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25 July 2007 : Column 868

We welcome the retention of three of our existing naval bases. That will be welcomed on both sides of the House, and it is a matter on which we have campaigned, but there will be a strong suspicion that we did not get the full details today. Finally on this, can the Secretary of State guarantee that we will continue to have eight attack submarines, as we have been promised?

We will look at the Government’s expenditure plans in great detail. We are involved in two long military conflicts. They have cost the lives of 227 of our servicemen and women, and have cost the taxpayer over £7 billion. The intensity of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the loss of equipment and in equipment being worn out much more quickly than would otherwise have been expected. In other words, the defence budget needs to rise faster than predicted just for us to stand still. On top of this, there is increasing evidence that operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been fully funded by the special reserve and that there has been salami-slicing of equipment and training budgets to fill the gap.

The Secretary of State told us that the budget will go up by £7.7 billion by 2011. During the period up to 2011, what costs will be incurred in the procurement of the carriers, the procurement of the JSF, the Trident replacement programme, the procurement of the Type 45s, the future rapid effect system, the cost of upgrading the naval bases for the carriers, and the cost of replacing assets lost, damaged or prematurely worn out by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan? Only when we have detailed answers to those questions will we be able to make a judgment on whether this is anything like an adequate settlement for the armed forces, given what they are being asked to do. Under the current Prime Minister, we are only too well aware, following his last Budget, that financial statements that look good today can look very different tomorrow. If there is any sleight of hand in what the Government are saying on defence expenditure, it will not be forgiven by our troops in combat or in this House.

Des Browne: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the announcement on the carriers. There has never been an announcement as to when the carriers would come into service—

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): 2012 and 2015.

Des Browne: There was an expectation on the part of some people. However, with all due respect to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), given the nature and complexity of this project, that is his best criticism. This is a very large and important procurement with significant implications not only for the Navy but for communities throughout the country, as well as for our shipbuilding infrastructure and the industry that will support the surface fleet for decades to come. It is right that we should continue to negotiate and consider this project and the way in which we have handled it before getting to this stage.

The hon. Gentleman asked several specific questions, which is of course his wont at the Dispatch Box. [ Interruption. ] As he says, it is his job. In due course, as decisions are made in a very dynamic environment and
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as consideration is given to all the issues that he raises, announcements will be made. He has been in his job for long enough to know that we have consistently announced investments not only in the long-term support of our armed forces and equipment but in responding to their short-term needs in a dynamic environment. Indeed, I made reference to some of the announcements that I have had the privilege to be able to make in relation to protected vehicles, helicopters— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Mr. Speaker takes a very dim view of electronic devices going off in the Chamber. I am not quite sure whom it belongs to, but this is a general plea to the House. We have already had one going off this afternoon, but the Member scuttled out before I could reprimand him. It is very rude and seriously disturbs the whole tenor of the debate, and I hope that hon. Members will try not to do it in future.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I apologise to you and to the House? I turned my telephone off before I came into the House, and I do not understand why it went off.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am afraid that I do not have the power to deal with electronic devices, but my earlier remarks still apply.

Des Browne: That is an example of the complexity of modern technological equipment. Perhaps it gives us a small insight into how complex it is to design and build carriers, with their integrated systems, and why we have to take such time and care to ensure that they are right.

Let me reply to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Woodspring. As I said, announcements will be made appropriately. I say to him, in the spirit in which the question was asked, that we stand by our description of what is necessary to sustain our Navy for the challenges that it faces and deals with so well and so professionally across the world. Only this week, in chairing a meeting of the Admiralty Board, I was immensely impressed by the work that our Navy is able to do right across the world. I have asked for a piece of work to be done to compare its current presence and capability with what it was 10 or 20 years ago. My sense is that we will discover that it is now doing much more because it is better trained and better equipped than it was then. The simplistic view of just counting ships and paying no regard to capability pays no proper respect to what it does.

