HC Deb 22 November 1994 vol 250 cc454-5
4. Mr. Byers

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what will be the size of the Royal Navy's surface fleet by the year 2000, under the current plans.

Mr. Rifkind

The Royal Navy's surface fleet currently consists of 98 commissioned vessels, supported by 21 ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

Mr. Byers

Does the Secretary of State accept that, if that programme is to be achieved within the available budget, value for money will need to be obtained? Does he share my concern that, with the demise of Swan Hunter, if the takeover bids by GEC and British Aerospace for VSEL in Barrow are successful, a monopoly will be created? In those circumstances, and in the public interest, should not both bids be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot comment on the reference, which is before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Although we all regret the sad closure of the Swan Hunter yard, Yarrow, Barrow-in-Furness and Vosper are still all building naval ships. We also have civil yards that are capable, in certain circumstances, of building Royal Navy ships. So the Ministry of Defence still has quite a significant amount of choice to meet its needs.

Mr. Viggers

As the question mentions the year 2000, can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, by that year, the replacements for Fearless and Intrepid, the assault ships, will be at or near completion? Together with the helicopter carrier, will they not give us the best amphibious capacity we have had for decades?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes. Eleven Royal Navy ships are being built at various yards throughout the United Kingdom. In addition, as my hon. Friend says, we have issued tenders for the design and build of replacements for the two assault ships, Fearless and Intrepid, and for an oceanographic survey vessel—not to mention the batch 2 Trafalgar class submarines. There is thus a heavy programme of building to meet the large needs of the Royal Navy in the years to come.

Mr. Fatchett

Although the House understands why the Secretary of State for Defence cannot comment on the reference to the MMC of the bids for VSEL, can he tell us his own thinking on the matter in the context of future procurement policy? Does not the Department claim that its key criterion for procurement policy is competition? Without such competition to supply the Navy, there is a real danger that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's departmental policy will be put at risk. Should he not tell us his views now, instead of hiding behind those of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry?

Mr. Rifkind

Despite the hon. Gentleman's latter comments, may I say that we welcome him to the Dispatch Box as a shadow spokesman on defence?

The Ministry of Defence has made it clear that competition is, of course, an important factor which has benefited the Royal Navy and, indeed, all three services, when procurement needs have been able to be met by competition. We are conscious of the fact that, for all western Governments, procurement is now significantly less than in previous years. Nevertheless, we believe that it is important to ensure value for money to meet the needs of our armed forces. That influences our judgment of these difficult matters.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the future size of the Royal Navy demonstrates that there is enough warship procurement in the pipeline to sustain two competing warship yards in the United Kingdom beyond the turn of the century? Will he further confirm that such competition will ensure that British taxpayers will be the winners, because they will get the best value for their money?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with the thinking behind my hon. Friend's question. We very much hope that VSEL in Barrow, Yarrow and Vosper will all continue to meet the needs of the Royal Navy. All three yards are viable assets, and we very much hope that they will continue to build ships for the Navy for many years to come.

Forward to