HC Deb 11 April 1989 vol 150 cc721-2
1. Miss Lestor

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many Royal Navy vessels are currently deployed in the Gulf; and what impact this has on their availability for other duties.

5. Mr. Ted Garrett

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many Royal Navy vessels are currently deployed in the Gulf; and what impact this has on their availability for other duties.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

There are currently three Royal Navy ships and one Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel deployed in the area of the Gulf. The Royal Navy's commitment in the Gulf inevitably limits the availability of ships for other tasks. All the vessels could, however, be recalled in support of NATO in the event of an emergency.

Miss Lestor

Does the Minister agree that the time is approaching when we should consider reducing our military presence in the Gulf? As the Iran-Iraq war is over and the risks to commercial shipping have been considerably lessened, the reduction would not simply be a goodwill gesture—which I believe is needed—but would release Royal Navy vessels for other areas where they might be required.

Mr. Hamilton

I remind the hon. Lady that no treaty has been signed to end that war. We believe that it would be inappropriate to begin to withdraw our commitment before that happens. However, these matters are constantly kept under review.

Mr. Garrett

Will the Minister convey my thanks to all the personnel who served in the Gulf during that extremely difficult period? Will he assure the House that the vessels will be fully repaired and maintained when they are pulled back to the United Kingdom? Some of the Fleet Auxiliaries will be ready for major refits. When will the contract for HMS Southampton be announced?

Mr. Hamilton

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman when the contract for HMS Southampton will be announced.

However, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement is looking at that matter very closely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the role of the Royal Navy in the Gulf. The Royal Navy did sterling work, which was much appreciated by everyone. We must bear in mind that the Royal Navy escorted more ships than all the other navies in the area put together.

Mr. Mates

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) suggested, will my hon. Friend the Minister please ensure that our presence in the Gulf—it has been in the area now for nine years, it has been unobtrusive and highly professional and it has acted well in the cause of preserving the peace—is not allowed to fall below the level which my hon. Friend considers necessary?

Mr. Hamilton

I can give my hon. Friend that commitment. It is very important that we maintain a presence in the Gulf for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should maintain a presence there because we owe it to all those who gave their lives in north Africa and in the middle east in the defence of the oil supplies so that the United Kingdom could continue the war against Hitler? Our presence in the Gulf and in north Africa was necessary then and it would be quite wrong now, just because there happens to be a temporary cessation of hostilities in the area, to reduce that essential presence which safeguards the traffic routes.

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to see significantly greater reductions in the tension in the area. It would be good if a peace treaty could be arrived at between Iran and Iraq and the area made more secure than it is today. I understand my hon. Friend's point about the sacrifices that people made in the past to ensure that the oil flowed.

Mr. Tony Banks

What information has the Minister about the number of ships which have re-flagged to take advantage of the protection provided by the Armilla patrol? Is it not now time to ask the owners or nations from which those ships originally re-flagged to pay a contribution? Why should the British taxpayer have to pay for other ships to be escorted through the Gulf?.

Mr. Hamilton

In general terms, we believe that the patrol has made a valuable contribution to the security of the area. Although there was a degree of re-flagging, we cannot ask for contributions from nations. We have made an important contribution to the security of the area.

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