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Armed Forces: Future Aircraft Carrier

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 18 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When the Royal Navy future carrier demonstration phase is expected to complete, and when the main investment decision is expected to be taken.

My Lords, I have made clear to the Aircraft Carrier Alliance that time is now critical. I am looking to get a robust, affordable deal negotiated quickly to allow a main investment decision to be taken as soon as possible.

My Lords, will the Minister quash strong rumours coming out of the MoD that these continual delays in signing a full contract are just the first step towards cancelling the carriers? Despite the Prime Minister’s commitment to spend more on defence, we heard at Question Time yesterday that he is only one of a number of contributors to the debate on the Comprehensive Spending Review. As the Chancellor is no friend of the Armed Forces and we are fighting two wars on a peace-time budget, will the Minister give those serving in the Royal Navy some hope that the carriers will not be sacrificed to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan?

My Lords, I am happy to give the noble Lord that assurance. He should consider the rumours quashed.

My Lords, it is now two years or more since the Royal Navy Sea Harrier force was withdrawn. The date of introduction of the new carriers looks like slipping even further to the right. Is the Minister satisfied that the Royal Navy will have air crew and engineers in sufficient numbers and of sufficient expertise to man aircraft for these new aircraft carriers?

Yes, my Lords; I am happy to give the noble and gallant Lord that assurance. I do not accept that the dates for the introduction of the new aircraft carriers have moved to the right. I am happy to reiterate the central importance of the carrier strike capability—the combination of the aircraft and the ships—to the country’s future defence posture. It is set out clearly in the Strategic Defence Review and it remains the case.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us roughly what proportion of the cost of the overall carrier programme he expects to be committed at the main gate? Might it be prudent—I choose my words carefully—perhaps to accept that we have had so much slippage already that he may want to wait until a new Prime Minister is in the chair?

My Lords, I think I can be absolutely clear to the House on this point. As I said, the aircraft carriers are central to the defence posture. In the defence budget as a whole there is a budget for the replacement of the aircraft carriers. The key issue now is reaching agreement with industry on the price and the delivery of the carriers. As I said in my Answer, I am pushing very hard to reach an agreement that will deliver the carriers to cost and to time. For that to happen there needs to be consolidation in the industry. I am very pleased to see that that is now starting to happen. I am pleased also to see the progress we have made in the collaboration with France. We now have a common design for both the French and the British aircraft carriers which has been agreed and has involved no delay to the British aircraft carrier project, and at no increase in cost. That is an important achievement.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is no friend of the Armed Forces is entirely untrue, not least because he has a substantial constituency interest at Rosyth?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me the opportunity to make that point. It is clear to anyone who has listened carefully to what the Chancellor has said that he is a friend of the Armed Forces.

My Lords, without in any way wishing to suggest that the specification for the new carriers should fall short of meeting the operational requirement, may I ask the Minister to bear in mind that, over the years, the biggest contributor to delay and cost overruns in major procurement projects has been the constant tweaking of the technical requirements?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. Industry made clear to me last year that unless the Navy could clearly close off the specification by the end of last March, it would not be able to meet the timescales we are looking for. I was very pleased and, in fact, impressed that the Royal Navy was able to meet that target.

My Lords, DML Plymouth Appledore has an enviable record of excellence in the design, construction and refitting of warships. There has been speculation on the ownership of that company. The Government have a golden share. It is very important that that speculation is put to an end as soon as possible. Will the Minister let the House know exactly when the ownership of that vital company will be resolved?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: it is a very important issue. That base is important to the maintenance and refuelling of our nuclear submarines. It is very important for the strategic nuclear deterrent. We are not going to take any chances with that capability. We have been concerned about recent developments relating to the ownership of that yard. We are very focused on getting those resolved very quickly indeed.

My Lords, welcome as the collaboration with France in the design of these vessels is, will any contract entered into by the French Government have a bearing on any contract that the British Government might enter into?

My Lords, the advantage of the collaboration with France and of the important step forward in the French using the British aircraft carrier design—and we are working very closely together—is the economies of scale which can be achieved in procuring three aircraft carriers rather than two and the sharing of benefits in savings and efficiency between the two countries. So it has an implication in that sense.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Astor made an important point when he said that we are fighting two wars. Does the Minister recognise this huge expenditure and its consequences for the procurement programme? He recently explained to me that the first Gulf War cost us £2.5 billion, of which we got £2 billion back. The current activities are costing us about £4 billion, but there is very little sign of our getting anything back from anyone. Do the Government recognise fully that before they commit British forces to fighting operations, they must take into account the impact on procurement of crucial materiel for the effectiveness of the Armed Forces?

My Lords, I can assure the House that all our decisions on equipment procurement take these matters of operations fully into account. They are absolutely central to every decision we take.