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Des Browne: I thought that my hon. Friend was going to put me in a position whereby I could say that there was a possibility of persuading my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) to rest on his laurels a little and enjoy success; I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) would insist on the next order. However, he asks me a question that enables me to say that, as the construction of the substantial vessels takes place on the Clyde and people see them, they will be a constant reminder to the people of Scotland that being part of the United Kingdom brings benefits not only to their security and safety but to their economic prospects, because they have a Government who intend to provide security and the
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economic power to invest. A Scotland torn out of the United Kingdom would almost certainly be unable to afford to do that.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Minister responsible for defence equipment and support has made it clear that if the technology share agreement that affects the development of the joint strike fighter is found wanting Britain may not buy that aircraft for the carriers. Are there sufficient resources in the settlement to maintain the development of a marine version of the Eurofighter Typhoon?

Des Browne: In our negotiations about the joint strike fighter programme we are not planning for failure. Having said that, as my noble Friend Lord Drayson has said, including to the right hon. Gentleman, we have contingency planning for that—albeit remote—eventuality. Of course, that planning includes the necessary resources to carry through the development.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on achieving an above-inflation increase in the settlement. I am sure that he put a great deal of personal effort into that. I also welcome the investment in the important new capability of the future carrier and the keeping of the three naval bases. Does he acknowledge that, to optimise Devonport sustainably, there is a need for a long-term commitment to support surface ship fleet work at Devonport?

Des Browne: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and other hon. Members who represent constituencies where there are naval bases, for their contribution to the naval base review. All those communities have been championed exceptionally by their local Members, who have conducted their advocacy on behalf of their communities with respect for each other. My hon. Friend in particular is entitled to credit for that. There is no doughtier champion of her community. She must be pleased today that there is a long-term future for Devonport. The investment that the Government put in the infrastructure of the base must have been obvious to the people of Devonport and an indication of how much we value that resource.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome the announcement about ordering the carriers and retaining the Faslane base, although I am obviously concerned about the prospect of job losses.

May I make the case to the Secretary of State for basing the aircraft carriers at Faslane? He mentioned Portsmouth at the end of a reply to another question, but I hope that he will reconsider the decision. Faslane has superb deep-water anchorage and enough clearance for large ships such as the new aircraft carriers to get in, even at low tide. There is also plenty of space to accommodate all the back-up support that the carriers need. I therefore hope that the Secretary of State will reconsider basing them at Faslane.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is a champion for his community, although I wonder if those whom he purports to champion understand the consequences for his community and jobs there of his view on the deterrent.

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I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but decisions about where to base the carriers—they are to be base-ported at Portsmouth—are not made simply on the depth of the water. There are several other issues to be taken into consideration. The naval base review balanced them all and concluded that, to support our fleet, we need all three existing naval bases, including Faslane, which makes an extraordinary contribution to sustaining our Navy. At some stage, those communities need to work together and not necessarily in competition for the resources that others have.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend knows that I wrote to him a few weeks ago in my capacity as chair of the Portsmouth naval base stakeholders group and asked him to make an announcement before the recess to allay some of the uncertainty in my constituency. I therefore sincerely thank him for his statement, for removing the cloud that hung over Portsmouth naval base and recognising the important role that our base plays in keeping the country secure. Today’s announcement, coupled with the aircraft carrier contract, will give my city a huge boost and ensure that the Royal Navy is equipped for its future challenges—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Secretary of State.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I did not get in a question!

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Lady has had her two penn’orth.

Des Browne: I think my hon. Friend may be satisfied with the answer, because it starts by paying tribute to Portsmouth, its people and those who work in the naval base and support our Navy so splendidly. They, as well as the people of Devonport and the people on the Clyde, are entitled to have their significant contribution rewarded by such an announcement. However, they should now begin to work with us to try to find the necessary efficiencies to allow us to offer all three communities and their bases the sort of long-term future that they want.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): In relation to the naval bases, will the Secretary of State give us an idea of the scale of the job losses to which he referred, so that the community of Plymouth can begin to prepare itself? What is the likely impact—the knock-on effect—on Devonport dockyard? Will he confirm that no surface ships that are currently base-ported in Devonport will be shifted to Portsmouth as a consequence of today’s statement? Although it is, of course, welcome that Devonport naval base will not be closed, will he confirm that we are not condemned to death by a thousand cuts? We are looking for reassurance.

