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30 Jan 2003 : Column 1023—continued

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and troubling issue. I am pleased that we have already committed ourselves to implementing 82 of the 108 recommendations in the Laming report, which is not a bad scorecard. We have also committed ourselves to a Green Paper on child protection, which will explore some of the report's more strategic and longer-term recommendations. I fully understand that hon. Members will want other opportunities to discuss the matter and to examine Ministers on it, but I suggest that the best time to do that is when we have the Green Paper.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): When will the House be afforded the opportunity to make true the Prime Minister's reply yesterday that decisions on committing British troops

by having a full day's debate, in Government time, with a substantive motion, on the issue of what seems increasingly to be an illegal and immoral war in Iraq? Will the Leader of the House further ensure that such a debate is not eroded by the introduction of ministerial statements, as in the past three debates on Iraq, which reduces the time that Back Benchers have to raise their constituents' justifiable concerns?

Mr. Cook: I am well aware of the interest in Iraq on both sides of the House. I am also very conscious that it is important for the Government, in responding to that, to provide adequate time for the House to debate the issue. In fairness to the Government, we have provided opportunities to examine the issue, and, indeed, a substantive motion for the House to vote upon. On that occasion, the House voted by a very large majority to support the strategy that the Government are pursuing through the United Nations. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall return to the House at all future stages, and I imagine that there will be other occasions on which the House will have an opportunity to vote on the matter.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Being remarkably well informed, the Leader of the House will know that tomorrow evening is the 50th anniversary of the 1953 floods that devastated many communities across the south-east and caused 59 residents of Canvey Island to lose their lives. Will he join me in paying respects to those victims of the flood and to those who showed so much courage on that night in rescuing people and animals? Can he find time for a debate on ensuring that flood defences are substantial enough to prevent any further devastation, bearing in mind rising sea levels?

Mr. Cook: Of course, we are fully aware of the importance of flood defences. The hon. Gentleman,

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who is a fair-minded Member, will acknowledge that we have put substantial additional investment into that. We were pleased that, during the recent floods, the numbers who were inundated were fewer than on the previous occasion. Having said that, I fully understand the importance in his constituency of remembering what happened 50 years ago, and am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing to his constituents, through him, our concern and dismay at what happened and our understanding of the emotions that it must give rise to.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Does the Leader of the House recollect that, in the 25 years when he was not a Minister, he skilfully tabled thousands of named day questions? Is not it paradoxical that, now he is Leader of the House, we are being restricted to five named day questions a day? That removes an item from the Back-Bench Members' toolbox. Can we review that decision?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking on the Government's behalf that, when Departments ignore questions that do not have a named day, they at least provide a holding reply after 10 days rather than the abuse that we get, especially from the Northern Ireland Office? Some Departments simply ignore questions and hope that the issue will go away. Such questions are neglected not for weeks but for months.

Mr. Cook: I shall take up my hon. Friend's last point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend gives me more credit than I deserve. The generation of those who were elected in the 1970s did not ask anything remotely approaching the number of questions that is now normal in any week in the House of Commons.

Andrew Mackinlay: Why not?

Mr. Cook: That is a fair question, which I shall attempt to answer in my memoirs. I shall confine myself today to the present. Since the previous general election, we have faced a sharp increase in the number of questions, even compared with the record number in the previous Parliament. It is striking that half the questions that are tabled are regarded as urgent questions for reply on a named day. The Procedure Committee endorsed that in its interesting recent report on the subject. We have accepted the Committee's proposal, which places no restriction on the number of questions that hon. Members may ask, but suggests that it is difficult to believe that any hon. Member would require five urgent questions in a day.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Reverting to Tuesday's debate on the House of Lords, did not the Prime Minister do something far more serious yesterday than potentially undermine the legitimacy of the second Chamber? By seeking a clear mandate for a more democratic House of Lords and trying to renege on his contract with the electorate, has not he undermined democracy in the primary Chamber of Parliament?

