HC Deb 21 March 1973 vol 853 cc521-75

7.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. Antony Buck)

It gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity of opening this debate on the Royal Navy. The last four months, during which period I have had the privilege of being Minister for the Navy, have been utterly fascinating. I should like to think that they have been worth while, too. I hope that the House will forgive me if I first give it some account of my general approach to the job with which I have been entrusted, and then I should like to tell right hon. and hon. Members something of the way in which I have been seeking to tackle the challenging and historic task of being charged with particular responsibility for the affairs of the Royal Navy.

First, as to my general approach to my job, I assure the House that it will be my aim to take right hon. and hon. Members as much into my confidence as, to coin a phrase, the exigencies of the Service premit. I confess, however, that my antecedents relative to my capacity to undertake this exercise in "open government" are not very promising. I say that because I have the privilege, at one and the same time, of representing in the House the "Oyster constituency" and of being Minister for what is sometimes known as the "silent Service". But in spite of these built-in deterrents to success, I shall do my best as time goes on to keep the House as fully informed about the Navy's affairs as is consistent with security and with my desire not to reveal matters which could be of benefit to those who are hostile to our nation's wellbeing.

Having said that, I shall now say something of the way in which I have sought so far to learn about and perform my job. It seemed to me, with a non- maritime background, that it was very important that I should get to sea as soon after my appointment as was reasonably possible. It also seemed right to go to sea in a relatively small craft in order to enable me to get to know a whole ship's company. Thus, my first time afloat was in HMS "Brinton", a 500-ton coastal minesweeper. I am told that all admirals take seasickness pills, and I am afraid that I took some of those pills, too.

I spent two days with that ship on one of her fishery protection patrols off the north-east coast in mid-January. Preceding my time afloat I visited Chatham, and I am bound to admit to the House that I was utterly staggered by the technical, managerial and human complexities involved in the refit of naval ships, and particularly those involved in the refit of nuclear submarines; but more of the dockyards later. From thence I have been carrying out what can be called a "rolling" programme of visits, which is by no means yet complete. It culminated last week in a visit which I paid to HMS "Ark Royal". I flew on to this splendid ship in a Buccaneer of 809 Squadron whilst she was in the eastern approaches. This, together with a flight which I had in a Harrier the week before last, ranks, with lunching in that wonderful ship HMS "Victory" and dining in the superb Painted Hall at Greenwich, as one of the most remarkable experiences I have had since undertaking my present task.

The message which I bring back from these and the many other visits I have tried to pack into recent weeks is that the nation is entitled to be very proud of its Navy—first, because of the spirit which exists in all branches of the fleet and, secondly, because of the technical efficiency and expertise which there is.

It is, I think, an all too prevalent national characteristic to "knock" our own achievements and to underrate that which we have accomplished and are accomplishing. I hope the House will forgive me for having put these propositions firmly before it, because they tie in with my belief that perhaps the "silent Service" is a little too silent about what it is doing for us as a nation.

Some may ask why we need to have what is probably the third most powerful Navy in the world. I would like to get it firmly on record that it is my belief that it is as vital today as ever it was that we should have a powerful maritime arm —first, because of the basic facts of our economic and geographical position, with 60 ocean-going ships arriving every day in our country's ports bringing key supplies of every description and, secondly, because the key to our defence is NATO and, as I see it, the alliance relies on Britain, after the United States, to continue to lead in maritime capability and expertise.

In addition to its traditional rôle as a means of communication, the sea and the seabed have in recent years taken on a growing importance in terms of its potential as a source of food, oil and other resources. We are, therefore, right to be concerned internationally about the responsible development and regulation of the maritime environment. It is undeniable that potential causes of instability at sea abound at every level of capability, and one does not have to look far back into history to see how countries like the Soviet Union, as well as our NATO allies, have learned the lesson that the high seas are a ready platform for the exercise of political pressure.

It seems to me to be clear that the Soviet Union has indeed learned this lesson and has learned it through its experiences in modern times. The result of the Cuban missile crisis showed how one country, namely Russia, could be prevented from achieving a desired aim through its failure to be able to deploy a credible naval force in distant waters.

Ten years ago the Russians had a fleet with modern weapons, but it was largely a defensive force. Since Cuba, the Russians appear to have decided that they would build up—and build up with great rapidity—an ocean-going fleet capable of deployment in distant waters. Among their new equipment they have the new Kresta II cruiser, with a surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missile fit in addition to guns, torpedoes and a helicopter. Then there are the "Moskva" and "Leningrad"—18,000-ton ships, reportedly capable of operating up to 30 helicopters. There is further, the Krivak class of guided missile destroyer.

The Russians have more than 100 ships of destroyer size and above and in the last 10 years they have, of course, also built up to a formidable extent their submarine fleet. Nuclear submarines are now being launched at the average rate of about one a month. Their total submarine fleet is around 400, and the proportion of nuclears has reached almost a quarter and is steadily rising. They also have landing ships such as the "Alligator" which have the capacity to provide the "lift" for about 15,000 naval infantry. The average number of surface ships deployed away from home waters has risen from about 70 to about 140 over the past four years.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Are we to believe the reports emanating from both the British Press and the Chinese, to the effect that there is a considerable Russian deployment in the Indian Ocean? Can the House be given any information about that?

Mr. Buck

One of the difficulties I experience in my office is to know exactly what I can say about these matters. Can I leave it by saying that I will check on what I can say about that? There is deployment in that area. I will write to the hon. Gentleman or deal with the matter further in the debate, if I can. I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the way he put his question.

It is against this background that we have to consider our fleet.

As is reflected in the Defence White Paper, this coming year will be a year of test and opportunity for NATO, with increasing Soviet involvement in maritime affairs and with a growing interest in areas of the world with which she has not traditionally concerned herself. In order to safeguard our position in this changing international climate our policy must be, with the limited resources available to us, to assess with care the tasks which we will need to undertake at sea, attempt to forecast their likely level in the years to come, and then arrange operational and equipment priorities accordingly.

To the best of our ability, we have been concerned to maintain sufficient expertise in relevant fields such as tactics, training and equipment generally, so that, together with our allies, we will be able to match the likely ebb and flow of threats and commitments. Of course, because the object of Britain's defence posture is to deter, we need the ability to react to a wide variety of situations.

The specific capabilities to be provided must always be a matter of judgment, and I would like to emphasise that our current spread of naval capabilities accords with NATO plans. Any major switch of emphasis would be likely to unbalance this great alliance, on which so many speakers from both sides of the House have rightly placed reliance during the course of our defence debates. As hon. Members will appreciate, NATO strategy is based on the principle that provided the alliance as a whole shows an evident ability and will to counter any level of aggression any potential enemy will be deterred from taking action which could lead to major hostilities. The potential aggressor must not be left in any doubt that NATO has the intention and the means both to counter any local action at the appropriate level and to provide suitable response at a higher level, should this be necessary.

It is relatively easy to decide on the extremes of capability—at the one end, Polaris submarines and, at the other, patrol craft. The key issue seems to me to be to identify the optimum mix of numbers and capability in between. Our present mix is one which we consider will, in all the circumstances, enable us most successfully to fulfil our varying levels of commitment around the globe.

Our most numerous and widely deployed ships are frigates—the smallest single ocean-going units with an effective fighting capability. The core of this force is the Leander class general purpose frigate, of which 26 are now in service. They are supplemented by older ships, which are planned to be replaced progressively by a continuing programme of new construction. There are eight Amazon class Type 21s currently building, and we hope to invite a tender for the first Type 22 frigate in the very near future. The first should be completed early in 1978.

Whilst frigates can and often do operate independently, more powerful ships are also required. At present these consist of the guided missile destroyers of the County class and the cruisers "Tiger" and "Blake". These are being supplemented by HMS "Bristol" and ships of the Type 42 class, of which six are now under construction and should be accepted into service in the middle years of the decade. Then, of course, there is the command or through-deck cruiser, the order for the first of which should be placed very shortly. The House knows that they will not only provide facilities as command ships in a NATO or national setting but will have aboard Sea King helicopters and, it is hoped, the maritime version of the Harrier. As I mentioned earlier, in passing, I have flown in this remarkable aircraft and I am hopeful that the project definition which is now being concluded will show that the Harrier will be able to undertake the multi-rôle of being an attack, reconnaissance and all-weather air defence maritime aircraft. As the House knows we hope to be able to announce our decision before Parliament rises for the Summer Recess. A higher level of capability is also provided by "Ark Royal" and by the six nuclear-powered fleet submarines now in service.

A further valuable capability is provided by our amphibious force, namely the two commando ships "Hermes" and "Bulwark" and the two assault ships "Fearless" and "Intrepid", the Wessex 5 helicopter squadrons and the four commando groups of the Royal Marines. I look forward to seeing something of the Royal Marines who are playing a key rôle in support of the flanks of NATO for I am proposing to visit them during a major exercise in the late spring. It must also be remembered that the Royal Marines are rightly taking their share of the burden imposed in military terms, most particularly on the Army in Northern Ireland. Tributes have rightly come from all sides of the House relative to what the Army is achieving and enduring in Northern Ireland. Having a garrison constituency and having paid five visits to Northern Ireland since the recent troubles started I can echo those tributes which it would be impossible to utter in too fulsome a way.

Before long I am hoping to pay another visit to the Province, not only to visit troops from my constituency but also, particularly, to see something of the burdens which 42 Royal Marine Commando is bearing in Belfast. Whilst I am dealing with Northern Ireland perhaps I should remind the House of the valuable work being done by the Navy by providing anti-gun-running patrols off the Irish coasts. These patrols are of the utmost importance. I do not imagine I shall be pressed for details of them by hon. Members.

Perhaps the most commonly-heard criticism of our present balance of forces is that we should put more resources than we do into our nuclear-powered fleet submarine programme. It is easy to understand the thinking behind this; the power and potential of the nuclear submarine for certain naval operations is clear. However, there are many tasks from fishery protection off Iceland to the Beira Patrol which cannot be undertaken by our submarines.

However, let the House not think for one moment that we do not appreciate the vital importance not only of our Polaris submarines but also of our force of nuclear powered fleet submarines. We have five building at the moment, and the first of these, HMS "Swiftsure", which is due to enter service later in the spring, is the lead ship of a new class and, as was revealed in the White Paper, work is continuing on the design of improved classes to follow on from "Swiftsure".

Hand in hand with this important building programme is our effort to see such boats—and I am told by authorities that it is right to refer to submarines as boats—are properly equipped. The House will remember that last year project definition studies were initiated relative to the devising of a really effective under-surface guided weapon system. I fear that all I can say at this stage is that these studies are going ahead and that it seems to me that they are going well.

As to torpedoes, the final acceptance trials of the Mark 24 are now nearing completion and the torpedo is due to enter service shortly. It will replace the Mark 23 torpedo as the anti-submarine armament of our own conventional, fleet and Polaris submarines. Frankly, I rind it disappointing that the development of the Mark 24 has taken longer than was originally planned. However it is a sophisticated weapon, faster with longer range and a less degree of susceptibility to counter-measures than its predecessor, and its introduction will make a very valuable contribution to the effectiveness of our submarines.

