HC Deb 28 February 1989 vol 148 cc163-250

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

[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Defence Committee of Session 1987–88 on the Future Size and Role of the Royal Navy's Surface Fleet, HC 309, and the Government Reply, Cm. 443.]

3.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury)

I am pleased to open the debate on the Royal Navy. Today we have the first of the three days during which we discuss each of our armed services. It is normal on these occasions to start with an account of the work and activities of the Royal Navy, and this I intend to do.

However, I shall speak more briefly than is usual about that work for two reasons. First, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, have more to say, both about the achievements of the Royal Navy and about its current activities. Secondly, I intend to give rather more time than is customary to the ships and equipment of our Navy. It is, of course, as Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement, my particular area of ministerial responsibility. Moreover, we have a large number of new classes of vessel and new types of equipment coming into service and we are in a period of rapid technical development.

It is perhaps appropriate in this context to note that, on this day 123 years ago, the Navy finally declared grapeshot obsolete, after well over a century in service with the fleet. I doubt whether much of the new equipment we are now bringing into service will stand the test of time quite so well as that. Such are the lengthy time scales of naval procurement that we are only now beginning to see the full fruits of the major investment in the Royal Navy that this Government first began nearly 10 years ago.

The Royal Navy continues to plan an essential part in ensuring the defence of the United Kingdom and her allies. The numbers and sophistication of Soviet maritime forces have continued to increase. To give just one example, the latest Kirov class nuclear-powered battle cruiser, Kalinin, was commissioned last year. It is equipped with surface-to-surface missiles and guns, and carries up to three helicopters. Its displacement is seven times greater than that of our latest ship, the type 23, and its crew is nearly five times as large. NATO clearly must be ready to respond to the threat that this and other Soviet forces might pose to the Alliance's northern flank and to our transatlantic and cross-channel lines of communication.

The Royal Navy has a crucial role in this task. Forward maritime defence is vital if we are to prevent Soviet submarines from breaking out into the Atlantic to attack reinforcement shipping and break our vital sea lines of communication. In the event of hostilities or a crisis occurring the Royal Navy would provide nearly 70 per cent. of the NATO maritime forces immediately available to deploy forward into the Norwegian sea and cover the eastern Atlantic and Channel areas prior to the arrival of United States reinforcements. In addition, throughout the past year, as in every year since 1969, the Royal Navy has continued to maintain at least one Polaris submarine on patrol at all times, thus ensuring the constant readiness of our nuclear deterrent.

The Royal Navy and Royal Marines, ably assisted by their respective reserves, also make an important contribution to the direct defence of the United Kingdom by countering the threat of mines in coastal waters, defending ports and anchorages and protecting key points. Within home waters, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines also help to safeguard the United Kingdom's fishing interests and offshore gas and oil platforms, as well as contributing to the vital role played by our search and rescue service. The Royal Navy also supports the Royal Ulster Constabulary by patrolling the Province's coastline.

Although the majority of the Navy's commitments are in the NATO area, experience since 1945 shows that actual operations occur more fequently out of area. We continue to maintain a naval presence in the Caribbean, the south Atlantic and Hong Kong, while the Armilla patrol remains in the Gulf area, ready to render assistance to entitled merchant shipping if needed. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed forces will, I hope, be able to enlarge on these aspects of the work of the Royal Navy later. All these roles will be familiar to right hon. and hon. Members, but they remain as important and valid today as they have ever been.

Again in 1988, as throughout its long and very distinguished history, the Royal Navy has continued to discharge its responsibilities. We sometimes forget the professionalism, dedication and sheer hard work that underlies that phrase "continues to discharge". Our Navy represents tremendous value for the nation, and the Government in turn aim to provide value for money both for the navy and the taxpayer in the way we equip and support it.

The new plans for the Defence Budget set out in the 1989 public expenditure White Paper include increases in the defence budget of £175 million in 1989–90 and £610 million in 1990–91 over and above the previous planned provision. The 1991–92 provision is £910 million above that for 1990–91.

That means that the budget is now set to grow by about £1 billion a year in cash terms over the next three years. On current forecasts for inflation, the plans allow for real growth in defence spending over the next three years. They provide the money judged necessary by the Government to fund defence properly over that period and to allow us to maintain capable forces in all of our major defence roles and commitments. That gives us a sound framework for confident planning into the 1990s.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Are the Minister's assumptions based on the rate of inflation on which last year's Budget was based, or on the current level of inflation which appears to be of the order of 7 per cent.?

Mr. Sainsbury

As the hon. Gentleman would expect, they are based on the public expenditure White Paper. He should bear in mind that the influence of the mortgage interest rate on the rate of inflation does not necessarily apply to procurement of defence equipment. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I should have thought that hon. Members would realise that not many defence contractors have mortgages on their factories which would be subject to that effect.

Up to the end of the financial year 1987–88, over £4.5 billion more had been spent on the Navy in real terms, taking account of GDP inflation and excluding Falkland Islands and Trident costs, than if spending had continued at the level inherited from the previous Labour Government. That has meant that £4.5 billion more has been made available for the conventional role of the Royal Navy.

We may, if previous experience is a guide, expect to hear some criticism from the Opposition Benches of aspects of our defence policy. I very much doubt whether we shall hear a great deal about their own policies. I dare say that Opposition Members will try to persuade us that their policies are in preparation. I would suggest that they are more likely to range from the incoherent to the profoundly implausible. In any event, I suspect that we shall not hear much of the defence policies of the Social and Liberal Democratic party or the Social Democratic party. They probably have enough on their plates defending themselves from each other to spare much thought for other defence issues.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

The Social Democratic party's defence policy is clear. The Minister will find that it does not vary in any major particular from that of the Government. But have the Government no obligation to society? How can the hon. Gentleman justify taking 7,500 jobs out of Devonport and suddenly now announcing that he will not even put HMS Southampton into Devonport to redress in some way the damage that has been done to the regional economy of the south-west?

Mr. Sainsbury

I have not announced that. The right hon. Gentleman should wait to hear what I have to say about the dockyards.

The Royal Navy remains the second largest NATO navy, deploying some 200 vessels of all classes. That represents a very substantial investment in all areas of maritime capability. Each year, for example, we spend approximately £3 billion on equipment procurement for the Navy. It is worth recalling that 64 new ships have been ordered by the Government since 1978–79. Vessels currently on order include no fewer than five first of class vessels, of which three are planned for acceptance in the coming year.

We have provided for the updating of the strategic deterrent and currently have two Vanguard class submarines on order. VSEL has recently submitted a tender for the third, planned for order later this year.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

When the hon. Gentleman talks about updating the strategic deterrent, could he tell us exactly what extra extent of extermination power the Trident nuclear weapons have over Polaris and give us an idea of the number of people that the Government are prepared to kill on a mass scale by use of Trident, which they are prepared to use, as I understand it?

Mr. Sainsbury

All hon. Members will be familiar with the hon. Gentleman's lack of comprehension of the nature of a policy of deterrence. I have to remind him that a deterrent, in order to be an effective deterrent, must be a credible deterrent. That is what Trident is.

Three aircraft carriers will continue in service with the Royal Navy, all of which have now been modified to increase their complement of Sea Harriers from five to eight. As has always been our intention, two carriers will be available for operations immediately or within a short period, and the third will be maintained in refit or standby.

The Government have also been able to maintain a balanced and capable surface fleet and remain committed to a force of about 50 destroyers and frigates. Significant improvements have been achieved in the capability of the escort force as new type 22—and soon type 23—frigates enter the fleet, and as existing ships are updated with new weapons systems and sensors.

In 1988 four new type 22 frigates entered the fleet. A fifth ship, HMS Campbell own, was accepted only last Friday from Cammell Laircl, and HMS Chatham, the last of the type 22 frigates, is planned for acceptance at the end of the year, bringing to an end the build programme for this class.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

My hon. Friend will know that there is some concern on these Benches that the 50 destroyers/frigates may not be in the pristine order in which we would expect them to be. In particular, some of our newer ships have not got the modern equipment which anyone would agree to be necessary. What can he say to give us some encouragement about these matters?

Mr. Sainsbury

What I am about to say will, I hope, give my hon. Friend the encouragement he seeks. In general terms, the capability of the fleet as it now exists is greatly in excess of what it was in 1978–79.

Last July, when I announced the order for three new type 23 frigates, bringing the number currently on order to seven, I told the House that we intended to invite tenders for a further batch of type 23s later this year.

The first type 23, HMS Norfolk, is to be accepted from her builders later this year. She will carry a number of new weapons and equipments—notably, vertical launch Sea Wolf to meet the air threat, Harpoon anti-surface vessel sea-skimming missiles, sonar 2031 towed array, and a helicopter. It will be more economic to build and will have a 25 per cent. smaller crew than the type 22s.

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

The whole House will welcome the Minister's reference to the type 23s and hope that there is more and better news to come. Can he tell the House if the first of class, the Norfolk and the Marlborough, are yet capable of the central command control system operation?

Mr. Sainsbury

Perhaps I could come to that in a moment. There seems to be a tendency to anticipate the things I am going to say, so perhaps I should press on.

I will expand a little on the additional capability represented by the vertical launch Sea Wolf and the additional capability to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) referred.

Sea Wolf is a fully automatic, all-weather, day and night naval point defence system for the protection of surface ships from missile or aircraft attack. It Is a derivative of earlier Sea Wolf systems, the main difference being that the missiles are housed in a vertical launch silo structure in the ship, which replaces the conventional trainable six-barrel launchers. That method of launching missiles improves system reaction times, eliminates launcher blind arc problems and provides an improved capability of defending against "saturation" attacks.

The house is aware that there have been problems in the development of the command system to which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) referred. The CACS 4 programme was cancelled when it was realised that the computing power and capacity of the original design would be inadequate for the planned weapon and sensor fit and that the realiability goals—to which we rightly attach a great deal of importance—were most unlikely to be achieved. The new type 23 command system will incorporate the rapid advances in computer technology that have been made in recent years. It will be based on modern, distributed computing architecture and will have many times more computing power than CACS 4. It will also incorporate adequate redundancy and resilience to satisfy stringent availability, reliability and maintainability requirements.

New project definition studies were recently undertaken, and the results are being evaluated. I am sure the House agrees that while it was a difficult decision to cancel CACS 4, it was also the right one. Although a number of early type 23s will spend some time in service without an integrated command system, each weapon and sensor system will be capable of independent operation. The absence of a command system in the type 23 does little to impair intrinsic performance of its main defensive armament but will impose a number of limitations on its use.

Mr. O'Neill

Am I to infer from the Minister's remarks that the first five type 23s will not have the CACS and that there is not to be any announcement yet as to when contracts for that system will be signed? Am I right in thinking that April 1989 is no longer the target date for the signing of such contracts?

Mr. Sainsbury

As I said, the definition studies were recently completed and are now being examined. I should not like to forecast how long it will take to complete that examination and to lead on to a contract. It could be by the date to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I repeat, there will be a period when a number of ships will not, on initial fit, have the new command and control system. I explained why that is, as well as the improvements that will be derived from the new system and the capability of the ships meanwhile. Those ships will still provide a very much more effective contribution to our maritime forces than the Leander class frigates that they replace.

The Government remain committed to maintaining an amphibious capability in the longer term. Last autumn, we invited tenders for an aviation support ship to provide dedicated helicopter support for amphibious operations. We expect to receive tenders for the vessel in July. The ASS will have the primary role of embarking, supporting and operating a squadron of naval support helicopters, and carrying a commando group of Royal Marines, together with the support vehicles and equipment they require. The ship will be capable of landing troops in battle-ready formation both by helicopter and landing craft. That will provide a most useful increase in capability.

In addition, we are currently assessing the results of feasibility studies into the replacement of the assault ships, Fearless and Intrepid, in parallel with the results of a study into the option of extending their lives. We shall make a decision on the way ahead in plenty of time to ensure that the capability that those vessels represent will be replaced when the ships reach the end of their current useful lives in the mid-1990s.

Events in the Gulf have increased awareness of the threat from mines. This year sees the entry into service of HMS Sandown, the first of the Royal Navy's new class of single role minehunters, which is to be accepted from Vosper Thornycroft next month. Four more of those highly advanced vessels are on order from the same yard.

The SRMH is designed to hunt for mines in conditions where minesweeping would be impossible. It can operate, for example, in deeper water throughout the continental shelf, and is equipped with a sophisticated sonar in advance of anything comparable being used in that role elsewhere. It is also highly manoeuvrable, and has a smaller complement than the vessels it will succeed. Its GRP, non-magnetic hull is designed to reduce the threat from modern mines. Its cost is only 75 per cent. of that of a Hunt class minesweeper, and its procurement has clearly demonstrated the benefits of batch ordering. I can fairly say that that represents excellent value for money.

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

That is welcome news, because the Royal Navy's minehunting and minesweeping capability is of vast importance. In view of my hon. Friend's earlier remarks about the Royal Marines and helicopters, can he say whether the Royal Navy is also considering minesweeping by helicopter, as has been done by other nations? Such a development might tie in with my hon. Friend's welcome news about the possibility of replacing Intrepid and Fearless in due course, and the continuation of our amphibious capability.

Mr. Sainsbury

Our experience in the Gulf indicated that our minesweeping and minehunting techniques were superior to those of nations using helicopters. I advance the Sandown class as being equal or superior to any form of minehunter or minesweeper.

HMS Quorn, the last of the highly competent Hunt class mine countermeasures vessels, was delivered by the builder in January. The aviation training ship RFA Argus also joined the fleet during the past year.

We have maintained and modernised our mixed nuclear and conventional fleet of submarines. This month saw the entry into the fleet of the SSN HMS Trenchant, bringing the number of nuclear fleet submarines to 16 as compared to 11 in 1979. Four of the new class of diesel electric patrol submarines are currently on order. The first, HMS Upholder, is planned for acceptance around the end of this year.

We have, and will continue to provide, modern and capable aircraft to enable our platforms to fulfil their role. Further orders of Sea Harriers are planned, and major updates are in hand to upgrade existing naval aircraft, including mid-life updates to the Sea Harrier to improve its weapons capability, and improvements to the Sea King helicopter's sonar that will enhance its anti-submarine warfare capability. The development of the Anglo-Italian Merlin or EH101 helicopter continues.

Another area where significant progress is being made is in our sonar capability. Sonar 2050, for example, is a new state of the art, hull-mounted sonar for surface ships. It is to be fitted on build to all batch one and two type 23 frigates, and will be retrofitted to the type 22s and the later type 42s at refit. The contracts for the development and initial production of 17 equipments were placed following competition. A third production order, covering a further 10 fits, will be put out to competition shortly.

By taking full advantage of the latest research into signal processing conducted by the Admiralty research establishment at Portland, sonar 2050 is both a far more capable system than its predecessors and, by using the latest technology, considerably smaller and cheaper—and we believe that it will prove to be more reliable than its predecessor, sonar 2016. Further savings were achieved by designing the new sonar to work with the ARE-designed sonar 2016 transducers already fitted to the type 22s and 42s, thus avoiding the costs of replacing those expensive assemblies. The first two ships, HMS Brilliant and Broadsword, have been fitted and early reports are of much improved detection capabilities. Having mentioned sonar 2016, I acknowledge the Comptroller and Auditor General's recent report on reliability and maintainability of defence equipment and the favourable comments on sonar 2016 as a project that should be emulated. Sonar 2050, I am pleased to report, is designed to surpass sonar 2016 in that regard.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the invaluable work of our scientific and technical staff at the Admiralty research establishment, whose expertise and hard work has kept the United Kingdom among the world leaders in those and other areas of naval technology.

There has, understandably, been a good deal of interest in all parts of the House in the future of HMS Southampton, following her collision while on operational duties in the Gulf. Today, I can announce that, for technical reasons, we have decided to combine the repair of HMS Southampton with her refit, which was originally scheduled to begin this autumn, and to seek competitive tenders for the expanded work package.

Dr. Owen


Mr. Sainsbury

I am very surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman saying, "Shame," at hearing of competitive tenders. He does not seem very interested in the idea of obtaining good value for money for the Royal Navy or for the taxpayer. This decision accords with the Government's policy of seeking to increase the proportion of naval shipwork exposed to competition, as recently endorsed by the Public Accounts Committee. In the light of the wide interest shown by the private sector, we expect to receive bids from both the shipbuilding and the shiprepair industries, a well as from the commercially managed royal dockyards. Tenders will be issued shortly, and, subject to a satisfactory price being obtained, we expect to be able to award a contract by the early summer, which would enable HMS Southampton to return to operational service in 1991 with an enhanced capability.

I appreciate that this decision will disappoint the work force at the Fleet Maintenance and Repair Organisation. Southampton's refit had been expected to form part of the programme at the FMRO. All those concerned are aware that we have been undertaking studies into the future of the FMRO, and this work is continuing.

I should like to confirm that today's announcement does not imply that any decision has been taken on the long-term need to retain a refit stream in Portsmouth. I should also like to emphasise that the role of Portsmouth as a major naval base is not in doubt. Our present plans do not envisage a reduction in number, or a change in type, of the ships base-ported there, and the fleet will continue to need a local capability to support operational ships and submarines with programmed maintenance and unprogrammed work for repair or operational enhancements. In this context the Government recognise the excellent record of the FM RO since its establishment in 1983.

As I said in the corresponding debate last year, however, there can be no guarantee that the current level of employment at the FMRO will continue indefinitely. Whatever the outcome of the current studies into its future role, some manpower reduction will be necessary to reflect efficiency targets and the drop in total naval production load available since the FMRO was established in 1983. This reduction would have been necessary irrespective of the decision on HMS Southampton. The normal process of consultation with the trade unions will take place, but the number of redundancies is likely to be small, and they will be achieved on a voluntary basis.

I would like next to say something about the royal dockyards, which, together with the FMRO at Portsmouth, currently undertake some three quarters of the refit and repair work for the fleet. The efficiency and manning levels of the dockyards have understandably been a matter of concern to the House.

There has been a general recognition that the period immediately before and after the change to commercial management was bound to be difficult. The difficulties were increased by the further changes that have been taking place in the total refit, repair and maintenance workload. As I have explained on other occasions, this reduction was the result of a number of factors, including the much reduced maintenance requirement of modern warships, and a move away from restorative refits that nearly amounted to rebuilds. which were found not to be cost-effective. I am glad to report that as we move out of the transitional period—it is now nearly two years since vesting day, and only a couple of refits that started before the handover are left outstanding—we are now seeing the benefits of the new system.

Both companies have made important progress: organisationally the yards have been restructured; the advent of commercial accounting and information technology-based planning systems has led to improved control of costs and greatly improved management information; and pay and effectiveness agreements have been negotiated with the work force, rationalising the complex structure of ex-Civil Service allowances, and introducing flexibility between crafts and grades.

Individual ship refits are now being completed within budget, with few exceptions. This process has been reinforced by encouraging movement, particularly at Rosyth, towards the achievement of full-risk pricing, which gives the dockyard a greater incentive to complete a refit within time and budget.

I should like to extend my congratulations to both DML and BTL for the determined, yet sensitive, way in which they have conducted industrial relations, which has produced, locally, changes that could not have been achieved so readily under the monolithic Civil Service structure before vesting day. The work force, too has played its part in adopting a constructive approach to the changes that are necessary to compete in the commercial market and secure a more prosperous and soundly based future.

Another aspect of our overall pursuit of value for money is the reviews that we have been undertaking of the organisation and location of the sea systems controllerate, which is that part of the procurement executive responsible for ships, submarines and their equipment. The reorganisation of the controllerate into project-related groups which reflect more fully the latest procurement practices has already largely been implemented. The sea systems controllerate is now undertaking a study into the possibility of collating its staff in order to improve the integration of procurement activities. Sea systems controllerate project staff are currently dispersed between Bath and Admiralty research establishment sites at Portsmouth and Portland. This study is thus distinct from other studies in hand, which are looking into the feasibility of relocating other parts of the department away from London. The results of the preliminary in-house investment appraisal have convinced me that collocation is the best way forward.

I have endorsed the conclusions that this approach would be both practicable and cost-effective, but further work is necessary to refine the initial costings and to produce firm recommendations for a preferred site option. This further work is expected to be completed by the end of August, and I expect to be able to take a decision before the end of the year.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

With regard to centralisation of the sea systems controllerate—putting 4,000 people on a single site—does the Minister not believe that it is very foolish to allow a three-year delay in getting the organisation working efficiently? Should we not be looking at the way in which we run this organisation on the three separate sites? After all, 10 years ago we moved it off a single site because it was inefficient there.

Mr. Sainsbury

Understandably, my hon. Friend takes a very close interest in this issue and in the welfare of those of his constituents who are involved. No doubt he appreciates that one is always dealing with a changing situation and with changing requirements. As he knows, the work that the sea systems controllerate had to do 10 years ago was very different from the work that it has to do now. The points that my hon. Friend has mentioned will certainly be taken into account in the study to which I have referred.

On this occasion, as on others, I have taken the theme of value for money. I am confident that the whole House will agree that we do indeed get exceptional value for money from the skills and commitment of the officers and men of the Royal Navy and its Reserves.

I have explained how we seek to provide that same value for money throughout all those parts of the Ministry of Defence that support the Royal Navy, including the procurement of ships and equipment. As a result, I believe, we have a Navy continuously improving in capability, in which we can all take pride.

4.17 pm
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Like the Under-Secretary, I welcome the debate. The fact that it is taking place on the Adjournment affords hon. Members on both sides of the House an opportunity to pursue a wide range of issues. While, traditionally, these debates cover strategic concerns—the nature of the threat and our ability to meet it; the state of the service; morale, pay and conditions; and constituency procurement concerns—it is often difficult, in opening, to find a coherent line to take. The Minister's concentration on procurement was understandable, especially in view of his responsibilities, but it is regrettable that he gave us very little fresh information—information that we would not have been able to obtain by reading Ministry of Defence handouts and so on.

The Opposition have to register our disappointment that no announcement is being made about type 23s. We approach any service debate with enhanced expectation that at least one of the major procurement questions will be answered, but we have yet to receive any kind of reassurance on the type 23s.

However, I am more than happy to join the Under-Secretary in his tribute to the service and to those who devote their lives to it. Our record in the Gulf, with the Armilla patrol, is an example of the unique contribution that we can make. We often forget that—partly because of our history and partly because of our geography—we are uniquely equipped for the kind of mine-hunting and minesweeping work that our service men have done in such difficult, unpleasant and uncomfortable conditions. We welcome the fact that they have been so successful that some of them are now able to return to cooler waters and a more pleasant climate.

I should like to take a slightly different tack and consider at least some of the tasks that previous defence estimates laid out as the responsibility of our Navy.

The 1987 White Paper identified a number of tasks as being the responsibility of the Navy: the interception and containment of Soviet forces in the Norwegian sea; direct defence, reinforcement, resupply and economic shipping in conjunction with United States and European maritime forces; anti-submarine defence of NATO's striking fleet, supported by the RAF; and the protection and deployment of the combined UK-Netherlands amphibious force to reinforce the north flank of NATO.

It has been suggested that each of those tasks is of a considerable size, and that a country with our resources will have great difficulty in meeting all of them. Certainly cost-cutting is still happening, and the global figures that the Under-Secretary announced do not mask the effect that the defence budget will continue to fall in real terms until the early 1990s. The part of the equipment budget on which the Minister has placed such a strain has been affected by inflation far above the retail prices index, whether or not it includes mortgage increases. Historical evidence supports the view that the replacement cost of military equipment is far in excess of anything reflecting inflation, and that the money available for the tasks involved will, of necessity, result in a cut.

Mr. Sainsbury

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the budgetary figures that I gave represent an increase of some 3 per cent. over the present figures in real terms, after allowing for inflation. I hope that he was listening when I drew hon. Members' attention to several types of equipment and classes of ship which, with the use of modern technology, are costing less than the equipment and ships that they replace.

Mr. O'Neill

It cannot be denied that some equipment costs less, but more often it costs considerably more than we budget for. The reliability and maintainability reports of recent weeks suggest that a considerable amount could still be done to reduce costs. I realise that the Minister is not complacent and I am sure that that will be done, but in saying that we have enough money to meet our tasks he is in grave danger of misleading the House.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the second and third Trident submarines are costing decidedly less than the first? Are not the Government, through consistent batch ordering, reducing the costs of the same items of equipment?

Mr. O'Neill

The hon. Gentleman can argue for competitive tendering and for batch ordering, but he cannot always argue that "rent-a-missile" means considerable savings. The reductions in the cost of the Trident programme are accounted for more by the fact that servicing is to be done at Kings bay in Georgia than by any other single item, apart from hitherto beneficial changes in the exchange rate.

As the Minister has said, no other continental or northern European member of the Alliance makes the same maritime contribution as us. At a time when the United States Government are trying to reduce their public expenditure deficit, I imagine that the US navy will be one of the more attractive targets for cost-cutting. It is therefore essential for us to appreciate the nature of our tasks in the light of what we consider to be the threat posed by Soviet naval forces.

For the same reason that the US navy does not deploy its entire 600-ship fleet in the Atlantic, the Soviet navy does not devote all its assets to these waters. Global powers recognise other areas of concern, and although we may feel that the sun rises and sets in Europe, people in California are far more concerned about the Pacific basin and the Indian ocean. The Soviets, for their part, are clearly anxious for their relations with Japan and the People's Republic of China to improve, but until that happens they will wish to continue to dedicate much of their resources to the coastal protection of their eastern seaboard.

It must also be recognised that a sizeable part of the Soviet naval offensive capability is frozen in the Kola peninsula for long periods in the year. It is significant that the activities of the Soviet navy have been reduced considerably since our last Navy debate on 3 March last year. In July last year, General Akromeyhev said that the cutback was an example of the Soviet attempt to develop a purely defensive doctrine.

The reduction in activity was confirmed by Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who attributed it to cost-cutting in a report in the International Herald Tribune on 18 July 1988. The US navy has produced figures showing that the decline covers Soviet destroyers, frigates, corvettes, logistic ships, attack submarines and strategic submarines carrying nuclear warheads and cruise missiles.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that in the past two or three months the Soviets have moved an additional Kiev carrier and an additional Kirov cruiser to the north fleet, as well as an additional squadron of Backfire bombers for naval aviation? That is hardly a build-down. Exercise activity has somewhat diminished, but modernisation proceeds apace.

Mr. O'Neill

I shall come to that in a moment.

