HC Deb 05 February 1990 vol 166 c648

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

3.34 pm

Mr. Max Madden

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to make an application under Standing Order No. 20, of which I gave you notice.

Mr. Speaker

I should be surprised if the hon. Member had not received a message from me telling him that I could not hear his application under Standing Order No. 20, because it did not meet the criteria of the Standing Order.

Mr. Madden

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that there was some recent controversy about your acceptance of Standing Order No. 20 applications. I submit that a debate in the Standing Committee on the Environmental Protection Bill is no substitute for an opportunity for all hon. Members to express their views on a matter of national importance. I ask you to allow me the opportunity to make my application.

Mr. Speaker

As the hon Gentleman well knows, I cannot give my reasons in the House. The very matter that the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise under Standing Order No. 20—that I should grant a debate taking precedence over the business of today or tomorrow—is already being discussed in a Standing Committee. It would not be possible for me to grant such a debate that would, as it were, pre-empt that.

3.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Michael Neubert)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to open our annual debate on the Royal Navy. Before talking about the Navy itself, however, I should first like to say a few words about the developments in East-West relations which form the backcloth against which the Navy continues to discharge its duties in the defence of the United Kingdom and our NATO allies.

During recent months, we have witnessed an astonishing series of revolutions in eastern Europe. Most have been peaceful, but that in Romania tragically cost many lives. Those revolutions are unfinished business—the old order has largely been swept away but a stable, structured new order has yet to emerge. In the Soviet Union we are also seeing great changes where, at least in part, the Government there provided the initial impetus and are now having to deal with the forces that have been unleashed. When 300,000 people march to the walls of the Kremlin, the whole world sits up and takes note.

These developments have elements in common. Throughout eastern Europe, the people themselves have been the motive power of change. Theirs was a reaction against massive failings in their societies, but, not surprisingly, there is still no clear vision of the ways in which the political structures of those countries, their economies and their societies are to be rebuilt. The same is true of President Gorbachev's policy of perestroika. The ultimate outcome of recent events is thus still unclear and, while we welcome the resurgence of democratic values in the East and are helping the eastern countries with economic aid and encouraging trade with them, the uncertainties that we face mean that our optimism about reducing tension between East and West must be tempered with caution.

We have made immense strides towards greater security in recent years—progress which would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Senior military officers from both East and West, for example, have just finished a seminar in Vienna where they exchanged information about the strategies and plans of their own countries and the alliances to which they belong. Much of the credit for the improvement in relations between East and West is due to the resolution of NATO, whose determination to maintain adequate defences while offering dialogue with the East has been so clearly vindicated. Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, please note.

The Royal Navy has played its part in this improvement. Last year, for example, saw the reopening of Royal Navy contacts with the Soviet Union. In May, HMS Bristol paid an official visit to Leningrad as part of the Dartmouth training squadron's deployment to the Baltic, and received a warm welcome.

In July, the United Kingdom was host to the Soviet Minister of Defence, General Dmitri Yasov, an event without precedent. During his visit, General Yasov was taken by helicopter to see HMS Invincible at sea, a memorable experience that I had a month earlier. During his time on board, the general saw Invincible's aircraft put through their paces and met members of the ship's company, thus seeing for himself how life aboard a major Royal Navy ship was lived. He was clearly impressed, not least by the morale and professionalism of our sailors.

The Royal Navy has also renewed contacts with eastern European navies. In June, after leaving Leningrad, HMS Bristol paid a visit to the Polish port of Gdynia, while at the same time HMS Achilles visited Rostock in East Germany. Two months before, in April, the Polish warship Warsawa had paid a visit to London. Ship visits have a very useful role to play in lessening tensions between East and West, and they will, we hope, continue.

I turn to the ever-active field of arms control. In nuclear arms control, good progress continues to be made in the Start talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. While recent bilateral discussions on chemical weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the agreement that followed, represent an important step towards ridding the world of those weapons.

A further major element in arms control will be agreement to limit conventional forces, and encouraging progress has been made in the talks currently taking place in Vienna. The imbalance in those forces in Europe is the most important security problem facing us. We want to see the Soviet Union dismantle for good its massive capability to mount a surprise attack against the NATO countries in Europe. The Soviet Union, for its part, has accepted that its conventional superiority should be removed. It accepted the figures proposed by the West in March last year for tanks and armoured troop carriers, and last July for helicopters. On artillery, the differences may now be more technical than substantive. However, much work still must be done in Vienna to translate a wide measure of agreement into a clear, firm, binding treaty.

There have been suggestions from some quarters that NATO should take the initiative in maritime arms control. That is not the view of Her Majesty's Government. Calls from the East for maritime arms control ignore NATO's continuing dependence on reinforcement and resupply shipping from the United States in the event of war. The Warsaw pact, on the other hand, is a land-based alliance with overland lines of communication. It does not depend on the sea and does not have the same logistic considerations as NATO.

Nor should we forget that the United Kingdom, as an island nation, depends more than most on the sea for its economic well-being and security. Some 94 per cent. by weight of our trade around the world is carried in ships, and on any one day, 300 ships are working in British ports, with the Dover straits probably the world's busiest seaway. We also have an important fishing industry. There are more than 50 oil and gas fields in the North sea, accounting for 3 per cent. of our gross national product and 12 per cent. of our industrial investment.

What, then, would be the Navy's role in the event of a conflict involving NATO forces? Many of the forces needed could be moved by air, but reinforcements are of limited use without fuel and equipment—the bulk of which would have to be moved by sea. In peacetime, western Europe needs up to 1,000 shiploads of food and raw materials a month to sustain it. In war, it would need 800 shiploads to meet military needs alone. So NATO's defence strategy continues to depend, among other things, on its ability to keep open those sea lines of communication.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Have the figures that the Under-Secretary of State gave been updated in the light of the length of a war that is now anticipated? One is no longer talking in terms of a surprise attack, so would not the figures be different over a longer period of hostilities?

Mr. Neubert

The figures that I gave have no relevance to the length of notice of a war or of the conflict itself. They refer to the needs of this country and of NATO in the event of a land-based conflict. It is to that vital task that a large share of the Royal Navy's resources, along with those of other NATO nations, is committed. We should not forget that the Soviet Union continues to invest heavily in modernising its maritime forces and that the production rates of some classes of Soviet vessels have risen over the past two years.

The Royal Navy has—and will have for the foreseeable future—a vital part to play in NATO's ability to counteract the potential threat that those forces represent. The Royal Navy contributes continuously to NATO's standing naval forces in the Atlantic and in the Channel, and it provides a destroyer or frigate for the on-call force in the Mediterranean, which this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first activation. We also make a major contribution each year to NATO's naval exercises. Last September, 34 British warships and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels took part in the major NATO maritime exercise, Sharp Spear, in the shallow seas. The Royal Marines also took part in a number of important exercises, including their annual Arctic warfare training in Norway and Exercise Dragon Hammer—a NATO amphibious exercise in the Mediterranean.

In the event of war—which is less likely now, but we still have to plan for it—the Royal Navy would contribute some 70 per cent. of NATO's ready maritime forces in the eastern Atlantic and Channel areas, and would play a vital part in NATO's strategy of forward defence. It would be involved in the interception and containment of Soviet naval forces well to the north, in the early deployment and protection of the joint United Kingdom-Netherlands amphibious force to reinforce NATO's northern flank—to which we contribute 3 Commando brigade Royal Marines, special amphibious shipping and helicopters—in the provision of anti-submarine defence of NATO's striking fleet Atlantic, and in the defence of reinforcement, resupply and economic shipping in both the Atlantic and European waters.

The Royal Navy will also continue to have a special role, by virtue of the Polaris squadron, soon to be replaced by Trident, in deploying and protecting the United Kingdom's strategic deterrent. This commitment makes it the only European navy to assign forces to all three legs of the NATO triad—strategic nuclear, sub-strategic and conventional.

The Royal Navy's primary NATO role is antisubmarine warfare, which is crucial both to deterrence in peace and maritime operations in war. The nature of submarine operations gives the aggressor the advantage. Such operations will always be difficult to monitor, so the Navy must remain able to conduct anti-submarine warfare surveillance, throughout our areas of interest, in support of the deterrent in peace and, in periods of rising tension, to alert our forces to the likely whereabouts of enemy submarines before war breaks out.

The primary potential threat remains that posed by the Soviet submarine force. Not only is that numerically strong, but the Soviet submarine is also becoming ever more capable. The most important aspect of this improvement lies in noise reduction techniques. We can also expect Soviet submarines to have effective towed array sonars, and modern cruise missiles will be more widely fitted; and as submarine performance improves, we can expect decoy and counter-measures techniques to do so as well. Submarine-launched missiles and torpedoes are likely to grow in range and complexity, so we will need more capable air defence and torpedo counter-measures systems.

Submarines operated by nations outside the Warsaw pact are also becoming more numerous and more capable. Sophisticated conventional and nuclear-powered submarines deploying an arsenal of torpedoes and missiles of various ranges could pose a potent threat in almost any area of the globe.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I am happy to hear the Minister talk about the Soviets' improved capability, particularly in the area of sonar, because, presumably, that will make submarines such as Trident, which are of course much bigger than existing submarines, easier to track. Does that therefore not make Trident pretty useless?

Mr. Neubert

We do not come to that conclusion. We have been trying to picture a scenario in which development involves measures and counter-measures, and we are determined to keep ahead of the threat and in technology. That is what I am describing.

We put the highest priority on maintaining an effective ASW capability. Without that, the Royal Navy could not provide adequate defence for the NATO forces it would protect or offer a reasonable prospect of keeping sea lanes open.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

A key component of the anti-submarine offensive in the decade ahead will be the Merlin anti-submarine helicopter. Could my hon. Friend give a firm assurance that that is going ahead on track, and will enter Royal Navy service?

Mr. Neubert

My hon. Friend has unquestioned authority on this subject. This debate takes place against the background of a report which the Defence Select Committee brought forward on Friday. Will he allow me to answer his question later in my speech?

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of the Soviet submarine threat, will he confirm that there has been no reduction in the Soviet Union's submarine building programme?

Mr. Neubert

I made that point earlier. We are seeing the development of the most modern equipment, and we have to take account of that in our plans for the future.

A high-quality ASW capability is also a prerequisite for the security of our strategic nuclear deterrent. An effective ASW capability can best be achieved by a combination of maritime assets. Royal Navy frigates, conventional and nuclear submarines, helicopters and Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft all work in unison as an integrated ASW force.

If we are to provide the best possible ASW defence, to counter the sustained massive investment by the Soviet Union in its submarine force—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed)—and to keep pace with the growing capability of other maritime nations, improvements to our ASW platforms, sensors and weapons must continue to maintain our effectiveness, and I can assure the house that that is our firm intention.

The Royal Navy and Royal Navy Reserve also make an important contribution to the direct defence of the United Kingdom by protecting our coastal waters from the threat of mines, while the Royal Navy Auxiliary Service, the Royal Marines and their reserve help to defend our ports and anchorages and key points. Within home waters, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines also help to safeguard our offshore installations, while the Royal Navy search and rescue service saves the lives of many members of the public each year.

The Royal Navy also supports the Royal Ulster Constabulary by patrolling the Province's coastline, and Royal Marines Commando units have regular roulement tours in the Province. While considering the Navy's commitment to the defence of the United Kingdom, we must not forget last year's tragedy at the Royal Marine school of music at Deal, when, on 22 September, 11 Royal Marine bandsmen were killed and another seven injured when a bomb planted by terrorists exploded. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing continuing outrage at that callous act of murder, and deep sympathy for those who have been bereaved.

We cannot afford to overlook the threat to British or western interests that could arise worldwide outside the NATO area. The Royal Navy continues to maintain a presence in the Gulf, the Caribbean, the south Atlantic and Hong Kong. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will, I hope, be able to expand on the Navy's duties and achievements in those areas later. The House will remember, for instance, the magnificent assistance given by HMS Alacrity and RFA Brambleleaf to Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis in the aftermath of hurricane Hugo.

To meet that wide range of challenging tasks, the Royal Navy has as fleet of some 200 vessels and a highly capable force of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, which we are continuing to modernise and update as necessary. The Government have ordered some 67 major vessels since 1979, at a total cost of over £7.5 billion. That very large procurement programme is clear and irrefutable evidence that we remain committed to a strong and balanced maritime capability, and to retaining the appropriate mix of forces to achieve that: the strategic nuclear deterrent; a surface fleet of three carriers and about 50 escorts; retention of an amphibious capability; the proper combination of nuclear and conventional submarines: the modern aircraft, weapons and sensors that the platforms need to fulfil their roles; and, not least, men and women of the high quality and motivation that make the Royal Navy such an outstanding service.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Can my hon. Friend confirm that, however events unfold in eastern Europe—even if the unthinkable happened and the British Army withdrew from the Rhine—nothing could affect this country's traditional reliance on maritime defence, and that, indeed, those events might reinforce it?

Mr. Neubert

That is undoubtedly true, and has, I hope, been the consistent theme of my speech. We shall need a naval capability as much in the years ahead as ever before.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great advantages from which we have benefited in all that we have done with the Royal Navy in recent years is the excellence of our technology? We have often gained a march even on the Americans by spending less money. One particular advantage had been the sea systems controllerate, which has been especially useful for underwater defence; it has worked closely with both the Navy at Portland and the Admiralty research establishment.

For the past two years, the staff of the controllerate have been anxious about whether they will be staying in Portland or, in the case of those working with surface vessels, in Portsmouth. Is it not about time that we rewarded those people for doing such an excellent job by telling them that their jobs will remain where they believe that they can do them best—in Portland and Portsmouth?

Mr. Neubert

My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for his constituency interests and for his constituents who work for the sea systems controllerate. I hope that we shall be able to respond before too long with firm plans for the future of the three controllerates, because their work is vital to us.

The new classes of vessels joining the fleet and on order are more sophisticated, capable craft than those that they replace. Our escort fleet is much younger, on average, than those of our allies or Warsaw pact countries. Our ships now spend less time in refit so that operational availability is improved. We are doing much more than merely allowing things to tick over.

The programme to replace Polaris with Trident in the mid-1990s continues to schedule and to cost. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced to the House last week the revised estimate for Trident.

For the fourth year running, this showed a fall in the real cost. At £9,380 million, the current estimate is, in real terms, over £1-5 billion less than the original 1982 estimate. This fall does not include the large savings arising from our decision to process United Kingdom missiles at Kings Bay, Georgia. The proportion of Trident spending estimated to fall in the United Kingdom now stands at 69 per cent., the highest recorded so far.

Two Vanguard-class submarines have already been ordered from Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited, where their construction is well advanced. We hope to order the third in the spring and to issue the tender for the fourth submarine later this year.

The United States missile programme is also going well. The programme of ground-launched missile test firings was completed last year. Six successful flights of missiles fired from a submerged submarine have now taken place, showing that the causes of the two early unsuccessful flights have been remedied. The United States Navy is on schedule to deploy the Trident II D5 system for the first time in March.

The vast bulk of the procurement budget goes on the conventional equipment programme. At its peak, the Trident programme is due to absorb less than 11 per cent. of the equipment budget and should on average take up less than 3 per cent. of the total defence budget across the procurement period. It remains outstanding value for money. As the programme progresses, some £4.7 billion has been committed so far, of which about £2.7 billion has been spent.

Trident remains by far and away the most effective means of providing a credible deterrent. No other use of the resources to be spent on Trident would provide a level of deterrence approaching it. Finally, it is worth noting that maintaining a British nuclear deterrent sustains many thousands of jobs in the United Kingdom which depends on it.

As the House will recall, in December I announced the order for three more type 23 frigates, bringing to 10 the number of this class ordered. HMS Norfolk, the first of class, was accepted from Yarrow Shipbuilders in November, and is one of two new first-of-class ships delivered to the Royal Navy in 1989.

HMS Norfolk is undergoing an extensive series of first-of-class trials to prove her many new systems and equipments. For her primary role of anti-submarine warfare she is fitted with both towed array and bow sonar. Her anti-submarine weapon is the ship or air-launched Stingray torpedo. Her surface armament includes Harpoon missiles and, for naval gunfire support, a 4.5 in gun. For self defence, she has the first fit of the new vertical-launch Sea Wolf missile system. She has an extensive range of the latest sensors and communications equipment, and a new computer-aided command system is being developed. Another new feature is the combined gas and electric propulsion system. Rolls-Royce Spey gas turbines are used for medium and high speeds, while the GEC diesel-electric drive minimises underwater noise during ASW operations and gives high endurance at cruising speeds. Also noteworthy is the fact that the type 23's complement of about 170 is about 50 fewer than a Leander and 100 less that a type 22.

The type 23 is designed to operate the ASW variant of the EH101 helicopter and can also operated Lynx or Sea Kings. The Defence Committee published on Friday its report into the EH101 helicopter. I thank the Committee for its report and welcome it. I agree with the Committee's assessment of the importance of this helicopter for the Royal Navy. The programme is now proceeding well despite some earlier slippages and technical difficulties.

We are naturally keen to get the EH101 into service as early as possible, but I welcome the committee's recognition in its report that it would be wrong for the Ministry of Defence to commit itself to production until it is fully satisfied about the performance of the helicopter and its cost. We share the Committee's concern about the original contractual arrangements, which we intend to improve by negotiating a maximum price with Westland for its share of developing the airframe and by appointing a prime contractor next year to be responsible for the overall performance of the helicopter, including all its mission system equipment. Our proposed new arrangements will ensure that, when it enters service with the Navy, the EH101 will be the most advanced and capable anti-submarine warfare helicopter in the world.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

As the Select Committee report pointed out, the programme is a year behind and will cost perhaps £1 billion more than expected. Will my hon. Friend say a word about staff targets, which seem to change almost faster than traffic lights? Time after time they offer a windfall to defence contractors and are a licence to print money at public expense. Are there plans to change the way in which the Procurement Executive determines staff targets before development and research is undertaken?

Mr. Neubert

That was an extraordinarily sceptical view of the procurement process. Everything that has been said in the debate underlines the fast-moving technology involved in defence equipment. One must take into account the continuing changes in the threat and the need to counter it. We therefore seek to get the best possible value for money and the most effective operational response. That will always be a matter of judgment, and it cannot be fixed in time, because any major project will take several years to develop. It would be folly not to take account of changes that occur in the interim.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The Minister completely dodged the conclusion of the Select Committee report that the Ministry of Defence's delay, and indecision and its changing of the targets substantially caused the overrun in cost and time. Does he realise with what sense of deja vu I must yet again say that the Government are doing serious damage to a national product—the Westland helicopter—through this delay and indecision? Will he give an undertaking that the decision to put out to tender the mission systems integration on Merlin will not cause one extra day of delay, given that the type 23 frigate is already four years late? Has he any idea what he is now placing in jeopardy? He is placing in jeopardy serious possibilities of transatlantic orders for the EH 101 from the Canadians, Westland's capacity to manage the system effectively, making the best use of taxpayers' money and the defence of Britain's sea lanes, of which he spoke so eloquently a few moments ago.

Mr. Neubert

If I were one of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents working for Westland, I am not sure that I would find that helpful. Such comments at this stage can only damage the company. That is not the Ministry's view of the position. I am sure that the House will understand that when a Select Committee publishes a report it is normal procedure for due time to be given to consider it. Out of courtesy to the House, and as the report is said to be relevant to the debate, I have today given our first response; a more formal considered response will be given in due course. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman waits for that.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

The Minister must come clean. Is it not true that when this plane was first proposed its specifications were not tight enough to put a maximum cost on it? I understand that discussions are being held on its final cost, but is it not true that, as the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) said, yet again the goal posts have been moved? The companies involved do not know what the final specifications are. How can a maximum cost be placed on the plane when the Ministry of Defence has not given a final specification?

Mr. Neubert

As I said, these are matters for current negotiation. There is no question of reaching a conclusion across the Floor of the House this afternoon on a matter for negotiation between the Ministry of Defence and the company concerned. I think that it would be in everyone's best interests if we left it at that.

Our force of destroyers and frigates stands at 48 vessels, of which 44 are available for operations immediately or within a short period. We remain committed to a force of about 50 and we plan to order sufficient ships to meet that commitment. We have ordered three more vessels in each of the last two years, and we hope to invite tenders for a further batch of ships later this year.

The other first-of-class ship accepted in 1989 was HMS Sandown, the first of five single-role minehunters ordered for the Royal Navy. We hope to invite tenders for a further batch in the near future. We are confident that this vessel has the best capability of any minehunter in the world. Her sophisticated variable depth sonar is ahead of any elsewhere in the world. She can operate throughout continental shelf waters and can manoeuvre and maintain station close to a mine in those exposed waters using its vectored thrust propulsors. She has an automatic ship positioning system which is essential to deal with mines under all weather conditions and her computerised command system, Nautis, provides the means of planning the many activities needed to co-ordinate the operation of sonar, ship and weapon systems. Having been on board her only last Thursday, I am very pleased, and not at all surprised, at the interest that has been shown in this vessel by other navies, seeking minehunting capabilities.

The Royal Navy can be proud of these two new classes of ship. Three other new classes have also been ordered by the Government—the Vanguard and Upholder classes of submarine, and the auxiliary oiler replenishment vessel. These five new classes account for 23 of the 67 major vessels that we have ordered since 1979 and further orders of all five classes are planned. I should also mention that two vessels of the Trafalgar class hunter-killer nuclear submarine are being built at VSEL in Barrow and HMS Chatham, the last of a class of 14 type 22 frigates, was accepted from her builders in November.

We are also now considering tenders for a new aviation support ship. This vessel will provide dedicated helicopter lift in support of the United Kingdom-Netherlands amphibious force. We hope to be able to make an announcement later this year. Equally important to the amphibious capability are the assault ships, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. As the House knows, we have been considering the results of studies into how best to maintain this element of the amphibious force, either by ship life extension or new build. We shall be able to reach a final decision on this important question only after full and detailed examination of the complex issues involved.

Following our decision to withdraw from the NFR90 project, it remains our plan to procure an anti-air warfare escort ship to come into service at the turn of the century to replace the type 42 destroyers, and we are now considering how best to meet this requirement.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Hertfordshire, North)

My hon. Friend has recently reviewed the major naval procurement programme of the 1980s. Will he reflect on the fact that the two major operational commitments during that period were the battle in the south Atlantic and, more recently, the Armilla patrol's participation in the affairs of the Gulf war? When considering the procurement of these further ships, especially frigates, in the 1990s, will my hon. Friend take into account the great importance of assessing in advance possible out-of-area roles so that this dimension is given due weight, as well as the traditional NATO tasks?

Mr. Neubert

My right hon. Friend brings valuable ministerial experience to this matter. We shall certainly take full account of his point. We shall consider all options. Collaboration has not been ruled out, should suitable opportunities emerge. The House will recall that, in December, I announced that, subject to the satisfactory conclusion of negotiations with the other participating nations, we will be joining the project definition phase of the local area missile system variant of the family of anti-air missile systems, linked to our plans to procure a new generation AAW escort.

Further fleet nuclear-powered submarines are planned; feasibility studies into this future generation of submarines are drawing to a successful conclusion and planning for the next phase of the programme is under way.

We are updating our existing Sea Harrier aircraft, and plan to procure a number of the FRS2 version. Our sensor capability and weapons system will be modernised arid improved as necessary and appropriate.

All this represents a continuing programme of major investment by the Government in the Royal Navy. Our policies will leave the Navy well equipped for the many and varied tasks that it has to face.

Despite the remarkable changes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, our overall maritime strategy will continue to be appropriate for the foreseable future. 'The Royal Navy is as necessary today to our peace arid prosperity as it ever has been.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

The Minister acknowledged earlier that there have been great changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and that a number of treaties that will reduce the nuclear capabilities of both sides are in the offing or have already been signed. Why does the Minister propose to maintain—or even expand—expenditure on naval forces, when he admits that there is no perceived enemy?

Mr. Neubert

I have not admitted anything of the sort. The hon. Member cannot have done me the courtesy of listening to what I have had to say, as my whole speech has been dedicated to emphasising the continuing role of the Royal Navy. Maritime forces continue to be needed to contribute to the security of our homeland—the hon. Gentleman's and ours—to provide, deploy and protect our strategic deterrent and, with our allies, to provide vital protection to our reinforcements and resupply in time of tension or conflict.

In short—let me spell it out for the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn)—Britain's economic well-being, security and worldwide interests depend on the freedom of the high seas which the Royal Navy is committed to maintaining. The Royal Navy's tasks remain as challenging as ever. Its role will be as crucial as before and its unique contribution to the defence of our freedom deserves the appreciation and support of the House.

4.22 pm

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

I echo the Minister's condemnation of those who perpetrated the horrendous bombing at Deal. The Opposition take this further opportunity to offer their sympathy to the parents, friends and other loved ones of those who were killed or injured.

I shall follow the Minister in prefacing my remarks with a few comments on the far-reaching changes in eastern Europe and the changing nature of the perceived threat in view of those changes. The talks between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev, while not producing any historic new agreements, nevertheless showed that relations between the two super-powers would continue to improve.

The changes in eastern Europe have been staggering. The breaking down of the Berlin wall inevitably led to the end of Communist rule in the DDR and raised a whole series of questions about the reunification of Germany. The important and complex question appears to be about the pace of change rather than the principle of change.