Good progress has been made with Seadart, the new medium-range ship- launched surface-to-air guided weapon system, and the system is at sea in HMS "Bristol", as is the Ikara quick reaction anti-submarine system. These weapons will be fitted in the Type 42 class and in some Leanders respectively. The development of Seawolf is going according to plan, and we propose to fit this system in the new Type 22 frigate and in certain Leanders and Type 21s. A wide range of ships will also be fitted during the 1970s with Exocet and first deliveries of ship equipment have now been made.

The whole of our balanced fleet would, of course, be useless if we had not got high quality well-trained sailors to man our ships and highly professional officers to lead them. Gone are the days when all one needed to arm a good Scotsman or, indeed, a sailor was "gunpowder and oatmeal". In this context I should like to pay a particular tribute to my predecessor, who, I know, regrets not being able to be here, his duties in Europe preventing that, for the improvements in service conditions and studies for future improvements which he instituted. As will be known to the House, Lord Seebohm is now examining what may be described as our social support organisation for our men and for their families. I am most grateful for the work that Lord Seebohm is doing and I look forward to having the opportunity of considering the conclusions which he arrives at and the recommendations which he will no doubt make as to further improvements.

Mr. Dalyell

Before we leave gunpowder and oatmeal, will the Minister say something about the Sound of Raasay and the need for the British Underwater Technical Evaluation Centre to be there?

Mr. Buck

I would have hoped that the hon. Member would be satisfied by the admirable response he drew from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army after the debate on BUTEC, which happened to coincide with a visit I was making to Scotland, because of which I was not able to be here. I would have thought that my hon. Friend's reply would have satisfied the hon. Member. If not, I look forward to hearing what he has to say on this score later, and after that I will repeat some of the cogent arguments put forward by my hon. Friend. It seems to me that BUTEC going there creating job opportunities and the infusion of money into that part of Scotland will be a valuable asset in a place where job opportunities and additional money appear to be needed.

Passing from Raasay and oatmeal and gunpowder, I turn to recruiting. We are satisfied with recruitment of officers, and the combined Royal Navy and Royal Marines recruiting target of over 9,000 ratings and other ranks entering in 1972–73 is expected to be met fully. A particularly encouraging feature has been the large number of juniors joining the Royal Navy at 16 years of age.

Not only do we need to keep our fleet well equipped and well manned; it must be supported by efficient and effective dockyards, and during our last session the Public Accounts Committee had certain comments to make on these. Many of the problems we face are not, of course, peculiar to the Royal dockyards but are common to the ship-repairing industry as a whole. Moreover, warship repair is acknowledged to be quite the most difficult of all types of repair operations to estimate and control, because of the enormous and increasing complexity of modern warships and the high performance standard required of them in the Service.

In addition, planning and execution of the work are sometimes interrupted by urgent operational requirements of the fleet. Our experience is that visitors to the Royal Dockyards never fail to be impressed, and are frequently daunted, by the magnitude and intricacy of the work involved in refitting Her Majesty's ships, especially a nuclear submarine. That is a remarkable experience. In our constant endeavours to improve the working of our dockyards we have been, and are being, greatly assisted by Sir Henry Benson and Mr. Richard O'Brien, whose membership of the Royal Dockyard Policy Board has been of real value to us.

In particular, the introduction of nuclear submarines into the fleet is requiring radical changes in dockyard organisation. There is the provision of extensive and expensive new facilities, the learning and application of new techniques and skills by dockyard workers to provide the necessary docking, repair and support capability. I am sure that the dockyards will react appropriately to the challenge with which they will be faced in future in refitting and repairing the new classes of surface ship to which I have referred, the Type 22 and Type 42, and the associated new weapons systems shortly to be introduced.

The whole dockyard service is geared to the need to keep abreast of the very latest advances in technology, and to meet the increasing complexity of their task. I am confident that they will not prove lacking here and that, with the assistance of the improved facilities, new workshops, covered docks and the like, for which provision has already been made in the dockyard development programme, they will continue to provide the fleet with the service it requires.

I apologise for having spoken at such length. No doubt many matters will be raised during the debate, and I will try if I am permitted, to deal with them in my reply or by correspondence if that turns out to be more appropriate. I look forward to hearing the speech of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd). I suspect that he is enjoying being Shadow Minister for the Navy as much as I am enjoying being its Minister. I hope that he will not take it amiss if I say that I trust he will long continue in that shadow rôle. I will do all I can to increase his considerable knowledge of the Navy by visits and so forth.

I freely acknowledge that we on this side of the House do not have a monopoly of patriotism or concern for the Armed Forces. While I acknowledge this I am bound to say that I sometimes wish hon. Members opposite would acknowledge that they do not have a monopoly of social conscience. I am sometimes alarmed by the utterances of some hon. Members opposite who would apparently wish virtually to scrap all our defences. I hope that in the course of the speech the hon. Gentleman will make his attitude towards such of his colleagues very clear.

7.53 p.m.

Mr. Frank Judd (Portsmouth, West)

I begin in the mood in which the Minister concluded and congratulate him on his fine first performance from the Government Front Bench as the Undersecretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy. If I may reciprocate the good wishes which he has extended, I hope that he will continue to enjoy what will inevitably be a limited stay at the Ministry. I trust that when he resumes his rightful place as Opposition spokesman he will be given the same friendly help and courtesy as that extended to me over the past year by him and his predecessor and numerous civilian and naval staff. I would like all concerned to know how grateful I am.

On behalf of the Opposition I begin by expressing in absolutely confident terms our unlimited tribute to the men and women of the Royal Navy. I particularly want to speak for a moment about the women of the Royal Navy because sometimes they are overlooked on these annual occasions. We sometimes find that the WRNS are considered as being indispensable when recruiting is going badly, but when it is going well they are sometimes pushed into the background. On behalf of the Opposition I place on record our continuing admiration for the services supplied by the WRNS.

I want to emphasise what the Minister said about the Royal Marines. They have served with distinction in Northern Ireland, and in many ways they are demonstrating themselves as being well suited to the sort of limited engagements we have come to expect in modern times.

Having referred to the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the WRNS, I also refer to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Port Auxiliary Services, and the countless civilian employees of the Ministry of Defence working for the Navy and without whom the Navy's operations would be impossible.

The Minister dwelt on the importance of this annual debate. I emphasise that. We have first to consider the nature of the country in which we live. We remain a sea-locked trading nation. Entry to the EEC will not change that basic reality. If after our entry to the EEC we look at ourselves in a European context, apart from our vital exports essential to the economic viability of Britain, we see that more than 120 oceangoing ships arrive daily in the ports of Western Europe and discharge more than 1 million tons of cargo. More than half of this gigantic operation takes place in the ports of the United Kingdom.

The sea is certainly as vital as it has ever been. This historical involvement with the sea is not the only justification for this debate. There is the whole issue of the mineral and other resources in and beneath the sea. These are likely to become a major preoccupation of policymakers in future, and not only the policymakers of nations adjacent to the sea such as ourselves but also the policymakers of land-locked nations who want their share of the sea's resources.

Our current discussions about Iceland are an example of the maritime conflict that can arise. They are but an indication of things to come. Tactical policies for meeting this serious situation must be considered against the long-term strategy for the law of the sea. The forthcoming United Nations international Law of the Sea Conference at Santiago will be of major significance for the future of humanity and not least for us in Britain. In success or failure the implications of the conference will be considerable for future naval policy. It is time that we heard a good deal more about the Government's thinking in this highly significant area.

The White Paper referred in its introduction to what it called in rather brutal terms "Developments in the Threat". That is fair enough, I suppose. The Russians, I believe—this lies behind what the White Paper says—have clearly recognised the sort of arguments I have been advancing. They see the potential future wealth to be found in the oceans. They are also keeping their options open in traditional ways for extending their sphere of influence, perhaps, as I argued the other night, even in terms, if the opportunity presented itself, of the Finlandisation of Western Europe.

In this context, I endorse the Minister's remarks by quoting from no less an authority than the First Sea Lord, who, writing in The Financial Times, said: As for naval forces"— this is referring to Russia— she has some 200 surface ships, ranging from the powerful KRESTA ASW and guided-missile carrying cruiser and the Moskva helicopter ship with 20 helicopters, and surface-to-air missiles, through a range of destroyers and frigates, most of them modern, and many of them missile-firing, down to a force of some 600 fast patrol boats for coastal work, many of which are also equipped with missiles. She has the largest submarine force in the world, some 400 strong and including both cruise-missile and ballistic missile systems, as well as attack submarines for use against surface forces and merchant shipping and to counter allied submarines. At present a quarter are nuclear-powered: virtually all submarine building is now nuclear and these submarines"— as the Minister said— are being launched at about one a month, replacing older submarines. She has a large shore-based long-range maritime air force of some 850 aircraft to support her Fleet. In addition of course the line between a naval and a merchant ship in the Soviet Fleets is very blurred; so the fishing and merchant fleets add a considerable naval potential, if only as 'eyes and ears'. In considering submarine developments, as hon. Members—not least the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall)—have explained, in the Second World War the ratio of German submarines to allied anti-submarine vessels was 1:5.9. Now the ratio of Russian submarines to NATO anti-submarine vessels is 1:1.6. Where do we stand?

I was interested to read in the newspapers yesterday that there is soon to be a big naval display in the Firth of Forth, to be preceded by a magnificent banquet for all attending dignitaries. I only hope that the menu for the banquet will prove more satisfying than the overall picture of cohesive naval priorities of the Government. I foresee too many question-mark-shaped clouds overhanging the assembled fleet in the Firth later this year.

For example, there is the issue of convoys. I still sometimes hear hon. Members opposite urging the Government Front Bench to recognise in naval policy the traditional rôle of shepherding convoys round the world. How realistic is this in the context of the modern technological age, in the context of nuclear potentiality? The Government Front Bench, whatever the pressures on it, should come clean sooner or later about where it stands vis-à-vis this concept.

Then there is the issue of "Ark Royal"—one aircraft carrier in spend id isolation. What does this meaningfully add up to in the overall context of our naval policy?

Then there is the issue of the through-deck cruisers. We on this side of the House are disturbed by the rumours and stories of escalating costs. Some have suggested that these vessels may be as much as £75 million apiece. But I worry much more that the Government may make the same mistake with the through-deck cruisers as they have found themselves trapped in with the one remaining aircraft carrier. If the through-deck cruisers are to add up to a viable contribution to the Navy, it will be essential to have at least three of them operational. I wonder whether the Government have thought this through, or whether they have vaguely in mind the possibility of leaving construction at the initial through-deck cruiser.

I come to the issue of the Harriers. The Minister tried to be helpful tonight, but, although he came tantalisingly close to making a definite statement, there is still an element of doubt overhanging their future. He will realise that I say this in no spirit of animosity, but there is considerable anxiety in the Fleet Air Arm, which is affecting morale, about what the future is to be in terms of flying capability with the Navy.

