DEFENCE – CARRIERS & PROCUREMENT – 23 October 2003

[The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, (Mr Adam Ingram): … Sentiment for older pieces of kit is understandable, but sentiment will not give us that battle-winning edge. We should not assume that the future threat will neatly conform to a traditional notion of how the armed forces should look. Defence capability cannot be preserved in aspic – it needs to evolve to meet the new threats and challenges that we face.]

Dr Julian Lewis: I endorse what the Minister is saying. Does he accept, however, that when procuring systems such as aircraft carriers and other pieces of equipment that take many years to build and have to be in service for many years, their specifications must allow them to be as versatile as possible, because we cannot predict how threats will come and go, develop and complicate over that very long period?

[Mr Ingram: I agree with that view, generally speaking, but not necessarily in terms of the aircraft carrier. The lifetime of an aircraft carrier may be 50 years, but that of other equipment systems will be shorter. Some may be much more easily adaptable than others due to the nature of what was procured.]

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[Mr Ingram: … We should not respond to lurid press headlines as this process develops. Every procurement process has decision-making points at which we have to get it right, otherwise we cannot move to the next phase. … So far as this particular procurement is concerned, there has been a lot of comment about the way in which we put together the strategic partnership between BAE Systems, Thales UK and the MOD. People said that it was flawed and that it would never work, but the opposite is happening. We now have a very committed high-grade project team driving forward to meet the tough demands that we at the MOD insist on.]

Dr Lewis: I thank the Minister for giving way again. Of course, he is making reasonable points in a general sort of way, but this cannot all be put down to lurid press reports, can it? The Minister may recall that the Secretary of State said in his statement about the future aircraft carrier on 30 January this year:

“At around 60,000 tonnes, they" –

the aircraft carriers –

"are approximately three times the size of our current carriers. They will rank alongside the most formidable and complex weapons systems deployed by any country in the world."– [Official Report, 30 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 1026.]

Whereas in August, in a response to a question from me about the size of the aircraft carriers and the rumours that they were to be much reduced, the Minister said in a written reply:

"In the strategic defence review published in 1998, it was envisaged that the two new future aircraft carriers would be in the order of 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes." – [Official Report, 16 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 703W.]

That is not the press making things up; those are two different messages from two different Ministers in the same Department.

[Mr Ingram: I should like to reflect on that, and obviously I shall read Hansard to see the context in which those questions were raised and the responses given. … The relationship between cost and capability forms a normal part of any assessment phase, and formal cost and performance parameters will not be set until the main gate decision. The hon. Member for New Forest, East said that I made my point in a general way, but it was also a specific way. As we define capability needs, in which nothing is static and everything is evolving, against certain fairly firm criteria – although they may be subject to change – the cost implication must come into play. We have to marry up those two important elements to deliver what has rightly been described as a decision that must be flexible and adaptable over the lifetime of these vessels, which will be in the region of 50 years. While it is right for the hon. Gentleman to continue to probe and to tie us down to specifics, that contradicts what he was asking for, which was to ensure that we had a procurement process that took account of his earlier concerns.]

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Mr Colin Breed rose

Mr Gerald Howarth: Is this Liberal policy coming up?

Mr Breed: I concur with all that the hon. Gentleman said about the development of precision-guided weapons. Has he read a recent press report about the potential for manufacturing low-intensity nuclear weapons, which might even enhance such developments? Would he like such technology to be pursued?

Mr Howarth: I am not aware –

Dr Lewis: That sounds like: "Liberals for the neutron bomb".

Mr Howarth: Indeed. However, I am not aware of that report and cannot ask "my staff" to look it up because they are not yet my staff. In due course, after the next election, things might be different. I shall certainly do the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr Breed) the courtesy of reading the article; if he has it to hand, perhaps he could let me have a look at it.

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[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ivor Caplin): The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) intervened earlier to suggest that the answer that he had received from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was different from statements that had previously been made.

He has just said that my right hon. Friend the Minister was harking back to the Strategic Defence Review, so I shall set out the answer to his question:

"In the Strategic Defence Review, published in 1998, it was envisaged that the two new Future Aircraft Carriers would be in the order of 30,000–40,000 tonnes and capable of carrying up to 50 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The intention, as with any other new equipment project, has always been to refine the design during the assessment phase in order to best meet our developing capability requirements." – [Official Report, 16 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 703W.]]

Dr Lewis: Of course, the Government said that in 1998; they are saying it again now, but why did the Secretary of State make such a song-and-dance in January this year about the fact that the carriers would actually be 60,000 tonnes? That is what everybody heard and believed at the time.

[Mr Caplin: The two statements are not contradictory.]