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Aircraft Carriers

Volume 517: debated on Monday 1 November 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

Before I call Thomas Docherty, may I make the ritual appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, because Members want to listen to Mr Thomas Docherty?

I pleased that the question of how our new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are to be maintained has attracted such widespread interest in the House. My constituents and everyone in Fife can only be reassured by the keen interest shown by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House in this important issue. I hope that the House will consider this important matter seriously and sombrely.

For the benefit of hon. Members who are present, it might help if I explain why this debate is so important, not just to west Fife, but to the wider defence establishment and, indeed, to our national interest. Only two functioning dockyards in western Europe are big enough to take the Queen Elizabeth class carriers: Rosyth dockyard in my constituency and the one in Brittany, France. I hope that the turnout tonight shows the widespread support for the Government to choose the UK dockyard and to support UK jobs and the defence industry.

Rosyth dockyard has a long and proud tradition of supporting our Royal Navy, and of returning warships to active service in prime condition on time and on budget. The House may recall that at the outbreak of the Falklands conflict in 1982, Rosyth dockyard worked night and day to ensure that the taskforce was able to sail south in the best possible condition.

The Falklands conflict is a good example to show the importance of operational readiness and the stress that will be on the carriers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that means that the bulk of maintenance work will have to be done in their home port of Portsmouth, and is that why the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) told my constituents that they would be based there?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments, but she obviously needs to work on her pronunciation of my right hon. Friend’s constituency. It is absolutely right that Royal Navy warships receive the best possible care and maintenance, and I hope that she will join me in urging her Government to back UK jobs and the UK’s defence industry.

We would never wish to see events such as the Falklands repeated, but—to pick up on the hon. Lady’s point—I believe that it is a matter of national importance that the United Kingdom retains the capability to send the Royal Navy’s flagship into operations in the best possible condition. We have highly skilled, highly trained staff at Rosyth, and I want to pay tribute not only to the management and work force but to the local schools and colleges that provide excellent training and support.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am a former head teacher, and my school provided a substantial number of highly motivated and trained people who are currently working in Rosyth. Does he agree that the unique partnership between Babcock, Carnegie college and the schools has assured the high-quality apprenticeship training, vocational retraining and graduate development necessary not only to assemble the carriers but to carry out the excellent refits and refurbishments for which Rosyth is rightly renowned?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has a history of 30-odd years of service as a first-class educator of young people in Fife. I also want to place on record my tribute to Professor Bill McIntosh and all the staff at Carnegie college, and, indeed, those at Adam Smith college, for their work with the dockyard in helping to create 350 apprenticeships in a highly skilled work force.

This is a non-partisan, all-Fife occasion, and I would like to support the hon. Gentleman in his submissions to the House. He might also care to consider that HMS Ark Royal, which is unfortunately soon to be decommissioned, was recently the subject of a substantial programme of maintenance that was very successfully carried out at Rosyth dockyard. That is an indication of the modern capability of Rosyth to deal with such large-scale projects.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely correct to point out the cross-party support that the dockyard has enjoyed. We hope that this will be a bipartisan, measured debate, and I look forward to his continuing support in the months and years to come.

The UK Government’s recent strategic defence and security review produced a couple of significant outcomes on which I hope the Minister will be able to provide some reassurance. First, he will be aware of the uncertainty surrounding the near-term future of the work programme at Rosyth. A large part of the order book for the next three years was to be filled by the refitting of warships that the Prime Minister has indicated in the SDSR will no longer be in service. This is obviously causing consternation locally, as there is the potential for perhaps an 18-month hole in the work stream. I am sure the Minister will appreciate that it will be difficult for the dockyard to hold on to those vital employees for that length of time, and I want to ask him whether he is prepared to meet me and representatives of the trade unions to discuss how we can help to fill that void.

Secondly, we are still unclear about whether the so-called “cat and trap” system will be fitted on to HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, and, if so, when. Can the Minister confirm whether those decisions have been made? If they have not, will he tell us how soon they will be made? It is surely logical—not to mention providing the best price to the taxpayer—to fit them during construction, before the ships embark on operations.

Thirdly, can the Minister confirm when HMS Queen Elizabeth will enter operational service? Will she sail for any period without the joint strike fighter, or will she be delayed further if the JSF is delayed in arriving in service? Will the Minister also tell the House when he expects HMS Queen Elizabeth to have her first scheduled refit? Will it be in 2022, as originally scheduled? Will it be 2024, as has been inferred from the Prime Minster’s statement to the House? Or will it be even later?

