HC Deb 21 March 1973 vol 853 cc576-95

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

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

The Donaldson Report made the point that education in the Services available for young men simultaneously with military training is excellent. Therefore, there should be nothing but advantage to the Department of Education and Science if this scheme for 15-year-olds were continued. I believe it is so important to Service recruiting that the Minister should go into action on behalf of the Navy and, indeed, the Army.

In view of the time scale, I end with this point. I am glad to report that HMS "Belfast", which the House so kindly gave to the HMS Belfast Trust two years ago, has had well over half a million visitors in her first year. I hope that the recruiting office on board will be extremely useful to the Ministry and will repay some of the generosity shown by the Minister when he handed over the ship to the trust.

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I regret that this debate is truncated, not because I believe in garrulous speeches, but because, when one reflects on the individual Member of Parliament who from the back benches had the greatest and I believe most helpful effect on defence debates since 1945, one undoubtedly thinks of George Wigg. I did not like what George Wigg did over Profumo, but this man had a salutory effect on the Army, the Navy and the Air Force which was perhaps overlaid by the Profumo affair. His contribution throughout the 1950s and 1960s should not be forgotten. How did he do it? He did it by being able to speak for 55, 65, or more minutes at choice.

I believe in open-ended debate on Defence Estimates. I see the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen). I have seen him in action on the Counter-Inflation Bill. I hope, for the sake of the House of Commons, that we can go back to going on as long as we like, because, frankly, the executive are getting away with murder. I am not speaking in party terms. The Government are getting a very easy ride and they do not deserve to do so—this year, at any rate.

If I confine my speech to four hostile questions it is not because I do not care about the Navy. I had a good visit to the "Ark Royal". I admire naval personnel as much as anybody. I agree very much with what my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) said about the dockyard. I, too, represent a constituency with a dockyard—Rosyth. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will pay particular attention to my hon. Friend's remark about the jungle of pay structures.

I should like to repeat a question that I put in the defence debate relating to the critical matter of safety. In this connection I refer again to the answer that was given to me on 16th February by the Minister of State: There was no danger either to the submarine or of any other kind. That was a reference to the "Repulse" misfiring: The launch itself was successful and the incident was not the result of any failure on the part of the ship's company or equipment. Again, I ask: was this an act of God? The precise cause is being investigated." —[OFFCIAL REPORT, 16th February 1973; Vol. 850, c. 435.] I repeat that question because this is a serious matter. It is absurd to suggest that these things happen by themselves. I do not know what Members of Parliament are taken for by the Ministry of Defence in giving an imbecilic answer like that.

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Ian Gilmour)

It could be that the hon. Gentleman is incapable of understanding a perfectly sensible answer. He cannot rule out that hypothesis. The answer refers to the ship's company or equipment That leaves out "missile". That is perfectly easy to understand if he looks at the answer.

Mr. Dalyell

This is an interesting example of the drafting of parliamentary answers. If it is found that it was the missile at fault, something new will have been established.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

We are still investigating, but it is obvious that it was to do with the missile. We do not know exactly what it was, but we shall soon do so. The hon. Gentleman has made a mountain out of the same molehill on about three occasions during the last week.

Mr. Dalyell

When I get proper answers my speeches are usually shorter.

The next issue is that of BUTEC at Raasay which was the subject of an Adjournment debate on 12th February. I shall repeat the constructive suggestions which were not dealt with in that debate. If we are to have an underwater test evaluation centre, it is sensible for the Navy to get together with the oil interests—I have checked this—to see how this highly-sophisticated, expensive, sensitive equipment can be used in helping North Sea oil company submcrsibles. I repeat the question which I thought the Ministry would look into after the Adjournment debate on 12th February.

I say in passing, on the question of research, that I have contempt for the kind of speech that was delivered by the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry). We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say that we shall save money by contracting research and rationalising it, and then complain if our constituencies are affected. If the Government want me as a friend in anything, let me tell them that I am a total supporter of theirs in trying to rationalise research. This means that some of us have to face the fact that our constituencies may have to contend with great problems. We cannot go bleating to the Ministry of Defence every time anything is closed down which affects our constituents, and at the same time expect there to be rationalisation of research in defence affairs.

