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Mrs. Beckett: Again, I understand the pressure for such a debate, which I am sure would be interesting. However, Westminster Hall would also be a suitable venue for it. Sadly, it would not be easy to find time to discuss such issues on the Floor of the House.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Over the past few weeks, several thousand jobs have been shed in south Wales by Japanese high-tech companies. There is a continuing and deepening crisis. Has the Secretary of State for Wales suggested that he intends to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on that important matter? If not, will the right hon. Lady make time available to debate the deepening crisis?
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the concerns that I know there are in Wales following some of the announcements that have been made. I know that that is a matter of anxiety to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. The hon. Gentleman will know of all the pressure on time in the House, but although I cannot promise him a debate, I certainly undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.
Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the future of the Ford plant in Dagenham, flowing from the decision by the Ford motor company to end car assembly there? Despite a recent decision to improve investment in diesel engines at the plant, there is still widespread concern in the community at large about the area's future. It would be appropriate to debate other issues concerning the Thames gateway at the same time.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand the concerns in Dagenham. I recognise that, as my hon. Friend has said, those concerns have not all been eased by the announcement of further investment by Ford, very welcome though that is. Although that it is one of the worthy subjects to be debated, I fear that I cannot find time for a debate in the near future. However, my hon. Friend will know that there are Trade and Industry questions next week.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that the Prime Minister failed again yesterday to say what he thinks are the constitutional issues surrounding the euro, why does not the right hon. Lady arrange for an early debate in Government time on the subject of the single European currency, which the Prime Minister could open,
Mrs. Beckett: I should first remind the hon. Gentleman that, if the Conservative party thinks that the matter should be very urgently debated, it could have debated it during yesterday's Opposition day, during which it chose to debate two other subjects. He says that there are important constitutional issues; that is undoubtedly true. It is also true that the Government are promising the British people a referendum on any decision. That is the time at which all those constitutional issues can and no doubt will be aired.
I say again to the hon. Gentleman, who I am sure is very conscious of the fact, that there are two totally different positions that make sense. One is to say that the constitutional position is so grave that we should never join, and the other is to join if it is in Britain's interests to do so. It makes no sense to say, "Not for five years," which is his party's policy.
May I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on the national plan for the national health service, which was released some weeks ago? Generally, the plan is very welcome, but the proposal to abolish community health councils has caused much concern. I have received representations from my CHC in Havering on the issue, and it would seem that there has been little or no consultation of the councils themselves. There is a fear that the powers of CHCs will be dissipated over such a wide area that they will become pretty ineffective. Could we have a debate?
Mrs. Beckett: I am aware of the concerns felt and the fact that people wish to discuss the proposals on community health councils. I believe that I am right in saying that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), is conducting consultations, and she would no doubt welcome views. I fear that I cannot promise an early debate on the matter, but such is the importance of the national plan that I am confident that there will be occasions on which it will be debated in the House.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it a convention of the House that those who have attended a statement throughout and have stood each time since it was made may be allowed to pose a question?
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, on the OCCAR Convention, HC 69, and the Government's response thereto, HC 224; Sixth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, on the Appointment of the New Chief Scientific Adviser, HC 318, and the Government's response thereto, HC 731; Ninth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, on the Future of DERA, HC 462, and the Government's response thereto, HC 901; and Tenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, on Major Procurement Projects, HC 528, and the Government's Response thereto, HC 902.]
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I shall outline the Government's achievements in procurement and in modernising our nation's defences, highlight the fundamental choices that Britain faces on defence, and set out the way forward for our equipment programme.
The strategic defence review, in which the Government set out our defence objectives and a clear view of how those would be achieved, identified the need for improvements and for a number of new vessels.
The Government set out new plans, which we are a long way down the path to achieving. We have put in place the development work for our two new aircraft carriers; we have placed contracts for the design work for the first of our new class of type 45 destroyers; and work is under way on building two new survey vessels.
Today, I shall announce the way forward in relation to two further competitions--first, on our strategic lift requirement, and secondly, on the competition to replace our current fleet of amphibious landing ships, known as the new alternative landing ships logistics, or ALSLs.
Mr. Hoon: Taken together, these developments represent good news for our Navy and marines, good news for our shipyards, and very good news indeed for Britain. This is Labour in government ensuring that Britain's defences are ranked with the best in the world. I hope that the House will therefore understand why I prefer to announce the way forward on both these competitions, before taking interventions, which I should be delighted to take thereafter.
In identifying the need for improvements to our strategic lift, the strategic defence review recognised that in the post-cold war world, we need to be able to move our forces quickly to trouble spots overseas, and to sustain them properly when they are there.
I was therefore pleased be able to announce earlier this year planned enhancements to our strategic airlift, with the lease from next year of four C-17s and the acquisition towards the end of the decade of 25 of the new airbus
The joint rapid reaction forces need sealift to move their heavy equipment, such as main battle tanks and heavy engineering equipment. We have in the past relied on the commercial charter market to provide the majority of the ships that we needed, but the Gulf war showed the potential difficulty of securing sufficient suitable vessels in periods of crisis, particularly when our allies are in precisely the same market. The strategic defence review therefore established that we should secure six roll on/roll off ferries to assure a sufficient level of strategic sealift. The Kosovo crisis reinforced that requirement.
As the House is aware, ro-ros are non-warlike vessels. They will be standard commercial ships, to be used for transporting equipment. They are not expected to enter combat areas. They are not, therefore, by any conceivable definition, warlike.
Most significantly, we will not need six ships at all times--only during major exercises, or in times of crisis when we are deploying the joint rapid reaction force. Under the proposed private finance initiative contract, when the ships are not being used by the Ministry of Defence, they will be used for commercial trade by their owners. As a result, the private sector bears part of the financial risk, the cost to the taxpayer is kept to a minimum, and expensive pieces of equipment are used efficiently. Had we sought to build, own and operate those ships ourselves, we would in effect have had to pay a premium for two ships that we did not always need.
In passing, I remind hon. Members on both sides of the House that we were not alone in opting for the PFI route. The previous Government also opted for a Europe-wide PFI solution based on value for money to meet their sealift requirement. How do we know this? Because they advertised on that basis in February 1997 in the Official Journal of the EC. The only difference was that the previous Government were committed to ordering only two ships, rather than the six that we are ordering.
The competition has therefore necessarily been subject to EU treaty and public procurement rules. The legal opinion on that is quite clear. For this reason we are not able to specify that the ships should be built in the United Kingdom, as we can and do for all warships for the Royal Navy.