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House of Commons

Monday 23 January 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

DEFENCE

The Secretary of State was asked—

War Memorials

1. Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): In how many cases his Department has been involved with regimental associations or other interested parties in the future of war memorials located in buildings due for redevelopment in the last five years. [44068]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): Where Ministry of Defence buildings are to be developed, we work closely with regimental associations and other interested parties to ensure that any memorials that they contain are handled in a sensitive and appropriate way. However, that is done on a case-by-case basis and we do not hold central records.

Mr. Slaughter: I am most grateful for the Minister's reply, but my experience in the London boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham and Ealing, about which I am concerned, is that three significant memorials have been relocated or threatened with relocation in the past three years. Although I am pleased that those issues have been successfully resolved thanks to the intervention of the local authorities and others, that is not always the case. Does my hon. Friend therefore think that his Department should play a greater role in intervening if it is made aware that memorials are not being treated with the respect that they deserve?

Mr. Touhig: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend's point. The Department is very sensitive in its handling of the issues concerning war memorials and the way in which they are maintained. Clearly when there are issues such as those that my hon. Friend referred to there will be discussions with the local authorities. We have no ownership of the memorials, but we will do everything possible to ensure that any change or movement is handled sensitively and properly out of respect for those whom such memorials recognise.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): How much funding does the Ministry of Defence provide for the preservation of war memorials in this country and abroad?
 
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Mr. Touhig: It has been a long-standing policy of successive Governments that costs associated with the maintenance of war memorials are not usually met by public funds, but by private donations or public subscriptions, which are often raised by the activities of organisations such as regimental associations. However, the Government through the MOD contribute £30 million a year to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will the Minister reflect on the fact that there is a case for some statutory obligation at least to notify if and when a war memorial is to be removed or, more importantly, destroyed? After all, other historic artefacts often have statutory protection. I hope that he will look for an early legislative opportunity to enable at least some period of public notification that such removal or extinction were contemplated.

Mr. Touhig: I do not know of any particular case, but if my hon. Friend has any cases that he can bring to my attention, I will certainly consider them. I will also look at the issue in general to see whether there is anything appropriate that we as a Government should do.

Future Aircraft Carrier

2. Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future aircraft carrier programme. [44069]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 14 December, we have taken major steps forward in our plans for the future aircraft carriers. We have completed the detailed assessment work and have committed to the £300 million demonstration phase. An innovative shipbuilding strategy has been agreed that is central to our defence industrial strategy, with separate super blocks built at four yards and final assembly at Rosyth. That will create and sustain some 10,000 jobs in the United Kingdom. We are on course to provide the UK armed forces with the largest and most powerful warships ever constructed in the UK, and an expeditionary capability unparalleled outside the United States.

Mr. Scott: Press reports have indicated that the French are refusing to pay the £100 million bill to the British Government for aircraft carrier design. When the Minister sees his French counterpart, will he stay firm and say that they should pay that money? In addition, will technology be passed from the UK Government to the French Government?

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for recognising the importance of consulting and discussing matters with one of our key allies in this area. If there is mutual benefit to the build of their aircraft carrier, we will clearly want to take that forward. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the outcome of those discussions, which will be amicable but like all commercial negotiations will have to be tough.
 
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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Although fabrication work on the blocks is very important to UK yards, including those in the north-east, the value of work in electronics and other high-tech bits for the future aircraft carriers are important. What steps is the Minister taking with the consortium to ensure that small and medium businesses in regions such as the north-east have access to that vital work?

Mr. Ingram: The supply chain and the relationship between small and medium-sized enterprises, many of which are very innovative and leading edge, are key to the success of the British shipbuilding industry. The way in which our defence and maritime industrial strategies move forward will be to ensure that there is greater appreciation and awareness of what is out there, so that we get not only best value for money but the high quality that the British industry can deliver.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Have the French Government finally decided whether they wish to build a third aircraft carrier; and, if so, have they communicated that decision to Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman would have to ask the French Government about their final decision in that respect. Clearly, they are considering the need; that is why they are discussing the matter with us. I have no doubt that as they move toward their strategic decisions on their requirements, they will take into account what we finally agree.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is aware of the importance of getting the size of the carriers right. Has he taken into account the problem that there might be no stowable version of the joint strike fighter? What does he envisage will operate from the platform, and what guarantees has he had regarding technology transfer?

Mr. Ingram: We are confident that the solution will be found and we are approaching the matter accordingly. My hon. Friend knows that we are engaged in constant discussion and consultation with the United States Administration to ensure delivery on technology transfer.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Since last month's highly critical Defence Committee report on the carriers, problems with the joint strike fighter, which is to be deployed on the carriers and to which the UK taxpayer has contributed $2 billion, have intensified. The Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for defence procurement, Lord Drayson, has referred to the difficulty in negotiations with the United States, and just today we hear that the Prime Minister's pleas have apparently fallen on deaf ears in the United States. It would help the House if the Minister of State spelled out in more detail how progress is being made. Lord Drayson said that there was a plan B in the event that the JSF did not proceed: can the Minister of State tell us what plan B is? Would it include marinising Typhoon, or an off-the-shelf buy of another American aircraft?
 
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Mr. Ingram: The important thing is to succeed in plan A. The MOD would be failing if it did not look at a range of eventualities, but it would not be appropriate to play all of that out when our objective is to get the best for our new aircraft carrier. The Opposition are helping us to exert pressure and to make sure that the United States understands the importance of the project, which is vital not only to the United Kingdom, but to the NATO alliance.


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