§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boswell.]
§ [Relevant documents: The First Report from the Defence Committee on Royal Navy Short-term Savings: HMS "Challenger" and Decommissioning of Nuclear Fleet Submarines, HC 69, the Third Special Report containing the Government's Reply thereto, HC 431, the Third Report on Options for Change: Royal Navy, HC 266 and the Sixth Report on Royal Navy Submarines, HC 369.]
§ Mr. Speaker
I repeat that there are a large number of hon. Members who wish to participate. I hope that we shall not have the situation that we had yesterday, when a number were frustrated as a result of having an additional statement, as we have had today. Could hon. Members please keep their speeches short?
§ 5.4 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Kenneth Carlisle)
It is my privilege to open our annual debate on the Royal Navy after a year of momentous events. Later, I shall discuss the consequences for the service of the greatly changed circumstances in eastern and central Europe, but I am proud to begin by recalling the Royal Navy's part in allied operations to secure Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. As last year's London declaration of the North Atlantic council confirmed, we maintain our armed forces solely for defensive purposes. Events in the Gulf were a salutary reminder of how dangerous and uncertain the world remains; and proved splendidly that our armed forces could act with vigour and skill against aggression.
The Royal Navy was well placed to respond at once after Iraq's unprovoked invasion of Kuwait. It has been continuously present in the Gulf since 1980, providing assurance to British shipping during the Iran-Iraq war, and had an unrivalled knowledge of the area, enabling it to play a major role in the different phases of the maritime operations which followed. In all, 21 Royal Navy surface ships and two submarines in support, as well as 11 ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary were deployed to the region.
After the United Nations introduced sanctions against Iraq, royal naval ships played a key part in sealing the embargo. In all, Royal Navy ships challenged merchant vessels on 3,171 occasions in the period up to the formal ceasefire on 11 April, and were involved in 36 boardings. Once hostilities had begun, the Royal Navy's type 42 destroyers, HMS Gloucester and HMS Cardiff, were at the very fore of the allied navies in the forward air defence line, while Her Majesty's ships London, Exeter and Brave provided air defence for the mine hunter group.
The effectiveness of this air cover was shown when, on 25 February, HMS Gloucester detected on radar an Iraqi Silkworm missile, which had been targeted at a line of allied warships, including the US battleship Missouri. With only seconds to react, Gloucester fired two Sea Dart missiles and destroyed the Iraqi missile. Helicopters which flew from our frigates and destroyers greatly extended our fighting range. Lynx helicopters from HMS Gloucester, HMS Cardiff, HMS Brazen and HMS Manchester all played their part and their Sea Skua missiles destroyed many Iraqi vessels.
Throughout the operations, Iraqi mines posed a significant threat to coalition navies. This threat was 1167 brought home on 18 February when two US ships, the Tripoli and the Princeton, struck mines and were severely damaged. The Royal Navy's skill in counter mine operations is unrivalled, and five of its minehunters, Her Majesty's ships Atherstone, Cattistock, Hurworth, Ledbury and Dulverton, together with their command ship HMS Herald, bore the brunt of the work to hunt and destroy mines during the final two weeks of hostilities.
§ Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)
What support did we have from the navies of other allied forces by way of anti-mine warfare ships in the Gulf? How many countries had anti-mine warfare ships in the Gulf when hostilities started, and did any run for cover when the war began?
§ Mr. Carlisle
We played the most significant role and we were undoubtedly the best in hunting mines. That was a tremendous achievement, and I shall say more about that.
As the climax of the conflict approached, the minehunters led the way for allied ships through extensive minefields to allow amphibious forces to threaten Kuwaiti coasts and to allow United States battleships to bombard the shore. Even with the conflict over, Her Majesty's ships Brecon, Brocklesby and Bicester, with their command ship Hecla, are still actively clearing mines in the Gulf.
Royal Navy Sea King helicopters were deployed ashore in support of the 1st British Division, particularly in casualty evacuation and logistic roles. Detachments from the Royal Marines were involved in boarding operations during sanctions enforcement, and provided extra air defence cover for our ships. None of that could have been done without the logistic support at sea provided by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
At the height of operations, 10 RFAs were deployed within the Gulf, while between them, RFAs Olna, Orangeleaf and Bayleaf supplied over 40,000 tonnes of diesel and 2,000 tonnes of aviation fuel by the end of the campaign. RFA Argus was deployed as a primary casualty reception ship, while RFA Diligence acted as a forward repair ship. Four landing ships logistic provided support both to the 1st British Division and to Royal Navy ships in the area. That was all a formidable effort.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
While the Minister is talking about the post-war situation, will he reflect on the possibility of the Navy's helping to do something about the oil slick in the coral atolls of Al Maradem, Kubbar and Qaru? His Department and the Department of the Environment have frequently been asked to ascertain exactly what is happening there. I hope that Dr. Nigel Downing and other experts will be taken there. Does the Minister regard it as part of the job that the Navy could now do to look at the ecology of the Gulf and to help those who are experts in it?
§ Mr. Carlisle
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have given much help against oil slicks during the recent events. We will always consider points of that seriousness which the hon. Gentleman makes.
When the conflict erupted, the task ahead of our armed forces was daunting and the outcome uncertain. Before we could achieve anything, we had to ensure supremacy at sea. There was a threat from mines and missiles, and our helicopter crews came under fire from Iraqi positions 1168 several times. Crews spent long hours closed down for action stations, scanning the horizon for any sign of mines or missiles and always living with the threat of chemical or biological attack.
I had the honour in April to go to Portsmouth with the First Sea Lord to welcome home the three minehunters Atherstone, Cattistock and Hurworth. I found it a moving occasion. Generations of British sailors have sailed from the choppy Portsmouth waters to secure our sea lanes and to fight for freedom. The young men—mostly of an age to be our sons—on those three small ships had spent over 60 days on continuous duty at the head of the Gulf—six hours on duty and six hours off duty without rest. The great shells of the Missouri passed over their heads, as did the Silkworm missile aimed against us. They carried out this dangerous work with skill and tenacity.
On their return to Portsmouth, I sensed no boasting: all I could detect was a modest pride in a duty fulfilled. That conduct exemplified the unmatched quality of the men and women in the Royal Navy. The House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the skill, courage and determination of the men and women of the Royal Navy and of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary during the conflict. Those men and women would recognise that the highest praise is to say that they upheld the finest traditions of the Royal Navy. We say that with a great respect.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
I note that the Minister seemed to miss out the Royal Marines, and I am sure that that was an oversight. However, I want to draw his attention to another matter. Would he say a special word about the commando helicopter pilots? I ask that, because on the very day that the Prime Minister announced in the House that no person involved in Operation Granby would be involved in Operation Haven, the wives and families of those helicopter pilots were bidding their husbands goodbye. They had taken part in Granby and were being sent out again for Haven. There is a little, understandable misgiving among those wives and families that the pilots' special contribution to Granby and Haven has not been formally recognised.
§ Mr. Carlisle
The right hon. Gentleman has anticipated me. We know that those helicopter pilots undertook a further term of duty with great honour and we pay tribute to them. I have mentioned the marines and I will do so again, which I hope will please the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
My hon. Friend paid a well-deserved tribute to the women in the Royal Navy who served so gallantly in the Gulf. Is his Department having any second thoughts about the desirability of having women members of the armed forces serving on our smaller ships and submarines? I suggest that the subject should be carefully considered within his Department.
§ Mr. Carlisle
Most certainly. I will return to that point in my winding-up speech.
In recalling the achievements of our forces, we do not forget the suffering of the Iraqi people. We have taken a leading role in the international efforts to relieve the plight of the Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq. In this, too, the Royal Navy, and especially the Royal Marines have played an important part. Since its deployment to northern Iraq, 3 Commando Brigade has been carrying out a range of tasks, such as assisting refugees in their 1169 journey back down from the border camps, providing security and reassurance at mountain transit stations and helping the Kurds to re-establish themselves in their towns and villages. They have accomplished these tasks with fortitude and humanity, and—dare I say—humour, ably helped by air support from Sea King and Lynx helicopters of the Royal Navy. They, and all those deployed on Operation Haven, deserve our support.
Nor should we overlook the contribution made by RFA Fort Grange to disaster relief after April's devastating cyclone in Bangladesh. Fort Grange delivered almost 400 tonnes of relief supplies and carried hundreds of relief workers to remote communities during the two-week operation. Those operations illustrate the flexibility of naval forces in undertaking a wide range of tasks outside the NATO area. I could, given time, quote other examples. The conclusion is clear; we intend to retain that flexibility, and I am pleased in that connection to announce that we are planning a major task group deployment to the Pacific and the far east in 1992.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
The Minister is right to say that the Navy and the other services from the United Kingdom played an important role in Bangladesh. There is a clear role for the services in disaster relief, which is greatly appreciated and which provides useful training for the personnel concerned. The Minister knows that there is some concern that in the United Kingdom, the total cost of the operation is charged to the budget of the Overseas Development Administration, whereas in other countries, account is taken of the training value and a reduction is made accordingly. As a result of the accounting method adopted in the United Kingdom, a huge amount is taken out of the ODA budget unnecessarily. Will the Minister reconsider that? Such work is of great value to personnel of all services in training.
§ Mr. Carlisle
There are many charges to the defence budget. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an issue for discussion within government.
It is, however, the security of our NATO area which is central to our national defence and which must determine the structure of our armed forces. I now turn, therefore, to the effects of "Options for Change" on the Royal Navy, on which the Select Committee on Defence has recently reported.
§ Mr. Carlisle
No, because I want to get on and I have given way already to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he will make his own speech in his own time, and we look forward to his contribution.
We are grateful for the thought and effort that the Defence Committee has devoted to this important subject of "Options for Change", but I shall not seek today to respond in detail to the Committee's conclusions. The Government will respond to the Committee's views in due course.
"Options for Change" is a major restructuring of our armed forces which reflects and responds to the political changes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the treaty on conventional forces in Europe. Those developments mean that the Soviet Union cannot mount a full-scale strategic assault on NATO. It would take some years to recover that capability. None the less, 1170 the Soviet Union still has substantial and sophisticated forces that could pose a serious threat against more limited objectives at short notice. The Soviet navy, for example, is still a formidable force. Although it is decreasing in size, new and highly capable ships and submarines are entering service.
The force levels envisaged in "Options for Change" were arrived at after careful analysis of the threat that we now face—both in political terms and in terms of a smaller Soviet navy—and the forces that we would need to oppose it. Although resources are finite, it has been the threat against us that has shaped our work.
The focus of our defence will continue to be NATO and its proven role in ensuring collective security. Britain will continue to be a leading member of NATO. That was an essential element of "Options for Change". The Navy will continue to play its full part in NATO's maritime activities —in the provision of nuclear forces, the defence of the European mainland and the defence of the eastern Atlantic and the Channel.
§ Mr. Carlisle
No. I should like to get on, and I have given way several times.
Against that background, we have been considering how to maintain the Royal Navy's capability in key areas. I recognise that hon. Members, industry, and, indeed, t he Navy itself, are keen to know our plans. But working through all the implications of the new force structure has been a very complex job and we have taken great care to get it right. I am glad that we can now make announcements on a number of these issues, and we should be able to say even more by the time of the publication of the annual defence White Paper. Inevitably, within the reduced force structure that has been announced, not every piece of news that I can give today is good, but most of it is. I also know that it is better all round to end uncertainty where we can.
First and foremost, we intend to provide a four-boat Trident force as the cornerstone of our defences and of our nuclear deterrent. As with Polaris, a four-boat force will allow at least one boat to be at sea at all times. We ordered the third boat of the class, Vigilant, on 13 November 1990, and construction of that and the first two boats, Vanguard and Victorious, continues on schedule and within budget.
Our commitment to the nuclear deterrent is in marked contrast to the flimsy edifice that the Labour party try to call a defence policy.
§ Mr. Carlisle
No. I intend to develop my argument. I shall give way later.
The nuclear deterrent question is of such importance to the security of the country that we must seek, if possible, to illuminate the shadows that the Opposition have cynically allowed to cloak their defence policies.
First, we can be certain that a Labour Government will not proceed with the fourth Trident submarine, which will mean, if they keep our deterrent at all, that we shall riot always be able to guarantee having one of the submarines at sea. I hope, too, that the skilled work force at Barrow-in-Furness is listening, for a Labour Government will deprive their town of work vital to their local economy. I should remind the House that up to 8,000 jobs 1171 at Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. depend on the Trident programme, as well as many thousands elsewhere on sub-contracts.
§ Mr. Carlisle
No. Let me finish this section of my speech first.
Of course, the reality is that not one of us can be sure that Labour will retain the deterrent. Opposition Members avoid the issue. They dodge and weave and where, above all, we should have clarity, they produce fog.
In 1983 and 1987 elections, we all knew where Labour stood on nuclear weapons. They fought and lost on one-sided disarmament. Now, with their new designer idealism, they are fudging the words in order to keep the basic policy intact while trying to drop the unilateralist label.
In their 1989 policy document "Meet the Challenge: Make the Change", which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) has explained is the fullest expression of Labour party policy, Labour commits itself to putting all our nuclear weapons into disarmament negotiations with the aim of eliminating the capacity entirely. As the Soviet Union, for one, will certainly not give up all her nuclear weapons, that means that Labour is prepared to negotiate away our entire deterrent in return for a tiny fraction of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
§ Mr. Carlisle
At the same time, as we know, some third-world countries already have, or have been seeking, a nuclear capability. The drift of Labour policy means, starkly, that a dictator such as Saddam Hussein would have a nuclear bomb and we would have none. What sort of deterrent is that?
In four recent letters, the chairman of our party, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has sought clarification from the shadow Foreign Secretary. On each occasion, the shadow Foreign Secretary has refused to confirm that a Labour Government would continue to possess a nuclear deterrent as long as the Soviet Union and other countries had nuclear weapons. I invite the Opposition once more to state that, as long as the Soviet Union possesses nuclear weapons, a Labour Government would also keep at least some of ours. That is what the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), the Opposition spokesman on defence, has signally failed to do.
The conclusion is clear. The Labour party is still wedded to unilateral disarmament. I now give way to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett).
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Does the Minister accept that it is pretty rich to make that statement today, given that it looks as though the Government are giving away their deterrent by simple incompetence? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has read The Guardian today and the Greenpeace report, both of which point to the fact that the Government cannot now guarantee that, for the next three years, there will be a Polaris submarine at sea?
§ Mr. Carlisle
We continue to deploy our nuclear deterrent. Any ship goes to sea only after clear 1172 independent advice from the Nuclear Powered Warships Safety Committee. The nuclear deterrent is secure in our hands. We know that the Opposition would give it away without securing any security in return. As I said, the Conservative party is the one party wedded to the nuclear deterrent.
What is more, the Opposition's policy on conventional defence would devastate our armed forces. Both in 1989 and 1990, Labour party conferences voted to cut British defence spending to the level of the European average—which The Times reported as meaning a cut of some £9 billion, or more than one third of the present budget. With that approach, we would not even have a navy, and hundreds of thousands of people would be thrown out of work the length and breadth of the land.
This muddle shows that Labour has no programme that could remotely be called a defence policy. It hopes that if it just hides in the fog, nobody will notice. In reality, however, the British people care greatly about defence, and we will ensure that they continue to have it.
Under "Options for Change" the fleet will still make the largest European contribution to maritime operations in the eastern Atlantic. In particular, we will retain a major capability for anti-submarine warfare and will provide modern equipment to keep these capabilities up to date.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
My hon. Friend makes a welcome statement, as we are talking about the most important part of the Navy's conventional duties. Does he accept, however, that the single most important part of that anti-submarine capability is the helicopter? I realise that my hon. Friend may not be able to say anything on the subject now, but does he agree that the order for the Merlin helicopter is absolutely central to the Navy's future anti-submarine capability?
§ Mr. Carlisle
There are many parts of our antisubmarine warfare capability, but I agree that helicopter capacity is important, and I shall be coming to that shortly.
We will retain the three carriers, of which two will be operational at any one time. The ships have extensive command and control facilities which allow them to co-ordinate the work of other ships and aircraft in the area. They have of course their own powerful air defences through Sea Harrier aircraft and the Sea Dart missile system. They also have a valuable anti-submarine capability in their Sea King helicopters which we are upgrading from mark 5 to mark 6 standard. In the longer term, we plan to replace those helicopters with the EH101 Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopter. We have been evaluating the tenders for completing the development of Merlin and the construction of a first batch of aircraft. No decisions on those tenders have yet been taken. In the meantime, the first successful landing has been carried out by an EH101 prototype on to the flight deck of HMS Norfolk.
I can, however, say more about our escort fleet. As announced, the number of surface escorts is to fall from its present level of around 50 to around 40. This will be done by paying off older, less capable and more manpower-intensive ships while continuing to bring new ships into service. For example, we have already paid off several Leander class frigates, which are all over 20 years old. Two more of the new type 23, or Duke class, anti-submarine 1173 warfare frigates have come into service in the past year. HMS Argyll and HMS Marlborough join the first of class, HMS Norfolk, which is undergoing trials.
Seven more of those ships are on order, and I am pleased to announce that we are today issuing invitations to tender to Yarrow, Swan Hunter, Vosper Thornycroft and VSEL for up to three more. On receipt of the tenders, we shall consider the precise timing and number of ships to be included in the order. I am confident of keen competition for those tenders.
§ Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)
Can my hon. Friend the Minister give an assurance that the competition for the tendering for those ships will be fair and equal between yards and that the opportunities offered to Vosper Thornycroft in the south will be equal to those offered to yards in the north, with no added political or economic considerations?
§ Mr. Carlisle
I am pleased to give my absolute guarantee about that point.
We are now studying the design of a future anti-air warfare frigate.
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
Will the Minister be a little more forthcoming about the time scale? We have noticed recently that there has been some slippage between the announcement of a process such as this and the final placing of orders. Can he be specific and tell us when he anticipates the process being completed and the orders being placed? Frankly, statements of that kind are meaningless unless we have a time scale in which to operate.
§ Mr. Carlisle
Such a statement is certainly not meaningless. The invitations to tender have gone out to the shipyards today and we expect the tenders to be back by October. Obviously we shall have to consider them carefully before making a decision about ordering. However, we intend to order three new type 23 frigates.
As I said, we are now studying the design of the future anti-air warfare frigate to replace the type 42 destroyers around the turn of the century. That is a very important development. The design will incorporate the local area missile system or LAMS. We have recently entered project definition for LAMS in collaboration with France, Spain and Italy.
Turning to the security of our ports and sea lanes, we shall have a substantial flotilla of minor war vessels. The bulk of those will be mine counter-measures vessels. We shall continue to modernise our mine warfare forces. HMS Inverness, the second of the new Sandown class of single role minehunters, entered service last year. Three more of those ships are on order. We have, however, decided not to place any more orders for the time being. The tenders we received last year for up to seven ships will therefore lapse.
Further ships will be ordered in due course, but the size and timing of orders has yet to be decided. I know that this will come as a disappointment to the shipyards in question, and our decision does not in any way reflect on their efforts or, indeed, on the qualities of these excellent ships. None the less, I hope that they will be heartened by our decision to proceed with the potentially much greater investment in a further batch of type 23s.
The Royal Navy also contributes to the defence of the European mainland through amphibious forces. Along with Dutch marines in the United Kingdom-Netherlands 1174 amphibious force, our own Royal Marines are earmarked to reinforce NATO's northern flank in Norway. Third Commando Brigade is a light, capable, force, which can also be deployed elsewhere in the world if necessary, as operation Haven demonstrates. They could also support the rapid reaction corps if the need should arise. The amphibious force is supported by specialist amphibious shipping. We have the two assault ships, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, and the five landing ships logistic, and the amphibious force has a dedicated fleet of Sea King helicopters.