Mr. Cook: I do not believe that there could be a more democratic process than giving the House of Commons,

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which represents the nation, a free vote on what it considers the right option. As I have often done, and will do again on Tuesday, I urge hon. Members to seize the opportunity to ensure that we find a centre of gravity that can create momentum for reform.

I agree with the Prime Minister that we should seek a constitutional settlement that will last for a long time, not only one Parliament or a short time. I doubt whether any reform that is not a democratic solution will have the legitimacy to stand the test of time.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): The Leader of the House knows that I raised QinetiQ in business questions on 9 and 16 January and in early-day motion 531.

[That this House disapproves of the proposals set out in the Ministry of Defence departmental minute, dated 17th December 2002, to retain in the public sector liabilities amounting to almost £100 million as part of the deal done with the Carlyle Group to sell-off the defence evaluation organisation QinetiQ; believes it is wrong to encumber taxpayers with liabilities while selling off public assets to the private sector; further believes that the method of informing hon. Members by a departmental minute deposited in the parliamentary libraries just two days before the Christmas recess is an insufficiently transparent way of keeping parliament appraised of the sell-off strategy and detailed provision; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Defence to postpone any further action in respect of the QinetiQ sell-off until parliament has had a proper chance to debate the implications.]

Does my right hon. Friend know that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence recently described the process of the sell-off as "deeply repugnant"? As it is likely to cost the taxpayer more than £100 million, is it too much to expect the House to debate the matter?

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to the Select Committee's report, which I shall consider with interest and care. However, as I understand it, the £100 million is not a cost but the potential liability, to which few imagine that the Government will be exposed. I pursued the question of process, which my hon. Friend raised on previous occasions, and it is well understood that in future we must ensure that memoranda are placed in the Library at a time that permits 14 sitting days to follow, not when the House is about to go into recess.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

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Future Aircraft Carrier

1.24 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the future aircraft carrier programme.

The 1998 strategic defence review set out the need to improve the capabilities of our armed forces to meet the challenges of a changing strategic environment. The new chapter to the strategic defence review, which builds on our operational experience since 1998 and takes account of events that followed the 11 September attacks, has reinforced those requirements.

Our maritime forces need the ability to project power still further afield. We have therefore set out our most extensive shipbuilding programme for more than a generation. In the next few years, six Type 45 air defence destroyers, six new amphibious warfare vessels and other essential support ships will enter operational service.

Two new, larger, more versatile aircraft carriers will be central to those new maritime capabilities. They will have a vital role in a wide range of military tasks, from peace support operations to high-intensity war fighting. They will offer a coercive presence that could contribute to conflict prevention and provide a flexible and rapidly deployable base when our forces need to operate without host nation support.

As I announced last September, those ships will carry the world's most advanced stealthy and supersonic jump jets—the United States-United Kingdom project for the joint strike fighter. At the same time, I announced that we had chosen an adaptable design for the carriers, which will allow us to make best use of the ships over their projected life of more than 50 years. Both decisions show the Government's determination to equip our armed forces with the capabilities that they need.

The programme is massive and technically challenging, with the two ships alone costing around £3 billion. It will provide employment for up to 10,000 people throughout the United Kingdom. The warships will be the largest and most powerful vessels ever produced for the Royal Navy. At around 60,000 tonnes, they are approximately three times the size of our current carriers. They will rank alongside the most formidable and complex weapons systems deployed by any country anywhere in the world.

The competition for the prime contract has been closely run between the two bidders, BAE Systems and Thales UK. Both are to be congratulated on their proposals to deliver the key new capability to our armed forces. Both are major defence suppliers to the Ministry of Defence. They each make an important contribution to the United Kingdom's economy, providing investment and employment in manufacturing and key science and technology areas. Thales UK employs around 12,000 people throughout the United Kingdom, and BAE Systems, including through its joint ventures, employs approximately 51,000.