Change has happened where it was expected and where it was unexpected. During the past few years, Poland and Hungary have been changing. The efforts of Solidarity in Poland had had a profound effect and resulted in a non-Communist Prime Minister heading a Polish Government. There were also changes in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, but none were so dramatic as those in Romania. After decades of rule by the Ceausescu dynasty, the dictatorship fell in just a few days and Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were shot. The uprising of the population was instrumental in achieving a change that hon. Members on both sides of the House hope will lead to a multi-party democracy.

Mr. Leigh

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boyes

No. I want to make progress first.

This weekend we read in our newspapers of possible changes—I put it no higher than that—in the Soviet Union itself. Gorbachev faces mountainous economic and nationalist problems. A large demonstration was held in Moscow at the weekend. The BBC commentators to whom I listened as I travelled down to London this morning said that the demonstration in Moscow could not be compared with the ferocity of the demonstrations in Romania.

The changes and liberalisations have implications for the Warsaw pact, which no longer exists as a monolithic unit. At the moment we cannot know the nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw pact. However, we can predict that it is unlikely that the Poles, Hungarians and others would take part in a united invading force. That has implications for NATO.

If there is a major threat from the East, defence spending has some justification. However, if we agree that the threat no longer exists, the corollary is that defence spending can be cut. Cuts have been made in France, Germany and the United States. As the United Kingdom has welcomed the changes and the march to democracy in the Eastern bloc, the logical step should be cuts in the United Kingdom's defence budget. However, the Prime Minister is clearly sticking to her cold war tactics.

Mr. Leigh


Mr. Boyes

We face increases in spending instead of decreases and that does not make sense.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boyes

If the Government have a genuine desire to keep President Gorbachev in power, it could be expressed by less provocative military activity. At the moment Gorbachev continues his balancing act, but we do not know how long he will be secure in his present position. Gorbachev has captured the imagination of many people as a result of his statements calling for a more stable and peaceful world. However, he could be replaced by the Yeltsin or the Ligachev wings of the party.

Over the weekend the press reported that the Communist party hopes to loosen its grip on the USSR. The Sunday Timessaid: The Soviet Union could take a first, momentous step towards free elections this week when Mikhail Gorbachev launches a radical programme to end the Communist party's monopoly of power.

Today's Evening Standard carries the headline " Gorbachev: It's change or die.

However, there are comments from the two wings of the Communist party and it is obvious that President Gorbachev must perform a balancing act. The Evening Standard reports: Mr. Yeltsin told the throng that the party had 'one last chance' to change or it would be swept aside. A number of people in the demonstration over the weekend held up banners which, the Evening Standardreports, showed that the people understood the need for more energetic reforms but expressed concern…that the enemies of perestroika had stepped up their efforts. Many of the banners denounced conservative figures such as Yegor Ligachev.

Mr. Leigh


Mr. Mates


Mr. Boyes

I make it clear that I will give way only a few times.

Mr. Leigh

The hon. Gentleman is cantering round eastern Europe. We know all about that. Will he get back to the Royal Navy? I will put to the hon. Gentleman the same question as I put to my hon. Friend the Minister, and hope that I will get a similar response. No matter what happens in eastern Europe, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that no review is being carried out in the Labour party of its stated commitment to maintaining current ship levels in the Royal Navy?

Mr. Boyes

The hon. Gentleman said that I was cantering round eastern Europe, but I said that I was going to say a few words—as the Minister did—about that to set my remarks into some context. If the hon. Gentleman waits, I will answer his questions.

Mr. Mates

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boyes


The situation in the Soviet Union is unpredictable, although I believe that the changes, with or without Mr. Gorbachev, are now irreversible. It is clear that the Warsaw pact will not be reconstructed quickly enough to allow it to attack the West.

I now refer to the important point of my speech and the first major disagreement with the Government.

Mr. Mates


Mr. Boyes

Opposition Members welcome progress on chemical, nuclear and conventional forces, which were mentioned by the Minister. However, we diverge on NATO maritime arms reductions.

Mr. Mates


Hon. Members

Give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Mr. Boyes

It makes no difference what the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) is. I shall give him an opportunity to intervene later. I am making my speech in the manner and at the pace that I want.

I challenge the Government's wholly negative attitude to naval arms control. Whether their obstructionism is yet another example of the workings of the so-called special relationship, or whether it is simply the Prime Minister's prejudiced nationalism, one cannot tell. But Britain, which could have a central role in reducing the danger of war at sea and cutting forces on all sides, has a Government who are being as obstinate as usual.

When the Foreign Secretary went to Washington last September to see the United States Secretary of State, James Baker, he was supposedly to explain Britain's position on Soviet naval arms control proposals. He agreed with the United States' position, and the answer was a straight no. Part of the problem is that the Soviets have been insisting that naval arms control negotiations should take place within the forum of the conventional forces in Europe talks. That makes it easy for NATO to say no, as it is patently true that, by including naval forces, we would add enormous complexity to negotiations which, so far, are going rather well. Attempts to trade off Soviet ground force superiority against NATO naval superiority are unlikely to have a positive outcome.

The problem of an inappropriate forum is a convenient cover for the real reasons for British and United States opposition to naval arms control. They simply do not want to give up the power and status that come from having large, capable and influential neighbours. Hawkish naval analysts now say that we should simply wait for perestroika to do the work of cutting the Soviet navy rather than negotiate mutual cuts. That way, they argue, the West gets a reduced Soviet maritime threat while avoiding any cuts in its own forces. That view is short-sighted.

If we really want to help Gorbachev to succeed, and if we really want to reduce East-West tension and put an end to the obscene and obsessive levels of armaments on both sides, we must take some bold steps towards demilitarising international relations. If NATO truly believes that Soviet Union attack submarines are a serious threat, why not take up their offer of scrapping 100 of them in exchange for the United States scrapping five, six or seven of its aircraft carriers? At least the United States might then have a say in which attack submarines are scrapped or limited, whereas leaving it to the other side's budget decision can hardly be described as a rational approach to arms control.

The strategic arms reduction talks, which are once again showing promising signs of movement, must still deal conclusively with the problem of sea-launched cruise missiles. The United States says that limits on them are impracticable because it is not possible to verify which are nuclear-armed and which are conventionally armed. That is a predictable plea, as those weapons were deliberately built to obscure the difference between the two versions. The intention was to force the Soviets to track all SLCM-armed ships and submarines just in case they might be carrying the nuclear land attack version.

What of the verification problem? Last summer, scientists from the United States natural resources defence council and the Soviet academy of sciences conducted experiments on board the Soviet Slava cruiser to see whether nuclear warheads could be detected by gamma ray and neutron detectors. The tests, including some from a helicopter up to 70 m away, showed that it was possible to detect which weapons were nuclear and which were conventional.

Last November, three prominent United States physicists published in Sciencea paper which proposes yet another way around the verification problem. Their solution involved non-intrusive verification, thereby overcoming the United States navy's objection that it did not want Russians crawling over its ships.

It is notable that, as long ago as 1973, the United States observers could tell that Soviet ships entering the Mediterranean during the middle east war were not carrying nuclear weapons, whereas those leaving the Mediterranean were. If the capability existed then, why does the United States say that it does not exist now? Perhaps the answer is simple. The Americans have the technology and they know that the Soviets do not. As long as the United States continues its "neither conform nor deny" policy, that forces the Soviets to track every vessel. Why should the United States navy give up its enormous tactical advantage?

Those are not just super-power questions. An often forgotten part of Britain's maritime forces is the stock of nuclear depth bombs carried by Royal Navy helicopters and by Royal Air Force Nimrods. At the best of times, that capability was a questionable military ability. There are no conceivable circumstances in which British independent maritime tactical nuclear capability could be used to military effect. Dropping a nuclear depth bomb would make our own, as well as Soviet, anti-submarine warfare impossible for many miles around. Modern conventional torpedos are just as effective at destroying submarines. The use of nuclear depth bombs runs an enormous risk of further nuclear escalation.

Sir Anthony Buck (Colchester, North)

Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the previous Labour Administration were right to update the nuclear deterrent by modernisation and the introduction of Chevaline without telling the House? Has he talked to his friends? Has Labour party policy completely altered? Does he now say that Britain should never have its own nuclear deterrent? Is the Opposition's policy now completely unilateralist? Has the hon. Gentleman reconciled that policy with his predecessors on the Labour Front Bench who updated our nuclear deterrent without telling the

Mr. Boyes

I shall answer the point on nuclear depth bombs, which arose among what seemed to be a series of accusations and questions. I am not responsible for what happened in the years before I entered the House. The disposal of these senseless weapons would be an eminently suitable course. Nor would it be a dangerous precedent. The United States navy unilaterally retired 1,100 of its naval tactical nuclear weapons last April, recognising that they no longer had any practical military purpose. The distinguished admiral, Sir James Eberle, said: I have never encountered circumstances where I would be tempted to seek approval for the use of these tactical naval nuclear weapons". Vice-Admiral Henry C. Mustin, former deputy chief of naval operations in the United States, said: The concept of a nuclear war at sea is a concept whose time has passed. Many people complain about the West losing the arms control public relations battle to Gorbachev. Scrapping our nuclear depth bombs could be a way of fighting back as they are militarily useless, morally abhorrent, obsolescent and costly to maintain. What better time to get rid of them? However, there may be a glimmer of light. At the Malta summit at the end of last year, Mr. Gorbachev called for a ban on tactical nuclear weapons on surface war ships. President Reagan's former chief arms control adviser—no faint-hearted liberal—described the proposal as "very positive and constructive".

Another prominent figure recently to emerge in favour of cuts in naval nuclear weapons is the former chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe. Before his retirement last October, he was a powerful advocate of increasing military spending, but now he states publicly that a ban on naval nuclear weapons can only be good. Most hearteningly, he admits that his view shifted after a series of talks with his Soviet counterpart, Marshal Akhromeyev, last year and after a series of extensive visits to Soviet military facilities, which showed him at first hand the reality of the changes in Soviet military posture and expenditure.

For those interested in how much personal experiences can shake the most solid institutional prejudices, I strongly recommend a reading of Admiral Crowe's revealing personal account of his visits to Soviet naval facilities on the Black sea. This was published in the "United States Naval Institute Proceedings" last October, just before the admiral retired.

I appeal to the Minister to follow Admiral Crowe's example and reconsider his so far entirely negative policy on naval arms control. The Secretary of State should heed the words of the commandant of the royal naval college at Greenwich, who said recently: Given imagination, vision and courage, there is potential for sensible consideration of maritime arms control regimes and advantages too. That was published in the Council for Arms Control bulletin in August 1989. Many people would like to think that warships on the high seas are a breed apart, somehow immune to changes in land-based military postures. That position is now untenable. We should be working to ensure that we have a maritime policy that is appropriate to the international climate, is affordable, and enhances security.

On maritime strategy, I am again unable to go down the same route as the Minister. One of the principal features of current Royal Navy posture is the forward maritime strategy. As the House will know by now—although not by reading Government documents on the subject—the Royal Navy's principal task in wartime is to provide anti-submarine support to United States navy carrier battle groups that will steam into the Norwegian sea to mount offensive air operations against Soviet naval bases in the Kola peninsula. The offensive operations dictated by this strategy are extremely costly. They demand highly complex ships fitted with the most sophisticated electronics, hardened against nuclear and chemical attack, bristling with self-defence weaponry, loaded to the gunwales with ammunition to sustain high rates of fire, and surrounded by an armada of other vessels on, above and below the surface, all dedicated to the survival of the capital ship.

Because these offensive operations involve fighting possibly lengthy battles at sea many hundreds of miles from the United Kingdom, the logistics chain is also massive and highly costly—huge fuel and armaments depots, such as the new multi-million-pound depot at Crombie in Fife, and expensive new vessels for refuelling and re-arming combat ships in the most hostile conditions at sea. We have gold-plated navies that swallow up vast sums of taxpayers' money, line the pockets of the arms manufacturers, and use highly advanced technology which frequently does not work. The disaster of the shooting down of an Iranian airbus by the USS Vincennes was a classic example of technology gone mad: of billions of dollars spent on a system that encouraged the crew to believe in its infallibility—with tragic results.

The other consequence of our adherence to a forward maritime strategy is neglect of our own coastal defences. Not only are the ships not there, since they spend their time hanging on to the coat tails of the United States carrier battle groups flexing their muscles off the Kola peninsula, but even if the Royal Navy spent more time round our coasts the ships that we have now would be quite unsuitable. Nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines are useless in shallow waters, and even the new Upholder class diesel submarine has been designed as a mini hunter-killer, making it unnecessarily complex for coastal tasks.

Fears have been expressed by a number of senior NATO military men that budget cuts in the United States will lead to the United States navy reducing its commitment to forward defence. The Dutch navy chief of staff recently used this argument as a platform to propose a greater European naval role in the north-east Atlantic to make up for United States withdrawals. Substituting European forces for United States forces in this way sounds desirable, but we must be careful to understand just what such a proposal would mean. The Dutch navy—like our own—is shaped as much by its historical role in protecting a far-flung empire as by a realistic assessment of the present-day threat. As a result, the Dutch have a navy out of all proportion to the size and international political role of the Netherlands.

Understandably, Dutch naval chiefs want to keep it that way. The all-European force suggested by Admiral Van Foreest would be, in effect, nothing more than a reinforcement of the status quo. He argues so himself: This would fit well with United States forward maritime strategy…In the event of a crisis, our main task would be to keep the Norwegian sea clear for the United States strike fleet. What we need is not a change in the nationality of the people carrying out the United States maritime strategy but a change in the strategy itself, in keeping with the changes in Soviet posture and with our own security interests and ability to pay.

The Labour party opposes a forward offensive maritime strategy for Britain and NATO in the eastern Atlantic. It was inappropriate and dangerous from the start, but we must now take account of the effects of massive political and military changes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union on the maritime situation, just as everyone in NATO, except this Government, has been seriously reassessing strategy in relation to central Europe.

Mr. Ian Bruce

The hon. Gentleman makes it sound as though the Labour party is again becoming wedded to what happened when it was last in power—doing away with all the aircraft carriers. The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that these capital ships cost too much to protect. We had to call them through-deck cruisers to get away from the Labour party's policy of doing away with aircraft carriers. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that, during the Falklands war and in all the other emergencies in which the Navy has been involved, the Harrier air force has been required. Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether it is now Labour party policy to do away with aircraft carriers and with our Harriers? The logic of his argument is that that is how the party wants to go.

Mr. Boyes

It would be interesting to know what the Government—the hon. Gentleman's party is in power and is making the decisions—are going to do about Fearless and Intrepid. The hon. Gentleman should have addressed his question to the Government if he was really interested—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State intervenes from a sedentary position. He knows full well that his Government have had many years to make a decision about these matters but have never done so.

Mr. Speed

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boyes


Some people now argue that the impending conclusion of a CFE agreement, combined with budget-led withdrawals of United States troops and the greater warning time now available to NATO of any Warsaw pact attack mobilization—if we assume for the moment that such an organisation as the Warsaw pact will continue to exist—means that more stress should be placed on naval forces and the forward defence of sea line communications between north America and Europe. I wonder whether this is just a rearguard action being fought by fans of the big Navy strategy. In the event of a crisis, our main task would be to keep the Norwegian sea clear for the United States strike fleet. What we need is not a change in the nationality of the people carrying out the strategy, but a change in the strategy itself, in keeping with Soviet posture and with our security interests and ability to pay.

Mr. Cohen

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way—[interruption] He is very good at giving way for points that he knows will be relevant. My hon. Friend talked about the strategy in the Norwegian sea. Does he agree that that strategy can be summed up thus: the Royal Navy goes in, takes on the Russians and gets blown to pieces, and the United States Navy goes in afterwards and does the mopping up? Our fleet takes the brunt. Is not that the strategy that the Government have adopted?

Mr. Boyes

My hon. Friend, as usual employing superb language, describes exactly what might happen in the event of such an incident.

Let us consider this matter in the cold light of day, untrammelled by memories of empire or an overblown sense of the power of the red ensign. War between East and West is less likely than at any time in the post-war period. Every other week, the Pentagon 'issues or leaks a new assessment which shows what nonsense the idea of a Soviet-led attack on western Europe is—I am sticking to capabilities, not intentions, as that is what the hawks always tell us to do.

In those circumstances, if the Warsaw pact geared itself up to attack, its forces would be incapable of sustained combat. There would be a short war, not the long war assumed by the proponents of strong naval escort forces in the eastern Atlantic and a forward maritime strategy. There would be no point in bottling up the Soviet fleet in the Barents sea to stop it sinking convoys en route to Europe with war supplies because there would be no convoys; the war would be over before the cranes had finished loading them in the United States ports.

I have always believed that a substantial element in the forward maritime strategy, particularly in its United States embodiment in the period since 1980, was a desire by naval commanders to give their sailors more action in peacetime. A navy which never comes into contact with its supposed enemy is one that does not believe in itself enough, is not combat ready and, more importantly, is bored.

The forward maritime strategy has brought a great deal more excitement into many sailors' lives. There have been cat-and-mouse games between submarines under arctic ice, intelligence-gathering missions close to Soviet territorial waters and mock air attacks on Soviet strategic bases, turning away from Soviet air space only at the last moment. Much as I respect the Navy and its personnel, the time has come to behave more rationally and coolly on maritime issues, stop the threatening and provocative exercises and dangerous postures and address the possibilities of naval arms control in a serious and co-operative mood.

I shall now say a few words about Polaris. Over the years—

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark)

Is the hon. Gentleman going to read all that?

Mr. Boyes

No. The Minister speaks from a sedentary position. I respect the hon. Gentleman and do not expect such behaviour from him. I have not spoken for anywhere near as long as the Minister did.

Over the years Ministers and Ministry of Defence officials have issued a number of statements that no Polaris submarine has ever been detected or tracked on patrol. The impression has always been created that Polaris operates in an entirely independent and self-reliant manner, using stealth to avoid detection, rather than relying on other systems such as aircraft and hunter-killer submarines to provide anti-submarine cover.

In the 1988 "Statement on the Defence Estimates", a new role for the Royal Navy appeared: protecting the deployment of our strategic deterrent. In the 1988–89 defence estimates, that role was seemingly promoted to become the foremost of the Navy's three tasks, coming before containment of the Soviet northern fleet and the protection of reinforcement shipping. That was an amazing revelation because it showed that Polaris was not self-reliant but required a major effort by other Royal Navy and Air Force units to protect it. As that is now stated officially in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates", will the Minister come clean and say what level of resources are being expended on the protection of Polaris submarines on patrol? It has been the convention that the declared costs of Britain's strategic nuclear forces are limited to the capital and operating costs of the Trident and Polaris fleets. It now seems that we should add some of the costs of anti-submarine patrols by ships, aircraft, and other submarines, including part of the cost of building some of those vessels.

This is a fundamental question: will the Minister explain clearly to the House why the role of protecting the deployment of the strategic deterrent was never mentioned in the annual Statements on the Defence Estimates until 1988, and now stands as the first of three roles for the maritime forces? Has Soviet open-ocean anti-submarine warfare advanced dramatically, in complete contradiction of the United States intelligence evidence which I quoted earlier? Have the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on Polaris refits in recent years failed to produce a boat that can operate independently without fear of detection? As the Minister failed to answer those questions when I asked them in a previous debate, will he provide an answer either in this debate or by letter?

We now know that nine Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines, including Polaris, probably—I can rely only on what the Minister can tell me—have cracks in their nuclear reactor cooling circuits. The Minister has never come clean on the present position. Information that has come to my notice suggests a seriousness greater than the Government are prepared or willing to admit. HMS Warspite may have a fault that is unrepairable. There are several dangers in relation to the generation of submarines built in the 1950s and 1960s.

I faxed a letter to the Secretary of State on 31 January 1990 in which I asked him seven questions, some of which related to assurances being given to the local population because of the possible danger if any major problem occurred while the boats were in dock. The Opposition believe that in view of the perceived seriousness of the problem, the prime importance must be the safety and security of crews working on the boats and the workers at the various dockyards who are carrying out the repairs.

In his book "Submarine versus Submarine" Commander Richard Compton Hall, MBE, RN said: A total coolant failure in any nuclear plant is disastrous and inevitably leads to the melt down of the core. Western submariners are absolutely certain that these safety devices and back-up systems will never allow this to happen. The Russians said the same until Chernobyl. I do not know whether the Minister who is to sum up has been briefed about the questions that I asked the Secretary of State and whether we can expect an answer to each of the questions. A number of people need assurances about the condition of those submarines. My hon. Friends and I believe that some of the submarines—if they are in the state which I suspect them to be—should be taken out of commission and docked, along with HMS Dreadnought, until the Government at long last determine what to do with such boats.

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

I answered the hon. Gentleman's letter this afternoon. That letter should be on the board, and was there at 3.30 pm, I believe. If he wishes, I shall certainly repeat the message in the letter when I sum up.

Mr. Boyes

One of my hon. Friends will get the letter for me, and I shall see what it has to say.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is discourteous of the Minister to send the letter only today and say that he will refer to it in his wind-up speech? That means that the rest of the House is denied the information in the letter. It leaves us in a difficult position, because if we go on asking questions we shall be told that we shall be given the answers at the end of the debate. It would have been far better if the information had been available to the House so that we could have pursued relevant questions in the debate, rather than muck about in the dark.

Mr. Boyes

I now have one of the letters from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. It is right to read it on to the record. It says: You wrote to Tom King on 31 January about nuclear powered submarines. I have been asked to reply. As I am sure that you appreciate, detailed information relating to the design and operation of nuclear powered submarines is classified. I cannot, therefore, comment on the specific nature of the defect which was discovered in one of our boats except to say that it had potential safety implications; that the necessary action is being taken to deal with it; and that, as a prudent precaution, we are inspecting other nuclear powered submarines as they come alongside from their operational tasks. Against that background I can give you the assurance you require about the safety of the personnel who are engaged in the inspection of those boats which are at present in harbour and of the population of the surrounding areas. I should emphasise that there has been no leak of radioactivity as a result of this defect; and that we have very high standards for our nuclear submarines both in port and at sea. I can assure you that the decision to keep submarines at sea on operational tasks, pending inspection when they return to port has been taken in the light of independent safety advice. The Royal Navy's submarines operate within tried and tested safety margins and we regard the safety of submarine crews as of paramount importance. You also asked about early decommissioning of Valiant and Resolution Class submarines. We see no reason for such action. In conclusion, the inspections we are carrying out are a prudent precaution; there has been no radiation leak or injury to anyone; the Government attaches the highest importance to nuclear safety; and our action is part of that policy. I hope this is helpful.

I thank the Minister for that reply. My only regret is that I received it in the middle of my speech. If it could be on the board at half past 3, it could just as easily have been available at a quarter past 3. I regret the way in which the Government treat the Opposition in replying to to a series of questions of which they were given considerable notice.

People are worried about this matter. The Minister's letter was fairly bland and did not give the assurance required by Opposition Members and, more particularly, by the population where the boats are docked.

We are equally concerned about submariners. Having read the Minister's letter, I am still of the opinion that some of the boats should be decommissioned and taken out of action. The evidence that I received over the weekend which is independent of the Government, suggests that the boats are not as safe and secure as the Government want us to believe. There are some serious faults in the submarines, people could be in danger and submariners could be at risk.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King)

That is insulting to the Royal Navy.

Mr. Sayeed

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boyes


I shall write a further letter to the Secretary of State asking for more detailed replies to some more detailed questions.

The Secretary of State made a remark from a sedentary position about Royal Navy personnel. But I am directing my remarks at Ministers. I have as much admiration and respect for naval personnel as any Conservative Member and any Minister. I am not happy with the reply that I have received, nor with the time at which I received it.

Mr. Sayeed

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will my hon. Friend press the Minister of State, either now or when he replies, to give an assurance that the operational power and skill on the boats will not have to be reduced as a result of the faults? When faults were found in civil reactors, it was necessary to run them at substantially below the originally intended capacity. Surely an assurance should be given that, as a result of the fault, submarines will not have to operate at below the originally designed capacity.

Mr. Boyes

I agree with that. My hon. Friend asks an important question—[Interruption.] The behaviour of the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, ill becomes someone in his position. We are discussing matters that are important to many people in the areas where the boats are docked. It was on behalf of those people that I asked the Secretary of State for assurances about the security and safety of submarines.

Mr. Sayeed

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boyes


These are important matters and this is the proper place for them to be aired and for Ministers to answer our questions. We must ensure that we have the full details. I shall write another letter to the Secretary of State. I hope that he will reply a little more quickly than he did to my previous letter.

Mr. Cohen

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the safety implications of nuclear reactor faults. Will he take this opportunity to ask the Minister of State why, if there is no problem—as he stated in his bland reply to my hon. Friend—so many of the submarines have returned to port? There must be a reason. According to the Government's own standards, they are leaving the country defenceless. If that is not the case, the submarines were no use in the first place. Does he agree that we must be given a reason why so many vessels returned to port?

Mr. Boyes

Yes. I am sure that the Minister has noted my hon. Friend's point, and that he will answer it.

Mr. Sayeed

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boyes

No, I want to conclude now. I understand from a Conservative Whip that many Conservative Members wish to speak in the debate. I shall take no more interventions from either Conservative or Opposition Members.