§ Mr. John Browne (Winchester)
I am sure that all Conservative Members, like me, welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's commitment to continued nuclear defence and his very timely warning of the lingering danger of the Soviet navy. However, I am still waiting to hear what strategic change is proposed in the role of the Royal Navy which allows for a 20 per cent. cut in the surface fleet.
§ Mr. Carlisle
My hon. Friend will know that I set out the four roles of the Royal Navy. As I said, in deciding on the shape of the Navy for "Options for Change" we analysed the threat very carefully, and I described how the Russian navy has been reduced. In those circumstances, we felt that it was right and proper to shape the Navy as I have described to best meet the perceived threat.
§ Mr. Carlisle
If my hon. Friend will allow me to complete this part of my speech, I will give way.
"Options for Change" has confirmed the importance of the amphibious force, and we intend to maintain this capability. We plan to improve our specialist shipping over the coming years. We have been studying the best way to maintain the capability provided by the two assault ships, and expect to make an announcement very shortly. I can announce that we intend to refurbish the three older landing ships logistic very extensively. That will enable those ships to run on into the next century. We are now considering the way forward for an aviation support ship—ASS—to provide dedicated helicopter lift for the landing force. We still plan to order an ASS, but he tenders we previously received have expired and we are unlikely to place an order this year.
§ Mr. Carlisle
We certainly intend to keep up our amphibious capability to a high and effective level. I hope very much that an announcement will be made shortly that will satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) in that respect.
§ Mr. Carlisle
No, I must make progress, as I have given way a great deal.
In addition to the Tridents, the submarine fleet will consist of about 16 boats.
§ Mr. Carlisle
No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
1175 The submarine fleet will consist of about 16 boats of which three quarters will be nuclear-powered. This reduction from the previous level of 27, of which 17 were nuclear-powered, will be achieved by paying off older boats while bringing new ones into service. We have already announced the decommissioning of the nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines HMS Warspite, HMS Churchill and HMS Conqueror. We have also decommissioned a number of the older diesel-electric powered Oberon class submarines—the SSKs.
Meanwhile, the last of the Trafalgar class SSNs, HMS Triumph, is due to enter service later this year, and we have been considering how to sustain the new force level in the longer term. I am pleased to announce that we shall shortly begin studies into the design of a new strategic submarine nuclear to replace the Swiftsure class around the turn of the century. Based on the design of the Trafalgar class, such a submarine would incorporate significant improvements to sonars and command systems which are already being developed for current submarines.
If those studies can be successfully completed, the new submarine will also make a significant contribution to securing the future of both VSEL and Rolls-Royce and associates in Derby. That is by far the most sensible way foward for the development of our nuclear submarines.
§ Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)
The Minister will know that I have welcomed the co-operation of his Department and the Navy in coming to an agreement with the Clyde Fishermen's Association on the notification scheme, and that 1 further welcome the extension of the scheme which the Minister announced on Monday. Will the measure be extended? There is worry about the need for notification on the north-west of Scotland, particularly in the Minches area.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her co-operation in working out a practical way forward with the Ministry of Defence. I should be grateful if she would allow me to answer her point when I reply to the debate.
In order to replace the Oberon class of submarines, we are introducing the first new British-designed SSK for 30 years, the Upholder class. The first of those boats, HMS Upholder herself, is already in service. The second, Unseen, is due to be accepted next month. Two more are being built. We are confident that those boats will be valuable assets for the Royal Navy of the future.
What I have said today amounts to a substantial package of measures in equipment—
§ Mr. Carlisle
No. As I have said, the hon. Gentleman must make his own speech. I have already given way once, and I shall respond to him.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. The Minister has made it quite clear that he is not giving way to the hon. Member. He should not persist.
§ Mr. Carlisle
The hon. Gentleman is making it impossible for me to give way to him.
Clearly, the support area will have to be adjusted to reflect the new reduced front line. The balance between the "teeth" of the Navy and its "tail" should be maintained to get the most efficient support for our front line. To that end, we are conducting a wide-ranging review of our future fleet support requirements, and we expect to be able to make announcements shortly.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
On future fleet requirements, will the Minister say something about the south Atlantic and the proposals to take out HMS Endurance before 1995? Is HMS Endurance to be taken out and, if so, why? If not, will it be replaced in 1995?
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I was disappointed that, in my hon. Friend's full tribute to the fighting forces in the Gulf, he did not give as full a tribute to those in the support services who worked so well and tirelessly to ensure that our forces were able to go to the Gulf and were supported there. Will he say something about our need always to have a strategic reserve in terms of dockyards, training and helicopter support? My hon. Friend will know of the wonderful service that he gets from Portland naval base.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I fully salute the efforts that were made by all those in the support side. I especially mention those in the research establishment who worked long hours to enhance our equipment.
I emphasise that, in implementing "Options", we have had to make some hard choices, but we have been determined to secure a Navy which will be more than equal to the threat that it will face. We believe that the future Royal Navy will prove to be a balanced and flexible force with up-to-date and effective equipment, and high-quality and well-trained personnel. Those qualities led to the success of the Royal Navy's operations in the Gulf, and we are confident that they will continue to be the hallmark of the Royal Navy in the years to come.
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
I am pleased to follow the Minister's wide-ranging speech, in which he made one or two long-awaited if somewhat vague assurances about future orders, which will be of at least some comfort to people in yards throughout the country. I join him in paying tribute to all the naval forces and marines who participated in the Gulf. In particular, I reiterate the point that a number of marines who were involved in Operation Granby are now carrying out a role of a different character with equal distinction in Operation Haven. That is a measure of their determination to do their duty. As the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) pointed out, it is understandable that there would be anxiety on the part of families that their loved ones should again be away for such a long time.
The presence of the Royal Navy in the Gulf was fortuitous. The Armilla patrol was able to divert its activities deeper into the Gulf and to afford the first vestige of a United Nations presence in the Gulf in the very early stages of the embargo. It was evidence of the allies' determination to stand firm in the Gulf and to make a reality of the early United Nations embargo resolutions. However—I do not say this in a carping sense—I recognise 1177 the point that was made in the recent Ade1phi paper by Professor Freeman, when he said that the co-ordination of naval activities in the Gulf by the Western European Union does not provide a tremendous example of the scope of the WEU's expertise in the area, as it was fairly narrow.
Some Conservative Members may try to tell us that the naval role in the Gulf was an example of European co-operation on a grand scale, but I have my doubts about that. I had the opportunity to visit the Gulf and was able to spend some time on HMS London. One was clearly aware of the critical role that the Royal Navy played, alongside other navies and in particular the United States navy. We must also recognise the tremendous role that was played by the minehunters in the Gulf. They provide a unique capability. It is true that other European navies have them, but they do not have the same scale, expertise or range of capability that we have.
The Minister did not detail the maritime strategies of the Navy in the North sea or its critical role within NATO. It is the second largest navy within NATO—the United States makes the biggest contribution. The Minister referred to agreements on conventional forces in Europe—the treaty is still to be signed—but CFE does not address the naval question as such. One criticism of CFE is that in some respects it is Eurocentrist, dealing almost exclusively with the central front. Obviously, if there are fewer troops in Europe, questions about reinforcement and protection of ceilings will arise. The maritime strategy is least susceptible to Europeanisation because of the interdependence of the United States navy and the navies of Europe, in particular the Royal Navy.
I am stressing this point as a result of what was said yesterday about European defence co-operation as part of our general debate on the future of Europe. We should bear in mind that three services are involved, and that the senior service does not lend itself to Europeanisation. Some people seem conveniently to forget that point when talking about a European defence strategy.
France has a sizeable navy, but it is not deployed within the NATO structure. I know that, on a 'nods and winks' basis, France associates with certain of our activities, but it retains its independence. I doubt whether France would be prepared to enter into a WEU-orchestrated maritime strategy. The whole thing is difficult to sustain, given the absence from the WEU ranks of Turkey in the southern flank and of Iceland and Norway in the northern flank.
As I have said, people choose to forget that three services are involved in the defence of Europe and that the new risks facing us are of a different character from the old threat, which was based on the European continent. The contribution that the United States and Canada make to our defence weighs against a WEU-type solution. Equally, we can dismiss the EC in that respect, because its involvement would alienate or make more difficult the potential involvement of the neutral EFTA countries.
We should like the eastern and central European countries to take that first step once their economic systems and the level of performance mean that they would be capable of benefiting from such involvement. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) said last night, although many Opposition Members welcome European co-operation, as far as defence is concerned we should like that co-operation to 1178 involve not so much the deepening of the Community as its widening. It would be unhelpful to become involved at this stage in artificial European defence structures.
The Minister spoke about the size of the fleet, and made a virtue of necessity when he said that the changing circumstances in Europe were responsible for the fact that our surface fleet is now designated as numbering around 40 rather than 50 ships. Those of us who watch these matters with a wary eye remember the famous occasion when the Select Committee on Defence was informed that on one particular date only 34 ships were available in the surface fleet. That occasion gave the lie to claims about the availability of our ships.
I welcome the announcement of the Government's intention to invite tenders for three more frigates. I hope that that process will be carried through as quickly as possible. One of the most disturbing messages that I receive from both successful and unsuccessful bidders when visiting shipyards around the country is that the procurement executive of the MOD appears to have taken a cynical approach by allowing orders to slip to the right. Tenders are then re-requested, not just to delay the ordering of the ships, but to bring about a further reduction in their cost.
That combination of time delay and the request for a further look at the figures drives the shipyards to the point of desperation. There is a great deal of concern at the moment that the yards may be putting in artificially low bids for the work and that the quality of the work will not be of the standard expected by the Navy. Although that has yet to happen—I hope that it will not—I am not seeking to be mischievous because the Opposition have a responsibility to raise such serious questions.
I am putting my remarks in a wider context than I was able to do when I intervened, and I hope that the Minister will take the point seriously—if he does not, he will be hounded at Question Time after Question Time by all hon. Members with an interest in frigate procurement.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I see that the hon. Member who has a constituency interest in Vosper Shiprepairers Ltd. is nodding. There is no party division on this matter. We all want to see the orders being placed as quickly and as fairly as possible.
One consequence of the diminution in the fleet size and of the improvement in international relations has been that the issue of the bases and facilities that are required has been drawn into sharp relief. Hon. Members of all parties and representing all areas are extremely concerned about the manner in which the Department has dealt with the basing arrangements and about the leaks that have emerged from the Ministry of Defence about the future of the bases. I am not speaking now as a Scottish Member, although several hundred of my constituents work at Rosyth, because I understand that the same question mark also hangs over Portsmouth and Portland. We all recognise that Plymouth will probably be rendered almost invulnerable because of its unique position, but the other three bases are in some jeopardy at the moment.
I urge the Minister to reach a conclusion one way or the other as quickly as possible. The strength of feeling in Scotland about Rosyth is evidenced by the presence on the Treasury Bench of a Scottish Office Minister, who is here in the hope that he will discover something that he has not 1179 been able to discover elsewhere. We know that the Scottish Office has encountered some difficulties in getting brought up to date on all aspects of this matter and that it took some damaging newspaper leaks for this issue to be raised at a level which alerted the Secretary of State for Scotland.
It would be inappropriate for the United Kingdom to put all its eggs in the south coast basket. We have major naval deployments in our northern waters, North sea oil facilities, and fishery protection facilities based on the Forth. It therefore seems sensible to retain a port in that area. I realise that hon. Members representing Portsmouth and Portland will make equally strong arguments and that the Minister will be required to make the judgment of Solomon if he thinks that there is a case for reducing the number of bases.
However, I hope that the consideration of this vexed problem will be at a slightly higher level than that of leaks being made from civil service papers, which suggested that the decision might be taken for the administrative convenience of senior civil servants and naval officers rather than being based on the defence needs of these islands. We need to have an answer fairly quickly because there is great anxiety in all the areas that are involved. Although "Options for Change" has drawn attention to the affection that the regimental system inspires in many communities, the links of our various ports with the services are of great importance and cannot be ignored. The legitimate feelings of the local communities must be taken into account.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not lead the House to believe that there is competition between Rosyth and Portland over possible closures. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, Portland is unique in everything that it does. Its work is not duplicated in any other base, so its case for remaining open is in no way linked with that of Rosyth. Does the hon. Gentleman have any happy words for the Labour party's prospective parliamentary candidate for the Portland area about what the Labour party would do in connection with Portland if it were in government?
§ Mr. O'Neill
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that it would be wrong for us to set one base against another. I accept that. It is one of the problems of the secretive nature of the review process that we do not know what arguments are being advanced. The debate is being skewed by the leaking of documents which give one view or another. If the Labour party were in government now and had to make choices, we would seek to do so in an open manner so that individual Members of Parliament would not feel aggrieved, as many people may well do, if a decision to close a base was announced in the middle of September or at some other time when we did not have the opportunity to make the final representations in the House.
In opposition one can promise certain things. I do not promise anything in respect of one base or another. I merely recognise that the nature of Plymouth is such that I cannot imagine that it would be under threat. There is broad agreement about that. If there are to be closures it could well happen—I do not have a constituency interest—
§ Mr. O'Neill
The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) barely has a constituency, so far as I can see. He is certainly schizophrenic. Hon. Members who have a direct constituency interest are placed at a tremendous disadvantage, whether they are members of the Conservative party or of Opposition parties. The manner in which the review is being conducted—behind closed doors and dependent on leaks—is not correct. The matter should be dealt with as quickly and openly as possible.
I recognise that we shall probably not be given a decision today, but I ask the Minister to make every effort to ensure that he can come to the Dispatch Box before the end of the parliamentary Session and make an announcement. He should end the uncertainty about which base may close or make it clear that all the bases will remain open. There is tremendous anxiety in all the communities. An announcement soon is the best way of addressing the problem on an all-party basis.
The Minister was somewhat ambiguous about the reinforcement of Norway. He suggested that Fearless and Intrepid might be looked at and that some craft would be refurbished. I have participated in Navy debates since 1984. 1 have yet to hear a Minister tell us anything other than that studies were being undertaken of the possibility of replacing Fearless and Intrepid. We are beginning to become impatient. The Government are conducting the most wide-ranging review of defence capability since 1981. The House is entitled to a better answer than the one that the Minister gave. If he cannot give us an answer tonight, I hope that, perhaps immediately after the recess, when I imagine that we shall have the opportunity to debate the White Paper, he will be able to do so.
If craft are to be refurbished or replaced, the employment prospects of yards which may be fortunate enough to obtain the contracts could be transformed. If the studies are still going on, it might be time that some of us tabled questions about how much they have cost. The cost would probably go some way to paying for a minehunter, if not a frigate, given the amount of time and effort that have been put in to the studies.
In a defence review we might consider whether amphibiosity is still appropriate for Britain's Navy. Could it be taken on by other allies? If the review is dealing with burden sharing and a reallocation of roles in the alliance, perhaps the Minister could tell us whether that is one of the considerations behind the thinking.
We know that we are coming near the decision time for the EH101 order. It has been suggested that the matter will go to various committees in the near future. I hope that we shall have some information about that, again before the summer recess.
I understand that the contractual period for tendering expires in September. We must have an announcement from the Minister about the size and strategic significance of the order. I recognise that it is not within his capability at present to make such an announcement, but he owes the House the courtesy of making some announcement before the recess.
The Minister said that he hoped that the first of the new generation of strategic submarines nuclear would come into service at about the turn of the century. He spoke about establishing the early design stages. Perhaps he 1181 could clarify that. Last year it was announced that there would be a delay in replacing the SSN fleet. There have been press reports about the matter. For example, a recent one in The Daily Telegraph said that the Ministry had dropped its plans to build an entirely new class.
Will the Minister categorically say that that report of 25 June was wrong and that a new class of submarine will definitely be started? Can he be specific about when the starting time would have to be in order to have the boats in the water by the turn of the century? Whether a fourth boat is constructed by this Government or a future Labour one, as I understand the construction procedures followed by VSEL, there will be a sizeable gap in the order book of VSEL in the mid-1990s.
I notice that the hon. member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks) is in his place and looking somewhat worried. We have had previous debates in the House on Ministry of Defence ordering procedures and their effect on the capability and the facility at Barrow.
§ Mr. Douglas
I wish to clarify one point. I do not know whether it was a slip of the tongue—we all make them—and I do not want to misquote the hon. Gentleman, who has been gracious in giving way, but I think that I heard him say, "If the fourth boat was constructed by this Government or a future Labour Government." Is it now Labour party policy that it would construct a fourth boat at Vickers?
§ Mr. O'Neill
Until an order is placed, no one can talk about construction. If an order were placed before a general election, an incoming Labour Government would have to examine the contract, the cancellation charges, and so on. The position on that is clear. It has been reported repeatedly that we have said that in the event of a general election being called after an order has been placed, a responsible Labour Government would examine the contract before cancelling.
With regard to the future of Barrow, will the Minister tell the House when he proposes to place the order for the fourth boat and what time scale he envisages for the design stage of a new class of SSN? The Labour party has always supported the construction of a new class of SSN. When does the Minister expect that orders could be placed, provided that the terms were right and given that VSEL is now probably the only submarine yard in the country capable of building nuclear-powered submarines?
§ Mr. Cecil Franks (Barrow and Furness)
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that I was looking worried. It was about the same point that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) made. I distinctly heard the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) say, "If a fourth submarine is ordered by either this Government or an incoming Labour Government." It is possible that that is not what the hon. Gentleman meant to say. I want to give him the opportunity to clarify the Labour party's policy on Trident.
It is rare for Labour Front Bench spokesmen to give way to me when I seek to clarify the points that they make in debates. In last year's debate, neither the hon. Gentleman nor his Front Bench colleagues spoke about Trident. It is incredible that with Trident the cornerstone of Britain's defence policy, a supposedly credible Labour Opposition can debate the Navy without mentioning the subject.
§ Mr. O'Neill
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give me credit for correcting the shortcomings of last year. Given his grasp of the subject, he will accept that if I can be of assistance to him, enabling him to make a point so that I can give him information, that is for the benefit of the House. He asked if I could envisage a Labour Government ordering a fourth boat. He will find when he reads the Official Report tomorrow that I did not say what he said I said. I said that if a submarine had been ordered and was under construction by a Conservative or future Labour Government—
§ Mr. O'Neill
We will check with the Official Report tomorrow. The point is clear and I shall repeat it once more and leave it there. If an order is placed by the Conservative Government before a general election occurs, a Labour Cabinet will reserve the right to look at the contract before cancellation—[interruption.] That is our position. We shall look at it because it would be irresponsible not to do so.
§ Mr. Franks
What would Labour Members do now if they were running things? That is a simple question which requires a simple answer.
§ Mr. O'Neill
We do not consider that there is a need for a fourth boat. We have never argued for one because a fourth boat is a luxury which the country does not need. It is a craft for which the targeting, deploying and crewing arrangements and maintenance are not needed.
I understand that the availability of the present Polaris fleet is such that a number of questions are raised by a report appearing in The Scotsman and The Guardian today, about which I telephoned the Minister's office in the hope that he would respond to those issues when he replies to this debate. Will he confirm those reports, to the effect that the Polaris fleet has experienced difficulties? Can he provide explanations for the problems that the submarines are facing? What steps are being taken to rectify those problems? What are the expenditure and personnel implications arising out of those problems? The report appearing today in those newspapers may or may not have substance. The House is entitled to a ministerial response on the subject.
