HC Deb 21 January 2004 vol 416 cc508-16WH

4 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con)

I am pleased to have secured this debate. The Minister will have some familiarity with the subject because he was kind enough to host a meeting with my constituent Mr. Nigel Farrow and I at the Ministry of Defence on 2 July last year. He will not be surprised to hear that it is in relation to Mr. Farrow that I secured the debate.

Mr. Farrow is an inventor who runs a business called Farrow System in Loddon in my constituency. He has built a successful business from scratch, which now employs 25 people. One of its main products is an innovative blast cleaning method. Blast cleaning involves forcing a mixture of water, air and abrasive grit—for example, sand, glass beads or copper slag—through a pressure hose on to the surface being cleaned. Many people will have seen old stone churches and other buildings cleaned in that way. Blast cleaning has many industrial and commercial applications, but there have always been problems with traditional methods, the most notable being that they can cause serious damage to the surface being cleaned and that a big mess is often left behind.

Mr. Farrow invented a new blast cleaning technology that would solve those problems. It is quicker, more accurate and less messy, so operators can see what they are doing. Crucially, it can be applied with much greater delicacy than any previously known method, to the extent that it is possible to remove layers of varnish from valuable antique furniture without damaging it or to remove layers of paint from a surface one at a time. Of course, it can also be used for a wide range of more industrial applications.

Mr. Farrow was invited to demonstrate his new process on the BBC television programme "Tomorrow's World", which he duly did on 2 February 2000. After that, Mr. Farrow's telephone did not stop ringing. One call was from Mr. Alan Jones of the Royal Navy, who called to say that the Navy was interested in meeting Mr. Farrow because—

4.2 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.17 pm

On resuming

Mr. Bacon

I was saying that one of the many telephone calls received by Mr. Farrow following the appearance of his method on "Tomorrow's World", the BBC television programme, was from Alan Jones of the Royal Navy. Mr. Jones thought that Mr. Farrow might be able to help the Navy with a long-standing problem.

Mr. Farrow was asked if Mr. Jones' colleague from Defence Evaluation and Research Agency Marine Structures at Rosyth naval dockyard could contact him to arrange a demonstration at Rosyth, Scotland. To this Mr Farrow agreed. It is important to note that Marine Structures' department at Rosyth was doing its own research on removing surface coatings. That is a germane point to which I will return.

Mr. Farrow duly went to Rosyth on 15 June 2000 for the demonstration, which was arranged by Mr. Malcolm McGugan of the Ministry of Defence agency, DERA Marine Structures at Rosyth. Mr. McGugan made it clear that during the maintenance and repair of Royal Navy glass fibre hulled vessels, there was an ongoing problem in that paint contractors, when they removed the paint, caused damage to the structure of such vessels by over-blasting and that this was an ongoing problem that the Navy had been unable to solve.

Mr. McGugan said he was fed up with the paint department of the Navy—the contractors, in some cases—which was responsible not only for applying new paint, but for removing the surface of the old; he was fed with the damage they caused to the structures of glass-reinforced polymer—GRP—or fibreglass vessels through over-blasting. Indeed, engineers from Marine Structures had put in place a protocol that there had to be a warning bottom layer of green paint, which would prevent contractors from over-blasting on the basis that once they saw the green paint they would know that they had blasted enough, although over-blasting continued.

Mr. McGugan said that the paint department blamed Marine Structures, saying that the marine vessels were not strong enough. It subsequently became clear that the Navy had been conducting intensive research for some years, but without success, on how to solve the problem of over-blasting. I will ask the Minister about the question of research later.

The Rosyth tests on 15 June included using Farrow System to remove bio-fouling such as barnacles from the hull of a ⅔ scale MCMV model at Rosyth", also to provide a surface abrade to a thick GRP panel. In attendance were a considerable number of senior MOD officials and scientists, as well as contractors. Following the Rosyth demonstration, on 16 June 2000 Mr. McGugan, who had arranged the trial, issued a report on the results to Minewarfare IPT, which was copied to others.

Mr. McGugan's report noted the low volumes of grit and water produced by the method—in other words, it produced very little mess—and also that unlike current methods, the system can be used on internal compartments of the ship". The report also stated that Mr. Farrow's method was quick, precise and capable of removing one layer at a time.

