HC Deb 12 February 1973 vol 850 cc1099-113

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

In seeking to raise a second Adjournment debate, I wish first to thank the Defence Department for having a Minister present at very short notice indeed. I understand that the Minister who has responsibility for the Navy therefore has responsibility for the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre in the Sound of Raasay in Scotland. I wish to put on record that I think it absolutely proper that he should not be tied to London on a day when normally there would not be a Parliamentary vote. Defence Ministers, like other Ministers, use every opportunity of getting out of Westminster and into the country. So there is no criticism of the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) not being here, and I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Army for coming at short notice to reply to the debate.

Perhaps I should have given more notice of raising this subject tonight but for one thing. That is that very soon decision will be made concerning the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre in the Sound of Raasay which will be irreversible. Therefore, if we are to have a discussion we have to have it now, rather than in a month's time.

As I see it, there are three separate issues. First, there are local worries which surround the siting of the project. Secondly, there is the issue of whether we have an operational requirement at all for this kind of facility. Thirdly, there is—perhaps to me the most interesting of all the issues involved—the issue that if we are to have this sort of facility and if the Government and the Ministry of Defence persuade us that this sort of facility is really necessary, we ought to ask ourselves to what extent it should co-operate with the oil interests and the oil companies not only in the North Sea but, more important perhaps, in the possible oil find in the Western Approaches and the Celtic Sea.

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray), a Government Whip, is present. I know that he is committed to silence, and no one regrets that more than I do, because I am sure that he would be itching—if that is a parliamentary expression—to put forward his point of view. I am sorry that arrangements could not be made for him to make his maiden speech, as he will soon do, from the Dispatch Box.

On the local issue I ask first about restrictions on fishing. I understand that at the first public meeting held in Kyle the Government spokesman said that there would be no naval restrictions on fishing in the area, but he was questioned by fishermen and the matter was referred to a further meeting. At that meeting the true effect of the project was revealed to the fishermen and an offer of jobs was made to seamen. I understand that the number of jobs on offer ranges from 40 to 90. Notwithstanding that, I have the authority of Mr. Brian Wilson, the Editor of the West Highland Free Press, to say that in his opinion local feeling in the Sound of Raasay area is in total very much against the project.

Mr. Hamish Gray (Ross and Cromarty)

That is not so.

Mr. Dalyell

So the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty is not mute. He has made the point and broken his parliamentary duck, since becoming a Whip. He says that that is not so; but it is the information I have from the staff of the West Highland Free Press and from one or two individuals in the area whom I have taken the trouble to contact. What efforts has the Defence Department made to sound out local opinion and explain what is being done? The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty has perhaps made his point.

I turn now to the issue of aerial testing. No allusion to this was made by the naval spokesman until the information rather slipped out and at a subsequent public meeting in Portree a cursory reference was made to aerial testing by Sea King helicopters. Any of us who have had the good fortune, as I have, to visit the "Ark Royal" know what a marvellous instrument the Sea King helicopter is, but it is a major piece of equipment. To what extent might Sea Kings, and, indeed, Nimrod jets, be used in relation to this facility?

Apparently the Navy men ruled out the possibility of local airstrips being used because of their inadequacy, but long before the Kyle plans were announced local belief was that the Army-built airstrip had been constructed and was capable of taking any weight of aircraft and was capable of extension. What are the plans? Will the Government tonight take the opportunity to explain their plans to the local people?

I want to raise two other local issues without intruding too much in Highland affairs. The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty will agree that the Kyle line is a matter of importance to Scotland, to tourism, and to development in his constituency. At the beginning I understand that one of the reasons for the siting of BUTEC was that it would help the Kyle line to be kept in being. I now understand that the Navy has hired some part of Kyle station, which seems to be the writing on the wall for the Kyle line. I see from the movements of the unfortunately muted hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty that this may not be so. However, that is my information. If I can be told that this establishment is more likely to keep the Kyle line in operation than if it were not taking place that would be a very useful piece of information.

The second local point concerns ferry services. On 26th January I asked the Minister of State for Defence what ferry services have been withdrawn as a result of the siting of BUTEC in the Sound of Raasay", to which the reply was: No ferry services have been withdrawn as a result of the present use of the Inner Sound of Raasay for torpedo trials. Nor do we anticipate that the siting of the BUTEC there would necessitate their withdrawal".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th January 1973; Vol. 849. c. 240.] I understand that the Kyle Ferry may go to Stornoway rather than to Ullapool. I gather that there are local rumours which this debate would give the opportunity of clearing up. The Minister may be able to give that information.

