DEFENCE PROCUREMENT (FRONT BENCH) – 23 October 2003

Dr Julian Lewis: The mentioning of the MARS vessels by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Ian Davidson) almost succeeded in frustrating what remains my aim, which is to be the first to mention at least one new topic in a debate when making a winding-up speech. However, I still have a card or two up my sleeve.

As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Gerald Howarth), this is the right debate but at the wrong time. It almost seems as if the Government are intent on trying to cram as many defence debates as possible into the period before what is bound to be a very controversial White Paper appears, so that, after it appears and we demand answers to very challenging questions in the light of the cuts that it is clearly being forewarned will be set out in that White Paper, the Government can say: "But you had all these debates this year." We are used to such tactics, as are the public after so many years of this New Labour Government. I do not think they will be fooled by it any more than we are.

I strongly disagree with the uncharacteristically harsh remarks of the Chairman of the Defence Committee (Bruce George), who, having missed the start of the debate, is showing consistency by not being present at the end of it. He chides hon. Members for representing the constituents and firms in their constituencies who work in and constitute the defence manufacturing industry. I personally think that such contributions show the merit of the single Member constituency system. I do not think that those constituents or firms would be spoken up for half as strongly if we had the sort of list systems that certain minor parties prefer.

That is why I commend the speeches of the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) and for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who all persuasively argued the case for UK defence manufacturing work to be undertaken by companies and workforces in their constituencies. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) covered an important local defence industry, but as well as that he ranged over many wider topics, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (John Wilkinson) raised several more very important topics. For example, he was the first to mention the difficulty in maintaining the cycle of carriers permanently on patrol when there are only two rather than three, and the first to mention ballistic missile defence.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Michael Jack) showed his absolute mastery of equipment issues, and stressed the importance of an independent UK defence manufacturing base. The Liberal Democrat spokesman (Colin Breed) put on the record his party's wish to privatise the Defence Export Services Organisation, and his colleague, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Alan Reid), highlighted the problem of nuclear submarine hulk disposal. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot stressed the vital role of our military technology base, and the problems set to affect procurement projects in all three Armed Services. He also made a strong plea for greater equity in US-UK collaboration in defence projects – a point echoed and reinforced by the hon. Member for North Durham (Kevan Jones).

I am pleased to see that despite his arduous journey, the Secretary of State (Geoff Hoon) has joined us for the end of the debate, and I should let him know that the Minister of State (Adam Ingram) rightly referred to some of the remarks that he made during last week's debate on defence policy. Without a conception of the threats that one is likely to face – as well as those that one currently faces – it is neither prudent nor sensible to determine a procurement policy at all. Procurement has to be tailored to meet the threats currently faced, and it has to be designed to meet future threats in so far as they can be anticipated.

The longer the lead time and in-service time of a weapons system, the more versatile it must be. It should not be necessary for me to remind Ministers that where naval doctrine – maritime doctrine – in particular is concerned, versatility is valued above all. I shall take a moment of the House's time to point out that on Monday, I had the privilege of sponsoring the last reunion dinner of the crew of a wartime aircraft carrier of which some Members may not have heard. It was called HMS Speaker, hence its connection with this House; indeed, I was delighted that Mr Speaker was able to meet and greet its splendid veterans. You and others may not have heard of it, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it was an escort carrier – a ship not originally designed as an aircraft carrier, but which was speedily converted into a pocket-size carrier to fill a capability gap that was discovered once the war was already under way.

However, with modern systems we cannot adopt the "adjustable in wartime" measures that served us so well in the past. Indeed, the Secretary of State recognised that fact when he spoke in this House a week ago. He said:

"Historically, there are periods when major and rapid changes are necessary. That reflects the emergence of new threats and requirements and the passing of former threats against which the armed forces have previously been configured."

However, in talking about weapons systems that were retained from the Cold War period but adapted to the post-Cold War era, he said that such equipment was "not always optimised" for the role that it had to take on. What was top of his list? It was our existing aircraft carriers, which, in his own words,

"were smaller than needed for significant operations against targets ashore". – [Official Report, 16 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 273–74.]

