HC Deb 09 December 1986 vol 107 cc178-82

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

38. Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the United Kingdom's future military amphibious capability.

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger)

I am very pleased to inform the House that the Government have decided to retain an amphibious capability in the longer term.

At present, the Royal Navy's amphibious lift is centred on the assault ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. As a first procurement step, we have today placed a contract with Swan Hunter for a feasibility study into extending the life of these ships. At the same time, we are inviting industry to participate in feasibility studies for a new design option for their replacement by building new ships. In parallel with this work, we shall address the means of providing helicopter lift, including the concept of an aviation support ship.

I know that this decision will be very well received both in the House and by our NATO partners, who attach considerable importance to the contribution of our amphibious capability. The steps that I am announcing today will secure its future.

Mr. Townsend

The House will be grateful to my right hon. Friend, as will those who have responsibilities for the northern flank. I hope that the study that my right hon. Friend mentioned will take place as speedily as possible. Will he confirm that the landing at San Carlos in 1982 would never have taken place if we had not had assault landing ships? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Britain is to have a strong conventional capability it must include a proper assault ship capacity?

Mr. Younger

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I share his appreciation of the great importance of amphibious capability for our defence posture and our NATO contributions. This step will be a major reassurance that we intend to continue this capability.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

I warmly welcome this decision. For how long is it possible to extend the life of Fearless and Intrepid? On the new ship designs, is this to be a much cheaper ship, will it have an amphibious lift capacity, with a flat top? What design is envisaged?

Mr. Younger

The study into the life of Intrepid and Fearless will be looking into the economics and feasibility of extending their life, should that be the preferred option. Calculations of the cost and feasibility will be relevant in making that decision. As to the alternative of possible new vessels, the feasibility study will be looking into the most effective way of making a new vessel to fulfil this role.

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many on both sides of the House are devoted to the concept of our maintaining a substantial amphibious capability? Will he assure us that the life of the old ships will be retained until the new ships are ready to take their place?

Mr. Younger

Yes, I can give my hon. and learned Friend that assurance. The expected life of Intrepid and Fearless stretches into the mid-1990s. This should give us ample time, following today's decision, to work out the best method of replacing them.

Mr. Ted Garrett (Wallsend)

The decision will be welcomed nowhere more than on Tyneside. I would like to ask the Minister to ensure that, when the feasibility study is completed, Swan Hunter will be paid, because in the past, when it has done feasibility studies, there has been grave doubt as to whether it got full value for the money, time and effort spent on such studies.

I should like to extend an invitation to the Secretary of State to come to Wallsend on Saturday when, for the first time in 100 years, he will see the launch of one of Her Majesty's ships, HMS Galahad. It is an amphibious craft. It has been redesigned and has a new structure, and its launch will be watched with immense interest.

There is a tremendous amount of work to be undertaken on the feasibility study. I should like to see, not the extension of the life of the two vessels, but completely new ones built. I think that when the study is completed two new modern ships will be ordered. Will the Secretary of State give consideration to those orders being brought to Tyneside?

Mr. Younger

I note the hon. Gentleman's last point. He will appreciate that I will not want to make a determination on that until I have had the results of the study. I am as pleased as he is that Swan Hunter competed for the feasibility study contract and that it now has the contract. I can assure him that it will be paid for its work in accordance with the contract terms.

Sir Patrick Wall (Beverley)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that these matters have been under discussion for some time and, therefore, feasibility studies are not very satisfactory? Is he also aware that the Royal Marines have lost the use of HMS Centaur and HMS Bulwark? It is essential to have two aircraft support ships in this package. How long will the study take? The ships are aging very rapidly and modern assaults are carried out by helicopter and not by landing craft?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate my hon. and gallant Friend's concern about the time scale. I assure him that this is a case in which the Ministry of Defence is taking the appropriate step to decide how best the capability should be continued in plenty of time to ensure that whatever replacement is decided upon will be ready when Intrepid and Fearless, as they are at present in service, come to the end of their useful lives. I agree entirely with the views expressed about the need for helicopter platforms in addition and I have made it clear in my statement that that too remains under consideration.

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

May I follow the remarks of the Secretary of State and his hon. Friend the Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) and stress the importance of preserving this package? When does the Secretary of State expect to be in a position to place an order?

Mr. Younger

Obviously I shall make a decision on placing an order when I have the results of the feasibility study, which I hope will be available some time towards the end of next year. We will then be able to make a decision in good time, so that the resulting new ships or extended life ships will be available and ready when Intrepid and Fearless reach the end of their lives.

Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

I welcome the statement—which, I might add, is long overdue—and its importance for the future of the Royal Marines. May I press the Secretary of State a little more closely on the time scale? When we have stripped it of all the nice language, in what year can we expect the new ships?

Mr. Younger

It is our intention that the new ships or refurbished present ships, according to the decision, will be ready by the mid-1990s, when the present ships will reach the end of their useful lives. That is sensible planning and the House will applaud it.