Mr. McGugan also observed that in any paint removal system the skill and experience of the operator are important factors. He stated that when a powerful combination of grit and pressure is used, speed is maximised, but he also highlighted the fact that the process relies entirely on the operative keeping the pressure nozzle moving over the surface and preventing an area being structurally damaged. By contrast, Mr. McGugan noted, Farrow System used a relatively fine-grained soft grit and achieved a considerable variation in blast strength by altering the pressure and the water-grit mixture. He continued: Thus, the 'skill' aspect of the process is moved towards the calibration/set-up of the system with a subsequent reduction in the possibility of damage to the GRP through inappropriate use of the method by the operator. In short, Mr. McGugan acknowledged that that was a helpful new development.

There followed a rather sniffy e-mail from Mr. Gary King of Sea Technology Group Materials Technology, otherwise known as STGMT, who seemed to take exception to Mr. McGugan's report. Mr. King wrote: I have to admit surprise at the necessity for a demonstration of 'Wet Blasting' as a means of paint removal. This method has been the prescribed, major method of surface preparation of GRP structures"— that is, fibreglass— by STGMT, for several years. Whilst I have no wish to detract from the capabilities of the Farrow System, I believe it is incorrect to consider it as innovative. Both FSL at Portsmouth and DML at Devonport have employed similar systems for paint removal by other contract companies. I am afraid I also have to disagree with the statement in the report 'Unlike current methods, the Farrow System can be used on internal compartments of the ship'. The greatest associated problem with internal paint removal is and has always been the clean-up operation. It is worth reminding the House that one of the key aspects of Mr. Farrow's system is that it involves very little mess compared with traditional methods.

Mr. McGugan was furious at the e-mail and replied to Mr. King that while blasting in general might not be new as a technique, contract companies were over-blasting and damaging the underlying GRP structure. He went on to point out that Mr. Farrow's method had just been used on HMS Victory—the Minister will know that that is the flagship of the Second Sea Lord, and probably the most famous warship in the world—to restore delicate antique timbers, with excellent results. Indeed, the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander Frank Nowosielski, said of the restoration: The condition of the wood is excellent. Better still, the process did not do any damage to the deck at all. In September 2000, Mr. Farrow went to Fleet Support Ltd.—FSL—in Portsmouth to do a small demonstration on the quayside. He was repeatedly asked whether his method was environmentally friendly, which it is. That demonstration was followed by an invitation to remove the surface coatings from the fresh-water tanks and bathroom area of a minesweeper, as soon as he had gone through the required supplier accreditation process. Mr. Farrow duly went through the accreditation process, and his first opportunity to work on a ship in port for its base maintenance period was with HMS Quorn.

Around that time, Mr. Roy Hussey, a senior project leader at Fleet Support, warned Mr. Farrow as follows: Do you realise that if you mess this up we will lose the fleet abroad? In other words, the work would be done elsewhere. It seems that there had been a long-standing row between Marine Structures and the paint department at Fleet Support. For several years, Marine Structures had been saying to the paint department, "You are damaging our ships." The paint department at Portsmouth was so worried that it thought it might lose the fleet—it understood that there was only one more chance.

While Mr. Farrow was going through the accreditation process, a trial took place in October 2000 on HMS Berkeley with a Quill Falcon 50 machine from Quill International, but using the conditions and parameters—the grit and pressure parameters—that Mr. Farrow had shown Fleet Support earlier in the year. Quill's system was given very rapid approval by the ship support agency, while Mr. Farrow had to spend several months fighting to be listed in the "Warpaint" document. Quill machines started to be used, but since January 2001 Mr. Farrow has not even had any inquiries, let alone the opportunity to tender for work.

In early 2001, Mr. Farrow was told that someone cannot be an approved contractor unless they are in "Warpaint", the document for specifying standards for surface treatments, so he set about getting listed. The Minister told me in his letter of 11 July 2003 that he had been unable to discover any reason why Mr. Farrow might have been told that being listed in "Warpaint" was a requirement for tendering for work. He assured me that that was not the case. Anyway, Mr. Farrow was told otherwise.