§ Mr. Gareth Wardell
Will my hon. Friend add to that list of problems a difficulty that is of great concern to me and to the Labour party and which should concern the Government? As the Trident programme is on-going, is it not a disgrace that the Government should continue to allow a boat yard manufacturing timber craft to be located on loch Gare, next to the largest construction works, in terms of defence establishments, in the whole of Europe? In other words, a large concentration of our nuclear capability is located next to a small boat yard. The Minister should comment on what appears to be a grave threat to our nuclear capability and say whether it is intended to remove that facility from loch Gare.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I am sure that the Minister will have given much consideration to the point that my hon. Friend raises, and will give a full answer when he replies to the debate. My hon. Friends and I have always said that problems must exist over the location of nuclear submarines, from security and other points of view.
§ Sir Anthony Buck (Colchester, North)
Will the hon. Gentleman spell out Labour party policy on that issue? Would Labour maintain our independent nuclear deterrent? Labour policy should be clearly on the record, remembering that when Labour was last in office, it updated our nuclear deterrent by bringing in Chevaline, although the House was not told that that was being done.
§ Mr. O'Neill
We would deploy the Trident boats—[Interruption.]—the three of them that we would construct.
It is 18 months since we last debated the Navy and during that time a number of changes have occurred in the international situation, not least as a result of the Gulf war. We have supported the efforts of the fleet and recognised the tremendous courage and determination of the Royal Marines. We recognise also the back-up that was and is given not simply by the Fleet Auxiliary but by the men and women who work in the bases, the dockyards and shipyards and in subcontracting firms throughout the country. Operation Granby made clear the wide range of people who support the fleet and service personnel, the men and women who serve in the ships—
§ Mr. O'Neill
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman because I am about to conclude my remarks. He has had ample time in which to intervene. He did not attempt to do so earlier.
§ Mr. Viggers
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give way because this is the first time that he has mentioned—
§ Mr. O'Neill
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been here throughout the debate and heard the beginning of it. If so, he would have heard the Minister and me speaking of the way in which hon. Members in all parts of the House have great respect for the tremendous work that was done as part of Operation Granby and is now being done as part of Operation Haven. That work will continue to be done in a variety of forms, and as part of it there are many unsung roles.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman did not regard my comments in that respect as a fulsome tribute to the Navy. Apart from those serving in the obvious areas—in the bases and elsewhere—all others take pride in the tremendous achievements of our Navy and the contribution that it makes to the security of the nation. While we may disagree across the Floor of the House on other matters, we agree totally about that.
I hope that in areas where the Minister has yet to be decisive, he will give the House, before the summer, the sort of assurances that are required by the people about whom we have been speaking who, in many instances, are many stages removed from service personnel but who feel that they are contributing to the national defence. Their jobs and personal security are on the line and they need reassuring.
This is the first time the Minister has participated in a Navy debate. There have been too many occasions in the past when there have been nods and winks about the possibility of orders. We have had indications to the effect 1184 that the process of decision-making might be beginning. Too many decisions have yet to be made and I get the impression that they will not be made this side of the next general election. Clearly, it will take a change of Government to arrive at the decisions that the Navy and the British people want to secure the future of these islands.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
If the hon. Member would be more comfortable sea ted, that would be in order.
§ Sir John Farr
I am obliged, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that consideration, but I shall remain standing.
I wish at the outset to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) on his concise and cogent speech, which was reassuring and comforting. He took the opportunity to pay tribute to the role of the Royal Navy in the recent Gulf conflict. Like the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), I am sure that we are all full of admiration for what the Royal Navy did, on a budget which many hon. Members consider was a shoestring. The sort of money that has been voted for the Royal Navy has not enabled it to perform a proper role in the Gulf or to be able to perform such a role if there were another Gulf conflict—please God there never will be—unless more finance is put into the service.
My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the decision to wind sown or sell off HMS Challenger to another power. It has been suggested that by losing Challenger we shall lose the capacity to rescue submariners should a submarine be lost on the sea bed. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, that was not Challenger's main purpose. I have visited Challenger, as has my hon. Friend, no doubt many times. Challenger's role was at the threshold of naval warfare of the future, tracking down acoustic mines and listening devises placed on the sea bed, perhaps by a Warsaw pact power that wanted to know the movements of allied shipping. It has a number of small one or two-man submarines and I was lucky enough to meet the crews of many of them when I went on that trip. It will be a tragedy if we have to lose out when we were in the forefront of such developments.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State paid tribute to the Navy's role in the Gulf. It is my view and that of people I know who are still connected with the service that it was little short of miraculous. My hon. Friend did not have time to mention some of the dirty work that the Navy carried out. Let us imagine groping for underwater mines in harbours along the coast of Kuwait in water that is almost 50 per cent. crude oil. The Navy did so without complaint. It was a filthy job and the Navy did it so effectively. No other nation would touch it.
What a brilliant role our minesweeping force played in the Gulf. I hoped that my hon. Friend would say a little more about that. I have always wanted to know whether minesweepers that do not create a shadow are effective. There was a fanfare when the minesweepers went to the Gulf and we were told that we had a fantastic force of ships that did not create a metal shadow to explode a mine. Minesweepers did very well and I hope that the Minister will say something about that capability. Are we unique in having that capability, as I thought, and have other nations adopted other methods of tracking down mines 1185 and dealing with them? The Americans seem to favour helicopter search and destruction and I should be grateful if the Minister would say something about that.
The performance of HMS Gloucester and her anti-aircraft crew dealing with incoming missiles was wonderful, as was the performance of all Her Majesty's helicopter pilots.
Our efforts in the Gulf were beyond comparison and I am lost in admiration for them. However, was it really impossible for us to deploy a tiny carrier task force? At the time there was a rumour that one of our carriers was to be deployed, but it never went to the Gulf and we had to rely mainly on the Americans to secure air supremacy.
Let us hope that there is not another Gulf conflict, but if some other international situation arises will we not need our own air superiority? If some form of aircraft carrier force is not available it will be impossible to deal with such threats.
My hon. Friend the Minister will agree that a delicate balance has to be maintained. One could ask whether we need a nuclear deterrent—that decision must be taken on high. I think that we do and I am confident that the Government's decision to go for a four Trident nuclear fleet is correct. Are we right to choose to retain the nuclear deterrent and to have four Tridents? In a short time, if the eastern bloc withdraws from international affairs, it will make it transparently obvious that one ballistic missile submarine makes nonsense. One must consider the necessity of having any ballistic submarine fleet, as it is a weapon which one could never contemplate using. However, there are pros and cons which are not to be aired in a Royal Navy debate.
There is a delicate balance in deciding whether to go for a four-Trident force or to abandon it and advance on another front, by developing the SSN-20 submarine, where we are in the forefront internationally. Such submarines are totally silent and a new generation is due to come into service next year. However, reports in the papers suggest that it is due to be scrapped. Obviously one cannot have everything, but the SSN-20 is in a new field in which our research and technology is very advanced.
If my hon. Friend does not reply to my remarks I shall know that nothing is on. There is the question of securing the sale of a nuclear submarine. We nearly made a deal with the Canadians, and if we were able to interest Canada or any other nation in a joint development programme it might be easier to cope with the financing of the development of SSN-20s and such technical advances.
I was disappointed at the extent to which we had to rely on foreign merchant ships to provide the impedimenta of war for our troops in the Gulf. The Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force all did a first-class job in the Gulf, but it seems a pity that more than three quarters of their supplies went by sea in merchant vessels flying another flag. Has the red duster collapsed completely? Do we no longer have a British merchant fleet? If we have, why was some effort not made—even if it had meant a little extra cost, and possibly even for security reasons—to use the red ensign for supplying Royal Navy ships and all the British forces in the Gulf that did such a splendid job?
While ending on that slightly disappointed note, I want again to congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister, and to say how proud we all are in the House at the way in which the Royal Navy performed in the Gulf a few months ago.
§ Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr), whose expert views on the Royal Navy are widely respected in the House. I particularly agree with his two early points about HMS Challenger and about the importance of mine counter-measure vessels in the Gulf war. There is an unsubstantiated story—though perhaps it is not untrue—that on one occasion, an American minehunter in the Persian gulf discovered one morning that it was surrounded by mines and had to call on the assistance of a British minesweeper to find its way out. That is testimony to the Royal Navy's supremacy in minehunting and mine clearing to which the hon. Member for Harborough referred.
I regret that I shall have to leave the House shortly after I finish speaking. I have already apologised to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) for the unintended and unavoidable discourtesy of not being present for the rest of the debate.
I associate myself and my party with the comments of the Minister and of the hon. Member for Clackmannan on the role played by the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines in Operation Granby and Operation Haven. They performed, as they always do, in the highest traditions of the service, and the House and the nation are much indebted to them.
I found myself much in agreement with the hon. Member for Clackmannan—which is not always the case in respect of defence matters—when he said that the Government's approach to reconstructing and reshaping our forces in the face of the new threats that so self-evidently compose themselves against us is all wrong. That task should be approached on no other basis but that of a proper defence review. We know that the threat to this nation has changed. In the light of the collapse of the Soviet empire—albeit the Soviet Union is still producing submarines at a faster rate than ever before—the threat to our nation has manifestly and self-evidently changed.
We know also, in the light of the Gulf war, that our ability to conduct out-of-area operations in co-operation with other nations may be absolutely vital in ensuring future world peace. To allow decisions to be taken without a proper defence review, and only according to the requirements of the Treasury—rather than make a rational response to the threats that now confront us—is folly of the highest order.
We are seeing a defence review of death by a thousand cuts. It will result in defence forces that are not property balanced, and a climate in which providers of defence equipment will be unable to make the right decisions for their own industry or properly to serve our armed forces. It will result in a series of spatchcocked decisions, which will not add up to a proper, balanced structure for our armed forces.
Rosyth naval dockyard was mentioned by the hon. Member for Clackmannan, and its future has been raised before by members of my party and by other right hon. and hon. Members. Rosyth is a classic example of a profoundly crucial naval facility of strategic importance, yet hundreds of thousands of jobs associated with it are at risk. To allow that dockyard to be cut as an item on its own, without framing it in the context of a proper defence review, is folly.
1187 If the Government take rational decisions about reducing or changing the shape of our armed services—and decisions must be made—after a full defence review, the Minister will not find them opposed by Members on these Benches on the basis only of constituency arguments or special pleading. However, such decisions must carry the support of the House.
The subject of the EH101 helicopter was touched on by the Minister, but somewhat disappointingly. I hope that he will be able to say more when he winds up.
§ Mr. Ashdown
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. As other right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute, I do not want to speak at length, so this will probably be the only intervention that I will allow.
§ Mr. Bruce
I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman wants to move on to give his views about helicopters, on which I am sure that I shall support him, even though it may seem that we both have a constituency interest in the subject. The right hon. Gentleman said that defence decisions should not be Treasury-led. I understand that the Labour party suggests cutting back defence expenditure by one third, and that the Liberal Democrats have mentioned a cut of about one half. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm his party's policy—or would it accept whatever figure the Government produce after their review?
§ Mr. Ashdown
Obviously such matters have to turn on Treasury considerations as well. The nation must know how much its defence is to cost, and decide whether it can afford to meet that cost. However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong in his remarks about my party's policy. We have said that it seems to us that a 50 per cent. cut in the defence budget by the end of the century is a reasonable aspiration—but that is an aspiration, not a policy. It is an aim that we may be able to achieve, consistent with proper defence.
No Government, and certainly no responsible party, would put that aspiration before the security of the nation. However, the way matters are developing, it is reasonable to aspire to a cut of that size—but not at the expense of the nation's defence. We expect that our armed forces in the future will be much more mobile and flexible than currently, and probably smaller. There is no doubting that. The measure of that can only come after proper assessment of the threat and proper judgment of the forces required to meet it.
Of course I have a constituency interest at heart in respect of the EH101. Perhaps I should declare that I have more than a constituency interest, because I have the fantastic number of 25 shares in Westland which, when I purchased them more than 20 years ago, was the minimum required to allow me to attend the company's annual general meetings. Last year, those shares returned me the princely dividend of 30p. Right hon. and hon. Members will therefore appreciate that my constituency interest in Westland somewhat outweighs my financial interest in the company.
The Minister will appreciate anyway that the matter goes beyond Westland or Yeovil, because only about one third of a modern helicopter is manufactured by the company whose name it bears and about two thirds of it 1188 is bought in. I suspect that upwards of 100 right hon. and hon. Members have a direct interest in the future of the EH101, so I speak for a greater number of constituents than the 5,000 or 6,000 who work for Westland in Yeovil.
The EH101 is a world-beating helicopter in all senses. It incorporates many technical advances—vibration suppression probably being the most recent of them—representing the front edge of world aerospace technology. The EH101 is the only helicopter in the world in its class of 28,000 lb to 30,000 lb all-up weight. I believe that the Russians are attempting to produce an "EH101ski" but, as usual, that two-engined aircraft will not meet the requirements. The EH101 has an unrivalled dominance in both the civil and the military market place.
I remind the Minister that it is four years since the then Secretary of State for Defence promised the House, in 1987, an order of 25 utility EH101s and reconfirmed that promise in Yeovil. That promise has yet to be delivered. At the same time, he made a commitment to the Merlin.
The EH101 is more than just a powerful helicopter with substantial defence sales overseas—Canada is particularly interested but such sales required a commitment from our Government—it is the centrepiece of the Government's strategy for the Navy in its anti-submarine protection role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in the North sea and the north Atlantic. The type 23 frigate, which is designed around the EH101 helicopter, has only about 50 per cent. of its operational capacity without it. But the first type 23 frigate, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Ashdown
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The first type 23 frigate was launched in 1987—a full four years ago. If the Government take a decision on the EH101 this year, the first one will not come off the production line until 1995. That means that the first type 23 frigate, costing £243 million will have spent a minimum of eight or nine years—
§ Mr. Ashdown
I am told that it is. I stand to be corrected, but I obtained that figure from the Library this morning.
The first type 23 frigate, costing a substantial amount of money—£243 million was the figure that I was given, but if I am wrong I concede the point to the hon. Gentleman—will have been in service for nine years, on about one third of its keel life expectancy of 25 years, without the weapon system around which it was designed. There are now three type 23 frigates afloat, worth three quarters of a billion pounds, but without the weapon system around which they were designed. By the time the aircraft comes into production and is in service with the Royal Navy in 1995, there will be seven new frigates plus the three already floating—a total of 10—which means that £2.5 billion-worth of Government defence material will be floating without the weapon system around which and for which it was designed.
The aircraft also has substantial civil potential. Many believe that the standards of comfort of the EH101 match turbo prop levels. We believe that, in Japan and elsewhere, there is a considerable sales potential for the aircraft.
The EH101 is the centrepiece of probably one of the most successful existing European collaborations—the 1189 Anglo-Italian one. The Italians have made their commitment to it clear, but we have not yet heard from the British Government in unequivocal terms.
We have an enormous commitment in Westland. I choose my words carefully, not without consultation, and I believe that it is no exaggeration to say that, if the order does not go through, or if it is delayed, we put at risk Britain's capacity to have a stand-alone helicopter manufacturer. That risk is posed not merely if the Government make the wrong decision—I hope they will not, and the Minister's commitment seems to show that they will take the right decision—but if they take no decision. If there is a delay we face that risk.
We are talking about a piece of equipment that our services desperately need. A senior Royal Navy officer told me the other day that he believed that without the EH101 the Royal Navy could not carry out its anti-submarine duties in NATO on the present force levels of which the Government speak. That fundamental duty depends on the EH101. At risk are overseas military orders, civil market potential, European collaboration and the integrity of the design teams which are at the heart of Westland's capacity to produce this remarkable aircraft.
Again, I choose my words carefully—if the Government delay until after July some of the crucial decisions necessary for that project to go ahead, Westland will not be able to put off for long the dismantling of the design teams at the heart of the aircraft. If they go, there is no doubt that we shall never get them back, and Britain will have lost a substantial aerospace asset. I do not use those words lightly—I have thought about them carefully and consulted widely, and I hope that the Minister will listen to them.
The Government can delay making the decision no longer than the end of July. I hope that today we shall hear a clear, confirmed United Kingdom policy commitment to the EH101. I hope that the Minister in his wind-up speech will say that we are to have an announcement on the mission prime contractor before the House rises at the end of July, as we were promised. I very much hope that the Minister will make a commitment to the Westland IBM part of that programme. I see that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary is speaking to the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. I remind him of the promise that the announcement would be made this summer. It is not good enough for the announcement to be made in the late summer. In all honesty and fairness to Westland, it ought to be made before the House rises at the end of July.
Memorandum of understanding No. 4, initiating investment preparations for production between the United Kingdom and Italian Governments, which should have been made by January 1991, must be made this summer—preferably before the end of July—and intergovernmental memorandum of understanding No. 5, which commits to production, must be made by the end of 1991.
The Minister cannot delay a decision on that any longer. If he fails to decide and to announce that decision, he will weaken our forces, especially the Royal Navy, by denying them the equipment needed to do their job. He will prevent the Royal Navy from carrying out its functions in NATO in the north Atlantic and deal a deadly blow to European collaboration, just when we should be building on it. He will place at risk the technological lead 1190 that Westland has accumulated. He will sacrifice overseas orders and severely, potentially fatally, damage the United Kingdom's only stand-alone helicopter manufacturer.
I have one message for the Minister—that further delay would be folly. The Minister must decide, and he must do so as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)
I think that many hon. Members would agree with the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) when he expressed concern at the importance of the maintenance of our defence industrial base. If one allows the levels to fall below certain points in some sectors, one loses an entire capability for ever. The right hon. Gentleman was right: when the Tripoli was struck by a mine in the Gulf, a United States minesweeper came to a dead halt in the water and had to wait until it was led to safety by a British Hunt class minehunter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State on his opening speech and on drawing attention to the Labour party's achilles heel in defence matters—the deterrent. The Labour party's ambivalence on the future of Britain's deterrent will undoubtedly play a central part in the forthcoming general election campaign. In the face of the threat of nuclear proliferation, Britain's deterrent becomes even more vital than it has been in the past with a multiplicity of decision-making centres and individuals involved in them who appear to be increasingly reckless and irresponsible in their use of political and military power.
This afternoon the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) said that a Labour Government would deploy Trident. That is a welcome opinion, but it is valueless against the assertion by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and the Leader of the Opposition that Trident would be deployed only in order to negotiate it away. What is the value of negotiating it away if that leaves us at the mercy of military dictators such as a future Saddam Hussein who manages to acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, thereby placing the British people at risk of an attack?
I pay tribute to the calibre and record of our forces in the Gulf which I had the privilege to visit twice with my colleagues on the Select Committee on Defence. The Royal Navy's part in that campaign was remarkable, and there are still Royal Navy vessels in the Gulf continuing the blockade of Iraq. We must not underestimate the Royal Navy's contribution in the allied context. The United States battleships Wisconsin and Missouri, with their magnificent 16 in guns, which we all saw on television would never have been able to get close enough to the Kuwaiti coastline to bombard the Iraqi defensive positions but for the five Hunt class minehunters deployed by the Royal Navy. One cannot speak too highly of what they achieved.
The alertness of a 17-year-old seaman aboard HMS Gloucester at 5 o'clock in the morning when a Silkworm missile was launched towards the USS Missouri probably saved that vessel or one of those in her immediate company from massive damage caused by the Silkworm's three-quarter tonne warhead. The total flight time of that missile was no more than 50 seconds, and the speed in tracking, identifying and engaging it with two Royal Navy Sea Darts was of the highest order of seamanship and modern technology.
