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Sadiq Khan: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a good point. Another, linked, point is that assistant commissioners often visit areas under consideration, once they have been pointed out by members of the public or by MPs. Evidence from such senior people is invaluable when recommendations are being made.
It is in the context of the biggest shake-up of constituency boundaries in modern times that the Government are abolishing public inquiries. The next review will be critical for other reasons as well. Concerns are already being expressed about the legitimacy of the next election.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend accept that giving primacy to numbers as opposed to community and geography, combined with not having a transparent appeals system, could result in boundaries drawn purely on the basis of political gerrymandering, in the knowledge that those adjudicating on those decisions in private will not be required to take account of geography, community, culture or history and will therefore accept what could simply be bizarre drawings for the party political advantage of the Government?
Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend's point would have less force if the coalition Government were taking time to ensure that the 3.5 million electors who are not on the register were put on to it, if they were to wait and see what happens as a result of next year's housing benefit changes, and if they were to wait for the results of next year's census. They are rushing this Bill through, however, and my hon. Friend's point has some force.
The Bill will mean that the next election could be held under a different voting system and with 600 constituencies instead of the present 650,-and also a referendum with differential turnouts. Questions are already being asked about the legitimacy of the next general election. Why add to that by taking away due process and natural justice? By taking away the opportunity to hold a public
inquiry, the coalition Government are eroding the legitimacy of a system for redrawing boundaries that is the envy of the democratic world.
Mr David Hamilton: Surely it cannot be right that in Scotland, at the end of the 10-year period between 2005 and 2015, there will be 25 fewer MPs. That means that 31% of the representatives of Scotland will have been wiped out in that short period of time. What does that say about democracy?
Sadiq Khan: This is what we call the respect agenda. I hope that when those in Scotland have seen the Bill rushed through, the way in which the debate has been stopped-the hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned "truncated" contributions-and the number of MPs who have not been allowed to make a contribution, they will form their own judgment.
We do not want to stop being the envy of the democratic world, and I commend my amendment to the House. I ask those colleagues who are watching the debate in their rooms to do the right thing and support amendment 15.
Mark Durkan: I rise to speak to amendments 194 and 195. Before I address them specifically, however, I shall comment on one of the amendments tabled by members of the Select Committee, with which I have a fair degree of sympathy. I must express my slight reservation, however, about the wording of proposed new subsection A2(a) in amendment 205. I am worried that, by asking a boundary commission to publish the criteria it would use in the splitting of wards, we could end up inviting the commission to split wards more than we want. The Bill proposes that wards should not be split, and I think that most Members agree that local government boundaries should not be split. I am worried that that proposal could result in more wards being split than people would want. I would still support that amendment on a vote, however.
Amendment 195 deals with the Government resisting all attempts to keep local inquiries as a general option. Under my proposal, at least Northern Ireland would be allowed the option of holding a general regional inquiry in relation to all the seats in Northern Ireland. This proposal is a fall-back measure.
I want to make it clear that I absolutely support the amendments that would preserve the opportunity of holding local inquiries throughout the United Kingdom. The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) made a powerful speech in support of preserving inquiries and their important role. I know that other colleagues will propose other amendments to preserve inquiries.
I thought that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) was quite disparaging about the role of inquiries, submissions and contributions to inquiries. First, where political parties make shallow, self-serving submissions about boundaries and where specious and spurious claims of local identity and local interests are made, there is no better way of exposing them than local inquiries. By their very nature, local inquiries expose, counter and introduce other realities.
The hon. Lady's speech was about the rule of arithmetic, and I agree that this is what the Bill is about-the tyranny of arithmetic for boundaries in the future. She
says that it does not matter. For her, traditions do not matter; local conditions do not matter; identity does not matter; community does not matter-it is all going to be driven by a numerical imperative that says "one size fits all" and nothing else can be considered. An official of the European Commission would be proud of that mindset. It is exactly the mindset that the hon. Lady usually criticises in the European Commission. As well as backing the "IPSA-fication" of boundaries in the future, she is now backing a European Commission standard that says, "No, we just deal in numerical arithmetic; we see only one size fitting all; we make no concession to local realities or local conditions."
Mrs Laing: I rise to defend myself, because that is not at all what I said. On the contrary, communities and local traditions are very important. It is important to have a parish council representing a village and to have Cornishmen feeling Cornish and caring about Cornwall-nobody is changing Cornwall. It is very important to respect local history and the feelings of local communities. That is not reflected in the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies. There are many other ways in which those traditions and communities are respected, observed and upheld. It is not in the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies-
I would take the hon. Lady's point if she had said that in her speech, but that was not the attitude she conveyed. Then, it was the numerical imperative that was going to achieve an equality that she believed overrode every other possible consideration, including those that she has just outlined. Boundary commissions have been able to ensure that these sorts of local considerations are brought to bear on the construct of parliamentary constituencies. In future, after this Bill, however, that is going to be hard.
I do not accept that we should lose the ability to have local inquiries in general as part of electoral reform, but my fall-back amendments are designed to protect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, where, as I said when speaking to earlier amendments, it needs to be borne in mind that the parliamentary constituencies are, by statute, also the constituencies for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Many of the issues that will come up as matters of local contention and perhaps even party political controversy will pertain as much to the Assembly constituencies as to other constituencies. Of course, the Northern Ireland Assembly is elected on the basis of proportional representation, which is meant to be about giving equal weight to votes, including those of minorities in particular Northern Ireland constituencies. That is part of the agreement. We want to ensure that, rather than decisions in Northern Ireland being driven by robotic computer-generated arithmetic suggesting boundaries that will secure the numbers that fit, a local regional inquiry can take account of the different interests-not just party interests, but civic and local community interests.
Mr MacNeil: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting-and all of us in the islands must bear this in mind-that there will be a particularly destabilising effect on Northern Irish society? We know what a destabilising effect on Northern Irish society might mean. Is that the main cause of his concern?
Mark Durkan: I do not want to dwell on this, because I spoke about it in the context of an earlier amendment, but we should bear in mind that the boundaries will be revised in every single Parliament and Assembly as a result of the Bill. Given the way in which the seats will be distributed in the various parts of the United Kingdom, the chances are that the number of seats in Northern Ireland will fall following one boundary review, rise following the next, and then fall again.
The unsettling nature of the reviews will affect Assembly and parliamentary constituencies. A computer will say, "This is what we have to do," and it is possible that constituencies will receive the word that the computer says that there must be a reduction from 15 to 14 following the next boundary review. That will be hugely destabilising, and people will feel frustrated when they are told, "Sorry, this pays no regard to the Northern Ireland Assembly." Another of my amendments, in a subsequent group, would enable the Speaker of the Assembly to be notified formally of all the workings of the boundary commissions. That would make at least some acknowledgement of the impact on the Assembly, which is completely absent from the Bill.