In February 2001, while Mr. Farrow was still working on HMS Victory, Mr. Roy Hussey of Fleet Support told him that he wanted him to work on three minesweepers. As the HMS Victory work neared completion, Mr. Farrow sought out Mr. Hussey to ask him when work on the minesweepers would commence, as he had staff commitments and wanted to be able to plan staff time. Because Mr. Farrow was wearing a different-coloured overall from the rest of his staff, Mr. Hussey mistook him for someone from a rival firm and said, "I've told you before: I'm happy with the Farrow System. I don't need the alternative." What is more, he was fairly obviously coming under pressure to use a different system from Farrow, even though he was pleased with the results.

In July 2002, Farrow System was granted UK patent 2344348, which relates to the heat parameter used in the method. In October 2002, Farrow System was granted UK patent 2372039 in respect of the pressure parameter. Farrow System has also been granted a number of patents elsewhere in the world, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. While we are on the subject of the heat parameter in Mr. Farrow's method, it is worth noting the statement by the Ministry of Defence that it was of no consequence. Indeed, the Minister's letter of 19 June 2003 specifically stated that there was no heating of the fluid in any application of the wet-blast method to Royal Navy ships. That point was repeated to me in his letter of 11 July 2003.

The MOD is now seeking to revoke Mr. Farrow's patents. I shall return to that in a moment, but I want first to address the important issue of water contamination. A serving officer on HMS Quorn told Mr. Farrow before he started working on the Quorn, "You know the real reason why you're cleaning these tanks is that the water is contaminated and the water from the tanks is what we drink." Paint on the inside was flaking off, and the water was in direct contact with the fibreglass, which had no gel coating, although perhaps it should have had. The Fleet Support people had been trying to remove the surface coating of the tanks but, in common with what was happening on other vessels, they were over-blasting and causing serious structural damage. Mr. Farrow went inside a tank and removed the coating in a controlled and benign way.

I also want to mention shells, because one of the calls that Mr. Farrow received following the appearance on "Tomorrow's World" was from the bomb disposal experts at Porton Down. Shells are washed up on the north Wales coast every spring during the high spring tide, including chemical shells left over from the second world war.

Mr. Farrow went to Porton Down on three occasions between March and June 2000 and advised staff on the use of the Farrow method for cleaning shells. Those staff, wearing chemical protection suits, used the Farrow method to remove marine debris from the shells and thereby identify which were conventional and which chemical. Of course, one cannot cause a controlled explosion with a chemical shell, because it would spread dangerous chemicals everywhere, so although the conventional shells were disposed of once identified, the chemical shells are still being stockpiled.

Mr. Robert Cox of the MOD told Mr. Farrow that the experiments in cleaning the chemical and conventional shells that Mr. Farrow and his staff had witnessed had been successful, and that the MOD wished to purchase several units from Farrow. Negotiations would be conducted by Mr. Richard Hollands of the MOD but, three years later, nothing has happened, so I would like to ask the Minister how the MOD is now coping with the problem of cleaning conventional and chemical shells from the second world war that have been washed up.

That brings me to a series of other questions, the first of which is about public procurement. Who controls Fleet Support's procurement policies? Is it fair that it does not put work out to tender? We are dealing with taxpayers' money, and the Minister may say that it is down to the prime contractor to choose how it procures services.

In a letter to Mr. Farrow's patent adviser, Mr. Harrison, on 14 August 2003, Mr. Robert Beckham, director of intellectual property at the Ministry of Defence, made that point when he reiterated the fact that the Ministry requires the dockyard to work to a standard of surface finish and that how that finish is obtained is for the dockyard contractor to determine.

None the less, it seems rather strange that there are seven or eight approved painting contractors that get work, most of which are not listed in "Warpaint", but only two paint removal methods. However, all work appears to go only to one company, Quill International. I would appreciate it if the Minister supplied me with all the copies of "Warpaint" so that we can establish when Quill was first listed and when Farrow System was listed, and what the previous system was for removing the surface coatings. What standards were applied before Mr. Farrow showed the MOD and the Navy how to do it more effectively?

Now that the MOD is seeking to revoke Mr. Farrow's patents, will the Minister explain why the Ministry is attacking the heat patent 2344348, given his statement in a letter to me that heat is of no consequence?

