§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Patnick.]4.26 pm
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)
It is a privilege to open this debate on the Royal Navy, a subject on which this House has not had the opportunity to hold a full day's debate for nearly two years. During this period, the global security environment in which the Royal Navy has long played such an important and successful role has undergone momentous changes. So momentous indeed that as many of the old cold war certainties fade away only to be replaced by new and more imponderable challenges, some of us in the business of naval forward planning these days occasionally yearn for the stark simplicity and clarity of Lord Nelson's famous signal at the battle of Trafalgar: "England expects that every man will do his duty."
Of course, in one sense the duty of the Royal Navy is crystal clear. It is to play its part in the three defence roles which were set out in the foreword to the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1992" by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. Those three roles were: first, to ensure the protection and security of the United Kingdom and our dependent territories, even when there is no major external threat; secondly, to insure against any major external threat to the United Kingdom and our allies; and, thirdly, to contribute to promoting the United Kingdom's wider security interests through the maintenance of international peace and stability.
It goes without saying that the Navy's contribution to these tasks will be of pivotal importance for the naval assets of our island nation and have the mobility, reach, flexibility and sustainability to react to the unexpected and to offer maritime security and deterrence to our vital interests and dependencies across a globe which is two thirds ocean.
Therefore, today's debate is an opportunity to put, as it were, some naval flesh on the bare strategic bones of the three defence roles that I have just outlined, by telling the House how the Royal Navy fulfils its current commitment and operations and by giving some insight into our thinking on how the Navy will fulfil its changing tasks in the future. I will also at a later stage in my speech cover equipment, personnel, and force restructuring matters.
The last debate on the Royal Navy in the House took place on 27 June 1991. My hon. Friend the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement opened his speech by paying tribute to the men and women of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary for the part which they played in securing the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It is good to record that their fine contribution has now been formally recognised by the award, earlier this year, of the battle honour "Gulf 91" to 15 of Her Majesty's ships, six Royal Navy air squadrons and 10 ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. But the Royal Navy has not rested on those laurels. Since that previous debate it has been continuously engaged around the world.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
This morning gave notice to the office of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces that I would like to ask about the role of the Navy 304 in cleaning up the ecological problems of the Gulf. Will the Minister of State for Defence Procurement say a word on what the Navy is doing? The problems are continuing.
§ Mr. Aitken
We were grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving notice. As the hon. Gentleman gave notice to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, he will cover the point in his reply to the debate.
The Gulf is one of the most important areas in which the Royal Navy regularly operates. The Armilla patrol, which is now in its 13th year, continues to provide reassurance to British shipping and to operate in support of the United Nations sanctions on maritime trade with Iraq. Although Saddam's naval forces are quiescent for the time being, Iran has decided to raise the stakes of sea power among the Gulf littoral states by becoming the area's first submarine navy. Iran's neighbours in the region are watching Iran's naval build-up with increasing concern—a build-up which has been symbolised by the purchase and, more recently, the deployment of a Russian built hunter-killer submarine of the Kilo class.
Having visited the Gulf five times in the past six months and going on board Her Majesty's ships on two occasions during those visits, I have been left in no doubt by our friends in the area how much they appreciate the Royal Navy's important contribution to the stability of the area. That contribution is particularly well measured by those with long memories, for Britain has had a continuous naval presence in the Gulf for well over half a century. Although gone are the days when there used to be a common Arabic saying that when two fish are fighting in the Gulf the British are behind it, our more discreet presence today still has a valuable impact.
It is symbolised by the steady vigilance of the Armilla patrol and enhanced by special ship visits. Perhaps the most notable of those was the visit in March of HMS Triumph to Abu Dhabi. That was the first ever visit by one of our nuclear submarines to a Gulf port, and I believe that its presence left a clear and important message of reassurance to our friends in the region.
Referring to the security of our dependent territories, throughout past years naval forces have been deployed in support of garrisons in the Falklands, Belize and Hong Kong. The Royal Navy carries out joint operations with the authorities of those countries and of the United States and our dependent territories to combat the menace of narcotics smuggling, particularly in the Caribbean. The West Indies guard ship plays its part in those operations, and during the hurricane season it is well equipped to provide humanitarian relief. Last year, HMS Cardiff, assisted by HMS Campbeltown and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Orangeleaf, provided valuable assistance to the island of Eleuthera in the wake of hurricane Andrew.
Ships of the Royal Navy are regular visitors to many of our dependent territories, from Hong Kong to St. Helena, and the new ice patrol ship, HMS Endurance, is just completing her second successful deployment to Antarctica in support of our interest in that region.
Those regular deployments form part of a wider pattern of deployments and visits aimed at developing the Royal Navy's operational capabilities, exercising with friendly navies and supporting our foreign policy and defence sales objectives. In 1992–93, Royal Navy ships showed the flag in 90 countries. Of particular note was the deployment of Task Group Orient 92, which consisted of four warships and two RFA vessels, led by the carrier HMS Invincible to 305 the far east for seven months. That was the first such far eastern deployment since 1988. We regard it as having been highly successful because of the tangible benefits arising, as they do, from joint naval exercises, growing export sales interest and general political goodwill, and all that in a region of growing political and economic importance.
I should also mention the visit of HMS Battleaxe to the Russian Baltic fleet base of Baltiysk. In its way, that visit was symbolic of the new spirit of naval co-operation that prevails between Britain and Russia in the post-cold war era, because Battleaxe was the first warship of the Royal Navy to participate in such joint manoeuvres with a cruiser of the Russian navy. More recently, we have seen Russian ships working alongside coalition naval forces in the Gulf helping to enforce UN sanctions on trade with Iraq. That has been very welcome as a gesture of international solidarity against Saddam and as an unprecedented opportunity for western navies to forge closer links with their former adversary. The Royal Navy has been at the forefront of those efforts and will continue to play a leading role in the important work of building on the new friendship between east and west in a practical way. In support of NATO, the United Kingdom continues to be a major contributor of maritime forces. We provide ships on a continuing basis in the Atlantic and the English channel. Since its formation last year, we have done the same for the standing naval force in the Mediterranean, which goes by the indigestible acronym STANAVFORMED. That force is currently engaged in the enforcement of United Nations sanctions and the arms embargo in the Adriatic—an example of how NATO's revised maritime force structure is adapting to new tasks.
As well as contributing to STANAVFORMED, the Royal Navy is involved, both afloat and ashore, in support of operations in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. A carrier group led by HMS Ark Royal is deployed in the Adriatic at present with an air group of Sea Harriers, recently enhanced with a laser-guided bomb capability, and Sea King helicopters as well as artillery. HMS Ark Royal is there to provide additional protection for United Kingdom forces ashore and, if necessary, to assist with the withdrawal or reinforcement of United Nations forces. That presence powerfully demonstrates the flexibility and utility of one of our capital ships with the air power that she is able to deploy if necessary to provide assurance and deterrence to friend and foe.
§ Mr. Dalyell
As the author of an excellent book on President Nixon, which I enjoyed greatly, the Minister is in a better position than most to be frank with the House about the Anglo-American relationship. Is HMS Ark Royal in any way related to or under American command in these circumstances?
§ Mr. Aitken
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving my book that commercial plug in the middle of our Navy debate. I am sure that my booksellers and publisher will be grateful. Reading about the life of President Nixon has perhaps endowed the hon. Gentleman with a certain degree of conspiracy theory about the Anglo-American relationship which does not exist, if he reaches the end of 306 the book. As far as the episode to which I am referring is concerned, there is no United States control of HMS Ark Royal—lit would be wrong to suggest that there was.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
On the obverse side of what the Ministry has been saying, in the press release issued by the Ministry of Defence this afternoon there is reference to the task group comprising HMS Ark Royal, HMS Broadsword and what I take to be the Dutch frigate De Ruyter, which, on the face of it, appears to be under the command of the overall British commander of the task group. Is that an example of the sort of co-operation between European maritime nations that we should be in favour of and hope might be more frequent in the future?
§ Mr. Aitken
The hon. and learned Gentleman makes a good and timely point. There is good co-operation between European navies, especially in the matter of enforcing and increasing the pressure on Yugoslavia. It is going on in the Adriatic and the Danube. For some years, we have had a close relationship with the Royal Netherlands Navy through joint marine exercises. That is a natural extension and co-operation of how we work together. I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for drawing attention to the good relationship.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Before my hon. Friend leaves the matter of the Netherlands and its marines, does he agree that the deployment of the task group to the Adriatic, and especially the deployment of HMS Ark Royal in a role for which she is not wholly designed, in addition to the normal naval air role—the deployment of soldiers—exemplifies the need for a purpose-built amphibious helicopter carrier and that it should be procured at the earliest possible date?
§ Mr. Aitken
I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend. Although HMS Ark Royal has done good service in providing the possibility of that amphibious capability, it is not purpose-built for that task. That is one of the considerations we took into account when we announced that the landing platform helicopter carrier was firmly in the defence programme. I shall say a few words of encouragement on the subject of the landing platform helicopter carrier later.
I should also mention as part of the record of our role in the Adriatic that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary's Resource and Sir Percivale are also in the area. They are in Split to provide accommodation and shore support for British forces ashore. There are also four Sea King helicopters of 845 naval air squadron based in Split. Although their primary role is to assist with casualty evacuation of UN forces, they also took part in the airlift of sick and wounded civilians from Srebrenica, and they stand ready to carry out such humanitarian tasks again if needed.
One other United Nations operation in which the Royal Navy is involved which I should mention is in Cambodia. Seventy Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel are deployed there on peace-keeping duties as part of the United Nations transitional authority. They are involved in the patrolling of the Cambodian coast and the Mekong river system. This is the first time that the UN has included a maritime element in its peace-keeping operations.
Moving closer to home, Royal Marine commandos continue to take regular tours to Northern Ireland, while 307 the Royal Navy conducts patrols in Northern Ireland waters in support of the security forces. The fishery protection squadron patrols the United Kingdom's fishery limits and, following a review last year, Ministers agreed that that task should remain with the Royal Navy at least for the current year. The squadron acquitted itself well during the recent period of tension in the fishing grounds of Guernsey and will continue to ensure that fisheries regulations are fully and properly enforced.
In addition, the squadron is well placed to respond to a range of operational and humanitarian contingencies in United Kingdom waters. Some of the operations are in support of our law enforcement agencies. For example, last November HMS Shetland assisted customs officers in making a record seizure of 20 tonnes of cannabis worth about £60 million.
Lastly in this summary of our commitments, I should like to emphasise how well the Royal Navy has served our nation by continuing to underpin our national security by maintaining continuous deterrent patrols by our Polaris submarine for the past 25 years. In that period, the former Soviet Union has moved a long way from those dangerous years when Mr. Khruschev hammered with his shoe on the rostrum of the United Nations shouting the threat, "We will bury you". We were certainly glad then that we had such a sure shield against a possible nuclear attack.
Although that particular threat has mercifully receded, we should not forget that the world remains a dangerous and unstable place in many ways. It is imperative that we continue to safeguard the security of our realm against all possible external threats. It is vital that in Trident we maintain a deterrent which will be the ultimate safeguard of our nation's freedom well into the next century.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
The Minister has paid tribute to the Polaris regime and its deterrent effect. Would it not be far more logical to tell the House exactly what the Government intend to do in terms of developing the Trident programme? If Polaris is to be a deterrent, surely it is essential that people know what it is capable of. Would it not be a good time to break the tradition of secrecy about nuclear weapons and tell the House of Commons what is going on?
§ Mr. Aitken
The hon. Gentleman has a naive attitude both to the importance of deterrence and the surprise element in it and to the importance of not letting any potential adversary or enemy know exactly what Trident might or might not be able to do.
Within obvious constraints, we disclose a great deal of information to the House through the Select Committee. We have answered questions with considerable frankness about our studies of a sub-strategic role for Trident. Although we obviously keep matters such as warhead numbers and targeting secret, we are reasonably candid in our parliamentary democracy with the House and with the country.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that it is no use having nuclear submarines if they are locked into port because the approaches to their ports are strewn with mines? Will he say a word about the attitude of the Ministry of Defence to new orders for Sandown minehunters? Some years ago the Ministry of Defence invited tenders for seven new Sandown class minehunters. The invitations for tender 308 were withdrawn in 1991. I gather that the minehunters will be required in 1994. Perhaps my hon. Friend could say when invitations for tender will he required once more.
§ Mr. Aitken
Yes, I shall do so. If my hon. Friend will be patient, I will answer his question when I come to our forward equipment programme.
I wish to say a further word about Trident. The Trident programme continues to make excellent progress. It remains on schedule to enter service from the mid-1990s and it is well within budget. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced in January this year, the currently estimated cost for procuring Trident is some £10.7 billion, which represents a total real cost saving of £2.8 billion against the original estimate. We were gratified that in its 1992 report on Trident, the Defence Select Committee commented onthe gratifying and unusual spectacle of a major defence programme coming in far below estimate.Construction of all four Trident submarines is progressing well.
§ Mr. Bennett
The Minister tells us that Trident is coming in below cost. But as he has never admitted what was in the original specifications, how can we tell that it is below cost?
§ Mr. Aitken
I said that it was below estimate, which is different from below cost, as most numerate hon. Members will understand. Even though the hon. Gentleman is a staunch opponent of all nuclear programmes and weapons, he should, at least on the basis of value for money for the taxpayer, be pleased that we have brought Trident in well below estimate.
§ Mr. Aitken
There is no question of the specifications being cut. Trident remains a formidable and decisive nuclear weapons system.
I am also pleased to tell the House that the construction of all four Trident submarines is progressing well. The first of class, Vanguard, successfully completed exhaustive and rigorous contractor sea trials earlier this year, and is planned to be accepted by the Royal Navy later this year. I had the honour earlier this year of laying the keel of SSBN 08, the fourth Trident submarine. I hope that that ceremony and the order that preceded it firmly underlined the Government's commitment to a four-boat Trident force. For only with a fourth boat can we be absolutely sure that over the lifetime of the force there will be at least one boat on patrol at sea at all times.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
There were some reports in the press about cracks in Vanguard during its trials. Can the Minister state categorically that that was not the case?
§ Mr. Aitken
The Vanguard sea trials were excellent in all respects except one minor matter of a sonar buoy which was lost due to a break of the towing equipment. We were completely satisfied with the inherent structure of Vanguard and its performance in the contractor sea trials, subject only to minor teething troubles which were of no major importance and are normal in contractor sea trials.
The Polaris submarine has served Britain well, providing continuous patrols for the past 25 years. We 309 confidently expect that the Trident submarine will, with similar patrols, safeguard our national security for the next quarter of a century or more.
The commitments and operations that I have outlined make an impressive record of achievement. But there are other areas of activity in which the end of the cold war era has lightened the burden on our naval forces. The House will not expect me to go into details about the substantial anti-submarine warfare operations and preparations in which the Royal Navy regularly engaged during the times when we thought that we might conceivably one day have to do battle with the Soviet navy in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean or even the western approaches.
Mercifully those days are past. But as we cheerfully bring down the curtain on the old cold war era we must also accept, perhaps with a touch of sadness, that we now can do with a smaller Royal Navy to safeguard our vital security interests and to perform our foreseeable defence tasks.
§ Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)
My hon. Friend has given a good exposition of the role and the requirements of the Royal Navy. One thing is puzzling me. I declare an interest. It is an emotional one rather than a financial one. I have a son who serves in the Royal Navy. That gives me the advantage that at least he keeps me up to date with what his friends think of our present policy—which I will not go into.
It is inevitable that one must take into account that resources will be concentrated on the Army and especially the infantry in view of what is happening in ex-Yugoslavia. Is my hon. Friend willing to say that, whatever happens in that direction, the Royal Navy will not suffer? I do not ask that for an emotional reason. The Royal Navy clearly has a role to fulfil. It is probably as stretched as it can be at present.
§ Mr. Aitken
I am certainly glad to confirm that the Royal Navy will not suffer in the sense that it will remain an absolutely pivotal component of our defence forces and I will give further details of that. Because of the very nature of the changing risks and the security environment, we will really need the capability that the Royal Navy provides superbly of mobility, reach and sustainability—the very qualities that I have tried to summarise in my speech. I hope that my hon. Friend and his son will be right in having confidence that we shall have such a navy in years to come.
§ Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)
I should like to probe that issue a little further. My hon. Friend is dealing with specific aspects of the Navy's activities such as Trident and other parts of the procurement programme. The country and serving naval personnel seek a clear update on policy since "Options for Change" which will give us a broader picture and understanding of what size navy is required. I do not believe that such an update has been adequately given at a strategic level.
§ Mr. Aitken
My hon. Friend makes a fair point and we are responding to it, not least by holding this debate and listening to the voices of the House.
As I shall say later in my speech, we intend to publish, in the form of the White Paper on the Statement on the Defence Estimates for 1993, a full account of where all the 310 services stand and where we think they will stand in terms of the equipment programme and the numbers, with more information than ever before. When my hon. Friend hears our plans, he will be satisfied that his question will be fully answered when that crucial and important document is published.
§ Mr. Peter Griffiths (Porstmouth, North)
In following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson), will my hon. Friend assure us, without in any way seeking to forecast what will be included in the White Paper, that there is no suggestion that the reductions in manpower and ships will go beyond those forecast in "Options for Change"? That is the extreme. Can we have an assurance that we are not talking about going beyond it?
§ Mr. Aitken
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, he will hear clearly what our plans are and how they are linked, as they must be, to our commitments and operational tasks. That is precisely what "Options for Change" was all about. Some element of downsizing was forecast and we have been sticking to those forecasts. If there are any amendments to them, the place for those amendments to be published is the defence estimates.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
The Minister is making play of the fact that we will have a White Paperr on the defence estimates for 1993. What happened to the debate on the defence estimates for 1992–93? Surely we should have had that debate before discussing the issues we are now debating.
§ Mr. Aitken
Those are matters for the usual channels and for the Leader of the House. No Minister can announce suddenly from the Dispatch Box that there will be a debate on a request from an Opposition spokesman. The hon. Gentleman is far too old a hand in Parliament not to know that. I shall make sure that his request is passed on to the usual channels.
§ Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)
I am sorry to labour the point raised by two of my hon. Friends, but my hon. Friend the Minister spoke rather ominously about something called the downsizing of the Royal Navy. Can we be absolutely clear on that? Will the Minister give an unequivocal undertaking at the Dispatch Box that there are no plans at present to go below the levels of manpower, vessels or funding envisaged in "Options for Change"? That was bad enough; if we are to go below it, it will be a matter of the greatest concern.
§ Mr. Aitken
My hon. Friend is asking for assurances which are too sweeping for any Minister to give. We have already announced some of the funding changes that have been made, such as public expenditure survey rounds and so on. On the key issue of numbers, in which I know he has a vital interest, I shall give some figures in my speech—if I am allowed to get on with it—but the definitive document with the maximum transparency within the limits of national security will be the White Paper to be published in July on the whole sweep of defence, including the Royal Navy. We thought that it was just as well to listen to voices in the House before making any such announcement.
§ Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)
I appreciate my hon. Friend the Minister giving way as I know he wants to get on, but I should like to ask him a specific question that will not require him to give sweeping generalisations.
When the Army complained that they would be unable to expand operations in Bosnia, it was announced that two or three regiments would be saved. Can the Minister assure me that there will be no reduction in the Royal Navy budget to fund the saving of those regiments?
§ Mr. Aitken
The defence budget is a totality. We are not in the business of sacrificing one project to pay for another. It is not the adductory technique that my hon. Friend seems to envisage. We look at the totality of the defence budget and at our commitments and we either go to the Treasury or fit our commitments to our resources. There is no question of there being sacrificial lambs in the Navy of anywhere else in order to save regiments.
I am trying to turn to force restructuring, a matter on which I am being pressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The plans were initially set out in the White Paper, "Britain's Defence for the 1990s" and were elaborated in last year's White Paper. I sometimes wonder whether the Opposition ever read those careful blueprints for our future defence strategy.
I shall place one modest bet about the speech shortly to be made by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) from the Opposition Front Bench. My bet is this: with the predictable if unsteady reliability of a Scotsman singing Auld Lang Syne on new year's eve, he will once again call on Her Majesty's Government to carry out a defence review.
§ Mr. Aitken
I thought that I had got it right. This tired old siren song is the Labour party's all-purpose excuse for not having a defence policy of its own and we reject it.
A defence review means the reduction and reordering of our defence commitments and forces to match an externally imposed financial target. That is not what we are about; we are not engaged in a Denis Healey-style defence review with its Treasury driven imperatives to cut, cut and cut again.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)
I cannot see how the Minister can claim that "Options for Change" and its effect on the Royal Navy are not Treasury led. That certainly is the view of the Defence Select Committee and has been reinforced since then.
§ Mr. Aitken
The Select Committee does not have an absolute monopoly on accuracy and wisdom. We have frequently given the answer that it is a commitment—driven White Paper. To this day, we fit our forces to our commitments and operational roles. I know that various critics of the Government love to stick on the label Treasury driven. I can assure the hon. Gentleman—and I have said it time and again—that that is simply not a fully accurate picture.
I have done my best to spell out some of the changes in the security environment. If the major adversary of the country and our allies, the Soviet Union, has changed direction and become an ally, it is quite natural that there should be an alteration in our commitments and resources. That simple point does not seem to have been taken on board by all our critics.
§ Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)
Would the Minister like to tell the House, if he is so emphatic that it is not in any way the case that the present Government's policy is driven by the Treasury, why there was the announcement shortly before Easter that naval numbers were to be reduced yet again, from 55,000 to 50,000, when a White Paper is due in three months' time? What prompted that announcement, other than the Treasury?
§ Mr. Aitken
As I am about to tell the House, the announcement that the hon. Gentleman greeted with shock and surprise, as though it were something new, triggered by the Treasury, was always foreseen in the various "Options for Change" projections. I will now come, if I may, to the subject of redundancies because I know that there is understandable sensitivity on this.
In "Options for Change" we have re-examined our force posture in the light of the momentous change in the strategic environment which took place as a result of the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. This process was policy-driven, not resource-driven. What we are now doing, in the context of our annual re-costing of the defence programme, is developing a more extensive analysis and presentation of how the force structure and forward programme relate to our existing policy objectives, tasks and commitments throughout the world.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expects to report the results in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993", which will be published in July. When we publish SDE 93, I think and hope that it will be clear for the Navy, as for our other services, that while the resource constraints of the public purse, to which there has been so much reference, provide a healthy discipline to our plans for future force levels, nevertheless it remains the case that our commitments, and the operational environment of those commitments, drive the decision on our force levels and on our equipment programme.
It follows from what I have just said that as we restructure the Royal Navy we take all the relevant factors into account. We continue to keep naval manpower levels under review to ensure that numbers are sufficient to meet our requirements but also to ensure that we do not maintain them at artificially high levels. The post-"Options" Navy was planned to reduce to about 55,000 by the middle of the 1990s, and this remains our intention. However, we are moving to a fleet of younger, more efficient and less manpower-intensive ships. For example, a type 23 frigate needs approximately only two thirds of the crew of a type 22. As force levels reduce, we will be seeking a commensurate reduction in support infrastructure. By this I mean the more efficient and economical use of manpower, including civilianisation and contractorisation of support area functions. These, and market testing, will also contribute to a lower uniformed manpower requirement, which will inevitably decline.
We recognise that, in the difficult task of reducing manpower, we have a duty to act sensitively and fairly to the men and women of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary who have so well served their Queen and country. We have taken great care to ensure that, wherever possible, all steps short of redundancy, including the maximum use of manning regulators, have been used to effect the necessary manpower reductions. But the situation has been made more difficult by the fact that fewer people have been leaving the Navy during the past two years than would normally be the case—perhaps 313 because of the recessionary environment. Indeed, application rates to leave the Navy are at a ten-year low. Some redundancies are therefore, sadly, unavoidable.
