Future Aircraft Carrier

– in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 17 November 2005.

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Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, our 1998 Strategic Defence Review identified a requirement to replace the three existing carriers with two larger carriers. The Government remain committed to providing this capability. However, in-service dates cannot be set until the main investment decision, at which point we can commit to manufacture within defined time, cost and performance parameters. Work continues to mature the design, address risks and refine costs to the point at which that decision can sensibly be taken.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Spokespersons In the Lords, Foreign Affairs, Spokespersons In the Lords, Defence, Spokespersons In the Lords, International Development, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips

My Lords, I am very disappointed with that reply. I expected more than a rehash of "official-speak" waffle. After seven years these carriers are still no more than drawing board concepts. The Minister's right honourable friend Adam Ingram admitted in the other place last Friday that the Government still have no,

"proper understanding of the costs involved".—[Hansard, Commons, 11/11/05; col. 854W.]

Will the Minister now get a grip on this crucial project? As our existing carriers are due to be phased out in 2012 and 2015, are the in-service dates for the new carriers still 2012 and 2015, and, if not, what are the contingency plans to fill the gap?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, the fact that I am not prepared to state an in-service date does not mean that I do not have a grip on the project. I assure the House that I have a very firm grip on the project. The reason I am not prepared to state an in-service date is that we are in discussions with the companies that will be building these carriers on the details of the way in which they will be built, the costs and the time-scale thereof. While we are in those discussions, and until we have a signed contract with those companies, it would be very unwise of the Government to commit themselves to dates or costs. However, the Government are committed to ensuring that these carriers are delivered in a way which meets the out-of-service dates of our existing carriers, that that is managed well and is done on a value for money basis.

Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence

My Lords, having listened to the noble Lord—

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, there is plenty of time for both noble Lords. They should make up their minds which one will speak first.

Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence

My Lords, having heard the Minister give evidence to the Defence Select Committee three weeks ago, I congratulate him on taking a grip on this programme, which has been a shambles for the past seven years. However, while he may be able to do the risk reduction exercise for the shipbuilding elements, over which he has a degree of control, how will he do it for the Joint Strike Fighter, over which he has so little control and where we have to leave it to the Americans to decide when they will give it to us, what it will be like and how much it will cost?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am pleased to see the enthusiasm of noble Lords on all sides of the House to grill me on this very important and exciting project. I thank the noble Lord for his comments. He is right that the delivery of the carrier strike capability depends on both the delivery of the aircraft carriers and the aircraft thereof. We are working with the United States on the JSF project. We are looking for the STOVL variant of the JSF to be delivered to meet our carrier strike capability. We have plans in place to manage the interface between the two well. I am confident that the plans we have in place will enable us to deliver an effective carrier strike capability.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Garden, and I have sorted out our little difference. I bowed to seniority—in rank, of course, nothing else. What effect will this uncertainty have on vessels being withdrawn from service and on the programme?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I stress that there is no uncertainty about this programme. I am committed to delivering this important capability that the Navy needs, to do it in a time-scale that meets the requirements for the out-of-service dates of existing carriers and to ensure that the two dovetail well together. I am also well aware of the importance of the carrier projects to our maritime industry. The fact that the carriers are so large and so complex means that all aspects of our current manufacturing capability need to be employed to deliver the carriers. The department is committed to delivering a strategy by Christmas that sets out how that will be done, which will ensure that the two are managed well together.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister recall that his predecessor gave this House dates of 2012 and 2015? Clearly those dates will not now be met. Does the Minister therefore regret that the Sea Harrier force, which provides much capability for the Navy, has been withdrawn, and that the Navy will be without such capabilities for a considerably longer period?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is right. I have noted that the department has in the past stated target in-service dates; but it is important for the department to be clear both with industry and internally where it has committed to a date. We need to ensure that the disciplines are in place to improve delivery to target in terms of cost and time. Therefore, having any flexibility about what is or what is not an in-service date with a contractual link to the industries that will deliver the projects is vital.

Regarding the Sea Harrier, we have plans in place to provide sufficient defences for our carrier strike capability. They are being provided by the new forces that will replace the Sea Harrier, and are coherent with the capabilities that we are developing as the total carrier strike capability is developed over the next 10 years.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative

My Lords, on the last occasion when this issue arose, I asked whether they would be built in British yards. What is the position on that?

Photo of Lord Stewartby Lord Stewartby Conservative

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on having taken a grip on this project; he is the first person to have done so for a very long time. Can he give us his latest estimate of the out-of-service date of the current carriers? He has assured us that there will not be a gap.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Transport

My Lords, is the Minister certain that the JSF STOVL version will be available?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am learning that nothing is certain in this job. However, the importance of the STOVL variant to our ability to develop the carrier strike capability in the way that we want cannot be overemphasised. The STOVL capability is central to our carrier strike plans, and that is the basis on which we are going forward.