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

Since consience doth made cowards of us all", I welcome the placement of the feasibility study at Swan Hunter. Swan Hunter, as the Secretary of State will recall, had the feasibility study for the auxiliary oiler replenishment vessel and was treated pretty shabbily by his Department afterwards. What guarantee does Tyneside have that history will not repeat itself and that expediency will not cut across rational decision-making in the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Younger

It is a refreshing change for the hon. Gentleman to welcome something for Swan Hunter. He has not done that for a long time. I take some exception to his suggestion that Swan Hunter, of all yards, has not been well treated over the auxiliary oiler replenishment vessel. May I remind him that, although Swan Hunter was not successful in the competition for AOR 1, it was given special preferential treatment in being offered an inside track for AOR 2. I hope that he will not cavil at that or be ungrateful for it, because he will not be in tune with the workers at Swan Hunter if he does.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

My right hon. Friend has gauged the welcome given to his announcement by both sides of the House, especially in so far as it affects the Royal Marines. However, he will understand the nervousness that some of us feel lest, judging from experience, this becomes a discussion exercise. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to do two things? First, will he report to the House from time to time on the progress of the replacements? Secondly, and more important, will he personally impose a programme on the feasibility studies and on any subsequent work? It is vital that this amphibious capability is kept in train all the time.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate what my hon. Friend says. The announcement ensures that there will be a long-term continuation of the amphibious capability. That is good news for those who are concerned about the future of the Royal Marines as well as of the Royal Navy. I assure the House again—this point needs to be explained—that this is intended to be a process that will end in a replacement of the two ships, Intrepid and Fearless, in time following the end of their useful life. There cannot be better planning than that. If the process works out that way, today's announcement will be seen to have been very timely.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The announcement by the Secretary of State of the continuing commitment to an amphibious capability is very much welcomed by the alliance, but many hon. Members have made it clear that there is considerable concern about the delay in making the announcement and about the further delay that is implicit in the right hon. Gentleman's statement. Should the right hon. Gentleman not have grasped the nettle now in respect of ordering new ships? Is it not the case that, stripped of the florid language and the right hon. Gentleman's accustomed sweet reason, this is a delayed decision which is directly due to the impact of Trident expenditure on the defence budget?

Mr. Younger

I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman's first remarks, which were sensible and balanced. In the second part of his question, he suggested that we should build a replacement for Intrepid and Fearless before the useful lives of those vessels was over. That would be profligate and very unwise. This plan should ensure that a replacement will be ready just at the end of the useful lives of the present vessels. If the Liberal party thinks that that is unwise, it surprises me.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government intend to ensure that our amphibious capability will continue to be able to operate efficiently within the NATO area and worldwide?

Mr. Younger

Yes, it is intended that this amphibious capability will continue, as now, to be primarily dedicated to NATO tasks, especially on the northern flank, and to be available in the normal way for any other out-of-area activities that require an amphibious capability.

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his commitment, on the Government's behalf, to maintaining the amphibious assault capability of the Royal Marines. Will he confirm that Exercise Saifsareea, which took place two weeks ago in Oman and involved an assault landing by members of 44 Royal Marine Commando from Intrepid, would not have been possible if that commitment had been done away with, nor would maintenance of the Royal Marines' commitment to the defence of the northern flank?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely correct. My announcement shows that the Government believe that we need to maintain this type of amphibious capability. I hope that we can proceed from that base to decide precisely how this capability should be carried on.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I welcome today's announcement, but what is the likelihood of one of the orders coming to the lower Clyde?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern. No doubt, when the time comes to put contracts out to tender, the hon. Gentleman's constituents will tender, if they wish to do so. I hope that if they get the order the hon. Gentleman will be a little more grateful for that than the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), who represents Swan Hunter, is for all the extra help that we give him.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his welcome decisions. In relation to the replacement vessels, will he ask his advisers to look at the design procedures to ascertain whether costs can be saved in the long term, perhaps by getting away from the traditional design of these types of vessels and using some form of innovation?

Mr. Younger

I welcome very much what my hon. Friend has said. In the case of all new ship design, we are looking very much for innovation in everything that we do. An example of that would be the immense changes in the Royal Navy's capabilities and its commitment to refits, and so on, for the new type 23 frigate, which is an immense improvement on its predecessors.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

May I commend my right hon. Friend for including in his statement a study into the use of helicopters for amphibious purposes? Will he record the fact that helicopters and more general purpose ships can provide much greater flexibility both for amphibious landings and for any other unforeseen possibilities that might arise?

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend. The ability to use helicopters is a central part of the amphibious capability.

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)

May I first thank you, Mr. Speaker, for extending Question Time in the way that you have? Initially, we intended to complain about the use of this device, but when we heard the Minister's answer we realised why he used this device instead of making a statement. As for gratitude, the Opposition can raise only a small cheer, because this is a wholly unsatisfactory statement. It extends only to the promise of a feasibility study, the terms of which we hope the Minster will be prepared to put into the Library so that they can be studied more closely. We are not sure about the exact nature of this type of craft, or about its timing. Will it appear in the 1988-89 Estimates, or in those of 1989-90 or 1990-91? We need to know the answer to this question so that shipbuilding jobs can be protected. We also need to know how long these people will have to wait before they get the kind of jobs that they are so well equipped to fill.

Mr. Younger

It seems to be extraordinarily easy to muddle the hon. Gentleman. It is a clear and welcome statement. It provides a firm future for the amphibious capability. The time scale that we are offering should enable that capability to be continued at precisely the moment when it will be needed. I have already said several times that the present ships, Intrepid and Fearless, will come to the end of their useful lives in about the middle 1990s. We hope to have replacements of one sort or another ready for them then. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that that is a satisfactory outcome. As for his first remark, it is somewhat unparliamentary of him to object to a device unless the content of the wording used is favourable. As a parliamentarian, I should have thought that he would be glad to have additional information, whether or not he approves of it.