We made clear as long ago as 1991 that there would need to be a redundancy programme in the Navy arising out of "Options for Change", probably extending over three years. A total of 1,672 officers and ratings were made redundant in the first two phases of the programme. It is with great regret that we have recently had to announce the third phase of redundancies, involving up to 2,300 officers and ratings. The House should note, however, that in the first two phases of the Navy's redundancy programme we were able to achieve almost 90 per cent. of the necessary redundancies through voluntary applicants, and we are determined to meet as many as possible of the third phase of redundancies in the same way.
Such decisions are never easy, and we are doing our utmost to help those affected. I will not detain the House with details of what we believe are the reasonably generous redundancy and resettlement packages which we provide. As I have said, we greatly regret the necessity of any such redundancies, and our objective is to give the maximum help and assistance to all officers and ratings who are making the transition from service to civilian life.
Before moving on to equipment issues, I would like to say a few words about the royal dockyards which, I know, are a subject of considerable interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State made clear on 9 February, we believe that all nuclear refit work should be concentrated at one dockyard, while we plan to continue with two dockyards, for reasons of competition, in non-nuclear refitting. My right hon. and learned Friend also said that much work remained to be done before further decisions could be taken, and that work is well under way. I should like to make it clear that no further decisions have been taken. We understand the desire in the local communities and the workforces for an end to the uncertainty, and we will make further announcements as soon as we can.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
Is the Minister able to be a little more precise about that? He has in the past been a little more precise about when he expects a decision might be taken. As he appreciates, it is a matter of some concern for the communities of both Devonport and Rosyth, and it would be helpful if he could give a clearer indication of when he expects the decision to be made and announced.
§ Mr. Aitken
I can be no more precise than to say that it will be within the next few weeks. One of the problems is that the two royal dockyard management companies themselves frequently keep sending, sometimes in unsolicited form, new information which must be analysed by our experts and by Ministry of Defence staff. That is one of the reasons why these delays have occurred and why it has taken longer than we ourselves would have wished. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman would be the first to agree that it is better to take more time over a decision and get it right than to rush into one or give people the chance to say that their case has not been fully analysed or heard.
As to equipment, I have already said that good progress is being made with our plans to maintain a four-boat strategic nuclear deterrent under the Trident programme. 314 In addition to the strategic deterrent, over the coming decade our fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, currently standing at 13 boats, will consist largely of the Swiftsure and Trafalgar class submarines which are being modernised with the latest sensors and command systems. We are currently considering options for the design of a new class of SSN, to succeed the Swiftsure class, which is based on the Trafalgar class and is planned to enter service around the turn of the century. The SSN force which will result will be well-armed, capable of deploying at high speed, and able to match the increasingly sophisticated submarine forces which are now being developed and sold world-wide.
The major diminution of the submarine threat from the former Soviet Union, which I mentioned earlier, has made it appropriate for us to examine the requirement for the Upholder. The primary role of the Upholder class conventionally-powered submarines was to patrol the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap against Soviet submarines, releasing SSNs for wider-ranging operations. The Upholders were ideal for this task and their relative lack of endurance and speed were not a disadvantage in the circumstance then envisaged for their operations. Our judgment on the future of the Upholders will be based on an assessment of the most likely future submarine operating patterns. No decisions have been taken as we are still evaluating the position in the way that I have just outlined.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
Will my hon. Friend tell the House if, in the whole history of the Royal Navy, any class of ship has been disposed of before it has entered service?
§ Mr. Aitken
I have not said that the Upholders will not remain in the fleet. We are considering all our options. I am afraid that I am not a sufficiently good naval historian to give my hon. Friend an immediate answer. I simply do not know if he is right or not. But he must not jump to conclusions from the outline of our current thinking that I have explained.
Our destroyer and frigate force, which is currently at a level of 40 warships, is now the youngest since the first world war with an average age of just 10 years. Six of the new type 23 anti-submarine warfare frigates have now been accepted into service and a further seven are currently being built at Jarrow and Swan Hunter. We plan to order more type 23 frigates, though we have not yet decided on the size and timing of these future orders. I am pleased to announce that we placed last week a contract for a further five type 23 command systems and associated on-board spares at a value of approximately £30 million. This equipment will process high volumes of combat data and will provide the Royal Navy with what we believe are the finest such systems in the world.
Our type 23 frigates will, with the Merlin EH 101 helicopters, form a formidable anti-submarine warfare combination. We currently have 44 of these helicopters on order and good progress is being made on this contract. Together with our three aircraft carriers, two of which will be operational at any one time, we will continue to have the ability to make a significant contribution to NATO or other coalition warfare operations.
Our naval air assets on those carriers will also be significantly enhanced by the mid-life update of our Sea Harrier fighters with the state of the art Blue Vixen radar 315 and the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile known as AMRAAM. These enhancements, which are due to enter service next year, will enable the Harriers to engage multiple targets beyond visual range as well as having a look-down shoot-down capability.
Another new class of ship to enter service 'with the Royal Navy over the past two years has been the Sandown class single role minehunter. We now have four of these capable vessels in service, with a further one being built by Vosper Thornycroft. We plan to order further vessels of this class, and expect to be in a position to issue invitations to tender for the next batch shortly.
§ Mr. Colvin
When the new invitations go out to tender, will bids be permitted to include foreign hulls, as happened before? It seems to me monstrously unfair to British companies such as Vosper Thornycroft that foreign hulls should be included, often made by continental firms which are nationalised and subsidised by the relevant Governments; thus they present unfair competition to British companies. What other ship in the Royal Navy has its hull made overseas?
§ Mr. Aitken
We have an open procurement policy. About 91 per cent. of our prime contracts are won by British firms. It is often up to these prime contractors to arrive at their best judgment of what will meet our specifications and our value-for-money criteria. We do not interfere with their judgment; if they want to include a combination of foreign elements in their bids, we do not rule that out. Indeed, it would be excessively protectionist to do so.
§ Mr. Churchill
Although I do not ask my hon. Friend to be protectionist, does he agree that British firms have a right to be protected in the procurement process from unfair competition launched by firms which are nationalised and which benefit from subsidy in other countries? It would be monstrous if British firms went under because the Ministry of Defence accepted contracts from subsidised firms abroad.
§ Mr. Aitken
That is a fair point. When we consider bids we insist on fairness. If we decide that there has been unfair competition and massive foreign Government subsidy, or anything of that kind, we carefully take it into account, and it plays a key role in our decision making.
§ Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I am sorry to take up more of my hon. Friend's time, but he mentioned 40 ships; and irrespective of comments about British manufacturers and shipbuilders, I should like to hear my hon. Friend categorically confirm that he has no plans to reduce that total of 40 ships simply because we cannot manufacture them cheaply enough in Britain for the Royal Navy to procure them.
§ Mr. Aitken
If my hon. Friend's point is the familiar one, to do with what "about 40 ships" means—whether it means between 35 and 45—this has been all around the houses in the Select Committee. We shall try to shed some light on it in the forthcoming White Paper.
In the context of future warship building, I should like briefly to refer to the Anglo-French frigate project. known as project Horizon, which Italy has now joined. We are now into an 18-month period of exploration, with France and Italy, of the prospects for collaboration on an anti-air warfare frigate to replace our type 42 destroyers around 316 the turn of the century. This is a good example of international co-operation on the design and build of a ship, and it has many potential benefits, such as military interoperability, cost savings and the pooling of technical knowledge and capability. A provisional joint project office was set up here in London last November, and we anticipate that the memorandum of understanding for the full project management office will be signed soon.
Lastly, I turn to the subject of amphibious forces. We believe that this will be an important capability for the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy to excel in as we approach the new security environment of the 21st century. That is why we recently reaffirmed our commitment to provide the Royal Marines with modern and capable amphibious shipping by confirming that the new landing platform helicopter carrier remains firmly in our programme. Best and final offers for the LPH were received from Swan Hunter and VSEL on 22 April, and they are being evaluated against our normal technical and value-for-money criteria. This process is now close to completion, and we hope to be able to announce the results in the fairly near future.
§ Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
My hon. Friend will be aware of my great desire that this order should go to Barrow, with the hull being built on the Clyde. The prospects of unemployment in Barrow as the submarine programme runs down are horrific, but the yard possesses great skills and the most modern naval shipbuilding technologies.
My hon. Friend has already said that the order will be placed on technical merit and value for money. Will he give the House an absolute undertaking that no other issue besides technical merit and value for money will be allowed to influence the order? Can he also be more specific about when the awarding of the contract will be announced?
§ Mr. Aitken
I can certainly confirm that we will make our decisions in accordance with our usual value-for-money and technical criteria. Of course we take some wider considerations into account, but the whole emphasis is on technical and value-for-money considerations.
I cannot go any further than I have already about the timing of the announcement. Since last I wrote to my right hon. Friend, saying that the announcement would be made much later in the year, we have been able to accelerate it to some extent, and I hope now to be able to make an announcement in the reasonably near future.
§ Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan)
In the Minister's first answer he said that financial and technical criteria would be those that counted; then, in his second, he said that other factors would be taken into account. Are there any circumstances in which these other factors could allow an order that was not the best in technical and financial terms to win the contract? This subject causes a great deal of concern not only in Barrow but in Govan, where it is hoped that the Kvaerner hull will be built for the new landing platform helicopter carrier.
§ Mr. Aitken
These exchanges have shown that hon. Members representing their constituents' interests have one abiding wish: that the Government will be seen to be scrupulously fair when awarding a major contract of this type. Fairness is our paramount consideration, and we will 317 make our announcement at the right time, as soon as we can. I feel confident that the House will regard us as having played fairly with all parties.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
Will my hon. Friend consider value for money in the context of the use of helicopter platforms on Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels and other container ships used so effectively during the Falklands war? Will he ensure that we have enough marine helicopters—and enough to be used by the Army and the RAF too in marine environments—and sufficient platform flexibility to give the Navy teeth? So often those teeth are provided by the helicopters. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that he does not go for too many gold-plated solutions; rather, he should go for flexible solutions that ensure that we have a large number of helicopters to deploy when necessary.
§ Mr. Aitken
I share my hon. Friend's view that helicopters are crucial to future warfare. He is right about avoiding gold-plated solutions; we have tried to do that in in our amphibious programme. The LPH specifications are not gold-plated by warship standards of the past. Relatively speaking, they are not an over-expensive solution to the problem.
The new LPH will be the cornerstone of the Royal Navy's amphibious capability. Its main role will be to enable an amphibious landing force of up to 800 men to deploy ashore, by means of its embarked helicopters, in a single assault wave. Together with the replacements for our assault ships and the upgraded landing ships, this will provide the Royal Marines with the capable specialised shipping necessary to fulfil their role well into the next century.
Also on that subject I should mention that we are continuing to make progress towards replacing our two assault ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. The project definition phase for the replacement of those ships is continuing and the timing of an order will depend on the successful outcome of that process. On current plans the new ships will enter service around the end of the century. In addition to new ships, we also plan to upgrade our three older landing ships logistic with ship life extension programmes and we expect to be in a position to invite tenders for the first of these later this year.
I have detained the House perhaps almost too long, but on a quiet afternoon it may be right since this is the first Navy debate for two years to cover, as it were, the full horizon of Navy matters. Before I conclude, I apologise to the House for not being able to stay for the final speeches and the later part of this debate. I have to fulfil a long-standing engagement to appear on BBC "Question Time," and I thank the Opposition Front Bench and my hon. Friends for their forbearance and understanding of my later absence.
These are difficult and testing times for the Royal Navy as it adjusts to the much-changed but still dangerous strategic environment. Outside Russia and the United States of America, the Royal Navy is one of the largest and most capable, perhaps the most capable, navies in the world, with a fleet currently standing at three aircraft carriers, 40 destroyers and frigates, 13 nuclear submarines and four conventional submarines, supported by nine 318 counter-measure vessels and some 20 ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Indeed, we spend some £6 billion a year on ensuring that our capability remains razor-sharp.
We are not, and could not in this environment, be complacent. The world has changed and is changing still. That is why we are taking time to decide in detail the way in which the Navy itself should change to reflect those circumstances. As I have emphasised, we intend to publish our detailed plans in this year's White Paper. We will, of course, take into account the opinions expressed in the House in the debate.
The Navy that results from that process may not be as large as in former days—the lines at the Spithead reviews may be shorter—but we remain committed to our Royal Navy fleet being capable, modern, well-equipped and ready for the challenges that the future may bring. Above all, we can take great pride in the professionalism, loyalty and excellence of the men and and women who serve in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. I think that there is respect and affection for the Royal Navy in the hearts of all the British people. For a medium-sized European power we are still a nation of supreme naval excellence. It might be a little over the top for a Minister of the Crown to begin each day, as Lord Curzon used to do, by singing "Rule Britannia" in his bath. Nevertheless, I hope I have convinced the House that the Royal Navy can still rule some waves with honour and distinction.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
The Opposition also welcome the debate on the Royal Navy which, as the Minister conceded, is not before time. I should also like to associate the Opposition with the Minister's final remarks about the professionalism and loyalty of those who serve in the Royal Navy. There is no doubt about that in any part of the House and it is right that tributes should be paid.
We would also welcome a debate on the estimates, which is even longer overdue than a debate on the Royal Navy. That would enable us to take the wider look that is needed at our defence requirements and how best to meet them.
The Minister offered a bet. I did not take him up on it because he was right. We have been pressing for some time for a proper defence review, as have many other people—commentators, academics and people in the services, as well as representatives of all Opposition parties. We had defence reviews in 1957, between 1966 and 1968, between 1974 and 1975 and in 1981. There was an average interval of about seven years between them. There has not been a proper defence review for 12 years. During that time we have had the Falklands war, the end of the cold war, the Gulf war and the conflict in the Balkans. All those changes mean that we require an open debate and a strategic review of what personnel and equipment are needed to cope with the new threats and realities and how our contribution can complement those of other NATO countries.
The Select Committee on Defence—not just the Opposition—has said that instead of a proper defence review we have had an ad hoc, Treasury-driven series of thick salami slices, cuts off the defence budget, with the Navy bearing the brunt, as was emphasised at the hearing of the Select Committee only yesterday. Decision making 319 in the Ministry of Defence has been a secret and secretive exercise. David Bolton, the director of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, said:Defence is now too important to be left to silent debate.It may be the silent service, but we want an open debate. Even Professor Norman Stone, someone with whom I do not usually associate, has said:The secrecy has offended even the Government's allies.That secrecy ill befits the Minister who opened the debate who, as a Back Bencher, had an exemplary record as a champion of open government. It is indicative of the powerful effect that the Ministry of Defence has on Ministers when they go there; the Secretary of State himself is another perfect example.
At Question Time, when Opposition Members and Government Back Benchers have asked fair, straightforward questions about tactical air-to-surface missiles, the Upholder class submarines and other important issues, Ministers have often been evasive and sometimes been obstructive. It has been left to the Select Committee—to their credit, members of the Select Committee are here today—to take an overview and to extract information from Ministers and officials, although my colleagues tell me that it has been like getting blood from a stone.
As my colleagues know, I am always an optimist—the eternal optimist—
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames)
One needs to be, in the Labour party.
§ Mr. Foulkes
One needs to be when one is in the Labour party; the hon. Gentleman is right.
At the weekend, I came across what I thought was a dramatic announcement in a Ministry of Defence press release. Like the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), I get all of them. It said:Archie Hamilton, MP, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, said today that the Ministry of Defence is to conduct a review".
§ Mr. Foulkes
At last—[interruption.] The Secretary of State is very perceptive. At last, there is to be a review, not of defence strategy or of our requirements for defence, but of all the Ministry's historic buildings. That will be very useful. Of course, the Minister of State will be seconded to the Department of National Heritage. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) will call him before the Select Committee on National Heritage and commend him, but that should not be the top priority of the MOD today.
I expect that most of the debate will be characterised by the widespread concern about the uncertain future faced by the Royal Navy, uncertainty which is the result of a lack of Government decisiveness and strategy. There is a feeling that the Royal Navy will lose out most in the continuing round of defence cuts, as the Select Committee found yesterday. We understand that the high-profile demands of United Nations operations, which we support, have placed greater strain on the Army and the Royal Air Force, but the Navy is important and vital. There is no such thing as a military operation with just one wing of the armed forces. The presence of the Ark Royal in the Adriatic is a clear reminder of that.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
How does the hon. Gentleman equate his anguishing about Navy force levels with the declared intention of his party at the 320 general election to reduce defence spending by £7 billion a year? That is the equivalent of maintaining the Navy, the Army or the Air Force.
§ Mr. Foulkes
The hon. Lady has misunderstood the position. That point has been raised on several occasions. It was not in the manifesto. I think that the hon. Lady is referring to a decision of the party conference to which other Conservative Members have referred. It raises an important question of comparative defence cuts. I quote:Parallels can be found throughout the western world which show that substantial savings can be made on defence and they are appropriate at the present time."—[Official Report, 2 June 1992; Vol. 208, c. 697–98.]That is not my quotation; that was said by the Secretary of State in the House. We recognise that in the long term there must be a peace dividend, but we also accept that we have commitments to Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Hong Kong and Belize, as the Minister rightly said. We also make it clear that any cuts must be made after a complete defence review; we should not have the wild, random slashes that are being made by the Government. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam for raising that matter.
I was dealing with the presence of the Ark Royal in the Adriatic and, therefore, the importance of the Navy, which will play a key role in future international operations. It may use its amphibious capability or it may enforce sanctions or a blockade, which will be increasingly necessary in relation to Bosnia, or it may carry out drug patrols in the Caribbean, an operation that the Minister rightly identified.
The Navy's strategic role has already changed and there must be full discussion of the priorities of our naval forces in the post-cold war era. The Minister spoke about activity around the Kola peninsula in relation to the Upholder class. Is that activity still a priority or do we need to focus on bluer waters now that the Soviet threat has ended?
One of the many reasons for a defence review is to examine what sort of naval forces Britain, which currently has the fourth largest navy in the world, can afford to maintain. Bearing in mind our responsibilities, especially in NATO and the United Nations, we must also discover those capabilities that we cannot afford to lose. Those two need to be reconciled and only a comprehensive defence review can do that. However, there is no comprehensive information from the Government, just a series of leaked stories seemingly emanating from within the Ministry of Defence. In that context, it was a bit rich at a previous Question Time for the Minister to characterise the Opposition as plumbers chasing leaks, because those leaks seem to result from the disarray in his Ministry.
The Minister tended to dismiss a little lightly the size of the frigate and destroyer force. "Options for Change" suggested a force of about 40 ships, but the Minister said that there were exactly 40. Is it exactly 40? [Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister will tell us the figure in his reply. We are told to wait for the White Paper, which is rather like waiting for Godot. The evidence taken yesterday by the Select Committee and the comments by hon. Members suggest that there will be about 35 vessels. That means that the operational total may be as low as 30 because some vessels will be undergoing refits. The rumoured sale of the type 21 frigates and the recent announcement about the reduction in Navy manpower seem to support the Select Committee's prediction.
321 Some hon. Members, including Conservative Members, have spoken about the method used to announce reductions in Navy manpower, and I cannot let the matter pass without some comment. I have read on a number of occasions that the Navy is now into stealth technology, but so are Ministers in their methods of making announcements. A major announcement about reductions in Navy manpower was sneaked out in a written answer just before the Easter recess. Ministers knew that on the day following that answer, a Friday, there would be a rail strike and that not many people would be around. Ministers announced in a statement in the House that there had been a change of mind on Army manpower and that the number would be reduced by 3,000 fewer than they originally intended. However, the intention to slash Navy manpower by 5,000 was revealed in a written answer.
§ Mr. Wolfson
I intervene not to support the Opposition's defence policy but to record my extreme dissatisfaction and that of my constituents about the way in which that announcement was made.
§ Mr. Foulkes
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is a respected Member of the House. He is right. The Minister said that the White Paper would be issued in July and there was some jocularity about that being at the end of term. I hope that that trick will not be played on us again. As we have heard, the White Paper is crucial and it should not be left to the fag end of the Session when everyone is `bout to go on holiday.
The Government must clarify the size of the surface fleet. They say that that information will be contained in the White Paper and I hope that that document will set out the exact size. When speaking about the type 42 destroyers, the Minister rightly referred to the encouraging co-operation with France and Italy on the future frigate. We need to know exactly how many there will be. Press reports have suggested that there will be eight such vessels to replace the 12 type 42s, but we need to know the exact position.
The Minister rightly said that, in the changed climate of world security, amphibious capability is becoming even more crucial. International responses on peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention greatly benefit from the flexibility of amphibious forces. We welcome the decision to confirm the order for the landing platform helicopter vessel. The helicopter carrier is a vital part of the maintenance of an amphibious capability and it is necessary for the long-term future of the Royal Marines. As an hon. Member wickedly suggested a few days ago, without that carrier the marines might have to go by bus or train.
Thousands of shipbuilding jobs depend on the contract for that carrier. At this point in my speech, I intended to criticise the Minister, but I now have to say that I welcome the fact that a decision for the placing of that contract will be announced later this month. That is an encouraging step and will remove some of the uncertainty.
§ Mr. Davidson
The conference of the Scottish Conservative party is about to take place. As it is unlikely to have much good news for Scotland, does my hon. 322 Friend agree that the announcement about the order for the helicopter landing ship would be appropriate for that event?
§ Mr. Foulkes
I prefer all such announcements to be made in the House rather than at party conferences. In any case, the Scottish Conservative party conference will be preoccupied with the Scottish people's march for jobs and democracy which, when the marchers arrive there, will convey an important message to that conference.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
Is part of that march for jobs an expression of the hon. Gentleman's desire to sit on the Treasury Bench, a desire that never seems to materialise?
§ Mr. Foulkes
It has not materialised so far, but the hon. Gentleman does everything that he can to make it happen and I am grateful to him for that.
I should like to ask about other amphibious elements. The Minister spoke about the landing platform dock replacements which are just as important to the future of the amphibious capability as the LPH. The Minister said that Intrepid and Fearless can remain until the end of the century. That is an optimistic assessment. Perhaps the Minister of State could clarify the time scale for those docks.
There is further confusion about submarines. Once again, the Minister was rather coy about the Upholder class submarines about which the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) asked him a telling question. As they say in the world of football transfers, as Graeme Souness knows to his cost, and tabloid gossip, the Upholder class has been heavily linked with Canada. That would be a significant sale because not only would a totally new class of submarine be sold before it entered service—which, I understand, would be the first time that that has ever happened, although the Minister was not sure about that—but it would involve vessels costing more than £800 million when training and infrastructure investments were included. If the submarines are to be sold or even if such a sale has been considered or discussed with Canada, the House should be told about it and the Government should come clean.
The overriding impression among Opposition Members, people and the media is that the sole reason for the sale is not that Upholders are no longer required for our strategic capability but that the Government badly need the money for other promised procurement projects. How many other new projects will be hived off to fund the continuing procurement requirement? To sell the Upholders is a major strategic decision which needs to be reported to the House. They should not simply be sold off, flogged off, to raise hard cash. I hope that the Minister of State will give us a straight answer about those submarines.
That brings me to the issue of defence sales.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the subject of submarines, I have a question for him. Just before the last general election, Labour's policy on nuclear submarines was that it would review the need for the fourth Trident submarine. Would the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity, now that we are already building the fourth Trident submarine, to say that Labour party policy now is to support the nuclear deterrent and have a four-boat fleet?