I believe that if the Government are refusing to allow local inquiries elsewhere-and they should not do that-they should at least allow, as a fall-back, a general inquiry in Northern Ireland that will take account of its particular circumstances. I will support any and all amendments that defend local inquiries.
I ask Members to bear my amendment in mind; I ask the Government to continue to acknowledge that there is a deficit in the consideration that they have given to Northern Ireland in the Bill, and to be ready to make up for that deficit.
Mr George Howarth: It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who always speaks with a deep understanding of Northern Ireland, with a great passion for Northern Ireland, and, of course, with eloquence.
I was elected in a by-election in 1986 to represent a constituency that was then known as Knowsley, North. I represented Knowsley, North in the House until 1997. Following earlier boundary changes-a public inquiry had been held before the boundaries were finally fixed-I ended up representing a constituency known as Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. I represented Knowsley, North and Sefton, East for 13 years. In the meantime, the boundary commissioner came along again, and I now represent a constituency known as Knowsley. I therefore speak as one who has experienced dramatic boundary changes in my constituency on two occasions.
I think it instructive to examine what happened on both those occasions. On the first occasion, when the boundary commission proposed that the Knowsley, North constituency should be coupled with Sefton, East, a public inquiry was held. Different views were expressed on either side of the boundary about what was and what was not appropriate. People had their say.
I attended the inquiry on more than one occasion, and heard the debates about what links existed between the two constituencies.
Two facts emerged that tipped the balance. The first was that a large number of people living in the Sefton, East part of what subsequently became the Knowsley, North and Sefton, East constituency worked in Knowsley, which was an industrial area. The second was that many people travelled between the two areas for leisure purposes.
The leisure centre in Kirkby, which was in the old Knowsley, North constituency, was heavily used by people from Maghull, Aintree and Melling, so a link was established, but it would never have been established-nobody would have even checked the statistics on this-unless there had been a public inquiry. In the end, the original Boundary Commission proposals stood and the new constituency was formed; it became a parliamentary seat at the 1997 general election.
My constituency's second boundary change took place before the last general election. I made some comments about the Wirral earlier and, on reflection, perhaps I overstated the case. I think I said that we ended up with the boundaries we have got because of prejudices on the part of the people in the Wirral. Prejudice is probably too strong a word, so let me retract it. However, what did clearly emerge was that because of the arguments put by the people of the Wirral, we have undersized constituencies in that part of the county of Merseyside, whereas on my side of the river in Knowsley, we have the opposite.
It is rather like a county. I will come on to counties shortly, because I realise it might sound as if I am arguing against myself. Let us consider constituencies within a county with reference to the idea of a balloon. If we squeeze some air out of one part of it-air being the electors-it will emerge somewhere else, and it emerged in Knowsley. I now represent a constituency of just under 80,000 people, whereas some Members of Parliament in the Wirral represent under 60,000. The Government's argument would be that if we equalise that, it would not matter, but I honestly believe that 80,000 electors is too many for an MP to be able to represent adequately. It is not that, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said, I am too lazy or incompetent to do that; it is just really difficult.
I now want to talk about some of the practical implications of the two changes I have experienced. The first of them is to do with representing a constituency that is partly in two different boroughs. The Knowsley, North and Sefton, East constituency was slightly less than half in Sefton with the rest in Knowsley. Many Members on the Government Benches represent areas where that is already the case, but most of them are probably not in metropolitan districts. For Members with constituencies that are in a metropolitan district rather than a shire county, the powers of local authorities, primary care trusts and so forth are much more important and much more focused. For 13 years, I represented a constituency that had two primary care trusts, two hospital trusts, two local authorities and two different area police command divisions, and dealing with that is very difficult. Apart from the practicalities of needing to keep lists of everybody we have to deal with, we deal with areas that have different kinds of crime, different
kinds of health problems and different kinds of relationships with their local authorities. That does make a difference. My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) made that point quite well, and I support it.
Now if, as seems perfectly possible under the provisions in this part of the Bill, we start to say that county boundaries can also be crossed, the problem could be compounded even further. At some points, my constituency is right on the edge of West Lancashire-indeed, it is on the edge of a lot of other constituencies. It is perfectly possible that if this Bill goes ahead as it is, my constituency could end up containing part of Lancashire, as could the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts). That would involve a whole different set of relationships, and my hon. Friend and I could find ourselves motoring up and down to Preston on an almost daily basis in the recesses as we try to represent another county, as well as the metropolitan county in which we are located.
Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the last time the number-crunching took place the Boundary Commission recommended that one constituency should be half on one side of the river and half on the other. How does he feel he could represent a constituency that had the River Mersey running between its two halves?
Mr Howarth: I do not think that that would be impossible. After all, two tunnels and a bridge run between the two areas, and there is a proposal for a further bridge. I do not think it would be beyond the wit of man, or even my hon. Friend and me, to commute either under a tunnel or over a bridge. The point is that, as I said a little earlier-I do not know whether he was in his place at the time-the consequence of the arrangements is that we have undersized constituencies in the Wirral and oversized constituencies in some parts on the other side of the river.
Sadiq Khan: Is the point not that under the Bill, as drafted-I refer to clauses 11(2) and 11(5)-numbers trump everything? All the points made by my right hon. Friend and by other hon. Friends do not matter a jot, because numbers trump everything.
Mr Howarth: Yes, and my right hon. Friend may not have realised it, but I am actually supporting his argument. The point I am making is that a public inquiry is able to examine any problems that are thrown up as a result of that, and that is why I am supporting his amendment 15, which would create the circumstances in which public inquiries could still be held.
Dr Whitehead: I wonder whether my right hon. Friend, in reflecting on the problems of the Mersey, might also consider the issues of the Solent and the proposition that 40,000 people will be taken away from the Isle of Wight and distributed to a constituency somewhere in Hampshire. They know not where, they would have no say in where that might be and, as far as I can see, the Boundary Commission may not even be able to determine whether a ferry actually connects them with where they might go. Does he think that that is a reasonable way to proceed on a boundary change-with no public inquiry and no input into what might happen in future?
Mr Howarth: It is very tempting to be taken down the road that my hon. Friend seeks to lead me, but having spent a lifetime struggling with the problems of the Mersey I am hardly likely to spend what remains of my life struggling with the problems of the Solent. He makes his point effectively.
