DEFENCE (FRONT-BENCH) – WARSHIP NUMBERS – 21 January 2008

[John Bercow: What changes he expects to make to the numbers of ships and submarines in the Royal Navy in the next three years.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Bob Ainsworth): While the defence programme is kept under regular review, the only planned change in the number of major surface warships in the Royal Navy over the next three years will be the reduction to two aircraft carriers when HMS Invincible is finally withdrawn from service in 2010. However, the number of destroyers in service at any one time may vary as the Type 45 destroyer steadily replaces the Type 42. As previously announced, our fleet of attack submarines will be reduced from nine to eight at the end of this year.

John Bercow: Given the great reluctance with which the Royal Navy accepted the cut in frigate and destroyer totals from 35 to 32 in 1998, and the fact that the Government subsequently cut the number from 32 to 25, will the Minister guarantee that there will be no further cuts?

Mr Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman tries desperately – as do some of his hon. Friends – to give the impression that the Royal Navy is losing capability, although he knows that the new aircraft carriers that have been ordered will be the biggest ships ever run by the Navy, and that the Type 45 destroyer has a capability well beyond that of the ships that it is replacing. We intend to maintain the Royal Navy as one of the most powerful navies in the world, just as we intend to maintain the capability to build those ships for the Royal Navy … ]

Dr Julian Lewis: I shall resist the temptation to describe the Minister's reply to the very specific questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in the terms that he has recently made famous, although I point out that the price of the Hansard on eBay is currently £77. Instead, I remind him that it was made clear in written answers on 9 and 29 October that, on current plans, the number of attack submarines will go down to seven and the number of frigates and destroyers will go down to 23, unless more orders are placed. Will he now give us a guarantee that the orders will be placed, so that we do not have fewer than the eight attack submarines and the 25 frigates and destroyers promised by the Government in 2004?

[Mr Ainsworth: We will make announcements to the House as and when we are ready to do so. The hon. Gentleman continues to try to say that the Royal Navy's capability is not as is needed when he knows that the situation is otherwise. The Type 45 destroyer is one of the most powerful ships afloat, and the carriers will be the biggest ships afloat. The Government have put a considerable amount of shipbuilding into our yards over recent years and will continue to do so in the future. The hon. Gentleman knows that to be the case.]