I turn next to the question of the through-deck cruiser to ask why it has taken so long to get a decision on the maritime Harrier. This evaluation has gone on and on. Ministers have been trekking to the "Ark Royal" and back again. The Minister of State now at the Foreign Office went to the "Ark Royal", as did some of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Why has this taken so long?

If we are to have three ships at £75 million apiece I want to ask some serious questions about their vulnerability because I am told that however sophisticated the equipment on these ships there is a real risk of their being vulnerable. I am told that one or two torpedoes could easily get through, and that would be £75 million blown up. Much more important, the lives of 1,200 men would be at risk. One wonders, therefore, whether the through-deck cruiser, apart from its expense, is a sensible concept.

Relating that to the question of Sea Wolf, the escalation in its price seems to be something that we shall look at when the Expenditure Committee's Report is published.

Finally, because I am sharing time with the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall), I refer to the Indian Ocean, a subject on which I interrupted the Minister for the Navy when he was speaking. It is probably true that there are Russian forces in the Indian Ocean, and I interrupted the Minister's speech to try to get some facts. I do not blame the Minister for coming to a defence debate without all the facts relating to the Russian military presence in the Indian Ocean, but I want to know what our obligation is. What is the British obligation in this?

I understood that there had been a change of policy. The Chinese may be worried because there are considerable Russian forces in the Indian Ocean, but what, precisely, is the notion here? Is it that we match them, or is our Navy to be bigger? What is the operational requirement. I think we ought to know precisely what is British maritime policy in the Indian Ocean. I end by saying that I should like to have it spelled out why the emphasis on Russian forces in the Indian Ocean should affect us.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

The fundamental issue which has emerged throughout this debate is the protection of our sea communications. Those communications are vital to us for one reason only, and that is oil, Fifty-seven per cent. of all NATO's oil has to be imported, most of it around the Cape. The danger is not so much that the Soviets would use their immense maritime power to cut those communications, because that would be an act of war, but that they would threaten to do so and be in a position to carry out their threat by methods to which NATO would have no reply—in other words, that they would be able to execute a successful blackmail.

We in NATO must have a flexible response to this threat. The need for this flexible response I summed up in the defence debate, so I will not weary the House by going into it again in detail. But I would agree with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) that the first need is a nuclear deterrent. I am glad that he stressed this from the Labour Party benches. We do not often hear that point of view advanced from there, and I am sure that it is a correct one.

The hon. Member went on to say that the convoy precept was obsolete and that we must be able to match the Soviet threat with our own counter-threat. There is not much difference between us, except that he will know that the NATO concept is wholly based on convoys in war. Perhaps the whole of NATO policy is wrong, but I would suggest that, presumably, they know best. I do not see how the hon. Member could match the threat, if not by a protection of convoys, other than by the nuclear deterrent, which is the ultimate counter-threat—and I am sure that we would use it if we were deprived of oil.

However, I will not labour that point, because I want to repeat to my hon. Friend ideals which I believe of fundamental importance for the defence of our oil supplies. First, there should be the provision of a subsidy for shipbuilders, so that tankers and container ships can have platforms on which they can carry anti-submarine helicopters or even VSTOL aircraft. I believe, with the hon. Member for Sutton, that we should increase the rate of building of our fleet submarines, particularly if we are to get an effective submarine-launched surface weapon.

I believe that we should seek to revise international law to show that a threat to a super tanker could be an ecological disaster far greater than a nuclear bomb and that therefore it should be deterred by international law.

Finally on this issue, we need long-range aircraft. If we are not to have organic naval air power we must have long-range strike aircraft, but we will not get them because the MRCA has not sufficient range to operate in oceanic areas, so we need land airfields, and the only ones from which we can protect these 66 ships a day which are destined for Europe around the Cape are in South Africa, the Portuguese Provinces, or Salisbury in Rhodesia.

It is vitally important to co-operate with and supply the necessary maritime aircraft to these Powers. The South Africans, I know, want to replace the Buccaneers that have been lost since we originally supplied them and they are also interested in Nimrod. I hope that I will not get a continuation of the reply that I have been having for the last four years, which was repeated by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs today. I asked him about the supply of maritime aircraft, and he said: As I told the House on 12th July 1971 I will inform it of any decision to supply maritime arms to South Africa. The position remains that no orders have been received. I know that, as well as anyone else, because, as my right hon. Friend knows, the South Africans will not put in a positive order until they have been told that they will get an export licence. This is merely playing with words, and it is a matter of fundamental importance. I hope that, now that SACLANT has the right to plan in the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, this matter will be raised with my right hon. Friend at the top level. What we need is a flexible response at sea. We have it on land; now, we need it at sea.