Our co-operation with France has been a bonus to us, not a hindrance. We will continue with it, and it will in no way affect the timing of any further statements.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s scrutiny of the spending aspects of the statement; that is entirely appropriate and exactly what he should do. However,

Those words are not mine but those of the Leader of the Opposition on Webcameron in April 2007. The challenge that the hon. Member for Woodspring faces is not to scrutinise our spending plans, which will increase spending on our armed forces, but to explain to the country what his party would spend if it were in
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government. However, he has already been warned by the shadow Chancellor not to make spending promises.

The hon. Gentleman asked where the carriers will be based. We will make that announcement when it is the appropriate time to do so.

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, which will be well received in the Royal Navy, particularly with regard to the aircraft carriers. It will be well received across the armed forces generally, and there is no question in my mind but that it will be well received in industry, particularly the shipbuilding industry. May I remind my right hon. Friend of the old saying that it was tears that made the Clyde? There will be cheers on the Clyde today following this announcement.

Des Browne: I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome and for his kind words. I pay tribute to the contribution that he has made to our ability to make the announcement on the carriers. When he was Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, he made a significant contribution to the challenges of modernising a substantial part of the way in which we deliver effect through the MOD. We are now in a position to apply the substantial savings and efficiencies that he was able to generate for future generations. He is entitled to a significant share of the praise for this announcement.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I welcome the statement and thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of it.

On the spending announcement, the Secretary of State will understand that we will wish to study the content in detail over the coming period. It will be important for us to ensure that the difficulties with overstretch and shortages in personnel and the problems with equipment are addressed. I am sure that the communities of the three Navy bases will welcome the decision but will perhaps wait with trepidation as regards the potential job losses.

If Britain is to be a force for good around the world, the carriers will be an essential part of our capability. With them, we will be able to conduct operations in far-flung parts. Can the Secretary of State explain what role the dockyards at Rosyth, Barrow, the Clyde and Portsmouth will play? If the final commissioning is to take place at Rosyth, that will be one of the most complex construction projects ever on the Forth, and even more significant than the iconic Forth bridge. The carriers will be a dramatic sight from many parts of Fife, including North Queensferry in my constituency, the home of the Prime Minister. With construction taking place in all parts of the UK, this will be Britain at its best.

It has been said that if the carriers can be built on time and within budget, other countries will be interested in buying from us. Which countries are interested? Is the JSF still the aircraft of choice for the carriers? We have heard about delays with the JSF—what effect will that have on the carriers? Can the Secretary of State clarify when all forces accommodation will be brought up to standard?

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Des Browne: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the announcement. As I said, the carriers will sustain and create 10,000 jobs in the UK, and during the peak assembly time that will mean nearly 5,000 jobs at the four main yards of Rosyth, Govan, Portsmouth and Barrow. Of course, detailed negotiations still have to take place on the final shape of the contracts, and whether further improvements can be made on our negotiations thus far is a challenge for the future. However, we are in a position to move forward on that, which is why I was able to make today’s announcement.

The hon. Gentleman will see the carriers appear in his constituency as they are assembled at Rosyth. I am sure that they will be admired as much as other massive constructions nearby, which have nearly become wonders of the world; they will attract significant interest.

Our co-operative work with France concerning its desire to build carriers to the same design is at an advanced stage. I am not in a position at this stage to share publicly any other commercial discussions that are taking place, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands why. When I am in a position—or when those involved in the construction are in such a position—to make public statements about advances in discussions on interests that might have been expressed by other countries, I will do that.

It may be that, because I lost a particular piece of paper, I have not given the House a piece of information that relates to a question from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). The carriers are to be base-ported at Portsmouth.

We remain committed to the JSF programme, which continues, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) knows. With the help of many people in the House, we seek to resolve the challenges of that programme in order to ensure that our aircraft of choice flies from these carriers.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): I welcome the announcement about building the two carriers. They will be vital to the Royal Navy’s ability to operate independently, if necessary, throughout the world. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance of the Barrow shipyard not just to south Cumbria, but to the whole of the north-west. Will he therefore confirm that a substantial proportion of the two carriers will be built at the Barrow shipyard?