I wish to make several points about changes in the Soviet navy. I have outlined some of the reasons why there is a clear need for a change in maritime strategy. Perhaps it is most important to consider what has happened to Soviet naval forces. Again, last year's Statement on the Defence Estimates was no help. Of rather more value Was last year's edition of "Soviet Military Power", the Pentagon's annual glossy booklet, usually designed to boost congressional support for a higher defence budget. I draw the attention of the House to some of the highlights of the booklet on Soviet maritime forces: 20 major Soviet Navy surface combatants have been scrapped since 1987, and only a few of these have been replaced…Backfire bombers have finally been deployed with the Soviet Northern Fleet, more than ten years after the RAF was predicting their imminent appearance off the north of Scotland; Soviet naval activity outside home waters has declined 15 per cent. since 1985. Warsaw Pact methods for replenishment at sea are 'slow and primitive', such that major surface ships could not fight for prolonged periods; production rates for the latest surface ships and submarines have declined.

Before Conservative Members tell me that the Soviet navy is smaller and more capable and efficient as a result, I shall quote from page 111 of "Soviet Military Power"; Trends for the last five years have favoured NATO's naval forces. The Pact navies have been growing smaller, as fewer but more capable ships replace older models. NATO naval forces, however, have maintained their size. They also have been upgraded significantly in antisubmarine warfare, antisurface warfare and air defence capability…NATO navies also have engaged in integrated training exercises to improve their ability to conduct combined operations. The trend for the next five years will likely see NATO maintain its quantitative and qualitative edge in naval forces.

That is not just an American view. In the 1988 Statement on the Defence Estimates, it was grudgingly admitted that Soviet out-of-area deployments had declined over the past two years, but that was explained purely as a measure to make the Soviet Navy more operationally effective. In the small print, however—always worth reading in documents designed mainly for public relations—we find that Warsaw pact major surface warship production has been running at half the rate of NATO's, not counting France and Spain which have significant warship building programmes. The rate of production of attack submarines has been almost identical in East and West over the past 10 years, and production of the Soviet Union's newest nuclear-powered attack submarines was "below levels previously sustained". Those statistics are from the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1988, vol. 1, page 62.

Certainly, the Soviet Union continues to pour money into new submarines and now has a third aircraft carrier under construction. Despite that investment, more than 60 per cent. of the Soviet submarine fleet is more than 20 years old, and 30 per cent. is more than 30 years old. The United States navy says that the Soviets have only 30 submarines which could be described as modern, first-line anti-submarine platforms—that is about the same number as the United States Los Angeles class fleet.

Two years ago the director of submarine warfare for the United States navy rejected claims that the Soviet Union's latest nuclear-powered submarine, the Akula class, was superior to the Los Angeles class. He told Congress: Today's United States submarine force is unquestionably the best in the world. In terms of new carriers, Soviet officials have recently said that they expect heavy cuts in the navy's budget in the near future as perestroika starts to hit military spending. There is a large question mark over whether the third and largest Soviet aircraft carrier will ever be completed. The Pentagon itself rejects the idea that the other two will be used in any offensive role, but says rather that they will be used to improve the currently abysmal air defence cover of the Soviet Union's forward defences in the Norwegian sea.

I do not believe in complacency. If the Soviets are as sincere about naval arms control as they appear to be, they must be prepared to give up those aircraft carriers. If Mr. Gorbachev has ever seen any United States navy documents about the cost of running vessels of that size, he must be pressing for cancellation.

If the Soviet Union is sincere not just about reducing the size of its military force but about restructuring it in a defensive manner, what will be NATO's response? I sincerely hope that it will be different from the experience of Colonel Harry Summers, a former professor at the United States army war college. Last summer, he recounted how, in the late 1970s, he had listened to an admiral's briefing on the strategic rationale of the United States navy. Slide after slide depicted the Soviet naval threat and how it was being countered. At the end, the admiral asked an army general what he thought. "Very interesting", the general said, "but what you've just said is that if the Soviet navy sank tomorrow, we could do away with the United States navy." The admiral laughed. "You don't understand," he said. "If the Soviet navy sank tomorrow, I'd get me a new set of slides."

There is a legitimate role for our Navy and the decline in Soviet naval activity should enable us to reassess what that role should be. When we form the next Government we shall conduct a wide-ranging and thoroughgoing review.

I take this opportunity to praise all men and women of all ranks who serve this country on shore and at sea. The defence of our shores is essential, and we salute all the brave men and women in our forces.

5.13 pm

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) did not feel able to give way to me, because I wanted to ask a pertinent question. His attitude was in stark contrast to that of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), who is always very courteous in giving way in services debates. That characterises such debates. They may be robust but they are mostly to the point and we try to find things out. Some 52 minutes ago the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington spoke about what was happening in eastern Europe. I take no exception to that because we can only base debates on the future of our defence on what is happening on the other side.

Towards the end of his speech the hon. Gentleman said how out of tune the Government were and Mrs. Thatcher in particular—he named the Prime Minister—in not going the way of all the other countries in NATO. He said that we need defence cuts now. I tried to intervene because I wanted to ask him where we need defence cuts. Some 52 minutes later, we are no wiser. The hon. Gentleman wants defence cuts now but he is not prepared to tell us what should be cut, how that should be done and whether it will put any of our services, including the Royal Navy, at risk. We must take the hon. Gentleman's assertion, in the way that it was offered, as meaningless, because he was not prepared to be questioned on it. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has been on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I congratulate him on that.

Mr. Boyes

indicated dissent.

Mr. Mates

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. The need for the hon. Gentleman to increase his knowledge has been more than adequately shown, and I hope that the Secretary of State will note that.

In the past year, the Select Committee on Defence has continued to take an interest in the Royal Navy and last Session we published no fewer than four reports relating to it. We published a short report entitled "The Royal Navy's Surface Fleet: Current Issues", which monitored developments since we had compiled our major report on the future size and role of the Royal Navy in 1988. This time round we were able to report grounds for a little more optimism about the future of the destroyer frigate fleet than we had felt able to do in our earlier report, owing to the Government ordering three more type 23 frigates in 1988. Since that report, the Government have ordered three more from Swan Hunter and we warmly welcome that order.

Nevertheless there is still no room for complacency. Last year we said: There is still some way to go before a pattern of ship ordering is established which would guarantee that the escort fleet remains at 'around 50' ships". The ordering of three Duke class frigates is important, but I hope that the Minister will agree that of greater importance is the date at which they will be laid down—when work on them will begin—because that dictates the eventual date of entry into service.

I have a slight fear that there is a growing gap between ordering and laying down. It is common ground that we need about 2.6 ships laid down each year. That is about one every five months and that is not happening. Of the three whose orders were announced in July 1988, the Iron Duke was laid down in December 1988 and the Monmouth in August 1989; I believe that Mont rose has yet to be laid down but should be shortly. It would be helpful if, when announcing the placing of orders, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement did last December, the dates of laying down were also announced. It would be useful to hear from the Minister the laying down dates for Westminster, Northumberland and Richmond.

We also published a report on the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. That is a very difficult subject and our report sought to set out the facts about decommissioning and the options open to the Ministry for disposing of old submarines. This problem will not go away. The Ministry's policy of wait and see has some merits, but decisions will soon be necessary as Dreadnought is joined by more and more of her sisters.

The London dumping convention met in November and agreed to a ban on decommissioned nuclear submarines being dumped at sea, apparently against the wishes of the United Kingdom. The Ministry's immediate response, as reported in the press, suggested that there was still some possibility of the Government using sea dumping. It would be helpful to have on record the Minister's views of the implications for nuclear submarine decommissioning of the recent decisions of the London dumping convention. I make that request full of sympathy for the problems that confront the Department in respect of that difficult matter.

Our 10th report last Session was on the procurement of the vertical launch Sea Wolf missile system and the type 23 frigate command system. Both demonstrate the difficulties of accurately estimating the costs and time involved in software-intensive projects. It is a matter for regret that the type 23s will go into service without a computer-assisted command system, which will inevitably reduce their operational effectiveness. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister of State can give a better indication of progress with the new project than could my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

Last Session, as in many previous years, we published a report on the progress of the Trident programme. During that inquiry, we visited Kings Bay in Georgia, where Royal Navy personnel are in training. We shall update our inquiry again this year. Last week, the Committee received the Secretary of State's annual report on Trident. We shall study it in detail, but we all welcome the continuing reduction in Trident's real cost and the fact that there is no slippage in the in-service date. That programme is one of which everyone concerned can be very proud.

Just before Christmas, we visited the Falklands, and aside from seeing the good heart that everyone was in, with Christmas just coming—life is not easy, serving down in the south Atlantic—we had an entertaining evening on board HMS Penelope—the oldest frigate in the fleet by some way, having been commissioned in October 1963, when many of its crew had not yet been born. Last June, the Defence Committee was told that HMS Penelope could run on for a further four years, but I gather that the end may be nearer than that for her. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would clarify the position in respect of that frigate and of the older batch 2A frigates—the Leander class frigates—in general, as they approach a quarter of a century of service. As last year's report points out, there are growing penalties in terms of cost, time and manpower in keeping those frigates running.

While we were in the Falklands, we visited HMS Leeds Castle, which is an offshore patrol vessel more or less permanently stationed in the Falklands. Hers is not an enviable task, and in my judgment life for the ship's company—all of whom are on short-term postings—is not made easier by what seems to be the Admiralty's policy of posting a very high proportion of officers and crew who have given notice of their intention to retire prematurely and who thus work out their time in the Falklands. That obviously presents problems of morale, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence will reconsider its policy. I hasten to add that we were all the more impressed by the way in which all those on HMS Penelope went about their tasks.

Last Friday, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the Defence Committee published a report on the procurement of the EH 101 helicopter and the light attack helicopter, so that it would be available to right hon. and hon. Members today. The part of the report dealing with the anti-submarine warfare variant of the EH101, or the Merlin, is relevant to today's debate. I shall not run through all the Committee's observations, because I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will read the report for themselves, but I shall highlight a few of the points that it makes.

The success of the project is, as yet, far from assured. The Ministry must be satisfied that the development programme has progressed far enough and well enough for the project's success to be likely before placing production orders. The Ministry plans to order only 50 aircraft initially despite its acceptance that the operational requirement for them remains at 74. It will be interesting to hear how the operational requirement has altered to justify the change in the number ordered—unless it is simply a budgetary matter, in which case it would be more honest if we were told that.

It should be emphasised that a larger order could lead to a considerably lower unit cost than our estimate of about £40 million each for the 50 aircraft. We trust that if all goes well, an order for a second batch will follow the first. Again, the EH101 demonstrates the management problems inherent in international collaboration. If the trend towards greater collaboration and procurement is to continue, we must ensure that projects are tightly controlled.

In case any misunderstanding should arise from the remarks of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who seemed more concerned about his constituency than with the Navy's requirements, our report specifically states that problems of delay within the MOD belong to the past. The report observes, in paragraph 50: MOD have in the past contributed to their own difficulties, as a result of their inability to bring themselves to a position where their philosophy for mobility on the battlefield of the '90s and beyond could be stated, and thus a firm requirement determined. That does not apply to the naval version of the EH101, but it does apply to the helicopter requirements of all our services over the next decade.

Mr. Cohen

Will the hon. Gentleman, who is of course Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, say how much money is known to have been wasted by the Ministry of Defence on the EH101 project so far? What is the projected overspend? How much money has been wasted by the Government?

Mr. Mates

I shall not follow the hon. Gentleman in his pejorative words. The project is over-cost and over-time, and the figures are set out in the report. That is a matter for regret, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister regrets it as much as we do. However, to say that the effort has been wasted is to use a somewhat ignorant phrase. In the development of new weapons systems, what is waste and what is research? What is possible and what is not possible? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary acknowledges our concern, and his remarks reflected that. We are all concerned if a programme is late and running over cost—but it is not the first time that that has happened with new technology, and I fear that it will not be the last.

I conclude with a couple of observations that are mine alone and have nothing to do with the Defence Select Committee. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington spoke of naval arms reductions, and although I agree with some of his remarks, he reached entirely the wrong conclusions. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman colours all his remarks with a fundamental anti-Americanism that does no justice to his arguments. To say that it is the Americans who are being bellicose is to ignore the fact that it is largely due to their efforts that CFE got going as well as it did. We should give the Americans considerable credit. A meaningful agreement on reducing troop numbers in Europe would not be possible without the co-operation of the Americans.

As to naval arms reductions, it was inevitably right not to include them in the first round of the CFE talks. That would have caused delay and unbelievable complications, given that so many other problems that have nothing to do with Europe arise when the United States and the Soviet Union discuss their naval forces. The United States Navy keeps very nearly as many of its assets in the Pacific as in the Atlantic. The Soviet Union keeps a greater number of its naval assets in the Pacific, and that has nothing to do with the threats between NATO and the Warsaw pact. Their deployment there is due to other areas of instability in the Pacific rim, in which both super-powers have a legitimate interest.

However, I do not believe that another round of arms reduction talks can be embarked upon without naval forces being mentioned. I hope that our Government will say that for talks to be credible over the next three, four or five years, talks must begin on how we can wind down those parts of the West and Warsaw pact navies that affect the East-West balance of power.

A way must be found of keeping separate the need for stability in the Pacific rim, where the position of the Soviet Union and the United States grow more common rather than more different. As the Soviet Union encounters problems in its own territories, that trend may begin to be evident on the European scene. That is an exciting prospect. When we come to talk about naval reductions, once again it will mainly concern the Soviet Union and the United States. Although we should be present, supporting and participating, we must remember that we have to take care of places that could be under threat, where we have a legitimate interest, when we decide the future size and strength of our Royal Navy.

If I had to try to predict where we shall be in 10 years' time—it will have to be general because it will probably be wrong—I would say that if present trends continue in Europe we are likely to have smaller ground forces and smaller air forces, but I doubt whether we will find any reason to have a much smaller Navy.

For the past 40 years we have had to focus on the threat on the ground between a massively powerful Warsaw pact and NATO. As that threat diminishes, the relative necessity to cope with threats out of area, on the fringes, will grow. I believe that the threat has almost gone from the central front, but we must now focus more sharply on the threat on the northern flank and, in particular, on the southern flank. For example, Turkey, which is a full member of NATO, borders the Soviet Union—and Armenia at that—Iran, Syria and Iraq. We have a common purpose to defend Turkish integrity and Turkey has a common purpose to defend the integrity of western Europe. We must not forget that a threat still exists there, and that there is uncertainty and unpredictability. When that threat comes from fundamentalist Muslims, we must over-insure rather than under-insure. We shall always have a task for the Royal Navy.

I hope that the Minister will have something to say about amphibious replacements. I beg him to realise that, given that there may be reductions elsewhere, we cannot go through the next decade, when we will need more flexible, smaller armed forces, with our amphibious capability confined to roll-on/roll-off ferries after our two excellent amphibious carriers have gone. That prospect is not one that I would wish to contemplate.

5.32 pm

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

It is a pleasure for me to follow the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates). He is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, and I have been a member of that Committee for the past two years. During that time he has been a fair, objective and excellent Chairman. Perhaps that glowing reference will ensure that he will remain the chairman of that Back-Bench committee for many years to come.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement opened the debate with a reference to East-West relations. I congratulate him on referring to the changes in those relations, but he gave no hint of the Government's stance other than saying that it would be more of the same.

The Financial Times, in its front page on Saturday, had an article headed "Bush and Thatcher lead a chorus of approval". The article was not talking about defence cuts, but about South Africa. The Prime Minister was quoted as saying: When people are going your way in a bold and courageous style we should give them encouragement to make them go further and faster. The encouragement that she gave to Nelson Mandela and to Mr. de Klerk was to invite them to 10 Downing street before the ink on any agreement was dry. However, that does not apply to her stance on defence, when she says, "Here and no further." That is a complete antithesis to her approach to South Africa, and it highlights the inconsistency of Government policy.

What happened at the weekend? The Prime Minister called in the Foreign Secretary, according to The Observer, to reprimand him on his speech to the Conservative political centre at Wroxton two weeks ago. It says: Mr. Hurd looked forward to a time when large cuts in defence spending would make money available for improving the 'quality of life'. But the article also said that the Prime Minister does not believe that defence cuts are inevitable. So the Foreign Secretary had to appear on "The World This Weekend" last Sunday and retract what he said. There is no hint of a peace dividend from the Government.

Contrast that situation with what is happening in America at the moment. There is a reduction of more than 2.6 per cent. in the United States defence budget this year. The Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney, put his package to Congress and its response was that it was too timid. The United States has been reducing its budget since 1985. Contrast that with our stance. We have real growth in our defence budget of some £1 billion per year for the next three years. Compare that with the 13 per cent. reduction in the United States since 1985. We know that their five-year plan will continue on that downward path.

It is sad that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement cannot refer to a change in the Government's style in relation to the changing situation in Europe. Few people would deny that the system of alliances on which European security has rested for the past three and half decades, rigid as it was during the cold war, has been extensively undermined, and is rapidly becoming obsolescent. That implies that it is necessary to have an alternative framework for security for the entire continent.

A major requirement for any progress is that the United States and its leading NATO allies, such as ourselves, depart from the silly belief that NATO's most urgent task is to frustrate an attack on western Europe by a militant Soviet Union and its equally militant Warsaw pact allies. In at least three eastern European countries their Parliaments would have to decide if their forces could be used. So much for the militant Warsaw pact. There is not a militant approach by the Warsaw pact. I can appreciate that the Government are cautious, but surely they can come up with some intellectual thinking on defence issues during the next few years. The Government should say that we have a changing situation and that we support Gorbachev. If the Government support Gorbachev it is incumbent on them to consider and formulate a new defence posture. Sadly, we do not have that opportunity just now.

At the moment, institutional truth is evident. John Kenneth Galbraith mentioned institutional truth, which is different from simple truth. I am asking the Minister for simple truth, and not the institutional truth of the military industrial complex. Simple truth should make the Government face up to the changing realities in eastern Europe.

Consider our own Navy and nuclear depth bombs. Can I ask the Minister to respond to this in his summing up? The British nuclear free-fall depth bombs—the WE177B and 177C—which are on Royal Navy ships will become obsolete by the end of the decade. I believe that the decision to replace them will be taken in the next few months. There is widespread agreement that those weapons make no nuclear sense. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) referred to the arguments of the former Admiral Eberle on that subject. They are becoming increasingly redundant, and I would like the Minister to consider that.

My hon. Friend also mentioned Faslane and the nuclear reactors. That is in my constituency. The Select Committee on Defence has asked the Ministry of Defence for a note about the supposed faults in the nuclear reactor in HMS Warspite and others. To date, I have not been involved with the MOD on this issue, but I know that the Scottish papers had a lot to say about it at the weekend. A number of alarmist telephone calls have been made to different people, and they have told me that the language being used by the anonymous callers is very technical, and therefore gives the calls an element of credibility. I do not want to add to rumour-mongering, but the Government should consider the situation, and give us reasonable explanations of why there are so many boats in port at Faslane, Rosyth and Devonport.

I am informed that at Faslane, three Valiant class, two Resolution class, one Swiftsure and one diesel are in port at present. Why have those boats been recalled? We know that if there is a hairline fracture in the coolant systems which are manufactured by Roll-Royce in Derby, it could affect not just one boat by many. Certainly it is most unusual for all the Valiant class submarines to be in port at the same time, and it is possible that all the Valiant and Resolution class submarines have similar problems. The question is how serious the fault is in each submarine: if the Minister cannot give me an answer at the end of the debate, perhaps he will write to me setting out the views of the Ministry of Defence.

The hon. Member for Hampshire, East mentioned a number of investigations that the Select Committee is currently undertaking. One concerns the physical security of military installations. Mention has been made of the tragic accident at Deal in which 11 members of the Royal Marines were killed, and I join other hon. Members in expressing my sympathy. Like many other members of the Select Committee, I am worried about the use of private contractors—not just on that occasion, but in the future—and the evidence given to the Committee on Wednesday by MOD officials gave rise to more anxiety rather than less. It seems that, if a private contract is awarded for two or three years, it will be maintained regardless of lapses in security, rather than being cancelled immediately. There is widespread concern about that on both sides of the House, and I beg the Minister to take account of the problem for the sake of the security and safety of military personnel.

Last week I received a leaked internal memo which emanated from the divisional secretary of the ammunition division of Royal Ordnance. It reads: Unless we frighten the MOD into agreeing with our point of view, I see no prospect that we will achieve our objective. The objective to which he refers is the right to demand the withdrawal of the MOD police and to replace them with Royal Ordnance guards—a right that Royal Ordnance intends to exercise. That is rather alarming language.

As I said to the newspapers that contacted me at the weekend, I am on the side of the MOD. I believe that it should not give in to coercive tactics, but should stand its ground and take heed of the notes of a meeting on the withdrawal of its police held in the MOD building on 6 June 1989. Five deputy chief constables were asked for their views, and all of them—representing Nottingham, Cheshire, Lancashire, Gwent, and Avon and Somerset—expressed deep concern. The issue of private contractors will not go away, and I hope that the Minister will give it his attention.

A few weeks ago, the International Herald Tribune featured an article by Albert Wohlstatter, a military strategist involved in the mutually assured destruction strategy of the mid-1960s and a conservative by any definition. According to him, the Americans want leaders to respond positively to the disintegration of Communist empires. Prudence requires a faster, not slower, response to the new problems caused by the break-up of the east European ice.

America's defence budget is currently being cut. because Gramm-Rudman is "meeting Gorbachev" where the United States of America is constrained by budget problems. I do not think it will be long before the Treasury in this country "meets Thatcher". Sadly, that possibility has not been addressed today, but I hope that by the time we debate the defence estimates in the summer the Government will have faced the reality of change, and will give us their proposals for United Kingdom defence in the 1990s.

5.45 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

It was right for the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) to have a ramble through eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, because what has happened there will undoubtedly affect the decisions that the Ministry of Defence must make in the future. It is likely—indeed, I trust that it is the case—that those changes are irreversible, and I hope and expect that the negotiations on conventional armed forces in Europe will produce a positive outcome. As a consequence, I believe that we shall no longer require the single-scenario defences on which we have often based our spending, such as heavy tanks. I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) had to say, as he is an ex-tankie.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North East)


Mr. Sayeed

A cavalryman operating in tanks is normally known as a tankie.

It was notable that my right hon. Friend acknowledged that the likely outcome of successful CFE talks was a reduction in land forces and possibly in air forces, but no reduction in naval forces: in my view, the reduction in East-West tension may well result in the Navy's role being expanded, because the Navy is the most flexible of all the Services.

Despite the shrunken state of the Navy's manpower and units, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces—I hope that he will not leave just yet—is much exercised by the question of recruitment, especially in view of the demographic trends of which we have been told. I understand from the newspapers that he recently visited the Dutch navy, and that his visits persuaded him that it might be a good idea to employ the Wrens in surface warships but not submarines. He might even announce a change of policy tonight, and hold a press conference tomorrow. I have no doubt about the ability of the Wrens: I believe that they are a considerable asset to the Royal Navy, and I know how proud and protective the Navy is of them.

Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

My hon. Friend is going to say something sexist.

Mr. Sayeed

I admit that my hon. Friend is partially right.

I have been considering how my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will try to persuade the House that a change of policy, as well as being necessary, can be fitted in with what the MOD has said before. He would have sought the help of an estimable but fictitious civil servant whom I shall call Carruthers. This civil servant, a fine protege of Sir Humphrey Appleby, would have responded to the Minister's point that the Royal Navy should employ Wrens at sea in warships— [Interruption.] It would help if my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East did not keep interrupting me; I cannot help laughing at his asides when he does.

When the Minister elicited Carruthers's aid to obtain ammunition to endorse the policy of employing Wrens at sea, he would say to Carruthers, "I have to convince my colleagues of the merits of my solution to the demographic trough. I have to persuade them that nothing that I am proposing will conflict with the idea that women should not serve in the front line. I require you to go away and square the circle."

Carruthers, fine fellow that he is and no mean student of Sir Humphrey, would retire and, when reporting back to the Minister, would say, "Minister, there is no problem. The definition of 'front line' is a matter of semantics. My solution is as follows: 'front line' means that you operate over enemy territory and that you engage in hand-to-hand combat. That being the case, there is no problem over having women at sea in warships. I have couched my recommendation and definition of 'front line' in those terms because we do not want this monstrous army of women to believe that they will have the opportunity to fly Tornado aircraft, or do any job that a man does and be paid for it in an infantry battalion."

"Furthermore," Carruthers would report to the Minister, "Wrens already serve at sea—in survey ships, in royal fleet auxiliaries. You can point out, Minister, that if you are sunk in HMS Hecate it is not very different from being sunk in HMS Hermione." The Minister would then say, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. You can collect your gong on the way out," to which Carruthers would reply, "Yes Minister."

If Wrens serve at sea in warships, there will have to be changes to the Queen's regulations for the Royal Navy. That does not matter all that much; it can be catered for. It will mean structural changes to warships, in which accommodation standards have improved so much that they are getting close to reducing the offensive and defensive capabilities of warships. However, that too could be allowed for.

There is the point that the Dutch have women serving in warships. Why cannot we? However, the Dutch navy is different from the Royal Navy. The Dutch navy has about 15 units of offshore patrol vessels or bigger—frigates, destroyers and so on. We have 63. Dutch naval personnel total about 17,000, ours total 57,000. But the main difference between the Dutch navy and the Royal Navy is that the Dutch navy mostly goes to sea only during the week.