My key point is that there are practical implications to such changes. They need to be examined and the best way to do that is in a public inquiry. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), for whom I have some affection-she referred to Socrates, so perhaps at this point I should say that it is entirely Platonic-outlined the argument that this issue is not important and that a lot of these inquiries were vexatious and just held for the benefit of political parties. I do not think that is true. My experience of having sat through two public inquiries into major constituency boundary changes is that people from the community-people from community groups or individuals-come along, express their opinion and either it is taken into account or it is not. If there is a valid objection, it will often be taken into account: if not, not. The point is that they are the most important people in that inquiry. It is important to them with whom they are linked in a parliamentary constituency.
I come back to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) was making: of course there needs to be fairness on the size of constituencies, but if we reach the point where they are purely mathematical entities and if everybody changes-if it is like a roundabout, where someone jumps on at one point and jumps off at the next election, finding themselves representing an entirely different constituency-the relationship between the constituency, the Member of Parliament and the people whom that Member of Parliament represents will change dramatically. Not only will those constituencies be a mathematical entity, but Members of this House will start to view them in that light. That will dramatically change the relationship with our constituents.
John Mann: I thank my right hon. Friend for generously giving way, and he is making an excellent point. Will the problem not be further and particularly compounded by the fact that with individual registration proposed for 2014-15, there will be a huge ripple effect throughout the country-particularly in areas where there are university residences with large concentrations of students who are automatically registered by the university authorities? If students are not automatically registered, there will be a huge ripple effect throughout the country that will alter the boundaries significantly in every constituency?
Nia Griffith: I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. Does he not agree that the key point about public inquiries is that rule by consent is the basis of democracy? If people, because of the abolition of public inquiries, feel that they have no voice-if they feel that they have no chance to make their opinions heard, whether or not their opinion is the one that is found in favour of-that will do absolutely nothing to get rid of the cynicism about democracy and nothing to help people to take part. That will bring the coalition Government into absolute disrepute.
Let me conclude. I genuinely believe that what is proposed by taking away public inquiries as part of the process is that the relationship between constituent, Member of Parliament and constituency, which is already fractured, will split completely. I think we will end up in a situation where constituencies are simply ships of convenience. I hope that that day never comes and that the Government will at some point wake up and realise that this is not the right way to do things.
Mr Dodds: I want to speak in support of amendment 209, tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), as well the consequential amendment 210. It would delete proposed new section 5(2) from clause 12 so that the status quo was maintained and a public inquiry could be held by a boundary commission. As that is the purpose of my amendment, I have no difficulty in lending my support and that of my hon. Friends to amendment 15, proposed by the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). As regards the other amendments in this group, I am happy to support amendment 194, tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). As he said, it is a fall-back provision if the House decides to do away with the option of having local public inquiries in general. At the very least, I agree that there should be such a provision that would cover Northern Ireland as a region because of the particular circumstances that he so ably outlined.
I want to make a few general comments very briefly, then a couple that relate specifically to Northern Ireland. First, we have had a very good debate. Everyone who has spoken in this and the previous one spoke against the Bill and its provisions. I have not heard many speeches in support of it, other than from those on the Government Front Bench. [ Interruption. ] I am sorry: the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who has returned to her place, strongly opposed part 1 of the Bill on the alternative vote, so she is in the category of having opposed the Bill on some matters but, as she made clear, she would go much further than the Bill does on other matters. I got the clear impression that she would be happy to do away with constituencies altogether and have one great list system in which everyone voted in relation to the entire country. She might be happier with such a system, but we shall not rehearse that debate as we have already had exchanges on it.
Given that no mandate has been sought by or given to either of the coalition parties on either the AV
provisions or on reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600, given that there has been no Speaker's Conference and no pre-legislative consultation, and given that no cross-party consensus has been sought or given and that there has been no consultation with any of the devolved Administrations, it is all the more appalling and reprehensible that there should be no opportunity for people to give oral evidence to, or to query, the boundary commission proposals at a local public inquiry. The coalition Government talk about new politics, openness and transparency, but I think that these measures will be for ever cited as a damning indictment of their real approach to this issue.
Given the scale and unprecedented nature of the changes to boundaries and constituencies and given that the measures are driven by the need to do this quickly for reasons of political expediency, it is absolutely essential that we should have public local inquiries. It is vital to ensure that people in local communities know what is going on and what is being proposed, that they are able to participate fully in the process and feel ownership of it, and that there is transparency and openness in the entire process. In my experience and that of the people I represent, the taking of such an approach has made a difference.
As the hon. Member for Foyle will know, not long ago the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland proposed to reduce the number of seats in Belfast from four to three and there was an outcry. The hon. Member for Epping Forest said that there was never an enormous outcry about constituency boundary changes, but I can tell her that there was about the prospect of the Belfast boundaries being changed. Of course, she can imagine why that might be, given what it would mean with regard to who would be representing certain people in certain areas. More recently, when it was proposed that a particular community should be moved from the Lagan Valley constituency into the Belfast West constituency, that community spontaneously and of their own volition made strenuous objections to the proposal. They went to the public local inquiry, raised their concerns, were interrogated on them and ultimately made a difference to the outcome. The effect is all the greater because some Northern Ireland constituencies are not represented in this House as their elected Members deliberately abstain from and boycott the House by not taking their seats here, so these things matter to people in Northern Ireland. That is why we need public local inquiries to take account of such local issues.
As has been mentioned, the proposed constituency changes will affect representation not only in this House but in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Some of the issues pertinent to the boundary changes are therefore relevant not only to the make-up of the House of Commons and how people are represented here, by a single elected Member, but to multi-Member constituencies in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not underestimate the fact that people in Northern Ireland have for many years put a great premium on stability and having a consensus moving forward.
Now we risk-almost as an aside, almost as an incidental of the Bill being rushed through-upsetting a delicate political equilibrium, a point that was made by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), the former Secretary of State, in his contribution. We risk that
equilibrium being thrown into turmoil. All sorts of unintended consequences could emerge from that, so I urge caution.
At the very least, if the Government are not so minded and the House does not support my amendment or amendment 15 in the name of the right hon. Member for Tooting, the Government should allow Northern Ireland, through amendment 194, to have the opportunity of its own regional inquiry. I urge the House to think carefully before it does away with the right of local public inquiries to have the oral evidence presented, to allow people to participate and to have their concerns investigated in detail.
Mr MacNeil: It strikes me that there is cross-community agreement on local public inquiries as the Northern Ireland fall-back position. Does the right hon. Gentleman hope that if the Government do not listen here, they might listen in the other place?
Mr Dodds: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Given the experience of recent days, and the Minister's references to the time that has been allowed for debate-a couple of hours this afternoon and this evening to debate these very important matters concerning the number of seats and the abolition of the age-old right to have local public inquiries-I am confident that the other place will examine these matters in great detail and will, I hope, bring common sense to bear.