The House will be aware that Ministry of Defence civil servants carried out briefings this afternoon, and there is some confusion about their content. I understand that Scottish newspapers have received certain information prior to its being given to the House. If the reports that the Ministry of Defence will award those refurbishment contracts to the United Kingdom are true, it is indeed great news. However, I am sure the House will agree that reports of this nature should be made first by Ministers to this House and not by officials in briefings to selected newspapers.

It is important that the Government be clear on the timetable for their plans so that the loyal work force in Fife will know when it can expect the first refit work to start. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

At the start of any defence debate, even one on the Adjournment, it is important to recognise the quality and commitment of our armed forces: our Army, our Navy, our Air Force, and the civilian defence staff who work for the security, strength and safety of our country. Speaking as someone who has visited Iraq and Afghanistan on many occasions, I think it is important to pay tribute to all those serving in Afghanistan at the moment and to their contribution to the security of this country.

In the week that precedes Armistice day, I also think it important to recognise those who gave their lives in the service of this country. On this day and in this month, it is important to say that those who lost their lives in Afghanistan will never be forgotten and that their influence lives on in the lives of the people they leave behind.

I have been Member of Parliament for one of the Fife constituencies for 27 years. I am pleased that the other MPs for Fife are with us this evening, and I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for securing this debate and for securing this above-average attendance for an Adjournment debate. In the course of those 27 years, the whole history of Fife has revolved around the future and the fate of Rosyth dockyard.

Winston Churchill said that Rosyth was the best defended war harbour in the world, in recognition of Rosyth’s work during the second world war, when it refitted as an emergency all the vessels sent to sea from that area of Scotland. Over the past 30 years, the naval base has closed; the Rosyth dockyard and naval base, which once employed 15,000 people, now employs 1,500 people. Rosyth is the only base that can assemble the aircraft carriers that this country has commissioned. It is also the only base that can serve us by refitting the carriers in the future. When announcements are to be made by the Ministry of Defence, it is important to recognise that Rosyth is the base best able to refit the carriers in the years to come.

I want to be clear about why the aircraft carriers are important to this country. I believe that the debate has been clouded by many things that have been said over the last few weeks. These are military decisions, made on military advice for military reasons. The reason the decisions have been made is that if we are to retain a global presence as a Navy, as armed forces and as a country, we will need these aircraft carriers in the years to come. We will need them not only because they are important to the defence of the Falklands, but because they are important for maintaining the 500-year role of the Royal Navy in being available to assist in any part of the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has put the case for the refitting work to come to Rosyth. He has said that it is better to refit there than to refit in France. He has also said that the work force of Rosyth are skilled, educated and trained people who have devoted their lives to the service of this country. I think it important to recognise that we are talking about the future of people’s lives—those of the people who are prepared to give their lives for the security and service of this country.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this Adjournment debate this evening. The words of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife in speaking up not just for the Royal Navy, but for the civilian defence workers, will be well heard in Plymouth and in Portsmouth as well as in Rosyth. We owe a duty to the workers in all this country’s dockyard areas.

It is right that I should begin by joining the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) in paying tribute to the armed services at this time of all times, and also to Rosyth for its work in preparing the country for the Falklands war and for its skills, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife.

I seem to pick my Adjournment debates, or perhaps they pick me. On the last occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) initiated a debate on the aerospace industry which we had thought would last half an hour. It lasted for three hours, and attracted an only slightly smaller audience than tonight’s debate. Tonight we have had the privilege of being footnotes in parliamentary history.

I am glad to be able to respond to the debate in, I hope, a constructive spirit. I am tempted to say some of the things that are on my mind, but I shall leave them for another occasion. [Interruption.] I shall resist the temptation.

Let me begin in the customary way by congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife on securing the debate, which comes soon after the Prime Minister’s announcement of the details of the strategic defence and security review. The review was, by definition, strategic, and we are now working through the detail that flows from that strategy. Given that some of the issues discussed by right hon. and hon. Members tonight have focused on specifics, I hope that the House will accept that I am not yet in a position to answer all their questions. I will, however, try to provide as much information as I can in response to the issues that have been raised.

I particularly welcomed the contribution of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. I well remember sitting on the Opposition Benches and making similar points on behalf of my own constituents, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will find my response as constructive as I found many Government responses then.

Let me say how impressed I have been by the work undertaken at all the shipyards involved in the Queen Elizabeth class project. Although I have not yet had an opportunity to visit every yard, I recently visited the Govan shipyard to see the progress on the Queen Elizabeth carrier. While I was there I spoke to a range of staff, all of whom showed their skills and complete dedication to the project. They were a credit to the programme, and I pay tribute to them.