Mr. David Martin

My hon. Friend knows that I raised this matter two years ago in my maiden speech. It is quite close to my heart. Does my hon. Friend believe that no advances can be made if women serve in warships throughout the coming decade? Women are allowed to train as pilots and to serve in the Royal Air Force. Why is that so different from combat roles in Royal Navy warships?

Mr. Sayeed

My hon. Friend has asked me questions that ought to have been answered by the Minister when he replied to my hon. Friend's maiden speech. If I remember rightly, the points that he made in his excellent speech on that occasion were not adequately answered. I am sure that my hon. Friend is well aware, however, that women do not serve in the Royal Air Force as front-line pilots.

The principal difference between the Royal Netherlands navy and our Royal Navy is that the Dutch navy does not usually go to sea at weekends. The ships are tied up alongside the quay at their home base. Men who serve in the Royal Navy, however, can spend months, even years, at sea and away from home.

As for the argument that women serve in survey ships and royal fleet auxiliaries, I remind the Minister, if he intends to announce a new policy, that most survey ships are used as hospital ships in times of conflict and that consequently they are protected by the terms of the Geneva convention. Although most royal fleet auxiliaries would serve in a combat area, for most of the time they would keep out of trouble. The difference between serving in a royal fleet auxiliary ship and a warship is that a warship's job is to seek out the enemy. It does not matter if one is the cook or the captain; the risk on board a warship is exactly the same for everyone.

As for operating within foreign territory, it is quite likely that at a time of conflict a warship would have to operate inside enemy-held waters—even, possibly, within enemy territorial waters. I cannot answer the argument that sailors do not engage in hand-to-hand combat at sea, except, possibly, with some of their mess mates now and again. e a However, one is just as dead whether one is killed by a shell or a bayonet.

The greatest of my objections to the suggestion that Wrens should serve at sea in warships is that in seeking to overcome one problem—recruitment—we shall exacerbate another—retention.

Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said. Am I not right in thinking that it is not only the Dutch navy which permits women to serve at sea and that the Israelis, the New Zealanders, the Australians, the Americans and even the Norwegians permit it? Also, am I not right in thinking that this issue ought not to be settled by men and that the vast majority of Wrens wish to go to sea? We live in an age of equal opportunities. If Wrens want to go to sea, it is not for men to stand in their way.

Mr. Sayeed

My hon. Friend's points have considerable validity. However, the fact is that it is men who serve at sea. We must ensure that we can maintain sufficient numbers of them at sea, that they continue to wish to serve at sea and that their families remain keen for them to serve at sea. I accept that a large number of Wrens would like to go to sea. I do not disparage their abilities. However, most of the navies of the countries to which my hon. Friend has referred are shallow water and coastal navies. They are not deep water navies whose ships spend most of their time abroad.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

Does the hon. Gentleman have any evidence that men at sea, whom he seems to want to protect for some spurious reason, do not want women to serve alongside them?

Mr. Sayeed

I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question in a few minutes. I hope that he will allow me to make my speech in my own way.

There is a vast difference between a shallow water, coastal water navy, and a deep water, foreign-going navy. I do not intend to dwell for much longer on the role of women in the Royal Navy. It will be the only point that I shall make this eveing because a number of hon. Members wish to speak in the debate.

The solution that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces is advocating to overcome the problem of recruitment would exacerbate the greater problem of retention. We already know that the main reason for premature voluntary retirement or for service men not re-enlisting is pressure from wives. I have received advice from families—this deals with the point made by the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood)—and from ships companies. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East and I went aboard HMS Penelope, where I found only one person who thought that it was a good idea for Wrens to serve on warships. I have spoken to many service families, but none of them think that that is a good idea. Men and women serving together in cramped conditions and away from home for long periods will increase the already considerable pressures on service men and therefore on their wives.

Anyone who has served at sea knows that many people being cooped up in a small vessel creates jealousies and tensions. Women serving on warships will add to that tension and will damage retention. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has asked the right question—how do we maintain recruitment?—but I believe that he has got the wrong answer.

I would presume that a submission has been made to the Minister by the second sea lord, who is the chief of naval personnel. He provides professional advice on recruitment and retention. Does the advice that he has given my hon. Friend the Minister of State endorse the policy of Wrens serving on warships with the Royal Navy, or is it so guarded in its response that it constitutes a rejection?

6.1 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

Although I do not agree with a word of the speech made by the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed), I must confess to a certain amount of admiration for his bravery in advancing that line of argument, not least because of your distinguished presence in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a clear example of how discrimination against women should be banished completely from all public life.

These debates tend to divide between procurement and policy. I always thought that that was a rather artificial division, and I suspect that in a time of changing defence requirements it is all the more necessary for one to regard them both as part of the same argument. For example, the question of how may type 23 frigates are to be built must necessarily be related to the forward maritime strategy and to the need to protect the transport of materials for NATO across the north Atlantic in time of war. The number of Merlin helicopters that are necessary must be related to the role that the Navy is being invited to play. The number of nuclear submarines and nuclear warheads must be related to the extent and nature of the strategic nuclear deterrent that is thought to be required.

Most people agree that the prospect of engagement, whether it be nuclear or conventional, on land or on sea., between the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Warsaw pact has never been less. That seemed to be recognised in a speech made 10 days ago by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. No one says that the possibility of such engagement has been completely eliminated—it would be foolish to make such a judgment—but the reduction of the possibility has been considerable.

That gives rise to consideration of the equipment that is necessary for the defence of our country and for our obligations to NATO. I hope that there will be no reduction in the requirement of about 50 frigates and destroyers. There is grave suspicion among all hon. Members that that figure—although Ministers speak about it with considerable enthusiasm and defend it with dogged determination—is probably not realistic. I have no doubt that any reduction would be unwise and misguided.

We know that in April 1989—I do not always agree with the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), but I disagreed with little of what he said about this—the Government announced that they intended to place orders for four type 23 frigates, but eventually placed orders for only three. The justification that the Government gave for not placing orders for four frigates was that there would be no economic of financial advantage in so doing. That may have been true, but there undoubtedly would have been a military advantage because the Royal Navy would have been better equipped to perform the tasks imposed on it.

We should not allow the debate to pass without referring Ministers to the sixth report of Session 1988–89 of the Select Committee on Defence. In paragraph 22 of the report, the Committee concluded: a single year's orders is not the same thing as a consistent ordering pattern over a number of years, and the two should not be confused. Paragraph 23 says: We hope that the Government will now adopt a consistent pattern for ordering ships, not least in order to give the hard-pressed warshipbuilding industry some firm basis for planning. I welcome the fact that orders were placed at the end of last year, but the observations of the hon. Member for Hampshire, East on the laying down of keels were most apposite in this context. I hope that the Minister will offer a greater commitment about the future intentions of the Government for a consistent pattern of ordering of the type 23 frigate.

There is clearly some disagreement about at least part of the cause of the delay in the Merlin helicopter. It is time that that issue was put to one side, because, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) holds a legitimate interest in the fate or health of a substantial employer in his constituency, a much more significant issue in the context of this debate is that the type 23 frigate may be going to sea without an essential part of its capability. That is highly undesirable, especially when one considers that some type 23 frigates do not have the fullest command and control system that is thought to be necessary. That has an effect on the capacity of those extremely expensive vessels, which play an extremely important role.

Mr. Ashdown

My hon. and learned Friend puts the case extremely well. I sought to make the point to the Minister earlier and he tried to dodge it. Of course, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, what happens to Westland and its work force is of concern, but the chief concern is the nation's defence. As my hon. and learned Friend pointed out, because of the apparent delay which has been placed at the Government's door and the indecision which was noted in the Select Committee's report last Thursday, for four years—a quarter of its total keel life—the first type 23 frigate will be without the essential piece of equipment around which it is designed. Surely that cannot be a proper use of taxpayers' money. That indecision will result in a cost to the defence of this nation.

Mr. Campbell

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I return the compliment that he paid me at the beginning of his intervention. This is a serious issue. I hope that if the Government are not willing to give us their considered response to the Defence Committee's third report this Session, they will indicate their preliminary observations about this fairly serious attack on the handling of this matter by the Ministry of Defence.

I was greatly amused by the extent to which the Opposition's minds were exercised when it became clear that lasers had been used on certain ships for purely defence purposes. No doubt there were compelling reasons why the Opposition thought that that was so unacceptable, but I believe that the use of the most up-to-date technology for a purely defensive purpose is something of which we should be in favour, rather than critical.

I mentioned the strategic nuclear deterrent. I have no doubt that we should still plan for four boats to carry the strategic nuclear deterrent. As I understand it, the Labour party still clings to the notion that three would be sufficient. I have never found that a particularly compelling argument. I have frequently thought that the notion of having only three, instead of four, was perhaps not so much a rational analysis of the requirement as a sop to those who opposed having any boats at all.

Is there any justification in the deployment of Trident for having a vast increase in the number of nuclear warheads? Would it not be entirely reasonable in the deployment of the D5 Trident system for the Government to undertake to limit the number of warheads to the number presently deployed on Polaris? The number could be increased if necessary, but it would show that, in an area that would not prejudice the defence of the United Kingdom or of the western Alliance, the Government at least had in mind the prospect of an arms reduction. The argument is all the more compelling, given that Trident is much more accurate and can deliver so much more than Polaris.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that it would be sensible for the Government to make a virtue out of necessity, because all the evidence shows that they will not be able to produce the extra warheads anyway?

Mr. Campbell

I proceed on the basis of recent tests in the United States which have suggested that the system will be available as originally designed. The Government have shown that they are alive to the issue of the production of warheads by the changes that they have introduced at Aldermaston. If these are reasonable suppositions, my proposal to the Government seems at least worthy of consideration.

There has been some discussion about the possible risk attached to nuclear-powered submarines. I have not been privy to the exchange of correspondence that took place virtually across the Floor of the Chamber a little earlier today, but I hope that the Government accept that safety must be at a premium for those who serve in such vessels, for our service men—who may come into contact with them in port—and, perhaps more significantly, for the confidence of the civilian population. I hope that the letter that was offered to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, (Mr. Boyes) will be made available more widely.

Reference has been made to the nuclear depth bomb. I should have thought that one was entitled to feel sceptical about whether it is necessary to deploy such a weapon. In the NF at sea conference in May 1989 Admiral Sir James Eberle and the former United States Secretary of the Navy, John Lehmen, expressed considerable scepticism about the prospect of fighting a nuclear war at sea. One is entitled to ask the Government whether they are satisfied, beyond reasonable doubt, that it is necessary for the defence of the United Kingdom and of the western Alliance to move towards a replacement for the existing weapon. As I understand it. in June last year, the Defence Committee expressed certain doubts about the value of doing so.

I remain sceptical about the apparent rush to negotiate a reduction in conventional naval forces. The conventional forces in Europe—CFE—talks in Vienna, under the stimulus of the substantial and imaginative initiatives of President Bush, appear to make substantial strides. I should have thought that it was good sense to wait until those talks have been completed and the envisaged cuts implemented before considering whether it is legitimate to embark on a reduction in conventional naval forces.

We should then take account of a number of elements. As the Minister made clear, Britain is an island nation. We rely for much of our trade on free passage over the seas. Our interests are such that we may well need to deploy naval forces away from the United Kingdom, for example, in the Gulf, the Caribbean or the Falklands—my view about the Falklands is not necessarily the Government's, but so long as that obligation exists in its present form, there is clearly a requirement to deploy naval forces in the south Atlantic. That cannot be ignored. If troops are withdrawn from mainland Europe, there will need to be a means of redeploying them there in an emergency. A naval capability for that purpose will undoubtedly continue to be important.

There is another point that I do not think the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement made in opening the debate but which I offer to the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who is to wind up. If we move to a new order of security in Europe and there is greater political integration, there may be scope for greater specialisation among the European allies in their contributions to the defence of Europe. It may well make sense for the United Kingdom, which makes the largest contribution in western Europe to conventional naval forces to specialise in that area.

These are compelling arguments for not moving to early conventional arms reductions in the naval sphere and to ensure that we take account of these important factors. These questions will all fall to be answered. Clearly, they cannot all be answered today. Although no defence review may be taking place—those of us who have participated in these debates understand that—there is likely to be a review of defence expenditure. I imagine that the Treasury will be anxious to embark upon such an excercise, no doubt citing the recent decisions taken in the United States.

These are not matters about which the Government should be coy or secretive; they deserve wide public discussion, and I hope that the Government will be forthcoming about the elements of that discussion. It may not be possible to arrive at a non-partisan view of defence, but surely, in the changing circumstances to which other hon. Members have referred, we ought to be able to achieve more agreement about defence and security than we have in recent years.

This debate takes place in an atmosphere of hope that has not been possible on many previous occasions. Those of us who were present for the Defence Estimates debate in October will remember how the Secretary of State for Defence announced to a somewhat startled House that Mr. Honecker had resigned and been replaced by Mr. Krenz. If anybody had said, "By Christmas, the wall between East and West Berlin will be down," his remarks would have been received with considerable scepticism—rightly so, because nothing that had happened by then suggested that the pace of change would accelerate in such an extraordinary manner. The Soviet Union may even decide today that the Communist party should be removed from the place of primacy that it has hitherto occupied. The pace of change and the circumstances with which we are presented are dramatic and difficult, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

Throughout our consideration of these matters, we should bear in mind the fact that there is no intrinsic merit in defence expenditure or in nuclear weapons. Expenditure on defence and the deployment of weapons of any kind—conventional or nuclear—can be justified only if it is shown to keep the peace and to deter aggression. I venture to believe that in these matters the Royal Navy will continue to play an important part in the life of the United Kingdom for a long time to come.

6.21 pm

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Somerton and Frome)

I am grateful that I am to be allowed to take part in this debate on the Royal Navy—the very first time that I have been able to speak in the House on this subject. As I have a name that was once well known in the Navy, I believe, this may be rather surprising. Never, since that name was well known, has any member of my family served in the Royal Navy, so alarmed were they at the prospect of having to live up to a reputation. What is more, he was a person who was thanked on a substantive motion of the House, in the days when members of the armed forces could serve in the House. I assure hon. Members that that is not an attribute that is likely to be shared by any of his successors.

I see the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) in his place. Unsolicited by me, the largest Royal Navy aviation establishment, consisting of more than 3,000 service men and women and civilians, and the headquarters of the Fleet Air Arm were shifted sideways from his constituency to mine in 1963. I recall that 120 aircraft from that establishment were deployed on active service in the south Atlantic. They included three front-line Harrier squadrons and four helicopter squadrons. The House will understand how much I value that connection and the opportunity to speak today.

Since that time, my contacts with RNAS Yeovilton have been frequent and fascinating. I pay tribute to all those on that station who serve the nation's cause and, more locally to those who do their best to try to limit the intrusion of their very noisy aircraft. It is not always easy for them, but they try not to annoy my constituents as much as they certainly would if they did not take so much trouble. Those people also maintain a good relationship with all our local organisations, which is helpful to all of us.

The collective decision of the Government not to rush in and change defence expenditure—for the time being, at any rate—and not to hold an immediate defence review is exceedingly wise and encouraging I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North—East (Mr. Campbell) about the need not to make any changes in the position of the Royal Navy. Within the lifetime of many, the western democracies have time and again been totally and absolutely wrong when the threat against them has appeared to fade.

I hope that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) will dwell on the fact that the Labour party was no more wise than anyone else on this issue. I recall how, when I was a young man, the Labour party voted to a man against conscription only four months before Hitler invaded Poland. That was a sad day and, like other signals that had gone out from us, that was the wrong signal and Labour Members should be aware of that.

Mr. O'Neill

The hon. Gentleman is playing rather an old tune, and what he says is as true of the Conservative party as it is of the Labour party. His view of history is somewhat selective. No matter how distinguished was the hon. Gentleman's own record in the war, we do not need lessons from him about the inability of certain sections of the Labour party to anticipate the dangers of Fascism. After all, a much greater number of Conservatives actively supported and encouraged those forces in Europe at a time when most decent and reasonable people were saying that they should be stopped.

Mr. Boscawen

The hon. Gentleman should do me the credit of saying that his party was no wiser than any of us; those were the words that I used. We had a long lecture —50 minutes of it—on this subject from the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington earlier this afternoon, and the Opposition should understand why some of us are rather sceptical of their claims to be any wiser today. And at what cost was that mistake made. I remind the House that it led to a tragedy that was beyond the comprehension of anyone when the decisions that brought it about were made.

We should be very careful about rushing in with talk of defence reviews. We must be more sure what the future will bring before we do that. We must also be sure that any changes that we make are not irreversible. The time scale for rebuilding modern defence organisations and weapons is so long that it would be quite impossible for countries to re-arm during an emergency. It took long enough during the last emergency and we only narrowly escaped a terrible defeat because of that. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement was absolutely right to dwell on the need to maintain the naval presence both inside and outside NATO

Many of my constituents, from the chief executive of the Westland group downwards, are employed in that company on Ministry of Defence contracts. The future of that company is necessarily of great importance to my constituents and to people elsewhere. When news is scarce, defence procurement is a fat and comfortable soft target for the hungry news vultures of the media; and so, sadly, are Westland helicopters, although the company is now much more hungry and thinner.

When defence procurement is brought together with Westland, the media can have a really happy time. Sadly, that has happened recently. I am sorry to say that some damaging comments made by the Select Committee on defence have fuelled these comments in the media. Of course, I am concerned about the future of Westland.

I must protest about one conclusion in the report published by the Select Committee on Defence last week which refers to the "apparent" commitment only of Westland to the EH101 project. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), repeated earlier that the success of the project is far from assured, although he said that good progress is being made.

I realise that the Select Committee's report was published six months after the evidence was taken—that is the nature of the Select Committee animal, and I believe that it is now 12 months since members of the Select Committee together visited Westland. It is too late for the Select Committee to suggest that the commitment of the work force is only "apparent" and it is too soon to say that success is far from assured".

The report also uses a very doubtful arithmetical device, which encourages headline fodder. The report stated that if the programme is amortised over the production of 50 helicopters, the MOD would have to foot a bill of some £40 million for each Merlin aircraft. It was a mistake for the Select Committee to fall into the trap of making that comment because such comments are bound to lead to messy headlines.

No programme involving such immense expenditure can exist on only 40 or 50 helicopters. If it is to be a success, there must be many more. The media have already used the figure of £40 million for each Merlin aircraft, and that figure will stick, but it has a very little meaning when one regards the number of helicopters that may be produced, especially when one considers that there will be a considerable civilian market that the company can attack. The £40 million figure is very misleading and I am sorry that the Select Committee chose to include it in its report.

I was lucky enough to visit Westland in the past few days and I have visited it several times previously. I saw the pre-production aircraft and discussed many aspects of Westland's current work including the Royal Navy's Merlin mission system integration. Irrespective of the Select Committee's comments, I believe that everyone, from the chief executive downwards—the management at all levels, and the work force at Westland—is a very great deal more than "apparently" committed. Those people have the greatest incentive of all because their jobs are on the line at Westland if they fail to get the production order. They are all well aware of that.

The experience and capability of the staff are evident. The incentive is there, and they have developed a well-thought-through philosophy for developing the overall system integration. If such an approach had been present with Nimrod, we might have seen something come out of that terrible waste of money.

Westland is getting on extremely well with its Italian counterparts, which it regards as fine engineers and Westland is learning to integrate the two differing national philosophies very well. Westland is aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is taking a direct and concerned interest in ensuring that the country gets value for money from the project.

The announcement last week of the competition for an overall prime competitor for the initial batch of 25 to 50 EH101 ASW aircraft from two bidders gives Westland the opportunity to go all out and strain itself to get that order. It needs encouragement from the House now and not intrusive knocking. The country needs the project to succeed and the Royal Navy cannot afford not to have an advanced replacement for the Sea King on time to match the new frigates and the new aircraft will be around long after all of us have been forgotten. My constituents, the Royal Navy and the country as a whole need the new aircraft to succeed. The commitment is there, and I wish the company well

6.37 pm

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

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), who opened the debate for the Opposition, for not being present earlier. I was delayed for two hours by an engine failure.

I follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen) with great pleasure. He was right to say that too many people in this country misjudged the security situation in the 1930s. The hon. Gentleman is aware of the personal cost, and I venture to suggest that no one is better placed than I to say on behalf of hon. Members on both sides of the House that we salute his brave and very distinguished contribution.

We will have listened with great sympathy to the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about Westland. We know how important it is that Westland comes through with the Merlin contract, succeeds in its joint venture with Agusta, and remains in business for the future security of this country.

I listened with great interest to the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he did not confine his comments to the Royal Navy. How can one possibly do that in this debate? This must be one occasion on which you permit hon. Members to stray a little from the topic of the debate.

We need to consider the Navy in the context of the recent spectacular developments in eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. How can we resist looking at the Navy in the longer term, and perhaps even at the other services in conjunction with the Navy, and at the overall defence and security picture without which any assessment of the Navy would be meaningless?

Atlantic communities on both sides of the ocean are engaged in an extraordinary intercontinental debate on what the historic changes that have taken place in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union imply not only for future East-West relations but for future West-West relations as well as for the Alliance force structure. As the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East reminded us, all our old assumptions about appropriate processes, modalities and frameworks for positive change in relations between our great nations have been abolished by the magnitude and sheer pace of change on the continent of Europe. Let there be no mistake. Those historic developments will have fundamental implications for western security, and especially for naval forces.

Political change has begun to challenge the assumptions on which the defence requirements of NATO and the Warsaw pact are based. It has had a dramatic impact on the arms control dialogue in that, probably for the first time in recent history, arms control is arguably behind the political dialogue—not leading or defining it, as we have become used to. That will render arms control in the 1990s much more functional, more technomilitary and less political.

Those who press for instant reductions in defence expenditure and radical changes in the armed forces assume that Europe will evolve into a collection of democratic states living peacefully together. Already there are signs in central and eastern Europe—where, incidentally, the origins of the last two world wars are to be found—as well as within the Soviet Union that the process is not likely to be straightforward. Therefore, it would be foolish to undermine NATO and the stability that the Alliance provides. Without that stability we shall have no security. After all, that is the objective that we all seek and which brings hon. Members together for this debate. We shall not get that stability until there is another security organisation to take the place of NATO. At present, the only possible forum in sight is the CSCE, the conference on security and co-operation in Europe, but that is surely a long way away.

Some important questions confront us. First, how do we sustain an orderly process of arms reductions when people on both sides, including some of those who marched in Moscow last night, as well as many on our own side—on the side of the West—think that arms are no longer necessary? Secondly, what do we do about the security system that has worked so well in Europe now that the threat is diminishing?

If the careful work of the negotiators in Vienna is not to be undermined by a rush of unilateral and unverifiable gestures by both sides, CFE must be given time. I have been fortunate in my role as president of the North Atlantic assembly. Hon. Members from both sides of the House, notably the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), have accompanied me when we have been invited to Vienna for every single round of the arms negotiations briefings. I could not be more impressed by both sides.

We have an excellent team, led by Ambassador Michael Edes. Only last December, he reminded us of the broad conceptual convergence that has been arrived at, which, after only 22 weeks, he claimed was unprecedented. However, of the five categories that both sides are studying —tanks, artillery, armed personnel carriers, aircraft and helicopters, all involving not only reductions but, as many people tend to overlook, definitions and verification—we have a broad measure of agreement on only the first category. There is no want of good will on either side. If anything, there is more cohesion and more push on the side of the Warsaw pact. That takes nothing away from our side.

It is important that the House should know what the Ambassador Istvan Gyarmati, who leads the Hungarian delegation, had to say to us in December. He insisted that the CFE talks had not been overtaken by events, that even if military alliances cease to exist, countries will still have military capabilities, and that the challenge of the CFE talks in Vienna is to construct a security system that will survive military alliances. It is in that climate that the teams representing both alliances are working purposefully and, despite limited progress, constructively.

There is no agreement about when the talks will conclude. Some think that it will be in the autumn of this year and some think that we may need to wait until next year. If we can get aircraft off the agenda we will get a great deal of agreement.

I repeat my plea. None of us must feel frustrated about what is going on in Vienna. We will give the CFE talks time. Above all, given the danger of recent announcements —I have in mind President Bush's state of the union speech and a further apparent plucking of numbers from somewhere—I hope that such announcements will not affect the negotiating strategy in Vienna and that the teams in Vienna will not allow themselves to be dictated to by political pressures.

With the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and the hon. Member for Wealden, I was in Washington just eight or nine days ago. The three of us gave evidence to the Senate armed services committee, and he had a business meeting with the House of Representatives armed services committee. The deputy chairman of the House of Representatives committee said: No drastic cuts will take place in defence in this year, certainly at a level of not more than three per cent. The United States will not rush into thoughtless cuts. Another leading member of that committee said: There should be no precipitant seeking of a peace dividend in Europe. The United States still expected to keep substantial forces in Europe. He went on to state: United States public opinion will not wish to keep adequate forces in Europe when they see their European allies seeking the peace dividend. President Bush came up with another set of figures, from where I do not know. Certainly the pressure does not seem to come from Sam Nunn or the deputy chairman of the House of Representatives committee, Mr. Bennett, or his senior colleague, Mr. Bateman. Therefore, there is a need to be aware of the danger of a scramble for unilateral advantage that does not seem to be confined to Belgium or Holland. We must watch for political pressures even in unsuspected places. We understand the temptation to cash the peace dividend now.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for the Soviet Union and other countries in eastern Europe that they can cash some peace dividends to get a considerable movement of their resources away from war effort into peaceful effort? If they are to do that, surely it is logical for many people in the United Kingdom and the United States also to expect a peace dividend.