The two other issues that I wish to raise are rather wider. The first concerns the question whether we have any need for such an establishment because, having in 1967 visited with a Select Committee the Central Underwater Research Centre at Portland, I am far from persuaded that the Royal Navy needs ever more effective and efficient torpedoes. I am very glad that the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) is here. In any defence scenario which involved the use of ever more sophisticated torpedoes certain other things would be happening in the world. By "certain other things" I refer to the use of anti-ballistic missiles.

I should have thought it hardly conceivable that, given modern technology and given the sophisticated weapons that not only the large Powers but even the medium Powers now have, there could be a long drawn out naval struggle of the kind which demands ever more sophisticated torpedoes. I may be wrong, but it is up to the Defence Department to make the case. The burden of proof is on the Department and not on us. But I rather doubt whether it is worth—I will not say "despoiling"—creating a facility that not everyone wants in the West Highlands merely for this object of better torpedoes. If it is really about torpedoes I would have the gravest doubts whether the facility was worth while.

Incidentally, it is one of the questions to which one gets the answer that every other place was considered and it was decided that only the Sound of Raasay met the limitations and the qualifications needed, but I still beg leave to doubt this. I do not particularly concentrate on the proposal to have it north of the Rathlin Islands: all I say is that there are those who are in a position to know who think it incredible, and are not persuaded that this was the only possible place off the coast of Britain for the requirements necessary.

Be that as it may, there are some of us who take a serious interest in defence, and I have discussed this with the Parliamentary Labour Party Defence Group, of which I am Vice-Chairman, who doubt whether ever more sophisticated torpedoes are an operational requirement and a priority necessitating the establishment of this kind of facility at Wester Ross. I should like to hear the Department make the case.

To me my final point is certainly the most constructive and most important part of this Adjournment debate. Let us suppose, as seems likely, that the facility on the Sound of Raasay goes ahead under naval auspices. There are those of us who would like to know what kind of co-operation there could be with the oil companies, the oil developers, the oil interests in using facilities that the Royal Navy has in considerable quantity, and using particularly the very skilful personnel resources that are at the command of the Navy. Anyone who has been to Alverstoke, for example, must understand the considerable technical competence now residing in the Royal Navy. The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester will be able to corroborate or deny this, but I am told by those whom I trust that our competence in deep water and related military engineering and submersibles is unsurpassed by even the Americans or the Russians.

In this context I refer to a Written Answer given on 8th December 1972 to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Navy. The Minister stated: Consultation over the establishment of the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre—BUTEC—started formally when the Ministry of Defence notified the Scottish De- velopment Department in November 1970 of its wish to establish in the Inner Sound of Raasay an underwater acoustic tracking range, including hydrophones placed on the sea-bed linked by cable to the land. I gather that the hydrophones are being used in an aerial capacity which is causing some local difficulty, but this kind of science is extremely valuable to the oil industry.

A variety of consultations then commenced which culminated in letters in March 1971 to the two county councils and to the Highlands and Islands Development Board—HIBB—in which the Scottish Development Department set out Ministry of Defence requirements. These were divided into two parts; in the short term, there would be interim ship-mounted range facilities; in the longer term, the bottom-mounted range was under consideration. These letters sought the views of those concerned."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th December 1972; Vol. 847, c. 530–1.]

It being Ten o'clock the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr John Stradling Thomas.]

Mr. Dalyell

I want to be generous about time and I will, therefore, cease quoting answers, except that I wish to mention a Question in which the hon. Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Laurance Reed) asked the Minister of State for Defence: whether the facilities at the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre will be made available for testing civil projects. The answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy was that No plans exist for this at present"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th November 1972; Vol. 847, c. 596.] I hope that the operative words here are "at present" because I have been in discussion with two of the major oil interests concerned. We have had lengthy briefings from both BP and Shell. I cannot speak officially on behalf of either company and they are very capable of doing that for themselves. Briefly, it is said that the North Sea has its problems with bad weather but that in the Auk Field, the Brent Field and other fields exploration has not been necessary yet at depths such as are found in the Western Approaches and west of Orkney. The point is that a number of operations, including the final sealing operations when oil is discovered, would have to be done by a submersible craft rather than by a drilling operation, as is done at the moment in shallower water. Exploration in deep water should have available the expertise which the Navy and perhaps only the Navy can develop.