The progress achieved so far, such as the delivery of the bow unit and installation of diesel generators, is genuinely remarkable. To appreciate the scale of the project, one has to see it with one’s own eyes. That success is largely due to the skills of shipyard workers not just at Rosyth but around the country, at Appledore, Birkenhead, Govan and Portsmouth, and on the Tyne.

I shall not go into the wider issues raised by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. Let me merely say that the strategic defence and security review has confirmed that we will build both carriers. The Government believe that it is right to retain, in the long term, the capability that only carriers provide: the ability to deploy air power anywhere in the world, without the need for friendly air bases on land. Once delivered, the carriers will be in service for about 50 years. Indeed, the final commander of the carriers is unlikely even to have been born yet.

At this point we expect to operate only one of the ships, the other being retained in extended readiness. I assure the House, however, that we will maximise the carrier’s effectiveness by adapting it to operate the more capable carrier variant of the joint strike fighter, which will require the installation of catapults and arrester gear. Conversion to CV will take longer, but it will provide greater interoperability with key allies such as the United States and France.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked a number of detailed questions, but I am afraid that I can travel only a certain distance in answering them tonight. We plan to deliver the carrier strike capability from around 2020, and are now investigating the optimum means of achieving that outcome, working with members of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and wider industry as well as our international partners. We expect the work to take a number of months, but the building work will continue to maintain the momentum in the delivery of this important capability. We will investigate a number of different aspects, including the type of launch system, the procurement route, the delivery date, and whether one or both ships should be converted and in what order. However, I stress that no decisions have yet been made, as the work has only just begun.

Can my hon. Friend at least go as far as dispelling any rumour or suggestion that the second carrier will be sold rather than remaining a part of the Royal Navy?

That option is indeed spelt out in the SDSR document, but I think that it is unlikely to be adopted. Extended readiness is a much more likely option.

I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that until the work on all the options we are looking at has been completed, we will not be in a position to confirm the exact nature of our contracting approach for future support or maintenance work. The main investment decision for support arrangements for the Queen Elizabeth class is expected to be taken before the middle of this decade—that is as precise as I can be tonight—and will reflect the aircraft launch system changes that have been agreed in the SDSR. [Interruption.] An Opposition Member says from a sedentary position, “After the general election.” That is a completely irrelevant consideration; this decision will be taken at the right time for the project.

Does the Minister not understand that if the HMS Prince of Wales does not have a “cat and trap” system, aircraft will not be able to fly off it, and it will therefore just be a big scrap of metal?

Understandably, the hon. Gentleman invites me to make commitments that I cannot make at this stage. I understand his point and I promise it will be taken fully into account. [Interruption.] An Opposition Member says from a sedentary position that it is a very serious question. I entirely agree, which is why I will not give an answer off the cuff from the Dispatch Box tonight.

Our planning assumptions for the support requirements of the Queen Elizabeth class have been that each vessel will require a period of major maintenance every six years, including a period in dry dock for hull cleaning, survey and preservations, which we expect will take about 36 weeks. In addition, the operational vessel will require up to 12 weeks of maintenance per year, depending on operational tasking. Again, I must stress that these assumptions remain under review as we continue to develop the support solution, which will include consideration of the support requirements for a vessel at extended readiness. I simply cannot answer any specific questions at this stage.

We are also currently examining a number of potential options on which company or companies could undertake future maintenance work for the Queen Elizabeth class. These include, but are not limited to, solutions involving the Aircraft Carrier Alliance—the means by which the carriers are being constructed—and the surface ship support alliance, which will provide efficient, sustainable and affordable engineering support to the Royal Navy.

In addition, I would like to remind the House that although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) reminded us in her intervention, Portsmouth has been confirmed as the base port for the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, that does not automatically mean that all the maintenance work will be undertaken there. A number of options are being considered for the future support of the Queen Elizabeth class, including facilities at Rosyth, together with other UK, and possibly overseas, locations, all with sufficiently large facilities. There are more than two yards that can do this work.

Because of the operational readiness that the carriers will have to provide, does my hon. Friend agree that outside those major maintenance episodes every six years, the maintenance work is likely to be opportunistic and therefore done within the home base, which will be Portsmouth?

Quite reasonably, my hon. Friend teases me to make the same sort of commitments as does the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. I am afraid, however, that I just cannot make those commitments at this stage, much as I would like to.

Does the Minister accept that if one aircraft carrier is on extended readiness and a second, which is being used for operational duties, has to go into dry dock, there will be no aircraft carrier available for use, and would he therefore consider building a third?

Now, that is a commitment I would be delighted to make at the Dispatch Box if I possibly could. I think the hon. Gentleman will be unsurprised to learn, however, that, sadly, I am unable to give him that assurance.

