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Defence Industrial Strategy

Volume 449: debated on Monday 24 July 2006

2. What contribution the defence industrial strategy will make to supporting British armed forces and securing British jobs. (87184)

The aim of the defence industrial strategy is to ensure that the Ministry of Defence and industry work together to provide the best possible capability for our armed forces. It seeks to provide greater visibility of the Department’s forward planning so that industry’s planning can be better informed, and to identify the national industrial capabilities that we need to sustain on-shore. The strategy therefore offers the best basis for providing our forces with the equipment that they need and at the same time allowing our national defence industry to sustain significant levels of employment and core capabilities over time.

I met the commander of Portsmouth naval base and the managing director of Fleet Support Ltd this morning. We discussed the unique one-stop-shop service for ships at Portsmouth naval base, where concept, design, build, launch, support, upgrade and eventual disposal are offered. That is made possible by a partnership between industry and the Royal Navy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the only such service in the UK and that Portsmouth naval base, with its consolidation and co-location of industry and the Royal Navy, is a unique example of best practice in delivering the objectives of the defence industrial strategy?

It would be easy to say yes to that, but I would not want to give an impression that we do not have to examine all that we are delivering through work on the maritime infrastructure project. Of course, where we have excellence in companies—my hon. Friend mentioned one in her constituency, which has unquestionably given us tremendous service over the years—it is important that we consider how we can best ensure that we have the right capacity to meet our needs. The work to identify that will take some time. I have no doubt at all that those with particular excellence in this field will play a strong card, and my hon. Friend is a strong card on behalf of both her constituency and the company.

Like the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), I met the base commander and the company concerned last week, when they raised the same important issue. Are the Government prepared to ensure the stability of all three naval yards—Devonport, Portsmouth and Rosyth—so that there is a fair weighting of maintenance work? Will the Government also ensure that they rightly recognise the loyalty of the work force by giving them continuous support for their actions over the past 100 years or more?

I would be the first to congratulate the work force on all the work that they do. However, we must realise that change is under way, which is why we are working with all companies at all naval bases to determine the best configuration to meet the needs of the country not in the past century, but in the decades ahead. I do not think that that will be easy. We must realise that the number of ships that require maintenance now and the capacity in those bases will mean that there is change. We must be realistic, not romantic, which means that we need to look to the future, rather than dwelling on the past.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on developments on the joint strike fighter, which is a crucial project for our defence industry and our military? Will he comment on the progress that is being made on the transfer of intellectual property with the Americans and on the prospects for manufacturing facilities being located in the UK—and more particularly in Lancashire?

I know that my hon. Friend had a benefit last week that I did not have, because he visited the Farnborough air show. I was due to visit it, but unfortunately the events in Lebanon demanded my time. I would have liked to be there because I would have seen tremendous excellence from the British aerospace sector across the board, as he did. We are continuing to work very hard to deliver the joint intent of President Bush and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the UK’s operational sovereignty for the joint strike fighter. The matter is at the highest level of consideration. We have made good progress and have set a framework for further discussions over the next few months in even greater detail. We believe that these are important steps towards the signing of the memorandum of understanding towards the end of the year. There is still work to be done, although great progress has been made. As long as my hon. Friend continues to represent his constituency—both at air shows and in the House—I am sure that all that good work will be properly recognised.

Will the Minister ensure that the defence industrial strategy pays proper attention to the defence nuclear industry in terms of both science, technology and engineering, and, of course, the read-across to the civilian nuclear industry, because we will otherwise lose tens of thousands of highly skilled people? Their jobs would not be replaced in this country, so we would lose their expertise to foreign countries.

That is a critical part of the key manufacturing, scientific and technological strengths of this country, and too many people who are opposed to the nuclear industry, whether in the civil or defence sector, seem to forget that. Such a thing would rip the heart out of large parts of our science and technology base. We must ensure that we give those who wish to take up such aspects of a university and graduate career, or those who work in the technical side, a long-term future, because that is good for the economy and also the defence of the country.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). Is he satisfied that industry is playing its full role in consolidating the submarine industry in a way that will allow those key skills to be kept together?

I know that my hon. Friend keeps a close eye on this subject, and I do not know how best to interpret the question. She knows that a major procurement programme is under way in terms of the Astute submarines, and the basing of that has been determined. There will be a long-term use of that particular capability. As we look towards future capabilities, we have set out what we intend to do about the replacement for Trident, if she was directing her question at that. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) says that she was. I am giving a longer answer because there are bigger aspects to consider. There is more than just one element to the debate, which is why I mentioned the Astute programme. In terms of how we look forward, that will all be part of the national debate. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will make a major contribution to that debate.