Has anybody on a royal naval ship been affected because of the contamination of tanks that contain fresh water? If so, how many and what has been done about it? When Mr. Farrow raised the issue with Mr. Gary King, who is, incidentally, the editor of "Warpaint", Mr. King made no attempt to deny that there was an issue with the contamination of tanks that contain fresh water. He simply said to Mr. Farrow, "Prove it." That is a slightly worrying attitude when the health of naval personnel is at stake. If, as stated by the MOD on several occasions, there has been no change to the method of operation, what was the purpose of all the trials in 2000?

In December 2003, the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury, announced a new, radical plan that the Government were considering, which would allow British inventors to draw on a central fund to fight companies that steal their ideas. He said that a lot of the big companies have deep pockets, which means that they can fight for a long time against smaller firms or individuals. I hope that that applies to big companies and not to the Government, and that the Government would do all they can to encourage new inventions and inventors, rather than do all they can to squash them. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

4.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on securing the debate and I am grateful to him for providing us with the opportunity to discuss the matter in the Chamber this afternoon. As the hon. Gentleman said, we had a very amicable meeting on the matter last July, shortly after I became a Minister at the Ministry of Defence.

Over the past year, there have been several articles in the press on blast cleaning of warships constructed of glass-reinforced plastic, often known as GRP. The articles have also alleged that the MOD has been improperly dealing with patented technology in the field and they have questioned the tendering practices of the Department. The hon. Gentleman has repeated many of those points today, and I hope to set the record straight.

Blast cleaning is an old technology that has been and is still used widely by contractors to the MOD supplying support to all three of our armed services. It is used for the cleaning and removal of coatings from surfaces. The fundamental technical principle behind blast cleaning has been known for many years and many companies operate in the United Kingdom within the field.

Blast cleaning takes place with the use of a pressurised fluid on its own—for example, air or water—or with the use of fluid entrained with abrasive particles such as grit entrained in air or water. The pressurised fluid, or fluid abrasive combination, is impacted against the surface from which the coating is to be removed. The use of blasting has been found to be useful to the armed forces for the removal of paint and dirt from equipment surfaces in general. One of its advantages over other forms of paint removal is that when used on delicate surfaces at low pressure it does not damage the underlying surface, unlike chemical solvents, which can do so in some instances. Materials such as GRP are less robust than metals such as steel. Much work has been done in devising or selecting blasting media, equipment and processes that enable the use of blast cleaning parameters that do not damage delicate surfaces.

Mr. Bacon

In Mr. McGugan's report on 16 June 2000, he referred to the then ongoing research. Will the Minister supply me with copies of that research?

Mr. Caplin

I will consider that and reply to that point later in my response.

The solution that I was referring to has been known for many years, and is typically to adjust parameters such as impact pressure, grit size and grit hardness. Today's debate is about blast cleaning across the armed forces, although many questions are specifically directed at Royal Navy activities. However, I shall address the use of blast cleaning across the whole of the armed forces.

The Royal Air Force deals with contractors that use materials such as plastic acrylic media, under wet and dry conditions, for paint removal from aircraft and other vehicles. Aluminium oxide may also be used for corrosion removal on selected components. The RAF also uses low-pressure aqueous washing rigs to clean aircraft.

The Army deals with blast cleaners under the auspices of the defence trading agency, ABRO, and uses dry abrasives for paint removal prior to repair work. For the removal of temporary camouflage paint, a simple water and detergent spray is used.

The Royal Navy has a contract with Fleet Support Ltd., which is responsible for the management of the Portsmouth Dockyard, Devonport Management Ltd. and Babcock Rosyth Dockyard Ltd. Those contractors may also choose to contract the task of blasting to a number of sub-contractor.

All of the issues that have arisen today have been raised previously, and have emanated from questions raised by Mr. Farrow, who is the managing director of Farrow System Ltd. The hon. Gentleman and I met him in July. The questions have been raised with specific reference to the removal of paint from GRP hulls and superstructures of Royal Navy surface warships. Mr. Farrow gave a demonstration of his blast cleaning equipment on "Tomorrow's World" in 2000, and an employee of the Ministry of Defence watched the programme. As the Department is always interested in potentially useful techniques, our member of staff felt that the claims made by Mr. Farrow were worthy of further investigation. The then Defence Evaluation and Research Agency Marine Structures at Rosyth, which held a watching brief for the Ministry on such matters, arranged for a demonstration of the Farrow system to be given at the dockyard.