In 1984 the Soviet fleet deployed an average of 46 submarines each day. By 1987 the number has fallen to 25. In 1987 the average deployment of warships fell from 31 in 1984 to 24, and for the first time in a number of years no Soviet task force was sent to the Caribbean. Those findings were confirmed in an article in The Daily Telegraph on 23 February.

The cuts may be entirely due to perestroika. It was suggested last year that, owing to cost considerations, the Soviet navy spent 85 per cent. of its time in port, while the figure for the US navy is about 66 per cent. Those statistics may also be attributable to Gorbachev's desire for the Soviet armed forces to assume a more defensive posture. I do not know the reason, and I do not think that any hon. Member has a clear idea of it.

What is clear, however, is that, when Gorbachev spoke to the Yugoslav Parliament 12 months ago, he suggested a freeze in the number of US and Soviet ships in the Mediterranean from 1 July 1988. He also suggested that ceilings should be set on their numbers thereafter, and that both sides should give notice of their intention to move warships and to hold naval exercises and start to invite observers to watch the exercises. He said that measures should be drafted to ensure the security of intensive shipping in the Mediterranean, especially in international straits. He also wanted to withdraw US naval and Soviet naval craft from the Mediterranean. According to Reuters, the response from NATO was mixed and cool.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Has not the Soviet navy decided to adopt that defensive posture? The Soviets are effectively massing their naval forces precisely where the British Navy must put itself in time of war. The naval forces will be massed against our frigate and destroyer screens going up into the Norwegian sea to reinforce Norway in the event of a land war within Europe.

Mr. O'Neill

If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, he is saying that the Soviet Union is withdrawing its naval capabilities up into the far northern waters, where they will be frozen for a large part of the year.

Mr. Bruce

In Soviet territorial waters.

Mr. O'Neill

Part of that is Soviet territorial waters. The hon. Gentleman has said that it could be a defensive posture. I am not sure whether it is a defensive posture, but I am merely trying to explain some of the strategic thinking which may lie behind the Soviet action. I quoted the speech made by Gorbachev last year in Belgrade. He made another speech in September 1988 in Krasnoyarsk, in which he called for talks and spoke of not increasing Soviet forces in the Pacific region. He invited naval powers in that region to hold discussions about freezing and reducing naval and air force activities in the region and he identified the area where the coasts of the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea converge. He suggested giving up Cam Ranh bay if the United States agreed to eliminate its military bases in the Philippines.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Are those not examples of Mr. Gorbachev's proposals that are slightly tongue in cheek? In citing them, my hon. Friend may detract from the more serious offers. In the case of the Mediterranean, the Soviet fifth eskadra is tiny, so to abandon it and to put that squadron back into the Black sea would be almost marginal for Soviet purposes if, in return, the Soviet Union demands the withdrawal of the sixth fleet, which is not only infinitely larger, but performs a crucial task for NATO in the southern region. Furthermore, if Soviet naval forces were removed from Cam Ranh bay, that would, again, be virtually marginal compared to the withdrawal of American naval forces from the Philippines. Is it not true that those proposals may be less than serious and geared more to capturing public opinion than are some of the other proposals, which deserve to be treated more seriously?

Mr. O'Neill

I am grafeful to my hon. Friend for his intervention; he has begun to make the point that I am going to make.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) maintains that the Soviet fleet is largely bottled up in the Kola peninsula by weather conditions. He must surely accept that it can be moved at any time and must be taken into consideration with the whole of the Soviet naval forces.

Mr. O'Neill

I dealt with that point when I answered the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce). The Soviet fleet there will be bottled up for much of the year and will not be able to sail the world seas.

Judging by the statements made by Gorbachev, it seems that he has an approach to questions of disarmament by which he makes several statements, over a number of months, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said, are often dressed up with other issues that are extraneous. He made an appeal to the United States in the middle of the presidential election with his Krasnoyarsk speech, which did not invite a serious response. But the important thing is that Gorbachev is making those speeches and offers, and something will happen. If we in the West are not careful, we shall end up with yet another propaganda defeat similar to the defeat we suffered after the speech Gorbachev made in the United Nations before Christmas.

What is even more important is that, when we talk about conventional forces in Europe and discuss it within the confines of the area from the Atlantic to the Urals, we often choose to ignore the fact that, whereas the Soviet lines of supply go from the Urals to Eastern Europe, our critical lines of supply go across the Atlantic. If we think that we can keep our naval capability out of talks, we are living on borrowed time. Rather than going into such talks in a grudging and half-hearted way, we should explore the possibilities as soon as we can.

When we consider the deployment stage and questions of strategy rather than the grubby matters of procurement—one can understand a shopkeeper being preoccupied with such matters—the Minister may be allowed to say something more on that. That is one of the advantages of a debate such as this, in which we are not constrained by the terms of a motion before the House. We can be relatively expansive and we recognise that we are not likely to make tremendous demands on your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in trying to get into the debate.

Gorbachev has been making statements and they are straws in the wind. The hon. Member for Dorset, South was present with me at an interesting and useful conference at Greenwich, at which a number of analysts who were in no way sympathetic to the Soviet Union repeatedly made the point that we should anticipate the Soviet Union making cuts in its naval capabilities before too long. The analysts said that there were two schools of thought. One believed that the Soviet Union wanted to contribute genuinely to the disarmament process and the other took the cynical view that we would see the Soviet fleet become leaner and meaner. I am not sure about that.

Much has been made of the size and quality of the Soviet fleet. There is much in their craft that is comparable to those of the West, but the Soviets are constrained by economic concerns, and cuts are resulting. The most famous of those is the new Soviet nuclear-powered carrier, originally known in the west as "Black Com 2". When it was launched in December 1985, it was known as the "Leonid Brezhnev". For reasons that I do not need to explain it has since been renamed the Tbilisi. What is important is that the RUSI News Sheet in autumn last year reported a series of modifications because the Russians had not been able to get their act together technically or in the way that they had hoped. The carrier has been downgraded, the aircraft and helicopters have been limited to 50 and the conventional take-off and landing facilities have been forgone. The article concluded that the Soviet Union's first supercarrier does not have the fighting edge it was assumed to have.

It is general knowledge that the level of information technology and computing that the Soviet navy has at its disposal is considerably more limited than that available to the Western navies and that the general spread of technology throughout the Soviet navy is considerably restricted by comparison with ours. The naval threat may not be as great as it was assumed to be. We know that the Soviet Union has been forced to economise and is beginning to seek talks. We should consider that carefully, from the point of view of trying to take advantage of its discomfiture. We should not go into such matters in a blaze of publicity in which we are seen to be forced to the conference table by the weight of public opinion in this country or elsewhere.

We have had this afternoon the ritual expression that we have a fleet of, probably, about 50. It is clear that the national guessing game continues and that we may be down to 43 or, in a bad week, to 28. The truth seems to be that if we have 50 destroyers and frigates with a life of 20 years, we must replace them at the rate of two and a half a year or five every two years, if we scrap five every two years. If we do not do that and if we try to replace them at a higher rate than we scrap them, that will be ideal, but at the moment we are nowhere near that.

We try to extend the life of the ships, and some of them are now very old—well beyond their 25-year lifespan. There is at least one that goes beyond that. If we extend their life too far, their quality diminishes and their effectiveness is reduced. They become more costly and difficult to maintain. They distort manpower and training patterns and become irrelevant in our response to any threat. Until we get the rate of ordering suggested in the Select Committee's report, we will not get away from the problems of morale and of people leaving the service, as they have been doing, and the difficulties that are created for the Navy as a result of the Government's unwillingness or incapability to meet its legitimate demands.

It is not just the present class of frigate that we need to worry about. The anxiety of the shipbuilding industry is not confined to the loss of orders, but involves the uncertainty of intentions. It might have helped if the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement had told us something about the Euro-frigate and about the Government's plans for the next class. As we know, studies are going on. They are taking the form of elaborate programmes of drip-feeding the shipbuilding industry. But in Yarrow—the only commercial yard in the United Kingdom capable of participation in the NFR90—the design team has fallen from 360 to 160 in the last two years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary may not be in a position to say anything about it, but I believe that, when the Secretary of State was at Yarrow, he said that the Government intended to make a statement towards the end of the year. Perhaps the Minister of State will confirm later that we shall have to wait until the end of the year for a clearer indication about what will happen to the collaborative project which is in its early stages. Can the Minister confirm that it will be sustained and that by the end of the year we will know definitely whether we will have a Euro-frigate for the 1990s? It is disappointing that the report in the Sunday Telegraph about a possible announcement for three more type 23s has turned out to be optimistic.

The Under-Secretary gave us no room for reassurance in his remarks on computer-assisted command systems. He even suggested that there would be a slippage in the date of April 1989 for the confirmation of an order. He has indicated that five type 23s—the pride of the British surface fleet—will go to the defence of the country in a state in which they are less than capable of defending themselves and that our seamen will be at a disadvantage compared to an enemy, because we will not have the kit that other navies have.

Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

If the hon. Gentleman had been a Minister, would he have gone ahead with a design that was not competent and not able to defend the ship?

Mr. O'Neill

After eight years of government we would have been able to establish better control of major projects.

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


Mr. O'Neill

The hon. Gentleman refers to Nimrod. The Labour Government did the business on TSR2; they took the tough decision and cancelled it. The Conservative Government were in power for seven years before they were prepared to grasp the nettle of Nimrod. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it took seven years to identify the problems in something as glaring as Nimrod. Surely they should have been able to deal with something as insubstantial as the software system in CACS much more quickly.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

When it came to the decision to switch on Nimrod, it was the Opposition who suggested that we should have stayed with GEC.

Mr. O'Neill

The Opposition argued at the time that there was a case to be made for sustaining support for the British design for another 18 months. That was the position that we took and which we would have been happy to justify. We were not in government. The Government had eight years to make up their mind. At the end, they sold out British workers and designers because they did not stand up to the people in their own Ministry who sniped persistently at Nimrod and who kept changing the specification. The Minister is on weak ground when he seeks to divert attention to that issue.

I take the Minister's point that we have to await a definite statement on the future of our amphibious capability. We have the usual paragraph that appears every year, but the mid-1990s are getting closer. I do not think that the House will be fobbed off indefinitely with that paragraph. We need something far more concrete than a pious hope that in a couple of years the project analysis will be finished. The Minister owes the House much more, perhaps not in this debate but certainly in the defence estimates debate in July or October.

As to the repair and refit of HMS Southampton. if it had been just the repair of the craft, it would have been legitimate for it to go to Portsmouth. However, given the nature of the work and the fact that it is a professional decision which is not really in the hands of politicians, the decision to repair and refit would have been a heaven sent opportunity for the Government to give much-needed work to Devonport. That might have restored the balance of the Government's betrayal of the dockyard. They reduced the size of the core programme and made an already difficult task in that dockyard much harder.

Following my visits to the two dockyards since privatisation, I agree with the Minister that a great deal has been done. It is a tribute to management and the unions that the understandable anxieties of the work force when the privatisation schemes were going through have to some extent been met. Both sides have buckled down to the job of trying to meet their responsibilities to the Navy. Sad to say, the Ministry of Defence is not meeting its responsibilities to the dockyards.

Mr. Sainsbury

I join the hon. Gentleman in what he said about the dockyards. Do I understand him to say that he would deprive all the other shipbuilding and repairing yards that would be interested in tendering for HMS Southampton, including those in Scotland, of the opportunity to tender for the work?

Mr. O'Neill

Perhaps the Minister will tell the House which yards he is talking about. Perhaps he will tell us which ones are left and which are capable of doing the work. Will he reel them off?

Mr. Sainsbury

If I stick to the ones in Scotland, I anticipate that we are likely to have a tender from Babcock Thorn Ltd. in Rosyth, and it is possible that we will have a tender from Yarrow. In the north-east, we would expect to hear from at least one, if not two, yards on the Tyne. In the north-west we would expect to hear from Cammell Laird.

Mr. O'Neill

The Minister has not given them all. I imagine that we could get down to plastic hulls from Vospers and one or two places like that. The Minister and I disagree on a basic point. We believe that the quality of the work and the way in which it has been carried out over the years suggests that the naval dockyards are the most effective places to carry out major repairs and refits for the Royal Navy. When the quality of work was compared, that of the dockyards was far superior to that of the private yards. From experience, I should have thought that the Minister would put that as a higher priority than trying to hawk repairs around the yards of Britain in the misleading expectation that he might either create work in other parts of the country or save a few bob for the country.

I know that, as a result of television programmes, a number of questions have been tabled about the Trident programme. The "World in Action" programme certainly suggested that all is not well with the expenditure on Trident. At an appropriate time, the Minister will no doubt tell the House much more about it. I am sure, too, that he will have to attend the Select Committee when it carries out what I imagine is its annual survey of Trident.

We have not heard anything today about the construction of the atomic weapons research establishment and the recruitment of staff. We have not heard of the progress of the only British independent part of our deterrent, and whether we will have that, as promised, by 1994–95 or whether there will be a slippage and, as well as renting the missiles, we will have to rent some warheads too.

The Government have yet to come up with the sort of arithmetic that suggests that our Navy will be supported and protected from inflation and from the inter-service battles, which are caused by the inadequacy of the defence budget that in large measure is accounted for by expenditure on the Trident programme. Frankly, there is not much that can be done about the Trident programme, because it is so far down the road. By the next general election, I believe that it will be about 70 per cent. complete.

The Government are misleading the House when they do not take account of the other factors that have yet to be addressed. It is all very well for the Minister to talk piously about the quality of, and the contribution made by, our service personnel, but he must recognise—we made this point in October during the debate on the White Paper—that the demographic changes are not working in favour of the Government. By the early 1990s we shall have considerable difficulty in recruiting personnel. In the 1990s we shall have acute problems in the capital or equipment intensive areas of our services—the Air Force and the Navy.

We must look seriously at the recruitment, training, education and remuneration of our service personnel. We must pay the Government credit for the fact that once again they have accepted the recommendations of the pay board. Only time will tell whether those recommendations will be met when the rate of inflation continues to rise. Certainly the services will be able to recruit some of our finest and most capable young people while there is still unemployment in many areas; those young people will join the services because there is nothing else for them. However, when the number of youngsters drops in the early 1990s, they will need to be attracted to a career with favourable remuneration, working conditions, time off, support and accommodation.

While the Under-Secretary may not have felt that it was within his province, I believe that he gave only one side of the story when he spoke about the increased resources available for the armed services. I hope that the Minister of State will respond to that point.

The Labour party has yet to be reassured on the point made in the Select Committee report about the apparent confusion in the Ministry of Defence over the role and functions of the escort fleet, and what we are supposed to be doing with the 43 or 50 frigates and destroyers. We have yet to receive a clear explanation from the Government of why we need our present Navy. I certainly believe that we need one, and I have indicated some of the areas in which the Labour party would want to make use of that service. The Government must tell us why they need it and that they see the sea lines of communications being defended. Whether they do that on the basis of supporting convoys or individul ships, they must tell us how they will meet their responsibilities for the amphibious craft.

The Government must tell us far more frankly about the ordering programme that we need to maintain the capabilities that we require. The Opposition are not happy with what we have heard today. We await the White Paper not with optimism—as we suspect that it will be more of the same thing—but because we recognise that the Government must do a lot better before they can enjoy the confidence and support of a service for which at present we appear to be doing far less than we should. At present the Navy is doing for us a job which is quite remarkable in the circumstances created by the Government.

4.56 pm
Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

It is always a pleasure to listen to an Opposition Front Bench spokesman who has clearly done his homework and has tried to master his brief. I say that in genuine admiration of the way in which the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) has come to grips with his job. I believe that parts of his analysis would evoke no dissent from Conservative Members. Indeed, most of us could go along with most of his analyses. Now that the hon. Gentleman has his feet under the table—or, to put it more accurately, his bottom on the bed of nails—we must hear from him just what is the defence policy of the Labour party.

We have listened to the hon. Gentleman for 40 minutes. He has made some criticisms of what the Government are doing—some of which are good subjects for debate—but we have not heard one word about whether the size of the Navy is right, whether it is doing the right job or whether the Labour party would have a Navy at all if it were in Government. To go on in the way in which the Labour party is at present is not fooling the electorate or anyone in this House. I look forward with great interest to debating with the hon. Gentleman when he tells us the Labour party's defence policy, whether it has one.

The Minister's speech was welcome in many respects. It was upbeat, and it has good cause to be, because our record on defence and on what we have done for the armed forces is a good one, although, as my hon. Friend knows, some of us feel that there are areas for legitimate debate and criticism. However, as far as it went, his speech was excellent.

The Minister's point about HMS Southampton was well made. To do the refit at the same time as the repair was a competent decision. I believe that the hon. Member for Clackmannan went along with that assessment. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) made an uncharacteristically parochial remark. He normally paints on a wider canvas rather than considering only—serious though they are—the interests of constituents. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman would really consider it right for work to go to a dockyard regardless of cost, date of delivery or ability to perform. Obviously the decision to put it out to tender, which Devonport could well win, is the right one. On reflection, I believe that he will realise that it was one of the less sensible remarks that he has made in the House.

I am glad, too, that we have had a chance to debate the Select Committee's report on the surface fleet, published at the end of last summer. I hope that the analysis that we attempted to make of some of the Government's dilemmas will help the House. I am sad to see that the Government tendered a rather churlish reply. They felt that they were being criticised and got at and, in their reply, retired somewhat into a bunker. I assure them—if they need my assurance—that it was not critical. I said at the time that it was not a critical report but I added that it was a challenging report, because we have to base our assessment of what is going on on the assumptions that the Government have announced, and if we find that there are areas where the Government appear not to match up to those assumptions, that is a legitimate cause of comment.

We tried to analyse the role of the Royal Navy, should we come to war, and the hon. Member for Clackmannan gave much the same analysis as we have all come to accept of the tasks that the Navy might have to do. There is a notable remark in the Government's reply: The Government attaches high priority to countering the Soviet submarine threat and to ensuring the security of the Northern Flank. It believes that this will best be achieved by a forward maritime strategy, while possessing flexibility to respond as necessary to opposing force dispositions in the event of war. That is not to mention any convoy escort duties which might be required, any threat to our shore line or to the Channel which might require mine clearing, minehunting and defence. The Government continually stress the importance to their strategy of flexibility, but flexibility must be in very large part a function of numbers: the fewer ships there are available, the less flexibility, by definition, there can be.

What we have not had from the Government is anything to dispel our concern that forward operations will require such a high proportion of the surface fleet that there will be very little strength for operational flexibility elsewhere. I think that that is a subject that we can legitimately pursue and I hope that it is one that the Government will see fit to argue their corner about, rather than simply dismissing it in a very short paragraph of a Government reply.

I turn now to the question of the figures which, in many areas, the Government reject. They are, of course, entitled to reject our conclusions but it is odd that they do it without suggesting that the facts on which these conclusions are based are wrong. We are left a good number of facts, and there has been no indication in their reply that the Government argue with the facts, simply that they draw different conclusions. That is a matter for the House and it is a matter for individual hon. Members to debate, but if we are to try to have a constructive debate with the Government from the Select Committee's point of view, it is important that they do more than simply dismiss our arguments and produce counter-arguments of their own, based on the same facts as ours, if they agree with them.

We shall continue to monitor very closely the situation as regards the availability of the surface fleet. We now have, after a certain misunderstanding, the monthly returns from the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet. We are very grateful for them—they are useful to us—and we shall continue on the House's behalf to watch the numbers— because they do vary, as the hon. Member for Clackmannan said—and to make sure that, in maintaining the commitment for "about 50", we are not stretching the word "about" beyond the limits of any dictionary definition.

Good news too from the Minister that the planned study for amphibious replacement is under way, but the constant assertion that there is plenty of time is beginning to wear thinnner and thinner as these debates come and go. We were fortunate enough to get out to see Exercise Teamwork in the autumn on board the amphibious ships with the Marines, and, excellently as they are doing their job—and the crews are making the most of them—they are very old ships and really are coming to the end of their natural life.

Mr. Eric S. Helfer (Liverpool, Walton)

The hon. Gentleman says that we have not got much time. Who is about to attack us? The Soviet Union? America" Who? I have never heard such a lot of rubbish.

Mr. Mates

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I was referring to what the Minister said, which I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman heard, about there being plenty of time before the present amphibious capability becomes obsolete. It is to that——

Mr. Heffer

We do not need that immediately. There is a defence.

Mr. Mates

I quite understand that the hon. Gentleman has a point of view that we need no defence. It is a view that finds very little sympathy on the Government side of the House, as I know it finds very little in the country. Unpalatable as he may find that, it is the reason why there are a hundred more of us in the House than there are of his party.

Mr. Heffer

It is a lie to say that I do not believe in defence.

Mr. Mates

I am not generally called a liar, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am not giving way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)


Mr. Heffer

It is a lie to say that I do not believe in defence.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

On a point of order Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could you not bring the hon. Member to order? It is the second time that he has used the word.

Mr. Heffer

Yes, and I will repeat it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a lie to say that I do not believe in defence.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heifer) is not accusing the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) of telling lies. It would be out of order if he were to do so.

Mr. Heffer

He accused me.

Mr. Mates

I thought that we were having quite an interesting debate until, rather like a thunderflash in a dustbin, the hon. Gentleman arrived, having not heard the opening speeches and understandably not realising that I was referring to a part of the Minister's speech that he had not heard. Then he asked me who we were threatened by. I do not feel threatened by him——

Mr. Heffer

I feel threatened by you.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Mates

On the whole, I take that as a compliment. Nevertheless, it would be prudent if we got this debate back on to its tracks. The interesting diversion to the whole concept of whether we need defence or not is for another day.

The frigate-ordering programme is at the heart of numbers of flexibility. Shortly after our report was published, the Government announced their decision to order three new frigates. This was, of course, welcome as the Government recognised that it was just the sort of measure that the Committee was looking for. They say that this more than meets the requirement which the Committee has identified for 2.6 new ships to be ordered each year if the fleet is to remain at its present size. What we said was that we need to achieve an average of 2.6 ships to be ordered annually over a period of more than six years. We hope that this requirement will be met but that remains to be seen.

At the end of their reply, the Government notes the Committee's concern [about] the size of the … fleet … and the announcement of its decision to order 3 new Type 23 frigates will presumably help to allay these concerns. While that helps to allay the Committee's concerns, it does not allay them completely, because we are now waiting to see how many ships are to be ordered this year and then how many are to be ordered next year. I say this not as a criticism but as a challenge, because the Government have set themselves a very high target to achieve if they are to maintain the pledge of a fleet of about 50 surface ships, all in good order and not over the top in age. This is something that we must watch in the closest way to see that they are maintained.

We have seen a good bit of the Navy this year. We were able to spend a day on board HMS Illustrious in the North sea on exercise and we visited Exercise Teamwork and went ashore with the Royal Marine commandos in alliance with the Norwegian forces, on both of which occasions we were most impressed with all that we saw. We received a comprehensive briefing at Northwood—perhaps too frank for the taste of the one or two Ministers—when we made an initial visit of this Parliament to the headquarters of the fleet. Nevertheless, it is refreshing that we can see the Navy working as professionally as it always has. I speak for the whole Committee when I say how impressed we have been with the Navy's attitude, demeanour, professionalism and dedication. That goes for those parts of the Navy that we have not seen, particularly those who have been involved in the Gulf and in the Armilla patrol.

In conclusion, I should like to say how warmly I welcome what the Government are doing—up to the point they have told us about. In the near, middle and distant future we shall be looking for an absolute undertaking that the guarantees and pledges made about the strength of the Royal Navy will be honoured.

5.9 pm

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

NATO's unity during the past 40 years has been based mainly on a common perception of the threat posed by Soviet expansionism, in both its military and political manifestations. As Mr. Gorbachev continues to set the international agenda, however, there is evidence of a weakening of that common perception. How do we, as parliamentarians concerned for security policy, interpret a development that is increasingly bewildering to colleagues and constituents who are increasingly in favour of a radical reassessment of western policy, and probably impatient to see some evidence of early progress?

How do we explain the exemption of naval forces from the forthcoming negotiations in Vienna on conventional forces? Why do naval forces call for separate treatment in arms control talks? Why is there no reference to the naval component in the assessment of the Soviet threat in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1988", either in paragraphs 104 to 108 or pages 5 to 7?

Surely, the most significant strategic development of out time is the enormous expansion of Soviet maritime capability since the early 1960s. I do not refer just to the growth of the Soviet navy and naval air force—it is twice the size of our Royal Air Force—but to the carefully nurtured growth of its merchant, oceanographic and fishing fleets, which are now operating worldwide.

How do we respond to the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) to assess this naval threat in the light of perestroika? Has perestroika yet led to any reductions in the Soviet maritime posture? I entirely share my hon. Friend's curiosity and anxiety that, if there are grounds for doing so, we should proceed as soon as possible to re-examine the naval threat.

As a result of my curiosity during the past three months, and of exchanges with SACEUR, and the commander in chief in the Pacific—this is relevant because the largest of the Soviet fleets is now deployed in the Pacific and no longer in the Kola inlet—and talks in NATO only last week and at SHAPE, I was repeatedly assured that there was no evidence yet, even on the margins, of any reductions in Soviet military postures—maritime or otherwise—as a result of perestroika. That suggests to me that, even more than arms control, the western alliance needs an overall political concept for dealing with the new circumstances brought about by Mr. Gorbachev's new thinking. Failing that, the Western alliance will undoubtedly run into trouble over its strategy doctrine and the practical decisions needed to carry it out.

The Soviet northern fleet is of greatest concern to us. We must continue to ask ourselves why the Soviets need such naval forces, even if reduced—although as yet there is no evidence of that. Why do the Soviets need such potent forces? Can they be only for defensive purposes?

In addition to protecting shipping on their own sea lines of communication, the Soviets have the ability to threaten allied reinforcement shipping that is vital to the West for the defence not only of the central European land mass and the northern flank of NATO, but for the sustenance of our own civilian populations. We must expect the Soviets to conduct amphibious operations in support of their land campaigns.

The threat is multidimensional and increasing in reach and capability. At one end of the spectrum is surveillance from space; at the other, complex underwater warfare from the open oceans and polar regions, to the vicinity of our own shallow seas and choke points.

In a time of rising tension or hostilities, we, with our allies, would be responsible for the maintenance of sea control in the whole of the east Atlantic. For the United Kingdom, that includes—this must be stated and restated—first, a major anti-submarine effort using our carriers, towed array frigates, submarines and maritime patrol aircraft and, secondly, the support of reinforcement forces.

