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Having visited Govan and Rosyth to see the Queen Elizabeth class carriers under construction, I know that the project is good news for the UK defence industry. It is anticipated that 7,000 to 8,000 jobs will be created or sustained at the tier 1 shipyards, with a further 2,000 to 3,000 jobs in the wider supply chain. Apprenticeship schemes have also been reinvigorated, with nearly 800 apprentices now involved in the project. Some £1.35 billion-worth of equipment subcontracts have been placed, the majority of which have been awarded to more than 75 different UK companies spanning the length and breadth of the UK. With an expected 50-year service life, there will be continued opportunities for UK companies to benefit from this project.
Actually, I do not fully agree with that. A carrier might well have been deployed, but the aircraft that we needed to deploy the missiles we needed were the Tornados and Typhoons, and they did a first-rate job. That proved that the Government made the right judgment in the strategic defence and security review by deciding on a gap in respect of that particular capability.
Does the Minister recall that an important factor in the decision to continue with the construction of the two aircraft carriers was the availability of the F-35, the joint strike fighter? Is he aware of reports that there is a delay in its development programme? What will be the impact on the effectiveness of the carrier force if there are no aircraft to fly off them?
The world is full of rumours about the future of the F-35 programme; I hear a new one almost every day. It is true that a lot of questions are being asked, and those aircraft are very important to carrier strike capability, but I shall wait to see what actually happens, rather than joining in the speculation.
In a written answer to me, the Minister put the estimated cost of converting one of the carriers to the catapult and arrestor system at about £1 billion. Can he therefore tell us whether the Chancellor’s announcement in the autumn statement of real-terms cuts in respect of procurement issues of almost £30 billion, extending into the first two years of the next Parliament, is apt, or whether the Prime Minister’s promise of a real-terms increase in defence spending of 1% will apply to this and other major projects?
I can confirm that nothing has happened to our commitment to increase the equipment budget by 1% in real terms from 2015. I have to say that our job would be a great deal easier if the previous Government had not taken the decision to delay the carriers, thus adding an extra £1.3 billion of costs to the programme with no capability gain whatsoever.