§ Mr. Foulkes
The fourth Trident has been completed and we accept that as a fait accompli. I shall deal in a little more detail in a few minutes with some of the wider aspects of our nuclear deterrent.
The Upholder class sale is a clear sign that the Royal Navy is not exempt from what a recent National Audit Office report described as a sell-off of British military equipment ona scale unprecedented since the period following the second world warin what seems in some cases to be a bargain basement sale. The Minister may be aware that the same report suggested that taxpayers' money had been lost by not getting the best prices in previous equipment sales and that the director of sales had not carried out adequate studies to achieve the best prices in the international market. The report stated:the directorate has insufficient information … to know whether they are covering their costs.I should be interested to hear from the Minister of State for the Armed Services what the Government intend to do to remedy the inefficiencies highlighted in that report. In a recent sale at Rosyth, equipment worth many thousands of pounds—some of it new and some of it used—was sold to a private dealer for £1. That is not getting the best value for money out of a sale of assets that cost thousands of pounds. If the Minister cannot do so now, I hope that at some time he will respond to that report.
It appears from all the replies that we have had that the Government are persisting in setting the ceiling on the number of warheads carried by Trident submarines at 128 per boat, giving a possible overall total of 512, compared with the 192 warheads that would be carried if the numbers remained the same as we have on Polaris. Why are the Government insisting on that acceleration in the growth of our nuclear arsenal? The only conclusion to be drawn from their blanket statement that 512 will be the maximum is that that number of warheads will be deployed.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces is shaking his head. I hope that he will deal with the point more explicitly than that.
§ Mr. Foulkes
Yes, but that maximum would not be minimum deterrence. It would be an unnecessary escalation, and it goes against article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty, to which we are a signatory. I ask the Minister to give a categoric statement that the warhead level will not be greater than 192.
I hope that I will be allowed to indulge myself and raise a matter in which I have been personally involved for a number of years——
§ Mr. Foulkes
My hon. Friend is way ahead of me. I am concerned about fishing nets being snagged by submarines. That has resulted in several tragedies. Recently, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has been helpful in these matters.
§ Mr. Foulkes
No, not initially, but he has been helpful recently. I hope that he will tell me two things in his reply. First, will he give a report on the current situation with regard to the tests taking place on the transponders, commonly known as pingers, which are attached to boats 324 and nets to warn submarines of the presence of fishing vessels? I understand that trials are taking place. The fishing boat of a constituent of mine, Howard McCrindle, is being used in those trials. How are they progressing and what hopes does the Minister have for the deployment of those pingers?
Secondly, will the Minister reaffirm the commitment of the Ministry of Defence to Subfacts, a scheme which has been doing invaluable work in warning fishing boats about submarine movement? The Minister introduced it after representations from hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). It has been working extremely well. It is rather unfortunate that comments attributed to the chief coastguard have undermined the scheme and denied the use of coastguard facilities to broadcast the information. I am sure that no one, least of all the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, would want a repeat of the Antares tragedy. I hope, for that reason, that the scheme will be continued and expanded in other areas.
I was grateful for the fact that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement mentioned the royal dockyards. We look forward to the Government's decision on the Trident refit contract. Indeed, we have been looking forward to it for some time—only a little longer than we have been looking forward to the defence estimates debate. We have had the most absurd and damaging indecision on the issue. A decision was expected after the election, then by last autumn, then by the end of last year. Then by the end of last year we were reliably informed by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces then it would come by the end of January, then it was to be before Easter and now we are told to expect it this month.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again. I trust that when he is making such comments he will bear in mind that many of his colleagues and I went to see my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench and convinced them to review the matter properly and fully. In considerable measure, that has been the reason for the Government's delay in making a decision, and for that I am grateful.
§ Mr. Foulkes
I would have hoped that the Ministry of Defence would undertake all that without the need for representations from the hon. Gentleman, or other hon. Members. One of the ironies of the announcement was that the Government proclaimed that both yards needed to be kept open to preserve competition. The privatised management competition led to a desperate bidding process for the Trident contract and ultimately resulted, as the hon. Member for Tayside, North will recall, in the Government's startling concession that the tendersmay significantly understate the likely eventual cost of the work".What strategic sense does such a ridiculous process make? The Opposition have consistently argued that both sites must be kept open and that the only effective way to do that is by guaranteeing a core programme of work. If we lose one of the yards, it will be not only a tragedy for the community concerned but result in a major strategic loss in capacity for the defence industry. That is why it needs to be looked at in a strategic, overall sense and not as competition, part of which has turned out to be a farce.
It would be wrong not to mention the merchant shipping and the shipbuilding industries. The decline in the British merchant fleet was underlined by the fact that only 325 a small number of its ships were chartered during the Gulf war; the rest had to come from overseas—a situation very different from that of the Falklands war. Leaving aside the investigation into an alleged fraud ring in the Ministry of Defence—that matter needs to be pursued—it is of real concern that the number of merchant ships is so low.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement assured us last June that the situation is not yet drastic. Perhaps he will act soon to ensure that it does not become drastic. There has been a similar decline in the shipbuilding industry. Defence cuts inevitably mean that thousands of jobs have and will be lost. Skilled professional people such as draughtsmen, electricians and engineers will go when such skills need to be preserved for the sake of our manufacturing industry. It is a shameful admission that the Government have no policy to assist diversification in the defence industry. The lack of Government direction is making things much worse than they should be. That aspect cannot be left to individual private enterprise and to the marketplace. We will continue to call for the establishment of a defence diversification industry, to ensure strategic planning.
At VSEL in Barrow, for example, 7,000 jobs, or half the work force, have already been lost in the brief period that has elapsed since "Options for Change". The effect on such a community, isolated as it is from other opportunities for employment, is devastating.
The stark fact is that, although the shipbuilding industry is still the main employer in some areas, total output is only one quarter that at the peak levels for the new shipbuilding giants in the far east. Our shipbuilding work force numbers 35,000—not the hundreds of thousands employed in the past. If the Government do not act soon to halt that decline, our shipbuilding industry will be in a very sorry state.
When analysing Government defence policy, we adopt the maxim that what the Government say is not what the defence forces get. On 4 February 1992, the then Secretary of State for Defence told the House:We believe that the world is passing through a period of considerable instability and therefore we do not propose further reductions in our defence forces."—[Official Report, 4 February 1992; Vol. 203, c. 123.]Since then, naval manpower has been cut by almost a further 10 per cent. It was envisaged that we would have a destroyer and frigate force of around 40—but now it seems possible, although we shall have to wait for the White Paper, that the number will be nearer 35 and the operational total down to 30. "Options for Change" planned a submarine force reduced from 29 to 16, but now the MOD is preparing for 12 at most.
§ Mr. Hargreaves
The hon. Gentleman will recall that I raised that issue with my hon. Friend the Minister. As a number is to go into this famous White Paper, for which we must all wait, will the hon. Gentleman give the number that the Opposition think appropriate?
§ Mr. Foulkes
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been present since the beginning of the debate, but I made it clear earlier that the number would be discussed in the review—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Defence—my good friend—is laughing. We are saying that there needs to be a review of strategic needs and requirements, so that the manpower and equipment 326 necessary to deal with them can be determined. We are seeing instead salami cuts from the Treasury. If we have the LPH, will we have to sell off the Upholder class to pay for it?
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)
The hon. Gentleman keeps calling on the Government to conduct a defence review, to reach conclusions. Is he saying that the Labour party has not conducted its own internal review of defence policy—that it has no views at all on the Royal Navy, Army and Air Force, the size of each of those services and any changes that should be made? If Labour does have views, why have we not been given the benefit of learning of them?
§ Mr. Foulkes
Of course we are looking at a review within our limited resources, but I pledge that if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will make available to us all the Ministry of Defence's resources, we will not only conduct a defence review but publish it.
§ Mr. Foulkes
Of course we have opinions and views, but we cannot propose specific numbers until we have discussed the matter. I made clear the need to review the Upholder class and certain requirements. There is an important debate under way about grey-water and blue-water deployment, and we want to take part. It should, however, be an open and straightforward discussion, not the kind of secret discussion that is currently under way.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
In the last part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, did he have in mind the remarks made in 1976 by Sir Ian Gilmour, as he then was, as shadow Minister of State for Defence? He told the House that it was unrealistic for Opposition parties to seek a detailed defence policy because they did not have access to the necessary information. He pointed out that when an Opposition party came into office, it had to discuss such matters with our allies, the defence industry and the services before it was possible to create a cohesive defence policy—in fact, a review.
§ Mr. Foulkes
I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Member, and I hope that his help will not do his party any harm in today's local government elections in England.
§ Mr. Foulkes
The axe is poised over a wide range of other projects. I refer to the Tornado mid-life upgrade, the Challenger 1 upgrade and the replacement of Bloodhound. I hope that we will know more in the great White Paper that is to be published, but given the MOD's track record, I sometimes have my doubts—as we say in Scotland.
We welcome some cuts. The suggestion that the tactical air-to-surface missile—TASM—will be scrapped is something for which Labour has been arguing for a considerable time. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will confirm that that will happen. Nevertheless, we object to month-by-month uncertainty, the ad hoc nature of force reduction, the lack of any direction in defence policy and the unwillingness during a period of massive global upheaval to contemplate the full strategic analysis that our nation's security role and requirements demand. There is a lack of basic consistency and decisiveness in 327 Government policy. It is not crisis management but crisis mismanagement. The Royal Navy in particular is being run down and is suffering because there has been no strategic review.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
The hon. Gentleman appears to be reaching the end of his speech, but earlier he promised to make clear Labour's policy on retaining the nuclear deterrent. Although he mentioned that he agreed with keeping four submarines, another part of Labour policy has been to negotiate away our nuclear deterrent, and we know that Labour party conferences tend to say that they do not want nuclear weapons at all. Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that Labour is now in favour of keeping a nuclear deterrent?
§ Mr. Foulkes
I made it clear that we accept four submarines as a fait accompli, but that we oppose any escalation in the number of warheads, which we want to keep at 192. I make it clear also that if other countries were to dispense with their nuclear weapons, we would not want to retain nuclear weapons. That seems manifestly sensible.
As I want to give other right hon. and hon. Members an opportunity to contribute, I shall conclude. I resent the criticism that is sometimes made by Ministers—although only once tonight—that we are deficient in our resolve to defend our country. Labour Members represent the men and women who fought for this country in successive conflicts, who cook for those who fight, repair vehicles, fly planes and sail the ships. At a recent careers convention at Cumnock academy, young men and women again told me of their worthwhile ambitions to join the Royal Navy, Army or Air Force, and we want them to have the opportunity to do so.
Of course, we seek, above all, political solutions to conflicts or potential conflicts, wherever they may be—Northern Ireland, Belize, the Falklands, Bosnia or elsewhere. Political solutions will allow us to reduce the percentage of our gross national product that is spent on defence—and all other countries wish to do the same. Meanwhile, the Opposition yield to no one in our support for what is necessary to protect our democracy and our way of life.
§ Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)
I confess that I am always somewhat reluctant to participate in debates on subjects of which many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House clearly have greater knowledge than me. I cannot claim to be a so-called defence expert. On the other hand, perhaps it is refreshing and helpful occasionally to hear the views of a lay person. It is in that context that I shall make a few remarks.
When preparing my comments, one word repeatedly came to mind—uncertainty. That recurring theme manifested itself, whether in respect of Britain's defence requirements and capabilities over the next 20 years or more, or in relation to decisions that have been made or will have to be made about the Royal Navy and their impact on the south-west region and the Plymouth travel-to-work area in particular—part of which includes my constituency.
We were all excited when the Berlin wall came down—it—symbolised the ending of the cold war-and subsequent events in the former Soviet Union and former communist states of eastern Europe also caught our 328 imagination. Yet few, if any, could have predicted the sequence of events that subsequently took place. Before that there was a certain predictability—I hesitate to use the word "cosiness"—but in practice both the western world and the east knew where they stood. Since the Berlin wall came down, that situation has been replaced by uncertainty and increasing instability, particularly in parts of Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Initially, we talked about the peace dividend—the Government produced "Options for Change"—but I must confess that I now find myself repeatedly asking where it will all lead. What are the United Kingdom's defence objectives and responsibilities for the early part of the 21st century? What strategy will we pursue and, following from this, what defence capability will we require, particularly in the context of this debate, as far as the Royal Navy is concerned? I sometimes wonder whether the Government, and the Ministry of Defence in particular, are clear in their own mind about their responsibilities and objectives.
We have had a series of decisions about requirements, capabilities, sizes and many other issues, but I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that, taken collectively, they seem to me, as a layman, hardly to add up to a clearly defined defence strategy, especially—and reference has already been made to this—when Ministers decide to make announcements about further reductions in the Royal Navy's manpower requirements on the eve of the Easter recess. I was telephoned at 4.30 on Maundy Thursday and, as a Member of Parliament representing a defence constituency, was put in the embarrassing position of having to defend my own Government's decision-making process. Of course, that situation will apply to us all from time to time.
Manpower levels are of particular interest to me because HMS Raleigh is located in my constituency. HMS Raleigh is the shore base where all the non-officer intake into the Royal Navy, both male and female, undertake their initial training. Any announcement about Royal Navy manpower requirements will obviously have direct consequences for HMS Raleigh and the Torpoint community. I must emphasise to my right hon. Friend the Minister—and I do not exaggerate—the number of times in recent months that Royal Navy personnel and their families have approached me to seek clarification of the Ministry of Defence's intentions. That uncertainty—I come back to that word—is very worrying.
Devonport dockyard and the Royal Navy base are situated across the River Tamar from my constituency. We all know that Plymouth is a major garrison city; more than 2,000 of our United Kingdom marine force are based in Plymouth. I should add that more than 20 per cent. of the work force in the various Plymouth defence establishments are my constituents. There are also those who are employed directly in other activities or rely indirectly on defence-related enterprises.
Anxieties are steadily mounting—many have been aired this afternoon—about the delays that have occurred in essential decision-making processes concerning the future size, location and function of Royal Navy activities. There is uncertainty over the location of the United Kingdom Trident refit facility: that is obviously top of the list as far as the Plymouth travel-to-work area is concerned. There are uncertainties about the future size of our surface fleet and the location of its base. At present, 26 surface ships are Devonport-based and various categories of submarine are based at Plymouth.
329 I hope that, if nothing else comes out of this debate—and regardless of party membership—this point will be made to Ministers. Of course, we must make the right decisions, but delay causes further uncertainty and unease, and we should try to avoid that. One scenario that has been suggested lately is that, for example, by 1997 the Plymouth naval base—including the dockyard—could be significantly reduced, if not closed, if the Trident contract were awarded to Rosyth. The surface fleet, for example, could be moved to Portsmouth and all submarines could be based at Faslane. I am not suggesting that this is likely to occur, but the longer there are delays in making essential decisions, the more this kind of speculation will increase. I am not in any way deliberately playing up the anxiety; I merely say that that is being suggested. If it were to happen, it would have a devastating impact on the Plymouth travel-to-work area.
Uncertainty has been created locally by the delays, in particular those affecting Trident. Implicit in my remarks—and the Minister already knows my position on this—is my belief that it is essential not only for us to have a decision on the Trident refit facility soon, but for that facility to be located at Devonport. The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) outlined the sequence of events; we are almost 12 months on from when we were initially led to believe that a decision was about to be made. We all know that slippages can occur for genuine reasons, but I think that we are beginning to exhaust our excuses on that point.
Ministers have also stated that this difficult and crucial decision will be taken on the basis of the defence needs of the United Kingdom and value for money. I believe that on both counts Devonport's case has been proved. Devonport has an advantage in respect of the initial capital outlay; furthermore, the dockyard offers an extensive co-located naval base for both surface ships and submarines, and offers significant unit cost savings for the future.
Of course, wider social and economic considerations arise from the decision, but it is a fact that the south-west region of the United Kingdom is the most heavily dependent on defence and defence-related industries. There are the employment considerations. We have already lost 6,200 jobs in Devonport in the past six years. The naval base and the dockyard put £520 million annually into the local economy. In addition, 600 local companies receive contracts annually from the dockyard. These arguments are relevant to any defence location, but they are particularly relevant to Plymouth because of its historic connection with defence and defence-related industries.
As for the political considerations, this is not the right time to raise them with Ministers. I rest my case on the belief that Devonport is Britain's most significant naval complex. Geographically, it is the best placed complex in the United Kingdom for access to deep water and rapid response. In addition, Devonport comes out best in terms of offering greater efficiency and lower unit operating costs. I look to Ministers to end our prolonged period of uncertainty as quickly as possible.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I was very interested in the reply given to me today by a Foreign Office Minister about the number of conflicts in the world. The Minister did not suggest how many conflicts the Foreign Office recognises. He simply suggested that the United Nations recognises that at least 25 wars or conflicts, in one form or another, are going on in the world today, and that the United Nations has a peacekeeping role, or is attempting a peacekeeping role, in 12 of those 25 wars or conflicts. Any debate about our defence requirements must take that fact into account. We should remember that the horrors of Bosnia, reported on television, are being repeated in many of those other wars. It is just that the TV cameras are not there. We ought to be as horrified about the horrors of those other wars as we are about Bosnia.
I was disappointed, therefore, that the Minister did not set our Royal Navy requirements in the context of what we are doing to try to reduce the number of conflicts in the world. He did not tell us how far we intend to co-operate with the United Nations in its peacekeeping roles, or whether the Royal Navy has a role to play in trying to prevent us from getting drawn into one of those conflicts, or saving us from some other conflict.
It is sad that the Government have not been prepared to carry out a proper defence review. As they have not been prepared to do that, the House of Commons procedures for debating defence matters are in a chaotic state. It would have been far better to have a proper defence review and, following it, a debate in the House.
Even though the Government were not prepared to do that, they cannot be excused for not having provided time for a two-day debate on the estimates. If they had provided such an opportunity, Members could have argued the case as to how far, if we are to meet in particular our United Nations role, we would have been better served by allocating resources to one part as opposed to another part of our defence capability. That debate should have taken place.
Instead, there have been a few of the debates that are supposed to take place each year on the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force—if you like, housekeeping debates. The Royal Air Force debate was not particularly satisfactory. For all sorts of very good reasons, most of the debate was devoted to Bosnia.
§ Mr. Bennett
Yes, Iraq as well.
It was not a satisfactory Royal Air Force debate. Other issues were brought into it. We now need a proper series of debates in the House of Commons, leading up to the defence estimates. We need a two-day debate on last year's estimates. Then we need the estimates and the statement upon them. After that, we ought to be provided with the opportunity for a debate before the summer recess so that all these issues can be thoroughly analysed in the House of Commons.
I was amused by the Minister's claim that the Government had been candid about nuclear issues. I accept that, on a few occasions, we have managed to prise just a little information out of Ministers, but it is extremely unsatisfactory that certain defence correspondents are 331 briefed by the military with information that is far more authoritative and clear than that which the Government are prepared to give to us.
Since 1945, neither end of the political spectrum has ever told the House of Commons the truth about Britain's nuclear role. However, they have had to leak some information in order to try to give credibility to the deterrent. The Government ought to adopt a totally new approach. There should be full disclosure to Parliament, so that hon. Members can understand to what extent our defence resources are still being skewed towards spending too much on our nuclear capability as opposed to our conventional capability.
The Minister told us today that the Trident programme expenditure came within the estimates, but we do not know whether that is true, because we have never been told how many missiles we shall get. Unless we are given that information, we cannot know whether, in order to stay within the expenditure target, the Trident system has steadily been whittled down. If the Minister wants to claim credit for good budgeting, he should at least be honest with the House of Commons and tell us whether we are getting what was originally envisaged, or something that has been substantially scaled down.
Instead of clear information to the House of Commons about what is happening to the Trident and tactical air-to-surface missile programmes during the past few months, there has been a series of Government leaks. It is possible to pick out a series of briefings that could not have been made up by defence correspondents. They were clearly offered either by Ministers, or senior civil servants, or people in the Ministry of Defence. Why cannot the House of Commons be told exactly what is happening to the Trident programme? Is TASM to be scrapped?
If this is the mother of Parliaments, we ought to be able to debate these issues. If they were debated in such secrecy that no foreign Government had a clue about what was going on, I might be able to understand the argument, but it does not happen like that. Since we want the deterrent to work, for all sorts of reasons—including the technical ability to observe what is going on—most major foreign Governments can find out exactly what is going on in this country. The only people who are denied that information are the British electorate, who might have a view as to whether they are getting good value for money. There ought to be openness about nuclear policy aims in a democratic country.
What is even more important is that we signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I understand that, between 10 and 14 May, there is to be a meeting in New York as a preliminary to the 1995 review of the treaty. Most people feel that it is unsatisfactory. Some countries that signed it said that they would not develop nuclear weapons. Then they went ahead and developed them.
Our commitment to that treaty is not to increase our nuclear capability and to work towards reducing it. How can we take part in those preliminary discussions, in the hope of achieving a more effective non-proliferation treaty, if we are not prepared to tell the world what our intentions are about the warheads that will go on Trident? How will other countries be able to tell whether we are cheating on the treaty and committing ourselves to an expansion of our nuclear capability? How can we demand openness from other Governments if we do not provide it 332 ourselves? If we want to make progress on nonproliferation, there must be more openness about our own requirements.
I am not a great believer in deterrents, although the Government certainly are. The only way to deter people is to give some idea of one's capability. Originally, the idea was that Trident was the last resort to deter Russian—or, as it then was, Soviet—aggression, so I understand that we do not need to develop it much further.
However, we are now being told that, by slightly rearranging the warheads of the Trident programme, we may be able to use them against a minor or semi-power which wants to develop a nuclear capability. Surely, if one believes in a deterrent, it is much better to spell out what we are capable of and warn countries that we may be prepared to use ours. As long as there is uncertainty, there is little chance of any system acting as a deterrent. It would be better to place all the emphasis on non-proliferation rather than trying to develop a new role for deterrence.
More honesty is needed about our special relationship with the United States, which the Tory party likes to trot out. Basically, if we want to keep a nuclear weapons system, we are dependent on the United States for the Trident missiles. As long as we are dependent, we do not have an independent deterrent and cannot be wholly independent in foreign policy terms.
It is very easy for the Americans to lean on us and say that perhaps the missiles should cost a little more, which is extremely embarrassing for the Government. It is not said formally that, if we do not support the United States policy in Bosnia, it will increase the price of the missiles, but that is the informal aspect of our special relationship. It would be better to make it clear to what extent we are still dependent on the United States for Trident, how vulnerable we are to a change in its policy, and how it can help to determine our foreign policy.
A question mark hangs over our role in the United Nations Security Council. Are we a permanent member because we are a nuclear power? Do we have a veto because we are a nuclear power? The issue should be discussed openly because, in terms of our economic clout in the world, it is hard to justify our continuing in that role. In view of the changes taking place in the world, there should be far more openness about the role of nuclear deterrence in the Royal Navy and in defence policy in general.
Polaris is clearly coming to the end of its days. One of the submarines has already been taken out of service, as have other nuclear-powered submarines. The United States has also taken a substantial number of nuclear-powered submarines out of service, and we hear some pretty horrible tales about what is happening to nuclear-powered submarines in the Soviet Union.
It is very important that someone develops a strategy for the effective decommissioning and making safe of the old reactors and boats. I should have thought that jobs could be created. It is sad that we have so much expertise in shipbuilding for military and transport purposes but that we are not trying to use some of it to develop a decommissioning policy, which could be important for this country and also contribute substantially to making the world a much safer place.