Paul Murphy: My right hon. Friend is making an important point. Is he aware that, so far as I know, there is an anomaly that in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales the Boundary Commission inquiries for UK parliamentary constituencies are to be abolished, but remain for the two Assemblies and the Parliament?
Mr Dodds: In Northern Ireland, the parliamentary constituency boundaries are the Northern Ireland Assembly boundaries. I know the position is different in Scotland and Wales. That is why, at least for Northern Ireland-and for all the reasons that I and others have outlined this evening, it should be the case for the whole country-I appeal to the Government to think very carefully about the implications for our country of the decision to push ahead with abolition.
Dr Whitehead: Almost all of us are aware of the purpose of the abolition of inquiries into boundary changes. It is about expediency, getting the process through as rapidly as possible, and airbrushing out a particularly important part of the process in order to do that.
I do not accept the idea that because boundary commissions have not changed an enormous amount in the past, that is likely to be the case in future. Because of the wholesale changes that are being made in the rest of the Bill, boundary commission public local inquiries will probably be more important in future than was the case in the past.
In the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, the most recent iteration of the rules for the redistribution of seats, we see, as other hon. Members have mentioned, a balancing arrangement between the idea of equality in representation, between various local considerations, and between representation and decision making. As a result of that relatively balanced mechanism, it is fair to
say that the boundary commission process has worked pretty well, without enormous public outcry at its past decisions.
Looking ahead, we find that the Government are removing not only most of the checks and balances that were in the boundary commission arrangement, but the very last check and balance whereby, after that whole process has taken place, the public have an opportunity to question, have their say and find out why those changes are taking place in the way that has been suggested. The idea that that should be replaced with a procedure that is simply not transparent is a complete rejection of all those previous checks and balances, and a rejection of the principles put forward-I am sorry if this sounds ad hominem-by a Minister, the Deputy Leader of the House, for whom I have a great deal of respect, but who would have made exactly the same arguments about public representation, the public's say and the due process of democracy until one day before the election.
I do not know whether a particular event in Greece, and the electoral practices there, caused the hon. Gentleman to change his mind on the matter, but over the years a large number of Liberal Democrat constituency parties have been active participants in those processes, and he will have to go to them and say, "Actually, you can't do this any more, because I've thrown this out of the window as part of a deal to get something else through." They will be aghast at what has happened to the principles that they previously put forward.
Dr Whitehead: As my hon. Friend will know, peruse though one might, it is not possible to find such a pledge. If any party had put such a pledge in its manifesto at the last election, that itself would have been the subject of an internal public inquiry, because of what it would have said about that party's commitment to the process of electoral change.
On the differences that the boundary reviews will make, I refer to the Isle of Wight, which is close to my constituency but separated by a substantial body of water, the Solent. The proposal, which is likely to come to pass, is that 40,000 people will be taken out of that constituency and distributed somewhere else in Hampshire-they know not where. [ Interruption. ] They will stay on the Isle of Wight, but for the purposes of political representation they will join another constituency.
The Boundary Commission will have a certain say in the process, because it will have to decide which 40,000 people on the island go to various other parts for their representation. It may decide that they will go to Portsmouth, to Southampton or to the New Forest. Each area has a connecting ferry service to the island, but I am not sure whether the commission can even take into account whether the people and the ferry service should be connected, given the changes that will be made and the Government's conditions for the new arrangements.
All that will be done on the basis of a boundary commission decision-no public inquiry, some representations and no explanation. That represents a
serious and fundamental change to the representation of, admittedly, just one constituency, but the process will be repeated throughout the country in a substantial if not such an extreme way, and if that is not a negation of the public's right to understand what is happening to their own political processes, I do not what is or will be.
We must vote for amendment 15, which would reintroduce the idea of a public inquiry within particular boundaries and for particular concerns to ensure that it was conducted seriously and not frivolously. The idea that the public should have their say in who they are represented by, how they are represented and where their representation takes place has been a fundamental part of our electoral system for many years, and to throw it out of the window for expediency is a move that will be regretted and a move that we should reject.
Mr Heath: Let me start by thanking the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for speaking to the amendment on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on which she serves. It is a great pity that the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), is not also present in order to support its view.
The hon. Lady said that nobody ever listens to a word she says. I have to say that that is not entirely the case, because I remember in Committee of the whole House she very eloquently put forward the views of the Select Committee that the Government should not be able unilaterally to change the views expressed by the boundary commissions before presenting them to Parliament. We listened to what she said on behalf of the Select Committee, and we have tabled amendments to put that into effect; they will be debated in due course.
Amendment 205 would add a stage to the consultation process that the boundary commissions are required to carry out for the purposes of the review. Prior to making recommendations, the commissions would be required to publish online their proposed approach to the application of the rules and factors. A consultation period of eight weeks would follow, and the commissions would be required to take the results into account. We have set a deadline of October 2013 for the commissions to report to allow parties, administrators and electors to adjust to the new boundaries prior to the general election in 2015.
An increase in consultation time of eight weeks could delay the reports, making it harder to prepare for the next general election. In effect, the time added to the process by the amendment would be much greater, as the commissions would have to publicise their proposed approach and assess the representations received before taking the many and complex individual decisions required to put together their recommendations. The Government believe that the right place to debate the approach that
the boundary commissions must take is in Parliament. The importance of that is highlighted by the fact that the Bill had its Committee stage on the Floor of the House. The boundary commissions will carry out the review according to Parliament's wishes, as has always been the case.
In any event, I do not consider that the commissions' general approach, divorced from the resulting recommendation for particular constituencies, is a subject on which wide consultation is appropriate. It is the effect of the recommendations on a person's local constituency or local area on which it is important for them to have a say, and the Bill increases the period for them to do so. Consultation on a general approach is likely to lead to many responses that are based not on genuine concern about the approach but on guesswork as to what the effect of that approach might be in a local area. But until the commission has taken all the many individual decisions necessary to formulate its recommendations, it will be impossible to predict the effect on a particular area.
I hope that it will reassure hon. Members that during the previous review the Boundary Commission for England produced a booklet prior to the publication of recommendations which gave information about the review. There was also extensive use of the commissions' websites to inform interested parties about all aspects of the review.
Amendment 206 proposes a new set of publicity and consultation rules under clause 10. I hope to reassure hon. Members who tabled the amendment that it is not necessary as it reflects the practice that the boundary commissions are likely to follow in any event. The boundary commissions made extensive use of the internet in publicising the last general review and, although it is for them to decide, I am confident they will do likewise this time. The information that they published at the time of their recommendations included the electorate figures mentioned in the amendment.