May I refer to the speeches of the three "fisheries Members"? I believe that they are dead right about Iceland. We do not want a confrontation if we can avoid it. On the other hand, we have cried wolf many times in the House. There have been six or seven statements saying that, if harassment goes on, we will send in the Navy. Let us say categorically that we hope negotiations will take place—one understands now that they will—but that, if there is another action by the Icelandic gunboats against our trawlers, the Royal Navy will go in.

I have suggested that there is a halfway house—a demonstration which sends the Navy in to show what we can do, and then retires it beyond the 50-mile limit. If there is another incident after that, the Navy would then have to go in for good.

Many tributes have been paid to the Royal Marines during the debate. As an ex-Marine I am delighted about that. The House will know that the battle honours of the Royal Marines are the great globe itself. That indicates flexibility and the corps must maintain maximum flexibility. That gives rise to three brief questions. In a small corps which numbers about 8,000 it is essential that it recruits every man it can get. Will the Minister assure the House that there is no ceiling placed on recruiting and that the corps can recruit all it can get?

Secondly, concerning the Royal Marine Reserve, will the Minister consider whether the liability and regulations for the call-out of the RMR should be made the same as those for the TAVR, which would entitle them to the bounty and be a very much more effective use of the reserve.

Finally, I understand that HMS "Intrepid" is now going to the Dartmouth Squadron. I hope that "Intrepid" will be available for amphibious exercises even if she is in that squadron.

I congratulate the two Front Bench speakers on their opening speeches. The only criticism I would make is of the peroration of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) when he spoke about Greece, Turkey and Portugal. He must know that the reason that American carriers are in the Mediterranean is that the southern part of NATO is weak in air power, in other words, Greece, Turkey and Italy are weak in the air. The carriers are not there for naval purposes, but to boost NATO air power. The most important part of the Mediterranean other than the Straits of Gibraltar is the Dardanelles, which is guarded by Turkey and Greece, countries which are vital to our alliance. Every attack on them, such as that made by the hon. Member—I realise why he did it—weakens NATO and the whole of our alliance. This is most regrettable.

Mr. Judd

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that allies who for their Government are dependent upon repressive regimes are unreliable allies because they are forcing opposition within their political system into extremist hands, frequently Communist inspired?

Mr. Wall

No. It is always Right-wing regimes that the Opposition criticise. I have never known them to criticise semi-authoritarian or authoritarian Left-wing regimes to anything like the same extent. [An HON. MEMBER: "Yes."] Occasionally, perhaps some. But it was Greece which was the target; now it is Turkey, too. This is very dangerous to the alliance. That is not only my view; it is the view of many senior officers of NATO.

Portugal, our ally in NATO, has a magnificent record in Africa, which is wholly non-racial and has the support of the large majority of her African citizens. I for one am delighted that I have been asked to go to Portugal for the 600th anniversary of this historic alliance with Britain which is soon to be celebrated by both countries, and is of importance today as it was 600 years ago.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. William Handing (Woolwich, West)

This is my annual benefit. I am very glad to speak immediately after the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) for a variety of reasons, the chief of which is that we are old comrades in arms —ex-Royal Marines. I shall comment on some of his remarks on the Royal Marines later, but I take up immediately his point about supporting repressive regimes, either of the so-called Right or the so-called Left.

For my money, a repressive regime is a repressive regime, whether it is allegedly Communist or allegedly something else. Our whole strategy, our whole defence, particularly through NATO, to which the Opposition side of the House is committed as much as the Government side, is for the support of NATO. What is the chief threat concerning NATO? I do not need to answer that question. The hon. Member for Haltemprice knows the answer perfectly well. No one can say that the Opposition side of the House is soft on repressive regimes, wherever they may be.

We would sell the case for defending the free world if we were to ally ourselves with, and rely for part of our mutual defence on, other repressive regimes. That is our view, and it is implicitly the view taken by the Government Front Bench, although as they are in office and as they have some rather doubtful supporters perhaps they are not as willing to spell these things out in such precise terms as I have.

Mr. Wall

The hon. Gentleman said, "if we were to ally ourselves with other repressive regimes", and in his definition included Portugal, Greece and Turkey. We are their allies. Does he suggest that they should leave NATO?

