HC Deb 29 November 1984 vol 68 cc1119-81

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

5.15 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Stanley)

The past year has been one of significant progress for the Royal Navy. Major new ship orders have been placed, new classes of ships have been started, large-scale exercises have been undertaken, and some important operations have been successfully carried out. In addition to making a review of the service in opening this debate, I shall refer to certain maritime aspects of defence policy, and to the Trident programme in particular.

I start with the maritime threat, which is the basic yardstick against which we must measure the adequacy of our naval investment. Even outside the NATO area, we have seen with persistent regularity since the second world war the immense value to Britain of being able to deploy the right numbers and right types of ships in a timely and effective way. But, of course, the in-area commitment—the NATO commitment—is the primary justification and rationale of the size and shape of the Royal Navy. Maritime power—the ability to project military strength over and from the sea — is fundamental to NATO's strategy of deterrence, both nuclear and conventional.

Conventional deterrence would not be credible if it depended on our in-theatre forces alone, especially given the self-evident capability of the Warsaw pact to reinforce early on a massive scale, and along lines of land communications stretching from the inner German border deep into the Soviet Union. Of course, airborne reinforcement and the pre-positioning of some heavy equipment in continental Europe avoids total dependence on reinforcement by sea. However, there is no question but that for ourselves, for the Canadians and above all for the Americans, the ability to transit forces and equipment by sea will remain a fundamental requirement for the forseeable future.

On the nuclear side, the sea provides the one environment in which a key arm of NATO's strategic deterrent can enjoy invisibility and therefore invulnerability, again for the foreseeable future.

The near monopoly of sea control that the NATO navies had in the 1950s and the 1960s has come under increasing challenge in the 1970s and 1980s. The Soviet Union now has a surface navy of about 320 ships of small frigate size and above, and the warships under construction include the first Soviet carrier capable of taking catapult-launched fixed-wing aircraft, which is likely to be completed in four years' time. The Soviet amphibious landing capability, although modest in the past, continues to expand. It has one of the largest merchant fleets in the world, and the largest fishing fleet, and frequently uses both on naval tasks. It has the largest oceanographic fleet, which is another important naval asset. It has the largest mining capability, and it has by far and away the largest submarine force, with about 400 submarines in service, approximately half of which are nuclear-powered.

Despite this, Soviet submarine production shows no signs of slowing. No fewer than eight different classes of submarine are at present under construction simultaneously, seven of which are nuclear-powered, with a new Soviet submarine being completed once every 35 to 40 days.

As one would expect, Soviet ships and submarines are improving all the time—electronically, acoustically and in the capability of their weapons systems. Of special significance is the new submarine-launched strategic cruise missile, which is assessed to have a range of up to 3,000 km and which is likely to become operational within the next year. A still faster, long-range submarine-launched cruise missile is also under development. No less significant is its growing maritime air capability with aircraft such as the Badger, Bear and Backfire able to attack NATO surface ships using stand-off missiles with ranges of up to 400 km.

All the Soviet maritime forces to which I have referred can deploy very suddenly and very fast, as they vividly demonstrated in an exercise in March this year. There is no doubt, therefore, about the fundamental importance of the maritime dimension to NATO's deterrent strategy, and equally there is no doubt about the significant and growing challenge coming from Soviet maritime power on the sea, under the sea and from the air.

Meeting that challenge is, of course, a matter for the Alliance and not just for ourselves. Exercising with the navies of other NATO countries is therefore a high priority task for our own. Over the last year, the Royal Navy has participated in three NATO exercises in the Mediterranean and in the biggest single NATO amphibious exercise ever conducted, exercise Teamwork in Norway, in which the ships of nine NATO navies took part. I am sure that NATO's determination to safeguard the territorial integrity of northern Norway was well noted.

Ours is, of course, also very much an operational Navy, operational every day of the week and every week of the year—providing our round-the-clock deterrent, watching the naval activity of other countries, maintaining the Falkland Islands protection zone, being ready to safeguard our interests in the Caribbean and in the Gulf, preventing illegal immigration into Hong Kong and helping to combat terrorism in Northern Ireland. The continuing operational responsibilities of the Royal Navy are diverse in character, far-flung geographically and of very high national importance. They are discharged extremely professionally and extremely effectively.

I should like to mention one particular operation carried out since our last debate. Earlier this month, five Ton class mine counter-measures vessels and their support ship returned home having been away since last March. They were the group that was deployed to the Red Sea to locate, clear and if possible obtain for examination the mines that had been laid there. Of the various navies deployed on the same task, the Royal Navy was the only one that succeeded in locating, disabling and retrieving a modern live mine. That mine is now being examined in the United Kingdom. As we have previously announced, it is of Soviet manufacture.

We have no reason to believe, however, that the Soviets either laid it, or were aware that it was being laid by a third party.

The whole process of actually locating that mine was extremely skilful, and the process of disabling it so that it could be safely brought back to the United Kingdom was self-evidently dangerous to those concerned. I know the whole House will want me to express our admiration and appreciation for the way in which that operation was conducted.

Before I leave operations, I shall refer to merchant shipping. As the House is well aware, the merchant marine, both through the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and through merchant ships that we would need to take up from trade in a time of crisis, is critical to the operational effectiveness of the Royal Navy.

The House of Commons Select Committee on Defence has rightly expressed its concern about the possible operational implications for the Royal Navy if the decline in the British merchant marine continues. This is a matter to which we shall want to return, but I should like to make two points to the House at this stage.

First, at the present time, with the possible exception of vessels suitable for mine counter-measures, the size of the British flagged merchant marine in the particular categories of ships that we would require in any emergency is such that we can discharge our NATO obligations. However, it is also clear that this might not continue to be the case, at least in certain categories of vessels, if the decline in the British merchant marine continues for several more years.

The Department of Transport, in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence, is therefore launching an in-depth study into the likely future trends in the size of the British merchant marine. We shall be assessing the defence implications most carefully when that study is completed in the middle of next year.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

I am sure that the study will be extemely useful and will be read with the greatest interest if ever my right hon. Friend feels able to publish it. However, would it not be more constructive even than what he has proposed now if he were to co-operate with our right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Trade and Industry and in the Treasury? They could see what incentives can be given for the generation of more trade for British merchant ships than is happening at the moment, thereby ensuring the situation that we should all like to see, in which the Navy can draw on the merchant fleet in times of trouble.

Mr. Stanley

What the Navy can call on in times of trouble is a specific defence requirement. We have a precise view of what our requirements are for the Royal Navy, for those merchant ships that can support the navy, and for those that would assist on the mine clearance operations, on the cross-Channel and north Atlantic reinforcement. I assure my hon. Friend that in advance of the completion of the study, we shall be looking carefully at the current position and the trends. As I said before, there is no cause for anxiety in meeting our NATO obligation, and we are looking, on a contingent basis, to what the implications might be, and to alternative options that we could follow should the decline in certain categories continue.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)

In that case, why, in exercise Lionheart, was it necessary to charter in so many foreign vessels?

Mr. Stanley

As my hon. Friend will know, as a matter of course we seek to secure the availability of vessels that are suitable for our requirement at a particular moment. There is always a basic difference between wartime and peacetime. War is a period of tension, when the relevant legislation has been passed. It is then possible to use all sorts of ferries that would normally be going about their holiday traffic. When one undertakes an exercise in peacetime, inevitably one does not wish to disrupt the holiday arrangements of the ferry traffic more than one has to. Therefore, one goes to the market, and does not necessarily have to call on our flagged ships because other vessels are available. We have much greater flexibility in a peacetime exercise than we would in war.

I now move on to the size and the shape of the Royal Navy. I am glad to tell the House that expenditure on the conventional Navy is now substantially higher in real terms than it was when the Labour party left office. This year we expect to spend about £500 million more on the conventional Navy in real terms than was spent in 1978–79— and that excludes Falklands war replacement expenditure, which is additional.

By the end of this year, we expect to have spent some £2,300 million more in real terms on the conventional Navy, again excluding Falklands expenditure, than would have been the case if expenditure had been maintained at its 1978–79 value. We are now seeing the fruits of that higher expenditure in the shipbuilding programme.

Some 41 ships have been ordered since May 1979, and 32 are currently being built with a total value of about £2,800 million. Moreover, many of the ships ordered over the past five years are vastly superior in capability to the vessels they will be replacing, which is why the hull numbers tell only part of the story.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

The hon. Gentleman has just said that the hull numbers tell only part of the story. The House will be interested to learn how many of the surface units to which the Minister is referring joined the fleet last year, and how many joined the fleet this year.

Mr. Stanley

I cannot give those figures immediately. I suggest that one has to look at the whole pattern of ship ordering. As I said, 41 ships have been ordered since May 1979, and the expenditure on the conventional Navy is vastly higher than it was when the Labour party was in office.

The type 22 and 23 frigates represent a quantum jump over frigates such as the type 12s and the Leanders that they are replacing. The Hunt class mine counter-measures ships are in a wholly different league from the old Ton class ships. The Trafalgar class SSNs have capabilities well in excess of our earlier SSNs, and the new 2400 Upholder conventional submarines are a generation-plus ahead of the Oberons and Porpoise class boats that they will replace. Over the last year, we have in fact set in motion the procurement of no fewer than five completely new classes of RN and RFA vessels. The order for the first of class Upholder conventional submarine was placed in November 1983.

The order for the first of class type 23 frigate, HMS Norfolk, was placed in October this year. Also in October we went out to tender for a design and build contract for the first of a new class of RFAs— the "one stop" auxiliary oiler replenishment vessel. Earlier this month we invited a tender for the first of class of the new single-role minehunter. Last, but by no means least, we are currently out to tender for the first of the Trident SSBNs.

I should like to take this opportunity to announce that we have now settled where the refitting of the Trident submarines will be carried out; it will be at Rosyth.

I now want to turn to the different components of the Fleet — starting with the carriers. The third Invincible class carrier, the Ark Royal, is currently undergoing trials prior to joining the Fleet in the middle of next year. As the House knows, we are committed to having two carriers operational at any one time whilst the third will usually be in refit. HMS Hermes represents an additional carrier, over and above that commitment, and we are currently evaluating whether she should be sold or retained in mothball for the time being.

As for the destroyer and frigate force, the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to maintain eight additional ships in the running Fleet rather than place them in the standby squadron has been warmly welcomed in the House and by NATO. This decision will enable the destroyer and frigate force to remain at around the 50 mark.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

May I take the hon. Gentleman back to the Trident refit decision? It may be that later in the debate my hon. Friends and I will be able to expand on it. However, to facilitate our understanding, we are talking about a refit programme beginning at some time in the 1990s. When is the order for the Trident likely to be placed, and how many jobs and what capital expenditure can be expected in Rosyth between now and the refit period?

Mr. Stanley

I said just now that we were currently out to tender on the first Trident SSBN. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise date for when the order will be placed, but it is out to tender.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be able to deal specifically with the employment implications for Rosyth.

Our amphibious forces and their specialist shipping represent a unique asset— a unique asset that was fundamental to the success of the Falklands landings. As well as being a unique asset, the Royal Marines also have a remarkable versatility. There are not many formations in the world— if any— that can perform the Arctic warfare role, the infantry role—and in Northern Ireland conditions— the air defence missile role, the artillery role, the special forces role, the close protection role, a variety of support roles, and, not least, the ceremonial bands role— all performed with exemplary discipline, toughness and skill. The Royal Marines and the Royal Marine Reserves do us much credit and perform invaluable services.

In terms of our amphibious shipping, we are restoring the pre-Falklands numbers of logistic landing ships. Contracts were placed with Tyne Shiprepairers in July for the repair of the Sir Tristram, and with Swan Hunter in September for the replacement of the Sir Galahad. Both HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid will remain in service until the mid-1990s.

Studies are currently in progress in the Ministry of Defence on the cost and capability options, which have a considerable range, for replacing our specialist amphibious shipping in time, if agreed, to allow preliminary design work involving industry to commence in the second half of 1985. Our decision on the replacement of our amphibious shipping must await the completion of these studies.

I referred earlier to the massive Soviet mining capability. The approaches to Britain's naval bases and reinforcement ports are bound to be a prime mining target, so we have in hand an extensive programme for modernising our mine warfare ships.

The multi-role Hunt class which can both hunt and sweep mines is proving highly effective. Eight are now with the Fleet; three are building; and tenders were invited for two more earlier this month, with the option of a further two being added, making a potential order for four Hunts due to be placed early next year. As I mentioned earlier, a tender has also just been invited for the first of class of the new single-role mine hunter, the order for which is also planned for next year.

A key role in countering the Soviet mining threat is played by the Royal Naval Reserve. I am glad to tell the House that since our debate last year the first three of the River class minesweepers, being built specifically for operation by the RNR, have now been accepted into the Fleet, and that the remaining nine ships in the class are all building. For the first time, the RNR will have an entire class of new ships that is almost exclusively its own.

In addition, as my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces announced on 7 November in another place, we are aiming to increase the planned strength of the RNR by well over 40 per cent. over the next few years from its present level of around 5,400 to 7,800.

We greatly value the time, commitment and professional skills of the members of the RNR.

The contribution of the Fleet Air Arm has never been more important. In the era of long-range, precision-guided missiles which can be launched from submarines, surface ships and aircraft, it is vital to be able to project the Fleet's eyes, ears and hitting power well beyond the range of the weapons and sensors on our surface ships themselves.

This year we have ordered nine additional Sea Harriers, which will take the numbers available for combat air patrol to well above those available at the time of the Falklands conflict. Looking ahead, we are proceeding with plans to give the Sea Harriers a mid-life update particularly to enable them to counter the increasing missile threat.

Today, the capability of the ship's helicopter is as important as the weapons and sensors that are fitted in the ship itself. Two thirds or the Fleet's anti-submarine warfare Sea Kings have now been converted to the:mark 5 standard, and the balance of the front line Sea Kings will be converted by the middle of next year.

Improvements to the Fleet's Lynx helicopters are in train, which will give increased capability from 1988.

The first Sea King air-borne early warning squadron was commissioned earlier this month, plugging a gap that was exposed during the Falklands conflict.

The memorandum of understanding for the helicopter to replace the Sea King, the EH101, was signed with the Italian Government in January this year.

Finally, in March 1984, Harland and Wolff was awarded a contract to convert a merchant ship, the Contender Bezant, into an aviation training ship to be known as RFA Argus which will principally serve the helicopter training needs of the Fleet Air Arm.

For the Fleet Air Arm, it has, I think, been a year of good progress.

Lastly I come to the underwater navy. The newest of our present conventional submarines was launched in the mid 1960s; the oldest in the late 1950s. We have now started on their replacement. The Upholder class of conventional submarine, the first of which is now being built, will provide a much improved capability against both surface ships and other submarines— both nuclear and conventional. We believe it will also be exceptionally hard to detect. The first of class is now building, and follow-on orders are planned to begin next year.

The nuclear-powered attack submarine programme continues to go steadily forward. There are now 13 SSNs in the Fleet, with four more building, and a further SSN order is planned for next year. In the battle for sea control, the role of the SSNs will be critical, and even though their cost is greater per boat than any RN surface ship currently building, their capability and their survivability makes them very potent and cost-effective naval assets.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

The House was glad to hear what my right hon. Friend said about the submarine underwater fleet. Is he absolutely sure that it will be the equal of what are reported to be built and produced in Soviet Russia as underwater vessels of exceptional speed and capacity?

Mr. Stanley

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, we do not begin to be equal in numerical terms. The technical quality of our latest conventional submarines, our SSNs and new class SSBNs will be a match for, and in many ways superior to, what is available within the Soviet navy. Having said that, the Soviet navy has a substantial numerical preponderance in that area.

I come finally to our nuclear ballistic missile submarines. I wish to make it clear beyond any doubt that the Government are firmly committed to the Trident programme, and that they are proceeding with it vigorously. Our commitment to Trident does not stem from dogma, history, fixation or any of the other irrelevancies that have been suggested in certain quarters. It stems from a cool, rational, dispassionate assessment of Britain's defence needs and Britain's defence priorities in the world of the 1990s and beyond.

That world looks like being no safer from nuclear blackmail— perhaps less so— than the world of the 1960s and 1970s in which previous British Governments of all complexions concluded that it was right not only to maintain Britain's strategic deterrent but to modernise it at very considerable cost. In safeguarding ourselves against nuclear blackmail in the world of the 1990s and beyond, Britain has available to her a unique defence option.

No other European member of NATO, apart from France, builds ballistic missile-firing submarines. No other European member of NATO has the access to the relevant American hardware and technology that we do.

The question for us, therefore, is do we keep or do we discard that wholly unique defence option? The Government's answer is that it is very definitely in our overall long-term national interest to keep it.

We have every reason to think that in Soviet eyes NATO's deterrence is materially strengthened by not being wholly dependent on the strategic nuclear forces of just a single country. The Americans want Britain to continue her strategic deterrent, and so do the European members of NATO.

For Britain herself, there is no additional expenditure on conventional weapons systems, even of the sort of sums required for Trident, that could purchase more than a fraction of the deterrence represented by Trident. Put another way, there is no scale of conventional retaliation that offers any real deterrent to nuclear blackmail with the massive nuclear armoury that the Soviet Union now has.

Can it seriously be argued that the threat of retaliation by British or even NATO conventional forces alone, would act as a deterrent to a nuclear strike, or threat of a nuclear strike, against even a single British city?

The argument that Britain should unilaterally give up her unique option of a strategic deterrent because she would be better off strengthening her conventional forces simply does not hold water in defence terms.

If it really does make better sense to exchange all one's own strategic nuclear weapons for conventional ones, I am afraid that the soundness of that argument has clearly entirely escaped the Soviet Union.

The fact is that the attempt of the official Opposition and the Liberal Party to justify their policy of abandoning Britain's deterrent on the grounds of strengthening our conventional forces is simply and frankly a fig leaf to try to conceal their adoption of one-sided disarmament policies.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The Minister says that we should not take unilateral action. Does it not strike him as curious that while he opposes unilateral action in arms reduction, he is in favour of unilateral action in arms increase by increasing the number of warheads from 64 to 512? How does he justify that?

Mr. Stanley

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. Neither this Government nor any previous Government would disclose the number of warheads involved. It is not an escalation but a continuation of a capability that the hon. Gentleman's party is unilaterally seeking to abandon.

If Britain's strategic deterrent is to be retained, what is the most cost-effective way of replacing Polaris-Chevaline and what is the timetable for doing so? It has been suggested first, that we do not need to take a decision now and, secondly, that sea-launched cruise missiles would be a better bet than Trident. I want to deal with both points.

On timing, of course I acknowledge that there is no precise moment in time when our present deterrent ceases to be effective. The process is gradual rather than sudden. But I must tell the House that on the basis of all the advice available to us— advice that is necessarily highly-sensitive— the Polaris-Chevaline system will require replacing in about the mid-1990s. That means that in order to produce a dedicated replacement system with mid-1990s in-service date, the key procurement decisions have had to be taken by now.

Of the alternative systems to Trident, the only one that has been canvassed with any seriousness is a submarine-launched cruise missile system, rather than a ballistic one. That comparison has, of course, already been studied with great care and in depth by the present Government. It was studied in the period before the initial Trident decision was made in 1980, and it was re-examined again before the decision was made to go for the Trident D5 missile rather than the C4. Nothing has happened since then to alter the view the Government came to that a cruise missile system would be less cost-effective.