Therefore, my third point is: if it is necessary to go ahead at Raasay, would it not be a pity to miss the chance of making this establishment one of a new kind, a kind recommended by the Commons Select Committee in a report in 1969 on the defence research establishments? There a case was made, and heaven knows many developing countries have already seen the strength of the argument, that the forces should be used for a socio-economic purpose, just as the Army was used in Northern Ireland to provide military aid to the civil community under Sir Derek Lang—an operation known as OPMACC—so that principle could be extended to the Navy and its expertise could be put at the disposal of the oil companies and also at the disposal of, say, Aberdeen University or Heriot Watt, where money has been provided by Woolfson in order to carry out research and development not only on North Sea oil but on Celtic Sea and Atlantic oil.

If I am told that this development is needed for the Navy, I shall add a rider that really serious thought would have to be given to how this establishment and Portland itself could be geared to the needs of the marine oil industry in the 1980s. That is the real purpose of the debate.

10.4 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who raises fascinating subjects from time to time and takes us all around the world into outlandish places. I remember when he concentrated our attention on a place called Aldabra; and now we are in a relatively little known part of the Western Isles.

The hon. Member asked, in essence, whether there was an operational requirement for the sort of establishment which is proposed in this area—the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre. I hope I may offer a few remarks on this point because I was an underwater war- fare specialist for most of my time in the Royal Navy.

It is of the utmost importance to the national interest that all underwater aspects of our defence effort should have high priority. I hope to prove in the next few minutes that it is an important national interest—certainly more important than the local interests with which the hon. Gentleman has compared it, although we all know in our constituencies that local interests are very important in every way, including the livelihood of the people who work there.

I should like to put the matter into perspective. The work at the establishment is likely to come under five different headings. The first is experiments on and trials of submarine detection. Next is experiments and trials with homing torpedoes—accoustic torpedoes, as they mostly are. Third, there is the whole scope of mine warfare and minesweeping, an intensely important and topical subject. Then there is diving by humans under water or with submersible vehicles, something that is in a state of very rapid development. Last, but by not means least, there is basic research into the science of oceanology.

We all know from our school days that the equipment for detecting submarines is called ASDIC. At least, that is what it used to be called, for it is now called "sonar". The word "ASDIC" comes from the initials "Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee", dating from 1923. In two world wars we were nearly brought to our knees—by which I mean that we were within a few weeks of starvation—because of the depredations of enemy U-boats on our trade routes, on war supplies and food being brought into the country. After the First World War the victorious allies got together and said "What shall we do if this threat should ever arise again?" The transmission of sound waves under water was suggested by an eminent professor. Each Ally said "We don't think there is anything in this", but then each went home and individually said, "We must concentrate on this."

We are talking about a basic type of equipment that needs to be worked on in the establishment under discussion. During and since the war there has been ceaseless work on this technique to detect submarines under water. Great progress has been made, and the state of play now is that if one is in contact with an enemy U-boat one can hold and destroy it. But the range of detection is very short and very uncertain. It is much shorter than the range of the missiles that could be fired by the U-boats of our only possible enemy at our merchant shipping or warships.

Therefore, there is a pressing need to increase the range and certainty of detection. The plain fact is that there is no absolutely reliable way of detecting U-boats even now. The whole philosophy of the Polaris submarine is that it has a second strike capability because it cannot be effectively traced in the oceans of the world. Its enemies do not know where to start looking for it, and there is no way to find out where it is.

Our only potential enemy now has in commission, fully manned and in operation, 400 U-boats—10 times as many as Hitler started his war with. My right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has said that the most important strategic fact of this decade is the enormous increase in Soviet naval shipbuilding end the Soviet naval presence right around the world. It now has a truly oceanic navy. They have concentrated particularly on these U-boats. A brand new nuclear-propelled submarine is launched and joins the Red Fleet every month. Britain, which is utterly dependant upon supplies from outside the country, needs effective anti-submarine weapons and equipment.

This is not, as the hon. Member for West Lothian seemed to suggest, a static situation. He is right in suggesting that our expertise in the operational control and co-ordination of ships and aircraft is unique. Even the United States Navy pays a great deal of tribute to the Royal Navy and what it has developed in that sphere. It is a game of wits, where one must keep on and on all the time and remain just one jump ahead, just as in wartime it was vital to keep one jump ahead with the mining and countermining.