Mr. Hamling

I was thinking particularly of bases in South Africa, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is in that part of the world, affecting Portugal and South Africa, that the real struggle against colonialism exists. Britain has turned its back on colonialism. To that extent, our record is clean. It would be a major retrograde step if we sought land bases in either South Africa or in Portuguese colonies in Mozambique and elsewhere.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

Will the hon. Gentleman do my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) the courtesy of answering his specific question? Speaking with the authority that the hon. Gentleman does from the Opposition Front Bench, is it his view that it would be preferable for NATO if Turkey, Greece and Portugal withdrew from that organisation?

Mr. Hamling

I would say "Yes", although I am dressed with rather brief authority tonight. If we are to stand up in the world as the defenders of freedom, we must ensure that our allies in the fight are clean. In considering NATO's future we must consider this question as well as the other questions which are being posed.

One sad feature of the debate is that we have not had a whole day. There have been many debates in recent months when the Whips on both sides—I speak with some experience—have been at pains to try to keep the debate going. The Government Whip knows this as well as I do. I have seen him running around. That is why he has maintained his figure. In this debate we have had a good number of speakers, but this has been possible only because of the restraint exercised by hon. Members. We should bring to the notice of those who manage the business of the House that it is about time that the Royal Navy was accorded better treatment in the House in the granting of debating time.

Without detracting from those who have graced the Government Front Bench tonight, it is significant that there are not as many Privy Councillors in the Defence Department nowadays as there used to be. Defence is an important topic, not only from the point of view of policy, but also because a good deal of the taxpayers' money is involved. It is essential for the House to have the opportunity of a close scrutiny of how the money is spent and whether we are getting value for money.

I wish to refer to some of the significant speeches of the debate, and particularly that of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). She made what I thought was an important speech, and I began to wonder, as we often do in these debates on the Navy, from which side of the House the speech was being made. Certainly her speech could have come from the Labour benches. Her remarks on the dockyards were endorsed completely by her constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) on the importance of providing for career structures in the dockyards for civilians.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Ronald King Murray) referred to the Icelandic dispute. This is a thorny problem and one which concerns the livelihood and safety of many people in various parts of the country. I hope that we shall get some solution to it and some real defence for them. Perhaps the most important speech made from the back benches was by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton. I thought that he came closer to the nub of the debate— that is, the rôle of the Navy and what is naval policy. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will deal with this matter much more succinctly and directly and in straighter terms—and I do not imply by that a moral judgment.

Judging from some of the other speeches made in the debate many hon. Members are not sure what the rôle of the navy is. The White Paper says that our Polaris submarines are the United Kingdom's contribution to the Western strategic deterrent. They are not independent, they are part of the Western strategic deterrent. All major ships and amphibious forces are earmarked for assignment in war to NATO; in peacetime they are deployed world-wide as NATO, other allied, or national interest require. They are not independent—they do not perform independent rôles—certainly in wartime. National interests come third in that sentence. This point must be made in view of some of the speeches.

My hon. Friend referred to some of the topics we have heard in previous naval debates and I should like to return to some of these later, particularly the balance of the fleet. One of the speeches I thought showed an inability to come to terms with the rôle of the Navy was that by the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson). He talked, for example, about Harriers exercising a VSTOL rôle in close support. In what theatre? In the Indian Ocean— away from these shores—

Mr. Wilkinson

The hon. Gentleman might like to know that I was referring to the Mediterranean, and more particularly the northern flank of NATO, where there is a lack of airfields and where land-based combat air patrols could be maintained only by in-flight fuelling. Out of the NATO theatre, the Indian Ocean would not be inappropriate, as it has been reasonably suggested that there should be two or three of these vessels.

Mr. Hamling

The hon. Gentleman's intervention indicated that he assumes the northern flank is inside the NATO theatre. Nobody would suggest that even in the Indian Ocean our allies are not involved much more deeply than we could ever be. Do Government supporters see the Navy as part of NATO or as performing an independent rôle? I should like the Minister to dwell on this important question to a much greater extent.

The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) seems to have become a reformed character. In previous debates he has made an independent approach, but tonight he asked the perfectly correct question: what sort of war are we expected to fight? That is the basic question behind this debate.

