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Carrier Programme

Volume 542: debated on Monday 26 March 2012

My aim is to announce a balanced budget for defence and a properly funded equipment programme for the first time in a generation, and to deal with the £38 billion black hole we inherited from our predecessors.

As part of that process, we are reviewing all programmes and I will announce the outcome of this work when it is complete, but as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week, we will be guided by the facts and be realistic about costs and risks. If the facts change, we will, if necessary, change our plans and not plough on regardless, as the previous Government did.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that it is essential that we continue with the carrier programme to ensure that our troops in conflict far from our shores can at least have air supremacy and to bring much-needed jobs to our shipyards around Britain, including on the Clyde, where many of my constituents work?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the strategic defence and security review committed us to a regeneration of carrier strike capability, and the building of the carriers is well advanced. I can reassure him on that front. There is no intention to revisit the decision to build the carriers. The review is about how we operate them, use them and ensure that they remain affordable into the future.

My right hon. Friend is rumoured to be considering reverting to the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the joint strike fighter. Is he aware that were he to do so, his decision would be applauded by many because it would mean not having to find £2 billion per carrier—money not readily available—and because it might mean having two carriers instead of one?

I can assure my right hon. Friend that I have spent a great deal of time looking at this project over the past few months, and I believe that I am aware of all the arguments on both sides.

The Government have just placed great emphasis on co-operation between the UK and our French NATO partners. Does the Secretary of State believe that this is helped by the reports that they are chopping and changing their plans about which aircraft will go on the new carriers?

The collaboration that we have discussed and intend to progress with the French essentially concerns carrier deployment—working together to ensure deployments that make sense and which are coherent when looked at together. It is not about interoperability of aircraft as such. We expect that whatever decision we come to, the co-operation and collaboration that we have been discussing with the French will go ahead and will be an important part of our posture in operating our carrier strike force.

On 19 December, I asked in Defence questions about the state of the carrier fleet and the aircraft to fly from it. Rather to my surprise, I got the old ministerial brush-off. If I say I have heard echoes of that so far today in the Secretary of State’s answers, perhaps I will not be criticised. It has been known for months that the F-35 programme, so far as it relates to the aircraft the United Kingdom was to procure, has been in trouble. When will the Government come to the House of Commons and make a full, clear and detailed statement about the carriers and the aircraft to fly from them? Does anyone in the Ministry of Defence now admit to regretting the fact that we disposed of the present generation of carriers and sold off the Harrier aircraft to the United States marine corps?

My right hon. and learned Friend is conflating two issues. I have already said that we are looking at the carrier programme along with the rest of the equipment programme, and as soon as I am in a position to do so, which I expect to be shortly, I will come and update the House fully. The disposal of the Harriers was a separate decision taken because of the cost pressures facing the Government and taken consciously to save the Tornado, which proved to be an invaluable aircraft in the Libya campaign. It was the right decision.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s words about the tragic loss of life of two serving personnel and, obviously, Captain Rupert Bowers, last week?

In responding to the initial question, the Secretary of State referred to the Prime Minister’s words last week. I remind him that in introducing the SDSR, the Prime Minister said that the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35 was an error. He has obviously seen fit to change his mind. Does the Secretary of State agree with that position, and will he confirm that the Government will deliver continuous carrier strike capability by 2020, as outlined and pledged in the SDSR?

I can only say what I have already said. We are looking at all the issues around the carrier strike programme, and I will make a statement to the House shortly. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that I will not take any lectures on the carrier programme from him. He supported a Government who delayed the programme by two years and drove £1.6 billion of costs into it, and whose management of the programme was described by the Public Accounts Committee as

“a new benchmark in poor corporate decision making.”

Can the Secretary of State confirm that if he decided to go for the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35, this would enable continuous carrier strike capability to be maintained, as it could be deployed from both carriers, which is impossible to do with a single carrier?

My hon. Friend is pointing out that there are complex capability traits to be looked at in considering the question of carrier strike—the capabilities of the two aircraft, but also the availability of carriers from which they can fly. All those things are being evaluated. When we have come to a clear conclusion, we will come back to the House.