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First, following the naval base review we need assurances that all possible help will be forthcoming to enable surplus land to be released quickly, along with
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the support and investment that will be necessary to deal with its decontamination. For decades we have complained that the MOD is slow when it comes to dealing with land release. On this occasion Project Roundel has been introduced in double-quick time, but we need to know that it will continue to proceed rapidly, and in a way that maximises benefit to the local economy beyond the term of the current base commander, Commodore Simon Lister, who has done so much to make this happen.

Secondly, assurances have been given by the naval base review team leader to the Devonport task force group, which I chair—and at the recent meeting between my right hon. Friend, Plymouth Members of Parliament and trade union leaders—that work will continue to be done to assess socio-economic issues associated with the follow-through from the naval base review, and any issues arising from the base-porting of ships.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that detailed information will be available to enable a full and transparent assessment to be made of any socio-economic impact that arises from any of the changes? How near are we to knowing where we are on base-porting issues? Is the date days, weeks or months away? Can he scotch the rumour unleashed among others last week that FOST will be moved from Plymouth?

My final question—for now—concerns the future surface combatant. I know that it is still at the very early initial-concept stage. Can my right hon. Friend tell us something about the role of those vessels, and will he ensure that serious consideration can be given to a role for Devonport in leading in-service support for them?

Plymouth’s defence sector remains vital to our local economy, and as a city we need to be on the front foot to ensure that it remains vibrant. I believe that, as Babcock Marine has established its headquarters in Plymouth, we have every reason to be confident not just about naval base activity and our traditional role in submarines but about new as well as traditional ways of supporting the Royal Navy, and the many activities associated with its surface ships of today and tomorrow.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to present those issues to the Minister, and I look forward to hearing his response.

8.5 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on securing the debate, and it is good to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) is present to support her. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton made it clear why she is considered to be a champion not only of her city but of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and the House that recent suggestions that we are planning to close the naval base at Devonport are without foundation, and I can confirm that there are no plans for flag officer sea training to move from Devonport. I will address her other questions later.

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Devonport, along with the other naval bases at the Clyde and Portsmouth, will continue to provide the support that ensures that our Navy remains one of the best in the world. The defence industrial strategy laid down a challenge to the UK maritime industry to reduce its overheads and invest in the facilities and skills needed to meet the future demands of the Royal Navy. It was clear that we could not rely on industry alone to achieve the necessary rationalisation. Therefore, in September 2006, we launched the naval bases review. After a period of analysis, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced in July of last year that all three naval bases were to be retained and optimised. That decision secured the futures of the naval bases and remains the position today. Since that announcement, work has been progressing at each of the naval bases to improve the efficiency of the support provided. Going forward, this implementation work has now been incorporated into a single programme: the maritime change programme.

Industry has a big part to play in the rationalisation, as Devonport has seen through the acquisition of Devonport Management Ltd by Babcock Marine. That is an important step in the managed rationalisation of the UK maritime industrial base. Along with the formation of the joint venture between BAE Systems and VT Group, it is a key component in ensuring long-term balance in supply and demand after the carrier. It will also help to embed the right behaviours and benefits into ship-build and support programmes as we move to through-life solutions.

Devonport is playing an integral part in the maintenance and upkeep of the Royal Navy surface fleet. Babcock Marine has recently completed the successful upkeep of the Type 22 frigate HMS Cumberland, and is currently undertaking a similar overhaul of the Navy’s helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean. Babcock Marine, along with Fleet Support Ltd at Portsmouth, is working closely with the Ministry of Defence to allocate future upkeep packages through the auspices of the surface ship support project.

In addition, Devonport is a vital element of the UK’s submarine programme. Babcock Marine is providing direct support to the Navy’s submarine flotilla; for example, a significant milestone was recently achieved when HMS Victorious was successfully refloated in her dock. That was a significant step in a complex three-year project to refuel and refit the submarine. We have to be realistic, however, and must not lose sight of the fact that the number of ships requiring maintenance and repair has been reducing, and in the future as the older classes of submarines leave service and we introduce more capable vessels requiring less maintenance, it will be inevitable that fewer refits will be required.