We must maintain the expertise which we have in operational co-ordination. To look for a submarine now in the wastes of the Atlantic is like looking for a needle not in a haystack but in 20 hay- stacks. For that purpose we have frigates and Sea King helicopters and Nimrod aircraft. They all have to be co-ordinated in order to have any hope of tracking U-boats.

I know that the hon. Member for West Lothian and the committee on which he sits is concerned whether this threat will ever arise. Having lived through both World Wars, I yield second place to no one in my wish to prevent war. We must have the whole focus and concentration of all three forces on the prevention of war.

The world was taught a great lesson by President Kennedy at the time of Cuba. Because he was able to see where the Russian merchant ships with missiles on deck were going, because he was able to see when they were slowing down, and because it was reported to him when they had stopped and then turned back, he knew he could get on the hot line to Moscow and bring the world back from the brink of World War III.

It is essential that we should have the information and the ability to track what our potential enemy may be doing on the trade routes. We must be able to exercise surveillance and prevent small incidents on the trade routes from turning into big incidents.

We are immensely far behind in torpedo development. Many projects have been too complicated and have been scrapped. I was on a torpedo development desk at the Admiralty. I served a sentence there of two years and hated every moment of it. One of the reasons was that it was very far from the sea, and another was that we could never make any decent progress with torpedoes. The funds were insufficient and the technical development was extremely difficult and frustrating. One admiral described modern submarines with nuclear propulsion as having torpedoes so obsolete that the situation was rather like going into battle in a Chieftain tank waving a spear out of the front hatch…

Special facilities are needed even to catch up with torpedo development. There are, of course, immensely sophisticated homing torpedoes which home on to the noise of a target or various other indications. Missile development work in the air is difficult enough, but it is possible to photograph what the missile does when it is launched. It is possible to photograph how it behaves, why it misses, or to what extent it misses. Torpedo development under the water, by comparison, is a glorious mystery. If the torpedo does not hit the target, or ends up in the wrong place, it involves an immense search in order to find out what went wrong. There is no doubt—we have often debated this—that British torpedo development is disastrously behind. This is not a political point. It happened under the previous Conservative Government and under the last Labour Government, and is still bad.

Mining is the third main sector of activity on which an establishment like this may work. The magnetic mine was Hitler's secret weapon. Perhaps I may be permitted a short commercial. The first time I saw HMS "Belfast" was when she had had her back broken by a magnetic mine. She was lying in the Firth of Forth. She was then a brand new ship. If that is thought to be old-hat, what could be more topical than the mines dropped by the Americans off Haiphong, which had an extremely significant effect in the Vietnam war. I need hardly point out that the shallow estuaries of Britain, through which most of our ports are approached, involve the need for efficient mine-sweeping.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the defence of oil installations, and so on. The Royal Navy has a unique world reputation in the development of diving. Diving is closely linked with oil installations and the various other commercial aspects of underwater work. I am glad to say that many retired naval divers are earning a fine living working for many of these commercial organisations and are widely sought after.

The last point concerns basic oceanography. The sea is not homogeneous: there are wide areas of ignorance about the behaviour of sound waves in it. A lot of research is basic to the kind of weapons and equipment that I am talking about, and it needs to be done.

The Services always lean over backwards to meet local difficulties. I have the Army Air Corps in my constituency, at Middle Wallop. It has an enormous map in its operations room with every neurotic woman, pregnant cow and chicken farm and so on marked so that the corps can as much as possible avoid disturbance to ordinary life. The Army has a great reputation for this, and I am lire that the Royal Navy will do equally well in the area about which the hon. Gentleman has expressed concern.

10.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Peter Blaker)

I must apologise for the fact that I am answering the debate instead of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy, who, as the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) said, is in Scotland, which is perhaps appropriate in view of the subject of the debate. I myself was very recently in Scotland, spending some time in the Hebrides and other places. This, too, confirms the interest which the Ministry of Defence takes in Scotland. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject and will do my best to answer some of the points he has made, although he will forgive me, I hope, if I do not do so in the depth my hon. Friend could have done.