The arguments are well set out in open government document 80/23 "The Future United Kingdom Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Force" published in July 1980—and I draw particular attention to paragraphs 35 to 43—and in open government document 82/1 "The United Kingdom Trident programme" paragraphs 14 to 16.

I shall explain the basic reasons why in the United Kingdom context the arguments come down in favour of a ballistic rather than a cruise system. First, we must have submarines that are dedicated to the deterrent role. The idea that we can combine both the hunter-killer conventional attack role and the nuclear deterrent role in the same submarine is an operational illusion. The two roles are, in fact in direct conflict. The essence of the hunter-killer role is to get into a position to attack an enemy vessel and then to make that attack. The act of attacking inevitably reveals the presence of a submarine.

In contrast, the absolute essence of the task of the submarine in the nuclear deterrent role is to remain undetected, and therefore invulnerable in all circumstances and at all times, to provide the guaranteed deterrent of an assured second strike capability. The two roles cannot be combined if one's strategic deterrent is to have the credibility that is conferred only by remaining undetected at all times. Britain's strategic deterrent has, therefore, to be placed in submarines that are exclusively and permanently dedicated to that role.

We then have to compare the relative cost-effectiveness of a dedicated ballistic missile submarine force with that of a dedicated cruise missile submarine force of the size necessary to achieve the minimum level of assured destruction assessed to be unacceptable to the Soviet Union. The House will, I am sure, understand that it is only possible to reproduce a general outline of that comparison in non-classified form.

I can outline the essential points, however. Though cruise missiles are cheaper, missile for missile, we need very many more of them to secure the same degree of deterrence achieved by a ballistic missile force. We need more cruise missiles because they carry only one warhead whereas the Trident ballistic missiles will have several. We need more cruise missiles also because cruise missiles will, for the foreseeable future, be much more vulnerable to Soviet defences than ballistic missiles.

Because we need more cruise missiles than ballistic ones— in fact many more— we need more dedicated submarines on which to carry them than the four boats planned for Trident with the resulting additional costs.

The cruise missile solution not only makes for a more vulnerable missile, but for a more vulnerable submarine launch platform. The submarine is made more vulnerable because the maximum range of American sea-launched cruise missiles under development, which we of course would have to use, is around 1,500 nautical miles, giving vastly less sea room in which the submarine can hide than the Trident D5 missile with about three times the range.

The House can be assured that the Government have as much interest as anyone in ensuring that our replacement deterrent is the most cost-effective available. If the cruise missile alternative had been more cost-effective, the Government would have adopted it, but for the reasons that I have spelt out our studies have consistently showed that a submarine-launched ballistic missile deterrent is more cost-effective than a cruise missile one. The cruise missile alternative to Trident would not confer the same assurance of deterrence. It would not be a cheaper means of securing equivalent deterrence. In short, it would be a bad buy.

For any disinclined to believe this, I would point out that five countries either already have or are developing a submarine-launched strategic missile capability— the United States, the USSR, China, France and ourselves. All have the same preoccupation, albeit from different standpoints, with their own security. All are bound to have done the same intensive analysis as we have done of the relative cost-effectiveness of ballistic and cruise missile systems.

Though both the United States and the USSR are supplementing their ballistic systems with strategic cruise systems, it is significant that all five countries have chosen to place their primary sea-launched strategic nuclear capabilities on ballistic missile, rather than cruise missile, submarines.

For the United Kingdom the only real policy options are between having a credible strategic deterrent which to be cost-effective needs to be ballistic, or having no strategic deterrent at all. For Britain to waste valuable resources on a halfway house deterrent, which in Soviet eyes— and those are the eyes that matter—would represent no real deterrent, would be the worst course of all. It is for these reasons that the Government remain committed to the Trident programme that we put to the electorate last year.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

I accept my right hon. Friend's arguments on Trident versus cruise, but what about the independence argument— the control mechanisms and so on?

Mr. Stanley

The degree of independence is exactly the same for Trident as it would be assuming that a cruise agreement with the Americans could be completed on the same terms. It will make no difference. We would have an independent system, as with Polaris.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

In the Estimates, the cost of Trident is based on an exchange rate of $1.53 to the pound. Now that the rate is $1.20, the cost will be increased substantially. In view of the Government's firm adherence to Trident, is the right hon. Gentleman giving an assurance that that additional cost will be borne in any circumstances, no matter what the rate of exchange and, further, that that will be without cost to the conventional Navy? If so, how will the cost be borne?

Mr. Stanley

Our view of the importance of maintaining the Trident programme is taken against the background that about half the cost is in dollars and that there is some vulnerability because of the exchange rate. Despite that element, our view is still that the overall economic and defence advantage is with continuing that programme.

Procurement is extended over about 18 years and the exchange rate over that lengthy period is a matter for speculation. If there is a deterioration in the exchange rate the overall sterling cost of the Trident programme will increase and fewer funds will be available for conventional forces. That goes without saying. However, we must consider the relative balance of advantage to the country as a whole between the Trident programme and what is at the margin of our conventional expenditure. As a result of Government action we have already increased our defence expenditure to about one fifth more than it was when the right hon. Gentleman's Administration left office.

In conclusion, those of us on both sides of the House who have had the good fortune to serve in the Ministry of Defence know what a privilege and a pleasure it is to work with the armed forces. In the last year I have seen a great deal of the men and women of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines—in surface ships and in submarines, in the cold of Arctic Norway, in the heat of the middle and far east, and in the gales of the south Atlantic.

Those at sea with the Royal Navy today have to contend with electronic and engineering complexities that even in the last world war would never have been dreamt of. They also have to contend with the natural elements whose ferocity at times is changeless. The Royal Navy contends with both with skill, with style and with abundant good humour. I know that the whole House wishes the senior service well with both admiration and affection.

5.55 pm
Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

More than in any year that I can recall, given the widespread speculation and publicity about the defence budget, Parliament's assessment of the naval Estimates must turn on certain basic but well-tried judgments. How far are they credible, given Britain's need for maritime power? How far do they take us towards the right size and shape of the Fleet in the late 1980s? How far are they affordable, given the soaring costs of defence technology, in particular Trident? How far do they provide for the right priorities, balance and sustainability, and how far are they in line with NATO's needs? How far do they pursue less nuclear reliant strategies, given the present state of public opinion across the Alliance, and are therefore in line with current thinking about arms control? Finally, how far are they acceptable to public opinion in Britain?

The defence Estimates involve a study of individual trees, not a wood. They make no attempt to draw a panorama of a landscape in which separate forests can be seen in relation to each other.

Let us consider the Navy. We hear of this weapons system or that ship. We know that the Navy has special responsibilities in the eastern Atlantic and the Channel, but nowhere can we find a fundamental up-to-date statement on why we need a navy. The case for a strong Royal Navy is only implied. The case for a strong Merchant Navy is not even mentioned. I suspect that references to the plight of the merchant service by the Minister were afterthoughts.

The sea is the vital link in Britain's growing industrial, commercial and agricultural dependence on imports. All the United Kingdom's international trade must cross the sea. Over 98 per cent. of it is carried in ships. A total of 232 million tonnes was carried by ship in 1980. No other means of transport could cope with such vast quantities of raw materials, food produce and manufactured goods.

That is why the law of the sea treaty is so important to Britain. Why do we not sign it? For a decade or more the United Kingdom has invested time and effort in drawing it up and has taken the lead in its drafting. Reservations about some of its provisions, notably sea-bed mining, are understood. Do the Government have a serious reservation or hesitation about it? It is important to be an original signatory.

Once we sign the treaty, we can work towards acceptable forms. Refusal to sign would mean that we would be the odd one out within the Commonwealth and, Germany apart, the odd one out within the European Community. It is vital for the Royal Navy and Britain to have freedom of passage for ships and aircraft. Should there not have been at least some reference to this in the defence Estimates? If this matter was dealt with in the Cabinet this morning and it was decided not to make a statement to the House this afternoon before our annual debate on the Navy, that will be seen as a grave contempt of the House.

There is another reason why I feel that the shape of our strategy as set out in the defence Estimates—in so far as it is possible to find a cohesive strategy between the rows of trees set out in it—is wrong. Of course we have commitments to continental Europe which we must respect, but our defence policy does not reflect the priorities which should be held by an island nation. It does not point the way to the effective exercise of sea power. To exercise seapower, as well as having an effective Navy in defence of our interests and in furtherance of them, we must have an effective mercantile marine to sustain it. We must also have an understanding among the electorate and here in Parliament of how seapower affects us all as individuals.

Britain's primary need as one of the most outward-looking and sea-dependent of nations, and as Europe's anchor man within the Alliance, is for maritime power. Almost every sector of Britain's maritime industry is beset by increasingly severe pressure on its operations, thereby posing a variety of threats to the country's trade, performance and security. That is why Jim Slater, general secretary of the National Union of Seamen, and Ken Gill, general secretary of AUEW-TASS, have joined forces to help Britain's crisis-torn shipping and shipbuilding industries. They have produced a plan under which it is intended to reserve Britain's coastal trade and offshore supply sector for United Kingdom flagships alone and to require the extra tonnage needed as a result to be built in British shipyards. The plan would add about 110 ships to the United Kingdom fleet, guaranteeing jobs for 20,000 shipbuilding workers and creating work for 2,500 seafarers. My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) will have more to say about the plan when he replies for the Opposition.

I know that Jim Slater and Ken Gill will welcome the setting up of the study announced by the Minister; but that study will have to produce some results, because of the present decline in merchant shipping. It is now down to around 400 vessels with a projection of 300 by the end of this decade and with 5,000 men a year leaving the Fleet. At present there is no provision for training, and more and more of our trade will be carried under foreign flags. Such a crisis can await only a very brief study before it is tackled.

At the latest of the biannual Sealink conferences held in Annapolis this summer, which I, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and Conservative Members attended, Admiral Wesley McDonald, the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, warned his audience of parliamentarians, military officers, civil servants and strategists that his primary job was the protection of military resupply and economic shipping, but that this was becoming more difficult to do. This is the other side of the coin. He pointed out that 90 per cent. of military cargoes would have to come by sea, and studies showed that this would need up to 800 sailings a month, but the decline of the Western shipping industry meant that fewer ships would be available to transport the men and materials needed.

SACLANT also estimated that he had access to only half the warships that he needed for the convoy and escort role and that force goals were simply not being met. He was increasingly concerned about the deficiencies in NATO's ability to sustain a long conflict in the Atlantic. When challenged, the Government insist again and again that they are meeting force goals, but we should recall that we are responsible for providing 70 per cent. of ready forces in the eastern Atlantic. Given the decline in our own surface warship numbers—the Minister did not deny my implication—we are bound to wonder how serious the Government can be when they say that they are meeting force goals. If they are, whom did Admiral McDonald have in mind when he said that force goals were not being met?

It is true that in the spring, after a similar public warning by the Admiral earlier in the year, the Government announced that eight ships which should have gone into the standby squadron would be retained for the active fleet, and that two Rothesay class frigates which were to be stood down would be kept on for perhaps another year or so. In addition, I do not think the Minister will deny that he has come under at least as much, if not more, pressure from the Opposition Front Bench and some of my hon. Friends. Despite the retention of those ships, whom did Admiral McDonald have in mind when he said that force goals were not being met if he was not thinking of us?

In Navy International in March—he uttered the same warnings in June—Admiral McDonald wrote: Today I have less than half the carriers and escorts I need…I have only two thirds of the SSNs, between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of the MPA"— maritime patrol aircraft— and far fewer MCMVs than I need. This warning from SACLANT, together with the longstanding reminders from the Opposition Benches, no doubt explains the Secretary of State's reversal of policy, because it was nothing less.

For the third time, I ask whether we are meeting our force goals. In its early days NATO had a maritime superiority over the Warsaw pact of greater than 3:1. Based on historic examples such as world war 1 and world war 2, that ratio is just about what is needed for a maritime alliance to prevail against a land power with internal lines of communication.

Sir Anthony Buck (Colchester, North)

I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he agree that he has never met an admiral with enough ships? Does he not also agree that the admiral to whom he has referred is greatly alarmed at the possibility of our nation departing from the nuclear commitment?

Mr. Duffy

What the hon. and learned Gentleman says about admirals is the usual disclaimer which all Ministers and former Ministers make when cornered about their responsibilities. On this occasion, I am not with the hon. and learned Gentleman. I do not share his criticism of admirals. Indeed, I shall quote another admiral later whom he knows and admires, and I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman will find it difficult to reject his advice.

In the last decade or so, because of economic crises, austerity campaigns and cost cutting, along with each nation's attempt to maintain balanced forces, the ratio between NATO and the Warsaw pact has changed completely and is now only 1:1 or less, yet, even though our maritime forces are stretched globally as well as in the NATO area the trend in the number of surface units continues downward.

The president of the United States-based ultra high-tech Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation took the Annapolis conference into the future of naval conflict. Telecommunications were in the midst of an unending revolution, he said, and the problems of managing them would soon be even more complicated by Third world countries crowding into the area. Microelectronics would soon provide embedded computers for weapons systems which would allow them to perform missions now requiring half this Chamber full of equipment.

It was also prophesied that future commanders would be able to detect and target thousands of objects in seconds, but there was caution about the prospects of a radical breakthrough in anti-submarine warfare technology. It was doubted whether there were signs of a broad area sea surveillance system able to see a submarine unless it was fairly near the surface. In other words, technology will not come to the rescue of this Government or the Secretary of State. There are no great new discoveries or strategies just around the corner, and no panaceas in the wings, for the Government's maritime shortfalls or deficiencies. There are just the cold, hard facts of force levels, ships and numbers, which are becoming more disturbing as time goes on and the facts become clearer. This was highlighted in the closing portion of the Minister's speech. His comments about Trident represented more than anything else an apology to those Members on both sides who believe in the importance of a surface fleet. We would give priority to that concept, but the Minister was effectively arguing the opportunity cost of Trident in terms of surface units.

The financial squeeze imposed by the 1981 White Paper extended right across the surface Navy. In addition to the demise of Invincible, Fearless and Intrepid, now rescinded, the sustainable level of the frigate and destroyer force would, other things being equal, have been halved and has been only partially reprieved. The Minister talked about new classes. Let us see them come on stream. Apart from short-term reprieves and including the eight ships that were to have gone into the standby squadron, the planned frigate and destroyer strength is now 50 or 52. No matter how one does the sums, and whatever soundings one takes, we still cannot agree on the number. Conservative Members, including former Navy Ministers, are not given the clear picture that they seek when they table questions about this. Conservative Members may care to consider the written answer at column 88 of the Official Report for 27 February, which shows how difficult it is to get a clear picture of the surface strength.

The question now is whether finance will be provided to maintain a new construction programme large enough to sustain that reduced force. It is disturbing enough to note that the strength is now only 50 or 52—a decline of at least 15 per cent., perhaps nearer 20 per cent., since the Minister took office. The Minister knows that one must have ships coming on stream to sustain that strength, because ships are going out all the time. Five frigates and a destroyer are going out this year, and six frigates next year. The Minister himself gave that information to the House. Ships are going out in larger numbers than they are coming in.

Delays in completing the latest of the Navy's Sea Dart missile destroyers will mean that only one major surface warship and one submarine will be completed for the Navy this year. That is the smallest number of ships to join the Fleet in any year this century. Only one destroyer, one frigate and one submarine were completed last year. At this rate, there will be no warship building at all by the end of the century. The same applies to merchantmen. Yet numbers are vital, numbers have a quality of their own—or is the Navy now firmly in the grip of structural disarmament?

The Minister mentioned the type 23. Perhaps the most compelling argument for its introduction was that it would be cheaper. When it was announced, a figure as low as C60 million was mentioned. What is the present cost? Has it become gold-plated like some other classes? We have been hearing throughout the year that the first order was being placed this year, but what about the next order and the one after that? What numbers do the Government have in mind? Conservative Members should be trying to wring that information out of the Government. We also need to know how long the type 23 is to run.

Perhaps the Government have realised that we have been investing too much in costly' and sophisticated new equipment. In The Naval Review, a magazine circulated only to serving naval officers, one officer writes: Reliability…means that any weapons system will work the moment I want it. Recalling his experience in the Falklands, he added: There were times when mine did not. His report highlights the fact that sophisticated new equipment might be motivating structural disarmament. It might also be too much for crews to handle. The new equipment also gave rise to a large number of health problems.

Support for that officer's view that simple, easy-to-use and, one hopes, cheaper weapons might hold the key to efficient ship defence in the future came from Admiral Sir James Eberle, a very distinguished former Cincfleet and latterly Cincnavhome, whom I know the hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) admires. Admiral Eberle, who supervised the assembly of the task force, is on record as saying: Many of us had very deep worries about how well our ships and weapons would do in the South Atlantic. Frankly, people's expectations weren't very high. Reliability wasn't nearly good enough; some systems obviously didn't work. He continued: The navy has allowed itself to be taken in by sophistication. We sacrificed reliability and simplicity for highly complex weapons that were highly unreliable. The Select Committee heard as much this year.

In that context, Admiral Eberle comments that, when he was briefed by civilian colleagues at the Ministry of Defence before appearing at a Select Committee, I was told to say no more than I possibly had to. If we put as much effort into preventing problems as we do in stopping skeletons coming out of the cupboard, things would be a bloody sight better. Is not the Navy in danger of being smothered by procurement? Cannot lead times, and thus costs, be reduced? When will we do something about Bath? When will someone take those people by the scruff and preferably get rid of most of them? Must we commit ourselves to pure, ever more sophisticated and costly Rolls-Royce warships? It is doubtful whether there will be a commensurate increase in naval Votes, given what we have heard from the Minister today about the Trident programme. How will this affect the proposed new offshore patrol vessel codenamed OPV Mk 3, which is currently under discussion? What about the review that the Navy is carrying out of the shipping that it will need to maintain its ability to mount amphibious operations from the mid-1990s?

The most radical developments of the next few years may well occur not in the shipyards but in the infrastructure, manning and training of the Navy, and that is where our priorities should now be. The Government never tire of telling us that Trident will absorb only 3 per cent. of the total defence budget over the period of its procurement and only 6 per cent. of the equipment budget, but the absorption of 6 per cent. of the equipment budget by Trident is almost double the 3.2 per cent. being spent this year on "war and contingency stocks". At the annual conference of NATO's parliament in Brussels earlier this month my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North and I heard more vigorous claims for those two items and sustainability generally from all quarters than for anything else. We heard no calls for the type of system that the Minister was defending today.

As the Falklands war showed, modern warfare consumes a far greater amount of ammunition and all kinds of stores than had been estimated. Linked closely with inadequate force levels, therefore, is the question whether we can properly support the forces that we have. For example, do we have enough missiles, gun ammunition, sonobuoys and spare parts? In other words, what about the bread and butter? And can we get those vital sustainability items to our platforms whenever and wherever required, given the experience of the Falklands?