I recognise that there are many positive reasons for undertaking Queen Elizabeth support work at Rosyth, but we are still some way from taking the main investment decision on support arrangements, and I hope the House will understand why no decisions have yet been—or could be—taken on this issue. That is why the reports in the Scottish media to which the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife referred must, by definition, be untrue. I suspect they may be guilty of over-interpreting certain remarks, but I can assure him that no decisions have been taken at this stage. I think I would know about them if they had. [Interruption.] I think I would; I am fairly confident I would.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is anxious to hear how Babcock Marine’s Rosyth dockyard will fare in all of this. I am sure that the Government’s announcement in the SDSR that both carriers will be built will reassure the hon. Gentleman that Babcock Marine will have sufficient construction work until late into this decade. There are not many organisations that have that kind of assurance over a 10-year period.

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that newspaper point. Will he therefore give a guarantee that when decisions are made, they will be made to the House before they are made in media briefings, such as the one given the night before the SDSR was published, as happened last time?

I did take a self-denying vow at the beginning of these remarks not to say some of the things on my mind. All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that I will do my best to comply with his reasonable request, although it was not one that the previous Government respected that often. [Interruption.] I just like to get these things on the record from time to time.

In terms of wider surface ship maintenance work, we continue to work with Babcock Marine and BAE Systems Surface Ships to develop the surface ship support alliance. Babcock Marine is in the final stages of a substantial six-month maintenance and upgrade period for HMS Blyth, a minesweeper. I am pleased to confirm that this work is on track to complete on time and to budget, and I wish to thank all who have contributed to the success of this project—this is a tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Additionally, Babcock Marine is undertaking a docking period for HMS Illustrious and I am also pleased to be able to confirm that HMS Kent, a Type 23 frigate, is expected to arrive at Rosyth later this week in preparation for her refit period, which is planned to last until next autumn.

Recently, the hon. Gentlemen wrote to me seeking assurances about the future upkeep programme at Rosyth—he sought that assurance again tonight—and I would like to take this opportunity to explain again the Department’s current position. As has been the practice since the start of the alliance programme, discussions have been continuous between members of the alliance about the best allocation of the forward programme of upkeep periods. It is, however, too early to say what changes might be required of the programme at Rosyth and elsewhere in the alliance following the hard decisions made to reduce the size of the Royal Navy as part of the SDSR. I can, however, confirm that decisions will continue to be made on what we describe as a “best for enterprise” basis, and I will be delighted to meet him and his constituents to discuss these issues further. I look forward to making the arrangements for that meeting at the earliest possible date.

Turning to future shipbuild work, we now expect up to three years of additional design and modification work on the Queen Elizabeth class carriers to address the changes needed to install catapults and arrester gear. That may, in part, at least answer the question put by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. In addition, design work is already under way on the Type 26 global combat ship, which is expected to enter service early in the next decade; this is the next generation of frigate.

As the House is aware, the SDSR announced the Government’s intentions for the current and future equipment and capabilities we need to defend this country. It made some tough but necessary choices, removing some projects while keeping others. We are now working hard to provide the level of detail needed to decide exactly how these intentions are turned into reality. With the decision to decommission some of the Royal Navy’s ships—these are decisions that I personally regret, but they were inevitable—we need to continue working with industry to decide how best to support the Royal Navy surface fleet to ensure that we achieve the best value for money. We also know that maintenance work on the Queen Elizabeth class is still some way—some years—from being decided. A key factor in that decision will be achieving a more detailed understanding of what changing the aircraft launch system means for not only the build programme, but through-life support. I said at the start of my speech that I would not be able to provide the House with all the answers today that I know it would like, but we do know that two extremely capable Queen Elizabeth class carriers will be built.

Why can the Minister not assure us that the aircraft carriers will be refitted within the United Kingdom?

I think that it is extremely likely that they will be, but I cannot rule out the possibility that they will not; the assumption is that they will be refitted in the UK, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but I am not going to give him that categorical assurance at this stage, for reasons that I am sure he, as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister, will understand.

Well, the right hon. Gentleman shakes his head and I am surprised at that. As a constituency MP I am sure he would not understand, but as a former Chancellor and Prime Minister I suspect that he probably does.

With one carrier to be operated, there will be long-term requirements for maintenance, potentially for up to 50 years. In times of austerity across the country, the UK shipbuilding industry and ship repair industry should take great comfort from that, as well as the other naval activity, both surface and submarine, that the SDSR confirmed. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife on securing this debate and look forward to seeing him at my office at an early date

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.