1191 Many lessons will be drawn from the Gulf conflict, but two stand out. The first is the need always to be prepared for the unexpected, and the second is to learn once again that our military disposition must be based on an asssessment of a potential enemy's capability and not his intentions. Intentions are difficult to assess at the best of times, and they can change overnight. That truth is underlined by the fact that, as far as I am aware, no one claims to have foreseen the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina or Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
That brings me to "Options for Change". That is a sad misnomer, because the options were foreclosed 12 months ago when the Government selected the minimum option on offer, since when their policies have largely been set in concrete. Even the convulsion of the Gulf war has changed nothing, except that we have seen the emergence of a rapid deployment force in Europe under British command. I welcome that as a tribute to the professionalism and expertise of Britain's armed forces.
These non-options with which Parliament has been presented are already being implemented. I regret to say that the cuts go too far and are too deep. It is painfully slow and difficult to build up a capability, but it can be cut at the stroke of a pen. I urge the Government to reconsider the cuts before irreparable damage is caused to a defence capability that has been built up over decades.
I appreciate that there has been a significant evolution in the nature and immediacy of the Soviet threat following the removal of Soviet forces from eastern Europe and the signing of the CFE agreement. It is right that such changes should be reflected in the dispositions of our armed forces and, in particular, in the major cuts on the central front. It is one thing for the United States, with its vast military resources containing much waste and fat, to make a cut of 25 per cent. It is quite another for us to impose a similar level of cuts upon our already small and overstretched armed forces. Our armed forces are lean and highly efficient and have nothing but muscle and bone to cut.
In many cases, the implemented cuts go far beyond 25 per cent. The strength of the Royal Navy's submarines is being cut by no less than 40 per cent., from 27 to a mere 16, even though the Soviets have maintained a production rate of one submarine every six weeks. Paragraph 5 of the sixth report of the Select Committee on Defence, which was published only today, states:We concluded that by the year 2000 there would be a Northern Fleet"—that is a Soviet fleet—submarine force of between 30 and 50 Akula class SSNs, a dozen or more Oscar class SSGNs and around 20 Delta IV or Typhoon SSBNs.
We must not forget that, in world war two, just 57 U-boats sank 18 million tonnes of allied shipping, and that today's Soviet submarines are infinitely more capable than the U-boats. That is why I view with dismay the scale of the intended cut in our submarine forces. It is impossible to cut so deeply our naval, army or air force capability without eliminating roles and capabilities. Thus far, Ministers have not faced that or, if they have, they have not owned up to it to the House. It is time for them to be frank with the House in spelling out the clear consequences of current cuts.
When the cuts have been implemented, will Britain, if it is ever required to do so, be able to implement a 1192 naval-based operation on the scale of the Falklands conflict? Many doubts have been raised about that, not least because of the fact that sea-lift is no longer available. In the last decade, the British-registered merchant fleet has fallen to one tenth of what it was and the Government must urgently find a way of reversing that decline. I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will address that matter next week.
It is not just the Falklands conflict that we would find difficult to repeat. In five years, will we be in a position to make a comparable contribution in an allied context to the sort of operation in which we have just participated with such distinction in the Gulf? Is the abandonment of those capabilities a conscious decision of Government?
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark)
We are not doing that.
§ Mr. Churchill
I am delighted to hear my right hon. Friend say that these capabilities are not being abandoned. I hope that he will give us clear assurances that, if necessary, we shall be able to repeat our contribution and participation in the Gulf.
The cuts are not being based on a thorough-going defence review, a reappraisal of Britain's foreign policy interests and role in the world or on any intellectual consideration of the threat and interests involved; they are essentially Treasury driven. It is significant that, when the Secretary of State announced "Options for Change" to the House on 25 July 1990, it was expected that the Soviet Union would destroy no fewer than 100,000 major items of conventional military equipment. That has not happened. Although the Soviets signed the agreement, they have managed to evade its provisions by withdrawing no fewer than 49,000 items of treaty-limited equipment to behind the Urals. The fact that the Soviet military has been able to take the west by surprise, and its motives for so doing, should have set alarm bells ringing and, even now, should cause a rethink of the scale of the cuts under "Options for Change".
The Gulf war showed the capability of smart weapons and made one wonder whether we can afford weapons that fail to hit their targets. Tomahawk proved a spectacular success, with 98 per cent. hitting their targets. If the Royal Navy is to stay in the forefront of naval technology, it must acquire a cruise missile capability not only for surface ships but for a new generation of submarines.
The Defence Select Committee has expressed its concern about the impact of Government policies on the defence industrial base, with particular reference to submarines. Submarines have been built at Barrow for 85 years. For the past 20 years, Vickers, which is now VSEL, has maintained a work force of more than 12,500, which increased to 15,500 for Trident. It will be slashed by more than half unless orders are soon placed for a new generation of nuclear attack submarines. If they are not forthcoming, that central core of skill and industrial expertise will be lost for ever.
VSEL and the Ministry of Defence went to great lengths to develop the Upholder class of diesel electric submarine. It was intended that 12 should be built, but the Government now say that only four will be built. The Defence Select Committee says in its report that at least six should be built. I hope that the Government will reconsider that.
1193 It has been suggested in the press—I am sure maliciously and without foundation—that the Ministry of Defence is waiting until the last days before the recess to announce the cancellation of SSN-20, a new generation of faster, quieter submarine that my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) referred to in his distinguished speech. I am glad that he was able to be here to make his speech. That submarine was intended to replace the Swiftshore class, which came into service in 1973. It would be profoundly regrettable if my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement were unable to prove the Cassandras wrong by giving VSEL the go-ahead for SSN20 in the forthcoming weeks.
The Secretary of State and his colleagues were admirably robust in standing up to Saddam Hussein, who posed only a limited threat to Britain's armed forces. Let them now show the same determination and tenacity in standing up to the Treasury, which poses an unmistakably mortal threat to our armed forces. The armed forces of the Crown can look to no one else but the House and Defence Ministers to do so.
It is time that battle was joined. Britain is justly proud of its armed forces, which are unquestionably the finest in the world. The Government should beware of drastically cutting them.
§ 7.5 pm
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I do not often agree with the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), but I perceive, as he does, that the problem with the Government's defence review is that it has not carefully analysed our needs for the next few years and cut the cloth to meet them. For that reason, "Options for Change" is unsatisfactory. Unlike the hon. Member for Davyhulme, I believe that, if we analyse our needs carefully, we might be able to make further cuts rather than continue with the predicted expenditure.
The Minister had the effrontery to attack my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) for what he perceived as doubt about the Labour party's policy on the nuclear deterrent. I regret that policy, but I see no doubt about it. The Minister has obviously been brought up in the football school of "get your retaliation in first". Instead of answering crucial questions on the state of Britain's nuclear deterrent, he wanted to refer to what would happen under a Labour Government. Any Minister who had seen the substantial article in The Guardian this morning and a similar article in The Scotsman, the document that has been circulated by Greenpeace in the past six weeks, and the report of the Defence Select Committee, would have realised that there is a serious charge for the Government to answer—that Britain has no seaborne nuclear deterrent.
§ Mr. Franks
If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he said that he regrets the Labour party's policy. Does he agree with the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) about the Labour party cancelling a fourth Trident boat, or would he prefer the whole lot to be cancelled?
§ Mr. Bennett
I have made my position clear—I should like the whole lot to be cancelled. The money would be far better spent on meeting other defence roles. I do not apologise for saying that. I have always favoured getting rid of our nuclear deterrent because I do not believe that 1194 it would work. I am not prepared to change my mind. For a long time, I was in the minority in the Labour party. For a period, I was able to persuade my colleagues that I was right, but now they have changed their minds again. That is up to them, but I am firmly against the use of nuclear weapons and I do not think that we need them.
The problem facing the Government has resulted not from a change in policy but from their incompetence in appearing to be abandoning the nuclear deterrent. It is odd that, despite all the points that have been put to them in the past few months, they have not been able to answer the central question of whether they are confident that they can keep a Polaris submarine operational at sea until the Trident programme takes effect. They are extremely lucky that, for most people, the Russian threat has disappeared and they are therefore not being scrutinised as closely as they might be.
Over the past six months, it has become obvious that the refit programme of some of the Polaris submarines has fallen so far behind because of technical problems—for example, cracks have been exposed—that it is not possible to keep a Polaris submarine operational all the time now. Over the next three or so years, it will certainly not be possible to keep one operational. The Government should come clean and admit that and develop their policy on the basis of that gap.
I was disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and his Front-Bench colleagues did not criticise the Government more and ask more questions about what was happening to Polaris. I understand their difficulties, but I warn them that, if they suddenly find themselves Ministers, the kindness that they have shown the Government will not be shown to them. Conservative Members will blame the incoming Labour Government for the demise of Polaris.
I have a criticism to make of the newspapers, particularly of defence correspondents, many of whom have a close, friendly relationship with the Ministry of Defence and are not prepared to put searching questions to it. It is interesting that none of the criticisms of Polaris in recent months in the press has come from defence correspondents. Those criticisms have come from correspondents in The Observer, The Guardian and The Scotsman who specialise in other matters but have turned their attention to what is happening with Polaris.
I also criticise the procedures of the House. It is extremely difficult to get answers from Ministers about the problems of the Polaris fleet. It is argued that that is a matter of national security, but the idea of having a deterrent is to convince other people that one has a credible system. By ducking behind secrecy, the Government suggest that there is no longer a credible Polaris system. If there were such a system, they would be only too pleased to answer questions and to make it clear that one existed.
If one gets questions past the Table Office—I make no criticism of the Table Office—Ministers duck them on the basis that it costs too much to provide the answers or they refer to commercial confidentiality. They offer to write rather than have the answer appear in Hansard. Sometimes they are good at producing ambiguous answers which can be read in several ways.
To give a typical example of the problems, I have tried to find out the costs of decommissioning our nuclear-powered submarines so that we know whether the Trident programme is good value for money. Apparently, the 1195 Government do not have a clue about the costs. I asked about the cost of making Dreadnought safe, but the Government said that it would cost too much to find the answer. I asked the Government about the cost of decommissioning Conqueror and Warspite, but the Government said that it involved commercial confidentiality. That is rubbish. I suspect that the Government do not have a clue how to make the nuclear reactors in the submarines safe. It is therefore not a matter of commercial confidentiality.
The Government want to hide the costs from the House. They are keen to criticise the Labour party and say that it wants to borrow to produce investment in the health service, industry, and so on. In a sense, the Government are committing themselves to substantial borrowing by going ahead with nuclear-powered submarines when they do not have a clue how to make the weapons safe.
Because of the problems with Polaris submarines, it looks as though the lives of Navy personnel and perhaps those of future generations will be put at risk. Last week, I managed to get from the Government an answer about radiation dosages. Again, it was an interesting struggle, showing how Ministers tried to avoid providing information by writing to me rather than putting the answer in Hansard. Figures suggest that radiation levels at Faslane are high compared with levels at other nuclear facilities. The Government must explain why there are such high dosages. Refit work is not going on—it should be routine work. There appear to be major problems in getting the boats back to sea.
At bases where workers are in a trade union, people have managed to negotiate conditions whereby the dosage ceilings are lower, but at bases where workers operate under military discipline they are not in a position to resist what happens. The Government's answer referred to some worryingly high dosages. Perhaps the Minister can tell me that the problems at Faslane have been overcome and that the next dosages registered will show a marked reduction. I should be extremely worried if one of my relatives worked there. The more we know about dosages, the more the families of those who work there should be worried. I hope that the Minister will answer some of those questions.
I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he is confident that Polaris can be kept going until Trident comes into service. If it will not, should not the Government re-examine the deterrent? Do we need it? If we do, do we need it in exactly the same form as was proposed when Russia was perceived to be the only enemy and our system could deliver weapons over a long distance? If circumstances are as the hon. Member for Davyhulme suggested and we need to consider deterring different people, we may need a different system. Those questions should be raised in a proper review of defence expenditure.
I shall listen to the Minister carefully. I hope that he can start to answer the questions that were posed in the document prepared by Greenpeace, in the articles in The Guardian and The Scotsman today, and in the Defence Select Committee's report, which I suspect will soon form part of a major review by that Committee.
§ Mr. Cecil Franks (Barrow and Furness)
For the past 12 months, following the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on "Options for Change", there has been great uncertainty about Royal Navy procurement policy. The statement this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State went a long way towards removing much of the uncertainty, and I compliment him on the decisions that he announced.
I should like my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to consider several matters. The first is the contract for the fourth Trident boat SSBN8. When will the invitation to tender be made? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that VSEL, to which the invitation will be made, has made it clear, and has asked me to make it equally clear, that it will submit its tender within three months of the invitation? When the Ministry has received the tender, how long will it take for it to conclude its negotiations and to award the contract?
I need not remind my right hon. Friend the Minister nor the House of the vital employment considerations that turn on the early granting of the contract for the fourth Trident boat.
As the livelihoods of thousands of my constituents depend on Royal Navy procurement and on the Trident programme, it may be worth considering the Labour party's policies, because Labour Front-Bench spokesmen studiously avoid the subject of Trident if they can. I remind the House that the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), and his deputy spokesman when winding up, spoke for one and a half hours in our previous debate on the Royal Navy without once mentioning the Trident programme.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) who, for different reasons, questioned the Labour party's policy on Trident. I assure him that he was only seconds ahead of me. I was surprised, but pleased, that, for the first time in many debates on the Royal Navy, one of the Labour party's Front-Bench spokesmen was prepared to give way to me and allow me to question him.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
I hope that the hon. Gentleman noted the remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr), whom we are all pleased to see in his seat, who also questioned the need for a nuclear deterrent.
§ Mr. Franks
It is perfectly fair and proper to question; it is the decision that is reached which counts. There were questions and debates in the Conservative party years ago; decisions were made, and they are now being implemented.
It might be worth while reminding the Labour party, and especially those on its Front Bench, that in the 1983 general election I and other Conservative candidates were opposed by Labour candidates who were campaigning furiously and vociferously to cancel the Trident programme. In 1987, exactly the same happened, and now the hon. Members for Clackmannan, for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) and for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) are beginning to twist, turn and weave while trying to wriggle out of the decision made by the Labour party conference which binds the Labour party to its manifesto.
I remind those three hon. Members that they were the very people who, in the 1987 and 1983 general elections, sought to make thousands of my constituents redundant 1197 overnight. In the Chamber, they claim that their hearts bleed about unemployment, but they certainly did not give a damn about the unemployment that their policies would have caused in Barrow and Furness.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that this Government gave the monopoly in submarine building to his constituents and, with the creation of that monopoly, put thousands of my constituents out of work. The hon. Gentleman's memory is a little short about that squalid incident.
§ Mr. Franks
It is not that my memory is short, but that the hon. Gentleman's facts are incorrect. When the British shipbuilding industry was nationalised in 1976 and British Shipbuilders was created, the decision was taken by the nationalised industry, under a Labour Government, to concentrate the building of nuclear submarines in the shipyards of Barrow. That decision was taken, for better or for worse, by the Labour Government in 1976.
§ Dr. Godman
I referred to the submarine building monopoly. The diesel-electric submarines were built at Scots in Greenock. The monopoly given to Vickers extends to nuclear and conventionally powered submarines.
§ Mr. Franks
If the hon. Gentleman checks the facts, he will find that the long lead orders for the Trafalgar class submarine, which is nuclear-powered, were given under the Labour Administration of 1974–79. I suggest that, if he wants to quarrel, he should do so with his colleagues rather than with me. I and my constituents are quite content that we have the monopoly, and we have used it for the benefit of the Royal Navy and have given good value.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
Surely it would have been better for Barrow and for the hon. Gentleman's constituents if they had not concentrated on building submarines, but had also built surface ships. There would not then have been the prediction of an unemployment rate of 25 per cent. in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.
§ Mr. Franks
I remind the hon. Gentleman that VSEL was part of the nationalised British Shipbuilders until 1986. It has a full order book and could not cope physically with building other vessels when four Trident submarines were to be built side by side in the huge ship hall.
The hon. Members for Houghton and Washington, for Clackmannan and for Rhondda are otherwise known as the three brass monkeys Cut, Chop and Cancel. That would be the reality of their proposals if they had the honesty to spell them out. For once, there has been a clear, unequivocal statement that the Labour party would cancel the fourth Trident submarine if it could. The comments have been well noted not just in the House, but by the constituents of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), in Cumbria and in Barrow and Furness.
I represent a constituency in which, three or four months ago, VSEL announced that there would be up to 5,000 job losses. I found it rather dramatic when, two weeks ago, the Government announced a support initiative for that constituency and for the town, but the hon. Member for Carlisle, a fellow Cumbrian, was mealy-mouthed. It is equally worrying that the Labour spokesman can sit here grinning at the prospect of major 1198 unemployment in my constituency and that he and his colleagues have been unable to come up with a credible way to provide work and jobs for those who live in my constituency.
§ Mr. Franks
I have given way three or four times. I take it as a compliment that what I am saying is at last provoking the Opposition to say something.
§ Mr. Franks
The authentic voice of the Labour party was that of he hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). Although I disagree with what he said, he at least had the honesty to speak his mind. His is not only the true voice, but the majority voice, within the Labour party. The Labour Benches are littered with members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The former chairman of CND sits on the Front Bench, and I am sure that there are others. Prospective Labour party candidates—including the one for Barrow and Furness—all have good, long and sound CND credentials.
It might be interesting to mention the way in which the Labour party in Barrow has dealt with Trident and with the prospect of the fourth submarine. Just a few years ago, in 1986, the Labour party in Barrow, influenced by contacts in Manchester and Liverpool, and following the trend of the time, declared Barrow, of all places, a nuclear-free zone. I must qualify that, because the Labour party actually declared Barrow a "nuclear weapons-free zone". That was the way in which Labour managed to wriggle out of the fact that 100 yards from the town hall where the councillors sat, the nuclear reactors on the submarines went critical. To be fair to Barrow Labour party, it was not exactly a nuclear-free zone, just a nuclear weapons-free zone.
I want to deal next with the announcement about the follow-on to Trafalgar. What the Minister said is good news for Barrow and for the company, but will he clarify two or three points? He talked about a batch of new Trafalgar class submarines. Will he clarify how many that is? Will he also clarify when it is expected that construction will start? Will he bear it in mind that at least two years' design work is necessary before construction can start? Will he bear it in mind that it is, therefore, essential that a decision is taken on which option is requested and that the decision is taken in 1992? The placing of the main design work contract must be carried out next year.
For the continuity of the skills available, we cannot afford to have a lag between the completion of the Trident programme and the construction of the new Trafalgar boats. As other speakers have said, it is essential, if we are to maintain our submarine building capability, that we maintain the key and essential skills. There must be continuity.
I say to the Minister, not in anger but to make a point, that it will be no good for him or his successor to pick up the telephone in 1994 or 1995 and to say, "Hello, Mr. Barrow. This is the Minister. We would like you to build 1199 a submarine." There will be no point in that if the skills to build that submarine are being used for other initiatives or have dispersed to other areas.
Many initiatives are going on in my constituency. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the statement made on 13 June by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about support for Cumbria—principally for the constituency of Barrow and Furness. That statement was very much welcomed locally and in the county beyond. The Ministry of Defence also has a responsibility to play a part in the initiative. If there is to be a peace dividend—and few, if any, will deny that with the collapse of the Warsaw pact and with the changing international scene there has to be a defence dividend of some size—part of it must find its way back to constituencies such as mine, which in the past have been so heavily reliant on the defence industry.