A competition of such complexity and scale necessarily involves intensive scrutiny of technical specifications, value for money and wider industrial benefits. We have used a continuous assessment process

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to evaluate both companies' work and performance. We have assessed their ability to keep to their project schedules and to establish an appropriate relationship with the Ministry of Defence team. That pioneering process has provided us with a wealth of information to help our decision making.

Two key findings emerge. First, both BAE Systems and Thales UK have performed to a very high standard. There is no doubt that competition has led to major benefits and sharpened the performance of both companies. The competition process has produced impressive designs.

Secondly, if the carriers are to enter service on time, both companies would need to augment substantially their available design resources to achieve the necessary maturity before manufacturing can begin.

Our detailed analysis shows that each company has significant strengths. BAE Systems has displayed a sound understanding of the project's complexities in its project management and prime contracting, and has developed a good relationship with all the key shipyards. It also demonstrated the skills that are necessary to integrate the different systems into an effective warship. Thales UK has provided an innovative design that is flexible enough to meet our needs. It has strengths in a number of key areas, including in weapon and defence systems and the interface between the ship, aircraft and flight deck operations.

We have therefore decided that, to deliver value for money and provide the best capability, it is important and, indeed, sensible to exploit all those strengths. We judge that a partnership appears to offer the best means of drawing in the necessary resources and expertise to deliver a programme of such magnitude. We envisage that this alliance will be led by BAE Systems as the preferred prime contractor, with responsibility for project and shipbuilding management. Thales UK will assume a major role as the key supplier of the whole ship design. We foresee that the Ministry of Defence will also take up a formal role in the alliance for those parts of the programme for which we are rightly responsible. That would involve the management of appropriate risk and contingencies and the provision of assets such as suitably trained manpower and the JSF aircraft.

This innovative approach builds on the principles of smart acquisition and the defence industrial policy that was published last October. It will enable us to make the most of the resources and strengths of both companies and the skills and expertise of the Ministry of Defence project team.

Both BAE Systems and Thales UK have indicated their willingness in principle to participate in such an alliance. The approach will be based on proper customer and supplier relationships, working collaboratively to achieve challenging targets. It will be underpinned by a robust contractual arrangement. Risk will be allocated to the party best suited to manage and mitigate that risk and the rewards will be shared so that it is in the interests

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of all parties for the programme to succeed. Further work will be required with both companies to establish the detailed contractual arrangements.

Subject to reaching a satisfactory outcome to these negotiations, and with subsequent confidence that the alliance is operating effectively during the final part of the assessment phase, we intend to reach the final investment decision in spring 2004. At that stage, we will place the prime contract and permit the alliance to move into the demonstration and manufacture phase, when the ships will actually be built. We remain fully committed to achieving our declared in-service dates for both ships in 2012 and 2015 respectively.

I anticipate that hon. Members will be particularly interested in the shipbuilding element of the carrier programme. We believe at this stage that the best way forward is for the carriers to be built by a combination of four yards: BAE Systems Marine at Govan, Vosper Thornycroft at Portsmouth, Swan Hunter on Tyneside, and Babcock BES at Rosyth. The involvement of other yards has not been ruled out. The precise arrangements will be the subject of discussions between the alliance and the yards, to determine the best value for money and work load capacity. We anticipate that the engines will be provided by Rolls-Royce. It is clear that the benefits for the United Kingdom shipbuilding industry and its related supplier chain across the country are significant. I can assure hon. Members that, despite recent suggestions to the contrary, the vessels will be designed and built in the United Kingdom.

This vast programme of work should create or sustain up to 10,000 jobs right across the country. It offers a significant opportunity not only for the shipbuilding industry, but for many small and medium-sized companies all around the United Kingdom. For example, the Bath-based company British Maritime Technology has played a key role in developing the Thales UK design. Other companies, such as specialist paint suppliers and engineering firms, will also have the opportunity to engage in the programme as it progresses. Ultimately, hundreds of suppliers right across the United Kingdom will be able to participate.

Today's announcement by the Government is good news for our armed forces and good news for the nation's defence. It demonstrates the Government's support for the British manufacturing industry and for British jobs, and I commend it to the House.

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