What is being done to redress the critical inadequacy of Alliance mine warfare capabilities? My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan will have more to say about that later. That is where the greatest need and perhaps the greatest gap exists. Is the Minister satisfied with survivability as well as sustainability in vital areas such as ASW and air defence equipment, electronic warfare and communications systems? In the light of the Falklands experience, is the Minister satisfied that enough is being done to improve damage control? Despite all that sorrowful experience, one still hears that there are gaps.

The use of civilian assets is on the other side of the defence spectrum. Why is there no reference to the recommendations of the joint committee comprising the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Transport and the General Council of British Shipping to stockpile such items as light guns, "chaff' radar and torpedo decoys for the self-defence of merchant ships? Is it not now perfectly clear that, wherever possible, we must back up high-priced warships with low-cost force multipliers such as portable soft kill defences, helicopter decks and a replenishment capability for earmarked reinforcement ships?

The defence statement said that the total of 66,400 officers and men in the services before the 1981 defence review would be reduced by 11,000 in the early 1990s. With three shore establishments closing by the end of 1985 and others later, the intention is to reduce the number of men ashore by 25 per cent. between 1981 and 1988, and thereafter a further reduction of 15 per cent. is expected. Inevitably, that will mean that more sailors' part two professional training will have to be done at sea. Will there be sufficient ships to meet current tasks and give younger officers and ratings practical experience at sea? Will not more sea time, with a substantial reduction in shore training, affect signing on for further service, particularly among the more experienced?

Is it not the case that, over and above those problems, the Navy is still trying to make larger manpower cuts than previously planned, while operating more ships than the number for which allowance has been made? The House will welcome the Minister's announcement of an increase in the Royal Naval Reserves complement.

We come to affordability. Is there any truth in the article on 25 November in The Sunday Times, which stated that the current examination of long-term costings reveals that, on current commitments, the Navy is £1.5 billion over budget? The Secretary of State has assured the House that a review of the cost of buying Trident is to be speeded up in response to fears of a serious increase in cost. Since he made that statement, the financial pressure has increased as the pound continues to wilt in the shadow of the United States dollar and the problems of public spending become less tractable.

This year's defence Estimates used a sterling-dollar rate, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) reminded the House, of $1.53 to the pound, but this week the rate has dropped below $1.20 to the pound. A drop of 20 per cent. in the exchange rate boosts Trident's cost, at 1983–84 prices, by about 10 per cent. It is instructive to compare current with previous estimates of the Trident programme. Because of the limitation of time I shall not cite the figures, but it is instructive for Conservative Members to look at the past four years and see how, year after year, Government figures have steadily increased. Initially, about 30 per cent. of the work was done in the United States, with 70 per cent. scheduled for Britain. By June of this year the split had become 45:55, and it is now estimated that the fall in the sterling-dollar rate has raised the dollar component above 50 per cent.

There is a curious arrangement by which Britain pays for the American components in advance and loses interest which would otherwise accrue. There are Conservative Members as well as the senior figures in the Navy, Army, and Air Force who see the Trident programme as gravely damaging to a coherent defence policy for Britain. In June, in the debate on the defence Estimates, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces defended Trident, as he did this afternoon. My reply to him is that NATO is a political as well as a military organisation.

The deployment of cruise underlined the importance of public understanding and support. I am therefore bound to ask him, whatever his defence of Trident, whether he will be able to carry it through. We must carry a more sensitive public opinion with us than we had to do at one time. The reassurance of public opinion is an important job for the Government as well as for NATO. Reassurance is a complement of the policy of deterrence.

At one time the basic Allied approach of adequate strength, political solidarity, the pursuit of a more stable relationship between East and West and the repeated commitment to significant arms control measures provided a sound basis for public support, but not so today. We now have to go beyond that. The emphasis now must be on reduced tension, lower levels of armaments and the pursuit of less-reliant nuclear strategies, through improved conventional forces.

If, earlier this month in Brussels, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North and I heard one bid more than any other—apart from those which I have mentioned, which are bound up with sustainability—it was for conventional forces right across the Alliance. That call came from American senators and congressmen as well as from Dutch and German Socialist MPs. At that recent conference we were reminded by some speakers that General Rogers, SACEUR, had told them. either individually or in speeches, which they had heard during the year, that he was looking for a better infrastructure and improved sustainability—not more missiles or improved strategic weapons systems such as Trident. In so far as this country insists on going ahead in this way, it will only be duplicating the United States' contribution, and in doing so it will cut across NATO's and Britain's priorities.

We have the means and the capacity, thanks to ET, to place more reliability on conventional arms and thereby fulfil all the more effectively our maritime obligations to NATO. We lack the will on the part of the Government. We lack a credible, affordable naval policy likely to yield the right size and shape of the Fleet. The Government prefer other priorities, arising from a different conceptual framework. If the Government continue to bear the "£10 billion headache", as Max Hastings put it in The Standard tonight, we shall not get the right size and shape of the Fleet. Whatever economies the Secretary of State secures, if the Government proceed much further down this road they will be brought up sharply—the Daily Telegraph warned of this on 16 May last—against a further defence review as well as an erosion of our conventional fighting capability. That is the prospect which the Government have shown no sign of confronting.

6.27 pm
Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I am not sure that I altogether followed the argument of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) at the end of his speech. I simply content myself with saying that the House always recognises the warm sincerity in anything that the hon. Gentleman says on this subject.

At the end of the last Session, on an initiative of the right hon. Members for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and myself—the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth was a driving force—the all-party maritime affairs group was established with the excellent Commander Rankin as secretary. The group has begun its work. It has almost 100 members and is organised along the lines of the former parliamentary and scientific committee. Put shortly, the group's purpose is to inform Members of Parliament better about maritime matters and to draw the attention of Government and Parliament to matters of significance and national importance in maritime affairs. I have no mandate of any sort to speak for that group, but I am sure that I speak for all its members and many others both inside and outside the House when I express deep anxiety about the maritime scene. Seafaring is in crisis, and it is necessary for us to extricate ourselves from this position.

I should like to bring four matters to the attention of Ministers, especially my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, whom I greatly admire for his practical experience and competence.

My first point follows the comments by the hon. Member for Attercliffe. The deadline for signature of the convention on the law of the sea is 9 December. More than 140 countries out of the 159 members of the United Nations have signed the convention. Those signatories include the whole of the European Community—with the exceptions of Germany, where there are special problems and Britain—and many members of the Commonwealth. We should be given a plain answer. Why has the United Kingdom not signed the convention? It is said in the corridors of the House that the matter was discussed this morning in Cabinet. If that is so, the House is entitled to know the decision. The convention is an attempt to replace anarchy with order, and in my opinion it is right that the United Kingdom should sign.

Secondly, I should like to come to the state of the merchant marine. My hon. Friend referred to it in his speech which was wholly admirable, especially at the end when he discussed trident and cruise. The hon. Member for Attercliffe also referred to the merchant marine. There is no doubt that a big, effective and prosperous merchant shipping fleet is the fourth arm of Britain's defence. That has been stated often. It is true. More than 90 per cent. of our trade is carried in ships. Without ships to carry goods, raw materials and food to and from our country, we should neither work nor eat as we are accustomed to. Our whole standard of living depends upon shipping.

The state of our merchant marine gives rise to the gravest possible anxiety. In 1975, we had 1,600 ships—50 million tonnes deadweight. We are now reduced to just over 700 ships, a deadweight tonnage of 18.5 million. That is a decline of nearly two thirds within eight years. I understand that the General Council of British Shipping estimates a fleet of no more than 400 to 500 ships by the end of 1986.

There is worse to come. United Kingdom shipowners have ordered less than 100,000 tonnes deadweight during the past 12 months. During the past three months no orders have been placed for ships, yet, merely to maintain the present level of our merchant fleet, orders need to be given for about 1 million tonnes deadweight each year.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend said that there will be an in-depth study. There is no need for that because we are aware of the position now. If his Department does not know, it should and could find out the facts quickly. What is needed, is urgent action.

The position, which was already serious, will be exacerbated by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's 1984 Budget measures. They removed the 100 per cent. first year allowances, as the House will remember, and also the free depreciation which the shipping industry had previously and specially received. At the same time, the Chancellor altered the overseas earnings tax relief provisions. That hit seafarers hard. It has probably also increased staff costs in British ships this year by no less than 3 per cent. Those measures have adversely affected costs and investment in the industry.

The implications of a declining merchant navy for defence, as the hon. Gentleman said, for maritime employment, for our balance of payments, the carriage of our trade and reserves for the Fleet are well known.

I understand that the General Council of British Shipping has proposed a number of measures to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reverse the current disastrous trends. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will say immediately to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that he should consider those proposals with the utmost attention, with a view to implementing at least some of them.

I hope that in his 1985 Budget the Chancellor will heed those representations, because at the moment there is no other leading maritime country which treats its shipping industry as badly as we do.

I am all for competition, but the competition which the British merchant fleet is experiencing at present in comparison with other nations is unfair, and something must be done about it.

I come to my third point. I thought that the hon. Member for Attercliffe used excellent language when he spoke about naval shipbuilding. His question about the cost of the type 23 frigate was pertinent. When he said that numbers have a quality of their own—I think that that was something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State once said—I wholly agree with him. I also agree with the hon. Member for Attercliffe when he said that we do not want gold-plated ships. We want more, simpler and cheaper ships. We could have them if we tried. We used to have them in the war, as many of us in the House remember well. There is no reason why we should not have them now.

I listened to my hon. Friend when he described the size of the Soviet submarine fleet. I am bound to say yet again—I knew the figures before, of course—that I was horrified by what I heard. We have nothing like enough ships to begin to cope with that menace. The sooner we alter our procurement policy to ensure that we receive better value for money, the better.

I wish to share with the House my deep anxieties about another matter—the present position of the hydrographic department and the naval surveying service. The House is aware that I have raised this matter before. I do not apologise for doing so again. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I pay a warm tribute to the splendid men and women in the Navy, and their civilian counterparts. Their competence, skills and dedication are a credit to the service and to our nation.

It is invidious to mention individuals, but I hope that the House will not mind if I refer directly to two of them. One of them is Rear-Admiral Ritchie, an outstanding Hydrographer of the Navy, who is now retiring after 10 years of work at the International Hydrographic Bureau. The second is Rear-Admiral Sir David Haslam, who retires in February after 10 years as Hydrographer. They are excellent men. They have been outstanding leaders in this subject.

My interest in hydrography derives not just from the fact that the hydrographic department is in Taunton but because, like countless other mariners, sailing professionally or for recreation, I am a wholehearted admirer of the high quality of the publications that it produces. As the House will confirm, the term "Admiralty chart", the only world series of charts, is synonymous all over the world with the highest quality. We are proud of the hydrographic department in Taunton. There are many good reasons for being proud. Unlike almost all other defence efforts, it is no mere consumer of resources. It earns huge amounts for the taxpayer from sales. It is a pity that the "blue paper", if I may call it that, does not set out how much is earned, not least in foreign currency.

The department is also indispensable to Great Britain's general trading effort. Remembering, as I said earlier, how much of Britain's trade is carried in ships, the point is obvious.

With the resources of the sea bed awaiting commercial exploitation, the need for competent and thorough survey work, particularly around our own waters, is re-emphasised.

Last but by no means least, as my right hon. and hon. Friends who are Ministers will know well, the development of Trident and the towed RAY frigate and the need to be effective in anti-submarine warfare make it plain that hydrography is crucial to the defence of the realm. On every count, therefore, hydrography is crucial, yet this arm of the service is dangerously neglected. It lacks proper attention and adequate resources. The history of its management by the bureaucracy in recent years is a tale of muddle, failure to make decisions and incompetence on a staggering scale.

It will be within the knowledge of many hon. Members that the recommendations of the hydrographic study group of 1974 have never been implemented, although they are still valid. The House may well ask why not. What is the point of having a study group—we are now to have this other study group—if its recommendations are not followed?

I shall give the House five examples of what I described. First, a glance at one of the charts included in the 1983 report of the Hydrographer shows that well below one third of Great Britain's coastline is surveyed to modern standards. Surely that is a scandal. Secondly, there are three large ships in the surveying fleet—the Hecla and Hecate, commissioned in 1975, and the Hydra, commissioned in 1966. Those ships are 16 or 17 years old.

The House will remember the brilliant service that those ships gave as hospital ships during the Falklands conflict, where their work earned universal praise and admiration for the men who sailed in them, yet nothing is scheduled to replace them. What is the position? Are they to sail on until they fall to bits, rusted rotten? It is right, I am sure, to demand that a programme for their replacement should be announced in the near future.

Thirdly, I turn to the smaller ships in the surveying fleet. It is good that the Gleaner has been commissioned, and there is a new coastal survey vessel. However, the three inshore survey craft in the fleet are now 25 years old and are due, I believe, to be paid off at the end of the year. It seems extraordinary to me that, with only a month to go, we do not know what is to replace them.

The 1982 report by the Hydrographer told us that hovermarine surface effect ship trials were under way. They were, I believe, successful. I hope that my right hon. Friend will tell us whether that is so. I hope that he will tell us, either today or very soon, what will replace the inshore craft, and how soon.

Fourthly, I turn to the civilian side. In 1978 the civilian complement, almost all based at Taunton, numbered 1,066. By 1983, it had fallen to 987. In the business of management, the bureaucrats seem to proceed by a series of salami cuts. That is not the way to get the best effort out of some dedicated people, many of whom are my good friends in my home town. The nation owes much to their devotion, as was demonstrated at the time of the Falklands conflict.

I do not know what the present numbers are. Last year's report by the Hydrographer has still not been published, although we have nearly reached the end of 1984.

Who in the Ministry of Defence is responsible for this inexcusable dilatoriness? By the time the report appears it will be almost a year out of date and much less useful than if it had been published earlier. I consider late reporting to be an insult to the House and to the taxpayer. I hope that my right hon. Friend can give us an undertaking that the Hydrographer's reports will be published more promptly in future.

I believe that I am right to say that, when the figures for last year are published, we shall learn that the civilian numbers have been reduced below 900 and that further cuts are intended.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will allow me to state plainly that the process of cuts should stop. It is no longer the fat that is being cut, if there ever was any; it is the bone that is being cut into. If, there are any more cuts in numbers, functions will have to be reduced, and that will be very much to the disadvantage of the hydrographic fleet.

As the hydrography department is a productive department, it should surely be possible to exempt it from the rule of cuts by numbers, irrespective of function, applied by the Ministry of Defence. There should be some formula under which allowance is made for the productive nature of the work that Taunton is engaged in.

I have a sneaking feeling that the reduction in the scope of the official hydrographic effort is to some extent a deliberate policy. I hope that I am wrong—no doubt my right hon. Friend will tell me if I am—in thinking that some inexperienced bureaucrat believes that we can safely turn the whole fleet—or a major part of it-over to the private sector.

No one is more passionate for the private sector than I am. I earn my living in industry, and always have done during the years that I have been in the House. I do so partly because I value my independence and partly because I believe that, if it is possible for an hon. Member to be active in business, he may prove to be a better judge of many practical matters which are discussed in the House, such as taxes, trade and many aspects of commerce and administration. [Interruption.] Right hon. and hon. Members may agree with me or not, but that is my view, and I am happy to see a reinforcement of the national surveying effort by commercial firms. There is much that they can usefully do. However, it would be folly further to reduce our naval hydrographic effort. Any reduction in the naval supervision would be a most dangerous course from the point of view of defence, and would break an undertaking which my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) was good enough to give me a couple of years ago in an answer to a question.

I do not believe, either, that such a course of action would necessarily provide the best value for the taxpayer's money. We must maintain a strong staff of naval specialists and they must remain in overall command of the effort, whichever Government Department is, for the time being, responsible for the bulk of the funding.

I am sure that it is a matter of infinite regret to many hon. Members besides myself that although a number of these points have been made before in interviews with Ministers and in public debate both in the House and elsewhere, the Defence Ministry has treated hydrography with a carelessness that verges on the discreditable. I hope that Ministers will be prepared to give the House credible assurances that that will cease to be the case in future.

I repeat what I said when I began my speech. In my view our maritime affairs are in a state of deep crisis, but what is wrong can be put right. I have confidence in my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department. I look to them to see that what is wrong is put right.

6.46 pm
Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

The right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) has made a trenchant speech, and I agree with every word of it. I agree with his commitment to the necessity to sign the law of the sea convention. I hope that the Government will carefully assess their position on the issue. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the decline and serious state of our merchant marine. I agree with him about the need to consider the high cost of some of the surface ships that we are producing at the moment, and whether there might not be alternative methods. I agree with his every word about the hydrographic service, both as someone who formerly had responsibility for the Royal Navy and as someone who sails around our shores.

I have an apology to make to the Minister. I have a long-standing engagement this evening which would have been very difficult to cancel, so I may not be in my place throughout the debate, although I will try to return. I hope that neither the Minister nor the hon. Member who winds up for the Labour party will take my absence as a disservice.

The Minister has made a speech on the central question that faces the Navy—the Trident expenditure—and has produced detailed arguments for the Government's case to an extent that we have not heard before. I thank him for that. I shall try to deal with the matter as he suggested we should deal with it—in a cool, rational and dispassionate way.

The facts facing the overall defence budget are stark, and are only just becoming clear to the country. For well over a year, I have warned of the dangers to the defence budget in 1986–87. In the February White Paper, for the first time, we saw that there was to be a dramatic drop from a funding of 3 per cent. for 1985–86—an increase in real terms—to zero growth.

My own fear is that we will see an absolute reduction in the defence budget for 1986–87. That will put intolerable pressures on all the armed services—not just the Royal Navy.

It would be absurd to pretend that the Trident programme alone is responsible for the pressure on the defence budget. However, that programme now represents a massive cost to the defence budget, and the way in which it has been arranged has put the heaviest pressure on the naval budget. When we first committed ourselves to the Trident programme, the cost was an addition to the defence budget. It is only in recent years that it has been placed on the naval budget.

As many aspects of the Navy are now under review, it is very sad that the Minister failed to say anything about the sword of Damocles that hangs over the royal dockyards, which have now existed for months under the prospect of a report recommending an agency provision of shattering proportions. Some hon. Members may not realise the enormity of what is proposed. Men who have for decades given service to our country would be placed on a five-year contract and employed by private contractors who could, after five years, withdraw those contracts. The men would lose all their certainty of employment.

Privatisation in many other fields has never dreamed of treating the work force in such a way. At least there has been continuity of employment. I must urge the Minister not to pursue the Levine agency proposal. It is damaging to the dockyards, to confidence in the Government's word, to employment and deeply damaging to the servicing of the Royal Navy.

We do not know what will happen. We have accepted that a frigate and a submarine should go out to private contract——

Mr. Douglas


Dr. Owen

Well, I have accepted it.

Mr. Douglas


Dr. Owen

The reality is that they are going out to private contract. That has been proposed repeatedly by Select Committees and, whatever we might feel about it, that is what is happening. Having accepted that reality, however, prejudging the assessment of the cost-effectiveness of private repair as opposed to dockyard repair is unfair in the extreme to the work force.

