HL Deb 23 October 2000 vol 618 cc9-10

2.58 p.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support the idea of a national flagship which would be of use in Britain's overseas diplomatic and commercial representation.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, the Government again recently reviewed the concept of a national flagship. It was concluded that the benefits would not justify the costs to the taxpayer as there would be insufficient calls on the vessel by both business and government departments.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the estimated cost to the Government has recently been reduced in a new plan submitted by those who are putting forward this project? Has that been taken into account? On the other hand, can we take it that the matter is now finally closed or is it subject to further consideration?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am aware that the capital cost, which would of course be provided by private concerns, has been reduced and that the cost to the Government similarly would be reduced. However, it is not felt that that affects the basic consideration that there is no demand for the use of such a ship by any of the parties which might use it. Therefore, the matter can be considered closed.

Lord Roper

My Lords, although I understand the reason for the Answer given by the Minister, I wonder whether he recalls the long tradition of the Royal Navy of showing the flag in a whole variety of ways? Will he consider whether that can be developed and extended to fulfil some of the functions which would have been carried out by a national flagship?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, there are obviously uses to which such a vessel could be put and benefits obtained from it. However, it is not felt that those justify the building of a ship which, overall, would not fulfil any great purpose.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, for example, the £100 million which would be paid for that ship and for its running costs over the first few years and the £5.5 million to the Government every year for its use around the world, would represent a far better and lasting symbol, for peanuts, really, than the Dome has proved to be, which I understand is to go to the breaker's yard within the year?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it is a common rule that when people stop justifying a project in terms of its use and start trying to justify it in terms that it represents better value than some other project, that project being one of which they do not approve, that is usually a very good sign that there should not be funding for such a project.

Lord Elton

My Lords, going back to the question of justifying a project by its use, will the Minister explain in more detail what he means when he says that this ship would not fulfil any great purpose? I presume that, in the consultations which he and his colleagues had with the commercial and industrial interests of the country, he must have said what that purpose was. Will he tell us in what terms the consultation was carried out?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the consultation was undertaken with various departments of government which might see a use for this—for example, British Trade International, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. None of those felt that, in terms of value for money, it would achieve any of their purposes.

I remind the House that in relation to trade, for example, a severe lack of flexibility is involved. Many of our target markets are simply not accessible by sea and there are limitations as regards defence and other products on such a vessel which are not shown by exhibition halls. So none of the departments which might be expected to have a requirement for that ship felt that it could be justified.

Lord Elton

My Lords, did the consultation embrace the private sector and, if not, why not?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I believe that the private sector was consulted through British Trade International. I shall check on that point and let noble Lords know whether that is the case.

Forward to