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Mr. Hoon: Both Portsmouth MPs worked assiduously on behalf of their constituents and the naval dockyard. As I said, the announcement will give Vosper's the opportunity to move into the naval dockyard and derive significant commercial and practical advantages from being there. I do not think that it is necessary for us to go over that ground. This is a positive announcement for Vosper's, and I understand that the people of Portsmouth will welcome it. It is an opportunity for Vosper's to participate in a competitive shipbuilding programme in the future.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement, particularly for the many of my constituents who work in the Vosper Thornycroft yard. He said that with this programme, Vosper's could now look forward to retaining 650 jobs. I remind him that in the year since he made his earlier announcement, the company's work force has gone down from 1,000 to 650, so this is very much a bottom line for it.

Precisely what proportion of the work on the six type 45 destroyers will be awarded to Vosper's? I am interested to know exactly what sort of player it is. Looking to the future, does the Secretary of State believe that, on completion of the first six vessels in that class, Vosper Thornycroft will be equally well placed to compete for the following six, or will it be brushed away

10 Jul 2001 : Column 685

into a corner? May I remind him that Vosper Thornycroft has the best record of any shipbuilding company in this country in winning export orders?

Mr. Hoon: As I said, job numbers are a matter for the companies concerned, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not lose sight of a crucial aspect of the discussion. Only if our shipbuilding companies are capable of competing with the best in Europe and the world will they be able to attract new work to their yards. They will have to make a commercial judgment and decide the best level of employment to maintain a competitive position. It is no good the 30 warship orders available from the Ministry of Defence being spread lightly around Britain's shipyards, if those companies and those shipyards are not capable of competing for and winning orders beyond the United Kingdom. There is a commercial reality in what we are doing that cannot be ignored.

I shall set out the precise breakdown in greater detail in due course, and shall write to the hon. Gentleman so that he can be satisfied with the arrangements—but Vosper Thornycroft is satisfied with the arrangements, and as it negotiated vigorously on a commercial basis, it is not for right hon. and hon. Members to second-guess its commercial judgment of what is in its best interests.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Appledore shipbuilders in my constituency competed for what it thought were MOD orders for two ALSLs. As it turned out, four were ordered, but no work has started on any of them. It would give the shipbuilding industry greater confidence if there was more transparency in those MOD orders. Will the Secretary of State confirm that once MOD orders are signed and contracts exchanged, full details of the orders will be put in the public domain?

Mr. Hoon: I have already made clear my determination that the process should be transparent. I am at the Dispatch Box giving details of the arrangements, to allow right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to question those matters. As for details, subject to questions of commercial confidentiality, I see no reason why the hon. Gentleman cannot use the usual means of asking parliamentary questions or writing to me or to my ministerial colleagues to establish all the information that he requires.

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4.58 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to debate an important matter that requires specific and urgent consideration, namely,

The operation has had a presence in my constituency since 1996; only four years ago, £12 million was spent on developing the present site, a high-tech research and development centre employing highly skilled software development engineers. Just one example of the innovative work done by Marconi at Poole is the 1471 callback system that it developed. Only a few weeks ago workers were assured that their jobs were secure, and investment continued in the site until recently.

Last Thursday there was a bombshell for 570 workers: at 11 am, they received their first inkling of the proposed closure of the site. The individuals concerned were devastated, and it is predicted that there will be a £42 million impact on the local economy, and further job losses. Day by day new issues are being raised, and management has been severely criticised at a national level. The company has gone from being cash-rich to being in cash deficit, the chief executive designate has resigned, and share prices have tumbled. All round, this seems to have been a story of the pursuit of short-term profits at the expense of long-term development, whether by the City or by Marconi management. Today union leaders from across the country met Marconi, and they are now in the House, meeting Members of Parliament and reporting back on what happened.

The decision in Poole was undoubtedly made in haste, against the background of a market that is predicted to turn round in a relatively short time. It is a severe blow not only for skilled manufacturing jobs in my constituency but for the United Kingdom. I therefore propose the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 24 to debate that important matter, which requires urgent consideration in view of the impact on my constituency and in the wider context of the United Kingdom manufacturing base.

Mr. Speaker: I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady, and I must give my decision without stating any reasons for it. I am afraid that I do not consider the matter she raised to be appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24, and I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.

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Point of Order

5 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to draw your attention to a parliamentary answer that I received from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 4 July. In it, he cites a report by the National Audit Office, called "PFI and Value for Money", as evidence that the private finance initiative has given the public sector good value for money. That National Audit Office has confirmed that it never published that report, and is unaware of any such report. The Treasury has said that a typographical error occurred, but it has not made any substantive further statement.

Given that the Treasury has clearly misled the House, would it be appropriate for it to arrange for an early statement today to clarify the matter? Have you received any requests from Treasury Ministers to make such a statement?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I understand that there was an error in the answer to which he refers, and that the Chief Secretary is taking steps to correct it at the earliest opportunity.

10 Jul 2001 : Column 688

Orders of the Day

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

5.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill gives effect to the proposals in our White Paper, "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland", which was published in March. It provides the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland with additional powers to address the problem of electoral fraud.

The measures build on the excellent work of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Forum committee on electoral malpractice, and an internal Northern Ireland Office review of electoral administration.

Our policy across the United Kingdom is to encourage people to participate more fully in the political process. The turnout at elections has been historically higher in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. That suggests that the electorate in Northern Ireland are more politically active and more politically conscious than elsewhere in the UK. However, there has been growing concern at the perceived extent of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): The origins of the matter that we are considering lie in a report to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on electoral malpractice. It was agreed in March 1998. Why has it taken more than three years to introduce a Bill? It is possible that Assembly elections will take place soon in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I am acutely aware of the date of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, as I was a member of the Committee when it was published. He asked why it had taken so long for the legislation to appear. The answer is that the process of drawing up specific proposals has taken some time, as they have to be broadly acceptable, workable and fair. Arriving at a set of workable proposals involved extensive consultation with the political parties, especially in Northern Ireland, as well as the electoral office and others. Some new measures have already been taken in other legislation and by administrative means.

There has been growing concern about the perceived level of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. The Government have a commitment to protecting the right to free and fair elections. Of course, electoral fraud is a crime. Electoral abuse is an affront to democracy and we are determined to combat it wherever it occurs. If there is a high level of abuse, or even if people only fear that that is the case, the democratic process will be under threat. We do not want voters in Northern Ireland to become disillusioned with politics because they fear that elections are unfair.

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