Des Browne: There is no intention of condemning anybody to death by a thousand cuts. I made it clear to those who conducted the review that I wanted an honest assessment and not something that misrepresented the position and then got us into salami-slicing in the communities that we are considering. That would have been dishonest and inappropriate. I am advised comprehensively
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by the outcome of the review that we can sustain significant bases in all three places. I am not prepared, outwith the appropriate consultations and discussions that need to take place, to bandy figures or even general descriptions. However, let me emphasise that there will be co-operative, open and continued discussion with hon. Members. We will share information with hon. Members to the extent that we can as the next process goes on. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is no intention of making salami cuts, but I do not want a continuation of competition between the bases for the opportunities that exist. It is now time for us all to co-operate and work in the way that the industry and the Ministry of Defence are beginning to show people can achieve a future for all of us.

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and yet another real-terms increase for the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence, however that might be tempered by recognising the huge challenge and commitment that our forces face. It is in stark contrast to the 28 per cent. cut in real terms over some seven years under the Conservative Government.

I especially welcome the announcement about the carriers. I declare an interest. I was there at the birth of the carriers in the strategic defence review. I was there, as Secretary of State for Scotland, at the saving of the Scottish yards, which I confirmed when I was Defence Secretary.

I am especially delighted for the Navy—it deserves the announcement as reward and recompense for its efforts—and the workers on the Clyde. Seven years ago, when the yards were on the verge of closure, they were given a chance. They have taken that chance and earned the right to secure their future. Today, my right hon. Friend has given them the chance to do that.

Des Browne: It is my privilege and pleasure to build on the work that my right hon. Friend did in the two terms that he spent at the Ministry of Defence, first as Minister for the Armed Forces and latterly as Secretary of State for Defence, immediately before I took over. There will be recognition by the Navy and others of the contribution that he made on a number of significant challenges, not least the development and publication in time of the defence industrial strategy. Without that we would not have achieved the level of affordability that we have achieved and we would not have been able to make today’s announcement. He is therefore entitled to a significant portion of the credit for today’s announcement, and I am sure that he will be given it in any event, without my seeking it for him.

Finally, with my right hon. Friend’s special knowledge of the issue, he knows that, because of the reductions that we inherited and the damage that they did to the infrastructure of our armed forces, which he pointed out, the muttering of excuses from the Conservative Benches does not explain things all the way.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): So inadequate was the provision for defence expenditure from the previous Conservative Government that this Government, for whom the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) was Minister for the Armed Forces, decided
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to cut the budget by £1 billion a year—a cut that was reduced to £500 million a year only by the intervention of the then Chief of the Defence Staff. A little less political spin in the Secretary of State’s statement would have done a little more honour to his office. To describe the real increase in defence expenditure given in the figures as quite substantial breaks any reasoned connection with the English language. The armed forces are exhausted and worn out. Their forward equipment programme will be substantially damaged by the expenditure involved in trying to accommodate the aircraft carriers and aircraft. What are the consequences for the forward equipment programme of the Secretary of State’s statement today?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman describes the budget in the early years of this Government. My recollection is that we came to power with a commitment to follow the planned budget of the previous Conservative Government. We inherited an economic situation that required significant attention and a legacy of under-investment not only in our armed forces, but throughout public services. As he knows, or should know, spending is an issue of priority but there is a limited pot of money for it, as his own leader points out on his website.

The hon. Gentleman also knows—this is not something that we have instigated in government—that the Ministry of Defence looks at the equipment programme year on year, at its affordability in relation to the available budget and at the inflationary factors that have affected that. We will continue to do that. When we have to make tough decisions, as every Government do, we will announce them to Parliament. However, we will make no decisions that in any way affect the capability or the performance of our armed forces. The whole focus of what we do in relation to the budget will be to ensure that we support our armed forces to face the challenges that we set for them. We have done that consistently since I have been the Secretary of State.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have been in the House for only a short time now and I have heard two very long questions and quite lengthy answers. If I am to try to call all other hon. Members, I must ask for very short questions and concise answers, as we have quite a lot of other business to be done today.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has rightly praised the calibre of our personnel in the Royal Navy. It is truly of an exceptionally high standard. Can he assure the House that the changes that he has announced today will in no way be to the detriment of the high-quality training that is afforded to our personnel, particularly given the huge technological challenges facing the Royal Navy with the future vessels?

Des Browne: I can give my hon. Friend the assurances that he seeks.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): It is a fact that there are fewer shipbuilding jobs in Scotland now than there were in 1997. It is therefore welcome to hear today’s announcement on the carriers and the news
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that Scotland’s only operating naval base is to be retained. However, is the Secretary of State aware of concerns about job retention on the Clyde in relation to the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—project? As we are talking about time scales two days before the recess, will he confirm that he now expects the board of inquiry into the Afghan Nimrod tragedy to take place during the recess?