Des Browne: I can of course confirm my hon. Friend’s understanding that the Barrow shipyard will make a substantial contribution to the construction of the carriers as they are built in blocks. I am not in a position to give him specific proportions, but these figures may give him an indication of the proportion of work that the Barrow shipyard can expect when the negotiations and contracts are concluded. During the peak assembly time, nearly 5,000 jobs will be sustained or created in the four main yards, of which it is estimated 1,100 will be in Barrow.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I am very pleased indeed that the carriers are going ahead. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the procurement of the FRES vehicles and the future strategic tanker aircraft will not be
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compromised by this procurement? He has announced some useful increases in defence spending, but does he nevertheless not feel that something is fundamentally wrong? Our Army is now 98,000 strong, our Navy is dropping in size and our Air Force is dropping very rapidly. We are asking so much of them; do we not need a fundamental change in our approach to defence from all parties in this House, and from the country as a whole?

Des Browne: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I respect the knowledge that he has gained, not just in his time as a Minister at the Ministry of Defence but in the valuable service he provides to the House in his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Defence, the role of which we in the MOD greatly value. Nobody in the House could do anything other than respect views that he expresses.

In relation to the overall spending envelope available to the Government in this spending review, defence has done four times as well as it has done in the past. That may not be the step change that the right hon. Gentleman wants, but there is something this Government cannot be criticised for: it cannot be said of us, as it could of the previous Government, that we have not increased spending quite substantially, year on year, in real terms. Indeed, we have committed ourselves to investment in the long term, as well as in excess of £6 billion from the reserves to support those troops we have committed to the front line.

We ask a lot of our forces, and we focused on that over the weekend because of a leaked report, which allegedly said something that I said at the Dispatch Box, if not in exactly the same words, but almost in terms. The right hon. Gentleman will know, as will many other hon. Members, that we do not intend to sustain the commitment we are asking of our armed forces, and there are already clear indications that we are significantly reducing it, not just in Iraq but in Bosnia, and we are coming to the end of Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. Hopefully, we are moving into an environment where we will not be asking our troops for that level of commitment continuously, and we can then address some of the issues that that would have generated otherwise.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement today and, along with 2,000 workers in the Scotstoun yard in my constituency and all the other workers on the Clyde, I thank him. On the work that is coming to the Clyde—although I do not want to appear greedy— would he perhaps make a statement on what is happening with No. 7 and No. 8 of the Type 45s, which would keep those workers in employment well beyond the next decade?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend knows that we have a forward plan for shipbuilding that is described in the response to the strategic defence review. There are numbers associated with that, which I do not depart from. He also knows, however, that both sides involved in negotiations on the orders that we placed for the Type 45s have to face challenges relating to their cost. It is my responsibility to ensure value for money for the taxpayer. Commitments to procurement in the long
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term necessarily have to be incremental, and I am afraid that they have to stay that way.

When I am ready to make announcements on the challenges we have set ourselves for the surface fleet and submarines, I shall make them, but I am not in a position to announce everything at once. I am in a position to make this announcement today. It is very good news for my hon. Friend’s constituents, and for a very important employer in his constituency. It is very good news for people throughout the United Kingdom, and for the Navy. I ask him to rest there for a time, and enjoy that good news, before demanding that we move on.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I repeat my request for brief questions and, I hope, brief answers from the Secretary of State? We will try to get as many people in as possible.

Peter Viggers: Does the Secretary of State agree that the aircraft carriers will operate in task groups, and that they will need full protection against airborne and submarine threats? The Type 45 is extremely capable against airborne threat, but is there not a yawning gap for the task groups’ defence against submarine threat?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows that we refer to these as a combined taskforce. We talk about carriers in relation not just to the actual boat but to what flies from the carrier and what supports it. There will be a combined taskforce that reflects all of the threats, which is why we are putting significant investment into submarines so that there is such capability to be deployed when it needs to be.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Hallelujah! This announcement will be much welcomed by the work forces, the unions and the management of shipbuilding industries up and down the Clyde. However, does the Secretary of State agree that the placing of these orders for aircraft carriers is an enormous triumph for the Union? As a fellow Scottish MP, does he agree that none of the hundreds—indeed, thousands—of man hours that will come to Scottish yards and Scottish suppliers would have come to a separated, segregated and isolated Scotland?

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