The Trident programme is the central issue which faces the Government in formulating defence policy and the Royal Navy. The official cost of Trident in March 1984 was given to the House as £8.729 billion, with 45 per cent. of the money being spent in the United States. The estimate was calculated on the then exchange rate of $1.53 to the pound. It is now $1.20 to the pound. Each drop of 1 cent costs an additional £26 million, so the cost of the Trident programme has risen by £780 million since March. That gives a new estimate of £9.480 billion at 1983–84 prices. When that figure is converted to approximate 1984–85 prices by adding a modest 4 per cent. for United States inflation and 5 per cent. for United Kingdom inflation, we get an estimate of£9.9 billion. It is effectively£10 billion, the inflation factor contributing between £420 million and £450 million to the total. That is a pretty conservative estimate of the present running costs of the Trident programme. Others are putting it higher, at £11 billion or even £12 billion. Let us assume, then, that the programme costs £10 billion. Each £100 million of extra cost of Trident means a cut of 0.1 per cent. in real terms in the defence budget. If we take an assumption of zero growth in the 1986–87 budget and an addition of £1.2 billion in extra costs, there will be an absolute reduction of 1.2 per cent. in the defence budget in 1986–87. Nobody believes that that will not be devastating to the defence budget.

The problem in all this is that the dollar might fall against the pound but at that time the British economy would be in reasonably good condition and could absorb the difference. If however, we were to have a one-dollar pound, which is not wholly out of the question, we should be at maximum weakness and our defence budget would be under incredible pressure. Expenditure on Trident so far has been only about £200 million, but £600 million has been committed. By 1988, one third of the total, or more than £3 billion, will have been committed. To revise the cost of Trident at about £10 billion at 1984–85 prices would mean that it would account for 13 per cent. to 14 per cent., instead of the previous estimate of 11 per cent., of the total defence equipment budget and 36 per cent. to 38 per cent., instead of the original 33 per cent., of the Royal Navy's budget.

The peak of Trident expenditure will coincide with the Royal Navy's heavy building programme for new ships. Between 1985 and 1995 there are to be built eight new type 23 frigates at a cost of £200 million each and at a gross cost of £1.6 billion, and a hunter-killer submarine programme costing £1 billion, type 2400 submarines are going out at £100 million and the EH101 helicopter programme is to cost £1.2 billion. Above all, what will happen in regard to replacements for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, the specialist amphibious vessels which are vital to the Royal Marines and the southern flank?

Mr. Stanley

There is one misapprehension under which the right hon. Gentleman is labouring. I should like to draw attention to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in a letter to the Leader of the Liberal party. He was quite clear about the impact of the Trident programme on the Royal Navy's expenditure. He wrote: As for the effect on Royal Navy expenditure I would emphasise that individual Service programmes are not considered in isolation from the remainder of the Defence programme. It is therefore not correct to envisage the burden of Trident falling exclusively on a limited area, which is now perceived to be the naval budget. We take a tri-service view of priorities in the defence budget.

Dr. Owen

That has always been the case, but the fact remains that if it were to fall only on the naval budget, it would represent 36 per cent. to 38 per cent. of that budget. I am reassured that it will not fall exclusively, but it will still fall on the three services and I look on the defence effort as being across the services.

We must face the fact that if Trident continues, it will gouge critical items of equipment out of our crucial defences and gravely weaken our conventional defence. If the Government were pursuing a steady 3 per cent. per year real terms increase in the defence budget beyond 1986–87, the cost could be absorbed, but they are not. The fact is that we shall not make our conventional commitment to NATO which the new Secretary-General, Lord Carrington, wants us to make and which we all know we shall have to make in Europe if we are to avoid the consequences of Senator Nunn's amendment. That was just a warning shot across the bows, but there is no doubt that the United States Senate will not put up with the net European contribution to its conventional defence effort during the next decade being zero growth. There has to be some growth in that contribution. Against that background, I shall now consider the alternative to Trident of which the Minister spoke.

I urge the Minister not to go on talking about the independent nuclear deterrent. We do not talk about independent aircraft, independent Lance or an independent brigade of military. We are making our defence effort within the context of NATO. Any naval or nuclear effort that we make is a contribution to NATO and it is in that sense that we must examine what we contribute in terms of nuclear defence. I believe—I have made it quite clear in the past and stick by my words—that if Britain can afford to make a contribution to the nuclear defence of NATO, it will strengthen the overall nuclear deterrence in NATO. However, I believe that that is a mimimum deterrence.

I take issue with the Minister on his talk of the five nuclear weapons states. It is not possible to compare Britain with any of the other four. Two are by any standards super-powers, so nobody believes that we should match the weapon system that Britain might contribute to NATO with the Soviet Union or the United States. The Minister then mentioned China. China is wholly independent and potentially a super-power. The comparison is not realistic.

The most realistic comparison is France, but the difference between Britain and France is that we are wholeheartedly committed to the integrated command structure of NATO. We are also in a quite different position. Moreover, France is not making a replacement decision. It is not as yet facing the fact that its submarine force will be out of date, as the Minister said, in the mid-1990s. When France decides in the early part of the next century to replace its nuclear submarine fleet, what it will be able to afford is an open question.

I shall now examine the alternatives and the criteria which the Minister gave. He said that if we have a submarine-launched deterrent system it must be dedicated to the deterrent role. I disagree. I know that the Minister examined the issue closely in 1980 and he tells us that he looked at it again in 1983. I looked at it extremely hard between 1977 and 1979. If we take the Minister's view of a minimum deterrent having to have a super-sophisticated ballistic missile system capable of penetrating the Galosh defences around Moscow, I have no doubt that we come out with Trident. However, I do not believe that those are any longer realistic criteria against which we should judge a minimum deterrent contribution to NATO. We must consider the alternatives. They are not perfect. Anyone who pretends that submarine-launched cruise, were that thought advisable, is a better system than Trident, judged by any military or naval criteria, is deluding himself.

The question that is now being asked by the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, The Standard, and increasingly by serious commentators looking at Britain's force levels for the next 10 or 20 years, is[...] can we afford the price of purchasing such a super-sophisticated system? Trident is not just a natural follow-on from Polaris. It is a substantial increase in megatonnage and warhead numbers. It means that we are contributing to the arms race. Therefore, we are not levelling out at a Polaris level.

Then comes the question of the deterrent role having to be dedicated. The nuclear-carrying cruise missiles that are now being deployed in ever-increasing numbers in the United States navy, will not be wholly dedicated to the nuclear deterrent role. They will have a mixed role. It may be said that on top they have a super-sophisticated deterrent system.

It is interesting that the Sturgeon, Permit and Los Angeles classes are first going for eight cruise missiles using existing torpedo tubes and then increasing it by 12, adding a vertical launch and adapting and modifying existing submarines, making 20 in all. All the arguments have been gone through.

One may come to a different conclusion. The submarine launch is not the only one. Many serious people have said that the Polaris system should be replaced with a similar system and have argued the case for that. I prefer to stick with existing technology.

I then ask what the Soviet navy is doing. I do not need to ask very hard, because the Government describe in their White Paper how the USSR is actively engaged in a test programme to develop long-range cruise missiles for launch from ground, sea and air platforms. These will be primarily for nuclear strike and have ranges estimated up to 3,000 km. The air- and sea-launched versions have the potential for intercontinental strategic strike, depending on the platforms. The cruise missile, as presently designed by the United States, has a range of 2,500 km. Its warhead is between 200 and 250 kilotonnes. Britain is after a different type of deterrent from the one it has had before. It is a contribution to NATO. It is a minimum deterrent. To say that it is necessary to have that vast number of cruise missiles to produce saturation defence is to take a criterion which is unrealistic. The criterion taken is to match Trident.

If one is in the business of spending money on a submarine-launched cruise missile to get exactly the same effect as Trident, I have no doubt that the Minister's figures are correct. One needs a large number of cruise missiles and dedicated extra SSNs and that will be costly.

Mr. Stanley

First, will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States is making as its assured second strike capability a cruise missile system? They are certainly not. They are resting on a ballistic system. Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge from his previous background that the criterion is not a minimum deterrent? The only justification for being in the deterrent business, with all that is involved, is not a minimum deterrent but what is a credible deterrent to the Soviet Union. The right hon. Gentleman is not addressing that issue.

Dr. Owen

Minimum and credible are exactly the same thing.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)


Dr. Owen

Yes they are. There is no point having a minimum deterrent unless it is credible. Therefore, the question is: what is the minimal level that is credible? The assumption throughout the Minister's speech is that only Trident is credible. He might even tone that down to say that only Polaris is credible. He may say that the decision was taken to go for Chevaline and, therefore, the Moscow criterion is still the most vital element of credibility.

In retrospect, to be blunt, I think that once the antiballistic missile treaty was signed in the early 1970s, it was probably unwise to go for the hardened programme. But I took my share of responsibility for continuing with the hardening of Chevaline from 1977 onwards, largely because so much had been spent on it and there was a great political danger of a public cancellation affecting the credibility of the deterrent. It was perfectly reasonable not to disclose a decision on the updating of a weapons system which was going through at the time. I do not think that we would have lost anything by making it known. But the decision was taken by the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan Governments, and I am prepared to support that. The only difference in the Government's announcement was the name of the Chevaline programme.

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider another criterion which arises as a result of SLCMs — verification? Surely that is important if, as we are led to believe, the Minister would wish to use that as some sort of negotiating counter. It is a highly provocative weapon, not one which is likely to result in any enthusiasm for planned disarmament.

Dr. Owen

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on one of the problems of submarine, air and land-launched cruise missiles. Their verification is a serious problem in arms control. But we must face the fact that they are already being deployed in massive numbers — over 4,000 SLCMs will be deployed by the United States and substantial numbers are being deployed by the Soviet Union. We are into the problem of verification. Many of us talked of that issue in the context of the SALT 2 agreement. There was a strong case for limiting cruise missile deployment on verification grounds. That is one factor that must be borne in mind, but it is only one factor. It is one reason why I would put any of the deterrent systems on the table for negotiation.

In the context of deep cuts in nuclear weapons, I would consider whether the price that we pay is worth it. But I am not prepared to disown the logical, rational case that the contribution to the NATO deterrent is not solely and exclusively the United States'. If we can do that by maintaining a strong conventional commitment to NATO, many of our NATO allies would like Britain to make that contribution. That has been the view of successive German Governments and I think that it is the view of French Governments.

The question is: what is credible for a country that is in economic decline, that is having to cut is defence budget, that is unable to make all the contribution that it wants to conventional defence, and is having to make difficult decisions across the whole range of defence? I cannot put it more bluntly than that.

The Minister is making a false comparison. He is making a comparison between Trident and a ballistic missile system. He is arguing that we either have everything or nothing. He may well end up with nothing, and that is the most serious point to be made. The point was made well by someone who said that the deterrent had to carry credibility with public opinion in Britian. It has to carry credibility with opinion in the services. There are growing signs that people in the services are questioning that.

After all, we are talking about whether we shall have the Royal Marines again. The Government nearly got rid of the Royal Marines in 1981. They made cuts in the defence budget in 1981 that put our forces in severe jeopardy. Fortunately, we learned enough from the tragic experience of the south Atlantic war to remind us that those cuts would do great damage.

Britain is now facing a climate of opinion on defence which is not dissimilar to the climate of opinion in the 1930s. We are not living up to our defence contribution. The record that the Minister points to over the past few years is a good one. The Government have reason to be given credit. Frankly, the Prime Minister of the previous Labour Government also merits a tribute. It was he who in 1977 had the courage to take through the NATO decision for a 3 per cent. increase in a difficult expenditure climate.

Many of the figures that the Minister now prays in aid had their foundation laid in the 1977–78 decision of the Labour Government. The tragedy of modern times is the way that the Labour party has moved away from its solid commitment to NATO and the knowledge that NATO is a nuclear and a conventional deterrence collective, decision-making body. One does not go to Moscow and negotiate with the Kremlin on the consequences of taking American nuclear bases out of Britain. If one wants to make that choice, one does it first and foremost in the context of NATO. One does not fall for the oldest ploy in the game, and for the 1978 statement that the Soviets used to try to fragment NATO by saying that they would save NATO countries from the threat of nuclear attack if NATO disowned nuclear deterrence. Not even the Dutch, Belgian Norwegian or Danish Socialists have fallen for that naked ploy by the Soviet Union, and it is a tragedy—although we do not expect anything else from the Leader of the Opposition that the Opposition's foreign affairs spokesman, the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), who was one of the most distinguished Secretaries of State that this country has ever had, should lend his name to that.

The issue will not go away. The Government have made the wrong decision over Trident. It is the hardest decision ever to have to reassess, but when the Minister said at the beginning of his speech that he wanted to make the Government's commitment clear beyond any doubt, those of us who had heard such words before knew very well that that was the start of making things far from clear. The fact is that there is deep doubt within the Ministry of Defence, and among some of the most serious people to be advising the Minister, about the rightness of that decision on Trident. The Minister will best serve the interests of this country during the next 20 to 30 years by reassessing that decision—and the sooner the better.

7.10 pm
Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

It is always interesting, although difficult, to follow the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). I agreed with him in his castigation of the Socialist party and its defence policy, but I found myself in some difficulty as to his own attitude. I believe that the previous Labour Administration continued to update Polaris by going for Chevaline for precisely the same reasons as the Government think it appropriate today to update our nuclear deterrent. I hope that Opposition Members will not suggest that Conservative Members do not go in for open government, because the Labour Government updated Polaris with the Chevaline programme without saying one iota to the House.

Dr. Owen

The idea that it was just the Labour Government is complete and absolute nonsense. The decision was initially made by the Heath Government but, rightly, it was never announced to the House then.

Sir Antony Buck

I think that I implied that the original decision was made by the Socialist Administration without giving any indication of what was going on. It was probably a mistake not to make the original decision clear to the House. I concede that, and I can see no reason why it should not have been. As an Under-Secretary of State, I was not privy to that decision. But Opposition Members cannot castigate us about open government when all the major secret spending was undertaken by the Heath Government and was then implemented by the Socialist Administration. I accept that it might have been appropriate for the Heath Administration to have said that they intended to update Polaris, but our intention to maintain an independent deterrent has always been part of Conservative policy. We have never been deflected from that policy, although that has not always been true of Opposition Members.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will deal with the speeches that have already been made and we look forward to that. I think that he is speaking from the Front Bench for the first time in a defence debate and we welcome him. I think that he has answered questions before, but that this is the first time that he is to conclude a defence debate. We look forward with interest to his speech. Of course, from his experience as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office he will have had considerable contact with the armed forces, and his experience can only be reinforced as he has more and more contact with them. I know that my admiration for the armed forces is shared by him and by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I welcome this debate, because hon. Members on both sides of the House had doubts about the reorganisation of the Ministry of Defence with respect to ministerial responsibilities, Some of us were worried that an individual Minister would not be responsible for a particular part of the armed forces and that we would not have an opportunity to debate the affairs of each service. In some ways, our worries were dispelled by the assurances that we received that the single service debates would continue. I know that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), like me, thought the matter important. Such debates at least allow us to go into greater detail on the affairs of the individual services, thus minimising the necessity for parliamentary moles, with people fighting a service's cause outside Parliament, or in an irregular manner. Thus, I welcome the debate.

I am in some difficulty, because I have just returned from a services visit to Cyprus which was superbly and efficiently conducted by all the armed forces, including the Royal Marines who are out there. That is another role that they play as part of our general peace-keeping mission there. But the efficiency ended the moment that I became civilianised, because all my baggage was lost in the early hours of this morning. The hours that I had hoped to devote to preparing a succinct speech were devoted instead to retrieving my baggage. I had complete faith when earlier I was in the hands of the Royal Air Force, but I am afraid that civilians failed me at London airport.

Some of us treasure the fact that we civilians can be brought into close contact with the Royal Navy through politics. I toyed with the idea of going into the Royal Navy, but my mathematics was so appalling that I did not attempt to go to Dartmouth to train even in some minor operational capacity for a warship. It is vital to have an understanding of mathematics for that. Thus I was very pleased—just as the hon. Member for Attercliffe was when it happened to him—to end up as a Minister with responsibility for the Royal Navy. Mathematics is important if one is a navigation or gunnery officer on a frigate, but it is less important at ministerial level, because there are excellent advisers who keep the mathematics relatively straightforward.

The fact that I have been brought into close contact with the Royal Navy has given me great satisfaction. I know that the hon. Member for Attercliffe, like me, regards his time as Minister as his finest time in politics. We should pay tribute to the Royal Navy. Without being jingoistic about it, I think that all hon. Members will agree that we have the best sailors in the world, the best training and much of the best equipment. That is not just jingoism, because in 1982 the efficiency and expertise of the Royal Navy, along with the efficiency of the other armed forces, proved it in the Falklands war. It was my privilege to lead the first British parliamentary delegation to that part of the world after hostilities had ended. Going down there, one pounds hour after hour in a Hercules across the south Atlantic. One then realises the vast distances involved and the magnitude of our effort achievement.

Of course the war was a tri-service effort but it was largely a Royal Navy effort, and its magnitude was outstanding. It has had a tremendous effect on the credibility of the western alliance. If a tough man in the Politburo had wondered whether the democracies of the Alliance would ever take action, he would have seen the United Kingdom using its maritime strength to ensure that a Fascist junta did not get away with a blatant invasion of the Falkland islands, and ensuring that the people there could continue to live in freedom.

I turn to the future of the Falkland Islands and the Navy. The Navy plays a significant role in maintaining their independence. It is sometimes suggested that the difficulties and expense of retaining the islands are more than we can bear. I do not agree. No more is needed than a battalion of strength armed with Rapier, a reinforcement capability with jets able to land on the extended runway, and the additional airport. Regarding the Navy, we need a nuclear hunter-killer submarine on patrol nearly all the time. We are to have about 17 such submarines, and one on patrol there most of the time would be a significant and singular deterrent to any foolish successor to Galtieri who contemplated a similar invasion.

The Royal Navy will have an extensive role to play in defending those islands. That leads me to the question of Trident and the replacement of our nuclear capability. Hon. Members may wonder how the Falklands conflict leads to a consideration of our nuclear deterrent. I shall explain. We must consider the scenario in the south Atlantic if it had been a little different. The Argentinian junta could have acquired a nuclear weapon. It probably would not have been highly sophisticated, but a nuclear weapon would not have been beyond the capability of a second-rank power such as Argentina. Under those circumstances had we not had our own nuclear weaponry, we would easily have been subject to nuclear blackmail. The junta could have told us that, if the task force did not turn back, a nuclear bomb would be targeted on it. That is not an unreal scenario.

The fact that we have, as a last resort, our nuclear capability, should enable us to sleep more easily in our beds at night. The arguments for retaining it are precisely the same as those which led the Labour Government to update the Polaris missile by continuing the Chevaline programme. The Minister will deal with the costing of it when he replies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State dealt with the matter in some detail at the Conservative party conference and at many other venues.

The important point to remember about the cost of Trident is that it will be spread over many years. In October the cost was estimated at £9 billion, and now it is just more than that. That cost would be spread over about 20 years. As a proportion of the defence programme it is significant, but it is not of such a transcendent character as to be unaffordable. We must consider the effect on our allies, especially the Americans, if we gave it up.