Barrow is one of the three major manufacturing and industrial bases in the north-west. There is Manchester, there is Liverpool—diminishing through its own fault—and then there is Barrow, which has the largest heavy engineering complex in western Europe. If the Royal Navy is to be serviced, we cannot afford and we cannot allow that heavy engineering complex to move away from its traditional role of building ships for the Royal Navy.
Barrow was described by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in his statement on Cumbrian support as being unique in its combination of geographical isolation and heavy dependence on a single employer. Barrow and its community have served the Royal Navy well for over 100 years. We build some of the finest submarines in the world and we have built some of the finest surface vessels for the Royal Navy. Provided that my right hon. Friend makes the right decisions over the next 12 months, when he or his successor comes to make the telephone call to place the order for new submarines, the reply will be, "Yes, Minister."
§ Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)
I do not intend to follow the general line of the remarks of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks), to whose speech I listened with great interest. I will not necessarily come to the conclusion that he came to on the defence industrial base. However, he may take it that I am not just expressing sympathy to him and to his constituents about the possibilities of job decline in an area whose specific reasons for being in existence is to serve the needs of the Navy. I too represent a constituency in which the labour force is high in relation to naval needs.
I welcome to the debate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. I understand that he has been serving other purposes in the House earlier today. Although I may have had personal disagreements with members of the Committee on certain aspects, I never disparage the Committee's work or the quality of its report. I will refer to some of its reports, including one that has been published today.
It is significant that, in debates on defence strategy, we have heard a great deal about changes on land and in the air as a consequence of the demise of the Warsaw pact, but we have not heard much about the future of naval power, 1200 although the Minister and some other hon. Members have tried to correct that. I absolve the Select Committee on Defence from part of that stricture because it addressed the issue in its third report. It commented in paragraph 4:The demise of the Warsaw Pact is unlikely to have a significant impact on Soviet naval strength".
In the subsequent paragraph, the Select Committee gave detailed estimates of Soviet naval strength. All the comments suggest that, although the Soviet fleet may be smaller, it would be "qualitatively more capable", and that itmust remain the principal yardstick against which the Royal Navy's capabilities are judged.
If we take that comment as the first item on the hymn sheet, and if the argument is true, why are we engaged in cutting our naval forces? Why are we going through discussions with the Soviet Union to give it aid? it may not be used directly for defence purposes, but surely, if one aids an economy of such magnitude and complexity, that aid will be used indirectly for military purposes.
I have not been privy to the briefings obtained by the Select Committee, but I doubt the thrust of the argument about the capability of the Soviet fleet in terms of offensive capacity. I doubt whether it presents a major threat in current circumstances. If it does present the threat suggested, the Government will find it hard to justify the cuts that they have made and will make in naval capacity.
May I comment on one aspect of the report of the Select Committee of February 1991—the decommissioning of HMS Challenger and of the three nuclear submarines?
In my view, the whole Challenger episode is nothing short of a disgrace. We have heard many plaudits in connection with the Navy's capability, and I agree with them, but what happened in this instance deserves greater public examination. I would immediately suggest that the shipyard that built the vessel, Scott Lithgow on the lower Clyde, bears no responsibility, and that the fault in relation to the design and operational requirement lies entirely with the Ministry of Defence.
In an answer to me, printed at col. 13 of Hansard of 18 December, the Ministry of Defence told me that the total cost of the vessel, including docking periods, at 1990–91 prices, was £240 million. Perhaps we shall get a straight answer from the Minister tonight. How much does the Ministry expect to get back for that expenditure? And what offers, if any, have been made for the vessel? That vessel was called into being by, and specifically designed for, the Ministry of Defence. It is now lying waiting on a bidder. We are talking about £240 million down the drain at a time when our universities and other institutions are being screwed, to put it mildly, to come to grips with deficits of £5 million or £10 million.
On the decommissioning of nuclear powered submarines, I do not have time to go into all the points elaborated on by the Select Committee but, representing Rosyth, I am mindful of the fact that we have Dreadnought laid up there. What is to happen to Conqueror, Churchill and Warspite? What is the Navy's policy on decommissioning? What does it intend to do with the other boats that will be decommissioned in the coming years—the other SSNs and the Polaris fleet?
I hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee will pay particular attention to my remarks about Polaris—and I follow the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who referred to the whole question of the viability of the Polaris fleet. I take the view—this arises 1201 particularly in connection with the sixth report of the Select Committee—that we are not getting the truth on this matter. Having been a member of the Select Committee, I know only too well—I am sure that the Chairman of the Select Committee will keep me right on this—that the Select Committee is cleared for information up to top secret.
§ Mr. Douglas
The hon. Gentleman is nodding his agreement. If that is true, paragraph 9 of the sixth report is extremely disturbing. It says:Despite requests for information about the present situation with regard to SSBNs, MoD have not been forthcoming to us in private or in public. In view of the concerns that have been expressed in public, we believe that it would be in the general interest, including that of MoD, to be more candid.It is one thing to say, "We cannot go into details at a public hearing." It is quite another to deny a Select Committee of the House, cleared to receive information up to top secret, vital information relating to the viability of the strategic deterrent. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has referred to the articles—we have all read them; indeed, I have them here—casting grave doubts on the viability of the Polaris fleet. The Minister owes the House an explanation of the current state of affairs.
Having touched on Rosyth already, let me deal with the vital issue of the future of the naval base, to which the Minister alluded but which he did not discuss in any detail. In the changing strategic environment, it is difficult to assess the importance of Rosyth. Of course, offshore fishing protection and mine counter-measures need a naval base close to important operational areas. But a Navy with about 30 operational frigates and destroyers would be hard put to it to retain Devonport, Portsmouth and Rosyth.
Labour has made much play of keeping Rosyth open because of its importance as an employer in the area. Representing that area, I obviously go along with that. I yield to no one in my desire to protect the economic viability of Fife. We in the Scottish National party have repeatedly warned of the consequences to the Scottish economy of cuts in defence expenditure. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), will confirm no doubt that we have had a series of meetings with Defence Ministers, with the Scottish Office and, last Friday, with the chief executive of Scottish Enterprise.
As the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness said, there will be a peace dividend, but one of the difficulties with the peace dividend and its distribution is that it will not necessarily help the areas that have devoted so much manpower and expertise to producing defence equipment. That cannot be cured by mere market considerations. Those areas will suffer unless concerted action is taken. That is why the SNP has called for the initiative of a defence diversification fund that would be specifically related to such problem areas.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) will clarify Labour's attitude—and I do not want to hear policy being made on the hoof. Month after month, Labour has raved about the importance of Rosyth. I assume that Labour Members know what they are talking about when they call for the Secretary of State for Scotland to make Rosyth a resignation issue.
1202 We are a year, at the very most, from a general election. Can the Labour Front-Bench spokesman make it olear that Labour would keep Rosyth, and other naval bases, open and fully operational if it gained power in the next year or so? Not much can happen to a naval base in a year. A decision may be made, but it would be utter folly to close a base overnight. It goes without saying that I am opposed to the closure of the base but, at the same time, I am a realist and I recognise that something has to go. The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), who opened the debate for the Opposition, was obfuscatory on this issue, as on so many others.
I now come to the issue of the strategic deterrent. Time does not permit me to go into all my reasons for opposing the United Kingdom's possession of strategic nuclear weapons or into the absurdity of claiming that a four-boat Trident fleet equipped with United States D5s is essential to our defence needs. Nevertheless, I am interested in the Labour party's posture in relation to the fourth boat. We heard some answers from the hon. Member for Clackmannan earlier today.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness has seen the North West Evening Mail of 20 December 1990, which ran the headline, "Labour Shift Over Trident" and said:The Labour party will consider ordering a fourth Trident boat from VSEL if the next general election is held late and construction work on the final element of the British nuclear deterrent is well advanced.This shift from previous total opposition to Trident Four was hinted at yesterday in an exclusive interview given to the Evening Mail by Labour's Shadow defence spokesman Martin O'Neill.
§ Mr. Franks
The hon. Gentleman and I both know where the North West Evening Mail is printed and circulated. Unfortunately, when the hon. Gentleman started to read out the article, the hon. Member for Clackmannan made a somewhat rapid exit, but for the benefit of those who have stayed to listen to the hon. Gentleman's speech, will he tell the House where that newspaper is printed and circulated?
§ Mr. Douglas
I have no doubt that it is well circulated in the area. But I am not here to advertise a particular newspaper; I am here as a great seeker after wisdom. The Labour party is very good at asking questions, but not very good at answering them.
§ Mr. Douglas
The hon. Gentleman should not tempt me. I have maintained the 1987 policy. The hon. Gentleman should hand his wheesed for a moment.
§ Mr. Douglas
No, I will not give way. I want to develop my point in relation to Labour party policy.
We all heard Labour Members cheer when it was announced that the United States Poseidon fleet was o withdraw from Holy Loch. Do the same hon. Members intend to cheer when three or four Trident boats come up to Faslane? Will they cheer then, or will they have doubts?
1203 I want to highlight the deep divisions in the Labour party on that issue. I hope that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington will listen when I quote from a letter that appeared in Tribune on 14 June 1991. It stated:To my considerable surprise I have just read in Hansard for June 4 the statement by Roland Boyes, one of Labour's defence spokesmen, that 'the Trident programme is an integral and important part of Labour Defence policy.'What was actually agreed in 'Meet the Challenge, Make the Change' at the 1989 Labour Party Conference does not support Roland Boyes' claim. Page 87 reads: 'We regard the procurement of the Trident weapons system as unjustifiiable in defence policy terms … claims of its being an "independent" capability are negated … it is inaccurate to describe Britain's nuclear capability as a deterrent … the only relevant role for Britain's nuclear weapons … is to further the process of international nuclear and conventional disarmament.'Mr. Boyes has no right to make up policy on the hoof. prospective Labour Candidates find such behaviour very unsettling.
That letter was not signed by any old or young Labour party candidate. The candidate in question was Bruce Kent, the prospective Labour candidate for Oxford, West and Abingdon. I hope that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington will tell us who is right. Is it Bruce Kent, who is noted for his continued unilateralist—
§ Mr. Douglas
Well, the hon. Gentleman had better tell Bruce Kent. If there is a quarrel between the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington and Bruce Kent, he had better sort it out. Contrary to Labour's view in 1987, Labour now embraces Trident as an instrument of electoral virility.
Before I consider the issue of marine strategy, I want to refer to Holy Loch. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) and I have received a letter from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in which he tries to clarify the situation in relation to Holy Loch after the departure of the United States forces. A sentence in that letter disturbs me. It states:Improved tourist or leisure facilities at Holy Loch should be entirely compatible with the concept of occasional visits from nuclear submarines, as they arc at other locations.Who is the Minister trying to kid? May we have some idea, if not tonight then on another occasion, exactly what is meant by the current view of a Z-berth? What vessels with a nuclear capability will be allowed to use those berths? The Minister's letter specifically excludes Royal Navy submarines. What other vessels will come to the Loch when the United States have abandoned it? Will the vessels be French? The people of the Cowal peninsula and elsewhere who are trying to retrieve a desperately difficult situation are entitled to some clarification.
With regard to the general marine strategy, we have a declining Navy and the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) rightly referred to the great concern about our merchant fleet. Our fishery fleet faces severe constraint, we have an almost non-existent shipbuilding industry, and United Kingdom shipping currently faces enormous problems.
We welcome the MOD's invitation to tender for type 23s. However, I want to probe the Minister a little further about that. The Minister said that there would be three tenders. What does that mean? Will there be three for one 1204 yard, one and an option for two, or two and an option for one? What is the ordering pattern? No doubt there will be clarification in the press tomorrow about that, but we are entitled to have some idea of the MOD's plans.
Over and above those general considerations, the people of these islands are entitled to know the Government's intentions for the recruitment and training of future seafaring personnel. That is a serious and important issue which affects not only defence but our economic and trading performance. Cuts in defence spending that are carefully assessed against a changing threat are one thing, but the rundown of shipping, shipbuilding and our capacity to trade is quite another.
When the Minister replies, I hope that he will at least address some of the important questions that I have raised. I conclude by thanking the members of the Select Committee on Defence for their work. I only regret that the general work of Select Committees is not appropriately adjudged in the House. Perhaps that is one issue that we will discuss when we consider changes in our procedures and hours.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) put the knife into the Labour party very effectively. As an ex-member of the Labour party, he had specialist knowledge which allowed him to do so. He will understand if I do not try to add to his questions. I look forward with great interest to see whether the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman can answer any of the questions that the hon. Gentleman posed, but I rather suspect that he will not be able to.
In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister paid generous and totally appropriate tribute to the men and women of our armed forces who served in the Gulf. I wish to add, from my constituency knowledge, that the families of the men and women who served also deserve generous praise. They did not know when their kinsfolk went to the Gulf that there would be few casualties—and in the case of the Royal Navy, none. They did not know that no chemical or biological weapons would be used. They faced the challenge of watching their loved ones sail off to the Gulf with tremendous determination, courage and calm. That goes for all the families—the wives, parents and children. They all deserve our tributes and praise.
There are many service families and service establishments in my constituency. I am particularly grateful to the personnel in those establishments for allowing me to visit them, for giving up so much of their time, for briefing me and for their hospitality on several occasions—all of which I greatly enjoyed.
Sailors realise that defence is in no sense a job creation agency. They are there to respond to and to deter a threat to our essential interests. What is the threat? First, it remains the Soviet Union. After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in the last war, the Soviets built up an enormous military-industrial complex, and the power of the generals and those associated with them still remains in the Soviet Union.
NATO responded to that threat, but there is still an imbalance between the Warsaw pact forces and NATO forces of about 3:1 in most arms. Since 1985, there has been a diminution in the threat of the Warsaw pact, and we associate that mainly with Mr. Gorbachev and perestroika. However, it is not just Mr. Gorbachev who is 1205 responsible for the diminution of the Soviet threat. It is also a result of the fact that the Soviet Union is bust—economically, politically and morally. One aspect in respect of which it is not bust, however, is the military—the Soviet Union remains a massive military power.
The CFE negotiations have led to a reduction of army forces in the central plain of Europe, but there is no real indication yet that the Soviet navy is to be diminished in much the same way. There are some signs of diminution, but they are not as considerable as in the army. The Soviet Union continues to have the largest general purpose submarine fleet in the world. It is still building at the rate of about 10 a year. Ten new submarines of an advanced design were built during 1990. There are now plans for further designs with cruise missiles and other armaments. Those submarines cannot conceivably be needed for defence. There is no need whatever for the Soviet Union to have submarines to defend its frontiers with China, Turkey or elsewhere. Those weapons can only be intended for offensive use. Admiral of the fleet, Admiral Chernavin, makes it quite clear that the purpose of the Soviet submarine fleet is to attack NATO sea lanes in the event of a further world war.
That poses a serious threat because of the instability of the Soviet Union. We do not know where the military currently stand in terms of reforms within the Soviet Union. Although 60 per cent. of the production of the defence-industrial complex is now geared to civilian products, the military-industrial complex is still under the command of the military.
Some matters cause serious concern. For instance, it is not fully appreciated that, if the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were permitted to secede from the Soviet Union complex, this would leave the important area of Kaliningrad, with its large Soviet port and hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union. I cannot imagine that the Soviet Union would be prepared to allow that to happen. Indeed, I have seen reports that admirals and generals would not be prepared to see that happen. Clearly, the Soviet bear has not gone away. That is the first threat.
In a period when the world is shrinking, when weapons are becoming much more effective, and when the means of transport and delivery of weapons are improving all the time, the second threat to us is from tyrants on the make. For example, I refer to Gadaffi, with his support for terrorism—terrorism linked with tyrants on the make can be a potent mixture—Galtieri, and recently, of course, Saddam Hussein. We do not know all the threats that can be posed to us. There is a saying in the Royal Artillery and the Royal Air Force that "it's the one you don't see that gets you". We need to defend ourselves against the one that we cannot see—the unseen threat. Clearly, if we are defending against an unseen threat, the key must be flexibility. That is my approach to our need for naval forces.
First, we have a need for a nuclear deterrent, and the Conservative party stands four-square behind it. Secondly, we need command carriers, frigates and SSN submarines to fulfil our role within NATO to defend the east Atlantic. Thirdly—I am not sufficiently confident of the Government's intentions—we also need flexible smaller ships. We need fast patrol boats, vessels that are suitable for fishery protection and smaller ships capable of operating inshore. In particular, we need more conventional submarines.
1206 I read with keen interest the report of the Select Committee on Defence, the Chairman of which, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) is sitting beside me. That Committee takes the view that conventional submarines are extremely important to our defence need. There was to have been a class of 12 Upholder submarines, but that has now been cut to four. I have been following that class of submarine with keen interest. I visited Barrow in Furness some time ago, and I visited Birkenhead to see the second-in-class Unseen under construction. I have been keen that it should be stationed, as it currently is, with No. 1 submarine squadron in Gosport.
Much of the role of those conventional submarines is not widely publicised. I fear that there may be a danger that people regard conventional submarines as second-rate nuclear submarines which do not have sufficient performance. People may not realise that SSK hunter-killer conventional submarines, the diesel-electric Upholder class, have special roles and can fulfil special tasks. Those special tasks include listening in to all sorts of communications. Because the Upholder class is so very quiet, they can travel where other submarines might be perceived. Of course, they have a special forces capacity and are capable of landing special forces behind enemy lines.
It seems very peculiar that we should currently be contemplating a diesel-electric conventional submarine class of only four submarines, when we needed two, for use in the Gulf conflict. Otis and Opossum served in the Gulf area and returned in the camouflage used in that area. It is peculiar that we should have used as many as two submarines in that small area and that we should now believe that we can fulfil that important role in the future with only four.
Paragraph 4 of the report of the Select Committee on Defence, which was published today, states that Flag Officer Submarines and the Ministry of Defenceshould look at ways of increasing professional, parliamentary and public understanding of the Submarine Service.I am not too bothered about public understanding of the submarine service—I do not think that it needs to blow its trumpet in that way. I should be entirely satisfied if I felt that those taking decisions on the ordering of submarines fully understood the situation. It concerns me that we should have only four submarines so planned.
My main point is about shore establishments and ship bases. I suppose that a planner, starting with a clean sheet of paper, would choose to base most of the fleet in Scapa Flow, because it would be near to the eastern Atlantic and the area where its operations are most likely to be concentrated. Of course, that is not an option, because we have to start with where we are. Most of the shore-based Navy is based in the Gosport-Portsmouth area. There are major establishments in my constituency—for example, HMS Sultan, HMS Collingwood, HMS Dolphin, HMS Daedalus, HMS Centurion and HMS Hasler. All of them are centres for naval training. Therefore, they are areas in which Royal Navy people will know that they will spend much of their shore time, because training is obviously the main activity for shore-based service men.
Whereas the Ministry of Defence previously built housing for naval personnel as they travelled around the world, increasingly in recent years naval personnel have chosen instead to buy their own houses. To put it very crudely, the Royal Navy lives in south Hampshire—and 1207 rightly so, as in most cases personnel know that they will be based in the Gosport-Portsmouth area rather than anywhere else because that is where the major training establishments are. [Interruption.] I hear noises from others who have interests in this matter. Perhaps they will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Training establishments are predominantly in the Gosport-Portsmouth area and naval personnel have chosen to live there so as to be near their place of work.
