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Aircraft Carriers

8. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future carrier programme. [27271]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Work on the future carrier programme is continuing, and we remain committed to providing this quantum step up in the military capability of our armed forces.

Mr. Leigh: Imagine for a moment what would have happened if the Government in the early 1930s had said that they were going to phase out all their carriers by 1942, but that, seven years before that, they could not set an in-service date for the new fleet. There would have been a national outcry. Will the Minister confirm that we are in a similar situation now? All our existing carriers will be phased out by 2012 and 2015. Will he now do his duty on behalf of national security and give the House an absolute commitment that he will have the new carriers in service by 2012 and 2015?

Mr. Ingram: We could trade history, but we need to go back only to the 1990s to recall the cuts that the then Conservative Government imposed. Regiments were amalgamated, the naval fleet was reduced, the number of submarines was reduced, the number of frigates fell, naval personnel numbers were cut, and, during the 1992 to 1997 Tory Government, the number of RAF squadrons fell by 15 per cent. So the one thing that I will not do is take lectures from the Conservatives. I do not think that the 1930s—

Hon. Members: Answer.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must listen to the Minister's answer. It might not be the answer that they were looking for, but they must listen to it.

Mr. Ingram: I do not think that the 1930s should be the base point. We should look at what we are doing now to build the Navy to meet the challenges of the future. This is the biggest warship building programme for 20 years, involving new destroyers, submarines, support vessels and aircraft carriers. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be saying, "Well done". That is what the Royal Navy needs, rather than hon. Members carping away on the sidelines.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Will the Minister confirm that, in spite of some press reports, Swan Hunter is still very much in contention for work on the aircraft carriers?

Mr. Ingram: No shipyard has been ruled in yet, or ruled out. This is a matter for the alliance as it develops its programme for build. My hon. Friend, like other hon. Members who represent shipbuilding areas, will have to await that announcement.
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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Three weeks ago, the Minister for defence procurement said that he would not set an in-service date for the carriers until he had taken the main investment decision. Does the Ministry of Defence intend to apply that concept to other procurement projects as well?

Mr. Ingram: The right hon. Gentleman recently subjected senior officials and the Minister for defence procurement to quite an intensive grilling, and he will know that this matter has been looked at very carefully and in a structured way. This is a very complex project and I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman is saying that procurement should be run according to a standard format, whereby we take what we did before off the shelf and apply it to the next project. Projects are different: they have different arrangements, different players, different demands and different configurations. If lessons can be learned from the way in which a particular project has been carried out, the answer to his question is yes, but I believe that we should treat each major project in a way that determines how best we can deliver it, in terms of the arrangement of the people who come together, and of how it is to be funded and taken forward. So the answer to that question is yes and no, but we shall always do what is best for defence.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will realise that I have no constituency interest in this question, as we do not build aircraft carriers in Tamworth. Will he give us an assurance, however, that when we go out to tender, all the players involved will still be in existence? We need to ensure that any contractor that is picked to build the new carriers is able to remain in existence, given that, without any continuity of programme, it might have been unable to keep together its skilled manpower. What is the Minister doing to ensure that those manufacturers will be given a date towards which they can plan? At present, they do not have any such assurance.

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend might not have a shipbuilding interest in his constituency, but he has clearly hit on one of the key questions in this matter. We are trying to build a maritime strategy to deal with the peaks and troughs in the flow of procurement orders, and their impact on the availability of a skilled work force. The shipbuilding companies—indeed, companies right across the defence sector—have to try to cope with that. We therefore have to discuss with them how best we can plan into the future, and that takes time. It also requires everyone involved to come to the table with the best solutions. It does not just rest with the MOD. We cannot suddenly plug a gap if there are not the resources, or importantly, the demand. We must therefore look a good number of years ahead, establish the profile of the industry, and consider how we smooth the impact of peaks and troughs. That will not be easy, but we are on the case, and everyone is working earnestly to find the best solution.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Given that the cost of two logistics ships has risen from £148 million to around £308 million so far at Swan Hunter, why would that shipyard even be in contention for the future carrier?
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Mr. Ingram: First, I ask the hon. Gentleman to check   his figures, as I think that he is doing a bit of double-counting. We have tried at all times to ensure the accuracy of figures, and I think that he has added figures so that what was counted as part of the original project cost has come out as an increased cost. I cannot give the precise figures for that project off the top of my head, but I will certainly write to him so that he is aware of all the relevant parliamentary questions relating to costs. If he is saying, like his hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), who is not in his place, that he wants to see Swan Hunter closed, he should just come out and say that, because that would not go down well in the north-east.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the capacity of the shipbuilding industry to deliver not only the future carrier but the big strategic programme to which he referred in his answer to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)? Is he confident that the defence industrial strategy that seeks to meet that requirement will be published before Christmas?

Mr. Ingram: That is the plan. I am not involved in those close negotiations and discussions, but I know that a lot of effort has been put into it. Everyone must be willing, when they come to the table, to face up to the hard realities as well as to offer their aspirations and demands. Reconciling those objectives can become difficult at times, but unless we do so, we might not have the future capacity, because failure to do so might have significant implications for certain parts of the defence industry. We are engaged in a serious attempt to address that capacity requirement. Work forces and their companies must face up to that reality and the MOD must have a clear view as to what we can purchase and what we need, and how to match all those needs and demands. As I said, my understanding is that the strategy is intended to be published before Christmas, but it is better to get it right than to put it on the Christmas tree.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): May I, through the Minister, thank the Secretary of State for his kind remarks on my impending return to the freedom of the Back Benches? In the light of his courtesy, I am somewhat relieved that he is not answering this question. The truth is that this crucial project is now in total disarray. There is uncertainty about whether the carriers will enter service, whether they can be provided within budget, or what the involvement of the French might be. Can the Minister assure the House that the potential collaboration with the French will not be allowed to delay this project even further? This is a sorry saga of incompetence, which is a shameful reflection of the mess into which the Government have got themselves in relation to defence expenditure. Is it not time that the Minister and his Secretary of State stood up to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and finally got a grip on this crucial project?

Mr. Ingram: Can I be nice to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and say that that was a lot of nonsense, rather than what was in my mind? Let us consider the Tory record on this—[Interruption.]
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Mr. Speaker: Order. It is all right for a Minister to talk about the history of his or her Department. If the Minister started talking about Tory policy, I would stop him.

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. What we were left with in 1997 was a National Audit Office finding that the top 25 defence procurement projects were likely to cost over £3 billion more than originally forecast, and would on average enter service more than three years later than originally planned. That is what we inherited. What we seek to do by tackling— [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman should listen to my answer, because he has made the serious charge that all the senior people at the MOD have made an absolute mess of the project—military people as well as civilians. That is indeed a serious charge to bring against people who are trying to deliver a contract worth some £3 billion and to get it right.

We have been through the whole process of the assessment phase, putting an alliance structure in place and talking to the various companies involved. All those companies have individual interests and they are all trying to maximise shareholder benefit. Meanwhile, we are trying to acquire carriers that are essential to the future of the Royal Navy. We have said that the in-service date will depend on the outcome of those discussions, but we are determined to succeed and to provide those two high-quality aircraft carriers. Incidentally, if that is what the Royal Navy wants, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is almost condemning it by saying that it cannot get its projects right.

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