A serious result could be the decoupling—to use jargon—of the United States of America from our own defences. It may react with a resurgence of isolationism. Not surprisingly, such a force is always present in America and ready to point it out if Europeans do not do enough in their own defence. If one lives in the mid-west, New York is far away and Europe is an enormous distance away. If we Europeans were seen not to be properly deploying our defences or maintaining our capability, such a resurgence might occur in the United States. That would bring the position of the United Kingdom and the Alliance into jeopardy.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about ordering new ships. Further decisions must be made. It is important that we maintain our amphibious capability in the Royal Marines and Royal Navy. In the long term it is important to maintain our maritime role and ensure that our contribution to NATO is, in particular, a maritime one. It is also important that we maintain our capability to act outside NATO geographical guidelines. In that context, I believe that our German allies should be prepared to bear a greater burden of the defence of Europe, to enable us to contribute even more to, for example, the rapid deployment force.

The Government have proved that they are devoted to the Royal Navy and I know that many Opposition Members are similarly devoted to it. I fear what would happen if Opposition Members were returned with a commitment to lowering our defence capability to the lowest common denominator in NATO. For them to say that they will cut Trident and our independent nuclear capacity, does not let them off the hook. First, the costs do not fit; secondly, if they pursued that non-nuclear course, it would be a severe threat to NATO, possibly even causing its breakdown and certainly risking a decoupling of our connections with the United States. I hope that we shall maintain our Royal Navy capability. If my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench do not ensure that we maintain it, many Conservative Members will cause them severe difficulties.

7.27 pm
Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

We have had interesting speeches from the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and others who have shared responsibility in government for naval affairs. I include in them the quite extraordinarily able speech of the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), virtually every word of which I agree with. That is not surprising, because I am also associated with the parliamentary maritime group. Our proceedings have been dominated by the discussion of Trident, to which I shall refer shortly.

The hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) mentioned the Falkland Islands. The Minister has not told the House the nature of our present commitment to those islands. I understand—the Minister may not wish to speak about this for strategic reasons or on grounds of secrecy—that we have committed there between four and five frigates with backup support services, which are extremely costly. Although, theoretically, those figures can be devoted to NATO, the 8,000-mile journey is a long and difficult one. The commitment strains our resources considerably.

The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) said something about Labour defence policy. I was a member of the defence study group that drew up the policy, and one of its cornerstones is a firm commitment to NATO. There should be no question about that. We can discuss how far and how fast we should proceed to a non-nuclear role, and we can discuss American bases in Britain, but it is clear from the defence document that the Labour party is firmly committed to NATO. It also states clearly— this is a reversal of previous Labour party policy—that we recognise that former commitments to reduce defence expenditure will not be valid if we switch from nuclear to non-nuclear defences. It is obvious that that will be an extremely costly commitment.

There has been some discussion this evening about Trident, and the Minister owes us an answer on that. I have pursued the matter with the Secretary of State several times, and in effect he has replied that we must update the costs every year. With the value of sterling at present only ․1.20, the increase in cost will be considerable. We can debate the percentage of the capital spending programme for all services that would be taken up by Trident, but it is obvious that much money will be devoted to that weapon. This may or may not be the time to discuss our commitment to NATO and NATO strategy, but it is ridiculous for Government supporters to give the impression that Britain will use this so-called independent deterrent on its own. I cannot imagine a time when the United Kingdom would use Trident, presumably as a second-strike weapon, on its own.

The real guarantee of NATO and the real coupling with the United States is not necessarily Trident but the presence of more than 350,000 American ground forces in Europe. That is the essential ingredient of the coupling.

Some time ago the Select Committee on Defence visited Holy Loch. I stood on a tender and looked at the support ship for the American Poseidon submarines, and at that time—my friends in Scotland will not necessarily thank me for it— there were four Poseidon-type submarines. They were the equivalent of our entire sea borne strategic nuclear deterrent, and I understand that they are targeted through SACEUR. If Britain tries to play in that league perpetually, we must consider the repercussions of cost not only on the Navy budget but on the entire defence budget.

The right hon. Member for Devonport was right to say that some service men, a growing number of the public and some Conservative Back-Bench Members are questioning our expenditure on one weapon system. It will have the effect of crowding out other, especially naval, equipment. There is no question in my mind about that, because if we cancel the 1985–86 commitment to 3 per cent. growth, the implications will be great. The Select Committee on Defence will examine the matter, and I do not wish to anticipate the results of its searching examination, but it would appear that there will be considerable implications in terms of surface vessels and other naval equipment. Questions are beginning to be asked not only in the Labour, Liberal and Social Democratic parties, but in the Conservative party.

There was an announcement about Rosyth, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) catches your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will wish to expand on that. It was a typical Government trick. If they have little to say in a debate, they throw in some extremely futuristic suggestions. They said that Rosyth will refit some vessels in the 1990s, but the vessels have not yet been ordered. When can we expect those vessels to appear at Rosyth dockyard? I caution my constituents to remember that if pressure mounts on expenditure, the programme will be cancelled or severely modified. Doubts have already been voiced. Even if the programme is introduced, it will "safeguard" only about 2,500 jobs at Rosyth. The 5,000 jobs that are related to the conventional Navy will be in severe jeopardy in the 1990s, because Britain will have no conventional Navy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East and I have collaborated on this debate, and he will take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport about the Levine proposals. It is extremely unfair for the Government to dangle those proposals month after month before a dedicated work force and not to come to a conclusion. If they were wise—I hope that they will be—they would throw out the proposals; I fear that they will not throw them out completely, but will introduce modified proposals. It would be stupid to lease part of Rosyth dockyard to a private concern to carry out nuclear fitting. That would cause great uncertainty, and its unfairness would not be tolerated by the labour force.

The Government are competition-mad. I note from the White Paper on Defence that Competition will also be rigorously pursued in the areas of support, supply and maintenance services. Warship refitting provides an example of this developing policy. The right hon. Member for Devonport was annoyed when I questioned his statement that the Labour party had approved the fitting of a submarine and a frigate going out to private tender. I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber now to hear me explain why I do not accept that. There is no guarantee that the Government would compare like with like. The Minister who will reply to the debate has some interest in shipbuilding, and I challenge him to tell the House tonight whether the capability of Humber dockyards to refit the Otter is on all fours with that of a yard run by British Shipbuilders.

I am quite willing to repeat what I am about to say outside the House because I would not want to malign the Humber dock, which I have visited, and I would not wish to say something in the House that I could not repeat outside. The Government got a dumped price for that vessel. Anything between £5 million and £10 million was on the table. Perhaps the Minister will give us some idea about the figures, between the price at which the Humber dock booked in the vessel and what Trafalgar House or Cammell Laird offered. The final result was a dumped price. There is no way that that yard can perform like a dockyard and give the standard of finish.

Another thing that was not considered, but which is vital, is the capability of keeping within a yard such as Trafalgar House—which is now at the Scott section of the Scott Lithgow yard— a design team capable of coping with the successor for the type 2400. That was not considered. All that was considered was the price; this is why I dispute what the right hon. Member for Devonport was saying. The result of the tender was the contract going to the lowest price, which was taken without looking at the capabilities of the yard or of the consequences of keeping design teams in the national interest.

A particular subject has arisen in the Scottish press and is mentioned in the Select Committee report on the Defence White Paper. In paragraph 55 we say: In supplementary evidence the Minister modified this statement. We now understand that HMS Challenger, the seabed operational vessel, two SSNs … and an MCMV will be Late joining the Fleet.

In the Scottish press there has been some speculation about the Challenger. I am not one to malign our yards. Any deficiency in the Challenger is specifically related to the saturated diving system, which was designed by the Navy, although not supplied by it. However, the Navy bears the responsibility for the design, not the yard. That is important, because the yard has had a lot of criticism. On this occasion, when the contract was modified or renegotiated, the yard received a modest bonus payment for delivering slightly ahead of time. I hope that the Minister will reply to these remarks, and clarify the issue, and I hope that other hon. Members will pursue the matter. I declare my interest in diving and divers. We must clarify the points about the saturated diving system, such as whose fault it was, what the cost of modification will be, and how it will be modified to make it safe.

Referring to the contemporary Challenger leads me to the Challenger of 1870, which was responsible for the first time for acknowledging that we had mineral nodules on the sea bed. This leads me to the law of the sea, referred to by the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). Nobody will be surprised that I wish to refer to this. It is ridiculous that the Government are trailing behind the Americans. The only person I can find who is giving the advice not to sign the law of the sea convention is Mr. Ian MacGregor.

The Government have to supply cogent reasons for their refusal to sign. So far, we have concentrated on mineral provisions, but there are other provisions in the convention that are of vital importance to us as a maritime nation. For example, there are provisions on passage through straits, safety of passage, and so on. We should have some statement, if not tonight, before 9 December, as to the Government's attitude and intentions.

As a former Merchant Navy officer, I agree with virtually all that has been said about the importance of the merchant fleet, and I note that we shall have another study. However, as the right hon. Member for Taunton said, do we need another study, when the General Council of British Shipping has given its views? Again, this was referred to in the Select Committee's report on the Defence White Paper in paragraph 52, where it said: For example, numbers in the UK owned and registered fleet (vessels of 500 gross registered tons and over) fell from 1,194 in 1979 to 769 in 1983, and the General Council of British Shipping has forecast a further reduction of 400 ships by the end of 1986.

Do the Government reject that view? Are they at odds with it? What will the further analysis do? If the Government reject the view of the General Council of British Shipping, on what grounds do they do so? Here is an organisation that is responsible for assessing the position. It is saying what is likely to happen. The Government have some responsibility to give us their view on that proposal. We are not talking just about ships. As a maritime nation, we are talking about manpower and seafarers. If we do not have ships, we do not have proper training for our seafarers, and that can be extremely costly in wartime.

The Trident is a virility symbol which is very costly to the country. I am not a unilateralist. I concede that here I part company with some of my colleagues, if not the majority of them. However, I am firmly opposed to us possessing a Trident system. It will mean that, at the end of the day, we are endangering our capability of fulfilling a unique and specific role for NATO within our treaty obligations. It will crowd out our conventional Navy, and will be extremely damaging to the work in the dockyards. The Government, in their wisdom, should reconsider the Trident decision and abandon it.

7.47 pm
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

I hope that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) will excuse me if I do not directly follow his points. I shall not be dealing with Trident, which has been dealt with well by my right hon. Friend the Minister.

I wish to raise a number of points today, and in deference to the wishes of Mr. Speaker and to the fact that many other hon. Members wish to speak, I shall try to keep my remarks short. Although I shall not have time to develop them fully, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be able to answer some of the points that I make. However, I apologise in advance, because I shall not be here to hear his answers as I have a long-standing engagement. I look forward to reading what he says in the Official Report.

Even though this speech will be something of a pot pourri of points, the common strand running through my remarks will be the wish for more costing less. Therefore, it is right and proper to start with the ships that we build. When I joined the Navy 19 years ago, the Leander class frigate, fully equipped, cost £4 million. Today, a frigate costs 34 times that. I accept that it is better armed, has more sophisticated equipment and a far superior set of capabilities, but 34 times the cost means that we must be getting someting wrong. Four times the Leander's initial cost is the annual amount that it costs to keep one of the type 22s at sea. This mass escalation in price, well beyond the figure for defence expenditure inflation, has meant that we do not have enough ships.

We need to examine the ships we build and the methods we use. I am convinced that we are not getting it right. I suggest that after the right hull shape is agreed, bearing in mind its sea-keeping qualities and the job that it is meant to do, we start modulising our building so that most of the internal structure can be built away from the dockyard. The weapons systems developed for various ships could also be made on a modulised basis so that, when a ship was re-armed or fitted, a new weapons system could be slotted into it. The defence specification for that weapons system should deal not just with what it has to do but with the size, the shape, the centre of gravity and so on of the weapons module.

I also believe that our ships are too sophisticated. Because we do not get a long enough run of ships, the individual parts are too expensive. I consider the cost of £40 million for the communications room of Invincible to be money unnecessarily spent. We need good communications, but £40 million for one ship's communications, even if it is a battle leader, is far too high.

I also believe that we need to look at the propulsion system of our ships. It is not necessary these days to have such fast ships. Therefore, it should be possible to have single-screw ships, with single engines, especially if the vessels are fitted with bow thrusters which will give low and medium-speed manoeuvrability.

Frigates should be able to operate not just their own helicopters which are kept on board but also, though not housed on board, VTOL aircraft. These could be kept on board RFAs and be able to operate and be refuelled from frigates. In that way, a squadron of frigates would be able to be detached and take its own air cover with it.

Having been around a variety of modern ships over the past year, I have been surprised at the standards of habitability. because they are unnecessarily high. I do not suggest that we return to the hammock. I am not suggesting that we go back to the broadside mess, where a seaman slept, as I did when I first went to sea, on the deck. with the next layer being on a bench, the third layer being on a table and the fourth layer being in a hammock. However, for the same size ship, the Russians have 50 per cent. more weapons systems. The main reason is that the standards of habitability on our ships are far too superior. I do not want what the Russians do, but I want a far more sensible standard of habitability, recognising that men do not spend so long at sea for continuous periods and do not spend so long away from home.

This reduction in accommodation is also possible if we do what we should have done a long time ago, which is to cut down the numbers of crew per ship. I suggest that a frigate should not have more than 80 men and a destroyer more than 120. We also have to accept the concept of expendability of our ships. The idea that we should so arm a ship that 60 per cent. of its weapons system is defensive and only 40 per cent. has an aggressive ability is the wrong way round. We have to accept the expendability of ships even though the idea runs contrary to much of Navy thinking and it means that we have to automate far more.

Large manning levels used to be considered necessary as it was possible to replace a man but impossible to replace a piece of equipment at sea if it was damaged. As a result, we used to have lots of men aboard ship and not too many pieces of sophisticated equipment. With modern weapons, if a ship is hit once with the right weapon, as we saw with HMS Sheffield, it is out of action. We have to automate, but we have to accept expendability and produce cheaper ships with smaller crews. If we do that, we have a good chance of building ships which are more exportable.

We shall never have enough ships, of course, because we do not have enough money. That is why we must continue to rely on the merchant fleet. That policy has at last become possible because our 30-day war stock replacement policy is being implemented, and not before time, but I suggest that we must not consider ships which have been flagged out but which are under British beneficial ownership as being part of the British fleet. It will not work. It will not happen. Even if there is a minority interest overseas and that interest can obtain a lien on a ship at the time, it will not be available to us. Nor must we consider that the red duster Hong Kong fleet will necessarily be available to us in times of conflict.

I realise that the Royal Navy has at last accepted that the merchant marine can not only provide a support role but can defend itself in time of conflict. It has accepted the Arapaho system, but again it has gold-plated it. It has made it far too expensive. I suggest that my right hon. Friend should look at the British Aerospace SCADS, which is a ship conversion system, to produce seven ships with different capabilities—helicopter carriers, Harrier carriers, helicopter support ships, amphibious support ships, logistic ships and so on—all with their own point defence systems based on a Seawolf vertically-launched missile system and providing a full set of equipment. For the cost of £168 million it is possible to provide seven ships for the same cost as one type 22's capital cost and running cost for two years.

We shall need to use armed merchantmen capable of protecting themselves in convoys, and we need to look now—not in a few years—at how we arm merchantmen effectively. We shall not have the frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers to do the job.

While referring to ship types, I should like to add a quick word about assault ships. I believe that they were far too small in capacity and that they cost too much. I think that they will fall to bits fairly soon, and I wonder with what we intend to replace them. We may want them, but can we afford purpose-built assault ships? If we cannot, we have to look at what roll-on/roll-off ships are available. We have to do better than the the mexefloats which are now proposed for use with Ro/Ro vessels. We must give the Royal Marines the capability of getting ashore fast and doing the job which they are superbly trained to do.

If we are to keep down costs, we must analyse the procurement system. I understand that it takes about 14 years from the inception of an idea to having a piece of equipment fitted. I am sure that MINIS will have some effect, but, because the procurement system works in autonomous committees staffed by experts who have a belt, braces and string round the waist mentality, they over-gild every piece of equipment and every single system for which they ask. There is no one senior enough on each committee to say, "Stop. We have to cut the cost of this piece of equipment."

I echo the comments about mine warfare. As far as I know, we do not have any really sophisticated ground mine systems, and it is about time we did. We know that the Russians have them. Our coasts are vulnerable not only to mines but to ships and submarines operating on the continental shelf and between various temperature layers in the sea. We will need to lay down effective minefields during times of conflict and we do not have the modern mines necessary.

What are we doing about airborne early warning radar? Following the Falklands, it was realised that that was absolutely necessary. A Heath Robinson airborne dustbin was put on the Sea King, which worked quite well. What proper, designated system will we eventually have for airborne early warning?

What will happen about torpedo manufacture? The Conqueror fired three torpedoes—two of them hit and worked, one hit and did not work. What happened? How effective are the Mark 8s? How is torpedo development progressing?

Why do we need a Sea Harrier as well as the RAF Harrier? I grant that the radar is different, but the Navy has shown that it is possible to operate RAF Harriers. It understands about corrosion, so it is not necessary to work with much more expensive and heavy titanium materials that are non-corrosive. The materials that corrode easily must be continually washed. The Navy dealt with that problem during the Falklands conflict and could do the same with RAF Harriers. It would be a cheaper system, although the Harriers would need a different type of radar.

The most important factor is the man. Is there any intention to make it obligatory that, after leaving the Royal Navy, a man must spend some time in the Royal Naval Reserve? It is important for the reserve to have the recent experience of people who have just left the full-time service.

One reason, apart from the obvious one, why we need more ships, is that that will engender much greater job satisfaction. It is regrettable that a senior officer should, at the most, obtain only two commands in his lifetime. Many junior officers of lieutenant commander and commander rank will never get a ship to command, even though they are perfectly capable of doing so. If there were more ships, greater expertise would be built up. Because men do not spend so long at sea and are not so long away from this country, perhaps we do not need all the expensive housing and welfare capabilities of the Royal Navy. There is some scope for saving in that area.

I want briefly to follow the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) about the law of the sea. My understanding is that the Government do not intend to sign the convention, on the basis that they do not sign that which they do not intend to ratify. There have been at least three occasions since 1970 when Britain has signed conventions but not ratified them. I refer to the Geneva convention on the laws of war, the International Maritime Organisation convention on the carriage of nuclear material at sea and another IMO convention whose title I cannot remember.

We should definitely sign the convention by 10 December, because not doing so will increase maritime anarchy. However, we should reserve our position on part II. I recognise that, potentially, part II could be damaging to Britain. We should do what we did with the MARPOL convention of the IMO. We signed it, but did not ratify until there was an acceptance that we would not have to adhere to certain annexes.

When I was in the Navy we used to write what were known as Nelson essays. My first said why Lord Collingwood was a rather better and attainable example than Lord Nelson. My second suggested that we must get away from the idea that ships should be preserved regardless of cost and that we should move towards the idea of expendable ships, which meant low manning levels and cheap ships in large numbers. I admit that those views did not meet with universal acclaim. The old but not so bold told me that my ideas would never happen. I believe that they must.

We must move towards a cheaper Navy, with more ships and a far greater capability. The Royal Navy is known as "The Service", and its officers and men wish to give that service to their nation. It is our job to serve them well by providing them with the equipment and ships to enable them to serve us.