In one of the visits which I have been able to make, kindly facilitated by the Minister's predecessor, I was struck by the difference in morale between the rotary-wing flyers and the fixed-wing flyers. We need to take this matter on board very seriously.

Mr. Buck

Having recently come back from "Ark Royal", I have encountered that. But what the hon. Gentleman said about "Ark Royal" will not have done much to help morale in the Fleet Air Arm.

Mr. Judd

I think that it will, because the intelligent men in the Fleet Air Arm want to know what the long-term strategic planning for it is. They want firm assurances about their future rôle.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

It is music to my ears that, I gather, the Opposition's policy is to urge the Government to construct three of these new cruisers and encourage flying and seaborne air power. It is not many years since the Opposition, when in Government, cancelled the CVAO1. If they had not done so, we could by now have had a splendid new aircraft carrier.

Mr. Judd

We owe the men of the Fleet Air Arm reassurance about their future. We can no longer allow uncertainty about the policy. It would be helpful if the Government clarified the situation one way or the other.

There is the issue of the commando ships, essential to the work of the Royal Marines. Most people would agree that at least two of them are vital if they are to provide amphibious reinforcements on the northern and southern flanks of NATO. Only the Americans, apart from ourselves, have such amphibious ships. HMS "Bulwark" is known to be on her last legs, although her devoted crew have produced remarkable results in manoeuvres over the past year, and we pay tribute to them. It is an open secret that she is known in the Navy as HMS "Rusty Bucket".

What is to replace her? Are the Government thinking that perhaps one of the through-deck cruisers might replace her? If so, I find that unconvincing because, even supposing the Government were to decide to go ahead with the three through-deck cruisers, they would all be needed to provide maritime support for the Navy. I do not see how one could occasionally be allocated for this rôle. I commend to the Minister the suggestion which is being canvassed in some quarters that it would perhaps be possible to design a new ship on mercantile lines— something like a container ship hull fitted with a flight deck which could be built fairly cheaply.

There is also the issue of the future of minesweeping operations. We need clarification from the Government for this particularly affects the Royal Naval Reserve and the question of its morale. It has been noted that minesweeping experiments are being done by hovercraft and helicopters. The men of the Royal Naval Reserve need to be reassured about what the Government have in mind, particularly in the light of what is going on in Haiphong harbour under American supervision in connection with mine-clearing by helicopters.

I come to the question of the seaborne nuclear deterrent. Not many of us on this side of the House were altogether reassured in the defence debate earlier this week. Apart from the critical issue of safety in handling our Polaris missiles raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) on which no satisfactory reply has been forthcoming, the Opposition cannot emphasise too strongly their concern at the apparent drift towards irrevocable commitment to a second generation nuclear deterrent, be it Poseidon, Trident or the under-sea long-range missile system, without evidence of clearly thought out major policy direction and decisions.

In the debate the other night I mentioned the implications of the first round of the strategic arms limitation talks in this respect: on the one hand, the argument that the ceiling on anti-ballistic missiles has given Polaris a new lease of life, but, on the other hand, firm pronouncements by the Russians that any extension of our nuclear capability will be regarded as an extension of the American capability. If the Government are committed to disarmament, are they contemplating embarrassing the United States' nogotiators for a questionable future development in our own deterrent? What are our intentions in a West European context? My right hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris) mentioned this matter in the debate earlier this week, but no reply has been forthcoming.

When the Secretary of State talks at the Conservative Party conference about the possibility of an Anglo-French deterrent he attracts attention. It is no good Ministers prevaricating in their responses. We need a clear answer. The Opposition are firmly against the development of an Anglo-French deterrent in any form. But in the issue of nuclear strategy we must, above all, have clear-cut decisions because they are essential not only to naval strategy but to our whole defence strategy within the context of NATO.

Before I leave this critical subject I want to put one other question to the Minister about a statement made on 30th July last year by the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy. He is reported to have said that Soviet submarine, surface and air anti-submarine forces can detect and utterly destroy any submarine in all weather conditions. A categorical comment from the Minister about that claim from the Russian C-in-C would be helpful.

Mr. Buck

That statement, which I think was made by Admiral Gorshkov, seems to be nonsense.

Mr. Judd

We note that, and I am sure that the Russians will have noted it. It is a pity that we did not have a stronger comment earlier.

Last year we had an interesting debate in our analysis of defence programmes in which, speaking from this Dispatch Box, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) dwelt on the importance of submarines. May I interject a word of gratitude to my hon. Friend? Whatever profound differences we may have had on certain aspects of policy while he was the Minister responsible for the Navy, I as a Member of Parliament with a dockyard constituency, found that he always treated my problems with the utmost courtesy, attention and speed. In opposition we found him a thoughtful and stimulating spokesman. Since he has returned temporarily to the back benches, in his book and in his work on the Select Committee he is still making a profoundly important contribution to defence discussion.

In the debate last year my hon. Friend referred to submarines. This year the Government have announced their intention to move forward with the submarine building programme, but I am not sure that it is on a scale to convince my hon. Friend that the basic policy decisions have been made as he would like them to be made.

In that debate we also spoke of torpedoes, and the Minister has mentioned them tonight. They have had a chequered history in recent years in the Royal Navy. We are glad to know that at last the Mark 24 submarine-launched anti-submarine torpedo is in production, and that delivery of the American Mark 26 lightweight torpedo will soon start. We must reserve judgment on their success until we have seen them in operation for a while.

Last year the Opposition dwelt on the possibility that there was too much reliance in Government strategy on large ships, which we sometimes think have the attributes in a modern context of sitting ducks. What we have heard this year has not been altogether reassuring. A modern Navy serving the interests of Britain and NATO needs maximum flexibility and maximum versatility. We are worried that the Navy may be becoming technologically muscle-bound or over-computer-orientated. I have heard it said by someone who shall be nameless that in the immediate future when a submarine surfaces and the skipper looks out through his binoculars and understands from computerised information that he is on the Equator but sees an iceberg and a polar bear on the horizon he will say "That damned computer ". But the question we have to ask ourselves is whether in 15 years' time he might say "What was I drinking last night?" We have to question a little the impact of modern technology on the self-reliance of seamanship, which is tremendously important in the final analysis.

One sometimes wonders how a ship can have any buoyancy after all the boffins have added their pet refinements. To quote again from the Financial Times in an article last November the Controller of the Navy, Admiral Sir Anthony Griffin said: — This means that we have to be careful to produce ships which are not over-specialised for a particular operational task which may change or even disappear during the lifetime of the ship. On equipment, we notice that the Exocet equipment has been delivered and that its first missiles are due soon. We also note that the Anglo-French Martel air-to-surface anti-ship guided weapon is being introduced into the Bucanneer squadron on HMS "Ark Royal". We shall have to watch this carefully in operation. It is a nice point of balance between buying, on economic and engineering criteria, abroad and the need to maintain our own technological industry to back the defence services.

On recruiting, we are glad that the Navy has done well in the past year. The only question we ask is: what will be the effects of keeping pay in the Services in line with the Pay Code on recruiting. Are the Government confident that there will be no adverse effects?

I have had the good fortune to see a certain amount of naval training in the past year, and I have been very impressed. We should all express our appreciation for the staff who handle the training, but there is the issue of the considerable changes in curriculum which have been taking place in Dartmouth in recent years. Is it yet possible to make an evaluation of their impact on leadership and officer effectiveness within the Service?

I should like to say a word or two on discipline. I understand the White Paper's discreet silence on the naval catering fraud case. I do not want to turn over that sad story, which is all the more sad because of our almost unlimited respect for the Navy, but a number of serious issues are at stake. One is: how could fraud have happened on that scale throughout the length and breadth of the country for so long? Another is: why had senior officers not spotted earlier that there was something wrong? Can we be confident that the weaknesses that the case revealed in financial relations with private contractors are limited to catering? I know that an inquiry is going on. We are looking forward to the results of that inquiry and shall want to discuss them fully.

On welfare, we are glad that we can soon expect the report of the Seebohm Committee. Some of us feel that more attention should be paid to the welfare of officers' families. As soon as the Seebohm Report comes out it will be appropriate for the House to have a full discussion on it.

There is also the issue of Service land. Speaking as a Member for a dockyard constituency, I know that in some dockyard towns there is an acute shortage of land for housing, recreational facilities and other social amenities. It is aggravating when the view gains ground that the Navy has at its disposal more land than is absolutely essential. I hope that this will be watched carefully.

I should like to add a brief word on the yards about which the Minister spoke. The Labour Government's concern for the wellbeing of the yards was demonstrated by their introduction of the new pay structure. The advances made through that pay structure must not be allowed to fall behind again.

There are problems within the yards. There is a need for an opportunity for construction in the yards so that the repair work can be kept in harmony with the new style of shipbuilding. We also have to look at industrial accidents within the yards, on which there are some warning indicators. We must keep the incentive bonus scheme under scrutiny. While it is all right for some of the men employed in the yards, it is not always convincing as an appropriate system for yards which handle repairs as distinct from production work. There are also sometimes resentments among men who are employed on work where the bonus scheme cannot be applied. We must also recognise that there are doubts amongst labour forces about work being put out to contract and the criteria used when decisions to do so are made.

As for the morale of the workers in the yards, there are doubts and anxieties about the degree of emphasis on preplanning in yard work and work measurement. At times the men in the yards express to me the feeling that front-line workers are being expected to carry increasingly top-heavy administration.

Part of the problem is concerned with communication and with explaining new systems to workers, but I suspect that there is a good deal of justification for criticism. Difficulties in communications can result from the fact that yards are impersonal in scale, and when the men come to negotiate about their problems they often feel that at local yard level they are not talking to the people who have the real responsibility. Behind the individual yard lies Bath, behind Bath lies the Ministry of Defence, Whitehall, behind the Ministry of Defence, Whitehall, lies the Treasury, and behind the Treasury lies No. 10 Downing Street. It will be helpful if the Minister can give us his comments about firm recommendations on the yards contained in the Ninth Report from the Expenditure Committee and can assure us that the Government are seeking ways of decentralisation. The more responsibility local management has the more the workers will be able to realise that he is talking to those who have the power of decision.

I now turn to the subject of civilian employees in other naval establishments. In the past year there has been a deep sense of grievance, since civilian workers undertaking similar work to that which is done in the yards are denied, by as much as several pounds, the same level of pay as their dockyard colleagues because in certain establishments bonus schemes do not operate as they do in the yards. There is a jungle of confused pay rates in defence establishments, and the Government could do a good deal to rationalise the system.