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) for his speech, drawn from first-hand knowledge of the activities of an underwater test and evaluation centre and of how important they are to the country in modern times. I say "modern times" particularly, because one thing which is clear to any Minister at the Ministry of Defence is how sophisticated the research and testing arrangements have to be compared with those which used to exist. I visited a guided missile range for Army weapons in Scotland. I found that the precautions rightly taken there were immensely complex and the equipment required was extremely sophisticated. Great care was taken, and I have no doubt that the same care is, and will be, taken in relation to the project we are discussing tonight.

I want to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray), who has taken a close interest in this subject, but, being a Whip, has with admirable forbearance remained remarkably silent during the speech of the hon. Member for West Lothian. I heard him mutter one or two words and I got the impression that he did not agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member said about the matters affecting local interests.

The BUTEC project is a scheme to provide a test facility for research and development of underwater equipment, mainly the practice firing of torpedoes. The facility in essence comprises a number of surface vessels and shore installations linked with a range instrumentation area on the seabed containing hydrophone installations whose readings are brought ashore by cable to a range terminal building. The remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend show how important is the subject of underwater testing.

I want closely to examine one of the propositions of the hon. Member for West Lothian, that in these days of nuclear weapons it is unlikely that we shall need better torpedoes because by the time we fire them the hydrogen bombs will have gone off anyway. Coming from him, with his knowledge of military matters, that seems a surprising proposition. We have only to look back 25 years to find that people were forecasting that there would never again be conventional wars, that the day of the infantryman was past. We have but to look at what has happened ever since, at Vietnam or Northern Ireland for example, to see how wrong those forecasts were. It is demonstrable that the proposition to which I thought the hon. Member attached a great deal of importance in his argument is entirely fallacious.

I come to the point about local interests. The hon. Member referred to some of the Questions answered by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy on 26th January at ccs. 239–40 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. These show clearly that a great deal of trouble was taken by the Ministry of Defence to examine alternative sites. If BUTEC were not established we would have to fall back on our existing facilities. Those in the United Kingdom are simply not capable of coping with deep monitored firings required of today's complex weapons.

The only other range which might be used is in the Bahamas. This is already overloaded, and its distance from our normal bases would involve an unacceptable loss of operational time in addition to the difficulty and expense of supporting such trials on a regular basis. It is clear that the establishment of BUTEC is an essential facility in the evolution and support of the underwater aspects of our defence programme.

As for the consultations with local interests, I am told that the planning committee of the Inverness County Council gave its approval to the proposal. The Ross and Cromarty Council gave qualified approval, subject to some recommendations. The vast majority of these have been carried out, as a result of meetings between the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland and outside interests. There was a meeting on 26th January with some of the local fishermen in the area, and, having seen a report of what happened there, it seems to me that some of the remarks of the non. Member for West Lothian were out of tune with what actually occurred. At that meeting a great deal of acceptance was evident that alternative sites in the United Kingdom were not available.

I would emphasise that at the meeting all the fishermen who were present were given a chance to speak individually, and some assurances were given by the official side. It was said, for example, that, except possibly during certain firings, there would be no objection to any sort of fishing in the acoustic buffer zones, which are approximately five miles by one mile either side of the actual range area. In order to keep interference with fishing to the minimum and to improve safety, the Ministry undertook to arrange for a suitable officer to discuss the mechanics of a good system of communication between the fishermen and the range staff. The fishermen were told that, while the Ministry could not restrict firing to the evenings or nights as had been suggested, the programme could be published in advance, and this, with radio communication, should greatly assist working arrangements between the range and the fishermen.

On the question of jobs, I confirm that the estimate given was that there would be about 40 seagoing jobs, and, of course, it would be up to any individual in the area to decide whether he wanted to apply, but the Ministry is keen to recruit as many local people as possible. So there have been consultations.

The hon. Member asked about oil and oil companies. I am sure that he will not expect me to answer that question tonight, but it seems to me, speaking as a layman on this matter, that there is likely to be a certain incongruity in the needs of the oil industry and the testing of underwater sophisticated weapons.

Mr. Dalyell

Torpedoes, perhaps, but not the submersibles.

Mr. Blaker

As I say, I am not an expert on this subject and I would not want to venture further upon it.

I think it has been shown that we need this facility. It has been shown that, in its traditional way, the Ministry has taken great trouble to consult and look after local interests. I can assure the hon. Member that my hon. Friend will carefully study his remarks and that the Ministry will continue to treat this matter with the seriousness which it deserves.