8.5 pm

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

I shall do my best to follow the wide-ranging contribution of the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed). I heard him ask for less space for the crew in modern naval vessels. I heard him suggest that their conditions of service should be altered so that there would be compulsory service as reservists after they left the service. When he said that he was going to speak about the man, I thought that he might call for a maximum height for the crew so that they would fit more economically into the spaces available in the ships.

I do not think that such issues should dominate a debate about the Royal Navy. The crucial issue is that of Trident versus the money that will be spent on the remainder of the service. I strongly support the Labour party's defence policy, which includes membership of NATO. Labour party members constantly have to reiterate that, because the Conservative party tries to take that away from us in public forums. We wish to retain membership of NATO. Our policy includes the development of a non-nuclear defence policy for Britain. It is important to reduce the risks of a nuclear war in Europe, not least because our nation is peculiarly vulnerable to such an attack.

The hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Sir A. Buck) raised the important question of nuclear blackmail. It is an important argument, but it is not the preserve of our nation alone. It is the duty of the Government of this country and the Governments of every civilised nation to discourage nuclear proliferation. If our nation can say, "We must possess a nuclear arsenal so that other nations with such arsenals cannot threaten us", that same argument is logically, even morally, open to every other nation whose economy can sustain such an arsenal. Indeed, there are a few nations with stronger economies than ours which, by the Government's argument, could claim to be entitled to the same approach.

It is important to develop a defence policy for Britain that relies upon conventional armaments and that pays due regard to our foreign policy and our neighbours' foreign policies and which takes into account our international interests and commitments. There is a crucial role in that for the Royal Navy, but not a Navy with a Trident programme flung like a financial albatross around its neck.

I agreed with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant)— I do not often agree with him— when he questioned whether our nation could afford Trident. It was a courageous question for a Conservative Member, but he found some support among his colleagues. I urge the Government to consider what he said and to think again before going along the road towards a Trident programme. More than 90 per cent. of our nation's trade is carried by sea. We must protect our North sea oilfields and fishing interests— but we will not protect them with a nuclear deterrent.

The Minister tonight envisaged our nation threatening the Soviet Union with Trident. He suggested that Great Britain would threaten the Soviet Union separately from the United States. That is folly. Whatever the outcome of such an exchange, everybody in Great Britain would be killed. Our country would be devastated. To say that any outcome could be a victory goes well beyond anything that I can comprehend. My constituents feel the same, as I am sure do all hon. Members.

The Government should commit themselves to western European disarmament and seek a reduction in Soviet conventional forces. Within a conventional defence strategy, our nation's contribution should emphasise the Navy's role and ensure that we can respond to pressures other than a suicidal European nuclear exchange.

Our maritime role is vital to our country. If we cancelled Trident and left the nuclear role to the United States rather than attempting to duplicate it ourselves, we could meet our conventional commitments.

We should not allow our merchant fleet to decline. Other hon. Members have spoken about the importance of the merchant fleet and I endorse everything that they have said. We must preserve a British-owned merchant fleet, not only for trading but for defence reasons. We should not under-value the role of merchant shipping in defence matters, but the Government are presiding over the death of British merchant shipbuilding.

Admiral Wesley McDonald was mentioned by the Opposition spokesman at the beginning of the debate. Last August he called for an increase in the United States carrier force. We could contribute to that with the resources freed by abandoning the Trident programme. We would not need to mothball Hermes; or, if she were sold, we could contemplate building another aircraft carrier. At least we could make a bigger contribution to the provision of destroyers and mine sweepers.

I am disappointed that no statement has been made tonight to announce which yard will get the order for the two type 22s. That statement has been delayed many times. That delay fuels the suspicions of people in shipbuilding areas such as mine that the Government intend to clear the labour force out of the yards prior to privatisation, paying no heed to the effect that that will have on the communities and no heed to our nation's defence interests. The overriding issue for the Government is expediency rather than the interests of the nation.

It will be impossible to meet the future needs of the Royal Navy if the Government allows the domestic shipbuilding industry to collapse. That is the direction in which their current policy is heading. In post-1945 conflicts, mines have played an important and significant part. However, does our island nation have the necessary resources to meet our commitments in that regard? I suspect that it does not. The number of vessels available, as well as their quality, is important.

The needs of NATO and of our nation are being neglected by the foolish and false security which the Government think they have from the Trident programme. Our economy cannot sustain both needs, and the Government have chosen the wrong option.

8.13 pm
Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

In deference to colleagues who want to speak later, I propose to condense my planned speech. I am one of those in the House who support the Trident programme. It is important that we retain a credible nuclear deterrent of our own. I take issue with the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). One can make a logical case for dispensing with the nuclear deterrent—although I regard that as most unwise—but to seek to have a nuclear deterrent on the cheap, a third-rate cut-price version, has no merit. One might just as well do without it.

The chilling catalogue of the Soviet Union's conventional forces makes it imperative for us to have a nuclear deterrent. I urge my hon. Friends in the Government to continue their policy. In the past, much has gone wrong and we have wasted much money through chopping and changing our policies. I hope that we shall not do that in the future.

Let us consider the number of ships on order since May 1979. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State announced the orders with a flourish. He seemed somewhat coy in explaining how many were corning into service. I should like to have that information. I have a nasty feeling that there may be some unpleasant gaps in the way that they are coming into service. One cannot fight a war, or even undertake an exercise, without the real thing. Paper orders are not much use if the ships are not there on the high seas.

At the risk of being considered tedious, I inquire again about fire hazards and the progress made in overcoming them. That was an important feature of the Falklands campaign and made a deep impression upon me. I hope that we do all in our power to make all the ships in service as fireproof as possible and that every step will be taken to ensure that new ships coming into service are made fireproof. Some progress has been made, but I feel that I must act as a little hornet and ensure that the Government do not go back.

Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House I am worried about our merchant navy capability. I am less than enthusiastic about the in-depth inquiry. I fear that some months later it might announce with a flourish all sorts of interesting facts which tell us only what we know already. We are looking for an explanation of what action the Government propose to take to remedy that important defect. I hope that we shall hear from the Minister tonight.

Plymouth has a major dockyard. It is one of the biggest in western Europe and the biggest in the United Kingdom. I do not object to inquiries to ensure that each dockyard functions as efficiently as possibly, but I share the concern about the length of time that it is taking to come to a decision. That causes a loss of morale and enables rumours, some extraordinarily wild and unrealistic, to abound. Without definite information, it is difficult to stem them. When people feel that their jobs might be at stake they are particularly vulnerable to rumours and, on occasions, to mischief making.

I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to make a decision and to announce it. I hope that such an announcement will be made by a Minister in one of the dockyards—for preference in Plymouth—so that he can deal with any queries. I hope that the statement will not be made from a crow's nest in the Ministry of Defence.

I have received glowing tributes of late from naval officers whose ships have been refitted in Devonport dockyard. An excellent service was provided there in support of the Falklands campaign. I hope that it will be possible to make an announcement which will allay the fears of the work force and enable the dockyard to continue more efficiently. I go along with that, but we must have a decision soon.

8.20 pm
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

It is always a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), whose knowledge of naval matters and support for the Navy is well known and respected throughout the House. I hope that she will forgive me if I strongly disagree with her about the Trident missile.

When I asked the Minister whether Trident was a unilateral weapon, he said, "No." I noticed that he was supported by a number of his hon. Friends. Must we go back into the dictionary to decide this matter? Trident is an independent weapon which is capable of being used unilaterally. That makes it a unilateral weapon. What other definition of unilateralism can there be?

It is curious to find that this Government condemn outright in the strongest language even the smallest independent step by Britain towards arms reductions, yet are now contemplating an independent unilateral weapon in favour of an arms increase. I stress arms increase, not just arms maintenance, because the Minister knows as well as I that the current level upon which the credible deterrent is operated is 64 warheads in Polaris. Hide it though he will, he knows perfectly well that the Government intend to increase that massively. The figure bandied about is 512 warheads, but the maximum figure is 896. That is more than a tenfold increase. It is odd that a Government who claim unilateralism to be such a bad thing should be taking such a unilateral step to increase weapons when they refuse to take the smallest of unilateral steps to decrease the number of weapons held.

More important, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) said, Trident is the cuckoo in the nest of defence expenditure. It will turf out all other sensible expenditures. NATO has a 40 times capacity to destroy our enemy. It may be arguable that a deterrent should be able to destroy an enemy once, twice or three times but, to put it mildly, 40 times is somewhat self-indulgent.

If we were to launch the nuclear weapons that we hold at the rate of one Hiroshima weapon every second, it would take 11.6 days to do so. Against that background, the Government are prepared to increase the number of nuclear weapons which they are prepared to deliver independently and unilaterally. That consequently decreases the amount of money—this vital and limited resource—that we are prepared to spend on NATO at the point where NATO is weakest. As good Alliance partners committed to NATO, we should make our defence contribution to that area where NATO is weakest, not add to weapons of which we have too many already.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that our possession of Trident is part of NATO strategy and that if we were to give it up we would lose credibility in the eyes of our American allies? We could not possibly match the conventional forces of the Soviet Union, and the hon. Gentleman knows that perfectly well.

Mr. Ashdown

I merely direct the hon. Gentleman to the statement of the British Atlantic Committee, which supports NATO and which says that there is no prospect that the Soviet Union could mount a conventional attack on us which would have any prospect of success. When Lord Carrington took over as Secretary-General of NATO he said that we do not suffer militarily in the balance with the Soviet Union at the moment. He was referring to conventional military balance. The folly of the Trident decision is that at a time when we should be strengthening NATO where it is weakest, we are spending more money on an area in which it already has too many weapons.

There is another folly. As we approach September next year and the non-proliferation treaty review conference, many people believe that that is the last occasion on which that treaty will have any chance of continuing as an effective means of cutting back on proliferation. A serious problem lies ahead if the NPT ceases to become effective. There is no doubt in my mind that the purchase of Trident contravenes our signature of the NPT as it stands at present.

Article 1 states: Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly". The Minister will no doubt argue that the weapon is supplied by us, and that that is what goes on top of the warhead. That is laughable. It is like saying that the bullet is only the thing that comes out of the end of a gun. This is a direct transfer of nuclear weapons technology and delivery systems.

Article 6 of the treaty states: Each of the Parties of the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith … to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date".

The Government have signed that commitment to the cessation of the nuclear arms race, but they honour it by increasing almost to a factor of 10 the number of warheads that we shall possess, and they shall do so as early as possible. That puts at risk our capacity and moral right to be able to persuade others to observe and adhere to that vital treaty, which is our only bulwark against the increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons.

It does so at a terrible cost. On the Government's argument, we shall obtain a spurious kind of independence. Let us assume that Britain has the political independence to be able to use the Trident missile. I ask hon. Members to think of the massive political pressures placed on the Government by the Americans if we seek to use the Trident missile at a moment when they are not prepared that we should do so—in other words, wholly independently.

Let us assume that those pressures are overcome. We all know that the Trident missile is obtained from the Americans. Fair enough; we purchase enough for our needs. But, because of the D5 decision they will now be maintained by the Americans. Fair enough; so while one third are maintained we shall still possess two thirds. So we stick the ones that we are left with on to boats and push them out to sea. When will they be fired? Presumably that will be done when incoming Russian missiles are spotted, but the only way in which we shall see those Russian missiles is via the ballistic missile early warning system which is in the hands of the Americans.

Alternatively, we can sit tight and wait for Birmingham to go bang before launching our Trident missiles. Then we come to the last problem in the the chain. For the Trident submarine to fix its position accurately to fire the missile it will need to use the Navstar satellite. Indeed, the missile will need to use that satellite for mid-term correction. But that satellite is in American hands and, we understand, can be turned off or used only by those whom the Americans wish to use it.

Mr. O'Neill

For the benefit of the House, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will clarify a doubt in my mind. Is he in favour of Polaris and Chevaline, against Trident and in favour of submarine-launched cruise missiles?

Mr. Ashdown

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that from the time Polaris was considered the Liberal party has been opposed to the independent nuclear deterrent. So it remains. In my opinion, we do not need an independent nuclear deterrent for Britain, and that is the opinion of my party. It always has been.

The price we have paid for all this is a spurious non-existent independence. The Trident decision undermines NATO in the sense that it undermines NATO's political will and its capacity to have the conventional forces which it needs. If the Minister believes that Britain can defend herself independently, he is entitled to believe in the folly of an independent deterrent. Anything less means the removal of a resource that is vital to NATO. In addition, it undermines the non-proliferation treaty and our support of that treaty. Furthermore, it is a unilateral act and, after all that, it is not even independent. The question of cost was eloquently dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devonport. It may be £10 billion or £12 billion. No one knows precisely.

When I say that the threshold will be lowered, I mean that there will be a reduction in the conventional forces that we need. The Minister made glowing comments about the Royal Marines and the need for a decision on the replacement of Intrepid and Fearless. But for the Falklands crisis, those ships would have gone to the knacker's yard. We are now told that they are to be spun on until the mid-1990s. I am very worried about their effectiveness at that stage. I hope that the Minister will take a decision very soon.

Without Fearless and Intrepid, we shall not have the capacity to do what I, as a Marine officer, had to do. We shall not be able to carry out the vital job of deterrence in northern Norway. The Minister said that we were determined to be able to do that. But the contingency plan to carry Royal Marine commandos to northern Norway in the absence of Fearless and Intrepid is to take them there in a Sealink ferry. That may satisfy the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed), but anyone who believes that one can land in hostile territory and hostile conditions on the northern coast of Norway in a Sealink ferry is living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Unless Fearless and Intrepid are replaced, we shall be unable to carry out that task effectively. The Minister's decision is therefore vital. We are worried that expenditure on Trident will interfere with our ability to perform that vital NATO task.

I am particularly concerned about escort vessels because that is the centre of the problem. For all the Minister's good words, the supreme commanders of the Atlantic fleet and C-in-C fleet have recently said that our commitment to the north Atlantic fleet in escort vessels is now 40 per cent. lower than is required. It is a disgrace that the Government of a maritime nation cannot fulfil even its current maritime commitments to NATO, and that is just the present position. What will happen in the near future?

The type 23 vessels now coming on are the key. The first was due to be produced in 1984 with the frigates coming on series in the 1990s. We now understand that the first—the Norfolk—will come off in 1989 and the rest following the sea trials of the first of class. Those trials may well take six or 12 months, so it is likely that we shall not be into series production of type 23 frigates until the mid-1990s. Will the Minister confirm that estimate when he winds up the debate?

I ask the Minister now to follow me in a little mathematics. When asked by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) how many ships were launched last year, the Minister with responsibility for the Navy made the astonishing admission that he did not know. He may not know this, either. According to my calculations, assuming an in-service life of 25 years—I should be interested to know the length of life on which the Ministry is now working—we shall have only 52 escort vessels. Of those—one Bristol, two County class, 12 Sheffields, 13 Broadsides, 6 Amazons and 18 Leanders—only 30 are likely to be immediately available in the front line, the rest being in for maintenance, repair and refit. Taking the much more likely case of a 20-year in-service life, the figure reduces to a total of 38 with an operational fleet of 20. Is that what the Minister wants? Is that how he proposes to honour his NATO commitments? And even that would mean keeping our 13 Leanders until their last gasp.

Our Navy is already weaker in relative terms than that which faced Hitler in Operation Sealion in the early 1940s, and the cost of Trident wilt merely make things worse. For any conceivable scenario, the Trident missile decision will make us not stronger but weaker both in fulfilling our vital responsibilities to our NATO allies and in our ability to conduct our own defence. The cost of a type 23 was originally announced as £67 million. It is now believed to be £110 million. There is a desperate need for the Minister to take urgent steps to increase the escort fleet as quickly as possible. If the decision on and production of the type 23 cannot be speeded up I hope that he will very quickly go for the Mk 3 offshore patrol vessel equipped with a helicopter. That vessel could be built in a year at a cost of about £35 million. I hope that he will take that decision very early indeed.

Finally, I wish to develop some technical points on torpedoes relating to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, East. I believe that a major scandal is now occuring in our procurement of the new series of torpedoes. Our current heavyweight torpedo is the type 24, the so-called Tigerfish. This followed a naval staff requirement laid down in 1959. It was supposed to be in operation in 1965 but actually came into operation in 1972. As has been pointed out, that torpedo showed significant inadequacies and failures in the Falklands campaign, during which several were fired. As a direct result, a modernisation programme is now under way.

The update programme was initially announced at £12 million but I am told that it will run out at £70 million. Even then, its design is nearly 30 years old, its maximum speed is 35 knots and its maximum range about 15 km. It is already completely unable to cope with the modern class of Russian submarines in terms of its ability to catch them or to dive deep enough. The updating will require not just a new propulsion unit but better propulsion mechanisms, a replacement sonar, replacement electronics and the solution of certain auxiliary supply problems. It is liable to be at best inadequate.

The long-term replacement for the Tigerfish is the Spearfish. The cost of 100 pre-production models is £500 million and the defence Estimates recently published made provision for a further £775 million for the development of the new Spearfish. That is a total of £1,250 million for the development of a torpedo which is not even running adequately. I am told that it uses a very unsafe fuel called HAP/OTTO— for the technically minded, that is hydroxalymine perchlorate and a mixture of the OTTO fuels—and that even now that mixture has never been put together adequately so as to make the torpedo run effectively without a severe risk of detonation. Indeed, I understand that there have been two explosions at Ministry of Defence establishments testing that fuel.

We need a replacement torpedo capable of carrying out the tasks required in a modern naval environment, and we need it now. We cannot expect the new Spearfish programme adequately to achieve that. Having spent more than £1,000 million producing a torpedo that is not even running properly, I suggest that the Minister might do better to fill in the gap by buying some United States Mk 48 torpedoes which I gather would cost about £150 million for a fit of 200.

Regrettably, that is not the end of the torpedo problem. We are also developing a lightweight anti-submarine torpedo to replace the US Mk. 46. I understand that that torpedo has been developed and is coming into service. It was announced that it would cost about £200 million, but the actual cost is about £1 billion. It has already been admitted that that new lightweight torpedo is incapable of catching the Russian submarines that are currently at sea. I understand that it was admitted last year to the Select Committee. A total of more than £2 billion will therefore have been spent on producing torpedoes which appear not to work or to be incapable of catching the current class of Russian submarines they are supposed to catch. I hope that the Minister will address those points.

The development of an effective conventional Navy, capable of honouring our commitments to NATO, is placed severely at risk and in jeopardy, because the Government wish to have an independent, unilateral weapon when that independence is spurious and does not exist. That expenditure will so corrupt the Naval budget that we shall have a Navy which is in all senses not stronger but weaker. That is the reason why the Government should cancel the Trident decision.

I predict that the time will arrive—it is not far away—when the Minister will have to face up to reality and, no doubt, announce the cancellation of the Trident missile programme. The alliance looks forward to that day with some pleasure.

8.41 pm
Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) made a strong technical contribution. His speech confirmed the reason why some of us are always reticent about contributing to defence debates.

I shall consider the Royal Navy's future role with specific reference to its manpower requirements, before concentrating on the Government's proposals for the future management structure of Her Majesty's dockyards. It is a fundamental responsibility of any Government to safeguard their citizens from any potential internal or external aggressor. That implies the possession of a meaningful and effective defence capability.

