DEFENCE (FRONT BENCH) – WARSHIP BUILDING – 30 March 2009

Dr Julian Lewis: On 12 January, the Secretary of State (John Hutton) said in an oral answer:

“As regards naval construction, we have the largest programme under way since the end of the First World War.” [Official Report, 12 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 16.]

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Quentin Davies), said in a written answer on the same day:

“We are currently engaged in the most substantial peacetime naval shipbuilding programme since the First World War.” [Official Report, 12 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 71W.]

Given that over the past eleven years, the frigate and destroyer fleet has been cut from 35 to 23, or possibly 22, the attack submarine fleet from 12 to 8 – it is heading for 7 – and the new destroyer building programme from 12 to only 6, and that the start date for the two carriers has been delayed, and whereas in the eleven years to 1939 we constructed 6 aircraft carriers, 5 battleships, 54 submarines –

[Mr Speaker: Order. As a former metalworker, I am always happy to hear about the construction of ships, but the question is too long.]

Dr Lewis: Then I will bring the question to its conclusion, if I may. Given the vast number of ships constructed over a similar period up to 1939, including 117 destroyers, how can the Minister justify the statements that were made on 12 January?

[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Quentin Davies): First, I think that the hon. Gentleman may have prepared his extremely long question before he heard the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Southend, West (David Amess) about the present programme. If I may respectfully say so, the question asked by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) also confuses the issue of current numbers and the issue of the current construction programme. I repeat that the current construction programme is the largest that we have engaged in, in terms of capability and tonnage [sic – see below]; the 65,000-tonne carriers will be the largest ships ever built by the Royal Navy in her history. The hon. Gentleman would do well to reflect on that, and to consider the fact that that is a decision taken by this Government. I shudder to think what might happen under a future Conservative Government, if there were one, to our naval shipbuilding programme, or to our procurement programme, because the Conservatives still have not told us how they would finance the three new battalions.]

[NOTE: TONNAGE OF MAJOR WARSHIPS CONSTRUCTED BETWEEN 1928 AND 1939 WAS (a) 6 AIRCRAFT CARRIERS (137,000); (b) 5 BATTLESHIPS (175,000); (c) 117 DESTROYERS (177,495); (d) 47 CRUISERS (365,740); (e) 54 SUBMARINES (62,980). TOTAL TONNAGE = 918,215]