AIRCRAFT CARRIER REFITTING
Speech

END OF DAY ADJOURNMENT DEBATE, HOUSE OF COMMONS

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff)

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.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): 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?

Peter Luff: 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.

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

Peter Luff: 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.

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

Peter Luff: 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.

Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): 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?

Peter Luff: 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 to build both carriers 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.

Thomas Docherty: 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 night before the SDSR was published, as happened last time?

Peter Luff: 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 will 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.

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

Peter Luff: 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 suggestions, 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.

Mr Brown indicated dissent.

Peter Luff: 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.

10.43 pm
House adjourned.


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