Mr. Farrow gave a demonstration at Rosyth for DERA Rosyth and Babcock Rosyth Dockyard Ltd. in June 2000. A report was written by DERA Rosyth and sent to the Ministry's Warship Support Agency and the Defence Procurement Agency, which is responsible for paint techniques for surface ships. The Defence Procurement Agency made it clear to DERA Rosyth that, however effective the trial was, it did not represent a new technology but was known and had been prescribed for GRP vessels for several years. It was particularly noted that operator skill was an important factor in avoiding damage to exposed areas of the surface.

Mr. Farrow has since alleged that the Ministry of Defence has changed its working practice as a result of his demonstration of the Farrow system at Rosyth. The Ministry simply refutes that. Any problems with the removal of paint from GRP had been solved a considerable time before the Farrow system became available. In particular, successful trials of various abrasives for removing paint from GRP surfaces were made in 1996, as a result of which, low-pressure water slurry blasting, using garnet as the abrasive, was recommended. Moreover, there had been earlier successful use of the known techniques at Portsmouth, using olivine grit rather than garnet.

In the time left, I shall address the specific legal issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and Mr. Farrow. The first is that the Ministry has been using two United Kingdom patents that have been granted to Mr. Farrow. The MOD's policy is to recognise and respect the intellectual property rights of third parties. In particular, when use is made of valid patent rights under the Crown use provisions of the Patents Act 1977, the Ministry honours its legal duty to compensate the patents' owners in accordance with that Act.

On first becoming aware of the allegations made by Mr. Farrow, the MOD undertook an investigation into the facts. The Ministry found that most of the claimed parameters of Mr. Farrow's patents were known as a result of earlier trials held in 1996, and I can confirm that the Ministry found that the procedures in use at Portsmouth did not fall within the claims of Mr. Farrow's patents. However, it was found that the techniques used at Devonport might fall within the scope of one of Mr Farrow's patents.

However, from a study of the literature that predated Mr. Farrow's patents, the Ministry considered that the UK patents, despite having been granted, were invalid in the light of relevant published material that had not been found by the UK Patent Office. The Ministry informed Mr. Farrow that in the light of the investigation, it did not consider that he had a sustainable claim for compensation under the Crown use provisions of the 1977 Act. Mr. Farrow does not agree with the Ministry's findings on the validity of his patents, and to try to resolve the impasse, the Ministry, with Mr. Farrow's knowledge, has instituted actions to seek revocation of those patents before the UK Patent Office. The action was filed on 7 January 2004 and will take about nine months to complete.

The second legal issue raised by Mr. Farrow is that the Ministry has released confidential information belonging to him to other contractors and that, as a consequence, the practices adopted by the Ministry's contractors have changed. From our investigations, I can say that those allegations are entirely unfounded. According to the DERA Rosyth report, the only contractor present at the demonstration of the Farrow System at Rosyth in 2000 was the dockyard operator Babcock Rosyth Dockyard Ltd. Additionally, any information that may have been divulged there by Mr. Farrow was already in the public domain.

In any case, knowledge of the technique demonstrated by Mr. Farrow can be traced within the Ministry to at least as far back as 1996 to a report by Coating Consultants Ltd.

Mr. Bacon

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Caplin

I am sorry, but I do not have time.

Prior to Mr. Farrow's trial at Rosyth, the Ministry had already solved the problem of removing paint from GRP. Use of wet grit blasting at reduced pressure was already practised at Devonport and Portsmouth, and there has been no change at either dockyard resulting from the demonstration of the Farrow System at Rosyth.

The third legal issue that Mr. Farrow raised has been the probity of the tendering practices adopted for the Ministry at the various dockyards. The Ministry of Defence's policy is to treat contractor's information released to it in the strictest confidence when it is confidential. However, since privatisation of the royal dockyards, responsibility for management work at the dockyards is in the hands of private contractors. The Royal Navy is a customer of the respective main contractors and is not involved with directing how work should be performed.

The Ministry requires that the dockyard works to a given standard of surface finish within a given delivery period. How that finish and delivery time is met is for the dockyard contractor to determine, as is the decision on whether a subcontractor is brought in to do the work. The Ministry endorses certain contractors and processes that it considers capable of reaching that standard, and the Farrow System is one of a number that are recognised as meeting the standards required.

I am out of time, and I may well have to write to the hon. Gentleman on some of his other questions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Five o'clock.