There is no alterntive but to have nuclear and conventional weaponry at our disposal. It worries me when I read and hear, as we have done this evening, that, because of financial constraints, one of these two essential ingredients may have to suffer at the expense of retaining and developing the other. Those aspects are complementary, and until we can obtain meaningful disarmament both are necessary.

As one who is known to take a relaxed view about public expenditure, the public sector borrowing requirement and the rest of the somewhat questionable economics of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I hope that the Defence Ministers will not be pushed, for reasons of economic dogma, into a corner in which they are obliged to take decisions which prejudice our defence capability.

The last occasion on which I spoke in a defence debate was in 1981 when the House was discussing John Nott's defence review. Had the proposals then outlined been enacted, the Royal Navy would have been the principal casualty. We all know what that would have meant, given the subsequent events in the south Atlantic. This is an appropriate moment to mention HMS Raleigh, the shore establishment in my constituency which takes all the non-officer intake into the Royal Navy. As a result of the defence review, training is undertaken at that establishment, involving an annual throughput of 24,000 naval personnel a year. That training is at all levels and a great variety of skills is imparted. It is a highly successful, streamlined process, and I am sure that the House would wish to pay tribute to those personnel—both service and civilian— who are employed there and provide that excellent facility for the training requirements of Royal Navy personnel.

Many previous Governments have looked at Her Majesty's dockyards and have sought to make them more efficient and accountable to financial controls. That is a right and proper approach, but the problem is that refitting ships will never be as controllable as constructing them. There is the inherent difficulty of the customer-supply relationship, as was pointed out in the most recent inquiry by Mr. Levine. It is difficult to fault the Levine analysis, but I have little enthusiasm for his prescribed remedies. His agency proposal— whereby the assets of the dockyard would be retained by the Ministry of Defence but the actual work, including the labour force, would be the responsibility of a private contractor on a five or perhaps seven-year leasehold basis—is a recipe for confusion at best and inefficiency at worst.

Given the weaknesses of the existing system, it would seem to be sensible to return to the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) who made a similar investigation when he was Under-Secretary of State for Defence. He proposed the establishment of a dockyard trading fund. The Speed report specifically rejected the agency concept advocated by Levine. That happened just four years ago. As the House knows, the Speed report suggested a trading fund for Her Majesty's dockyards, with a separate dockyard Vote, thus taking it out of the overall defence budget. That would have had the effect of improving the existing unsatisfactory customer-supply relationship by placing it on a more businesslike basis, and, at the same time, allowing greater freedom of management within the overall financial budget. Ultimately, the dockyards would be accountable to the House for their funding in a more precise manner than at present.

The Levine proposals prompted an adverse response, in varying degrees of hostility, from the work force at Her Majesty's dockyards in Devonport. I gather from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford that, when he made his report known, he was able to obtain support for his proposals from management and from trade unions representing the work force.

I make one urgent request to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence— please, end this uncertainty. There are 13,300 employees at Devonport, 800 of whom have only just moved into our area following the closure of Chatham and the reduction at Portsmouth. In addition, by March 1985, there is a target of 13,065 employees, so a reduction at Devonport of almost 240 has been requested. That adds to the anxiety and uncertainty. The Government have made Devonport the premier United Kingdom dockyard. The loyalty and competence of the work force, management, industrial civil servants and non-industrial civil servants are not in doubt, as their response at the time of the Falklands conflict clearly demonstrated.

Those essential attributes for the servicing of our Royal Navy are currently being sorely tested by the present indecision and the resulting uncertainty. We are talking about people, their livelihoods and their pattern of family life. I believe that we owe it to them to relieve those anxieties as quickly as possible.

8.50 pm
Mr. Gordon Brown (Dunfermline, East)

Although this debate has ranged widely, the major contributions have concentrated widely on the escalating costs of Trident, which, set against the falling pound, put at risk our conventional defences.

I wish to concentrate upon the future of the royal dockyards. The subject was mentioned by the hon. Members for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) and for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes). The Minister announced this afternoon that the refit of the Trident submarine will take place at Rosyth dockyard. The work force at Rosyth will undoubtedly welcome one part of that—the belated recognition of their skill and dedication, evidently forgotten by the Government since the appreciation of their work in July 1982 after the Falklands campaign. That has been forgotten for the narrowest of ideological reasons as Ministers, in pursuit of privatisation policies, have sought to belittle the public sector and loyal civil servants.

The work force at Rosyth, like the Opposition, will find little to reassure them about their jobs and immediate prospects. The announcement means that once Trident is built, if ever it is, and once it is commissioned, if ever it is, it will be refitted at Rosyth dockyard perhaps in the last years of this century or the first years of the next.

Even if I were an enthusiast for the Trident programme, which I am not, I shall find it difficult to return to my constituency this weekend and tell those in work and out of work to forget about the millions of pounds that they have lost in regional development grants as a result of an announcement yesterday, to ignore the fact that 4,500 people are now unemployed, with unemployment rising faster than almost anywhere in Europe, and to ignore the fact that Rosyth faces the threat of compulsory redundancies. I am supposed to say that in 15 years' time work may be available from the Trident programme if the dream of the Secretary of State for Defence becomes a reality.

The sudden and abrupt loss of development status, the threat of compulsory redundancies and the disruption that privatisation is causing, and will continue to cause, is of more immediate interest and of more direct relevance to my constituents and to the employees now and for the foreseeable future than any benefits which might accrue from a refit programme which, if it ever happened, could begin at the earliest in the late 1990s.

As even the Minister will concede, many uncertainties surround the Trident programme: not just the cost or the falling pound, but the increasing hostility being shown to the programme by the Labour party and the doubts being raised on the Conservative Benches and by the Minister's allies.

When I was in America during the summer, I found that the NATO chiefs whom I met believe that the Trident programme seriously weakens this country's conventional defences. I met Brigadier-General Anthony Smith, who is the principal director at the pentagon for European and NATO policy. He referred me to a report which had been prepared showing the gap that will arise in our conventional defences at sea and on land if the Trident programme continues.

The report is entitled, "Improving NATO's Conventional Capabilities". In a letter to me Brigadier Smith says that although there is no unclassified version of the report in America, he has sent it to the Secretary of State for Defence. He suggests that I approach the Secretary of State who, he believes, will be pleased to show me a copy of the report. I shall, of course, approach the Secretary of State, but it is interesting to note that the report confirms everything that the Labour party has been saying about the economic absurdity and military folly of the Trident missile.

Many people believe that the Minister has come to anounce what will happen after the arrival of Trident in order to convince himself that Trident will arrive. His statement today about refitting at Rosyth rings hollow. If he were announcing real jobs from a real project of real importance to the real defence of this country, I for one would welcome the announcement. Unfortunately, Trident represents none of those things.

My constituents will find it strange that the Minister can be so certain about the fate of the dockyards in the late 1990s when he has made a virtue of uncertainty about their fate in the late 1980s. They will find it strange that he can tell us what might happen in the last half of the next decade, but cannot tell us what will happen in the last half of this decade.

The Minister has confirmed that he is considering proposals to privatise the dockyards, but today he tells us that the most powerful, lethal and destructive weapon ever built is to be refitted at Rosyth. Apparently he cannot tell us who will be running the dockyard in the 1990s and servicing the weapons.

Among the measures which the Minister is still considering is a proposal which would privatise the management of the dockyard, perhaps placing it in the hands of a foreign or multinational operator on a four-year franchise— something which is more familiar to the world of fast food.

Is the Minister saying that he proposes to buy the most expensive weapons system known to this country arid run it on a franchise? Today, Rosyth faces the threat of redundancies, ever-increasing privatisation and increasing contractorisation within the dockyard. If the Minister could allay the fears of dockyard workers about those things, his announcement about Rosyth might be taken more seriously.

The Minister was saying that Trident, of unknown and unknowable cost, with at best an uncertain future, is to be sent to a dockyard which would be run by an unknown and untried operator, with a work force of unknown size, over which Ministers would have unknown and unspecified control. In those circumstances, the Minister's statement comes more from the world of public relations than from that of defence.

It is now eight months since Mr. Peter Levine's proposals were discussed, and four months since he left the employment of the Secretary of State for Defence. That is four months during which uncertainty over the future of the dockyard has been damaging morale within the dockyard. They have been months during which, without public announcement or the approval of the House, creeping privatisation appears to have become the way of life in the royal dockyards. When the dockyards exist to serve the Navy, when nothing should be done to affect the effectiveness of their relationship with the Navy, and when the onus should be upon the Government to demonstrate the need for any change or any privatisation, the measures that have been taken in the dockyards have not been tested for security, for viability, for capability or for capacity to respond in an emergency. At no point, either, have we considered the financial implications for this country. The opposite is the case. For the Government, as a matter of dogma, privatisation is the panacea, and, as a matter of policy, cutting public sector manpower is the prescription.

Now that it has been denied its promised increases in manpower, Rosyth's resources are being stretched to the limit. The dockyard is depending to an increasing extent on private contractors and casual labour. The Transport and General Workers Union representatives at Rosyth have told me that in July, as a result of the manpower recruitment ban, casual workers were brought into the dockyards. Five casual workers were used to clean the radiation departments of Resolution and Warspite. The union claims that the workers were given inadequate training and were not fully informed of the risks. Within a few days one worker had been subjected to two thirds of the maximum yearly radiation dosage and all five had been subjected to more than half of it.

That is an example of the dangers that can arise from increasing dependence on casual workers and outside commercial contractors. Under wholesale privatisation, with casualisation of the work force and contractorisation—which may be the fate of the dockyard—the Minister cannot guarantee either safety or security. He certainly cannot guarantee savings.

The test which the Secretary of State applies before putting projects out to privatisation is quite different from the tests applied by other Departments. The Secretary of State says that he will keep projects within the public sector only if the public sector can prove that it is significantly cheaper than the private sector. Even in American dockyards, privatisation of in-house services can be justified only if the private sector is at least 10 per cent. cheaper than the public sector. To the right hon. Gentleman, it is the public sector that must be cheaper. That policy is wrong and unfair.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement visited America this summer before I did. He visited some of the dockyards that I visited later on. He must have seen that the model which Mr. Levine chose for the dockyards, and which he said was based on American experience—the model of agency management— can be found nowhere in the management of the shipyards which deal with naval refits in America. It is taken entirely from armaments manufacture— a model with which Mr. Levine is familiar because of the other hats that he wears. That model has no relevance to the future of the royal dockyards.

The Minister must also have heard the views of the chief of the naval sea systems command, Vice-Admiral Fowler, who has said repeatedly—in America, the land of free enterprise—that in the refitting of naval ships the public sector is far more efficient than the private sector. Vice-Admiral Fowler has recommended that public sector shipyards should be building ships as well as refitting them.

I wonder whether the Minister also knows that the American navy is resisting Government proposals to contract out more and more vessels and submarines for refitting. Does he know that study after study has led the American shipyards and naval sea systems command to reject the privatisation of naval in-house services—the very thing being proposed for our dockyards?

American and most European experience leads us to reject the Levine proposal for agency management, any further movement towards privatisation of in-house services in the dockyards, and any further contracting-out of refitting work.

The Minister has not reassured us about the future of Rosyth dockyard. He has simply added to the uncertainty, anxiety and sense of frustration at the dockyard. Neither management nor work force wants the disruption of privatisation, the Navy does not want it, and the nation certainly does not need it.

9.4 pm

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I hope that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) will forgive me if I do not follow on his debate about the dockyards.

I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. What he has said today suggests to me that he and I share an understanding about the importance of sea power. I am convinced that the control of the oceans is fundamental to the deterrent that we in NATO have to maintain. NATO is the cornerstone of our defence policy. Our commitment to it is always taken into account, and never more so than by the United States. It is easy to settle down under the umbrella of the United States' military forces, but unless we make our contribution we cannot expect NATO to hold the peace as it has for the past 35 years.

I praise the Americans for their contribution in Europe. It is up to us to make ours. That is one of the reasons why it is important that we hold fast to the decision to go for Trident. It is the best. It is expensive, but one has to pay a lot for the best. A system that is deep in the oceans of the world and capable of launching one of the most deadly weapons is the deadliest deterrent. That is the way to counter the ever-growing threat of Russian forces and nuclear armaments, which my hon. Friend the Minister described.

My hon. Friend the Minister also spoke about the style of the Navy. It was a privilege for me to serve in it for a short time many years ago. What my hon. Friend said about the Navy's esprit de corps and reputation throughout the world is true today. Much of that goes back to tradition, and the person who founded that tradition was Lord Nelson. He is our most revered naval figure, and formed the modern Navy. He inspired by his unique leadership and injected a new strand of humanity into the running of the Navy, to say nothing of his skill as a naval commander.

Those qualities are epitomised by HMS Victory, which is in commission in the Royal Navy. It is an important part of the Royal Navy's central tradition. The Navy maintains it and it would be a fundamental mistake if HMS Victory were taken out of the Navy's hands and handed over to private enterprise to be exploited as a tourist attraction. The presence of HMS Victory and its connection with Lord Nelson and all that that means to the tradition of the Royal Navy is important in training and is an inspiration to the Navy. HMS Victory is not to be just a tourist attraction. It means something special to the Navy and must be kept under its control and care.

I should like to conclude by considering the old and rather hairy story about the sinking of the Belgrano. I am convinced that the decision had to be made in a short time. It was impossible to allow a naval commander to have the ship in his sights and not give him the order to sink it. The sinking was in the interests of all who were at sea in the Falklands area and elsewhere. I do not believe that the order was given on any ground other than that of securing the safety of those at sea. It bottled up the Argentine navy and was one of the most significant events of the war, which changed the pattern of it. I praise that courageous and almost monumental decision, which enabled the campaign to be concluded successfully. I hope that, when the story dies, people will realise the importance of what was done.

9.9 pm

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)

We have had a wide-ranging debate tonight, characterised by interest and affection for the Navy. Understandably, hon. Members with many constituents who are dependent on the Royal Navy for employment have shown an interest—as also, it is fair to say, have those hon. Members who, over the years, like my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), have developed an affection which began during their service days and which they have carried with them during their time in the House. The debate has been characterised by an interest, affection and desire on both sides to see what hon. Members regard as the best possible deal being made available for the Navy.

However, virtually every hon. Member has put the decisions to be made before us in terms of one side or other of the Trident debate. The Labour party considers Trident to be too expensive, quite apart from any other considerations of nuclear weapons. It is likely to jeopardise other aspects of our budget. Virtually every hon. Member has made some kind of guesstimate on the cost of the project. Figures between £10 billion and £12 billion have been bandied around. I hope that when the Minister replies he will be a little more frank and forthcoming than the Minister of State was when he opened the debate. The House is entitled to a clear and concise update. I realise that in the past annual assessments were intended, but, given the press interest, the amount of speculation and the rapid depreciation in the value of the pound over the past few months, it is only fair that we should be given some idea of the cost of the project.

We are also entitled to that estimate because it is possible that the British share of likely contracts for Trident might be worth less than the 60 per cent. which was suggested some time ago. It may have gone down to as low a figure as 40 to 45 per cent. We shall be interested in whatever information the Minister can give us on that aspect.

Furthermore, it is only fair that we be given some information about the time scale. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) effectively questioned the certainty of the proposals for the refitting of Trident at Rosyth. I live by the river Forth and I have watched the ships going by. My two sons, who at the moment are aged three and five, are not likely to be staying in my home when the Trident submarine goes up the river Forth for a refit.

Assuming that the project were to go ahead, I understand that the department of audit of the United States Government and the Congress procurement sub-committee have been informed that Lockheed is behind time and also beyond contract. It has been estimated that the first flight by Lockheed will not, at the very earliest, be before 1992. That suggests that it will be well into 1996–97 before we take delivery of Trident, assuming that we carry on with it.

If we do carry on with Trident, another anxiety is the possibility that, if we continue with the Polaris/Chevaline project, Chevaline will be well into obsolescence by the time Trident arrives. Indeed, at that stage there could be a gap in our defences. At that time we would not have the independent nuclear deterrent about which the Government are so proud and enthusiastic. When the Minister has finished consulting his parliamentary private secretary, perhaps he will tell us whether the other option that the Reagan Administration has been toying with, the star wars project—which probably involves even more of a guess than anything that we have heard of so far tonight—would render the whole Trident project unnecessary and irrelevant. That was one of the horses that the cowboy rode once again into the White House on, and we are interested in the Minister's views.

The Government normally look to the press for succour and support, but virtually no one in the press has any hope that the Trident project will be completed. Even in tonight's edition of The Standard, Max Hastings—a man who is not unsympathetic to the Government or the Ministry of Defence—wrote in the final paragraph of his article on Trident: As long as the Defence Secretary must remake policy with the vastly expensive lumber of Trident and Fortress Falkland immovably shackled to his own neck, it seems unlikely that our defence posture for the rest of the century will be any more than another in the long sad series of half-hearted compromises grudgingly achieved by his predecessors. That shows the level of support that the Government can now expect in virtually all sections of the British press. As a result, other hon. Members have put forward alternatives to Trident. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) gave us a lengthy exposition in which he almost came to the conclusion that sea-launched cruise missiles might be a worthwhile alternative. But he was not really very sure, which is the characteristic position of the alliance, or at least of one part of it. We are still not very sure whether the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) was completely anti-Trident, anti all——

Mr. Ashdown

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman can possibly be in any doubt, but in case he is, I shall remind him of the position. The Liberal party has opposed an independent deterrent for Britain from the time that Polaris was first considered. There is no equivocation about the matter. We are opposed to an independent deterrent. The situation could not be clearer.

Mr. O'Neill

As a member of the Labour party, I know that there is a fashion in the party for it to say one thing and for the leader, on occasion, to say another. The only thing is that the leader of the Labour party quite often has the opportunity to test his policies in office rather than being in permanent opposition.

Mr. Ashdown

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Neill

I shall not give way. I have made the point sufficiently, and I shall not give up any more time to the hon. Gentleman. He has had his opportunity to make his position and, indeed, that of the alliance clear. After all, he kept referring to the right hon. Member for Devonport as his right hon. Friend, so I imagine that they both agree.

But we do not see sea—launched missiles as an alternative. The reasons advanced by the Minister were quite correct, and we must add to them the question of verification. That is an important point, because, although we are talking now in the context of defence Estimates, we must appreciate our responsibilities with regard to disarmament. If our weapons were ever used as counters in disarmament talks, verification would be of considerable importance. As a result of the Government's commitment to Trident, our commitment to Polaris is probably masked. Some 7 per cent. of the total defence budget is still accounted for by Polaris, with the hidden support costs of training, repair, refit and research and development.

The other major drain on our resources is our massive commitment to the south Atlantic. Such out-of-area activity has an impact, especially when we are short of warships with which to mount a south Atlantic patrol. We now realise that the proper defence systems which are required for our ships are not coming through at the rate that they should.

The Government must recognise that the Government of President Alfonsin in Argentina are different from the one against whom we were at war two years ago. We should consider the prevailing circumstances in Argentina and recognise that if we do not move quickly, the opportunity of dealing with the democratic leader there may be denied us for years to come. We must recognise that our commitment in the south Atlantic must be considered against the defence budget and the stretching of resources.

