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Naval Base Review

Volume 461: debated on Monday 18 June 2007

That complex review is progressing well, but further work is required before final conclusions can be reached. It is important that the naval base review is allowed to run its course and that all relevant issues are considered, so that the right decision can be made.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware of the concern in Plymouth that BAE Systems is exerting undue pressure on the Ministry of Defence to ensure its preferred outcome to the naval base review as part of its negotiations on the future carrier. Does he agree that that is totally inappropriate, and that it would not be in the interests of the MOD to distort the cost base and the outcome of the naval base review, which should be the subject of separate analysis?

In almost every area for which I have responsibility, rumours abound—but they seldom turn out to be true, although sometimes there is a degree of accuracy to them. On the rumour that my hon. Friend mentions, I have no knowledge of any such pressure being imposed by BAE Systems, but I would just say that the basing of the future carrier is of course a consideration in the naval base review, as are the facilities at Devonport, which cannot be replicated elsewhere. She is shortly to meet my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, and I am sure that she will then have the opportunity to make the case for Plymouth and Devonport, as she has already done eloquently.

In considering the future of the Portsmouth naval base, does the Secretary of State agree that, among the issues to be considered, two are important? One is the viability of the future joint venture between VT and BAE Systems. Another is the difficulty of persuading naval personnel to move away from the home of the Royal Navy, as their spouses may well be deeply ensconced in their own careers in the Portsmouth area.

The right hon. Gentleman makes two good points in support of Portsmouth that will be need to be taken into account in the naval base review, but as far as Devonport and Faslane are concerned, their strong historical naval links and the fact that families have spouses or partners employed in the naval bases there are serious considerations, too. Of course the joint venture is a consideration in the naval base review, as is Babcock’s intended purchase of DML.

May I add my voice to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), and emphasise just how crucial the future of the naval base is for the wider south-west, not just Plymouth? Cornwall is an objective 1 area, Plymouth has some of the most deprived wards in the country, and Bristol is about to lose some air base defence jobs and skills. Will my right hon. Friend, along with colleagues from other Departments, consider fully the wider socio-economic impact, given the peripherality of the south-west compared with the overheated south-east?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are fully engaged with a number of stakeholders, including other Government Departments and regional development agencies, in jointly working up the cost implications of different naval base review options. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces recently met ministerial colleagues from other Departments to discuss that very issue.

There have been numerous reports in recent weeks about a possible collaboration with the French on the construction of two new aircraft carriers, including one today that suggested that Rosyth could either lose out or even be the base for those new carriers. Would the Secretary of State care to comment on the collaboration with the French, whether any conclusions have been reached, how UK dockyards would be affected, and whether Rosyth would benefit from being the base for the aircraft carriers?

We need to be careful lest we increase the proliferation of rumours, but I accept that every rumour detrimental to my job is an opportunity for a Back Bencher. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that our co-operation on the carriers with the French is very productive, as they have made a significant contribution. We continue to work with them. The new President and Government who have been elected still support the venture, and I look forward to continued co-operation. As for conclusions, the hon. Gentleman will just have to wait with everyone else for the outcome.

May I support the important point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), as well as the powerful financial and industrial arguments in favour of Portsmouth remaining the main base? Does the Secretary of State agree that there are very important points, too, relating to the retention of senior staff—men and women who are usually family people—who, for years, have made their home in south Hampshire, where the training and basing of ships is focused? Does he accept that that is important to the retention of Portsmouth?

I am very conscious of that, and I assure everyone in the House that those parts of the country with strong links to the Royal Navy will have those links taken into account in our considerations. It is too early to say, because I have not yet received any recommendations about one naval base or the other, but the hon. Gentleman and his constituents can be reassured that everything that is relevant to the eventual difficult decisions that have to be made has been taken into account.

If we are to keep faith with those who laid down their lives in the south Atlantic 25 years ago, is it not essential that the review produce a Royal Navy that can undertake any task crucial to the national interest?

Is not the real reason why the naval base review has been undertaken at all the fact that the Government have slashed the size of the surface fleet, and the admirals fear that if they do not reduce their base capacity, another six frigates and destroyers will go, on top of the 10 already lost? Does the Secretary of State at least accept that over the very long term, the sort of threats that we face may change and any reduction in naval base capacity should be reversible, whereas the closure of either Portsmouth or Devonport would be irreversible? Is not the answer flexibility, rather than closure?

Like the previous Government, who reduced the size of the Royal Navy significantly because of the review that they undertook, the Government have made sure that the Navy’s capabilities reflect our assessment of the threats that we face and those that we are likely face, as well as the comprehensive review that took place at the beginning of our term of office. I am satisfied that we have a Navy that is fit for the strategic circumstances in which we live. The Navy is doing more across the world than it ever did before, and as we will no doubt hear in response to questions if we come to them during this Question Time, it can look forward to being equipped over the next 10 or 20 years with the best modern ships that the world has seen.