Des Browne: The House is stunned every time the hon. Gentleman gets to his feet and asks questions about jobs in relation to military equipment or installations that his party does not support. In fact, it is a party with an avowed policy of taking us out of NATO. Never mind the fact that his party would never be able to afford to build aircraft carriers or parts of them in Scotland—it would have no intention of doing so, because they would not be necessary for the forces that it would need. It is sometimes difficult to respond to challenges on the Floor of the House, but it is very easy to respond to challenges from the hon. Gentleman’s party in those circumstances. If he had his way, there would be practically no work in Scotland.

Angus Robertson: What about the questions?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman asked about a part of the equipment programme, on which I will make an announcement in due course. I do not know the answer to his question about the board of inquiry, but I will be in touch with him about it, because I know that he has a genuine constituency interest in the matter.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the gateway system operates under smart acquisition, to prevent projects from overrunning on time and money. When he made the decision on today’s announcement on aircraft carriers, how many traffic lights were on green and how many were on red in the main gateway?

Des Browne: If we were not in a position to go through a green traffic light, I would certainly not drive through a red one.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Representing royal naval air station Yeovilton, I warmly welcome the announcement on the future carriers. Has a decision been taken on the future use of the existing carriers? In particular, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the need for a second helicopter carrier to supplement HMS Ocean?

Des Browne: No decision has been made on the future use of the carriers. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on his question about another helicopter carrier.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I warmly welcome the announcement of the carriers today. It is good news not only for the Navy and the shipbuilding industry, but for the defence industry. The announcement will also be good news in the north-east, as a lot of small and medium-sized enterprises will get work from the contract. I urge my right hon. Friend to ask the consortium to work with Northern Defence Industries
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andother organisations that help SMEs to get work in the supply chain, so that the maximum economic impact of the orders is spread throughout the United Kingdom.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend is a champion of workers not only in larger companies, but in important niche companies that make a valued contribution to the building of our equipment. I give him the assurance that he asks for and will ensure that that message is driven home to those who will build the carriers.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): How confident is my right hon. Friend that a short take-off and vertical landing version of the joint strike fighter will be made available? Given the contingency that he mentioned in answering the question that the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) asked, would a carrier-based version of the Typhoon be ready by 2014?

Des Browne: I understand why my hon. Friend asks the question. I understand his desire to shift our attention from the preferred option of the JSF to the alternative that he prefers, for obvious reasons to do with job prospects and other investment in his community. I repeat to the House that we are still committed to the JSF programme and we are not planning for failure. We have a plan B, but for very good commercial reasons and I do not want to go into the detail of that publicly.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): The news about the carriers is obviously splendid and there will be widespread support for it throughout the country. Everybody hopes that the JSF will be available and that the technology transfer problems with the Americans can be resolved. However, there is considerable anxiety about the possibility of the JSF not being available or not being available on acceptable terms. There is also anxiety about whether a marine version of the Typhoon can be developed in time if necessary, so that the carriers can be deployed from 2014. If neither of those solutions works, has my right hon. Friend considered the possibility of ordering the Rafale?

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Des Browne: All the issues that my hon. Friend has raised are under consideration, but it would be otiose for me to repeat the answer that I have already given to the House twice.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his proposals on home ownership for our service personnel. One of the greatest disincentives to retention is the difficulty that our service families have in getting on to the property ladder these days. I urge him to ensure that adequate funds are made available by the Treasury, and that the opportunity for home ownership is spread right across the country and not simply contained in the areas in which our military personnel are presently based.

Des Browne: I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is a commitment at the highest level in the Government to give our best support to our servicemen and women to achieve the aspiration that many of them have to own their own home. Increasingly, those in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have been able to achieve that. Settling the Army in larger bases for longer periods will be a key to unlocking that opportunity for members of that service. There is no lack of commitment to identifying the release of resources to enable those service personnel who wish to buy their own home to do so. It is a significant challenge, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a key to retention.

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): May I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement this afternoon? It is confirmation, if confirmation were needed, that Labour is the true party of defence in this country. Given the large-scale spending commitments that he has announced, however, will he give the House an assurance that phase 2 and phase 3 military skills training will remain the No. 1 priority, and that today’s announcement will not have an adverse impact on the programme solution for the defence training rationalisation programme?

Des Browne: Today’s decision will have no effect at all on the ongoing negotiations and discussions on meeting the affordability challenge of phase 2 of the defence training rationalisation. That is a self-contained issue that we need to negotiate our way through. I do not underestimate the nature of that challenge, as I explained when I announced to the House in some detail our preferred bidders for those contracts, but my hon. Friend can be assured that neither issue is dependent on the other.

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