I said earlier that one question we have to ask is whether we are getting good value for the money we spend. That is almost a quotation. The other night I heard a senior officer in Her Majesty's Forces—he shall remain anonymous because it was a private occasion—saying that we are concerned with getting value for the taxpayers' money. That is a modern point of view. I do not know whether senior officers in previous wars thought of saving money, but they certainly did not think much about saving lives. They were prodigal of money and of men. But money and men are in short supply.

Much of what we spend in the Navy is on pay and keep. That means that the amount of money we have for equipment, weapon systems, ships and so on is limited. Manpower is limited too, and it must therefore be used economically. People talk about extra carriers, but we cannot man them. We cannot man all the ships we have now. We cannot keep all our ships at sea because we have not sufficient manpower. People make extravagant claims for new types of ship— and I am thinking particularly of new cruisers—but, apart from expense and vulnerability, can we man them? I doubt whether we have the skilled people required to do the job.

We have only 36,500 men in our ships at sea out of a total of 70,000. This puts a great limitation on our ability, and I know that those in the Navy are stretching their imagination to produce more people to man the ships.

Expenditure is one of the great limitations to which I refer. A great deal of money is spent on pay and on equipment of all sorts. The White Paper tells us that in the current year about £100 million will be available for ships and machinery. And we are now talking, not of one through-deck cruiser, but perhaps of three. If we have one such cruiser in the Estimates there will not be enough money for anything else—and if we have three over a period of time it will mean that other ships will have to go. This is one of the great limitations that we must face in this House and which the taxpayers must face.

Since this year we are spending only £100 million on weapon systems, we must have versatile ships and men. My hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice— and in his capacity as an ex-Royal Marine I know that I can refer to him in that capacity—spoke of the versatility of the Royal Marines. One of the greatest arguments in favour of the continuation of the Royal Marines is their cost effectiveness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton was a little unfair when he asked— and he should know the answer coming, as he does, from Plymouth—whether the Royal Marines were aware of the need to diversify their activities and their rôle. He spoke of their rôle in Arctic operations. We know that Royal Marines are involved in that area in the northern flank of NATO. We also know that they are trained as paratroopers, as mobile infantry and in amphibious operations in the tropics, and so on, with independent detachments being used for specific enterprises. In the Small Boat Section the Royal Marines are canoeists and frogmen. Therefore, there is tremendous versatility and I know that it is welcomed.

Versatility depends very much on the morale of the Royal Marines and on their dependability. Those of us who served in the corps and who have experienced the dependability of the ordinary marine know that the junior NCOs accept responsibility of a very high order. The lesson we must draw from the whole of the Navy Estimates is that ships must be versatile—in other words capable of many uses. This is why I have grave doubts about through-deck cruisers—not only because they are expensive in manpower but because they are very vulnerable.

I should like to develop some of the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton, but unfortunately I have not time. However, I endorse what he said, especially when he spoke about submarines and the rôle of the Navy in defence.

We must look at the rôle of the Navy in the future in terms of the kind of war in which we are likely to be involved, and not in terms of the last one or even the one before last. So often it is the case that some of our strategists plan for the war before last and not the next one. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us that that is the thinking in his Department, and that it is looking at the future rôle of the Navy in those terms.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Buck

I gather that I do not have to seek the leave of the House to reply to the debate.

Let me say first how grateful I am for the extremely gracious remarks of hon. Members about me on my first appearance at the Dispatch Box in a debate on naval matters.

I am afraid that the time limit imposed upon us will not enable me to deal with a large number of the matters which have been raised. All that I can do is to assure hon. Members that I shall deal with them in correspondence. I understand that there is probably to be a debate tomorrow on Icelandic fishing in the course of our discussions on the Consolidated Fund (No. 3) Bill, I hope at not too unreasonable an hour, so I may be able to deal with that topic then.

A number of hon. Members have suggested that our plans for the balance of the fleet's capabilities are not entirely as they should be. As I indicated in my opening remarks, this must be a mat- ter of judgment. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) expounded his view, as usual most eloquently, that a greater emphasis should be placed on our submarine and antisubmarine forces. A number of my hon. Friends have chosen as their theme the necessity for protecting our trade routes and have said that there are insufficient forces to defend them. I dealt with that matter in my opening remarks.