In conclusion, I want to draw attention to the urgent need for a more coherent maritime strategy for NATO as a whole, especially in the light of possible mutually balanced force reductions, which might later be extended to cover balanced naval withdrawals in the Mediterranean. This is all the more important when we recognise that a political approach to such balanced naval withdrawal was made in June 1971 by Mr. Brezhnev, who proposed mutual naval cuts in the Mediterranean. This poses the possibility of the withdrawal of American carriers of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean or their run-down, which could leave NATO's southern flank even more open. Clearly NATO must be concerned about its vulnerability in the south. Its limited air defence is mainly deployed north-east, towards Moscow, in support of allied ground forces. There is little facing south, towards Syria or Egypt or elsewhere on the North African coast, should Soviet influence extend there.

We on this side of the House desperately want disarmament through mutually balanced force reductions to succeed, but to achieve this we need to be clear on our present strategy overall, including the Mediterranean. The issue is complicated by the totally undemocratic and, in the final analysis, unreliable régime in Greece and the disturbing political developments in Turkey.

Naval matters have been badly neglected in overall strategy, but they are no less vital than those issues raised in the context of possible nuclear escalation discussed by the nuclear planning group in NATO. The lack of comprehensive policy could almost call into question the seriousness with which the Government approach mutually balanced force reductions. How can we make meaningful progress if we are not clear where we stand at the start? How do the Government reconcile their decision to become a continental Power with their decision to maintain their independent thin grey line around the world? How much influence do a few British ships, scattered about the oceans, have? Do the Government fail to see that their military and naval involvement with Portugal—and their, at best, ambiguous military and naval relationship with South Africa—serve to provoke the spread of Communist influence by driving those struggling for their freedom into a heavy dependence on Communist support?

Conservative Members urge extension of NATO activity into the South Atlantic. Nothing could be more disastrous and counter-productive than to do this on the basis of co-operation with repressive reactionary régimes both in Latin America and in Southern Africa.

By contrast, what steps are being taken to secure greater NATO—and indeed Commonwealth—support for a more effective and extended Beira patrol? It is interesting to contrast the dedicated service by men on this patrol with preparations here at home for a jamboree to celebrate 600 years of alliance with dictatorial Portugal, the principal subverter of the Government's policy towards Rhodesia—a situation which would be ludicrous if it were not so grave. I fear that it is all too characteristic of contradictions in Government thinking.

I started with a tribute to the men and women of the Navy and the civilian employees who support them. They are people who take pride in their effectiveness. In these debates we must see to it that the political framework within which these men and women are asked to serve is worthy of that unrivalled loyalty which they so steadfastly display.

8.25 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am glad to be called to speak after the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd), since we both represent dockyard towns, but I dissociate myself from his final remarks. He had made an excellent speech until the last few minutes.

Since this is a short debate I shall concentrate on two points. The first concerns HMS "Albion". Is it to be scrapped or not? When it is converted into a Commando carrier it was considered that she was a more comfortable ship and better equipped than HMS "Bulwark". However, I understand that HMS "Bulwark" will remain operational until 1978 when the proposed through-deck cruiser should be available. Cannot both these ships be retained? They are both invaluable to the Royal Navy.

I turn to the subject of the Royal Naval dockyards. A great deal is said about them in the two important documents with which we are dealing in this debate. On page 32 of the Statement on the Defence Estimates, Cmnd. 5231, the Government say: The Royal Dockyards will be heavily loaded during 1973–74 …". There is then reference to the backlog of work outstanding from 1972–73. I should like seriously to consider the situation thrown up by this backlog of work because, regrettably, we have undergone a major strike for the first time in 300 years. It was not just a question of increased pay; there were other questions which worried the men. I attended a strike meeting and I should like to explain my impressions.

I consider that the time has come when the Admiralty must realise that it is dealing with thousands of educated men and women—and I emphasise that we now have girl apprentices in the dockyards. The workers who operate in the dockyards in these days are very different from those who worked in the dockyards in previous years. Therefore, I agree with the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West that there should be further cooperation between management and staff.

One important matter which must be borne in mind is the monotony of work in the dockyards. This is a serious problem, which applies not only to work in motor car factories, for example. It is very much a human problem. People need to be noticed, and to be appreciated; they need to feel that they are not just cogs in one great impersonal machine. This aspect presents obvious difficulties in a large organisation such as a dockyard. Today, too many industrial organisations relegate the individual to a position of total insignificance during working hours. We have to overcome this problem in the future.

When the Mallabar Report—Command Paper 4713—was published, I hoped that many changes would be made, and I regret that very few have been undertaken to date. For that reason I was extremely interested to read the Recommendations in Command Paper 5245, and I should like to refer to some of them.

Recommendation 9 I support entirely. However, in my view paragraph b. is not very satisfactory. It says that the length of time for which a ship is required is agreed between the dockyard department and the Naval Staff one to two years before the start of a refit, after taking into account the size of the work package. That is a long time ahead, and situations change. I should like to know whether we could not have more accurate forecasting, which would mean that we should get fewer Supplementary Estimates in respect of various ships.

Recommendation 10 says: The date for the establishment of a trading fund for the Royal Dockyards should be brought forward. Observation a. contains another stalling reply. It says: Thirdly, the staff concerned will need a training/trial period of managing under the new system of budgeting and financial control before the Parliamentary system of vote control can be changed in favour of a trading fund system. This was recommended three years ago. We should have got further than this. In paragraph b. the observation says: A pilot system of operating accounts will be in operation during 1973–74 …". It is unfortunate that it has been impossible to do what is suggested sooner. If private enterprise yards were run as the Royal dockyards are run they would be broke, or would become another "lame duck" in no time. I hope that my hon. Friend will look into this matter.

The observation on Recommendation 11 is unfortunate. It says that no current construction is going on in the Royal dockyards. I suggest that there should be some construction. It is essential for morale, and to encourage initiative—and Devonport especially has facilities for shipbuilding. Some ships should be built in the yards. I realise that the Admiralty puts a number of new constructions outside because it wishes to help the unemployment situation in other areas, but times have changed, and I feel that the Royal dockyards should have their share and should not just be repairing yards.

In my view Recommendation 12 should be put into action as soon as possible. In many debates I have advocated the abolition of the distinction between industrial and non-industrial civil servants in the Royal dockyards and the ROFs. They should all be civil servants. I hope, too, that the Government will maintain their intention of giving equal pay to women by 1975.

I should like to know how much progress has been made with regard to paragraph c. of the observation, which says: In addition, it has been agreed with the trade unions that there should be early joint consideration of differences on sick pay, deductions of pay for lateness, on-call and re-call payments, and payments of travelling and subsistence allowances. When will action be taken? The paragraph simply says that "it has been agreed".

The Mallabar Committee was not very complimentary about the Royal Dockyards. It did not seem to take into account the fact that, unlike the ROFs, the dockyards' obligations compare with those of a fire service. A ship may need immediate repairs. What is more, there is not the satisfaction that there is in the ROFs, of engaging in new manufacturing work. That is why I again plead that Devonport and other Royal dockyards should build ships. The "Scylla", an outstanding success, was built at Devonport.

Are the unions kept fully informed both with regard to the future work programme and any organisational changes? I suspect that they are not kept as fully informed as they should be, and that is unfortunate.

The top structure should also be looked at. The Mallabar Committee recommended more civilian management. Why have not more men in the Royal dockyards been given the opportunity to train for managerial jobs? Without meaning any disrespect to the general managers, I must say that it is unfortunate that many of them are naval officers in mufti, and because they come from a disciplined force they have had little or no chance to deal with trade unions and industrial relations.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has come to his job with no preconceived ideas. I hope that he will make it his task to see that men who have worked in the Royal dockyards for a number of years have the opportunity to take managerial jobs rather than having others superimposed upon them. I am not suggesting that it is the fault of either section; it is the present system.

Flag officers have quite enough other work to do, and the general managers who now take the place of the admiral superintendents should be allowed to stay more than two or three years. How can anyone be expected to run a big concern when in the first year he has to learn, in the second he may do some constructive work, and is then likely to go? No business can be run on those lines.

I advocate more promotions from the ranks and more continuous service in the top jobs. It appears to me that that is the only way to make progress, given some stabilisation of the work force.

To sum up, in my view there are far too many separate bosses with insufficient local powers. The general manager has no direct authority for the recruitment, promotion or dismissal of non-industrial staff. The naval authorities may specify the department to which a naval officer is posted. That is rather difficult for all concerned. A general manager has limited purchasing authority—namely, under £1,000, except locally for contracts up to £2,000. It was proposed by Mallabar that a general manager be given power to order up to £5,000, but that has not been implemented.

Having studied the Mallabar Report, all I can do is to congratulate all those concerned in the dockyards for the first-class jobs which they have produced despite many difficulties. However, is not it time that some of the work force should be able to rise from the ranks and that these jobs should not always be held by people, however able they may be, brought in from outside?

I am not knocking Navy personnel. They act in their several capacities and we need them for liaison activities between the yards and naval requirements. Of course, specialists such as engineering electrical engineering officers are still needed, and they do their jobs splendidly, but they should do what they are required to do and should not become involved in administrative work. Flag officers need to be relieved of their dual duties. General managers should be given more power, and should stay for at least five years.

During the 18 years in which I have been in this House I have tried to get changes. The Mallabar Report of July 1971 does not appear to have led to any radical changes to the dockyards. I welcome the extra money which is being spent on material changes such as new buildings, and I hope that some of the Mallabar Report's wise proposals, and the suggestions put forward by the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee will be enacted in the near future.

8.37 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I followed the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) in the defence debate last week and, by a happy coincidence, I follow her again tonight. I thought that she made a good speech last week, but she has made a better one this week.

We are a maritime nation. Therefore, the Navy is a national institution. Any man who becomes a Minister for the Navy is a fortunate man. The Undersecretary of State's first task in office was to go in a minesweeper off the North-East coast of England—in fact, off the coast of Yorkshire. That is where the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) and myself—we happen to be chairmen of our respective fisheries committees— had a joint excursion in the minesweeper "Letterston" a year or two ago. On that occasion the sea was like a mill-pond and there was no need to take pills of any kind.

The Under-Secretary of State listened last week with assiduous attention to my speech. Unfortunately, he did not speak and hence could not answer the points I made. I do not intend to inflict upon him the identical speech this week. However, I shall embark upon the same theme, as I happen to represent not a naval dockyard, like many hon. Members present, but a distinguished fishing port. If tributes are being paid tonight to sailors, I pay tribute to the deep-sea fishermen, who are amongst the kindest people in the world, and the most intrepid, as they work in the depths of the Arctic in temperatures of 10, 20 and 30 degrees below zero.

My speech is really an addendum to what I said last week. I speak for fishermen and not naval personnel. I suggest that, although there would be a Navy, it would not be such a good Navy if we had no fishermen. Our minesweepers would be a jolly sight worse in times of war if we did not have fishermen to man them, as we have had in so many of our difficult times.