Mr. Duffy

First, it is more important to sustain the stability of the present security system. Secondly, I hope that my hon. Friend, as someone who is conversant with good trade union procedures, will value good, honest negotiations. I went into detail about the value of the present Vienna negotiations. I share my hon. Friend's anxiety—as all hon. Members do—but let agreement come about on the surest possible basis. I was arguing against political pressures in, perhaps, unsuspected places. I understand the anxiety to cash in the peace dividend now. Even without a strategic review, it is apparent that there are serious implications, even at the moment, for reinforcement, especially sea reinforcement, and therefore for the future role of the Royal Navy.

About 75 per cent. of all Warsaw pact equipment is moved by rail, whereas 90 per cent. of NATO's equipment relies on sea transportation. If there is to be any unplugging of units—as SACEUR reminds us whenever he has the chance, and did so at the Royal United Services Institute in London last May—Soviet divisions could readily be replugged while American divisions that were withdrawn could only return to the United States, from where replugging would prove much more difficult.

Both the Army and the Royal Air Force must radically rethink their roles for the 1990s and adapt to a position in which their standing regular forces must be significantly reduced. The Navy should have less of a problem. Yet, instead of feeling free to raise new and urgent questions about the post-cold war Royal Navy—as the hon. Member for Fife, North-East did—we are still obliged to pursue time-worn questions about the numbers and readiness of the surface fleet, such as whether there is to be any improvement in the ordering pattern; whether type 23s will still lack a command system, as the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) reminded the House; when the Navy can expect to receive the Merlin, the anti-submarine version of the EH101; when the Minister expects the type 23s to be armed with that kit; why the Ministry has pulled out of the advanced sea mine collaboration project as well as the NFR90 programme; and what assessment the Ministry has made of the impact on the credibility of the United Kingdom as a consistent and reliable partner.

That question was discussed during the annual defence debate last October. Unfortunately, I could not be present on that occasion as I was out of the country on North Atlantic Assembly business. However, I read the report of the debate and I know what the Minister said in defence of the cancellation of the advanced sea mine collaboration project. The Minister for the Armed Forces is present today. One of his colleagues present during that debate raised the question of the credibility of the United Kingdom as a consistent and reliable partner in such collaborative projects. That question was raised again in Washington nine days ago in my presence and that of other hon. Members.

There should be a progress report on the mine counter-measures vessels programme. What is to be done about morale and retention? Given the present developments in central Europe, there will be a challenge to preserve the high quality and motivation of the services at a time when they must be increasingly asking why they are there and what is their future.

Developments in eastern Europe and the decline of the Soviet threat clearly point to a return of the Royal Navy's primacy. That must eventually mean a different sort of fleet. It means the return of a blue water fleet with real aircraft carriers, capable of shipping fixed-wing aircraft, as well as a new force of amphibious landing vessels, aviation support ships and the correct type of helicopters, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said. In short, it is not just a new role for the Navy; we must think about a new sort of Navy. I cannot help but repeat my question on amphibious capability: when does the Ministry expect to complete the feasibility study? When does it expect to place orders for aviation support ships to accompany the Intrepid and the Fearless or their replacements?

When the Government came to power in 1979—I am touching on retention and morale—they made great play of getting forces' pay right. I had to endure taunts in the early 1980s about that, but I knew that the Labour party had started the process. Lord Bramall has reminded the other place that it was Lord Mulley who started the process. I am glad to say that I was party to it. In that process we felt that we had to give much greater weight than we had hitherto to the X factor, which was meant to compensate for the exigencies of the life of the service man and to bring service men comparability plus. As the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Bramall, said in the House of Lords debate on the Defence White Paper:

The X factor … now means relatively nothing. Allowances have been whittled away in a number of areas. It has greatly decreased the incentive to serve and face the rigours of military life, such as living for up to three months under water in a nuclear submarine."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 July 1989; Vol. 510,c.462.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. It is not the custom to quote from the record of the other place, except when quoting a Minister.

Mr. Duffy

I am obliged for your guidance on that matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman can paraphrase.

Mr. Duffy

All that is leading to premature voluntary release. Another influence on PVR is housing.

We must base our defence on the concrete rather than the intangible, in response to capabilities rather than intentions. The hon. Member for Sommerton and Frome posed many questions that need to be answered before we can undertake a conclusive defence review. Some of the answers will be made available to us in Vienna, where, as I have been very glad to assure the House, political change and military initiatives are in the process of being translated into coherent arms control treaties.

Whatever happens to NATO and the Warsaw pact under the impact of political change in eastern Europe, we have an overriding interest in maintaining both alliances as mechanisms for controlled, verifiable disarmament, both nuclear and conventional. In the CFE talks, NATO and the Warsaw pact possess the forum, as well as the machinery, to arrange a new compact of Europe that would meet the Soviet Union's legitimate concern for security, would find a basis for the continued presence of United States forces in western Europe, and would fix the strength of a reunified Germany at a level acceptance to all its neighbours. In my view, NATO has a significant role to play in the future. Whether the Warsaw treaty organisation can also play a useful role in bolstering stability depends largely on whether it can completely reorientate its historical legacy towards being a grouping of democratic nations. I hope very much that it will succeed.

For NATO, however, the real issue today is not whether the Alliance has a future but how its future should be defined. Details need to be filled in, but the alliance is on the right path—elaborating a political relationship with the countries of the Warsaw treaty organisation aimed at normalisation across a broad spectrum; strengthening Atlantic political co-operation; and exploring every avenue towards a just accommodation of the German question in which all parties will perceive an element of gain.

Writing in 1968, Henry Kissinger cautioned: turning NATO into an instrument of detente might reduce its security contribution without achieving a relaxation of tension. Despite periods of severe testing, our Alliance has come through. The Harmel principles have prevailed, and the Alliance has withstood the test of time. A new and ambitious phase for NATO lies ahead.

7.2 pm

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

I shal seek to put the case for a defence review and a much-enhanced role for the reserve forces. In doing so, I follow the line of argument presented by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy). I detect in today's debate—in contributions from hon. Members on both sides, including the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell)— greatly widened consensus. Here I refer to the response of hon. Members to recent events and the role of our armed forces. Indeed, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Attercliffe, a former Navy Minister who knows more than a little about out-of-area naval activities and their importance.

I do not believe that, in paying this tribute, I am being in any way incompatible with the Government's defence posture or ignoring the necessity, at least for the time being, to maintain a strong defence posture and not to change either our deployment or our strategy. But in the light of the momentous events in central and eastern Europe, and of the reductions in conventional force and personnel levels by both the Warsaw pact countries and the United States, we cannot pretend that nothing has happened and go into the next century with that posture.

Sooner or later, a review of some kind will be necessary, and I believe that the start of such a review should not be put off for long. It will take time, but, of course, any shift in our procurement policy or any change in the numbers or deployment of personnel in the armed forces necessarily takes a long time. We should not be fearful about embarking on such a review.

I say this as somebody who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen), bears a distinguished naval name. I say it also as somebody who in his maiden speech in the House, and in successive debates over the years, has argued for a strong defence posture and more real expenditure on our defences. In my support for strong, well-equipped and well-deployed forces, I defer to no hon. Member. I still believe in, and will maintain my firm support for, our nuclear capability and the minimal level that we have, and must retain, in terms of a nuclear shield.

That, of course, may be a more contentious subject. But next year we will spend more than £21 billion on defence, and will have nearly a third of a million armed service men, and we cannot afford to look upon the momentous events that have taken place—the freedom revolution that has swept through Europe to the Urals, and possibly beyond —without beginning to respond to them. Some of the talk about turning tanks into tractors has been derided. There is a danger that some past postures, some of our strategies and policies, may box us in and make us less willing to regard this process of change as an exciting opportunity for all our peoples and as an opportunity to reorientate our defences for a new century and for a new task.

There are two lessons to be drawn from our recent experience. The first is that political initiative succeeds where, very often, arms dialogue fails. If we look at what Mr. Gorbachev has proposed and has brought about already and at what President Bush has announced, we see what executive political decisions can achieve in a short time and, sadly, how little many of the worthy arms dialogues over a long period have achieved. The INF treaty may be an exception, but even that was instigated partly by the political decision to deploy cruise missiles in Europe.

The second lesson that I draw from recent events is that partitions, so easily set up in history to buy peace for a time, to resolve disputes and stop bloodshed, inevitably and invariably crumble. When we look at Vietnam or Korea or Germany or elsewhere, we see that partitions remain a source not just of obvious division but of antagonism, and a wound that continues to weep over the years. I believe that, for the future, we should use the opportunity of the crumbling wall to try to reorientate the defence policies of western Europe, and not look at the situation purely from a nationalist point of view.

Any assessment of threat must take into account not only the equipment and the manpower of a possible enemy, but the credibility element: whether a potential enemy is prepared to use that capability. We must all agree that, while, for the time being, events in central and eastern Europe are uncertain, there is very little doubt that there is no political backing for any great military adventurism by the Warsaw pact.

I venture to suggest that, even if there were political consensus for such a move, there are no political mechanisms that could support it. Indeed, the command structure of the Warsaw pact must be exceedingly tenuous at the present time. I do not believe that our defence policy should be orientated in a fixed manner—as were the guns of Singapore, by being pointed in one direction—when, in the event, the threat comes from a quite different direction.

Peace has broken out in central and eastern Europe, and, happily, peace appears to be breaking out in other parts of the world, such as the Gulf. There are encouraging signs in South Africa and there is a new dialogue with Argentina. We should not let those events lull us into hasty decisions about a reduction in conventional or nuclear forces unilaterally or in NATO. However, we cannot ignore them when making expensive procurement decisions at the taxpayer's expense in the next year and two years. Some of those decisions have been referred to during the debate—we cannot look back, but must look forward.

That may be a truism, but—to give one example—whither the role of battlefield tanks in the next couple of decades? They are enormously expensive and the decision will be highly political. Such major decisions will affect the ordnance factories and have employment implications, but, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East said, there is nothing intrinsically good about defence expenditure or defence capability. We must consider the necessity for that and whether we need it to deter aggression and secure freedom and liberty.

The future threat to be assessed should not only be on the central front. It has inevitable implications for our commitment to the northern and southern NATO flanks. A major part of our commitment, apart from the maritime commitment, has been to northern Norway, essentially an airfield-denial strategy of rapid reinforcement and specialist capability in the Arctic area to deny a major cross-country push from the Kola peninsula. We have had an important naval commitment to guard and patrol the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap, and to provide the air support that goes with it.

However, the position is changing. It is almost inevitable, not just because President Gorbachev has announced it, but because of economic and political pressures, that the Soviet naval and maritime fleet will have to be reduced. He has a people to feed. Whether he has a wider democracy or maintains the pre-eminence of the Communist party in that country, he must find the money to feed a hungry people, whose aspirations have been raised by rapid political change. It will be exceedingly difficult, and even more so as the country becomes democratised, for him to justify the diversion of funds on a massive scale towards the new generation of surface and submarine weaponry which was so ordered in the defence programme of the Brezhnev years.

For the future, we should look to different priorities, not the central, northern and southern European flanks. First, we should look primarily to defence of the United Kingdom home base. Secondly, we must play our part, in NATO for the time being, in the move towards common European security. Like others who have spoken in the debate, I believe that we must orientate our defences much more towards the protection of our training routes and to areas where we may perceive a need for political intervention either individually or in conjunction with other states. We must also ensure the continued defence of our dependencies.

Therefore, there is a case for a defence review in the future. I have no divine wisdom on this issue, but a professional view together with the judgment of our Select Committees, should determine our future strategy. There is a case for a rapid reinforcement capability and recreating what we destroyed in 1976— Transport Command. There is a case for buying some of those transport aircraft which the Americans are disposing of as they take their troops back to the United States. There is a case for bringing our war stocks— which have been up front and have been increased— back into the United Kingdom. Those are specific, important decisions which we should begin to look at; we should not carry on as if nothing had happened.

There should be nothing sacrosanct about the level of ship commitments. I understand the sensitivity of that subject and the importance that many of my constituents in Chichester attach to it. Many of them have strong naval backgrounds. However, the nature of the threat has changed and the needs of the future will be quite different.

For these reasons there is a case for considering whether our reserve forces should begin to play a much more enhanced role in our defence strategy. I pay tribute, and I am sure that the House will join me in doing so, to the outstanding commitment of our reserve forces over the years. If at some stage there is a case for cutting the regulars, in the way that the United States, the Soviet Union, Warsaw pact and other countries are doing, there will then be a strong case for building up the reserves.

The 1989 defence White Paper, which follows a creditable tradition every year of improving accountability to Parliament and which spells out our defence posture, reads slightly like an historical document barely a year on from when it was published. It recognised that the Reserves are an integral part of the forces and would play a vital part in defending the European Mainland and the UK". The Royal Navy, in particular, has an outstanding record on this. The Royal Navy Reserve, which provides mine counter-measures protection, logistical supply and medical services, has played an outstanding role over the years. The Royal Marines Reserve, which defends NATO's northern flank and United Kingdom base, has done similar excellent work. The Royal Naval Auxiliary Reserve, which defends British ports and anchorages, is an essential back-up and support in times of heightened threat.

Even in a debate about the Royal Navy, no mention of the reserves can exclude mention of reserves for the Army and the Royal Air Force. The Territorial Army, including the Home Service Force, make up more than half the infantry of the British Army on the Rhine and are an integral and essential part in our reinforcement capability, our operational posture and our deterrent over the years. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), with the considerable knowledge that he has built up through his services to the Select Committee and in other ways, would agree with that. The professionalism and personal dedication that our Territorial Army soldiers have shown in giving up their spare time and the tolerance that their employers have shown in giving them the time to play their part in the defence of this country and our contribution to NATO deserve great recognition and repetition in the House.

The Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the RAF Reserve provide indispensable personnel to airfield defence, intelligence and communications. In all those regards, I welcome and pay tribute to what the Government have done in improving both the pay of reservists compared to regulars and training bounty payments. That has been an essential means of retaining and attracting skilled people into the reserve forces. In future, in terms of protecting our United Kingdom base and sea routes and maintaining our NATO commitments, an enhanced role for reservists is absolutely essential.

This is an important debate, because it gives us an opportunity to let the Government know what we think about defence expenditure while the next White Paper is being drafted, the Chancellor is drawing up his Budget and at an early stage before the next round of discussions about public expenditure next year. There is no doubt that changes will be included in the defence estimates or the Autumn Statement, which respond to these momentous events worldwide. If the House lags behind international changes and what the Government say we must put up with, we shall not be playing our role in ensuring that the taxpayer's money is well spent and the enormous resources of public expenditure are used to the best advantage.

We should be beginning to think— even if we do not insist upon it now— about the new needs and the new generation. In doing so, the House and, in particular, the Select Committee, will be playing a major and positive role —of which the House will be proud in the next century— in ensuring that peace, democracy, freedom and the role of our defence forces, in a different way, continue to thrive.

7.19 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson). I admire him for stating that we should have a major defence review. There is a series of arguments in favour of that and I support him in his demand for such a review from his perspective.

I apologise to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement for not being present for the first quarter of an hour of his speech. My researcher made me a note of what he said. I was not here because I was in my constituency attending a meeting at lunchtime, which was fixed up by the Church leaders in Brinnington. It was a meeting of health workers, social workers, doctors, teachers, housing officers and community officers to discuss the problems of Brinnington. It is important to contrast that activity with this debate on defence. The two are linked. We are discussing defending the people of Brinnington.

I ask whether there should be a transfer of resources from the defence of the realm to the defence of the people of Brinnington. Brinnington is a substantial part of my constituency. It is surrounded by countryside and has some attractive housing, but it also contains some high-rise flats and some council properties that have been neglected. In the area, there are pockets of people who are suffering great deprivation. They need money to be spent on their housing and education, on care of the elderly and on relief of poverty. Those people deserve part of the peace dividend.

People in Brinnington are no longer convinced that there is any chance of the Russians invading this country or, indeed, of anyone else invading. They are worried about different problems. They are worried about law and order in Stockport, poverty, the lack of resources in schools and in the Health Service, and care of the elderly. When they look beyond Stockport, they look to Third-world poverty and wish that people there enjoyed the peace dividend. They are not enthusiastic about continuing to spend more money on a defence system that they perceive as increasingly out of touch with reality.

The people of Brinnington fear, not only that they will not enjoy the benefits of the peace dividend, as they have not enjoyed the revenues from North sea oil, but that reductions in defence expenditure will result in a disadvantage for them. They fear that someone else will enjoy the peace dividend and that they will see the other side of the coin. They will suffer unemployment as a result of a loss of jobs in the defence industry. That is a real fear for the people of Brinnington.

Over the past few months, I have tabled questions to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I did so on 11 November and 12 January and I have another tabled for next Wednesday. I have been disappointed at the Government's unwillingness to consider the implications of a rundown of world armament industries. We must start to look for alternative jobs for people in those industries. The Government's failure to take that into account in reviews of defence spending is appalling.

I am lucky that in my constituency— although I have one defence contractor, Fairey, close to it—other firms which make considerable contributions to Ministry of Defence projects are involved mainly in civil work and in some military work. It will not be too difficult to expand their civil work. Many companies in Britain are completely dependent on defence contracts.

It is important that we begin to develop contingency plans at an early stage to take into account arms agreements and a reduction in regional tensions and to seek alternative products. Our defence industries employ 500,000 people. Last year, they brought into Britain over £1 billion in foreign exchange. We must plan to find jobs for those people. We must not only endeavour to produce a peace dividend to be used for other needs, but we must seek alternative jobs.

It is increasingly difficult to justify the House debating the Navy separately. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) said, we must consider all Ministry of Defence activities. We must seek a rational way of discussing them together, rather than separating them out into Army, Navy and Air Force, as we have done for about a hundred years. I question whether the three services need to be separated at all. I understand all the nostalgic arguments for three separate services in the past, but now it does not fit into logic.

Why do we need a defence review? There are three different strategies. No doubt people could put forward more. It is argued that we must not cut defence expenditure and that it is too soon to do so. The hon. Member for Chichester put that argument strongly. Even if we do not get rid of a nuclear deterrent we must still examine the changing pattern of strategy. I agree with him that it is crazy to consider ordering new tanks.

There is no point in having tanks unless the Government have somewhere where they can train people to use them. It is inconceivable that during the next five or six years the West Germans will allow the level of tank manoeuvres that has taken place there to continue. The West Germans will not put up with it. Perhaps the Ministry of Defence can find places in Britain for tank manoeuvres, but I am sceptical that people will put up with such levels of training manoeuvres in the British Isles. Perhaps the Ministry can use the Falklands or somewhere else, but the Government have a major problem in finding places where tanks can be manoeuvred. The Government must weigh up whether it would be better to use helicopters to fulfil the role of tanks. That is one of the fundamental issues that must be reviewed.

The Government must make sure that their commitment to expenditure on Trident does not leave them insufficient funds to spend on small ships. They must weigh up whether our way of life is under threat more from being undermined by the rapid surge of drugs into our inner-city areas than from anything else, and whether we have the boats and equipment to stop people bringing drugs into Britain.

The Government must seriously consider the problem of recruitment. As yet, the Government have not addressed the question of whether the defence budget could be altered to make better use of the numbers of people available. They must also realise that in this changing world where people see less threat from eastern Europe or elsewhere, it will not be as easy to recruit people into the armed forces. For the past 15 or 20 years, people have been convinced that they can have a long career in the armed forces. It will be much harder to convince a 16-year-old that if he goes into the armed forces he will have a job for the next 20 years. Young people perceive that there is a good chance that at some point the armed forces will be cut.

One can argue for a review, even if it is accepted that Government defence expenditure should be kept at the present level and the nuclear deterrent maintained. Whether arms negotiations progress quickly or slowly, they will bring about a substantial cut in armaments. That is another argument for a review. A review should not deal with only one scenario. It must take into account alternative scenarios. The arms negotiations may not bring success, and levels of armaments may remain the same.

We must plan for the future, because we all know the time that is involved between placing contracts and having them carried out. There is a possibility that the arms talks will be very successful and that we shall get rapid change. I hope that they are successful. It is high time that the Ministry of Defence took all those possibilities into account in a proper review.

The credibility of the Government's idea of a 50-ship Navy is now disappearing, because I do not think that the Government will be able to find the money to continue placing the orders. We are then faced with the question of what will happen to the people who work in naval shipyards. The Government ought to look quickly to try to find alternative work on civil ships. It is worrying that in all past conflicts the Navy has relied on the merchant fleet. However, we know that there is virtually no merchant fleet left and it seems logical to look for ways in which we can protect it by placing new orders and ensuring that we still have the capacity to build merchant ships and, if necessary, warships.

In the debate on the defence estimates I asked about Fylingdales. I said that the Soviet Union had announced, more or less unilaterally, that its early warning station at Krasnoyarsk was to be dismantled and that it had raised the matter of Fylingdales. Has there been any further discussion about that?

There have been exchanges in the debate about nuclear-powered submarines and their future. That raises questions about Britain's reliance on Trident because I understand that those submarines are important in protecting the Atlantic so that Trident can be hidden. In an intervention my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) asked whether Russian advances in working in space mean that it will be much more difficult to hide Trident. Is Trident now vulnerable to cuts in United States expenditure? I have raised that with the Minister several times and he says no, but I have the feeling that in the next year there will be a substantial argument in the United States about the budget.

My hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe seemed absolutely certain that the United States armed forces committees were firmly committed to defending the programme. My information is that many people in the United States and in Congress are demanding a peace dividend. When negotiations start on that, we shall see whether Trident will be at risk. The Minister says that he is confident that the teething problems of the missile system have been overcome. That must go into the defence review to find out whether we should now be relying on such a system.

We have questions about the extremely low-frequency transmitter that the Government are committed to building on an experimental basis at Glen Garry forest. Given the tremendous changes that have taken place in eastern Europe, would it not be better to delay expenditure on that programme for another couple of years, to see whether it is necessary, before we start to tear up another bit of our countryside for defence installations?

Our first demand is that the Government set in train a defence review. It should not be tied to any certainties, but should weigh up the options and come up with proposals that take into account little change in terms of how much we spend; arms negotiations that are moderately successful; or very successful. We should look at how we can transfer resources from the peace dividend to peaceful expenditure, and we must consider the job implications that will flow from that.

We must look seriously at arms conversion. The Government are in grave danger of ignoring the real defence needs of the British people by insisting that we can go on as if nothing has happened in eastern Europe. A great deal of change has taken place there and we should try to prevent future conflicts by means of a realistic defence policy rather than trying to go on preparing for the sort of wars that happened in the past—or those that did not happen. That is looking to the past and not to the future.

7.34 pm

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) spoke repeatedly about the peace dividend. He must choose his words with great care because it is wrong to assume that there will be great benefits so early from a peace which, although it can be seen, has not yet revealed its real substance. He also spoke about the need to find alternative employment for those who find themselves out of a job in the defence industry. I recall the savage cuts by a Labour Government, but I cannot recall any provision being made for the employment of people who lost their jobs as a result.

This is a timely debate in which to reappraise the role, size and purpose of our defence forces. I had hoped that the speech by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) would enlighten us about how the Labour party saw the future of the Royal Navy, but I was hugely disappointed. I was left with questions and very few answers.

One of the questions that came to my mind as a result of what the hon. Gentleman said was whether a Labour Government would maintain aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy. What would be the size of the Royal Navy if a Labour Government came to power? I suspect from what the hon. Gentleman said that it would be a small Navy designed for shore protection. We shall read his speech most carefully in Hansard. We want to know the policy of the Labour party.

Mr. O'Neill

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could enlighten us about his conclusions on the Government's intentions on the size of the Navy in respect of their performance and ordering record for surface ships. What are the Government's intentions? This may be the first speech that the hon. Gentleman has made in a Navy debate. Those of us who are fairly regular attenders have year after year heard questions from Back Benchers about the intention of the Government over Fearless and Intrepid and on the aviation support ships. The Government have the information and the power, but they have done nothing to satisfy the House. The hon. Gentleman should not ask the Opposition. He should ask the Government, because for the next two years they have the power to make the decisions which, no doubt, will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Banks

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement gave the commitment that we were seeking to maintain a 50-ship Navy. That is as clear as a bell. I have attended many debates on the Navy and have spoken in them. We have consistently supported the concept of a 50-ship Navy.

Mr. Alan Clark

It is 300 ships and 50 frigates.

Mr. Banks

Frigates and destroyers; it is a fighting-ship number.

The changes in the Soviet empire have probably been more speedy and momentous than the demise of any great power structure in history. That is a victory for political ideals, and the proven value of democratic government. Above all, it is a victory for the strength of the armed forces of NATO and the political and economic example of the West. The years of misery and oppression by Communist regimes have been lifted from eastern European countries and from the Soviet Union itself, which is about to go through a momentous change. The only certainty is that we do not know what the future holds. It is therefore right to reappraise our defence role and that of NATO—and that must be undertaken not in haste but balanced by the scaling down of Soviet and Warsaw pact forces. My advice is that we should be "steady as we go".