In consequence, we shall see a significant change in the make-up of the fleet. During the 1990s, type 12s, Leanders, Counties, Bristols and type 21s will all leave the active fleet. Air coverage will continue to be provided only by type 42 destroyers, while our principal anti-submarine warfare escorts will be type 22 and type 23 frigates. We shall work towards just two two classes of surface escort—the type 23 for the ASW and a successor to the type 42 for anti-air warfare. I hope that the latter will come from the NFR90 programme. I entirely share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan for the preservation of that programme, not only for our own shipbuilding capacity or fleet but for the collaborative programme of which it is a part. A more broadly based collaborative programme is not available to the Alliance. Now and then we hear whispers that that programme is at risk. I hope that it is not and I hope that the Minister will accept my hon. Friend's invitation and assure the House that the programme is as secure as it can be at this stage.

I think that, on personal contemplation, any hon. Member will agree that the forward look that I have offered to the House is bound to come about. How far is that development reflected in today's defence estimates or the long-term costings'? Yet, if there are marginal reductions in the Soviet maritime posture—even without the additions described by the Minister when he opened the debate—we still have to face the threat from fast, deeper-diving and quieter Soviet submarines such as the Alpha, and the heavy armament of the Oscar. I single out only two classes, but they both demand a higher standard of response. Bigger and more numerous weapon control and communication systems often lead to larger and therefore more costly ships.

The underwater threat today is as great as it was in 1942–43. In spite of advances in methods of detecting submarines and the effectiveness of the weapons used against them, operational research in world war two showed that the submarine threat could be effectively countered only by adequate numbers of escorts and aircraft operating together as an integrated ASW force. The operative word here is "adequate". Do we have adequate surface forces?

Despite the Government's oft-repeated pledge to maintain a fleet of about 50 destroyers and frigates, I wonder how many hon. Members present—all of whom are interested in our security policy—are really assured on that point. As I recall, we have not had a debate for some years in which such anxiety has not been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

In the debate in October on the defence estimates, I raised several questions and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement replied to me afterwards, for which I am grateful. I am sorry that he could not stay, so that I could thank him for his good response, which was helpful to debates of this kind. I hope that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will convey my public thanks to him. I asked him how many vessels were operational and how many in dockyards or on disposal lists. He replied: On 11 November, 38 Destroyers/Frigates were available immediately, or within a short period, and nine were in refit". Those are sobering figures The Minister continued: We plan to pay off 2 ships by the end of the financial year; Two new type 22s will be introduced into service in the same period. So it is possible that we are now down to 38, and certainly no more than 40. The Navy has been demanding peacetime commitments of the fleet in the south Atlantic and on the Armilla patrol, commitments which account for as many as 25 per cent. of the 38 surface ships. This overstretch must prejudice naval participation in NATO exercises.

Extending ships' lives and modifying upkeep cycles could maintain the fleet, but that will involve keeping a number of ships in service longer than was originally intended. Moreover, extending a ship's life increases maintenance requirements and is likely to lead to further reductions in availability——

Mr. Archie Hamilton

I hope that I can put the hon. Gentleman out of his agony. The statistics at the moment are that there are 49 destroyers and frigates in the fleet, 41 of which could be made available for operational deployment immediately or within a short period.

Mr. Duffy

I am grateful for that information, but it still represents a reduction to 41 from 43 just a year ago. The trend is downwards. The number is certainly not 50 or thereabouts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannon reminded the Minister. The figures that the Government are good enough to yield up show a descending trend, which is a matter of concern to both sides of the House.

I also want to discuss the structure and composition of the fleet. The Minister told me: The average age of our major warships is currently just over 12 years, which compares favourably with that of our NATO allies. By now the average age of our carriers is six years, of our destroyer and frigates 12 years, and of our landing platform docks—including amphibious ships—22 years. So we cannot settle for figures alone. We thank the Government for being helpful about figures, but we need to know more about the quality of the ships.

Considering the vast amount of shipping that would operate in the north European NATO area in a time of crisis, we realise that it would be completely at the mercy of the mine unless routes were secured by NATO's mine countermeasure forces. Much of the burden of securing the sea lanes, not only for merchant ships but for the Navy's warships and attack submarines and SSBNs, will fall on the Navy's mine countermeasures vessels. The Minister knows that I have been especially interested in this subject for some time; I keep asking questions about it, and did so last October, thereby securing a further reply from the Minister.

I wanted to know how many of the minesweeper orders planned under a £1 billion modernisation scheme introduced by the Government near the beginning of their period of office would be completed by the mid-1990s. The programme was intended to provide us with about 50 new hulls. The Minister replied We have brought 19 new MCMVs into service since 1979, and there are currently five single role Mine Hunters on order. We expect to order more in due course, but no decision has yet been taken on the size and timing of further orders. So 19 out of 50 have been finished and we are more than halfway through the life of the programme. Although the Minister referred to the programme, he did not mention new orders, although it had been expected, last year as well as this, that there would be an order for four SRMH-type vessels.

I have said enough to show that there are ample grounds for concern about the state of the Navy. That concern cannot be limited to frigates, destroyers or mine countermeasures vessels. The MOD was reported last summer as trying to divert criticism by pointing out that the Navy also has carrier and submarine forces, but it failed to mention that there is neither the manpower nor the aircraft to man one third of the carrier forces, even in crisis. The MOD also failed to point out that no further nuclear submarines—attack submarines—can be built for use by the fleet until the Trident force is complete, with the result that the attack submarine force will age in the same way as the frigates and destroyers, perhaps to a point from which recovery will be difficult.

Feasibility studies for the replacement of the amphibious assault ships Fearless and Intrepid continue, according to the Minister. He mentioned the aviation support ship and said that a tender would be invited in July. All that suggests a slowing down.

Merchant shipping, as was shown in 1982, now forms an integral part of the amphibious lift capability in contingency planning and would provide the bulk of the British minesweeping forces too, having a vital role in the carriage of NATO reinforcements across the Atlantic.

The defence statement devotes only two paragraphs to merchant shipping and, compared with the 1987 statement, amounts to a tacit admission that the size of the British merchant fleet is no longer adequate to meet both NATO's reinforcement requirement and that of the support of the United Kingdom's armed forces.

On manpower, outflow is still high. The most serious shortfalls are to be found among the voluntary reserves. In 1984 the Government announced a plan to increase the strengh of the voluntary reservists in the Royal Naval Reserve by 40 per cent., from 5,226 to 7,800 by the early 1990s. The previous year it was announced that the Royal Marines Reserve would be increased from 1,047 to 1,580.

This defence statement shows that, on 1 January a year ago, the RNR had 5,600 men and women, and the RMR 1,300. Thus, four years after launching their expansion plans, the Government have achieved less than 10 per cent. of their target for the RNR, and less than 50 per cent. for the RMR in five years.

Mr. Wilkinson

As a former aviator, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the RNR Air Squadron is more than fully recruited—it has many applicants whom it cannot place in stocks.

Mr. Duffy

As a former reservist I take pleasure from that, but it is the only section of which that is true. Overall, the MOD still needs to enrol another 2,200 recruits over and above wastage levels by 1994—the promised target date by which it was hoped that the reserve will be capable of manning 60 per cent. of all British MCM ships and providing 12 per cent. of total naval manpower in war.

I was pleased to learn from the Minister that more resources will be available in real terms to the Navy over the next three years. I have had time to only describe a few areas in which those increased resources will be very welcome.

5.28 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The House will have been extremely pleased to hear the remarks of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement, who clearly stated that forward defence was vital to preventing a Soviet naval breakout. We have often heard it said that the forward defence of Germany is the forward defence of the United Kingdom. It was refreshing to hear a Defence Minister stating that the principle of forward defence applied also to maritime defence.

This principle was reiterated in the Western European Union platform of The Hague in which all the member countries committed themselves to the defence of their nations at their borders. When we are talking about northern defence in naval terms, most of us are thinking about a northern dimension of maritime defence. The balance of power on the northern flank preoccupies strategists and is of great concern for the security of this country.

Over the past 20 years, the Soviet navy has indeed become an instrument for global power projection. It can be argued why that occurred, but in the past 20 years not only has the Soviet navy acquired a blue water capability but it has become a formidable component of the USSR's strategic nuclear deterrent force; if deterrent be the right word. With the introduction into service of the very latest SSBNs such as the Typhoon and the Delta IV, the need for the Soviet Union's strategic nuclear submarines to go into the farthest oceans of the globe to carry out their intimidatory or deterrent missions has been obviated. Now of course, the SSBNs of the Soviet Union can lurk equally effectively in the dark and icy waters of the Arctic, the Barents sea and the Greenland sea.

This may in part be an explanation for the apparent diminution of exercise activity in the past three years. There may be other reasons such as that the Soviet navy needs to absorb the new equipment which it has acquired. It probably needs to make some savings in running costs by cutting down on sea time. Naturally, as the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the chairman of the political committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, has pointed out, it would indeed be embarrassing for the Soviet Union if the naval exercise programme of the Soviet fleet was out of step with the political statements of Secretary-General Gorbachev. The Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), has alluded to this factor.

If we accept that the deterrent balance is operating in a period of arms control when it is likely that land-based systems will be the first to be dismantled—which was already the case for the INF—then the importance of sea-based nuclear delivery systems will increase, with SSBNs and submarine-launched cruise missile systems as well as air-launched cruise missile systems and dual capable systems also. Therefore, it is very important for the Soviet Union to maintain the modernisation of its northern fleet. It seems to have done so, as I pointed out.

However, we must not confuse apparent intention with capability. Intentions can change as rapidly as the men who are supposed to have them. Capabilities, especially in modern naval warfare, can take decades to acquire. It is clear that the Soviet Union has acquired the capability to operate the very latest systems. Its submarines, such as the Typhoon, are the deepest diving in the world. They have acquired quiet technology from the United States and are a formidable threat.

Furthermore, the Soviets regard sea power as a seamless web, with a spectrum of capabilities from the intelligence gatherers to the fishing vessels, from the merchant marine to the oceanographic vessels to the high sea and coastal forces of the Soviet navy, with its attendant naval aviation. Britain must address this maritime threat on the northern flank.

Mr. O'Neill

Does the hon. Gentleman for giving way, also accept that the British Navy considers that its activities take the form of a seamless garment? The point I particularly wish to make concerns the acceptance of the forward northern strategies by NATO. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that acceptance implies the willingness and the capability of the Alliance to fight a nuclear war at sea, and to win in the very early stages of a conflict in Europe? Is that what the hon. Gentleman understands to be the underlying theme of a northern maritime strategy? If so, is it any wonder that the Norwegian Government are most concerned about the provocative deployment of these ships in northern waters?

Mr. Wilkinson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. His remarks merit clarification.

I was lecturing to the Oslo Military Society last night. The naval strategy and forward posture of NATO greatly interest Norwegians. They regard the forward naval strategy of SACLANT to be as important as the West Germans regard the forward strategy of SACEUR. SACLANT's posture is a deterrent one. In other words it is important to have adequate warning of a possible threat available to the NATO alliance. Secondly, the warning should be properly interpreted. Thirdly, political decisions should be taken promptly and fearlessly. Fourthly, reinforcements should take place early enough.

Two aspects of such reinforcement must be highlighted. The defence of northern Norway depends very much on the arrival at the earliest possible date of SACLANT's striking fleet Atlantic. Without the early arrival of SACLANT's carrier battle groups into the Norwegian sea, it is possible that deterrence might fail. This is important. The second aspect is that relevant amphibious forces have to be mobilized—first, the United States marine brigade so that it can be put into Norway to take advantage of the equipment that has been pre-stocked there recently; secondly, the United Kingdom-Netherlands amphibious force, which should at least get under way. It is arguable, however, that it should not be put ashore too early, as the flexibility that such marine forces inherently possess should be available until the appropriate moment.

We delude ourselves if we imagine that NATO surface vessels would be able to survive in the Norwegian sea if deterrence broke down without the striking fleet Atlantic. The dominance of Soviet air power is such that they would be very much exposed. When people talk of the European role, especially that of the Royal Navy, before the arrival of SACLANT's striking fleet Atlantic, I assume that the emphasis will be on the activity of SSNs to try and keep tabs on the SSBNs and important components of the northern fleet. Certain commentators suggest that Invincible class carriers would be safe to operate up north, I question this very much. An early objective of Soviet commanders would be to deny NATO the northern airfields in Norway, if not to take them.

We should recall that the Soviet marine brigade which is available in the Kola now exercises regularly and would be a serious threat. Therefore, the key to the whole scenario up north and to the effectiveness of our strategy is the air situation.

Mr. Trotter

My hon. Friend has referred, rightly. to the need for the striking fleet, but will he confirm that he is referring to conventional deterrence?

Mr. Wilkinson

I can give my hon. Friend no such confirmation. The whole essence of deterrence is to have a range of capabilities, and by their nature, carrier groups are dual capable. That is why the Soviets would be foolhardy to launch aggression of any kind against northern Norway or any part of the Alliance. It is important for the Alliance to have a nuclear capability because it is fundamental to our strategy. That is well understood by the Soviets and it has helped to preserve the peace.

Mr. O'Neill

I thank the hon. Gentleman for answering my earlier question in some detail. He has painted a scenario in which there would be the possible use of NATO SSNs against Soviet SSBNs—against ballistic missile submarines in the Soviet fleet. Does he not think that the early challenge of those SSBNs would bring about the likelihood of an early use by the Soviet Union of nuclear weapons on the basis that they should either lose them or use them? It was that kind of provocative act which I implied in my initial question.

Mr. Wilkinson

No. I used the phrase "keep tabs On". One must remember that a forward naval strategy has a peacetime dimension just as much as it has a wartime dimension. The Norwegians are fearful lest the Norwegian Sea should, in peacetime, become a mare Sovieticum, for the NATO allies do not spend nearly as many sea days as do the Soviets in this inhospitable stretch of water. We should, in peace, have a capability and exercise there regularly, and then, should we have a transition to what could—and we hope it will not—be war, we would be in the right place at the right time and with the right range of naval forces.

In this period, when we a re rightly preoccupied with arms control and are seeking to make progress towards a reduction perhaps of 50 per cent. in strategic nuclear delivery systems—and, hopefully, reductions in chemical weapons and ultimately in conventional forces on the central front—we should not forget that these developments make even more important naval power in general and naval nuclear deterrent power in particular.

As we are increasingly preoccupied with the central front and the attendant balance of forces, let us not forget the imbalance of the northern region, in that the Soviet Union is in place there with substantial forces, whereas the Danes and the Norwegians are totally dependent, if deterrence fails, on our NATO reinforcement. Such reinforcement cannot effectively take place unless we take the hard political decisions early enough, unless we make the reinforcement decisions quickly and effectively and, above all, unless we have the air power available to make the forward naval strategy possible.

5.44 pm
Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

I wish to comment in particular on the final comments by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), for there will be satisfaction in all parts of the House that this debate should be taking place against a background of a more positive international climate than has been the case with naval debates for some years.

We welcome the progress that has been made on arms control. We hope that the INF treaty will be followed by progress on strategic nuclear weapons, and we hope that there will be progress in the conventional stability talks, which will enable mutual security and stability to be assured at much lower levels or armaments deployment.

There are clear signs that the Soviets are beginning to make cuts in their offensive capabilities. They have a long way to go before they have achieved the sort of cuts that would remove the sense of insecurity which exists in western Europe, but it is right to acknowledge that the process has at least started, and that is to be welcomed.

Welcome though those developments are, they are no reason for taking risks with our defences or for gambling with our security. In particular, they offer us no reason for giving up Britain's nuclear capability. That is why I believe it right for the Government to be proceeding with the Trident programme. It is well known that Trident would not have been my first preference for Britain's minimum nuclear deterrent, but those arguments are now behind us. It is now clearly a question of Trident or no nuclear deterrent in Britain, and on the basis of that choice, I prefer Trident to no nuclear weapons of any sort

I say that because I do not believe that the aim of securing the sort of mutual balanced nuclear disarmament that we want to see would be helped by Britain throwing away its nuclear weapons. I was glad to see Mr. Gorbachev taking that view when a delegation recently waited on him in the Soviet Union.

Trident is a flexible system. Its firepower can be reduced by reducing the number of missiles carried on each submarine or by cutting the number of warheads on each missile. I hope that the British Government are alive to the possibility of such developments in terms of arms control and are willing to scale down Britain's nuclear capacity in line with cuts made by other nations.

Before dealing with the role and size of the surface fleet, I must deal with the issue of decommissioning nuclear submarines, a problem which is with us. We know that Dreadnought came out of service in 1982, that its nuclear fuel was removed and that it has been lying at Rosyth ever since, awaiting a decision on the appropriate method of disposal. We also know that a further nine nuclear-powered submarines will be coming out of service by the year 2000.

I understand that the Ministry of Defence has identified three possible options for dealing with the problem. The first is to sink the entire submarine at sea. I should have thought that in the present environmentally conscious world climate, that would not be a popular step to take. So that is not a strong option.

The second is to bury the intact reactor compartment somewhere on land. Again, I cannot imagine that we would be knocked down in the rush as inhabitants of the United Kingdom volunteered to have those components buried in their areas. The third alternative is to cut up the reactor plant and store the parts piecemeal with a view eventually to disposing of them in deep sites which have yet to be developed.

Replies to parliamentary questions show that no decisions about those options have yet been taken. We are told that the options are under active consideration, which reminds me of old Civil Service joke that when something is said to be under active consideration, it means that the papers have been lost and officials are searching for them. I hope that that is not the case in this instance, although we have been told by the Ministry of Defence that those options have been under active consideration for several years.

In a memorandum provided to the Defence Committee, the Ministry says: it is not possible to say when a decision on the way forward will be reached. It remains the MoD's intention however that decisions will be taken in good time to ensure adequate and safe disposal or storage of this category of nuclear waste and to prevent unacceptable interference with RN operations. That is, I am sure, intended to be a reassuring comment. It sounds, I am sure the Minister will accept, somewhat bland and complacent, and I hope that we shall get some greater sense of urgency on this matter, some clearer indication of when decisions are to be taken, when the Minister replies.

I now turn to the role of the Royal Navy and the size of the surface fleet and, like others who have spoken in this debate, I will start with the issue of forward defence. In our last debate on the Navy on 3 March, the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces made it clear that forward defence was a very important element for the Royal Navy. He said: The Royal Navy would thus make a key contribution to NATO's strategy of forward defence, seeking to contain and intercept Soviet maritime forces in the Norwegian sea before they could reach the wider expanses of the Atlantic."—[Official Report, 3 March 1988; Vol. 128, c. 1176.] In the evidence that has been given to the Select Committee, it has become, I think, fairly clear that that appears to be the primary aim of the surface fleet in a wartime situation.

The limited number of vessels available makes it likely that other roles—defence of convoys for example, and protection of seas around the United Kingdom—would inevitably have a lower priority because of the demands of this forward defence strategy.

I have no difficulty with the concept in general of forward defence. I can see too the attraction of seeking to bottle up Soviet maritime forces, and particularly Soviet submarines, north of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap. If that could be achieved, it might well provide the most effective defence for the re-supply convoys which would have to cross the Atlantic from north America.

However, there are certain obvious question marks hanging over this strategy and its effectiveness. In a period of tension, for example, the forward deployment of royal naval vessels in the Norwegian sea could only monitor the movements of Soviet naval forces. Clearly, in a period of tension there is no way in which one could stop the movement of those Soviet naval forces, and one could not stop them reaching the Atlantic, where they could subsequently, if there were to be a conflict, prey on merchant ships crossing the Atlantic.

In a period of tension it can at least be argued, I think with some force, that forward deployment would be seen as extremely provocative and could aggravate an already difficult situation. So there are doubts about the effectiveness of this strategy; it would certainly absorb a large proportion of scarce naval assets, and it could turn out to be ineffective by simply trying to bolt the stable door long after the horse had gone.

The Ministry of Defence, faced with that sort of criticism, has stressed that this is a flexible approach and that the strategy would have to vary depending on the circumstances of the time. The difficulty I see is that, the fewer ships that are available, the less possibility there is for that degree of flexibility, and that is where we come back to this constant problem of the current size of our surface fleet.

We have already had comment in this debate on what "about 50" means in terms of numbers. We have already established that, at any given time—this is clearly a changing picture—fewer than 50 vessels are actually available. The evidence given to the Select Committee by the Ministry of Defence, for example, shows that, on 2 March 1988. 36 ships were fully available for operations, with seven preparing for operations or in trials and training. On 10th June, 32 ships were fully available, with eight more available at short notice. So, at any given time, considerably fewer than 50 vessels are available for actual service.

I sought to argue in the debate last year that one of the problems about this situation is that the current size of the surface fleet appears to be dictated not by the tasks that it is being asked to carry out but by the availability of funds to pay for the vessels needed. I was very encouraged to see a memorandum put to the Defence Select Committee by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hill-Norton, who made just the same point. He said: Thus the present size … of the destroyer/frigate force bears no actual relation to the present threat, but is based solely on what this Government believes it can afford to spend on it. He went on: This opinion has been publicly stated on many recent occasions by the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic—who asserts that he has no more than half the number he needs to perform his assigned war tasks—and by our own successive Commanders in Chief. Lord Hill-Norton commented about the implications of the "about 50" force when he was personally responsible for these matters. He said that, at that point, the number which Ministers accepted to be necessary was 68, and I have seen no evidence that the threat has since diminished. That sort of expert comment puts the "about 50" surface vessels argument into perspective. We really ought to ensure that we have the number of vessels to carry out the tasks or we ought to reduce the tasks to be sure that they can adequately be carried out by the force we have. We cannot simply go on stretching the available assets to cover a wider area than is reasonable.

Like other Members who have spoken, I think the issue is not only the number involved but the age of the vessels that we are talking about. In 1981, the Government proposed to dispose early of older ships and that they would accelerate the introduction of the type 23 frigates. However, when they came to respond to the fourth report of the Defence Committee in 1986–87, they referred to decisions to extend ships' Lives and modify upkeep cycles, with the result that it is not now necessary to order three frigates a year in order to maintain a surface fleet of about 50 destroyers and frigates. It is therefore quite clear that the Government are honouring their famous pledge to maintain the "about 50" surface fleet by keeping in service a number of older ships, which on earlier criteria were coming to the end of their useful life. That clearly seems to be a policy response to financial pressures on the defence budget, but it has had implications for the effectiveness of the surface fleet. As other hon. Members have pointed out, older ships need larger crews, and that adds to the demands on the Navy's manpower. It is certainly likely to aggravate the problem of family separation, which in its turn has an adverse impact on the problem of retention of trained and skiled manpower. We also know that older ships may be more vulnerable; they certainly have higher maintenance costs, lower reliability, and all the problems of obsolescence.

Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hill-Norton had something to say about this in his memorandum to the Defence Committee: Our ships must have capabilities which match the threat, and if they do not their deterrent value progressively lacks credibility. To dilute capability by running on our current generation of ships beyond an effective age, would require a reversion to the policy of major up-dating which experience has proved to be too expensive. That again, I think, is a very important issue.

We have already had reference in this debate to the question of ordering policy, and the Select Committee in their report, which we are considering in conjunction with this debate, suggested that a total of 25 frigates was due to be withdrawn from service over the next decade, even allowing for the longer operational life which the Government now proposes. At that point, eight ships were on order, and the Committee therefore calculated that 17 vessels were needed over six and half years. That led to the famous calculation that we needed an ordering rate of 2.6 ships a year.

In reality, the Select Committee suggested, that meant ordering two in 1988, three in 1989, and then alternately two and three every year up to and including 1994. After the publication of that report, the Government announced an order for three new frigates, and I remember the Minister claiming that that had more than met the need for the 2.6 identified by the Select Committee. Of course, the Select Committee was making it clear that that was only the first stage in the programme it had outlined. The order that the Government announced last year followed a period when, in two out of three years, no orders at all had been placed; the last time the Government ordered three type 23s was in 1986–87, and there was no order at all in the following year. With that sort of pattern, the ordering rate will clearly fall well below the programme set out by the Select Committee. The result is that we shall end up with a smaller, older and less effective surface fleet.

Admiral Lord Hill-Norton addressed just that point when he said: Unless there is a large increase in the rate of ordering, applied at once and continued, the Royal Navy thus faces an inevitable decline to a total which will certainly be less than 45 operational destroyers and frigates in the mid 1990s. This must come close to the total of 42 planned in the ill judged 1981 Review. He concluded: The facts seem to demonstrate that the Government intends, perhaps unwittingly, to allow a decline of this order to occur. Such a charge, by someone with the experience and distinction of Admiral Lord Hill-Norton, must be taken much more seriously than it has been so far by the Government. I look forward with great interest to the Minister's reply on that issue.

6 pm

Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

It is understandable that in opening the debate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement should have concentrated on the Royal Navy's equipment, but I want to begin by referring to the men and women who serve in it. When one visits the Navy one is always impressed by the enthusiasm, confidence, air of responsibility and professionalism of those one meets, who often seem to be particularly young men and women.

The commander of the United States surface warfare establishment said last year that there was no better anti-submarine warfare force in the world than the Royal Navy. That was a tribute indeed, coming from that source. It is due mainly to the high professionalism of the people who serve in the Royal Navy.

The quality of life in the Royal Navy is as high now as ever. If one reads the Navy's annual reports that are circulated to retired officers, one sees the worldwide extent of the service's involvement—the submarines Superb and Turbulent surfacing together at the north pole—the first occasion on which two Royal Navy submarines have been there together; Endurance at the other end of the globe on its annual duties in the Antarctic; the Ark Royal leading a squadron to Australia; the guard ships of the Falkland Islands, and the 7,000 men in the submarine service about whom we naturally seldom hear much. I was struck to hear last year of the conventional submarine that sailed on patrol to the Falklands from the United Kingdom and was away for no fewer than 139 days, of which 109 were at sea—a remarkable achievement. It is only right to also pay tribute to the men of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary who support the Navy wherever it may go in the world.

Naturally, in the circumstances of last year, it is the Gulf to which we should pay particular attention. Month after month in harm's way, the Navy has performed there with superb professionalism and the highest morale. We are talking here today about the theories of naval warfare, but it is important to remember the endurance of our crews on those ships in the Gulf who served watch and watch about, six hours on and six hours off, under constant threat of attack day after day on a regular basis. In 70 days HMS London alone escorted 13 million tonnes of merchant shipping in and out of that hostile area, the crew constantly tense and on alert for attack.