I believe that it is important to allow the boundary commissions discretion to present their recommendations and relevant accompanying information as they think best, taking into account the particular circumstances with which they are dealing and the changing way in which people obtain information and communicate. On that basis, while I do not disagree with the principle underlying the amendment, I do not agree that it is desirable for the Bill to particularise the commissions' practice in legislation to the extent that the amendment proposes.
The amendment would also expressly allow representations to be made by people within or outside the affected constituency. That is presently the case, and the Bill does not change that. New section 5(1)(b) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 follows the existing section 5(2) in that respect. The boundary commissions are likely to publish recommendations for a number of constituencies together as a scheme, and the proposals for one constituency will undoubtedly affect those for others. It is important that interested parties both from within a proposed constituency and from neighbouring constituencies may make representations to the commissions for alternative schemes that work within the rules, and the Bill does not prevent that from happening. While I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Epping Forest, it is not necessary for the wording that appears in the amendment to be in the Bill. On that basis, I hope that she will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I now turn to more general points about local inquiries. It was interesting to listen to the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) outline the Opposition's case. I am glad that in this evening's debate, we have not heard local inquiries described as appeals, because of course they are not. They are part of the process of information gathering, listening to the views of local people and weighing them up as part of the due process.
The process suggested in the Bill maintains that principle. Indeed, it actually extends it. It is vital that the boundary commissions fully consult all interested parties on proposals for changes to constituency boundaries. We all accept that. Local people in particular must be able to have their say. However, the Government believe that it would be a mistake to imagine that local inquiries achieve that objective, and there is independent support for that view. The Bill abolishes them for three major reasons. First, we simply must speed up reviews.
The boundaries in force in England for the first time at the general election in May were based on electoral register data that were 10 years out of date. I do not think that is acceptable, and nor should Opposition Members.
Mr George Howarth: The Deputy Leader of the House makes a fair point that those registers were out of date. Does he believe it is of equal concern that 3.5 million people will not be registered by the time the new constituency boundaries are drawn up?
Mr Heath: Yes, it is very important that we get people registered, and it is an indictment of the previous Government's conduct that they totally failed to deal with the gap in registration. However, I have to say that it is not relevant to the issue before us at the moment.
Sadiq Khan: The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware that the average time taken for a review in the current system is six years. In his new system it will be three years. Bearing in mind that he has conceded that people will still be missed off the electoral register, is not the real reason for the rush that he wants the change before the next general election rather than the one after?
The second reason why we are abolishing the public inquiries is that they do not achieve their purpose. They do not provide the boundary commissions with a good indication of local opinion to aid them in the process of drawing up constituencies. [Hon. Members: "How do you know?"] I will tell Members how I know-academics have been clear on that point for a number of years. Professors Butler and McLean, in their evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2006, argued that a faster approach could
"simplify the system without leading to any significant decline in equity."
"very largely an exercise in allowing the political parties to seek influence over the Commission's recommendations-in which their sole goal is to promote their own electoral interests."
Sadiq Khan: The Deputy Leader of the House makes an interesting point and quotes a generalised point that the professor made, but did not he and many other experts also make the specific point that bearing in mind the huge changes that are to be made, this is the one occasion if any when a public inquiry is essential?
Mr Heath: No, it is the one occasion when it is absolutely essential that we have the fullest possible consultation process, and that is why we are extending the consultation period for three months, allowing every single person to have their say, not just the political parties that want to turn up at public inquiries. I hope the right hon. Gentleman recognises that.
The third reason for abolishing inquiries is that they rarely lead to significant changes in recommendations. The statistics that are often prayed in aid of local inquiries usually group together many different constituencies and include changes solely to the names of constituencies, to inflate the figure of the proportion that lead to change. The truth, as Professor Johnston told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, is:
"Public inquiries often have no impact."
The changes are frequently minor. For example, at the time of the fifth general review in England, only 2% of wards in counties where inquiries were held were moved between constituencies as a result.
What the Bill does- [Interruption.] No, let us deal with what the Bill actually does. It improves the process of public consultation, so that the public will be better able to have their say on proposals. That is why we are extending the period for representations on proposals from one month to three. Where a boundary commission revises proposed recommendations, the period of consultation on the revised proposals will be the same.
In making that decision, the Government have considered the approach taken in other nations. We looked at the example of Australia, which has a 28-day consultation period for proposed recommendations, followed by 14 days for comments. The Government propose a longer consultation period of three months.
The Deputy Leader has said that where a boundary commission reviews its recommendations, they will be subject to a further period of consultation, but a second revision will be final, and there will be no consultation. An appeal will involve people turning to the Secretary of State, who may, under the Bill, prepare
an Order in Council with or without modification. The Secretary of State can therefore change things, but the public cannot appeal.
Mr Heath: I would answer the hon. Gentleman in two ways, and I know that he takes a serious interest in these matters. The second inquiry, as he puts it, does not happen now. Once a boundary commission makes its final conclusions, that is the end of the story-and there has to be an end to the process. In the Bill, we are establishing a longer and more thorough process of consultation, all of which will be in the open, rather than in secret, because it will all be published and available for people to see. That is a fairer way of doing things than having highly paid QCs representing two big parties simply making partisan points in front of an assistant commissioner.
Mr Heath: We did not propose legislation on the Boundary Commission at that point, but we are doing so now, and those are the proposals before the hon. Gentleman. He must look at them and see whether they make sense. I believe that they do.
During our discussions, we have had a flavour of some of the arguments that are put before commissioners in public inquiries. We have had people claiming that constituencies can never cross a river. We have had Members complaining that they cannot have a connection to more than one local authority in their constituency. Those are the sorts of spurious argument that a public inquiry throws out of court every time.
"I can well see people using"
"as a reason for addressing the issues that they think they are not able to address because they are not having public inquiries"?
Mr Heath: If each of the boundary commissions does a thorough job, which I fully expect them to, and takes the proper matters into consideration, I do not expect an increase in judicial review. That is my answer to the right hon. Gentleman. He mentions the fact that he is a lawyer and that I do not like highly paid lawyers very much, but I am surprised that he decries the idea of submissions being made in writing rather than orally, because that is a well-known and fundamental principle in law.
The improved process in the Bill will deliver faster reviews. Time-consuming public inquiries that do not bring new arguments to the table and which are dominated by parties attempting to advance their electoral interests are not beneficial in Northern Ireland or anywhere in the UK. I urge hon. Members not to press the amendments.
'(1A) A Boundary Commission may cause a local inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act where, on publication of a recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituency, the Commission receives any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one hundred or more.
