HC Deb 14 June 1961 vol 642 cc396-8
2. Mr. Willis

asked the Minister of Defence, in view of his statement to Western European Union that the West will no longer have as its main objective preparation for a long conventional struggle, what change of policy he proposes in the laying down of new aircraft carriers.

Mr. Watkinson

No decision has yet been taken about laying down new aircraft carriers.

Mr. Willis

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a very sustained campaign has been carried on by the Admiralty to prepare the way for the replacement of the present aircraft carriers? Does he not think that that is quite unnecessary, if this is his policy?

Mr. Watkinson

I am not aware of any sustained campaign by the Admiralty. What I am aware of is that we have to take some big decisions in due course about the replacement of the Fleet carriers, some of which, as many hon. Members know, are approaching the end of their useful life. I merely wanted to make it plain at the moment that this decision has not been taken.

Mr. Paget

We were hoping that the right hon. Gentleman's observations at Western European Union would be the prelude to the statement that further aircraft carriers were not to be laid down. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that our aircraft carriers are not merely individually obsolete but obsolete as a type?

Mr. Watkinson

This is a matter of opinion, and I must not be taken as necessarily agreeing with this thesis. For example, other nations are considering building very large numbers of aircraft carriers. I think it is very questionable, and certainly not a matter for immediate decision, whether their day has gone.

Captain W. Elliot

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the provision of replacement carriers is only the first step? The provision of replacement aircraft is likely to cost many hundreds of millions of pounds. When the time comes, will he give serious consideration to whether there is not some other more effective vessel available, possibly at a lower price?

Mr. Watkinson

I think that my hon. and gallant Friend puts it very fairly. This is a very large and complex decision. I have made it quite plain that the Government have not yet considered it, much less taken any decision upon it.

Mr. G. Brown

Is it not a rather surprising announcement for the Minister to make that, after having held his present office for some years and after the previous occupant of the office changed the whole policy in 1957, the Government have not only not made up their mind but have not yet considered whether we need replacements? Does the Minister think that we can wait very much longer, if any ultimate decision could possibly be in time at all?

Mr. Watkinson

That is the right hon. Gentleman's view. I do not know whether he wants me to withdraw the word "consideration". Of course, I have given consideration to it. I want to make it plain that this is a big decision and it has not yet been taken. When it is taken, that is a matter that should be debated here; but that is not the immediate prospect.