NATO must work together and stay together. The process of holding, checking and preventing a Soviet invasion of Europe may be less thinkable now, but the Soviet navy remains unaltered in terms of its size arid power. I welcome the cuts made in conventional and nuclear forces through patient negotiations. The navies of the world possess about 16,000 nuclear weapons, of which 9,500 are intercontinental ballistic missile warheads. Ninety per cent. of those weapons are deployed in American and Soviet units, and fewer than 1,000 of them in the British, French and Chinese maritime forces, so there is scope for a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons. The scaling down of the naval forces themselves is extremely difficult to accomplish because of the different roles of those navies. That point has already emerged in today's debate, in connection with the Royal Navy's influences and responsibilities worldwide.

Trident spearheads Britain's defence, and it must be maintained. I congratulate the Government on the savings that they have achieved in the construction programme and on the programme's timing being on course.

The Royal Navy's shape and purpose should be the subject of a long and searching debate. For as long as there are sizeable navies patrolling the seas, Britain must maintain her sea strength and maritime capability. Our interests span the world and the maintenance of order, prevention of disruption to merchant shipping and ability of our naval forces to land troops and to supply our forces in trouble spots, wherever they may be, are the purposes for which the Royal Navy has always been ready—and for which it must be maintained.

Our forces must be flexible. The reduction in army personnel is inevitable, given the new situation in Germany. To maintain flexibility, the Royal Marines should be strengthened. They currently number 7,700, which, by our standards, is a small force. Army units need to be transformed into a different type of fighting force. By strengthening the Royal Marines, we shall be able to maintain the flexibility that is necessary quickly to deploy fast-acting forces in different parts of the world.

The age of the tank and of the tank battle is nearly at an end, and we must examine carefully their role in today's Army. Air platforms and amphibious forces are vital to the concept of a mobile, combative and flexible force. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will reach a decision soon on the futures of HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, and that they will be replaced by new ships.

I welcome the aviation support ship because air power is enormously important in a combative scenario. Support for the Royal Navy from the merchant shipping fleet is as important as maintaining our RFAs. The tonnage of British merchant ships has steadily declined, and it will be further depleted in 1997 when Hong Kong—registered ships are no longer available. For both commercial and defence reasons, fiscal measures are needed to stimulate investment and to increase ship numbers in the industry. After all, the merchant fleet produces £2 billion in foreign exchange every year, in addition to the revenue from insurances that it brings to the City.

Our objective must be a highly skilled and mobile combat force and the means to back it up, with the force of RFAs and the use of merchant shipping at times of necessity. The three services must work more closely together if the concept of worldwide deployment is to be achieved in their strategic planning. NATO must address the question of its role and territory of operations, and whether now is the time for it to assume a role that takes it farther afield. No United States marines are currently stationed in NATO areas in Europe.

In peacetime, the Royal Navy must give priority to advancing the technology of its weapons and operations. Wars are prevented, or won, not just by numbers but by having the edge over the weapons possessed by others. That means having improved engine technology for our ships, submarine design and detection, weapon range and accuracy, flying operations, and technically based, more accurate methods of minesweeping. Those are all areas for advance research.

NATO can and will adapt itself to changing times, but we must not lessen our efforts to co-operate in research and development. We have the prospect of a period of lasting peace. Let us not leave the door open for an intruder or troublemaker to test our resolve to keep the peace.

7.45 pm

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Like almost every other right hon. and hon. Member who has spoken tonight, I believe that the extraordinary changes in the Soviet Union and in eastern Europe over the past few months have profound implications for the future of our defence. What was so threatening about the Soviet Union over the past 40 years was not its sheer military might but the offensive nature of its full structure on the continent of Europe. So much of Russia's armour and military capability was in a forward situation, which enabled it always to be capable of launching a sudden and devastating attack on western Europe.

Clearly, the CFE process has begun to reduce that risk. The Soviet Union has already accepted the principle of reducing the number of Warsaw pact tanks by two thirds, from 60,000 to 20,000, and its armoured troop carriers from 70,000 to 16,000. Cuts of that kind, together with the reductions currently being negotiated in artillery, will substantially reduce the offensive character of the Soviet forces deployed on the European continent.

We have seen also unilateral cuts made by the Soviet Union, such as the withdrawal of specialist bridging units, which underlines Russia's apparent willingness to relinquish its ability to launch a sudden and devastating attack. No serious analyst currently argues that there is any risk of a surprise strike being launched in Europe. That view is reinforced by changes in the Warsaw pact nations.

It is not just that the previous satellite countries are reducing their forces, or that they are no longer concentrating them on their western frontiers. It is not even that they are taking steps to secure the removal of Soviet forces. The most important aspect is the political change that has occurred and the collapse of the Communist regimes. The prospect of free elections also strongly suggests—I put it no higher than that—that we shall soon see elected positive, non-Communist Governments in almost every one of the nations concerned. No doubt they will seek good relations with the Soviet Union, but they are not likely to be pliant, vassal states of the kind that we have seen for the past 40 years.

Because those new states will have serious economic problems, they will look to the West for solutions, which again makes it unlikely that they will serve as any kind of springboard for a Soviet attack on western Europe. The opposite is true. In future, they will present an obstacle to any such Soviet adventurism.

As other hon. Members have said, the situation in the Soviet Union is changing in no less dramatic a way. The Soviet Union is no longer a monolithic super-power. It is riven with economic, ethnic and nationalist problems. If the Soviet leadership wants to meet the aspirations of its people, aspirations that we see expressed on our television screens almost every night, it cannot continue to pour resources into arms at the level that we have seen during the past 40 years.

The basis of the deal that is emerging between East and West is that the Soviet Union desperately needs economic expertise and technological know-how from the West; in exchange, it can offer stability and security—the removal of the threat under which we have lived since the end of the second world war. That basic and fundamental ideal gives us hope for the future.

However, nothing is certain in this life, and there are obviously risks in the current position. Perhaps the most worrying risk is not the possibility of a return to the old hard-line, concrete-faced Stalinist rulers in the Soviet Union, but, as the empire breaks up, the greater risk of chaos, civil war, ethnic and religious conflicts in the Soviet Union and in parts of eastern Europe. There is always a risk that such untidy and unpleasant situations could spill over into neighbouring areas, particularly in the southern flank of NATO.

I agree with hon. Members who have said that the forces that we need to deal with a new situation are different from those needed to deal with the threat with which we have lived since the end of the second world war —a major pitched confrontation on the continent of Europe. In future, we may need smaller, well-trained, well-equipped, more flexible and more mobile forces than we have at present. That implies that we need to reassess the threat and our future defence needs. As we can see, our NATO allies are going down that track: some of them seem to be stampeding down it.

There will be cuts in United States forces deployed in the continent of Europe. In many ways that strengthens the case for Britain to have effective naval forces. Europe is likely to be more dependent on North America for sudden reinforcement in the event of an unexpected crisis. NATO needs to review the size, shape and character of its naval forces.

I would be strongly opposed to early steps to extend the disarmament process into the maritime area, and not just because of the complexity of the issue. We have quite enough to do at the moment in dealing with the complex negotiations on land forces and aircraft without adding something as mobile as naval forces.

When we begin to negotiate about naval forces in the future, I hope that we will remember that the sea lanes across the Atlantic are as vital to us as roads and rail links across Europe are to the Soviet Union. Any deals that we do on reductions in naval forces will have to bear in mind the basic vulnerability of NATO's position. There may be a case for considering naval confidence-building measures, and perhaps for exchanging technical information, or alerting each side to plans for maneouvres and exercises, but that is a long way from the sort of naval disarmament that is being peddled in some quarters.

The coming changes, and those that are already taking place, seem to underline the need for the sort of burden-sharing and specialisation within NATO that we have talked about frequently for years but of which we have achieved little. If we get the sort of CFE deal that seems likely, and we seek to share out various ceilings in equipment and forces across the European part of NATO, there is a risk that we shall end up with ineffective defence systems.

It seems to me that CFE ceilings and the well-established prospect of reductions in American forces in Europe will force the European NATO nations to embrace the concept of sharing out who does what at long last. We cannot have every European member of NATO trying to do everything in defence right across the waterfront. I strongly endorse the idea put forward by a number of hon. Members and people outside the House that it is logical for the continental nations of Europe to concentrate more on land defence, leaving Britain to develop its maritime role. Historically we have done that, and it is in our best interests. It would improve the mobility of our armed forces and give us the ability to deal with out-of-area problems which we may well have to face in the future.

I shall mention briefly the concept of forward defence, which featured in the earlier part of our debate. I have no difficulty with the basic concept of forward defence in the naval sphere. If we could guarantee to bottle up the Soviet navy, and the submarine forces in particular, north of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap, that might be sensible and the best way to protect NATO convoys across the north Atlantic.

However, I have three basic worries about the practical application of that sort of concept. We would have to deploy those forces forward well before hostilities started —if they ever broke out. Therefore, we would have to deploy them at a time of tension, and their deployment would be obvious to the Soviets. At a time of tension, our forward deployed naval forces could no nothing to stop the Soviets moving out of their North sea bases. All that we could do is watch them sail past into the calmer waters of the Atlantic. Also, in my view merely deploying forces forward at a time of tension could risk strongly aggravating the situation, and make matters worse.

When resources are scarce, as we know naval resources are, using them to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted is not the best use. Therefore, in view of the changing situation, forward maritime defence strategies must be reconsidered.

We all welcome the prospect of a 50 per cent. cut in strategic nuclear systems deployed by the US and the Soviet Union. It has been talked about for so long, that it will be something of an anti-climax when it occurs, but it will be welcome none the less. We should not under-estimate the fact that it will leave the Soviet Union with a massive strategic arsenal, a good deal of which will be targeted on western Europe.

While nuclear weapons remain, there is always the risk of a nuclear attack on Britain. Therefore, I see no reason to alter my view, despite the changing international climate, that, while the Soviet Union retains nuclear weapons, it is crude common sense for Britain and France to keep a minimum effective nuclear ability, something that will provide a degree of security to Europe, and will guarantee against any possibility that the United States may not deliver on its nuclear guarantee to NATO powers.

It is well known that Trident was not my first choice for a strategic nuclear system in Britain, but that argument ended a long time ago. I think that Trident now has a lot to commend it as a powerful, accurate and flexible system. It is perfectly possible for us to tailor the number of warheads to suit changing circumstances, and in that sense it can be described as an effective minimum nuclear deterrent.

I am glad to see that the trials of the Trident missile have turned out to be more successful than some pessimists thought in the early stages. Perhaps inevitably, those who gleefully seized on the two unsuccessful sea launch trials have been quieter about subsequent successes. I am glad to see that the missile is doing no worse than any predecessor missile did at a similar stage in its trials.

I believe that the major threat to the British Trident missile system comes from problems with warhead production at the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston, rather than problems with the missile. The Defence Committee has drawn attention on a number of occasions to the problems of recruitment and retention of the scarce and vital labour needed to produce those warheads. I shall watch with interest to see how the Government's contractorisation programme will tackle the problem—although I remain somewhat sceptical about the possibility that labour can be produced out of thin air at a time when it is so scarce, and can then be persuaded to stay on, without the improvements in pay and conditions that were possible without the introduction of contractors.

I do not want Britain to make any unilateral defence cuts: I do not want us to spend the peace dividend before the cheque arrives at the bank. I do not believe, however, that we can stick our heads in the sand and argue that the world has not changed dramatically over the past 12 months. We should be working with our NATO allies to assess the implications of those changes; we must seek to reshape our armed forces to meet the needs of the future, rather than leaving them stuck in the concrete of the past. That, I feel, is the sensible, prudent course, and the sooner we embark on the process the better.

8 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I listened with keen interest to the speech by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright); it was one of several fine speeches in this very relevant debate.

My constituency, which contains six major naval establishments and a large housing estate, must be home to about half the members of the shore-based Navy. Nine years ago the Government conducted a major review of defence commitments, as a result of which they decided that the three main priorities should be the defence of the home base, the nuclear deterrent and the British Army of the Rhine. Over the past 10 years, the Army has remained at a strength of about 156,000, while the strength of the Royal Air Force has increased from about 86,000 to 94,000. The strength of the Royal Navy— which was excluded from that list of top priorities—has now been reduced from about 65,000 men to 57,000, and the purpose of my speech is to ask for the reduction to be arrested.

As many hon. Members have pointed out, the political background has changed profoundly since 1981. Socialism and centralism have proved economically and morally bankrupt throughout eastern Europe; an attempt has been made— and thwarted—to secure better dialogue and more democratisation in China; there has even been an attempt to open up dialogue in South Africa. I am sure that everyone marvels at the courage of those who have led the changes, and we wish them well, but it must be added that the future is potentially dangerous.

What are the defence implications of the political changes? Some nations have sought to respond to them quickly: the United States has already announced its intention of cutting defence expenditure by some 2.6 per cent. It is goodbye to the USS New Jersey, the USS Iowa and others, and the 600-ship navy concept— essentially a part of Reagan's presidency— has gone; we shall see a 546-ship navy in 1991. Holland and Belgium, too, have expressed the wish to cut the number of troops deployed elsewhere in Europe.

Before making our own decisions, we need to consider the military reality behind the political headlines. According to various intelligence reports, and comments by its generals, the Soviet Army appears to support and indeed embrace perestroika, but perestroika—which means "restructuring"—does not simply mean restructuring away from military hardware; it means a restructuring within the military establishment as well. To many Russian generals, perestroika means that they will have a chance to increase their emphasis on technology and high-quality products, which will enable the Soviet army to narrow the West's technological lead in military equipment.

There has been much talk of the conversion of the Russian arms industry to civil production, but without verification it would be unwise for us to rely on that. Similarly, there are indications— mentioned by Labour Members—of a change of strategy by the Russian navy. In recent years there have been fewer "high seas" deployments and a greater concentration on the Soviet "bastion" concept— defending the bases in the sea of Okhotsk, and the strategic submarine ballistic nuclear operations. So far, however, evidence of any Russian naval reduction is thin, and in any event such a reduction would pose major problems of verification. As has been pointed out, cruise missiles in particular can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which makes it difficult to verify which type is being carried unless there are people on the missile carriers.

How much reliance can we and should we place on the fact that political changes have reduced the military threat to us? My answer is that we must face uncertainty and instability, and that this is not a time to lower our guard. The likelihood of a planned Russian tank invasion through Europe— backed with the willing support of the armies and population of the Warsaw pact countries— must be less than it was, but the risk of civil dissension within the eastern bloc, provoking military action and a war that will spread, could be greater now than before.

Some hon. Members have talked rather loosely about the peace dividend. It would be a serious mistake to imagine that the changes in eastern and central Europe are a cause for unalloyed joy among the populations of those areas. There must be losers as well as gainers; for every person dancing in the street there must be someone contemplating the loss of a privileged existence—the loss of a house, a car, a privileged education for the children or the opportunity to travel. There must be immense stresses and strains in eastern and central Europe, and talk of spending a peace dividend seems to me seriously premature.

We should take note of the changing nature of the threat. The more that the forces facing each other in Europe are reduced, the greater will be the need for flexibility and improved lines of reinforcement. The more that we reduce the British Army of the Rhine and the allied tactical air force—I for one believe that, in due course, by agreement and with proper verification procedures, that will be possible—the more we shall need to keep open the routes for rapid support. Hon. Members have already compared NATO's supply routes with those of the Warsaw pact countries. Those countries rely 75 per cent. on rail communication for their reinforcements and only 25 per cent. on road and Baltic sea and Black sea ferries. NATO, however, moves 90 per cent. of its reinforcement equipment by sea.

Land wars and sea wars require different balances of troops. It has been accepted for years, perhaps centuries, that an aggressor on land needs an advantage of about 3:1 against the defender, whereas at sea the position is reversed: the aggressor has the advantage, because he has the opportunity of secrecy and surprise. It would be entirely wrong for us to contemplate reducing our sea forces now. SACEUR— the Supreme Allied Commander Europe— has estimated that NATO could last only about 10 days without sea reinforcements.

The Royal Navy of today is leaner and more efficient than ever. It is well equipped— and I am grateful to the Royal Navy and, indeed, to ship manufacturers and builders, for giving me the opportunity to visit ships at sea and to watch the construction of every class of naval ship in the building yards. It is superbly manned; the concentration of training and personnel in the south of England—and particularly in my constituency—is, I think, now recognised as the most efficient way to run the Royal Navy, although 10 or 15 years ago their removal to the north was being contemplated. It also gives a social advantage to the men and their families.

We cannot, however, ignore the fact that concentration on the other services at the expense of the Royal Navy leads to some stretches and strains, due to concentration on the three main commitments. The commitment to an escort fleet of about 50 destroyers and frigates may still be about met, but I am concerned that there may not be sufficient personnel to man them. The Royal Navy has already been run down from 65,000 to 57,000 personnel and there has been a commitment to reduce it still further.

I do not know whether further slimming down will harm the efficiency and effectiveness of the Royal Navy, but I fear that it may. Similarly, urgent action needs to be taken to upgrade the armed forces' amphibious capacity, with replacements for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. I am also concerned that over one third of the royal fleet auxiliary's fleet tankers and replenishment ships are more than 20 years old. Replacements need to be ordered soon.

Like others, I am disturbed by the lack of a command and control system in the type 23 frigates. We are all concerned about the delay over the supply of a good airborne early warning system. I look forward to the arrival of AWACS in 1992.

There are two other areas of specialisation about which I am concerned. The first is the naval medical service, whose skill and courage has been proved time and again, but never more memorably than in the Falklands. The royal naval hospital at Haslar is highly regarded, but budgetary and nursing problems have occasionally caused difficulty. The medical service is an essential and integrated part of the Royal Navy and deserves steady support. Similarly, may I say a discreet word in support of naval intelligence. There has never been a greater need for us to distinguish between reports of political progress on the one hand and military reality on the other.

Finally, I refer to personnel issues. The Royal Navy is tough on some things. For instance, it does not tolerate lateness when a ship is due to sail. However, it is a caring employer. Pay is good and the Royal Navy takes considerable care to help and to understand any problems that may arise while men are in its service. The Royal Navy, however, as with the other services, is naturally more concerned about those serving than about those who have served.

It took several years to win pensions for the pre-1950 service widows who previously had no service pension. The Conservative Government can take great credit for the fact that one of their earliest actions in 1979 was to introduce a special service pension for the pre-1950 service widows. Similarly, it took many years to win improvements for the older war widows. I give all credit to the present Defence Ministers for having responded to the representations that were made on behalf of war widows. On their behalf, I thank the present Defence Ministers for enhancing older war widows' pensions.

I fear, however, that the 25,000 service men who were present at nuclear tests between 1952 and 1958 may he in a similar position to that of the widows when they were fighting for recognition. It does not take a nuclear physicist to guess that there is some connection between nuclear tests and the fact that 700 or so men have suffered cancers, deformity and in some cases death. Those who serve in the Royal Navy deserve our gratitude and support. Those who served in the Royal Navy in the past, and their widows, deserve nothing less.

8.13 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) made a fluent speech. I agree with him that those who served in the Royal Navy deserve better pensions. However, the bulk of his comments were fundamentally flawed. They were based on threats from an enemy. In the light of world events, that is now regarded as increasingly unreal—a fact that has been acknowledged even by some of his hon. Friends when they look at the state of politics in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

I pay tribute to Royal Navy personnel. They carry out their tasks ably and efficiently. I paid a visit to HMS Alacrity, which is doing excellent anti-drugs work. It has also provided hurricane relief. That is the sort of work that I want the Royal Navy to do, especially anti-drugs work with the United States coastguard. I should like it to be increased. Unfortunately, however, the Royal Navy's cold war role is regarded by the Government as more important.

Naval ratings have expressed concern to me about several issues. They moan about pay, but they are more concerned about the bills they face when they return home. The poll tax is at the top of their list of concerns. Many of them are worried about their families having to rely on social security and housing benefit. They will also, I presume, have to rely on poll tax benefit. The Minister ought to acknowledge that the Government's policies have led to the families of service personnel being forced to rely on rebates, as so many other families have to.

Those people must regard the future with as much concern as my constituent, Mr. E. Taylor, of Lea Hall gardens, Leyton, who wrote to me recently because he is worried about the effect of the poll tax upon him and his wife. He said: My present weekly income is £48.55 state pension, and about £64 per week"—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman's constituent a sailor?

Mr. Cohen

Yes. You have spoilt my punch line, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I apologise.

Mr. Cohen

I shall continue as if you had not intervened, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Taylor said: My wife's pension is £26.20. This being a total of £138.75 for the household. He went on to say that their weekly average expenditure eats up all that money easily. He includes the telephone in his weekly average expenditure and says that he can take incoming calls only. He also says: all these proposed increases are really pushing us literally to the wall. His punch line is: The reason for my writing this letter is to express my protest against such severe increases to our cost of living which after my service of thirteen and a half years in the Royal Navy (including the war years), plus 30 years with the Ministry of Defence is, you will agree, against all sense of justice and fair play. I believe that most hon. Members will agree with those sentiments. It is shocking that the Government have placed ex-Royal Navy personnel with that amount of service in such a plight.

Recently I visited Faslane. I pay tribute to the peace campers. They have obtained information that the public have a right to know, but which the Ministry of Defence has consistently hidden. They have obtained it despite Ministry of Defence police coming around every five or 10 minutes. Faslane is being prepared for Trident. Millions of pounds have been spent on it. Money is no object. It has been pointed out to me that over £10 million was spent on road construction but that it was all dug up again after the work had been completed. My borough could do with some of that £10 million, so that the proposed surface road which will lead to many houses being knocked down in Leyton and Leytonstone could be put underground.

The peace campers found out about the Ministry of Defence's plans for the site of special scientific interest at Rhu Spit. They also found out about the submarines that have limped into port during the past few months. We know now that they limped into port because of nuclear reactor faults. That was made clear in The Independent on 1 February. The report refers to the fact that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority's safety and reliability directorate has expressed concern about the safety of the reactors. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that the safety and reliability directorate has a role to play. The report says: all five of the Valiant and Churchill boats are in.…highly unusual under normal conditions. The fault is believed to be a hairline crack in the primary cooling system of the reactor". The report also said: 10 days ago a Polaris class vessel had returned unexpectedly early…cracking of reactor pressure circuits is a well-known problem in the civil nuclear power industry.

That problem is coming home to roost in nuclear-powered submarines. The hon. Member for Gosport mentioned nuclear test veterans. Many Labour Members have been fighting for proper compensation for those involved in the A-tests in the 1950s and 1960s. What about the Navy personnel in those Polaris submarines? The Ministry should come clean about that problem. Is Ministers' reluctance to come clean about these problems one of the reasons why the Government have been so mean about paying veterans?

Mr. Archie Hamilton

I must put the record straight. The advantage for a submariner is that he is not exposed to the normal degrees of radiation that the rest of us are in the open air. The fact that he spends some of his life at sea means that he is exposed to lower rates of radiation than other people. There is no evidence that any of our submariners have suffered from radiation.

Mr. Cohen

I appreciate that point, and we must take it at face value, but that reminds me of when it was said that there was no evidence that smoking caused cancer. Years later, it was suddenly discovered that there was such a link. I fear that that may become the case in this respect.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

We should have more faith in what the Minister says if all the veterans of Christmas Island had not been told that they were under no risk. The Government should at least admit that they made a mistake and pay them compensation.

Mr. Cohen

That is exactly the point that I am trying to make. The Minister says that there is no risk of radiation, yet reactors have developed hairline cracks. That must create doubts in people's minds. All the expert opinion should be made public.

What if the Vanguard class of submarine, which will carry Trident, develops the same reactor faults? If its reactor blows, there will be enormous self-destruction. Trident has indiscriminate and massive overkill powers many hundred times greater than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

What is the point of using Trident to obliterate people who are campaigning for democracy and better economic conditions in eastern Europe? The tests carried out on Trident have been far from perfect: we remember the catherine wheel test, when it fell straight back down. Such failures would make Trident a suicide weapon.

Defence cuts have been made by President Gorbachev. If a war is started against the Soviet Union by accident or in mad circumstances, it may be argued by a Soviet general that the best way to achieve a draw is to get Trident used. That person would have to be mad because that would be suicidal for both sides, but it may be preferred to defeat, which could be inherent in Soviet cuts that are made unbalanced by Western expansion in nuclear arms.

I raised the problem of sonar in an intervention. The Minister said that the Soviet Union has substantially improved sonar techniques. The Vanguard submarine is bigger than normal submarines in order to accommodate the huge Trident weapons and it will be relatively easily tracked. The United States is aware of that problem. It is holding back on full-scale production of Trident because it knows that Congress is uneasy about it. It is using Trident as a bargaining chip for the strategic arms reduction talks. It is being built to be scrapped and the US will scrap it straight after START 2, but the United Kingdom is dependent upon the United States for Trident. The £10 billion-plus cost will be down the drain for those useless but immensely dangerous nuclear weapons that have no realistic role in the changed world.

Naval forces are left out of arms control talks. Verification has been mentioned, but I wish that there was some verification. We have had the thinnest verification that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), but the United Kingdom has not taken part in that and has shown no interest in doing so. It is silly for naval forces to be left out when arms cuts covering conventional forces and land and air-based nuclear weapons are high on the agenda. It is silly that naval nuclear weapons will remain untouched, unrestricted and unrestrained. Naval cuts should be made soon, not only for international peace and stability but to redistribute to people money otherwise wasted on weapons. Such cuts are best for the Royal Navy, because it cannot plan for the future while the Government fudge this issue.