(1B) Where a local inquiry was held in respect of the constituencies before the publication of the notice mentioned in subsection (1) above, that subsection shall not apply if the Commission, after considering the matters discussed at the local inquiry, the nature of the representations received on the publication of the notice and any other relevant circumstances, is of an opinion that a further local inquiry would not be justified.
(1C) In subsection (1A) above, "interested authority" and "elector" respectively mean, in relation to any recommendation, a local authority whose area is wholly or partly comprised in the constituencies affected by the recommendation, and a parliamentary elector for any of those constituencies.'.- (Sadiq Khan.)
'(5AA) Any such draft giving effect to recommendations contained in the report of a particular Boundary Commission may do so with modifications only if that Commission has requested the modifications and submitted to the Secretary of State a statement of the reasons for the modifications.'.
Sadiq Khan: Thank you, Mr Speaker. We have today debated the remaining stages of a Bill that were not discussed in Committee. The parts we were supposed to discuss today covered a reduction in the number of seats, a change in the way they are distributed, and abolition of local inquiries. We have also had two statements.
We have had no debate on clause 12, which covers Boundary Commission processes and which was not
discussed in Committee, and we had less than two hours' debate today. There were more than 12 speakers who were not called at the end of the debate. Clause 13 -- [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman has made his point, and I understand his concern. He knows that the programme motion is a matter determined by, and in the hands of, the House; it is not a matter for the Chair. The Speaker is always keen to have the maximum debate on matters of concern. The right hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member, and he has made his point with great clarity. It is on the record, and it will be heard by those on the Treasury Bench: whether it is heeded by others remains to be seen.
That Nick Boles be discharged from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and Andrew Griffiths be added. -(Stephen Crabb.)
Mr Speaker: Before I call Thomas Docherty, may I make the ritual appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, because Members want to listen to Mr Thomas Docherty?
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I pleased that the question of how our new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are to be maintained has attracted such widespread interest in the House. My constituents and everyone in Fife can only be reassured by the keen interest shown by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House in this important issue. I hope that the House will consider this important matter seriously and sombrely.
For the benefit of hon. Members who are present, it might help if I explain why this debate is so important, not just to west Fife, but to the wider defence establishment and, indeed, to our national interest. Only two functioning dockyards in western Europe are big enough to take the Queen Elizabeth class carriers: Rosyth dockyard in my constituency and the one in Brittany, France. I hope that the turnout tonight shows the widespread support for the Government to choose the UK dockyard and to support UK jobs and the defence industry.
Rosyth dockyard has a long and proud tradition of supporting our Royal Navy, and of returning warships to active service in prime condition on time and on budget. The House may recall that at the outbreak of the Falklands conflict in 1982, Rosyth dockyard worked night and day to ensure that the taskforce was able to sail south in the best possible condition.
Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): The Falklands conflict is a good example to show the importance of operational readiness and the stress that will be on the carriers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that means that the bulk of maintenance work will have to be done in their home port of Portsmouth, and is that why the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) told my constituents that they would be based there?
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's comments, but she obviously needs to work on her pronunciation of my right hon. Friend's constituency. It is absolutely right that Royal Navy warships receive the best possible care and maintenance, and I hope that she will join me in urging her Government to back UK jobs and the UK's defence industry.
We would never wish to see events such as the Falklands repeated, but-to pick up on the hon. Lady's point-I believe that it is a matter of national importance that the United Kingdom retains the capability to send the Royal Navy's flagship into operations in the best possible condition. We have highly skilled, highly trained staff at Rosyth, and I want to pay tribute not only to the management and work force but to the local schools and colleges that provide excellent training and support.
Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab):
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am a
former head teacher, and my school provided a substantial number of highly motivated and trained people who are currently working in Rosyth. Does he agree that the unique partnership between Babcock, Carnegie college and the schools has assured the high-quality apprenticeship training, vocational retraining and graduate development necessary not only to assemble the carriers but to carry out the excellent refits and refurbishments for which Rosyth is rightly renowned?
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has a history of 30-odd years of service as a first-class educator of young people in Fife. I also want to place on record my tribute to Professor Bill McIntosh and all the staff at Carnegie college, and, indeed, those at Adam Smith college, for their work with the dockyard in helping to create 350 apprenticeships in a highly skilled work force.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): This is a non-partisan, all-Fife occasion, and I would like to support the hon. Gentleman in his submissions to the House. He might also care to consider that HMS Ark Royal, which is unfortunately soon to be decommissioned, was recently the subject of a substantial programme of maintenance that was very successfully carried out at Rosyth dockyard. That is an indication of the modern capability of Rosyth to deal with such large-scale projects.
Thomas Docherty: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely correct to point out the cross-party support that the dockyard has enjoyed. We hope that this will be a bipartisan, measured debate, and I look forward to his continuing support in the months and years to come.
The UK Government's recent strategic defence and security review produced a couple of significant outcomes on which I hope the Minister will be able to provide some reassurance. First, he will be aware of the uncertainty surrounding the near-term future of the work programme at Rosyth. A large part of the order book for the next three years was to be filled by the refitting of warships that the Prime Minister has indicated in the SDSR will no longer be in service. This is obviously causing consternation locally, as there is the potential for perhaps an 18-month hole in the work stream. I am sure the Minister will appreciate that it will be difficult for the dockyard to hold on to those vital employees for that length of time, and I want to ask him whether he is prepared to meet me and representatives of the trade unions to discuss how we can help to fill that void.
Secondly, we are still unclear about whether the so-called "cat and trap" system will be fitted on to HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, and, if so, when. Can the Minister confirm whether those decisions have been made? If they have not, will he tell us how soon they will be made? It is surely logical-not to mention providing the best price to the taxpayer-to fit them during construction, before the ships embark on operations.
Thirdly, can the Minister confirm when HMS Queen Elizabeth will enter operational service? Will she sail for any period without the joint strike fighter, or will she be delayed further if the JSF is delayed in arriving in service? Will the Minister also tell the House when he expects HMS Queen Elizabeth to have her first scheduled refit? Will it be in 2022, as originally scheduled? Will it be 2024, as has been inferred from the Prime Minster's statement to the House? Or will it be even later?
The House will be aware that Ministry of Defence civil servants carried out briefings this afternoon, and there is some confusion about their content. I understand that Scottish newspapers have received certain information prior to its being given to the House. If the reports that the Ministry of Defence will award those refurbishment contracts to the United Kingdom are true, it is indeed great news. However, I am sure the House will agree that reports of this nature should be made first by Ministers to this House and not by officials in briefings to selected newspapers.
