel operate using them in other AFVs.
Acoustic testing of our in-service headsets is now underway at test facilities in the UK and overseas. We are also testing other headsets to establish if they will meet our requirements and provide additional attenuation. Once this analysis is complete, we expect to be able to relax the temporary restrictions or implement appropriate mitigations. In the meantime, we remain able to maintain our operational commitments.
The work on Ajax has also highlighted the significant number of personnel across Defence whose exposure to noise results in short or long-term restrictions to their military duties. I have, therefore, asked the MOD Permanent Secretary to look further at this issue to ensure we are doing all we can to prevent avoidable hearing loss in our people.
Madame Deputy Speaker, in conclusion, the Ajax Health and Safety report makes for very difficult reading. It lays bare a deep malaise which is cultural and results in systemic failures across our organisations.
I am grateful to David King and his team for their work and also grateful for the candour of many that contributed to this review. There are many working tirelessly to get Ajax back on track.
We need to build on this candour and dedication and encourage all those involved in procurement programmes to speak up, to identify problems and make clear where those responsible are failing.
A culture in which individuals may be discouraged from elevating problems through the chain of command, only solutions, may be admirable in other circumstances but rarely in procurement.
We need to support our people by resolving underlying cultural issues that risk making it harder to deliver the capabilities needed by our Armed Forces.
To take this forward, we are commissioning a senior legal figure to look more deeply at Ajax and not just health and safety; to examine the cultural and process flaws that it has highlighted. We will leave no stone unturned to learn these lessons. I encourage people to participate in this further review and will ensure they have the space to do so.
Of course, if the review uncovers evidence of gross misconduct, those concerned will be held to account but the primary purpose though is to ensure that we address significant cultural failings.
The terms of reference will be agreed with the reviewer and I will make these available to the House.
In summary, while we should not forget that General Dynamics UK is responsible for delivering a safe and effective vehicle, it is clear from the report that the customs and practices of the Army, DE&S, Defence Digital and wider MOD resulted in a culture that prevented issues being addressed at an earlier point. We are committed to ensuring that measures are put in place to deliver what are very complex programmes in a way that minimises the risk to our people while delivering the capability needed by the Armed Forces.
I commend this statement to the House.