Page 16 of the White Paper deals with the NATO area, and paragraph 21 refers to the Icelandic fishing dispute. It is an important exercise in the North Atlantic. Paragraph 21 says: In addition to normal patrols to distant water fishing grounds, frigates of the Fleet have been available since September 1972 in case they are needed to protect and assist British trawlermen in the disputed fishing grounds off Iceland. These grounds are indeed disputed; there has been a dispute for some years. Many of us take sides. I hasten to add that we in the Opposition have supported the Government so far in what they have done. The Opposition are with the Government in this. I say that to forestall any misapprehension about what I shall say later. I would point out, incidentally, that I am speaking tonight only because I got no answer to my speech in the defence debate.

Today the Foreign Secretary gave us the best news since September. He said that the British ambassador at Reykjavik, accompanied by two senior officials from Whitehall, will have discussions with the Icelandic Government in Reykjavik tomorrow. The right hon. Gentleman said that these discussions would not be negotiations but were designed to pave the way for ministerial negotiations, which he hoped would be renewed very soon.

I am cautiously optimistic, as I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman somewhat lightheartedly, but I have some cautionary words. I hope with all my heart that talks begin again, but we need an assurance that harassment will cease and that our men will not be subjected to the cutting of warps. Altogether 19 warps have been cut in the last fortnight off Iceland. There is terrific tension in a warp being towed at four miles an hour, and if a warp is cut it flies back like a lash. A German seaman a few weeks ago lost a leg. Indeed, a cut warp could easily decapitate a man.

It is, therefore, very important, if talks begin, that such incidents finish, if only to convince our men that we mean business. I hope that a new spirit has entered into the discussions. But—to change the metaphor—one eider duck does not make a summer and Mr. Josefsson, the Icelandic Minister, is no eider duck. He is not soft anywhere. He is a very hard and tough Fishing Minister for Iceland. He does not wish to give away too much. We have met him and we know him. All I am saying now is: let us hope that the talks do not collapse. But if, sadly, the talks do collapse we shall be back where we were last week. Iceland has committed itself to a 50-mile limit. All the parties did so at the last General Election in 1972. Indeed, one party advocated going beyond that limit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) mentioned the Santiago talks next year on the law of the sea. I accept the need for proper preparation for these United Nations discussions. We in the fishing ports look upon this issue as being far beyond one of catching fish. This is an international dispute about international limits, and the findings of the International Court at The Hague. It does not just concern developing nations. In this case, Iceland is not even our biggest opponent, because two large, dominant North American Nations—the United States and Canada—want to increase limits not to 20 or 50 miles but to 100 miles. I know that the Minister understands me.

The Government are therefore in a dilemma to know what formula must be put up which will satisfy our fishermen and also lead to a settlement with Iceland. There are such technical questions as the settling of areas for fishing and size of vessels, but any settlement must also combine Iceland's sovereignty with the fact that we still have our fishing rights. With all my heart I hope that we shall get an interim agreement which will carry us through to 1974 and the Santiago conference. Nevertheless it must be remembered that a settlement will take a long time. It will take at least two years from the beginning of the Santiago talks next year, so whatever we settle with Iceland must be for such length of time.

My cautionary word is that if we do not get a settlement tempers will shorten on both sides, provocation—I say this deliberately—will be on both sides, because all the angels are not on the one side; these are very tough deep sea fishermen, and skippers are chafing at the present incidents and harassment. I assume that for the moment the firing of live ammunition will cease.

The Government are willing to negotiate and will begin negotiating, but the industry does not wish the Navy to go in at the moment. There has been some slight lack of agreement within the Action Committee between skippers, deckhands and owners, but they do not want the Navy in at present because that means uneconomic fishing. One vessel shields another, and for their fishing they have to keep to confined areas where they have the protection of a frigate. But the fishing fleet must be assured that if protection is at any time needed the fishermen will get it.

Last week when I asked for a definition of what had been said by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker), the Minister, said " The Secretary of State means what he says." I then had to ask "If he says what he means, what does he mean?" The hon. Member replied "He means what he says."

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Navy knows which boats are where. He knows which frigates he has. He spoke earlier of 26 frigates of the "Leander" class and of 22 others in different stations. What the fishermen and the owners wish to know is what naval vessels we have in the North Atlantic to come to their aid in the event of danger or difficulty, or in the unhappy event of the negotiations not being held. Where are these frigates, and what are they doing? Can the Minister guarantee that in the unhappy event that I have mentioned naval vessels will go to the area in sufficient force to look after our people?

8.50 p.m.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker (Banff)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy on his first major speech at the Dispatch Box. I agree with a great deal of what he said. One or two i's need dotting and some t's need crossing, but I hope to raise those matters.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson). I endorse pretty well absolutely everything he said about the Icelandic dispute. I hope that the Government will keep in as close touch with skippers, owners and crew members as they have with all other interests to ensure that we get the right answer as speedily as possible.

I also endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about the fishermen. I have had a great deal to do with them in the course of my career in this House. I have the highest possible admiration for them in all the dangers they face in a most hazardous occupation. It is odd that when they come up against a hazard, instead of knuckling down and going ashore they and their families continue with them.

I wish to mention two points to which the White Paper on Defence pays scant attention. The first concerns the numbers and capability of our escort vessels, and the second relates to the air support that is available to the fleet.

In Volume 1, Chapter I, of "The War at Sea ", the Official Histories Series, Captain S. W. Roskill defines maritime control and, among other things, on page 3 says: if either control of the air over the sea or control of the water beneath the surface of the sea is inadequate, then we should not possess sufficient control of the communications which pass on its surface. That may sound a truism. Nevertheless, it is an absolutely essential part of what I consider should be our strategic thinking in the form of naval defence.

If that is true of the Second World War, it is equally true today. We are a maritime nation. We need control of the air, of the sea, and of the water beneath the surface of the sea at least round our own shores and in the sea lanes leading to our ports literally from all over the world.

In my estimation, the Royal Navy is still our first line of defence. According to the White Paper the total strength of our escort and ASW vessels is 62. That should be compared with the operational strength of the USSR submarine fleet. They have 34 attack nuclear submarines and 210 attack diesel submarines, besides which they have 26 nuclear-powered and 26 diesel-powered missile launching submarines. That gives an adverse ratio of escort vessels to submarines of 4:1. If we take into account the European NATO escort vessels the ratio, in adverse terms, is roughly 3:1 against.

It is useful to compare what was happening at the beginning and at a crucial stage of the Second World War. At the outbreak of war in 1939 Germany had 36 operational U-boats. We had 110 escorts of all types which gave us a favourable ratio of escorts to submarines of 3:1. By the quarter ending January 1943 Germany had a total of 393 submarines, of which 212 were operational. At that time we had 413 escort vessels of all types which gave us a favourable ratio of 2:1.

It is of interest to note that just after that date—in fact, in March 1943—the allied shipping losses were the highest of the entire war, with 108 vessels sunk, representing 627,377 gross tons. Without labouring the point, it meant a fantastic loss and, indeed, a waste of life. Even if we were to regard one escort vessel today as being equal in effectiveness to two in 1943, we would still be woefully short on a ratio basis of 3:2 against. There is no room for complacency about the production and introduction of more escort vessels. Indeed, their provision must be stepped up.

What frightens me is the probability that successive Ministers of Defence have adopted that near-fatal doctrine of the between-the-war period when each spring the decision was taken that there was no likelihood of a general war within the next 10 years. This is alarming, to say the least, and I hope that we may be reassured when my hon. Friend replies to the debate.

The danger to our fleet and, indeed, to all our ships does not end with submarines. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies dealing with the military balance 1972–73, the USSR has 450 maritime bombers based on its North-West and Black Sea Coasts, and 140 ASW aircraft similarly disposed. A nation with that number of aircraft and 295 submarines operational cannot be regarded as acting defensively in its strategy. If I may coin a phrase, the Russian bear has mutated itself into being an aquatic animal. On the contrary, bombers and submarines are almost by definition offensive armaments, so we are faced with a threat of enormous magnitude.

What about air support not only for the fleet but for merchant vessels in time of war? The White Paper, in Chapter 2 on page 17, talking about exercises, refers to "Strong Express" in which all three Services demonstrated their ability to give support to the northern flank of NATO. If one thing alone was demonstrated by exercise " Strong Express" it was our inability to provide sufficient air support to the fleet or to the troops when they had gone ashore. All reports which I have seen of that exercise have stressed that very point.

In an admirable article headed Defence rôle of seaborne planes in last Thursday's Daily Telegraph Mr. Desmond Wettern said: Moscow has, perhaps, become aware that, as our own Fleet Air Arm has long known one squadron of aircraft afloat is comparable to at least four squadrons ashore … if the shore based fighter's tanker becomes unavailable … the whole or part of the operation may well have to be cancelled. Thus we are laying ourselves open to all sorts of hazards by giving up the use of fixed-wing aircraft by the Royal Navy and handing them back to the Royal Air Force, which in some ways is repeating the mistake that was made between the two wars.

But is there possibly a change taking place in the Minister's thinking? When my hon. Friend replies perhaps he will comment on the statement in Chapter 5 on page 31 of the White Paper where it says: under a new scheme, selected Royal Navy helicopter aircrew are transferred on temporary loan to the Royal Air Force for training and experience in fixed-wing flying operations. I hope that means that there has been a change of heart.

When the decision to scrap "Eagle" was announced, I—in common, I am sure, with many other hon. Members on both sides—wrote to my hon. Friend, the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, protesting at the decision. He replied to me on 22nd March: I can assure you that the decision to scrap EAGLE does not reflect any lack of determination to keep the Royal Navy in the forefront of the Western European Navies, with the ability to maintain a presence in, or deploy quickly to, any area in which our national or N.A.T.O. interests are involved. Our current plans are directed to this end, and in the coming years we will, for example, be bringing into service the surface-launched anti-ship guided-missile system EXOCET and new types of cruisers, destroyers and frigates. This will ensure that we continue to possess a modern and effective fleet of which the Navy, and the nation as a whole, can be proud. Certainly we are very proud of the Royal Navy, but if we do not give it its tools it certainly cannot do the job.

I have the feeling that the attitude of my hon. Friend's predecessor was a little too complacent, and I hoped that my hon. Friend will not allow me to say that this time next year when we debate the Navy Vote again. A large number of my constituents serve in the Merchant Navy, and I consider that I would be doing less than my duty to them, and indeed to the fishermen of my constituency, if I did not highlight the dangers of the present situation as I see them.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has given us—as does the White Paper—some hope for the through-deck cruiser. If I may, with great humility, I should like to endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) when he said that we must have more than one. We must have three at least.

Mr. Judd

What I said was that we needed clarity, that nothing would be more unfortunate than to go for one and not have enough. We need a firm decision one way or the other.

Mr. Baker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting those words as he did, but I got the distinct impression that he gave the House to understand that he thought we needed more than one.

Mr. Judd


Mr. Baker

I hope that the aircraft for it and its successors will be manned by Royal Navy officers and not by RAF officers.

I should like to refer back to the article in last Thursday's Telegraph which I quoted, because it sums up to a nicety what I have to say. Mr. Wettern says: In 1945, Germany still had a large U-boat fleet—but long before that the High Command in Berlin had realised that the success of our defences made the cost too great. It is the Navy's task today to make Moscow realise that an attack on our shipping could not be made with total impunity.