In the next few months, I hope that the Government will concede that we need a properly costed defence review, so that we can have a more effective debate in the House about defence implications. I hope that, at long last, the 333 Government will show some honesty about the costs of their nuclear policy and how we can use it to try to make the world a safer place.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)
I welcome the debate, because, as has already been said, for the past two years the House has not had the opportunity to discuss Royal Navy affairs, and it is high time it did. The debate is timely, because the Select Committee on Defence is conducting an investigation into the Royal Navy. For the past two weeks, we have taken oral evidence, and we shall be reporting our conclusions to the House before the summer recess.
The Committee has completed its investigation into the Trident programme, and I can assure the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) that we found nothing in the Trident programme to cause us serious concern in terms of its timing or its safety, which I know is a matter of particular concern to him. In due course, I hope that he will learn from our report that the undertakings and assurances given by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement are accurate and that the Trident programme is progressing entirely as it should.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I do not want to pre-empt our report, but I can say that the evidence given to us was that Trident can be equipped with that number of missiles, although it does not have to be, and that it would be possible to load it with fewer missiles; so perhaps the hopes expressed by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) will be fulfilled. I have no doubt that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will deal with that issue when he winds up.
The debate is timely also because today is the 50th anniversary of one of this country's great naval successes. Fifty years ago, convoy ONS5 was crossing the north Atlantic just out of Cape Farewell. It consisted of 40 elderly vessels escorted by the Royal Navy, and was attacked by a fleet of at least 30 U-boats. At first, things went very badly: 11 of the ships were sunk but only two U-boats. But, on the night of 5 May, the tide turned for the allies.
The British Navy managed to sink a further four U-boats, two U-boats collided and several were badly damaged. The morale of the U-boat fleet was so badly damaged that, three weeks later, Admiral Doenitz withdrew all the U-boats from the north Atlantic and, effectively, the battle of the north Atlantic was won. Therefore, it is extremely fitting that the House should today pay tribute to the men and women who served in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy and to the reserves for their great heroism during the second world war and on many occasions thereafter.
I also pay tribute to those who currently serve in the Royal Navy for their expertise, which is second to none. The Royal Navy is and will, I trust, always be an example to the rest of the world in showing how naval ships should be operated and how the morale of crews should be maintained. We have a magnificent Royal Navy in every 334 respect, and I was very reassured by the clear determination of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to maintain standards in the future.
However, nothing is perfect and, when the Treasury is cutting the amount of money available to the Ministry of Defence, there can be no doubt that increasing pressure is being put on the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force. The Minister of State said that the level of defence was not Treasury-led but was led by the military necessity of the time. With the greatest respect, I do not think that that is the entire truth.
Like all hon. Members, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and his colleagues hold dear the security of this country, and they must be worried about the pressure being put on the Army, Navy and Air Force in the present climate.
The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon rightly acknowledged that there had to be a peace dividend—rightly, that is, when there is peace. But at the moment there is neither peace nor any sign of peace. In my view, any sign of a peace dividend—or at least, of a peace dividend that we could justifiably take-lies in the distant future. This must not be the time that we look for further cuts in our defence resource.
I hope that Treasury Ministers as well as the Defence Ministers here today will take note of the fact that the House is determined to ensure that the standards of the Royal Navy and of our other services are maintained, and that whatever resources are necessary for the security and safety of the people of this country are given to the Ministry of Defence. The Select Committee on Defence, on behalf of the House, is dedicated to ensuring that that happens.
I shall therefore examine one or two areas that give us cause for concern. The first is the size of the submarine fleet, which has been briefly touched upon already. There is a danger, which has emerged in evidence given to the Select Committee, that the SSKs will not come into service, and those already in service will be sold.
As my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said, no decision has been taken. He implored us not to leap to conclusions, but I am going to take a deep breath, and I am afraid that I am leaping to a conclusion: while no decision has yet been made, that decision is likely to be made. If that happens, we shall be left with a submarine fleet of only 12 boats. In my view—a view shared, I believe, by my colleagues on the Defence Select Committee—such a fleet would be wholly inadequate to ensure the future security of our merchant fleet and the safety of the sea lanes on which this country depends.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
Would the hon. Gentleman, who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, care to draw a parallel with something that he said earlier? He told the House how in the second world war the Germans, who were not seen as a major naval power, put 30 U-boats into one operation, and still lost. If the Government go ahead and sell the Upholder class, we shall have only 12 submarines to cover a whole series of potential theatres of operation. Would the hon. Gentleman care to elaborate on the fact that 30 U-boats lost an engagement, whereas the entire Royal Navy fleet will consist of only 12 submarines if this stupid sale goes ahead?
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
In fairness to the Government, I must add that these days submarines are infinitely more expensive and complex than they were in the 1940s. It would therefore be unrealistic for us to expect the fleet to consist of as many submarines as both the German and the British fleets had then.
However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that, as technology advances, there is a tendency to use fewer and fewer platforms, and to rely upon the increasing ability of those platforms to deliver a hard punch. But however strong the armament of one platform may be, it still takes only one missile to sink one platform.
There is a balance, and the Government must bear that in mind. If we were ever to find ourselves in a major conflict again—it would take a foolish Government to forget all the lessons of history and to put that prospect aside—it would be essential to have enough platforms to secure us against whatever attack might be launched upon us.
§ Mr. Wolfson
My hon. Friend makes an eloquent case for submarines, drawing—as it is important to do—on the lessons of history. Does he agree that the proliferation of submarines in third-world countries is a potential threat for which we need to be ready?
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with him. I am especially concerned about the Iranian Government's purchase of a Russian submarine; we understand that it is the first of several that the Iranians plan to buy. The Iranian Government are fundamentalist, and pose an undoubted threat to the civilised world. We must watch with substantial alarm the spread of that fundamentalism through the middle east and the strengthening of the military position of the current Iranian regime. That should give the House ample warning of the dangers that lie ahead if we allow our own defences to be let down.
As for the surface fleet, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement rightly said that the Select Committee had been quite vexed by the definition "about 40". We have discussed that definition at some length, and we are indeed quite vexed by it. I do not understand why a number cannot be adopted when we define the strength of our fleet, as we do when defining the strength and number of the regiments and battalions in the Army, or the number of aeroplanes in the Royal Air Force. Numbers of ships are not that different from numbers of tanks or aeroplanes; why does the Ministry always have to talk in terms of "about 40"?
As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces says, and as the Select Committee has been told, "about 40" does not mean about 40 at all; it means between 35 and 45. Even that definition is somewhat economical with the facts. There is no question whatever of our being able to produce 45 frigates and destroyers. In four or five years' time we shall be extremely lucky if we have 35. I would lay a substantial bet with any hon. Member that, unless there is a great change of policy in the Ministry of Defence, we shall certainly not have 40.
Evidence was given to the Select Committee yesterday that we have 40 vessels at the moment, but that number is far from secure. We were also told that the type 21 frigates are all scheduled to be sold within the next two years or so. Again, the "two years or so" was a fairly vague time scale, 336 which we were unable to pin down more accurately. Apparently, we shall have built only the next two of the type 23 frigates within the next two years or so.
Therefore, all else being equal, I do not see how we could have more than 36 frigates and destroyers available to the Royal Navy by the end of 1995. That is right at the bottom of the scale of figures that could conceivably be said to be acceptable for a surface fleet of that type, to match what will then be the requirements of the Royal Navy.
That is much worse than it sounds, because at least half a dozen—"about" half a dozen, to coin a phrase—of those ships will be put into what is known as a state of "extended readiness". That is a glorious misnomer. Under that terminology, Ethelred should be rechristened Ethelred the Extended Readiness. There is nothing remotely ready about the ships described as being in a state of extended readiness. I cannot say precisely how long it would take to bring those ships into commission, but I believe that the war would be over long before they went back to sea
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
With regard to assessing potential threats, does my hon. Friend accept that warning times are now much longer than they were in the past? In those much extended warning times, it might well be possible to prepare the ships for war.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
That is a fair point. In the past, when major wars have been in the offing, we have had extended warning times. We can fairly say that it was only the foolish who did not realise by mid-1938 that we should have to fight the Germans. The same could be said of the Napoleonic wars; it was clear by the early 1790s that there would be an extended sea war against France.
However, our present problem involves more than the necessity to have enough frigates and destroyers for wartime. The problem is that, if we add to the number of ships in a state of extended readiness the number of ships in refit or otherwise out of commission for one reason or another, the fleet would be reduced not to about 30 ships, as an Opposition Member said earlier, but to more like 15 ships that could put to sea at any given moment.
Given our peacetime, and peacekeeping, commitments even at the moment, I do not believe that we have enough frigates to fulfil our obligations. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has already described to the House the many duties that the Royal Navy is called upon to perform. The Royal Navy is responsible for the Armilla patrol. It is in the Adriatic and in STANAVFORMED. We have a guard ship in the West Indies. We should be able to do more—and I will return to this later—to combat piracy in the eastern oceans. That threat to world shipping is becoming increasingly dangerous.
To be candid with the House, I do not believe that 15 frigates are sufficient for us to be able to carry out a proper "emergency tour plot", to use an Army term, and to ensure that we can meet all those commitments over the next five or six years.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. Many hon. Members will recall that the Royal Navy had to put to sea on active operations during the Falklands war at very short notice. Admiral Sir Henry Leach and others believe that, if the full provisions of Cmnd. 8288 had already been put into effect, the Royal Navy could not have sent the task force to sea to recover 337 the islands. We must also recognise that there will be a grave shortage of trained reserves, who are just as important as available hulls.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If such a requirement was placed on the Royal Navy again, I believe that it would not be able to meet it without taking ships from other important tasks. I am afraid that we will find ourselves in a position—which I admit we are not in at the moment—of having a Navy that is in danger of being overstretched as our armed forces and soldiers have been overstretched over the past year or two.
Those were the two main areas of the Select Committee's report that I wanted to draw to the attention of the House today. However, I have four comparatively minor detailed points that I should like to put to my right hon. Friend the Minister and to the House for consideration.
First, it is extremely important that the fishery protection task is retained by the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy has minesweepers which are not fully deployed in peacetime. They are ideally suited for fishery protection. It would be a tragedy if the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food decided not to continue to use the Royal Navy to protect our fishing vessels.
I see no reason why British fishermen fishing in British waters should find themselves and their livelihoods threatened by fishermen from other parts of our European Community and not be entitled to the full protection of the Government through the medium of the Royal Navy. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will acknowledge that the MOD is conscious of that and will do everything it can to persuade our colleagues in MAFF to continue to fund the operation to protect our fishermen.
Secondly, I should be grateful if Ministers could ensure that plans for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary are properly developed and carried through. It appears to the Select Committee on Defence that, whenever we look at the figures, we find that we have one tanker fewer than when we last looked. The auxiliary oiler replenishment vessels which, I believe, were scheduled to have been with us by now are not. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister can tell us when another AOR is due to be ordered.
Thirdly, we must consider hydrography. I believe that the hydrographic ship which is about to be commissioned is to be contracted out. It is extremely important that hydrographic skills are still available within the Royal Navy and that the charting, which is so important for the defences of our country and for all those who use the seas around us, is properly continued in future so that the skills we now have are not allowed to wither away.
Finally, and on a similar topic, Manadon, the Royal Navy engineering college, is believed to be under threat—[HON. MEMBERS: "It is."] My hon. Friends are reassuring me that it is under threat. I do not know, and I do not profess to be an expert on these matters, whether Manadon can properly be amalgamated with another Royal Navy college, and whether the education necessary can be provided in a different way. However, I must emphasise the importance of the engineering qualifications and skills and the continuation of the course currently conducted at Manadon.
338 I hope that my right hon. Friend will safeguard the role and expertise of Royal Navy engineering officers in respect of any plans he might have for Manadon. It is a matter of grave concern to current engineering officers and to those who have been engineering officers that the skills which they were able to obtain may not be available in the same way to their successors.
I want to return now to my point about piracy. I am very concerned about the amount of piracy in far eastern waters. The Royal Navy could have a role to play in helping to combat that piracy. I should be grateful if my colleagues could spare a ship to assist any policing efforts in that area. The seas around Hong Kong are dangerous. Substantial threats have been made against the lives of amateur sailors when they have ventured out of the immediate area around Hong Kong.
Far too many instances of the hijacking of ships and the murdering of crews have been reported in the past two years, and those incidents are increasing. It might be worth considering arming merchantmen, as we did during the war, as a possible way to see off the pirates and safeguard the security of trade and individuals in the area.
I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister of State quote my five-times great uncle at the beginning of the debate. I remind the House that Lord Nelson also said, "It is extraordinary how, whenever we fight the French we win, but during the peace, we always lose." The lesson that we must learn from that and from history is that, whenever there is a period of peace, we run down our defences too much.
It is not my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who concern me. I am more concerned about my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the pressures that are placed on our defence budget. I ask Ministers to be sure that, if we have to spend more money on our Army and if we have to increase our military budget because of the events in Bosnia, we do not counter that additional expenditure by finding that money from the rest of the defence budget and thus threaten parts of the Navy or the Royal Air Force.
I hope that Ministers will go to the Treasury with, I trust, the full backing of the House and tell my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, "Despite the current economic difficulties and climate, we cannot cut our defences. We must have what we need, and we want you to give us enough money to make absolutely sure that we can provide the defences that this country currently needs."
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
I cannot claim such a distinguished ancestor as the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). However, I believe that Lord Nelson was most successful when he displayed a robust indifference to the requirements of the Admiralty, which I suppose is the theoretical antecedent of the Ministry of Defence. If the Royal Navy and those who lead it are as robust in their protection of its interests as Lord Nelson, perhaps we can be satisfied that the Royal Navy is in good hands.
As the Minister of State made clear at least by implication when he opened the debate, a single service debate of this kind has little meaning unless it is conducted against a background of the changing security environment. As interventions from both sides of the House have 339 made clear, there is a belief in the House that a debate of this kind lacks the meaning that it might have if it were conducted against a background of some idea of the overall defence strategy of the Government. In that regard, because we have not had a debate on a White Paper on the subject since 1991—before the last general election—and as it is not clear when we will debate the White Paper for 1993, many hon. Members feel that the debate might have been better informed had those other debates taken place.
We cannot consider the Royal Navy without having some regard to its current and future tasks and responsibilities. Some of them remain unchanged. The primary task of the defence of the United Kingdom—an island nation—is an unchanged responsibility of the Royal Navy. Other tasks that have previously occupied a substantial part of the debate on the Royal Navy—for example, the forward maritime strategy, the protection of supply across the Atlantic and NATO purposes—have become less acute against the background of the changing security environment. The responsibility for the nuclear deterrent, which rests with the Royal Navy, has become less onerous as the threat of nuclear confrontation has receded.
Those responsibilities have been replaced by others—notably, the contribution that we are expected to make to the activities conducted in the name of the United Nations. Our presence in the Adriatic, to which reference has already been made, seems to be a forerunner of similar tasks and responsibilities that we shall be asked to undertake. Those tasks and responsibilities involve different skills. It will be only right and proper that those whom we ask to fulfil those responsibilities have the opportunity to acquire the skills and maintain them at a high level by suitable and sufficient training.
Sir Richard Vincent did us a great service last week when he said that any military action can be contemplated only when there are clear political objectives. That is as true in relation to the possibility of military intervention in the Balkans as it is to the proper conduct and management of a service such as the Royal Navy. Until one is clear about the political objectives that the United Kingdom wishes to bring about, the allocation of the military means and, of course, the resources by which those military means are to be provided cannot be as well informed or as effective as it should be.
There is by no means satisfaction in the House that the Government have laid down sufficiently clearly the political objectives that they regard as being appropriate for the Royal Navy, nor the means by which such objectives may be achieved. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement said tantalisingly, "If we wait until the publication of the White Paper, all the mysteries will be revealed". He was prodded to some extent about his authorship of a recent work on President Nixon. That conjured up the vision of the Minister sitting in a well-known bookshop in Charing Cross road autographing copies of the defence White Paper for 1993 and, by his table, a queue of expectant Members anxious to have not only the document but their personally autographed copies of it.
What is worth extracting from the exchanges between the Minister and hon. Members on both sides of the House is that there is a feeling—it is almost certainly justified by the Minister's reference to the detail that we will find in the 340 White Paper when it is published—that this debate may be less significant than it might have been or, indeed, should have been if the 1993 White Paper had been in our hands.
I shall say a few words about the issue of nuclear deterrence, which has featured to some extent in the debate. Since nuclear weapons are weapons of such awesome potential, and since the Royal Navy has that responsibility, no debate about the Royal Navy should pass without some consideration being given to the issue of nuclear weapons. It appears to be generally accepted by all hon. Members that a four-boat submarine fleet is necessary. The electoral significance of four boats as against three has largely disappeared. Indeed, the argument for four is as true today as it was before the general election—that if a boat is disabled for any reason, it is difficult to maintain one boat permanently on station. Essentially, the fourth submarine provides insurance against unforeseen emergencies.
I firmly believe that nuclear deterrence must be constant if it is to be effective. There is no scope for part-time deterrence. I consider that a distinction must be drawn between the constant availability of a deterrent and the level of deterrence. As has been said, the Government's position still appears to be that up to 512 warheads may be deployed on the four boats.
Let us ask ourselves about the distinction between Trident and Polaris. The range of Polaris is 4,600 kilometres; the range of Trident is 9,700 kilometres—nearly double. Trident is more accurate than Polaris. Trident warheads are independently targetable; Polaris warheads are not. To put the matter generally, if the Government intend to deploy up to 512 warheads on four boats, that represents a massive increase in fire power. Liberal Democrat Members have consistently argued that there should be no more warheads on the Trident system than there are on the Polaris system, which it is to replace. If that were accepted in terms, there would still be a threefold increase in targeting capabilities.
I have always regarded the nuclear deterrent as being a form of insurance. Surely the level of insurance is variable according to the risk. It is worth remembering that the figure of 512 was conceived at the height of the cold war. It is worth considering that, if we were to press the Minister on the question whether we had an effective nuclear deterrent today, he would tell us that the Polaris system is an effective nuclear deterrent, albeit with 192 warheads. Since Trident represents such an enhancement in targeting capability, we are entitled to ask why it is necessary to have more warheads on Trident than Polaris and, indeed, why there should be more than 192 warheads.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
In the hon. and learned Gentleman's calculations, has he taken into account the fact that the insurance policy is for more than 20 years and that no one can say who will be in charge of the Kremlin five or 10 years from now? No one can say who will be in charge of the nuclear capability which was formerly possessed by the Soviet Union. Against that background, it is wise and prudent to ensure that one has a policy extension and cover for all likely eventualities when one is buying Trident today.
§ Mr. Campbell
If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that, in a time of changed security atmosphere, it might be necessary to acquire more D5 Trident missiles—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that they will not 341 be available. I do not think that he understands that the only reason why we will be able to run them through is that we will be taking them to the United States to be maintained. Since the United States proposes to have an 18-boat fleet of Trident D5 missiles, it is reasonable to assume that we will be able to get more if necessary.
There is a more fundamental answer to the hon. Gentleman's question which he may have left out of his calculation—that is, that the nuclear doctrine of NATO is one of minimum deterrence. We have moved from mutually assured destruction, we have gone past flexible response, and we have gone past weapons of last resort to weapons of minimum deterrence. How is minimum deterrence defined? It is defined as the capacity to inflict upon one's adversary an unacceptable level of damage. If 192 warheads on the existing Polaris system are adequate to do that, the enhanced capability of 192 warheads on the Trident system seems more than adequate to inflict damage on any adversary which that adversary would be unable to accept.
The other fact or which the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) has left out is that, on the occasion of Mr. Yeltsin's visit to London, the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), appeared on the nine o'clock news and said in answer to a question that there might well be circumstances in which one required fewer warheads than there were on the existing Polaris system. In those circumstances, we would have rather more persuasive power in the cause of non-proliferation if we as a military nuclear power did not increase our nuclear capacity far beyond what present circumstances dictate to be necessary.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
The hon. and learned Gentleman questioned the level of warheads. Has he taken it into account the fact that today there are increasingly sophisticated anti-ballistic missile systems and 20 years from now they will be even more sophisticated? Does not that warrant our having a sufficient level of warheads to make our deterrent credible?
§ Mr. Campbell
The hon. Lady refers to the Moscow criterion. When Mr. Yeltsin came to London, people like me argued in the debate which surrounded that visit that we did not need to deploy more warheads on Trident than there were on the Polaris system that Trident was to replace. Conservative Members argued even while Mr. Yeltsin was in No. 10 Downing street that it was necessary for the protection of the people of the United Kingdom that we should retain a capacity which had the ability to obliterate Moscow. That is simply not a credible position.
It is not necessary to obliterate Moscow in order to inflict damage on Russia at a level which the Government of that country would regard as inappropriae to accept. We must have some element of transparency. Under the START 1 and START 2 treaties which were signed by the Soviet Union and the United States, those countries have to tell each other how many missiles and how many warheads they have. In addition, they have to allow people to inspect their facilities.
If the two greatest nuclear powers in the world are able to reach agreement on two occasions in two far-reaching treaties in such a transparent way, why cannot we be 342 similarly transparent about our nuclear capability? We should be transparent not least because it would give us persuasive power in dealing with the issue of nonproliferation. Many people feel that proliferation of nuclear weapons presents a far greater threat to the stability of the western world and the interests of the people of the United Kingdom than any other current military or political issue.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the life of Trident is estimated to be about 30 years. Can he guarantee that during that period the only effective anti-ballistic defences will be around Moscow?
§ Mr. Campbell
No, I cannot, because I cannot look into the future. But I am certainly willing to make assumptions based on existing political judgments. The logic of what the Minister says is that if the United States gives to Russia an enhanced anti-ballistic missile system, the people of the United Kingdom will have to acquire a nuclear capacity greater than the 512 warheads which will be on Trident. I cannot look into the future, but I find that proposition, and the notion that any Government would seek authority from the House for it, so ridiculous that it is not worth serious consideration.
§ Dr. Reid
The hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate that simply to say that circumstances may change in 20 years and we have the capacity to have more than 192 missiles on Trident is no argument for not restricting ourselves to 192 missiles in the new context of today. Is it not a circular argument for the Government apparently to support the Americans in improving the anti-ballistic missile systems of the former Soviet Union, and of Russia in particular, but at the same time to argue that because those systems have improved the number of warheads on our deterrent must be increased?
§ Mr. Campbell
The objective of anti-ballistic missile systems is to bring a sense of security. It is a curious sense of security to say, "We will give you this capability but at the same time we shall acquire an enhanced capability so that we can beat the very defensive measure that we have given to you for your protection." Some effort at clear thinking is required on such issues, as it is required on the issue of the defence review.
Our old friend the defence review has appeared yet again in the debate. I am amused that the adjective "fundamental" is always attached to a defence review, as if any review should not be fundamental, but the words have become inextricably linked with each other. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) is not with us. One should have some rigour in one's approach to the defence review.
It is wrong to imagine that a defence review will be what one might call a soft option for change. If the purpose of calling for a review is to procrastinate on difficult decisions or to provide a cloak over policy differences, one lays oneself open to the charge of intellectual dishonesty. The defence review can be no substitute for difficult decisions. Indeed, if one carries it out properly, it will throw up a greater series of difficult decisions than the conduct of affairs of this nature on an ad hoc basis.
Therefore, those who advocate a defence review must have the intellectual rigour and political courage to carry through the decisions that the defence review reveals. I 343 continue to believe that Britain needs a fundamental—if I may fall into the trap of the cliche—defence review which is properly conceived and implemented.
We have moved from "about 50" to "about 40" frigates and destroyers. The hon. Member for Upminster is the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and he presides over our proceedings with genial firmness. As he said, when we took evidence yesterday it was made abundantly clear to the Committee that "about 40" certainly could not be thought in practical terms to mean 45. The expression "about 40" is meaningless. It is an ambiguous expression. Of course, it is deliberately so.
