§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)
HMS Endurance has entered her routine maintenance period on return from the Antarctic. She will have an extensive structural survey during her maintenance period. A decision on deployment this winter will depend on the results of that survey.
§ Mr. Gill
As one of several Members of this House who has had the pleasure and privilege of visiting the Falkland islands, may I say that any decision not to maintain or replace that vessel will send shock waves through the islands' population? Will my right hon. Friend, in his future deliberations on that subject, further consider the much heightened awareness of people in this country about developments in the south Atlantic generally and their interest in having the Antarctic region maintained in pristine condition?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I completely accept that at present the Endurance has a much wider responsibility than merely for the Falkland islands. As for the shockwaves, Falkland islanders are greatly reassured about their future defence interests by the massive investment that we have made in Mount Pleasant airport and by the ability that we have to reinforce at very short notice.
§ Mr. William Ross
Although it is well recognised that the other vessels in the south Atlantic have a defence capacity far in excess of anything that Endurance might be able to provide, is it not a fact that the Royal Navy has to carry out quite a lot of scientific work and that that work can be done only by an ice-strengthened ship? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us not only that Endurance will be kept in service for some years to come, but that when it finally has to be withdrawn from service there will be a suitable replacement vessel both to carry out the scientific work and to offer a public demonstration that we will maintain the defence of the Falkland islands by keeping a vessel down there permanently?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I can give the hon. Gentleman the guarantee that he needs: we shall continue to defend the Falkland islands—our investment there is great. I accept that HMS Endurance has a certain value to the Royal Navy, but I am afraid that we shall have to wait and see how things pan out. The future of Endurance depends a great deal on the survey work being done on her at the moment.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
Why is my right hon. and gallant Friend so coy about this matter? That is not a role that usually befits him and it is most uncharacteristic of him. Would it not be much better if the Government and the Ministry of Defence recognised that we had a long-term strategic interest in Antarctica and the Falkland island dependencies and that the balance of power round the Horn depends on our presence there?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am trying to be as forthcoming as I can. The fact remains that a survey is being carried out on the ship and we shall have to wait for its results before we can say with any clarity what the ship's future will be.