In the 10 months to the end of October, before the escorting of convoys ceased, no fewer than 621 merchant ships were escorted and not one was attacked, and none were attacked under escort in the previous period during which the patrol operated. No less than 25 per cent. of all sea time in the Royal Navy has been Gulf-related. The escort of merchant ships in the Gulf has now ceased, but the squadron remains on patrol in that part of the world. Who can say that trouble will not flare up again in those distant waters?

Naturally enough, over the years when we have been considering the Royal Navy's role, its NATO context has received most attention. This is the 40th year of NATO and it has been a remarkably successful peace-keeping operation. It is against the capabilities and intentions of the Soviet Union and its navy that we must continue primarily to consider the future force, strength and disposition of the Royal Navy.

The Soviet navy's capabilities remain undiminished. In the past three years 15 per cent. of the Soviet main northern fleet has been replaced by new ships. Two nuclear-powered battle cruisers have joined this fleet, as have two new aircraft carriers, and there is now in service a nuclear-powered electronic jamming vessel, unique in the world. Whatever the Soviet leadership's intentions, there is constant military expenditure on new and very capable equipment at sea as on land and in the air. Until we see some reduction in that massive military production by the Soviet Union, we must continue to be on our guard. All hon. Members hope that the reduced tension that we enjoy today will continue, but it would be unwise to ignore the Soviet capabilities.

When we consider the Royal Navy's future, we should pay particular attention to its worldwide capabilities and the tasks that it may unexpectedly be required to perform. Who can say what will happen in 10 years' time in some remote part of the world? Who could have foretold that the author of a rather dull-sounding novel might set the middle east aflame in the way that is possible at this time? Who can say that there will not be some need for the Royal Navy to intervene in some far-off spot which has nothing whatever to do with tensions between east and west? This in itself is a justification for maintaining Britain's naval capability.

The demands on the sailors in the Royal Navy are as high now as they ever have been. Inevitably, naval life has always involved separation, and I pay particular tribute to those at home in the naval personnel and family service who look after the 33,000 families of the sailors, especially when they are away on long-distance voyages. The Navy has always worked hard, and it is now working very hard indeed. We must keep an eye on the sea-shore ratio, which always used to be 40 per cent. at sea and 60 per cent. ashore, but is now in danger of swinging the other way. The highest priority must be to retain the skilled and expensively trained senior ratings and officers in the service. At present, that is not a particular worry, but it is something to which we must give constant attention for the future.

I have noticed with interest the complex changes that have been made to the system of allowances in all three services. The Royal Navy's allowances have been particularly complex. I understand that the objective has been to compensate particularly those who suffer from family separation through sea service. If the Treasury, or anybody else, were tempted to save money in that direction, it would be a false economy. It is essential to maintain a system that encourages senior men to continue to serve in the service.

There is a clear case for less manpower-intensive ships so that we can reduce the strain on naval manpower. The published aim is that the total personnel strength of the Navy will be reduced by another 4,000 in the years ahead. The best way of achieving that reduction must be through the introduction of new ships requiring smaller crews. We have a major ordering programme in hand, with 10 frigates and nine submarines under construction. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will not be surprised to hear me say that there is a need for further orders, in particular for further frigate orders.

In the Falklands campaign we proved that our ships are good and there is no question but that the new type 23 frigate will be very good. In 1854 Lord Kelvin said: The public cannot tolerate large increases in costs for small increases in performance for guns and ships. Large increases in costs and questionable increases in performance can be tolerated only for racehorses and fancy women. There is the same tendency today for the cost of each new generation of military equipment to be much greater than that of the last. However, unlike in Lord Kelvin's time, the new ships are at least twice as good as those that they are replacing.

The question of the number of frigates will obviously continue to be very contentious. I suggest that my hon. Friends have created a cross for themselves by ever putting forward the figure of "about 50". Once that figure was publicly mooted it became a benchmark against which all the time comparisons would be made. So far as I am aware, nobody has ever said that there ought to be 50 infantry battalions or 50 squadrons of aircraft in the Royal Air Force, but, perhaps unwisely, the figure of "about 50" has become a benchmark for the strength of the surface navy.

Mr. Sayeed

Is my hon. Friend aware of the NATO force goals, which deal with figures of ships now required?

Mr. Trotter

I suspect that other NATO force goals similarly refer to the number of infantry battalions and squadrons of the Royal Air Force that we should have.

Having set the target of 50 in the public perception, we ought to achieve it, and I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister of State say this afternoon that we are nearly there. The figure is 49; we need only one more to achieve 50. I suggest that it would be well worth while to ensure that we have 50 so that this argument can cease. But, far more important than whether we have 49, 48 or 50 is the capability of those ships and I believe that there is a very strong argument for continuing the type 23 programme.

Twenty-six type 22s and type 42s will continue to serve in the fleet for many years ahead, but there are all the old Leanders and in time the type 21s to replace. Presumably we shall need some 24 new frigates to replace them. Seven type 23s have so far been ordered; that leaves 17. I very much hope that we shall see at least three more ordered in the very near future. It is now a year since the tendering process started for the last batch and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider very seriously whether they should not now be starting the procurement process for the next batch of type 23s.

The life of a warship should be decided not just on the obsolescence of its equipment and the wear and tear on its systems, but on its operating costs. The old Leanders are undoubtedly very costly to maintain and operate. Inevitably there is very heavy maintenance, not just because of their age, but because of their design and the fact that they have an old steam plant and, in particular, a very large crew. The crew of a Leander is 50 per cent bigger than that of a replacing type 23, and, as I have already said, the latter is twice as good as the ship it is replacing. There are, therefore, great manpower savings as well as capability improvements and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to think very carefully about the need for a sustained replacement programme of these older ships.

The need for other naval orders is, I suggest, at least as self-evident. The AORs are an essential part of the concept of the operation of the type 23. I hope that before too long we shall hear that tenders have been requested for the third of the AORs. I believe that the original intention was that there should be six and I hope that we shall build up to that figure as soon as possible.

The support given this afternoon from the Front Bench for our amphibious capability was good news. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) about the need for our Royal Marine force to arrive in Norway at the earliest possible moment in a crisis. I would see its arrival in good time as a deterrent to an attack on Norway and to conventional war breaking out in that part of the world.

Certainly the Royal Marines have a unique capability also to intervene in unexpected crises in the rest of the world. It is good news that the Government are proceeding with the aviation support ship and are planning a replacement for the two commando landing ships Intrepid and Fearless. Surely it must be better to go for a new build in this direction rather than a refit of the existing hulls, which will be 30 years old. We shall have a much better ship and a much smaller crew if we start all over again and design with modern technology.

Sir Antony Buck

I should like to say how much I agree with my hon. Friend about the replacement of the amphibious ships to which he has referred. Many of us are firmly committed to the amphibious capability. In dealing with the northern flank, would he commend one thing, which I believe has been an improvement over the years, and that is the prepositioning of heavy supplies, so that the men can be got there quickly and will be greeted by the supplies they need, which do not have to be taken great distances across the sea?

Mr. Trotter

As my hon. Friend knows, that is the case with the American marine brigade, which has its equipment based prepositioned. The problem with prepositioning is that there has to be two lots of equipment—one based there and one for other operations—which is expensive. Also, of course, one must maintain the capability to intervene elsewhere than the north. But I agree entirely with the principle of what my hon. Friend has said.

Turning to the question of repair work for the Navy, I was absolutely astonished to hear both the Opposition Front Benchers say that the repair of HMS Southampton should not go out to competition, and presumably that Tyneside should not be allowed to show that it can win this work and should not be given the chance for fair competition. Apart from the fact that it is most unfair to suggest that this work should not be made available, it would be more costly simply to allocate the work to one of the dockyards as suggested by the Opposition.

In my own part of the world, Swan Hunter has just won the design contract for the updating of both the type 42s and the three aircraft carriers, and I know that the yard is very capable of carrying out the work on HMS Southampton. I wish it well in its bid. The taxpayer will certainly gain as a result of our going out to competition.

I welcome the stated intention to increase the percentage of repair work in general that will go out to competition rather than just be allocated to Rosyth and Devonport, but I would ask my hon. Friends when we will see the further Leander refit and the conventional submarine refit going out to the wider tender that was promised after the successful experiment with a Leander frigate and one of the Oberon class submarines—two or three years ago. I very much hope that before long we shall see a further round of that type of refit work going out for general competition.

I suggest in particular to my right hon. and hon. Friends that it would be cheaper if all the RFAs went out to refit in the smaller commercial yards. I cannot believe that it is economical for that work to be carried out in Rosyth and Devonport. Indeed, 66 per cent. of the work carried out in the repair yards on the Tyne in recent years has been for the Navy, and most of the ships concerned have been RFAs won in competition.

I shall refer briefly to the role of the Merchant Navy. I believe that hon. Members of all parties are very concerned about the continual decline, not only of the British merchant navy, but of the merchant navies of the other western countries of the NATO alliance. The reasons have been well rehearsed on previous occasions on the Floor of the House, but I would just say that the development of the Channel tunnel can be expected further to reduce the number of ships available to us in an emergency. Both the Defence Committee and the Transport Committee of the House have reported in the past year and expressed their concern on this decline.

I welcome the action taken by the Government, such as the establishment of a merchant navy reserve and the assistance given with training. It is encouraging to note that twice as many cadets started training for the United Kingdom merchant navy in nautical colleges last year as was the case the year before. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done, not just by this country but also by the Alliance as a whole. In particular, in this country, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor should give more thought to measures that can be useful to British shipowners in maintaining ships under the red ensign. Certainly, that is what happens in other countries.

I was astonished when I pursued with one of our shipping companies a press comment that it had recently purchased a vessel to operate under the Belgian flag. The company replied that this was true and that there were savings of approximately US$500,000 a year as a result of registering the ship in Belgium rather than Britain. I have sent a copy of that letter to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor as I believe it is an excellent example of the truth of what is said about the unfairness of the tax system in this country compared with the systems in countries competing with us. Much more needs to be done if we are to maintain a merchant navy of a reasonable size for the future.

In my judgment, the relaxation of tension between East and West in Europe is likely to continue. That will inevitably lead to a reduction in the level of front-line and forces in Europe, especially on the central front. This must mean that the reinforcement of Europe in a crisis will become more important than ever, and that Britain's role at sea will continue to be of great importance. It is a very important factor in deciding the priorities in defence that our warships, designed for their NATO role to help deter a world war, are available for and capable of a far wider role in the world as a whole in troubles that are not connected with East-West tensions but are far more certain to occur.

6.19 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

There have been remarkable developments in East-West relations over the past couple of years. I speak as a former general rapporteur to the political committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, who used to write gloomy reports on what was happening in East-West relations, and about the failure of arms control. When I look at those reports now they seem like historical documents—even though they are only three or four years old. Few people could honestly admit that they foresaw such dramatic developments in East-West relations.

Three or four days ago, as a member of a North Atlantic Assembly sub-committee on Eastern Europe, I was wandering around the T72s held by the Dukla motor rifle regiment in Czechoslovakia. I might have taken advantage of the offer to get inside a T72 but it is really designed for smaller people. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), who is the president of the North Atlantic Assembly, who was also present, could have got inside that T72. That experience was an indication of developments that could not have been anticipated.

We must still ask whether the threat has subsided. Has it gone away? Will swords be beaten into ploughshares, and, even after the remarkable developments that have occurred, ought we to be euphoric? We have experienced euphoria on several previous occasions. In the period after the Cuban missle crisis, when the new team of Brezhnev and Kosygin came to power, there were high hopes of great improvements in East-West relations, but they were dashed. Hopes were dashed again in the early 1970s, after the signing of SALT I. One only hopes that current developments are sustainable and that, in a few years' time, our enthusiastic response to arms control developments will not be seen historically as an illusion.

We must hope that the fundamental changes that appear to be taking place in the Soviet Union will be reflected in Soviet military doctrine, force levels and action—so that Soviet forces, to cite the comments of Mr. Gorbachev, are seen to adopt an unequivocally defensive posture. However, one recalls that Mr. Brezhnev consistently stressed the defensive nature of Soviet armed forces, albeit that that was greeted with extreme scepticism by NATO and by most analysts.

I am optimistic though cautious. To believe that the threat has been eliminated or is diminishing to such an extent that there is no requirement for a Royal Navy of any size or substance or for armed forces is premature and an act of self-delusion. There will be a requirement for a substantial Royal Navy for the foreseeable future, even if it is not the Soviet Union that poses a threat. One cannot be certain that Mr. Gorbachev's reforms will be sustained, so although the immediate threat has diminished, many other navies are emerging.

There has been a remarkable increase in the number of medium-sized naval powers. Right hon. and hon. Members should ponder the fact that the Soviet Union's naval construction industry produces far more vessels for export, with India being a major recipient of the Russian naval construction programme. With arms control breaking out and, one hopes, being sustained, the Soviet Union and NATO, too, will persist in exporting equipment—including naval equipment—to Third world states. It is unwise to presume that all threat has been removed just because the threat from the Soviet Union is diminishing.

One must always take into account that crises can emerge at any time. The case made by the Select Committee on Defence in its now famous report, "The Future Size and Role of the Royal Navy's Surface Fleet", clearly revealed a requirement for a substantial Navy in the future. Apparently, Select Committees are not the flavour of the month that they were for most of the post-1979 period. Government Departments are rather critical of them. The Defence Committee has produced a stream of well-argued and somewhat critical reports. The Government were not too pleased by the Committee's reports on the Westland affair, defence commitments and resources, and on business appointments. It remains to be seen how pleased the Government will be by our forthcoming report on the Gurkhas. Certainly the Government were less than euphoric about the Committee's report on the future size of the surface fleet. I am pleased that that report has been tagged for today's debate.

The Chairman of that Select Committee said that that report was not critical. Having re-read it, I am not convinced that his analysis is correct. It is a very critical report. A Select Committee does not exist to blow kisses at the Department concerned and to produce reports that will delight it. It exists to analyse objectively, and if a Select Committee's conclusions cause embarrassment, that is its job. It will praise where merited, but will also criticise where necessary.

The Government's response to the Defence Committee's report on the surface fleet was unfair. The Ministry either rejected most of its recommendations or made critical comments of what was said. The Committee confirmed the considerable over-stretching of the Royal Navy, particularly as we were in the middle of the Armilla patrol and of the Gulf operations. It reported the serious decline in the merchant marine and the detrimental effect that that would have on reinforcing and resupply from north America in the event of a crisis.

The Select Committee was sceptical about the strategy of forward defence. Paragraph 25 of its report comments: The aim of forward defence is to 'contain the Soviet fleet as far north as possible and thereby avoid or limit the amount of the threat which comes into the vast expanse of the Atlantic itself'. The Royal Navy would deploy early into the Norwegian Sea and then 'hold the ring' "— in the words of the witness, Mr. Richard Mottram, from the Ministry of Defence— until the arrival of US carrier battle groups. My great anxiety is that, if we participate in a forward maritime strategy with inadequate resources, and with ships that are not properly armed, the task of holding the ring until the arrival of US carrier battle groups could prove to be an exciting experience. I certainly would not wish to be on hoard any ship that, in the event of conflict, would be subjected to the greatest concentration of air and maritime power in the world—in a very difficult area, off the coast of Norway—if the Soviet Union was successful in taking some airfields in northern Norway. One must remember how close is the Kola peninsula and the vast concentration of Soviet naval power to Norway. I would be cautious about adopting an almost gung-ho attitude, in saying that the Royal Navy will deploy far forward and that its task will be to "hold the ring".

The Select Committee was also critical of the Government's aspiration to maintain about 50 frigates and destroyers". I believe that it made a great contribution to the Royal Navy by pointing out the serious shortfall that existed and that that would continue into the future unless the Ministry of Defence embarked on a programme of ordering that would allow it to meet its objectives. Not long after that report was published—clearly, the Secretary of State for Defence did not wish to appear to have been bounced by the Select Committee—an announcement was made that further orders would be placed.

However, as the Committee pointed out, 2.6 ships per year must be ordered over a period of more than six years. Even if the Government make an announcement soon, they will have to move quickly and be more diligent than they have been so far if they are to meet their target of 2.6 ships annually—albeit three ships one year and two the next. We do not want to see the Government playing games by using ships that have reached the end of their natural lives just to keep the number of about 50 and thus preserve their credibility.

Under the 1980–81 plan, which was the responsibility of John Nott, as he was then, the intention was to dispose early of older ships and to accelerate the introduction of the type 23. That simply has not happened. The Government, whatever they decide, have much more to do if they are to maintain the credibility of the Navy. As a number of hon. Members have said, the key to flexibility is numbers that are large enough to be flexible with. If we allow the surface fleet to diminish to such an extent that flexibility is no longer possible, that will be to the disadvantage of the Royal Navy. If we are not able to keep 50 frigates and destroyers of reasonable quality, the Government ought to come clean and say that there are some functions that they are simply not able to perform. That would be very difficult for them to do, so I hope very much that they will maintain an ordering programme that will allow them to meet their own stated objectives.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the Armilla patrol represented an increase in our commitments and that we have managed to deal with it?

Mr. George

The Armilla patrol consisted of three minesweepers plus frigates and destroyers on site, with three en route and three going home. That is nine out of 30, 40 or 45 frigates and destroyers—a very high percentage. As a consequence of that operation, many of the Royal Navy's other tasks, such as training, had to be abandoned. We were told, indeed, that some small countries were engaging in more NATO training and exercising than was the United Kingdom.

The crisis in the Gulf and the involvement of the Armilla patrol showed two things. First, it demonstrated very clearly that Europe had the will and the capability to operate out of area—and I think that the decision of the Western European Union and the various navies will be seen as epochal in the emergence of NATO and of the WEU. Secondly, it showed that, when there is a crisis, it consumes a high proportion of naval assets. One might extrapolate and say that, if it took 25 to 30 per cent. of British naval assets to patrol the volume of shipping going through parts of the Gulf, it is mind-boggling to imagine how many frigates and destroyers would be required should there ever be a convoy system from north America to Europe. One should put that in perspective. In the Gulf the Navy was very over-stretched. One can only be relieved at the ending of the conflict, not just for the sake of the people who were involved directly, but because the Royal Navy will be able to pursue its peacetime objectives rather more efficiently.

Earlier, the Minister was rather soothing in his remarks about the potential crisis of the type 23s and about British Aerospace's Sea Wolf missiles not performing as they were intended to. Five Royal Navy type 23 frigates, when they enter service in the 1990s, will be unable to perform as was originally proposed. The cost of these ships is £700 million, yet, despite what the Minister said, I am not at all reassured that, should there ever be a crisis, they would be able to operate in a war environment. I say so because of the failure of the CACS 4 Ferranti system. It was quite wrong for a Conservative Member to tell the Opposition spokeman that he would have continued the CACS programme if he had been in office. Clearly, the system was imperfect. This demonstrates the imperfections not only of the contractor, who was unable to meet the specifications, but of the Ministry of Defence, which failed to monitor the programme in such a way that the alarm bells could be heard.

In effect, the Government are saying that, although the British taxpayer has spent £700 million on type 23s, our sailors might be sailing, inadequately defended, into a vulnerable area. Neither the Government nor Ferranti comes out of this episode particularly brilliantly. I have heard rumours that one of these five ships may be sent off to the West Indies, where the threat is not particularly high. What a deplorable waste of very expensive and very scarce resources. It is only right that the Government should be embarrassed by what has happened.

I should like to ask a question—perhaps I will get an answer—about some suggestions concerning the stress on the type 42, batch 3, hulls. Some type 23s have had to have their hulls strengthened, and I understand that this has happened in the case of HMS Gloucester, a type 42. How many vessels have gone through the process so far, and what has been the cost? How many more ships will have to have their hulls strengthened? Is there not some basic design or other failure that compels the Royal Navy to have hulls repaired before they ought to have been subject to the stress that has had such an adverse effect upon them?

Are the Government giving consideration to what will happen to our carriers when they reach the end of their natural lives? I know that it is rather ironic, in the light of the delays being announced in replacing Fearless and Intrepid, to ask whether the Government are giving serious consideration to whether we will have carriers after the end of the lives—perhaps 25 or 30 years away—of our existing carrier force. But such is the expense and the magnitude of construction and design that we shall no doubt soon reach a stage where some initial thought has to be given to the matter.

Let me move on fairly briefly to consider the Soviet navy. We are all aware that it has developed remarkably since the 1950s—indeed, since the second world war. It has been transformed from no more than a coastal patrol fleet to one with a blue-water capability. We have to be careful in evaluating the size, missions and capability of the Soviet navy. The remarkable increase in Soviet ship construction in the 1960s, and up to perhaps the late 1970s, largely under the influence of Admiral Gorshkov, appears to have begun to slow down. Probably that started when Ustinov became Minister of Defence. The Soviet Union has some fine high-technology assets, but it has much that is obsolescent. Quite clearly, the building of new ships is slowing down, but it took us some time to realise that.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference at Greenwich. One of the papers, presented by an American named Baker said: The size of the Soviet fleet—both in numbers and in total tonnage—has been acknowledged as shrinking". It is true that the ships are now bigger and more complicated, but we must be careful not to argue that the inexorable rise of the Soviet navy is proceeding at the pace of the 1960s and the 1970s. In 1987, for example, the Soviets launched five submarines, three of them nuclear-powered. They launched two destroyers and one frigate, apparently for the KGB. I suppose that, like me, many people did not realise that the KGB operates ships in quite large numbers. All of this does not indicate a continuing massive build-up.

There are encouraging signs, over and above the slowing down in the naval shipbuilding programme. Clearly, the Soviet Union is not operating out of area, as we understand the term, to the extent that it was. As was mentioned earlier, there are far fewer operations in the north Atlantic. Any conclusion that that might encourage us to reach that the Soviet navy is retreating to become once more a coastal patrol would be premature. I am not arguing that the Soviet navy does not pose a potential threat; all that I am saying at this stage is that we should not paint a picture more fearsome than the reality.

Convoying and the defence of the sea lines of communications play an important role in the security of NATO, affecting not just the British Navy but the Portuguese. Before any hon. Members interrupt to ask what that has to do with a debate on the Royal Navy, let me make it clear that there is a connection. The Portuguese navy is critically important in the Iberlant area between the Azores and western Europe: in fact, Portuguese ships are the only NATO ships operating permanently there. Because of straitened financial circumstances, the Portuguese have entered into a liaison with most NATO countries for the provision of three frigates, to be built by Blohm and Voss in Germany. Those ships will be handed to the Portuguese, although they will be making a substantial contribution over the next few years.

German and American contributions have been enormous, and even tiny Luxembourg has made a generous contribution to the construction and equipment of the three frigates. Our contribution, however, has been miserly. Initially the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) announced a contribution of £5 million. Inflation has been serious and over a period of some years the sum has been raised to just over £6 million, but in my view that is inadequate to cover the possible provision of a helicopter for the Portuguese frigate programme.

Mr. Sayeed

Luxembourg contributes 1.2 per cent. of her GDP to defence spending; we contribute 4.7 per cent. of ours. We provide far more than Germany, which spends 3 per cent. of GDP. It is about time that others started to spend a bit more.

Mr. George

I do not wish to focus on Luxembourg's deficiencies. I am simply saying that for a tiny country it makes an infinitely larger contribution to the Portuguese frigate programme than we do, despite our 600-year history of liaison with Portugal.

Westland hoped that the £6 million could be used for the purchase of one Lynx helicopter, and that perhaps the Portuguese would purchase another four. Recently the United States topped up its aid to Portugal following Portugal's criticism of its military, or security assistance, programme. A remarkable package including F16s for the Portuguese air force also included the offer of helicopters, which might be placed on the Meko 200s.

Unless the Government make a much improved offer to the Portuguese, Westland will run a considerable risk of not being able to make one of its helicopters, which the MOD will pay for, and then sell the rest. The Portuguese may be making a mistake, in that although they would get the helicopters for nothing, the cost of upgrading and altering the Mekos will make the offer eventually quite expensive. I hope that the MOD will reconsider its rather miserly offer—not just for the sake of Anglo-Portuguese relations or because of Westland, but because we owe it to ourselves, to the Portuguese and to NATO. The offer should he set against the offers made by the Dutch, the Canadians, the Americans, the Germans, the French and virtually everyone else. It is not a question of pouring money down a hole: money spent on helicopters for the Portuguese navy will directly benefit the security of the United Kingdom.

Disarmament at sea is not a subject that we in the West have been particularly keen to pursue, for a number of reasons. One is our superiority in naval forces. Most Western nations are by definition maritime—geography compels them to be—but the Soviet Union, despite making enormous strides in the 1960s and 1970s in building up its navy, is still basically a continental power.

Some of Mr. Gorbachev's offers on naval arms control were made rather truculently. As I tried to suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), they were not his best and most genuine offers. He extended them in Vladivostock and again in Murmansk, arguing for, among other things, parity in the Mediterranean. That is nonsense, because the sixth fleet is linked intextricably to the defence of Greece, Turkey, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and the whole of the Mediterranean. It is the glue that binds the geographically dispersed members of our Alliance in the southern region.

To withdraw the sixth fleet, or to drop it to the level of the Soviet Mediterranean squadron, would have wide spread repercussions. Moreover, the Soviet Union could still deploy its forces in the Black sea and, by virtue of its surge capability—as long as it remained consistent with the Montreaux convention—could, over a period of weeks, supplement its diminished force in the Mediterranean to a level much easier to achieve than that of the United States.

The fact that the Soviet Union has been rather disingenuous in that respect distracts us from more serious proposals. We should give more consideration to naval arms control, on which the Soviet Union has issued many proposals, most of which seem detrimental to NATO. It proposes zones of peace, nuclear-free zones, an ASW-free zone, safe SSBN havens and, as I have mentioned, parity in the Mediterranean. We should also give more thought to naval confidence-building measures. Confidence building is not a substitute for arms control, but it is a useful supplement, and the Government should think more about enhancing confidence between the two alliances.

This is the first defence debate since the Labour party began a serious review of its defence commitments. The policy review will be completed in April and later put to the party conference—and, I hope, approved, if it contains policies different from those for the 1983 and 1987 elections. I do not say that because it would be more intelligent electorally. It has been known in parliamentary history for policies to be changed for purely electoral reasons, but they are the wrong reasons. Policies should be changed because they will be more relevant when changed.

I was saddened by the collapse of consensus on security matters in the 1980s. I consider it important—indeed, almost incumbent on Governments and Oppositions—to adopt security policies that will survive the passage of one Government or another. Such consensus exists in many countries. It exists in Norway but not yet in Denmark, although it is improving there. It is being re-created in the Federal Republic, although, I suspect, not for reasons that some would particularly like. It has virtually always existed in France. It exists in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, America, Turkey and even Greece. We think that the fracturing of the consensus exists everywhere because it exists here, but that is nonsense.