If the Government said that the figure was a minimum—let us say a fixed minimum of 35 or 36—the Government and civil servants would be open to much more serious criticism if that minimum figure was not maintained. "About 40" allows the Government the flexibility and leeway which means that any criticism of numbers can essentially be deflected. It is a kind of anti-ballistic missile system for officials and Ministers.
As the hon. Member for Upminster said, "about 40" looks to be 35 in reality for the foreseeable future. But, as he said, at any one time the figure could be much lower than that due to refitting or serious maintenance, not least as a result of the introduction of the rather curious and novel concept of what is now to be called "extended readiness". Logic would suggest that a reduction in numbers was justified by a reduction in tasks. I find little evidence of that in current. Ministry of Defence thinking.
It seems to me that today's discussion raises a number of important questions. Having concentrated on a role in the east Atlantic, what has now come to be described as the grey water role, are we expressly and deliberately moving away from that? Is force projection now a more dominant factor in the thinking of the Ministry of Defence with regard to the Navy than anti-submarine warfare?
As we are considering the development of an anti-air warfare frigate, does that not suggest the use of such a frigate for the protection of Royal Navy task forces which suggests something more of a blue water role than the roles we have recently fulfilled? One might put the question more starkly: is the Royal Navy moving back from a grey water role to a blue water one, and is that part of the thinking behind the decision to proceed with the LPH? If it is, what will be the consequences for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, because clearly a blue water role and the use of the LPH and Royal Navy task forces raise important issues of support which will also have to be dealt with? Those questions require answers in order better to inform the debate about the future of the Royal Navy.
Submarines are just as crucial and the hon. Member for Upminster dealt with them at some length. In 1990, we had about 29. Under "Options for Change", we were to have about 16. Now the Government are contemplating a reduction to about 12, and that reduction will necessarily contemplate the elimination of SSKs from the fleet. If that is even being considered, it can only be because those who have put it on the agenda as a measure to be considered believe that it has some validity. If it were of no merit or significance, it would not even be put on the agenda and, if it is on the agenda, it can only be because it is believed to have some substance. What is the basis of it being on the agenda? Is it a capability that we no longer require, or is it a question of expense?
It is customary on these occasions for hon. Members to pay tribute to the men and women of the Royal Navy, and 344 several hon. Members have done so already. I do so because it is well deserved, but there is another tribute that we could pay to those brave men and women. We could pay them the tribute of establishing in a clear and comprehensive agenda the tasks which we need them to perform and the resources that we are prepared to allocate to them for the fulfilment of those responsibilities.
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
In the two years since the last Royal Navy debate, we have seen the terrible events of Yugoslavia and added to the Royal Navy's challenges the need to send significant numbers of ships to the Adriatic. The Royal Navy responded to that new challenge by showing its capability, mobility, flexibility and endurance.
I was talking recently to the captain of the Ark Royal, who has just been relieved, and he was telling me about the high state of morale of the crew throughout their time at sea and the excellence of his team. The endurance of the Navy in difficult circumstances is something of which we can all be truly proud.
History has always shown that the control of the seas is essential, and Britain is well aware of that. It is fitting that we should be having this debate in the same month as the official anniversary of the battle of the Atlantic.
The House will not be surprised if I refer to the case for amphibiosity. Recently, the much-needed decision has been taken to go ahead with the order for the LPH. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is time that we decided on a name for it. We keep talking about the LPH, but it means little to those who are not well informed on naval matters. It is time that we brought out a name for it, such as the next Hermes or Albion. A ship of such importance deserves to be given a name very soon.
The LPH—the landing platform helicopter—is a major warship of 20,000 tonnes, the largest ship to be ordered for many years, and it was commissioned only after the most intense examination. I offer my thanks to colleagues on all sides of the House for the support they gave during that long-standing argument. I should like in particular to pay tribute to the wisdom of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and my hon. Friend the Minister, who showed the vision to realise the importance of that ship in the future requirements of the Royal Navy.
Amphibiosity has been proved in recent times. In the Falklands, we could not possibly have retaken the islands without that capability. In the Gulf war, United States amphibious shipping did not use it in that role, but it played an important part in distracting Iraqi defences and tied down some six divisions which otherwise would have been available for operations in the desert.
Amphibious vessels have a special capability; they can hover, poised for as long as necessary across the coast, and land on potentially hostile coasts at a time and place to suit military and political considerations. One can certainly envisage circumstances in which it would be necessary to evacuate offshore in a crisis.
Ships of that nature have great potential for use in a whole range of lower-intensity scenarios: disaster relief, humanitarian aid, civilian evacuation and military support to coastal states. The Americans illustrated that recently in Somalia.
345 Nothing has happened over recent years to diminish the importance of amphibious capability. Recent events in the Adriatic with the Ark Royal and the Argus pressed into use served to reinforce the need for it.
Up-to-date transportation for the Royal Marines is paramount. I am delighted that the orders for landing platform docks to replace the Fearless and the Intrepid are still going ahead. I was particularly pleased to hear in the Select Committee this week that there are to be two more major ships following the LPH. The landing ships are to be rebuilt and modernised for future life. There is no doubt that amphibiosity requires proper command and control, proper facilities for docking and a specialist force. One cannot make an ad hoc force into an amphibious force; it just does not work. It requires ships and crews that are constantly practised in the skilful operation of disembarking in amphibious operations.
I am delighted that the Royal Marines have a sure future; they are almost alone in the services in having strength that is not subject to any major review and providing Britain with a specialist role on the world scene.
I believe that the order for the LPH is a sign of Britain's determination to continue to play its part on the world's defence scene. The cost of the amphibious capability is small compared with the much larger cost of Britain's contribution to the allied rapid reaction which I personally welcome as I believe that it is in the interests of Britain and NATO. It is important that we have decided to retain and enhance our amphibious capability.
The House knows how important the elements of the amphibious package are to Swan Hunter and to Tyneside. I have made it clear on many occasions how important those orders are to the last of the United Kingdom's big shipbuilders at Swan Hunter. The Ark Royal, now in the Adriatic, was herself built at Swan Hunter. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say that the award of the contract will be made on the basis of technology and value for money, and I am quite confident that the excellent team on Tyneside will win that order.
It is interesting to reflect on the commitments of the frigate and destroyer forces. Some six ships are now permanently away in the south Atlantic, on the Armilla patrol in the Gulf, in the West Indies and on other permanent commitments. If we allow for the time for passage to distant parts, the back-up before they sail and leave for the crews when they return, we are talking about something like 12 ships permanently tied up in those six posts. If, on top of that, we allow for refits, for training, and for trials for the very long periods that are now needed to work up very complex new ships, we have a significant number of vessels tied to permanent duties.
In the case of the Adriatic, the Navy was able to respond, and that it could do so successfully proves our existing capability, but I have concern about the sustainability of an operation of that nature. For instance, Ark Royal will be coming back in the summer to this country. If the situation in the Adriatic continues as it is now, presumably Invincible will have to go out there to replace her. When Invincible's period of service is at an end, Ark Royal will have to return with her crew. To sustain a long operation in that area will demand many resources from the Royal Navy.
346 Looking to the future, it is the sustainability of a task force for any length of time, on top of the commitments that we already have, that concerns me.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
Is not my hon. Friend making an important argument for the necessity of retaining three CVSs? Were we to go down to two, as envisaged in Cmnd 8288, John Nott's review which had to be set aside because of the Falklands, it would be very difficult to keep one carrier on station. Furthermore, would there not be another potential difficulty, in that we have only two operational air groups? If we want to give adequate time for training and for leave, there may well be need to revert to three.
§ Mr. Trotter
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his observations both about the ships and about the aircraft on them. Illustrious is coming back into service from refit next year, and it is fortunate that she is doing so; otherwise, the existing two would have to take six months about. In other words, their whole time would be tied up in that task.
The Navy is a technological service, and its capability depends on the number and age of its ships. Reference has already been made to crew size, and it is significant that the new ships have crews 30 to 40 per cent. smaller than those that they replace. That should be borne in mind when we are considering the total number of people in the Navy.
A balance must be kept in deciding how funds will be spent on ships and on men, and there are considerable advantages in having new ships, not just because they are much more capable but because they need fewer crew—a big cost saving—can be expected to be easier and cheaper to maintain and, one would hope, will take less time in refit. All those are strong arguments for building new ships.
The second balance to be maintained is between the vessels in the fleet and their cost and the support structure and the cost of the bases ashore. This question must be faced. I refer particularly to refits. One understands very well the historical reasons for existing over-capacity in the royal dockyards, but if there were true competition between those dockyards and the rest of the shipbuilding and repair industry in the United Kingdom, I am sure that we would get better value for money. The result of unnecessarily high spending in the dockyards must be less money available for operating ships or for buying new ones—in short, a smaller Navy than we could get for the same amount of money.
That money unnecessarily spent in the dockyards means less strength and capability for the Navy. I strongly urge my hon. Friend to look carefully at the possibility of more work going out to capable yards like those on the Tyne and in other parts of the country. Recent figures show that only 14 per cent. of the money spent on refits at present has gone out to competition.
There was an interesting experiment in 1985, when a submarine went to a yard on the Humber for a refit and a Leander class frigate was refitted on the Tyne. Both exercises were regarded as successful, and it was hoped that they would be preliminary to further, similar refits in the future going out to competition. That has not happened, and I hope that the matter will be reconsidered, because I believe that the Navy would benefit significantly from doing so.
347 I too end by paying tribute to the men and women of the fleet. We started with the quotation of Nelson's tremendous signal at Trafalgar. These days, one must refer to England expecting every man and every woman to do their duty. I was delighted to hear from the captain of the Ark Royal of the successful inclusion of women in his crew. There are 100 women now at sea on board Ark Royal, fitting successfully into the team.
The example of the Navy's response to the challenge of crisis in the Adriatic has shown how well it responds to the task we give it. Its men and women respond with great skill and professionalism. The country has never had a better team at sea on the ships of the Royal Navy, and we can justly be proud of them.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
Two Opposition Members have already referred to the fact that we have had no defence White Paper debate. I believe that it is the first time since 1970 that a defence White Paper has not been debated in the calendar year of its publication. We may even be in the bizarre position of having a debate on the 1992 White Paper after the publication of the much trailed 1993 White Paper. There should be more regular debate, and there should be taking part in all these debates, either introducing or winding up, a Treasury Minister. Let us be honest: the Treasury determines defence policy.
In my extensive study of the North American Indian, I found a character, a Sioux, with the delightful name of White Men Run Him. I suspect that that principle of naming ought to be referred to our Defence Ministers. So let us be honest and bring into this debate those who call the shots.
The Treasury would like to cut defence expenditure, and it has done. It is not very good at running the economy, and history shows that it is not very good at determining defence policy either. I would have thought that the Ministry of Defence should not leap on the fact that the Treasury has given it orders to cut defence expenditure, to cut commitments, to cut our forces and to cut the number of platforms that we possess. It is rather naughtily trying to provide a sophisticated justification for what it is doing, but it is sounding a little hollow these days.
The cold war is over, but when we look at history we see repeated cycles of conflict and peace. The Minister has said that he cannot look into the future, and no more can the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). I should have thought that the world was sufficiently unstable and had quite enough hot spots. Jane's Defence Weekly identified 72 hot spots round the world. An unclassified Sandhurst briefing a couple of weeks ago announced 35 situations of conflict, or potential conflict, in the former Soviet Union alone. Then its author acknowledged that there had been a small error in subsuming under north Caucasus and south Caucasus two crises, whereas there are probably as many crises within the Caucasus as there are in the rest of the former Soviet Union.
When we talk about proliferation, about conflicts over scarce resources or about the growth of fundamentalism, we must remember that Boutros-Ghali has said that by the end of the century there could well be 400 states in membership of the United Nations, many of which will have been created as a result of physical violence, war and 348 civil war. So when the Government defence team tells me that there is no longer a threat in the north Atlantic so we no longer need the Upholder class submarine, I would point to the threats elsewhere.
For example, the Mediterranean seems to be the new arc of crisis. Some think that there should be a new major NATO commander based on Naples rather than having a commander, allied forces, southern Europe as a subordinate of SACEUR, such is the growing importance of the Mediterranean, including the sea itself, the littoral states, the middle east, the Gulf, the Black sea, the Balkans and the Maghreb. There are problems of terrorism and of proliferation and again a conflict over resources. All this demands reconsideration. Surely "Options for Change" was misconceived at the time and is rather more misconceived now.
I believe that we are in a rather difficult period. I hope that the Russian military will no longer be a threat to anyone, including the Russian population; but we can never be certain. I hope that it will never again become a military threat, but it could. I was in the Royal United Services Institute library recently and came across the following marvellous quotation:The Russian army is experiencing a period of considerable financial retrenchment. Reasoning from past experience this fit of economy is unlikely to prove to be permanent.It comes from the RUSI journal of 1882. So we have been here before, and we should be cautious about the future.
That is not to say that we can maintain armed forces at their levels of the height of the cold war, but let us not delude ourselves that we are moving into a tranquil era in international relations: we are not. I hope that the Government recognise that.
Peering into the future, we need only look at the deteriorating crisis in the Balkans. We have a number of options. One is to pull out: there are people who argue that we should call a plague on all their houses—they are all liars and crooks, so let us get out and leave them to it. Others argue, more or less, for the status quo. Then there are the military options—limited air strikes or punitive air strikes, safe havens and protected areas. Another option is to raise the stakes and begin a full military intervention. Another is to rely more on the embargo. These are all bad options, and we are moving inexorably closer to one or more of them.
The alternative—to do nothing—is likely to be even more catastrophic. Those of us with an interest in history remember the arguments of the 1930s—that if we shut our eyes perhaps the crisis will go away. It certainly did not and will not.
There is so much flammable material in the Balkans that it is reaching the point of natural combustion. My research assistant has identified 13 separate routes into a general Balkans war, and we have not finished our research yet. Just doing nothing and hoping that the problem will go away will not make it do so—there would be a Balkans war involving at least two NATO powers. That would be the price of indecision, so inaction is not really a viable alternative.
§ Mr. Wolfson
The hon. Gentleman has told us about the instability of the world and the creation of smaller nations. Does he agree that the sort of war with which we may have to deal and the kind of peacekeeping that we may be called upon to perform will require, in addition to 349 the Trident deterrent, strong and flexible conventional forces of all sorts? That is why many of us are anxious that such forces be maintained for Britain.
§ Mr. George
Absolutely. Flexibility is the key. We will have little flexibility if we have fewer platforms, for instance. I fear that one of the reasons why the British Government are being rather less than robust is that they realise that their flexibility is diminishing, to such an extent that their only option is to do little. That is not the correct way to proceed.
I remember how Mrs. Thatcher went to see George Bush in the early stages of the Gulf conflict, apparently to offer some backbone. Now, Warren Christopher is searching Europe in vain for some of that backbone among his European allies. Ultimately, perhaps, a bit of backbone will be found, to the advantage of all concerned.
Given the Bosnian Serb rejection at this stage of the Vance-Owen agreement, we must do a number of things. We must not take any military action until a referendum has been held. We know that it is a time-wasting device, but we must wait. In the meantime, there is much that we must do. First, we must tighten the economic screw. There is clear evidence that sanctions—they have been seriously applied for only a couple of months—are hurting. The work force in the former Yugoslavia, or Serbia, numbers about 400,000. Those workers are not very efficiently deployed, but on their shoulders they must carry all the unemployed, those who are technically employed but have no work to do, the elderly and the disabled. They must also carry the enormous weight of the Serbian military and the non-productive economy of the Bosnian Serbs. Their diminishing numbers cannot indefinitely carry all these burdens.
Sanctions must be even more rigorously applied, therefore. Monitors, EC or UN, must be placed on the border between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to find out whether Milosevic's enthusiasm for settlement is genuine. We need to know whether we will apply sanctions or at least not send in troops, materials and food to his erstwhile allies. This might save him from future embarrassment.
There must be continuous planning either for Vance-Owen implementation or for some form of military intervention——
§ Mr. Wilkinson
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are we not straying rather far from the coast?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Hon. Members are permitted to speak fairly generally in debates of this nature, but the hon. Gentleman is certainly straying rather far. This debate is on the Navy, not Bosnia.
§ Mr. George
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kindness; I shall listen carefully to his speech. Even he must be aware of the fact that WEU naval forces are operating in the Atlantic, that STANAVFORMED—standing naval force—is operating in the Mediterranean and that naval forces are operating out of Split—a number of colleagues have been to see them. If there is to be a NATO force, it is likely to be under the control of the allied commander in Naples. I do not believe, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you are a defence specialist——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I know the difference between a debate on the Navy and a debate on Bosnia.
§ Mr. George
I am obliged to accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I do so under a degree of protest. A naval war is quite likely as well.
A number of criteria must be observed by our naval, air and armed forces if the crisis deteriorates. These forces must be authorised by the United Nations. Secondly they must be NATO-led, and a naval commander will probably be involved. We must decide which forces are to be deployed, too. I fear that it will be difficut to put in as many as 75,000 troops—although the Americans are apparently committed, the Russians have said that they will chip in and the French are quite keen. So far, however, we have not heard a figure from our Government.
The problems to be resolved include the scope of the operation, the rules of engagement and the United Nations mandate. This last is important for establishing the relationship between NATO and other participating NATO countries. We must decide who pays and what the military tasks to be performed are. When the forces are to be deployed is also a major decision.
I come now to more specifically NATO matters, which the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) will find much more to his liking. The Royal Navy, as the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee has said, stands at "about 40" ships. We all know that it is actually 38 and falling to 35, which in turn is dangerously close to "about 30". We are talking about naval matters. I did not want to bring partisan, political points into the debate, but I must remind the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood about 1978, the last full year of the supposedly discredited Labour Government. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement referred critically to Denis Healey and his defence cutting. The cutting which Denis Healey did when at Defence or the Treasury still managed to leave a fleet of frigates and destroyers of about 66, which seems to me to be "about 70", whereas we are moving to "about 30".
I shall have more to say about naval matters. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood for gently prodding me in that direction. When it comes to submarines, that discredited Labour Government in 1964–70 and in 1974–79 had 27 submarines plus four Polaris submarines. We are getting down to 16, plus Polaris/Trident. If the Government proceed with the sale of the century and provide Indonesia or whoever with a submarine fleet, we will be down to 12 compared with 27.
Some hon. Members may mutter that the Navy was older and decrepit in those days. I can assure them that it was not. In defence, one gets what one pays for. In 1974–79, in a period of detente because the cold war began only after the Conservative Government came into office—it was not their responsibility—defence expenditure averaged 4.9 per cent. of GDP. The Government are driving it down to 4 per cent. There is no way in which we can have defence forces to meet the many contingencies that arise if we are operating on 4 per cent. of GDP.
The threat has gone, we are told. Hardly; the threat is there but it is taking a different form. We must consider the evolving threat from countries which are acquiring navies and buying submarines from anyone who will sell them. Iran is a case in point. To hunt one Iranian submarine would require quite a lot of our submarines.
Recently I watched a television programme in which high technology was deployed to find 40 sunken American 351 and Japanese warships around Guadalcanal. It failed to find them all. If high technology had difficulty in finding 40 frigates and destroyers around one island, our 12 hunter-killer submarines will have an enormous task in finding our potential adversaries. So the Government have got their "Options for Change" policy wrong and the time has come to reverse it.
In peace time the tasks and commitments are increasing while the resources available are decreasing substantially. To keep two ships in the Armilla patrol requires six to eight ships. To keep one off the Falklands and one on West Indian guard requires, I. believe, three or four ships. If we are to have so many ships in extended readiness, the number available might be 25 rather than 35. I hope that we are not getting out of the naval business.
The Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence has referred to the future of the Royal Navy engineering college at Manadon. I cannot see how naval engineering can be merged with other elements of service engineering. I suspect that there are common elements, but much is so distinct that if one deployed naval engineers, army engineers and air force engineers in the same institution, that would cause a considerable problem. Has the Ministry thought of that?
If the Ministry is intent on closing Manadon, there is a fine university in Plymouth which may cast its eye upon the wonderful site where Manadon is located. I have no authority to say this, but might the university of Plymouth, with a fine tradition of marine engineering, subsume, upon the campus which it could acquire with its resources, some of the functions and responsibilities of Manadon? I hope that thought has been given to that.
I could say far more if time were available, but I hope that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood is pleased that he dragged me into this direction. We are living in dangerous times. Within a month, whether we like it or not, we could find ourselves in a conflict. No one can predict what the future holds. The history of military intelligence is one of continuous failure. Earlier in this debate it was said that perhaps everyone knew what would happen before the second world war. They did not. Mr. Chamberlain did not know until months or weeks before the war started. The Falklands war took everyone by surprise, as did the Gulf war. So for it to be said at the Dispatch Box that the warning times are much longer is flying in the face of reason and history.
A country fights the next war with the men and material which it has. Our first inquiry of the Select Committee on Defence was about ammunition storage in west Germany. We would have fought a war with the ammunition they had within 50 yards of them. The prospects of getting ammunition out of the ammunition storage sites was remote, let alone reconstituting the military. It is not possible to build a Harrier in a month, as happened with a Spitfire. Therefore, to assume that all is sweetness and light and that we are entering upon a period of world harmony is dangerous nonsense.
I should not like to be a Minister responsible for perpetrating the myth that we are in a period of peace. Sooner rather than later our armed forces will be engaged in a conflict. They need to be well equipped and well trained. I fear that the British may not be able to participate in future conflicts if the national interest is threatened because of the cuts which have been announced and the "Options for Change" plans which may be implemented. That I oppose.
§ Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). He showed great courage in carrying a lonely beacon for common sense during the lean and loony years of Labour party defence policy in the '80s. I respected thoroughly the way he did that.
I welcome the debate. Most of the issues which need to be aired, affecting the Royal Navy, those who serve in it and those who serve it, closely concern the people of Portsmouth as much now as for centuries past. We have had quite a few quotations. I will contribute another. For the people of Portsmouth and for me, the words of Charles II are as relevant now as when he uttered them:It is upon the Navy under the good providence of God that the safety, honour, and welfare of this realm do chiefly depend.When he said that, Porstsmouth dockyard was already 200 years old. Its task now is as recognisible as it was then: in time of peace and war to be a first-class home base for ships and to provide reliable services, including repair and maintenance.
The fleet maintenance and repair organisation has suffered the loss of refit work, and some redundancies are resulting. That is a painful process, particularly for the individuals concerned and their families. However, a work force of almost 2,000 will continue to provide the best service available to the Royal Navy. What they need more than anything else is a period of stability. They also need to be managed imaginatively to be able to accept work in the dockyard, whether commissioned by the public sector or the private sector. The facilities of the dockyard need to be used to the maximum not only because to let them stand idle would be foolish, but because of the employment provided in an area suffering more than most from the recession and from cuts in orders of defence equipment and the highly competitive international market.
The Minister of Defence should continue to provide the best opportunities and help to British-based business when they are in competition with overseas firms for Ministry of Defence contracts paid for from British taxpayers' money. Due consideration should be given to the maintenance of the skills that we need to retain because who knows when they might prove vital. I would rather see skilled jobs in Portsmouth than in Cherbourg, in Havant, Waterlooville, Fareham and Gosport than in the equivalent places throughout the world.