Can we move the men and women of the armed forces? The answer is no, because their homes are where they are, their wives are there, and their children are at school. Service personnel wish to remain where they are. We no longer have press gangs or Royal Marines posted on the fo'c'sles of ships to shoot deserters, so we need to make sure that people want to stay in the Royal Navy.
The name of the game in the Royal Navy is retention. The great enemy is premature voluntary retirement. Service personnel are now highly skilled and highly trained. The longer they remain in the Royal Navy, the higher their skill levels will be, the more highly trained they will be, and the more valuable they will therefore be to civilian employers outside. Good personnel practice therefore demands that we seek to keep people in the Navy—retention is the name of the game.
We should try to do all that we can to make the Navy an attractive career, not only to those just joining the Navy, but to those who are trained and skilled and have years of experience behind them because they are the people that we need to keep in the Navy. Therefore, the logic to me is irrefutable—we should move more ships to the Portsmouth area and focus more of our onshore activities at the onshore establishments in that area. If we are constrained in our resources, it is logical to focus those resources in one main area.
Of those local establishments, HMS Sultan is the marine engineering school. As it is central to our marine engineering, I do not think that there is any question of its being threatened. In my view, exactly the same applies to HMS Collingwood in relation to weapons engineering and to HMS Dolphin in relation to submarine training. It follows from what I have said that I believe that No. 1 submarine squadron should continue to be based at HMS Dolphin. The previous Labour Government carried out a detailed study of the possibility of moving HMS Centurion, which is the pay and postings centre, to Glasgow, but that was ruled out when it was found that the computer facilities at Centurion were central to those operations. It can be argued that more personnel functions should be moved to the Gosport-Centurion area to take advantage of those facilities.
Royal naval hospital Haslar has benefited from a considerable spending programme and has superb facilities. It would be therefore be logical to base more of the Royal Navy's medical services at Haslar. If we are focusing our main activity on the Portsmouth-Gosport area, as I hope is the intention, it is essential that we maintain HMS Daedalus, which has many roles—among them its unique facility to provide a runway for fixed-wing aircraft, and its slipway which provides a unique facility on the south coast for amphibious operations and which can be used for a wide range of military activities.
1208 Similarly, as both the Royal Naval aircraft yard at Fleetlands and the Royal Naval armaments depot are doing very good jobs, I see no reason why they should be changed. Those facilities have the advantage of the spirit and atmosphere of the Royal Navy. There is good teamwork with mutual respect at all levels. Many of the civilians working in those establishments have served in the armed forces.
My final point relates to the people who serve in the Royal Navy. The quality of training will continue to rise as the Royal Navy concentrates on high technology. That will be matched by personnel policies that are designed to promote initiative on the one hand and reliability on the other. The Royal Navy now has more sophisticated equipment per man and woman than ever before, and provides more training for its use. It remains an exceptional career for adventure and excitement. I am always delighted to see the young men and women in my constituency taking advantage of those opportunities. The defence of the realm is a noble and worthy cause and, for the individual, it can continue to provide unique challenges, travel and comradeship.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) for his stout defence of the work force at Scott Lithgow in relation to the Challenger. As he rightly said, the Select Committee on Defence has now reported that the blame lies with the Ministry of Defence, not with the local work force. The hon. Gentleman knows the shipbuilding industry on the upper and lower Clyde perhaps better than I do, because he served his apprenticeship there, while I served mine elsewhere. He knows as well as I do the stigma that still clings to that yard because the tabloids heaped the blame on the work force at the time. As I have said, I am grateful to the Select Committee for belatedly pointing out that much of the blame, as was admitted, rests with the Ministry of Defence. The report states that a rewiring problem could be blamed on the management of the yard, but that had nothing to do with the work force.
That work force are now dispersed. Some of their most highly skilled people are now in Australia, Canada and America. An electrician whom I know and who worked on that ship is now a chargehand in a small yard in Sydney, having emigrated with his wife and young children. Other members of that work force work for Vickers at Barrow. Although, like all Lancashire people, the people of Barrow are extremely hospitable and friendly folk, those employees would naturally like to return to the Clyde. However, the yard now employs only 30 or 40 people whereas in its prime it had a work force of about 5,500.
Until fairly recently, Scott Lithgow at Greenock was the finest conventional submarine builder in the world. Most submariners who have worked in diesel electric submarines will say that a Scott-built vessel is one of the finest. That fact was readily acknowledged by the Australian navy when it purchased a vessel. Although that is Scott Lithgow's position at the moment, I hope that the yard can be resuscitated, perhaps for other work.
I thank the Minister for his letter about the invitation to tender for the type 23 frigates. As he knows, Yarrow is on the upper Clyde while my constituency is on the lower Clyde, but, as several of my constituents work in the upper 1209 Clyde yard, the Minister will not be surprised to hear me say that I hope that Yarrow wins all three orders. Two would do nicely for the time being, although, as a realist, I suppose that I should say that just one would do.
Yarrow is one of the finest warship building yards in western Europe. At the moment, it is in serious difficulties. However, I am not here to make a special plea—not even for my constituents who work in the yard—because I think that Yarrow can win one or two if not all three of the orders on merit. It is a leading yard in terms of design and has a first-class work force and management under the leadership of Sir Robert Easton. The work force will be spurred on by the Minister's announcement today. Incidentally, I hope that it goes without saying that I kept the contents of that letter to myself.
I turn now to the Select Committee's sixth report, "Royal Navy Submarines", which is excellent. I am not an ex-Navy man, although my father served with the RNVR as the skipper of a minesweeper in Scapa Flow. Ii might make sense to have a naval establishment there, but I do not wish to cross swords on that with the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). My family has been associated with the Royal Navy for generations principally because grandfathers and great-grandfathers on both sides have been fishermen and have served their country in the Navy in times of war.
That leads me to ask about the position regarding our fisheries protection vessels. From information given to me in a written answer, I believe that there is no intention in the near future of building replacement vessels. The men of that fleet do an important job in protecting our fishing grounds as, indeed, do our fishermen themselves when the need arises. The worst predators on fishing grounds are the Spanish fishing fleet. I am not hostile to the people of Spain, but I become angry on occasion at the activities of some of the Spanish fishermen, especially off the west coast of Scotland.
There is a need to look again at the procurement policy for fishery protection vessels. If I may make another constituency point—I am afraid that it is that sort of speech—the finest fisheries protection vessel building yard is, of course, Fergusons, which happens to be in Port Glasgow. It produces fine fisheries protection vessels.
Part VIII of the Select Committee report on Royal Navy submarines deals specifically with the sinking of the Antares, which was a terrible tragedy. I knew the skipper, Jimmy Russell, personally. He was a constituent of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), who is not in her place. He was from Carradale. He was a member of the Clyde Fishermen's Association. That association honoured me by inviting me to be one of its honorary presidents, an honour which I was delighted to accept and which I still hold, along with the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes).
The report contains some sensible words and some important recommendations on the tragedy. In paragraph 104, it states that, the day after the sinking and the loss of the four-man crew,the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced that, in addition to a Department of Transport inquiry, there would he a Royal Navy Board of Inquiry.Under Scots law there must be a fatal accident inquiry into the sinking of the Antares, because four men lost their lives as they went about their employment. Has the Minister been given any idea by the Scottish Office or, perhaps more 1210 importantly, the Lord Advocate's office of when that fatal accident inquiry is likely to take place? There must be such an inquiry. I cannot understand the delay, especially as the Royal Navy board of inquiry has published its report.
I believe that the procurator fiscal in Kilmarnock has prepared a report about the deaths of those four inshore fishermen. Can I assume—I have no doubt that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the officers and crew involved in that terrible tragedy, which, of course, was an accident, will give evidence at the inquiry? Presumably the logbook will have to be handed over to the sheriff who conducts the inquiry.
Paragraph 104 of the report also states:While fully appreciating the necessity for thorough examination of the implications of the findings of the Board, we are also mindful of the desire of all those involved to see the issues dealt with speedily as well as properly. Given the Minister's earlier assurances, the delay in publishing the summary has been unacceptable.I agree with that statement. The summary has now been published, but I am mindful of those sentiments. All those involved are anxious to see the issues dealt with speedily and properly. In the civil context, that means that a fatal accident inquiry must be set up as soon as possible. The widows and families of those four men deserve no less than that an inquiry be set up as soon as possible. I hope that it goes without saying that the close relatives of the men lost in that terrible tragedy will, if need be, obtain legal aid so that their interests can be adequately represented at the inquiry.
The report deals with other aspects of the tragedy. I promise that I shall not detain the House much longer, but this matter deeply worries those of us who represent constituencies along the firth of Clyde. I hope that it deeply worries every hon. Member who is present tonight. As an honorary president of the Clyde fishermen's association, I have views which are in conflict with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), for example. I disagree with a few of the statements made in the report. For example, in paragraph 106 of its otherwise excellent report, referring to the difficulties of submarine sonar in detecting fishing gear, the Committee states:We accept that there are good reasons why this should be so".
The report rightly says that pelagic trawls are especially difficult to detect. From my knowledge of fishing methods, I know that that is correct. With pelagic trawls there are few if any heavy metal objects to record an impression, whereas with demersal gear, which, as you well know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, has heavy trawl doors to keep the mouth of the net as wide open as possible, the sonar equipment on the submarines can pick up a signal. I submit that the equipment is clumsy. I think that I am right in saying—no doubt I will be challenged if I am incorrect—that the Antares was bottom-trawling when its gear was snagged. It did not have pelagic gear down. Pelagic gear is mid-water gear which must float at a certain level above the sea bed—hence the absence of heavy materials. The Antares was fishing the bottom, yet the doors and other heavy equipment were not picked up by the sonar equipment.
In paragraph 106 the report states that:the solution must lie in deconfliction of submarines and fishing boats".I can only suggest that "deconfliction" is a military term. I have not had a chance to look in a dictionary today because I have been in Committee, but presumably 1211 deconfliction of submarines and fishing boats means keeping them apart. If that is what is meant, I agree wholeheartedly. The submarines that I see almost every day of my life in and around the Firth of Clyde, when I am away from this place, are massive in comparison with fishing vessels the size of the Antares, which was a 16 m trawler. The huge nuclear vessels on the Firth of Clyde should be kept clear of the fishing vessels.
The report goes on:We are confident that submarine commanding officers go to great lengths to avoid confrontation with fishing boats and welcome the instruction given to avoid vessels engaged in fishing by as much distance as is navigationally prudent".I accept that wholeheartedly, because it is right and proper.
When I visited Holy Loch I implored the United States navy commanders—my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton will confirm this because he was there—to submit their submariners to refresher courses, to acquire among other things knowledge of different fishing methods used by our fishermen in the approach to the Firth of Clyde and elsewhere in inshore and shallow waters. I was assured by them and by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces that they would ensure that training programmes would familiarise United States submarine commanders with the gear used by fishing vessels.
That is important, because when a vessel, even a quite small one, is fishing, the gear is often hundreds of yards behind the vessel. The submarine can pick up the vessel and detect that it is moving slowly, and hence may be towing gear, but it cannot pick up the gear unless, as the report rightly says, appliances are fitted to the fishing gear. In other words, unless the gear is fitted with pingers, as the Select Committee calls them colloquially—electronic bleepers fitted to the heads of the nets to ward off submarines—the gear cannot be detected.
I have the greatest respect for the submarine commanders and I feel deeply sorry fo the officers concerned in this case because the vessel was engaged in a training exercise. It was almost at the end of the exercise when the incident happened, and I can imagine how dreadful the man in charge must feel. He may be facing a court martial and the whole matter may be sub judice. Perhaps I should not say more about it. He and his crew have my sympathy.
In seeking an answer to the problem, I part company utterly from the Defence Committee, which says in paragraph 107:It is unrealistic to expect submarines to give up submerged operations in coastal and inshore waters.I do not expect the members of the Committee to accept my view, which is that submarines when entering or leaving the firth of Clyde should always be on the surface. When sailing—submarine commanders call it transiting; I call it steaming, an old-fashioned word—through traditional fishing grounds, submarines should remain on the surface. I know that the Minister of State disagrees with me about that. He argues that, for security and operational reasons and for reasons concerned with the testing of equipment following the refitting of vessels, it is necessary at times for them to dive or submerge in shallow waters.
Shallow waters anywhere around the coastline are fishing grounds. My plea tonight—I reiterate it—is that, 1212 when they are steaming through traditional fishing grounds, they should stay on the surface, particularly following the collapse of the so-called cold war. It does no harm for them to stay on the surface. Once they are through the fishing grounds they can dive and carry out their training exercises. They should not be doing that in and around the firth of Clyde.
I have the greatest respect for, and trust in, the members of the Royal Navy of all ranks. I have a great deal of sympathy for submariners going into and out of the Clyde. They must now be dreadfully worried every time they go through fishing grounds. The massive burden that has been placed on their shoulders could be lifted to some extent by a clear instruction to them that, when sailing through fishing grounds, they must remain on the surface. That would be a simple—some would say too simple—solution and it would bring great relief to the fishermen of the Clyde and their wives and children.
I hope that the Minister will think again about allowing submarines to sail through fishing grounds close to the sea bed instead of being on the surface. He should also consider shifting the training areas away from the traditional fishing grounds.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I appreciate, on account of Monday night, that I am not the flavour of the week. I raise this point of order not by way of a personal complaint. May we have an explicit statement from the Chair that the convention that has existed for many years—that hon. Members who hear the opening speeches take precedence over hon. Members who come into the Chamber at 7.30—no longer operates?
I appreciate the difficulty of the members of the Defence Committee and do not think that what has occurred has been their fault or the fault of their Chairman. Frankly, the Government should arrange business in conjunction with the Committee before alighting on a day that is likely to affect the Committee's activities. May we have a statement from the Chair to the effect that the convention no longer operates?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The Chair must take into account a whole series of factors in deciding who to call in debates. I cannot go further than that.
§ Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)
It had been my intention at the outset to apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the House for not having been present for the opening speeches, for reasons which I gave to you last week, before the members of the Defence Select Committee left for a visit to France. I am sorry that we were not able to leave Brest, the French naval submarine base, until 5.30 pm, and for that reason I was not here for the opening speeches. But I have read the Minister's speech, and I shall comment on it.
It is fitting that, on the day we publish our report on submarines, we should have had such an interesting and constructive day at the French navy's nuclear submarine base at Brest. As the House may know, the French have six ballistic missile submarines, three of which are required to be at sea at one time. We have four, of which at least one is at sea on patrol at one time. It was instructive for us to 1213 see the different, although similar, way in which they operate the only other strategic underwater European nuclear deterrent.
After today's visit, and a week of discussions in Paris with our colleagues at the defence committee there, meeting the French chief of the defence staff and the Minister of Defence, I came away having learnt one lesson. It is that in this area we might perhaps now, in the new situation in which we find ourselves, be able to co-operate to the best effect, if only we could get over the hurdle of the fact that we have always done things one way, and individually, while the French have done them another way, individually as well.
I see the most hugely fruitful area for co-operation. I know that both navies are more than ready to co-operate. Indeed, the Royal Navy and the French navy work closely at sea, where perhaps matters are less politically sensitive. There would be no difficulty if we, the politicians, and the Ministers in both Governments, could show the necessary will be perhaps drawing a line under what had happened when the cold war ended and see whether we can do things differently in the coming decade. Both nations wish to continue with our deterrent policy. That makes every sense to us, as it does to all the parties in France.
Given the changing situation, there is scope for huge financial savings if only we could co-operate more closely—indeed, we do not co-operate at all—in terms of the number of boats that we would need, the amount of time that they would need to be at sea, the number of crews and many other matters. That would be a fruitful area for us to address rather more robustly than we have been doing.
I know from my conversations yesterday with Mr. Joxe, the French Defence Minister, that he had some good talks with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, when they were in Dunkirk on Monday. We could be at the opening of a new era of co-operation between ourselves and the French, who have traditionally been perhaps a shade too independent for anyone's tastes. I hope that we will not let that occasion slip by.
Because I do not want to trespass on my hon. Friend's indulgence, I shall be brief, but I wish to make a few comments about our submarine report. Its publication was brought forward to today so that the House would have it for the debate, and I hope that hon. Members have found it useful. We have worked hard to produce it and are grateful to all those who helped us: to the Royal Navy at Northwood and the headquarters of the fleet at Gosport, to Devonport, to VSEL at Barrow which we visited, to Rolls-Royce and Associates and to the Ministry of Defence. I hope that the House will find it a useful and perhaps an authoritative report.
As regards the SSN20 concept, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced that we shall shortly begin studies of a design of a new SSN to replace the Swiftsure class around the turn of the century, based upon the Trafalgar class. I think that we foreshadowed that in our report. We said, "So far, so good," but we also made it clear how important it was not only for a firm statement of intent to be made but for clear guidance on the time scales involved to be given to retain the sectors of UK industry that are vital to production. As far as I can tell from his speech, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has not done that. I hope that he will realise that it is uncertainty over that which is causing most of the trouble and some frustration.
1214 I must emphasise another point that we make in paragraph 46 of our report, and perhaps the Minister would like to comment on whether the Ministry's study will be looking at some version of the PWR2 to power a submarine on which some £400 million or £500 million has already been spent. It seems inconceivable to us that that should not be the case.
As regards the nuclear submarine fleet—both SSNs and SSBNs—a problem of increasing concern can be referred to in a word—disposal. I know that that problem is exercising the minds of the Government. I mentioned it today to Admiral Orsini, who commands the French nuclear submarine fleet today and I asked him how the French were coping with the problem. It may surprise the House that he told me that two major French sea ports, Cherbourg and Brest, are fighting for the honour of having the first retired SSBN in their harbour as a museum so that the public could see it and it could be a symbol of the association between those sea ports and the navy that they serve. I found that an encouraging suggestion.
Alas, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) is not here at the moment, but as he was asking for everything to be retained in his constituency, I wonder whether I might suggest—tongue not very far in cheek—that the Royal Navy submarine museum there should accommodate one of our retired SSBN submarines, on which a great deal of money will have to be spent, as is being spent on the Dreadnought. Why not have it there, so that the public can see where their money goes and what an excellent job our deterrent force has done? It is food for thought; we mentioned it en passant in our report, but I am reinforced by what I heard today from an admiral of the French navy and I wish that our public were as robust about nuclear submarines as the French seem to be.
Another matter that we mentioned in the report is the Government's proposed reduction in the number of Upholder class conventional diesel class submarines from 12 to four. As we were compiling the report, we looked for any sign that the tasks of the Royal Navy submarine force would be reduced, and we could find no such sign. There is certainly talk that the threat has been reduced, but there has not been a single reduction in the directed tasks that the Royal Navy is carrying out. Yet the surface and submarine fleet is being considerably reduced. That can only mean either that the new small fleet will be much more stretched than it was before or that it will not do the job properly.
I hope that there will be the time and the will for the Government to look again at the Upholder class, because four is below the barest minimum when one thinks of the reconnaissance tasks, of listening in the anti-submarine warfare role, of intelligence collection in session with special forces as we understand might have happened in the Gulf, to say nothing of training and trials exercises and our submarine force's commitment to NATO. That, out of all the decisions that we are questioning, seems to be arbitrary, and one cannot but be left with the conclusion that it was totally driven by the Treasury's desire to cut the defence budget rather than by any logical decision by the Ministry of Defence that the Upholder submarines can manage to do the task that they still have to do with so many fewer than planned.
I was going to add to the remarks by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) about fishing, but he covered the subject so well; while he finds fault with our choice of words, I think he made a 1215 well-considered and balanced conclusion on a difficult situation. I suspect that the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) will want to refer to that subject if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall not go down that road.