There is no way in which Governments and Oppositions will agree on every aspect of policy or in which the Labour party, at a general election, will have a defence policy that is identical or close to that of the Government. But there is progress and we may be on the way to re-establishing the consensus. To re-create the consensus, some Government concessions will be required. They must not simply wait for the Labour party to move towards their position.

With a mixture of multilateral, bilateral and unilateral proposals—whatever the formula is—I hope that the Opposition will be able to devise a defence strategy that will meet the desires of party members and of potential supporters. That will be an enormous task and I wish the policy review process the best of fortune in the months ahead. There will be many crises and problems, and some people in the Labour party will not like the abandonment of unilateralism. It is sad for some when policies change, but if such change makes possible a greater consensus on defence and makes it possible for the Labour party to have policies on the Navy, the Army, the Air Force and nuclear weapons that will be viable internally and externally, then so be it. Although some party members may dislike such change, the overwhelming majority of potential Labour voters will endorse such a policy if, as I hope, it emerges from the policy review committee.

6.51 pm
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). He is the one not so small voice of sanity within the Labour party. However, although I have great respect for his powers of persuasion, I do not believe that he will necessarily be wholly successful in returning his party to some form of sane defence policy.

I want to follow the hon. Member in a discussion of East-West relations and also on the treatment of the Select Committee by the Ministry of Defence. Peace is apparently breaking out in East-West relations, with glasnost, perestroika, the intermediate nuclear forces treaty and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some people appear to be suffering from the delusion that it is now safe to relegate defence spending to the second division, but at a time when the Warsaw pact forces have a 3:1 superiority over NATO in tanks and artillery and a 2:1 superiority in tactical aircraft and attack helicopters, when the Soviets are deploying Fulcrum, Flanker, Foxhound, the T81 tank and Typhoon and Oscar class submarines, the suggestion that defence spending no longer matters damages the ability of the Alliance to negotiate and the cause of peace.

Despite Soviet rhetoric, in every sphere of weapons—nuclear, chemical and conventional—there continues to be a numerical imbalance in favour of the USSR. The Russian bear's growl has become a grin, but it has not lost any of its teeth. At a time when we require a new battle tank, when Jaguar and Phantom aircraft need replacing, when the defences of the northern area are under strength and when we lack maritime strength, in depth, we should not demonstrate a faltering determination.

We cannot be wholly confident that President Gorbachev will be able to surmount the entrenched self-interest, to overcome the bureaucratic inertia that is inherent in the Soviet system or to control the danger of anarchy which follows when a hint of freedom is offered to the oppressed. Although it is our fervent hope that he will be successful, we must acknowledge that such a success will be a first in the history of the Tsarist or Communist Russia. We cannot afford to let our hopes blind us to the possibility of President Gorbachev's failure or its consequences.

With all that is happening in East-West relations, and with defence inflation outstripping the retail price index, there is understandable concern about defence spending, and those concerns are shared throughout the Alliance. Yet I detect in certain members of the Alliance a simplistic approach to complicated questions, an over-optimistic assessment of Soviet intentions and a willingness to permit short-term political expediency to determine long-term policy.

Many of us welcome the United States Defence Department report "Allied Contributions to the Common Defence," which was published in April 1988. It is an important part of the burden-sharing debate. There is much to commend in the document, although I would criticise its emphasis on input rather than output—on the amount spent rather than what is achieves—and even when it deals with outputs, its concentration on quantity rather than quality damages the report and is regrettable. Although we must acknowledge the 340,000 United States troops who are permanently stationed in Europe, the United States reinforcement commitment and the nuclear guarantee, we should also recognise that those are in the interests of the United States. The defence of America starts in Europe, as well as in the Pacific basin. Washington is closer to Europe than it is to Anchorage in Alaska or than San Francisco is to Japan.

We in Europe are not freeloaders on the whole. In conventional terms, we provide 90 per cent. of the manpower, 85 per cent. of the tanks and artillery, 80 per cent. of the combat aircraft and 65 per cent. of the major warships. Yet within Europe, there is considerable disparity of commitment. As I pointed out earlier, 4.7 per cent. of our gross domestic product is committed to defence, whereas Germany and Belgium contribute only 3 per cent. and the latter does not even participate in the common European air defence system. Italy contributes 2.2 per cent. and Denmark only 2.1 per cent., although it has one the highest per capita incomes in Europe. Spain's figure is 2 per cent. of GDP and it has enforced the withdrawal of the United States 401st tactical fighter wing. Luxembourg—and I know that it is small—contributes a paltry 1.2 per cent. of its GDP to defence.

The United Kingdom has 67,000 men permanently stationed in Europe. Our defence expenditure has increased by more than 20 per cent. in real terms since 1979. We have nothing to fear and everything to gain by opening up the burden sharing debate. We must persuade other European countries that it is in their interests to accept a fair share of defence costs; otherwise, the United States budget deficit and the ever present middle America isolationist pressures may persuade Congress that the United States withdrawal from Europe would be justified and Europe's own fault.

We can and should question how we allocate the massive, but finite, resources that we individually and collectively devote to defence. I would argue, as would other hon. Members, that the least likely line of Soviet advance is through central Europe, the most heavily fortified region in the world. I wonder whether such a concentration of defence spending does not have more to do with assuaging German sensibilities and fending off United States isolationist pressures than with providing the best value for money in defence terms.

Despite an earlier incarnation, this is not a Navy versus Army debate, but a question of how we provide the greatest assistance to the NATO Alliance, while retaining the essential out-of-area capability. If we are to deter through strength, we must acknowledge that our sea lines of communication are vulnerable and that the likely line of any Soviet action would not be on land through Europe, but at sea via the northern area. Yet our policy of forward defence in that area is clearly deficient. First, it commits nearly all NATO maritime resources well forward, but the lack of towed array ASW frigates, maritime patrol aircraft and forward repair ships, which act as force multipliers, results in our being unable adequately to fulfil even current NATO policy.

Secondly, it is clear that, as our air, surface and submarine forces would be more than fully stretched fulfilling their ASW role in the forward area, there would be no spare assets to provide strength in depth and to protect our lines of communication and resupply. Up to one third of Soviet maritime forces are deployed south of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap at any one time. With no allowance for attrition, with a decline in the NATO merchant fleet and with a ship, however capable, not being able to be in more than one place at a time, the policy of forward defence in the northern area soaks up all our assets. It is fallible and dangerous to rely on it.

I have a few specific questions for my hon. Friend. During Exercise Teamwork, I saw on HMS Illustrious that they were using a coastal chart first published at the turn of the century. It is true that there had been minor corrections. Have we full access to all the sea-mapping data that the United States navy has been compiling since 1957 in the northern area? I have been advised by a senior serving Royal Navy officer, experienced in ASW, who has often liaised with the United States, that the United States continues to keep secret from us some submarine charts of the northern area.

From the number of vertically launched Sea Wolf missiles that have been ordered, it seems likely that the Ministry of Defence intends to order eight type 23 frigates in the medium term. Yet, as we know, those frigates will be commissioned without a command system that will integrate the weapons carried and permit the frigates to be effective fighting units. I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, South: I have absolutely no confidence that those ships will be able to operate in a hostile environment until they have an effective command and control system. Recognising the complexity and the interaction of current weapons systems and those that will be fitted, there is no chance of sending men to sea in those ships and keeping them safe in any hostile condition until the type 23 command system is fitted.

Can my hon. Friend the Minister of State give any estimate of when he expects the command system for the type 23 frigate to be installed? How is Sea Wolf to be fired? I understand from the meeting that I had with British Aerospace two weeks ago that, as soon as the trials are finished, it intends to take off the control mechanisms. Can my hon. Friend provide an indication of the likely ordering pattern of the type 23? The answer will probably be no, as it has been to the Select Committee on Defence on numerous occasions. I will ask anyway; if one does not ask, one never gets anywhere.

Will my hon. Friend tell me how the Government intend to honour their commitment, given in 1981, to dispose early of old ships? We have in operation one batch 1 Leander, four batch 2 TAS Leanders, three batch 2 Leanders, five batch 3 conversion Leanders and two batch 3 broad beam Leanders—a total of 15—and six type 21s. There is no doubt that the batch 1 and batch 2 ships require replacement very soon. It does not matter how frequently the weapons systems are updated: the hull itself gets tired and noisy and is more vulnerable to submarines. Those ships are a danger to those who serve in them.

Can my hon. Friend tell me whether there has been any change in our offensive mining capability since he last spoke? It was extremely poor and out of date. Can he tell me whether the Ministry of Defence has done anything about it?

I want to deal finally with the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Select Committee on Defence. One might have hoped that the Ministry of Defence would have welcomed the Committee's inquiry into the surface fleet, but its response to questioning and to requests for information made it seem that at times we were conducting a dialogue with the deaf. It may be a naive hope to expect the MOD to recognise that we are all on the same side, but I would have hoped that, after the report had been published and the Select Committee had indicated its wish to continue to monitor the position, the MOD would riot have continued its policy of obstruction and obfuscation.

I shall give the House an example. On 2 November 11988 the Select Committee wrote to the MOD requesting information that would enable us to keep tabs on what was happening to the surface fleet. Seven weeks later, on 19 December, just before the Recess, it replied, acceding to some of our requests but saying that information on the key area of interest was not held centrally. On 21 December—we move fast in the Select Committee—we wrote back, asking that we be given a copy of "The Fleet Operating Programme", a document already produced monthly, that covers nearly all the essential points of which we wished to be regularly apprised. It is true that such a document is not held centrally at MOD but at fleet headquarters at Northwood, but the Minstry's answer was pure semantics.

I have a clear impression that some officials in the Ministry are less than helpful. I believe that to be counter-productive. It is the House of Commons that has to authorise expenditure for the services. It is the House of Commons that set up the Select Committee on Defence to monitor defence expenditure, policy and administration. It is unacceptable that the attitude of a few officials within the Ministry, in their dealings with a Committee of the House, should border on dumb insolence.

I feel sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends do not believe that their Department encompasses the sum of human wisdom on defence matters. I have no doubt that my right hon. and hon. Friends welcome contributions from those outside the Department. What would the attitude of my hon. Friend the Minister of State be if he were treated by his officials in the way the Select Committee has sometimes been?

I have been somewhat critical of our maritime policy and our ability to fulfil even current objectives. I have urged Ministers to encourage other NATO countries to pay their full share of defence costs. I have asked specific questions and I have requested that it be made clear to those few civil servants within the Ministry of Defence who do not understand that it is to Parliament that their Department is ultimately responsible.

I want to end on a happier note, because I recognise that my right hon. Friend and his Ministers are struggling valiantly to provide the defence that we need at a cost that we can afford. A service debate gives us the opportunity to write an end of term report on MOD endeavours. My assessment of the progress of my right hon. and hon. Friends is, "Heart in the right place; doing well, but could do better."

7.9 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

On these occasions, few speeches fail to mention the professionalism and commitment of our service men and women. On this occasion I believe that we can claim that those who serve in our Navy are among the most dedicated and professional. An eloquent example of that is the success of the Armilla patrol. We know that our Navy has a proud tradition, which is still properly maintained, even in times of great technological change. However, we should be guilty of grave injustice to that tradition if we did not match the dedication and skill of those who serve in the Navy with proper equipment and, if necessary, with a level of expenditure that allows them adequately to fulfil their responsibilities.

The equivalent debate to this one was on 3 March of last year. The Official Report on that debate repays reading again, because virtually all who contributed to it—with the exception of those who spoke on behalf of the Government—were concerned about the numbers of the surface fleet. Since then we have had the sixth report of the Select Committee on Defence, which has been referred to as challenging rather than critical, and then a little later in the debate, as critical rather than challenging. I shall leave others to form their own judgments as to its proper characterisation. I hope to show, however, that a number of issues and concerns raised by that report have still not been answered.

Following the printing of the report on 21 June 1988, on 11 July there was an announcement in the House of an order for three type 23 frigates. If one looks at the terms of the report and then the terms of the announcement, one is left with the suspicion that there may, in fact, be some substance in what one always thought to be the logical fallacy, post hoc propter hoc. On 19 and 20 October last year we had a debate on the defence estimates. On the first day of the debate the chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), who has already spoken, said he would not change a word of the sixth report of his Committee in spite of the Government's response. Although he may have described his attitude this evening as being challenging, it is clear that he still would not change a word of that sixth report.

On 26 October last year, Admiral Sir Julian Oswald—soon to be the First Sea Lord—told the Press Association that the Royal Navy had reached the absolute minimum of destroyers and frigates necessary to meet its commitments. We know that since then, commentator after commentator has been critical of the Government's candour on this matter, and that commentator after commentator has been critical of the consequences to our responsibilities. Almost every day the belief is gathering strength that what was not achieved by the 1981 review is now being achieved by stealth or by indolence.

When the Minister began his contribution he gave a hint, as it were, of good news to come, but in truth that turned out to be no more than a hint—it was a hint and not a matter of any substance. I refer especially to the issue of the size of the surface fleet. I welcome the announcement about the repair and refit of HMS Southampton and the fact that that is to be put out to competitive tender—those who are good enough to win the tender will deserve to have the work. However, one is entitled to ask what is our precise approach to the surface fleet. Do we determine our numbers by our strategy or are we determining our strategy by our numbers? That is an issue what will not go away.

As the debate has shown, the Select Committee's concerns have not been removed, nor, indeed, have its questions been answered. I shall remind the House of some of those concerns and questions. The first point made by the Committee was that there was no coherent long-term plan for the Navy. Secondly, it said that there was a need to order—not to put out to tender—two to three ships each year. Thirdly, it said that the capability of the frigate force has suffered because of the extension of the operational lives of the Leander and type 21 vessels—bringing with it additional demands on manpower—and possibly resulting in more applications for premature voluntary release. Finally—and in the context of all that the Committee has said, possibly its most perceptive observation—there was the Committee's concern that the wartime objectives place too heavy an emphasis on forward maritime strategy to contain Soviet forces in the Norwegian sea, resulting in prejudice to the task of defending transatlantic shipping.

None of those concerns has been properly answered. The root of them all lies in the building programme. Until the Government tackle that programme, the weaknesses will remain; and, unless they tackle it, the weaknesses will be exacerbated. The Government must tackle that programme in a systematic way, with a clearly published programme of work. That will be essential for companies such as Yarrow, which was a beneficiary of the announcement of 11 July last year. It is at least as important for companies such as Swan Hunter, which wants to tender, but is forced to take major decisions about capacity and employment with no proper information about the future of the market place. It is in the interests of the Ministry of Defence to makes its intentions clear; otherwise the competitive base may be eroded and it will find itself negotiating with a monopoly supplier.

I say with some regret—I include those in today's debate—that Ministers are wholly unconvincing about the numbers of destroyers and frigates available. The very words "about 50" are imprecise and misleading. Why not say, "Not less than 50"? Why not say something definite and specific? Let us suppose that the Minister went to purchase a motor car. He asked the salesman, how many previous owners that it had had, and the salesman replied, "About two, sir." Would he be satisfied with that reply? Would he not regard it as the kind of imprecision which should put him upon his guard? I ask hon. Members whether they would buy second-hand frigates from Ministers.

How can it be that five of the new type 23 frigates will be unable to operate effectively vertical launch Sea Wolf missiles? For that I rely on the authority of Jane's Defence Weekly of 11 February 1989.

The CACS 4 system has been rejected. The Under-Secretary was at his most felicitous, his most reasonable and almost, I suppose, his most charming. He verged on, but perhaps did not achieve, the necessary blandness of the salesman. What he did not tell the House and what he gave the House no undertaking upon is how that will be prevented from happening again. He was not able to tell the House when the necessary command and control system will be installed. A Minister who learned that the command and control system was insufficient in quality or range would have been foolish to press ahead with it. The House is entitled to know whether those lessons have been learnt and whether steps have been taken to ensure that the same difficulties do not occur again. Who takes responsibility for the circumstances which have arisen?

The Minister made no mention of any further orders for auxiliary oiler replenishment vessels. As further frigates are built there will be a need for more AORs. Is it the Government's intention to order more? If they did, that would give much encouragement to the shipbuilding industry in all parts of the United Kingdom. I do not recall any mention of the NFR 90—indeed, other hon. Members have raised this issue earlier. Perhaps the Minister will give us some up-to-date information. There was no mention either of any consideration by the Government of the use of smaller vessels, such as those of corvette size that may be ideally qualified to perform tasks related to national security in and around the United Kingdom, such as dealing with gun running and drug trafficking.

As I have said already, the Minister gave some hint of largesse or generosity to come but, when examined, it was no more than a hint and was of little substance. The mobilisation of NATO would require a thousand transatlantic sailings by cargo ships in 30 days, over and above normal traffic. Just as the Select committee on Defence felt it necessary to ask, we too must ask how it is possible to defend these movements and to maintain the forward maritime strategy of bottling up the Soviet fleet in the Norwegian sea on the figures available of the numbers in the surface fleet.

Running through this whole issue is a conflict of priorities caused by a paucity of resources. The Government must ask themselves—and, if not, the House undoubtedly will—how that conflict is to be resolved. There are two alternatives. We may choose one course of action at the expense of the other—that is to say, establish and adhere to priorities; or we may provide sufficient resources to meet all the desirable strategic requirements. The second of these alternatives is the more desirable militarily. It will have financial consequences, but these cannot be ignored if we are to ensure that the Navy is in a position to fulfil the responsibilities which we impose upon it.

The Navy has been charged with the most awesome military responsibility of all, because strategic nuclear weapons fall under its responsibility—now Polaris but soon to be Trident. A consensus seems to be growing that, by the time of the next general election, the Trident programme will be so far committed that its outright cancellation will be neither practical militarily nor financially advantageous. For that, I need do no more than echo the words of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), speaking in the debate on the defence estimates to which I have already referred. He told the House then that, by 1992, 60 per cent. of the expenditure of the Trident programme would be committed and that cancelling the Trident programme in 1992 would allow savings of only between £1 billion and £3 billion, depending on the interpretation of the terms of the contract.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will the hon. and learned Member agree that one of the dangers of the whole Trident programme is that, once it is nearing completion, those involved with it will suddenly discover all sorts of other expenditure which must be incurred to make it work? It is a little dangerous to assume that the cost will stay fixed once the thing nears completion.

Mr. Campbell

The experience has been that the cost has gone down since the first estimates were made, assisted to some extent by advantageous rates of exchange but also, no doubt, by a degree of advance and of technical innovation. I accept that there may be what I think the hon. Member is referring to by implication—hidden costs—but any cost directly recovered from the cancellation of the programme would not be such as to justify cancellation at the point at which any new Government might have the opportunity of making that decision.

We must all accept, therefore, that Trident will be in place, or effectively in place, and that the decisions about defence which any Government elected in 1992 must take will be conditioned by the fact of its existence. No one now argues that one should take the strategic nuclear deterrent, or the submarines which would be the means of delivering it, tow them into the middle of the Atlantic, open the sea-cocks and hope that they will simply sink to the bottom.

Mr. Sayeed

I should like to be absolutely certain what the latest Liberal party defence policy is. Would its members pledge themselves to maintaining Trident submarines and the weapons that go with them for the forseeable future?

Mr. Campbell

Yes. I hope that a monsyllabic answer does not take the hon. Gentleman unawares.

One thing is certainly true, that any strategic nuclear deterrent is justified only as long as it contributes to the peace. The current independent deterrent has done so. Bat we would be quite wrong to take the view that there is some intrinsic merit in strategic nuclear weapons. Their value is only in the consequences that they bring about or, perhaps, putting it another way, in the consequences that they prevent. If the time ever came when the United Kingdom's independent nuclear weapon turned out to be an obstacle to arms reduction, there would be no case for its retention.

While it is not possible to say precisely when such a moment might arise, what one can say in this context is that the events of the past two or three years would have been entirely unpredicted during the Brezhnev years. One can also say that any agreement which involved giving up the independent nuclear deterrent of the United Kingdom would have to be part of an arrangement involving us and our allies and not as part of some purely bilateral deal with the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union itself recognising that that particular offer or any kind of arrangement based on an offer of that sort would be entirely unsuitable and. to them, unacceptable.

In relation to our defence policies we should be seeking to create an atmosphere in which each side feels confident that the other will not attack it, in which the interests of one side become the interests of the other.

With some important variations, this debate could have been held last year because the concerns about ship numbers remain the same, the questions which had not then been formulated perhaps as precisely as they have now been by the Select Committee on defence remain the same and, sadly, the answers remain, for some of us at least, on both sides of the House, equally unconvincing. On that matter, if nothing else, this debate has produced a consensus.

7.26 pm
Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

I am grateful for the chance to contribute to this debate, having sat through two days of the defence debate last October without succeeding in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or the eye of Mr. Speaker or Madam Deputy Speaker. It is an extra-special pleasure to speak on behalf of people in Portsmouth on such a crucial matter as the future of the Royal Navy, particularly when we have just heard the news that HMS Southampton is to go out to tender for repair of the damage that it sustained last year, and to be refitted at the same time.

The news that it will be leaving Portsmouth for that purpose will go down like a lead balloon in my constituency, because HMS Southampton was already in for refit from September of this year until November 1990. Some very anxious people will be wondering what is to be put in place of that work which was scheduled by the Ministry to be done at Portsmouth.

The supply of warships, their maintenance and their repair depend crucially on the public money available. We all understand that, and we all understand that we must get the best possible value as well as the best quality of work. But since 1984, with the rundown of Portsmouth dockyard and the creation of the fleet maintenance and repair organisation, the naval and civilian work force have shown great ingenuity: there is flexibility between the trades, financial management and control are sound, and the organisation is running as efficiently as possible. It specialises in the very type 42 work that is required on HMS Southampton.

The track record of the fleet maintenance and repair organisation in Portsmouth bears repeating because it is vital that further work should come to replace that which was expected from HMS Southampton. HMS Newcastle was refitted in 1987; the work was completed two weeks early and it came out at £2.4 million under budget. HMS Cardiff was returned to the fleet just before Christmas 1988; the work was completed five weeks early and it was about £2 million under budget. At the same time, in 1987–88, HMS Birmingham came from Rosyth—where a certain amount of work had been carried out—and the fleet maintenance and repair organisation at Portsmouth was amazed at just what was required from those who knew what they were doing with type 42s to sort out HMS Birmingham before it could be returned to the fleet.

At present, the work force is halfway through its work on HMS Exeter. Excellent progress is being made and the work is also running under budget on labour and material. Therefore, the news that the planned refit of and repairs to HMS Southampton will not now take place in Portsmouth is most disappointing and will not be well received in Portsmouth.

The results of the Killick report are anxiously awaited and it is understood that the report finds that work at Portsmouth—particularly that on type 42s—is carried out in the most efficient way. We understand that the report recommends a small diminution of the work force but, for the foreseeable future, I am somewhat reassured by what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the continuing major role that is intended for the fleet maintenance and repair organisation. However, a ship in the port is always worth two in the mind of the Minister. As soon as possible, we want some alternative work in Portsmouth to take the place of that which, disappointingly, we shall not have. Of course, we understand that value for money must come first.

The morale of those who work at Portsmouth is crucial. We could easily lose specialist labour and expertise, and we do not want further redundancies of skilled men. We shall, perhaps, need to take on those same men or others in the future when work is brought to the port. In the meantime, we do not want unnecessary job losses which would not only cause unhappiness for the families of these people, but would not make the most efficient use of manpower in the future. If HMS Southampton is not to be refitted and repaired in Portsmouth and no replacement work is found, any substantial further rundown at Portsmouth would be met with blanket dismay. I repeat that I was somewhat reassured by the Minister's earlier remarks, but we need the delivery of some alternative work as soon as possible.

Portsmouth lost the work on HMS Southampton because competitive tenders were sought elsewhere. Therefore, in the future, the Ministry of Defence must devise a method to enable Portsmouth to compete with the commercial yards. There is now enough information to bid properly but, at present, whether Portsmouth is cost-effective or competitive relies on the say-so of the Ministry of Defence.

I believe that it was Humpty Dumpty who said in "Through the Looking Glass": When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less. For Portsmouth the word "competitiveness" means what the Ministry of Defence says it should mean, neither more nor less. Portsmouth must be able to compete properly. The port loses work to those who are said to provide better value when refitting and repairing ships of the Royal Navy. By all means let us have value for money, but we must allow Portsmouth to provide that value for money. We shall meet any challenge given to us fairly, and we want to remain one of the prime ports serving the Royal Navy in so many ways.

I plead the case for Portsmouth not solely because of the hundreds of years of fine tradition of unmatchable service to the Royal Navy, but because of the proven efficiency and commitment of the service and the civilian work force to continuing a major role at the dockyard.

The concept of tradition brings me to my second topic—HMS Victory and the future of the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief, Naval Home Command. HMS Victory is not only the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief but also the flagship of the Royal Navy and the nation. It is the oldest commissioned ship in the world. Many people do not realise that it is actually in commission and not merely a tourism or public relations exercise—although it plays a tremendous role in naval public relations both internationally and nationally. In Portsmouth, emotions run deep over the future of HMS Victory.

Why should I raise the matter of HMS Victory in this debate? It has a ship's complement—including the captain—of about 10 and has about 14 full-time equivalent guides who serve in the Royal Navy or the Royal Marines and show people over the ship, lending it a vital air of authenticity. In addition, the enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge of those naval personnel when showing people over the ship are germane in helping recruitment and the image of the Royal Navy, which it is so important to promote.

Last year the rumour was that it was intended to give the guides' jobs to civilians and have the ship run by the heritage project at the naval base. I received a letter from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces who, in his usual courteous way, set out the up-to-date position. Someone has said that having asked for bread we were offered a stone. I would not accuse my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of that, but the letter on the future of HMS Victory's guides contained stony features that were well disguised as bread. It stated: In the case of the Victory guides, the naval authorities decided last year that the guide billets would be withdrawn by 1st April 1990 and the outgoing personnel deployed to operational duties elsewhere. That is a great pity.

We have a field gun crew which cannot be said to carry out a particular task for a modern up-to-date Navy, but it performs an irreplaceable role. As I have already pointed out to the Minister, outside Buckingham Palace we could have civilians in fancy dress on wooden horses, but it would not be the same, as far as our traditions are concerned. It is important to consider tradition and factors that add to the gaiety of the nation, if nothing else. I use the word "gaiety" without its modern connotations particularly so that it may keep its old and much more understood sense. We must continue some of these traditions because they add something to this country's forces which is quite irreplaceable and which no one else in the world can provide.