When I hear Labour and Liberal party spokesmen—there is no Liberal Democrat representative in the Chamber—criticising the Government for defence cuts and their employment implications, I think of their policies and the greater cuts proposed at their party conferences. Reference has been made to Labour's policies, but I should like to draw attention to the 1990 policy document of the Liberal Democrats. It was called "Reshaping Europe" and proposed cutting our defence expenditure by half. However much the Liberal Democrat spokesman may wriggle and play at being the tough guy, that document has never been changed or cancelled by any subsequent conference. The influential party activists would not have it, but still the Liberal Democrats engage in criticism of the Government's defence policy.
I should now like to deal with naval personnel and surface ships. I wholly agree with those who say that men, ships and commitments must match. The Army's regimental system makes it difficult to reduce manpower 353 but, as has been shown recently, it is much easier in the Navy. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the recent further reductions, or downsizings, as they have been described, which will reduce the total to 50,000 by the end of this decade, are a direct result of the recent reprieve of some regiments.
§ Mr. Rifkind
Perhaps my hon. Friend might like to reflect on that. I assure him that the figure of 50,000 is an internal working estimate of what may happen. It has as much to do with better use of existing manpower, the fact that a new frigate will require fewer sailors than an older vessel and that some jobs will be civilianised as with implications of resources. My hon. Friend must not assume that the reduction is a policy decision or the result of a manpower requirement. It is an internal assumption, and the best that we can make at the moment about the future needs of the Royal Navy. It has no status other than that and I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Martin
I welcome that intervention and hope that it will help the morale of those serving in the Royal Navy, especially those in my constituency.
I am pleased that it is planned to keep the strength of the Royal Marines at 7,000 with equipment to match. I was also pleased at the news about the helicopter ship. The Royal Marines and the Royal Navy are models for the model forces that are required in today's world. The hon. Member for Walsall, South spoke about that. Operational flexibility, rapid movement, a high degree of mobility, an amphibious capability and the quick and effective projection of air and sea power are all on offer for a combination of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. The Royal Marines played a vital role in northern Iraq, and the Royal Navy is playing a similar role in the Adriatic, backing our humanitarian effort in the former Yugoslavia. Her Majesty's ships Ark Royal, Cardiff, Broadsword, Argus and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels Olwen and Fort Grange are some of the ships that are currently involved. There is as much need now as there ever was to keep the right number of ships and men available for the tasks that are and will be increasingly required of them in future.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. My constituents understand the need and what is more they rightly insist, as I do, on the necessity to keep our defences as powerful and effective as British interests require. That is principally to protect the security of this country and that of our few dependent territories.
Traditionally, because we have learnt the stern lessons of history, we must have sufficient forces to contribute to world peace, recognising as we always have, and I hope we always will, that other people's wars can all too easily affect our direct interests and become our wars—as happened most recently in the Gulf—hence our involvement in NATO, and our active role in humanitarian peacekeeping missions as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
My constituents do not want us to be tempted to overreach ourselves, to be pushed into playing military parts that are out of proportion to those of our allies in the civilised world. At all times we must carefully define the British vital interest before we commit British lives, the 354 lives of Portsmouth people, to costly attempts to impose peace on inveterately hostile tribes in parts of the world that are experiencing new disorders, let alone a continuation of the old ones.
The evil empire, as the former President Reagan once called it, kept the cork on many bottles containing evil genies. Once more they have been released and their terrible deeds have a harrowing effect on us all, as we learn daily from television, radio and the newspapers. However, we must not let the human and political desire to "do something" override military reality, taking us well beyond a contribution to peacekeeping or the provision of humanitarian aid which we all recognise is necessary.
Preventing conflict where we can is one thing but its quenching by main force is quite another. I have found no significant support in my constituency for adding to the problems that we face in Northern Ireland and elsewhere by undertaking new, long-term commitments unless they are seen as essential in the interests of our security, in protecting vital British interests or in carrying out obligations that we have inherited or in which we plainly have to be involved.
Two matters are of special constituency relevance. The first of them was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, and it is about fishery protection. I agree with what he said. Recent incidents involving France have shown the continuing importance of Royal Navy protection. I do not wish to see that changed because it has widespread support in my constituency. Secondly, I welcome the Royal Marine headquarters at HMS Excellent on Whale island. It continues the long-standing connection which looked as if it might be broken when they left Eastleigh barracks. I am sure that all hon. Members who are present will have visited the Royal Marines museum there. If they have not done so, they should visit it as soon as possible.
I also welcome the sensible relocation of the Second Sea Lord manpower to Portsmouth and combining with the Commander in Chief, Naval Home Command. That cuts the flag ranks to one officer for both functions. We shall continue to welcome such developments for a more efficient Royal Navy, especially if they involve relocation to Portsmouth. In return for my continuing support for Government policies on the Royal Navy I should like a continuation of the Government's support for Portsmouth's role as the premier naval port in the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement spoke about Lord Curzon singing Rule Britannia in his bath. To a debate on the Royal Navy the words are as relevant now as they were then. They are:When Britain first at heaven's command Arose from out the azure main, This was the charter of the land And guardian angels sung this strain— Rule Britannia, rule the waves, Britons never will be slaves.That song would surely be welcome at bath time at No. 11.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
Of course, the hardware that underpins that song was built on Tyneside. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) said, on behalf of his constituents in Portsmouth, that he welcomes the Government's decision to proceed with a landing platform helicopter vessel. I do as well. He 355 made a speech on behalf of his constituents, who have a long and honourable association with the Royal Navy, and it will come as no surprise to anyone who is a regular attender at these debates that I shall say a few words on behalf of the great shipbuilding community of Tyneside.
In opening the debate, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement quoted from Lord Nelson. A more appropriate quotation might have been, "I see no ships." When I first started taking part in debates on the Royal Navy, we spoke about the 50-ship surface fleet. Then we spoke about 50 ships, which we found out meant 45, and now we talk of 40 or about 40 ships. The numbers are declining rapidly. The annual debate has followed the decline in the size and fortunes of the Royal Navy, a decline that I dislike.
A more sensible way for us to arrange the debate might be to have a day each to debate the Army, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the strategic deterrent. There can be no doubt that the concentration on the strategic deterrent—the Trident programme—has dominated conventional naval defence and overshadowed debates such as this.
I must at once declare a pretty obvious vested interest. My constituents build the hardware for the Royal Navy. They build conventional warships. That is the main business of Swan Hunter shipbuilders in east Newcastle and Wallsend. Over the past 20 years, Swan Hunter has provided about 80 per cent. of the fleet auxiliaries for the Royal Navy. The decision on the landing platform helicopter vessel is crucial to the survival of shipbuilding on Tyneside. If the carrier is not ordered, and ordered on time, Swan Hunter will close and that will be the end of shipbuilding on Tyneside. Thus, the decision is of enormous importance to my constituents.
I welcome the fight that has been put up by Conservative Members for the landing platform helicopter carrier, the decison to procure the vessel, and even more, the decision to bring the decision on procurement forward so that there may be an announcement in the next few weeks. The main shipyard on Tyneside, Swan Hunter, was privatised via a management buy-out. It has no great reserves or resources behind it. The directors have run the company, which has provided good-quality vessels for the Royal Navy, entirely without backing from any major defence contractor. They have provided ships on time, to price and, above all, of outstanding quality—a quality that has been acknowledged by the customer and from the Dispatch Box. I hope that, in the next few weeks, the Minister will say that we will have the opportunity to continue to provide warships on Tyneside, and in particular the helicopter carrier, for the Royal Navy.
The way in which defence procurement, particularly naval procurement, is carried out now means that conditions in the marketplace are different from those that pertained in 1986 when Swan Hunter was privatised. To meet even domestic requirements, it is essential now to have large, established financial backers. It is even more necessary to be able to bond the bids that are put in for work, even defence work, overseas. Whether Swan Hunter will continue as it is or will form an alliance, or more than an alliance, with some other, much larger, defence contractor is a question that will be addressed once the announcement about the landing platform helicopter carrier has been made.
I am certain that there is a strong and secure future for shipbuilding on Tyneside. That future is based on the skills 356 of the work force, on the quality of the product that Tyneside produces for its principal customer, the Royal Navy. If anything underpins the industry on Tyneside, it is the quality of work produced.
I welcome what has been said about the amphibious programme. The landing platform helicopter vessel is the most important single part of that programme, but it logically follows that it should be complemented by the landing platform dock decision and the landing platform ship logistics decision. The announcement that we can expect a further procurement decision later this year on those aspects will be widely welcomed in the industry.
I hope that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will address two other issues at the end of the debate. First, I should like a statement about the auxiliary oiler replenishment vessel. AOR1, or HMS De Lorean, as it is known in the industry, was a scandal. AOR2, which is being built on Tyneside, will probably come into service first and certainly will have been built far more happily than AOR1. It is difficult for the Minister to announce further type 23 frigates without saying anything about the auxiliaries to accompany them.
If type 23s are to be grouped around auxiliary oil replenishment vessels, we should be considering an AOR3. An announcement should be made about that, or we should be considering a substitute form of provision—perhaps a merchant vessel substitute. The extra type 23 frigates that are being ordered will have to be replenished in some way. It is incumbent on the Minister to tell us what the Royal Navy's plans are for that and how he intends to proceed on that issue.
The second question concerns not just ships taken up from trade—merchant vessels that are required to assist our fleet in times of conflict—but the crews that are required to accompany them. With the decline in the British merchant fleet has come the decline in the number of British people who are able to serve as seamen. There is even a decline in the number who are able to serve as officers. The Government said in the last Navy debate that the whole issue of ships taken up from trade and of some form of Treasury subsidy to preserve a strategic reserve of seamen and merchant officers would be examined. That has been quietly dropped, but Britain's merchant fleet continues to deteriorate. There are defence implications in that and they should be addressed.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken about the quality and dedication of the people, of both sexes, who serve us in the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. As I represent a constituency that has a long and proud tradition of serving the Royal Navy and providing its hardware and its crews, I should like to echo what has been said about it.
§ 8.8 pm
§ Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)
I begin by echoing the last sentiment expressed by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) about the work and bravery of the men and women of the Royal Navy. I shall touch on one aspect which has not been mentioned so far. I refer to the Royal Navy's representational role in different parts of the world. I had first-hand experience of that last October when I attended a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in the Bahamas, which had been ravaged by a hurricane. It just so happened that three of our ships were there at the 357 time, and their crews did tremendous work clearing up after that disastrous storm. They were widely praised by not only the Government and other politicians but the people of the Bahamas. Britain can be proud of the role that our service men and women played on that occasion. I was pleased to meet them aboard HMS Cardiff, and that they included serving members from my native Somerset, who had taken part in that operation.
The point has been made many times in this debate that this is the era of flexible response. We have been told of 25 possible flashpoints around the world and of a further 35 potential future troublespots in the former Soviet Union. Events in the Gulf, Somalia and Bosnia and many other peacekeeping operations serve to emphasise the importance of the flexible response policy spelt out in "Options for Change".
I echo the words of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and the sentiments expressed by Sir Richard Vincent—that before embarking on any operation, it is essential to define one's objectives. John Stuart Mill wrote:Our diplomacy stands for nothing when we have not a fleet to back it.I am in accord with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East because I, too, welcome the decision to build the LPH vessel and welcome the words used by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who said that it was firmly in the Government's programme. I am also glad that it seems likely that the tendering process will be completed earlier than expected.
The House might wonder why a Member of Parliament who represents a totally landlocked constituency should want to take part in this debate. In fact, my landlocked constituency is at the heart of the flexible response, in that it includes the Royal Navy air station at Yeovilton, with its 2,800 military and naval personnel and 500 civilians. That station plays an important role. It houses two front-line naval air squadrons, 800 and 801; the Sea Harrier training squadron, 899; two front-line Sea King helicopter squadrons, 845 and 846; and one training squadron, 707. In addition, the station hosts the Royal Marines and their three brigade air squadrons.
All that adds up to efficient use of a major air station, which conducted no fewer than 86,000 air movements last year. If I know a lot about that, it is because my own home used to lie in the station's flight path, so I am well aware of those air movements.
§ Mr. Robinson
My hon. Friend is right.
The announcement on 26 February that the specialist offices providing support for helicopters used by the armed forces would be brought together at Yeovilton is widely welcomed by that community and by the station itself, which is playing a crucial part. The men and women there were reassured by that decision, which demonstrates that their futures remain at the top of the agenda of the armed forces and of Ministers.
My links with the armed services do not end there. Many of my constituents work for the Westland group. I pay tribute to the quality and excellence that are pursued by that company. The latest example is its development of the EF1101 helicopter. The order placed in September 1991 358 for 44 EH101 Merlin helicopters at a cost of £1.5 billion was welcomed not just in Somerset but throughout the south-west region, which has suffered many severe shocks and setbacks over the past couple of years. Yeovilton and Westland show that, despite difficulties, the defence industries are central to the region.
Westland also supports 40 Sea King helicopters dedicated to the Royal Navy's amphibious operations. Eventually, those aircraft will need replacing, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will heed my words when I say that we hope that, when the time comes to seek a replacement for the existing helicopter, a utility variant of the EH 101 will in due course be on offer. I was pleased to receive a letter dated 7 April from my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, which stated:I am pleased with the way in which our Merlin programme is shaping up, and I am naturally well aware of the attractions of the EH101 utility variant, which I expect to be a strong contender for meeting our support helicopter requirements.Perhaps it would be appropriate to have a little commercial for the Fleet Air Arm museum in Yeovilton. That remarkable facility pays its own way and I recommend that anyone who comes to our neck of the woods, particularly if he or she has small children, should visit that museum. It has been considerably revamped over the past two years and offers an excellent and fascinating, and not just historical, afternoon or day. It is always remembered by those who visit it.
It is important to the Royal Navy and to our other services that the Government can respond properly to the considerable demands being placed on them in many parts of the globe. I believe that we are in a position to do so, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will recall that the former Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), pointed out in the debate on "Options for Change" that not only was reorganisation of the armed services necessary but it would not be forgotten that equipment quality was vital. I hope that that will be remembered, because with a smaller Army and in a more dangerous world, it is essential that our armed services are given the most modern and up-to-date equipment to undertake the considerable tasks that we demand of them 24 hours a day.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I want to raise just three issues, of which I have given notice to the Minister's office. First, does the Ministry of Defence feel that it has any responsibility in tracing the tankers and other ships, particularly the other ships, that clean out their tanks, especially in the North sea but also in the pure, clean seas around Rockall? The beaches not only of my constituency but of the Secretary of State's city of Edinburgh are still absolutely dirty. That is not because of any lack of regulations but because the regulations cannot be enforced.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) spent part of his life as an Edinburgh councillor and will know exactly the problem of which I speak. It remains a problem and spoils the beaches on the south bank of the Forth. I hope that the Royal Navy has some responsibility to undertake the difficult job of trying to find which ships are being dirty. In our book, no punishment would be too harsh for the 359 skippers who do that. Part of the answer is that there should be facilities in every port for the prompt cleaning out of tanks.
My second question concerns whaling. We have all had a long letter of 27 April from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which says:the 45th meeting of the IWC is to take place in Kyoto, Japan from 10–14 May. I believe that this is likely to be one of the most critical in the Commission's long history.All my colleagues agree with the Minister's letter, on both the humane killing of whales and the Antarctic whale sanctuary. The Minister said:I have already expressed my interest in the French proposal for an Antarctic sanctuary for whales, south of 40 deg. south which was presented to the last IWC meeting.I support the Ministry in that proposal, but if any of those ideas are introduced, someone, somewhere, somehow will have to enforce them.
A week ago, a remarkable programme showed how Greenpeace was doing its best. I do not go along with everything that Greenpeace argues or stands for, but on this matter it has been extremely active. The truth is, however, that a slow Greenpeace ship is no match for the highly efficient Japanese and Norwegian ships.
I do not normally stand here and attack individuals—still less do I attack Prime Ministers, and still less do I attack socialist Prime Ministers—but I should like to express my sense of shock at what I can only think of as the hypocrisy of Gro Harlem Brundtland. She lectures us all on being green—she says that she is the greenest Prime Minister on the face of the planet—yet, when it comes down to political interests in the Lofoten islands and elsewhere, what does she do but hold out for whaling? I do not know any other word for it but "hypocrisy". That is not only my feeling; I understand that it is the feeling of the members of the Socialist International.
Others wish to speak, so I will confine myself to a third question. I have repeatedly initiated Adjournment and Friday debates on the ecology of the Gulf, and I still do not think that everything has been cleared up that should have been. There are the Benthic problems, the problems of the bottom-dwelling fish and the problems of the various sea grasses which are very important.
I cannot expect the Royal Navy to take care of those problems; nevertheless, we still have a presence there and there is still the problem of clearing up the aftermath of the Gulf war. As the Minister knows, I was passionately against the Gulf war, but this is not the time to go into that. All right, there has been a Gulf war; what is the Royal Navy contributing to the clearing up of the Gulf?
I feel very strongly that, when others wish to speak, those of us who are lucky enough to be called should keep our remarks as short as possible. I will leave it at those three questions.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for, as always, speaking briefly and to the point, and—again, as always—raising matters that are not constantly mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that my speech will draw attention to other issues that are not often mentioned in the Chamber.
Let me join many other speakers in paying tribute to the enormous amount of work that my constituents in Portland and Weymouth do for the Navy. As all hon. Members probably know, my constituency must be the 360 worst affected by the "Options for Change" cuts, and the workers concerned are possibly under the greatest threat. Indeed, they already know their future. It is very sad for me to be almost writing their obituary now; but I assure the House that the spirit of Portland, Weymouth and south Dorset is to fight, and to demonstrate what we can do for the Royal Navy and the other armed forces.
It will be a sad time next year when the ships assemble for the 50th anniversary of D-day. Weymouth, and Portland harbour in particular, was used for the armada that was set up for D-day, and was the centre of our efforts to free the rest of Europe from the Nazi tyranny.
I have always been proud to claim that Portland has four major functions; unfortunately, it has already been announced that three of them are to move. I shall not dwell on that for long, because the arguments have been rehearsed many times. I pay tribute to Ministers—including the Prime Minister—for extending every courtesy, and allowing me every facility, to make the points that I have made. I am sorry that I have not yet been able to persuade them of the quality of my argument, but I always like to think that others find it disturbing that the MOD constantly changes its mind. It has made up its mind to remove people from my constituency, but I believe that there is still time for it to decide not to do so.
§ Mr. Foulkes
We recently received a deputation of trade unionists from the hon. Gentleman's constituency. They argued strongly that the alleged savings from moving the base from Portland would not be as great as the MOD had suggested. They have sent me a very convincing case. Does the hon. Gentleman support that case? Does he feel that those representations may provide an opportunity to return to th MOD and challenge some of its claims about so-called savings?
§ Mr. Bruce
I pay tribute to those who produced the report that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Let me also say what a conservative report it is—I am not referring to the political leanings of those involved. It does not over-egg the pudding, or over-emphasise the items that have not been properly costed in the case for closure. A committee is now looking very closely at the proposals for run-down and the move to Devonport, and at every costing.
We had die great advantage of the services of a former royal harbourmaster, who had recently left the Royal Navy. He went through the figures. They were not simply written on the back of an envelope by someone who was not fully aware; that former harbourmaster is probably more aware of the costs than anyone else in Portland, because he has done a full term there. However much the MOD may say, "The admirals have advised us", that certainly does not apply to the admiral who was sitting at the base, and his staff. Although Navy discipline does not allow them to express their views in public, I am convinced that they felt in their heart of hearts that this was the wrong thing to do.
I do not want to labour the point, but the MOD is t the possibility of £70 million over 10 years. I think that many people in the MOD thnk that the figure is £70 million a year. In fact, our case demonstrated that the programme would be £2 million more expensive over that 10-year period. I also believe that the Ministry's estimate of the cost of the move to Devonport is very conservative.
361 We are hearing about the run-down in the number of ships that are to be trained. A critical point is that MOD is asking the Navy to move to Devonport and make a 10 per cent. saving in the cost of sea training, when it will actually be training 20 to 25 per cent. fewer vessels. If the boot were on the other foot, and we were asked to demonstrate what we can do at Portland—the Devonport costings, of course, relate to the new tasks that are to be inherited in three years—we should be only too pleased to oblige. That is certainly one of the things that we shall be doing.
Portland is also to lose the sea systems controllerate. That proposal was made soon after I became a Member of Parliament, but it was kicked out. The time scale for moving the sea systems controllerate as a separate entity was 12 to 13 years. The then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who has since moved on to higher things, kicked it out because he believed that it was not cost effective and a silly waste of money.
The new proposal is that the sea systems controllerate should move into land and air systems. A much bigger and better deal has been made by the Ministry of Defence. People will be moved out of London. According to the MOD's figures, it will take 14 years to do that. The MOD, as we know, moves people round every 10 years, so after 10 years it will have to wait for another four years before it gets anything out of it. It is a foolish move.
The defence research agency has been offered £100 million from a stretched defence budget to restructure itself. If it is indeed given that sum of money to obtain new facilities, it has opted to go slightly outside Portland, though still within my constituency, to Winfrith. I know that it will set up a good research centre there, but I very much doubt whether that is a sensible use of MOD resources.
What is to stay in Portland for the time being is HMS Osprey, the Lynx operational air station. It carries out all the front line operational training of Lynx helicopter pilots and it provides first line maintenance. It is a heavily uniformed base, with 2,000 people working in the air station. We are keen that it should not be closed down when the change is made from Lynx to Merlin helicopters. We want Merlin to be used there. We fear that that will not happen. The Royal Navy sensibly decided to build an air station where it could train people and put them on to frigates and destroyers right next to where they do their operational sea training. Having split the two apart, though, I just wonder whether somebody will come up with a wonderful scheme to put this noisy but extremely pleasant air station in the middle of Plymouth. A couple of helicopters will do the early morning moves. I am sure that the people of Plymouth and Devonport will be glad to hear the sound of freedom right over their heads early in the morning.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
I wish my hon. Friend every success in his efforts to keep the Portland base open. I believe that it should be kept open. Has he made representations to the MOD that Portland is the only naval base that could effectively be sealed off? Security, in my opinion, is a very important consideration in these increasingly uncertain times when the threat from terrorism is real and with us all the time.
§ Mr. Bruce
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is true that we have a secure area. We shall continue to have it. The cost of keeping the air station secure will be roughly the same as the cost of keeping the whole of the Royal Navy base secure. We found that the full cost of security for the naval and air station was knocked out of the costings for the move to Devonport. We pointed that out to the MOD, but I do not want to go in great detail into that matter.
I hope that the Merlin helicopters will be based at Portland. When it becomes obvious that operational helicopters should be based next to the sea and ships, we may find that more and more ships come back to the revitalised and privatised Portland naval base, which will provide all these services, as well as civilian services, to the rest of the country.
Portland must look for future opportunities and it will continue to fight its case regarding the foolishness of these facilities being moved away from Portland. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. He has been extremely good about meeting people who have much to contribute to the debate. Most of the details are confidential. However, I can assure the House on my right hon. Friend's behalf that it takes only a phone call from me and the MOD deals with these matters from the outset. What I want to do is to gain all these additional jobs for Portland, as well as to retain the ones that are already there. We can demonstrate that we do things a great deal more efficiently.
Portland is to put in place a small ship repair yard. It is important that we should then be allowed to bid for MOD work. Our hourly rates are already lower than those of anybody else on the south coast. We believe that that will remain the case.
As for the cleaning of oil tanks, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, there are no United Kingdom facilities for recycling oil. Proposals will be put to my right hon. Friend regarding the provision of such facilities.
The main point that has been made in the debate is that this is a Treasury-led reduction. We are downsizing the armed forces. I do not know what downsizing is. It probably means that we are going to get 5 ft 8 guardsmen instead of 6 ft 2 guardsmen. If one picks up the estimates and the Red Books and looks at public expenditure, one finds that instead of defence expenditure over the next five years going down by 10, 20 or 25 per cent. it will not go down by a single per cent. It will be flat, at about £23 billion.