The Government ignore world events. The Warsaw pact is in disarray. The Soviet Union has made substantial moves towards defensive defence. President Gorbachev has made huge arms cuts— in many cases, unilateral cuts — to support the economy and, indeed, for his own survival. He has repeatedly called for a deal. A Government booklet, "Broadsheet 89", on the Navy says: A number of proposals on naval forces have been put forward by the Warsaw Pact, in open speeches and at formal negotiations. These have ranged across a wide spectrum, from constraints to confidence building measures…The CFE talks do not impact upon the RN. It later deals with the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, (CSCE) … The latter does not affect Naval forces except where naval gunfire support and amphibious forces take part in exercises involving more than 13,000 troops.

That is saying that the Navy will not do a deal. President Gorbachev has been spurned by the Government when he has called for a deal on naval forces. The Soviet Union, because of economic pressures, will make naval cuts, but we shall be left with nuclear weapons based on cold war thinking and a strategy that is obsolete and hugely expensive.

We want the peace dividend, which could represent billions of pounds. It could be done in co-ordination with the Soviet Union and without any risk. Instead, we have massive overkill and massive overspend. We keep being told by Conservative Members— and the hon. Member for Gosport was no exception— that now is not the right time; it is never the right time for Conservative Members. Is it not the right time when arms cuts are being made by the Soviet Union?

The peace dividend could apply to arms conversion. We should be reshaping our yards to build merchant shipping, which is needed to boost our trade and world trade. We could be guaranteeing jobs into the future. The peace dividend could especially apply to welfare services. We could be keeping hospitals open instead of closing them.

The Government are out of touch with world events and are missing a great opportunity. If they get their way, they will be condemned in history for it.

8.28 pm

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I wish that the hon. Members for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) could have found it in their hearts to show their appreciation of what the Royal Navy does for this country. Their lack of enthusiasm followed the speech of the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes). I was worried by not only the content of that speech, which talked about the potential reduction in naval expenditure, but the tone in which it was delivered, which showed a complete lack of enthusiasm for the Royal Navy.

I interpreted that as meaning that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington— the same applies to the hon. Members for Leyton and for Denton and Reddish— regards the Royal Navy as an instrument of war. I suggest that it is an instrument of, and for, peace. First, it is an essentially defensive instrument, offering protection to this country. Secondly, it is an instrument that operates as effectively in peacetime as in wartime. As has been evidenced in the Gulf and the Caribbean, its role in peacetime can often be as essential as in any wartime operation, and presumably its purely humanitarian objectives would be supported by both sides of the House.

I trust that someone who says that he wants the Royal Navy developed is not seen as ignoring changes in the world. I belong to a generation that has seen changes arid gone through a world war. No one of my generation would do other than welcome a move towards peace. After the first world war, we saw the rise of national independence in numerous countries in eastern and southern Europe and saw them celebrating it, yet we also saw the adventurism, nationalism and aggression that it bred. Only a few years later, some of those countries cast aside the very freedom that they had sought in the first world war or, as in the Baltic republics, had it brutally taken from them by their bigger neighbour.

It is not enough for us to say that we have had a few weeks or months of euphoria and calls from people— including those who were active during the cold war on the other side of the iron curtain or the Berlin wall— for peace, freedom and understanding. Their actions must speak as loudly as their words. It will be a long time before we can say that the leopard has changed his spots and that they are all converts to freedom, peace, democracy and liberal ideals.

In the meantime, to increase the pace of the process, we may take part in negotiations to reduce arms and arms expenditure. I do not believe that there is any great difference between the two sides of the House on that issue. Although it may be possible for us to conceive of a move towards a reduction in offensive weapons on both sides, there would be nothing desirable in having a major reduction in defensive weapons on either side. Purely defensive weapons give security, which means that there is no need for either side to fear the other or to fear change. We want change, and we shall not fear it as long as we have our national security. We in the West feel secure, and I want the nations of the East to feel equally secure.

I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement. At the top of my agenda was the question whether we were still committed to an escort fleet of about 50 vessels. My hon. Friend took the bull by the horns and answered in a straightforward way, but in offering him my thanks, I feel a certain hesitation. I should have thought that "about 50 vessels" means either a little above or a little below 50, but the number is now permanently a little below 50. We know that some ships are not immediately available for use, so we have a fleet of 48—well, that is nearly 50. We know that 44 vessels could be ready in a relatively short time.

The numbers are getting perilously small. That is not a jingoistic statement—I do not want to send a gunboat anywhere. Commitments such as those that we have in the Gulf come up without any action by us. We have no control over how those circumstances arise. There is no guarantee that there will be only one such incident at a time— there could be more than one in different parts of the world which involve direct British interests and where it would be necessary for us to maintain a naval presence.

I trust that the Government are still wedded to their promise of "about 50 vessels", not to something below 50. We all welcome the building of newer ships and the reduction in the age of our fleet, about which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State spoke, but we must remember that we will get the advantages from new equipment such as the type 23 frigate only if the ship is fully operational. It is not fully operational if it does not have the computerised control system that it was intended to have.

I know that the ship can operate without that equipment, but in practice the advantages do not exist until it has that capacity. I trust that we will have from the Ministry of Defence a commitment not only to provide hulls in the water, by which we measured the success of the escort fleet in the past, but to ensure that the necessary equipment is provided— the control system and the seagoing version of the EH101 helicopter, which is an essential part of the new vessel.

It is not always easy to make a commitment to a new weapon. People often say that it will not work, that it will probably cost more and that it will take longer to develop than expected. My first duty on being elected in 1979 was to take a group of trade unionists to see the then Navy Minister on behalf of the Marconi workers who were building Sting Ray. That was one of those projects that was criticised by the Left and the Right because it was said that it would never succeed. Sting Ray is now perhaps the finest lightweight torpedo in the world. It has export markets and export potential.

We need a commitment to finishing the jobs that we have started. I have been alarmed at the talk that Marconi cannot achieve a full-scale production order for the heavyweight torpedo and to hear that Westland has not been given a production order for the helicopter. There must at some point be a commitment to buy a certain weapon because we believe that it can be made to work. There must be a point at which the advice given to the Ministry of Defence is sufficient to lead it to make a decision. I hope that it will reach quick and early decisions on these essential matters.

We need also a commitment to the support facilities on which the Navy relies. When HMS Southampton was brought somewhat ignominiously into Portsmouth harbour after she was severely damaged, it was a mistake not to have the repair work done at the naval repair base, which had the men and equipment ready for her refitting. One cannot argue that that work could not have been done there, because that is where refitting work is carried out. It has been said that a royal naval fleet maintenance base has no accounting procedures to submit a tender, but every piece of work done on the fleet maintenance base is costed.

Plenty of people in the naval base at Portsmouth would have been prepared to submit, if not a tender exactly, a firm quotation by which the success of Portsmouth in the repair work on HMS Southampton could have been judged. Instead, the vessel was taken away for all the work — not only the repairs of new damage but the work that would otherwise have been done in Portsmouth—to be carried out. The then Minister gave Portsmouth some offsetting work, but that is not the same, is it, as allowing a ship that was to be refitted in Portsmouth to be repaired there? After that blow, morale in Portsmouth will not easily be restored.

A commitment to facilities, equipment and the development of weapons is essential. It is up to the Ministry of Defence not simply to sit back and wait to see what it can get but to commit itself to developing what it wants.

Mr. David Martin

My hon. Friend knows how we in Portsmouth fought over the HMS Southampton issue and how the morale of the work force was badly affected. The package of work that was supplied has been keeping the naval base work force going, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we should know what is coming to the direct labour force in the Royal Navy in Portsmouth beyond the summer? After all, it is the one remaining direct naval force working under direct Government contract. Will my hon. Friend touch on its future?

Mr. Griffiths

I thank my hon. Friend, who has a more detailed knowledge of the workings of the fleet maintenance base than I do as he gives a great deal of time to close personal study of it. We have a fleet maintenance base in Portsmouth which is part of the Royal Navy. We want a commitment to the Royal Navy— not a hand-to-mouth commitment to giving us something now and something in the future or to finding us something to offset work that we have lost, but a firm commitment that certain vessels will be based on Portsmouth for all their requirements and that when such vessels need repair, refitting and maintenance they will come to Portsmouth.

The Royal Navy as an institution in peace and war is well worth maintaining, developing and protecting. The qualities of quiet efficiency and discipline are the sort of qualities that reflect all that is best in our national life. That is why I am proud to be associated with a city that has such a long-standing link with the Royal Navy. Whatever the future may hold— whether we are to enter the golden uplands of a period of unparalleled peace or to move once again into troubled waters of political upheaval and uncertainty— we want people to be able to say for certain, "The Navy is here."

8.43 pm

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) has urged the Government to remain armed against the Soviet Union until it has adopted, and has been seen to have adopted, liberal ideals. On that basis, the Soviet Union will most certainly remain armed against the current Government as it will see no sign of their adopting such liberal ideals. Having said that, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman because the community that I represent, like the community that he represents, has long and close ties with the Royal Navy and because, like him, I think that the Royal Navy has an important role on which considerable emphasis should be placed. I have been emphasising that role in Royal Navy debates ever since I came to the House, and when we have debated merchant shipping orders I have tried to get a word in for our merchant marine.

All hon. Members who have spoken have referred to foreign affairs, and it is absolutely right that, in debating the Royal Navy, we should have due regard to the international position. I shall not go through all the arguments again, except to say that it is clear that whatever else may divide the House we are not divided in our analysis of what is happening in eastern Europe. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have painted a similar picture. The issue for the House, and the issue that perhaps divides the parties more, is how we should respond.

As I have said before, I think that it is a mistake to debate defence issues as we do— a day for the Navy, a day for the Army and a day for the Air Force— when the question of our strategic deterrent arises under all three headings. We should consider the issues under four separate headings and have a debate about Trident and Britain's nuclear capability distinct from our debates on the conventional role of our three armed forces.

I shall refer specifically to the conventional role of the Royal Navy and in doing so I shall allude to what the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) said. If we are to consider a peace bonus—I would warmly welcome that, as I am sure would the majority of our fellow citizens— we must consider whether it should come from our strategic deterrent, from the Navy, from the Army or from the Air Force. The services do not all start from the same basis. The Royal Navy's conventional role has borne the bulk of the downturn in defence expenditure over the past 10 years, and I should not wish that expenditure to be diminished further. As we move from a time of real tension between the two super-powers— between NATO and the Warsaw pact— to a time of diminishing tension, the role of the Royal Navy may be enhanced rather than diminished.

Both the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) referred to emphasis being placed on the Royal Navy's unique role within NATO. That is absolutely right. If there is to be more specialisation within NATO—I think that there should be — it is surely right that, with our traditions, heritage, background and special strategic needs as a trading nation and, above all, as an island, we should emphasise the contribution of the Royal Navy. That means funding it, not reducing our commitment to it.

The Royal Navy's contribution in international affairs is unique. It can provide a diplomatic presence or an oblique military presence overseas in a way that the Army and Air Force simply cannot. It is no accident that the role of the Royal Navy has been paramount in every conflict in which we have been involved since the second world war. The Navy is not the service whose role we should diminish if there is to be a peace bonus. The savings should be reaped elsewhere, and the Army of the Rhine is the obvious source.

As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, the Royal Navy is an instrument of peace rather than aggression. It has a role in fighting the drugs trade and piracy and in assisting in dealing with natural disasters — a role that cannot be played by any other service. If the emphasis on the roles of the different military arms is to be changed, we should remember that the Royal Navy poses the least aggressive threat to the eastern bloc. If we are to place much more emphasis on real defence rather than pre-emptive strikes, we should be underpinning the role of the Royal Navy.

My constituency, like that of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North has a long relationship with the Royal Navy. We make the fleet auxiliaries and the frigates for the Navy and we repair them, as we did with HMS Southampton. We provide the crews and there is a great tradition of sea-going people on Tyneside. Tyneside is also popular with the Royal Navy because it is a good shore leave. Newcastle is a good place to spend a Saturday night.

Mr. Boyes

Hear, hear.

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) is cheering me on, obviously on the basis of personal experience.

My community wants to express its wholehearted support for the Royal Navy and its role in our national life. It would be wrong of me not to associate my community with the condemnations from Opposition and Government Front-Bench spokesmen and from Back-Bench Members of those responsible for the deaths of the young bandsmen at Deal. That was a disgusting outrage and vile murder and it is wholeheartedly condemned by me and everyone I represent.

I refer to a number of procurement issues. I listened with considerable interest to the Minister's opening remarks and I broadly welcome them. If, as the Minister said, there is to be a further type 23 procurement round this year, surely it is time to consider the ratios and the further procurement of auxiliary oiler replenishment vessels. Perhaps that issue can be addressed when the Minister of State for the Armed Forces replies. If there are to be more type 23 frigate, the Government must make arrangements for their replenishment and that must mean an AOR3 or perhaps even an AOR4. I hope that the Minister can tell us something about the time scale for that.

Several hon. Members have referred to the role replacements of HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. The Minister said that that was under full and detailed consideration. Perhaps when the Minister replies he can tell us about the time scale for that full and detailed consideration. After all, the matter has been under review for a little more than a year. Perhaps those considerations will end soon and perhaps the Minister can tell us when.

I know that the Minister of State will have received a copy of the report of the Public Accounts Committee on reliability and maintainability of defence equipment. The report states: The Services have estimated that unreliability adds over £1 billion a year to support costs. We accept that not all such costs can be saved, but note that the Department consider 50 per cent. to be a fair goal for the level of achievable savings. Does that apply specifically to the Royal Navy? Will the Minister place emphasis more on reliability and maintainability in the procurement rounds in future rather than on just the costs of procurement? Clearly, initial costs and eventual costs are not the same, as the PAC recognises. It would be heartening to hear the Minister's response about that.

I hope that when the Minister replies he can tell us something about the Royal Navy's experience with the costs and performance of the Argus which was procured on a non-competitive basis. I also hope he can tell us whether the experience with the Fort Victoria AOR1 contract continues to be happy. Can he assure us that the overall cost to the taxpayer of those contracts is still within budget and that there is no overrun? Can he tell us anything about the National Audit Office report on the Argus? I know that the MOD will want to respond to that as some stage, but I wonder whether the Minister can tell us something about it tonight.

We have had some discussions on broad and sweeping issues and great events. However, with the Minister's indulgence, I want to raise an issue which may seem more trivial, but which is a matter of some importance to our service personnel. I refer to the ceilings of modern warships while they are at sea.

As part of the post-Falklands experience and review, it has been decided to remove the ceilings from modern new British frigates, including the type 23. Those ceilings have been removed from the crew's quarters, workrooms and leisure rooms. The pipework is left exposed and the intention is that it should stay exposed. That is not very aesthetically pleasing. The men work in a very small space and it is obvious to anyone who has worked in an industrial environment that exposed pipework collects more dust, debris and filth than unexposed pipework.

I am sure that the idea has been sold to the Treasury as a possible cost saving. However, for aesthetic and housekeeping reasons, would it be possible for the Royal Navy to consider replacing the ceilings, at least until vessels go into combat? If there were small prefabricated panels that could be removed when the warship was at combat stations, that would make life more pleasant for the crew and result in housekeeping savings.

Having made that small and modest plea, which is probably the only point to which I will receive a response, I confirm yet again the support of my community for the Royal Navy. I hope that the peace bonus, which is the British people's due, comes from a service that has been less hard hit by expenditure cuts than the Navy.

8.56 pm

Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Earlier in the debate, several references were made to the new armed forces parliamentary scheme. I am particularly pleased to have been called this evening because this year I am on attachment to the Royal Navy under the auspices of that scheme. Many hon. Members will know that the scheme follows the familiar pattern set by the Industry and Parliament Trust and tries to give hon. Members an understanding of service life and service priorities and problems.

With the abolition of national service and inevitably smaller defence services, it is not surprising that fewer hon. Members have direct experience of service life. I have no direct experience of it. Like other hon. Members, I have to rely on briefing papers and the work of the all-party defence group to enhance my knowledge of defence matters. While commending the work of that group and the valuable visits that it organises and commending those to other hon. Members, I recognise that that experience is, of necessity, limited. The armed forces parliamentary scheme provides a great deal more depth and detail.

During my brief time with the Royal Navy I have had nothing short of total co—operation from everyone. Whether discussing naval strategy with the heady rank of admiral or whether discussing day—to—day problems with junior ranks messes, within the bounds of security, everyone has been totally helpful and willing to state their views. With the profound changes in eastern Europe and the new attitudes that are coming from the Soviet Union, it is vital that, as we consider the role of our forces, Members of Parliament are informed and have views on the role and state of our armed forces.

I shall say a few words based on my brief experience with the Navy. I stress that I have no great experience of naval matters, but, throughout a long career in industry as a consultant and writer, I have been able to visit thousands of organisations in all sectors of the economy, and I am able to make comparisons. I shall make just a few comparisons this evening. I shall refer to morale and pay, management style and practice, retirement policy, and the role of women in the Navy.

The first matter concerns morale and pay. In many years of talking to people in many organisations, I have come to realise that, almost invariably, wherever and whatever the organisation, people consider that they should be paid more and that morale could be improved. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to know that the Navy is no exception to that rule. Many people consider that they should be paid more and that allowances should be higher and more flexible.

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body's recommendation of a 10.9 per cent. average increase will be welcomed in the Navy, as will retention incentives and the increase in the X factor. That body recognises the problems, but it will not wholly solve them. Within the Royal Navy there is a certain amount of discontent about allowances. Having seen what I have in the Navy, I think that the Minister would do well to examine this matter a little more closely.

Inevitably, as the number of our dependencies around the world declines and as our worldwide commitments are cut, there is not the same opportunity for sailors to visit foreign ports. Traditionally, many sailors join the Navy to see the world, and they are understandably disappointed when they find that their opportunities to do so are nowhere near as numerous as they were in the past.

I would not for a second suggest that the conduct and deployment of the Navy should be determined by sailors' desire to see the world, but the Minister should take into account the importance of shore visits as seen by ratings when looking at other motivational factors in Navy life. I do not believe that morale is low or that pay is bad in the Royal Navy, but there is some room for the adjustment of allowances, particularly when service men are based away from their family homes, and more account should be paid to the importance to sailors of shore leave on foreign visits.

The second matter concerns management practice and style. In recent years, throughout the economy, particularly industry, great emphasis has been placed on management practice. Every successful manager recognises that people in all walks of life today need not only to be informed but to participate in decision-making processes. Successful organisations involve people. They are organisations in which authority must be earned and in which managers at all levels lead by example. The days when the boss, whoever he was, could rely solely on his position in a hierarchy have gone, and rightly so. Only a fool pretends that the same management practices can apply in the armed forces as in industry.

In a battle it is neither possible nor desirable to arrive at decisions by consensus. We must have strong leaders and obedient followers. But not all situations are battles. From what I have seen in my brief time in the Navy, I wonder whether there is not more room for consultation and involvement of junior ranks. There is a danger that hierarchical structures, the officer class system and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 can sometimes—I put it no higher than "sometimes"— be substitutes for good management practice. That can have severe consequences for morale and retention.

The third matter concerns retirement ages. There is justifiable concern in the Navy about difficulties in recruiting, training and retaining suitable staff. Those problems are not unique to the Navy. Industry, education, medicine and almost every branch of commerce face them on a day-to-day basis. The problems will not get better; they will get worse. Increasingly, most organisations will need more intelligent and better-trained staff.

Demographic trends will make the situation worse. Competition for highly trained and motivated people will become more and more severe. Like other organisations, the Navy will find it increasingly difficult and expensive to recruit, train and retain suitable staff. Therefore, it seems strange that the Navy sometimes forces highly trained but competent people to leave the service at a comparatively early age and against their wishes.

Throughout the economy, there is a need to be more flexible about retirement ages. Not everyone is ready for retirement at the same age. Throughout industry and commerce, there is a need to retain people longer and to utilise the valuable skills that they have acquired. The Navy's present policy is partly illogical. We should be seeking to retain people and skills, not the reverse. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that matter.

The role of women in the Navy has already been mentioned on several occasions and I wish to mention it again. The Navy can be rightly proud of the Women's Royal Naval Service, which does an invaluable job. However, I wonder if it does enough. Not least for reasons that I mentioned earlier, we need to examine the role of women throughout the economy, and the Navy is no exception. It is wrong and wasteful that women are prevented from performing those tasks that they are willing and able to perform. Many Wrens wish to go to sea—almost all of those that I have met do—and the Navy should face that challenge. The Navy can recruit and retain high-quality women, but it is not tapping that potential sufficiently. Industry is changing its attitudes. There is a woman Prime Minister; there are many first-rate women managers in industry; but Wrens are not allowed to go to sea.

I appreciate that there are arguments for that, and hon. Members have argued against the deployment of women at sea because of the strength of women, the need for separate accommodation, the inevitable male and female relationships that would develop, the feelings of wives and of husbands left at home and the moral arguments about putting women in combative roles.

This is the age of equal opportunity and the Navy must be an equal opportunity employer. The Dutch, the Israelis, the New Zealanders, the Australians, the Americans and the Norwegians all allow women to go to sea in certain types of ship. I hope that Ministers and that the Navy Board will quickly adopt a policy of encouraging Wrens to go to sea in non-combative ships. I offer those suggestions because I believe that the Navy would be improved by them. All forms of human organisation can be improved and while the Navy is no exception, I have been impressed by what I have seen of it. It is dedicated, loyal and fully professional.

The House has a duty to ensure that there is not only a constant search for efficiency and economy within the Navy but that the Navy continues to receive the resources to enable it to continue to do such an excellent job.

9.8 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) said that some of his military experience was derived from his experience in the Industry and Parliament Trust. My similar experience with that organisation was with Cadbury-Schweppes. I observed more chocolate soldiers than real soldiers. Although, like the hon. Gentleman, I have not served in the armed forces, being a member of the Select Committee on Defence—of which the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) is an able and probably the best Chairman, a comment that I hope will not do him irreparable harm with his party or myself with mine—and the experience that I have derived from the North Atlantic Assembly, particularly in its relationship in recent years with eastern Europe, gives me a perspective that may be relevant to supplement the experiences of people who have been in the military services.

I do not need to speak with a sense of embarrassment from the Opposition Benches. The nightmare of the 1980s is thankfully over. That is when my party drifted into the periphery of politics, especially in defence. I was berated for my speech in the previous defence debate for wanting greater consensus on defence issues. That is something that I do not regard as worthy of public criticism. It is important that we eventually return to the concept of politics ceasing at the water's edge. Perhaps we are not yet there, but we are far less apart than we were before last October.

As someone who has studied public opinion polls, and noting Labour's new defence policy, I am confident that no one would believe that my party adapted its defence policy for other than the noblest motives, unrelated to its electoral considerations. The Independent poll of a couple of weeks ago showed that no more than 12 per cent. of people support what amounts to unilateralism. When members of the public were asked whether they thought that Britain should keep some nuclear weapons so long as the Russians had theirs, 76 per cent., including 70 per cent. of Labour voters, said that it should.

We wish ultimately to see a world in which nuclear weapons have been eliminated, so long as there is some parity in conventional forces and so long as Third-world nations, which have been acquiring chemical and nuclear weapons at an alarming rate, are brought into an arms control regime. In the meantime, my party has widely adopted a policy that gives it flexibility in its approach to arms control negotiations, and I hope that when it is elected to office our nuclear weapons will become part of a START 2 process. That would be an intelligent way to proceed. I do not want to see Britain adopting the electorally unpopular and pretty stupid policy of throwing in its nuclear weapons in advance of other nations abandoning theirs.

tt The great problem that Governments of all political hues have had, certainly since the second world war, has been the matching of commitments and resources. That problem will become even more difficult. During the cold war it was relatively easy to amass resources commensurate with the threat, but now that the cold war appears to be over, it is more difficult for Governments to retain a level of defence expenditure commensurate with the threat.

However, the present Government certainly have not just woken up to the fact that they must cut defence expenditure. According to a Defence Select Committee report about a year ago, the Committee estimated that, by 1990–91, if current trends continued, defence expenditure would fall by 3.9 per cent. of gross domestic product. The Government have been cutting defence expenditure for one reason or another. To the critics who say that NATO has been doing nothing to respond to initiatives, I point out that, over the years—this can be taken one way or another—almost every NATO Government, including that of the United States, has been cutting substantially the percentage of expenditure devoted to defence.

When I hear that somehow all the initiatives derive from President Gorbachev, I want to tell people that they should look at the NATO summit communique issued in May last year. If they do so, they will see that the initiatives of President Bush last year and his recently announced initiatives make those of the Soviet Union pale almost into insignificance.

Quite recently, I was in Vienna observing the CFE negotiations. Which alliance was it that produced the first draft CFE treaty? Which alliance leaked that draft treaty to the Soviet Union so that it might see what our thinking was? I do not think that we have to view our alliance with any shame as to its reticence about developing its arms control proposals. There has been a remarkable reaction. Bearing in mind the difficulties faced by 16 sovereign democratic nations in somehow calibrating their security policies, and in doing so swiftly, I believe that NATO has had remarkable success.

Bearing in mind also the fact that peace is breaking out, the diminished perception of the threat, the economic and domestic political pressures, and the pressures that will emerge from the CFE treaty, one realises that the Government will have difficulties in reconciling their commitments with their resources. Some very hard decisions will have to be made.