It may sound as though I am going over the top and one might ask why I am so excited about 14 full-time equivalent guides being removed from HMS Victory. However, it means that the remaining 10 of the ship's complement, including the captain, will have lesser tasks to perform and will become more isolated. The time will perhaps come when people will question what they are doing on board HMS Victory, because they no longer control guides but seem merely part of the tourist project. Once removal of the guides and the fact that they do not provide a vital role in the public relations of the Royal Navy is accepted, a further diminution of the role played by HMS Victory will follow.

That is why I raise the point in this debate and I hope that I can join any rearguard action to keep those guides serving in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. Perhaps we can get the Wrens to help us, too, if necessary.

It is fitting that I should have mentioned Wrens. In my maiden speech in the defence debate in October 1987 I asked whether it was not time for the Wrens to be given the opportunity to serve at sea. I suggested that it should at least be part of their training to be ready for such service, and that that should be a goal for the 1990s. I under-estimated the zeal and speed with which Ministers can occasionally gratify the wishes of Back Benchers. Within a year, in September of 1988, the headlines read: Twelve Reservists become first Wrens to serve at sea". The major maritime and amphibious exercise Teamwork 88 mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) involved a dozen reservist Wrens serving in merchant ships—so we are on our way.

Of course this is a sensitive issue: there are practical difficulties involving accommodation and head arrangements. One always hears about the difficulties of toilet facilities if women are to go down the mines or into the ships of the Royal Navy, but we can overcome such problems, given the political will to do so.

In the period of increasing manpower difficulties during the 1990s, I want Wrens who volunteer for these duties to be fully trained for combat roles, including tactical signalling, which proved deficient at the time of the Falklands war. Women serve in these roles in many navies all over the world. We may not describe them as combat roles, but combat roles are increasingly difficult to distinguish from non-combat roles. Ships in supporting roles at sea increasingly have to be armed and ready to play vital defensive and offensive roles merely to stay afloat in the water, so I cannot see an argument for distinguishing between the roles for serving Wrens in future—or for saying that other navies have found that this does not work. I know of no navy that has found that.

We must be much more positive about the future of women in the service. I do not accept patronising objections to women being trained for combat roles; such objections have been overcome in foreign navies. I do not accept the excuse that husbands will not like serving wives to work alongside men or that wives of serving men will not like them to work with women. These days, many service wives work alongside men ashore, and many husbands of civilians work away from home alongside women. I question the traditional attitudes. Let us use Wrens as much as we possibly can in the modern Navy.

Arising out of operation Teamwork 88, I was a little concerned to see a quotation in The Daily Telegraph from a Commodore Brian Turner of the joint British-Netherlands force: I doubt Nelson would have turned in his grave. He was something of a ladies' man after all. The trouble is that, if all sailors have as amorous a service life as Nelson did, we shall pander to those who say that women cannot serve in the Royal Navy because their role is to remain on shore.

I have spoken about Portsmouth and some of the wider interests of the Royal Navy. At the head of my list is the future of Portsmouth, which serves the Royal Navy in the wider sense, including the maintenance and repair of ships. I hope to be reassured as soon as possible that Portsmouth will have enough work to carry it forward and keep it in the forefront of serving the Royal Navy.

7.45 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) would not expect me to follow the arguments deployed in his special pleading for his constituency. I want to use the debate to question the possession by the Royal Navy of nuclear weapons, and our possession of an independent nuclear deterrent.

Whenever the Prime Minister or any other Minister is challenged about Trident, he or she trots out the standard reply that nuclear weapons have kept the peace in Europe for the past 40 years. That bland statement covers a multitude of sins. It ignores the fact that millions of people have died as wars have been fought out by proxy in Korea, Indochina, Central and South America, Africa and more recently Afghanistan. It also ignores the fact that there is not a shred of evidence that the United Kingdom's independent deterrent has had any effect on the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.

I shall not rehearse the arguments about the morality of our possession or use of these weapons. Instead I shall discuss their utility. I say to my hon. Friends, one or two of whom seem to be nuclear fanatics, that before they try to persuade the Labour party to change its policy on nuclear weapons they should carefully examine the lack of credibility in the systems being proposed.

As long ago as 1962, although it took another 17 years before it was made public in 1979, in a speech to NATO Ministers Robert MacNamara said: relatively weak nuclear forces with enemy cities as their targets are not likely to be adequate to perform the function of deterrence…In the event of war, the use of such a force against the cities of a major nuclear power would be tantamount to suicide, whereas its deployment against significant military targets would have a negligible effect on the outcome of the conflict. In short, then, weak nuclear capabilities, operating independently, are expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility as a deterrent. What better description of the United Kingdom's independent nuclear deterrent could one find than expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility"? I want to mention another aspect of this lack of credibility—command, control and communications. We should all know that to possess any credibility a deterrent force must meet the criterion that those one hopes to deter understand that one can use it successfully. That is not true of the independent use of our nuclear deterrent, and I am pretty certain that the Russians know that. Command and control communications are complex and sophisticated, for good reason. No one in his right mind would want to unleash these weapons lightly or by accident, because the consequences of their use are unimaginable. So political control of them must be absolute—but therein lie a number of technical problems.

We have no early warning system of our own; we depend firmly on the American system at Fylingdales and on the Americans' commitment to pass on information. We should not take it for granted that, if we wanted to use the weapons independently, they would pass it on. Although considerable resources have been devoted to increasing the potential firepower and invulnerability of the independent nuclear deterrent by purchasing Trident, little has been spent on updating or improving the communications system for submarines carrying missiles. That is the key issue, and probably a major weakness in the whole philosophy.

Communicating with submarines is extremely difficult, and follows a simple rule: the easier it is to communicate between shore and submarine and the more reliably the message is transmitted, the more vulnerable the submarine becomes. This country, unlike the United States and France, has no TAMACO-type facility for aircraft to make these communications. We appear to be wholly committed to vunerable, onshore-based transmitters. Even low frequency transmitters consist of vast ground aerials that can transmit messages only slowly, while other forms of communication such as long wave, medium wave, high frequency, very high frequency and ultra high frequency require the submarine to surface to receive the message or to be very close to the surface.

The transmitters are extremely vulnerable to attack and to electromagnetic pulse effects. It is not inconceivable that a single megaton nuclear device exploded at 100 km above the United Kingdom would so severely damage the transmitters as to make communication with the independent nuclear deterrent fleet impossible without compromising the safety of the submarines. Where is the credibility of an independent nuclear deterrent that cannot be given the order to fire? Do the Government expect the Trident submarine commanders to decide themselves whether or not to fire?

The Minister has dodged questions repeatedly, but he must answer the question whether he is relying on submarine commanders who turn on a wireless to listen to Jimmy Young on the radio. If they cannot pick up Jimmy Young, should they assume that Britain has been attacked? There is no credibility to the system unless the Government can convince the House and everyone else that there is a way of instructing Trident commanders whether to retaliate.

The Government seem to be well aware of the problem. They have at last committed themselves to building a trial transmitter for the extremely low frequency band. A transmitter at Glengarry forest in Scotland would have some advantages. At least the submarines could stay submerged. It is much harder for a submarine to be identified. The disadvantage lies in the extremely long wavelengths that are involved. The transmission of data is very slow and it takes several minutes to transmit a message of three or four letters. Clearly there are problems with the system that the Government have not addressed—first, how much money will be spent?

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) from the Democrat Bench claimed that by the time the next election came round the Trident costs would be committed. But once the system has reached that stage all sorts of extra costs will arise. I hope that the Government can tell us how much they expect the extremely low frequency transmitter at Glengarry forest will cost. When will the system be operational? The Government, in parliamentary answers, talk about building the transmitter, assuming that planning permission will be granted, in 1991 and 1992. But it would not start operating until 1993. The transmitter would be only experimental. It is questionable whether it could be used or would 'be merely a prototype and a larger device would need to be built, if the system was to work at all.

There is the question whether it would stand up to electromagnetic pulse effects. There is a danger that most of our radio transmission systems for any system of command and control, and a series of other microelectronic processes, would be greatly affected by it. I notice that the Minister dodged that question once again last Friday. Perhaps the Minister could explain whether such a transmitter would just communicate with Trident or whether it would have some wider role. There is also the question whether it would cause more damage to the environment than it was worth.

If the whole point of putting missiles in submarines is safety and that they will survive a first strike and make retaliation possible, there is little sense in making submarines vulnerable to attack when communicating with them. It is a bit like putting something on British Rail. It is about the only organisation that does not know where it is going.

Putting missiles on submarines has a useful political purpose. It keeps them hidden from public view and makes it much harder for people to mount protests against them. It bears out the old adage "out of sight, out of mind". The oft-stated reason for buyng Trident is to ensure that British bombs can penetrate the Galosh ABM system around Moscow. The same reason was given for updating Chevaline and Polaris.

Yet this counter-value policy cannot be described as credible. I return to Robert MacNamara's remarks. He has described that view as "tantamount to suicide". He described the effect of such a force on NATO's policy of controlled escalation as follows: Such a failure in co-ordination might lead to the destruction of our hostage—the Soviet cities—just at a time at which our strategy of coercing the Soviets into stopping their aggression was on the verge of success. A counter-force strategy for the United Kingdom independent nuclear deterrent is of course ridiculous, given its size. We must ask what it is really there for. The crazy logic of the deterrent theory is that British missiles would be indistinguishable from American ones to their most likely recipients. One suspects that the real purpose is not to deter the Russians but to blackmail the United States and to make sure that they do not withdraw their nuclear guarantee for NATO.

Instead of us having a nuclear commitment to make an impact on deterring the Russians, the policy is designed to make sure that the United States is tied in to giving us a nuclear umbrella. If that is its real purpose, we must make certain that such a deterrent is genuinely independent of the United States. Is there much point, when it is really there to blackmail the United States? We are dependent on the United States for early warning, as received at Fylingdales. Ought we not to have our own early warning system if that is the idea? In fact, we shall not really be effectively able to communicate with our submarines, although that is not stated publicly by the Government. We shall need to rely on the United States TAMACO system.

Again, does that really give us an opportunity to blackmail the United States? It means that we can use the deterrent only with their permission. Therefore, it becomes only a minor part of NATO's response rather than being genuinely independent. If we are really trying to persuade the Americans to commit their nuclear forces rather than to deter the Russians, we must face up to the fact that it might be in the interests of the United States and the Russians to stop us using our independent deterrent.

That raises the question how far we are totally reliant upon the United States for the supply of technology for Trident. We are totally committed now to returning the missiles to Georgia for servicing. I suggest to the House that it is crazy for us to be pouring £9 million or £10 million of public money into Trident when we do not have a command and control system that would convince the Soviet Union that it was genuinely independent. Its real purpose is to blackmail the United States into maintaining a nuclear umbrella. Surely we could do that with a far cheaper system than Trident. We could do it without committing ourselves to a nuclear strategy.

We could do better for this country by abandoning the whole concept of Trident and the nuclear deterrent that goes with it. We could save the money to make sure that we have a proper conventional defence force. The way in which the Navy is being steadily eroded has been well illustrated in the debate. Perhaps, better still, we could spend far more money on the education and health services and to make sure that British industry had the research and development that is needed to make it competitive in the world.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he will find a few minutes in which to convince me and the House that we have a credible system of political command and control over Trident. I suggest to the Defence Select Committee that it is important for it to ask whether we can produce the missiles to go into Trident. It is equally important for the Committee to ask whether there is command and control over the system. Unless that can be established, the policy has no credibility. We should be far better to get out of the nuclear rat race.

7.58 pm
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I shall make a brief contribution, perhaps somewhat briefer than I had intended, because my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) has already made my essential point, doubtless more eloquently.

My remarks concern the women's armed services and, especially today, the position, training and opportunities for women in the Royal Navy, for the WRNS.

The statement on the defence estimates shows that women as part of the cadet forces have risen substantially between 1982 and 1988, as indeed they have increased in other services. There are many reasons for that, doubtless including the very attractive programme of training and opportunities that has been given to our cadet forces, and on which the Royal Navy and the other services, and the Government, are greatly to be congratulated.

Women find the cadet services attractive because there is little distinction between the opportunities open to them and those open to their male counterparts. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is considerable enthusiasm among women for the cadet services.

It is a different story when it comes to the recruitment and retention of women into the main branch of the service, the WRNS, because, whereas the cadet forces as a whole are declining and the women's element is rising, in the main service the women's element is declining, with a minor decline in the number of officers but a sharp decline in the number of service women.

Why, if we can attract young people into the cadet branches of the service, do we fail to attract more mature women into the main service? And having attracted some, why do we have such a problem retaining them?

It is not surprising that in the Royal Navy, as in the other services, many women leave for reasons of marriage or pregnancy or both—that is an insoluble problem facing the women's services—but there is a substantial rise in the number of women leaving either because they wish to leave at their own request prematurely or because, on reaching the end of their immediate contracts, they do not wish to renew. Having let the period of notice run out, they leave. Those last two reasons suggest that women do not find the service as attractive a long-term proposition as we would like. Is that due to the disparity of opportunities between the male and female branches of the services?

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South highlighted the fact that women do not go to sea. I cannot join his enthusiasm that at long last we have 12 reservists at sea. The numbers will have to be greater before we can welcome it as a significant advance.

Women in the OTCs can learn to fly and have training at sea, but the same does not apply when they go into the service proper. That must act as a discouragement to women. If they cannot get the same training and adventure opportunities, not to mention the same scholarships—it is significant that all the flying scholarships in the cadet corps, like the sea scholarships, go to men—they will not be encouraged to take it as a serious career option.

Women are more likely to be retained—particularly those who know that in the long term they will leave anyway, to marry—at least in the short term if they are given the sort of training and grounding for future civilian life that will create later opportunities for them. In that connection, a glance at the qualifications that are gained—not only academic but craft, driving and technician qualifications—makes it clear that there is a substantial disparity between male and female achievement.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South said, we have declining manpower in the services. Some of that is due to straightforward rationalisation and some to giving certain tasks previously performed by those in uniform to civilians. But much of it is due to failure to retain. It is therefore vital to capitalise on the willingness and enthusiasm of women—as exemplified by their willingness to join the cadets, the OTCs and so on—by making special endeavours to retain them. Not only could they do the sort of jobs to which my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South referred, but they could take part in a wide range of roles.

I appreciate the reluctance of the Ministry to pour resources into training women for roles which could be defined as essentially combative and therefore not likely to be a long-term investment. We are not yet ready as a society to see women in combat roles; on that score I disagree somewhat with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South, but as he rightly pointed out, there are many ancillary combat roles which involve what might be described as real work rather than simply ground and civilian-type work. If women cannot feel that they go into the forces equal with males, we shall not retain them in the armed services. We are not doing so at present and we are certainly not retaining women in the Royal Navy as successfully as we might.

We must examine why that state of affairs exists and try to prevent reaching the stage when women are as little represented in the Royal Navy as they are in this House.

8.6 pm

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead)

I spoke in the debate on the Royal Navy last year immediately following the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), which I suppose shows that neither of us has moved up the pecking order, at any rate in the last 12 months. She spoke eloquently then, as she did this evening, but I hope she will forgive me if I do not follow her down the path which she took.

Before coming to my main remarks, I wish to make a comment mainly for Labour party consumption, flowing from a statement which was made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). I want the Labour party conference to change its defence policy in October. Indeed, I voted for it to do so last October.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South does not make it to the rostrum at the next Labour party conference, for if the kind of inflammatory and reckless statements that he make today are made there, I fear that that will bedevil our chance of modernising the Labour party's defence policy.

My hon. Friend made what I can only describe as an extraordinary contribution, on two counts. First—I appreciate that this was popular with Conservative Members, judging from the acclamation with which it was received—he pined for the days when we had a consensus on what he called security matters with Conservative Members and, even more extraordinarily, with our United States allies.

Anyone who imagines that the Labour party can ever again have—if it ever did have—any sort of consensus on security matters with the Conservative Government, with their attitude to official secrets and the security services, and the use or abuse of them, is living in cloud-cuckoo-land.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I am surprised to hear the hon, Gentleman's comments about the remarks of the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) because one finds when speaking to members of the forces that any of them who have spoken to the hon Member has faith that at least somebody in the Labour party understands what their job is all about. Indeed, the hon. Member for Walsall, South tends to describe himself as a missionary of, rather than a spokesman for, the Labour party. I should have thought that if we needed a consensus on anything, it was to assure the personnel in the armed forces that they have the support of Members in all parts of the House.

Mr. Galloway

I was intending to speak about the armed forces, as I did last year. Perhaps I should remind the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) that he is talking to a former lance bombardier of the Royal Artillery battery II of the Army Cadet Force. I am no "pinko pacifist", or any kind of pacifist, and I pay tribute now, as I did last year, to the outstanding work of the Royal Navy. It happens, of course, also to be a big customer of the major engineering employer in my constituency, which is a second reason for saluting it on the occasion of the Royal Navy debate, but I would do so in any case, as an admirer of our senior service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South made a fundamental error in imagining that there can ever be a consensus on defence matters, let alone security matters, between us and the party opposite; and even less between us and the United States of America, because, to quote a Communist, albeit a dead one, and an Italian one at that—they are usually regarded as fairly pale pink—without having MI5 put on my tail, if indeed they are not already there, Togliatti said that defence policy is the daughter of foreign policy. If defence policy, as I believe, is the daughter of foreign policy, if we had the same defence policy as this Government, we would have to have the same foreign policy. The chances of that are, I hope, remote, because our view of the world is very different from theirs: they have had to be dragged, screaming and kicking, by the Americans into a perception that the world is changing.

It is because the world is changing that I want to see the Labour party's defence policy changing. I am sure I am teaching my grandmother to suck eggs in advancing this argument to our spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), who I know will do the job very well, but I hope that that is the basis he will concentrate on in the Labour party in changing our defence policy, as I hope it will be changed.

In opening the debate, the Minister reminded us that it is 123 years ago today since the Royal Navy outlawed grapeshot as ordnance. At the very first whiff of the smoke detector which was let off behind him, he ducked and bobbed and weaved in such a way as to put in question his steadiness under fire, and frankly, his contribution from then on was downhill all the way.

Sitting through the whole of the Royal Navy debate last year, I assumed that, as a new Member, I was simply not picking up the information which I assumed would be forthcoming. However, having sat through it all again this afternoon and this evening, I have to say that the Minister's speech—I hope it will be redeemed in the wind-up—was bereft of any military and strategic discussion of the reason for the Royal Navy and its role in the world, or of any news at all about procurement. There were some vague hints on procurement, some misleading hints on procurement, and a deafening silence on other important issues of procurement to which I wish to come.

Many hon. Members have talked of the Government's complacency over the size of our surface fleet. We used to be committed to a surface fleet of 50 ships, which then became "about 50"; I learned last year, and it has been confirmed again this evening in information from such unquestionable old salts as my hon. Friend from Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South who seemed to be popular enough with those on the opposite Benches, that in fact our surface fleet is somewhere between 28 and 43.

Even at its high point, that estimate of 43 is not "about 50"; at its low point it is only just over half of 50. I went to the library to look up the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word "about", and here it is: very nearly or not many more or less". Now, I concede that if the Minister were to say that he was going to give me 50 apples and actually only gave me 43, I would probably be satisfied enough with that not to make too much of an issue of it, but when we are talking about a Navy with worldwide responsibilities, with responsibilities to protect our shoreline—our senior service, in the front line of our defence posture—not to come within at best seven, and at worst a good deal less, of 50 does not qualify by my understanding of the English language as "about 50".

Mr. Archie Hamilton

I did say that the number of destroyers and frigates that we had was 49. That seems to me to be very nearly 50.

Mr. Galloway

That of course does not take into account those that are out of service, are being repaired or are unavailable for one reason or another.

This Minister who has just intervened made an extraordinary intervention earlier in saying that we had managed with the Armilla patrol when something came up. However, the Armilla patrol, with which our Royal Navy did a wonderful job but which was a long way from our main military commitments of defending our own shores or playing a role in NATO, occupied a third of our available surface ships. That was an extraordinarily risky undertaking, for if anything else had come up while a third of our surface ships were all those thousands of miles away, we would very definitely have been in queer street. The Government really have to do better on this question of "about 50". If the Oxford dictionary is right, "about 50" has to mean very nearly 50, and that is not what we are deploying at the current time.

To digress from this question for just one moment—this is a barb aimed not at the Government but at the yawning acres to my left, where the nationalist parties might be—I was astounded—perhaps the Minister did not see the programme—to hear the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) say on "Question Time' on Thursday night that in the independent Valhalla to which he is committed Scotland will have its own army, navy arid air force. As someone very interested in defence procurement, I would have told him if he had been here this evening—I tell him anyway in the hope that he will read the record—what an extraordinary proposal that is.

I am not sure how big an army, navy and air force we are going to have. Scotland has 3,000 miles of coastline, which presumably the Scottish navy is going to patrol. That is going to need a hell of a lot of Scottish navy boats. Yarrow might do rather well out of it, but when one begins to calibrate the cost to the Scottish exchequer of such a navy, not to mention the air force and army, I think the plans of the Scottish National party for independence require a little more scrutiny. Perhaps I should wait until the SNP Members are in the Chamber before taking that matter any further, but I put it down as a marker.

The Secretary of State, who is not with us this evening—I must have missed his excuse; I presume it is a good one or much would have been made of it—was at Yarrow, which is my constituency, just three weeks ago. In his absence, I congratulate the Secretary of State for Defence on his accessibility. He is always ready to meet constituency Members of Parliament with an interest, and always ready to meet the work force too, which is somewhat less usual. I convey to him the gratitude of the work force at Yarrow for his kindness in meeting them at very short notice and in being very frank with them about the business of defence procurement which is now in front of us.

When he was at Yarrow, the Secretary of State will have seen the outstanding work which is being done there. It is the leading yard in the production of type 23 frigates. he will have seen the skill of the work force and of the management. He will have seen the new module hall which places it in a strong position in the tendering processes to come. He will have seen at first hand the skills and commitment of that work force.

The Secretary of State will also have heard from them that there have been substantial redundancies at Yarrow despite winning the order for three frigates last year. That is a result of the ordering pattern which has created a dip in the work load, leading to substantial redundancies, including the redundancies of workers whom it will be hard to get back into the yard because they have been dispersed.

The Secretary of State will have seen the extraordinary deal which has been struck between the Yarrow work force, the trade unions and the managers, which gives for the first time in any British shipyard complete flexibility of labour. Outfitters are now doing welding and other tasks which hitherto would have seemed unbelievable and impossible in trade union practice in shipyards. The work. force has signed a deal with the management of complete flexibility. The Government should acknowledge and welcome that, as the Secretary of State did, in private at least, at that meeting.

How many type 23s will be tendered for this year? Will it be three or four? Can the Minister assure us that there will be competitive tendering? Will he guarantee that the job will go to the yard which can produce the ships most efficiently and economically at the right price and at the right time? Will he look at the serious problems created by dips in the work load at yards such as Yarrow?

The Minister talked about the aviation support ships. He said that the tenders for those would be required by July. That is welcome news, but is there any possibility of Ministry of Defence assistance at the design stage? Yarrow would be required to spend £500,000 on the design work required for that tendering process. That gives hon. Members an idea of the scale of the task. I understand that other privatised companies have been given financial assistance from the Ministry of Defence for the design stage for tenders on work as important as that. Can a similar advance be made to Yarrow?

Last year there was almost deafening silence from the Government on the NFR90, to which other hon. Members have referred, but at least last year reference was made to the NFR90. I think that the Government conceded that they had agreed a procurement definition, but this afternoon, the Minister did not even mention the acronym NFR90. Given that the Ministry of Defence has put the British FFG90 proposal firmly in the icebox, the Minister has a clear responsibility to tell us when he replies about the Government's current posture on the NFR90.

Are we still committed to the procurement definition? Have we moved on in the past 12 months from that posture? Are we to cater for next century's surface ship needs by building the Euro-frigate in a collaborative project? Will 50 such frigates be built? Will Britain get the 12 that we were supposed to get? What will be Britain's share of the design work if and when the NFR90 project goes ahead? Many people's livelihoods and Britain's defence needs dictate that the Government give us some idea of their thinking on that.

Only two years ago, in Yarrow's drawing office, there were 360 of the most skilled draughtsmen and technical workers in Britain. That number is down to 160 and falling, despite the yard winning the three frigate orders last year. That is, first, because we are not building enough ships—we need about 50 rather than the obfuscation that we have had—and, secondly, because of the timing of the work. Workers in the drawing office of a place such as Yarrow are highly skilled and competent. If they are left, like sand in a tray, to blow and scatter in the four winds out of the industry, out of the city—out of the country, many of them—because of the redundancies they have suffered, their skills cannot easily be reassembled. In some cases it would be impossible to reassemble them. I hope that the Government can announce a procurement policy which avoids the peaks and troughs which have led to that situation.

8.25 pm
Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I believe that during the debate a consensus has emerged from all parts of the Chamber on the need for Britain to maintain a strong, effective and modern conventional Navy. Where the Government differ from the Opposition is over the use of nuclear forces in the deterrence role which the Navy is at the forefront in providing.

I listened most carefully to the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). He made a well-reasoned contribution, speaking with all the knowledge and experience that he has accumulated over many years, particularly in his service on the North Atlantic Assembly. I thought that we might be able to move to a wider consensus, but the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) spoke of wishing to see the Labour party change its defence policy. I must ask—from what to what? I am unclear about what the policy is now. It has not emerged from the debate and it will be interesting to see where it moves to. We shall look forward to having that explained to us.

During a period of peace and relatively little strain in the armed forces, it is always difficult to maintain a sense of tightness and efficiency and, as has been said, the Navy deserves great praise for what it has achieved in efficiency and its capability. The nation can be proud of the Royal Navy, and, more especially, of its reputation worldwide. With the Royal Navy I must include the Royal Marines. They are always included in our debates on the Royal Navy, but not a great deal is said about them. They do a job every bit as important and they do it as efficiently as our service men in the Royal Navy.

Conditions have improved enormously and that has been important in maintaining a peacetime force. We can take some pride in the fact that over the past 10 years our ships have been well equipped. A great deal of thought goes into their design for the comfort of the seamen who serve in them. I can say with some feeling that conditions have improved dramatically since the time when I served in a coal-burning ship of the Royal Navy many years ago.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Good God.