Our experience of defence estimates in recent years is that we have always overspent, because of contingencies. Therefore, all sorts of deals have to be done, whether it be with our allies in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, to try to balance the MOD budget. There will be no financial benefit from these difficult decisions.
One would imagine that we would be slashing defence facilities, that we would be selling off buildings left, right and centre, but that is not happening. I was interested to read in one edition of Focus about what is happening in practice. It says, "Green light for Innsworth". There will be a new office block there, on a green field site. Then we read that "DHSA forms up" at Yeovilton. That is good news for Yeovilton. However, it will have to go into temporary accommodation for a year or so before it has its 363 brand-new, ultra-modern office block. And what about the Royal Artillery? A 15-acre site has been designated for a new heritage centre.
I am glad to see that Admiralty Arch has been restored, because one of the things we do well at Portland is to provide Portland stone for such activities. When efforts are being made to save defence procurement money, one wonders why people are building on green field sites—for example, at Northavon. One finds that £300 million is to be spent there before the computer system is paid for, which I understand will cost another £300 million.
I have tried to find out why it is that the MOD is not tightening up. I found—in an obscure document, of course—the cost of the refurbishment of the main MOD building. It is too embarrassing to give the figures on the Floor of the House; hon. Members will have to look them up. However, I can tell the House that not only was the estimate phenomenal but that the actual cost was more than 100 per cent. higher than that horrendous estimate. How can anyone from head office tell people who are building new office blocks that they cannot do so because it will simply be pointed out what the Ministry of Defence is doing with its main buildings? One building at Portland is about to be closed down and everyone is leaving it, but a new telephone exchange is being installed. The building will be open only for another two years but it appears to be cost effective to install a new exchange.
It is clear why we are not achieving the reduction in the defence estimates that we should. I believe passionately that, in this day and age, we should be Treasury led. We should be looking to make savings of a couple of billion pounds over a few years and we should be working to that end. If we were approaching the question from that angle, we would probably make a better job of what we are doing. Time and time again, it becomes plain that cost-saving measures can take up to 10 years to produce the intended saving and that £100 million, £200 million or £500 million have to be spent before savings are made.
If we intend to reduce staffing levels, we should consider whether we need to make anyone redundant. The armed forces are one of the unique operations which people join for a reasonably short period and then leave. If we were to change the recruiting pattern, I am sure that in a few years we could reduce staff to the desired levels without causing great harm to people's careers. Natural wastage is not only more humane but it costs less.
We need to examine fundamentally our arms and weapons systems. If one asks a military expert what a changed threat means, he says first that one must retain everything and, secondly, that one must spend more money because the threat is different. We must bite the bullet, and I well understand the Government's difficulties in keeping intelligent, forceful and persuasive generals and admirals on their side.
The transfer of redundant facilities is extremely important. A current exhibition in London shows all the wonderful facilities that the Ministry of Defence has vacated in the past decade or so but which it has not sold. It is important that we consider all the armed forces, especially the Navy. As a cost-cutting exercise, we could suggest chopping five admirals off the top brass—that might have an electrifying effect and enable us to reduce the defence budget without the Royal Navy losing its teeth.
§ Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)
I hope that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) will forgive me if I do not follow the thrust of his argument. While resisting the temptation to do so, I was thinking of the connection between his constituency and mine. We both have a common predecessor—my predecessor bar one in Greenwich was also briefly the hon. Member for South Dorset. It is a reminder, on this of all days, that even seats that are felt naturally to belong to one particular party do not always do so at by-elections.
I am especially pleased to participate in the debate, as I represent a constituency that has a very long and proud history of naval and maritime connections. In the past, the great bend of the River Thames by Greenwich and Deptford was the site of bustling naval dockyards. That era is long gone but, although ships are no longer built there or moored at Greenwich, the area still preserves its naval connections as the home of the Royal Naval college.
During the past year, I have had the privilege and good fortune to visit the college several times as a guest and as an occasional visiting lecturer. I was greatly impressed on every occasion by the professionalism, high calibre and commitment of the commander and staff, and I pay tribute to Commander Searle and his colleagues for their absolutely first-class work.
The Royal Naval college is a centre of excellence for the training of not only British naval personnel but staff from other services and from many navies overseas. The college is keen to develop that aspect of its work and to attract more students from a wide range of backgrounds from Britain and overseas. It is an institution of which all hon. Members can feel justifiably proud, and I hope that the Government will do all in their power to support and promote the college and encourage it to attract an ever wider range of students from all over the world.
Sadly, one clear impression that I have gained from my visits to the college and from other contacts with the Navy in the past year is the damage done by the uncertainty which surrounds the future of the Navy and which has already been highlighted in the debate. Since the publication of "Options for Change", the Navy has been in a period of uncertainty, not a period of uncertainty in which it could feel that things might get worse or better but one in which the number of ships and personnel have gradually been reduced in a one-way process.
When "Options for Change" was published, we were talking of approximately 66,000 men and women in the Royal Navy. The figure was expected to be reduced to 60,000, then to 55,000 and, just before Easter, the estimate was reduced to 50,000. Similarly, we have heard the rather sad story of the uncertainty about the numbers of surface ships, where again the trend is clearly downwards.
People whose whole life and career have been devoted to the Navy have put it to me forcefully that a reduction in itself is not entirely unacceptable. They are realists, and they know that Britain's role in the world is changing. They know that we no longer have the ability to maintain the size of the Navy that we had 50 years ago. They also know that international relations have changed in the past 50 years, and they accept that Britain will have a smaller Navy.
However, what they find especially debilitating is the continuing uncertainty of not knowing when the reduction will stop, not knowing what the shape and size of the Navy 365 is to be and not knowing whether they will have a job in the future or whether a redundancy notice will come their way. The uncertainty and the inability to plan ahead with confidence is the most damaging aspect. Hon. Members of all parties have recognised that the atmosphere of uncertainty is the worst possible position in which we should put the men and women on whose dedication, professionalism and commitment we depend to maintain the high calibre and quality of service provided by the Royal Navy.
Although I accept that the Government cannot end the uncertainty tonight, I add my voice to all those who have urged the Government to ensure that the promised White Paper is published at the earliest opportunity—certainly well before the summer recess—that it sets out a clear framework for the future and ends the ambiguity and uncertainty. At the very least, publication should save Ministers the embarrassment of having to continue to prevaricate or trying, unconvincingly, to deny that decisions, which appear to be inevitable, have already been taken.
Before the debate, I reread the record of our previous debate on the Navy which took place about two years ago. I was interested to note that the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement who opened the debate, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle), was waxing enthusiastic about the Upholder class submarine and went on record as saying that he was confident that the SSK would be a valuable asset for the Royal Navy in future. Sadly, we are now all beginning to fear that the SSK will prove a valuable asset to the Treasury, not to the Navy.
I should not like to conclude without saying a brief word about equipment. A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to join HMS Argyll, one of the new type 23 frigates, on a voyage up the Thames to the Pool of London. That gave me a welcome opportunity to see one of the Navy's most modern warships, and I am grateful to the captain and crew for all their hospitality and their kindness and consideration in showing me round the ship.
However, I could not fail to notice the absence of one key piece of equipment. Even the eye of an untutored layman such as myself could not help noticing that the hangar was extraordinarily generous for the size of the Lynx helicopter that sat in it. Clearly, it was designed with a view to accommodating not the Lynx but the EH101. We must ask when those ships can expect to receive the greatly advanced capacity of the Merlin helicopters for which they were designed. I hope that the Minister can cast further light on that subject. I was pleased to hear confirmation that the order for the helicopters was progressing well, and I hope that we can be given some idea of the date on which the EH101 will come into operation.
The one clear message to come from today's debate is the need to bring to an end the uncertainty that has for so long hung unhelpfully over the future of the Royal Navy. The Opposition believe that that would be best achieved by a thorough defence review that would clarify the role of the Navy and the future size and shape of the service. We fear that the Government will not opt for that degree of review; nevertheless, we hope that the White Paper, when it is published, will help to bring an end to the damaging uncertainty that is making it so hard for the men and 366 women in the Navy, to whom we have all paid tribute this evening, to do the job that they want to do, the job that we all depend on them to do.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
As a former naval officer and holder of the Reserve decoration, I have a great interest to declare in the Royal Navy and in the Reserve, for both of which I have a great affection. Generally speaking, I find that that affection is, understandably, shared by millions of our constituents. I entirely endorse all the compliments that have been paid by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to the Royal Navy and its personnel.
As a Member of the House, I have another interest to declare—an interest in the defence of this realm. Any Government, regardless of party, who ignore that imperative stand accused of dereliction of duty. For centuries, the Royal Navy has been the one sure sheild in the defence of this realm. The history of our nation is a history of men that go down to the sea in ships, a maritime history in which Britain's trade, influence, diplomacy and, ultimately, its defence against aggression have been sustained by a strong Navy. For centuries, the Royal Navy has been a symbol of Britain's self-assurance, a manifestation of its power and influence, and a statement of its political will.
What is that political will today? Is it right that we should give a higher priority to, for example, welfare, on which we spend one third of our national budget, than to defence, on which we spend only one tenth of our national budget? I do not agree with that order of priorities, but that is the background against which we hold the debate. The debate also takes place in the context of a Navy that has shrunk and is continuing to shrink; given the current political will, it will continue to shrink. Scaling down an operation is much more difficult than expanding one, and we are left with more admirals than ships, more dockyards than work and more than enough uncertainty.
In those circumstances, what should my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and his Ministers do? First, I suggest that they examine the way in which ships are designed and built. Will they consider carefully whether it makes sense to continue with what could be called the committee approach to designing ships? Although I am pleased that we are to co-operate with our allies in future construction, I fear that such co-operation may lead to interminable delays, constant wrangling about what should go into the ships, and, at the end of the day—this fear has been expressed by other hon. Members—a cost that the nation cannot afford.
I also ask Ministers to examine the specifications we establish for our ships. We simply cannot account for every eventuality or cover every threat. As other hon. Members have said, we cannot go for gold-plated solutions. In the very month in which we celebrate victory in the battle of the Atlantic, I remind the House that it was with very basic hulls, driven by the simplest of machinery—the triple reciprocating steam engine—that we defeated the U-boat menace.
I do not see it as in any way inconsistent with Government policy to close down our in-house design facilities and to hand over to British industry the opportunity to design and build ships for the Royal Navy. Some of my colleagues may agree with me that our 367 priorities would be more sensibly ordered if we closed down various departments at Bath rather than the Royal Navy engineering college at Manadon. There are precedents, and at least one British shipyard is successful in designing and building warships, especially for export. I suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends in government that the very survival of British shipyards and shipbuilding may depend on our taking that route and putting out to commercial design and build the future construction of royal naval warships.
I invite my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to ask himself what will be left of a Navy that has thrown away the invaluable skills and experience that we have accumulated in anti-submarine warfare, as will happen when we dispose of the silent-running conventional submarines. They are the only type of submarine that can operate on the continental shelf, and that, of course, is where these islands sit. When my right hon. Friend considers whether we should retain the Upholder class of submarine, will he bear in mind the fact that, as has been said by other hon. Members, we cannot cover a commitment by retaining only one ship of a class? We need to retain at least three, and ideally four.
I ask my right hon. Friend to consider what will be left of a Navy that has discarded many aspects of a hydrographic service that enjoys a worldwide reputation and generates income. The replacement of the ships involved, which is apparently a compelling need, should not present a problem. We have already solved the problem involving HMS Endurance, the vessel that operates in the south Atlantic, by means of a bare-boat charter. It has not been necessary for us to design and build our own ships, and it is perfectly feasible to solve the problem in that way.
What is going to happen to a Navy which has abandoned its traditional fishery protection role in respect of which the presence of the white ensign is significantly different from that of the red or blue ensigns? If we abandon seagoing Royal Navy personnel in the hydrographic service and in the fishery protection role, will we not throw away most valuable opportunities to give young officers experience of command and other training opportunities not just for officers, but also for ratings?
I want my right hon. Friend the Minister to ask himself what will happen to a Navy which has reduced the number of frigates and destroyers to a level at which it is impossible to match the nation's demands for ships as instruments of foreign policy or for ships in time of conflict. I remind the House that the reality of the post-world war two history of defence is that we prepared for wars which did not happen and we have fought wars that we did not expect. In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Minister drew attention to the new and imponderable problems that lie ahead.
When my right hon. Friend replies to the debate, I hope that he will give us some idea about the future of the Royal Naval Reserve. I am sure that I speak for many hon. Members when I say that a pronouncement on that aspect of naval matters is long overdue. Does a Royal Navy with a manpower of 50,000 personnel and a reserve of indeterminate number and undefined role—a very small regular service and even smaller reserve—reflect the priorities of the electorate who sent us here or match the aspirations of my right hon. Friend's colleagues in Cabinet for Britain to play a leading role in the councils of the world?
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
I will restrict my remarks to the question of Trident. It has been said already that we have not debated the defence estimates yet. I suspect that one of the reasons for that is that the figures are not particularly genuine and that all sorts of deceptions and slush funds are involved. Nowhere is that more true than in respect of Trident.
I am sure that hon. Members have received, as I have, a briefing for this debate from the British American Security Information Council—or BASIC—which casts doubt on the cost of buying Trident missiles from the United States. The briefing states that the MOD's figures for the purchase of these missiles simply do not measure up. Even at the lowest unit price that the United States set in the history of the programme, the figure that the MOD gave to the Select Committee on Defence comes nowhere near that figure.
The briefing states that, in the financial year 1994, the estimated cost to the United States is about $49 million per missile. However, according to a memorandum from the MOD submitted to the Select Committee on Defence, the cost would be about $24 million per missile. That is half the actual unit cost.
If that is not the true cost, the Minister has some explaining to do. If that is not the truth, he should explain why the House and the country have been deceived. If that is the true cost, and it is half the cost stated in the United States programme, there is an old northern saying of which all hon. Members are aware: "You don't get owt for nowt."
The Minister must explain what the deal was. It has been said that Trident is truly independent as far as Britain is concerned. There must be doubts about that if the missiles are being obtained on the cheap—although on the expensive cheap of course in this context. The United States might be able to call the tune and, whenever the United States says, Trident might have to enter the disarmament negotiations and be cut. That would mean that millions of pounds of taxpayers' money would have been poured down the drain and wasted.
As has been said, the Royal Navy faces an uncertain future. It faces conventional cuts because of the Government's obsession with a nuclear role. The Royal Navy is wrongly shaped. The concentration and costs have related to the nuclear element. They are tied up with an anti-submarine warfare role in line with the United States maritime strategy so that we would rush into the North sea at their behest, and into the front line, in any conflict.
That nuclear aspect is out of date. The Royal Navy now needs a peacekeeping and sanctions enforcing role. As a result of the nuclear obsession, the Royal Navy is not resourced or equipped for that role. Trident is unsuitable. It is a post cold-war relic and doomsday weapon that is totally unsuitable in the modern world.
The Minister has been asked this question many times: what is the purpose of Trident? Who is it aimed at? In what scenario would it be used—because it is a massive weapon? Each warhead has the minimum of Hiroshima—200 kilotons. It has a massive use which is morally indefensible. Even in a sub-strategic role, whether it has only one war head on it, that would be equivalent to one Hiroshima, or perhaps even more. It simply cannot be used in the battlefield context. Trident is obsolete and 369 stops us from getting on with the other role that is essential for the Royal Navy—the conventional or the peacekeeping and sanctions enforcement role to which I referred.
Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to the proliferation implications, which are extremely serious. They include the increases in nuclear weapons by a nuclear weapons state. Under its original design, Polaris was to have 16 missiles with three warheads—that is 48 warheads per boat. If there are four boats, that is 192 warheads—192 Hiroshimas. Where is the justification for that?
§ Mr. Cohen
Time is short and I want to let other hon. Members speak, if possible.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute year book referred to Britain having only 96 Hiroshima warheads. However, with Trident we will have 128 warheads per boat—we will have 512 Hiroshima warheads on five boats. The paper produced by the House of Commons Library refers to the yield of those weapons being greater than that. The number of warheads has increased from 96 to 512.
The figure of 512 is an appalling proliferation, and it is unjustifiable. The Government will be told at nonproliferation treaty conferences that that is the case. The figures will be used by non-nuclear weapon states as an excuse for them to go nuclear. Instead of the Government using the political way to disarmament, they will simply be left with supporting military action in the future. That is a dangerous thought.
I shall refer to global protection against limited strikes because it is a new factor in the Trident debate. GPALS is the post-cold war version of the strategic defence initiatives—star wars. The United States is discussing such a limited defensive shield with Russia and, indeed, other countries. That is likely to involve the installation of early warning facilities at Fylingdales. It is an absurdity to have GPALS, in which the British are involved, yet the United Kingdom's nuclear weapon Trident will have to penetrate the combined United States-Russian defence, which partly relies on British information. It is nonsense. Even if we proceed with GPALS, which seems to be the approach, Trident does not fit in: it does not make sense.
I shall deal with the safety implications of Trident because they are serious. It is likely that Polaris will continue for many years to come. As hon. Members know, there are problems with the Trident programme—the first one will not come on stream until late 1994 at the earliest, and probably later than that. Therefore, Polaris is likely to continue for more than 10 years. Sir Ronald Oxburgh, the Government's chief scientific adviser, said that that could have serious safety implications for the submarine programme.
There is no disposal plan for nuclear submarines, yet the Government continue to commission new ones. There are transportation problems with nuclear weapons and the nuclear submarine cores. The Ministry of Defence was refused a licence for its flasks by the Ministry of Transport in 1991, although it had plenty of time in which to redesign them. However, it did not do so, which is a sign of its negligence. There are enormous problems of transportation. There are also problems of storage. There is a lack of 370 space in the dockyards and elsewhere to keep the used nuclear reactive cores. Yet the Government ignore all those problems.
Trident lacks important safety features. It uses volatile propellant and the warheads are placed around the third stage rocket motor. The latest safety equipment in the United States, such as insensitive high explosives, the enhanced nuclear detonation safety system and fire resistant pits, is not included in the United Kingdom's Trident system. That leads to anxiety about safety.
BASIC said in its briefing:A fire in the missile compartment of a submarine could result in the detonation of several nuclear warheads—at less than maximum yield—and include the reactor core, producing serious radioactive dispersal.The Minister should answer that comment because that dispersal would be as great or perhaps greater than that from Chernobyl.
Trident is bad strategically. It is bad for the Royal Navy, bad for non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, bad for Britain and bad for the world, and it should be scrapped.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
So late in the debate I can only throw away such notes as I had prepared and speak from the heart, and speak briefly at that. I declare three interests. First, I am a parliamentary adviser to Thorn EMI, which provides defence equipment to the Royal Navy. Secondly, I have the privilege, with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson), of being on the parliamentary armed forces scheme with the Marines. That is a remarkable privilege. It is a fine scheme. I pay tribute to our former colleague, Sir Neil Thorne, who instituted it.
Thirdly, without wishing to be tediously repetitious, I must point out that week after week at business questions I have asked for a Navy day debate and a two-day debate on the defence estimates. Without, I hope, being churlish—because I am pleased that we are having this Navy day debate—I observe that, in parliamentary terms, today is the closest one can get to a dies non, in as much as a key by-election and county council elections are being held today so that attendance in the House is thinner than it normally would be. This is perhaps symptomatic in a parliamentary sense of the current importance attached to defence and naval matters. I can only express my regret that it is so. However, I should not be too unhappy because, with a thinner House, I am allowed as an erstwhile crab to be called on fish heads day.
§ Mr. Wolfson
On my hon. Friend's point that it is symptomatic of the priority given to defence that the Navy day debate has been held today, does he agree that it is increasingly important to bring back to the top of our agenda the defence of the country and spending on defence?
§ Mr. Wilkinson
My hon. Friend is right on that, as he is on so many matters. He speaks trenchantly and with great authority. I am sure that he is right. I add my warning to the warning that he uttered: if the party to which he and I and our hon. Friends belong does not revert more clearly to its traditional attachment to the importance of national defence, we shall lose much of the trust that should rightfully be ours of those who care for the security of our country.
371 We are a naval nation by tradition. We are island people. Unless we have a balanced fleet, we cannot hope to secure our commercial and strategic interests, nor can we be worthy allies. In the sense of retaining a balanced fleet, let me make it clear to my hon. Friend the Minister that we are in danger of something happening for the first time in our history—of being No. 2 in naval terms in Europe. The Government may have noticed that one of the first decisions taken by the newly appointed French Defence Minister, Mr. Leotard, was to call a halt to the cuts in defence spending and announce the go-ahead for a second nuclear carrier. That will mean that the French navy will have two proper CVSs with no fewer than 90 Rafale Ms embarked upon them, whereas we will have only three air groups, one being a training air group, which has a maximum of 36 Sea Harriers. That disparity is not acceptable to the British people.
We expect our nation to be at the forefront of naval matters in Europe. Our training is second to none and the quality of our vessels is very high, but I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench take to heart the wise observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), who knows more about the naval construction industry than anyone in the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who is a former naval person and who spoke more authoritatively than I could. I endorse everything that they said.
§ Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan)
I welcome the clear statement that the LPH order will be placed in the near future. I am glad that the importance of amphibiosity has been recognised and I am happy to hear that technical and financial factors will be taken into account to determine where that order is placed. I hope that any decision that is taken can withstand subsequent scrutiny by either the National Audit Office or the Defence Select Committee, or, indeed, both. No doubt the Government have taken into account the recent critical reports on procurement of oiler ships in particular. I support the hid of VSEL and Kvaerner Govan and have no doubt that it will be successful in a fair and free competition.
I turn to the general issue of the Navy. We are being told that we have the fourth largest navy in the world, but we have to consider seriously whether we can afford that when we have an economy in the second division, fast heading towards relegation. We need a review not only on the desirability of many of our objectives but on their affordability; that is missing. There is a danger that we will end up identifying tasks which we believe to be desirable but which cannot be afforded without overstretching the limited resources we are prepared to make available.
Earlier, there was an interesting little dance around the issue of whether defence matters were determined by policy or by financial criteria. It essentially missed the point. They have to be taken together; there has to be iterative process to determine what we are prepared to spend on defence and in what direction. That is why the Labour party is right to call for a thorough defence review.
I want to touch briefly on one or two points relating to Trident submarines, although a great deal has been covered by my hon. Friends. I should like to draw 372 attention to the fact that it is easy to achieve an underspend on the estimates if one overestimates in the first place. That is not sufficient cause for satisfaction.
The Minister spoke well about extended readiness as a means by which a vessel could be kept in readiness to be brought into service when needed, but at minimum cost. Perhaps he will be prepared to consider applying something similar to the Trident submarine force, or at least part of it. Is it absolutely necessary to have complete commissioning of all four boats? Will it not be possible to make some saving as a result of partial commissioning of at least one of them? If it is an insurance policy, is it necessary to have them all completely activated from the beginning? I hope that the Minister will genuinely examine that suggestion as that approach would ensure that money could be freed up and, if possible, spent elsewhere.
I also wish to echo earlier remarks about avoiding proliferation. This is an enormous issue on which we in this country have the opportunity to give a lead. If we decide to be anything other than clear that we are not expanding the number of nuclear weapons, we give the wrong message to the rest of the world.
The Government are keen on market testing. I hope that they will show some restraint, particularly on fishery protection and related matters. The prospect of the French or the Icelandic navy winning a fishery protection contract for British vessels is entirely inappropriate. Allowing Group 4 access to quick-firing cannon might be a solution to the present difficulties in the prison service, but it would not be entirely appropriate for fishery protection.