I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Sutton to the fact that, as outlined in the White Paper, our modern warship building programme consists of eight Type 21 frigates, six Type 42 destroyers and five nuclear-powered submarines, all of them vessels with an imposing anti-submarine capability. In the case of the earlier frigates of the Leander class, this capability is now being improved still further by fitting them with the IKARA anti-submarine system. The cruisers "Tiger" and "Blake" will also be re-entering service later this year with their Sea King anti-submarine helicopters embarked. I also draw attention to the deliveries of the Mark 24 heavyweight torpedo, due to be taken shortly, and in a slightly longer timescale to the introduction of the Anglo-French Lynx helicopter into service to replace the Wasp.

In the face of this evidence it is difficult to sustain the argument that we are not giving enough attention to the submarine threat and to the methods of countering it. The question why we are not building more nuclear submarines ourselves is a different one, and I think that it can best be answered in terms of the need for a balanced fleet which I outlined in my opening remarks. The capability of the nuclear fleet submarine is imposing. Its ability to range at will beneath the surface of the world's oceans, its independence of support, its prolonged endurance and its high speed all combine to produce a formidable submarine, the potential of which we propose to tap to the full. We are building up our force at a steady rate, with six in service, five more building, and further boats planned.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

Has there been any change recently in the rate of building of the hunter-killer submarines?

Mr. Buck

I shall want to check the precise rate, but there has been, relative to the rest of the fleet, something of a stepping-up. Plans were made a considerable while ago. We are to some extent building on foundations laid by other Ministers many years ago. I shall want to check the time scale. The Opposition cannot evade a fair degree of responsibility for the present shape of the Navy and what is planned in the forthcoming years. I shall make some researches on the question asked by the right hon. Member for Averavon (Mr. John Morris), and answer him definitively.

Just as the capital ships of the past were not suited to all the tasks which the Navy was then required to perform, the nuclear submarine of today is not suitable for all that the fleet has to do. The need for adequate forces for such tasks as fishery protection and the protection of the sea routes, so strongly advocated by many hon. Members, illustrate that point very forcibly. Such tasks demand the ability to apply force in a graduated and controlled way. We therefore need to devote the right balance of resources to our surface fleet for, while a submarine may deny the use of the sea to an aggressor, it cannot by itself provide control of the sea.

Mr. Dalyell

I asked about our obligation in the Indian Ocean in relation to Russia's obligation.

Mr. Buck

That is very much a Foreign Office matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are Commonwealth and friendly countries in that area. I do not wish at such short notice to define the precise character of our obligation in that area. I shall consider the antecedents. We have friends in that area and it is appropriate that we should have a deployment. Whether that deployment should be based on a strict treaty obligation is something which I shall have to check. There is a substantial Russian presence in the Indian Ocean.

We need the ability to deploy along the main trade routes of the world, together with our allies, a surface capability which can be seen and so deter. With our presently planned building programme we are seeking to ensure that we have that capability for the foreseeable future. We have to bear in mind that a nuclear submarine is enormously more expensive than, for example, a Type 22 frigate, and that any significant increase in the building rate of the submarine would involve severe reductions in our destroyer-frigate force, or the early abandonment of other large areas of capability.

The forthcoming command cruiser or through-deck cruiser—and both titles have been used—has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I have been pressed for the latest cost-estimate of that type of cruiser. I am afraid that it is a matter of representing an oyster constituency. I cannot add to what has been said in the past on both sides of the House during defence debates. It is not the normal practice to divulge cost-estimates of such defence projects, not least because we are still undertaking complicated negotiations with Vickers relative to the contract. As the House knows, these negotiations are well advanced, and we hope to be able to announce the order shortly. The negotiations are confidential and obviously very complex for a ship of this kind. No one knows that better than some right hon. and hon. Members opposite.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, West (Mr. Judd) asked how many cruisers we are to have. At this stage we are looking a long way ahead. We plan to have a class of these ships but the first has not yet been finally ordered. We cannot speculate further, into the 1980s, on that matter.

There is another aspect of new construction which is perhaps a side issue but nevertheless important. In Committee on the Industry Act last year, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industrial Development said that the Minister of State for Defence was considering various measures which would in future reduce the extent to which shipbuilders would need to provide in their price quotations for the possible risks of long-term contracts for warships. We are discussing with the shipbuilders new payments schemes on future contracts which still materially ease their cash flow situation.