In his opening speech, my hon. Friend said:'Options for Change' has confirmed the importance of the amphibious force, and we intend to maintain this capability. We have been studying the best way to maintain the capability … and expect to make announcements shortly.I have questioned many officials from the Ministry of Defence about what "shortly" means. Let me remind my hon. Friend that our right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), when he was Secretary of State for Defence, told the Select Committee, in terms, that, if he had not made an announcement by the end of December 1990, he would consider that he was not giving the Navy enough time to make the necessary dispositions to keep the amphibious force efficient. That date is getting on for six or seven months ago. Even with the most optimistic interpretation of "shortly", I suspect that it will be two or three months before the Minister makes a decision. That is very nearly a year late.
Unless the situation has changed—and no one has told us that it has—the forecast of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr when he was Secretary of State for Defence will come true. We are going to let down our amphibious forces; the two ships Fearless and Intrepid are rapidly becoming more out of date and obsolete.
It is necessary to take a decision. I know that it is a difficult one and I know that it is likely to be expensive, whatever it is. However, the worst service that the Minister could do to our very fine amphibious forces and to the Navy would be to delay that decision, tough as it may be, beyond the very near future. I hope that he will take that remark in the spirit in which it is intended. It is not a criticism. I know the difficulties that he is going through, but it is better to say something now than to leave it all in limbo and to leave our amphibious force, which has been the cause of so much pride in the past, to decay.
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
Like the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), I must apologise to the House for joining the debate late, but I communicated with Mr. Speaker last week to advise him of my situation. Nevertheless, I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me. Like the hon. Member for East Hampshire, I found my visit to France very enlightening, particularly in the light of defence developments in that country.
I should like to address a number of issues this evening, but I will confine myself mainly to a constituency matter involving the Trident project, which is one of the largest engineering projects in western Europe—second only to the channel tunnel.
Last week, I tabled a question to the Secretary of State for the Environment regarding the number of projects issued by the officer at Faslane and Coalport on a nil value basis. He replied:Our contractual arrangements at the Clyde submarine base development are commercially confidential.Although I accept that answer to some extent, there is great public concern in Scotland about that development. The Glasgow Herald in particular has reported on that 1216 issue, and only last week, Construction News reported that continuous design changes had increased the operational costs at the base. The Glasgow Herald additionally reported that the contract was "careering out of control".
I cannot say whether that is true, but firms in my constituency and elsewhere are going bust, and many people are losing their jobs. Firms have been put into receivership because of what is known as subby bashing—that is, subcontractor bashing—at the Clyde submarine base. It is suggested that main contractors and some principal subcontractors are contravening Ministry of Defence codes of practice.
One case reported by the Glasgow Herald concerns C. and G. Roofing of Warminster, which was a subcontractor to Tarmac Construction Ltd. C. and G. was originally taken on with a start date of December 1988, but design problems caused the date to be put back. As a result, in June 1990 C. and G. submitted a claim to the Ministry of Defence for £873,000 in respect of delay and disruption in the period to April 1990.
When C. and G. was first taken on, it planned its contract and the number of employees that it would have on site, but the delay meant a doubling of its work force, which produced severe cash flow problems. Consequently, the company approached Tarmac for assistance, and it advanced C. and G. £80,000, on condition that Tarmac could claw it back over the next three months with payments of £25,000, £25,000 and £30,000 respectively.
C. and G. repaid the full £80,000 over three months, but was required to enter into a works contract with Tarmac that seems to conflict with the general conditions of Government contracts for building and civil engineering works. Its terms were much more onerous. It provided for a 2 per cent. discount to Tarmac on the contract. One paragraph from that contract requires C. and G. to accept a back-to-back situation for circumstances and costs resulting from a delay to the subcontractors, whereby it could recover from Tarmac only 60 per cent.
of all moneys paid by the authorities to Tarmac against revised submissions for the circumstances outlined in Tarmac's conditions.That condition means that Tarmac could retain 40 per cent. of the £873,000 that C. and G. claimed from the Ministry of Defence, in addition to receiving a 2 per cent. discount on every subsequent job undertaken on site by C. and G. C. and G. was compelled to sign on the dotted line if it wanted to survive financially, but it is possible that Tarmac will make more than £300,000 from the company.
C. and G. received its last payment from Tarmac in December 1990, on 1 February 1991 C. and G. laid off all its directly employed labour and by 1 April it had gone into receivership. I want the Minister to investigate that case, because it seems on the surface to be scandalous. Who takes responsibility in such circumstances? Is it Tarmac, as a main contractor, or the Properties Services Agency? That incident has such serious implications that the Minister cannot claim commercial confidentiality. People are losing their jobs daily and firms are going bust, and it is no use anyone hiding behind the main contractor or the PSA. I am not interested in the Minister drawing blood—only in his sorting the situation out. I want him to investigate and to give a definitive answer so that commercial propriety can be adhered to.
I have received letters from a number of other concerns. The Glasgow Herald reported also the case of Wilkie 1217 Reinforcements, which claims that it is still owed £700,000 by Tarmac for work done at the base. The company's owner is quoted as saying:The exact figure is £702,433.47. It is a figure that is engraved on my heart, and it still haunts me.That firm also had to contend with design delays to the extent that it has outstanding claims against the two main projects in Faslane and Carlport, which have accumulated to more than £3.5 million over three years.
Another local contractor who wrote to me is owed almost £12,000, which has accumulated over 14 months. If something is not done, that local business will go bust as well. One of my hon. Friends gave me the details of another firm which is in dispute with Taylor Woodrow. That subcontractor was asked by Taylor Woodrow to sign on the dotted line for a certain amount of money in complete settlement of any outstanding dues. The sum offered was £80,000 below the amount that the company was totally owed. Nevertheless, that subcontractor was compelled to sign. Taylor Woodrow imposed agreement because it had no recourse to the Ministry of Defence and could do nothing else in the circumstances. Those are extremely worrying examples.
Will the Minister take up the issues of the unjustifiably high discounts that appear to be extracted from subcontractors who are in considerable financial difficulty; of main contractors not matching payments to the resources allocated by subcontractors, and of the possible failure of these firms to prosecute claims through the PSA on behalf of the subcontractors as is contractually required? It would appear that conditions 15, 16 and 17 of the code of practice for subcontracting issued by the Ministry of Defence could be contravened. Will the Minister investigate those matters and report back to us?
I have already mentioned supervising officers' instructions being issued at nil value. Those evaluations are carried out and examined by a number of people: the consultant who raises the supervising officer's instructions, the PSA, the quantity surveyor, the outside consultant, and Wimpey—the supervising officer. They require four signatures. About 60,000 supervising officers' instructions have been issued during the project, with more than 6,000 on the ship lift. Even if a small number of them have been issued at nil value, it means that something is seriously wrong with the project and, somewhere down the line, some poor subcontractor or possibly a main contractor will be the loser. That appears to newspapers and others to be a deliberate busting of subcontractors. I hope that that is not so. Will the Minister look into that as quickly as possible?
Our sixth report on Royal Navy submarines mentions their defects. I raised that issue a year ago, but the Ministry of Defence has let it fester. Paragraph 9 of today's report from the Select Committee states:MOD has reassured us on two recent occasions that the operation of the strategic deterrent has continued uninterrupted with at least one SSBN remaining on patrol. It is, however, readily apparent that HMS Renown, one of the Resolution class submarines, has been in refit for considerably longer than anticipated. Despite requests for information about the present situation with regard to SSBNs, MOD have not been forthcoming to us in private or in public. In view of the concerns that have been expressed in public, we believe that it would be in the general interest, including that of MOD, to be more candid.
The Guardian newspaper today contained an article on those issues in relation to Polaris, headed 1218Polaris faults scupper guarantee of keeping nuclear deterrent at sea".It is general talk that only one submarine is ready and on patrol at all times. One has been in Rosyth and will not be out for another year or two, which means that it will have been in refit for four years—well beyond the normal time taken for refits.
It has been suggested that another submarine has been tied up at Faslane because, as The Guardian mentions, it has a weak hull structure. Again, it has been suggested that Revenge has a crack in it and has been ground down and that Resolution, the oldest of the submarines, is the only one on patrol.
It does the Minister of Defence no justice to hide information from the Select Committee on Defence or the general public. A safety issue was mentioned in The Guardian today. Jack Dromey, the national secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, and Paul Noon, the assistant general secretary of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists say that they would not allow their workers' health to be jeopardised by letting them face excessive radiation doses to get Polaris submarines back to sea. Whether civilian or naval personnel are asked to do that, it is important that it should not be allowed to happen. The Minister should meet the union representatives to discuss this important issue.
Paragraph 76 of the Select Committee report issued today mentions radiation, and states:The recent increases in exposure levels at Devonport and Faslane are exceptions to a generally favourable and downward trend.Will the Minister give us an assurance that those radiation levels for last year were just a hiatus and nothing else? Will he assure me that, if there are defects to be attended to, neither civilians nor naval personnel will be put in jeopardy?
It ill behoves the Ministry of Defence not to answer such questions, particularly as its officials appeared before the Select Committee and said time and again that they needed four boats to form an effective deterrent. Issues of credibility and safety are involved, and I want the utmost assurance from the Minister tonight that he will look into them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) mentioned fishing. We dealt with that in our report. We were impressed by the skill, competence and endeavour of the sailors and captains of those ships in avoiding fishing boats. They performed a difficult and highly technical task.
There has been an element of glasnost in solving this problem and I congratulate the Ministry of Defence on introducing the notification procedure for which the Clyde fishermen have been lobbying. I was privileged to be at a meeting between the Minister of State and the Clyde fishermen on that issue. I understand that it has been announced that the notification procedure is to extend outwith the Clyde, but I have been told by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) that the extension is not enough, and I defer to her local knowledge on that. Perhaps the Minister could have another look at the matter.
The Navy is making great efforts to avoid fishing boats, but I should like the notification procedure to be enlarged and I should like to see technical developments going ahead. I understand that the fishermen and naval 1219 personnel are dealing with that at Faslane. The Select Committee has had a busy Session, and I am grateful for this opportunity to speak in the debate.
§ 9.6 pm
§ Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)
I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement for his kind words about Portsmouth. The Gulf conflict was the second time in a decade that people from the Hot Walls had to count service men going out. Thank God this time the number of people coming back tallied with the number who left. The Falklands conflict and the Gulf war showed that the Royal Navy had insufficient ships to be on station for a long time, including the time that it takes to reach a centre of operations. In its careful analysis of the Gulf war, the Ministry of Defence should look not only at the effectiveness of the weapons, the weapons system, the ships and the men but at the strain that the conflict placed upon the naval reserves. None of us expected Iraq to collapse as soon as the offensive began, but if the war had gone on much longer, our naval forces could have faced difficulties. The threat from the east has been reduced, but we must make sure that the Royal Navy has the ability to respond to future commitments.
The Minister spoke about putting three new type 23 frigates out to tender. I hope that he did not think that I was being aggressive when I interrupted his speech to ask about the possibility of building one of those ships on the south coast. We all know why major shipbuilding orders in recent years have been directed to the north, but the economic circumstances which led to that have changed and we need a level playing field—or perhaps I should say a level, calm sea. I was grateful for my hon. Friend's straightforward answer that the competition will be open and fair, which is all that anyone can ask.
The fleet, especially the surface fleet, will be smaller. Therefore, our vessels must be more ready for operations and more capable in service. The modernisation of the fleet and the reduction in the average age of service vessels will be an important feature of the next decade. As we reduce the number of ships on active service, we must ensure that the average age of vessels falls. The obvious advantage is that more modern vessels are usually more able and powerful and require smaller crews. It is important to remember that important savings can be made by reducing not only manpower but vessels.
We shall need extreme flexibility and skill in the management of the uniformed service men and non-uniformed back-up services in dockyards, especially at the fleet maintenance and repair base at Portsmouth. We have such flexibility between blue jackets and civilians at the naval base, but I want the widest possible flexibility at sea, which is why I was disturbed to hear a comment that appeared to disparage the role of women at sea. The Wrens should be judged on their ability to perform any duty on land or sea according to their technical competence, not some imaginary basis linked to their gender.
Young women in the Royal Navy do not expect to be protected from the harsh realities of naval life. They want to be accepted as equal partners. I trust that we shall use 1220 their skills to the full and will not take a patronising view, which is sometimes taken by the press, of the role that they can play in the sea-going ships of the Royal Navy.
Flexibility is necessary on shore. I know that the Minister will not announce his decisions about the naval bases at Devonport, Portsmouth or Rosyth, but it is important that he reaches an early decision on management of the fleet maintenance and repair organisation at Portsmouth. Management need flexibility to show that they can effectively and efficiently use the capacity that must be maintained at all times to deal with problems in crises, but maintenance and repair facilities cannot be sufficient only for peace time beause they would be inadequate in a crisis.
There must be a way of maintaining and using those facilities. If the opportunity to tender for jobs that management such as at FMRO recognise are available, the Minister could retain capacity at places such as the naval base at Portsmouth and ensure that it is effective not only in a crisis but in more peaceful circumstances.
The naval base at Portsmouth is a great haven for the Royal Navy. There is no reason why it should not be a place where work is carried out on other countries' warships and on civil vessels. If the capacity exists, it should be possible for us to tender for that work. Never again should a British warship be taken from Portsmouth naval base to be repaired elsewhere when there is the capacity and the ability to work on her at Portsmouth, as there was with HMS Southampton.
The time has come for flexibility and for management on the spot to judge what Portsmouth has the capacity to do, to tender and to show its efficiency. In that way, the smaller, leaner fleets will be backed up effectively.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I shall share the time remaining, because I strongly believe that hon. Members who have sat through the debate should have time to speak.
First, there should be a two-day debate, as there was after the Crimean war, the Jameson raid, the first world war, the second world war and the Falklands war, summing up the pros and cons of what this country did in the Gulf.
Secondly, I ask the Minister to investigate the health of people on our ships. I received a letter stating:My son is out there with the RFA"—Royal Fleet Auxiliary—and has had a chest infection and a rash on his face".If there were more time, I would read out more. Health is an urgent matter. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces said that the problem was equivalent to the effect of only "20 cigarettes a day", as I repeated in a question at column 419 of Hansard of 6 June this year. The Under-Secretary of State for Health referred me to the following as consequences of that number of cigarettes per day: cerebrovascular disease; cancer of the lip, oral cavity and pharynx; cancer of the oesophagus; cancer of the larynx; cancer of the pancreas; and peripheral vascular disease. They are the threats to our people out there.
Thirdly, I repeat my question about Dr. Downing. The Government have done nothing since my visits to Ministers to get the major expert to look at the coral atolls. If only they would put the same effort into considering the ecological consequences as they did into Operation Desert Storm, things would be that much better.
1221 Before talking about the Navy's role, we should know what the perceived threat is. In particular, what is the perceived threat from Iraq's so-called nuclear capacity? We have heard a great deal about Tuleitha and the lack of monitoring. Will the Government investigate?
If time permitted, I would have gone into the issue of Samarra and chemical weapons. If one is to have a force, especially a rapid reaction force, one had better understand what the perceived threat is. We should be given an explanation of what is happening with the rapid reaction force.
Finally, I hope that the Navy will do something in the light of a Harvard medical report on what is happening in Iraq. The Americans say that 170,000 children under five will die this year because of waterborne diseases. It is high time we lifted sanctions. The Navy should be used to bring medical supplies to kids. It is not their fault that Saddam Hussein leads their country.
I said that I would share the time, and I shall keep my promise.
§ Dame Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)
I shall condense my remarks considerably owing to the short time available.
I am increasingly disenchanted with the "Options for Change" exercise. I am not confident that it reflects our needs for our armed services, and I see the hand of the Treasury coming down more heavily than I would like. It means that there is considerable uncertainty among the armed forces and the support staff behind them. That is extremely bad for morale, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State makes the final decisions as soon as possible. If he does not, I fear that the best will show the way with their feet—they will go out—and we shall have the devastating prospect of losing our best and most experienced men and women just when we need to retain them.
I wish to refer to the support staff. Hon. Members will know of my interest in and concern about Devonport dockyard. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) said, more or less, "If it's there already, keep it." That is what he meant, although I have stripped the phrase of its elegance. However, I can also use that phrase. We are confident that we have a long-established dockyard which has had a great deal of capital injected into it, and which has, above all, an excellent work force. The work force did not wish to go into private contract management, but they have sustained the change and the shock very well. They have had no industrial strife, and they have given loyally and of their best under the new dispensation.
The dockyard management, Devonport Management Ltd., have produced what I regard as a brilliant exposition of the role that they anticipate for the dockyard now and in the future. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement will take due account of that. The dockyard has a great deal to offer, and I have every confidence that, when making his final decision, my hon. Friend will see that for himself.
§ Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)
We have had a long but important debate. I am sorry that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is 1222 not in his place, but nevertheless, I want to thank him for ensuring that some essential documentation was made available to us for the debate.
There was much of interest in the Minister's speech, especially in what he had to say about the Royal Navy's involvement in the Gulf. I shall deal with that in a moment. Supremacy in the sea was soon established and that proved to be a vital element in the war. It is invidious to pick out bits and pieces, but he rightly paid tribute to the super performance of our minehunters.
I am also glad that the Minister took the opportunity to inform us that he has invited tenders for three further type 23 frigates and that tenders are expected by October from shipyards which, wherever they are, would welcome the work that the orders would bring.
The Government's attitude to the future of HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid has been raised. I hope that the Minister will have an opportunity to comment on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) asked about HMS Endurance, and I shall comment on that matter later. I give the Minister notice of that so that he can prepare an answer for us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill and the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) mentioned naval bases. There are issues that need to be resolved extremely quickly, and the decision should be reported in Parliament but not in the sneaky way used for the decision on Challenger 2. That was announced on Friday morning without any warning to those of us who live in or represent areas where Challenger is manufactured.
The hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck), who is not in his place, asked whether Labour would maintain a nuclear deterrent. The answer is, emphatically, yes. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) is in his place. I am sure that all hon. Members hope that he is recovering. I may be about to misquote him, although I tried to write down carefully what he said, and I hope that I have done so correctly. He said that there was a delicate balance between building the fourth Trident boat and—as he said later when weighing the issue, although I am not clear about this—cancelling the Trident programme altogether. However, if he was referring only to the fourth boat. that is what I shall put on the record for him. He can nod, thus avoiding the necessity for standing.
The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) made a strong case for the EH101 helicopter and gave a strong warning, with which I agree, that if an order was not placed quickly, there could be difficulties for the company. He also asked for a defence review, for which the Opposition have been asking for a long time.
The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) made a plea for Portsmouth and Gosport. We expect such pleas from hon. Members for their constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) made a passionate speech about the sinking of the fishing boat and explained what could be done to prevent such incidents in future. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) talked about the importance of the amphibious force, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan. We want to know the Government's intentions on Fearless and Intrepid.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), who is not in his place, talked about the contract 1223 for construction of the Trident base. He went into detail about the financial implications, but it is not necessary for me to go into them now.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), who also seems to have nipped off, spoke about the reduced threat from the east and said that we must measure the worldwide commitments of the Royal Navy. He also mentioned the type 23 frigates and the possibility of building one on the south coast. It is not my position, especially as my constituency is quite near Newcastle, to determine how and when the contracts are given, or who gets them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), in what I thought was a supportive speech, stressed the urgency of the health question, and he especially mentioned the Harvard medical report which said that there was a risk that up to 70,000 children in Iraq might die in the near future.
