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Mr. Hendrick: Is the hon. Gentleman willing to tell the House whether his party is in favour of collaboration with the French on this project?

Mr. Howarth: We collaborated with the French on several projects throughout our time in government. There is certainly no reason why we should not share our design experience with the French. However, I know from talking to very senior people in the Royal Navy that they are absolutely petrified that the involvement of the French may delay this programme. [Hon. Members: "Who?"] Very senior people; I am happy to share their names with the Minister privately. We have to ensure that the programme is not delayed. If we have spent all this time and money on it, and we can make it available to the French at the right price, that is good news, but I do not want them telling us how to adjust our programme in order to be able to accommodate theirs.
 
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I turn to the joint strike fighter, or the joint combat aircraft, as it has come to be known. The carrier strike capability would not be complete without this second element, yet, like the carriers, the project gives Members cause for concern. That was most recently articulated by the Defence Committee when it reported:

We understand that talks are now under way with the United States to secure access to the technology over the lifetime of the project. What time scales has the Ministry of Defence set itself? If the United States says no, are we prepared to withdraw from the programme and consider plan B?

I do not know whether the Minister has read "DefenseNews.com", which refers to talks that are under way between officials, presumably from the Ministry, and officials from the State Department. I would be interested to know whether the report is correct and whether the Minister can update us. The report states that some in the United States Government

We can agree that there is a problem with defence research investment. We can also all agree that the idea that we put £1 billion into the joint strike fighter programme—

Mr. Ingram: Two billion dollars.

Mr. Howarth: I was converting the sum at a rough exchange rate. If, after investing that amount of money, we do not get access to the source codes, that is a betrayal of the alliance. It is not a matter of United States taxpayers' being cheated but of our being cheated as strong alliance partners of the United States. There is common ground between the Government and us on the matter and we stand ready to assist the Government with representations in Washington.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the point of having a plan B is that it should not be kept secret? It is a little like "Dr. Strangelove"—there is no point in having a deterrent if one does not tell people that one has it. Will he please encourage the Minister to tell us that there is a plan B and what it is?

Mr. Howarth: My right hon. Friend perceptively pre-empted my next point. He is right. I was about to quote Lord Drayson, who told the Financial Times on 12 January:

My right hon. Friend has posed the question, which the Minister has heard. I believe that all hon. Members would like an answer. We would like to know what plan B is. As my right hon. Friend says, if plan B is not public, there is no point in having it.
 
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As the Minister said, there has been some tangible progress on Type 45s this week, with the launch of the first ship yesterday in Glasgow, which was attended by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr.   Lewis)—I am delighted that he was able to be there. However, as we discussed earlier, all is not well with the programme. The strategic defence review was predicated on 12 vessels, yet, as the Minister confirmed, that number is down to six, with only the possibility of a further two. That is a serious matter.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) said, HMS Southampton is currently patrolling 2 million square miles of water in the Atlantic ocean. We do not subscribe to the Government's doctrine that platform numbers no longer matter; we believe that they are important. As the First Sea Lord said, one ship cannot be in two places at the same time. Numbers count. We know why the Government have reduced the number to six and are unable to give a commitment for eight, let alone 12. Once again, the Treasury is the reason. The Royal Navy will have its capability reduced because the defence budget has not been properly funded.

Vic Emery, managing director of BAE Naval Systems told The Sunday Telegraph on 29 January 2002:

Reducing the number of Type 45s has implications for our maritime industrial strategy, as set out in the defence industrial strategy. The Type 45 is supposed to provide work for our shipyards until work on the carriers begins. However, Paul Lester, managing director of Vosper Thorneycroft, was quoted in the same article. He said that

I do not argue that on simply an industrial ground but on the ground that we need the ships. However, I stress that there is an industrial aspect, too.

One of the Government's most scandalous programmes, which the Minister signally failed to mention, is the landing ships dock auxiliary programme. Although it is by no means the most significant procurement project, it is now, pound for pound, the Ministry of Defence's worst managed project, with 100 per cent. cost overrun. Unbelievably, Swan Hunter—the culprit—has indicated that it expects yet more increases. We have learned that the ships will put to sea incomplete and be promptly sent to repair yards to be finished off under potentially expensive so-called "get well" packages, the cost of which will not appear in the accounts relating to the ships' construction.

The contract is a public scandal and evidence that Ministers have failed in their attempts to get to grips with the procurement process. Those ships were ordered by the Minister, not a Conservative Government. In view of its performance on the contract, it is earnestly to be hoped that Swan Hunter is not allowed anywhere near the carrier programme.
 
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Let us consider the future rapid effect system—FRES. Again, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, made it crystal clear that FRES is the most important project for the Army, yet its original in-service date of 2009 has been abandoned.

Mr. Vaizey: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Army has been starved of the necessary equipment because so many capital projects are under way with the Air Force and the Navy, and that FRES is the highlight of that starvation? The Army is crying out for the project, which is a decade overdue when we consider the service life of current armoured vehicles.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but we are considering three services, all of which have a crucial role to play. I am not here to pit one service against another. Clearly, there is competition in the three services for the limited budget. It is always limited, whoever happens to be in power. However, if one wants to play the sort of role in the world that the Government wish to play—I do not disagree with the view that the United Kingdom has a significant contribution to make—one has to divvy up the subscription in order to fulfil the role. My hon. Friend is right that some of the armoured vehicles are 30 years old and, as the Minister knows, they are knackered. I am happy to help try to persuade his fellow Scot that he needs to do much more to help the armed forces.

I intended to refer to Trident, but I shall leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) in his winding-up speech. I simply want to put it on record that I have not forgotten ballistic missile defence. The House should turn its attention to that at some point because the United States is developing ballistic missile defence and is convinced that that is critical for the defence of the United States and its allies. The United States is willing to make its facilities and technology available to its allies, yet the Government appear to have no interest in discussing those matters with the United States. As all of us have benefited from the umbrella of the American nuclear deterrent and the American presence on the continent of Europe during the past half century, we ought to look carefully at the offer that the United States is making to help us in that regard.


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