HC Deb 24 May 1988 vol 134 cc184-6
6. Mr. Stott

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proposals concerning maritime strategy he will be taking to the Eurogroup meeting of Defence Ministers in Brussels on 25 May.

Mr. Younger

None, Sir.

Mr. Stott

I am interested to hear that reply to my question. If the Secretary of State is not considering a maritime strategy, perhaps he could pay some attention to the importance of the British merchant fleet in the development of a maritime strategy. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the merchant fleet figures in his defence White Paper make depressing reading? How many more ships, and how many more British-trained merchant seamen, are we to lose before the Secretary of State acts in the national interest?

Mr. Younger

We watch trends in the British merchant fleet with considerable concern because we rely on being able to take ships from trade for military purposes from time to time. However, in spite of the steady reductions in recent years, which now appear to have levelled off, the position is that, apart from one or two specialist types, sufficient vessels would be available for any likely defence needs. We watch the matter carefully and would be worried if there were too few for our needs.

Mr. Holt

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his answer that we do not have a strategy is alarming? Does he admit that unless we know how many ships we have we will not know how many we might need in any eventuality? There is great concern that the Royal Navy is being run down to a level that would be unsustainable in the event of hostilities anywhere in the world.

Mr. Younger

I should correct the impression that has grown up because of the supplementary question asked by the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott). I did not state that we had no maritime strategy. I said that I would not be taking any proposals on such a strategy to the Eurogroup meeting, which is a very different thing. We have a well-known maritime strategy, which is part of the NATO strategy, to which the Royal Navy makes a great contribution.

Mr. Clay

Returning to the Secretary of State's answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), will the right hon. Gentleman look at the age profile of what is left of the British merchant fleet, because surely he knows that what is left is, on the whole, very old? New ships will have to be built in the 1990s because the remaining ships will not be seaworthy by then. It is simply a question whether the new ships that will be required will be built in other countries or in Britain. In the interests of his own Department, should not the Secretary of State persuade his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to wake up, pull their fingers out and save British merchant shipbuilding?

Mr. Younger

My concern is to ensure that at any time sufficient ships could be taken from trade to be used for military purposes. That is still the case today, but we watch the position carefully. We in the Ministry of Defence cannot construct merchant ships. We have to rely on their being available. We keep a close check on what is available and, as I have said, at present it is still adequate for our needs.

Mr. Ian Taylor

Does my right hon. Friend agree that West German interest in our maritime fleet is great, particularly in the ability of our submarines and, in due course, Trident to attack Soviet territory, and that that is important, given the INF agreement which otherwise would limit all land-based nuclear action to taking place on German soil? Has he received representations from the West German Government to that effect?

Mr. Younger

In my discussions with the West German Government they solidly supported the provision of the British nuclear deterrent—the Polaris system as it now is, or the Trident system in the future. It is widely agreed throughout NATO that that is an extremely valuable contribution to NATO, as well as being a safeguard for our own defence. I have noticed recently with interest that Mr. Gorbachev has agreed that the British Trident system should not be included in the START negotiations.

Mr. O'Neill

The Secretary of State has concentrated on the number of ships. Is he not concerned about the figures in the White Paper relating to the number of cadets in training, which, in the last six years, has fallen from 4,000 to 550? That drop suggests that in the future there will not only be an insufficient number of British or, indeed, European, ships, but, more important, that there will be a dearth of British seamen capable of manning those ships and fulfilling the role that the merchant marine has carried out so valiantly in the past.

Mr. Younger

Yes, we believe that a possible shortage of British crews is a greater problem than the possible shortage of British ships. We are considering both those matters carefully and examining ways in which we could build up a reserve of crews for that purpose.

Mr. Hind

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the maritime defence strategy is to keep enemy forces at arm's length and to deny them freedom of operation? Will he also tell us what plans his Department has for ordering further Trident submarines?

Mr. Younger

Of course, NATO strategy is to ensure that we have the ability to range on international waters and the high seas and to ensure that we can keep them safe for the passage of our shipping and of international shipping generally. There is no doubt that that is a prime factor in NATO strategy.

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