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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram):
Of the four landing ships dock (auxiliary) vessels, Mounts Bay, the first ship built by BAE Systems in Glasgow, completed her initial sea trials in September, which proved the ship's overall design and performance. Build and testing continues on the second and third ships, Largs Bay and Cardigan Bay. The final
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ship, Lyme Bay, was floated by Swan Hunter into the River Tyne in early September and was officially named at a ceremony in Newcastle on 14 October.
Mr. Ingram: I hesitate to wave any bits of paper in front of the hon. Gentleman in case we get into an altercation afterwards. All that he has done is recite figures that we have already reported to the House in previous answers. To ensure the delivery of the ships from Swan Hunter, we amended the contract arrangements. It is important that we get those ships.
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab): Last Friday was a proud day for Tyneside, its shipbuilding community and, indeed, the Royal Navy. We were able to view the naming ceremony for the latest platform dock vessel from its sister ship. It was a unique occasion in my experience. However, the work has now run out. May I ask the Secretary of State, through the Minister, if he will agree to meet me and representatives of the work force to discuss the future for Swan Hunter?
Mr. Ingram: The answer is yes. We are always ready to discuss matters of importance with hon. Members. We are in the process of developing our defence industrial strategy, and I am sure that there can be useful discussions on the matter between my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, may I associate the Conservative Front Bench with the tributes that have been paid to the armed forces parliamentary scheme? As a member of the scheme serving with the Royal Air Force, I know the value of it and I should like to pay tribute to Sir Neil Thorne and to Ministers for providing us with access to Ministry establishments.
We need to understand that the contract in question was for four ships based on an existing Dutch design. It should therefore have been able to demonstrate the merits of the much-vaunted smart acquisition policy. Instead, it has been a scandal. The Minister's Department admitted that the cost of the two Swan Hunter ships had, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, overrun by £87 million a massive 60 per cent.only after pressure from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers). The in-service date has slipped by three years. Who is to blame for this shambles? Is it the Department or Swan Hunter? Will the BAE Systems vessels commence their sea trials as soon as they are ready, or will they be held back to allow Swan Hunter to go first?
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Mr. Ingram: Let me echo the hon. Gentleman's kind words about the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was one of its early graduates, and I pay tribute to all who have participated in it. I hope that many more will do so. The scheme gives us an insight into the armed forces, but it does not give the hon. Gentleman an insight into matters of procurement. He claims that the cost increase was announced only as a result of pressure from him and the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), but that is not the case at all. Indeed, it was announced in the local area that that had happened, and extensive explanations have been given through parliamentary questions. Of course it is important that we deliver on these ships, but it is also important to understand that the hon. Member for Gosportwho is not in his place todayis campaigning for the closure of Swan Hunter. I wonder whether that is also the position taken by the Conservative Front Bench.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): My hon. Friend will know that the Ministry of Defence set up the Skill Force organisation, which has been working in Nottingham since September 2001. The team is currently operating in five Nottingham schools, including one in my hon. Friend's constituency, teaching approximately 300 pupils.
Mr. Allen: Does my hon. Friend agree that people who have given a lifetime of service in the armed forces as trained and highly qualified instructors might be forgiven for wanting to put their feet up and retire gracefully? However, a large number of former instructors in the armed forces work very hard in the public service under the auspices of Skill Force. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to commend on behalf of everyone in the House the work that is being done in my constituency, where high calibre results are being achieved? Will he also ensure that we put on record our thanks to those people who are laying the foundations for two very successful academies in my constituency? Those people could have retired gracefully but are still making the effort to put something back into their community.
Mr. Touhig: Like many other right hon. and hon. Members, I attended the event organised by Skill Force in the Palace of Westminster in July. I am well aware of the admirable work done by the Skill Force team in Nottingham as well as by the other 22 teams around the country. I pay tribute to the enduring commitment of the men who have served in our forces andat a time when they might, as my hon. Friend says, put their feet upare still willing to give up their time to improve the educational opportunities of young people. Skill Force is a wonderful example to all of us of what can be done by using the skills of those who have retired but are still able to make an important contribution. I commend them greatly for all that they do.
Patrick Mercer (Newark)
(Con): I am delighted that Skill Force is having such success in Nottingham, but
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why is the Ministry of Defence giving it such a low profile in terms of recruitment in my Nottinghamshire constituency? The number of young men and women whom we provide for the three services is minimal. May I suggest that the recruiting crisis could be addressed much more effectively through more proactive measures?
Mr. Touhig: I am willing to consider any suggestion from any Member if it enables us to raise the profile of Skill Force and ensure that more people participate. If the hon. Gentleman drops me a note, I shall make certain that we follow it up and that he receives a reply.
Miss McIntosh: I seem to hear more about the future of RAF Leeming at the local hairdresser than on the Floor of the House. When I asked the same question in March 2005, I was told that we were waiting for the results of the defence airfield review. When might we have those results, and what is the future of RAF Leeming? Are we going to get the joint combat aircraft or not?
Mr. Ingram: I would have expected the hon. Lady to understand that it is better to get something right than to do it quickly. The review is a very comprehensive analysis of over 50 airfields, and it is not easy to reach a conclusion on what is the best balance.
The hon. Lady knows that RAF Leeming has a future. A number of strands of work beyond the airfield review could benefit RAF Leeming. We are also considering where to base the joint combat aircraft: that involves five airfields. Those matters will be reported on soon. We hope to have completed the process by the end of the year, but we are talking about a complex process that involves moving many thousands of people around and may affect thousands of jobs and local communities. We must ensure that the airfields that are retained are the best placed and best resourced to meet the demands of the RAF in the decades ahead.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The Minister says that it is better to make a decision slowly and get it right, but a decision that was made quickly and was probably wrong was the decision to eliminate elementary flying training from university air squadrons. What impact will that have on the future of bases such as RAF Leeming, given that in the past 60 per cent. of RAF pilots have come to the RAF via the university air squadrons?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the RAF has considered the issue. The one thing that the RAF will not want to do is take away competencies at a
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time when recruiting to all three services could prove more difficult because of the strength of the economy and other factors. The decision was not made lightly or, indeed, wrongly. The aim was to ensure that those who have been through the processa total of 1,000, I thinkare given the right training at the right time.
The decision was based on a military assessment, an RAF assessment. The RAF certainly would not want to cut off an essential part of its human resource stream. By changing the arrangements we will raise the quality of those who go through the process, and they will receive elementary training once they have graduated.
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