HC Deb 17 June 1986 vol 99 cc902-4
11. Mr. Bruce

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement outlining his plans for the future of warship procurement for the next five years.

Mr. Lee

It is our intention, within the resources available to us, to modernise our surface and underwater fleets appropriate to the threat.

Mr. Bruce

Is the Minister aware that that reply is rather less than forthcoming on the prospects for future ship orders in the United Kingdom? Will he acknowledge that, for a maritime nation such as Britain, the provision of ships should be our key contribution to NATO defence? What assurance can he give that there will be enough orders coming forward for our shipyards, especially for the shipyard in my own area, Hall Russell, which is starved of orders and being privatised by the Government?

Mr. Lee

Everyone, including the hon. Gentleman, knows full well that there is substantial overcapacity in our warship yards at present. Therefore, I cannot give him the guarantee that he seeks. Nevertheless, the Government have a record that we can be proud of in supporting the conventional and nuclear Navy. Since 1979 we have ordered 52 warships, including 19 major ones, and at present the current value of naval orders is approximately £3.5 billion.

Sir Patrick Wall

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is considerable anxiety that unless the Government order three type 23 frigates each year they will not be able to keep their promise to maintain 50 frigates and destroyers? Is he also aware that Fearless and Intrepid are getting very old and unless there are plans to replace them this year the future of our amphibious force is very grim indeed?

Mr. Lee

I repeat the assurance that I have given previously that we shall be making a decision on the way ahead on amphibious ship replacement during 1986. Frigate orders are very much dependent on the availability of resources. However, it is our intention to make an announcement on frigate orders before the House rises.

Mr. Duffy

Is the Minister aware that his first reply was lamentable, even disgraceful? Even if we were to act on the recommendation of his hon. Friend the Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) and start to order warships again — which the Government have not done for two financial years — and even if we were to resume the obligatory pattern of three warships a year in order to maintain or at least achieve the objective of 50 warships, by 1990 one third of that fleet would be 25 to 30 years old? That is the problem that the Government are storing up for the Royal Navy.

Mr. Lee

I have nothing further to add to the replies that I have given previously.

Sir David Price

Is it my hon. Friend's continuing determination to maintain the pace and scale of the single role minehunter programme? Is he aware that if he slackens on it for Treasury reasons it will have an extremely adverse effect on the programme and on the admirable shipyard of Vosper Thornycroft?

Mr. Lee

I know that my hon. Friend lobbies consistently for Vosper Thornycroft. The order for O1 of the single-role minehunter was, as he knows, placed with Vosper Thornycroft in 1985. However, no decisions have been taken on the size or timing of future orders.

Mr. Denzil Davies

Has the Minister not in effect confirmed what we all thought, that the Government will not be able to honour the commitment to a 50-warship Navy, which would mean ordering three type-23 frigates a year for some considerable time? Why does he not say, as he implied in his earlier answer, that the Navy will be cut and run down in order to pay for Trident?

Mr. Lee

The right hon. Gentleman is totally wrong. I repeat that it is our intention to maintain a running fleet of about 50 vessels.

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is a good deal of back-chat going on, although we are still in the middle of Question Time.