We should take account of the points made earlier about piracy. Although there is an important role for the Navy, it must be seen in the context of the Government's policy towards the British shipping and shipbuilding industries. It would be inappropriate for us to provide naval ships to protect vessels which have been built, crewed and flagged abroad and which turn to this country simply for military protection. We must have a coherent and holistic vision of our maritime strategy.
I support the concept of an early defence review and hope that it will be supported by the Minister.
§ Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the few minutes that are left before the Front-Bench speakers reply to the debate.
The tone of this debate on the Navy is very different from the tone of debates held in the early years after the Conservative victory in 1979. I remind the House and, in particular, Treasury colleagues—because many of my remarks are directed to them rather than to the Ministers now responsible for defence—that at that time the fact that we went through a recession with difficult spending problems did not prevent us from giving a high priority to defence spending, which was expanded in those years.
I voted for "Options for Change" under pressure, under duress, but I was assured by the then Secretary of State that "Options for Change" would be continuously reviewed in the light of developments. At the time, we all expected a real peace dividend. The Gulf war was unexpected, as was the conflict in the Balkans. Northern Ireland is no better than it was then and terrorist threats and action on the mainland are worse now. I suggest that 373 the basis on which "Options for Change" was put forward has altered and that those spending intentions need reconsideration.
My plea, therefore, is that we put defence spending higher up on our agenda, that we make it the first priority for this party in government and that we realise that any failure to maintain our defence capability does no service to our country or to our allies.
Specifically on the Navy, concern about the lack of clarity in our strategy is another aspect that has come out in the debate. That needs to be resolved. If the Government do not want a full defence review—I can understand the argument for that; it is a sort of catch-all that may not produce the right results—we expect to have in the White Paper a clear definition of the Navy's requirements and how we are to meet them. We expect, for naval personnel as well as for the House and the country at large, a clear picture of where the Government expect the Navy to be, together with precise clarification of the numbers of personnel and ships.
There has been a change. Some years ago, we had what was described as a blue water Navy that covered the world. Then the strategy narrowed, becoming more concerned with European defence within the NATO area. Now it has expanded again and the Navy has resumed a world role even though it is now much smaller. There is a serious danger of overstretch—I include surface vessels and submarines in that. I am not hung up about specific numbers. Manpower, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said today, is needed less for modern ships, but I am anxious that those who serve in the Navy should have a secure future and should know clearly what their career opportunities are.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I draw your attention to the fact that I have been here throughout the debate—I make no complaint about that—and I wanted to speak about Rosyth, an important Scottish matter——
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. So far, the hon. Gentleman has not delivered a point of order for me, and he knows it. If he has one for me, I will listen to it.
§ Mr. Walker
Is it in order for me to apply, because of the circumstances, for an Adjournment debate on this specific and narrow matter, and particularly on nuclear safety?
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
As the local election polls have now closed, I want to go on record as being the first to offer my condolences to the Government for their awful performance tonight.
It is a pity that the timing of these debates sometimes means that we do not have many speakers, but that is usually compensated for by the fact that the quality of contributions is far higher than that in some other debates because of the expertise that hon. Members bring to bear on them.
374 The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) mentioned one of the recurrent themes of the debate: the lack of clarity in the Government's intentions in respect of the Royal Navy's objectives and roles.
The Liberal spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), pointed out that it has been two years since our last general debate of this nature, so we have been somewhat lacking in opportunities to discuss the subject. As several speakers have said, next year's White Paper will be presented to us before we have debated last year's—and that has not happened for 20 years. He also spoke of the need for clear political objectives.
The hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who brings a great deal of experience to these matters, made it plain that he, like us, does not believe it when the Government say that the cuts in the Navy and elsewhere are not Treasury-led. When a Conservative Member who chairs a body as august as the Defence Select Committee agrees about this, surely Ministers should pay attention.
The hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) agreed with most hon. Members that the Government appear to lack a strategy. The Select Committee has pointed that out, too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) made several important points. As most sensible people have been saying for the past couple of years, he supports the case for a defence review; and he expressed the feeling held by all Opposition Members that the Government have been less than candid about nuclear issues.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) stressed, as did several others, the importance of an amphibious capability.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), with his usual ingenuity, managed to give us an analysis of the position in Bosnia but related it to the importance of the Royal Navy in the performance of its task not only in the Adriatic but much wider. With some success, he contrasted the record of the Labour Government with the pitiful record of this Government on naval as well as other matters.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) called for a period of stability for our dockyards, a point to which I will return.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) was an able advocate for his constituents in general and for Swan Hunter in particular. Like several hon. Members, he stressed the need for the landing platform helicopter vessel and welcomed the Government's intimation that there may be more definite moves on that in the near future.
The hon. Member for landlocked Somerset and Frome (Mr. Robinson) spoke with considerable insight for a landlubber. I think he was unique in raising the representational role of the Royal Navy. Again, he stressed the role of the LPH.
As ever, the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) was honest enough perhaps to impede his promotion up the ladder of office when he referred to the fact that Portland will lose under Government plans. He finds it difficult to accept the decision because, as with so many other Government decisions, it was based on spurious figures, as he correctly pointed out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised an issue with which we are familiar and on 375 which he has expertise—the dangers of pollution, particularly from tankers. Rockall was mentioned specifically, but he also referred to the wider implications in the Gulf on which he has spoken before.
§ Mr. Reid
I am grateful for the clarification. Time means that I have to simplify many of the issues raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) spoke of the uncertainties of the present. Whether we agree or disagree with Government decisions, the instability and uncertainty of their political approach are undermining morale in the Royal Navy and in the other services.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) spoke from a position of considerable experience and valour, which has been suitably rewarded by decoration. He questioned the method of specification and design for ships, a matter not raised by anyone else. I hope that Ministers will pay attention to what he said.
The dangers of nuclear proliferation were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and, as ever, he gave his full support to the policy of the Opposition Front Bench on nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, I did not hear his speech, but I am sure that that accurately reflects the burden of his comments.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who is a well-known expert on the RAF, cast his net wider and remarked upon the timing of these debates and the importance of re-establishing the tradition of commitment to real defence of his party. I suppose, in an oblique way, he supported what we have been saying for some time, that the Government can no longer claim to be the defenders of Britain. I am sorry that they have lost that tradition, but I am glad that it is admitted on both sides of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Davidson) also welcomed the LPH and stressed the need for amphibiosity. He too has been an advocate for his constituents on that.
I hope that I have covered most of the contributions. In defence debates we always enjoy a range of expertise which is missing from other debates. I look forward to the speech by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. Perhaps we should now refer to him also as the keeper of the historic buildings of the Ministry of Defence. A new concept is always introduced in defence debates. My hon. Friends will recall the new concept which was introduced to the Army debate by the former Secretary of State for Defence—the concept of the cunning plan. A la Baldrick, he told us some time ago that the Government never intended to stick by the decisions in "Options for Change" and that all the changes were part of a cunning plan which he did not reveal to the House.
In the debate we had a new concept, as ever, from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who opened the debate—the concept of downsizing. There is now no such thing as a cut in the Ministry of Defence but a considerable amount of downsizing. We also had the concept of "about 40", with which I am familiar. When someone asks me my age, I say, "It is about 40." In that case, it is meant to conceal an upward rise.
§ Dr. Reid
I agree. In the case of the Royal Navy there is grave suspicion in all parts of the House that when the Minister says "about 40" it is meant to conceal a reduction to fewer than 40.
As several hon. Members have said, it is appropriate for us to discuss the future of the Royal Navy as we prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the battle of the Atlantic. That titanic and heroic struggle in which many thousands of allied, merchant and Royal Navy seamen perished should stand as a testament to two enduring facts. The first of them is that Britain's security has always depended fundamentally on the defence of our maritime communications. Secondly, the Royal Navy strength has been its ability to adapt to new challenges. An example of that is that the fleet of small escort vessels that fought the convoy battles of May 1943 would have been unrecognisable to those who had witnessed the massive battle fleet encounter at Jutland only 27 years before. In the same way, the operation currently being undertaken in the Adriatic on behalf of the United Nations requires very different skills from those employed in the battle of the Atlantic.
The changing face of the Royal Navy over the past century shows that sea power is an evolving concept which obliges policy makers and military planners alike to remain alert to the implications of changes in the strategic environment rather than remain wedded to outdated assumptions. That lack of clarity is the base of most people's concerns about the Government's approach. As we seek to come to terms with the end of the cold war and plan for the future, that lesson is as important as ever, but, sadly, it is a lesson that the Government seem determined to ignore.
In the past two years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Government have singularly failed to outline a convincing vision of the Royal Navy's future role or Britain's future security requirements generally. The redefinition of Britain's defence role was outlined in the 1992 White Paper and amounts to little more than a statement of the obvious. It offers less insight into the missions that our armed forces will be asked to undertake than the definition that it seeks to replace. It cannot be regarded as strategy in any proper sense of the word.
The main consequence of that is that vital policy decisions are being made in a strategic vacuum without any criteria against which their merit can be judged, because we do not know the policy objectives that they are meant to meet. The end product is not a Royal Navy reshaped to meet the challenges of the future, because no vision of the future has been outlined. Instead, the Royal Navy is being asked to perform the same tasks as before but with fewer resources.
As with "Options for Change" generally, the Government's approach to the restructuring of the Royal Navy has been as inept as it has been craven. Difficult decisions have been avoided for as long as possible, some decisions have been taken and then reversed, policy changes have been surreptitiously leaked to the press before Parliament has been informed and Ministers have dithered at length. The most disgraceful example of that conduct was the way in which the announcement that a further 5,000 Royal Navy personnel are to be made redundant was timed to coincide with the beginning of the Easter recess. Conservative Members criticised the Minister for that. The result of that announcement will be 377 a lowering of morale and a growing sense of cynicism among service personnel who have become tired of the Government's prevarication on the issues.
The overall picture emerging from that chaos is one of desperate improvisation instead of coherent planning, a climate of insecurity which threatens to paralyse the entire decision-making process. How can we expect the Royal Navy to approach the task of restructuring itself with any sense of confidence in such an environment, and how many more redundancies can it expect to be announced? How many procurement projects can it expect to be axed? As hon. Members have said in relation to surface ships that will be available to the Royal Navy, there is nothing more specific than the vague figure of "about 40" frigates and destroyers.
The position of the submarine fleet is scarcely any clearer. Having been told that the Royal Navy would have a fleet of about 16 submarines, three quarters of which would be nuclear powered, we are now told that the Government are considering selling the four Upholder class conventional submarines before they even enter service, presumably leaving the Royal Navy with a fleet of around 12 submarines, none of which would be SSKs. Can the Government confirm that they are considering that option? If so, will the Minister tell us on what grounds? Do we no longer have any requirement for the unique, inshore capabilities offered by SSKs? If so, we would like to hear the argument now, instead of learning about it through the press.
The chaos over the decision whether to award the Trident refit contract to Rosyth or Devonport is typical of the Government's approach. The dithering of the Government has reached, even by the standards of the Ministry of Defence, absurd proportions. Having initially proceeded on the basis that Rosyth would continue to refit our ballistic missile submarines, the Government invested approximately £150 million in constructing purpose-built facilities to carry out the work, only to reopen the issue last year by asking both yards to submit new bids.
Since then, all that we have had is repeated delays, conflicting rumours and endless excuses. The long-term viability of both yards is at stake on that strategic issue. The Government must make a decision soon. For the Labour party, only a solution that guarantees the continued operation of both yards will be acceptable. Anything less would be a false economy, from the point of view both of maintaining effective competition for future refit contracts and of the strategic requirements of our naval infrastructure.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
Does the hon. Gentleman realise what are the automatic countermeasure procedures in connection with nuclear problems? At Rosyth there are no dwellings in the area, but there are dwellings at Devonport, and that makes a big difference when one is making judgments.
§ Dr. Reid
I accept that. I know that the hon. Gentleman has studied the issue and been a keen supporter of keeping both going, but he has done so with honesty, because there are benefits and advantages at both yards. To give the surface fleet to Devonport and the refit for the submarines 378 to Rosyth would offer the best possibility of maintaining both yards for the longest period. The important thing is that we have a decision on the matter soon.
The Government's morbid fear of the concept of a defence review is the cause of the continuing crisis in the defence budget. As has been said—I think by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East—a defence review is not an easy way out. Quite the opposite: a defence review will face all of us with challenges. A defence review, matching resources to commitments within an overall budget programme, will involve hard decisions. A Labour Government would embark on that process knowing that some of those decisions would be unpopular, but at least we would not take the craven way out of struggling from pillar to post, cutting here, slicing there and downsizing everywhere else to avoid those hard decisions. My God, we are asking our armed forces to risk their lives while Ministers will not even risk their political careers to carry out a defence review.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation in the Balkans and the spread of new risks demand such a review. The time is right to make progress on other issues of mutual interest, particulary in conventional naval arms control. The past omission of naval forces from the process of conventional arms control was an anomaly that should now be rectified. Exploratory talks on that issue would be a welcome start, and I believe that the Russians would be receptive to that idea.
For the Royal Navy to enhance its capabilities, it will require three things—a sufficient number of surface escort vessels, well-trained and well-equipped amphibious forces and the right logistics back-up. While I have already shown concern about the Government's' intentions with regard to the size of the surface fleet, I welcome the fact that progress has been made in modernising our amphibious forces with the decision to proceed with the acquisition of a helicopter carrier and two new commando assault ships.
However, I must raise two issues of concern. First, will the Minister assure us that the LPH will be equipped with enough modern helicopters for her to operate effectively? We are all aware of the chronic shortage of helicopters, which is affecting all three services, and I would welcome a sign from the Government that they intend to order a further batch of EH101s.
Secondly, may we be assured that the combat readiness and availability of the Royal Marines will not be affected by overstretch in the infantry? It seems inevitable, given that overstretch and the contraction in the number of infantry units, that the Royal Marines will be forced to take an increasing share of the burden in Northern Ireland. Unless the Government are able to satisfy us that the emergency tour plot interval is extended to an acceptable period of not less than 24 months, serious doubts about the effectiveness of our amphibious forces and their main role will remain.
As to Britain's maritime nuclear capability, we welcome the 1991 decision taken in conjunction with our allies to remove all tactical nuclear weapons from Royal Navy surface ships as a constructive contribution to the disarmament process, but that decision sits uncomfortably beside the impending deployment of Trident and the Government's refusal to give a categorical assurance that there will be no increase of strategic nuclear warheads on the new submarines.
379 Any increase in the number of warheads above the current Polaris capacity of 192 would be unacceptable. It would send entirely the wrong signal to the former Soviet republics and to those emerging nations considering the acquisition of nuclear weapons. It would also be a breach of our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty to demonstrate restraint in our nuclear programme.
All the Government's reasons for supporting as many as 512 strategic warheads are entirely spurious. The United States and Russia have made significant progress in reducing the number of their strategic nuclear weapons, and we should he part of that process. I urge the Government to announce a freeze on the number of strategic warheads and to declare their intention to enter the disarmament process. My right hon. Friends and I look forward eventually to debating the 1992 defence White Paper and the 1993 White Paper, in which some apparent strategy may be revealed to us all.
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)
This interesting debate has included many good contributions from all parts of the House. I want fully to reply, and as so little time is left to me, it will be difficult to give way.
The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) asked about the time scale for getting the assault ships in service. The project definition is under way and replacements will be in service by the end of the decade. We are confident that the existing ships can run on until that time.
There were many comments about the Upholder class submarines—the SSKs—and I must tell the House that no decision has been made. It is wrong for anyone to rush to a conclusion just because of leaks that they have read in the newspapers. We are still considering that matter—which will be addressed, together with the number of frigates and destroyers, when the White Paper is published in July.
The hon. Members for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) referred to the number of warheads on Trident. It is important to clear the picture on 512 warheads. That is a maximum, and I very much doubt that we will have that maximum number of warheads on Trident when it comes to be deployed.
No decision has been made about the number of warheads that will be used on Trident. In fact, it is not yet necessary to reach a decision. When that decision is reached, it will take into consideration the circumstances of the world in which we live at the time.
The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley asked what we are doing to make things safer for Clyde fishermen—we both have a great interest in that topic. Tests on the pingers to which the hon. Gentleman referred have been very encouraging. As he knows, we purchased some pingers and have been trialing them. There will be a full in-service trial with Clyde fishermen, and we shall work out the way ahead from there. The hon. Gentleman mentioned, in the context of Subfacts, that no one wants a repeat of the Antares disaster. That was probably one of the most gruelling problems and greatest 380 tragedies with which I have had to deal during the five years that I have had this job. I certainly echo the hon. Gentleman's sentiments.
We are still discussing with the coastguard and with the Department of Transport how best Subfacts information can be broadcast in Scottish areas. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence are fully committed to the Subfacts scheme and they are doing everything they can to broadcast over all the waters that might be affected.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) said that he is not a defence expert. That was rather modest of him, because he has taken a great interest in what has been happening in Plymouth, and has been a regular correspondent on behalf of his constituents. He pointed out that we now live in an uncertain world—a theme that has run through today's speeches. As he said, there was a certain predictability about the days of the cold war. The current uncertainty makes planning very difficult, and underlines the need for us to maintain our capabilities. We must be able to rebuild those capabilities within the longer warning times that we have talked about. Many of our defence capabilities cannot be rebuilt overnight, and it is important for us to be able to rebuild them if the international position becomes more difficult.
My hon. Friend made a passionate plea—which I entirely understand—for a decision on the Trident facility. He wants it to go to Devonport, because it would benefit his constituents. I can only say that we shall make a decision as soon as we can, but—as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement—it is important for us to work out all the figures properly so that we reach the right. decision, rather than hurrying and reaching the wrong one. We have had a tremendous amount of new information from the different contractors at both Rosyth and Devonport, which we have had to consider very carefully.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned the horrors of Bosnia, and made the point that such horrors are being repeated in many other parts of the world. He cited some 25 areas of conflict. That raises an interesting question: do we actually want to deploy our defence capabilities, and our remarkable service men, in 25 different areas? If that is to be our aim in the future, we should not be considering such minuscule numbers; we should be talking about 10 times our current service contingent, and an astronomical defence budget. When we consider the problems of the world and our own interests, it is important for us to recognise that we cannot support a much larger defence budget than we have at the present. There is a limit to the extent to which we wish to deploy our service men in dangerous areas throughout the world.
I am sorry to say that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish then lapsed into his old bad habits, and came with an anti-nuclear tirade. He brought out the old chestnut that we have come to associate with the left wing of the Labour party—which, of course, has the great advantage of consistency in that it has been anti-nuclear throughout, rather than emulating the 180-degree turn performed by the Labour Front Bench.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of our dependence on the United States for Trident. It is true that the United States is contracted to sell us those missiles, but I see no reason to believe that it will not abide by the deal. Indeed, as it will be extremely lucrative for the United States, it would be very surprising if that happened. Our dependence on the 381 United States will then itself depend on the servicing of the missiles, but we do not expect them to be serviced more often than every six to eight years. Our subsequent dependence on the United States will thus be very limited.
I am sure that others will echo the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) to those who served in the Royal and Merchant Navies in the battle for the Atlantic. My hon. Friend then said that he saw no sign of a peace dividend, even in the distant future. That raises a major problem that I am experiencing with the Select Committee on Defence, which considers that we should not amalgamate any regiments in the British Army, and that it would be outrageous to make any reductions in the number of ships, or in any other part of the Navy or the RAF.
We must try to put all this into context. Are we talking about an increase in the defence budget? If so, where is the money to come from? Will the health budget or the social security budget be reduced, or will the Government simply borrow more money?
I think it is about time that defence expenditure was mentioned. It is not enough merely to say how sad it is that we are losing our capabilities. No one wants to lose capabilities, but it is important that we have a defence budget with which we can live, and which reflects our ability to pay. If that is the basis on which we work—certainly, it is the basis on which I work—we must make difficult decisions about how to align our resources with our capabilities.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
Surely there is much merit in the argument so eloquently advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) that the first priority of Her Majesty's Government must be to assure the nation's defence and that savings can be found from the social security budget, which has been spiralling virtually out of control, and from the more intelligent use of manpower—for instance, by the use of reserves.
§ Mr. Hamilton
We can all think of ways of trying to save money, but if we are not to make any savings at all we shall need considerably more money than we have now. I have difficulty with whoever it was who said that the situation had changed since "Options for Change." That is absolutely right. The announcement was made in July 1990. There have indeed been changes since then—changes for the better. In July 1990, the Soviet Union still existed. Since then it has disintegrated. The threat from Russia is less now than it was at that time. If one is talking about the security of the United Kingdom, the fact is that it is now more secure than it was in July 1990.
It could be argued, of course, that since 1990 the whole of Europe has become more unstable. That raises an interesting question—whether it should be only the United Kingdom that becomes involved in deploying troops to all these different places and the degree to which that burden should be shared by other European nations, whose absence, with the exception of France, from any involvement has been notable.
My hon. Friends the Members for Upminster and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) are concerned about fishery protection. They will both be glad to know that we have agreed with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to continue fisheries protection into 1994.
382 My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow is also concerned about the future of hydrography. The Royal Navy continues to carry out those services and to maintain these skills. We are talking about chartering ships, but there will be Royal Navy crews on those ships. In those circumstances, the Royal Navy will continue to maintain those skills.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster constantly talks about the Royal Navy being incapable of meeting its commitments. However, he had now dreamt up a new commitment: that the Royal Navy should be made responsible for putting down piracy in the Indian and Pacific oceans. If we go down that road, we shall need a navy that is very much bigger than the one that we have now. We shall do what we can to help anybody who is the victim of piracy, but the Royal Navy would have to be in the vicinity of the piracy. They would not sail past and do nothing. But to make the Royal Navy responsible for piracy would be a large commitment, which would make almost everything else that it does pale into insignificance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) wants to give the LPH a name. I was surprised to hear him say that, because my hon. Friend knows all about ships. He ought to know that the Royal Navy does not name a ship until it is launched. I was told the name of a ship when I laid its keel. That ship was the Vigilant, the third of the Trident submarines. My hon. Friend will have to wait until at least the keel is laid before he is told the name. However, my hon. Friend has got a point: that this wretched thing has already had a large number of names. It started life as an aviation support ship. Then, for some reason, we wanted to call it a landing platform for helicopters. My hon. Friend made a plea for "amphibiosity" and welcomed our commitment to replace the amphibious fleet.
My hon. Friend also referred to the fact that the CVSs, the aircraft carriers, will need to be replaced. It is too early in the day to talk in those terms. They have still got a good deal of life in them and should continue in service for some time yet.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South made a helpful speech. He pointed out that he did not want the skills of the fleet maintenance and repair organisation to be neglected. I accept that it is important to maintain those skills. He made a plea, which I totally support, that we must not let the desire to do something in the Balkans override the military realities there.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) paid tribute to the skill of the work force there and the quality of the ships built by Swan Hunter. I agree with what he said. We have no argument whatsoever about those skills.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised the important issue of tankers and ships cleaning oil into the sea. That is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence but we would, of course, report any ship doing that to the authorities. The Royal Navy carries stocks of dispersants so that, if there were a major disaster, we would be able to help.
The killing of whales and the possibility of a sanctuary in the south Antarctic seas are not matters to which the Royal Navy can extend its responsibilities. The chances of a Royal Navy ship being in an area where whales are being killed are not very great—perhaps with the exception of 383 the Falklands—but, once again, the Navy would report any incident to the relevant authorities. However, it cannot be held solely responsible.
On the Gulf—
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.