HC Deb 31 March 2003 vol 402 cc655-7
8. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

What progress is being made in developing the proposed new aircraft carriers. [105455]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The two new aircraft carriers will represent a quantum step up in the UK's military capability when they enter service in 2012 and 2015. Design activity is continuing in parallel with our discussions with BAE Systems and Thales UK on the structure of the alliance, which will take forward the programme. We expect to be in a position formally to commence the next phase of assessment work shortly and intend to award the main build contract for the carriers in spring 2004.

Richard Ottaway

I refer to the decision to use French contractors for the construction of those ships. Does it occur to the Minister that, when those vessels are launched, if the French Government disagree with their deployment, they could pose all sorts of problems over the supply of equipment and logistical services? Under those circumstances, if the Minister insists that Britain is incapable of building those ships on its own, might it not be better to look around for more suitable partners?

Mr. Ingram

I really think that the hon. Gentleman has not followed the detail of the matter. These ships will be designed and built within the United Kingdom. No final decision has been taken about the armaments that will go on board, but we have a highly capable UK defence sector, which will make a bid. The hon. Gentleman's question is based on a nonsensical premise. The answer is that those ships are part of the Royal Navy and will be deployed accordingly.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that partnership is the most important consideration in the building of the carriers between BAE Systems and Thales? Does he agree that the sort of partnership that we are talking about is that put together between Vosper Thorneycroft and BAE Systems in the design office in my constituency in Scotstoun? The yard is an important part of the process and I hope that my right hon. Friend will help to send some of the design work there. Will he join me in congratulating the work force in the Scotstoun and Govan yards for cutting the first steel for the type 45 destroyers last Friday?

Mr. Ingram

There are two good news messages in my hon. Friend's question. He is right—he has been a strong advocate of the Clyde yards in the whole process—that partnership is a key element. The Ministry of Defence is part of that partnership, so Thales UK, BAE Systems and the Ministry will work as a triumvirate on how best to take matters forward. Yes, I would congratulate the Scotstoun and Govan yards on their achievement in cutting the first steel, as announced last Friday.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the Minister accept the verdict of industry and commentators alike that this is a fudge, guaranteed to produce a turf war between the two major companies concerned? Can the Minister explain exactly what is the role of the Ministry of Defence? In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), he said that it would be an alliance involving BAE Systems, Thales and the MOD. How much of the risk is his Department taking and is it not in danger of having to hold the ring in resolving disputes between Thales and BAE?

Furthermore, how realistic now is the intention declared by the Prime Minister and President Chirac at Le Touquet last month to harmonise activity cycles and training between British and French aircraft carriers?

Mr. Ingram

On the latter point, I should have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the work that goes on between allies to ensure that we get the maximum benefit from capabilities. He may have missed part of this, but we are trying to lift capabilities right across NATO and within Europe. We are making up a very significant part of that, the French are doing likewise, and we encourage other nations to lift their capability levels as well.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned people making comments about turf wars. In my previous answer I referred to the partnership nature of this action. The actual percentage make-up in terms of the precise level of MOD involvement has not yet been determined. That is part of the ongoing work.

Forward to