Our responsibilities are primarily in the north Atlantic. A major and increasingly important role for our Navy is its continuing commitment to the north Atlantic. Our superiority there must be maintained. We must defend our convoy routes and offset any Warsaw pact superiority on land. Nevertheless, we must ensure that we have the vessels in which to do the work. My hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe spelled that out adequately. We must ensure that existing equipment is adequately supported and provided.

The report in The Daily Telegraph of 6 November gives us cause for anxiety. It is headed: Shortage of spares hits Navy helicopters. I hope that the Minister will comment on this when he replies. It states: The operational effectiveness of some of the navy's frontline ships and aircraft is being seriously hit by lack of spares. The Sea King anti-submarine helicopters of 814 Naval Air Squadron in the carrier Illustrious have only two sets of a particularly vital piece of equipment to be shared among seven aircraft. That is in contradistinction to the points raised by the Public Accounts Committee. It said that the Minister of Defence holds too large stocks of stores and spares. From the article in The Daily Telegraph it does not appear that that is the experience of the ship supplies officers of the fleet.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe was Minister in 1977 he gave the go-ahead for the installation of computers on ships. There is a considerable way to go before they are all installed. I hope that the Minister will make a statement on those matters, of which I am sure he is well aware because they have featured in The Daily Telegraph. I can imagine that, when such matters are buried in, for example, the New Statesman under the names of journalists like Duncan Campbell, Ministers will choose to avert their gaze. But as they are jumping out from the pages of The Daily Telegraph, he will probably have read about them over his cornflakes in the morning.

The problems include more than merely supplying the individual ships. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) referred to the problems of the dive systems on HMS Challenger on the Clyde. I wrote to the Minister about that because there has been considerable anxiety on the Clyde. As a Scottish Member, I am aware of the nervousness caused by anything which affects the yards there. Quite correctly, there was much public interest. My hon. Friend pointed out that we were not trying to over-egg the pudding. We recognise that it is not intended to reflect on the Scott Lithgow yards or work which has been done there.

Will the Challenger's dive system have to be refitted? If so, where will it take place? How much has the present dive system cost so far? Will there be a review of the procurement arrangements? We were led to believe at an earlier stage that there were alternatives, but they were rejected in favour of an MOD design which has now been shown to be less than satisfactory. Will the Minister estimate the cost of the replacement and how long it will take for the system to be corrected?

With the hon. Member for Yeovil, I was interested in and was going to mention torpedoes, but in view of the time remaining to me, I shall not do so. The hon. Gentleman and I used much the same sources for our arguments.

Several hon. Members with constituency interests mentioned privatisation. Everyone who takes an interest in such matters must be aware of the anxiety of naval dockyard workers. There are problems with morale, and worry about the availability of future capacity and the flexibility that has traditionally been available to the Navy, when dockyards have accepted at short notice increases in demand or changes in approach. Those anxieties have been expressed to Opposition Members by the trade unions, and not only by the unions which one would associate with ideological opposition to privatisation. The Civil Service unions, which represent the entire political spectrum, spelt out in a thoughtful and important document their views on agency management. Their opposition to it was mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The unions have also expressed fears about the diversion of warship repair work to the ship repair industry generally, and they are worried about the possibility of fleet maintenance bases taking on unprogrammed work. The workers are not simply worried about their jobs; they have committed their lives to the service of the Navy and of our security. It is only fair and reasonable that their anxieties should be allayed as quickly as possible. It goes without saying that the Opposition believe that their fears could be allayed by the complete rejection of the Levine report and the maintenance of the status quo. However, we recognise that the Government might try to do their worst, for whatever perverse ideological reasons they choose.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West outlined the American experience, which was contrary to many of the attitudes that are normally adopted by the Americans. It is rare for the Opposition to pray in aid the American experience. One could expect the Soviet navy to be opposed to privatisation, but when that happens in the home of free enterprise, it puts the matter into perspective. We are not talking about the franchising of hamburgers or the changing of cleaning and catering arrangements in hospitals. Many of us believe that the security of the nation should not be jeopardised on the altar of private profit, as the Minister seems to have chosen to do.

Hon. Members have been almost unanimous tonight about the need to protect and to enhance our merchant marine force. The right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who made a thoughtful and effective speech, may or may not be enjoying his new-found freedom or enhanced independence. This evening, he set the tone for the rest of the debate on the subject.

We are all anxious about the future of the merchant marine. Mr. Anthony Watts of the Maritime League has said: Unless the Government makes a definite move soon, we will no longer have a merchant navy to develop—and what will happen then to all those plans to charter merchant shipping for the transport of reinforcement supplies across the North Atlantic? The Government's response to the widespread anxiety, which I could spend a great deal of time discussing, is that there will be an in-depth study. We all know that an in-depth study is about the next worst thing to a Royal Commission. We know that the Minister who initiates it may have made such a success or failure of his responsibilities that he will have moved on by the time the report comes out, and will have forgotten about it. Whoever comes along will not want to do anything about it. There may be a delay in the Minister actually seeing it, as the officials may decide that it is something to be put at the bottom of the tray.

If this is the Government's attitude at a time of crisis in our Merchant Navy, it is not good enough. This evening, we shall not divide the House. We did so two nights ago when we debated shipbuilding, and the two subjects are not unrelated. Some of the speeches made then by my hon. Friends, and certainly the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) when he wound up the debate, made clear the close relationship between the Merchant Navy and the needs of the shipbuilding communities.

It is not surprising that in this campaign we find some strange allies. My hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe referred to the statements made by Mr. Ken Gill of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and by Mr. Jim Slater of the National Union of Seamen. The close similarity between the statements made by these two men, advocating the policies of the two trade unions, and the policy advocated by Admiral Sir Anthony Griffin in his Blackadder lecture "A Maritime Strategy for Britain" is interesting.

These three men from different backgrounds came to certain conclusions. They were: promotion of the recognition of Britain's dependence on the sea; the recreation of an orderly international market based on enlightened self-interest and possibly the adoption of voluntary quota systems; the encouragement of joint shipping ventures with the developing world; the fostering of industrial relations through more effective involvement; the encouragement of a closer dialogue between shipowners and shipbuilders; the encouragement of shipowners through improved fiscal policies and reduced regulations; the encouragement of fishing, surveying, marine business, offshore and all other related elements of Britain's maritime interests; the reappraisal of Britain's contribution to the NATO strategy; and making sure that military threats to maritime interests are deterred.

In the interests of brevity, I have had to paraphrase one or two of the objectives, but the point is clear. All parts of the maritime community are committed to the need for a clear policy that will serve to foster the Merchant Navy and provide employment for those who construct ships, for those who sail them and for the communities and the activities that support them. That is of the highest priority.

It is not good enough for the Government to say that an in-depth survey will take place. The Minister having invested his authority in it, one imagines that it will take place as quickly as possible. I assure him that over the next few months, every month at Defence Questions there will be a question asking for a statement on the in-depth report. It should not take the study long to gather the information together.

The General Council of British Shipping and a variety of other organisations have put their views on record already. We hope that, at the very earliest, the report will be ready by Easter. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that will be so. That is a reasonable time to give him. Certainly it is not unreasonable, given the plight of the industry. We want action, and we want it quickly. Our communities need this reassurance at a time when in virtually every area of maritime policy and defence policy there is terrible uncertainty.

Virtually every right hon. and hon. Member has expressed anxiety about the cost of Trident—from Government supporters who do not know how much it costs to Opposition Members who have a fair idea of how much it costs, do not like it and do not want it.

We also want to know the impact of the increasing cost on the budget. In response to a question from the right hon. Member for Devonport, the Minister admitted that the other parts of the defence budget would have to carry the load for any increase in the cost of the Trident project. In our view, if that happened and our contribution in a conventional sense and especially in a naval sense to the NATO Alliance suffered, it would only serve to weaken the Alliance, to alienate our friends and partners in the Alliance and to make our country a far less safe and healthy place in which to live.

9.36 pm
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Adam Butler)

I have the feeling that naval debates have a touch of freemasonry about them. I thank all those right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this one, and I thank especially my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) for his welcome to me. I cannot but be impressed by the quality of the speeches to which I have listened, but I shall be commenting on their content. The Chamber seemed to be scattered with former Navy Ministers, junior Defence Ministers, a former Foreign Secretary and—it was very nice to see—a former Prime Minister, who was here for at least half of the debate. I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), like me, has just made his first appearance at the Dispatch Box as a spokesman on naval matters, and I congratulate him on his speech.

Before dealing with the main matters which have occupied the attention of right hon. and hon. Members, let me try to pick up a few of the specific topics upon which they touched. A handful of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House urged the Government to sign the law of the sea convention. I am afraid that I have to disappoint those who expected me to comment on it—although they may know better and not expect me to do SO.

For the benefit of those who do not know, I ought to explain that the convention is open for signature until 9 December. The Government are finalising their attitude to signing it. But it is long and complex. It covers a wide range of interests embracing navigation. But when the decision time comes, one finds that these matters are even more complex that they were 10 years ago.

In the area of mineral exploration, scientific research, navigation and pollution some provisions are acceptable, and some are not. So all that I can say is that we shall arrive at our decision, I hope, in the near future—I might even say before too long or, I hope, shortly.

Mr. du Cann

I understand my right hon. Friend's problems and difficulties, and no one expects him necessarily to give a specific answer now, but this is a serious subject. The matter has been on the table for 10 years. It is a matter in which British officials and British Governments have taken a leading part in international negotiations. To suggest that it is possible that at some unqualified time in the future we shall come to a conclusion is, with the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, simply not good enough. Will he not say in all seriousness that the conclusion will be announced to the House within the next few days, in time for signature?

Mr. Butler

My right hon. Friend quite rightly takes me to task. I was not treating the subject flippantly. I was involved in some of the discussions within Government on this matter some four years ago, so I know something about it. Perhaps the fact that we are taking so long to decide shows the deep importance and complexity of the matter. My right hon. Friend knows perfectly well that if it was a simple matter we could have decided one way or the other. The fact is that it is not a simple matter. I should have liked to be able to say that we would announce the decision before 9 December. It may be possible, but I cannot commit the Government to making a statement before then. However, I very much hope that that will be the case.

My right hon. Friend gave me notice that he would raise the question of hydrographic services. It is a fact that only about one third of the waters around the United Kingdom have been surveyed to modern standards. There is a steady flow of new work and priorities must be selected. That work will continue. My right hon. Friend knows many of the people involved, and he paid tribute to the staff in Taunton. I echo his praise for their work. He also said that, while he welcomed the use of private contractors and chartered vessels to supplement the resources of the survey flotilla, he thought that the reduction in numbers had gone too far. I entirely agree that there is work that should be carried out by Royal Navy vessels and, therefore, by naval staff.

My right hon. Friend made a strong, if narrow, criticism of the time taken to produce annual reports. I agree that the report should come out on time. I will check on the past position and try to ensure that they come out on time in future. The report now due has been completed, is being printed and should be available shortly.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us are concerned that this is one of the most effective ways in which the Royal Navy's future can be assured?

Will my right hon. Friend address himself to communication in the wider sense? I am sure that he is aware that one of the lessons from the Falklands was the lack of satellite communication. Will he say something about Skynet, the satellite communication system that will be of the greatest importance, but is still awaited?

Mr. Butler

My hon. Friend gave me notice that he would raise that point. In view of the time and the number of other matters with which I must deal, I shall say nothing other than that he is right. There have been problems of delay with Skynet, but there is no doubt about the importance of satellites for communication in the defence and maritime areas. I hope that we can reinforce what is currently available.

Merchant shipping occupied a number of the speeches. There should be no doubt that the figures quoted about the undoubted reduction in the merchant shipping fleet give cause for concern. At present, the overall size of the merchant fleet is adequate to meet current and foreseeable defence needs. It is because of the history of the past few years, when the run down occurred, that the Government have commissioned the joint study to which my right hon. Friend the Minister referred in his opening speech. It will not be ready as early as Easter, as was requested, but it should be available by the middle of the next year. The study is important and should not be left on the shelf unread. We shall see what it says and decide how to proceed.

Mr. Douglas

Will the report be published, in view of the restrictions imposed by its confidentiality?

Mr. Butler

Initially, the report is for Ministers. Much of the information in it might be classified and it would be impossible to publish it. My right hon. Friend and the Department of Transport will consider whether an expurgated version should be made available. Normally such reports are advisory and one would not expect them to be made public.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

We will read about it in The Observer.

Mr. Butler

The hon. Members for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) and for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) mentioned Challenger. It is common knowledge that difficulties have arisen in the saturation diving system. Since it was impossible to rectify the failures in situ it was decided to redesign and simplify the system. The value of the pipework removed was under £l million. A replacement programme has been put to competitive tender and I cannot tell what the replacement costs will be. The failure was not the consequence of MOD procurement arrangements. At the time of the original order no commercial equipment wholly met the MOD requirement. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) asked if any blame attached to Scott Lithgow. There is no disagreement between the MOD and Scott Lithgow and no complaints have been made against Scott Lithgow about the saturation diving system.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) for not having been here to listen to his strong criticisms of the torpedo programme. I cannot comment in detail. Tigerfish has caused problems but I am glad to say that Sting Ray's development has been successfully completed in time and within costs. It entered service with Sea Kings and Nimrods last year.

Mr. Ashdown

Is it true that even now, as Sting Ray enters service, there is a requirement for a propulsion enhancement programme to increase its speed so that it can do the job for which it was originally designed?

Mr. Butler

I shall have to check that.

The main subject of today's debate was defence expenditure, within that, naval expenditure, and the impact which the cost of Trident might have on that expenditure. My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the considerable increase in real terms in expenditure over the past five years under Conservative Administrations. I resent the Opposition castigating us for what we might or might not be doing in relation to the defence programme or the naval programme. In real terms defence expenditure has increased by about one fifth in the last five years and naval expenditure has benefited in the same way from increased resources.

There is no reasonable basis for suggesting that the Navy has fared other than well under this Government. In meeting our commitment to NATO, we are fully achieving the targets in Cmnd. 8758. We at any rate have met the NATO force goals. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) asked that question three times, and I began to wonder whether it would be the only subject in his speech. I suggest that when he next sees Admiral McDonald, he should ask him to whom he was referring. However, the hon. Gentleman was nicely taken up by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck), who pointed out that most of the time serving officers claim that they do not have a sufficient amount of the equipment they need.

We have ordered 41 new ships since May 1979, and in real terms we are spending about £2 billion more than would have been the case had the performance of 1978–79 been maintained. In this year alone, excluding any special provision for the Falkland Islands, we are spending £500 million more in real terms.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

Is the Minister able to say anything definite about the two type 22s which have been delayed? In particular, can he say that both will be committed to Swan Hunter?

Mr. Butler

The answer is no. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the tenders expired and the orders again had to be put out to tender. These are being examined, and I hope that we shall be able to announce them before the end of the year. With only two ships involved, it is clear that one or two yards will be disappointed. The decisions have many implications for naval capacity and jobs in different yards. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's concern, but at present I cannot say which way the orders are likely to go.

The debate on Trident took a fairly predictable form because it is not the first time that this matter has been considered. I shall not discuss in depth whether or not we need Trident. Some hon. Members will not be persuaded of that. Our very firm view is that an independent nuclear deterrent must form part of our defence strategy. If we are to have a nuclear deterrent, it must be at the front of the state of the art—in other words, as up to date as it can be.

In that respect, the views of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) are futile. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) pointed out—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where is the right hon. Gentleman?"] He apologised for not being present, but he made his speech and rushed out. It was an interesting speech. The right hon. Gentleman tried to suggest that in some way we could maintain credibility by having a second or third rate deterrent and that in some way we could have a second or third-rate nuclear missile. He did not go as far as to suggest that sea-launched cruise missiles were what he had in mind, but he seemed to think that in some way one could add a small contribution to the NATO deterrent, thereby making it more effective. He seemed to suggest that we should build Spitfires or Hurricanes because they were much less costly than Tornados or Jaguars and that in some way they could supplement the forces of the 1980s and 1990s. I wholly reject that suggestion.

It is important to put the cost of Trident into context. The position has been rehearsed many times. There has been a movement in the cost based on the rates of exchange which obtained at the time the costings were carried out. It is correct that any costing based on today's rate of exchange would show an increased dollar cost and, therefore, an increase in the total cost of Trident. But that would be in respect of the exchange rate today. The actual commitment on Trident at this moment is as little as £600 million and actual expenditure as low as £200 million. It is a fraction of the total. What we have to worry about is the rate of exchange when the bulk of the expenditure occurs.

I gave up forecasting the dollar-sterling exchange rate some time ago because I always got it wrong, but the majority of commentators say that the probability is that the dollar will weaken against sterling. Therefore, even when a revised estimate using current exchange rates is put before the House fairly shortly it must be borne in mind that that is not likely to be the exchange rate when the bulk of the expenditure takes place.

Mr. Douglas

The rate of the pound against the dollar has been held up by our ability to produce North sea oil. That has been a vital factor. When the peak years of Trident expenditure come in the 1990s, our North sea oil will be declining, so it is highly likely that the exchange rate will be much more adverse to us. The point made by the right hon. Member for Devonport will then be even more valid.

Mr. Butler

Perhaps I may debate the exchange rate with the hon. Gentleman on another occasion. I wish to deal with one further main point—the cost of naval ships and related equipment. Whether the naval budget grows or shrinks and whatever happens to the defence budget as a whole, we must make the best use of the resources available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed), who has apologised for having to leave, put forward some interesting ideas about making the men sleep on bare boards and reducing the quality of accommodation available to them. He felt that in that respect some of our ships were gold-plated. The hon. Member for Attercliffe used the term "gold-plated" in relation to ships in general and their current degree of sophistication.

It is easy to say that we need more and cheaper ships, but those ships have a job to do. One cannot sent a bare hulk to the Falklands or to any other combat area. A balance must be achieved between cost and capability. We set out to design a frigate in the shape of the type 23 which would show a significant reduction in cost compared with what had gone before. I was asked to provide figures. In the debate last year it was announced that the cost of the type 23 would be about 75 per cent. of that of the type 22. The gap may have widened a little due to the need to enhance capability, but the cost that we now expect is lower than was originally supposed. I believe that our competition policy will ensure that if the price is not reduced still further it is kept down in a way that might not have happened before.

In the procurement executive I am trying to get the best value for money in a number of ways, including competition. A number of examples already show that the cost of ships and equipment has been reduced through competitive tendering. It is certainly true that naval orders are less easy to put out to competitive tender than other forms of equipment, but we need to have arrangements whereby subcontract work is done as competitively as possible. About 76 per cent. of the subcontracts and supplies for the type 23 will be subject to competitive tender. That is why I am able to say in confidence that, compared with previous experience, I would expect the costs of the type 23 to be better maintained. [Interruption.] I thank my hon. Friend who reminds me about dockyards. I was going to consider them. I was not, however, allowed as much time as I would have liked. We are nearing a decision on dockyards. I realise the uncertainty and, in some cases, reduction in morale that can occur from a lack of decision, but, once we have announced how we propose to go forward, consultations will take place with the unions in the normal way.

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

  1. Mineral Workings Bill [Money] (No. 2) 46 words