Mr. Banks

I thought that someone might say that, but it is true.

The Royal Navy has a special role in NATO and on the international scene. Its role is to guard the Atlantic approaches and secure our supply and reinforcement traffic lanes and ports of entry. Our minds tend to centre on Europe as the central theatre and the flashpoint for any conflict that is likely to occur. That is probably a mistake, because the flashpoint could occur on the northern flank just as easily as on the southern flank, though some may argue that that would be a more likely place for trouble to arise. Nevertheless, the width and scale of protection which the Royal Navy has to maintain necessitates an immense amount of work in covering both the northern and the southern flank and accepting our international responsibilities on the global front.

I wish to pay a brief tribute to our seamen who man the ships that guard the Falkland Islands. The seas in that part of the south Atlantic are dark, inhospitable and rough, and it is no easy task to spend long periods of time in a ship in those unfriendly seas. I hope that events will soon enable those ships to be taken off station, because we now have an airfield established on the Falkland Islands for rapid reinforcement. Given a more sensible approach from the Argentine Government to the problem of the Falkland Islands, I hope that we shall be able to reach some agreement which will reduce the tension between our two countries.

The Navy must therefore be multi-purpose, with fast destroyers and frigates, aircraft carriers and mine-laying, mine-sweeping and mine-hunting abilities are needed. I do not want to get deeply into the argument about the 50 destroyers and frigates which we aim to maintain—or thereabouts, or almost, or whatever expression we like to link with it. I feel tempted to break ranks regarding the general views that have been expressed today and say that we should have a 55 or 56-ship destroyer-frigate Navy. Looking at the size and strength of the Soviet fleet and bearing in mind our role within NATO, I believe that there would be justification for taking the Navy up to those numbers. But I certainly stand by Ministers in their desire to maintain about 50 frigates and destroyers as the complement we need to maintain within our Navy.

The debates on arms control have centred chiefly on ground forces and nuclear forces in central Europe. I certainly would like to see negotiations on conventional armed forces succeed. We should all like to see that. It would reduce tension and enable us to reduce our defence budget.

I believe—this is another factor in our debate—that there may be opportunities for us to take an initiative in trying to bring the Russian Government to the table to negotiate on naval arms and forces. I do not think that it is feasible to negotiate on the basis of maintaining forces at certain levels in different parts of the world, but there is a very strong case for looking at the numbers and types of ships and the armaments they deploy and working towards limiting arms. If there is an opportunity of doing that, we should be very unwise not to take it, but we should do it from a position of strength, not weakness. So until those talks can be promoted we must maintain the strength of our Navy and of our other armed forces in their naval application.

Since the 1970s the Russian Government have been spending about 50 per cent. more, in real terms, on defence. Those are figures which we cannot escape. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) asked why the Russians had this enormous navy at their disposal, which they deploy on a strategic basis. We do not know the answer to that question. It can be used to influence and it can be used aggressively. Let us hope that, through patient negotiation, we shall be able to reach at least some modus vivendi for reducing the numbers and systems that are deployed.

By the middle of the 1990s, the entire Soviet strategic nuclear force will have been replaced since the 1980s by newer, modernised systems. That is another factor which should ensure that we maintain a modernised nuclear stance. I am very pleased that we have mantained the Trident building programme. It is worth recording that—much to my surprise—the estimates of the total cost of the system have now been reduced. It will cost something like £9.09 billion on today's estimates, which is a saving of billion on previous estimates. When we decided to go ahead with Trident I believed that the estimates would prove to he on the low side, and I congratulate Ministers on achieving this cost saving.

How are we to take some sort of initiative over an approach to the Soviet Union to seek to reduce the amount of weaponry deployed by our respective navies and within NATO? I believe that the North Atlantic assembly has a role here in making a detailed study, such as it has at times already undertaken, which can be used by member Governments of the strength and deployment of Soviet forces and in making suggestions for an initiative.

Our Navy is the largest in western Europe. We have the ability to deploy some 200 vessels of all classes. We have spent about £3 billion on modernising equipment in the past year, and similarly in previous years. So we have a very good record, but we must ensure that technology is incorporated in the new systems with which we equip our ships. It is hugely important to have ships that are technologically more advanced in the methods of deploying and using their weapons and to rely on the accuracy of those weapons rather than on numbers of ships. We must remember that satellites are a very sophisticated surveillance technique and will make a very great difference to the way in which ships can hide from the threat of opposing ships. I do not think that there is any doubt of our ability to use this technology, because the people serving in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines have the necessary skills.

The concept of a NATO) frigate is certainly in the doldrums. I regret that, because the object of the exericise is to produce a standard vessel which can be used by all NATO navies, and that is something we should aim for. The specification of that vessel is the current difficulty and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will give some thought to the matter and to what we can do to propel the project forward. The purpose of NATO is to ensure that we work more closely together, and if we build a common frigate, at a lower cost, with all the advantages of interoperability of equipment, which we all operate and understand, we shall be better equipped.

Mr. Sayeed

I am certainly surprised that my hon. Friend believes the project to be stalled. Perhaps he has some other information, but Y had understood that it was in the project definition stage, that the Government had agreed that it should go ahead, that it was being discussed in Europe and that we should expect later this year some findings from the group that is looking at the project.

Mr. Banks

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention because the most recent information that I have is that there is still great difficulty in deciding on the project definition. I hope that the matter will be clarified.

Finally, the role of the reserves provides important insurance, and I much appreciate the new numbers for the service that have been included in the complements. They are to be welcomed. I particularly welcome the advertisement in The Times today, which lists a number of companies that give active support in enabling people to serve as reservists. It is the first time that I have seen such an advertisement. The number of companies that support our reservists is impressive. We should not under-estimate the value of the reservists' work or the enormous reliance that we should place on them in time of war.

8.40 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I am puzzled by the questions on Labour party policy that have been put by right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches. Our defence policy is roughly the same as that of Canada. It is that we shall remain members of NATO but refuse the right of any country to have nuclear weapons on our soil. I have not noticed the Prime Minister or Government supporters criticising Canada—or Norway, which was visited by the Prime Minister without any criticisms being made of its defence policy. I am not sure what is meant by modernising Labour's policies. They are already extremely modern, and are aimed at removing the threat of nuclear annihilation from our planet—which is the most morally sound and modern policy one could have.

Getting rid of Trident, which costs about £10 billion, would allow us to meet the claims made by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House for an adequate conventional surface fleet. We could also use some of that money to improve the National Health Service and to replenish the wilting coffers of local authorities, which are hard-pressed to provide adequate services because of central Government cutbacks. Schools in my constituency could be rebuilt, and if Trident were cancelled and its funds transferred elsewhere, the effects of capital expenditure cuts of local authorities could be immediately remedied.

The Government's policy of possessing nuclear weapons is also puzzling. Currently, the Government are breaking diplomatic relations with Iran, and they are right to do so. They are taking that action because of Iran's threat against only one person. However, the Government, through their deployment of Polaris and their expensive increase in nuclear firepower in the form of Trident, threaten the lives of millions of people. That is a curious moral juxtaposition. The Government are outraged at a threat to the life of one person, but maintain the threat of mass extermination with a cool indifference that is breathtaking.

I remind the House that even Polaris, which is to be phased out, offers each submarine that carries it more firepower than was used by both sides in the 1939–1945 war. Nevertheless, the Government are spending billions of pounds to extend that firepower. As I pointed out to the Minister earlier, not only is £250 million being spent annually on maintenance, but such expenditure deters supporters of the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The Minister disagreed with me, but then had to correct himself, when he suggested that the United Kingdom does not support that treaty. We are signatories to it. One hundred and thirty three non-nuclear nations have said—this is an implicit part of the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty—that nations that do not possess nuclear weapons undertake not to manufacture or deploy them, provided that the nuclear nations which are signatories to the treaty—and the United Kingdom is one of them—negotiate in good faith to remove their own nuclear weapons.

The only country that is in breach of that,which is ratting on its international obligations, and which is breaking its word to at least 133 nations—and to the two nuclear nations of the Soviet Nation and the United States—is the United Kingdom. That is what the Government are doing. As we are bound by that treaty to negotiate away our nuclear weapons, we should not be embarking on the expensive folly that is the £10 million Trident.

When we get rid of Trident, we shall join other NATO countries that will not tolerate nuclear weapons on their soil. Such a thing is not so startingly radical that Conservative Members should raise their eyebrows. Rather, I am a little startled that some of my own party raise their eyebrows at such a modest proposal, which is practical, sensible and morally superior. It happens to be wrong to threaten to exterminate civilisation on a scale that would make Hitler and Pol Pot put together look like boy scouts. I repeat my argument. Given the Minister's glazed look, perhaps I may spray it on his eyeballs. Each Polaris submarine carries more firepower than was used by both sides during the 1939–1945 war.

Ultimately, the Government must be prepared to use that deterrent, because otherwise it is no deterrent. It is an interesting question to put to the Government as to whether they are only pretending about using the nuclear deterrent, or are serious. The Government will say, of course, that they are serious. It is a highly immoral situation, and nothing on earth will persuade me that the deployment of nuclear weapons is a moral or justifiable act.

In case the Minister suggests that the nuclear balance is such that Britain must negotiate from a position of strength—and increase its strength from Polaris to Trident, whose firepower can be as much as 10 times greater—I draw to his attention page 230 of the current volume published by the Institute of Strategic Studies, headed "The Strategic Nuclear Balance". That reveals that the total number of launchers deployed by the United States under the strategic arms limitation talks is 2,002, whereas the number deployed by the Soviet Union is 2,503. It may be thought that the Soviet Union has more launchers, but Soviet technology is not as good as that of the United States, so Russia does not MIRV its nuclear weapons as effectively as the West does. As the Minister will know, the figures for the United States do not include existing launchers on Polaris or projected launchers on Trident.

The figure given for the number of nuclear warheads deployed by the United States under SALT is 14,637, but for the Soviet Union it is only 11,694. That means that the Soviet Union has fewer than the United States and the United Kingdom, which are consequentially already negotiating from a position of strength. But apparently, we are still to increase our nuclear firepower by as much as 10 times, to negotiate from a position of strength. That does not make much sense.

If one redefines nuclear capacity under the strategic arms reduction talks—START—one finds that United States' warheads total 9,789, while those of the Soviet Union number 10,595. As the Institute for Strategic Studies points out, the actual bombing capacity of both sides is greater than that—10,585 warheads in the case of the United States, as opposed to 10,455 in the case of the Soviet Union. But that does not include Polaris.

So, on every conceivable count, the case for getting rid of nuclear weapons is all-powerful. It will revive the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the wilting belief that the United Kingdom Government are going to do something about it—and they are signatories. It will release massive resources for the things that people need and want. They do not want extermination, as they have shown over the years by continuous demonstrations, campaigns and expressions of concern. I will argue this case with any Tory Minister or Back Bencher on any public platform he wants to provide. The truth is that, after a couple of years of arguing the case, Tory central office told Conservative Members not to engage in the debate because they were losing, because the case is so overwhelmingly powerful.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

If the case is so overwhelmingly powerful, why do 65 to 70 per cent. of the people of this country feel that we should have our own independent deterrent?

Mr. Cryer

When questioned about their belief in Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev, an overwhelming majority put greatest faith in Mr. Gorbachev. In that respect they line up with the Prime Minister, who believes that Mr. Gorbachev is an outstandingly "bold and courageous leader"—they are her words. Why should we marshal all this massive nuclear power against a nation that has the admiration and support of the Prime Minister—so much so that when he had five minutes at Brize Norton, for refuelling, she rushed out to the tarmac with a cup of tea and a bun? This was to ingratiate herself with a man because of whose threat we are spending enormous sums. Either she is schizophrenic, or she believes he is a bold and courageous leader. Actually I believe the former and it makes me apprehensive that she has the nuclear keys around her neck.

I want to conclude because there is someone else wanting to speak and in any case I do not want to be too controversial about this issue. The fact of the matter is that we have in the services personnel who are trained and who can be called upon to use the keys to fire nuclear weapons. Whether they do so is another point. Frankly, I doubt whether they would. Nonetheless, we have those people, and we have in the Government people who can unleash this massive firepower and have their instructions so to do.

I think that we ought to give the personnel in the armed forces some say in the organisation and in what goes on in those forces. Since nearly all Tory Members are absolutely besotted by the Common Market, we should take a leaf out of the book of some other Common Market countries and give the right of association to members of the armed forces—in this case, the Navy. In 1984 there was a report of the European Assembly—PE 84688/final/annex 2—in which the service men of a number of nation states were given the rights of professional organisations. They are able to be consulted but have no negotiating rights. The states were Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Denmark, which is a loyal member of the EEC, with full negotiating rights.

The document points out that, in the Netherlands, as in the federal republic of Germany, officials and servicemen are not entitled to take part in negotiations. However the association must be consulted when the legal status of servicemen is affected by ministerial rulings etc. That exactly fits the circumstances of being required to carry out orders to embark on a policy of mass extermination. A central consultative committee has been set up for this purpose with the Secretary of State as chairman. It meets twice a month and discusses all legal conditions and provisions which affect servicemen and the policies, guidelines and general principles of the personnel programme. There are subcommittees dealing with matters relating to the army, navy and air force which meet once a month. The document goes on to say: There is freedom of the press including the right to distribute broadsheets. If the Governments are so sure of their case why do they not adopt the policy of the Netherlands and allow broadsheets to be distributed in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force? There is no right to strike, but soldiers in uniform may stage demonstrations when they are not on duty. In the Federal Republic of Germany, The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions is guaranteed to everyone and to all trades, occupations and professions … The right to form associations is therefore a fundamental right under the constitution. This right may not be restricted for soldiers by laws concerning military service". In Luxembourg, service men are allowed to organise or join non-political unions. The majority are members of the Syndicat professionele de la force publique, which is part of the Conféderation générale de la function publique. Lastly, in Denmark, Servicemen therefore have the same negotiating rights and the same right to conclude agreements as all the other government employees. There are various groups of professional organisations for serving officers, reserve officers and serving soldiers. These associations negotiate on general pay and working conditions with the Minister of Defence. They voluntarily renounce the right to strike. If these rights are good enough for other EEC member states—and we are continually being told that there is a lot in respect of which we have to align ourselves with the EEC—why not give these rights to our service men and women, whom both sides in this debate have praised, and on whose shoulders such a heavy task has been placed as a result of the mistaken, befuddled, immoral policies of the Government?

8.58 pm
Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) who, by gabbling his words at the end, gave me a little time to speak. I must admit, however, that I should have preferred to hear more from the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). I hesitate to praise the hon. Gentleman, because he may end up being deselected. However, I have to say that when listening to the hon. Gentleman one gets the impression that he has actually studied the subject and understands what it is about. He makes some extremely logical and sensible suggestions, to which I think the House would do well to listen.

Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to be the guinea pig on the new armed forces parliamentary scheme set up by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne), who took a few years to persuade Ministers and others of the good sense of getting Members of Parliament out with the armed forces to learn at first hand, at the sharp end, what the forces were all about. Although I spent 40 days with them last year I am not suggesting that I am an expert, but at least I understand the questions that should be asked in the armed forces about what we are doing.

I pay tribute briefly to the whole company of HMS Newcastle, the type 42 destroyer on which I was looked after for several days. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) has just left, because I agree with him that consulting everyone in the armed forces—I know that such consultation takes place informally—gives an excellent idea of what they really think. Morale in our forces, from the lowest rank to the highest, is second to none, and those people wish to express their opinions for the good of the service, not for their own good.

I pay tribute also to the men and women at the royal naval base at Portland and on HMS Osprey, who have looked after me on many occasions. They, of course, are based in my constituency. I also have the honour to represent many of those who work at the Admiralty research establishment who back up the work of the Royal Navy, and the sea systems controller and others involved' in procuring capital equipment.

Let me deal first with manpower. The Royal Navy and all the country's forces—indeed, all its industries—realise that they are sitting on a time bomb. The birth rate has fallen enormously, and there will be considerable competition for the good-quality manpower, of the right age, that we need to join our forces. I can certainly say that I have worked in no service or industry with such good-quality manpower at its call, and I believe that we must think carefully about the retention of staff.

The message getting through to the Government seems, unfortunately, to be "Let us put up salaries to retain staff." People's main worry, however, concerns the amount of shore leave that they will be given in which to see their families. It was interesting to hear two of my colleagues mention the possibility of more jobs being changed so that they are done by Wrens. That, unfortunately, would mean fewer shore billets and less leave. Unless we decide that women should go into combat zones and perform combat duties, we would, I feel, be foolish to do away with shore billets.

My overall impression from talking to people in the service is that we seem to have the idea that in the armed forces, particularly the Royal Navy, we are training every man jack to become First Sea Lord or Chief of Defence Staff. Constant training and retraining means that almost everyone has less than 12 months' experience. In high-technology posts the average length of experience is often only a year, which is not sufficient. Once someone has acquired good expertise in one job he is promptly swapped into an entirely different job. We should be trying to retain that knowledge. I know that variety is necessary if people are to remain interested in their jobs, but I think that we have gone too far in the wrong direction.

Having been on Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Royal Navy vessels, I feel that there is a difference of philosophy on training. Accidents happen with high-capital equipment: on HMS Southampton a bit of bad driving ended up with a vast amount of equipment going almost to the bottom of the sea. Whoever is on the bridge at any one time may have little sea experience, and we still cling to the idea that for 24 hours a day, week in week out, one man is ultimately responsible for running a ship.

Out at sea, as I was for a fortnight, the captain of a vessel can often be seen becoming more and more tired. is that the right management philosophy on board ship? The captain should be able to have a proper rest so that he can think clearly. During a meal or conversation in the captain's cabin a message may come over the Tannoy: a junior officer is on the bridge and wants to know whether to steer left or right. It is amazing that our captains are able to make decisions in such circumstances, and to be constantly aware of what is happening to the ship—to know from the sound of the air conditioning whether there is a fire problem, for instance. We should look carefully at how we utilise our manpower.

The Navy seems to vacillate between carrying out repairs on shore and having enough equipment to do so on board ship. I have been on a number of vessels much of whose equipment could not be repaired because the right spares were not available. Perhaps there was one spare circuit board. Often, having grabbed a circuit board and popped it into a piece of equipment, someone will find that it is a circuit board that was sent back three months ago with a spurious fault. The repair people did not find the spurious fault and it was still there when the circuit board came back.

We have heard much about the number of ships in the Royal Navy. Having been to the conference a week ago to which the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) referred, I am a little concerned about what we are told by the experts and whether the story we are given in the "Statement on Defence Estimates" is the story that we should believe. What concerns me more is not that Back Benchers are given a spurious story, but that Ministers are not given the correct story. When one hears defence analysts from academic and defence backgrounds talking about the Royal Navy and the American navy versus the Russian forces, one receives a wholly different picture.

Mr. Frank Cook

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman, in developing his theme, would care to comment on the view expressed by Dr. Robert McGeehan, the spokesman for the Pentagon, at the official seminar for opinion leaders at the NATO defence college in October last year in Rome. He said that the tacticians and military strategists should deprive elected politicians of the best intelligence—meaning information—and that it should be kept away from politicians because of the way in which they had abused it in the past. Will the hon. Gentleman express an opinion on what kind of democracy that would be?

Mr. Bruce

That would be a threat to democracy and it is important for us, as Back Benchers, to harangue Ministers constantly and to ask whether they really have the facts. It may be that we do not want certain facts to go into the public domain, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that the captains of our vessels and even people within the higher echelons of the forces have information kept from them. The story of the 50 or thereabouts escorts is a moveable feast. The subject is constantly being churned around and as long as it is moved around and people are not allowed to focus, it will be difficult to make decisions. In my year with the Royal Navy, I have felt that the Ministry of Defence, Ministers and the people in charge have not necessarily had the right information. I shall do my best to ensure that they and all of us have that information.

The debate about the number of ships misses the point to an extent. The number of ships does not matter unless we define their role first. The question of 50 or thereabouts escort vessels is a sacred cow. If one goes out on an escort vessel and says to the captain that he has 200 people under his command and that the ship can defend itself, and if one then asks, "What do you have within the vessel to sink anybody else?", one finds constantly that surface vessels, in particular, are sent to sea to defend themselves and have little offensive capability.

We have gone away from the debate that we should be having about surface vessels versus submarines. We should be considering the role that we expect our escort vessels to play within the Norwegian sea and we should ask ourselves the correct question about whether they are a survivable force or the best force. I believe that if there is money to be spent either on submarines or on surface vessels, the hunter-killer submarine must come out ahead of surface vessels. I spent only two days with submarines in the north Atlantic. On exercises, HMS Illustrious was sunk with the greatest of ease. Submarines are credible machines of war in the conventional sense.

When I consider our frigates and destroyers, I question whether they have much firepower in a NATO role. We have to examine carefully what we use the conventional Navy for out of area. We have a strong role out of the NATO sphere. Since the end of the second world war, there has been an enormous development in what we have had to do. We must ensure that the escort ships have a credible role out of area in the conventional sense—not that they are protecting themselves against the incredibly sophisticated missile systems that Russia could send at them, but that they have more firepower to go into Third world areas where there may be lots of bush fire wars in the next 20 or 30 years.

Almost all service men who have had guns fired at them have been given a campaign medal. In Armilla we have a group of people who have been steaming up and down what are probably the most dangerous waters in the world for almost a decade under incredibly bad conditions. Because no one has fired at them and because they have had a peacekeeping role, we seem to have forgotten that they should be recognised in the normal way. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will make a recommendation through the normal channels for a campaign medal for those who have served in the Armilla patrol.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State would be surprised if I did not mention the sea systems controllerate. Our capital equipment procurement needs to be improved. Many people in my constituency, and in Portsmouth and Bath, are committed to doing a good job for the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, for years we seem to have been writing reports about reports about reports. For the last 18 months we have been locked into a debate about the red herring of centralisation. That will probably continue for three more years unless a decision is made to cancel collocation and to get the three sites working efficiently for the good of the Navy so that the staff can get on with the good job that they are doing.

9.12 pm
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) told us that the new SLD defence policy was to retain Trident in service. That will come as a considerable shock to many councillors in my constituency who are ardent supporters not only of his party but of CND. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). Many of us are not certain where Mr. Gorbachev and his policy of glasnost are taking us. Now that NATO for the first time will face battle-hardened troops as a result of the war in Afghanistan, the Royal Navy's nuclear deterrent is more important than ever.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for allowing me to visit the Royal Navy's hydrography department at Taunton. I look forward to visiting Northwood tomorrow morning. I particularly enjoyed my trip in a nuclear submarine. My visit to the hydrography department was very interesting. It was everything that I was led to believe it would be.

However, there are matters of concern to which I should like to draw the attention of my hon. Friend. There has been considerable discussion about aggregate dredging and seabed depletion. I understand that it is part of the hydrography department's duty to advise the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on territorial limits and the Crown Commissioners on seabed surveys. The issuing of licences in that respect needs to be tightened considerably. I am pleased that HMS Gleaner is working currently in my constituency and that coastal surveys are being conducted.

I noted that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) saw in use on a Royal Navy ship a chart dated 1908 of the north Norway coast. However, I am surprised to find that the commercial interests in hydrography and chart making have to be filtered through to the Department of Transport as a matter of priority. While much has been done in the Hydrographer's department to make it more commercial and more enterprising, I believe that it could explore many more avenues. It has a number of original charts, some of them going back to the days of Captain Cook. If it was removed from a cash-limited budget, I believe that it could venture into areas of commercialism that would produce a considerably enhanced income.

I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that he explores the requirement for electronic charts that would be of considerable use not only to yachtsmen, but to merchant sailors throughout the world, because they would solve the problem of having to update manually the existing chart service.

I am puzzled to know why the meteorological centre at Bracknell can put its information directly into shipping broadcasts, yet navigational warnings cannot be promulgated by navtex direct from the Hydrographer's department at Taunton. I hope that my hon. Friend will seriously consider that matter, especially as we are still issuing daily navigation warnings in printed form that must consume a considerable amount of money, expense and effort.

I should like to record my appreciation of the reception given to me by the Hydrographer's department and the way in which it answered my many questions. I hope that at least part of its functions might yet be lifted from the cloying hand of the Treasury and be created into an agency. After all, after 1990 the Navy will no longer have to use the Property Services Agency, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend has considered the position of the teams of divers and engineers whom the Department of the Environment currently maintain for the inspection of Navy underwater structures. Will the Minister continue to use that service in-house, or will he put it to an outside agency?

Having Hifix in my constituency, I hope that I may have the Royal Navy as an ally for the replacement of the Decca chain with the Loran C system, in addition to the new geosatellite system which, of course, is once more back on its way after the Challenger space disaster.

Today's news makes my concern about the GEC-Siemens bid for Plessey especially topical. The £1 billion Spearfish programme has been open to competition, and it is only Plessey which is offering any serious competition in the market. Should it be taken over by GEC, that competition would be removed.

As my hon. Friend will know, Plessey has succeeded in beating GEC with its bids for naval radar, and the 996 has been an especially successful naval radar. I understand, however, that when West Germany requested information on this radar system, it took two years to obtain the permission, which was then only given for an outline specification. Should Siemens be successful in bidding for Plessey, that would beg two important questions—one of national security and the other of competition.

Of course, on the Isle of Wight we have the only working model of a non-rotating radar MESAR system, which I understand has some considerable potential for naval purposes.

I am pleased to participate in this, my first debate on the Navy, having in my constituency at East Cowes the site of the first naval college, where I believe our much loved and sorely missed Lord Louis Mountbatten embarked on his naval career. On the other side of the river, we have the only yacht club in the United Kingdom to fly the white ensign.

I conclude by telling my hon. Friend how much we, as an island community, look forward to the arrival of the royal yacht and the guardship at Cowes week every year. If any hon. Member ever doubts the benefit of the Royal Navy goodwill visits, just let him speak to any of my constituents. I ask my hon. Friend to send a signal to the fleet to tell it how welcome it will be again this year at Cowes. I hope, too that HMS Sandown may eventually visit Sandown, Isle of Wight.

9.19 pm
Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

I would like to join those who have thanked the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy for their sterling work in the past year. Hearing the list of exercises, visits and events taken by or forced upon the Navy I am struck by the breadth of activity that Britain expects of its senior service. This was made apparent to me in my recent visit to the Falkland Islands, where, in the vastness of the oceans under British naval protection and the inhospitability of the land, the naval forces there continue to work with determination and great humanity, never forgetting the complexities of the political, economic and social factors that have given rise to the need for a military presence.