9.3 p.m.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Sutton)

This debate, I think, should look both at particular aspects and also at the wider strategy. The Under-Secretary, whose maiden speech in his job we all appreciated, asked the question—and then proceeded to answer it—what was the rôle of the Royal Navy? I was very surprised that he chose as his first priority for the Navy the keeping open of the maritime trade links.

Inadvertently, the Under-Secretary may have given support to those of his hon. Friends who are, I believe mistakenly, constantly pressing a rôle for the Royal Navy which is not its primary function— a convoy rôle. The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker) emphasised the need for more escort vessels and kept calling in aid experience in the Second World War.

I am convinced that there is a need, now more than at any time in our maritime history perhaps, for us to re-think the rôle of the Royal Navy. None of us has an easy answer to it, but I am certain that any major war in which Britain is likely ever to be involved which has a maritime content will be a type of maritime war very different from anything we have experienced hitherto.

I believe that the Royal Navy's primary rôle is to maintain and sustain the strategic deterrent. I have no doubt that this is an onerous task. It is exacting on the men who serve in the Polaris submarines and on those who service, repair and refit them. They work to a very tight schedule and for long hours. They deserve our thanks for a job quietly done, a job of deterrence.

It is also an important part of the Navy's rôle to preserve that deterrent as invulnerable, to give it anti-submarine cover to be able to ensure that Polaris submarines can leave from naval bases undetected and untracked by enemy submarines. That is a very important function, which is easy to forget.

The second major rôle is to pose the threat that if in a period of tension a maritime incident were to occur, this country, particularly as a member of NATO, is able to match any such maritime incident with a credible response and to match it in a maritime environment; in effect, to be able to retain conventional weapons at sea and to be able to choose the occasion and the way in which we match any maritime response to our own advantage.

It cannot be emphasised too much, particularly to hon. Members on the Government benches, that a credible response does not always have to occur in the same area. If, for instance, in a period of hostilities, the Soviet Union was rash enough to interfere with tankers either sailing round the South African cape or coming around Singapore we would choose to match such an escalation at a time and a place of our choosing, at a place where we reckoned that we were the strongest. It is a foolish maritime strategy which feels that it has to stretch its resources to match any escalation exactly at the point of escalation. That was a necessary attitude in the days of gunboats, of no communications, and before the technology of satellite reconnaissance, which has brought a totally new environment for modern warfare.

I say no more about that, but those two rôles, both within NATO, are the primary function. The maritime world-wide trade convoys and escorts are outdated concepts.

In looking at how one is to match any escalation, one has to look very critically at that question. I do not intend to go into the arguments which I have often raised, both inside and outside the Ministry of Defence, about the balance of the Fleet. It is profoundly wrong. Many naval officers believe that to be so. The Navy should not be entirely an underwater navy. That would be most foolhardy. There will always be a need for frigates, the work force of the Royal Navy. That will always be an important function. The balance, however needs to be shifted. It has not been shifted. The Government have been criticised in many areas by many different people on this issue. I only hope that the Admiralty Board will not remain as intransigent as it is currently.

The Expenditure Committee has been given access to forward expenditure figures. I cannot reveal figures, but I hope that we shall be able to publish them in a report. But looking at the forward expenditure figures, one sees that there has been no shift in priorities, no change, no significant increase, no dramatic decision to spend on an underwater submarine-launched guided weapon. We are in the process of feasibility studies, but to my certain knowledge we have been looking at this matter since 1967. We must totally change our research and development priorities to give this project the highest priority. Sacrifices may have to be made elsewhere in the defence budget. I would be prepared also to make sacrifices in the Navy budget to do this.

There is a slight increase in overall submarine costs, but we anyway are now building rather more expensive submarines—hunter-killer submarines. There is no evidence that the build rate has been increasing.

I have said enough on this subject. I believe that the admirals are living in an outdated world. They are living behind many of the younger officers in the Navy who are themselves not even experienced in submarines. The surprising thing recently has been to find how many officers who have been trained in gunnery and surface ships recognise that the nuclear powered submarine is a completely new dimension in naval warfare and is also the best anti-submarine weapon. They are becoming increasingly worried about the vulnerability of larger ships

The decision as regards the cruiser is the hardest decision the Government must make. It was first to be ordered in February 1972. Those hon. Members opposite who pressed the case of the "Ark Royal" should know that one of the consequences of that decision has been a year's delay in the ordering of the cruiser. The cost of the cruiser seems to have risen by about 50 per cent. since we were in government. This is a large amount.

It may still be necessary for the Navy to have it. It will depend, however, on having a flexible function—primarily ASW, with the ability to deploy the Sea King helicopters, marginally command and control, marginally VSTOL, one important additional rôle being the ability to combat marines and to give amphibious lift. When the time comes to replace the existing commando carriers we shall not be able to afford the cost of building anew. It must have the ability to lift a commando in emergency and overcrowded conditions. This will be an important function which the cruiser can undertake.

If the cruiser had VSTOL aircraft aboard, perhaps more if it was conduct- ing an amphibious operation, at the expense of Sea King helicopters, they would be able to provide very useful back-up support for any amphibious operation.

I do not believe that an amphibious operation will take place on the northern flank, nor in the southern area of the Mediterranean. A strongly held but, I believe, mistaken NATO belief is that it will have an important rôle to play. An amphibious lift capability is more a function in the rôle of peacekeeping world wide.

I have always believed that the Marines should diversify from being totally dependent on amphibious lift and their links with the Royal Navy and seagoing. They should, as they have done, specialise in cold weather warfare—an important new Marine function. They should remain highly trained and flexible troops. They have an excellent recruiting record. They have a wonderful record in Northern Ireland. It is a corps that we cannot do without. The Marines would be unwise, however, to stick too rigidly to their old rôle. Their role, too, will have to change; and they should change with it.

The Ninth Report of the Expenditure Committee made very serious criticisms of the Royal Dockyards. I do not think that the Government's reply was anywhere near satisfactory. The last year has been a sad one for the Royal Dockyards. We had the first major strike, as the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) said, in almost 300 years of the dockyards' history. Many people whom I deeply respect did not believe that the strike was justified, and many harsh things were said during the strike.

However, one fact which must be faced is that when the strike went to arbitration the arbitrators found essentially in favour of the men. We now have another strike action taking place, this time in the non-industrial work force. These people are in the Civil Service and are deeply upset about the way they are particularly affected by phase 2 of the prices and incomes policy. I have always supported a prices and incomes policy, both in government and out of it, but I believe that the Government's rigidity and inflexibility in dealing with the problem of Civil Service pay—and many civil servants work in Navy establishments in my constituency—is little short of scandalous. There is a need to recognise that they are a special case, and that their pay claim is essentially a catching-up exercise. Quite rightly they were prepared to accept, as most people in the country have been, a six-month freeze, but they expected and they have every right to expect a far greater degree of flexibility in the way that the Government deal in the next six months with what is essentially a pay claim that takes account of the way that other wages have risen in the last two years.

The other major objection that was raised in the Expenditure Committee report on the dockyards concerned the reversal of the previous Government's policies of civilianising the management of the dockyards. The Government have not replied to the Committee's report but I hope that they will. Not only was the Chief Executive of the dockyards replaced by a former naval officer—and I make no criticism of the man—but the appointments of general managers of major dockyards are going to former naval officers. I have no "beef" against them as naval officers, but these are highly industrialised establishments, where one of the key problems is dealing with industrial relations, getting greater productivity and better management, and if we want naval officers to do these jobs we should recognise that they should go into the dockyards early enough in their career, that they should be trained, that they should go into outside industry and have the knowledge of what is one of the Government's largest single industries— the four naval dockyards.

The second point made by the Expenditure Committee was the urgent need—to use the Committee's own words—of abolishing the distinction between industrials and non-industrials. I cannot urge this strongly enough upon the Minister. It has been recommended by successive reports—the Prices and Incomes Board report and the Mallabar Report—and strongly endorsed by an all-party Committee in this House. The reply that negotiations are going on is not good enough. It is an anomaly in this day and age that there should be this distinction when one man is separated from other members of his family merely because he is classified as industrial and they are classified as non-industrial. This situation calls for an urgent and necessary change.

Another aspect I wish to deal with is the need for construction in the Royal dockyards. This is important for training of apprentices and for morale. Everybody expects that major new construction building will go on in private yards, and this is necessary. We understand the unemployment problems in areas other than our own constituencies, but if the Navy is to retain sufficient expertise in its yards, as the Expenditure Committee report indicates, it should have the yardstick of new construction and be able to compare its performance with that of outside yards.

The other aspect of the dockyards which needs to be looked at is the overall pay structure. We must never allow the situation to occur again, which was largely redressed in two significant pay rises in 1969 and 1970, where dockyard workers and Government industrial workers generally are paid less than people in comparable industry outside. We need to restore the position and maintain it so that people believe that to work in Government industry is to have a fine and well-paid job. Only then will the Navy and the Services get the speed, efficiency and extra productivity urgently needed in the dockyards. We also need to see the productivity deal greatly expanded.

Another major criticism in the Expenditure Committee Report was of the interference in the fixing of a productivity index for the Civil Service. It is an intolerable situation when management of the dockyards is not able to determine its own productivity agreements. This is a major issue and they should be given that degree of managerial freedom, particularly if we are to insist on managerial accountability.

The Navy has made a mistake not to go for the mini-Sea Dart in frigates and smaller ships and to have the logistic back-up and support of the Sea Dart system throughout. It has made the decision to go for the Sea Wolf. The escalation cost for this has again been sharply criticised in the Expenditure Committee Report. Ministers are in possession of the facts. They should not be afraid to cut this project off if the escalation cost continues. I am concerned that they do not have sufficient confidence in it and why they do not think it an absolute necessity to put Sea Wolf into the new cruisers.

If the cruisers are built let us not have the situation which we had with the Type 82 when it was a "one-off" job. Let us make no mistake about it—if the country decides to build cruisers we need a minimum of three. This is heavy expenditure. Within the expenditure limitations of the Navy there has been a quite disgraceful case of single-Service lobbying on the part of the Navy in raising the issue of going for Poseidon at this stage. I will not go into this in great detail now. Yes, single-Service lobbying! The Minister should not look shocked or aghast. The situation whereby the Navy approached a NATO ally navy in the way that has been done is very damaging to relations between the two countries and to relations between the two Ministries of Defence. This issue is being looked at by the Select Committee of which I am a member, and I do not intend to pursue it further.

The Minister should recognise that the ABM limitation agreement in SALT is of major significance, and there is in my view now no urgency. Even so, the House ought to recognise that to ask for Poseidon is to ask for extra spending on the Navy of the value of around £400 million over the next five or six years. That will greatly stretch the Navy budget and demand great sacrifices elsewhere. I wish that we had all day to debate this major subject, as is normal. However, we understand the reasons for the debate being shortened today.