I know that my hon. Friend has been working hard with other stakeholders in Plymouth to develop further the city and build for the future. It is only right that its future should build on the success of its maritime past. While I know that the potential loss of jobs recently announced by Babcock is disappointing, there is still, as I have said, much to celebrate.

I can assure my hon. Friend that through the maritime change programme we will continue to work closely with Babcock Marine to devise an optimal programme of submarine and surface ship work in
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order to maintain what is a most valuable skill base. I can also reassure her that I, my ministerial colleagues and officials in the Department are fully aware of the local feeling in Devonport about the mix of submarine and ship support work.

As my hon. Friend knows, we are committed to making further investment in Devonport over the next few years. This includes the approval of a £180 million investment to upgrade nuclear refitting facilities and to support the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. There has been recent discussion in various quarters that some of the Royal Navy vessels based at Devonport might be moved. I want to reassure my hon. Friend that we have not taken any decisions to change the base-porting arrangements for ships or boats at Devonport, or at the other two naval bases.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Department is undertaking a planning round. In it, we always consider a number of different options, many of which are not taken beyond initial consideration. I stress that no decisions have yet been made, and while I am unable to give an indication of the timetable for those decisions, I can reiterate the assurances that I have given to my hon. Friend on other occasions that I am committed to keeping her and others informed throughout the process. As the maritime change programme moves forward, we will continue fully to engage with a wide range of stakeholders, including the trade unions and other Government Departments, as well as those locally in the south-west, as more detailed plans become available.

As my hon. Friend said, it is important that the Department does not take decisions without understanding the socio-economic and environmental impact of any changes at any of the naval bases. I can assure her that my officials and I will be as open as possible with her and the local authority.

To answer my hon. Friend’s other questions, Project Roundel—the sale of land at the Devonport estate—is at an early stage and it is too early to determine the time scales for disposal. However, I can confirm that our intention is to work closely with the local authority in a way that benefits the local economy. I can understand her concern that we move that project forward as soon as we are able.

Linda Gilroy: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that will proceed quickly, and that the change of base commander will not affect the speed at which it happens?

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Mr. Ainsworth: As I said, I cannot give a time scale, but it is not my intention to delay the process. As I also said, I will be as open as I can with my hon. Friend going forward. We do not want to delay the process; we want to move forward with it as quickly as we can.

The future surface combatant is expected to build on the capabilities of the existing Type 22 and Type 23 frigates. This capability includes delivering maritime force protection, providing maritime security to deployed forces, global maritime reach and maritime support to civil organisations. The FSC is at the early stages of concept design and the detailed user requirements have not yet been defined, so I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurances she requested. However, I can assure her that there are no reasons at the moment why Devonport should not be considered to have a role in the support of these vessels.

Linda Gilroy: In concluding, could my right hon. Friend confirm my understanding that Babcock Marine, which has just purchased our dockyard, is the leading surface ship support supplier in the UK and has an extremely high reputation with the integrated project team at Abbey Wood, with whom it deals?

Mr. Ainsworth: It most certainly does, so it is well placed to bid for this work, but as I have said, it is early days and I cannot offer the confirmation that my hon. Friend doubtless wants me to offer. I know that she will keep badgering me until I do so.

Finally, I take the opportunity to reiterate that we have no plans to close any of the naval bases, including Devonport. It would be wrong, however, if we did not continue carefully to consider how best to support the Royal Navy and to ensure that waterfront activity is delivered in an efficient and sustainable manner.

Linda Gilroy: On the support to the Royal Navy, will the Minister confirm that there are no plans to move the flag officer sea training from Plymouth?

Mr. Ainsworth: At the start of my speech, I said to my hon. Friend that there are no plans to move FOST from Devonport. I am happy to repeat both that and my pledge to keep her, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport and other local stakeholders, including the local authority, trade unions and others who represent the community in Plymouth, as informed as I am able as these important decisions go forward. If I did not do so, I am sure my life would not be worth living.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Eight o’clock.

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