Mr Brown: At the start of any defence debate, even one on the Adjournment, it is important to recognise the quality and commitment of our armed forces: our Army, our Navy, our Air Force, and the civilian defence staff who work for the security, strength and safety of our country. Speaking as someone who has visited Iraq and Afghanistan on many occasions, I think it is important to pay tribute to all those serving in Afghanistan at the moment and to their contribution to the security of this country.
In the week that precedes Armistice day, I also think it important to recognise those who gave their lives in the service of this country. On this day and in this month, it is important to say that those who lost their lives in Afghanistan will never be forgotten and that their influence lives on in the lives of the people they leave behind.
I have been Member of Parliament for one of the Fife constituencies for 27 years. I am pleased that the other MPs for Fife are with us this evening, and I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for securing this debate and for securing this above-average attendance for an Adjournment debate. In the course of those 27 years, the whole history of Fife has revolved around the future and the fate of Rosyth dockyard.
Winston Churchill said that Rosyth was the best defended war harbour in the world, in recognition of Rosyth's work during the second world war, when it refitted as an emergency all the vessels sent to sea from that area of Scotland. Over the past 30 years, the naval base has closed; the Rosyth dockyard and naval base, which once employed 15,000 people, now employs 1,500 people. Rosyth is the only base that can assemble the aircraft carriers that this country has commissioned. It is also the only base that can serve us by refitting the carriers in the future. When announcements are to be made by the Ministry of Defence, it is important to recognise that Rosyth is the base best able to refit the carriers in the years to come.
I want to be clear about why the aircraft carriers are important to this country. I believe that the debate has been clouded by many things that have been said over
the last few weeks. These are military decisions, made on military advice for military reasons. The reason the decisions have been made is that if we are to retain a global presence as a Navy, as armed forces and as a country, we will need these aircraft carriers in the years to come. We will need them not only because they are important to the defence of the Falklands, but because they are important for maintaining the 500-year role of the Royal Navy in being available to assist in any part of the world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has put the case for the refitting work to come to Rosyth. He has said that it is better to refit there than to refit in France. He has also said that the work force of Rosyth are skilled, educated and trained people who have devoted their lives to the service of this country. I think it important to recognise that we are talking about the future of people's lives-those of the people who are prepared to give their lives for the security and service of this country.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this Adjournment debate this evening. The words of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife in speaking up not just for the Royal Navy, but for the civilian defence workers, will be well heard in Plymouth and in Portsmouth as well as in Rosyth. We owe a duty to the workers in all this country's dockyard areas.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff): It is right that I should begin by joining the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) in paying tribute to the armed services at this time of all times, and also to Rosyth for its work in preparing the country for the Falklands war and for its skills, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife.
I seem to pick my Adjournment debates, or perhaps they pick me. On the last occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) initiated a debate on the aerospace industry which we had thought would last half an hour. It lasted for three hours, and attracted an only slightly smaller audience than tonight's debate. Tonight we have had the privilege of being footnotes in parliamentary history.
I am glad to be able to respond to the debate in, I hope, a constructive spirit. I am tempted to say some of the things that are on my mind, but I shall leave them for another occasion. [Interruption.] I shall resist the temptation.
Let me begin in the customary way by congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife on securing the debate, which comes soon after the Prime Minister's announcement of the details of the strategic defence and security review. The review was, by definition, strategic, and we are now working through the detail that flows from that strategy. Given that some of the issues discussed by right hon. and hon. Members tonight have focused on specifics, I hope that the House will accept that I am not yet in a position to answer all their questions. I will, however, try to provide as much information as I can in response to the issues that have been raised.
I particularly welcomed the contribution of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. I well remember sitting on the Opposition Benches and making
similar points on behalf of my own constituents, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will find my response as constructive as I found many Government responses then.
Let me say how impressed I have been by the work undertaken at all the shipyards involved in the Queen Elizabeth class project. Although I have not yet had an opportunity to visit every yard, I recently visited the Govan shipyard to see the progress on the Queen Elizabeth carrier. While I was there I spoke to a range of staff, all of whom showed their skills and complete dedication to the project. They were a credit to the programme, and I pay tribute to them.
The progress achieved so far, such as the delivery of the bow unit and installation of diesel generators, is genuinely remarkable. To appreciate the scale of the project, one has to see it with one's own eyes. That success is largely due to the skills of shipyard workers not just at Rosyth but around the country, at Appledore, Birkenhead, Govan and Portsmouth, and on the Tyne.
I shall not go into the wider issues raised by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. Let me merely say that the strategic defence and security review has confirmed that we will build both carriers. The Government believe that it is right to retain, in the long term, the capability that only carriers provide: the ability to deploy air power anywhere in the world, without the need for friendly air bases on land. Once delivered, the carriers will be in service for about 50 years. Indeed, the final commander of the carriers is unlikely even to have been born yet.
At this point we expect to operate only one of the ships, the other being retained in extended readiness. I assure the House, however, that we will maximise the carrier's effectiveness by adapting it to operate the more capable carrier variant of the joint strike fighter, which will require the installation of catapults and arrester gear. Conversion to CV will take longer, but it will provide greater interoperability with key allies such as the United States and France.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked a number of detailed questions, but I am afraid that I can travel only a certain distance in answering them tonight. We plan to deliver the carrier strike capability from around 2020, and are now investigating the optimum means of achieving that outcome, working with members of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and wider industry as well as our international partners. We expect the work to take a number of months, but the building work will continue to maintain the momentum in the delivery of this important capability. We will investigate a number of different aspects, including the type of launch system, the procurement route, the delivery date, and whether one or both ships should be converted and in what order. However, I stress that no decisions have yet been made, as the work has only just begun.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Can my hon. Friend at least go as far as dispelling any rumour or suggestion that the second carrier will be sold rather than remaining a part of the Royal Navy?
I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that until the work on all the options we are looking at has been completed, we will not be in a position to confirm the exact nature of our contracting approach for future support or maintenance work. The main investment decision for support arrangements for the Queen Elizabeth class is expected to be taken before the middle of this decade-that is as precise as I can be tonight-and will reflect the aircraft launch system changes that have been agreed in the SDSR. [Interruption.] An Opposition Member says from a sedentary position, "After the general election." That is a completely irrelevant consideration; this decision will be taken at the right time for the project.
Thomas Docherty: Does the Minister not understand that if the HMS Prince of Wales does not have a "cat and trap" system, aircraft will not be able to fly off it, and it will therefore just be a big scrap of metal?