Let me remind the House about a little of the history of those aircraft carriers, which very nearly did not exist at all. I am old enough to remember a previous Labour Government, who had a well-thought-of Defence Secretary – Lord Healey, as he now is – who attached his considerable intellectual weight to a reassessment of Britain's strategic requirements, and decided that we no longer needed to be east of Suez. Applying logical principles, he said that if we no longer needed to project power east of Suez, we no longer needed aircraft carriers.

If it had been left to that Government, there would have been no aircraft carriers, adequate, adaptable or otherwise. The only reason we have the present three aircraft carriers is that the Navy chiefs had the foresight and ingenuity to commission three special cruisers, which they called "through-deck cruisers". If New Labour thinks that it invented the concept of spin, it should look back to the Admiralty of those days, to which we all owe a debt of gratitude.

The aircraft carriers of the future must be capable of meeting unpredictable threats. The House will recall the comments I made earlier when I mentioned the assurance that the Secretary of State gave us early this year that the carriers would be 60,000-tonne ships, and would

"rank alongside the most formidable and complex weapons systems deployed by any country anywhere in the world." – [Official Report, 30 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 1026.]

I contrast that with the written answer I received from the Minister of State in August, in which he harked back to the SDR in 1998, saying that

"it was envisaged that the two new Future Aircraft Carriers would be in the order of 30,000–40,000 tonnes and be capable of carrying up to 50 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters." – [Official Report, 1 September 2003; Vol. 409, c. 893W.]

One question that we can expect to be answered today is this: if the aircraft carriers are reduced to 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes, does the Minister guarantee that vessels of that size will still be capable of carrying up to 50 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters? I hope that the answer is not simply a yes because "up to 50" could mean only 20, 25 or 30. I am sure the Government would not shelter behind such sophistry – or perhaps I am not so sure.

The Minister even seemed to suggest that if the aircraft carriers were smaller, it would somehow increase their versatility. That is not the view of Mr Simon Knight of BMT Defence Services, the naval architect in charge of the project – as he was described in a Press Association press release on 12 October. He was reported as stating in an interview with The Engineer magazine:

"What we had before was a ship that could be a frigate in terms of its self-defence capabilities, and that could be a command and control ship in terms of its communications. It was the Holy Grail in terms of a ship that had everything, and we are now trying to pare it back to just the aircraft carrier role."

I also wish to ask about joint strike fighter numbers – an issue that has been raised before. I was told in a written answer from the Minister of State:

"While no final decisions have yet been taken, our planning assumption is based on 150 of the Short Take Off and Vertical Landing ... variant of JSF being acquired to meet the … requirement." – [Official Report, 16 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 453W.]

Does that pledge still stand or has it been thrown into the melting pot together with the great promises that were made about the carriers? We have so often heard from this Government bold commitments that are made at the beginning, only to suffer quiet, incremental retractions as we go along.

I could cover many issues, but I promised to raise one that has not so far been mentioned in the debate, and that is the present threat from terrorism in this context. More attention should be paid than it has been so far to an article in the Financial Times on 20 October by Mansoor Ijaz, entitled "The maritime threat from al-Qaeda". He points out the following facts:

"According to United Nations estimates, up to 80 per cent. of the approximately 6bn metric tons of cargo traded each year is moved by ship. Of that, almost 75 per cent. passes at some point through one of the five main choke points in the seafaring economy – the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Malacca. A terrorist attack against one or more of those transit areas that disabled it for weeks or – in the case of a radiological 'dirty bomb', for far longer – could seriously disrupt global trade. The economic calculus of moving cargo by sea would be rendered useless."

The Royal Navy is clearly aware of that threat. I was interested to see an article in the current edition of Navy News entitled "Sea containers may carry next big terror threat". It is a worrying fact that only a miniscule proportion of containers are checked in any meaningful way before they enter this country. Of the 12 questions that I would have liked to put to the Minister, I shall confine myself to one to allow him his full time to answer as much of the debate as he feels able or inclined to do: will the Government seriously consider initiating a screening system at our ports, and if necessary offshore, to improve the prospects of preventing sealed containers from being used to cause terror in the heart of this country?