I am not within that spectrum of opinion that argues that nothing should be done, that the threat is still enormous, that Gorbachev may be overthrown, and that therefore we can settle down to another cold war in a couple of months' time, but nor do I adhere remotely to the euphoric attitude that, as peace has broken out, swords must instantly be transformed into ploughshares. We must be imaginative; we must take advantage of the situation. But we must proceed with some prudence, because arms decisions, including procurement decisions, taken now will set the agenda for the year 2000. One cannot suddenly and swiftly produce weapons as fast as Spitfires were produced during the second world war.

I agree that we must be prudent and cautious. The NOP survey in The Independent of 20 January asked: In the light of recent developments in eastern Europe, which of these statements comes closest to your own view? It continued: The threat of war is now less, so Britain can safely reduce the amount of money it spends on defence How many people agreed with that? One might think that it would be 80 per cent., but in fact 29 per cent. agreed with the statement that because of developments in eastern Europe we can cut defence expenditure. That puts the Government way out of step with public opinion.

The survey continued: No one can be sure what will happen in the future, so Britain should keep up its defence spending. Some 63 per cent. agreed with that, including 58 per cent. of Labour voters. While we must be imaginative, it is necessary to be reasonably prudent. How we give that dichotomy the right proportions is something that others must decide.

I listened to the debate on eastern Europe last week. I hoped to catch Mr. Speaker's eye but was unsuccessful. In that debate, the leader of the Liberal party was attacked for his views—I thought, unfairly. Far be it from me to rush to his defence, but what some have argued was that the time has come for alliances to wither away. He correctly argued that we should hope that the Warsaw pact will survive. He did not argue that it should survive in its current form. It is necessary for NATO to outlive the present situation for a variety of reasons. Ironically, we should also try to sustain the Warsaw pact. It is as though two heavyweight boxers reached the 13th round, and one was in better shape than the other and tried to hold up the other to prevent him from collapsing. It is in our interests that the Warsaw pact survives, but in a different form.

I have been to almost every non-Soviet Warsaw pact country and contributed six chapters to "Jane's Warsaw Pact High Command," so I speak with some interest in the problems of non-Soviet Warsaw pact militaries. Clearly, the reliability of such forces to the Soviet Union is questionable. Most of them have ordered, or begun negotiations, for Soviet withdrawal.

If the alliance collapses, as it might, the Soviet Union will be in further disarray. The military will be even more angry with President Gorbachev for having apparently torpedoed its security interests. The relationship between NATO and the Warsaw pact, which is critical in terms of arms control negotiations, might be severely damaged. I put that argument in Hungary and said that it was easy for somebody who had not lived under the Soviet Union to argue for the survival of the Warsaw pact.

I am not arguing for its indefinite survival, but if it is altered and non-Soviet Warsaw pact countries inject more control and influence over it, it will not necessarily be a force of instability but will be in their and our interests. That argument should be seriously addressed and is why NATO must survive, not entirely in its present form, but more or less in the way with which we are familiar—[interruption] I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. O'Neill

I was going to start the wind-up.

Mr. George

I am sorry. I have not finished yet.

NATO has a useful role. We are fortunate that, since the Harmel report 20 years ago, NATO has been both a political and a military alliance. Clearly, the political dimension will assume greater prominence. It still has a military role and an economic role, particularly in terms of the Third world. There are many environmental challenges which NATO can play a role in meeting. It has a role to play in combating terrorism and a critical role in arms control. It is a means by which, in these tempestuous times, there can be some stability.

It is also important to think not just in military terms vis-à-vis eastern Europe but to do far more for it economically. It is simple to applaud events in Romania when we see them on television, and it is easy to say that we must provide economic assistance. I have recently returned from spending a week in Romania, and it is with some embarrassment that I say that many people inside and outside Government believe that the British Government's aid programme to Romania, although not derisory or trivial, is at the lower end of the third division of aid donors.

It is important to think of ways in which we can help to underpin the emerging democracies in eastern Europe. If someone had told western Governments two years ago that the Soviet Union would be a marginal force in eastern Europe, that democratic Governments would be established there within two years and had asked how much they were prepared to give to achieve that, they would have offered enormous sums. Now we have an opportunity.

I received a parliamentary answer from the Foreign Secretary stating how much we give in aid to Romania. Our private charities such as the Red Cross have been magnificent, but the Government contribution has been little short of unsatisfactory.

We are at an exciting crossroads in world and European history. We were all brought up with a cold war mentality and some of us with a pre-cold war mentality so it is difficult for us to adjust to changed circumstances. There are enormous opportunities. Clearly, defence expenditure will have to fall. Nevertheless, it is critical that the Alliance that has helped to maintain our security for over 40 years survives. It is important that we relate to the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in a way that will help to underpin the democratic forces that are emerging there.

Perhaps the time will come when the amount of money that we need to spend on defence will genuinely fall and we shall see the beating of swords into ploughshares, but that time has not quite come.

9.21 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

I was beginning to feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) had reached the end, but not quite yet.

The debate was prefaced by discussions between what are known as the usual channels, about which we dare not speak. Suffice it to say that we discussed whether it would be better to have separate debates about deployment and procurement or debates about the individual services. In some respects, our discussions were largely academic. The ingenuity of both Opposition and Conservative Members has been such that they have wangled in every service and piece of hardware, and every thought or idea about the world situation.

Of the six or seven debates on the Navy in which I have participated, this has been the most exciting, varied and encouraging. Although hon. Members have shown varying degrees of optimism, few of us have been too bleak in our expectations. Of all the issues, the most difficult is how to deal with the Navy and naval arms control in a world of disarmament. It can be said that, because in NATO there was so much anxiety about the disposition of forces in central Europe, it turned its attention there when we first had signs of improvement in East-West relations. It is natural that we have had a CFE discussion in Vienna and that, of all the issues, the Navy is at the bottom of the list.

Despite that justification, I am impatient about the way in which we address maritime strategy. Although it is mainly the Norwegians and ourselves who make a substantial contribution to the defence of the northeastern Atlantic, we seem reluctant to throw our weight around and to try to encourage proper discussion of some of the problems.

To an extent, I understand why some of those difficulties arise. Naval power is essentially about the projection of power. It is a flexible asset that can be moved across the globe with relative ease and lack of obstruction. It is therefore desirable for super-powers—in their eyes at least—to have such flexibility in moving the pieces around the chessboard.

It is a paradox of our modern political systems that the Navy is perhaps the most expensive of all the services. It certainly has the most expensive equipment. An aircraft costs £20 million to £30 million at most. For the purposes of the example, I am not looking at such aircraft as stealth bombers. A frigate is essential to naval deployment and costs at least £100 million. For amphibious craft such as Fearless or Intrepid, the cost may well be twice that or more. It is uncertainty over those sums that causes the Government to take so long to make up their mind. I shall come back to that.

The Navy also requires highly qualified and skilled service personnel because expensive weapons platforms require high technical skills and a great deal of training. They also require maintenance that would tax the ingenuity of the best engineers. All those factors give rise to problems with the Navy across the globe. The Navy probably has one of the tightest and most effective political pressure groups in any political system in the shape of its procurement systems and its friends. Because of that, it is difficult to get beyond the starting gate on matters such as the confidence-building measures that are necessary, before we get to arms control.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South spoke about consensus. The consensus that some of us would like to see—by that I mean the Government agreeing with us—would take account of the provocative and potentially destablising nature of the forward deployment of ships in the North sea and at the edges of the Arctic. Cat-and-mouse tactics are often a feature of their deployment and they are relatively close to the Soviet fleet in the Kola peninsula. To use an inelegant phrase for which I can never find an alternative, it is thought, as John Lehmann said, that the aim should be to beard the bear in its lair.

It is felt that there should be a first-strike capability, certainly of a conventional nature, as close to the Soviet Union as possible—and that could lead to the early start of a nuclear confrontation. Because of that, we are getting a measure of agreement across the political spectrum about the desirability of less provocative deployments of sea-launched cruise systems and the like.

It is notable that Ambassador Nitze and Admiral Crowe, who are not known as long-time supporters of irresponsible disarmament or of giving the game away to the Soviet Union, or as being open to the sort of challenges made by Conservative Members, have made constructive statements about the desirability of changing some of the maritime strategies and about the possibility of finding ways to have more confidence-building measures in respect of naval deployment and so on.

I wait with interest to hear what the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has to say about some of those matters. The Under-Secretary did not cover them to any great extent and was non-specific about many others. Adjournment debates present an opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to take a balanced approach, but today we listened to a narrow expression of Government policy on the north Atlantic.

I should have been pleased to hear more about the sea lanes of communication and the reinforcement of the United Kingdom and Europe. Are the sea lanes as essential as they were some time ago? We are told that it would take 40 days to realise that a threat was emerging. In those circumstances, the reinforcement of Europe would still need to be effected as rapidly as it could be today. Would a post-CFE deployment of American and British troops need the same level of rapid deployment across the Atlantic that is possible today?

Conservative Members may argue that the Soviets have uninterrupted railway lines that just happen to pass through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the German Democratic Republic and that railway carriages full of troops would be greeted with open arms. There is an assumption that the workers, peasants and students of those people's republics would join the Red Army, cross the Oder-Neisse line, and liberate the people of western Europe from capitalism. Is that the argument that is being posited by the Government in the context of the length of time that it would take for an invasion threat to materialise? If so, they are still living in the bleakest days of the cold war.

This evening, we should have heard a clearer exposition of the problems. Is it better for us to have a surface fleet to secure the sea lanes of communication, or can a better case be advanced for the use of submarines? The Government are not sustaining a rate of ordering compatible with that required to keep open the sea lanes. If the Government are thinking in terms of submarines, do they propose placing orders additional to those already announced? The Minister should have dispelled such confusion.

Mr. Mates

Some of the questions that the hon. Gentleman poses are valid and should be debated. However, when he talks of a diminishing threat and of reducing our forces in Europe, he must agree that the more we take away—as peace breaks out and the situation improves—the more will be the need for reinforcement. There will be more to reinforce if anything goes wrong.

Mr. O'Neill

That assumes that American troops, for example, will not be civilianised but will be landed in the United States and returned to military bases. However, from last week's statement I am led to believe that President Bush intends to close many of them. We are talking of armies of a different size, and that raises different questions of support. It is incumbent on the Government to anticipate events and to inform the House of their thoughts.

It may be that we shall have to wait until the White Paper is published. If it contains the right information, perhaps I shall not have to make the same speech when the House debates the defence estimates, and the hon. Member for Hampshire, East, (Mr. Mates), or his Committee members, will not have to ask the same questions when the Minister and his officials go before them in the early summer.

We must be clear also about our view of the reinforcement of Norway, as that will probably be the last matter dealt with in the CFE talks and in negotiating the settlement of the European question. If there are no answers yet, the Government should be frank and say so, rather than use that as an excuse and have Ministers saying at the Dispatch Box year after year, "We are still thinking about what to do with HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. We are not sure what to do about aviation support vessels. We do not know our plans for amphibious vessels. We are still considering." Those excuses have been trotted out for an intolerable length of time. When that is set alongside the manner in which the Government are ordering ships and the way in which the hulls are being laid, it is even more intolerable. We have to be grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence for making that valid point.

It is one thing to announce that there will be orders, but it is another to have competition and get the orders. There is an even greater delay before the hulls start to be laid.

This evening we have had no clear statement about the number of surface ships available to us—perhaps the Minister can help remedy that in his speech—the net number of the Armilla patrol, the net number of the commitment to the Falklands, and the number of ships that we would need if there was a crisis. The Government seem to be conscious of the fact that a crisis could arise quickly.

We are still no clearer about support for the frigates that have been ordered, and that has emerged in several speeches. For example, there is the absence of CACS for the first four years of the life of some of the type 23 frigates, or the problem with the EH 101 and the likely cost overruns. Those cost overruns seem to be consuming a great deal of the savings that we used to hear about in the days when competitive tendering was all the fashion. I realise that it is still available in some areas of procurement, but opportunities for competitive tendering in shipbuilding are becoming fewer and fewer.

The failure of Cammell Laird to secure any part of the most recent round of orders is having a devastating effect on employment prospects in the Wirral, and in that part of Merseyside. It is also fair to say that Yarrow has been afflicted by its failure to get any part of those orders. Problems are now arising in yards such as Yarrow because of the doubt surrounding the future of the Euro-frigate.

Understandably, there will be national difficulties and differences about the hull design of such a ship, and, as I understand it, that is why the programme has collapsed; but, since modern frigates are nothing if not weapons platforms, perhaps the Minister can give us a clearer idea of what will happen to that ship. Are the Government committed to sustaining the effort to secure an agreed programme for the Euro-frigate?

We know that fewer armaments will be required, and that there will be problems of employment in the defence industries. We also know that the Government, almost alone among Governments in the Alliance and the Warsaw treaty organisation, choose to pour cold water on any prospects of a conversion programme.

I know that the Minister is not responsible for procurement. That is the responsibility of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. However, throughout Europe and across the Atlantic, people are concerned about the economic and industrial consequences of peace. Perhaps the Minister is not aware of it, but he should ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State because he and I spent a weekend at a conference on the subject.

In Britain we have a fundamental problem with shipbuilding skills, because the crucial mass of those skills is contracting to such a point that it may not be possible to transfer them to merchant yards if there were a need for an upturn in merchant shipbuilding in Britain. At the moment, most shipbuilding skills are based in warship building yards.

All hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have praised the quality of our service personnel. I referred to their skill and dedication earlier. A new round of pay awards has just been announced. It will probably take us some time to appreciate the fine print of the awards and for messages to come back to us about them. As for my hon. Friend for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) said, the Government have honoured their commitment to the pay review process that was entered into while Lord Mulley was Secretary of State for Defence.

The arrangements for wages set up by the Labour Government have largely been honoured, but the arrangements for conditions have not. There is an X factor, in that, although we may not be able to say that promises have been broken, undertakings have certainly not been fulfilled to the satisfaction of the personnel. That is why many are voting with their feet. It is only right that people who are both expensive to train and valuable to the nation's security should be given a better deal in the 1990s, when the demographic trough will hit recuitment in all the armed services.

Nuclear submarines have been mentioned in the debate. The Minister has said that he is satisfied that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority is investigating, and we appreciate its record; nevertheless, if a fault were found in a commercial aircraft, I cannot imagine that the airline company would get away with allowing it to continue flying. It would not say, "We shall have to wait until it gets back to the airport." How long must the nuclear submarines in the categories that are prompting anxiety remain at sea before returning for a thorough check? Surely we owe it to the crews and their families to ensure that safety is taken seriously.

I realise that questions of confidentiality and security arise, but it ought to be possible to make such undertakings, and to make them in a way that the public can understand. A number of anxious calls and letters have already been received, and they will continue and increase unless the Minister takes the necessary steps to reassure the public.

The split in today's debate has been less between optimists and pessimists than between the optimistic and the less optimistic. There is a case for caution, but that caution should not be based on the bleakness of spirit that sometimes emanates from Conservative Members. There is also a case for the pursuit of stability, but that should not be based on the rigidity that has characterised statements on the armed services in recent months. All our clippings files are replete with quotations from generals and admirals who say that not another troop must be allowed to leave Europe; last week, President Bush said that another 100,000 would go.

We now have a better chance than ever before to seize the challenge—to seize the peace. The optimism that many of us feel could be reinforced if the British Government began to exercise the political independence exercised by our German allies across the political spectrum in areas where the Royal Navy makes its unique contribution to the safety of Europe. The Germans have forced America to reconsider the basis and priorities of many of its policies. I am sure that we should have a safer Britain and a safer Europe if we took such action, but I believe that it will take a change of Government for that to happen.

9.43 pm

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

I agree with the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) that this has been an excellent debate.

The hon. Gentleman—and the hon. Members for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) and for Leyton (Mr. Cohen)—all raised the issue of the safety of our nuclear submarines. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington for reading into the record my letter to him of today's date. I am sorry that he did not receive it earlier—he might then have incorporated it in his speech a bit earlier—but he has removed the necessity for me to repeat the essence of its contents.

I assure the House that the Government place a high priority on the safety of nuclear-powered submarine operations. There are rigorous monitoring and safety standards. The decision to inspect all submarines as they come alongside from their operational tasks is in line with that policy. It was taken as a prudent precaution, to deal with a possible defect with potential safety implications. I reiterate that there has been no incident, accident or injury to anyone and that submarines alongside present no hazard to the public.

I said in my letter to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington that detailed information on the design of nuclear power plants is classified, so he will understand why I cannot comment on the nature of the defect; nor can I comment on any implications for submarine operations —which are also classified—except to say, in order to avoid any doubt, that the deterrent force certainly remains operational.

Mr. McFall

Mention has been made of a hairline crack. Could that have occurred in a number of submarines, because the manufacturer was Rolls-Royce in Derby?

Mr. Hamilton

I repeat that I cannot comment on the defect with which we are dealing. The design of these nuclear power plants is classified.

The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington also referred to protecting the deterrent. He missed the point, due to his concern that there has been some increase in the Royal Navy's role in the protection of the deterrent, which was mentioned in the defence White Papers of 1988 and 1989. It has been the practice of the Royal Navy for many years to provide forces to protect Polaris submarines during their deployment from the Clyde. That does not reflect in any way on the ability of the submarines to maintain a deterrent patrol undetected by hostile forces.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton referred to maritime nuclear weapons. They have an important role to play in support of NATO's strategy of flexible reponse. We must also bear in mind that the Soviet Union has an impressive array of sub-strategic maritime nuclear weapons. In meeting that threat, the Royal Navy must maintain a full spectrum of capability in order to give sufficient operational flexibility to respond to acts by an aggressor at sea.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) and for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) and the hon. Members for Houghton and Washington and for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) asked about the replacement of the assault ships Fearless and Intrepid. The Government remain committed to maintaining an amphibious capability in the longer term. We have been assessing the results of studies into replacing the capability offered by these ships, either by new build or by extension of their current lives. A decision will be made within the ships' current planned lives. Tenders for the aviation support ship were received in July 1989. We hope to place an order later this year. No decision has yet been taken on when to order a second vessel.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East is concerned about when the latest type 23 frigate which has been ordered will be laid down. There is normally a gap between order and the laying down of the first vessel in a new class to be built at a particular yard, in this case Swan Hunter. Work will start this spring on the next type 23 frigate, HMS Westminster, and the following two will be built to a phased programme at six-month intervals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East asked whether we intend to procure more than the initial batch of 50 Merlin ASW helicopters. We expect to order further aircraft in due course, but no decision has yet been taken or needs to be taken on the size and timing of the second batch.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Will the additional ships enable the Royal Navy to fulfil its traditional role of providing a guard ship for the royal yacht Brittania during Cowes week? Last year, was, I believe the first occasion in peacetime when that was not possible.

Mr. Hamilton

I am well aware of the concern on the Isle of Wight that there was no guard ship for the royal yacht, but I cannot guarantee that there will always be a guard ship. That will depend on the number of ships that are available.

Mr. Rogers

It was originally proposed that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force might order as many as 200 Merlin helicopters. The present figure is estimated at 50, which enhances the single cost of one helicopter alarmingly. Will the Minister say whether he will order 50 or nearer 200 of those helicopters?

Mr. Hamilton

I thought that I had made myself quite clear on this. It is not yet necessary to make a decision about future orders, but we shall keep that under consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East asked about the disposal of decommissioned nuclear submarines. The Ministry of Defence continues actively to consider the options for disposing of the nuclear reactor plant from the Royal Navy's decommissioned nuclear submarines. The options are the piecemeal disposal of the reactor plant in the deep-level repository to be developed by Nirex, or shallow land burial of the intact reactor compartment. Sea disposal of the intact submarine has not been excluded, but we remain keenly aware of public concern in the United Kingdom, and internationally, about that method of disposal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East asked about the vertical-launch Sea Wolf. As he knows, a contract for a vertically launched version of the Sea Wolf system was placed with British Aerospace in 1984. To date, no major delays have occurred in the development and production of that missile. The project's costs were thoroughly reviewed in 1985 and subsequently re-endorsed in 1986, since when there have been no notable increases in real costs.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton questioned the minimal real growth in the defence budget, which he thought thoroughly inappropriate to the times in which we live. I remind him that, when trying to maintain defence expenditure and capability at the same level, one faces rising wage costs, increases in the number of people employed and the fact that as equipment becomes more sophisticated it becomes more expensive.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton mentioned the use of private security firms. Labour Members suggest that the only good security guards are those employed in the public sector. I remind them that many lives were saved in Germany when a German civilian boilerman alerted people to an IRA attack, but was knocked over the head for his pains. We should concern ourselves with the quality of security guards, not who employs them. We aim to improve the quality of security firms employed at our bases.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) made several remarks with which I had much sympathy; I normally find that I agree with the bulk of what he says. Significantly, he said that we must get the conventional forces in Europe negotiations out of the way. Let us get the treaty signed before considering maritime arms control. If we were to add the further element of maritime arms control we would delay the formal signing of that treaty. I need not remind the House that originally maritime arms controls were specifically excluded from the CFE arrangements.

The hon. and learned Member rightly said that in future we will need to consider the question of reinforcements, our ability to have mobile troops and the specialisation that we may need following future arms control agreements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen) made a welcome contribution to the debate. It is sad that he has had to wait so many years to address the House. I should like to remind the House of the sacrifices that are made by Whips, which are rarely appreciated; they are appreciated probably even more rarely by our constituents. He wondered, and I could not agree with him more, whether the Labour party is any wiser today than Governments were in calling for disarmament before the last war.

The hon. Member for Attercliffe paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome, and mentioned his courage in the last war. My late father served in the same Guards armoured brigade as my hon. Friend. They were both Coldstreamers, but my father was on his feet and my hon. Friend was in tanks. My father saw him blown up three times. The last time that he saw him carried away, he thought that he would never see him again—and he nearly did not. My hon. Friend was critically ill for many months, and it is a miracle that he is with us today. It is a matter of great sadness to me that he will be leaving the House at the end of this Parliament. Let us face it, we do not have many people here who are decorated as he was in the last war. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hearl.]

The hon. Member for Attercliffe went on to spell out the difficulties that we are facing with CFE. It certainly is not a simple business of negotiating with the Warsaw pact. It is not a matter of lack of good will on either side. There are great difficulties of definition and verification but, as the hon. Gentleman said, there is no reluctance to reach agreement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) raised the issue of women going to sea. He seemed to be against it, but I am grateful that my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) did not agree with him. I think that many Opposition Members believe that it is right that women should be able to go to sea.

I am pleased to be able to announce that we intend to extend the employment of members of the Women's Royal Naval Service to include service at sea in surface ships of the Royal Navy. Our decision has been taken against a background of concern about the Royal Navy's future manning position, but we have also been mindful that the current restrictions on Wrens' employment were in any case ripe for review in the light of developments in other navies and of domestic social trends. It follows decisions already reached and announced to widen the employment opportunities for members of the Women's Royal Army Corps and the Women's Royal Air Force.

There is one important distinction between these earlier announcements and that for the Royal Navy. It stems from the nature of naval operations, and it is that officers and ratings of the Wrens serving at sea are liable to serve there in combat. This represents a change in the long-standing policy that women should not undertake duties that may include direct combat. We have concluded that to attempt to categorise ships as "combat" and "non-combat" would be artificial and misleading in the context of modern maritime warfare, when all ships will be liable to serve in potentially dangerous waters.

We plan for women to serve on a wide range of ships, including the carriers and amphibious ships. A team has been appointed to plan the early selection and modification of vessels so that members of the Wrens may be drafted to sea, and our aim is for the first of them to be embarked by the end of the year. Present plans do not include extending mixed manning to the submarine flotilla, but early studies will be conducted into the employment of women as naval air crew and in the Royal Marines. Separate work is in hand to determine how women can serve at sea in ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

Serving members of the Wrens will be given the opportunity to volunteer for sea service and those selected will then receive appropriate sea training. From a date to be announced, all new recruits will be required to accept liability for sea service throughout their careers. Initially, sea service for women will be more common in branches and specialisations in which there are shortages of men. The aim, however, is to offer the widest possible opportunities to all Wrens.

Clearly, it is important in this context to seek the greatest possible equality in terms of service for women. This principle is being extended to our administrative planning including pay for Wrens at sea and, logically, includes the right for women to remain embarked whatever the nature of the vessel's employment. That, of course, means that, if a naval vessel is going to war, there will be no question of taking the women off it.

This major change will also help to ease the pressures on men by reducing gapping in the fleet and improving the ratio of sea-to-shore service in those branches where shortages have been most pronounced. We are conscious of the fact that this decision marks a significant step in the evolution of the role of women in the armed services. On the one hand, it opens up important new opportunities for members of the Wrens. On the other, it will expose them to all the potential dangers of service in naval vessels, dangers from which they have hitherto been shielded. I am sure that, as ever, the service will rise to meet the challenge.

Mr. Sayeed

I think that my hon. Friend should have had that part of his speech rewritten. Does he think that the proposal will pose any problems of retention for those currently serving in the Navy? Will their wives be happy about their serving alongside Wrens? And did the Second Sea Lord, the director of personnel, fully agree with the idea?

Mr. Hamilton

Yes, the decision was taken unanimously by the whole Admiralty Board. My hon. Friend asked about the reaction of womenfolk at home. That was certainly a problem encountered by the Dutch navy, with whose representatives I went to talk. They said that there was a problem initially—lasting 12 to 18 months—and they operated a hotline so that people could ring up and find out what was going on. That reassured them, and they now have no difficulties.

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