I cannot end without thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) for the kind words he said. All I can say is that knowing his great interest in the Navy in his own constituency I could not have wished for anyone better to take over my former position. I thought he performed the task most admirably.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand that the Front Bench speakers wish to begin at about a quarter past ten. That leaves about 55 minutes. I believe that another eight hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. I hope that those who catch my eye will show a degree of unselfishness.

9.23 p.m.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Bradford, West)

This debate has been most uncontentious and constructive, in spite of the stark facts facing us. In the foreword of Jane's Fighting Ships it was said: The stark truth is that the strength of the Royal Navy has fallen below the safety level required to protect the home islands, to guard the ocean trade routes for the world-deployed British mercantile marine (still the largest in the world) and to protect the vast commercial and financial interests overseas". These sentiments were echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker). He was right to do this. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary upon his new appointment. He has shown, in spite of the difficulties we are facing, that he will be positive in his approach. That is absolutely right. My main regret about the Navy is that certain major strategic decisions have been postponed.

The first is obviously on the strategic delivery system to follow Polaris A3 and, secondly, the importance of deciding now to deploy VSTOL on the through-deck cruisers. The project definition stage has taken an inordinately long time. Everyone knew the capabilities of the aeroplane perfectly well, and the fact that the Royal Navy had not yet got it has made it much harder for Hawkers to sell the Harrier as a naval aircraft. I urge my hon. Friend to do something about this as soon as possible, because it should be embarked on "Hermes" in the close support role, until we get a proper naval version, with radar, in the late 1970s.

It is important to realise that the Navy, like the other Services, is suffering very much from the inhibitions which a growing manpower expenditure places upon its equipment programme. Seventy per cent. of the defence budget goes on pay, welfare and allowances, and it is worth recalling that £354 million goes to BAOR —that "tethered goat", as the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) calls it—whereas the single largest element of the Navy Vote, on escorts, destroyers and frigates, is only half that sum—£177 million. I have always been a strong believer in a maritime strategy. It is interesting to note that £71 million are devoted to the Reserves of all three Services, but only £4 million go to the Reserves of the Royal Navy. That must seriously diminish the capability of the Royal Navy to wage protracted war.

In 1961 there were no fewer than 338 vessels in the Reserve Fleet. The figure has dwindled to 37. I can understand the manpower and financial reasons which have led to this situation, but it is grave that in an era of nuclear parity we should be deciding that the next war will not necessarily be protracted at the conventional level. In the same period, from 1961 to 1972, the total number of ships available to the fleet has dropped from 565 to 195, whereas the labour force in Her Majesty's dockyards has stayed virtually the same—in fact, it has dropped by only 400.

Some people would say that with mutual balanced force reductions in the offing the prospects for d.tente are such that we need not be alarmed about the threat at sea. That is not the view of the Economist in its recent review of sea power. It is well worth remembering that sea power does not enter into the computations in MBFR. Whatever the outcome of MBFR the Soviet Union will remain very much a European Power. It has three fleets in the European area—the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Northern, which is the largest fleet, the nearest to us and the most threatening, at Murmansk. We can assume that the Soviet Navy will continue to be very active in western European waters. In the words of the Secretary of State in the other place, We cannot ignore the fact that as we move into a period of negotiations in Europe, they "— that is, the Soviet leaders— continue to build up their military forces to a degree which seems to go beyond any reasonable requirements of self-defence."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 1st March 1973; Vol 339, c. 760.] Apart from postponing these basic strategic decisions, it is a great pity that we have not made a much larger commitment to our overseas responsibilities, which particularly exercise the Royal Navy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) said, in an article in Jane's Fighting Ships: Historically Britain has been concerned to maintain the freedom of the seas. All trading nations have relied on the freedom we have won and kept… The strategic protection of Western maritime interests is thus left largely to the USA and Britain. The emergence of Soviet naval power and its commitment to the spread of Communist influence poses—for the first time in decades—a potential threat against Britain's overseas interests and the stability of the areas in which they exist. We should not just consider the overt threat of sea power at a military level; we should also consider the political applications to which the Soviet Union can put it. That is specially relevant to the Indian Ocean, which was described in the 1971 Statement on the Defence Estimates as an area in which the growing Russian naval presence in this area of strategic importance should be regarded as a matter of concern for all neighbouring countries as well as for those countries like Britain who depend for their livelihood upon the trade routes which pass through the Indian Ocean or who have responsibilities or interests there. We know that the attempt at a Commonwealth approach to this failed. The Indo-Soviet treaty of friendship and the Indo-Pakistan war scuppered that venture, but now we must face the fact that the Brezhnev South Asia security system is well on the way to being achieved and the Russian sphere of influence extends right across to the Bay of Bengal. As I said in last year's debate, these are transformations of the security situation in the Indian Ocean. From having been a power vacuum, the Indian Ocean could in reality become a Russian lake."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February, 1972; Vol. 831, c. 1554.] On 4th July the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs at Jakarta said that the Soviet Union has, on average, between 22 and 25 ships at any one time in the Indian Ocean. It was the arrival of the United States ship " Enterprise " in the Bay of Bengal which had a stabilising effect on the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1970. We should also remember that, in numerical terms, for the first time the Soviet Union had parity in that area.

The Foreign Minister of Singapore put the situation extremely well when he said that Asia is entering into a new era of ocean politics not in the sense of oceanic wars but in contests for spheres of influence. There is a great danger that the Indian Ocean basin could become a cockpit of great Power competition unless the Western Powers make a real effort to involve themselves.

It is unpalatable, but it must be recognised that the weakness of the British and other Europeans has made it necessary for the United States to try to redress the balance in this area at the exact time when the United States is trying to diminish its world-wide commitments.

Some would say that the origin of Soviet involvement in the Indian Ocean stems from the time when A3 Polaris missiles were deployed there from 1964 onwards, but the key is the Soviet Union's relations with India. Its relationship with India and its determination to get a position of strategic dominance on the exit to the Arabian Gulf is the key to the whole situation. Russia is now an importer of oil from her treaty partner, Iraq. By 1980, 75 per cent. of the world's oil will be derived from the Gulf. Russia is by no means unmindful of this and she is able to use her sea power extremely effectively.

In the Financial Times yesterday there was a report from Beirut of how Soviet ships assist the gun-running and other subversive activities being undertaken in Oman. The Soviet Union is aware of the potential of Oman as it is of the potential of Baluchistan as an area for subversion and of strategic interest to the West which gets its oil supplies from the Gulf.

The noble Lord, Lord Caccia in the other place tried to bring home the importance of oil supplies to the West. Unless Great Britain, as the major European sea power, is prepared to involve itself not just in the South Indian Ocean but also in the Northern Indian Ocean with its CENTO partners in a practical way, there is grave danger that the Soviet Union will be able to turn off the oil supplies at source by political influence in the producing countries. That is a development which can be at least helped along by Soviet sea power.

It is all very well to have a frigate on station in Hong Kong. It is fine to contribute to the ANZUK force. In spite of what the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) says, it is all very well to have a Beira patrol, but it is alarming to see from the White Paper that our presence in the Indian Ocean often amounts only to one frigate on passage. We need a major warship in the area: —I would say an aircraft carrier, with an intervention capability; probably a through-deck cruiser task force. In other words, the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) was right in saying that the best place to deploy aircraft carriers is where there is a paucity of land bases and not a sufficiency—and that is in the Indian Ocean.

I urge my hon. Friends to bear in mind these aspects in planning for the future and to do all they can to increase our good will for and close relationship with our CENTO allies—particularly Iran and Pakistan—and also to do our best to build up their naval capability and the capability of other friendly nations, such as the Arab nations, in this important strategic area.

9.35 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor)

I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in this important debate. Last Thursday the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Tomney) made a most important contribution to our defence debates when he said that because of the confrontation between China and Russia we could drop our guard. I feel very strongly about this matter because the fact that a large number of troops are deployed by Russia and China on the frontier gives us no cause either now or in the future to drop our defence guard. There could be many combinations of association between Russia and China. I shall not go into detail. In war there are some very strange bedfellows, Therefore, because of rivalry between two super-Powers there is no reason to drop our guard.

This debate has underlined the fact that the present system means that NATO and the whole of the Western allies are becoming entirely dependent on our nuclear deterrent. I refer to the four Polaris submarines that we now possess. We cannot help being worried when we look at the tremendous build-up of Soviet naval forces. Indeed, we hear that one naval ship is launched by the Soviet Union every month. One wonders why. Is it for defence or attack, or is it to intimidate the West?

I am worried when I look at the defence White Paper and see the following passage in paragraph 11: Virtually the whole of the Royal Navy, most of the combat units of the Army and the majority of the combat aircraft of the Royal Air Force are committed to NATO. This leads me to ask the question: what is left to confront the vast Soviet fleet in the Far East? The answer, so far as we are concerned, would appear to be "Nothing". I appreciate that our forces and naval armaments are limited, but that statement in the White Paper gives cause for considerable worry to Conservative Members, and, I am sure, to many Labour Members.

I turn to the question of Polaris replacement. The decision that must be taken is whether, if we go on with Polaris, we should rely on the United States to supply the necessary equipment to keep the force in operation for its estimated total life of 20 or 25 years, or whether we should replace it with Poseidon or turn direct to Trident. This is the dilemma which the Government face. It seems extraordinary that we should be vying with France as the only other Western Power which possesses a credible nuclear deterrent. I appreciate that there are considerable difficulties involved in any alliance with France, but two friendly Powers united in Europe should be able to reach some agreement on how the two nuclear forces should be used. It may be that France could use her nuclear deterrent as a tactical deterrent whereas we could use ours strategically. It is vital that we decide whether the United States is willing to continue to supply us with Polaris spares at an uneconomic cost, or whether we ourselves should take on the replacements and repairs. I wish to know how France and Great Britain intend to co-operate in this sphere. I feel that there is tremendous scope for sharing defence costs with our European partners, and I am sure that Her Majesty's Government have not overlooked it.

The negotiations will be difficult. There are problems of all kinds, including the existence of the special relationship between America and ourselves, with France wanting to remain essentially a national nuclear Power. Overall we have to arrive at an agreement, since we and France' are the only two Powers in Western Europe who possess the deterrent. Now that conventional forces are no longer capable of holding back any form of attack from the Warsaw Pact Powers in Europe, we have to rely more and more on the nuclear deterrent.

We have to look very much more closely at the integration of our treaties with NATO, SEATO and the various alliances. Of course we have different allies in them. But the ultimate objective is peace, and somehow or other we ought to get an alliance between our various treaty relationships.

I hope finally that the Government will make sure that our presence is felt in the Five-Power Pact. It is the only force in the Far East which is capable of resisting what could be a very serious threat from the Soviet Union to peace and to our trade and oil supplies.

9.41 p.m.

Mr. William Small (Glasgow, Scotstoun)

Normally I am a firm believer in being economical in the use of words. Today is no exception. I shall not detain the House very long.