§ Mr. Boyes
My hon. Friend corrects me; the figure is 170,000.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes), in two minutes, mentioned two important points. The first was her disenchantment with "Options for Change". She referred, as hon. Members have done many times, to the heavy hand of the Treasury interfering a bit too much in defence matters.
I put on record my attitude and that of my hon. Friends to the Gulf war. Last week, we saw the march past and the fly past of the forces who had participated in the Gulf war. It was right that the tone was one of gratitude that so many of our soldiers, sailors and airmen had returned safely, and of respect for those who were prepared to lay down their lives.
We must remind ourselves in the post-cold-war world that our military forces may increasingly be called to fight in wars far away which do not directly threaten Britain. That requires even greater courage and commitment from our forces, and those resources should not be squandered. I mention as an aside the quiet and considered words of Prince Charles, and I am sure that everyone thought that he had found exactly the right mood for the occasion.
The Navy's part in the Gulf war is frequently overlooked, but its importance was established long before the war began and continues to this day. The United Nations imposed trade sanctions against Iraq which involved a major naval policing operation in the Persian gulf and in the Red sea. Royal Navy destroyers and frigates were heavily involved in that operation, which was a classic demonstration of the use of naval forces in practical action short of the use of force. It is a sad commentary on the war that we have now returned to a strategy of sanctions as the principal lever on Saddam Hussein.
Another aspect of the Navy's operations in the Gulf has been the continuing effort to clear the many hundreds of sea mines laid by the Iraqis. The benefits of multinational co-operation have been especially apparent here. The long experience of joint mine counter-measures work in the NATO standing naval force channel has paid dividends. Mine-clearing operations in the Gulf may take many more months, so it is important that we remember the personnel 1224 who are still out there clearing up the mess and that we also remember that the Government are set to reward many of those mine counter-measures personnel by closing their base at Rosyth.
Because of the trickiness of the situation, I want to say only a few words about naval base closures. The proposed cuts in naval bases in the United Kingdom are a further example of tragic incompetence on the part of the Government. If our forces are to be cut, clearly some shore bases will close, but the tragedy is that the Government's hostility to planning, and their use of public money to ease painful economic transitions, have prevented them from establishing a clear policy and mechanism for dealing with the effects of base closures.
Several years ago it became obvious that there would be some major changes in international relations, and there was every opportunity for the Government to set up a diversification agency—as the Labour party will, when we gain power in a few months' time. A diversification agency could improve alternative investment opportunities and provide training for workers moving out of declining defence activities. But the Government ploughed on as if nothing was happening, blinded by their faith in the market. I am afraid that it is already too late to cushion the blow for many workers and naval personnel who will be thrown on to the scrap heap by this Government's obsession with market forces.
That blow could not have come at a worse time. Unemployment is again soaring, and in the Rosyth area there is the added problem that private sector manufacturing employment is also heavily dependent on military work, which means that private sector companies are also laying off workers because of defence cuts. Moreover, at Rosyth, Ministers have clearly not been in control of the agenda. Countless leaks have shown that Rosyth was, indeed, the favourite for closure. The remark of the Minister for Defence Procurement that his own local naval base, Devonport, was definitely not intended for closure exacerbated the situation. As I said, I fear that it may now be too late to make any serious efforts to provide alternative work and training opportunities for those made redundant by base closures.
The Prime Minister's competence is at stake here. We have been told in newspaper reports that he has taken command of the Rosyth naval base closure problem since he became fed up with the poor co-ordination between the Navy, the MOD staffs and the Scottish Office. If that is true, and not just a piece of Downing street press office hype, he had better have something to show for it, and soon. We should be told now what is to happen at Rosyth, the Portland training base, Devonport and Portsmouth, to put an end to damaging speculation and leaks.
I have visited Rosyth and Portland. The question that we must ask ourselves about Portland is whether we want a training base for naval ships. If so, there is no-tide, instant access water at Portland and revenue from the ships coming in. I make those remarks about Rosyth and Portland because I have just been to both bases, but that does not mean that I am placing more emphasis on them than on Devonport and Portsmouth. All the bases must be considered equally, on the basis of their special attributes.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North mentioned women at sea, and I should like to respond to his comments. There has been much publicity about the recent court martial of a Wren and a naval officer who had an 1225 affair on HMS Brilliant while it was deployed in the Gulf. The episode has been cited by some as evidence that the Navy's new policy of sending Wrens to sea does not work.
It is important to realise that there are two entirely separate issues at stake here. The first is the question whether having Wrens on combat ships leads to distraction of personnel from their duties and adversely affects the efficient operation of the ship. The second is the effect of any offshore liaison on morale among dependants ashore.
I believe that the first question is a red herring. Many other countries now have mixed crews on their combat vessels, and there is no evidence of degraded operational capabilities. If anything, the presence of women in combat posts at sea improves morale and sharpens commitment. Moreover, even in this era of cuts in force levels, there remains a shortage of skilled personnel in the Navy. One of the simplest and most effective ways of overcoming that shortage is to open the force to women. The Navy would now find it very difficult to get along without Wrens serving at sea in such specialisms as navigation, engineering and the operation of radar and sonar equipment.
The second criticism, which is that the prospect of offshore liaisons adds to the stresses and strains of life for Navy wives, is more difficult to address. Two things can be said about that. First, I am not convinced that the problem is significantly greater in the Navy than in any other service. Where men and women are deployed away from home for lengthy periods, whether on land or at sea, a certain amount of "interaction" is bound to occur. The Navy's problem is that it has taken the lead in placing women in combat posts and has therefore put itself in the spotlight.
I do not want to belittle the problem. The tensions of life at home for those who have spouses at sea for months at a time are immense. Some Navy marriages founder for those reasons. It is therefore vital that the Government learn from the adverse publicity given to the HMS Brilliant affair. They should take the opportunity of "Options for Change" to create much more stability for Navy personnel. Reduced combat readiness and a decline in personnel shortages due in part to the deployment of Wrens at sea should allow the Navy to increase the time spent by sailors at home and to reduce the frequency of posting which may be a major factor in domestic disruption.
There is a second, broader point. In future, as the armed forces becomes smaller and the immediate military threats to Britain subside, it will be more important to ensure that the forces are not isolated from society by the perpetuation of anachronistic traditions and prejudices.
A Navy in which men and women play equally important professional roles is more likely to attract respect and appreciation than one from which half the population are automatically excluded from the most important jobs. The "Newsview" editorial of the July edition of Navy News addresses that problem. It states:Yet it remains unlikely whether any of this has altered the entrenched views—whether for or against—expressed when the women-at-sea policy was announced … anyone ever imagined that you could take a group of healthy young men and women and lock them up together for weeks at a time without a few of them succumbing to the temptation to jump into bed with each other.
I want to refer briefly once more to HMS Endurance. I have been on board that vessel, although I have not been 1226 to sea on it when I was in the Falklands. The Falkland islanders think that the vessel is very special. If we had lived in that area and witnessed the arrival of the Argentines after the Endurance had sailed away, we would understand how they felt. They do not want that to happen again. It has long been accepted that the decision to withdraw HMS Endurance from the south Atlantic in 1982 was a major factor in the Argentine's decision to invade the Falklands.
Another attempt is now being made to scrap HMS Endurance, this time at the behest of the MOD as part of the overall cuts being imposed on the Navy. I hope that the Minister will consider that point most carefully because it is important to many people, and many of us feel strongly about it. Again, Navy News carries an excellent article about HMS Endurance and its role in the south Atlantic. It refers to the significance of the vessel's presence in the area and states that it has—
§ Mr. Boyes
Labour has not been in government for a very long time and there are a host of issues that we would have to address, and HMS Endurance would certainly be one of them. I am sure that we would find a role for the vessel in the south Atlantic.
We can justify and be proud of our service men and women who serve this country and who have been prepared to lay down their lives to protect our democracy. We owe them much. If we ask people to go into most dangerous situations, often at short notice, we must ensure that, as a minimum, their weapons systems are as good as any that a potential adversary may possess. We have a duty and an obligation to make that necessary provision for our forces.
§ Mr. Kenneth Carlisle
It is a great pleasure to re ply to the debate. I shall try to respond to as many points as possible in the time available. I should like first to say something about the people in the Royal Navy.
§ Mr. Douglas
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the custom for a Minister, if he speaks twice in a debate, to ask the leave of the House?
§ Mr. Carlisle
I beg the House's pardon. With the leave of the House, I will speak again.
I am delighted that hon. Members have praised the people who served in the Gulf so magnificently. I also pay tribute to those who were at home on the support side —for example, in the bases, dockyards, research establishments and elsewhere. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) reminded us, we must pay respect also to their families. The whole House joins in praise for all those who were involved in any way in the Gulf conflict.
As people are the core of our Navy, we should never forget, even in this age of high technology, how much we owe to the skills and dedication of our people in the Navy.
1227 I am very glad to say that recruitment is generally buoyant, although recruitment targets in future will be lower in order to stay within the manning levels required post-"Options". The high outflow levels experienced in 1990–91 have eased. The challenge that faces us in the period ahead is to improve retention rates among the officers and ratings whom we need and to manage the gradual reduction in overall numbers that is necessary under "Options for Change", without serious disruption either to individuals or to career and branch structures. We intend to do that as carefully and as sensitively as possible.
I should like also to say a word about the Wrens. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) rightly reminded us of that matter. In last year's debate, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces announced that members of the Wrens were to serve at sea in surface ships. We can now usefully take stock of how that decision is working out in practice.
Wrens are now being recruited and trained alongside male ratings in almost all branches. The exceptions are submarines and small ship branches, but only because of the difficulties of providing a reasonable level of privacy for both men and women in the restricted accommodation areas in those vessels. We are, however, looking to see what might be done on that in the future. We are also considering the feasibility of women serving in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and in the Royal Marine Corps. As was announced earlier this year, we have already opened employment opportunities for women as naval air crew.
§ Mr. Carlisle
No, I shall not give way—I have very little time to answer the points.
Women are serving in 10 major ships, and we are encouraged by the result. As an illustration, I cite a letter which the commanding officer of HMS Brilliant, whose ship was the subject of some quite scurrilous press reports, wrote to The Daily Telegraph. In his letter, Captain Elliott describes a gruelling 17-hour battle undertaken by his mixed crew during service in the Gulf to put out fires in a merchant vessel which had suffered a major engine room and superstructure fire. He describes the scene on board as a burning, blacked-out, flooded and smoke-filled jagged mass of metal, and ended by saying:so to all you doubting Thomases—stop doubting. There is no need to. From where I have had the privilege of seeing it during my time in Command, this mixed manning has been a dramatic success and I will stand up and say that to any man with my ship's company right behind me.Captain Elliott's words provide a necessary corrective to the disproportionate publicity that was given to the one or two isolated problems that occurred.
Many points have been raised in this wide-ranging debate and as I shall be unable to cover them all now, I shall write to those hon. Members whom I do not answer directly. There has been some wide-ranging questioning of "Options for Change". As I said when I opened the debate, "Options" and our framework for the Navy are based on assessment of strategic need and on the threat that we face. The House will remember that, in 1980 and 1981, when we were also facing a squeeze on public expenditure, spending on the armed forces increased because of the threat that we faced. At the present time of difficulties with public 1228 spending, we can contemplate with tranquillity a small decline in our spending on defence because the threat is different. Our strategy and framework depend on the threat.
I am glad that the House generally, including the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, welcomed our order for type 23 destroyers. There will, of course, be a fair competition for the orders for the ships. We hope to get the tenders back by October. We shall look at them carefully and order as we feel fit. I confirm that those orders will be placed.
On the other hand, I am sorry that we do not see any need at present for more orders this year for the Sandown class of minehunter. However, I welcome the praise for the minehunter's performance in the Gulf, and especially that from my hon. Friends the Members for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) and for Harborough (Sir J. Farr). It is a delight to have my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough back in his place so pertinent, lucid and clear. He is an example to us all. The quality of our minehunters and of the crews who man them is supreme. My hon. Friends were right to say that they rescued minehunters from other countries when they were surrounded by mines in the Gulf. Our quality is unrivalled. We can be truly proud of it.
I have not yet had the time to read the Select Committee's report on submarines, which was produced only today. Obviously, we shall read it with great interest, and reply to it in due course.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) has returned to the debate. I was interested in his comments about collaboration with the French. As he knows, we hope to collaborate with them on the anti-warfare frigate which will replace the type 42 destroyer at the turn of the century. We have already signed a joint collaboration agreement over the local area missile system. Those are two examples of the way in which we are starting to collaborate. I hope that we shall expand those efforts.
A central issue in the debate was submarines. I was glad to be able to announce the studies that will take forward the SSN classes. The studies will last about a year. The Select Committee envisages that we shall be able to meet our commitments if we start building by 1996 or 1997, which is certainly our aim.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks) made a clear speech about his constituency and submarines. Our aim is to preserve our skills in building submarines. The fourth Trident will take up some of the slack at the Barrow yard. We envisage that, after the fourth Trident, the new submarines—the development of the Trafalgar class—will retain VSEL's capacity to build submarines. We believe that our ability to build such submarines is of strategic necessity and we intend to preserve that capacity at VSEL. The new SSNs are not second-class submarines—they are the most sensible way to use our existing skills, and on them we can apply the most up-to-date technology, so they will be the best such submarines in the world, if not world beaters.
§ Mr. Carlisle
No. I am afraid that I do not have time to give way. I hope that my hon. Friends will forgive me.
1229 Some hon. Members criticised the number of SSKs. These new SSKs are advanced ships, but we believe that four is sufficient at present. It is the first new SSK for 30 years. We decided after careful consideration that we had the right balance between the SSKs and SSNs.
While we are on the subject of submarines, I was challenged about the safety of Polaris. I can confirm to the House that we continue to deploy our nuclear deterrent. Obviously, I cannot discuss operational details but I can confirm to the House that the submarines go to sea only if they are considered safe and we follow carefully the independent advice on safety proffered by the Nuclear Powered Warship Safety Committee.
The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who explained why he could not be here for the reply to the debate, was anxious about the EH101. Nine prototypes are already built. We are evaluating the tenders for the prime contractorship for the EH101. We certainly hope to make an announcement before the end of July, as the right hon. Gentleman particularly wanted. However, we shall decide on any orders in due course when we consider that the time is right.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) was anxious about the submarine movement notification scheme. I can advise her that the extension of the Clyde area submarine movement notification scheme announced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epson and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton) on 24 June covers the coastal sea areas in which dived submarine operations are most prevalent. I understand that the extension has been warmly welcomed by the Scottish and Clyde fishermens associations. While we have no plans at present for a further extension of the scheme, I can inform the hon. Lady that we are considering the possibility of operating the notification scheme in other waters.
I am also aware of the great interest in fisheries protection. The Royal Navy fisheries protection squadron continues to perform its tasks with great skill. Currently, 15 Royal Naval vessels are deployed in the fisheries protection task and we consult closely with the relevant fisheries department about requirements.
Considerable anxiety was expressed during the debate about the future of the bases. That is understandable. It is generally recognised that a smaller Navy leads to a smaller support area. That is self-evident. Therefore, we are considering the future of all our naval bases and other establishments. I have to advise the House that no decisions have yet been taken. [Interruption.] We shall consider carefully all the arguments before coming to any decisions. I recognise that uncertainty is undesirable and we wish to bring it to an end. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Clackmannan please contain himself?
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) did not have a chance to put in his bid for his naval base at Portland. However, I can advise the House that he constantly badgers me about the excellence of Portland, and we listen to what he says.
There is great concern about HMS Endurance. I can confirm that Endurance has not been decomissioned. She has entered her routine maintenance period in Portsmouth on return from the Antarctic, as normal. As hon. Members will know, Endurance is a relatively old ship, operating in a demanding environment. She will have an extensive structural survey during this maintenance period and deployment this winter will obviously depend on the results of that survey.
1230 The question of amphibiosity is considered to be important by many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme. We have reconfirmed our commitment to amphibiosity and it might be encouraging for my hon. Friend to know something which is public knowledge already, though not widely recognised —that we have invited tenders for design studies for replacements of the LPD, the Fearless and the Intrepid. So we are taking the first steps towards replacing those ships.
I restate the Government's commitment to the Royal Navy and our recognition of the central role that it plays in our defence. Hon. Members in all parts of the House have today demonstrated the respect that we have for the Royal Navy, and we saw in the Gulf what it can do when stretched to the limit, with the excellence, courage and skill of the people involved operating their first-rate equipment.
Our commitment for the Royal Navy contrasts starkly with the obscure and grudging muddle which is the defence policy of the Opposition. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) put the Opposition's defence policy more honestly and clearly than most when he called for a cut in spending. He was only putting into words the implied policy of the Labour party—of a cut of £9 billion or one third in the defence budget.
The hon. Gentleman said that we should get rid of the nuclear deterrent. As we know, the Labour party refuses to give a commitment to preserve our deterrent should the Russians or any third world country continue to possess nuclear weapons. Opposition Members fail time and again to come up with any clear decision or statement on that issue. So from our point of view, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish stated true Labour party policy on defence.
Labour, by default, has declared, as I understand it, one-sided nuclear disarmament. By contrast, we are facing the future with an open and sensible defence policy, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport said in an interesting speech that we must always keep the nuclear deterrent, not only against Russia but against tyrants on the make. We must always meet a changing threat.
The importance that we attach to maintaining strong naval forces is reflected in our investment in new equipment and manpower for the future. I have referred to some of the new equipment and have answered some of the points that were raised in the debate about manpower and equipment. I have not been able to answer various other matters, but 1 shall reply to hon. Members by letter as soon as possible.
The clear message is that with us in office in the coming years, the Royal Navy will continue to play its proud part in meeting our commitments to NATO and further afield and in protecting British interests wherever they need to be protected.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Mr. Dalyell
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I may not be the best person to say this, because I have had more than my share this week and it may not be the best week to say it, but I have a serious point of order. Our proceedings are debate, are they not? In my 29 years in the House I have always understood that the convention, if not the rule, was that the Chair gave precedence to those hon. Members who heard the opening speeches. For whatever good reason, the members of the Select Committee on Defence did not come in to the Chamber 1231 until 7.30 pm. I do not think that it was their fault, because the Government ought to have consulted the Select Committee before choosing a day for this debate. But whatever else, that destroys the idea of a debate—there can be no continuity of the proceedings.
§ Mr. Speaker
I understand that Mr. Deputy Speaker dealt with this matter, as I think that it was raised at the time. Many factors have to be taken into account. I deeply regret that one hon. Member failed to make his speech. However, it was largely because a number of his colleagues made very long speeches; otherwise, he would have been able to speak. I have already assured him that he will get a prime slot in the Army debate on Monday.
§ Mr. Douglas
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a serious matter about the conduct of our debate. I know that we are all busy, but it used to be the convention of the House that one at least stayed to hear the following speaker, and that seems to be falling into desuetude. Also, if one spoke, one at least made an attempt to come in to hear the winding-up speeches. I know that the winding-up speeches were nae very good tonight, but if we are to preserve the idea of a debate perhaps you, Mr. Speaker, might have a word with the usual channels, who seem very assiduous about other matters concerning conduct in the House.
§ Mr. Speaker
It is not for me to say openly what I do about these matters, but I always note those hon Members who have spoken and who are not here for the winding-up speeches, and I certainly let it be known that that is not part of our conventions. I reiterate what the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) has said: it is our conviction, although of course the Chair cannot impose conventions, that hon. Members who have spoken in a debate should stay for at least the speech after theirs, if not longer, and should always come in for the winding-up speeches.