May I also add my tribute to those of the Ministers and of my hon. Friends on the return of the Armilla patrol after the brilliant work that was done in the Gulf.

I am, however, struck by the audacity of the Minister in applauding the achievement of the Navy in the past year while apparently failing to understand or even recognise the depth of despair in some sections of our naval forces, which is evident in articles about the problems of naval procurement, of shortages, morale and manpower and the increasing cost of Trident and its impact, notably in the squeeze on resources, on the remainder of the service. To this end, I would like to make a few comments about naval arms control.

In the past year we have seen that reducing the offensive elements on either side is a confidence-building measure. This has been recognised in conventional stability talks in Vienna. It was also recognised in the Stockholm agreement of 1986. Why should the same principle not apply to naval forces? In the past year the Soviet Union has made the running in naval arms control, one of the most neglected issues on the agenda of the super-powers. There are only five multilateral agreements dealing with maritime issues and they concern mainly nuclear not naval weaponry or strategies.

For our purposes today let us remind ourselves of the unilateral initiatives for naval arms control proposed by the Soviet Union. President Gorbachev has proposed anti-submarine weapons-free zones, notably one in the Barents sea, anti-submarine warfare-free zones and an SSBN sanctuary policy. He also supports a ban on sea-launched cruise missiles and has repeatedly stated that the Soviet Union will not enter a START agreement without some type of limit on long-range land attack SLCMs. The United States has, however, refused to include these in the START talks. The United States has about 4,000 of them, and they allow the United States to negotiate through strength, as well as giving it the enormous military advantage of spreading its military strike capability from 13 aircraft carriers to 190 ships and submarines.

Rear Admiral Studemann of United States Naval Intelligence also notes that the Soviet Union is paying increased attention to international proposals for naval arms control and constraints on naval operations. Since 1986 Mr. Gorbachev has proposed mutual withdrawals of United States and Soviet naval forces from the Indian ocean and from the Mediterranean; limitations on naval activity in the Pacific, possible Soviet withdrawal from the naval base in Cam Ranh bay in return for United States withdrawal from the Subic bay complex in the Philippines; the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in Northern Europe; restricting naval activity in the Baltic, north Norwegian and Greenland seas, including special limitations on anti-submarine warfare weapons; prior notification of naval exercises in the presence of observers of such exercises; and the complete prohibition of naval activity in areas such as international straits and major shipping routes.

These proposals would, if implemented, undoubtedly result in a reduction of NATO's maritime superiority, which is based on bottling the Soviet navy in the Kola peninsula. This has been seen by many as an offensive maritime strategy.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)


Mr. Boyes

No, not just at the moment. Tory Members have taken too long.

All we can say about maritime strategy is that it is based on the view that there will be a Warsaw pact attack on Europe and that Western Europe needs to meet that attack with reinforcements. These will have to be escorted across the Atlantic. The Soviet fleet will be prowling around and must be restrained. The scale of these reinforcements is phenomenal and farcical. It is phenominal because in the first 30 days it is anticipated that 300,000 men and 100 air squadrons would cross the Atlantic. After 180 days 1.5 million men, 8.5 million tonnes of freight and 3 billion gallons of fuel would have come across in a total of over 3,000 ship sailings and 28,000 transatlantic flights.

It is farcical because United States-led NATO offensive forward maritime strategy is likely to result in swift retaliatory responses from the Soviet Union's SSBNs. Experts differ, but a war in Europe may not last long enough for there to be reinforcement from across the Atlantic. Time, tide and war wait for no one. However, these are only proposals, open to negotiation. As unilateral initiatives, they show the importance of not relying only on multilateral negotiations and moves. In a global climate in which economic forces are pushing for political initiatives and the authority and stability of the current Soviet leadership may well be at stake, it is important to comprehend the nature of Western responses. The response of the United States and NATO to these recent Soviet overtures has been positive in respect of the negotiation of confidence-building measures and overwhelmingly negative towards proposals such as SSBN sanctuaries, nuclear-free weapon zones in the south Pacific and Nordic regions, and US sea-launched cruise missiles.

Does the Minister recognise that if Britain does not hunt submarines, that will give the USSR more confidence with its SSBNs in the Barents sea? In return, the USSR must agree not to hunt United States or British submarines off the United Kingdom or United States coasts. Does he agree that the British Government could take a fundamental and important confidence-building step if they so wished? This confidence-building measure hands a big verification problem to the Soviets. It is much easier for the West to use its highly sophisticated tracking technology to close in on the Soviets than for them to do the same to us.

As the House will know, naval confidence-building measures include information exchanges between superpowers, observation/inspection agreements and operational constraints. The Atlantic Assembly report notes that confidence-building measures generally reduce the risks of confrontation by demonstrating the peaceful and defensive intent of naval operations. As such, they would enhance stability and decrease super-power tensions.

Given these benefits, will the Minister reaffirm the Government's commitment to confidence-building measures? The incidents at sea agreement, which is praiseworthy, already exists, but we need to go further. Will the Minister reassure us that when he next speaks to his United States counterpart he will note the House's anxiety that the United States navy appears to reject confidence-building measures? While we may understand that such measures may be seen by the United States navy as infringing United States naval operations, we urge the Minister to ask the United States Defence Secretary to locate naval policy more in the promising framework of current international security, and less in the old days of crisis management.

The United States and NATO have been stonewalling on discussions affecting maritime strategies. That manifests itself in the same way as other defence-related double-talk: we are told that it is necessary to have more efficient, lethal and sophisticated weapons, and then we can have less.

How dare we call this rational? It is nothing of the sort. It is the game played by politicians, military personnel, industrialists, bureaucrats and even, at times, diplomats. Do exercises in arms control control weapons procurement? Arms control talks may be a super way of meeting one's opposite number, but do they achieve anything else?

The Labour party likes to call a spade a spade, and digging, digging. We apply the same rules to political language. After all, the offensive role of the United States navy, which may enable it to have political kudos and higher resource allocation in the United States, should be of minor concern to us as an independent country.

As an independent country—with, as the Government so frequently boast, its own nuclear deterrent—and as a member of NATO, we must take note of factors affecting global security. Since last year, there has been a sea change in international relations. In the light of this different economic and political atmosphere, will the Minister accept the view that Trident must be included in stage two of the strategic arms reduction talks?

I note that the defence estimates state that, if United States and Soviet strategic arsenals were substantially reduced, we would want to consider how we could best contribute to arms control in light of the reduced threat. But the US and Soviet reductions would have to go much further than 50% before we could consider including the British deterrent in arms control negotiations". How much further do super-power reductions have to go before Trident can be included in START? The defence estimates note that, even with a 50 per cent. reduction in strategic arms, greater stability in Europe will not be achieved without reduction in the Soviets' conventional weapons and a ban on chemical weapons.

In the light of this statement in the defence estimates, will the Minister consider the following? In the past months, the Soviet Union has reduced its forces in Europe by 500,000 troops, 10,000 tanks, 8,500 artillery pieces arid 800 combat aircraft.

Before becoming President, Mr. Bush twice used his tie-breaking vote in the Senate to support the modernisation of the United States chemical weapon programme. At the Paris conference on chemical weapons in January, the Soviet Foreign Minister announced that the Soviet Union would begin to destroy chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the final budget of the Reagan Administration increased spending on binary weapons production from $9.7 million in 1988 to $60.7 million in 1991. Does the huge economic, political and military cost of continuing the Trident ultimately depend on international affairs or on an image that the Government like to create? Is the Government's policy——

Mr. Brazier

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Boyes

No, I will not.

Mr. Brazier

The hon. Gentleman does not want a debate.

Mr. Boyes

Is the Government's policy to include Trident in reduction talks if the super-power talks result in strategic reductions of more than 50 per cent.? There is a ban on chemical weapons, and the Soviets are reducing their conventional forces.

To answer the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier): I gave up time to allow two Conservative Members to speak, one of whom spoke for longer than I shall have done by the time I sit down.

I should like to say a few words about procurement. Sometimes the latest weapons technology in the most sophisticated, efficient, accurate and expensive hardware just does not work. The necessity to develop new weapon systems, if only to compete in international markets, accounts for about half the military budget. NATO's 16 nations spend$400 billion a year on their weapons and armed forces—half the world's total of such spending. The British defence budget for 1988–89 amounted to £19.2 billion, with 95 per cent. going to Britain's NATO commitments. Of total expenditure, £2.8 billion is allocated for the development and production of sea equipment.

To put this in perspective, since 1979 Government spending on defence has risen in real terms by 17 per cent., while education has achieved an increase of only 10 per cent. Spending on housing, transport and overseas aid has declined in real terms. Yet this military budget is said to be too small. The loudest protests to that effect come from some Conservative Members, some military personnel and people working in the industrial complexes that continue to lean on military contracts.

What happens to this huge military budget? The "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1988" notes: We have adopted a more commercial attitude, exploiting the best practices to obtain long-term value for money … Our fundamental aim remains unchanged: to buy for the armed forces the equipment they need to the required quality, at the right time and at the keenest price … Whenever possible, we express a requirement in terms of specified criteria, such as performance and reliability, and leave it to the contractor to decide how to meet them. How does that proclaimed procurement policy square with this year's quota of Government-inspired fiascos?

The Minister mentioned the ongoing contract with Ferranti to develop the computer-assisted automated command systems for frigates. We must remember that the first contract, with impossible-to-reach specifications, has been scrapped at a cost of £17 million. This is an incredible and unpardonable waste of taxpayers' money. Even though the statement on defence estimates notes: we place responsibility and risk with the contractor, providing him with the incentive to deliver equipment at the agreed time and at the agreed price", we know that Ferranti's first contract was written off.

Why is it that, having made changes in procurement practices, this Government—always boasting of efficiency—still preside over messes? In a world in which the major powers are attempting to reach some sort of global security which does not totally rely on the might of the military, it ill behoves the United Kingdom Government to order weapons systems and then keep changing the specifications and mismanage the ordering. Will the Minister give an accurate figure to the House of how much taxpayers' money has been written off by original over-specified orders?

The Trident D5 is another example of a complex weapons system searching for a justification. We are told of the costs of Trident being reduced: is that really true? The "World in Action" team last week uncovered overcharging—or gold-plating—on Trident contracts. As the Trident procurement management is meant to be the tightest of any procurement project, why are people like Sir Ronald Mason, former chief scientific adviser to the MOD, saying the management has to change? Perhaps that explains why design work on a new class of hunter-killer submarine is under way.

The remaining three Trafalgar class hunter-killer submarines are being completed at Barrow. Another order for the generation of SSNs is likely to be placed in the near future. Are these hunter-killer submarines to be used as protection for Polaris or Trident in future? Can the Minister enlighten the House? Does this mean that RAF Nimrods and hunter-killer submarines and anti-submarine frigates are being deployed to protect Polaris? If so, is that not yet another unallocated and unspecified cost of the Trident programme, and of maintaining strategic nuclear weapons? The House should be told the real cost of Britain's nuclear deterrent. What are the opportunity costs of the forces patrolling with and protecting Trident?

On the subject of miscalculations, I draw the attention of the House to the fiasco of the torpedoes. As we all know, due to procurement problems with modern torpedoes, the Belgrano was sunk with 1940s technology. Modern technology was not reliable enough for the job. Do we take this as a lesson and continue to use tried and tested technology? Why should we spend money at all if we need a lot of 1940s torpedoes?

With this in mind, because of dissatisfaction with Marconi torpedoes, is it not true that Sir Peter Levene has been examining the possibility of acquiring torpedoes from other producers, including producers abroad? Is it not true that torpedo testing has shown success rates as low as only 16 per cent. from some models?

Also, Sir Peter Stanford, the former Commander-in-Chief, Naval Home Command wrote an article in the United States Naval Institute's journal in January 1989, in which he drew out the main issues. He noted how important is the service fleet, especially in the Atlantic in supporting, even the 600-ship United States navy. He wrote: it takes no great depth of perception to expose the gap between the Thatcher Government's rhetoric and the reality of their naval policies. He added: the Government's claim to maintain a fleet of about 50 destroyers and frigates is becoming a standing joke. In the eight years after the British Government's target for surface combatants became about 50 destroyers and frigates, the orders actually placed with ship builders to sustain the rolling programme amounted to no more than seven. Four other orders were made to replace battle losses in the Falklands and these are of no account in this calculation. It is clear that the Government's procurement policy has cost the taxpayer millions of pounds, yet our services have not had the equipment that they deserve with which to carry out the tasks that we ask them to do on our behalf. We expect the Navy to ensure the security of the United Kingdom. For it to do this we need to ensure that our military forces have the quantity and quality of equipment to undertake such a task. The Royal Navy must also play a part internationally, but this must be for security rather than to be provacative. The Government are not giving the Navy the necessary tools so that it can carry out the task that we require of it.

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

This has been an excellent debate. I must admit at the outset that I had an almost surreal feeling when listening to the Opposition. One had to ask what had happened to the Labour manifestos of 1983 and 1987. One had to ask whether the unilateralist dog had ceased to bark. But of course, it did not take long before the House was reminded by the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that unilateralism is still alive and well in the Labour party today. The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) has a difficult task ahead of him in reconciling the differing views of Labour Members. I doubt whether he will get unanimity on almost any defence policy that he manages to dream up. I am not certain that there is even a vague consensus.

Of course, it is not just the Labour party that is working on defence policy. We must ask how the SLD is doing. It has shaken off the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), whose views on defence have always been robust. I think I heard the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) say that cancellation would be neither financially nor militarily prudent; when asked whether he would maintain Trident, he answered unequivocally yes.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), I must ask what has happened to all the Liberals who are members of CND and so on. Are they suddenly going quiet, and will they not have any stake in the future policy of the SLD? It strikes me that many arguments have yet to come and that it will be good spectator sport, at any rate for Conservative Members.

A number of issues have been raised during the debate and I shall try to cover them. Concern was expressed, understandably, by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) about the future of the fleet maintenance and repair organisation. As a result of the decision to seek competitive tenders for the combined repair and refit of HMS Southampton, we are examining what work can sensibly be rescheduled or reallocated to make the most cost effective use of the resources of the FMRO during the original planned period of the Southampton refit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) spoke of the future of merchant shipping. The decline in the British registered merchant fleet has continued over the last year, but our national defence requirements can still be met and there are welcome signs that we may now be entering a period of relative stability. The industry has returned to profitability, orders for new ships have risen sharply and cargo rates are also rising.

The House will recall that we introduced a number of measures last year to help the industry. The Merchant Shipping Act enabled us to provide financial assistance for the training and travel costs of British merchant seamen and to set up a merchant navy reserve. The Finance Act changed the foreign earnings deduction rules to enable more seamen to benefit. Business expansion scheme arrangements for shipowners have been expanded to encourage investment. The full effect of these measures has yet to be seen.

On the NATO front, the continuing shortage of vessels for transatlantic reinforcement remains a matter of concern, but nations are working together to increase the availability of vessels for this and other purposes. The study on the supply and demand for merchant shipping by NATO in crisis and war is well under way.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol. East (Mr. Sayeed) spoke of concern about CACS 4 and the successor system to it. I remind hon. Members of what the Under-Secretary said on this matter earlier this year: The lack of a command system will restrict the co-ordination of the weapons and sensors although each weapon and sensor will be capable of independent action. Without the full integration of the weapons and sensors the overall effectiveness of the ship will be reduced, particularly in a demanding multiple threat situation. Despite this, however, the type-23 will provide a very much more effective contribution to our maritime forces than the Leander class frigates that it will replace"—[Official Report, 10 January 1989; vol. 144, c.60.] My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth and a number of other hon. Members spoke about our amphibious capability. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) was worried that tenders would not be invited for the aviation support ship until July. In fact, tenders have already been invited and responses from industry are due in July.

As for the capability of the assault ships Fearless and Intrepid, the feasibility studies into a replacement which were under way at the time of the last debate on the Royal Navy, last March, have now been completed. Their results, as well as the possibility of extending the lives of these ships, are now being evaluated. In the meantime, Fearless is currently undergoing a major refit.

No Navy debate would be the same without the great discussions that we always have about whether the surface fleet numbers about 50. I should have thought that to have 49 ships—destroyers and frigates—was quite good when we have talked about 50, and I make no apology for 49.

It is important to put the debate in context. We are in danger of giving the impression that the Navy is composed of only about 50 ships. That is not so. The Royal Navy deploys some 200 vessels of all classes. The figure of about 50 destroyers and frigates reflects the Government's judgment of what is the right contribution for us to make, taking into account the contribution also made by other surface ships, submarines and aircraft and the forces of our NATO allies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East spoke about the aging fleet, but that is quite a wrong impression to give. The average age of our escort fleet is about 12 years and compares favourably with equivalent fleet ages of our major allies and the Warsaw pact. Moreover, we expect the average age to fall as newer and more capable ships enter the fleet. Many older vessels were originally expected to have a long life and are, in fact, highly capable ships; it is perfectly sensible to run them on. The Armilla patrol has been carried out by, among others, type 42 destroyers and the less modern Leander class frigates. They have been capable of meeting the singular requirements of the patrol at least as effectively as more elaborately equipped vessels deployed by some other Western navies. We must also bear in mind the fact that it is reckoned that a United States navy cruiser costs around $1 billion, and our Royal Navy crews reckon they do the job just as well, if not better.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South asked about the cracks in type 42s. A study in 1988 showed that four batch 3 type 42 destroyers could experience problems if operated in exceptionally severe sea conditions. Preventive measures, consisting of external strengthening, are being undertaken; they have been completed on HMS Gloucester, are in hand on HMS Manchester, and are scheduled for next year for the other two ships involved. I will write to the hon. Gentleman about the cost of those modifications.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East will not be surprised that I will not give him a precise undertaking on orders for type 23s. I will say, however, that our plans provide for sufficient orders of type 23 frigates to meet our target of about 50 ships. The orders placed last July for three type 23s underline this commitment, and we expect to hold a competition for a further batch later this year.

My Department holds regular meetings with shipbuilders to ensure that, within well-established guidelines, the industry is well informed on the Department's policy towards the size and shape of the fleet and the likely pattern of future requirements. The aim is to assist shipbuilders to judge their future work load and prospects in a competitive market.

Mr. Boyes

I have been given to understand that the Government have placed a limit of £105 million on the tender for a new helicopter carrier. A few minutes ago the Minister was talking about HMS Fearless; could he put a price on the work that was done?

Mr. Hamilton

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a price for that, but the £105 million is a guide price for the aviation support ship, and, of course, we have given industry a number of options on what to come up with for that, including converting an existing merchant hull, which may be an answer to the problem.

Mr. Galloway

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I asked him five questions and he has not answered any of them, though he has answered plenty of other people's questions. Can he answer one point for me on the tendering for the type 23s? Will he give a guarantee that the decision about where those orders will be placed will be made on the basis of competitive tendering and that the yard that makes the best offer in terms of economy, quality and price will get the job?

Mr. Hamilton

Clearly, all the criteria that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned will be taken into account when we decide who gets the order.

I must respond to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East about the attitude of Ministry officials, who cannot defend themselves, to the Defence Committee. I assure my hon. Friend that each and every response to the Committee was made on behalf of Ministers and approved by Ministers, so if he has any complaints I hope that he will address them to me, because I am paid to respond to them. I hope that he will also accept, on reflection, that the Ministry's response to the Defence Committee has been very helpful. We are providing classified raw data about fleet activity regularly. We made no difficulty about that, but we needed to be clear precisely what the Committee required; that was not clear at the outset. Perhaps my hon. Friend will agree it is sometimes necessary to clarify requests for information rather than setting in hand unproductive work for no purpose. I do not call that an exercise in semantics.

Mr. George

I have been a member of the Select Committee on Defence for 10 years, during which time relations between the Committee and the MOD have generally been good, but in the past six months they have dropped to a level the like of which I have never known. It is one thing to criticise the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed), but his views are shared by every member of the Committee and I hope that the Minister will do more to develop relations with the Committee so that we may do our job just as the Government do theirs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I do not make that point maliciously, but simply because relations have deteriorated to an all-time low.

Mr. Hamilton

That is clearly not the unanimous view of Committee members. I simply say that if my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East has any complaints I should like him to address them to me, and not criticise officials who are only acting on instructions from Ministers.

Several hon. Members have asked about the NATO frigate NFR90. The United Kingdom remains committed to that important NATO collaborative project which could eventually meet the Royal Navy's requirement for an anti-air warfare escort coming into service at the end of the century to replace the type 42 destroyers. The contract for the project definition study was signed in January this year and work has begun. It is expected that that will take about two years to complete. The next milestone will occur later this year when all eight member nations will review progress and consider the alignment between the programmes for the ship and its major weapons systems.

My hon. Friends the Member for Portsmouth, South and for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) asked about making greater use of the WRNS, and they were right to do so. [Interruption.] There is almost no phrase that one can use in referring to the WRNS that cannot be misinterpreted by the dirty-minded. I fully acknowledge that they make first-class recruits. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone expressed reservations about having them in a combat role. We have to bear in mind that these days 70 per cent. of the Royal Navy goes to sea. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) said that if we were not careful we would end up with fewer shore billets.

At the moment we use the WRNS as weapons analysts and helicopter ground crews and they go to sea in that capacity. However, difficulties arise if they are at sea for too long. One of the difficulties is the effect that that has on the wives and girl friends of sailors who may be suspicious about what they might be up to. However, the position is being reviewed by the Navy and we expect it to come up with some recommendations.

The hon. Members for Clackmannan, for Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and for Walsall, South suggested that the western Alliance was being left behind by President Gorbachev's arms control initiative. It was suggested that the time was right for NATO to take an initiative in maritime arms control. The Government's view is that, following the successful negotiation of the INF treaty, the priorities in arms control should be to pursue agreements on strategic arms control, the elimination of chemical weapons and reductions in conventional forces in Europe. Those reflect our concerns in particular with the Warsaw pact's capability for surprise attack and large-scale offensive action on land.

It is necessary for the maritime balance to be seen in the light of NATO's dependence on long sea lines of communication, whereas the Warsaw pact is structured for offensive action with short internal lines of communication. Therefore, maritime forces around the world must be viewed in a global context—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks). It is self-evident that it would be difficult to consider them within regional arms control agreements.

However, naval forces are not excluded from talks on confidence and security-building measures. The United Kingdom will be participating fully in these talks to identify measures that will help to reduce misunderstandings. I would, however, remind the House that in doing so, we shall ensure that such measures will not give away the freedom of action at sea which may be crucial to our ability to maintain our security.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) mentioned the armed forces parliamentary scheme. The scheme is designed to enable a small number of hon. Members each year to learn about the role, make-up and activities of the armed forces in some depth. For the pilot scheme my hon. Friend was attached to the Royal Navy, in particular to the flag officer, sea training, at Portland. Using this attachment as a base, he was shown a wide range of Royal Navy activities, giving over 30 days, spread throughout the year, to the scheme. I am very grateful for his help in the pilot. The scheme has now become a permanent feature of the MOD's relationship with the House.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement referred to the role of the Royal Navy. I should like to focus on the reasons why we must continue to maintain and improve our naval capacities.

The Soviet Union still maintains a massive naval force which in a conflict could seriously threaten NATO's vital supply and reinforcement routes across the Atlantic.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Throughout the debate we seem deliberately to have dodged the whole question of command and control of Trident.

Mr. Hamilton

Yes, I have deliberately dodged the question of command and control of Trident. In repeated answers to the hon. Gentleman I have told him that this is classified information. We do not intend to reveal to him how we communicate with our submarines or how we intend to do so in future. That information would be of enormous use to the Soviet Union. Obviously, it would very much like to know how we are able to control Trident in the future. That is not information which we could ever allow into the public domain. We have not done so in the past and we will not do so in the future.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan referred to the problem of the Soviet fleet being iced up on the Kola peninsula. I have checked up, and I do not think that the Soviet fleet has ever been iced up in any circumstances.

There have been reports that since 1985 the Soviet Union has been restricting its global naval activities and speculation that that shows a reduction in the threat. This, too, was raised by the hon. Member for Clackmannan. I remind the House that throughout the 1980s the Soviet navy has continued to expand—it has undergone an "enormous expansion", in the words of the hon. Member for Attercliffe. It has a submarine force of some 350 vessels worldwide—the largest in the world.

The proportion of nuclear-powered submarines in the Soviet fleet is increasing, and recent designs emphasise improved quietening, speed and weapons versatility. The new Akula class of nuclear-powered attack submarine, for example, is assessed to be the most capable attack submarine yet developed for the Soviet navy. Conversions of the older Yankee class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines continue, some probably related to the long-range sea-launched cruise missiles programmes—the SSN21—which we believe is now operational, and the SSNX24, under development.

That is coupled with a trend in Soviet major warship construction towards larger units with increased firepower and more sophisticated sensors. A number of my hon. Friends referred to that fact. Production of the Kirov nuclear-powered and Slava class of guided missile cruisers continues, as does production of the Sovremennyy and Udaloy classes of guided missile destroyers. Only recently the third unit of the Kirov class, Kalinin, deployed to the Soviet northern fleet, together with the fourth unit of the Kiev class of VTOL aircraft carrier, Baku, with its improved sensor and weapon fit.

The Soviet naval aviation order of battle has increased by over 20 per cent. in the 1980s. Numerous qualitative improvements have also been made, including the introduction of the Bear F Mod 4 ASW aircraft, two new naval combat helicopters and the Fencer E reconnaissance aircraft. Backfire medium-range bombers have now joined naval aviation forces in the Kola. A new 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier is due to begin sea trials later this year. That ship will improve Soviet tactical aviation capabilities significantly beyond the range of land-based air defences. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) said that their activity may be down, but their quality is up, and that is absolutely right.

We believe that the Soviet navy will continue to allocate many of its forces to its priority missions of SSBN protection and defending the Soviet homeland. It seems unlikely that it will be affected by the new defensive doctrine to the same extent as other services of the Soviet armed forces. The Soviet navy is placing increasing emphasis on qualitative as opposed to quantitative factors, which may enhance its overall capability—certainly to pursue its priority missions. Therefore, it is imperative that even in the current improving East-West relations, we should not allow our guard to drop.

The Soviet Union has drawn attention to the fact that NATO's principal naval forces normally located or based in the north Atlantic outnumber those available to the Warsaw pact. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood said, we must not confuse the intentions of the Soviet Union with its capabilities, because intentions can change. Nobody knows what will happen in the Soviet Union in years to come——

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