Peter Luff: Understandably, the hon. Gentleman invites me to make commitments that I cannot make at this stage. I understand his point and I promise it will be taken fully into account. [Interruption.] An Opposition Member says from a sedentary position that it is a very serious question. I entirely agree, which is why I will not give an answer off the cuff from the Dispatch Box tonight.
Our planning assumptions for the support requirements of the Queen Elizabeth class have been that each vessel will require a period of major maintenance every six years, including a period in dry dock for hull cleaning, survey and preservations, which we expect will take about 36 weeks. In addition, the operational vessel will require up to 12 weeks of maintenance per year, depending on operational tasking. Again, I must stress that these assumptions remain under review as we continue to develop the support solution, which will include consideration of the support requirements for a vessel at extended readiness. I simply cannot answer any specific questions at this stage.
We are also currently examining a number of potential options on which company or companies could undertake future maintenance work for the Queen Elizabeth class. These include, but are not limited to, solutions involving the Aircraft Carrier Alliance-the means by which the carriers are being constructed-and the surface ship support alliance, which will provide efficient, sustainable and affordable engineering support to the Royal Navy.
In addition, I would like to remind the House that although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) reminded us in her intervention, Portsmouth has been confirmed as the base port for the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, that does not automatically mean that all the maintenance work will be undertaken there. A number of options are being considered for the future support of the Queen Elizabeth class, including facilities at Rosyth, together with other UK, and possibly overseas, locations, all with sufficiently large facilities. There are more than two yards that can do this work.
Penny Mordaunt: Because of the operational readiness that the carriers will have to provide, does my hon. Friend agree that outside those major maintenance episodes every six years, the maintenance work is likely to be opportunistic and therefore done within the home base, which will be Portsmouth?
Peter Luff: Quite reasonably, my hon. Friend teases me to make the same sort of commitments as does the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. I am afraid, however, that I just cannot make those commitments at this stage, much as I would like to.
Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister accept that if one aircraft carrier is on extended readiness and a second, which is being used for operational duties, has to go into dry dock, there will be no aircraft carrier available for use, and would he therefore consider building a third?
Peter Luff: Now, that is a commitment I would be delighted to make at the Dispatch Box if I possibly could. I think the hon. Gentleman will be unsurprised to learn, however, that, sadly, I am unable to give him that assurance.
I recognise that there are many positive reasons for undertaking Queen Elizabeth support work at Rosyth, but we are still some way from taking the main investment decision on support arrangements, and I hope the House will understand why no decisions have yet been-or could be-taken on this issue. That is why the reports in the Scottish media to which the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife referred must, by definition, be untrue. I suspect they may be guilty of over-interpreting certain remarks, but I can assure him that no decisions have been taken at this stage. I think I would know about them if they had. [Interruption.] I think I would; I am fairly confident I would.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is anxious to hear how Babcock Marine's Rosyth dockyard will fare in all of this. I am sure that the Government's announcement in the SDSR that both carriers will be built will reassure the hon. Gentleman that Babcock Marine will have sufficient construction work until late into this decade. There are not many organisations that have that kind of assurance over a 10-year period.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that newspaper point. Will he therefore give a guarantee that when decisions are made, they will be made to the House before they are made in media briefings, such as the one given the night before the SDSR was published, as happened last time?
Peter Luff: I did take a self-denying vow at the beginning of these remarks not to say some of the things on my mind. All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that I will do my best to comply with his reasonable request, although it was not one that the previous Government respected that often. [Interruption.] I just like to get these things on the record from time to time.
In terms of wider surface ship maintenance work, we continue to work with Babcock Marine and BAE Systems Surface Ships to develop the surface ship support alliance. Babcock Marine is in the final stages of a substantial six-month maintenance and upgrade period for HMS Blyth, a minesweeper. I am pleased to confirm that this work is on track to complete on time and to budget, and I wish to thank all who have contributed to the success of this project-this is a tribute to the hon. Gentleman's constituents. Additionally, Babcock Marine is undertaking a docking period for HMS Illustrious and I am also pleased to be able to confirm that HMS Kent, a Type 23
frigate, is expected to arrive at Rosyth later this week in preparation for her refit period, which is planned to last until next autumn.
Recently, the hon. Gentlemen wrote to me seeking assurances about the future upkeep programme at Rosyth-he sought that assurance again tonight-and I would like to take this opportunity to explain again the Department's current position. As has been the practice since the start of the alliance programme, discussions have been continuous between members of the alliance about the best allocation of the forward programme of upkeep periods. It is, however, too early to say what changes might be required of the programme at Rosyth and elsewhere in the alliance following the hard decisions made to reduce the size of the Royal Navy as part of the SDSR. I can, however, confirm that decisions will continue to be made on what we describe as a "best for enterprise" basis, and I will be delighted to meet him and his constituents to discuss these issues further. I look forward to making the arrangements for that meeting at the earliest possible date.
Turning to future shipbuild work, we now expect up to three years of additional design and modification work on the Queen Elizabeth class carriers to address the changes needed to install catapults and arrester gear. That may, in part, at least answer the question put by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. In addition, design work is already under way on the Type 26 global combat ship, which is expected to enter service early in the next decade; this is the next generation of frigate.
As the House is aware, the SDSR announced the Government's intentions for the current and future equipment and capabilities we need to defend this country. It made some tough but necessary choices, removing some projects while keeping others. We are now working hard to provide the level of detail needed to decide exactly how these intentions are turned into reality. With the decision to decommission some of the Royal Navy's ships-these are decisions that I personally regret, but they were inevitable-we need to continue working with industry to decide how best to support the Royal Navy surface fleet to ensure that we achieve the best value for money. We also know that maintenance work on the Queen Elizabeth class is still some way-some years-from being decided. A key factor in that decision will be achieving a more detailed understanding of what changing the aircraft launch system means for not only the build programme, but through-life support. I said at the start of my speech that I would not be able to provide the House with all the answers today that I know it would like, but we do know that two extremely capable Queen Elizabeth class carriers will be built.
Peter Luff: I think that it is extremely likely that they will be, but I cannot rule out the possibility that they will not; the assumption is that they will be refitted in the UK, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but I am not going to give him that categorical assurance at this stage, for reasons that I am sure he, as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister, will understand.
Peter Luff: Well, the right hon. Gentleman shakes his head and I am surprised at that. As a constituency MP I am sure he would not understand, but as a former Chancellor and Prime Minister I suspect that he probably does.
With one carrier to be operated, there will be long-term requirements for maintenance, potentially for up to 50 years. In times of austerity across the country, the UK shipbuilding industry and ship repair industry should
take great comfort from that, as well as the other naval activity, both surface and submarine, that the SDSR confirmed. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife on securing this debate and look forward to seeing him at my office at an early date