Let me first comment on the last two speeches which have come from the Government benches. I was interested to hear the degree of pessimism in the speech of the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson), who seemed to imply that we were still in a cold war situation. In fact, there has been a tremendous psychological change since Kruschev went to America, liked what he saw, and came back. At present capitalist America is feeding the whole of the Soviet Union and is likely to do so again next year. On space, the Nixon-Brezhnev-Kosygin agreement says that there will be no competition in terms of the military use of space. We now see the opportunity for some practical and humanitarian agreement on the Berlin situation. In my view, the outlook for the future is extremely optimistic.

I happen to believe in defence and that external vigilance is required to defend freedom. In political terms the hon. Member for Windsor (Dr. Glyn) appeared to be in more of a bother than any right hon. or hon. Member who has spoken so far. Either we are European or we are not. In civil terms we are attempting to find an accommodation by means of modern technology, data processing and going supersonic. So we come to Debr. and the role of nuclear France alone.

Debré does not believe in going to the aid of any other nation which is in trouble as we did in 1939 and found ourselves standing alone. That is not the Debré attitude. So we have to look at whether the French are targeting upon anything and, if so, what.

In this respect the thinking of the other nations of Europe in terms of France can be put roughly this way: the submarines of both countries would be far more effective if they became one force in terms of co-ordination, targeting, patrol missions, joint communications and intelligence, as well as in terms of utilisation and co-operation in maintenance facilities. That is impeccable logic in a modern world and in rational terms.

Someone who may be far cleverer than I am pointed out to me that the national agreement comes up for renegotiation in 1974. That would appear to be the appropriate time to indulge in some cross-fertilisation of requirements.

As this House is all about pressure groups, I turn now to the Minister. He is due to visit Yarrows in my constituency in the very near future. According to a letter which I received today, he is coming on 29th March. He will find that the development of Yarrows is the basic element in warship building on the Clyde. Having represented a Clyde constituency for a number of years, I know how perilously near we have been to heavy unemployment time and time again, and I do not need to remind the House of the Upper Clyde shipbuilding saga. We do not want a repeat of that.

Yarrows is the main supplier of trained labour. I remember when the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. John Davies), who is now our man in Europe, opened the covered shipbuilding berth. When he did that he was presented with an umbrella, and the song went up on the Clyde " It ain't gonna rain no more." When the Minister visits my constituency I shall tell him that we are looking for another frigate to be built on the Upper Clyde. He will be entitled to a welcome if he delivers the goods.

9.46 p.m.

Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)

An issue which is causing great anxiety in my constituency is the future of the Royal Navy depot at Copenacre. The depot is virtually the warehouse for the whole of the Navy's requirements of electronic stores. It was moved to Copenacre in 1959. Prior to that it had been decided to centralise the Navy Stores at Risley in Lancashire. However, that depot proved unsatisfactory for this kind of storage because of the moist atmosphere in that area.

Copenacre was an attractive site because the disused stone quarries at Corsham were ideal for this kind of storage. Office accommodation for clerical staff was built on the surface. Council houses were made available by the local authorities, and ever since 1959 Copenacre has grown.

In 1963 a computer was installed. As recently as 1969 the headquarters of the administrative side were transferred from London to Copenacre, and more office accommodation was built.

It is fair to say that the depot at Copenacre is a model one. Throughout its history there has never been an industrial dispute. Therefore, it was a tremendous shock when an announcement was made on 14th January 1972 that the Government had decided to close both the depot at Copenacre and the depot at Eaglescliffe, in Durham, so that the two depots could be amalgamated at Hartlebury, in Worcestershire.

The Government claimed at the time that these moves would save about £4 million in capital costs. It was also claimed that there would be a substantial saving in running costs due to the concentration of the two depots. However, the Government changed their mind on 10th May 1972 when they decided not to close the depot at Eaglescliffe. That change of mind was due to pressure from local hon. Members, who were able to point out that there was little alternative employment at Eaglescliffe and that the closure would have a serious effect on the economy of the area.

Precisely the same considerations apply to my constituency. The original reasons for joining Copenacre and Eaglescliffe at Hartlebury are now no longer valid. I have repeatedly asked the Minister to look again at the history of this proposal, and I ask him again tonight. I realise that there is the problem of a fire hazard. That has been recognised by everybody who works at Copenacre. That hazard has existed since the depot was started 30 years ago, but no serious fire has ever occurred. My constituents are not prepared to accept that the recognition of a fire hazard implies the total evacuation of stores and equipment from the quarries.

The Minister will know that the staff side at Copenacre has submitted a detailed case against the closure and has put forward constructive proposals. It has suggested that the stores should be divided into two categories, so that the critical category can be stored above ground and the non-critical underground, in compartmental fireproof areas. It has further suggested that the storage for the critical equipment should be in a new large warehouse. It has even suggested a suitable type of warehouse, with a capacity of 500,000 sq. ft., which can be built for a total sum of £3 million. That would include all necessary services.

I shall not weary the House by recounting the history of correspondence and meetings which have taken place between myself and the previous Minister, but the present Under-Secretary of State will be well aware of all that has taken place. In particular, he will know about the public meeting which was held on 11th January of this year, at which views were expressed by representatives of all political parties, by representatives of the local authorities, and a number of local organisations.

There was a unanimous view deploring the decision of the Minister to close Copenacre, because of its serious and detrimental effect upon the economy of the area and the hardship caused to the people concerned. It seems clear that 800 jobs will be lost in my constituency, and that no compensating work on this scale is available. At present, my constituency has a very good rate of employment, and it would be tragic to change all that.

Why should the loyalty of the staff, built up over 30 years, be cast aside for some unknown cost benefit? Families will be broken up and schooling disrupted—and to what purpose? My constituents are far from convinced that Hartlebury will be a suitable alternative. The facilities there are not as good as those which existed even at Risley, and immense problems of housing and schooling will be created.

Those who work at Copenacre are convinced that they can demolish all the arguments advanced in favour of the closure. I welcome the decision of my hon. Friend to come to Copenacre on 1st February. I realise that this was a formal visit, in the course of his tour on taking up his new appointment, but I am glad that he took the opportunity to meet the people who live and work at Copenacre. I ask him for an assurance that he is prepared to meet the staff at Copenacre to discuss all the issues involved with a completely open mind.

I am confident that when my hon. Friend has heard all the arguments he will realise that justice can be done only when the decision to close Copenacre is finally revoked. I ask him not to underestimate the profound and genuine depth of feeling that exists throughout my constituency on this issue. This is not just an issue about money and equipment; above all, it is an issue about people and people's lives.

9.52 p.m.

Mr. Ronald King Murray (Edinburgh, Leith)

I associate myself with the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) to the personnel of the Royal Navy and the civilian staff and work force who back them up. If I seek out for special mention those who work in naval dockyards, it is not because I have a naval dockyard in my constituency but because many of my constituents work in the nearby dockyards in Rosyth.

I wish to make only two points—the first about the Icelandic fishing dispute, and the second about the policing of waters nearer home.

First, I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) said, with great wisdom and commonsense, about the Icelandic fishing dispute. Our fishermen do not want intervention in Icelandic waters except as a last resort, but there must be a credible last resort to strengthen our negotiating position in the talks with Iceland, which I hope will come soon.

The Icelanders often put their case in emotive terms, talking of the percentage of their people dependent on fishing. But percentages are not by any means the best way of measuring human values. One Briton dependent on fishing can hardly be given less value than an Icelander dependent on fishing. Indeed, our people in Leith, Grimsby, Hull and elsewhere who are dependent on fishing can hardly be less than the total population of Iceland—indeed, are probably greater in number. These communities have at least as great a stake in fishing for their livelihood off Iceland as the Icelanders have themselves.

Secondly, I come to the policing of waters nearer these islands. I ask the Under-Secretary of State to reassure the House about the policing of the waters near our oil rigs, which are growing in number with great rapidity in the Continental Shelf waters adjacent to these islands. For obvious reasons, I do not want to go into detail on the problems of policing which could arise in that area, but there will be problems, and they will increase as the number of oil rigs increases.

Are the Government seeing to it that the necessary forward planning is under way and that suitable vessels are available or will be constructed for the task? If specialised vessels are needed, I am sure that Leith can provide them.

9.55 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

I start as so many speakers have done by congratulating my hon. Friend on his first appearance in a Royal Navy debate as First Lord of the Admiralty. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd), who unfortunately is not at present with us, on some of his comments on the importance to the country of overseas trade, and the importance of defending it adequately. Labour Members seem to have come a long way since their decision to withdraw from east of Suez and the Gulf; and I hope that what we have heard this evening is a genuine repentance and not just the result of the mouthpiece having been moved from Leeds, East to Portsmouth, West.

In Service and defence debates the House ought to try to help the Services with the answer to the questions they so often put to us: "What sort of war do you want us to be ready to fight?" An answer to that question is more important than half-informed and querulous talks about this or that mark of torpedo.

Had there been more time this evening I had wanted to address the Minister on two fundamental issues. The first is this question of the defence of trade and our oil supplies; but this point has been made previously, so I will only say that I agree with the many voices which say that if our dedication to NATO is to make any sense at all we must somehow persuade our NATO partners that the threat to the trade of Western Europe does not stop at the Tropic of Cancer.

It is this argument about the need to protect overseas trade which creates my concern about shipborne aircraft and the problem of the Harrier. This question also has been raised by several hon. Members, so I merely emphasise that my preference is for manned aircraft rather than for missiles. Manned aircraft can positively identify a target, while missiles can lead us perhaps into a very dangerous confrontation with a potential enemy. If we depend on missiles alone, some young commander may have to take a vital decision when no information of positive identification is available to him. In a word, missiles can start or continue a war but are not so useful in preventing it.

We have had many statements during recent years about the Harrier, and even in last year's White Paper we read: The trials carried out from HMS "Ark Royal" during the past year have shown that VSTOL aircraft can be operated effectively from a ship's deck and that there are no technical or logistic reasons why VSTOL aircraft should not be suitable for deployment at sea. That statement was written a year ago, and we are still being told that "project definition studies" are afoot. That means to me that the Economist of 3rd March was correct when it said: In short, the Royal Air Force sees in the maritime Harrier and its possible successor another competitor for scarce funds. We must not blame or point a finger at the Services for quarrelling amongst themselves about allocation of funds, but rather blame ourselves for not allocating enough funds overall to defence.

I turn from these strategic matters to the domestic matter of recruiting and, in particular, the recruiting of 15-year-olds. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered a parliamentary Question on this subject as recently as 20th March. The position is that my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Carrington has lost on points to my right hon. and fair Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science; but I want the Minister, with this in mind, to explain to her that for young men to join the forces is not a fate worse than death. The statistics are that in 1971–72 35.9 per cent. of recruits to the Navy joined at the age of 15. Many more 15-year-olds apply even now than 16-year-olds.

The Donaldson Report on pages 68 to 70 said that education in the Services which is carried on—

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

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