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SCOTS YARDS 'SUNK' OVER pounds 6bn ORDER; 10,000 shipbuilding jobs at risk.

Byline: CHRIS McLAUGHLIN Political Editor

A pounds 6BILLION contract for Britain's two new nuclear-powered aircraft carriers is likely to go to French shipbuilders in a major blow to Scots yards.

The deal for the ships, which will be the key to national defence for the next 20 years, is the biggest maritime contract in British history.

But more than 10,000 British jobs are now at risk because the French firm Thales is set to outbid a consortium led by BAE Systems.

Ministers fear the French company is getting ahead in the race for the order because they claim their yards are more modern and better equipped.

The contract, due to be awarded in February, is expected to involve 10,000 jobs in the run-up to the target completion date of 2010.

If British yards win the work it will mark a great victory for Scotstoun and Govan on the Clyde, Rosyth in Chancellor Gordon Brown's Dunfermline East constituency, Swan Hunter on Tyneside, and the Vosper Thorneycroft yard in Southampton.

Defence chiefs are worried that laws governing military secrets about the two giant aircraft carriers would leave a security gap which could be exploited by Britain's enemies in a time of war.

Ministers have been reminded about the fact that French and Belgian- produced Exocet rockets were responsible for some of the greatest loss of life in attacks on the Fleet during the Falklands War 20 years ago.

Thales and the state-owned French ship builder DCN have submitted a bid which claims that it can produce the ships quicker and more cheaply than BAE.

Under the rules governing the bidding process the Government would have to grant the deal to the company that offered the best value for the taxpayer. The two new vessels will be three times the size of the Navy's existing aircraft carriers, the Ark Royal, Illustrious and Invincible.

Thales has attempted to out- manoeuvre BAE by promising that it would sub-contract work to eight British shipyards, who will be allowed to "compete" for parts of the work.

Unions will be fighting to ensure that, if the contract goes to France, some of the work on the two new carriers will be carried out at Rosyth.

BAE and the Ministry of Defence argue that the partially-nationalised Thales company is operating at an unfair advantage because it is state-subsidised and is not part of a fair bidding process.

Any attempt to stop the deal going to the French would be likely to end in legal action through the European Court.

Rosyth has been the centre of a series of fights over jobs in the past decade.

More than 1,000 jobs were expected to go with the run-down of Royal Navy work and part-privatisation of the yard.

But a last-minute decision by the MoD reprieved 500 jobs earlier this year.

A minister close to the talks over which way the deal will go said last night: "It is ludicrous that such an important strategic military contract might go to a foreign country.

"We have the skill and expertise to do it ourselves and that's the way our Navy should be.

"What is the point in having our own Navy if the secrets about the ship's capability and vulnerabilty belong to another country?"


BATTLE SITE: Fears are growing that Rosyth will lose out to the French; PRIDE OF THE FLEET: HMS Ark Royal
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Dec 8, 2002
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