We have told the shipbuilders that, whenever uncertainties would make a fixed price especially hazardous, we are willing to share the financial risks under contractual arrangements and at the same time provide them with an incentive to earn a reasonable profit for a good performance. These measures should help to maintain the health of our shipbuilding industry, in which the Ministry of Defence is vitally interested.

Mr. Wall

Can my hon. Friend say something about the suggestion of having helicopter platforms on tankers, with a subsidy? It has been put forward in the House about nine times in the last two years and we have never had a reply to it.

Mr. Buck

It is one of the things being considered. Whether it would be practical to have the full support facilities needed by a complicated aircraft like the Sea King in such vessels, I am doubtful. But I will look into the matter and let my hon. Friend know.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker) spoke about flying training. The Royal Navy is already doing this in conjunction with the Royal Air Force. We have taken the first steps towards joint Royal Navy—RAF manning of operational squadrons. We must await the outcome of the study of the VSTOL. I have no doubt that a sensible arrangement for the manning of VSTOL aircraft, if approved, will be worked out, but at this stage I had best leave the subject there.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, West also referred to the amphibious force. He asked for information about HMS "Bulwark". She is good for some years yet. It will not have escaped the attention of hon. Members that the conversion of HMS "Hermes" for a commando ship rôle will be finalised in the next few months. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) asked about HMS "Albion". She is to be replaced by the "Hermes" and has been placed on the disposal list. However, she is still being cannabalised for use elsewhere in the Fleet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff also asked about escort vessels. He seemed to be painting a scenario to the effect that we do not have enough escort vessels to take on the Soviet submarine fleet. But anti-submarine warfare is not just a matter of escort vessels but of combined operations by fixed-wing air- craft, helicopters—particularly the new Sea King—the new hunter-killer submarines, and escort vessels. There is no room for complacency, but including the United States Navy the maritime strength available to NATO is very considerable.

Mr. James Johnson

Is the hon. Gentleman going to answer my question or will he be unkind enough to say that he will make a third speech tomorrow?

Mr. Buck

I will turn to him, missing many other points, because the hon. Gentleman has been extremely patient about this matter. I have not a great deal to say to him on this subject. I am sure that he would not expect me to outline precisely the deployment of our frigates. That would not be in the interests of either those he seeks to serve or any of us. I can perhaps give him some private information relative to this matter, because I do not think that he is likely to leak it to anybody else. I will see whether anything can be done and leave it at that at this stage. We hope that the negotiations, which look as though they are likely to be embarked upon, will be successful so that we can get fishing back to normal in these distant waters.

It would be entirely inappropriate if I were not to turn, at least briefly, to the question of the dockyards. However, before doing so, I should mention the deterrent. I have nothing to add to the answers given to the hon. Member for Sutton and other hon. Members recently, save that I refute any suggestion that there has been any Navy to Navy conspiracy relative to the matter which he suggested.

Dr. David Owen

Did the Minister authorise the Royal Navy to approach the United States Navy without going through the normal channels?

Mr. Buck

I refute the suggestion that there has been any Navy to Navy conspiracy whatsoever. I understand that the Royal Navy, acting as part of the Ministry of Defence, has done only that which was asked of it by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I am glad to get on record that that is the situation.

As Navy Minister some of my most interesting visits have been to the dockyards. I pay tribute especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport who has devoted so much time and energy to the cause of the dockyards, which is readily appreciated throughout the Navy. On HMS "Ark Royal" I met constituents of hers who pointed out her devotion to this cause. She has raised many interesting and difficult points. I should not be being frank with the House if I were to say that at this stage there were any plans for new construction in the dockyards. There are no such plans at the moment. I can understand the frustration and difficulties in the dockyards, because obviously there is more job satisfaction in seeing a keel laid and going through to the completion of a vessel.

My hon. Friend raised many other matters. I have no doubt that before long Mallabar will be written on my heart. I am giving that matter great study. Progress is being made. The Advisory Board with Sir Henry Benson and others arises directly from Mallabar. Much is being done on that score.

It is pleasant to have a debate of such a constructive character without animosity. I agree with the theme recently put forward by the Opposition that we want less yahbooism in politics. It is nice to find on both sides of the House a real devotion to the cause of the Royal Navy and a wide acceptance of the need to maintain our maritime rôle.

Mr. Oscar Murton (Lord Commissioner of the Treasury)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.